Hearts of Ice

Chapter 3: Voices

Dr. Tofu knocked softly on the front door of the Tendo household, then stepped back and let out a breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding. Kasumi had been brief and blunt on the phone, and upset enough that the tone of her voice managed to penetrate the usual infatuated fog that came over him whenever he saw her or heard her voice. He swallowed and performed a few simple breathing techniques, hoping that he could exercise enough self control to keep his synapses from misfiring during this emergency.

The door opened. Kasumi stood there, looking beautiful in spite of her pale face and tense expression. Tofu's heart thumped loudly, but the fog stayed down. Kasumi needs me, he thought. I can't disappoint her by losing control.

"Oh, Doctor Tofu, I'm so glad you could come." Kasumi's smile was strained, but sincere as she led him into the house. "Ranma hasn't regained consciousness, and Father and Nabiki seem to be suffering from shock. Genma seems to be holding up alright; he helped me with administering first aid. I guess he and Ranma have been through enough, that this..."

She trailed off, and Tofu nodded, a sardonic smile tugging at the corners of his lips. If being turned into a Panda and watching his only son change into a girl didn't send him into shock, nothing would.

They entered the dining area. There was a large, perfectly round hole in the ceiling. Tofu blinked at it, then realized everyone else seemed to be ignoring it, or simply didn't notice it altogether. Then again, holes in the ceiling were a common thing in this household.

Kasumi had moved the table out of the way, and Ranma, Nabiki and Soun were stretched out on futons, covered with warm blankets. Genma knelt by his unconscious son's side, worry creasing his face. Tofu took one look at Ranma, taking in his deathly pallor, his shallow breathing, and the faint flicker of his dangerously depleted ki. It was serious, but he could tell that it had been a lot worse. He glanced at Kasumi. "You've handled this situation admirably," he said, his respect evident in his voice.

Kasumi's tired eyes lit briefly at the praise, and she smiled, yet her heart ached strangely. It was nice to see Tofu so calm and collected, yet the price at having him this way was a bit high. Someday... she thought sadly, unable to finish the thought.

Tofu felt the fog begin to rise at the sight of Kasumi's smile, so he turned towards his patients and forced himself to concentrate on the task at hand. Nabiki and Soun both had their eyes open, but Nabiki's eyes were clear while Soun's were clouded and far away, tears streaming from his unblinking eyes. Not a good sign. Tofu knew immediately that Soun would be out of it for a while.

Nabiki gave Tofu a wry grin from her prostrate position. "Hey, Doctor. Glad you could join the party. Would you tell my sister that I'm fine so that she'll let me get up? I'm getting kind of hot under this blanket."

Tofu smiled gently as he knelt down next to her. "Just a moment, Nabiki, and then I'll decide whether you're ready to get up or not." He checked her over. Physically, she seemed to be recovering well, thanks to Kasumi's ministrations. Her ki appeared to be in balance. Ranma, on the other hand... Now that he took a closer look at Ranma's ki, he could see something definitely strange about it, aside from the fact that the boy was almost completely drained. "Oh dear," he muttered.

"What?" Nabiki asked. "What is it? I feel better, really!"

Tofu shook his head. "Not you, Nabiki. You'll be fine. You can get up now if you like. I'm more concerned with Ranma and your father."

Nabiki gratefully crawled out from under her blankets and stood, a little unsteadily. She looked at her father, a strange look of sadness creasing her normally smooth, calm features. "Oh Daddy," she said softly. Kasumi came up behind her and put a hand on her shoulder. The last time they'd seen him this bad was when Mother had died. Akane...

She swallowed hard. Akane wasn't dead. She was just... gone. They could find her. Ranma would find her. That was one good thing about him. He may be a pain and a freeloading jerk who made their insurance rates skyrocket every time he put a new hole in the house, but when it came down to it, he always protected her sister. If anyone could figure out where she'd been taken, he could. As soon as he regained consciousness, that is.

She watched as Dr. Tofu knelt over Ranma, pushing pressure points all over his body with grim determination. Slowly, Ranma's skin lost some of its gray pallor, and his shallow breathing deepened to that of natural sleep. After a few minutes of concentrated work, Tofu leaned back and sat on his heels, his hands resting on his knees, and sighed.

