Hearts of Ice

Chapter 22: Heaven and Hell, Part 2

"Ranma!"

Ranma blinked as Akane's voice floated up from the dark mists that writhed and curled beneath the towering, jagged peak of the Mountain of the Ancient One. Her voice pulled at him, filling him with an incredulous joy that pierced him to his core... and a near wild-eyed panic.

Oh crap! How could she be here now? Now, of all times?

Looking over his shoulder, he spared one last glance at his lifeless body, sprawled in the blood-soaked dirt of the narrow mountain path, before he turned to look down the mountain.

Then he moved.

He moved without thought or reason towards the mists, running, but not running, for he couldn't feel his feet pound against the ground, couldn't feel the flow of air against his skin, because he had none with which to feel...

"Ranma, please answer me!"

She was coming. And he had to stop her, somehow. Even though he was dead, nothing more than an intangible ghost.

That one thought focused in his mind above all else. He couldn't let her find his body. Because. Because, if she really loved him, like she had said so long ago... because if she felt even an inkling of what he felt for her... because if their situations were reversed and it was him climbing the mountain, and he stumbled upon her body, broken and lifeless on the rocky path...

He didn't even want to think about it.

She was close now. He could hear her crying. Her faint, choking sobs filtered up through the mists... and Ranma stumbled to an abrupt halt. He stopped at the edge of the mists, on a part of the path that he didn't even recognize, and yet he must have been there, for his blood was splattered across the ground in large, dark droplets that had yet to soak into the earth. He stopped moving and just stood there, unconsciously clutching his chest with one hand, staring fearfully into the mists because...

Because he was suddenly, desperately afraid to see her.

What was he thinking? He was dead! She probably wouldn't be able to see him or hear him... and he couldn't even touch her...

He couldn't stop her. She was going to walk right by him and never know he was there, and she would find his body...

And he could hear her weeping. The sound tore at his soul until he couldn't bear it.

"Akane," he cried hoarsely, helplessly. "Don't..."

Don't cry, don't come up here, please don't.

The weeping stopped.

"... Ranma?"

Ranma blinked.

She could hear him?

And then, before his stunned eyes, she emerged from the mists...


...and she froze, her wet, glistening eyes widening as she saw him.

The blood belonged to someone else. He wasn't hurt. He was safe.

Her hands trembled, fluttered like nervous birds, moving upwards to cover her mouth. She could taste the salt of her tears, feel the wet streaks on the skin of her face, on her fingertips, and suddenly, all she could think about was what a terrible mess she must look like.

And how beautiful he was.

He... was perfect. Just like she remembered him. So young, his braided hair dark and tousled, and he was still wearing that red Chinese shirt of his, and she wanted to laugh, but she didn't because she was afraid that if she did, she would wake up...

And his eyes. He stood there, staring at her, his mouth hanging open slightly, and his gaze was so open and intense, she felt unable to move, unable to speak.

She held her breath as his blue eyes traced slowly over her face, lingering on the hollow of her cheek, pausing to take in the thin white line of a scar that hadn't been there five years earlier. And then, slowly, his gaze went to her hair... her long hair that fell to her waist, torn free from its usual braid in the heat of battle, matted with her own blood... And then her clothes, torn, stained with blood and ichor...

And her heart was beating so swift and loud that she felt for sure that he must hear it, and she was ecstatic and delirious with joy, and yet terrified...

Oh... what did he think of her?


Ranma felt frozen.

Some distant corner of his mind that wasn't completely numb from shock was aware that his mouth had sagged open in amazement, and that he hadn't blinked in a long time; that he might never blink again because he just couldn't stop staring.

Akane.

She could see him. Hear him. And she was... was...

He swallowed hard.

Oh... wow.

So many questions filled him as he looked at her... and yet, in that moment, he couldn't find his voice to ask a single one.

Her face. Pale, smudged, bloody and tear-streaked, yet radiant in the cool starlight.

Her hair. Long, impossibly long, tangled and wild.

Her body, lean and strong... taller somehow... and yet her tattered, bloodstained clothing couldn't hide the soft, sweet familiar curve of her shape...

His mouth felt suddenly, impossibly dry.

And her eyes. Dark, wet with tears... full of an unfamiliar strength... and yet shadowed by a terrible, raw loneliness; a longing that he felt echoed in his own soul.

The blood spell was broken. But too late. Far too late for her, for him... for them both, Ranma realized, and his eyes began to sting.

Akane... What's happened to you?


Ranma was staring at her, his blue eyes almost luminescent with amazement, and yet he seemed stricken. Akane's breath caught in her throat as she saw a tear escape the corner of his eye and slide, unnoticed, down the pale skin of his cheek to linger, glistening, on the edge of his chin.

He was crying? Ranma never cried, if he could help it - especially not in front of her. Was she so different? Were the ravages of her time spent in the Kami realm so apparent in her countenance?

She didn't want to think about that now.

What mattered was that Ranma was here with her at last. The passage of time in the Kami realm, each moment there spent wishing for this one moment here, had taken its toll. Her pride was extinguished, her inner soul exposed for Ranma to see.

And he was crying. His familiar defenses were down. He stood before her, more open and vulnerable than she had ever seen him before. And she was so afraid to see him like this, and yet so full of the hope and longing of five long years, and all she wanted in the world was to reach up...

