I do not own anything written by Rumiko Takahashi or Kosuke Fujishima.
In the room that had been Genma and Ranma's guest bedroom and was now Nodoka's permanent home, Nabiki was very happy that she'd thought to wear a sweatband. This wasn't the first ritual she'd performed that was over an hour long. It wasn't the first ritual with another person chanting along with her. It wasn't the first ritual she'd performed practically the same day she'd researched and drawn it up. It was the first time for all three, and by now she was almost trembling with the effort to keep her arms positioned just so where she stood inside her own circle (gratefully, trembling only for minutes, not the full hour), her voice going hoarse from keeping it pitched to match Nodoka's, the sweatband about her head damp from the stress of remembering the full ceremony she'd hastily memorized while smoothly segueing through each step. Her concentration wasn't helped by the waves of boredom/fear/boredom radiating from where raven-haired girl and fiery-haired succubus stood/floated in their own circles.
But now she and her sensei were finally reaching the end, the two voices merged for the final ringing phrases, they straightened and clapped their hands together to join two destinies, froze in place … and waited. And waited. Nothing.
As Akane sagged in relief, Ranma commented, "Ya know, I expected that ta be more spectacular."
Nabiki sighed. "That's because it didn't work," she said. "Nodoka-sensei, what did I do wrong?"
"Nothing, you were perfect," Nodoka replied. "In fact, you were too perfect. Magic will accept a little slippage if intent is strong, dear, and if you don't learn to relax and pace yourself the really long rituals will be beyond your reach."
Nabiki shuddered — the ritual they'd just performed had been quite long enough for her, the thought of even longer ones wasn't a pleasant one.
Akane asked, "So can we get out of the circles?"
"Yeah, sure," Nabiki replied with a nod, barely noticing the edge in her sister's voice as she focused on their failure. She did notice when Akane all but stomped over to drop onto the bed — Akane was an interesting mix of relief and frustration, she apparently couldn't decide whether to be upset or pleased at the turn of events. Shrugging at Ranma's questioning look, Nabiki asked, "So what did we miss?"
"You mean what did I miss, and if I knew I wouldn't have missed it," Nodoka replied, a sharp edge to her voice matching her frustration. She paused to fight for her usual iron control, then sighed. "My apologies, I should not be snapping at my student when the fault lies with the sensei. I will review the ritual, but cannot promise that I will be able to determine my error in time for the match. You should come up with an alternative plan. Unless perhaps the Amazon elders could help us?"
Nabiki instantly shook her head, then paused as she considered her knee-jerk reaction, and her shopping expedition that afternoon with Ku Lon and Dao Paz. The two elders had been curious, often dismissive, occasionally impressed, but always alert to everything around them — especially in the backroom where the magic shop Nabiki frequented kept the real goods. And the questions they'd asked… Finally, she slowly said, "Nooo, I don't think that would be a good idea. I like them, but I don't trust them ... not with this. They have their own agenda beyond collecting Ryoga, and I don't know what it is. Until I do, I don't want them near any ritual this ... intrusive."
Nodoka considered her student's words, then nodded. "You have had more exposure to them, in this you would know best," she agreed. "So what do you do now?"
"Now, now, now, no need to panic, Cherry Blossom is here with the solutions to your problems! Well, the solution to this problem, anyway."
Nabiki whipped around at the sound of the sprite's voice, to find Cherry Blossom and Peach Fuzz sitting on the windowsill, bouncing their heels on the wall and grinning, bubbling with delight at everyone's shock at their presence. Well, Nabiki and Akane's shock, anyway. Ranma was alert but had clearly known they were there, and Nodoka was simply amused.
"We need to work on your situational awareness, student," the older woman said mock-sternly, then glanced thoughtfully at Akane. "You could probably use the practice, as well." Putting aside her amusement, she turned back to bow to their uninvited guests. "Welcome. Please don't take offense, but may I ask how you know just what our problem is?"
