Hearts of Ice

Chapter 5: Interlude

Akane sat quietly, holding perfectly still as Yuki-onna passed her slim white hands a few centimeters over the surface Akane's skin. After a few moments, her hands paused over a spot on Akane's back, just between her shoulder blades.

"Hmm," the Snow Woman said softly. "This looks like a good place to start today. The spell will be easiest to untangle here." She began twisting her fingers, as if pulling at invisible threads.

Akane felt the now-familiar tingle of magic between her shoulder blades as Yuki-onna carefully removed wisp after wisp of dragon blood from her ki. This had become a daily ritual. For the past two months, ever since she had first come to the Kami plane, Yuki-onna had spent at least an hour a day trying to remove the blood spell from Akane, but the spell was stubborn and strong and fought against Yuki-onna's attempts to break it's hold on her. Every time a strand of dragon blood was removed from Akane's ki, the spell would simply shift and fill in the gap.

Akane could tell that it was exhausting work for the Snow Woman, and was finally beginning to understand why it would take about seven years to lift the spell completely. She shook her head slightly in bafflement, wondering once again why her mysterious hostess was helping her. Yuki-onna had taken her - a total stranger, and a mere mortal at that - into her household and had treated her like a daughter. Which was surprising, since the Yuki-onna that Akane was familiar with from legend was portrayed as a cold, cruel woman; an evil spirit who enjoyed freezing men to death with her icy touch.

"So, Akane," said the Snow Woman as she continued to pull at the blood spell, "it appears that the bruises from your last match with Masakazu are healing nicely. You seem to have fewer than usual. Can I take that as a sign of your improvement?"

"Yes," said Akane, smiling. Then she winced and raised a hand to a bruise on her cheek; a bruise that matched the dozens of others all over her body. The swelling had gone down, but it still hurt to touch it. In spite of the pain, she was glad. For once in her life, she had a sensei who didn't treat her like a china doll, as if she would shatter with the slightest touch. With Masakazu's help, she had slowly, but steadily improved her martial arts skills. She still wasn't nearly as fast or agile as Ranma, but she was finally getting enough speed to block some of her sensei's attacks. And, more importantly, she was learning to trust her instincts. It was a necessity, really. She always had to be on her guard, since she never knew when Masakazu was going to launch another attack, or "training session," as he called it.

At first she had been angry at how rough he was on her, but she had quickly learned that the tengu had actually gone easy on her the first time he attacked. Since then, she had seen him perform feats that made Cologne and Happosai look like first-year students, substantiating his claim that his people had invented the martial arts. Also, not only was Masakazu the most incredible martial artist she'd ever seen, the tengu was also a very patient sensei. This was good, because more often than not, her volatile temper got the better of her, especially when he would use Ranma's voice to mock her during their battles. She hated it when he did that. And yet... it was also nice in a strange way, because deep down she liked hearing Ranma's voice. Even if the voice said things to make her mad. Even if it wasn't really Ranma at all.

It was so strange. Sometimes she felt as if this alien place were home, as if she'd been here forever. Other times she was so homesick, it hurt.

She tried not to think of Ranma, but it was no use. He was always in her thoughts at some level. She missed him terribly but knew that allowing her thoughts to dwell on him would just make her miserable. I wonder what he's doing right now? she thought.

Akane sighed. Yuki-onna had certainly scolded her often enough about wasting her time thinking about a man who had brought so much misery into her life and who, in all likelihood, wouldn't even be around by the time she could finally return home. She almost regretted telling the Snow Woman about her convoluted history with Ranma and his "other fiancees." Yuki-onna seemed to take each of Ranma's affronts personally, whether they were intentional or, as was most often the case, circumstantial. It was so ironic. Finally, here was a woman who completely understood the frustration and fury Akane so often felt towards Ranma. But now Akane didn't want to feel that way anymore.

She tried to convince herself otherwise. Heck, it should have been easy; she'd certainly had plenty of practice telling herself what an insensitive pervert Ranma was, and how there was no way in the world she could ever love him. But ever since she had been torn so forcefully out of the mortal plane, she had become more honest with herself, and her soul refused to let her live with such a blatant lie.

