Hearts of Ice

Chapter 2: The Kami Plane

Akane knelt at the dinner table, holding a contented P-Chan in her lap, gently stroking the fine black hairs on his head as she watched the last traces of sunset fade from the dark western sky. The first evening stars were shining faintly. She smiled as Kasumi brought in the meal and began serving dinner. Soun and Genma were already seated, their mouths open and watering. Nabiki wandered in a moment later, and casually raised an eyebrow at her younger sister.

"Honestly, Akane," she said, teasing, "I can't believe how much you spoil that pig of yours. Are you going to be feeding him from the table again?"

Akane raised an eyebrow. "Now don't you start picking on P-Chan," she said. "It's bad enough that Ranma always seems to be trying to beat him up or something. Besides, he likes people-food. Don't you, P-Chan?"

P-Chan gazed at Akane in adoration.

"Speaking of Ranma," said Kasumi, setting the last dish on the table and kneeling in her regular spot, "has anyone seen him this evening? It's not like him to miss dinner."

Genma eyed Ranma's plate greedily. "Hmm. It's too bad he's not here. I guess I'll have to eat his dinner. Can't let all that food go to waste, you know."

Kasumi gave Genma a disapproving look that consisted of a slight frown, which would have cowed him away from Ranma's plate had he been watching. As it was, he was so absorbed in stuffing Ranma's food in his mouth that he missed it completely.

Akane didn't miss the look. "Well, I say he deserves it," she said. "Serves him right for being late." P-Chan sighed happily and nuzzled Akane's hand affectionately with his snout, making her smile. "See? Even P-Chan agrees with me."

"Aw, what would that stupid pig know?" said Ranma as he walked into the dining area, glaring at P-Chan, who returned the nastiness of his gaze with interest.

"Where have you been?" asked Akane angrily. "Do you know how late it is?"

"Why?" chided Nabiki. "Were you worried about him?"

Akane flushed pink. "Worried? About that stupid jerk? No way!"

"Oh yeah?" said Ranma defensively. Why was it that her insults always seemed to sting so much? It never bothered him coming from anybody else. "Well, it's none of your business where I went anyway, you uncute tomboy. And anyway, I'm not that late. I'm still in time for dinner."

"That's debatable," said Nabiki with a slight smile.

Ranma finally noticed that Genma was cleaning his plate off with remarkable speed. Shouting in anger, he leapt over the table and elbowed his father's head into the floor in one fluid motion. "Get away from my food, Pop."

Scowling, Genma sat up, grabbed his son by the front of his Chinese shirt, and tossed him out the patio door. "Show some respect for your father," he shouted, as Ranma landed with uncanny accuracy in the middle of the pond.

Kasumi sighed, excused herself from the table, and went into the kitchen to heat up a kettle of water.

"So," said Nabiki, turning away from the familiar scene that was unfolding outside to address her sister, "what did you two fight about today?"

Ranma leapt out of the pond, red hair dripping, her wet, baggy clothes plastered to her womanly figure, and growled. "All right, Pop! You asked for it!" She charged.

Akane scowled and looked at her food, not meeting Nabiki's gaze. "Oh, the usual. The jerk said he missed having Shampoo glomp on him since she hasn't been around all week."

"Ah." Translation: thought Nabiki. Ranma opened his big mouth and wondered out loud why Shampoo hadn't attacked him recently. Akane misunderstood, as usual, and pounded him to a pulp.

Genma paused in stuffing his face to meet Ranma's attack, but was too slow. His female son grabbed him by the back of his gi and sent his father flying to his furry fate.

Nabiki heard the splash. "Great," she said, groaning around a mouthful of food. "Nothing like the smell of wet panda fur while you're trying to eat."

Akane snorted. "I thought you'd be used to it by now."

Nabiki looked out the patio door where a voluptuous red-head and a panda with a pair of glasses dangling from its ear were grappling in a mid-air battle over the lawn, and sighed. "Some things you never get used to, sis."

The battle ended abruptly when the panda left an opening, allowing Ranma to land a powerful kick to his father's face. The kick sent him on an unconscious flight into the wall that surrounded the house.

Ranma landed lightly on her feet and made a show of dusting off her hands. "Stupid old man," he muttered. "What is he thinking, stealing my food?"