"That's all I can do for now," he said wearily. "I've restored most of Ranma's ki flow. He should be waking up soon, but he'll need to rest. Now, would someone like to explain to me exactly what happened? I'd like to know exactly how Akane disappeared, and why Ranma's ki was almost completely depleted, as well as changed."

Genma glanced sharply at Dr. Tofu. "What do you mean, 'changed?' What's happened to my son?!"

"I might be better able to tell you that once someone informs me of the total situation."

"Okay, here's the deal," said Nabiki, her normal business-like demeanor slipping back into place. "This red swirly energy thing traveled clear across the sky to crash through our roof and attack Akane and Ranma. Ranma tried to stop it with a couple of really powerful ki blasts, and the last one almost worked, because it broke apart, but then it just formed back together and kept coming. When it got here, it engulfed Akane and Ranma, making Akane disappear, and filling Ranma with some of the weird red glow. Then it disappeared, and Ranma collapsed."

Tofu frowned, disturbed. For such a unique phenomenon to have such drastically different effects on two people... It had the feel of unnatural magic about it - very powerful, carefully considered magic. And the red glow could explain the strange taint to Ranma's ki. Tofu suppressed a shudder at the implications of his diagnosis.

"Well, those ki blasts must have been something," he said, facing Nabiki. "But tell me more about the 'weird red glow.' You said it filled him? What do you mean?"

"I mean that it kind of seeped into his skin, all over his body." Nabiki paused, grimacing. "It looked... really painful. After he passed out, I thought for sure he was going to wake up possessed or something."

"Hmm. I was afraid of that." Dr. Tofu stood and backed away from Ranma's still form. "I wouldn't totally rule that out just yet. It appears that the red glow you described has definitely altered Ranma's ki somehow. I'm not sure exactly what effect it will have on him, but we won't know until he regains consciousness. We should be prepared, just in case."

"In case what?" asked Kasumi.

"In case he becomes violent." Genma's voice was heavy with resignation. "We need to be able to restrain him until we can find a cure, isn't that right, Doctor?"

Tofu nodded glumly. "I hope there is a cure. I've never seen anything like this before."

Nabiki and Kasumi's eyes went wide. "Restrain Ranma?" Nabiki said, gasping. "But he's so... so strong. Will we be able to fight him if he's really-?"

"I'll help you," said a resolute voice. Everyone turned to see a slightly damp Ryoga standing just outside the patio doors. The determined look on his face crumbled to embarrassment under the combined stares. "I... uh, I'm sorry to intrude, but I was, uh... wandering around... and I saw the red light streak across the sky and crash into your house... and I came to see what was going on, and I, er, kind of eavesdropped. I'd... like to help."

Please buy it, please buy it, thought Ryoga, looking anxiously at each face in turn, waiting for someone to notice his dampness and the implausibility of his story, point their finger at him and say "Aha! You're P-chan! There's no other explanation for you being here!"

But no one did, much to his relief, although Nabiki did raise an eyebrow at him. He swallowed nervously and looked away as Kasumi smiled and said, "Come in, Ryoga. You are always welcome, and we appreciate the offer. But I don't think it will be necessary to fight Ranma. If we restrain him now, then we will be able to determine what has happened to him when he regains consciousness without the risk of him attacking."

"Good idea, Kasumi," said Nabiki. "Although hopefully the restraints won't be necessary in the end." Because if they are, and Ranma really is under the influence of some malevolent magic, who will find Akane? Certainly not the smitten Lost Boy over there. He couldn't find his way out of a paper bag.

Genma stood. "Kasumi," he said solemnly, "we need a length of the strongest chain you can find."

"Oh my." Kasumi looked at Ranma. "Do you really think that will be enough to... to hold him?" She had once witnessed Ranma break free after Happosai had him chained, sealed in concrete, and buried in the back yard.

Genma sighed and shook his head, a strange mixture of pride and apprehension playing over his features as he looked at his sleeping son. "Probably not," he admitted. "So we'd better pray that he's alright."