You know, she thought to herself glumly, you really have the worst timing. You couldn't have had this little journey of self-discovery a little bit earlier? Like when it might actually have been useful?

Yuki-onna frowned, her smooth white face creasing slightly as she concentrated on removing the dragon blood from Akane's ki. She paused, surprised, as the ki abruptly began to darken in color with the girl's mood.

Blast. She's thinking about her fiance again. Yuki-onna's frost-blue eyes narrowed angrily. After all that idiotic boy has put her through, she still pines for him. Akane, you foolish girl, why can't you see how much stronger you would be without this useless infatuation weighing you down? The Snow Woman began to lose her concentration because of her anger, and the dragon blood began slipping through her fingers, resisting her attempts to remove it. She sighed with frustration and tried to regain focus, but thoughts of the mortal boy Ranma and his cruel treatment of Akane prevented her from -

A flash of red caught her eye.

What-? Yuki-onna squinted at Akane's ki. For a split second, she had seen something in the blood spell, something she hadn't noticed before. What had she been thinking about? She knew that an individual's thoughts and emotions could often effect how a person perceived the nuances of someone else's ki, which was why perfect concentration was normally required, but this time...

Ranma. She'd been thinking about Akane's horrible fiance.

Yuki-onna focused once again on the blood spell in Akane's ki, this time keeping Ranma firmly in mind. There! There it was again, a flash of red; a tiny, almost unnoticeable wisp of dragon blood that responded to her thoughts of Ranma. It was woven deep inside the spell, too deep for her to reach for quite some time. Still, she concentrated on it...

...and gasped.

Akane turned quickly. "What's wrong? Are you alright?" she asked, looking with concern at the shocked expression on the Snow Woman's face.

Yuki-onna relaxed and smiled. "Oh, it's nothing, dear. I'm just a little tired, that's all. This spell requires so much of my energies to untangle..." She trailed off as she noticed Akane stiffen suddenly, her ki changing color once again, flaring bright blue.

"Akane?" she asked, puzzled. "What-"

Without warning, Akane leaped straight up into the air a good five meters from her sitting position, just barely missing the blur of burnt umber that passed through the space she once occupied. Yuki-onna gasped as the girl's ki was torn from her fingers.

Akane flipped at the peak of her arc, coming down to land lightly on her feet. As soon as she touched the floor, she dropped, bringing her hands up to block a near invisible blow from her sensei. Rolling, she sprang to her feet, her body twisting and turning as she swiftly parried each blow the tengu delivered.

"Well, Akane" said Masakazu with Ranma's voice, "Looks like you're more masculine than ever, you uncute tomboy. I don't know how you ever expect to catch a husband."

Akane growled. "Why you...!" And lost her focus. In one smooth move, Masakazu penetrated her defenses and landed a kick that sent Akane flying into the wall, and into unconsciousness.

"Ow!" Akane rubbed a swelling lump at the back of her head, and hissed in pain as Yuki-onna gently cleaned a nasty scrape on her shoulder that she had received upon impact with the wall. If it were a normal wall, it probably wouldn't have done much damage, but in Yuki-onna's household, some of the walls were natural ice formations, complete with jagged crystalline edges. Akane had the misfortune of colliding with such a wall.

The Snow Woman touched the skin just outside the scrape with a fingertip and numbed the wound with an icy touch. Akane shivered, goose bumps erupting up and down her arms. "Oooh, that's cold," she complained.

Yuki-onna leaned back and cocked a delicate white eyebrow at her. "Which would you rather have, Akane, the pain or a mild chill?" she asked calmly.

"At the moment I'd prefer neither," Akane snapped irritably, glaring at Masakazu, who stood serenely at her side. "No more pain, no more cold. As a matter of fact, I sure could use a nice hot day at the beach right about now. Don't you ever get tired of all this ice and snow?"

"Not really." Yuki-onna smiled pleasantly and tossed her mane of long white hair.

"Now now, Akane," Masakazu soothed. "You're just being a sore loser."

"Emphasis on the word 'sore,'" Akane growled.

