Hearts of Ice

Chapter 6: Lies and Dreams

Cologne rarely slept. In a lifetime that extended over three centuries, she had trained her body to replenish itself in an amazingly short amount of time. She knew how to conserve and use her energy wisely and economically. Her powerful ki constantly recharged itself, sustaining both her ancient body and her abilities as a master of the martial arts. She kept herself alive and strong through sheer will alone, defying the laws of nature that insisted her body should have turned to dust long ago.

Which is why, after traveling on what should have been an exhausting trip from China to Japan, she was awake and alert. She listened carefully, extending her senses through her household. Shampoo and Mousse were finally in their separate rooms, sleeping restlessly after talking in to the early morning hours. She had eavesdropped with interest as Mousse had related to Shampoo the events of the past two days since the blood spell had been cast.

So, Son-in-law had figured it out. That was surprising, considering how oblivious the boy usually was to the workings of human nature, but it was not a completely unexpected turn of events. If they played it right, it could even work to their advantage. The trick would be getting Ranma calm enough to listen to reason...

As if on cue, her meditation was interrupted by the sound of the Nekohanten glass door shattering under the impact of a powerful fist. "HEY, OLD GHOUL!" Ranma's fury-filled voice shouted from the dining area below. "COME DOWN AND FACE ME!"

Cologne's eyes widened in surprise, then narrowed. "Well well," she muttered under her breath. "I should have known Son-in-law wouldn't wait until a decent hour for this confrontation." She reached for her staff and swung herself up to her customary place while balancing the staff on its tip, then closed her eyes and spent a few moments focusing herself for the upcoming battle. Whether the battle would be physical or otherwise had yet to be determined, but it didn't matter. It would be tricky either way.

When she emerged from her room a moment later, she found Shampoo and Mousse standing in the hallway, looking apprehensively down the stairs where the pulsing light of Ranma's battle aura flickered menacingly under the restaurant door.

"Great-grandmother," Shampoo whispered, her eyes wide with worry, "how Ranma know we home already? We supposed to go to him tomorrow."

"Don't worry, Shampoo," said Mousse firmly. "I will not allow that vile Saotome to hurt you."

Shampoo glared at him. "Shampoo no need help from you, Mousse. Besides, husband no hurt Shampoo." She turned away from him then, so that he couldn't see the doubt and fear in her eyes. Ranma sounded so angry...

"YOU HEAR ME, OLD GHOUL? COME DOWN AND FACE ME, OR I'M COMING UP THERE AFTER YOU!"

Cologne sighed. "Well, I would have preferred to break the news to Son-in-law under better circumstances, but I guess we have no choice. Come, Shampoo. You know what we must do."

Shampoo nodded, her heart beating in her throat, and followed Cologne down the stairs.

Mousse followed mutely, still smarting from Shampoo's rebuke, and wished he were wearing his arsenal-laden robes instead of just his black pajama bottoms. He pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose with his index finger and watched nervously as Cologne opened the door to the Nekohanten dining area. If you do anything to hurt Shampoo, Saotome, he thought solemnly, I swear I won't rest until you've been punished.

Cologne entered the dining area and faced Ranma calmly. Shampoo and Mousse followed close behind.

Shampoo took one look at Ranma and felt all her hopes of persuading him to her side as a willing husband slowly disintegrate. His narrowed blue eyes, so handsome even in anger, met hers briefly when she entered the room, and the look of hurt betrayal on his face pierced her to the heart. In that brief moment when she met his cold gaze, he seemed to be saying How could you do this to me, Shampoo? I thought you were my friend. Shampoo brought her hands up to her mouth to choke back a sob. Aiya! The plan isn't going to work. He hates me. Tears began to spill down her cheeks.

But Ranma didn't see her tears. His attention was already focused on Cologne, his battle ki burning red-gold with fury, casting flickering shadows among the rows of stacked tables and chairs in the dark dining area. He stood tensed in a battle stance, his hands at the ready. Shampoo winced when she saw a thin trickle of blood dripping unheeded from his knuckles where the splintering glass of the shattered Nekohanten door had cut deep.