Shampoo appeared to have regained much of her lost energy, for she was twirling and dancing around in ecstasy as she packed up her few belongings in preparation for the trip back to Japan. "Oh! Shampoo no can wait to see Ranma again!" She paused in her dance uncertainly, to face her great-grandmother. "You really think blood-spell work?"

Cologne scowled impatiently. "You're still questioning that after what you've seen? The power you felt? We used dragon blood straight from the Ancient One. Believe me, the spell has done its part. Akane is out of the way, and Ranma has been rendered incapable of following her. Now we need to do our part. You didn't forget to mail that postcard to Mousse, did you?"

Shampoo frowned. "Of course not, great-grandmother. We need good alibi. I send postcard as soon as we reach China. Stupid Mousse have it by now."

"Excellent. We must make haste to Japan at once, so that you can lend your support to Ranma in his efforts to find Akane, and comfort him when he at last comes to the realization that his search is hopeless."

Cologne's words brought one of Shampoo's fears to the surface. All this work would be wasted if Ranma suspected... "How we make sure Ranma not realize we the ones who cast spell?"

Cologne smiled. It was an awful smile, cold and determined. The smile reinforced the fact that, now that the blood spell was cast, there truly was no turning back. It sent shivers down Shampoo's spine.

"Don't you worry about that, great-granddaughter," Cologne said, her eyes gleaming. "The time for straight-forwardness in dealing with Son-in-law has passed. Now a more... subtle touch is required. By the time I'm through with him, he'll be eating out of your hands." She laughed, but the sound was rueful, and devoid of humor.

Shampoo wanted to laugh with her, but the sudden sick feeling in her stomach prevented her, and all she managed was a weak smile. No turning back now, she thought to herself forcibly. No turning back. You're committed to your course. Now is not the time to be getting cold feet, girl.

Shampoo had never been above being sneaky, but it had always been an open kind of sneaky, where her motives were always plain to see.

An honest sneakiness, like when she used the hypnotic mushroom on Ranma. After sneaking it into his food and getting him to eat it, she made her intentions perfectly clear. Or like when great-grandmother gave Ranma the All-Over-Body-Cat-Tongue, so that he couldn't change back into a guy. The phoenix pill cure was always in plain sight, and Ranma was told exactly what he had to do to get it. No matter what she did, no matter how sneaky it seemed on the surface, she always made sure the truth was out in the open once her plans were set in motion.

Now, though, the truth was to be buried deep, and she would have to live a lie for the rest of her life. But if it meant having Ranma by her side...

Shampoo's weak smile gained strength. "Eat out of hands?" she said, her doubts fading. "Shampoo can live with that."

Waking up was like swimming to the surface of a lake of tar. Ranma felt thick and sluggish, the tar pressing into his eyes and ears, slowing his rise to consciousness. He could hear muffled voices just beyond the surface, speaking in urgent, anxious tones. Something was wrong up there, something Bad that he couldn't remember, something that existed only on the other side of the warm, thick blackness that filled his mind and body. If he stayed where he was, he wouldn't have to face the Bad thing.

Ranma slowly twisted that thought in his mind. The idea was appealing; staying, perhaps even sinking back into the warm, black depths from which he'd come. Normally, he wouldn't hesitate to take action and break the surface. But somehow he knew, because of some alien feeling whispering inside him, that this time, any action he took wouldn't be able to fix what was wrong beyond the darkness.

Still, the muffled, distorted voices sounded familiar... and concerned. He may not be able to fix the Bad thing, but perhaps he could help those people on the other side of the darkness in some way. The thought gave Ranma's sluggish mind focus, and, his decision made, he began to slowly rise through the smothering void.

The blackness gradually lightened, and with the light came both physical sensation and memory, each sharp and painful. Ranma broke the surface of consciousness with a gasp. "Akane..."

"He's awake," said a familiar voice. Ranma blinked his eyes open groggily, and found himself looking into the concerned, yet wary face of Dr. Tofu.

"How do you feel, Ranma?"

Ranma closed his eyes again. "Urrgh," he moaned. "Like someone's pushed me through a cheese grater." He opened his eyes and was surprised to see a relieved smile on Dr. Tofu's face. "Hey, that's not a good thing, you know," he grumbled.