"I wouldn't have breached your defenses if you had been able to control your temper," the tengu chided. "You lose focus, you lose the battle. Still, I must commend you on avoiding my initial attack. Your leap was quite impressive. You do realize, I hope, that you have come a long way since we began your training a mere two months ago."

Akane's temper calmed at the praise, and her expression lit with a smile. "Really? You think so?"

"Of course. But then, what else do you expect with me as your sensei? No ordinary mortal could teach you the things I've taught you."

"Hmph. It's a good thing I'm not relying on you to teach me humility," Akane responded wryly.

Yuki-onna chuckled. "I, too, am impressed, Akane. This is the first time in a week or so that I've seen you two spar, and just in that short amount of time, you have improved drastically. You'll be ready to defend my household in no time."

Akane turned to the Snow Woman, her expression serious, and a little nervous. "Um, now that you bring that up, I've been meaning to ask... I've been here for two months now, and the only attacks I've seen have come from Masakazu-sensei. You keep saying that I need to defend your household and that you need a bodyguard, but so far I haven't seen anything or anyone come around that you might need defending from." Akane swallowed and looked down. "Are... are you sure you need me?"

The Snow Woman smiled gently. "Akane, the reason no one has been able to invade my home is because I am using a substantial portion of my magic to keep a continuous barrier between my domain and the rest of the Kami plane. It is a great drain on my energies."

Akane blinked. "Oh... I had no idea," she said, flushing with embarrassment. "No wonder you look so tired after trying to untangle the blood spell every day. I... I'm sorry to be so much trouble."

"It's no trouble at all," Yuki-onna said firmly. "It's part of our deal. You serve as my body guard, and I free you from the blood spell. Once you are fully capable of defending my household, I will be able to drop the magic barrier and will once again have my full powers at my disposal."

Akane's eyes widened. "Your full powers? Does that mean..."

"That means," Masakazu interrupted, "that the sooner you are able to defend the household, the sooner Yuki-onna will have access to the power necessary to free you from the influence of this blood spell your under."

"I've been doing what little I could under the circumstances," the Snow Woman added. "But once you take your place as my bodyguard, and I have full access to my magic, it will speed up the process substantially. You should know," she continued, seeing the hope blossom on Akane's face, "that I took this into account when I gave you the time estimate. I still believe it will take about seven years to break the spell, give or take a few months, depending on how quickly you learn the skills necessary to defeat intruders."

Akane's face fell. "Oh," she said softly. For a brief, wonderful moment, she thought that she might get home sooner.


The tears, which she had avoided for weeks, threatened once again, and she turned away from the tengu and the Snow Woman, not wanting them to see her cry. "Excuse me," she said swallowing. "I... I think I'll go to my room now. I need to get cleaned up for dinner." She walked quickly away.

The Snow Woman and the tengu watched her leave.

**You haven't told her, have you.** Yuki-onna started as Masakazu's mental voice penetrated her head.

"You don't have to do that," she said crossly. "She's gone, she can't hear us. And to answer your question, no. I haven't told her. I don't intend to. And you will not tell her either."

Masakazu sighed. "Yuki-chan, I know what you are thinking. And it's wrong. Don't you think it would be better for Akane if you gave her some hope? If you let her know that she might still regain everything she's lost?"

Yuki-onna turned on the tengu, her eyes blazing. "And what would you know about what's best for her? Do you know anything about this boy that she thinks she loves? Do you know what kind of life is in store for her if she goes back to the mortal plane and he's still there, waiting to torment her as usual?"

Masakazu blinked at her, his black eyes inhumanly calm. "I know more than you might guess, Yuki-chan. I cannot presume to tell you what to do in your own domain, but I ask you to reconsider the course of action you are taking. Remember, your experience is not the prototype for Akane's life, or any mortal life for that matter."

Yuki-onna stared at the tengu, cold fury playing across her features. Finally she spoke. "I must see to the servants," she said quietly, "and make sure they preparing dinner correctly."

The tengu met her gaze levelly. "I understand," he said simply. And in a blur of movement, he was gone, leaving the Snow Woman staring at empty space.

The Snow Woman stood before her mirror. Masakazu didn't understand. She had to protect Akane; protect her from both her brutish, arrogant, womanizing fiance, and her own naive ignorance. But that was not why she was here, standing before her mirror. No, she simply needed to confirm the discovery she made earlier that evening while trying to untangle the blood spell from Akane's ki.

