Hearts of Ice

Chapter 21: A Five Minute Interlude

Being helpless, Yuki-onna knew, was one of the worst things in the world. Having the knowledge that terrible things were happening, and yet being powerless, too weak to help. Knowing that people she cared for were in danger, in pain, and yet being unable to do anything except watch...

So she didn't watch.

Not knowing was a much better thing. And if she didn't use her mirror to view the mortal realm, she wouldn't know. She wouldn't see how Ranma fared on the Mountain of the Ancient One. She wouldn't see if the Shadowcat was there. She wouldn't see if Akane...

She closed her eyes, inhaling deeply. The now ever-present trembling ache of loneliness and fear throbbed, hot and silent, within her.

Akane had left her, never to return. After their brief, tearful farewell, the girl had rushed off to save Ranma from the claws of the feline demon that hungered for his soul. And Ranma himself, unwitting of the approaching danger, was on his way to face a dragon older than time so that he could break the blood spell that kept Akane separated from him, a prisoner in the Kami Plane.

Yuki-onna raised her head and took a slow step towards the mirror. Lifting one pale hand, she rested her fingers lightly, longingly, on the cool, smooth surface.

Are you home, Akane? Have you saved Ranma? Has he saved you?

The mirror was dark and lifeless, reflecting only herself, her inhumanly white face, haggard with worry. The frost of her winter breath had not touched the silver surface to conjure images of the mortal plane since Akane's departure.

For, sometimes, it was better not to know. And yet...

Nearly a week had passed in the Kami realm. And, though time always moved so slowly in the mortal realm... surely things should be resolved by now... Surely it should be all right to look.

With a mixture of fearful reluctance and anticipation, the Snow Woman leaned forward until her lips almost touched the mirror.

She breathed. The frost spread and swirled. The mortal realm, the mist-shrouded peak of the Mountain of the Ancient One, shimmered into view.

She looked. And knew.

Sometimes, it was better not to know.


"Mistress?"

Kazuo stood outside the Snow Woman's lattice door, and held the tea tray as far from himself as possible. Ever since Akane had departed, the Snow Woman, for some inexplicable reason, had taken to having her tea served hot.

It was disconcerting, but he wasn't complaining. Serving her hot tea made her smile, and her smiles were rare things these days.

Still, he would be glad to be rid of the kettle and its steaming contents as soon as possible. The heat made him decidedly uncomfortable. "Mistress? I've brought your afternoon tea."

No answer.

A frown creased the ice sprite's sharp blue-skinned features. Carefully balancing the tray on one hand, he reached out and slid the door open.

It was a testament to his skill as a servant that he didn't drop the tray.

The room was empty, but for the large, jagged shards of shattered mirror, glinting with cold light from where they lay scattered on the floor.


A quiet breeze stirred the stagnant air at the base of the Ancient One's mist-shrouded mountain, just as the deepening night swallowed the last blues of twilight in the sky. The black gloom that engulfed the small clearing at that moment was pierced by distant starlight. The pale, flickering glow of a solitary campfire, tended by a diminutive, wounded and weary old woman, caused shadows to leap and writhe in a chaotic dance amidst the surrounding foliage.

Ryoga noticed none of this. He was staring at the ground. Not because he wanted to, but because the ground happened to be in his immediate line of vision. He had regained consciousness moments earlier, his head throbbing with pain, only to discover that he was trussed up with nylon tent cord, dangling upside-down from a tree branch like a side of meat hanging in a butcher's window.

A side of pork, to be specific.

The little black piglet's eyes stung with tears of anger and humiliation as he realized the helplessness of his situation. Grinding his teeth in fury, Ryoga wriggled in his bonds, ignoring the fact that, should he manage to get loose, the head-first fall to the ground several meters below would not be pleasant. He didn't care. He'd survived worse. And the humiliation of his current position was simply not tolerable.

His head felt tight and hollow with pain, and his already muzzy thoughts were near incoherent in his fury, but one thought managed to penetrate the haze: Pig or not, when he got loose, he was going to wring that old ghoul's neck.

The cords, unfortunately, were stronger than his determination, tied tight and firm around his tiny body, barely leaving him enough room to breathe. Ryoga's strength in his cursed form was virtually nonexistent. His efforts only left him gasping and exhausted, and not a single millimeter closer to freeing himself.

Not to be deterred, he twisted and craned his neck, trying to gnaw on the cords with his sharp teeth... but he soon found to his dismay that no matter how he strained, he couldn't contort his compact piglet body enough to reach his bonds.

As he struggled uselessly, a bit of rationality began to seep through the painful haze in his head. Slowly, the grim reality of his situation penetrated his mind, and his fury dissolved away under an onslaught of achingly familiar depression.

He was fooling himself. What could he possibly hope to accomplish in his ridiculous cursed form? And how could he have been so careless as to let the old ghoul splash him in the first place?

Ryoga sagged in defeat. The sudden cessation of his exertions left him swinging slightly in the air, dangling helplessly from his rope prison.

Trembling, bitter tears welling in his eyes, he silently cursed his porcine fate for the millionth time. He couldn't even save himself, how on earth could he be relied upon to protect the others-?

Ryoga's eyes widened with sudden realization.

Oh no. The others. Where were they? What had Cologne done to them?

He twisted in his bonds again, not to escape, but to try and see...

He discovered Mousse first. The duck's white plumage stood out starkly in the darkness, making him easy to spot. To his dismay, he saw that his Jusenkyo-cursed companion was in much the same situation he was in, bound firmly and hanging upside-down from another tree branch a meter or so away. Mousse's ever present glasses were conspicuously absent.

Ryoga grunted softly, trying to get the duck's attention. Sullen and silent, the duck briefly raised his head to cast a despairing, blind glance in Ryoga's general direction before going limp again.

So. No help there. But at least Mousse seemed to be unhurt.

He spotted Ukyo next. Or rather, he suddenly felt her eyes on him, and he turned to see her staring up at him from where she was bound and gagged at the base of a nearby tree.

Ryoga's relief at seeing her unhurt was short lived as he abruptly felt his heart climb up into his throat.

Ukyo was staring at him. More accurately, Ukyo was glaring at him.

Ryoga swallowed hard. Uh-oh.

She knew. She knew about his curse. She had figured it out.

Well, of course she figured it out, he thought, his chest growing tight with the sudden wrenching guilt of being exposed in a lie. She wakes up and sees P-Chan and Mousse hanging unconscious from the tree next to her, and my human self is nowhere to be found. And I'm supposed to expect her to believe that P-Chan just happened to wander all the way to China? And even if she did believe that, why would the old ghoul bother to tie up a piglet?