He heard sighs of relief all around the room, and Nabiki chuckled softly. "Yup, I'd say he's the same old Ranma," she said.

That got his attention. "What are you talking about?" he asked, trying to sit up. "Of course I'm the sa-" At that moment, he realized that his hands were bound firmly behind his back and his arms were pinned to his sides with a length of sturdy chain. "What the-" His legs were bound tightly as well, from ankles to thighs. "What the heck is going on here?! Why am I chained up?"

Tofu put a calming hand on his shoulder, encouraged by Ranma's normal behavior. "Take it easy, Ranma. We'll remove the chains in just a moment. But first, can you tell me what you remember?"

"What I.-?" Images and feelings of his last few conscious moments flashed in Ranma's mind, and he swallowed as he suddenly felt tears build behind his eyes. No! Guys don't cry, he thought to himself fiercely, and blinked hard. But Akane had looked so... so scared. The image of her face in his mind tore at his heart. He'd never seen her as frightened as she was when she faded away, disappearing out of his grasp, silently screaming his name. And he hadn't been able to help her...

*You couldn't help her,* said a strange, alien voice deep in side him; a voice that felt as thick and black as tar, and made him shudder convulsively. *You can't help her.*

"I..." His voice cracked, and he cleared his throat. "I remember the spell..." He stopped, surprised that he realized what the thing was - but then of course it was magic. It only made sense. Tofu nodded in confirmation and motioned for him to continue.

"It hurt... a lot," he admitted reluctantly. "I'm pretty sure it did... something... to me, because I have two very strong... feelings..." Ranma paused, as if unsure he was using the right word to describe what it was that had happened to him. "There are these two voices inside me that don't feel like... like they're part of me. It feels like they've been put there by something else." He sighed and looked down, his arms straining vigorlessly at his chains. "I know, it doesn't make any sense."

"It's alright, Ranma." Tofu hoped that the worry he felt didn't show on his face. "Can you describe what these 'feelings' are?"

Ranma raised his head and looked into Dr. Tofu's eyes. "Akane's alive," he said softly. "I don't know why, but this thing... this new voice inside me... wants me to know that."

There was a collective gasp around the room as hope flickered in everyone's hearts; everyone's except Ranma's. Even Soun blinked. Nabiki and Ryoga leaned forward intently.

"Are you sure?" Nabiki asked with barely contained excitement. "Do you know where she is?" Ah, the rescue is at hand, she thought giddily, but then she saw the expression on Ranma's face, and her hopes plummeted.

Ranma felt his expression crack at Nabiki's question, and the tears threatened once again. "No," he said flatly, trying to fight the despair that welled within him. Why should I care what happens to that violent tomboy anyway, he thought, but there was no real feeling behind the automated response.

But you do care, his own voice answered him. You always have. You've always tried to protect her... and you've succeeded, until now.

Ranma's throat felt tight. "That... that's what the other feeling is," he whispered hoarsely. "There's this other strange voice inside me that keeps telling me that I'll never... never f-find her..." Damn, he thought as he felt the tears slip down his cheeks. He went to brush them away angrily, but his hands were still chained behind his back, so instead, he looked at the floor. The tears dripped off his nose and chin. He closed his eyes. After a moment, he sniffed. "Would somebody get these stupid chains off me," he growled when he'd gotten his voice under control.

Tofu looked at the distraught boy sadly. "Well, the spell may have done something to Ranma, but I think it's pretty safe to guess that the he's not going to attack us," he said softly. Genma knelt behind his son and began to remove the chains. When he was finished, Ranma knelt and rubbed the dampness from his face with the palms of his hands without looking up.

No one knew what to say. A feeling of utter helplessness filled the room.

Ryoga looked at Ranma in disbelief. He loves her, he realized, and felt his heart contract with despair. Because of his closeness to Akane as P-Chan, Ryoga knew more about Akane's secret feelings than anyone else, even Akane herself. Sometimes she would just think out loud, not realizing what she was saying, and not knowing that her unintentional revelations broke Ryoga's fragile heart over and over. Akane was always worried about Ranma, or angry at Ranma, or excited to try out a new recipe for Ranma, then angry at Ranma again when he would refuse to eat it. Sometimes - and this was the worst - she would talk in her sleep, and it was always Ranma's name that came unconsciously to her lips.