...like she was doing...

...and wipe the wetness from his face, touch his skin, feel his warmth on her hands, her lips...


...and he saw her reaching out to touch his face, and he wanted it more than anything, and he stood there waiting for the electric feel of her fingertips on his skin...

...when he remembered.

Remembered seeing his hand pass through the lifeless flesh of his fallen body, and not feeling anything...

Horrified panic flickered in Ranma's eyes.

In a split second, he jerked himself away from Akane's outstretched hand - and found himself staring apprehensively into her disbelieving eyes from a good two meters away.

Akane blinked, stunned.

Her hand slowly fell to her side as her expression crumpled to one of devastation.

Ranma's eyes widened. "Uh... uh, no," he stuttered, "wait, Akane!" He waved his hands frantically as he saw her beautiful eyes go flat; as she closed herself off to him in that old familiar way, like a door slamming shut in his face. "Wait, it ain't what you think!"

Oh yeah. That's the first thing I wanted to say to her, he thought bitterly. But he couldn't think of anything else to say, except maybe, Sorry Akane, but you see, I'm dead... and somehow he got the impression that that wouldn't go over well either.

But, to his surprise, she didn't get angry. Instead, he watched as the hurt in her expression faded completely until she seemed simply... resigned.

Which was infinitely worse than her being angry. Aw, jeeze...

She looked at him with those flat eyes that closed off her soul, and forced a smile. "It's... it's okay, Ranma, I understand." Her voice was soft and strangely calm.

Ranma twitched guiltily. "Uh... You do?" he asked uncertainly. Did she know? Had she figured it out?

Akane wiped at her tear-stained face with her fingers in an attempt to compose herself further. She laughed, but it was a hollow sound. "Well, I kind of guessed... I mean, I guess it was silly of me to hope, but..." She took a deep, shaky breath and looked down at her feet.

Focus, she thought as she felt her heart shattering. Calm. Be calm, dammit! You knew this might happen! You're five years older than him now, why would he want anything to do with an old maid like you? He doesn't even want you touching him!

Oh, I'm such a fool.

Before the Kami plane, she would have slapped him. In her pain and anger at his slight, she would have hit him, maybe even kicked him right off the mountain.

But that was before.

The thought of him flinching away from her outstretched hand threatened to crumble her composure. But no, she couldn't let him see. She loved him. She wanted him to be happy, even if he didn't share her feelings, and she knew he would feel guilty if she showed how much it hurt.

But most of all, she didn't want his pity.

Only the long years of training in the Kami realm and her seemingly endless experience at holding her grief and loneliness at bay allowed her to find her center of calm, so that she could even bear to look up again.

Ranma was staring at her pensively. Swallowing the lump in her throat, she called up the speech she'd prepared so long ago, just in case, for this very circumstance. It came out sounding rushed, stiff, and not nearly as sincere as she wanted it to be.

"I... appreciate you saving me, Ranma. And I just want you to know that I want you to be happy, so whomever you eventually choose, I'll... support you, but... but I hope that we can be friends at least..."

Ranma blinked. That wasn't at all what he was expecting her to say. "Huh?"

"Friends," she said again, trying not to get upset even as she realized that in her flustered haste, she'd forgotten half her speech. "I want us to be friends."

"Uh... okay." Ranma wondered if it was possible for him to be more confused. She didn't think they were friends? Then he blinked as the meaning of her words filtered through his bafflement. "Hey, wait a minute," he said, a familiar suspicion forming in his mind. "What do you mean, 'whoever I choose?'"

Akane looked at him, aghast. He wanted her to spell it out? Wasn't it enough that she was giving him his freedom? She inhaled shakily. "You know," she said with remarkable calm, considering that she wanted to pound him for his insensitivity. "Choose. Whichever... fiancée." He looked at her blankly. "The one you want to marry." Her lips thinned as she tried to hold back the tears that threatened to shatter her composed facade. "Instead of me."

Incredulous comprehension dawned in Ranma's eyes. "What? You mean, you thought..?"

And then he stopped as he saw the look on her face. It was true - she thought he'd chosen someone else.

What the hell? How on earth could she think such a thing after everything he'd been through for her?! Argh! The stupid tomboy! Why did she always think the worst of him?

But then, he realized... how could she know? She hadn't been there, she hadn't seen everything he'd gone through in her absence. She didn't know that... he loved her.

He'd never told her, after all.

"Jeeze, Akane," he said at last. His voice was soft, hoarse and tinged with anger, though the emotion was directed at himself. "I didn't choose nobody else. Why the hell would I do something like that?"

She looked at him, surprised. "Because," she said, and as she spoke, her wounded feelings seeped through her the crumbling remains of her carefully constructed mask of composure. "You made it perfectly clear that you don't want anything to do with an old maid like me!"

"Old maid?" Ranma shook his head in exasperation. Akane looked anything but old. "Now what are you talking about?"

"Look at me, Ranma," she said, gesturing to herself sharply with both hands. "Can't you see?"

"Well, yeah, you look... uh... different." That was the wrong thing to say, because she flinched. "No! I mean, you... I mean, your hair and everything... I guess the Kami Plane made your hair grow or something?" He wanted to say that she looked beautiful, wild and exotic, that just the sight of her was driving him out of his mind with desire, but his courage was rapidly failing him as he saw her eyes shimmer with tears. "Uh... is that bad?" he asked lamely.