Kasumi came out of the kitchen and noticed that the battle was over. "Akane," she asked, smiling. "Would you take this out to Ranma and Uncle Saotome, please?"

Akane stiffened, ready to protest, but something in Kasumi's smile prevented her, and she slumped. "Okay, Kasumi," she said, putting down P-Chan and standing to take the kettle. She went outside, P-Chan trotting after her.

Ranma stood dripping on the grass, looking at Akane and the kettle with a strange look on her face; a combination of expectation and apprehension. Akane sighed. At least he was waiting to change back into a guy before taking off his shirt to wring it out. She walked over and upended half the contents of the kettle over his head, then turned to walk over to the unconscious panda.

"Um... Akane?" Ranma's voice was hesitant. Akane stopped, surprised, and turned to look at him. He was looking at his feet and twisting his fingers nervously.

"What is it, Ranma?" She tried to sound impatient, but for some reason, it didn't come out that way.

He didn't raise his eyes. "Uh, well... I just wanted to say that, you know... I'm sorry about earlier."

Akane froze, not quite believing what she had heard. P-Chan grunted angrily at her feet. "What?" she asked.

He looked up and put his hand behind his head. He couldn't seem to meet her eyes. "You know... What I said about Shampoo... Well, it didn't come out the way I meant. I'm... sorry if I made you angry."

Akane blinked, disbelieving. He actually sounded sincere. Either that or... "Do you have a fever, Ranma?"

Ranma's arms dropped to his sides and he stared at her. "Hey!" he said indignantly. "I'm trying to apologize here! This ain't easy, you know!"

Akane flushed and lowered her gaze, a dozen conflicting emotions flooding her. This couldn't be happening! She didn't want Ranma to apologize. She wanted him to be his usual jerky self. She wanted to be angry at him because... because being angry at him was easier than... easier than...

"Hey Akane, you okay?" She looked up to see concern on Ranma's face, which melted into self-recrimination. "Jeeze, I can't even apologize right," he said with disgust. "Well fine. I'm sorry I even bothered." His shoulders slumped, and he turned to walk into the house.

"Ranma, wait," said Akane. Her throat thickened as he looked over his shoulder at her, and she swallowed. "I'm sorry too. I shouldn't... shouldn't have gotten angry. And I shouldn't have thrown that water on you at school. I don't know why I did that. I guess I've kind of been on edge today."

Ranma turned to face her, his expression shifting to an amazed half-smile, the kind of smile that reached his blue eyes; that accented how handsome he was, and made all the girls flock after him like love-sick sheep... The thought made Akane angry, but she pushed it down, feeling a little affected by the smile herself. She could feel herself blushing.

Ranma saw her flush, and felt the heat rise to his own cheeks as it suddenly struck him how cute she looked. The smart-alec remark he was about to say - something along the lines of how it wasn't surprising she lost her temper, being a macho tomboy and all - died on his lips.

"Uh, h-hey, it's okay," he said, stuttering. "I mean, I kinda wondered about the stuff in the hallway, 'cause usually it takes a lot more to set you off..." He trailed off as Akane's gaze hardened, and his hands flew up in a placating gesture. "That's not what I meant!" he said quickly. "I meant that, uh, I understood, 'cause I've been feeling kind of weird myself today. So it's okay." He smiled sheepishly, his hands still in the air hoping to ward off Akane's anger.

But her expression had already softened from anger to curiosity. "Hmm, that's odd," she said softly, thinking of her own edgy feelings. "I wonder..." Her eyes widened as she suddenly looked past him.

"Wonder what?" asked Ranma.

"What in the world is that?" she asked, pointing behind him.

Ranma turned. There was a small dark red glow rising out of the western sky where the sun had disappeared a few minutes earlier. "What the hell?" The weird feeling that had been plaguing him all day suddenly peaked, and Ranma felt his heart pound. Without thinking, he reached and grabbed Akane's arm, almost causing her to drop the kettle.

"Hey, what are you doing?" she protested, but he wasn't looking at her. His eyes were focused on the strange glow. He began pulling her toward the house. "Hey!" she protested again, getting angry as she tried to pull out of his grip.

"Come on, Akane," he said. There was a worried undercurrent to his voice that made Akane pause. "I think we should go in the house."

"Why?" she asked, now feeling worried herself. "What do you think it is?"

"I don't know, but it's headed this way."