Nabiki glanced sharply at her sensei. Nodoka was ... not nervous, certainly not concerned, but she was definitely respectful. Turning her attention back to the two tiny nature spirits, the high school girl considered them just as closely — they were just sprites! Only for Nodoka to feel the way she does, either they aren't what they appear or there is nothing 'just' about sprites. She giggled slightly as she thought how, for someone that had prided herself in always being in control, she was spending a lot of time recently floundering in a sea of unknowns and maybes.
At the sound of her amusement, Peach Fuzz grinned at her, then flew up from the window sill to circle the middle Tendo's head before settling on her shoulder. "The Ice Queen is developing a sense of humor, wonderful! That will make things much easier," the tiny brunette enthused before leaning over to peck her cheek.
"Make what easier?"Akane demanded from where she sat.
From the window sill where she still sat, Cherry Blossom replied, "Why, getting you and that cutie hooked up!" She flew up to circle Akane, and the girl started back from what must have looked to her like a tiny, humanoid featureless blob.
Nabiki could feel her sister's nervousness rapidly turning into anger, and hastily asked, "So just what were we doing wrong?"
Cherry Blossom abandoned Akane to fly over and hover in front of Nabiki. "Why, you weren't doing anything wrong," she said. "Your idea was brilliant! So was Nodoka's refinement of your idea, the two of you make a fine team." She leaned forward where she hovered to tap Nabiki's nose. She whispered, "And believe me, I've seen a lot of Initiates at work."
Nabiki's crossed eyes tried to widen. She asked, "Cherry Blossom, how old are you?"
"Ah, ah, ah ..." The blonde sprite shook a finger at the teenager. "Nabiki, you know better than that! Never ask a woman her age — especially when you are wondering how old she is."
"Now, C.B., be nice," Peach Fuzz said sternly from her perch on Nabiki's shoulder, "you did lead her into that, after all." Her bumblebee wings carried her out into the middle of the room, where she could be seen by all the bigger people as Cherry Blossom returned to the window sill. "Like Cherry Blossom said, your ritual was perfect. But you forgot to take an important factor into account — the Voice."
"The Voice?" Nabiki asked. She glanced at her sensei, and Nodoka motioned for her to continue. "But why would that make a difference? It doesn't interfere with the familiar bond, after all. Can Initiates with familiar-bonded nature spirits even sense the Voice?"
"Yes, they can, if they know about it," Peach Fuzz replied, voice going grim. "And when they do know about it and use nature spirit familiars for info-diving in the Voice, they lose a lot of familiars. The Voice is dangerous. That's one of the reasons you won't find much about the Voice in your records — we don't talk about the Voice except with Initiates we know we can trust, and they don't pass along what they learn. We wouldn't be talking about it with you — well, except for Nodoka, she already knows — if it wasn't for Ranma, so please don't spread this around."
She circled the room, glaring at the three teenagers in turn as they hastily nodded, then in an eye-blink she was reverted to the usual sprite-perkiness, making Nabiki go cross-eyed again as she hovered in front of her and tapped her nose. "Now you have all the answers, let's make putting them together a lesson for the student," she intoned, before spinning around Nabiki's head and flying over to the window, giggling all the while.
Nabiki stared as Peach Fuzz settled down to sit cross-legged next to Cherry Blossom, wondering for a moment which was the act — the mock-lightheartedness, or the mock-seriousness — before setting the question aside for later as she closed her eyes and considered what the sprite had said. Let's see, the Voice doesn't stop Initiates from forcing nature spirits into familiar bonds, so it can't be that we're essentially imposing the bond on Ranma and Akane. And it certainly doesn't stop the powerful nature spirits the Initiates of the West call gods from bonding with their chosen champions, so it can't be the level of intelligence or power of the nature spirit. The only real difference here is that Sensei and I are acting as conduits —
Nabiki's eyes popped open. "It's because Sensei and I aren't the ones forming the bond, isn't it?" she demanded. "One or both of us needs to be linked to the Voice to set up the bond."
Cherry Blossom clapped. "Very good!" she enthused. "Nodoka must be delighted to have such a bright student!"
"No," Nabiki said flatly.