"Idiot!" Akane shouted. "I'm five years older than you now! I was in the Kami Plane for five years. Five years!"

Ranma looked at her, stunned. Shocked beyond words.

She stood with her fists clenched at her sides. "I'm older than you," she whispered hoarsely. "I'm older than all my friends. I'm even older than Kasumi - by two years! I spent the last five years of my life wandering around the Kami Plane trying to find a way home." And trying to save you, she didn't say, because she had done so much, suffered so much for his sake, and now, with her words, she was hurting him far worse than the Shadowcat ever did. She saw it in his face, his eyes. The realization, the welling horror, the guilt and misery as he understood for the first time...

And then she turned away from him abruptly, because she knew she was going to cry.

Nothing was turning out the way she thought it would be; the way she hoped it would be. And now, she'd gone and done exactly what she didn't want to do, and that was to make Ranma feel sorry for her.

"But..." Ranma's voice was quiet with disbelief. "That can't be..." Five years. There was no way that he could have allowed Akane to be stranded in the Kami Plane for that long, all by herself. "You... you were only gone for a month."

Akane sniffed, holding back a sob. "Time moves faster in the Kami Plane than it does here," she said softly.

Ranma stared at her, as she stood with her back to him. He opened his mouth to say something, but there were no words, and even if there were, they would probably come out wrong.

Five years. Not a month, but five years. Everything clicked into place for him as he looked at her. Her hair, her face... the thin, pale scar on her check that had confused him... Who had done that to her? How old was that scar? How many more did she have that he couldn't see?

And those shadows he saw within her eyes; a mingling of light and darkness, of strength and sorrow that he'd never seen within her before...

She wasn't the same girl who was torn from his life nearly a month ago, even more so than he first realized. She was a woman.

An older woman.

Five years. Five years was an eternity. Five years ago, he had been a twelve year-old boy. Five years was a sizable chunk of his own lifetime.

Five years. It was incomprehensible to him.

"Akane." He wanted say something, do something, anything. "I... I'm sorry..."

She stiffened.

Ranma winced. Again, somehow, the words were wrong. He took a deep breath and tried again.

"I... Look, I don't care how old you are, okay? No matter what age... it doesn't matter to me. You're still Akane." My Akane, he thought, but fear stuck the words in his throat.

Akane shivered. His tone of voice was so gentle, so sincere, and it lit bright spark of warmth within her heart. She closed her eyes and felt the tears slide down her cheeks at the cruel kindness. She wanted to run to him, wrap her arms around his chest and weep out all her misery...

But she didn't. Because even as she lifted her head and turned to look at him, she saw how he still held himself carefully apart from her, as if fearful of any contact.

The spark of warmth dimmed. "It's okay," she said tightly, "you don't have to lie to make me feel better."

Ranma's eyes widened. "Wha-?" He couldn't believe it. Here he was, trying so hard, and nothing was coming out right! Why did she always have to twist his words around to mean something different? "I'm not lying! It's the truth!"

"Really?" Her voice was sharper than she intended. "Then why don't you even want to touch me? Am I that abhorrent to you?"

Ranma trembled in barely suppressed aggravation. Five years, and she hadn't changed a bit! "No, stupid! I do want to touch you!" Oh man, more than anything...

"Well then why don't you, you jerk?!" She was shouting, unable to hide the desperation, the desire in her voice.

"I can't!"

"Why not?!"

"Because I'm DEAD!"

The words echoed loudly off the mountainside.

Akane paled.

Ranma's eyes went wide. Oh man, that was stupid, he thought, as he desperately tried to figure out how to retract his words. "Er... that is... I mean..."

Akane blinked.

Dead?

That word... it didn't apply to this situation at all. It couldn't apply to Ranma. She knew what dead was. Her mother was dead, after all.

Dead was gone. Dead was buried, cremated, ashes scattered to the winds. Dead was mourning over a cold stone monument in a cemetery. Dead was grief, fear, anger, loneliness. Dead was never seeing someone ever again.

Dead certainly wasn't talking face to face, having a heated argument.

Then again, she thought, she'd experienced stranger things...

Ranma... dead.

Her eyes were dry as she looked at him; as she searched his face for any sign that he might be attempting some kind of deception, even though she already knew that Ranma would never joke about something like this.

And she, just like old times, had deliberately ignored all the signs of the truth.

Of course he was dead, she realized numbly. He had been seriously wounded by the Shadowcat, after all. And she remembered how weak he had sounded when she heard his voice through the dimensional veil. She remembered the cold grasping fingers of terrifying premonition that had gripped her by the throat as she heard the depth of his pain through the layers of space and time...

And, at the moment, Ranma looked... perfect. Too perfect. He bore no signs that he had, only minutes before, fought a desperate battle with the demon that was powerful enough to kill her tengu sensei. Why, Ranma didn't even look like he had a scratch on him.

He was looking at her, his blue eyes wide and apprehensive as he stood, frozen, waiting for her reaction.

And, as she gazed into his face in that single weird moment of clarity, she saw everything that she had missed in the blindness of her fears and self-doubts.

