Hearts of Ice

Chapter 7: Power Play

Nabiki padded quietly out of her room and walked down the hall. The house was dark and silent except for the familiar, comforting sound of Kasumi starting her early morning ritual of preparing breakfast in the kitchen downstairs. Nabiki shook her head, a half smile tugging at her lips. How oneechan managed to get up so early every single morning and stay so damn cheerful was a mystery to her.

She was not a morning person herself. Under normal circumstances, she would still be in bed cherishing every extra moment of unconscious bliss, curled in her downy-soft covers. For her to be up so early - willingly at least - was a rare thing indeed.

She headed downstairs, but then, on an impulse, she paused outside Akane's room. Reaching out, her hand hovered just over the door knob, her eyes lingering on the English letters that spelled out Akane's name on the little wooden duck that hung on the door.

A small, sad frown furrowed her brow, not quite reaching her mouth. She blinked, shook her head slightly, and opened the door.

Pale, pre-dawn light seeped through the closed drapes. Akane's homework was still spread open on the desk from where she'd left it to go down to dinner three days previous, just before the blood spell hit.

Nabiki went over to the desk, sat down in the chair, and opened the bottom drawer. Underneath stacks of papers and letters was a smooth metal tin, decorated with hand-painted flowers... or were they little animals? Nabiki grinned. Whatever they were, the bright splashes of color had been painted with tender care, if little skill.

She carefully pulled the lid off to reveal Akane's most personal treasures within. Lifting them out, she examined each item in the dim light contemplatively, almost reverently.

First Place award ribbons from martial arts tournaments. Mother's cook book, carefully folded open to the "How to boil water" page. Old photographs of the family, with Mother, holding baby Akane on her lap, her beautiful face smiling in two-dimensional black and white. And, on the very bottom of the tin, a picture of...

Nabiki's eyes widened as she looked at the photo; a photo which clearly showed Ranma kneeling on her sister's lap, his hands curled into cat paws, kissing a very surprised Akane.

A slow smirk crept onto Nabiki's face. Well, well. After all the fuss she made after that incident, who would have thought she'd keep this? She chuckled softly. It was a shame that Ranma could only show his true affection for Akane when his pathological terror of cats sent his mind on a temporary vacation.

Hmm. I wondered if Ranma ever figured out the real reason Akane was so angry after his cat-kiss.

"Probably not," she muttered out loud as she placed the treasures back into the tin. She looked around the room, looking at everything from the spare school uniform hanging on the wall to the weights on the floor. The whole room had the feel of Akane, even though she was gone.

Nabiki sighed heavily. She had no illusions about her relationship with her little sister. They didn't always get along, and they had very little in common. But that didn't change the feelings and the bond of sisterhood between them. Out of the three siblings, Akane was more of a sister to her than Kasumi. Kasumi had taken the mantle of motherhood upon herself after Mother's death; she had made the sacrifice and had grown up fast so that the younger Tendo sisters could enjoy their youth, and all the typical sibling rivalry that went with it.

Sure, she and Akane argued frequently, and very rarely saw eye to eye on anything.

But that didn't matter.

It was time to get her little sister back.

Nabiki stood and left the room, closing the door softly behind her. She walked down the hall and peeked into the Saotomes' room. Ranma was sleeping deeply, curled on his side, a thin line of drool running from the corner of his open mouth to soak his pillow. The lines of exhaustion that had creased his face the previous night seemed to have smoothed slightly. Smiling in satisfaction, she quietly closed the door, and went downstairs.

Kasumi noticed her as she was on her way out the front door. "Why, Nabiki! You're certainly up bright and early this morning. Where are you off to?"

"I'll be back in a few minutes, oneechan." Nabiki smiled, her eyes glinting with secret devilment. "I've got a little errand to run."

Ukyo wanted to scream.

She didn't, of course. Cute fiancees don't scream.

She groaned instead, pulling her knees up to her chin as she lay curled on her borrowed futon, staring up at the ceiling of the Tendo living room. Her long, thick hair spread out on her pillow behind her head in a silky chestnut halo. Her brow furrowed in frustration over bright green eyes that glimmered with conflicting emotions.