The two sprites exchanged puzzled glances. Peach Fuzz asked, " 'No', what? No, Nodoka isn't delighted, or no, you aren't bright?"
"The nature spirit I'd need to take as a familiar would have to be sapient, wouldn't it?"
"Yes," Cherry Blossom agreed, "nonsapient nature spirits don't have the same kind of link to the Voice."
"That's what I thought." Nabiki crossed her arms and glared at the two visitors. "Even if Sensei and I could cast a strong enough ritual to overcome its resistance , I am not hunting down and capturing some random nature spirit and forcing it to become my familiar, just so Akane can win a stupid competition."
Everyone ignored Akane's shouted "Hey!" as they watched the two sprites exchange glances. Cherry Blossom shrugged, and Peach Fuzz flew up to hover again in front of Nabiki. She asked, "And what if you had a volunteer?"
"Yeah, right!" Nabiki scoffed. "And why would someone want to enslave himself —" She broke off as she remembered the aftermath of Gosunkugi's successful summoning of Ranma, and how she'd talked to Peach Fuzz as they'd watched Ranma amidst a cloud of sprites in the air above the koi pond, dancing to a rhythm Nabiki couldn't hear. And she remembered what the sprite had told her. She asked, "The familiar bond cuts both ways, doesn't it? Just like the master can sense her familiar's emotions, use its senses, the familiar can do the same with the master. Right?"
"Peach Fuzz," Nabiki said softly, "We won't be able to break the familiar bond later. Do you really want to know what it's like to be in love that much? So much that you're willing to enslave yourself for the rest of my life? Do you really trust me that much?"
"Yes, it is that important to me, and yes, I trust you that much." The sprite slowly circled Nabiki. "Your aura has cleared up remarkably since you met Ranma," she said, then grinned, and flashed across the room to settle on top of Ranma's fiery mane. "Besides, you have Ranma here to keep you in line! If you get too harsh I'll just tell this little hottie, and she'll guilt you until you apologize. Besides, I'm too small for you." She stood and struck a pose that had Nabiki and Nodoka blushing, and waited until their laughter died away. "So let's do it," she said, voice abruptly switching back to deadly serious.
It wasn't that simple, of course. Since Gosunkugi's summoning Nabiki had had a few nightmares of Ranma being forced into exactly the situation that Peach Fuzz wanted to embrace, and had no desire to put herself in the place of Ranma's faceless dream-master. (Even in her nightmares, Nabiki just wasn't able to consider the sallow-skinned scrawny kid a serious threat.) In the end, it had taken Ranma, also sensing Peach Fuzz's growing desperation, siding with the sprite to change Nabiki's mind. And of course that meant that instead of being done for the evening, Nabiki found herself with two more rituals to perform.
The first ritual, to bind Peach Fuzz to her, turned out to be one of the easiest that Nabiki had ever cast. True, it was moderately complex. Also true, Nabiki had reluctantly decided months before that the effort needed to acquire and bind a worthwhile non-abyssal familiar was simply beyond her current resources and so she hadn't so much as glanced at the ritual since (even then she was wary of the ulterior motives of the minor demons that obviously wanted to be bound). But none of that mattered when the supposed 'victim' was not only not effectively resisting — as in the case of nonsapient animals and nature spirits — but eagerly abetting her own enslavement. The ritual was over almost as soon as she finished the last chanted phrase to initiate the laughable 'contest of wills'.
But the last ritual more than made up the difference.
By now Nabiki's clothes were actually plastered to her body and her sweatband was saturated — sweat was beginning to ooze out and trickle down her forehead into her eyes — she was well past trembling and it was taking everything she had not to shake. Her voice was hoarse and the rhythm of her chant — this time in Esperanto for the extra oomph — was just a bit off. With the tiny fraction of her mind not dedicated to making the ritual work (and holding off her sister's growing fear battering at her control) she was wishing fervently that her sensei was a part of the circle. Unfortunately, since Nodoka didn't have even an indirect link to the Voice all her inclusion would have done was ruin any chance of success, so this time Nabiki was on her own while her sensei observed from the sideline. And while the ritual was almost complete she was also almost finished herself, fighting to keep her knees locked.
