I do not own anything written by Rumiko Takahashi or Kosuke Fujishima.

Ranma chuckled as she floated along beside the younger Tendo sisters. In spite of the long night she had spent in her student's room on guard from a possible attack, and her self-assumed need to constantly scan their surroundings for the same, she was feeling rather cheerful. Partly that was because she was actually doing something besides floating around on guard duty, even if only going to school, and partly because of her memories of the ... entertainment ... Nabiki had put on that morning while training with Nodoka. She glanced over at her limping fiancée and considered commenting on her morning performance — especially the unorthodox twist that she'd used to try to avoid one low strike that was responsible now for her uneven walk — but rapidly discarded the thought. He and Nabiki were still getting to know the fine points about each other, but Ranma had already learned the hard way that Nabiki was not amused by loss of dignity ... when she was the butt of the joke, at least. Of course, her own empathic sense meant she was perfectly aware of her fiancé's amusement, but they were also learning to ignore some of each other's emotional states if the other didn't comment on them. Besides, I got more important things ta talk ta her about, the succubus thought, sobering.

Sensing the change of mood, Nabiki glanced over at the succubus before looking around and frowning — her lover's emotional shift didn't feel urgent, so she wasn't worried about another attack ... at least not immediately ... but she couldn't see anything to account for the shift, either. "Ranma, what is it?" she quietly asked as she shifted the strap of the bag holding Ranma's clothes higher up on her shoulder.

Akane glanced toward where she could sense her sensei (and current bodyguard, not that she'd been informed of that) floating beside her even as Ranma replied, "Not sure. Ya had a couple visitors last night."

"Visitors?" Nabiki's frown deepened.

"Yeah, Cherry Blossom an' another sprite, one I don't know. There was a wall between me an' them —" From where she'd spent the night floating just under Akane's ceiling, but Ranma figured saying so where Akane could hear would be a bad idea. "— so they must not a' known I could see 'em when they came through the window."

"Cherry Blossom?" Nabiki asked incredulously. "Why would she be visiting in the middle of the night?"

Ranma shrugged. "Dunno," she replied. "They snuck over ta yer desk for a few minutes, then left."

Now Nabiki's frown was confused as she tried to remember what had been on her desk when she'd packed for school. "Did they move anything?"

Ranma shook her head. "Naw, just lit up so they could see what they were doin'."

"But that makes no sense!" Nabiki protested. "The only thing on my desk were the diagrams for the linking ceremony for you and Akane that your ... that Sensei and I worked on yesterday." She blushed as she remembered all the errors Nodoka had found with the circles she'd come up with, however much her sensei had been impressed by the concept, and hastily continued, "Sprites don't do ceremonies, all their magic is inherent, like yours! And can sprites even read?"

Ranma shrugged again even as she scanned the roofs of the houses along their side of the block for a certain Kuno nutcase hiding out of sight of anyone but her. The conversation made it easier for her to ignore the for-all-practical-purposes naked people, mostly women, inside the homes. Though she was becoming inured to the sight of naked flesh again, especially when said body was far enough away that she couldn't pick up emotions. "I dunno if they can read," she said, "but whatever they were lookin' for, they found it. They stopped huntin' and left too fast for anything else."

Then the three turned the corner and the wall around the school grounds came into view, and Ranma grinned. "I wonder if Kuno's worked up the nerve ta challenge us again," she commented. "He sure feels like he wants ta."

Nabiki's sigh was covered by her little sister's growl. She laid a warning hand on Akane's arm to calm her. "Ranko, he wants to challenge Ranma, not you," she said, slightly louder than usual. "I know you share memories, but don't get them mixed up."

Ranma stopped searching for Kodachi to look over at Nabiki in confusion. Nabiki surreptitiously glanced around at the other students headed for Furinkan's main gates, some of them possibly within earshot, and the succubus blushed at the resigned amusement coming from her fiancée as she looked around and remembered their cover story. "Yeah, right, challenge Ranma," she muttered.

"How long do you think it will be until I'm ready to challenge him?" Akane quietly asked. Actually, she'd been quiet ever since the evening Kodachi had attacked her. Grimly determined to win, afraid she'd fail, very nervous about the upcoming ceremony they'd need to perform linking her to Ranma if she couldn't learn rhythmic gymnastics martial arts fast enough, resigned about her chances of managing that ... no, Akane was not a happy girl. Nabiki was mildly surprised that her younger sister wasn't taking her fears and frustrations out on everyone around her, maybe her little sister was actually growing up a little. Maybe we're all growing up a little, she thought, In more ways than one. She glanced toward her lover with a fond, only slightly lascivious smile.