Why do I do this to myself? she thought.

The opportunity of a lifetime had just been dropped in her lap, thanks to Shampoo's disastrous trip to China. But she wasn't completely happy with the way this opportunity had come about. Even though Ranchan's turbulent roma... er, relationship... with Akane drove her crazy with frustration sometimes, she didn't wish any real harm to come to her rival.

In fact, she actually felt bad that Akane was gone. Strange though it was, she and Akane were almost... friends? But that wasn't the only reason. She could see how badly the whole situation was affecting the Tendo family. Kasumi's cheerful demeanor was tainted with strain and worry. Ukyo hadn't seen Tendo-san, but she knew that Kasumi was taking meals to his room, leading her to believe that the grief-torn man had withdrawn into himself. And Nabiki...

She didn't know what to think about Nabiki. Out of all those close to Akane, the middle Tendo daughter seemed the least affected by her disappearance, at least emotionally. Nabiki was as cool and distant and calculating as ever. And yet, last night at the Nekohanten...

Ukyo shook her head. The workings of Nabiki's mind were a mystery to her. She couldn't understand how someone could blackmail, extort and manipulate people the way she did, and still be able to live with herself...

Oh, and who are you to judge? she thought to herself wryly. It's not like you've never benefitted from Nabiki's schemes before. Memories rose to the surface of her mind of all the times she'd bought candid pictures of Ranma-kun from Nabiki, or even rented him by the hour so that she could spend time with him.

Ukyo cringed in shame, clutching her knees tighter to her chest. I... I can't believe I'm so desperate for a piece of Ranchan that I'd stoop to that. And yet she did. She had.

And now, Akane was gone. Whisked away by the blood spell to some unknown place, leaving Ranma behind, minus one fiancée.

The opportunity of a lifetime. Now that Akane was out of the way, even if it was only temporarily, she could finally show Ranchan what a supportive, helpful, loving person she really was; prove to him once and for all that she was the right one for him. And without Akane's constant, violent presence to distract him, he might finally notice. And might finally start thinking of her as more than just his childhood buddy.

She knew, of course, that Shampoo had similar plans for Ranchan. It was so obvious, the way the purple-haired hussy had hovered over him the night before.

Ukyo scowled at the thought. Though she didn't have any proof - and though she hated to admit it because of what it implied - she was of the strong opinion that Nabiki might be right about Shampoo. She didn't think that Shampoo had really been kidnapped by any Chinese dragon. The whole blood spell thing had to be just an elaborate ruse concocted by Shampoo to get Ranchan for herself. At least it was certainly easier to believe that than the fanciful story Shampoo and Cologne had perpetuated. Still, stranger things had happened...

If what she believed was true, though, then Shampoo had failed to take her seriously as a rival for Ranchan's love. In that, the Chinese Amazon had made a big mistake. Shampoo didn't realize that once Akane was gone, she, Ukyo Kuonji, Ranchan's best friend and confidant, was next in line for his affection.

Next in line... Ukyo grimaced. It almost sounds like I'm waiting to get on a carnival ride.

She wanted to tell Ranchan of her suspicions about Shampoo. She would have in a second, but for one thing. He believed Shampoo's story. He had stood up for her against Nabiki when the canny girl had expressed the very things that had run through Ukyo's own mind. If she said anything now, she ran the risk of alienating him just when she finally had him within her grasp...

Ukyo sighed in frustration, uncurling herself and running her hands through her hair as she sat up on the futon. Oh Ranchan, why do things have to be so complicated?

Just then, Kasumi walked past the open screen. "Good morning, Ukyo," she said. "Would you like some breakfast?"

Ukyo looked at the eldest Tendo daughter. In spite of all that had happened, Kasumi still found time to think of others. Feeling strangely guilty, Ukyo pushed her confused emotions to the back of her mind, and smiled. "Thanks, Kasumi, that would be nice. Do you need any help in the kitchen?"

"That's alright. I'm almost done. Do you mind waking up Ranma and Ryoga? Nabiki is gone, and Uncle Saotome is already at the table."

