Hearts of Ice

Chapter 8: Barriers

"You wanted to see me, Yuki-san?"

The Snow Woman looked up from her calligraphy, her long white hair flowing around her on the floor, to see Akane standing in the doorway of her quarters, smiling at her. The girl was wearing the new sapphire-colored silk bodice and matching silk pants with gold trim that she had made for her. The outfit was cinched at the waist with a gold buckler to emphasize her feminine curves. Strapped to Akane's back was her now ever-present katana; a gift from Masakazu.

Yuki-onna returned the smile warmly and gestured for Akane to sit down. "So, do you like it?" she asked as Akane knelt across from her.

Akane beamed, and fingered the silk of her sleeve. "Oh yes, thank you. It's beautiful. And very comfortable. Easy to move in." Her smile turned droll. "Although I don't know how long it will last. That rather persistent oni yesterday totally scorched the outfit I was wearing."

"Ah well, if this gets ruined, it will just give me an excuse to make you another one, as usual." Yuki-onna smiled, but then raised an eyebrow in concern. "How is your arm doing? Better?"

"Thanks to you." Akane extended her arm for the Snow Woman to examine. "You can hardly tell I was burned at all. If I'd only been a split second faster, he would have missed me with that flame burst altogether." She sighed, brushing her dark bangs from her eyes, and fingered a strand of shoulder-length hair. "Sensei's going to really give it to me over this, I just know it."

The Snow Woman chuckled. "Well, you tell him that I said I'll make sure he has the chills for a week if he does. Besides, from what I heard, the oni got the worst of it in the end."

Akane flushed, pleased, and laughed lightly. "Well, let's just say that I doubt this particular oni will try to come after you again any time in the near future."

"I'm very glad to hear that. You know, I've been watching your sparring matches with Masakazu. You're becoming quite proficient with your sword."

"Well, there's still a lot of room for improvement," said Akane. "I'm still light years away from beating sensei." Heh. I might be able to give Ranma a good fight, though, she thought, knowing better than to express thoughts about her fiance out loud in front of the Snow Woman. Yuki-onna wouldn't say anything, but whenever Ranma was mentioned, Akane could feel her friend grow cold and angry. She sighed, a sad smile on her face. I wonder what he's doing. Wouldn't Ranma be surprised to see me now...

Thanks to Masakazu-sensei's rigorous and merciless training over the past nine months, she had developed her martial arts abilities to the point where she was now a force to be reckoned with. She was faster and more dexterous than she had ever been - had ever hoped to be - and her skill with wielding the katana more than surpassed anything she'd ever seen Kuno do with his bokken.

Akane smiled wryly, thinking back to the moment Masakazu-sensei had decided to train her in the use of the sword. At his insistence, she had been trying unsuccessfully for days to develop a ki attack. After three weeks, Masakazu had held his feathered head in his hands in exasperation...

"Akane," the tengu groaned, "how is it that you are unable to grasp this simple, fundamental aspect of martial arts? You cannot possibly hope to defeat a demon without learning to focus your ki. You can't just punch out a demon, you know. Inhabitants of this realm must be defeated with spiritual energy."

"I know, I know," Akane snapped, her mouth pinched in frustration. "I just can't! I don't know why!" Then the anger drained out of her and she sagged to the floor, sitting cross-legged in her gi. She looked dejectedly at her hands, her short black hair hanging in wisps around her sad, weary eyes.

"Why can't I do it? Ranma made it look so easy," she said softly. "He just concentrated, and the energy would form in his hands." She thought back to the ki blast he released at the blood spell. She'd never seen him use so much power before. Yes, it had left him totally drained, but he'd summoned and focused the power so effortlessly. Then again, when it came to martial arts, Ranma seemed to do everything so effortlessly...

"Back to Ranma again, is it?" the tengu asked, his black eyes blinking with a sympathy that she didn't notice. He sighed and shook his head. "I find it amazing that you can harbor so many mixed feelings about this boy within your heart. One moment you are aching for his company, the next you are insanely jealous over his superior skill as a martial artist, or at the thought he might be spending time with one of his 'other fiancees.'

"The fiancée thing I can understand," he said, when Akane winced at his exasperated tone. "But how can you begrudge him when he excels in something he takes such pride in, and gives him such happiness? Correct me if I'm mistaken, but I was under the impression that you love Ranma."

Akane flushed with both embarrassment and shame. Embarrassment because, even though she had admitted it to herself, it still sounded strange to have someone point out her true feelings for Ranma - something the tengu did frequently, in spite of his merciless habit of tormenting her with Ranma's voice during their sparring matches. Shame because she knew that Masakazu-sensei was right. If she really did love Ranma, she shouldn't be angry at him just because he was naturally gifted at martial arts, whereas she had to fight and struggle for each iota of improvement in her skills. She should be proud of him, happy for him.

She was proud of him, actually. Though she never would have admitted it a few months ago, Ranma was strong and swift and... handsome. And so nice when he wanted to be. When she allowed him to be...

The memory of him doing his morning katas surfaced in her mind. His fluid grace, his intense focus, the way his finely toned muscles moved as he went through each difficult routine... She remembered watching him from her bedroom window, her expression surprisingly soft, and feeling proud, glad in her heart that he was her fiance. If only I had told him...

She sighed. Tears again. She swiped at them angrily. How in Kami was she going to make it through six and a half more years of this? She had so many regrets over how she'd mishandled her relationship with Ranma, so many fears that she would never get the chance to tell him how she really felt...

Oh Ranma. I miss you. Please don't forget about me...

"Akane. I want you to have this."

Akane looked up, wiping the wetness from her eyes, to see Masakazu holding out a katana, the blade resting on his outstretched, feathered palms. She stood, confusion flickering over her face as she took the sword by the hilt and hefted it.

"You... you want me to learn kendo?" she asked, trying to push thoughts of Ranma aside so that she could concentrate on her sensei's teachings. She gave the sword an experimental circular swing with a movement of her wrist. Its weight and balance perfectly suited her, and she smiled. She had trained a little in kendo, but she had learned from experience that anything Masakazu taught her always surpassed anything she'd learned before she came to the Kami plane. It was as if all the training she'd done in the mortal plane had been in a half-lit room, whereas being trained by the tengu was like pulling back the window shades and allowing the sun to stream in.