Leaning forward, she breathed on the mirror. It frosted over, then swirled with magic. "Show me the boy," she whispered.

The image cleared to show Ranma pacing back and forth in a comfortable living room, frustration evident on his face. Occasionally he would drop to the floor to do a few push-ups, or just do a few flips to break the monotony.

Sitting curled in a chair, watching him pace back and forth, was an attractive girl with short, light brown hair. In her hands, she held a book, apparently forgotten as she seemed completely absorbed in watching the boy. Frustration was evident on her face as well. Yuki-onna watched in amusement as the girl's annoyance level rose to the bursting point.

Finally it came. "Ranma!" she yelled, causing the boy to startle and turn to her. "Will you please be so kind as to HOLD STILL! You're DRIVING ME CRAZY!" The girl seemed to calm as she looked at the dumbfounded expression on the boy's face. "If you must fidget uncontrollably," she continued in a softer tone, "please. Do it outside."

Ranma looked chagrined. "Sorry, Nabiki. I didn't realize... I've got a lot on my mind right now."

"I understand, Ranma. But stomping around the house isn't going to get Cologne and Shampoo here any faster. They're not due back from China for another two days."

Ranma's gaze hardened suddenly. "Lucky for them," he said. "When I get my hands on them, I'm gonna make them sorry they ever messed with Akane."

"Yes, of course," Nabiki replied. She'd heard this for the past two days solid, and much as she agreed with the sentiment, it was getting a little monotonous. "Just make sure you get them to reverse the spell before you kill them, Ranma," she said coolly. "And if I were you," she continued, "I'd get some sleep. You may be bouncing off the walls right now, but it doesn't take a doctor to see that if you stop moving for a second, you'll collapse from exhaustion. I don't know how you expect to defeat Cologne in such a state."

Ranma looked at Nabiki, and his shoulders sagged, as if realizing for the first time just how tired he really was. "You're right, Nabiki," he said. "I'll try and get some rest." He turned and walked out the door.

Nabiki looked at his retreating form in amazement. He agreed? And he was acting on her advice? He must be tired!

Yuki-onna listened to the entire exchange with interest. The fluctuating time dilation that occurred between planes was always a bit confusing, but it seemed that only a day or so had passed in the mortal plane from the time the blood spell had first been cast. The poor mortals were still thinking they could break the spell.

The Snow Woman frowned. If Akane knew about the time dilation... If she knew that once the spell was broken, she could return to the mortal plane with only a few months having passed as opposed to the seven years she had spent in the Kami realm...

She would leave for certain. She would leave and return to live under the abusive, unfaithful dominion of the man whose image appeared in her mirror.

Yuki-onna clenched one slender white hand into a fist.

She could not let that happen.

She watched with an icy expression as Ranma went outside the house. Her expression faltered to one of amazement as he leapt to the roof in a single graceful leap. Akane was right. He was a formidable martial artist.

Ranma laid down on the roof tile, his hands behind his head, and gazed at the stars, his face creased with a mixture of frustration and sadness.

"Closer," the Snow Woman whispered.

The image swirled and changed. Now she was close enough to see his ki. Sure enough, the blood spell permeated his ki as well. Idly, she wondered what it had done to him, then dismissed the thought as unimportant.

She concentrated on his ki, her mind focusing on Akane...

There it was. A tiny, almost microscopic wisp of dragon blood, identical to the one in Akane's ki. One end of the wisp was firmly rooted in the spell, and the other end... simply vanished, seemingly connected to nothing at all. Which was far from the truth.

"Damn it all, they're linked," growled the Snow Woman. "I was afraid of this." No wonder Akane couldn't seem to get over her fiance. As long as there was a connection between the two halves of the blood spell, the very thing that had separated her from Ranma simultaneously kept her in almost continuous contact with him.

She had to break the link somehow. But the only way to break the link was to remove the strand of dragon blood that served as the connection between the mortal and the Kami plane, and that particular strand was woven deep into the spell. She had neither the time nor the desire to remove the spell cast over Ranma.