"Sure, no problem," she said, kneeling to fold the futon. Nabiki's gone? she thought. I wonder where she ran off to so early?

At that moment, Nabiki burst through the front door. She ran down the hall and past the two astonished girls, holding a small cardboard box to her chest, and leaped up the stairs, taking two at a time. She then disappeared into her room, closing the door behind her.

"Oh my," said Kasumi, looking at the stairs. "I've never seen Nabiki in such a hurry before. I wonder what she's doing."

Ukyo shook her head, baffled. "I have no idea," she said. But knowing her, it's something sneaky.

Kasumi went back into the kitchen. Ukyo finished folding the futon and the blankets, stacking them neatly in the corner. Then she walked up the stairs, pausing just outside of Nabiki's room. She strained to hear what the girl might be doing, but it was deadly quiet on the other side of the door.

Ukyo frowned in puzzlement, then shrugged, and walked over to Ranchan's door.

She knocked. "Ranchan, wake up, it's time for breakfast."

There was no answer. She opened the door carefully and peeked in. Ranma was still asleep, lying on his back, tangled up in his covers, wearing nothing but his tank top and boxers. His arms sprawled on either side of his head, and his mouth hung slightly open. He was snoring softly.

He looked so peaceful. At that moment, it seemed impossible that he could be the center of the tangled tapestry of chaos and misunderstanding that always seemed to surround him.

Ukyo blinked, and realized that a silly smile had plastered itself on her face as she looked at Ranma. He was so cute when he was asleep! Akane was so lucky. She probably saw him like this all the time...

Ukyo swallowed, and cut off the thought as her mixed emotions over Akane's disappearance swelled within her. She pushed them back down, and went over to kneel by Ranma.

"Hey," she said, putting her hand on his shoulder to shake him lightly. "Wake up. It's time to eat. You don't want to miss breakfast, do you?" She shook him again.

Ranma sighed, rubbed his arm across his forehead, mumbled something incoherent, and rolled over. Still sound asleep.

Ukyo grinned and felt her eyes moisten. That was just so... so him. Watching him, being near him, she wondered what it would be like to wake up every morning and see him like this, by her side. At the thought, her heart seemed so full it felt like it would burst. She pressed a hand to her chest to hold in the sensation, almost afraid that her physical frame couldn't contain the emotions she was feeling. Now I know what that old saying means, she thought, looking at Ranma with glistening eyes. I love you so much, it hurts.

"Hey, silly," she said, speaking both to herself and Ranma as she blinked back the wetness in her eyes and shook him again. "Wake up already."

"Unghh," Ranma moaned, waving his arm limply as if trying to brush away whatever was disturbing his sleep. Ukyo giggled.

"Don't wake him up."

Ukyo gasped and turned to see Nabiki standing behind her in the doorway, looking at her with a frown.

"N-Nabiki! You startled me. Kasumi just asked me to wake him for breakfast, I..."

Nabiki's expression softened, but her eyes were still angry. Ukyo was surprised to realize that the anger wasn't directed at her. What, then? Maybe it has something to do with that box she had...

"Let him sleep, Ukyo. He hasn't slept since he woke up Friday morning."

"Friday? But today's Monday!"

"Exactly." The corner of Nabiki's mouth quirked in a half smile. "I'll bet you 2,000 yen that, left to himself, he doesn't wake up before noon."

Ukyo knew better than to bet against Nabiki. "I'll pass," she said, waving her hands and getting to her feet. "I'm sorry, I had no idea he'd gone so long without sleep."

"Yes, well," said Nabiki, turning to walk down the hallway, "Akane's disappearance and those spell voices in his head have really messed him up."

Ukyo followed Nabiki silently down the stairs.

Ryoga was already awake and kneeling at the table as Kasumi dished out breakfast. Ukyo knelt down next to him and cast a disparaging look at Genma-panda, who was already wolfing down his food with alarming speed. "Pig," she muttered, failing to notice when Ryoga flinched beside her.