"Actually," he responded, "I want to try a little experiment to see if it will help you focus your ki. I know you have no lack of it," he said, his black eyes gleaming. "Your battle aura, which flares so frequently, is proof of that."

Akane looked at the smooth sharp blade in admiration. It was a beautiful weapon. "But how will a sword help me focus my ki?"

The tengu tilted his head and blinked at her, looking very bird-like. "I believe your problem with focusing your ki lies in your inability to find your own path. You've spent too much time trying to imitate Ranma's methods, when his methods do not suit you. Think of the time when Ranma tried to master Ryoga's Shishi Houkodan. He could not master it because it didn't fit his personality."

Akane blinked, but said nothing. She always found it unnerving, the way the tengu was able to pluck out memories from her mind at will and use them as teaching examples. Still, it kept her honest, especially with herself. She knew she could never hide anything from Masakazu-sensei.

"Ranma created a ki attack that worked for him," he continued. "You need to do the same, yet you keep falling back into Ranma's shadow. His ki attack will not work for you." The tengu reached out and put his ruddy feathered hand over her own. "You must separate yourself from these fears of inadequacy you have, Akane. You are not Ranma. You are not Shampoo, or Ukyo or Kodachi.

"But you are Akane. As soon as you learn that this is enough, you will find your focus."

Masakazu gestured to the katana. "Think of this as a part of yourself. Something that is unique, something that separates you from the others, that allows you to step from their shadows and shine with your own light."

Akane looked at the gleaming metal of the sword and clasped the hilt in front of her with both hands. Could she actually think of herself being as bright and beautiful as this katana? She closed her eyes and tried to feel as if the sword were an extension of herself. Masakazu's voice seemed to come directly into her mind.

Focus on this, Akane. Think of it as a symbol of the strength that lies within you. Let your ki flow through you and into the katana. Allow it to be a conduit for your ki, a physical representation of the power within you.

Akane tried to imagine what the tengu was telling her. She felt her battle aura build around her, and tried to will it through her arms, into her hands, into the solid, strangely comforting grip of the sword, and along the long, curved blade.


Akane's eyes flew open at Masakazu's exclamation, and stared wide-eyed at the blade she held in front of her. It pulsed with blue energy. Akane let out a startled squawk and dropped the sword. It clattered to the floor, the ki energy dissipating instantly.

"Well done, Akane! I knew you could do it." Masakazu's eyes smiled over his expressionless beak. "Now that is something that will actually do some damage to those devils out there!"

"I..." Akane blinked, and her throat felt tight. An incredulous smile tugged at her mouth. "I did it?" I did it, she thought ecstatically. I can't believe it. I've got a ki attack.

"Now that you've managed this much, the rest should be easy."

Akane's cheer plummeted. She knew from experience what that meant. She groaned in exhausted protest. "The... rest?"

Masakazu patted her on the shoulder. "Of course! Now that you've gotten a taste of what it's like to actually focus your ki, you need to practice controlling it. If you could release it in controlled blasts from your sword, that would really give those demons something to think twice about. And we'll start on your kendo training immediately. The blade itself, especially charged with your ki, will be a most formidable weapon..."

"Do you want me to work on the blood spell now, or do you want to wait until after supper?"

Akane blinked, coming out of her musing. The Snow Woman was smiling, her frost blue eyes twinkling. "Well? Sorry to startle you out of your train of thought. Do all mortals get glassy-eyed as often as you do?"

Akane humphed. "Very funny," she said with mock seriousness that dissolved into a grin. "I don't mind if you work on the blood spell now, as long as that's okay with you."

"Very well." Yuki-onna patted the mat in front of her. "Come sit."

Akane got into her standard position, her back facing the Snow Woman. The Snow Woman focused herself, then began pulling at the wisps of dragon blood in Akane's ki.

She always worked in the same place, in the spot just between Akane's shoulder blades. When Akane had asked why, the Snow Woman simply replied that there was a certain strand of dragon blood, woven deep within the spell, that, if she could just get to it and remove it, would solve a lot of their problems.

So every day, the Snow Woman removed strand after strand, trying to hold back the rest of the blood spell that moved to fill in the gaps she left, as she attempted to reach the troublesome wisp that she insisted was the core of spell.

Akane closed her eyes, feeling the not-unpleasant tingle of magic as the Snow Woman worked in silence. Minutes passed.


Akane glanced over her shoulder. She usually didn't speak when the Snow Woman was working, not wanting to disrupt her concentration. She was surprised that Yuki-onna was addressing her. "Yes?" she asked.

She suddenly felt the tingle of magic stop as the Snow Woman's hands went still. She turned. "Is something wrong?" she asked, worried. Yuki-onna was looking at her with a strange, pensive expression. She had never seen such an expression on the Snow Woman's smooth white face before. "What is it?" she asked, her apprehension growing. Maybe there was something wrong with the blood spell...

"Akane..." said the Snow Woman, her eyes shimmering with some unidentifiable emotion. "Do you... do you like it here?"

Akane sighed with relief and smiled, reaching out to take Yuki-onna's hand in her own. "Of course I do," she said. "I've learned so much from Masakazu-sensei; and you... you've been so kind to me. Almost like a mother..." Akane broke off as tears suddenly brimmed in the Snow Woman's eyes, sliding down her face and freezing into ice crystals.

Akane panicked, her brows creasing over her brown eyes in concern. She had never seen the Snow Woman cry before. "I'm sorry, did I say something wrong?"

The Snow Woman brushed the ice crystals from her face with a slim, white hand, and she smiled tremulously. "No, dear," she said, giving Akane's hand a squeeze. "You didn't say anything wrong. I... I'm glad you like it here." She motioned for Akane to turn around so she could resume her work. Akane complied, a relieved, but slightly puzzled expression on her face.

"Don't worry, Akane," Yuki-onna said softly. "I'll get to that stubborn wisp of dragon blood. Then, when I remove it, everything will be fine."