She saw Ranma. Ranma, who, in spite of all their arguments, misunderstandings and misadventures, had been her friend all along. Ranma, who had wept over a severed lock of her hair when he thought he might never see her again. Ranma, who hadn't chosen someone else.

Ranma, who had died trying to save her.

Oh, Akane gasped silently. And her heart shivered within her at the realization.

She stood silently, gazing into Ranma's face, her emotions a torrent of confusion.

I should be sad, she thought. I should be grief-stricken. But I'm not. I mean, how can I be upset over Ranma being dead when he's standing right in front of me? When I hear it from his own lips?

Why, the whole situation was just surreal. Almost ludicrous.

"You're... dead," she said in a small voice.

Ranma was looking at her with barely-veiled apprehension, as if expecting her to spontaneously combust. Or worse - cry. "Uh... yeah," he said. "Kinda."

Akane blinked. "I see," she said slowly. "So... you're 'kinda' dead. Just like you were 'kinda' wounded by the Shadowcat."

Ranma swallowed. That sounded vaguely like a reproach. Still, she certainly was taking it a hell of a lot better than he thought she would. It was freaking him out. His hand slipped behind his head, and he laughed nervously, not quite sure how to handle Akane's disturbing calm. "Uh... something like that."

Akane looked down at the ground. The ground that was stained with his blood. And then she looked at his feet. His feet, which, now that she looked closely, didn't... quite... touch the ground.

When she raised her head, her eyes were unreadable; calm and dark, like the sea before the fury of a morning storm.

Ranma felt a quiet dread fill him. But before he could utter another word, before he could even blink, she closed the gap between them in three swift steps, reached up...

...and touched his face.

He froze and gasped in shock as her living hand passed through him.

He felt it. The first real thing he'd felt since he'd found himself outside of his body. A flickering; a faint bit of warmth that trembled on his cheek as her fingers passed through the illusion of his skin.

Akane slowly traced the line of his cheek with her index finger... and yet she felt nothing. Nothing, except... just a bit of air that was cooler than the night. And now her eyes grew wet again, as her expression softened.

"Oh, Ranma," she breathed.

Ranma stared at her. Her voice, the warmth in her eyes, and the whispering, barely-felt pulse of her living presence against his face melted away the last traces of his apprehension, filling him with an unfamiliar thrill that left him tingling.

Slowly, with wide-eyed wonder, he reached out tentatively... and brushed his ghostly fingers softly against her face.

Akane tilted her head back, closed her eyes, and shivered.

He drew back hastily. "Sorry," he said. "I... sorry..."

"Ranma." Akane opened her eyes and smiled. "Never," she whispered, "be sorry for wanting to touch me... okay?"

Ranma swallowed hard. "O-okay," he said, his voice cracking boyishly.

Akane blinked at him in surprise... and then giggled.

"H-hey!" Ranma was suddenly, deeply grateful that he didn't possess flesh and blood at that moment, because otherwise he knew his face would be as red as his shirt. He mentally kicked himself as he realized that he had sounded way too eager. "You're the one who said it was okay!"

Akane almost choked on another laugh as it emerged from her throat. She tried to hold it in, because of the embarrassed blush she could see spreading across Ranma's face, but that only made it harder not to laugh. She pursed her lips together tightly to hold it in, but it was a futile effort, like trying to stop up a pressure cooker. The laughter was welling up inside her from a place she'd though long dead, and she couldn't hold it in any longer.

Akane exploded in uncontrollable giggles.

"What?" Ranma looked at her, torn between embarrassment and a blossoming irritation as he wondered what bizarre humor she could find in such a situation. And yet... to see her laugh... he found himself smiling in spite of himself. Struggling in vain to smother the stupid grin he could feel creeping across his face, he desperately mustered up the remains of his dignity. "Come on, what's so funny?"

Akane struggled to gain control of herself, wiping the tears from her eyes with one hand, and smiled up at him. "Nothing," she said, still half-giggling. "You. I love you."

Her levity evaporated as the words escaped, and her laughter died in her throat. It had slipped out; she hadn't meant to say it right now, like this, under these strange, frightening circumstances but she had felt it for so long, undenied for five years, that it had come to her naturally. And Ranma...

He was staring at her, frozen, looking at her with something akin to disbelief... and fear.

But this time... perhaps for the first time... she understood what he was afraid of.

Akane looked into his eyes. There was no denying it now. She didn't want to. Reaching out with one hand, she caressed his cheek, aching to feel something other than a whisper of chilled air.

Ranma trembled visibly under her hand, and his eyes grew wet.

Akane swallowed against the stinging in her throat. Again, just like the first time she'd told him, he was right before her... and yet out of reach. "I love you, Ranma."

Ranma closed his eyes. Funny how, even dead, he could feel the sting of tears. Though the physical world was beyond his reach, he could feel everything within himself, as if he were living. The burning ache in his throat, the pounding of his heart. But it was nothing more than an illusion, he knew.

"Akane... I..." His voice was hoarse, and he clenched his fists. He wanted to tell her. But how could he, when doing so might hurt her even more in the long run? It wasn't that he had given up. But unless he could figure a way out of this mess...

"Akane... I'm dead. I wanted to rescue you, but I... I screwed up... and now I can't even touch you..."

Akane's vision blurred and stung, and she could once again feel the tears on her face. "I don't care," she said stubbornly.