But Ranma can't love her! The implications of Ranma and Akane actually being a couple left Ryoga shaken. He's always teasing and tormenting her, making her life miserable with his womanizing ways! Ryoga had held onto the belief that Akane's feelings for Ranma were one-sided, and secretly hoped that one day Akane would realize that Ranma would never love her... At least, not the way he loved her... He was sure that Ranma's constant callousness would eventually turn her toward the true love that he had to offer, and that they could live happily ever after.

No, Ranma was incapable of really loving Akane. He was too egotistical and selfish. After all, didn't he continually try to thwart Ryoga's attempts to get close to Akane, just so that he could maintain his monopoly on the women? Didn't he do it just to spite him, adding one more grievous injury to the lifetime list of offenses Ranma had committed against him? Ranma never did it because he was actually... jealous... did he?

Could it be that Ranma really loved Akane, in spite of all his protests to the contrary? But then, come to think of it, Akane protested just as much, and, much as it pained him, he knew how she felt about Ranma...

Did any of it really matter, now that she was missing, and Ranma might be the only link to figure out how to get her back?

Ryoga felt his resolve harden. Getting Akane back was all that mattered now. He could put his turmoiled feelings aside for a little while and sort things out later. Looking at Ranma, Ryoga couldn't remember ever seeing him so despondent, not even the time when Happosai used that weird Shiatsu technique to steal his strength, making him weaker than a child, or when he thought he might be stuck as a girl forever after Herb splashed him with water from the Chiisuiton. Ryoga sighed, knowing what he had to do.

"So that's it then," he said. Everyone except Ranma was startled by the sharpness of his voice. "You're just going to give up, Ranma? Just because you're hearing voices that tell you that you can't find Akane? What kind of pathetic excuse of a man are you!" Ryoga sneered. "Maybe you've been spending too much time as a girl! Go curl up and boo-hoo in a corner, Ranma! You're not worthy to call yourself Akane's fiance!"

Ranma didn't look up, so Ryoga couldn't see his expression, but he saw Ranma's fists clench convulsively. A grim smile flickered on Ryoga's face.

"You say that it was a spell that took Akane away? Well, spells can be broken! And I for one am not going to give up until I figure out a way to get her back. So you can sit here and sulk and listen to your 'voices' for the rest of your life for all I care. You were never good enough for her anyway, Saotome, especially with the way you treated her all the time!"

Everyone stared at Ryoga, shocked. Ranma flinched as if he'd been hit, but he still didn't look up.

Nabiki frowned. "Hey, Hibiki, don't you think you're being a bit harsh? I mean, normally, I'd agree with you, but I don't think now's the time..."

The knife's in, Ryoga thought, ignoring Nabiki and looking at Ranma's tense form. Now to twist it. And he knew just what to say. He lowered his voice to an accusing whisper. "You couldn't even save her, Ranma. You just stood there and let her get taken away. What kind of a pathetic martial artist are you, that you can't do a simple thing like protect your fiancée?"

That did it. Ranma's head snapped up, and there was fire in his eyes. Before Ryoga could blink, Ranma had him by the front of his shirt and had slammed him against the wall, cracking paint and plaster. "You take that back, Ryoga, or I'll pound you into a pulp," Ranma snarled. "I'll show you! I'm going to find Akane no matter where she is, no matter what it takes! Even if I have to tear apart this whole planet to do it!"

Ryoga grunted as he tried to get air back into his lungs, and smirked. Ranma blinked, surprised. "What are you grinning at?!" he yelled.

"Glad to see you're feeling better, Ranma," he said, wheezing, and shrugging out of Ranma's grip. "You might actually be of some use, now that you're through moping around." He dusted the plaster chips off his shoulders.