Ukyo's eyes were full of anger and frustration. She couldn't speak, gagged as she was, but she didn't need to. Her eyes said everything.

You jackass, she seemed to be saying. Why didn't you tell me? I wouldn't have attacked Cologne expecting you to back me up if I had known you were P-Chan.

Ryoga felt himself growing defensive under her accusing gaze, even though he knew deep down that she had a point. He didn't care. Who are you to judge me? he wanted to yell at her. You have no idea what it's like, being cursed like this! Would you go around telling everyone that you turned into a pig? I don't think so! Besides, how was I supposed to know that the old ghoul was going to show up anyway?

They sat for a moment, glaring at each other in forced silence, neither of them able to give voice to their inner frustrations. Finally, unwilling to face Ukyo's censure any longer, Ryoga clenched his teeth and turned away, scanning the clearing for any sign of Nabiki and Kuno...

They weren't there.

Ryoga's eyes widened. Not here. Oh no, they might be hurt, they might be... He didn't want to think about the other possibility. A thick feeling of dread filled him as he frantically scanned the clearing. He couldn't see any trace of Nabiki or Kuno anywhere in the darkness.

There was only Cologne.

The old woman sat silently in the flickering circle of light cast by the campfire, holding an unconscious lavender cat gently in the crook of her arm.

And she was watching him. Ryoga's eyes met hers over the flickering light of the flames.

Cologne's eyes were expressionless; a flat wall, yielding nothing of what thoughts lay in the mind beneath.

Ryoga's fury reignited at the sight of the Amazon. Where are Nabiki and Kuno? he wanted to scream at her. Did you hurt them? Kill them? Are you going to kill us? Just because we stand in the way of your stupid old Amazon traditions?

She simply looked at him with apathy, as if silently noting to herself that, ah yes, the pig had finally regained consciousness, how interesting. Then her gaze dropped, so that she was staring into the crackling fire.

She was waiting for Ranma, Ryoga knew. Waiting to take him, capture him, subdue him by some unknown means, and take him back to the Amazon village.

And, Ryoga realized to his mortification, he was the bait. Ukyo, Shampoo, Mousse... they had all come to this mountain to help Ranma rescue his mystery girl from the Kami Plane, and instead, they had been reduced to silent captives; nothing more than Cologne's bargaining chips in a dangerous, possibly even deadly game, where his best friend was the prize.

Ryoga slumped and stared at the ground again, trying to ignore how his head throbbed painfully with the rush of blood to his head. He clenched his teeth in worry and frustration. Where was Ranma, anyway? Why wasn't he back by now? He'd been on that stupid mountain for hours!

It was the waiting that was the worst. Trapped in this terrible limbo where he was rendered powerless. Unsure of everything, and unable to get any answers from anyone.

Ryoga glanced uneasily at the old ghoul. He didn't even want to think about what Cologne might have done to Nabiki and Kuno. The old ghoul wasn't talking, and she had made damn sure he couldn't speak so he could ask...

Then Ryoga noticed the blood.

At first he thought his eyes were playing tricks on him; that the huge dark stain on the old ghoul's robes was nothing more than a shadow, a trick of the dancing firelight.

No way. Impossible...

He sniffed cautiously, taking momentary, reluctant advantage of his cursed form's excellent sense of smell...

Ryoga swallowed hard. It was blood, all right. Cologne was wounded. Who could have..?

An image flashed in his mind, a memory of Nabiki slowly, methodically loading cartridges into the chamber of her gun...

Ryoga blinked. No way. Nabiki? He narrowed his eyes, peering intently at Cologne to make sure...

Ryoga blinked again in amazement. It was true. Nabiki had shot the old ghoul!

Then... maybe she and Kuno had escaped!

A spark of hope flared in Ryoga's chest. Cologne was wounded. And if Nabiki and Kuno had managed to get away, and Nabiki still had her gun, they might be able to-

His thoughts came to a screaming halt as the memories hit like a ton of bricks.


Ukyo dropped her gaze from where Ryoga dangled upside down a from a nearby tree branch, and bit down angrily on the gag in her mouth. She could feel the rough cloth in her mouth rubbing against her tongue and teeth. It tasted faintly of grime, and it was grossing her out.

Frustrated, she strained futilely against her bonds. Stupid old ghoul! It was a good thing she was gagged, or she would have a thing or two to say to that old witch!

And Ryoga... that jerk. That coward! Why did he hide his curse for so long? And pretending to be Ranma's pet of all things? How weird was that? Did Ranma know about Ryoga's curse? Well, of course, he had to! They were both cursed at Jusenkyo, after all. But still, that didn't even make any sense that-

The world suddenly turned itself inside out.

Ukyo emitted a muffled gasp through her gag as the universe seemed to shift around her. Her vision swam, and she closed her eyes as her mind was assaulted with images, feelings, words, actions... all surrounding a girl that she didn't know.

And yet, now, she did.

She knew this girl, remembered her completely in one agonizing, reality-altering moment.

Akane.

The violent, temperamental, un-cute fiancée. The girl who couldn't out-fight her on her best day. The girl who couldn't cook a decent meal to save her life.

The girl that Ranma loved.

Ukyo stared wide-eyed at nothing. Her breath came in ragged gasps through her gag.

Ranchan...


Cologne closed her eyes and steadied herself as the memories of Akane filled her head. Through her disorientation, she could hear Ukyo's muffled gasp and Ryoga's brief squeal of surprise. Taking a deep, weary breath, ignoring the pain in her wounded shoulder, she stared into the flames and waited for the memories to settle into their proper place in her mind.

Well. The blood spell was broken. Ranma had succeeded again, apparently. Amazing.

Nothing to do now but wait for him to return.

And then... fight him, of course. True, she was handicapped with her wounded shoulder, but Ranma would be exhausted from his journey up the mountain and his battles with the demons. His companions were incapacitated. As for Akane... well, she was a liability. Ranma had a habit of leaving his own defenses wide open when it came to protecting the inept girl, after all.

So. Quickly splash him with the mind-numbing potion. Take him, take Shampoo, and flee, leaving the others behind to do what they would. At that point, it would be too late for them to do anything for Ranma anyway, and once she reached the Amazon village, they could not hope to do anything against her.

Of course, Ukyo might try. Mousse most certainly would, since the fool boy never had much sense. As for Ryoga...