Ranma opened his eyes and stared at her in disbelief. "What?" he exclaimed. "Akane, that's just..." He caught himself before he said stupid. He sighed and ran his hand through his hair in a gesture of frustration. "I mean... come on, don't you think that me being dead just might put a damper on any... um, you know..." He was blushing again. "Long-term... plans and... stuff?"

"Don't say that!" Akane wanted to reach out and shake him by his shoulders. "I can see you! I can talk to you! That's more than I've had in five years, and it has to mean something!"

Ranma didn't know what to say.

"It's just not fair," she whispered, lowering her eyes. "I refuse to believe that, after all we've been through, it ends like... "

She trailed off abruptly, her voice dying in her throat.

Ranma blinked as he saw her face slowly drain of color. "A... Akane?"

"Ranma," she whispered, looking up into his face with wide, horrified eyes. "You're bleeding..."

That was the last thing he was expecting her to say. "Wha-?" He looked down at himself... and sure enough. A dark stain was slowly seeping through the front of his shirt. Reaching down, he pressed his hand to his stomach. It came away wet, sticky, and stained scarlet. He stared at it in disbelief.

Akane felt her initial horror give way to a dull, familiar panic. The same kind of panic she had felt so many times in the Kami Plane, whenever she was confronted with something strange and supernatural. Ranma's wound had opened up before her very eyes. He was bleeding, and even as he stood there, stunned at the sight of his impossible, ghostly blood, her first irrational thought was that she needed to get him to a doctor. Help, someone, my dead fiance is bleeding! She shook her head and forced herself to think rationally. "What's happening?"

"I... I don't know," Ranma said hoarsely. He could feel the blood now, flowing freely from a wound that shouldn't be there. He was a ghost! Ghosts don't bleed... do they?

And then he gasped as sharp, stabbing pain suddenly lanced through his middle, and he clutched his stomach, even as a terrifying feeling of déjà vu washed over him.

Akane was instantly by his side, her face pale and fearful. And through his pain, he could feel the whispering warm flicker of her hands through his face, his shoulders, his back as she reached out, trying desperately to touch him, to help him somehow. "Ranma! Please, tell me, what's going on!"

He shook his head, trying to focus over the pain. "I don't-"

And then he remembered the kuei. The trapped spirits of those who had died grisly deaths on this mountain, whose only resemblance to their former humanity was what they retained from their rotting corpses.

"Oh no," he gasped. The understanding shocked him out of most of his pain. And then his eyes widened as he realized...

"What?" Akane asked, her face blanking as she tried to prepare herself for what would undoubtedly be another devastating blow to their current situation, considering the look on Ranma's face. "You know what's going on, don't you?" It came out almost as an accusation.

He looked up at her, wincing. "It's... uh... kinda complicated." How was he supposed to explain this to her?

But then, it seemed he didn't even need to, for at that moment, horrified understanding lit Akane's features as she looked again at the blood seeping through his fingers where he clutched his stomach. "Is that where the Shadowcat..." She reached out, then drew back, her fingers going up to press against her lips in a gesture of helplessness. "Oh, Ranma, does it hurt?"

Ranma shook his head quickly. "Naw, it's okay. It... doesn't hurt all that much," he said, straightening with a grimace that belied his words. Suddenly, he could taste blood in his mouth, and he coughed involuntarily, causing Akane to gasp in distress. "At least," he added hastily, "not like before when I was really... I mean, it just kind of surprised me, I guess. Really, I'm fine."

"Are you sure?" Akane swallowed hard as she saw a thin line of blood trickle from the corner of his mouth.

Ranma saw where she was looking and wiped his mouth on the back of his hand. When he saw the scarlet streak it left, he sighed heavily. This, above all else confirmed his suspicions. And if he was right... "Look, Akane, there's something you should know."

Akane didn't look even the least bit surprised, though the worry in her eyes increased several notches. "What is it?" she asked.

Ranma looked down at his bloodstained hands and instinctively, if futilely, wiped them on his bloody pant legs. "Well, there are a bunch of ghosts on this mountain called kuei..."

"Kuei?" Akane interrupted, the unfamiliar word filling her with dread.

"Yeah, it's a Chinese word that means... um... vengeful spirits. They're... kind of trapped here on the mountain... forever." Ranma looked at her meaningfully, hoping that she would figure the rest out on her own so he wouldn't have to say it. Because the more he thought about it, the more it scared the hell out of him.

"So... what does that have to do with you bleeding all of a sudden?" Akane asked slowly.

Ranma groaned inwardly. Figured, that she'd pick this particular moment to be dense. "The kuei are kind of... well, they look all dead and gross, like..." He gestured down at himself. "Um... and they act all pissed off at the living, probably because they've been stuck here for hundreds of years or something..." He sighed again. Just tell her, idiot. "Okay. Akane... Kuei are the ghosts of people who have been killed on this mountain," he said in a rush. "Like me," he added as an afterthought.

Akane blinked. "So you... you..." She couldn't finish the thought. Just when she thought things couldn't get any worse...

"Yeah," Ranma said quietly. "I think I'm turning into a kuei."

Akane looked at him silently for a long moment. "I see," she said at last.