Ryoga glanced sidelong at Ukyo, and relaxed slightly when he realized she was looking at Genma. He sighed in relief and turned to Kasumi. "Thank you, Kasumi," he said, as she finished loading his plate. "I'm sorry if we're being a nuisance and all..."

"Nonsense," said Kasumi. She smiled as usual, but Ryoga could see that the past few days had taken its toll on her. Her smile was sincere, but her eyes were sad and tired. "I know that both you and Ukyo will do everything you can to help Ranma find Akane. It's nice to know they have such good friends."

Ukyo and Ryoga both looked down and stared at their hands uncomfortably.

"Nabiki, aren't you going to have breakfast?" Kasumi turned as Nabiki walked by headed for the front door wearing her spring jacket, her hands stuffed in the pockets.

"No time, oneechan," she said without turning. Then she muttered, "The whole thing was silent, not a thing. Time for me to stir the pot a little and see what comes to the surface."

And she was out the door.

"What did she say?" Ryoga asked, turning to Ukyo.

Ukyo raised a single eyebrow in confusion. "Something about a silent pot, I think, but don't ask me what she meant by it."

"Oh my," said Kasumi.

Mousse was stooped over sweeping up broken glass from the shattered door when Nabiki arrived at the Nekohanten. "Don't mind me," she said lightly, stepping through the door frame and maneuvering around the Chinese boy. "I'll let myself in."

Mousse straightened and peered at her through his glasses. "Nabiki Tendo? What are you doing here so early?"

"Oh, nothing much." She flashed a bright smile, not knowing or caring if Mousse could see it or not. "Just thought I'd stop by and chat with the old ghoul for a few minutes."

"Insolent girl."

Nabiki's smile suddenly turned reptilian, and she turned to face Cologne. The withered crone stood balanced on her staff by the kitchen doorway. Shampoo stood behind her.

Even better.

"Well, Nabiki Tendo, what do you want?" Cologne asked, unconcerned. "We aren't open until 10, so if you need food, you'll have to come back later."

"You know that's not what I'm here for," Nabiki answered.

The ancient Amazon and the teenage girl stared at each other for a few moments, neither of them blinking, like two coiled snakes ready to strike. Shampoo and Mousse watched the silent exchange uneasily.

Finally Cologne spoke. "I'm not a mind reader, girl. Are you going to tell me what you want, or are you going to leave so that we can get back to work? I'm a busy woman, you know."

Nabiki raised an eyebrow. "Oh yes, I know. You've been hard at work the past few weeks. Or perhaps even longer. Tell me, exactly how long did it take you to think up this flimsy Chinese dragon/kidnapping alibi when you decided to cast a blood spell on my sister?"

Cologne's eyes narrowed. "So that's what this is all about. You still believe that this was all a plot to get rid of Akane and trap Ranma, is that right?"

"To put it bluntly - yes."

The old crone sighed. "I'm sorry you feel that way. I can see that your mind is set, so there's probably nothing I can say or do to convince you of the truth."

Nabiki smiled nonchalantly. "You're right on that count. However, that doesn't mean I don't have a few things that I could say to Ranma to convince him that your so-called truth is nothing but a pack of lies."

"Is that so?" Cologne's voice was like ice.

"Mm-hm." Nabiki nodded. "Things like pointing out the big gaping holes in your story that he was too tired and distracted to notice. Such as, if this blood spell was supposed to make him hate Shampoo, and it succeeded in taking my sister away and putting those voices in his head, why, then, didn't the spell make him hate Shampoo? Surely, for such a powerful blood spell, that would be the easiest thing of all to accomplish."

Shampoo paled. Nabiki smiled at her, slow and cold, her eyes glinting.

Cologne gazed at Nabiki levelly. "You do not understand, foolish child. Allow me to explain. The purpose of the spell was to turn Ranma's heart away from Shampoo. The actual mechanics of the spell, to accomplish that purpose, involved the removal of your sister and the placement of the spell voices in Ranma's mind."

Nabiki blinked. Cologne smiled, and continued, speaking with clear, cold reasoning. "There was nothing in the actual spell that would force Ranma to hate Shampoo by magically altering his feelings. The dragon knew that once the spell was cast, Shampoo would seem the most likely culprit. Ranma's anger - which, I might add, did occur -was completely natural, and completely uninfluenced by any magical mind-control, which is just the way the dragon wanted it.