Cologne cast a sidelong glance towards where she had left the cursed boy bound and hanging helplessly from a tree branch at the edge of the clearing. The tiny piglet was staring at the ground, stunned and wide-eyed.

Interesting.

With Akane returned, how hard would the Lost Boy try to save his rival? Especially if she made it clear that there was no cure for the mind-numbing potion, and thus no point in trying to rescue Ranma. Why, even with the mistrust he felt towards her, it would probably take no effort at all to convince him to abandon Ranma completely and stay behind to comfort Akane...

It was certainly something to consider.

As for Shampoo, her misplaced guilt, and her new feelings for Mousse... Nothing a little Formula 110 couldn't handle, to erase that little error and restore her feelings for Ranma.

For the millionth time, she lamented that such a simple technique wouldn't work on the boy. He was too strong-willed; his feelings for Akane too ingrained for such a subtle mind altering tactic to take effect with any permanence. Shampoo was another matter entirely. After all, a few hours of realized love for a simpleton couldn't hope to stand against a full year of passionate desire for Son-in-law.

Then, everything would be fine.

At least, as fine as things could get considering her whole plan, her whole life, her whole world had been quite literally shot to hell.

The feel of Yin Wu Ch'ang Kuei's lifeless touch still lingered on the wrinkled skin of her face; the dank, musty smell of the Ghost's breath still filled her nostrils. Her partially healed, shattered shoulder ached with dull fire.

When? When did I lose control?

It was a foolish question, and she knew it. Ah, nothing like coming face to face with Death to stir up the unwanted murmurings of inner conscience. And so the thought, the pricking of her soul that she had ignored for so long, finally struggled through layers of stubbornness and pride to the surface of her mind.

I never should have allowed Shampoo to cast the blood spell.

Cologne closed her eyes and released a weary, soul-shuddering sigh.

She had made a grave error. The lives of all involved had been forever altered, none for the better. She could place the blame on Shampoo, but she knew, deep down, that all it would have taken was a single word from her own lips, and none of this would have happened.

There was nothing for it now. Regret came far too late, and even so, the emotion was a useless one. She pushed it from her, feeling cold inside. All the if only's in the world wouldn't change what tradition, duty and Amazon honor demanded of her.

But... when it came down to it, this whole mess was Ranma's own fault. If only he had honored Amazon law and married Shampoo to begin with, it never would have come to this. She wouldn't have been forced to take such drastic measures.

And she had waited so long. She had lived in Japan for an entire year, hoping that Ranma would make up his mind about his many fiancees. Oh yes, she had been very patient with him. Far more so than any of the other elders on the council would have been. If it had been Lai Ying in her place, for instance, Ranma would have been subdued by any means necessary her first week in Japan. Anyone else, and there would have been no mercy, no special training... certainly no teaching of secret techniques. And no near-endless grandmotherly patience while the boy's indecisiveness not only kept Shampoo's honor unfulfilled, but kept Cologne herself from her home, her people, and the responsibilities of her council seat.

But her patience and good humor had worn thin. She longed to have the whole thing settled so they could return home, but Ranma had showed so few signs of making up his mind. Worse, when he did show signs, none of them were directed at Shampoo.

The blood spell, in spite of all its inherent dangers, had seemed like the most likely solution to their problem at the time. She wouldn't have allowed Shampoo to cast the spell otherwise.

But now, the blood spell was broken. Ranma would be coming back soon, with Akane.

Cologne sighed and stared into the flames. With a trembling hand that tingled with sharp, stabbing flashes of pain, she gently stroked the velvet-soft fur of the unconscious cat that lay cradled in the crook of her good arm.

Yes.

Nothing to do now but wait.


Ukyo's eyes burned with tears. She blinked them back fiercely.

It... wasn't as painful as she thought it would be, remembering Akane.

It was actually something of a relief. She felt giddy and lightheaded with the power of understanding. At last, after everything they'd gone through the past few weeks, everything made sense.

More importantly, if Akane was finally free from the Kami Plane, it could only mean that Ranma had succeeded in breaking the blood spell.

Which meant, of course, that he was safe. He would return. He would come down the mountain, kick Cologne's ancient ass, and set her and the others free. They would find Nabiki and Kuno, safe and sound, and then they could all go home. Finally.

Sure. Simple as that.

What she would do then, she didn't know.

But hey, at least she now knew what part to play. She knew her proper lines.

So good to have you back, Akane. I hope you and Ranma are happy together.

Yeah. That's the ticket. Be happy for them. Happy happy oh so happy. Have fun, you two. Oh no, don't mind me. I've only spent my entire life trying to regain a bit of the honor and self-respect that was stolen from me as a child. I've only spent my entire life chasing after a stupid, foolish dream that was never mine to have. I've only given my heart and soul to a man who never could see past his own nose long enough to see how much I...

A sob began to work its way up from the depths of her insides. Clenching her teeth, she swallowed it back, hard.

Okay, so maybe she was a little bitter.

But it wasn't like she hadn't had time to prepare for this moment. She had known for weeks now that Ranma's heart did not belong to her, and she had come on this quest knowing that this very moment might come.

This was only the final severing blow. Her heartstrings were now well and truly cut, lying in aching tatters around her.

She was alone. Again.

A memory surfaced in her mind. The memory of little Ranma, waving cheerfully from the back of her father's yattai as he left her behind, while she lay face down in the dirt, angrily, tearfully pleading with him to come back, to take her with him...

Back then, he was oblivious of the wreck he'd made of her life; of the years of pain and loneliness she would suffer afterwards because of his unintentional abandonment.

Well, Ranchan. This is the second time you've left me behind. And, like the first, are you even aware of what you've done to me?

Could she stand it? Watching Ranma and Akane together, seeing Ranma look at Akane with unfettered love in his eyes?

How would it be? Of course she would be invited to the wedding. Hey, maybe Akane would give a break to her once-rival, and throw the bouquet in her direction.

And maybe someday, somewhere, she'd find a man she could love as much as she loved Ranma...

Yeah, right. And maybe Cologne would untie her and the others, prostrate herself in profuse apologies, and let them go on their merry way.

Ukyo snorted softly. This bites, she thought succinctly. Yes, that pretty much summed up the whole damn day. Her whole damn life.

Still... it wasn't as painful as she thought it would be.

It was really more of a relief, actually.

The tears burned her eyes, but didn't fall.


Trembling, Ryoga stared at the ground.

Oh... oh no...

Akane...

Akane. His love, his life, the very hope of his existence.

Somewhere on the Mountain of the Ancient One, Ranma must have managed to break the blood spell, for Akane had returned from the Kami Plane. The Spell of Forgetfulness was shattered.