Akane started awake, bolting upright, her hand reaching to clutch the hilt of the katana at her side as something... not right... intruded on her awareness. Immediately, instinctively, she slid out of her futon, moving swiftly and silently from her room and into the crystalline corridors of the Snow Woman's home.

She paused in the main hall, where the entrance and three separate hallways intersected. Standing barefoot in her white pajamas, holding her katana aloft, her dark shoulder-length hair sticking out in a pillow-messed, static halo around her face, she listened carefully. Extending her senses in the unique way Masakazu had taught her, she tried to pinpoint where the unnatural intrusion was coming from.

She frowned. Whatever it was, it wasn't an oni. Oni were loud and raucous, and into destroying whatever lay in between them and their desired goal. Not to mention their very distinctive smell - reminiscent of burning hair - that gave them away every time.

Is it a demon? she wondered, tensing, trying in vain to recapture the sensation she'd felt upon waking. Demons came in all shapes and sizes, and could be quite silent and sneaky - and scent-less - when they wanted to be. But no, it didn't feel like a demon, either. She could always tell whenever a demon was around by the tight, almost suffocating feeling in her chest, and the way her pulse always shot up a few notches in physical response to their presence. She wasn't feeling anything like that.

Still, something had woken her up out of a sound sleep. If it wasn't an attack, then what was it?

She headed for Yuki-onna's chambers, the way she always did whenever she sensed something was wrong. After all, whenever something intruded into the Snow Woman's realm, it was usually coming after the Snow Woman herself.

The past few days, though, there had been instances when lustful invaders, while battling Akane to get to the Snow Woman, had figured one woman was just as good as another. More and more often, Akane found that she was defending herself almost as much as she was preventing the carnal denizens of the Kami plane from reaching her friend. In a strange way, the battles brought back memories of mornings at Furinkan High after Kuno had issued that stupid challenge to the male population of the student body.

Of course, demons and oni were much more difficult to defeat in combat than a bunch of hormone-crazed high school boys. But they were nothing she couldn't handle with her new skills.

Akane frowned as she approached Yuki-onna's quarters. The feeling that something was not right still niggled at the back of her mind, yet she could find no sign of any of the normal threats that she usually faced. Not a demon or an oni in sight. Still, she didn't discount the possibility that it could be some kind of trap to lull her into relaxing her defenses.

She stopped outside the Snow Woman's door and knocked softly. "Yuki-san?" she called. It was customary for the Snow Woman to stay in her quarters when a threat was evident, for there she could have the time to summon enough power to defend herself, should it come to that.

It was silent inside. Akane slid the door open. The room was dark. "Yuki-san? Are you alright?"

No answer. Panic began to build in Akane's chest. What if a demon had somehow slipped past her and had managed to abduct Yuki-onna? She would have failed in defending and protecting the woman who trusted her, who had become her friend and confidant over the past nine months; the woman who was her only hope to remove the blood spell that bound her to the Kami realm.

"Yuki-san?! Where are you?" Akane focused her ki, and her katana blazed with blue light. She held it aloft, lighting the room. The room was empty. There was no sign of the Snow Woman. Oh no! Where...?

She saw a movement out of the corner of her eye, and she turned, sword ready, only to see that it was her own reflection in the oval full-length mirror that stood in the corner of the room. Akane saw herself, looking like a ghost in her white pajamas, lit by the blue light of her ki, her mussed hair falling past her shoulders, a strange reminder of the time that had passed since she came to the Kami plane.

Fear and worry clawing at her mind, Akane turned to the door, ready to run to outside and start searching the snowy, barren landscape for her friend, when...

She froze. There it was; the sound that had roused her from sleep. A soft wailing, faint and ethereal...

Akane swallowed, her brown eyes huge and scared. "Yuki-san?" she whispered. It's her... Where is she?

A wail... sobbing... whispering through the room without direction.

"Yuki-san!" Akane called, her voice echoing off the icy walls.

The whispering wail again. It sounded so sad, so desperate... Akane felt tears of helplessness spill down her cheeks as she strained to hear, trying to locate its source. "Yuki-san, please, answer me!"

"...oh please..." A voice. The Snow Woman's, so faint, so distant and full of such pain. "... my little ones, my babies... oh my lost ones..." The despairing cry echoed and ebbed from nowhere.

"... my lost little ones..."

Akane stood, her katana hanging limp in her hand, her face stricken in shock. She felt a familiar presence behind her, and turned.

"Go back to bed, Akane-chan," said Masakazu, standing in the doorway. "There is nothing you can do for her, not tonight."

Akane swallowed. "Where is she? Is she alright?"

"She is fine. You do not need to worry about protecting her this night, or any night you awake sensing this... disturbance."

"She..." Akane's face twisted in sympathetic grief as the evidence of her friend's suffering faintly reached her ears. "She was... a mother?"

The tengu peered at her, as if carefully considering something. Akane felt as if he was staring right into her soul, and she shivered.

At last, he nodded. "Long ago. She fell in love with a young woodcutter, whose life she spared when he... when he should have frozen to death after he got lost in a snow storm. She gave up everything to be with him. She lived as a mortal by his side, and they had two children, both daughters, whom she loved more than life itself. But the man... betrayed her... and in doing so, broke the spell that allowed her to stay as a mortal in the mortal plane. She was separated from both him and her children. She never saw them again. Her daughters grew old and died without knowing her. Some nights..."

The tengu trailed off as another faint sob whispered through the room.

He bowed his head. "Some nights..." he continued softly, "she returns to the mortal plane. Wherever the land is bitter cold, she goes there and becomes one with the storm and the wind, and mourns for her lost children. And on some nights, like tonight, her grief spans the barriers between the planes."

Akane was speechless. There was nothing to say, no words that could bring comfort to the pain she heard in the voice that was so familiar, yet so alien. Tears slid down her cheeks as, once again, the haunting wail echoed faintly in the room.

"Go to bed, Akane-chan. She will be back in the morning. But do not mention this to her. It is not a subject she likes to discuss."

Akane swallowed and nodded numbly. She wiped her tears on her sleeve and, clutching her katana's hilt to her chest, walked quietly back to her room.