The Snow Woman felt a wicked smile crawl across her face. "Then again," she whispered. "There's more than one way to break a spell's power over someone. And this way, I'll be getting two birds with one stone."

Examining Ranma's ki, she knew it would be a matter of minutes before he fell asleep. The boy was exhausted. She waited patiently.

Ranma stared into the night sky, his eyelids getting heavier by the moment. Some part of his instinct warned him that he needed to stay awake; that he needed to fight the exhaustion that permeated his body, but he couldn't figure out why. And he was so tired. He'd gone almost fifty-six hours without sleep, unable to think about anything except getting Akane back from wherever she'd been taken. But Nabiki was right. He had to get some sleep, otherwise, he would be too worn out to face Cologne and Shampoo and force them to undo the spell when they returned from China.

His eyes glistened wetly as he wondered for the millionth time that day what Akane was doing right now. He wondered if she was scared, or if she was angry at him for not being able to save her. He knew she was alive. The spell-voices that had become a constant murmur in the back of his mind insisted that she was alive. But was she safe? Was she hurt? Was she alone or with other people?

He sighed heavily as sleep slowly overtook him. "Please be okay, Akane," he whispered. "I promise I'll find you." Unwilling to resist his weariness further, his eyes drifted closed in sleep.

Yuki-onna smiled grimly and pressed her hands against the mirror. Summoning every single scrap of magical energy she could spare, she pushed. The mirror gave under her hands, liquefying, and she stepped through.

She could tell immediately that it was spring. The cool breeze that brushed her white skin spoke of warmer things to come.

"Definitely not my season," she muttered. It would be a little more difficult to exert her power, but not much. She looked dispassionately at the sleeping boy at her feet. It had been a while since she had done anything like this. Then again, it had been a while since anyone had given her so much of a reason.

She knelt down next to the boy. He looked peaceful in sleep, almost innocent. But appearances could be deceiving. Her eyes flashed coldly as she thought of the pain this boy had caused Akane. With a gentleness that belied her intent, she lifted a deathly pale hand and brushed his dark hair from his forehead.

Yes, he was beautiful, this one. Even more so in person than when viewed through the mirror. She could almost understand why Akane was so taken with him.

The Snow Woman leaned over the boy, her long shimmering white hair falling in loose waves around her face, until her lips were almost touching Ranma's. She closed her eyes and parted her lips slightly.

Then, she breathed.

Frost covered Ranma's face. The frost slowly spread out to cover his hair, his neck and shoulders, traveling down his arms and chest and finally his legs until his whole body was covered with a perfect layer of white crystalline frost.

Ranma began to shiver in his sleep. The Snow Woman touched him on the forehead, and his trembling ceased. "Can't have you waking up, dear," she said softly. With his martial arts skills, he could escape her easily.

Confident that her sleep spell was firmly wrapped around the boy's mind, she placed her white fingers on his chest and let the cold seep out of her, willing it into Ranma's body; slowly, carefully freezing the blood that coursed through his veins.

Minutes passed, and Ranma lay motionless as the Snow Woman slowly froze him to death. His skin took on a deathly bluish pallor. Yuki-onna shuddered with sadistic pleasure as she felt the boy's life seep away beneath her icy fingers. It wouldn't be long now.

"A... Ak-kane..."

The Snow Woman looked up, startled at the barely audible whisper. The boy had spoken. But that was impossible. He was dying under her hands at that very moment. She could feel his heart slowing, unable to resist the icy cold that penetrated it. She could see his ki flickering weakly. The blood spell that bound him, however, clung tenaciously even as his life slipped away, unwilling to release it's hold until the very last spark of the boy's life force was extinguished.

She looked at his face. His skin was blue, and still covered in frost.

Her eyes widened as she saw the tears.

Warm tears leaked from the boy's closed eyelids, sliding down either side of his face, melting the frost in its wake. And the frozen lips were once again trying to form words.

"A-kane... I l-love y..."

No. Yuki-onna's hands slid off Ranma's chest, and she stared at him in shock. He didn't... He couldn't... It wasn't possible...

She felt a familiar presence behind her.

"Masakazu-san," she whispered.