"What?!" She looked at the glow again. Sure enough, it was rising in the sky, streaking directly toward them like a locked-on missile - a missile swirling with dark, unnatural energy. The unnerving sight attracted the attention of the rest of the Tendo family. Kasumi, Nabiki and Soun stared at it from the patio doors.

"It might not be anything to worry about," Soun said, trying to sound cheerful and failing. "We don't know what it is. It could be a natural phenomenon."

Nabiki snorted. "Right. A natural phenomenon that's coming straight for us. Considering everything else that's happened to this family, I don't think that's a possibility."

Akane's heart rose in her throat in apprehension. "It's not really coming for us, is it?" she asked, staring at the approaching red glow fearfully. "Ranma, what is it?"

"I don't know," he said again, growling in frustration as he pulled her into the house, "but it don't look friendly, so come on!"

P-Chan squealed anxiously at Akane's feet, and she bent down and scooped him up in her free arm. "Ranma," she said, remembering, "your father!"

Ranma looked over to the unconscious panda. "Damn." He let go of Akane's arm, took the kettle from her, and pushed her towards the house. "Get inside, Akane," he said, then ran to his father's prone form and dumped the rest of the hot water on him. He was still out cold, so Ranma bent and slung him over his shoulder, and ran back to the house.

"Here, take him," he said, shoving his father at a white-faced Soun, then turned to run back outside.

"Ranma!" yelled Akane, "What are you doing?"

"What does it look like, stupid?" he called back, his battle aura blazing, lighting up the yard as he formed a bright ball of ki energy in his hands. "I'm gonna stop that thing!"

Akane bristled instinctively. "Who are you calling stupid, you-" But Ranma wasn't listening.

The swirling missile of malevolent energy was now alarmingly close, growing ever larger in the sky as it neared. Ranma spread his hands in front of him and pointed his palms in the direction of the strange glowing object. "Mouko Takabishya!" A bright blaze of ki power exploded from Ranma's hands and was sent hurling through the atmosphere towards the red glow. It impacted with a thunderous roar-

- and dissipated harmlessly.

"What the..!" Ranma stared in disbelief.

"It didn't even slow it down," he heard Nabiki mutter somewhere behind him.

Ranma gritted his teeth in determination. "All right," he shouted. "This time for sure!" There was no way he was going to let that thing reach Akane... or any of the others, for that matter. He reached deep inside himself and pulled all the confidence and ki power he could muster from the depths of his soul. The Mouko Takabishya had to work this time; this blast was going to leave him totally drained. He could feel the surface of his skin start to sizzle with the power build up. Inside the house, the Tendos shielded their eyes from the intense brightness of Ranma's aura.

"MOUKO TAKABISHYA!" All the light and energy surrounding Ranma left him in a great roaring burst, and he gasped at the hollow, dark sensation that was left in its wake. Whoa! Maybe I overdid it, he thought as he swayed weakly and collapsed to his knees. But this has got to work!

The missile-shaped mass of dark aura flattened as Ranma's ki slammed into it with tremendous force. There was a moment of complete silence, then the mass shattered into hundreds of red glowing pieces flying all different directions. "YES!" shouted Ranma. Or at least he wanted to shout, but all he managed was a tired, hoarse whisper.

A moment later, his exultation turned to horror as all the glowing pieces coalesced together into the swirling missile shape once again, and resumed it's collision trajectory. "No," he moaned. "No, dammit, stop!"

He felt strong hands reach under each of his arms and haul him to his feet. Genma, who had regained consciousness in time to see his son release his final ki blast, picked him up and carried him into the house in spite of his feeble protests.

Once inside, he stood unsteadily on his own feet and joined the rest of the Tendo family as they stared in silence at the swiftly approaching streak of blood-red energy. It was almost upon them. There was nowhere they could run fast enough to escape, and they knew it. It descended in a steep arc towards their house.

Akane stood beside Ranma, her eyes wide with fear. "Somehow," she said in a small voice, "I get the feeling that just being on the other side of this wall isn't going to help us very much."

Kasumi put a hand to her mouth. "Oh my," she said weakly.

"I think you did something to it, though," Nabiki said, looking at Ranma, who was shaking from exhaustion. "It seems... weaker somehow. It's not as big as it was."