I can keep demons from reaching Yuki-san, she thought sadly, as she slid back into her futon and stared at the ceiling, but how can I help her with the demons that already have a hold on her?

Cologne found the bugs right after Nabiki left the Nekohanten, the girl's ultimatum still ringing in her ears. The ancient Amazon trembled with fury, a fury that grew as she went from room to room, searching, finding bugs in every single room in both the restaurant and the living quarters. And she still wasn't sure she'd found them all. The fact that she had been so outmaneuvered galled her more than anything she'd ever experienced in her life. Perhaps if they had spoken in Mandarin... But no, that pest of a girl probably had a translator for just such an occasion.

Still, there was a chance...

When Shampoo returned from deliveries, Cologne motioned her into silence. The purple-haired Amazon paled at the look on her great-grandmother's face, but obeyed as she followed the old woman out of the restaurant. They took to the roof tops and crossed half of Nerima district before coming to rest on the roof of a house in a quiet neighborhood. There, Cologne, her anger barely contained, told the girl what had transpired.

Shampoo began to sob. "Aiya. It no work now. If you cast spell to bring Akane back now, things just like before."

"Quit your childish crying, Shampoo," snapped Cologne. "There is still a chance to salvage our plan." From her robes, she pulled a small bottle with the label "110." Shampoo's sobbing ceased when she saw it, and she took it from Cologne's hands, a gleam appearing in her eyes.

"That sneaky Tendo girl will be back for our answer in less than an hour," said Cologne. "When she comes, use this to erase her memory of the tape's existence. If she doesn't remember it, she can't tell her people to play it for Son-in-law. And nothing will happen to her - physically, that is - so her people won't know anything is wrong."

Shampoo nodded. "That good plan," she said.

Nabiki, however, was prepared.

When she walked into the Nekohanten for the third time that day, she found both Cologne and Shampoo waiting for her. Shampoo was looking at her with an expression usually reserved for cats about to pounce on their prey, and in one hand she held a small bottle and a comb. She tensed to leap at Nabiki when suddenly, a beeping sound came from Nabiki's pocket. Nabiki held up her hand, and Shampoo paused uncertainly, her eyes wide, wondering what strange trick the Tendo girl had up her sleeve.

Nabiki pulled out a small cellular phone from her jacket pocket. "Excuse me a moment," she said, lowering her hand and smiling with saccharine sweetness at Cologne and Shampoo. She flipped the phone open and held it to her ear. "Yes, I'm in. Everything checks out okay," she said, deliberately looking at the bottle in Shampoo's hand. "Hold the release of the tape for another hour. We'll speak again then, and you'll get my instructions. And you'll know what to do if anything... strange happens. All right. In an hour then. Bye."

She closed the phone and slid it back into her pocket. She turned to Shampoo. "You planning on doing something with that?" she asked, her eyes wide and innocent as she looked at the bottle and comb in the Amazon's hand.

Shampoo felt numb. It was all over. She had lost. After all that she had done, after the Ancient One, the demons, and the blood price, she had lost. Ranma would never willingly be her husband; not if they were forced to bring Akane back. "Shampoo not know what you talking," she said lifelessly. "Shampoo just on way to take shower."

Nabiki smirked. "Of course." She turned to Cologne. "Well, what will it be, old ghoul? Do you bring my sister back, safe and unharmed physically, mentally, and without any weird magical side-effects, or does Ranma get an ear-full of how you got rid of her to trap him?"

Cologne seethed. She longed to reach out and break the girl's neck with a flick of her finger. All the numerous and diverse ways to kill a person, both painlessly and... not so... flashed through her mind. She could do it. She could kill the girl, and then she and Shampoo could flee to China to escape the repercussions of the act. Perhaps even make it appear as if that fool boy Mousse was responsible.

But then there would be no going home. To go back to the tribe, having failed to return with Ranma, Shampoo's known husband by law, especially after resorting to such serious magic... For such dishonor, they would be banished, or worse.

On the other hand...

Cologne peered at Nabiki intently. The girl seemed to have an agenda all her own. She only cared about getting Akane back. It didn't seem to matter to her whether or not Ranma heard the truth that was on the tapes. Hmm. If she did cast the spell to bring back that troublesome girl...

"If I bring Akane back," she said slowly, "do you swear that Ranma shall never know about Shampoo's and my involvement with the blood spell?"

Nabiki looked at her coolly. "I already told you the terms. You bring Akane back, and Ranma never finds out what's on those tapes."

Cologne nodded slightly, noting to herself that Nabiki made no stipulations about Son-in-law finding out through some other means.

"If there is any chance of him finding out about our involvement, we lose everything we have invested in the boy," she replied. "Returning your sister will set us back to square one, which is inconvenient, considering the work we've done to remove the obstacles to Son-in-law's heart. But it's not something we couldn't deal with... eventually."

Nabiki's eyes narrowed at the veiled threat, but she recognized the offer as well. She pursed her lips thoughtfully. "All right," she said. "Try this on for size. You bring back Akane, and swear that you will never do anything to hurt or enchant or displace either her or any member of my family again, and I will use my... talents... to make sure that Ranma never finds out that you and Shampoo had anything to do with the blood spell."

Shampoo listened to the exchange, a small spark of hope igniting in her heart once again.

Cologne considered the offer carefully. With Akane back in the picture, she knew it would be next to impossible to get Ranma to marry Shampoo willingly. That was a dream her great granddaughter would have to live without. Still, Nabiki's terms may prevent her from interfering with the Tendos, but didn't say anything about including Ranma in the deal.

Nabiki was leaving Son-in-law open as fair game. And Cologne could tell by the look in her eyes that the girl knew it. That was the deal.

Resolved, she looked Nabiki in the eye. "I agree to your terms," she said. "Bring Ranma here tonight, and we will return your sister to you."

Nabiki's eyes glinted brightly from under lowered lids. "Nice doing business with you," she said, smiling.

Ranma woke up feeling better than he had in a long time.

Physically, that is.

The first thing that surfaced in his mind as he came out of sleep was the thought that he had to find Akane. The thought pierced through his soul with such anguished intensity that he felt guilty for having slept at all when he should be searching for a way to get her back.