"What?" Ranma pulled back his fist to send Ryoga through the ceiling, but then he paused as his brain, for once, thought faster than his reflexes. His eyes widened in amazement. Ryoga did that intentionally to provoke me out of my stupor, he realized, as Ryoga continued to smirk. Ranma scowled. I still want to send him through the ceiling though, 'cause I get the feeling not all of that was an act. But if I do that, then he might not be able to find his way back, and I do need all the help I can get to find Akane...

*You can't find her, you won't...* whispered a spell-voice deep within his mind.

Aw, shaddap, he thought back fiercely. Nobody's asking you.

Ranma lowered his fist and stared hard at Ryoga. "The next time you say something like that, I'll send you to your funeral, Ryoga. So you'd better keep your mouth shut until after we find Akane, got it? And wipe that smirk off your face before I change my mind."

Ryoga chuckled. "Sure thing, Ranma."

Ranma scowled.

"Well then," said Dr. Tofu after a moment, being the first to recover, "I guess the first order of business is to figure out what kind of magic this is so that we can know how to counter it. And I think I might know someone who can help us. One of my old senseis was very gifted at reading magic auras. He might be able to tell us what exactly has tainted your ki, Ranma."

Ranma turned to Tofu, grim determination written across his features, his blue eyes sparking with an inner fire that, for the moment, burned away the smothering black despair of the spell-voices within him. "What are we waiting for then? Let's go."

"Hiiyyyiaa!" Akane sent her fist through three solid blocks of ice, spraying herself with tiny slivers of cold, stinging shrapnel that melted against the warmth of her skin. It felt good to let off some steam... literally. The knowledge that she was going to be stuck in the Kami realm for at least seven years was eating at her heart. But smashing things bare-fisted always made her feel a little better.


Not this time.

Yuki-onna, who stood a few feet away, applauded. "Well done, Akane! You truly are a woman of strength."

Akane stood, flushing with exertion and pride at the unexpected praise. It had been such a long time since anyone had noticed that she actually possessed some talent when it came to martial arts, unless you counted that poetry-spouting drip Kuno, which she didn't. She always seemed to be in Ranma's shadow, or, even worse, Shampoo's and Ukyo's shadows, when it came to fighting ability.

"Well, I have been training for some time now," she said, smiling as she brushed her hair out of her eyes.

"Excellent." The Snow Woman returned the smile in a way that made Akane wonder once again how such horrible tales could have been created about her - tales of her taking delight in the slow, freezing death she inflicted on many a mere mortal. "I'm sure that your hard work will serve you well in the training you will receive here."

Akane's ego deflated. "More training?" Jeeze, even Yuki-onna doesn't think my skills are good enough to win in a fight.

Well, duh, Akane. Ranma's voice suddenly popped into her head. You may be strong and violent as a gorilla, but you're a total slow-poke.

Akane blinked, surprised at her train of thought, then frowned. Well, this is great, she thought with disgust. Now that Ranma's not around to insult me, my own brain is filling in for him.

Yuki-onna smiled, amused at Akane's expression. "Please, don't be upset. As I said, I am impressed with your skill. However, you will need to develop your substantial abilities beyond what you know now if you are to defeat those who would invade my home."

Akane swallowed. There were so many things she still needed to learn about this place and her unusual hostess. "Uh, now that you bring that up, I've been meaning to ask you... Who exactly will I be fighting, and why? And if you're going to train me, why do you need a body guard to fight for you?"

The Snow Woman laughed; a sound like wind through ice crystals. "What makes you think that I will be training you? My dear, I do have some small means of self protection, but most of my... talents... lie elsewhere. As for who and why you'll be fighting, let's just say that some of the denizens of this plane are rather... mortal in their appetites."

Akane looked at the Snow Woman, and couldn't help feeling a twinge of jealousy at the same moment she comprehended her meaning. Yuki-onna's unearthly beauty, her incredible mane of shimmering white hair that fell to her ankles, and her slender, yet perfectly rounded figure were enough to stun Happosai into a slobbering, twitching coma of lust, had he been there.

Akane sighed. "So I guess that means that men are the same no matter which plane of existence you're in."

Yuki-onna chuckled. "Ah, you do understand."