Akane's hands twitched nervously at her sides, when suddenly she felt the tips of Ranma's fingers touch hers. She almost jerked away, but instead, she froze as she felt his hand tentatively envelop hers in a comforting grip. She almost stopped breathing. Ranma..? Then she gulped. His hand is so big! she thought, giving it a grateful squeeze and wondering how she could think of such a thing when their doom was rocketing towards them.

Her hand is so tiny! Ranma thought, a drop of sweat forming on his cheek as he wondered how he could think of such a thing when their doom was rocketing towards them. He was surprised to find that the hollowness inside him left by his ki blast filled up a little when he took her hand, steadying him and giving him strength. Wow, I never knew she could do that, he thought, looking down at her, his eyes wide.

She must have felt it too, because she turned her head and met his gaze, her brown eyes strangely calm. "Ranma..." she whispered...

... and then the violent storm of magic burst through the roof of the house.

The blood-spell paused, almost like a sentient being in contemplation for a couple of moments. It shifted in shape, stretching and widening like an amoeba. Then, without warning, it moved to completely engulf Ranma and Akane.

To Akane's surprise, it wasn't painful. Quite the opposite, really, for she suddenly felt numb all over. Ranma, on the other hand, was writhing as if in pain, and she could see some of the red glow seeping into his skin. "Ranma!" she screamed, and was surprised when no sound came out of her mouth. The numbness was creeping deeper into her body. She looked down at her hand, still clutched in Ranma's, and saw that it was becoming transparent. She could hear her father calling her name through the roar of the magic cyclone.

Ranma thought he was going to die. The pain was unbearable, as if every cell in his body was being invaded by a malevolent virus. Tears of agony streamed from his eyes, but he fought against the blackness creeping at the edges of his vision with all his will, holding tight to Akane's hand... Her hand! He couldn't feel it any more. He looked up and saw Akane, fading like a ghost at dawn, her face a white mask of terror, her hands reaching out for him, her mouth silently screaming his name.

"Akane!" Desperately, he reached out to her, but his hands passed right through her, and then she was gone.

The blood-spell disappeared silently.

Ranma collapsed to his knees, shaking, his hands still reaching out. "Akane..." He felt the oblivion of unconsciousness crashing over him like a wave, and he struggled against it. She was gone. He hadn't been able to save her, and she was gone.

Nabiki stood, her eyes wide in shock as Ranma slumped in a crumpled heap to the floor. She felt surprised to be alive, especially since she had expected the thing to incinerate them or something. Instead, it had done something really weird to Ranma and had stolen Akane. She was pretty sure this was all Ranma's fault. Stuff like this never happened before he and his dad showed up.

She looked over at her father and older sister. Soun was sobbing for Akane, and Kasumi was staring at Ranma, her face pale and drawn. Genma was also looking at his son, appearing at a loss at what to do.

Nabiki looked at Ranma, hesitant to approach him. She had seen how the red aura had seeped into his body. He might be possessed or hypnotized or something. She waited for him to jump up with glowing evil eyes and attack them, but moments passed, and Ranma didn't move.

She walked towards him slowly, then knelt down next to his prone form. Taking him by the shoulder, she gently turned him over onto his back. Hmm. It didn't look like he would be waking up any time soon. His skin was an unhealthy gray color, and, taking his limp hand in her own, she saw that his fingernails were tinged blue. Matching the fingernails on her own shaking hands.

Oh hell, I'm in shock, Nabiki realized.

She turned to Kasumi. The mother figure, the one who always knew how to handle any crisis, no matter how bizarre. She almost smiled as she saw her older sister gain physical and mental control of herself so that she could take control of the situation. "We need some medical attention here, sis," she told her in a surprisingly steady voice.

Kasumi nodded. "I'll call Doctor Tofu," she replied, and walked over to the phone.

White. A vast expanse of white. It was the first thing she was aware of after the feeling of nothingness that encompassed her. Am I dead? she thought. Then sensation slowly returned to her body, and with it came a fierce, biting cold.

Akane shivered convulsively and looked down at herself. She was solid. No longer transparent, no longer numb. She was flesh and blood, wearing her usual school uniform dress... and standing up to her knees in heavy, wet snow. Snow that was getting deeper as the blizzard she was standing in continued to send stinging sheets of icy flakes earthward. Already, she could feel the snow and ice caking to her hair and clothes. She turned and looked around in amazement, but couldn't see more than a few feet in any direction because of the storm.