And Ryoga remembered everything.

The first time he saw her, standing next to Ranma as he challenged the pigtailed boy to a duel. The numb look on her face when his belt blade accidentally severed her long hair. The kiss she placed on his pig snout as she adopted his cursed form as her pet. Her kindness. Her achingly beautiful smile...

His horrible, horrible fear that she would discover his curse and hate him forever...

Her fights with Ranma. Ranma's biting insults that left Akane hurting and Ryoga boiling with protective anger...

Ryoga remembered it all. He felt frozen, shocked beyond pain, beyond tears. His insides were like ice.

He remembered forgetting her.

The past few weeks flew by in his mind. Losing Akane to the blood spell. Searching desperately for a way to get her back...

And then... just forgetting her.

Ranma's words, spoken to him over a week previous, suddenly came back to haunt him.

I'm gonna get her back, Ryoga. I don't know how, but I'm gonna find a way. And when I do, you'll probably remember her again. But I want you to know right now, once and for all - Akane is my fiancée. And if you try to interfere again... Well, you're gonna have to fight me.

And his own unknowing response, spoken in ignorance. Uh... That's okay, Ranma. She's all yours.

Ryoga began to shake. He recalled his thoughts from just moments before his memories of Akane had returned. He had been worried about Ranma. About Ranma! Selfish, arrogant, womanizing Ranma, the bane of his existence! His rival, his mortal enemy! His...

His friend.

NO! Ryoga squeezed his eyes shut and shook his head forcefully as his restored memories collided with his experiences of the past few weeks. Ranma is NOT my friend! I HATE him! I hate him, not only for the hell he's put me through, but for what he's done to Akane! Why, Akane would never even have disappeared if it wasn't for him! Shampoo would have never cast the blood spell to get rid of Akane in the first place if he... if he...

Realization pierced the all-too familiar haze of his irrational fury.

...if he didn't love her.

Ryoga went deathly still at the thought. Tears slowly seeped unheeded from his eyes as confusion twisted his feelings. Desire, jealousy, hate, love, friendship... each emotion powerful and raw, seared through his fragile heart until he thought he might die from the pain of it.

And then, with the spark of rationality he had gained from the past weeks, weeks of living with his mind cleared of his usual constant thirst for vengeance... he understood.

For the first time, he understood Ranma. He understood Akane. Most of all... he understood himself.

He... had lost.

Worse, the battle he thought he was fighting, for his honor, for Akane's love, for respect... never even existed except in his own mind.

He saw the whole situation with the clarity of one who has finally washed the layers of mud and filth from his own eyes, only to find himself blinking back tears of pain from the stinging brightness of the sun.

He hated understanding. Hated it, because his new comprehension ultimately changed nothing, and thus brought no solace, no comfort for his terrible, devastating sense of loss.

Oh, Akane...

Ryoga's tiny piglet body, bound with cords and hanging upside down in the night-shrouded branches of a tree, trembled with quiet, strangely human-like sobs.


As she opened her eyes to see the dazzling star-lit sky through the dark dappled pattern of tree foliage above her, Nabiki realized that she had fainted. On top of that, she had done so without a hell of a lot of dignity.

She didn't care.

Akane.

Well well. Three cheers for Ranma the wonder boy. He had succeeded yet again. He'd broken the blood spell, and had restored Akane to both the mortal plane and to her memories.

Nabiki groaned.

Not that she wasn't happy about the situation. On the contrary, she was ecstatic. She couldn't remember a single time in her entire life that compared to this incredible moment of palpable relief. Ranma had succeeded. Akane was safe. Alive. And coming home. Nabiki wanted to laugh and cry and shout and jump up and down.

If only she didn't have such a damn headache.

She sat up slowly, raising a hand to her forehead at the throbbing that still lingered inside her skull. The embarrassment she felt over displaying such a weakness in front of Kuno was only lessened by the fact that she knew it wasn't every day that almost her entire life was reorganized in her head in a split second.

Still, it was never too late to display self-control, even if an entire lifetime of forgotten memories had just been crammed into her brain. She steadied herself, looked up to where Kuno sat, still in that cross-legged meditative stance, and forced a wry grin.

"Wow," she said. "What a trip."

Kuno didn't respond. His eyes were lowered, shadowed by the hanging curl of his bangs. Even in the dim starlight, she could see that his fingers were clenched, knuckle-white, around the bokken that lay across his lap.

And he was trembling, Nabiki realized with surprise. And not just a little tremble. A whole all-over-body-on-the-verge- of-epileptic-fit kind of tremble.

She blinked. "Hey. Kuno. You okay?

Kuno didn't raise his eyes. "Twice over," he whispered hoarsely. "I have dishonored myself twice over."

Abrupt understanding settled heavily in Nabiki's gut. Of course. He was remembering Akane, and thus no doubt remembering his conduct towards not only Ranma's girl form, but her as well.

Nabiki couldn't quite suppress a grimace of sympathy. Poor guy. Nothing like coming face to face with yourself immediately after a life-altering reality check, only to discover that you're even more of an idiot than you first realized.

She could see the horror in his face as he remembered. All those glompings. The flowers, the gifts, the bad poetry. Not to mention, of course, all those pictures he had purchased from her in fits of wild-eyed drooling lust...

He was looking like he might be sick; like he wanted to crawl under the nearest rock and die.

Under normal circumstances, she wouldn't have cared. Under normal circumstances, she would have taken great pleasure from seeing True Blunder of Furinkan High squirm in the misery of realization.

But lately, the word "normal" seemed to have taken an extended vacation from her vocabulary.

"Ohhh," Kuno groaned. He released his death grip on his bokken and clutched at his head with shaking fingers. "What... what infernal darkness has blinded mine eyes that I could not see; that I could perform such ignoble proprieties to the tainting of my soul and the destruction of my honor! And, but for the meddling of that unearthly transcendental influence at the base of that most cursed mountain, summoning the searing light of epiphany, the blinding mists of darkness would enshroud me still!"

Nabiki blinked. On the other hand, Kuno's pontification abilities seemed quite back to normal.

Is this how he was when he first realized that the pigtailed girl was actually Ranma? she wondered. When she had regained consciousness after Cologne's attack, Kuno had been utterly calm and rational - eerily so, considering his sudden comprehension that Ranma and the pigtailed girl were one and the same.

This, on the other hand, was how she had expected him to act after such a discovery. And now, as she watched Kuno's immediate reaction to the restored memories of Akane, she couldn't help but wonder if, while she was out of it, she had missed out on a show of serious soul-wrenching angst.