"You can now see the deviousness of the dragon's plan. The dragon wanted to break Shampoo's spirit with the knowledge that Ranma hated her of his own free will, without any actual mind-altering influence exerted over him. So you see, the spell did, in fact, accomplish its purpose. Fortunately, however, Shampoo and I escaped the dragon - something the beast did not count on - and we returned to Japan as soon as possible with the hope that we could somehow undo the damage that was wrought by the dragon's evil."

Nabiki's smile had crumbled to an expression of defeat. Cologne's wrinkled face split in a chilling grin.

"As you know," the old ghoul continued, "Ranma is no longer angry at Shampoo and myself. We have thus undone at least half of the damage. Now we will try to undo the other half, by finding a way to break the blood spell, and return your sister to you."

Cologne moved closer to Nabiki, who was blinking in shock. "We really do want to help you, but it would be nice if you stopped leveling these unfounded accusations at us. I understand you want Akane back. We all do. Give us a chance, and we will do everything in our power to help you."

Nabiki blinked, then her expression dissolved into one of cool blankness. Damn, she thought. She's good.

Her expression hardened. "Well, I'll give you one thing," she said, forcing anger into the coolness of her voice. "You spent more time thinking up that story than I originally gave you credit for. If you think I'm going to give up so easily, think again. I'm going to prove to Ranma that you are the one behind the blood spell."

Cologne sighed and shook her head as if patiently dealing with a not-so-bright child. "And how are you planning on doing that? With this?" She held out a small hand-held tape recorder that, moments ago, had been in Nabiki's jacket pocket. It was still recording. Nabiki blanched.

"Hoping to trip us up, eh girl? Get it on tape and play it for Ranma as indisputable proof of our treachery?" She tossed it back to Nabiki, who caught it clumsily. "Go ahead and play this conversation for him. I'm sure he'll find it fascinating. Now, if you don't mind, we have a business to run, as well as a blood spell to remove."

Nabiki stared at Cologne, her expression unreadable. Then she turned on her heel, walked past a gaping Mousse, and out the door.

Shampoo stood in Cologne's meditation chambers, pacing back and forth nervously while the old Amazon leafed through an ancient tome. She glanced up in mild irritation.

"Shampoo, calm down. As you just witnessed, our alibi is solid. Not even the scrutiny of that devious Tendo girl was able to penetrate it. If anything, she's firmly established the validity of our claim."

Shampoo stopped pacing and faced Cologne, her face pale, her expression troubled, but firm. "Great-grandmother, I worried. Nabiki, she sneaky girl, she perceptive. She..." Shampoo lowered her voice, even though she knew Mousse was gone on errands. "She know we cast the blood spell."

"What does that matter?" Cologne responded archly. "It will do her no good. She won't convince Son-in-law. You saw for yourself how he stood up for you last night when she went after us then and there." She chuckled. "I tell you, great-granddaughter, that boy is practically yours. When he finally accepts the fact that he'll never see Akane again, he'll fall right into your arms, and you'll be there to comfort him and be his wife. Then your honor will be restored, and we will all return home together."

Shampoo sank down to the floor, her arms wrapped around her shoulders, shuddering as if she was cold. "I hope you right, great-grandmother."

"Of course I'm right."

"Good," said Shampoo. Because I have a horrible feeling about all this. We've done too much, we've gone too far...

"Is... " Shampoo paused, swallowed. "Is there way to get Akane back?"

Cologne turned and faced her granddaughter, her eyes narrowing. "Why are you asking that?" she said coldly.

Shampoo shrank under Cologne's gaze, but then straightened. She had faced the Ancient One, after all. She had fought demon hordes, and had cast a blood spell bought with her own blood price. After all that, she should be able to face her great-grandmother without fear. "Because," she said strongly, "Akane gone not just affect Ranma... or Nabiki. Her family miss her. Mousse tell me her father, he shrivel up inside. He may die of much sadness."