"All right, ghoul," Ranma said, his voice low and dangerous. "I'm gonna give you one chance to undo what you did to Akane and me. You'd better break this blood spell if you know what's good for you."

Cologne met his gaze unflinching. "I'm afraid I can't do that," she answered.

Ranma growled in frustration, and clenched his fists. "Aw man, I just knew you were gonna say that," he said. "Have it your way then. I challenge you, old ghoul. If I win, you bring Akane back from wherever you sent her. And you get these voices out of my head," he added as the spell-voices swelled up in his mind, insisting that he would never see Akane again. He glared at Cologne, and waited for her standard 'If I win, you marry Shampoo' reply.

So, Cologne thought. Even though we've torn his life asunder, the boy still has honor enough to extend a formal challenge rather than attack blindly. The old crone chuckled inwardly, yet kept her expression neutral. If they engaged in physical combat, she knew Ranma would give her a run for her money, and she would run the risk of losing everything that she and Shampoo had worked so hard for. She had learned more than once that it was unwise to underestimate Ranma's physical prowess and sheer stubborn refusal to lose. But now... This is going to be easier than I thought.

She gazed at Ranma levelly, her wrinkled face betraying no expression. "I refuse the challenge," she said.

"Fine, let's get to it," Ranma said, dropping into an attack crouch. "There's no way I'm gonna let you..." Suddenly Cologne's response penetrated his brain, and he blinked, stunned. "What did you say?"

"I said I refuse the challenge. I will not fight you."

"But you... I..." Ranma stuttered, his battle aura flickering out and plunging the restaurant into darkness as his anger faltered into flustered confusion. She couldn't refuse his challenge, could she? To refuse a challenge... It just wasn't done! He had to fight Cologne. Otherwise, how was he going to force her to bring Akane back?

"Ranma, I think we should sit down and talk for a moment. Shampoo and I have something to tell you."

Ranma blinked again. Talk? They wanted to talk? This wasn't the way it was supposed to go. He'd been psyching himself up for a battle royal for the past two days, and they wanted to talk? Something was not right here.

"There's nothing to talk about," he snapped, trying to regain his mental footing. "I know you cast a blood spell on me and Akane, and I'm not gonna rest until you break it."

"You are wrong, Ranma. We did not cast the blood spell."

Ranma laughed, short and harsh. "Yeah, right. You expect me to believe that?"

"Actually... no," Cologne said softly. She spoke slowly, annunciating each word carefully. "We don't expect you to believe us. Because the purpose of the spell was for you to hate Shampoo. And if the spell is working like we think it is, you probably believe that Shampoo and I cast the spell to get rid of Akane. Isn't that right?"

Ranma stared at Cologne, just barely able to see her diminutive form in the pale light that shone through the windows from outside. "Well... yeah," he managed finally. "I mean, why else..." He trailed off uncertainly. Did she just say that the spell was supposed to make him hate Shampoo? If that was the case, it sure was working. But why on earth would they cast a spell like that? Unless... unless the old ghoul was telling the truth, and they didn't cast the spell. But then who would...

Cologne smiled inwardly, sensing rather than seeing the confusion on Ranma's face in the darkness. Time to appeal to Son-in-law's considerable ego. "You are strong, Ranma," she said gravely. "You have it within you to fight off the effects of anger and hatred that the spell has placed in you, and listen calmly to our explanation."

Ranma was silent a moment. Shampoo stood frozen in the deep shadows and looked at his tense figure, framed by the shattered door and backlit from the street lamps outside. Her silent tears had ceased, mostly out of amazement as she watched how adeptly her great-grandmother handled Ranma.

"Okay," Ranma said finally. Reluctantly. "I'm listening."