Sensing her fiancée's attention — and the direction her thoughts were taking, or at least her emotions, Ranma grinned at her. "Ya sure you're not the succubus?" she murmured, before sobering and turning to an eye-rolling Akane rapidly growing irritated. "I dunno, Akane," she hurriedly continued as the three passed through the gates onto the school grounds. "The trainin' ya been doin' with Ryoga is good fer speed an' dodgin' an' that'll help, but most'a it's useless outside a' the ring. Once we get past the competition —"

"Oh ho ho ho ho!"

Ranma's head snapped around at the spine-twisting laughter (not that she had a spine to twist at the moment). She'd been watching! And with the way she could barely see nonliving material Kodachi couldn't hide behind —

Kodachi dropped down from the tree branch she'd been crouched on — the leaf-shrouded branch, that had shielded her from Ranma's Sight — to land crouched yards from the three girls. She was clad in the same style purple leotard and sash she'd worn two nights before, though the jewel she'd worn before had been replaced by a silver choker with a black jewel that, to Nabiki's and Ranma's eyes, shone with magic. As she straightened her gaze was fixed on the girl that would face her in the ring in less than a week, and both Ranma and Akane could see both the ribbon she'd whipped out to spin around her and the slim club in her other hand were shining with imbued life-energy.

"Careful," Ranma murmured, "she can't match ya hand-ta-hand so give me a moment ta get around ta her side. Then close as quick as ya can, but don't get cocky even if she isn't carryin' a sledgehammer. Nabiki, get outta the way 'fore she decides ta make ya a target."

"You got it, stud, be careful," Nabiki acknowledged, radiating worry.

A tense Akane jerked a nod. "Didn't you learn anything the first time you ambushed me?" she asked their attacker as Nabiki backed away toward the school's main doors and Ranma flew a half-circle around toward Kodachi's side.

"I suppose a peasant such as yourself must be as stupid as you are churlish," the off-side pony-tailed girl replied haughtily, her undulating ribbon shifting from circling around her to spiraling out between the two girls. "I told you before, only the hoi polloi 'ambush' others. I simply compete before the assigned date of our meeting."

"Yeah, right," Akane snorted. Okay, Nabiki's out of the way. She shifted her attention over toward her sensei as she continued, "I think you're just afraid that someone will show you up for the poser you are in front of an audience." She ignored her opponent's sputtered response as she watched the floating something she'd learned to identify as her sensei out of the corner of her eye. The patch reached a point directly to the side of the insane Kuno girl and rotated until it was stretched out horizontally, vaguely shaped like a Superman pose. Show time!

Ranma sighed as she saw her student tense up — Akane was telegraphing her attacks again! She'd stopped doing that when sparring with either of her current sensei, finally, but apparently when the fight was for real she reverted to old habits. We'll have to work on that, the nude redhead thought even as she started her own charge forward — and the plan abruptly fell apart.

Even as Akane began her own charge Kodachi spun to the side, and Ranma suddenly found the Kuno's ribbon whipping toward her. She fought to 'roll' out of the way to get outside of the spiral, but failed to get beyond the edge of the spinning vortex before it reached her. In the blink of an eye, she found her arms pinned to her sides and her legs locked together as the ki-infused ribbon wrapped around her from her head to her feet, even her eyes and mouth covered. Damn it, this's the second time I've been surprised 'cause I thought someone couldn't see me when they could! What's wrong with me?

Ranma struggled for a moment as the ribbon tightened like a living thing — some kind of ki-effect, like Ryoga's hardened, sharp bandana boomerangs? — but abandoned the effort immediately. Her succubus form just wasn't strong enough! And with her frustrating inability to push herself past fixed limits, it never would be.

But there were different kinds of 'strength' and she rocketed skyward. Kodachi yelped when Ranma hit the end of the ribbon like an Atlantic blue marlin dancing on the end of a line, the impact yanking the gymnast's arm straight up and almost dislocating her shoulder. But the Kodachi managed to keep her grip on the ribbon's handle, and her eyes widened in shock when she found herself yanked off the ground instead — just in time to be knocked spinning up when Akane's fist slammed into her midsection.

If Kodachi hadn't already been off the ground and in motion, the blow would probably have sent her to the hospital with internal injuries. As it was, even as she curled around the blow she was being pulled skyward, and managed to kick off against Akane's chest and used the momentum to angle her upward flight, catching a large branch with her ribbon and spinning around it several times as she fought to maintain her concentration, and so keeping her ki shining through the ribbon and Ranma trapped in its embrace.