Ranma blinked. "Um... okay... I'm turning into some life-devouring vengeful spirit, and all you have to say is 'I see?'"

"What do you want me to say?" she asked quietly, though there was an undercurrent of frustration in her voice. "Honestly, after everything that's happened in the last ten minutes, this is just one more thing. Just one more straw for the camel's back, and I'm doing my best not to break, okay?" She realized that she was starting to raise her voice, so she made a conscious effort to calm herself. "Anyway, you'll have to excuse me if I don't start weeping and wailing over one more discovered disaster." She looked at him with large, wet eyes and bit her lip, trying not to show the alarm she felt as she watched Ranma's ghostly skin slowly take on a dead, grayish hue.

Ranma felt himself melt inside at the sight of her expression, so beautiful and strong in its determination. "I'm sorry, Akane," he said sincerely. "I... I ain't trying to make you feel bad. I'm just... kinda freaked out over all of this."

Akane smiled weakly. "It's okay, I understand." She took a deep breath. "The question is, what do we do now?"

"Well," Ranma said slowly. "I was thinking that maybe the Ancient One might be able to help us." Or at least help you get off this mountain, he thought.

Akane's eyes widened. "The Ancient One," she said. "That's right." She felt suddenly breathless, as something else occurred to her. "Ranma, he might even be able to bring you back to life!"

Ranma raised a skeptical eyebrow at her. Deep down he was hoping the same thing, but he didn't dare get his hopes up. "So," he said wryly, "you think this all-powerful dragon's got a cure for death?"

If he doesn't, he'd better make one, Akane was going to say-

- but then she felt it. A prickling of her battle sense. A deep strangling sensation in her chest, that took her completely by surprise. And before she could even stop to think about it, she was turning towards the mists and unsheathing her sword, just in time to see a demon, huge and flame-skinned, bearing down on her with foot-long black claws extended, its gaping maw filled with hundreds of venom-oozing fangs...

And all Ranma could think of in that split-second of shock was that he'd never even felt it coming.

"Akane!" he screamed, as he moved to grab her and leap with her to safety, but his hands passed right through her, and she wasn't even looking at him now, she was turning to face the demon, and it was going to kill her right before his eyes and he couldn't do a thing to stop it except scream "Akane, look-"

Akane's sword flashed, and the demon's head flew from its shoulders to land amidst the rocks several meters away.

"-out..." Ranma finished weakly, as the rest of the demon collapsed lifelessly to the ground.

Akane was shaking, cursing herself. She had been so overwhelmed with the events of the past few minutes that she hadn't even been paying attention to her surroundings. Her defenses had been virtually nonexistent as she focused completely on Ranma, and so the demon had been able to take her almost unawares...

Damn, that was a close one, she thought.

"Akane..." Ranma's voice, from behind her, was incredulous.

Pulling a cloth from her belt, Akane wiped the ichor from her blade as she turned to face him.

The completely flummoxed look on Ranma's face was priceless.

I'm going to remember that look forever, she thought with an almost guilty elation. I guess I'm not the clumsy tomboy anymore, eh Ranma?

Ranma stared at her, unblinking. Then he slowly shook his head, as if in denial of what he had just witnessed. "You... You just..."

"Killed a demon?" she supplied helpfully.

"How..." He stopped himself, his eyes still wide with amazement. "No, I saw how... But... when..."

"Well, the Kami Plane is full of demons," Akane explained with a shrug. "I had to learn how to defend myself."

"Full of demons," Ranma repeated numbly.

"Yes."

Ranma closed his eyes. "So... you've been... fighting demons."

"Um, yes," she said, beginning to feel strangely uncomfortable with Ranma's reaction.

"For five years."

"Well, actually, for only a little over four years now... I'm really quite good at it," she added.

"Good at it..." he groaned.

Akane blinked, feeling the faint stirrings of annoyance as Ranma continued to parrot her. "Ranma, are you okay?"

"Oh, I'm just fine," he replied with barely restrained irritation. He opened his eyes, but yet couldn't seem to meet her gaze, looking instead at the twitching body of the huge, decapitated monster. "I mean, you disappear for a month, only I find out it's actually been five years, and that you had to spend it fighting for your life in a dimension full of blood-thirsty demons. Hell, I think that's just great. But hey, at least now you can kick demon ass. Which is good because, in my condition, it's not like I could do anything to protect you now anyway."

The last was said with a bitterness that he couldn't hide, and he grit his teeth, feeling angry at himself for being so petty. But he couldn't help it! Here he was, useless and dead - not to mention that he was starting to look all gross like his corpse - while Akane had spent her time in the Kami Plane transforming into this radiant, beautiful warrior goddess. Her lightning-quick speed and grace, as she spun in one fluid motion to lop off the demon's head, kept playing through his mind. A part of him was impressed and awed beyond words. While another part of him was feeling childishly resentful. He wanted to be the one to protect her. Which was stupid, he knew, because if Akane hadn't been able to kill the demon, she'd be dead.

Akane looked at him in shock. "Is that what's bothering you? That you think I don't need you to protect me anymore?" When he didn't respond, Akane suppressed the urge to bop him on the head and knock some sense into him, knowing it wouldn't do any good. "Ranma, don't be stupid! Yes, I can fight, but that doesn't matter! That doesn't mean that I don't need-"

She broke off as her battle senses, still sharp from the surprise attack, pricked again. As she whirled, her sword blazing with bright blue ki, she failed to notice Ranma's jaw sag at the sight.