"You already know that I took Shampoo to China for a training mission," Cologne said. "We went to a secret training area in the mountains that we Amazons use for its perilous landscapes and dangerous animal inhabitants to improve our survival skills. Only the most advanced warriors are able to train in these mountains. I knew that it would be risky, but I felt confident that Shampoo was up to the challenge. What I didn't realize, and what I regret discovering too late, was that those mountains are now inhabited by a very powerful, very evil dragon."

"A... dragon?" Ranma's voice lost some of its angry edge. Ranma had come across a dragon or two in his training, and had been lucky to come out of the encounters alive. "You went up against a dragon?"

"Actually, Shampoo went up against a dragon."

Ranma looked up to where Shampoo stood in the dark, the pale light from the street lamps outside outlining her features. "You fought a dragon, Shampoo?"

Shampoo blinked and shook herself mentally. It was time, and Cologne was waiting for her to tell her own story. Her own lie.

"Shampoo not have much choice," she said, her voice shaking. "Dragon kidnap me when I sleep. Dragon want to make Shampoo his bride. But I tell dragon I rather die than marry him. I tell him I already have good husband..."

Shampoo saw Ranma flinch at this, but she continued. She couldn't seem to steady her voice. "Dragon use his magic to find out about you. He say he make you hate me so that I no have husband. He say he do worse thing possible to you and make it... make it look like my fault..." Her tears were flowing again uncontrollably; her face was pale mask of grief.

Ranma stood numb with shock, trying to absorb her story. So the old ghoul didn't cast the blood spell. And Shampoo was an innocent victim, just like he was. Looking at her, he could see the glistening tear tracks course down her cheeks in the darkness, and felt something unidentifiable tremble in his chest. He had lots of experience with getting blamed for something he had no control over. His brow creased in sympathy, and he unconsciously reached out his hand. "Shampoo..."

"He use own blood to cast spell," Shampoo continued. "I... I try to stop him but..." Her voice choked off, and she swallowed hard against the tears and the bile that rose in her throat with the lie. "P-please, Ranma. Don't h-hate Shampoo. I help you. I help you find Akane. I help you find a way to break spell."

Ranma hated to see Shampoo, or any girl, cry. It made him feel all panicky and helpless inside. "It's okay, Shampoo. Don't cry, please. I... I don't hate you."

Oddly enough, that only made Shampoo cry harder. Ranma waved his arms in helpless agitation. "Auggh! What did I say? I'm sorry, don't cry!"

"Oh Ranma!" Shampoo flung herself at Ranma, wrapping her arms around his torso and sobbing into his chest. "Shampoo so glad you no hate her."

"Uhhh." Ranma gulped loudly and glanced around quickly, half expecting to see Akane appear to mallet him into the floor. Then he remembered, and a wave of sadness swept over him. He carefully extricated himself from Shampoo's grip and looked into her face. "Did you mean that, Shampoo? Will you help me get Akane back?"

Shampoo nodded, blinking tears from her eyes.

"Ranma?" Cologne came over to him. At that moment, he realized that the old ghoul had called him by name; that she had been calling him by name since he first arrived. No infuriating "son-in-law" or condescending "sonny boy." Just Ranma. It was odd. She knew how much he hated it when she called him by those other "titles." Why had she stopped? She wasn't actually giving up her claim on him... was she? Did the old ghoul really feel that bad about what had happened?

"I too will do whatever I can to help you break the blood spell," she said. "You should know, Ranma, that when I arrived at the dragon's lair to rescue Shampoo, I managed to disrupt the blood spell while Shampoo distracted the beast. I believe the spell was originally meant to kill Akane. I was able to prevent that, however, through my interference. I only wish I had the time to do more, but it was impossible under the circumstances. The dragon wasn't too pleased with my meddling. We were lucky to escape with our lives."

Ranma's eyes widened in shock as he faced Cologne in the darkness. The spell was supposed to kill Akane? He didn't want to think about what he might have done had the spell succeeded. Probably fulfilled the dragon's expectations, no doubt. But Cologne... Cologne had actually saved Akane. And was offering to help him find a way to break the spell to get her back.