"Where am I?" she yelled, more to make sure that she actually could than to get an answer. She remembered trying to call Ranma's name and not being able to utter a sound as he faded from her sight... or rather as she faded from his. She knew she had been transported someplace... but where? Siberia? The North Pole?

"Well," she said out loud. Her voice provided strange comfort, even though the sound of it was swallowed by the wind. "If I'm not d-dead now, I s-soon w-will be if I d-don't get out of t-this s-storm." Her teeth chattered together uncontrollably. Not knowing what else to do, she tucked her hands under her arms in a vain attempt to keep them warm, and started trudging straight ahead, hoping that whatever had deposited her here had at least pointed her in the right direction to get help. She snorted to herself. "Not l-likely," she muttered. But she wasn't about to give up. Not without a fight.

After stumbling through deep drifts of snow for what seemed like an eternity, Akane finally admitted to herself that she was in big trouble. A different kind of terrifying numbness had crept back into her skin, and her face felt like a frozen slab. She felt that if she stubbed her foot against a rock that it would probably break and fall off like a piece of shattering ice. A story from her American Literature class came unbidden to her mind. The story was called To Build A Fire, by Jack London. She couldn't remember the details, but it was about some foolish guy who went hiking in the Yukon without sufficient preparation and froze to death before he could gather enough materials to build a fire. It had creeped her out, the way death had come so subtly - and so quickly - shutting down his body until he couldn't even hold the match in his fingers to strike the flame. He had died with the match in his hand.

Oh, well that's a great thing to think about at a time like this, she thought wryly, forcing her legs through the snow one at a time. She had stopped feeling them a while ago, and she strongly suspected that she was suffering from hypothermia and frostbite. She ached with exhaustion, and numbing despair started to seep into her mind, but she shook it off forcibly. No way! I'm not giving up! I'm not, I'm NOT I'M NOT I'M- Her body had different ideas. She fell face first into the snow.

Her first thought was how amazingly warm it seemed. Maybe it wouldn't be so bad if she lay there for a while. At least until she warmed up a little more. Then she could go on a bit further.

"Well, I'm almost impressed! She made it further than any of the others. What do you think, is she worth keeping?"

"I would think so. She's a strong one, for a mortal, not to mention quite attractive. She'll make a fine servant for the mistress.

Akane heard voices right above her. I'm hallucinating, she thought giddily. Then she felt her frozen body lifted gently out of the snow. Oh, I've been rescued. Even better, she thought, just before she was smothered by a warm wave of sleep.

She awoke, not having any idea of how much time had passed, and found herself looking at a ceiling that appeared to be made out of crystal. Light danced through and across its surface, refracting into rainbow colors that shimmered on dazzling white walls. She blinked. "What... where..?"

"Ah, you're awake," said a stern voice. "Good, good." Akane turned her head and was startled to find herself staring into the face of a strange little man who was standing over her, scowling. He looked as if he had been carved from ice. His face was all angles, and his skin and hair were a bluish white color. His eyes were the color of winter thunderheads.

"Who are you?" she demanded, getting to her feet abruptly. She found herself standing on a soft white futon in the middle of a small, sparsely decorated room. The last thing she remembered, she had been freezing to death... She looked down at herself. She was still wearing her school uniform, and she appeared to be in perfect condition. "What is going on here? Where am I?"

"My name is Kazuo," answered the man loftily. "You have been transported to the realm of our mistress, and I am here to train you in your duties as a servant of her household."

"Huh?" Akane blinked, and felt herself getting angry. "What are you talking about? I'm not anybody's servant. And where, exactly, is here?"

Kazuo sneered. "Arrogant mortal, you cannot refuse. You are trapped in the Kami Plane, and as such you will serve the mistress for eternity."

Akane stared. Arrogant mortal? Kami Plane? Oh no, what mess have I landed in this time? She looked at the strange ice-man who, although shorter, was doing an amazing job of looking down his nose at her. He didn't look like the type who would readily yield the information she needed to find her way out of this place. "Who is this 'mistress' you keep talking about?" she asked.

"Our mistress is Yuki-onna."

A tight feeling of apprehension began building in her chest. But- but that's not possible! "The Snow Woman?" she asked. "But she's just a fairy tale... isn't she?" Then she looked closely at the little ice-man who called himself Kazuo, and swallowed hard. And if she was in the Kami Plane... She had heard tales of Yuki-onna when she was a child, of how she was a malevolent spirit who delighted in catching men unawares and freezing them to death. She suppressed a shudder. She was supposed to spend the rest of eternity as a servant to an evil spirit?