Then he noticed that... something was missing...

What..? he thought. Then he realized. The spell voices. The constant babble that he had forced to the back of his mind so that he could think clearly, keeping them there by sheer will, were gone.

Gone... How? He didn't know whether to be glad or worried. Did that mean that the spell was broken? And if the spell was broken, then did that mean that Akane might have come back?

Ranma leaped out of his futon before the thought was even finished, almost tripping on his tangled blankets, burst out of the bedroom door, and tore down the stairs. He stopped short in the living room where Nabiki, Ukyo and Ryoga sat in a circle playing poker. They stared at him with wide eyes.

"Is she here?" he asked breathlessly.

Ukyo blinked. "Is who here, Ranchan?"

Ranma's heart sank, and the hopeful expression on his face imploded. He ran a hand through his hair and sighed. "N... Never mind. I thought Akane might have come back, that's all."

"What made you think that?" asked Nabiki, looking at him curiously.

"The spell voices," he said, pointing to his head. "They're gone. I don't know how or why, but I don't hear them anymore. I was hoping..."

The spell voices are gone? thought Nabiki. That's strange. But maybe Shampoo only wanted it to be temporary. I guess she realized having a husband who hears voices in his head isn't such a great thing.

"It's about time you woke up, Saotome," said Ryoga critically, his arms folded across his chest. "We've been waiting for hours. Nabiki," he said, casting her an evil glance, "has something to tell you."

Nabiki ignored the crusty look from Ryoga and looked at Ranma. "That's right. I went over to the Nekohanten this afternoon, and found out that Cologne has already found a spell that can get Akane back." She smiled guilessly and put on her best Kasumi expression. "Imagine that!"

Ranma blinked. He looked out the window and noticed the sun was hanging low in the western sky. He turned back to Nabiki. "You... you knew this afternoon, and you didn't wake me up?!"

Ryoga threw up his hands. "That's what I've been saying!"

"Oh, be quiet, you two. Ranma, you needed to sleep and get your strength back. Now that you're rested, we'll all go. Together," said Nabiki firmly, stopping Ranma as he turned to run out the door. "You may as well stick around, because Cologne knows not to start the spell until I get there anyway."

Ranma turned back, growling in frustration, and glared at Nabiki. "And why is that?" he asked, disgruntled.

"Oh, just a little deal I worked out with her, to make sure I didn't miss any of the action this time," she answered smoothly.

"Well then," said Ranma impatiently. "We're all here. Let's get going."

"One thing, Ranma?" said Nabiki coyly.

"What is it? We're wasting time standing here!"

She pointed at him. "You might want to consider getting dressed first."

Ranma looked down to see that he was simply wearing his tank top and boxers. Ukyo burst out laughing at look on his face. "Ah, jeeze," he muttered, and ran upstairs to change into some clothes.

Nabiki went over to the phone, picked up the receiver, and dialed. "Hello, Doctor Tofu? Yes, Ranma's awake, and we're on our way to the Nekohanten now... Great. We'll see you there." She hung up the phone.

"Why does Doctor Tofu need to be there," asked Ukyo. "You don't think something's going to go wrong with the spell, do you?" There was a strange mixture of apprehension and... hope?... in her voice.

Nabiki gave her a narrow look, but Ukyo just gazed back at her. "Doctor Tofu is familiar with how some of those strange Chinese spells work," she said finally. "Let's just say that I want him there to make sure everything goes right. You never know when all that weird archaic knowledge of his is going to come in handy."

"That's a great idea, Nabiki," said Ryoga enthusiastically. "No sense in taking chances, after all, especially when it comes to getting Akane back."

"Yeah," said Ukyo, a little too cheerfully. "It would be a shame if something were to happen and the spell didn't work."

Nabiki raised an eyebrow at Ukyo and opened her mouth to say something, but at that moment, Ranma ran down the stairs, wearing his red sleeveless Chinese shirt and black pants. "Is it okay to go now?" he asked impatiently.

Nabiki smiled sweetly. "But of course, Ranma. After you." She gestured out the door. Then she noticed that Ranma was giving her a funny look. "What?" she asked.

"It'll take too long to walk if we have to wait for you," he said, and in one swift movement, swept her up in his arms.

Nabiki let out a startled, undignified squawk. "What do you think you're doing?" she exclaimed, but Ranma wasn't listening.

"Come on," he said to Ryoga and Ukyo. "Let's go, Ucchan. Follow me, Ryoga, and don't get lost." Ranma ran out into the yard carrying Nabiki in his arms, and leapt from the wall to a neighboring roof.

Ryoga fumed, but followed close behind nonetheless.

Nabiki gasped as she saw and felt the ground moving away rapidly leap after leap, and she threw her arms around Ranma's neck to make sure she didn't slip out of his grasp. After jumping from rooftop to rooftop for a few moments, and realizing how solid Ranma's grip was, she relaxed, and allowed a little if her indignation to dissolve away. She looked into Ranma's face. He was staring straight ahead, moving with such focused ease, it was almost as if he didn't realize he was carrying her. And he had that look on his face. The peculiar shimmer in his blue eyes that said he was thinking about Akane...

Nabiki sighed. She allowed herself a small, self-indulgent smile as she felt Ranma's sleek muscles moving beneath his shirt as he ran. Ah well, she thought with a mental shrug. There are worse ways to travel, I guess.

Ukyo stood in the Tendo yard, looking after Ranma's rapidly diminishing form for a moment. The smile on her face had long since crumbled away, as if a huge weight had settled over her, crushing it. Then she sighed heavily and leaped to the wall, following after the man she loved.

So close... she thought.

The light of the setting sun reflected off the unshed tears in her eyes.

Ranma swallowed and licked his lips nervously as he sat cross-legged on the floor of the Nekohanten restaurant. Cologne knelt on the floor next to him, drawing arcane symbols, and spreading a thin, musky smelling powder in a circle around him, occasionally consulting an ancient leather scroll, and muttering in Chinese. Ranma wondered how she could read the strange Chinese scrawl in the semi-darkness. The lights were off, and the blinds had been partially pulled, allowing the last of the sunset glow to stream in on the proceedings. The tables and chairs had been cleared out of the way, and his friends, Ryoga, Ukyo, Shampoo, Mousse and Nabiki, sat on the edge of the room, watching the proceedings uneasily.