"I..." Ranma didn't know what to say. He had come expecting a fight and instead had received an offer of help. So what if Cologne didn't know how to break the spell at the moment. If anyone could figure it out, she could. He bowed. "Arigato," he said, unable to think of anything else to say. Then, looking at the floor, he saw that he was standing on pieces of shattered glass. "Uhh... Sorry about your door," he said sheepishly.

Cologne chuckled. "It's no problem. This place has seen a lot worse."

Without warning, the lights flipped on, and the group squinted against the sudden brightness. They turned, surprised to see Mousse standing by the light switch. They had forgotten that he was there.

Mousse clenched his jaw tightly, fighting to hold off the despair that was settling in his heart. Although he initially had reservations, he had secretly hoped that Ranma would attack so that he could defend and protect Shampoo, showing her once and for all that he was the better man. Instead, he watched with sinking hopes as Ranma once again wound his cords of womanizing treachery around Shampoo's heart. And now, not even Akane was around to temper Saotome's hold on his beloved.

There was only one thing to do. "Ranma, I too will do whatever I can to help you find Akane," he said, peering intently through his glasses at his rival.

Ranma smiled. "Hey, thanks, Mousse," he said sincerely. "I really appreciate it."

"Oh Ranma!" Shampoo grabbed his injured hand and held it up to examine it. "You bleeding. I go get bandages."

Ranma looked at the cut he'd sustained while smashing the door, noticing it for the first time. "Aw man, how'd that happen?"

Shampoo came back and began cleaning the cut. Ranma sat and allowed her to fuss over him, trying not to squirm as she applied some healing herbs to the wound.

Cologne watched and smiled.

Everything was going according to plan.


Ukyo ran, sprinting with athletic grace from rooftop to rooftop, her long chestnut brown hair, tied with a white ribbon, flowing out behind her. To a casual observer she might have appeared to be a wind sprite or some other ethereal creature. A closer examination would have shattered that illusion. Most ethereal creatures don't have giant battle spatulas strapped to their backs.

She scowled, her face creasing with anger and worry. "Ranchan, you jackass," she muttered. "Why couldn't you have waited, instead of running off half-cocked to face Shampoo and Cologne? If they've gone so far as to cast this so-called blood spell on you, who knows what other tricks they've got up their sleeves?"

The thought made her increase her speed a few notches. She had to get there, before that Chinese bimbo and that old mummy did anything to Ranchan. Her mind was so focused on this thought that she didn't notice a figure in her peripheral vision, leaping over the rooftops, closing in on her with astonishing speed...

... until she collided with it full force in mid air.

"Aaaahhh!" Ukyo fell to the ground below, flipping just in time to land awkwardly on her feet. She lost her balance and sat hard on her rump on the sidewalk. "Ouch!" She rubbed the side of her face, feeling a small lump at her temple where something hard had impacted. "What..?!"

"Ungghh..."

Ukyo looked over to see a figure hunched over on the grass. She staggered to her feet and cautiously drew closer, pulling a few of her sharp mini-spatulas from her bandolier and holding them at the ready. "Who..?"

The figure looked up, holding a hand to his bleeding nose. "U... Ukyo?!"

Ukyo gasped. "Ryoga?! What are you doing here?"

"I'b on by way to the Dekohaden to fight Colode!" he snapped, pinching his nose to stop the blood flow. "Ad least I was udtil you rad idto be!"

"You jackass!" Ukyo responded, replacing her spatulas and grabbing Ryoga's arm to pull him to his feet. "You ran into me! And besides, if you were headed to the Nekohanten, you were going the wrong way! The Nekohanten," she said, pointing, "is that way. Now come on! Ranchan's probably been there a few minutes already." She leaped to the rooftop again.

Ryoga scowled, probing his nose carefully to make sure the bleeding had stopped, then followed her on her gravity-defying run. "That fool Ranma!" he snarled. "How dare he leave to fight Cologne without me?"