"Uh... Kuno?"

He raised his head and looked at her. She surreptitiously grit her teeth, trying not to flinch in the face of his haggard, haunted expression. "Dishonored twice over," he whispered. "Akane... all that time, and she never loved me. And the pigtailed..." He strangled on the word, his throat closing off, and he swallowed convulsively. "The whole of my existence is but a sham, a farce," he moaned, "the affections of my inner heart nothing more than the delusions of a madman."

Nabiki looked at him grimly for a long uncomfortable moment. "Um... If you're waiting for me to contradict you," she said at last, "you're talking to the wrong person."

Kuno looked down at his trembling hands and clenched them into fists. "Everyone... everyone knew the truth... except me."

Nabiki wrapped her arms around her knees and said nothing, but her silence was as loud as a resounding acknowledgement.

He lifted his gaze to look her in the eye. "You knew. All this time."

She nodded curtly, refusing to show the discomfort she felt. "And, if you recall, I tried to explain the truth to you on more than one occasion. We all did."

His expression grew bitter. "And yet you selected your words to perpetuate my delusions, not dispel them. You fed upon my madness like a tick bloats itself on the blood of the unwitting beast."

Nabiki's eyes narrowed. "Look, Kuno," she said coldly, "I know you feel like a first class moron right now, but don't go trying to place the blame on me for your behavior. You've just proven to me in the past couple of hours that you do have a brain, so I know that you had it in you to see the truth if you really wanted to."

"So you feel no remorse for preying upon my weakness."

"I didn't say that." Nabiki felt herself flushing, whether from embarrassment or anger, she couldn't tell. "Don't put words in my mouth. I'm not exactly busting with pride over what I did, but there's not a hell of a lot I can do about it now. And don't expect me to come groveling for your forgiveness for selling you pics of your 'true loves' when, if you'd just exercised a few of your brain cells and a bit of self control, I wouldn't have been able to take advantage of you in the first place."

Kuno, who wasn't looking in the least bit like his usual pompous self, shriveled even more under her sharp words. "You... speak the truth." His voice was barely audible.

Nabiki looked at him silently, and felt guilt stab at her insides.

What am I doing? she thought. Even if it is the truth, I'm only making him feel worse...

She grit her teeth. It was time to get down to business and seriously swallow some pride. They didn't have time for this nonsense, after all. Akane was back. They needed to go back to the mountain and rejoin the others. As much as she hated to admit it, she needed Kuno's help. She needed him not only lucid, but confident and ready to fight if necessary.

And that meant that she needed to help him through this, not add to his misery.

Great. So now I get to play Kuno's therapist.

Nabiki exhaled a long, slow breath as she pushed herself to her feet. She looked down at him sternly. "All right, Kuno, listen up. I... I'm... sorry..." that you were an idiot "...that I took advantage of your..." sick obsession with Ranma and Akane "...weakness..."

Gods, this was difficult. She had to choose her words carefully. Not an easy thing to do, since she was angry and scared - neither of which were the most nurturing emotions she could be feeling at the moment. Kuno didn't even seem to be responding, but she pressed on. "Yes, it's true that you made... an error in judgment. But all that is in the past. Can't you see?"

Kuno looked up at her, his surprise at her change in attitude flickering through his self-loathing.

Encouraged, she continued. "This is your big chance! You can start over! Now that you're finally aware of the truth, you can take action and regain your honor! You can make everything up to Ranma and Akane by helping them defeat Cologne and getting us all safely back to Japan!"

Kuno wanted to believe her. The desire for redemption was plain in his expression, and yet even that was clouded by doubt. "If only it were that simple," he said.

Nabiki suppressed the urge to grind her teeth. "It is that simple. Who says it has to be difficult? Trust me, Kuno, your reputation can't get any worse. It's only uphill from here."

Kuno groaned and held his head in his hands.

Nabiki mentally berated herself. Oh, that was good. Try again, girl, and this time, try not to kick him when he's down.

Sighing, she knelt down again so that she was eye level with him. "Kuno. Everything is going to be fine. I know that it will be difficult, facing everyone again after... after all that's happened. But... look. It won't be as hard as you think. Akane may be a bit violent, but I know her well enough to know that if you show her how you've changed, she'll forgive you. As for Ranma... hell, he's one of the most forgiving guys I know. And believe me, he knows what it's like to experience humiliation, so he'll understand. All you've got to do is show him that your sorry, and he'll probably never mention it again."

Kuno breathed a heavy sigh. "After my atrocious behavior, I do not deserve such kindness."

"Bull. Everybody deserves a second chance. Even you, Kuno." Nabiki was surprised by the sincerity of her words. "You've got to trust me on this."

He snorted, not bothering to raise his head. "Trust you? I assure you, Nabiki Tendo, I am seeing things quite clearly at the moment, and the memory of your manipulations whilst I was in the thrall of self-delusion is plain to me. Everything you've ever done, even this transparent ploy to cheer me, is only to further your own self-interests. I do not trust you."

Nabiki's left eye twitched. She stared at him for a long moment, listening to the sound of her heart thumping painfully in her chest.

"I'm going to let that slide," she said at last, "because, after everything that's happened, I know that you know better." She stood, turned away sharply, and walked to the edge of the clearing. "If it's in my 'self-interest' to get you, me, and everyone else out of this hellhole and back home safely, I guess I'm guilty. Akane is back, and that was our agreed signal for us to rejoin the others, remember? I'd go by myself, but it's really dark in that forest, and since you brought me here while I was unconscious, I have no idea where the hell we are."

She turned back to him and favored him with a piercing glare. "In other words," she said tightly, "I need your help. So let me know when you're through feeling sorry for yourself so we can get something accomplished, okay?"

And then she turned away, because at that moment, tears burned her eyes, and there was no way in the world that she was going to give that bastard the satisfaction of seeing her cry.

This wasn't the way it was supposed to be. Yes, she had said everything right - everything that needed to be said to get Kuno thinking in the right direction. She knew without looking that she had finally managed to get Kuno to focus on something besides his misery and mistakes.

But she wasn't supposed to feel so miserable because of it.

She could feel him looking at her; could feel his gaze on her back. What are you staring at? she wanted to snarl. But didn't.

After an infinitely long moment, she heard him get to his feet and come up slowly behind her.

Oh no, not now, Kuno, go away, she thought, blinking at the wetness in her eyes.