She... she's focused her battle aura around the blade! Man, that takes some serious ki control... The expression on his face warred between one of amazement and disbelief. The hell... Since when can Akane control ki?

Akane was oblivious to Ranma's grudging respect. "Great, we've got more company," she grit through clenched teeth as her eyes scanned the surrounding mists. "Damn. The demons... They were all below us before, on the lower slopes, but while we've been talking, a few have circled us. There are two..." Her eyes narrowed. "No, three... that are on the trail above us now."

At that announcement, Ranma shoved his tumultuous feelings aside. Akane was right, anyway; it was a stupid thing to be upset over, especially since he couldn't change the past. Time to deal with the here and now. "Above us?" he asked, not liking the sound of that. "Are you sure? How can you tell?"

"I can feel them," she said simply, still not looking at him. "Can't you?"

"Akane," he snapped in exasperation, "I haven't been able to feel a damn thing since I found myself standing outside my body."

She glanced at him in surprise. "Oh," she said sheepishly. "Sorry, I didn't know."

He sighed, waving a hand in a gesture of impatience. "It's fine, let's just get out of here, okay? The Ancient One is at the top of the mountain, right up this path." He forced a small, wry grin. "You're the demon-hunter, apparently, and since you can tell where they are, I guess you should lead the way, neh?"

Akane's surprise melted into a radiant smile that made him feel all quivery inside, and he found his own smile turning sincere. His resentment began to flow away under a sudden deluge of warm and fuzzy thoughts - not all of which were completely... er... wholesome.

"Okay," Akane agreed, wondering why Ranma was suddenly blushing again.

And so, together, ghost and human, they ran up the mountain. Ranma wanted to urge Akane to be cautious, since the craggy mountainside was strewn with huge boulders and deep crevasses that were perfect to conceal a demon lying in wait for an attack, but then he realized that if she was perceptive enough to sense them down to their very number, it would probably be difficult to take her by surprise now that she was on her guard.

"Be ready," Akane said in a low voice as they approached a sharp bend in the trail. "It's waiting..."

The demon, a wispy-thin stick-like creature with at least a dozen spiny limbs, lashed out at Akane's head as she rounded the bend, but she dodged smoothly, and with several quick strikes, sent the demon clattering to the stony ground in a prickly heap.

"..." commented Ranma. But he didn't have time to collect his thoughts to say something more substantial, because Akane was already running again.

And, as he followed behind, he couldn't help but notice how her long hair flowed out behind her, how she moved with liquid grace, and how her lithe, slender form almost radiated hidden strength...

Maybe... this ain't so bad, he thought appreciatively.

And then she turned sharply to face him, and he started guiltily, wondering with panic if mind-reading was another talent she'd picked up in the Kami Plane...

"Duck!" she shouted, lunging at him.

Without even blinking, he moved instinctively, bending completely backwards just in time to see the flash of Akane's blazing sword pass within an inch of his nose. Tilting his head back further, he had a perfect upside-down view of the blade slicing cleanly through the blackened flesh of a pustule-covered demon that had come up behind him. Sickly black and yellow ichor splashed liberally as the demon slid in two, and would have drenched Ranma, had he been tangible. As it was, he flinched as the thick demon blood just fell right through his ghostly face to splatter against the stone ground. "Augh, yuck!" he yelled.

Akane bit her lip. "Sorry about the short notice."

But Ranma didn't care about that. "Aw, man," he groused, standing upright and looking at the mess behind him. "That was disgusting."

Akane raised an eyebrow at him, while flicking her katana clean with a practiced snap of her wrist. "Is that all? Well, at least you didn't get any on you."

"You wouldn't say that if it had gone through your face," he responded with a grimace.

Akane considered that, wrinkling her nose. "Eww... Sorry."

"Forget it," he said, sighing. "No harm done. Come on, we're almost there, let's go."

"Not yet," she said, turning just as another demon emerged from behind a rock.

Though the demon was small, shadowy and quick, it didn't even have time to snarl before her sword was buried in its throat to the hilt. The creature then slid lifelessly off her blade to collapse in a heap, at which point she cut off its head with a single stroke.

"There." Akane brushed the hair from her eyes, wiped her sword clean, and slid it back into its sheath. "I think that's the last of them... What's wrong?" she asked, suddenly noticing that Ranma was staring at the dead demon. "Um... If you're wondering, I cut off its head so that it will take longer for it to come back to life..."

Ranma shook his head. "That's not it," he said hastily. "I mean..." He looked at her, and smiled a little. "Wow, Akane. That was... kinda cool."

Akane felt her face grow warm at the unexpected compliment. "You mean it?"

"Hell yeah," Ranma said, and his own face flushed as he put one hand behind his head. But he was determined that, for once, this would come out right. "You... you kicked ass, Akane. None of those demons even stood a chance."

Akane practically glowed - the sight of which forced Ranma to swallow against a suddenly-dry throat - and she lowered her eyes shyly, feeling suddenly like a flustered schoolgirl. "Thanks, Ranma."

They stood facing each other in silence for a long moment.

"Um..." said Ranma, clearing his throat.