"Less talk, more running," Ukyo snapped back. Just a little further...

She jumped from the rooftop to the ground, landing in front of the Nekohanten. Ryoga landed next to her a moment later. Together, they stared at the store front.

The door was shattered, and the lights were on. They listened carefully. The sounds of a desperate battle failed to reach their ears. It was eerily quiet. Ukyo and Ryoga looked at each other in baffled apprehension.

"Uhh, do you think we missed it?" Ryoga asked hesitantly.

Ukyo's expression hardened. If those two had done anything to Ranchan... "Only one way to find out," she said, and she stepped through the broken door.

Ranma sat at a table, looking at Shampoo with amazement as she wrapped his right hand in a white gauze bandage. "No kidding? The dragon sent twelve demon guards after you? How'd you get away?"

"Great-grandmother, she know many warding spells that keep them back." That wasn't a complete lie. But then she'd been trying to get to the dragon, not trying to get away.

Ranma frowned. "Aren't you worried that the dragon will come looking for you? I mean, since he seemed so determined to marry you and all..."

Shampoo giggled nervously. "Oh, no worry about that. Dragon not follow me all the way to Japan from China."

"Hmm." Ranma's mouth twitched in skepticism as he thought about all the things - and people - that had followed him home from China.

"A-hem."

Ranma looked up at the sound of Ryoga clearing his throat to see the Lost Boy scowling at him and Ukyo staring at him with wide eyes and a slack jaw. "Ucchan! Ryoga!" he exclaimed, his face lighting up in a pleased, but puzzled expression. "What are you doing here?"

Ukyo stared at him, dumbfounded. "Ranchan... I... we... came to help, but..."

"What the hell is going on here?" Ryoga demanded, glaring at Ranma. Trust him to foul up Akane's rescue. "What happened to the big battle that was supposed to take place?"

Just then, Cologne entered the dining area balanced on her staff and carrying two bowls of ramen. Ryoga turned on her angrily. "You! Have you agreed to bring back Akane?"

Cologne ignored him and set the bowls down in front of Ranma and Shampoo. Ranma looked at his bowl suspiciously for a moment, but then noticed Shampoo looking at him with a strange, sad expression on her face, and he felt guilty. Surely they wouldn't try anything like that after what had happened, especially after they'd offered to help him. Besides, it wasn't like she was Kodachi or anything. He smiled a little at Shampoo and began to devour the ramen.

Ryoga's temper simmered, and he was about to yell something along the lines of 'how dare you ignore me,' when Cologne turned suddenly and whapped him over the head with her staff. "I didn't send Akane anywhere in the first place," she said, as Ryoga clutched his head in pain. "But to answer your question, impertinent boy, yes. I have offered to help Ranma find a way to break the blood spell."

Ryoga blinked as the pain in his head receded, and looked back and forth between Ranma and Cologne. "You didn't..? You mean-"

Ranma slurped up the last of his ramen and wiped his mouth on his sleeve. "She means that they didn't do it, Ryoga," he said. "It was some dragon in China that wanted to marry Shampoo. She wouldn't marry him because," Ranma swallowed, still uncomfortable with the idea, "because of me. So he cast the spell to make me hate her. But don't worry," he said, smiling. "If anyone can lift this spell, Cologne can."

"Oh my," said a new voice. "Isn't this a sight to warm the heart. And here I came expecting to see the place torn to pieces."

Everyone turned to see Nabiki standing in the doorway, her arms folded across her chest, looking at the group with a cool expression. She dropped her arms to her sides and stepped carefully through the broken glass. "So, looks like I missed the party. Ranma? Care to fill me in on what's going on? That is unless you're too influenced by whatever dubious concoctions these two witches have managed to shove down your throat."

Shampoo bristled in anger and stood to face Nabiki. "We no use anything like that, sneaky girl! We want to help Ranma!"

Nabiki raised an eyebrow. "Is that so."