She almost managed it, but the shining ki flickered for a moment, and Ranma instantly renewed her struggle to break out. She manage to free one hand and shake the ribbon away from her face before the ki-glow renewed itself and again locked her tight. She looked down just in time to see Akane spring up toward their enemy, only to meet Kodachi's club coming down, smashing right between her eyes. Her unconscious student flopped bonelessly back to the ground.

"Akane!" Nabiki shouted, voice harsh with panic. She couldn't use the killing curse, she couldn't! She didn't know how badly her sister had been hurt, and while the magic jewel at Kodachi's throat obviously allowed her to see the succubus, ki-charged weapons couldn't actually kill Ranma — just hurt her, maybe even discorporate her for awhile. Besides, if Kodachi's will proved too strong and the curse reflected back at Nabiki, the result would be very unpleasant, perhaps fatal.

But if she does really hurt Ranma or Akane, I'm getting some of her hair and taking the time to do the curse right, full ceremony, Nabiki thought, snarling as her eyes scanned the lawn around her. She cursed the efficiency of the groundskeepers, not a stone to be seen. Yanking open her school bag, she pulled out one of her textbooks and ran forward toward the gymnast now sitting with her legs wrapped around the branch and her club tucked under one thigh as she reeled in the ribbon hand over hand along with her still-struggling prey.

Kodachi glanced down at the shouting older girl just in time for the thrown school book to smack into her forehead, snapping her head back and almost knocking her off her perch. "Wait your turn, peasant, I'll deal with you as soon as I've shown this guttersnipe — woah!"

Now able to see, Ranma had taken advantage of Kodachi's distraction and now the still-bound succubus slammed into her midriff. Even as tiny as the nature spirit was and as short as the flight had been, she managed to knock Kodachi off her perch. But the gymnast simply whipped around the branch and back up to her seat, catching her falling club in the process and ignoring the scrapes behind her knee as she took the ribbon with her.

Ranma found herself with almost no free ribbon at all, practically bound to the branch. She struggled again to free herself, as uselessly as before, and growled, "If ya touch Nabs, I will hunt ya down and hurt you!"

"I would be more concerned about your own well-deserved punishment," Kodachi purred, even as her club batted aside another thrown book. Ranma winced at her vicious smile, the outward sign of the sheer malevolent anger she was radiating. The gymnast pressed a stud in her club's handle, and spikes sprang out to circle around its end. "Manhandle me, throw me out into the street like discarded garbage, will you?"

Ranma glared defiantly at Kodachi as the gymnast lifted the now-spiked club. The succubus braced herself to ignore the coming pain. Remember, Nabs said you're a human-shaped bundle a' energy, not real, an' there's no way she can beat on ya with those spikes without damaging the ribbon — The succubus's train of thought was cut off when she was abruptly yanked toward the ground, along with the branch she was bound to, and her suddenly flailing enemy. She heard the air gush from Kodachi's lungs as the other girl slammed onto the lawn, felt the ki suffusing her bindings flicker, and then abruptly fade. She was free!

As the now harmless ribbon fell through her to the grass Ranma rocketed up, fists clenched. "All right! My turn now, ya —" She froze, hovering in mid-air, eyes wide at the sight of Kuno Tatewaki standing between her and Kodachi, glaring at his sister as he shook dirt from his bokken. Almost of their own volition, Ranma's eyes dropped to find a trench in the grass, slicing through the ribbon that had bound her. She looked up at the tree. Sure enough, the stump of the branch she had been bound to showed a clean cut, not a break. I ... Kuno ... he ... why ... Catching movement out of the corner of her eye, she glanced down to find Nabiki kneeling by her unconscious sister. Akane! She shook herself free of her shock and realized that the kendoist was speaking.

" ... not permit you to pursue this dishonorable quest against the fair Akane and the unfortunate spirit maiden," Tatewaki said, sternly frowning at his younger sister. "Surely the way that the villainous miscreant Saotome has bound them to his whims through foul sorcery is misfortune enough! If face them you must, it shall be according to the traditions of the noble sport that you sully by your behavior."

"As if you know anything of the proper pursuit of victory," Kodachi replied haughtily. "But I fear that you have ruined my sport this morning, so I shall take my leave. Oh, ho, ho, ho, ho!" She spun in place, a wide swirl of rose petals whipped out around her, and Ranma watched as she leaped up out of the cloud, landed on a wide branch of the tree, sprang over the school wall, and in a couple of bounds was across the street and gone across the rooftops.


Nabiki turned back the blanket and top sheet, and Ranma floated over the bed to gently lower down a furiously blushing Akane. (She'd been fighting the urge to squirm at the sensation of Ranma's bare breasts pressed against her skin right through her school uniform, the entire time the succubus had flown her first to Dr. Tofu's clinic then home.)