He was coming. She could almost see it in her mind now; a scene right out of a manga. He rests his hand on her shoulder, murmurs a heartfelt apology, and she turns, eyes shining with tears and says, Oh, it's all right, I know you didn't mean it, before sobbing into his chest as he put his arms around her to comfort...

Nabiki blinked. Gah! Nope. No way in hell was that going to happen.

She snapped around to face him just before he reached her, and sure enough, the shamefaced apology was in his countenance, almost on his lips.

"So," she said, more sharply than she intended. "Are you ready to go now?"

Kuno stared at her uncertainly, but he would not be deterred from his objective. "I'm sorry," he said. "You were trying to help me."

"Yeah, whatever. It worked, obviously. You're feeling better, so grab your bokken and let's go."

"I should not have said-"

"You should have, you did, it's all true, I'm fine with it, so enough already."

Kuno looked at her somberly. "I... do not think that I was seeing quite as clearly as I thought I was."

No. You're not, Kuno. Otherwise you would see that you are just playing another role.

At first, she'd thought that he had such remarkable control; that his ability to recover from such devastating personal revelation was inhuman.

But he hadn't recovered at all. She could see it in his eyes. The confusion, fear and pain... the self-loathing...

And over that self-loathing, a new facade. A new face to show to the world, to hide the wounded thing he was. No longer was he the warrior of classic romance, courting his true loves, rescuing them from vile demons and sorcerers.

No. Now he was the fallen samurai, noble even in his tragedy, who would regain his honor at all costs.

And this was what she wanted. Because this Kuno was useful. This Kuno would be able to help them all.

Maybe, on some level, Kuno knew that he was play-acting. Maybe he even knew that Nabiki's words had goaded him into his new role.

Maybe, Nabiki realized with a start as she looked into his eyes... he didn't care.

She smiled. "Well, Kuno. It seems to me that nobody ever sees things quite as clearly as they think they do - including me." She walked over and picked up the bokken from where it lay on the grass, then handed it to him with a gesture that implied that if he said another word on the subject, she'd whack him with it.

He understood, and kept his silence. As he took the bokken in his hands, a bit of his old confidence returned to his countenance, though it was now overshadowed by the heavy burden of his new perspective.

At least he liked his new role. And if he lived it well enough, maybe it would become more than just a role.

"The old woman, Cologne," Kuno said suddenly, and Nabiki paused. "She will not be happy to see us."

Nabiki felt a chill all the way down to her bones that had nothing to do with the coolness of the night. Cologne wouldn't be happy to see her specifically.

She hid her inner thoughts with a light toss of her head. "That's why we'd better pray that Ranma takes care of her before we get there."

"Indeed. Let us be off then."

Nabiki gestured to the surrounding trees. The thick forest was filled with a darkness, swallowing the soft starlight that lit their clearing sanctuary.

"Lead the way, Kuno-chan."


"More sake, Kasumi!" Genma waved his empty glass in the air and laughed boisterously.

"Coming, Uncle Saotome."

Soun sobbed, his copious tears drenching the tatami mat. "He did it, Saotome! Ranma saved my little girl!"

"I told you he would, didn't I, Tendo? What else would you expect from my son?"

"I never should have doubted you, Saotome!"

"There there, Tendo. Ah, thank you, Kasumi! Here, Tendo, drink up!"

"Yes, it is indeed a night for celebration! Our families shall be united at last!"

And on and on they went, slapping each other on the back and laughing loudly in between Soun's bursts of weeping. Kasumi knew that in a little while, they would both be thoroughly drunk.

Just as well.

She went into the kitchen, gratefully leaving the two noisy men behind, and fetched the broom and dustpan from their place next to the refrigerator.

Walking down the hall, she went outside to the covered walkway that led to the dojo. The night was cool, peaceful, dark and moonless; the quiet of the evening only broken by the occasional barking dog, and bursts of laughter from the patio on the other side of the house.

She paused outside the dojo entrance for a moment, leaning on her broom, and closed her eyes, feeling the evening air against her face, her eyelids. Then, taking a deep breath, she stepped inside the dojo, turned on the light, and squinted against the brightness.

Her hands trembled.

"Oh... my."

Meticulously, and with great care, she began to sweep up the remains of the fallen, broken altar that lay scattered on the floor.

Her heart ached. She wanted to be glad. She longed for a sense of relief, a sense of peace that her sister was finally safe, no longer a prisoner of the Kami Plane.

As she methodically swept the shattered altar into her dustpan, she couldn't help but wonder. And worry.

Akane had returned. But, with such a terrible omen as this, at what cost?


Ranma stared at his body.

His dead body.

He was dead.

He was looking at his own body from the outside.

And he couldn't help but note, with a kind of mind-numbed, detached fascination, how gross he looked. All pasty and bloody and lifeless...

"This isn't happening," he said. "I can't be dead."

His own words echoed back to him from the misty, night shrouded mountain side.

He blinked. Of course. He couldn't be dead. He had to live, he had to finish the rest of his life. Finish the rest of his life, with Akane. He had fought so hard and suffered so much to get her back, only for this to happen?

No way. Being dead definitely did not fit in with his future plans.

"Hey," he said. Turning to where Yang Wu Ch'ang Kuei stood, gazing at him in silence, he pointed at his body. "Put me back." His voice was tight and strangely calm, in spite of the fact that he felt like totally freaking out. "You gotta put me back in there. In the... my body."

The Ghost of Impermanence stared at him with those unnerving eyes, bulging unnaturally from his strangled, purple face.

Ranma's voice rose slightly as a bit of his inner fear and anger began to seep through his stunned exterior. "I'm serious, man, I can't die! Not right now, at least. So put me back!"

Without a word, Yang Wu Ch'ang Kuei faded away.

"Hey!" Ranma stepped forward in alarm, his hands reaching to where the Chinese emissary of death had stood mere moments before. His grasping fingers touched nothing. "Hey, don't leave! No, dammit, come back here! You gotta put me back!"

But the Kuei was gone. Ranma's hands fell back to his sides as he stared at the empty space in wide-eyed dismay.

He was alone.

He was... dead.

Ranma clenched and unclenched his fists, struggling uselessly to come to grips with the situation. Only one conclusion came immediately to mind.

This totally sucked.

Not knowing what else to do, he turned back to his body and, taking a deep breath, knelt down next to it.

Okay. No need to panic. If the Kuei wouldn't put him back, he'd just do it himself. Nothing to it, right? Just... get back in the body.

Or something.

Tentatively, he stretched out his hand towards the body. Towards... the face. His face. His face, slack and lifeless. His cheeks, still wet with tears and blood. His eyes, wide and blank and...