Ranma stood, flexing his hand in the bandage, and placing himself between the two girls. "Hey, Nabiki, it's okay. They explained everything to me. They weren't the ones who cast the spell, but they're going to help me find a way to break it."

"Hmm." Nabiki walked up to Ranma and peered clinically into his eyes, looking for any sign of the drugged blankness that usually accompanied some of his fiancees' attempts to chemically induce his cooperation. Aside from the tiny bloodshot lines that told of his lack of sleep the past few days, his eyes were remarkably clear.

She sighed and shook her head. She could feel Cologne's piercing eyes on her, but she ignored the old ghoul and focused her attention on Ranma. If the old woman tried anything against her, that in itself would make Ranma doubt the veracity of the story he'd been told. She smiled slightly, knowing Cologne could do nothing.

"Oh yes, that's right," she said, rolling her eyes in disgust. "I heard you mention this Chinese dragon who supposedly cast this spell when I came in." She fixed Ranma with a look that would have made Einstein feel dumb. "You're not really going to fall for that, are you? You actually believe that some dragon all the way in China away just happened to cast a spell that completely eliminated Shampoo's competition in the fiancée department?"

"Hey!" Ukyo fumed. "What am I, chopped liver?"

"It's not like that at all." Ranma glared at Nabiki angrily. "You don't know what Shampoo went through, Nabiki. Look at her! Look at the battle scars on her. You think she made that up? Look at her arm. The dragon pierced right through it with his claw when she was trying to escape. I don't think she did that to herself!"

Nabiki looked at Shampoo. She had to admit, the Amazon girl did look like she'd recently seen a nasty battle. Her body was covered with nasty cuts and bruises.

Still, Ranma may be able to accept such a story, but the whole thing was a little too convenient for her liking. She had a sense for these things, for feeling out people, and knowing what motivated them. And most of all, for sensing when someone was trying to pull a fast one. It was a very... profitable talent.

Mostly, though, she didn't like the well-disguised predatorial look Cologne was giving Ranma. The untrained observer would have missed the subtle expression on the old crone's face completely. But Nabiki had worn the expression herself too many times to be fooled.

So, that's your game, she thought, keeping her own expression neutral. The manipulation, blackmail, and the phony cure bribes haven't worked, so you get rid of my little sister and then ingratiate yourself to Ranma with the pretense of selflessly helping him get her back. Very clever. I'm just afraid I can't allow you to get away with this.

She looked at Ranma, who was still full of righteous indignation. Just below the surface of his ire, though, she could see in him signs of exhaustion and despair. For a moment, she felt a twinge of pity for him. It was obvious that he was suffering; that Akane's disappearance was eating away at him. But then it almost served him right. She had always been slightly annoyed that the stupid jerk would never come out and admit that he loved her little sister. Still...

She sighed. Fine. He may be too soft-hearted and soft-headed to recognize the trap he was in at the moment, but she'd find a way to expose this scam soon enough.

"I'm sorry, Ranma," she said smoothly. "Perhaps I was jumping to conclusions."

"I'll say," snapped Ukyo, still steamed at Nabiki. "If Shampoo wanted to get rid of fiancees, she would have gotten rid of me too."

Nabiki gave the okonomiyaki cook a thin smile. "Well, I stand corrected," she said. As she turned back to Ranma, she noticed Cologne peering at her intently. She pretended not to notice.

Ranma slumped back into his seat, glad that everything was straightened out, sort of. The adrenaline and anger that had kept him going for the past few days was wearing off, and he was having a hard time keeping his eyes open.

Nabiki tugged on his sleeve. "Come on, Ranma. We'd better get you home so you can get some decent sleep."

Cologne surprised Nabiki by agreeing. "Quite right," she said. "I have a feeling you'll need all your strength for what we'll have to do to break this spell."

Ranma protested, but only half-heartedly. The only rest he'd had was his short nap on the roof, and that sleep had been so full of strange nightmares about Akane that he'd felt more drained than rested when he awoke.