"And what if I don't want to be a servant for Yuki-onna?" she said defensively.

The man raised an eyebrow at her. "You don't have a choice."

Akane returned the look stonily. "Oh yeah?" The bluish fire of Akane's battle aura began to flicker around her body. "We'll see about that!" She had to get out of here, she had to find a way to get back home.

The little man's eyes went wide as Akane flared and crouched into a battle stance. "Ahh, now hold on, there's no need for that," he said, his haughty demeanor slipping into nervousness as he dropped into a defensive posture.

"Are you going to show me how to get out of here and get back home?"

"Well, no..."

"Then fight me, or get out of my way." Akane shifted in her stance and prepared to attack.

"Kazuo doesn't mean that he won't show you how to leave," said a woman's voice. "He's saying that he can't."

Swiftly, and not letting down her guard, Akane looked up and past Kazuo to see a tall woman standing in the doorway.

The woman's face was inhumanly white, yet beautiful; her figure slender and gracefully feminine in flowing frost blue robes that matched her eyes exactly. Long, gleaming white hair that seemed to shimmer with all the colors of the spectrum swept back from her face and fell in waves to her ankles.

Kazuo relaxed out of his defensive posture and bowed deeply. "Mistress, allow me to introduce Tendo Akane. Tendo Akane, Mistress Yuki-onna."

Akane was speechless. Still, she didn't let down her guard, even when the Snow Woman smiled.

"Welcome to my household, Tendo Akane. I fear that Kazuo has failed to make my intentions clear. For the moment, you are a guest, not a prisoner."

Akane didn't miss the words 'for the moment.' She suddenly found her voice. "If I'm not a prisoner," she asked boldly, "then why won't you let me go home?"

"It is not I who binds you here," answered the Snow Woman gently, "but the spell which brought you to this realm."

"Spell?" So that's what it was. Akane felt her heart sink. "Isn't there any way to break it? So I can go home?"

Yuki-onna closed her eyes and inclined her head slightly. "I can feel the taint of dragon blood about you," she said after a moment, "and such powerful magic is not easily removed."

"Not easily..." Akane felt a spark of hope kindle within her chest. "But not impossible?"

Yuki-onna nodded slightly. "I would discuss this with you. Will you join me for tea?"

Akane felt herself at a loss. This certainly wasn't the evil, heartless Snow Woman of the tales she'd been told as a child. She suddenly realized she was still standing in an attack posture as she faced her surprisingly gracious hostess, and felt color rise to her cheeks in embarrassment. She relaxed and bowed. "I - I would be honored," she replied.

The tea was cold.

Like that should be a surprise, thought Akane, as she gazed into her cup. Everything in Yuki-onna's household was cold, though not uncomfortably so, and Akane was surprised that it didn't seem to bother her at all. Still, she had been looking forward to a nice, hot cup of tea.

"The spell that brought you here..." said the Snow Woman, sipping her tea delicately. "You should know that it nearly failed."

Akane looked up from her tea at the beautiful white apparition kneeling across from her, surprised. "What?"

"Yes. I'm not sure if you were meant to be transported somewhere specific within the Kami Plane, but for some reason the spell was weaker than it should have been, and you were nearly lost in between. I sensed the magic, and pulled you to safety in my domain."

It was weakened, Akane thought sadly. Ranma's ki blast almost worked. Then she realized what Yuki-onna had said. "Wait a minute," she said, getting angry. "You pulled me to safety? When I came out of the... the spell, I was in the middle of a blizzard, and I nearly froze to death!"

"You were safe." Yuki-onna met Akane's gaze levelly. "I placed you in the blizzard as a test of your physical and spiritual strength. You did quite well. But you were never in any real danger."

"Well," snapped Akane, "it would have been nice to know that at the time!"

"Do you know who cast this spell on you?" asked the Snow Woman.

The question startled Akane out of her anger. "Uh, no, actually. I really haven't had a chance to think about it."

"Whomever it was must be a powerful warrior and sorcerer. Dragon blood, especially this old, is not easy to come by."