Cologne looked at Shampoo speculatively, surprised at the girl's show of defiant spirit. She had seen it often, but it had never been directed at her before. "This does not affect us. Why do you care?"

Shampoo frowned as she searched for the words to make her grandmother understand. "Is... Is not honorable. Maybe... after we take Ranma to China... maybe we bring back Akane so her father not die. Ranma no need know she come back."

Cologne was silent. Shampoo waited patiently.

"There is a spell..." Cologne said at last, "but I'm afraid it is impossible to do without Ranma's presence, making it out of the question."

Shampoo's countenance fell.

"I'm sorry Shampoo." Cologne's voice was surprisingly sympathetic. "Your desire is honorable, but out of reach. Just be glad that you will soon have your husband by your side."

"Yes, great-grandmother." Shampoo sighed. "I happy for that."

A few hours later, Nabiki ran into her room, closed the door firmly behind her, sat down at her desk, and plugged her earphones into the stereo. Fitting the earphones over her ears, she picked up the long, thin, nondescript cardboard box that she had just rushed home with, and dumped it upside-down. A cassette tape fell into her open palm.

She slid the tape into the stereo cassette player, hit the play button, and listened. After a moment she hit the fast forward button. "Yeah, yeah," she muttered. "Let's get on with it." After a moment, she hit the play button again. And heard her own voice.

"...long did it take you to think up this flimsy Chinese dragon/kidnapping alibi when you decided to cast a blood spell on my sister?"

"So that's what this is all about. You still believe that this was all a plot to get rid of Akane and trap Ranma, is that right?"

"To put it bluntly - yes."

Nabiki sighed and hit the fast forward button. She didn't want to listen to that tedious explanation again.


"...actual spell that would cause Ranma to..."

FF. Play.

"...and return your sister..."

FF. Play.

"...think I'm going to give up so easily..."

Almost there. FF. Play.

"...don't mind, we have a business to run, as well as a blood spell to remove."


Long pause. The sound of footsteps walking across broken glass. Long pause.

Mousse's voice. "Wow, she was angry."

Cologne. "Mousse, finish sweeping up that glass, and then go order us a new door. When you're finished, come back and put a temporary screen over the entrance."

"But I-"


"Gah! Okay, okay, I'm going. Jeeze..."

Sound of sweeping glass. Mousse mumbling something unintelligible and quite probably profane. Footsteps fading away as Mousse leaves. Long pause.

Even longer pause.

Nabiki drummed her fingers on her desk.

Still nothing. Just silence. Good grief, don't these people talk to each other? She hit the Play/Search button. The tape sped through minutes of silence. Nabiki's frustration grew with each spin of the tape reel. Nothing! All that work for-

Click. Play.

"-mother, I worried. Nabiki, she sneaky girl, she perceptive. She... she know we cast the blood spell."

YES! JACKPOT! Nabiki threw up her fists in silent victory. TOOK THE BAIT, HOOK, LINE and SINKER! I just KNEW it was a good idea to have their house bugged before they got home from China!

She listened, her mind ecstatic, yet her outward appearance calm and collected once again as she listened to Cologne and Shampoo spill the whole scheme. This is beautiful, she thought. This is... a work of art. There it was. The whole thing. Immortalized on tape. In Japanese, even. She wouldn't even have to bother getting a translator. She just couldn't wait to-

"-way to get Akane back?"

Nabiki froze. Then her hand jerked up and hit the rewind button.


"...course I'm right."


Long pause.

"Is... Is there way to get Akane back?"

"Why are you asking that?"

"Because... Akane gone not just affect Ranma... or Nabiki. Her family miss her. Mousse tell me her father, he shrivel up inside. He may die of much sadness."

Nabiki's fists clenched convulsively, her mask of impassiveness shattering. Tears - real tears, not the phony ones she was so expert at - built behind her eyes, and she blinked, trembling with anger. How dare they...

"This does not affect us. Why do you care?"

"Is... Is not honorable. Maybe... after we take Ranma to China... maybe we bring back Akane so her father not die. Ranma no need know she come back."

Nabiki's breath caught in her throat. She listened, her eyes wide and unblinking.