"Hey," said Ukyo as Nabiki herded both Ranma and a baffled Ryoga out the door. "Wait, I'm coming with you." When Nabiki gave her a reproachful look, she smiled sheepishly. "I... I mean, if that's okay with you, Nabiki, since it's your house," she said. "I just don't want to get left out of the action again, and if I stay with you guys, I can be there to help out."

Nabiki's expression softened. Ukyo may be annoying with her constant claims that she was Ranma's fiancée, but she was a good person, and not even close to approaching Shampoo's level of annoyance and possessiveness. "It's alright. You can stay with us." She didn't miss the look of triumph that Ukyo cast at Shampoo. Shampoo stuck out her tongue, making a face back, but then her expression dissolved into a sulk as she watched them leave.

Nabiki was suddenly very glad she allowed Ukyo to stay.


Ranma dreamed.

This time there were no dreams about deathly pale Akanes come to suck the life out of him, much to his relief. Instead, he found himself standing in the middle of a vast, snow-covered plain, stretching forever in all directions. The night sky above him was clear and sparkling with billions of cold bright stars.

Cold. It was bitter cold. Ranma found himself shivering, and he wrapped his arms around himself.

Then he tensed, his eyes widening in fear. Two familiar voices, each thick and black as tar, came whispering across the plain, softly at first, but increasing in intensity as they grew closer.

"No," he mouthed silently. "No, why can't you leave me alone?" He turned around in a circle, looking for a way to escape, but there was nowhere to run, nowhere to hide on the flat expanse of snowy landscape. Then, the voices were upon him, swirling around him, tearing and biting at his skin like a cold wind. He clutched his head and moaned. "No!" he shouted, as the voices grew increasingly louder. "Go away, leave me alone! I won't let you stop me, I'll find her, you hear?!"

But the voices were relentless. They increased in volume and speed until his mind was full of an insane, screeching babble. He sank to his knees in the snow, clutching his head, his eyes clenched shut, squeezing out tears of anguish. "Stop it!" he screamed, to be heard over the voices raging in his head. "Stop it! I'm not going to give up! So just leave me alone! I don't care how loud you yell, I'm not going to listen! I'm not going to listen!" He kept chanting that over and over...

...and then the voices stopped abruptly, as if a stereo cord had just been cut, leaving Ranma is sudden silence, his ears and head ringing with the echo.

Ranma knelt for a few minutes, his eyes firmly closed, and took deep breaths. Then, when he was sure the voices had really disappeared, he slowly, carefully opened his eyes. He was surprised to realize that the bitter edge of cold was gone. It was still cold, but not unpleasantly so. He staggered to his feet and turned around.

His eyes widened as he found himself staring into the face of... of...

"I wondered how long you were going to sit there." said the strange red creature, who looked for all the world like... like an overgrown, humanoid mutant sparrow.

"Gahh!" Ranma staggered back a step, startled. He was not expecting to hear words come out of such an inhuman... er, beak.

"Uhh... Wh-who... What are you?" he asked finally, as the strange bird-like creature stared at him with twinkling, mischievous black eyes.

"Funny," said Masakazu, "your fiancée said almost the exact same thing when she first saw me."

Ranma blinked. "Fiancée? You... You mean that you've seen Akane?!"

The tengu nodded. Ranma grabbed him by the shoulders. "Where? Where is she? Is she okay? You've got to take me to her!"

Masakazu reached up and gently removed Ranma's hands. "Akane is fine, for the moment," he said. "She is a strong girl. It's easy to see why you love her."

Ranma's jaw sagged.

How did he..? He never said...

Had he?

Then he remembered his other dream. He had said those three little words that had terrified him for so long. But... it was just a dream, right? And how did this thing know?

Duh, he realized. This is a dream too. Of course something you dream about would know.

"I think you've got it wrong, Ranma. You are dreaming, yes, but you are also here."

"Huh?"

"We are on the outskirts of Yuki-onna's domain. Akane is here, staying with Yuki-onna. She is safe, but she cannot leave, and you cannot see her. For now."