"Yuki-chan." The tengu made no move towards her. "Will you be the one to reverse what you've done to this boy, or must I intervene? I need not remind you that we are no longer in your domain."

"I..." Yuki-onna swallowed and looked at the boy; at the tear tracks running down his face even in near death. His whispered words echoed in her mind.

"I... will remove my spell from him," she whispered in defeat, knowing that even if she did not, Masakazu would. She placed her hands on Ranma's chest once again, this time drawing the bitter coldness back inside herself, allowing his blood to thaw and his heart to beat freely once again.

When she finished, she turned and stood to face the tengu. The tengu stepped past her and knelt over Ranma, pushing a few Shiatsu points to make sure the boy was fully restored. Then he turned back to the Snow Woman. His black eyes glittered fiercely, and his ruddy feathers gleamed in the starlight.

"You nearly made a grave mistake, Yuki-onna." Yuki-onna. Not Yuki-chan. He was angry. Masakazu rarely got angry. "Trying to take a life that was not yours to take, completely outside your domain of jurisdiction. Your misplaced rage over a slight you suffered centuries ago has made you hateful. Are you sure what you have to offer Akane is better than what this boy offers? You heard the words from his own mouth even as you tried to take his life."

The Snow Woman struggled within herself, then clenched her teeth. She looked up and met the tengu's gaze, her eyes heavy with resignation. "Perhaps... perhaps I was wrong about him. He does seem to... love her." She said it as if she still found it hard to believe.

The tengu's hard black gaze softened slightly, and he nodded. "So much so that his soul's dying desire was to express that love," he said. "What are you going to tell Akane?"

Yuki-onna paused to consider thoughtfully. "Nothing," she said finally.

"Nothing?" Masakazu's eyes narrowed.

Yuki-onna sighed heavily. "We cannot know for sure how the time dilation will flux between now and the time I can break the spell. I will not interfere with her... relationship with this boy," she said reluctantly, gesturing to Ranma's sleeping form with a slender hand. "But I will also not raise hopes that she will be returning to the same world that she left. If nothing else, seven years in the Kami plane will change her. Even if nothing changes here, she may find herself a stranger among friends when she returns. Better to prepare her for the worst and allow her to be pleasantly surprised, rather than raise hopes that are dashed by events beyond her control."

The tengu stood silent a moment, then nodded acceptance. "That is wise, Yuki-chan. I did not expect to find such wisdom mere moments after I found such foolishness." His black eyes smiled over his expressionless bird face. "Let us return now to where we belong."

Ranma blinked groggily awake to find Nabiki kneeling over him, shaking him by his shoulders and shouting his name. When she saw that his eyes were finally open, she let go of him, allowing him to collapse unceremoniously against the roof tile with a painfulthud.

"It's about time you woke up, Saotome," she said irritably as Ranma sat up rubbing the back of his head and scowling. "You sleep like the dead."

Ranma, still half asleep, didn't respond as his thoughts churned over the strange, disturbing dreams that had plagued his sleep. Normally, he didn't remember his dreams, except for certain reoccurring nightmares he had that involved either cats, or springs with bamboo poles sticking out of them. He remembered this one, though...

He dreamed that he had fallen asleep on the roof, but that he then awoke to see Akane standing over him. He was so glad to see her, so glad that she was alright, that he wanted jump up and take her in his arms, not even caring what might happen if someone saw him.

But he couldn't move. He was frozen in place, unable to even make a sound. It was then that he noticed how strange Akane looked. Her skin was white and bloodless, her eyes sparking with anger and contempt. The look on her face sent anguish stabbing into his heart. Akane? he thought. Wh-what...

She bent over him then, and he swallowed nervously at how beautiful she looked in spite of the anger in her eyes. He wanted to open his mouth, to apologize, to say anything at all, but he was completely immobile. He expected her to pound him into the roof tile, or at least punt him into orbit. But instead, to his surprise, he heard her voice in his mind.

**This,** she said, **is for all the times you've hurt me, all the times you've disappointed me. This is for being a selfish, insensitive pervert. And this is for all the times you've chickened out and failed to express your true feelings for me.**

Ranma looked at Akane, stunned. The agony her words inflicted was sharper than any physical pain he'd ever experienced. Wait, Akane! he thought desperately, struggling to move his unresponsive body in any way. Please! I'm sorry, I always meant to tell you, but I...