Nabiki seemed especially anxious. She kept looking at the door as if expecting someone to come through at any moment.

Ranma tried hard not to fidget. He could hardly believe it! He was going to get Akane back. His chest felt tight as a plethora of emotions swirled inside him. He was excited and nervous all at the same time. He was happy and scared to see Akane again. Was she okay? Would she be glad to see him? Or would she be angry at him for not being able to save her and mallet him into the floor?

He cleared his throat. "Uh... How exactly is this supposed to work?" he asked as Cologne consulted the scroll again. She glared at him briefly for interrupting her.

"The mechanics of the spell are simple, Ranma. All you have to do is concentrate on Akane. Focus on her with all your being, and when the incense is lit and the incantation recited, you will pull her from wherever she's been sent to."

Nabiki frowned. That seemed way too simple...

Shampoo and Ukyo frowned, not liking the idea of Ranma focusing on Akane with his whole being.

Just then, there was a knock on the screen door. Cologne's irritation at the interruptions grew. "Now who could that be? The sign says we're closed."

Nabiki stood, not allowing the relief she felt to show on her face. "Oh, that must be Doctor Tofu. I invited him to come and help you with the spell. I was sure you wouldn't mind. After all, we're all here to help Ranma and Akane, and give them our support, aren't we?"

Cologne shot Nabiki a look that would have turned anyone else into stone. Nabiki returned the gaze steadily.

"Doctor Tofu's here?" asked Ranma. He glanced around out of habit, just to make sure Kasumi wasn't anywhere around. "That's great," he said. "Just in case Akane needs help or anything when she comes back."

Cologne glanced at Ranma, and forced herself to relax. "Shampoo," she said at last, "go let the man in."

Shampoo nodded and went to unlock the screen door. Tofu stepped through and blinked a few times as his eyes adjusted to the dim light. "Hello," he said, bowing to Cologne. "Thank you for allowing me to come and participate in this. I've read about the magic of the ancient Chinese Amazons, but I've never had the opportunity to see that magic in use. This is a priceless opportunity for me."

Cologne looked up at the young doctor. They sized each other up for a moment.

Tofu looked at her calmly through his glasses. He was glad Nabiki had informed him of this little gathering. He'd been a personal witness to some of the underhanded tricks the ancient Amazon had pulled on Ranma, such as inflicting him with the Full Body Cat Tongue so that he couldn't stand to touch the hot water he needed to change back into a man. Tofu was pleased to hear that there was a chance to find Akane, but he wasn't sure whether or not to believe the crone's claims of innocence when it came to the blood spell, and he wanted to make sure that, in this instance, she didn't try any dark magic.

"Yesss," said Cologne reluctantly. "Well, we're just about to begin. So if you'll just step over to the side with the others..."

"My, this looks impressive," interrupted Tofu, staring at the chalked symbols on the floor. "And is this the scroll? Mind if I take a look at it?"

Cologne scowled and held it just out of his grasp. "It's in ancient Chinese, sonny-boy, you wouldn't understand it anyway."

"Oh, on the contrary. I'm quite fluent in ancient Chinese."

Cologne paled.

"If you let me just glance at the scroll for a moment," he continued, "that would help me understand what happens when you actually cast the spell."

Ranma watched the exchange with growing impatience. "Aw, come on, just let him look at it, he ain't gonna hurt it or nothing."

Shampoo looked at her great-grandmother, her brows furrowing. Grandmother had not even allowed her to look at the scroll. What could possibly be on there that she wouldn't want anyone to see?

Cologne peered at Tofu. "All right," she said, relenting, much to everyone's surprise. "I trust that when you read it, you'll know exactly what needs to be done for the spell to succeed."

Tofu took the scroll from the Amazon elder, a puzzled expression on his face. Then he held it up and scanned it. His eyes widened as he read the name of the spell, and he glanced briefly over at Ranma, who was watching him curiously. Then he scanned the rest of it, his eyes moving up and down quickly. It took a few minutes for him to read the whole thing. When he finished, he cleared his throat uneasily.

"Well," he said. Everybody leaned in closer, looking at him intently. "Yes. That's it then. Very good. So, Ranma, you know that all you have to do is think of Akane while Cologne lights the incense and recites the incantation. I guess we can get on with it." And with that, he went and sat against the wall between Nabiki and Ryoga. Cologne smiled.

Nabiki leaned over to the doctor. "And what was that all about?" she whispered.

Tofu went to answer, but noticed that Ranma was watching him, the boy's eyebrows raised in confusion. "It's nothing, really," he said. "I'll tell you later."

Nabiki scowled. She was dying to know what that scroll said, and why Doctor Tofu was so reluctant to say anything. Still, he seemed to think it was okay to proceed with the spell, so that eased her fears a little. She felt better knowing that he knew what was going on and could make sure the old ghoul did it right.

"Are you ready?" Cologne asked Ranma. "Remember, you must think of nothing but Akane. You must focus on her totally, and let nothing distract you. Do you think you can do that?"

Ranma snorted. "Jeeze, whaddya think I've been doing the past few days?!"

Cologne frowned, but nodded. "Very well. I will begin the spell." She walked over to Ranma and passed a withered hand over his eyes, making him blink his eyes shut. She pressed her fingers to his eyelids. "Keep your eyes closed," she said softly, "and concentrate."

Ranma swallowed and nodded silently.

Striking a long match so that it flared brightly in the growing gloom, Cologne leaned over and lit the circle of incense that surrounded Ranma. It began to smolder, sending wafts of spicy smoke through the room.

Ryoga fought the sudden urge to sneeze, pinching his nose and holding his breath until the itching sensation passed. His eyes watered, but he just blinked, and tried to ignore the burning. There was no way he was going to do anything that might prevent the spell from bringing Akane back...

He watched as the smoke from the incense thickened the air in the restaurant. Ranma sat in the circle, his eyes closed, his breathing focused, his expression one of intense concentration.

Cologne began to chant softly in Chinese.