He paused, swallowing hard as he forcibly pushed back the growing feeling of horror that was totally creeping him out.

He clenched his fists, steadying himself. "Okay," he said, and cleared his throat when his voice cracked a little. "Nothing to it." He reached out...

His fingers passed through the flesh like it wasn't even there. He quickly pulled his hand away, unnerved. He had expected to feel something. A tingling, maybe; a tug, or even a coolness, or...

He realized something then, something his mind had been trying to tell him since he first found himself outside his body.

He... couldn't feel anything.

Not quite true. He could feel the calloused flesh of his own fingers and palms as he clenched his fists. He could feel the material of his clothes against his skin...

What skin? he wondered. All your skin is lying in a heap in front of you.

As the morbid thought flitted through his mind, Ranma paused. His eyes widened as he was struck by a flash of dread-inspired insight.

He didn't have any skin to feel, and yet he could feel it. How?

His mind had to be filling in the blanks for him, he realized. Like... like an amputee who had lost an arm or a leg, and yet could still feel a "ghost limb" in its place.

Only, in his case, he could still feel his flesh around him, even though his whole body lay before him in a crumpled, lifeless heap on the mountain side.

All of the sensations he was feeling at that moment - breathing, swallowing, his heart thumping hard in his chest in fear, just mere moments after feeling it slow to a dead standstill...

None of those feelings were real. It was just his mind, filling in the blanks. He knew because, as he paused for the first time to extend his senses beyond himself in the way he had been trained to do since he was a child... he couldn't do it.

He couldn't smell the dank mist, the moist dirt... not even the odor of his own sweat and blood that had filled his head just moments before. He couldn't smell anything.

He couldn't feel the ground beneath his feet. He couldn't feel the coolness of the clear, starry night. He couldn't even feel the constant, familiar pressure of the air against his ghostly skin.

"Oh, gods," he whispered as he looked down at himself, wide eyed and thoroughly unnerved at the discovery. And when he spoke, he couldn't feel the rush of air within his lungs. His voice had come without the force of breath. His breathing was a mere illusion, nothing more than an automated movement imposed upon his spirit by a mind too soon separated from flesh...

A flicker of panic stabbed through him. He... couldn't function like this. He was a martial artist, dammit! He needed to be able to feel the world around him, and this... this...

Ranma shuddered, squeezed his eyes shut, and wrapped his arms around his chest, anxious to feel his own solidness even if it was a ghostly illusion and nothing more.

Okay, he thought to himself forcibly. Come on, Saotome. Get a grip. Lots of other people have died before you, and they must have dealt with it somehow, so you can too. Just take it one step at a time.

The thought was somewhat calming, and restored a semblance of rationality to his scrambled thoughts.

Control. Focus. Think, dammit.

At least he could still see, he realized. And hear. Not all of his senses had been killed with his body, it seemed.

Ranma forced himself to relax, to be calm. He could deal with this. He would deal with this.

Slowly, he opened his eyes.

What the hell are you supposed to do when you're dead? he wondered.

Looking down at the body, he found his initial mind-numbing panic and horror slowly ebbing under a wave of other emotions; mostly confusion and melancholy, mixed with faint irritation as rationality gradually reasserted itself in his mind. He grimaced. What in the world was he thinking, trying to get back into his body? After all, if every person who died could just hop right back into their body, the world would be overflowing with people who just wouldn't stay dead.

Still...

His brow furrowed in frustration. He just couldn't sit back and accept this. He couldn't stay defeated. Not for long.

That's right. He was Ranma Saotome, and as far as he was concerned, death was just one more enemy to defeat. Just because nobody else that he knew of had figured out how to come back to life didn't mean he couldn't do it... somehow...

So what if he didn't have a clue as to how he planned to accomplish the impossible?

Well. The first step to defeating an opponent, he knew, was understanding it. Okay. Simple enough. All he had to do was... figure out death.

Taking a deep breath, he looked down at himself. Himself, not... the body.

Hm. He looked... well, normal. Not shimmery or transparent or glowing or anything. He was even wearing the black pants and red Chinese shirt he'd... uh, died in, so to speak. He blinked. What gives? he thought, wondering briefly about ghostly clothing. Then he shook his head, immediately abandoning the train of thought as just Too Weird.

Okay, he thought, with some measure of annoyance. Now what? He glanced around at his surroundings. Death was really turning out to be different from what he'd expected. Wasn't there supposed to be a river or something? With his ancestors waiting on the other side to greet him? Ryoga had mentioned something to that effect after his near-death experience when fighting Mint and Lime. Huh. Ryoga was probably just pulling his leg or something. All he could see was the mist-shrouded mountain side.

He frowned. There had to be more to death than this; more than just being cut off from the rest of reality, reduced to nothing more than an intangible spirit, a mere ghost, a-

Ranma froze as a memory from earlier that afternoon struck him numb with sudden fear.

-a kuei...

You'll see, boy. The voice, cold and raspy, filled with malicious delight, speaking out of the mists. You are on your noble quest now, but you'll be joining us soon enough, one way or another. You will die, slowly, painfully, as we all did, and your soul will be trapped here, forever, at the base of this cursed mountain...

Ranma's eyes widened with horrified realization.

You will join us. And when the next poor fool tries to climb the mountain, it shall be you who will sink your ghostly fingers into mortal flesh; it shall be you who will take pleasure in feeling their life slip away...

No way. No way.

Ranma clenched his teeth. It couldn't be. He was... trapped? Doomed to spend the rest of eternity haunting this mist shrouded, demon-infested mountain? And so what if he was dead! It didn't mean he wasn't himself. Ghost or not, he would never kill anybody, never try and drain their life away like the kuei had tried to do to him. He would never become like those disgusting, rotting, hissing, cringing kuei, never in a million years.

But then, if he couldn't figure a way out of this, he just might be stuck here long enough to put that to the test...

Oh jeeze. He grimaced. Forever was an awfully long time to be stuck on a stupid mountain, unable to touch anything...

And then another unpleasant thought crossed his mind.

Had the others... the kuei... started out like him? Had they been as determined to be true to themselves, in spite of the hell into which they had been thrust?

How long had they lasted... months, years, centuries... before their humanity slipped away into madness?

Ranma suppressed a shudder. After his experiences with the Shadowcat, he was more than well-acquainted with what it felt like to lose himself. But he had fought too hard for his identity, for his very sanity, to let it slip out of his grasp again just because he was dead-

Something twinged - something feral and feline, lying curled and dormant in the depths of his mind. It stirred slightly in response to his morbid thoughts.