His thought was cut off abruptly when she kissed him lightly on the mouth, his mind freezing in shock. The whispery touch of her lips sent cold fire burning across the skin of his face, and he would have gasped in pain if he had been capable of moving. Instead, he lay helplessly as the burning ice spread from his face across his body, seeping through his skin. Then, she placed her white fingers on his chest and began to suck the life out of him.

She's... killing me, Ranma realized. All the feelings of panic had drained out of him, leaving only a deep sadness as the cold black fire slowly ate away at his awareness. I've hurt her so bad, she hates me so much, that she's killing me. Oh, Akane, I'm so sorry, what have I done to you to make you like this? I wish I could tell you...

He would tell her. He may not be able or willing to fight her, but he couldn't die without letting her know. He would focus all his strength and will into one last act. His mind fought, staving off the freezing death that was slowly overtaking him, and he forced his ice-encrusted lungs to expand...

"A... Ak-kane..."

It hurt. He felt as if his frozen insides were shattering with the effort. The cold black nothingness of death was quickly swallowing the last living pieces of him. He had to hurry, before it was too late...

"A-kane... I l-love y..."

Suddenly it was no longer Akane who knelt over him, but a strange woman with the same white skin, and with long white hair. She stared at him, her frost-blue eyes wide in shock.

Where did Akane go? Ranma felt himself slipping away, the blackness almost complete. I hope she heard me, he thought.

And then he felt nothing.

Nothing until Nabiki shook him awake.

"Hey, Ranma, are you okay?" Nabiki's irritation had faded to concern as she looked at her sister's fiance. He seemed really out of it.

Ranma looked at her as if just noticing her for the first time. "Nabiki?" he asked, his eyes clearing a little. He looked around and saw that he was still on the roof, and that it was still dark. "Oh man," he groaned, holding his head. "I just had the weirdest nightmare."

"You can tell me about it later," Nabiki responded, crawling over to the ladder she had propped against the side of the roof. "Right now, we've got some serious business to attend to."

Ranma shook his head, trying to push the lingering traces of the dream out of his brain. "What business?" he asked, confused.

Nabiki paused as she descended the ladder and gave Ranma a level look. "I've had people watching the Nekohanten," she said. "I just got word a few minutes ago that Shampoo and Cologne have returned from China."

The news hit Ranma like lightning, and he was suddenly fully awake. Awake and angry. "They're back?" Forget dreams, forget spell-voices. This was something he could understand; something he could deal with. His battle aura blazed to life, and his blue eyes narrowed in anticipation. He leaped over Nabiki and landed in the yard. "I'm gone!" he yelled, springing to the wall that surrounded the house and jumping to a neighboring rooftop.

"Ranma, wait!" Nabiki called after him. "We're coming with you!" But it was too late. He was already out of earshot. "Idiot," she muttered, descending the ladder.

Ryoga was coming out the patio door as she reached the ground. "Well, did you wake him up?" he asked.

"He's awake, up, and gone," she said. "He didn't even wait for me to tell him that Ukyo wants to be there too. She was pretty upset to hear about what Shampoo did to Ranma."

Ryoga clenched his fists. "That fool!" he snarled. "How dare he leave without me? Ranma!" And with a battle cry, Ryoga leaped over to the wall and to a neighboring rooftop.

"Ryoga, wait!" Nabiki called. "You're going the wrong..." But it was too late. He was gone. Nabiki moaned and rolled her eyes in exasperation. "Idiot!" she exclaimed. Then she sighed. She wanted her sister back, and she wanted to be there to make sure Cologne or Shampoo didn't try any underhanded tricks. "Well, I guess I'll call Ukyo and ask her to meet me there," she said. "It looks like its going to be a long night."

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Inkitt is the world’s first reader-powered publisher, providing a platform to discover hidden talents and turn them into globally successful authors. Write captivating stories, read enchanting novels, and we’ll publish the books our readers love most on our sister app, GALATEA and other formats.