Shampoo and Mousse strained to hear what Cologne was saying. Shampoo frowned in frustration. Great-grandmother's voice was so low, she could only make out the occasional word. Is that the way the spell is supposed to be cast? Shampoo thought. Or does she just not want Mousse and I to know what the spell says? Why would she relent and let Doctor Tofu know, and not me?

Mousse, on the other hand, with his exceptional hearing, caught a lot more than just the occasional word. What he heard made his eyes go wide behind his glasses. Phrases like "true love," "forever binding," and "eternally linked, overcoming all barriers."

Mousse felt a slow half-smile grow on his face. No wonder the old ghoul had been so hesitant to tell anyone, especially Ranma, about the true nature of the spell. From what he could gather from the crone's mumbling, the spell's power was based on True Love; more specifically, the True Love that existed between Ranma and Akane. The power of that link, combined with the magic of the spell, would draw Akane from wherever she had been sent and bring her back home.

No wonder Doctor Tofu didn't say anything when he read the spell. It seemed that everybody knew of Ranma and Akane's true feelings for each other, except for Ranma and Akane. If Ranma knew the true nature of the spell - that it was his unconfessed love for Akane that would bring her home - his brain would probably freeze right there, sending him into a blind, stuttering panic of denial, and then everything would be ruined.

Mousse didn't think that, even if Akane's safe return was on the line, Ranma would be able to confess his true feelings. Especially in a room full of people, most of whom would want to kill him or, at the very least, beat the living daylights out of him over such a revelation. Besides, Akane had been in serious danger before and, although Ranma always came to her rescue without fail, he wouldnever admit that he even liked, let alone loved her. Whenever it seemed as if he was about to say those three little words, they always turned out to be "macho uncute tomboy."

Still, if this spell succeeded, it could change everything...

Mousse leaned back against the wall, his arms folded over his chest, and smiled. No way was he going to do anything that might interfere in this spell. With Ranma and Akane back together, and the true nature of the spell revealed, Shampoo was practically his.

Cologne continued her low chant, and as the soft, barely audible words filled the air, the incense smoke began to curl and waft around Ranma. Ranma, his mind completely focused on Akane, didn't even notice as it slowly swirled around him, clinging to his skin like a living thing. He breathed it in through his nose, and as the smoke filled his head, the mental picture of Akane in his mind came into even sharper focus than before. It was like she was standing in front of him, so real, that he felt he could open his eyes and she would be standing there.

Then he frowned. There was something different about her. She seemed happy, and she was smiling in that way that made his heart flutter inside his chest, but that wasn't it. She was wearing unusual clothes, and her hair seemed longer than usual. That was odd, she'd only been gone three days... Some weird side-effect of the spell, perhaps? Oh well, it didn't matter, as long as it brought her back to him. Ranma felt a strange tingling fill his body, especially his heart...

Akane was laughing at a funny story the Snow Woman told when suddenly her smile broke, and she doubled over in pain, her cup falling from nerveless fingers, splashing tea across the table.

"Akane! What's wrong?" Yuki-onna was immediately by her side.

"I - I don't... know," Akane gasped, tears of pain streaming from her eyes. Her heart felt as though it was being pulled out through her back. There was a sudden, solid wrench, and Akane screamed as she felt herself being ripped asunder.

Yuki-onna grabbed Akane by the shoulders and focused all her magic on the girl, placing barriers around her, trying to protect her from whatever was trying to pull her apart. She concentrated on the blood spell in Akane's ki, fearing that it was the cause of her pain, and gasped.

The blood spell was flaring brightly, almost blindingly, especially the wisp of dragon blood that served as the transdimensional connection between Akane and her wretched fiance. Some magic in the mortal plane was trying to pull her home. But the blood spell was fighting back, refusing to let its captive go, and in the process, was killing Akane.

Those fools! she thought, her white face a mask of both rage and concern as she poured her power into building protective barriers around Akane, trying desperately to block the mortal magic. Don't they know that such a spell as this cannot hope to counteract the effects of a spell cast with dragon blood? Her lips curled into a snarl. The boy Ranma was behind this, she just knew it. Even separated by dimensions, he still found a way to hurt Akane.

"Akane, hold on," she said as the girl cried out again. There had to be a way to stop the mortal spell completely...

The Snow Woman's frost-blue eyes lit with an idea. Swiftly, she summoned the last scrap of her power, and poured it into the magical barriers she'd placed around Akane, imbuing them with reflective properties, sending the spell back to the mortal plane...

Heh, she thought. This will give that wicked boy a taste of his own medicine. With her spell finally in place, Akane immediately collapsed in relief as pull on her body and soul abated.

Yuki-onna held Akane close as the girl trembled in reaction. "W-what was that?" she asked, frightened that the soul-wrenching pain might return. "What happened?"

The Snow Woman hushed her softly. "It's alright, my child, it's over. Don't worry about it."

But Akane wasn't in the mood to be comforted. Shakily, she pushed herself upright. "I am worried about it," she said. "What if it happens again? What was it, anyway? I felt like I was being ripped to-" She stopped short as she suddenly felt a strange, warm tingle fill her body, especially her heart. Her brown eyes widened in surprise...

Cologne frowned. She had ceased chanting moments ago, but the spell didn't seem to be working. Akane should have returned by now. She glanced at Ranma. The boy was concentrating so hard that beads of sweat stood out on his brow. The others, still sitting against the wall, were beginning to fidget uncomfortably and cast nervous glances at each other. Her eyes narrowed. Could it be that she overestimated Ranma's feelings for Akane? The spell would only work with True Love...

If that was the case, then that meant Shampoo might still have a chance to win Ranma. Of course, if the spell didn't work, then Nabiki would play that damned tape and, True Love or no, Ranma wouldn't have anything to do with Shampoo after that.

Cologne began to sweat. The only other way she knew to get Akane back was by breaking the blood spell itself, and such a feat was far beyond her power...

Ranma sat in the silence, concentrating on Akane with all his heart, willing her to come back to him. But he knew, with a sinking sensation in his chest, that the spell hadn't worked. Maybe it was because he hadn't focused hard enough. Tears began to leak from his closed eyelids. Akane, he thought, fighting the sob that was rising in his throat, threatening to break loose, please come back! I... I need you...