Akane nodded sullenly, remembering morning after morning spent fighting her way through a thick wall of men on the grounds of Furinkan High School, all wanting to defeat her for the privilege of dating her, not one of them ever taking into account her own feelings on the matter.

Of course, Ranma had put a stop to that - not that she'd asked him to. It wasn't like she couldn't handle those jerks herself. Ranma always seemed to interfere in her fights, butting in where he wasn't wanted. Well, there was no way he could do that now...

No way...

A wave of sadness suddenly swept over Akane. Seven years. There's no way Ranma will wait that long for me to come back...

Akane closed her eyes against the strange ache that filled her chest, and shook her head forcibly. Why? Why do I keep thinking about Ranma? she thought weakly.

Suddenly, that tiny, whispering voice that she always tried so hard to ignore rose to the surface of her thoughts with a vengeance. What do you mean keep thinking of him, you stubborn idiot? You always think of him. You're just noticing it now because you know you're not going to see him for seven years, and you miss him.

You miss him. Akane felt her lips start to tremble, and her vision swam with unshed tears.

"Akane?" Akane jumped as she felt a delicate, icy hand on her shoulder. "Are you alright?"

She looked up into the Snow Woman's concerned face. "I... I'm fine," she stuttered, blinking her wet eyes and swallowing the lump that thickened her throat. "I was just thinking about... home."

Yuki-onna frowned, sensing something else behind her words. "You were thinking about your fiance."

Akane looked at her feet, her eyes burning as the tears threatened, and didn't notice the hard look on the Snow Woman's face. "I... I don't know why. It's not like I love the jer-"


Akane was startled into silence by the forcefulness of her own mental voice.

Lair. You love him. Akane jaw tightened. She swallowed and blinked, sending the tears spilling down her cheeks.

You love- No. Not you, Akane thought to herself, a strange calm settling over her. No more self-deception. I love him.

As soon as she thought it, she knew it was true, like a beam of sunlight piercing a black fog. Akane suddenly smiled tremulously through her tears as she felt a dark, heavy burden lift from her heart and felt it fill with another, brighter emotion until she thought she would burst. She experienced a moment of pure joy beyond anything she'd ever experienced as she realized what it was like to really love someone, freely and without fear.

I. Love. Ranma.

Then the moment passed. The joy pressed out of her as a new weight settled over her heart. Her smile trembled, then shattered as she sank to her knees, sobbing quietly, wrapping her arms tightly around her chest in a futile attempt to hold in the pain as she finally accepted the whispering voice as her own. I love him. I love him and I never told him, and now I'll never get the chance, and I'll probably never see him again, and he probably hates me, I've been so mean to him...

Why now? Why did it take this for me to realize what I've known all along?

Yuki-onna stared coldly at the weeping girl at her feet. She should have known. But the girl had seemed so strong. A true kindred spirit, not at all like most quivering mortals who had stumbled into her realm every odd century or so. Sentimental fools, the lot of them. She should have realized it before, and left the girl in the void between planes instead of using her precious energy and magic to rescue her.

**Don't be so hard on the girl, Yuki-chan. She is young, and doesn't have the eternity of experience that you possess.**

Yuki-onna inclined her head and scowled at the telepathic intrusion into her thoughts. **Masakazu-san, how many times have I told you to stay out of my head?**

**Too many, dear, too many. But as always, you should listen. You need this girl. She is very strong, in spite of the display she's putting on at the moment. You forget that even the strongest mortal is fragile when they first find themselves transported here by magic or mayhem or some such. I, for one, am surprised she didn't break down sooner.**

**She thinks she's in love.** Disdain permeated the Snow Woman's response.

There was no reply. Yuki-onna smiled grimly. He wouldn't dare respond to that.

**Don't be so cocky, Yuki-chan. You were in love once too, no matter how much you try to deny it.**

Of all the impertinence! **That was a mistake,** the Snow Woman snapped back. **I should have frozen him with the other one and left them dead together. I should have killed him inch by inch and let him feel the ice around his heart, I should have-**

**Now now, calm down, you've missed my point completely.** Masakazu's mental voice was firm, and effectively silenced her. **Mistake or not, you did fall in love, and you are Yuki-onna. The child in front of you is not. She is human. She is mortal. Mortals fall in love. You must accept that, and allow the girl her sorrow.**

The Snow Woman was silent a moment as she watched Akane shudder with her sobs. **She cannot defend my household in such a state,** she replied, almost petulantly.