"Now remember, the doc said plenty of rest for the rest of the day," Nabiki reminded her sister as she tucked her blankets around her. "Your training with ki may mean he doesn't need to send you to the hospital for a more thorough examination or keep you for observation, but that was still quite a hit you took — and if you aren't recovered enough to go to school tomorrow, Kuno will be here knocking down the door to make sure you're all right! It was all I could do to talk him out of personally summoning an ambulance, and the only way I was able to convince him not to accompany us to the clinic was by saying that you'd be insulted by the suggestion that you couldn't look out for yourself. And he looked doubtful, at that."

Ranma snorted. "Maybe that's 'cause I was pickin' her up at the time," she said. "Get yer rest, Akane, I'll let Ryoga know that ya won't be there tonight. An' once Kasumi gets home from shoppin' I'm sure she'll be up with somethin'."

"That sounds great, thank you," Akane murmured, closing her eyes.

Little sis is being way too calm about this. For a moment, Nabiki considered mentioning that she had hinted that a date with Akane might be forthcoming if the upperclassman backed off — a perhaps ill-conceived but desperate measure to deal with a very insistent would-be suitor, but Nabiki had been both stunned by the help he'd provided and worried about her sister and so perhaps not thinking clearly. Besides, it wasn't like she would be the one going out with the pompous (but apparently useful upon occasion) fool. But she quickly squashed the idea — that would certainly get a rise out of her sister, but chasing her middle sister around the house screaming at the top of her lungs wouldn't do Akane's concussion any good at all. Tomorrow. Or maybe the next day. Actually, after the competition would be good, don't want to distract little sis. Yeah, right, like that's all you're concerned about. Still, there was no need to be afraid, she'd have Ranma to protect her from her enraged sister, after all. Right? Yeah, right, Ranma's going to be cheering her on, and Mother Nodoka'll probably treat it as training in evasion and escape — from the job title, I'll bet a Scout gets a lot of use out of that particular skill set.

On that cheery thought, Nabiki stepped over to the window to close the curtains, then motioned Ranma to follow her toward the door (not that the succubus needed to use it, or could hardly see it, for that matter). She'd just turned off the light and was about to close the door, when Akane spoke up.

"Nabiki, is that bonding ritual you were talking about ready?"

Nabiki paused, looking at her sister lying in her bed, arm over her eyes. "I think so, yes. Mother Nodoka provisionally signed off on it last night."

"What's my part?"

"Well ..." Nabiki shrugged. "You and Ranma basically sit — or float — in separate circles and listen while Mother Nodoka and I spend about an hour chanting."

Akane sat up in her bed and said, "Good, we're doing it tonight."

Nabiki stared at her sister for a long moment. In truth, she'd half expected Akane to back out at the last moment, considering how nervous magic still made her. "Are you sure?" she finally asked.

"Oh, hell, yes! Whatever it takes, that bitch is going down!"

Okay, that's more like the Akane I know. She glanced over at Ranma, still floating in the hall, and grimaced when the redheaded gamin spirit shrugged and nodded. "All right, I'll give Mother Nodoka a call and let her know we've moved up the date. Now lie back down and get some rest."

Akane nodded, winced, and lay back down, and Nabiki gently closed the door. Turning to Ranma, she whispered, "You'll keep an eye on her?"

"Yeah, on the roof right outside her window," her lover whispered back. "No way that nutcase is catchin' me by surprise again."

"Good, I'll leave a note for Kasumi before I leave." She reached up and pressed a finger across the succubus's lips to stop her instant protest. "I have to do some shopping of my own for some special foci for tonight's ceremony, and the Amazons need to be told we won't be there this afternoon."

"Nabiki, it's not safe ..." Ranma paused at a sudden thought, then grinned. "Why don't ya see if any a' the elders wanna go shoppin' with ya? I'll bet they'd like ta see what we got here, magic-wise. An' there's no way Kodachi could take one a' those tough old biddies."

"Now, that is an excellent thought, I'll do that," Nabiki agreed, grinning back. "Just don't ever let any of them hear you call them that, or you may learn just how good they really are." She pulled Ranma toward her for a long kiss, then pushed her away. "Now get on guard, I have to hurry if I'm going to have time to get everything."

"Uh ... right."

Nabiki watched as the redhead now sporting a goofy grin floated through the ceiling to take up her guard position, then sighed and hurried to their room for the debit card for her special bank account, her cell phone, and a pen and pad of paper. It was going to be a long tiring day and an unfortunately early night. Again, dammit. "Maybe Ranma's nature really is contagious," she muttered as she dumped her school bag out on her bed and grabbed her pad of paper.