"There is a spell... But I'm afraid it is impossible to do without Ranma's presence, making it out of the question."

Nabiki's hand flashed out and hit the rewind.


"...a spell... But I'm afraid it is impossible to do without Ranma's presence-"


Nabiki smiled.

The Nekohanten was busy, swarming with customers for the lunch hour rush. Cologne had her hands full, having sent both Mousse and Shampoo out on delivery runs, but it was nothing she couldn't handle. Using the Chestnut Fist, she had the orders hot and ready almost as soon as they were requested, to the delight of her patrons.

She spared a glance to the screen entrance as it swung open once again. Nabiki Tendo stepped through and walked straight towards her with a cool confidence that Cologne found strangely unsettling. That girl, she thought, frowning. How many more times will it take before she realizes that she's 200 years too early to defeat me?

Nabiki slid casually onto the stool in front of the counter, directly across from Cologne. "Okay, old ghoul," she said, smiling slightly, looking at the crone through half-lidded eyes. "We need to talk. I'd close the restaurant down if I were you."

Cologne bristled at the girl's audacity. "What is it this time?" she said irritably. "Another attempt to force a taped confession from me? I notice you brought your recorder along with you again. When are you going to realize-"

Nabiki pulled the recorder out, a barely contained smirk on her lips, and hit the play button.

"She know we cast the blood spell."

"What does that matter? It will do her no good. She won't convince Son-in-law. You saw for yourself how he stood up for you last night when she went after us then and there. I tell you, great-granddaughter, that boy is practically yours. When he finally accepts the fact that he'll never see Akane again, he'll fall right into your arms, and you'll be there to comfort him and be his wife. Then your honor will be restored, and we will all return home together."

Nabiki hit the stop button. Cologne's face had turned the color of rice paper.

"You were saying?" said Nabiki sweetly.

Cologne visibly took control of herself. There was a sudden flash of movement, and Nabiki found herself empty-handed. A moment later, she saw the crushed remains of her tape recorder falling from the old ghoul's hand.

Nabiki rolled her eyes. "Oh please," she said disdainfully. "You actually think that I wouldn't make back-up dubs of that tape? At this moment, over 50 dubs have been distributed to 50 of my... associates... all over Tokyo and the surrounding area. They have orders to take this straight to Ranma and play it for him should anything happen to me." She leaned back in the stool, her hands behind her head. "I may play it for him anyway. After all, it seems like such a waste for that 'dragon' to go through all the trouble of casting a spell to make Ranma hate Shampoo... and have it not work."

Cologne's eyes were narrowed in fury, and her battle aura was raging red. The patrons of the Nekohanten, noticing this, carefully got up from their seats and beat a hasty exit out the front door. In moments, the place was empty but for Nabiki and Cologne.

"Hmm," said Nabiki thoughtfully. "I'd watch that if I were you. It seems bad for business."

"What do you want?" Cologne hissed through clenched teeth.

Nabiki smiled and leaned forward, resting her elbows on the counter. "Okay, here's the deal. I want my sister back. You know a spell that will bring her back. Of course, casting this spell will completely destroy your elaborate scheme to trap Ranma, but... Well, that's just too bad. However, I'm going to give you a choice."

Cologne couldn't believe that she had been out-maneuvered by this impertinent stripling of a girl. There had to be a way to regain the upper hand... "A choice?" she asked, visibly swallowing her fury.

"That's right. The choice is this: You cast the spell that brings Akane back, and I don't play your confession to Ranma. You don't cast the spell that brings Akane back, and you have one extremely pissed martial artist ready to tear you and your precious granddaughter to pieces."

Cologne stared.

Nabiki smiled pleasantly.

Check and mate, you old witch, she thought.

"I'll give you an hour to think about it," she said, sliding off the stool and heading out the door. "But if I were you, I'd cut your losses while you still can." She turned and eyed Cologne a final time. "Ranma doesn't have to know about this," she said evenly. "It really doesn't matter to me either way. He can take care of himself. I just want my sister back."

And she walked out the screen door, leaving Cologne stunned and wide-eyed.

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