Masakazu heaved a mental sigh. **She will recover. Do not discount the strength you sensed just because the child displays an emotion you cannot abide in yourself.**

Yuki-onna's smooth white forehead creased in anger, and she readied a retort. But then she paused. Masakazu was even more ancient than herself, and his wisdom had helped her often in the past. Often enough that she knew she should set aside her anger and take his advice. **Very well.** She sighed. **What should I do?**

**Well, first off, I'd say something to the girl. She's starting to gain control and is wondering if you are angry with her. Which you are, but don't show her that. You need a strong ally, not an intimidated servant. Besides, you weren't too far off in your first assessment of her. She is a kindred spirit. Give her a chance.**

Yuki-onna frowned, but then her expression softened as she looked at Akane's shuddering form and she remembered the feel of the girl's spirit. She was strong, this one. Hesitantly, she reached out a hand and placed it on her shoulder. Akane stiffened, but then she looked up, her face wet, her eyes puffy and red-rimmed.

"I never t-told him," she said, snuffling. "I love him, and he'll n-never know..."

Yuki-onna sighed inwardly. Perhaps in time she could teach the child that there were more... substantial pursuits than fickle romance. "I'm sorry, Akane. I want you to know that I'll do my best to break the spell as soon as possible. In the meantime, I hope you can be happy here."

Akane nodded miserably. "I-I'll try."

**Good girl, Yuki-chan. There may be hope for you yet.**

The Snow Woman snarled mentally, careful not to let the expression reach her face. **For the last time, Masakazu-san, get out of my head and get your feathered tail over here. Akane needs to be trained as soon as possible.**

**You're wish is my command, Yuki-chan.** Masakazu's chirping chuckle echoed in her head.

Yuki-onna stood in her bed chamber before a full-length mirror. She admired herself a moment, running her thin, white fingers thoughtfully through a silky length of white hair that shimmered with all the colors of the spectrum, as she debated the wisdom of what she was considering.

She would never admit it to Masakazu - then again, he probably already knew, much to her chagrin - but Akane's grief had shaken her. Had she ever been that passionate over a man?

The corners of her mouth turned into a slight frown, and she knew her curiosity must be satisfied. Taking a deep breath, she leaned forward and blew softly on the mirror's surface. A perfect sheen of frosted ice formed over the glass. In the ice, a moving image began to form. She blew again. The ice cleared of frost, and the image sharpened.

"Twice," she muttered to herself. "I'm getting rusty." But then it had been a while since she'd used the mirror. She looked at the image intently.

The image centered on a young man with a mop of dark hair braided into a pigtail, wearing a red Chinese shirt and black pants, running over the rooftops of a Tokyo suburb. He was followed by three other men, who were trying in vain to get him to slow down, the most adamant of which was a young man with light brown hair wearing glasses and a dark blue gi. "Ranma, wait!" The man's voice sounded small and distant through the ice. "We needed to turn left two streets ago!"

"And I thought I was bad with directions," said another young man with a shock of dark hair hanging over a yellow and black bandanna.

Ranma stopped and, without missing a beat, flipped in the opposite direction and began running back, passing his three frustrated companions in the process. "Why didn't you say so?" he called angrily as leapt to another roof top.

"We tried," yelled the older man, who was wearing a white handkerchief over his bald head, "but you were so far ahead you couldn't hear us."

"So keep up already!" Ranma called back without turning. "We can't waste anymore time!" His three companions sighed and began following as best they could.

Yuki-onna raised a slender white eyebrow, intrigued. "Closer," she whispered. The ice swirled and cleared until it showed Ranma's face. His expression was one of determination and anxiety, his blue eyes clear and narrowed in concentration.

"Well. He is handsome, I'll give him that. So this is the one who hold's Akane's heart." She smiled coldly. "We'll see how long that lasts."

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