Ranma blinked in surprise.

What the- the Nekoken?

He reached inside himself, probing carefully... and felt it twinge again.

Ranma blinked again in amazement. The Nekoken. It was still there, still inside him. Was his soul so completely melded with the feline spirit that even death couldn't separate their symbiosis?

He frowned, not quite sure how to feel about this discovery. He felt that he should be angry, worried, even a bit... scared. And hewould have been scared, if...

...if he hadn't so recently had a taste of what it was like to control all that gloriously terrifying power.

Power.

A humorless smile quirked at the corners of Ranma's lips. So. Perhaps having the beast within wasn't such a bad thing - at least not at the moment. It was a good thing he had learned, to a basic extent, how to control the Nekoken. He could use that power if he was going to be trapped on this mountain with a bunch of demons.

Curious, Ranma focused on stirring up the Nekoken's power within him. Carefully, slowly, he guided the feline instincts to the surface of his soul-

-and choked out a gasp, crumpling to his knees, as sudden, irrational panic flooded through his mind as he-

-couldn't feel he couldn't feel he couldn't feel anything, he was clawing at the ground, but his fingers just passed through the dirt and he couldn't feel it, he couldn't feel the air, he couldn't smell or sense and he had to he had to, he was suffocating and he was scared so scared...

Shaking, gasping for air that he couldn't breathe, Ranma forced the Nekoken back. The feline aspect of his soul slid with willing relief away from the terrifying sensory deprivation of the afterlife and into the depths of his subconscious.

Oooo-kay... Ranma stood shakily, feeling light-headed and slightly disoriented. Clenching his fists just for the comfort of his own seeming-solidness, he swallowed hard. That was definitely a Bad Idea. He groaned aloud as he looked down at his shaking hands.

So. His feline side liked the side-effects of being dead even less than he did. He berated himself silently for being so stupid. Of course he couldn't use the Nekoken - not when he was... like this. The Nekoken enhanced his physical senses; helped him feel the world around him in a way that reached beyond the blunt barriers of his humanity. But when he didn't have any physical senses to enhance...

With a groan, Ranma slumped to the ground, frustrated, frightened, and angry enough that he didn't even care that he couldn't feel the earth beneath him. What was he supposed to do now? Arghhh! Come on, you idiot, think! There's got to be a way out of this!

Unfortunately, nothing came readily to mind.


Akane couldn't believe it.

She was finally home.

Well, not really. The Mountain of the Ancient One, in the middle of the Chinese wilderness, actually. But it was closer to home than she'd been in a long time.

Akane closed her eyes, lifted her tear-streaked face to the sky, and took her first deep breath of mortal realm air for the first time in five years...

And nearly gagged.

"Oh yuck," she gasped. Her eyes flew open, and she looked around quickly. Sure enough, on the ground less then five meters away from her was a large pile of dead demon. The stench was amazing.

Her eyes widened as she looked at the black mass of flesh and ichor. There was almost nothing recognizable left of the creature, but she knew it immediately. The battle scars on her thigh and shoulder throbbed in remembrance.

"Oh..." she whispered, stepping towards it in morbid fascination. "The Shadowcat."

Incredible! Ranma had completely shredded the feline monstrosity!

And, what's more, she could feel the presence of literally hundreds of demons further down the mountain. Her amazement grew. Ranma had gone through that to save her.

Akane felt an elated smile spreading across her face. Wow. Ranma was just the best!

She felt her heart pound quickly in anticipation. He was here, somewhere on the mountain. It wouldn't be long, and then she could see him, touch him...

She had waited so long.

And then she saw the blood.

Actually, she had noticed it right from the start, from the moment she had set foot in the mortal realm. It had jumped out to her trained instincts, and she couldn't help but notice it because it was so obviously not demon blood since it just lay there, glistening on the ground, rather than sizzling, bubbling or steaming into the earth the way the Shadowcat's blood did. But she had been hoping so hard that it was just her imagination, that it might just... go away if she ignored the blood long enough...

A great dark pool of it, gleaming wetly in the starlight, right in front of the Shadowcat's remains, and yet separate from it. A lot of blood, she realized.

But it wasn't Ranma's. It couldn't be, because that was a lot of blood. And so what if a trail of it led from the pool over to the base of the dimensional weakness where he must have sat as he spoke to her through the veil, his voice so weak and tired...

...just a scratch.

It's bad, isn't it.

No. Well... kinda.

Oh no.

And now she could see how the trail of blood went from the pool that had gathered at the base of the dimensional weakness, up the narrow winding trail that wound up out of the mists towards the peak of the mountain...

"Ranma..." she whispered.

And then the whisper became a scream.

"Ranmaaaaa..!"


Ranma's head snapped up. He froze, his eyes wide with shock, unable to believe what he had just heard.

Until he heard it again.

"Ranmaaaa! Where are you?" The voice, anxious and tinged with fear, floated up to him from further down the mountain, out of the dark mists.

Slowly, hesitantly, Ranma got to his feet. "A... Akane?" His voice was an incredulous whisper.

"Please, Ranma, answer me!"

It wasn't possible. She couldn't be here, she was still in the Kami Plane. He had failed to save her, after all. He had failed to reach the Ancient One, he had failed to break the blood spell so that she could...

Ranma blinked. Wait a minute... The blood spell?

He suddenly remembered the strange red mist that had seeped out of his fallen body.

The blood spell. It was broken. His death had broken the blood spell... and Akane was back.

Akane was alive. She was safe. She was back. The realizations pulsed in Ranma's stunned mind, even as a tiny, hesitant flicker of joy pierced the gloom of his melancholy...

... and then overwhelmed him completely.

Joy. She's back. Oh man, she's finally back, I can't believe it, she's back, I'll get to see her again, finally, it seems like forever, oh man, what'll I say to her, she's back, she's coming, she's coming, she's...

In the back of Ranma's blissfully stunned mind, a little niggling detail that had been lost in the glorious ecstasy of the moment, chose to abruptly penetrate the fog of his emotions.

And Ranma's feelings of joy came to a screeching halt.

Slowly, unwillingly, he turned and looked over his shoulder.

There was his body, lying on the blood-soaked ground; glassy blue eyes staring sightlessly from a pasty, lifeless face.

Slowly, he looked back down into the mists.

"Ranma!" Her voice, anxious, and tinged with fear.

Akane was back. She was coming.

And he was dead.

Ranma blinked.

"Oh crap."

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