Ranma eyes lit with excitement, his brain missing everything the tengu said after "Akane is here."

"She's here?!" he asked anxiously. "Where? Can you take me to her?"

The tengu looked at Ranma gravely. "Listen, boy," he said sharply, getting Ranma's attention. "We don't have much time here. Normally, I would not be allowed to interfere with a mortal life in such a way, but because the Snow Woman tried to take your life unfairly, I have... decided to take this brief moment to talk with you."

Ranma blinked, not understanding half of what the strange creature was talking about, but he nodded mutely, realizing the seriousness of the situation.

"You cannot see Akane now because you are merely a dream presence that I summoned, and that I alone can interact within the Kami realm, whereas Akane is a real, physical presence here. You would not be able to see her, nor would she be able to see you, even if you were standing right next to each other."

"Oh," said Ranma. A wave of bitter disappointment washed over him. To be so close, and yet fail..!

"Stop it," the tengu snapped, his black eyes sparking fiercely. "What are you trying to do, unleash the voices again? I've locked them away from your mind temporarily, but even as we speak, the blood spell is eating away at my barrier, and when it breaks through, you will have to be strong enough, and positive enough to withstand their taunting. Otherwise, when Akane finally comes home, you won't even be sane enough to appreciate her. Do you understand me?"

Ranma gulped and nodded.

"Now listen carefully. You two are linked. You both love each other, in spite of your mutual ineptness at expressing your true feelings. That, combined with the ki blasts you released on the spell, which weakened it before it reached you, has created some interesting side effects not originally intended, not the least of which is a transdimensional link in the blood spell between you and Akane. This is good because, were it not for that link, Akane's memory of the mortal world would gradually fade, as well as would your memory of her. It is the nature of the Kami realm to affect mortal minds in such a manner.

"Even so, there is a danger. The link is weak. It was never meant to exist. If by some chance it should fail, you must not forget Akane. If you do, she will surely forget her home, and remain forever in the Kami realm. Do you understand? The best thing you can do for her now is remember her."

Ranma looked at the tengu, askance. "There's no way I'd forget Akane," he said. "How could I forget all those times that violent tomboy has pounded me into the pavement or sent me through the roof?" Or those times when she smiles and looks so cute, or those times when she's done something really nice for me, or when she's scared me to half to death when something's happened to her, and I'm afraid that I won't be able to save her in time...

...in time...

The tengu watched Ranma silently, his black eyes calm and unblinking.

Ranma slowly came out of his reverie, his fists clenching at his sides. He looked the tengu in the face. "I won't forget Akane," he said firmly.

"Good. Because you're not going to remember this dream."

"What?!" Ranma looked around at the snowy landscape and realized that it was fading away, as was the strange bird creature in front of him. "Wait," he said in frustration. "I need to remember! Why would you go through all the trouble of telling me this only to make me forget?!"

"You'll be allowed to retain this conversation subconsciously," said the fading tengu, "but to allow you to have conscious access to this memory would break our already seriously bent rules."

"But... but I..." The landscape had almost completely melted away.

"Don't worry, Ranma." The tengu had disappeared, leaving only his voice behind. "You can do it. I wouldn't have made the effort to contact you if I didn't think you could succeed."

"Wait, please!" Ranma pleaded. He could feel himself rising to consciousness, waking up. He gritted his teeth, fighting to stay where he was, willing the creature to come back. "I have so many questions!"

"Goodbye Ranma." The voice faded to a slightly indignant, yet amused mutter... "Mutant sparrow indeed..." ...and was gone.

Ranma gasped awake, sitting straight up on his futon. His father in panda form snored loudly beside him and rolled over.

"Damn," he muttered, wiping the cold sweat from his forehead. "What a weird dream." He thought about it and frowned. What was it about? Something about snow and... red feathers?

He shrugged and sighed. His body ached with exhaustion. Without preamble, he collapsed back onto his pillow, and in moments was snoring louder than the panda.

This time, he didn't dream.

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