"The Ancient One," Akane responded in a rush.

"Yeah," Ranma agreed hastily. "That's right."

And, only pausing briefly to look each other in the eye, they turned with perfect synchronicity and resumed their speedy flight up the mountain.

As she ran, Akane had to swallow hard against the pounding of her heart in her chest. Wow, she thought, her inner voice a squeal of delight. Ranma thinks I kick ass!

But her elation only lasted a moment, as she suddenly noticed something about the steep, winding stone path they were following...

Blood. Still wet. Sprinkled here and there in places. In other places, great pooling splashes trickled into the cracks of the stony ground, where dragging, scarlet footprints hadn't smeared it across the rock face.

Suddenly, even as she rounded the corner, she knew what she was about to see.

And there it was. Almost as if summoned by her realization. Her heart stopped as she stumbled to an abrupt halt.

Ranma saw it at the same moment, and froze.

He swallowed hard, his eyes darting back and forth between Akane... and his corpse.

Akane's face was white; carefully tight and expressionless. But her eyes were wide, shimmering with fresh horror and realization...

Stupid, stupid, stupid! he thought to himself angrily. Even with everything that had just happened, how could he have forgotten about his body? He didn't want her to see this. But she was already stepping forward.

"Akane..." He reached out to stop her, but his hand passed uselessly through her shoulder. She was walking towards the body, staring; almost mesmerized.

Akane felt her insides clench at the sight of Ranma's body, lying in a pool of his own blood. She choked back a gasp, holding it tight in her throat, knowing that any distress she showed would only upset him. She had to pretend that it didn't matter, seeing him like this. The body was only an empty shell, after all. The real Ranma was standing behind her, even if he was now bereft of flesh and blood...

And then she saw his face.

Her legs suddenly felt like they were full of water, and she sagged to her knees on the blood-soaked ground, shaking, unable to tear her eyes away.

Five years in the Kami Plane, and all she ever wanted to do was see Ranma again, and touch him.

The body was the mirror image of the Ranma standing behind her. And yet, solid. Real. His beautiful blue eyes were wide and blank, staring lifelessly...

Almost without thinking, she reached out and gently slid the eyelids down over that vacant stare.

And then her trembling fingers strayed down to brush his cheek. His pale skin was cold and slack, still damp with drying blood and tears... and she wondered what had happened to him in his final living moments to make him cry...

She could feel Ranma standing behind her, watching silently.

But she couldn't fool herself. This body before her was Ranma as well. And he was solid and real, not merely an image, a presence, a voice... all as intangible as a dream. And, as she brushed his dark, tangled hair from his lifeless face, caressed his cheek, wiped the trickle of blood from the corner of his open mouth... she could feel a sob working its way up from deep within... But she could feel him standing behind her, and so she swallowed it back. She turned to look up at him... at his ghost, which now mirrored the gruesomeness of the death he had experienced. "Oh, Ranma..." she said hoarsely.

His pale face was etched with misery as he looked at her. "Akane," he whispered. "Maybe this ain't such a good idea."

Akane shook her head vehemently. "No," she said. "There has to be a way to fix this."

And so saying, she reached out and pulled Ranma's lifeless body to her, lifting him with quiet strength, cradling him carefully against her chest.

Ranma couldn't even begin to describe what he felt at that moment as he watched Akane hold his body protectively close. But it was an emotion almost akin to envy.

He turned sharply away from the scene, suddenly, irrationally not wanting to see...

...and froze in shock as he looked up the craggy trail.

There, just above a small rocky rise in the trail, less than fifty meters away... was the cave.

From this low side angle on the steep, winding trail, the dwelling of the Ancient One seemed just a tall, narrow sliver of darkness marring the sheer granite walls of the mountain's peak. He might have noticed it before, might have even known how close he was on some subconscious level as his life slipped away...

He had almost made it. He had come so close... only to die on the dragon's doorstep.

The nearness of the cave infuriated him, and he clenched his fists. Did the Ancient One know what had happened? That the only person he had allowed to pass through the barrier surrounding his mountain had died just a few meters away from reaching him to make a plea for help? Had the dragon just watched with apathy, not caring about one more human life lost on his mountain?

"Akane." He turned to her, trying to ignore the sharp ache inside at the sight of her holding his body. He could see tears glistening on her cheeks in the starlight as she slowly, almost reluctantly, lifted her gaze to look at him. "We're there," he said tonelessly, gesturing to the visible line of darkness, where their last hopes lay.

Akane nodded silently, her face tight and pale, but her eyes determined. She fiercely struggled to ignore her fears; the memories of years of agonizing loneliness that seeped into her heart, weighing it down just as surely as she could feel the cold weight of Ranma's lifeless body in her arms. The memories were a promise of her future if...

No. The Ancient One would help them. He had to.

Together, Ranma and Akane slowly walked up the last stretch of trail. The narrow sliver of cave that was visible loomed larger and larger, spreading out before them as they approached, until at last they stood before the huge, gaping hole in the mountainside. The mouth of the cave was vast, easily twice the width and height of the Tendo household, and it held a darkness more dismal and foreboding than the coldest shadow of night within.

Ranma stepped forward, unintimidated.

"Hey, Ancient One!" he yelled. "Get your scaly dragon butt out here, I wanna talk to you!"

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