"Warrior and sorcerer?" Akane grimaced, and started counting off on her fingers. "Well, let's see, then it could be... Happosai, Cologne and/or Shampoo... um, Herb... Pantsuo... who else? I know I'm missing someone."

Yuki-onna's eyes widened in surprise. "So many? How is it that you have all these enemies?"

She sighed. "Well, most of them aren't really my enemies. They're Ranma's enemies. The spell caught him too..." Akane trailed off, remembering Ranma, writhing in agony as the red aura seeped into his skin, the look of anguish on his face as he reached out to her, his hands passing through her insubstantial body. What had happened to him? Was he all right? She looked at her fingers, remembering the feel of his huge warm hand covering hers, and felt tears well in her eyes. She blinked them back, surprised at herself.

Her tears did not escape notice. "And who is Ranma?" asked the Snow Woman softly.

"He's my... my fiance."

Yuki-onna's frost-blue eyes clouded. "Fiance?" she asked, a distinct chill creeping into her voice. "And you love him, yes?"

Akane missed the tone of the question completely as she instinctively bristled at the words. "What? Me, love that stupid, insensitive jerk?" Then Ranma's awkward, but sincere apology suddenly surfaced in her mind, and her anger faltered. "I - I... no, I mean... It was all our parents' idea!" she exclaimed uncertainly.

Yuki-onna gazed at her coolly. "You seem confused. Do you love him or no?"

Akane gazed into her tea miserably. "I- I don't know."

A half-smile crept onto the woman's cold white face. "Then let me give you some advice, child. Men are not worth the grief. Forget about him."

Akane looked up, blinking her wet eyes. "W-what?"

"Men are unfaithful to the core of their souls. If you put your trust in them, it is inevitable that they will betray you." Her piercing blue gaze made Akane shiver. "Have you not found this to be so?"

Akane looked down at her hands as she thought of Ranma and his 'other fiancees.' "Y-yes," she whispered.

The Snow Woman smiled, satisfied. "I have a proposal for you, Tendo Akane. As I mentioned, you passed the test of the storm remarkably well. You are possessed of great physical and spiritual strength. With the proper training, your service would be of great use to me."

Akane looked up, her eyes worried, but determined. "Look, um, I don't mean to be rude, but I really don't want to stay here. You said that you might be able to break this spell and send me home?"

The Snow Woman sighed, her breath sending an icy breeze through the room. "I will be honest with you, Tendo Akane. The spell, even though weakened, is still very powerful. It will take me some time and study and a great deal of hard work before I can understand it enough to remove its effects from you."

Akane felt the bottom falling out of her world. "Time?" she asked. She couldn't keep her voice from shaking. "How much time?"

"Considering that the spell was supposed to hold you here for eternity, not very long in comparison."

"How long?"

Yuki-onna's normal icy gaze warmed with a sad compassion for her mortal guest. "Judging by the strength of the spell... About seven years."

Akane went numb with shock. Seven years?! In seven years I'll be twenty-four years old! Who knows what could happen at home without me in seven years? Ranma's face came unbidden to her mind, and scenes flashed into her mind of him wearing a wedding tuxedo, standing next to... Ukyo... or Shampoo... or... no, maybe not Kodachi. Not even that pervert Ranma would be that sick.

She shook her head, trying to clear the images from her mind. But there was no avoiding it. The chances of Ranma still being there... being her fiance... after seven years were practically nil.

Why am I thinking about Ranma? she cried silently. It's not like I could... or that he likes...

"You couldn't..." Akane looked at Yuki-onna, tears brimming in her eyes once again. "You couldn't get me home any sooner than that?"

Yuki-onna shook her head. "There are many other spirits, gods and demons who dwell in the Kami Plane who might be able to do it faster. But not many of them will be as kindly disposed towards you as I am." The white woman smiled sadly. "I must confess, one of the reasons I rescued you from the oblivion of between was because I sensed in you a kindred spirit. We are alike in many ways, you and I." She reached over and touched Akane's hand with cool fingers. "Stay with me for a while. I am in need of a body guard, for reasons that will soon become apparent. I know of your martial arts abilities; they served you well during my test. And during the time you serve me, I will be able to decipher a way to break the spell that binds you to this realm."

Akane could think of no alternative. Yuki-onna was her only hope. But seven years! "I... I'll stay." she said softly, and tried to ignore the despair that settled into her heart.

The Snow Woman smiled.

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