The thought was cut off, and he flinched as a jolt of pain abruptly stabbed through his body. The image of Akane shattered in his mind, and his eyes flew open as wave after wave of tearing agony suddenly washed over him. He looked at Cologne, who was staring back at him in surprise, and opened his mouth, but the pain was so great, he couldn't make a sound; he simply collapsed onto his side, curled into a fetal position, trembling in pain and torment as he felt himself breaking apart, body and soul.

"Ranchan!" Ukyo leaped to her feet to run to Ranma's side, but Tofu jumped up and restrained her.

"Don't just rush into the middle of the spell," he said, holding her. "You might make things worse!" That stopped her but didn't erase the fear on her face. By this time, everyone was standing, just outside the spell boundaries, wanting to help, but not knowing what to do. Tofu looked at Ranma's ki. "The blood spell... Oh no.."

"What's happening?" demanded Nabiki, glaring at Cologne.

"I don't know!" Cologne was shaken, and everyone could tell. "I don't know what's causing this! Akane should be pulled here from wherever she's been sent-"

"The blood spell!" said Doctor Tofu. "The blood spell is fighting back! It's trying to keep Ranma and Akane apart! It won't allow the True Love spell to work!"

"The WHAT spell?!" yelled Ukyo, Ryoga and Shampoo simultaneously.

Then Ranma began to fade out of existence.

"Great-grandmother!" Shampoo screamed, "do something!"

Cologne hesitated only a moment. "Quickly!" she said to the others, "erase the symbols on the floor! You, lost boy! Open the door and the windows to air out the incense!" It was dangerous, so dangerous to mess with the spell elements while its power was still active, but she could see no other option to save Ranma.

Shampoo rushed to the kitchen and was back a moment later with dishtowels. Immediately, Tofu, Nabiki, Ukyo and Mousse were on their knees, rubbing away at the arcane symbols of the spell. Ryoga opened the doors and windows, and Cologne whirled her staff, creating a wind that blew the choking incense smoke from the room. Then they turned to the still fading form of the boy who had affected each of their lives so deeply, to see if their efforts had helped.

Ranma was completely transparent. He seemed to hover like a ghost on the edge of reality, curled on his side, his eyes clenched with pain. Then he opened his eyes and looked up, his gaze focusing on the air a few feet in front of him. Slowly, in spite of the agony that coursed through his being, he uncurled himself and reached out with an intangible arm. He opened his mouth and whispered a single, hoarse word.


The Snow Woman looked at Akane in concern, as the girl broke off her sentence. "What is it? Are you alright?"

Akane didn't answer. She looked down at the back of her hands as the tingle throughout her body grew stronger. Her heart began to pound, not painfully as it had a few moments before, when she felt as if she was being ripped to shreds by some unknown force, but... almost in anticipation..?

A crackle of energy split through the room, causing her to jump in surprise.

The Snow Woman let out a startled gasp. "No! It can't be..." My reflection spell! It's pulling him through the barrier instead of Akane!

"What's happening?" asked Akane. She had experienced strange things since she had come to the Kami plane, but nothing like this...

Something began to appear on the floor a few feet away from her. She stepped away from it in alarm. What was it? A spirit? Was this another attack? In an instant, her katana was in her hand, blazing with blue ki, and she moved towards it.

"Wait! Akane, no!" Akane was startled by the urgency in the Snow Woman's voice, but didn't take her eyes off the slowly solidifying object.

"Don't worry, whatever it is, it won't..." She stopped, her voice catching in her throat. The ghostly image was a figure... a boy, curled on his side, as if in a terrible amount of pain. He was wearing black pants and a... red silk shirt...

Akane felt the blood drain from her face. The sword fell from her hand.

... dark hair, braided into a pigtail...

"R... Ranma?" Her voice was so soft, she thought she'd mouthed the word. But he seemed to hear her. Slowly, he opened his eyes and looked at her.

His eyes! They were as blue and beautiful as she remembered, in spite of the pain that she saw reflected in them. An expression of indescribable happiness flickered across his face, fighting with the pain, and he slowly uncurled himself, reaching out a transparent arm towards her. "Akane..?"

Akane stumbled forward a few steps and sank to her knees. "Oh Ranma," she whispered, tears streaming down her cheeks.

She couldn't think of anything else to say. After all the hours and days and weeks she'd spent daydreaming of what she might say if she ever got to see Ranma again, she couldn't think of a single thing. Almost two whole years had gone by, and she had been so sure that Ranma had long since forgotten her and married one of his other fiancees...

"Akane..." The word was a gasp of pain, and both Ranma and Akane flinched at his agony. "I... I'm sorry..."

Akane began to sob quietly. "R-Ranma, I'm s-sorry..."

Suddenly she remembered. The most important thing she wanted to tell him. "I'm sorry... I never told you that I l-love you..."

She looked at his ghostly form anxiously, expecting some type of off-the-cuff response, but was surprised to see Ranma looking at her in shock, his pain forgotten even though he was still torn between two planes of existence.

"Really?" he whispered.

Akane's throat closed off with a sob. She nodded vehemently.

His expression softened, and his eyes warmed with inner light. "Akane, I- "

There was a crackle of energy, and Ranma's words choked into a strangled cry as the dimensional pull on his body suddenly reversed itself. He began to fade from Akane's sight the same way he appeared.

"Ranma!" she screamed. She was losing him again! She couldn't..! He had come for her, how could this be happening?!

Ranma looked up, tears of agony and despair streaming from his eyes as he felt himself being pulled back to the Nekohanten. "Akane," he choked through the pain. "W-where are you?"

"I'm in the Kami plane, Ranma!" She hoped he could understand her, she was crying so hard. "I'm with Yuki-onna, the Snow Woman!"

She could barely see the outline of his form. "I-I'll f-find you." His sobbing voice came to her as if from a great distance. "Akane..."

And he was gone.

A moment passed, and Akane heard footsteps behind her as the Snow Woman walked away, slowly, deliberately.

Akane sat, her arms wrapped around her knees, and shook with silent sobs.

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