Then it was all she could do to reduce a jerk to a twitch and ruin everything herself, as a soft voice sounded in her head: "Idiot. I know you bonded me to you so you could have the link to the Voice you needed to make this work, but a familiar is far more useful than just that. You need my strength to get through this, so use it."
Right, the link with a familiar cut both ways, and if she had either the energy or the concentration to spare she would have been kicking herself for not thinking more about what having a sapient familiar meant. But she'd had never seriously considered having a sapient familiar...
Nabiki didn't dare try to relax enough to mind-speak — wasn't even sure how, exactly — but she and her fiancé (or rather her fiancée, for this at least) had taken to communicating with each other with little emotion bursts when the situation was obvious. Now with what little attention she could spare she sent the new familiar sitting on her shoulder a sense of questioning ... of 'really?' (Fortunately, 'emotion messaging' needed very little 'bandwidth'.)
With a mental sigh, Peach Fuzz sent, "Yes, I'm serious." A moment later, Nabiki felt her fatigue easing as energy was actually pushed into her — a surprising amount, considering how tiny a creature a sprite was. Peach Fuzz thought, "What do you know, it worked."
With Peach Fuzz's gift filling her, Nabiki's tremors eased off, her voice strengthened, and she unlocked her knees and straightened up for the last few minutes of the ritual. She practically shouted out the final sealing phrases, and froze in place with hands clapped in front of her and held her breath, waiting.
Akane had been prepared for the second hair-over-an-hour ritual to be as mind-numbingly boring as the first. It was the same ritual, after all — right? And she couldn't even bring a book into her personal circle to keep herself occupied, something about 'the focus needed for reading interferes with the flow of power'. As if the way her mind had wandered the first time wouldn't do the same thing.
But it hadn't worked out that way. Certainly, outwardly everything was the same. But from the beginning she had felt a building pressure on her soul as if some presence was worming its way into her mind, changing her perceptions and twisting her thoughts. Her sister's chanting had taken on an otherworldly quality, the scent of the candles seemed to lift her off her feet to leave her helpless before any errant breeze, and the room had wavered and gone hazy as if she was floating deep in murky water.
This was everything wrong with magic, the unreality it made of the world, and by now it was taking everything she had not to run screaming from the room. Her clipped-short fingernails were digging into her palms, and she was only dimly aware of the blood dripping off her chin from where she'd bitten into her lip.
Then Nabiki's voice rose to almost a shout, her open hands clapped together, and in the ringing silence the world seemed to snap into focus — and Akane cried out, reeling as something stabbed deep into her mind. She clutched at her head as she dropped to her knees, and the world went dark.
As the world swam back into focus, Akane found herself lying on the floor with her head in Nodoka's lap, looking up at the older woman's worried face. Kasumi was crouched beside her holding her hand, Nabiki kneeling on the other side with the cute red-haired nature spirit form of her fiancé floating beside her, both girls as worried as their mother/de facto mother-in-law.
Akane smiled weakly up at her oldest sister. "So who's watching the fathers now?" she whispered. Not waiting for an answer, she levered herself up with a groan. "I'm all right," she said, again in a whisper. Grimacing, she forced her voice to strengthen. "What happened?"
"You fought the bond and it backlashed on you," the perky voice of Nabiki's new familiar announced. "You'll be fine, but I bet that hurt."
Akane growled as her gaze shifted to Nabiki's shoulder and the tiny brunette sitting there. "I was not —" Her voice chopped off as she realized just what she was seeing — a very tiny, very cute, very naked earth-haired winged woman. A woman she had never seen before, just heard her voice coming from a tiny sometimes-humanoid-shaped sense of shape buzzing about the room. And then Akane realized what she had seen just seconds earlier, and her gaze flashed back to Ranma — a completely visible very female Ranma. "Ranma, I can see you!" she gasped out, then clutched at her head and mewed as another spike of pain seemed to slam through her head.
"Easy, Akane," Nodoka soothed, easing her back down to lie flat on the floor. "The backlash seems to have exacerbated your concussion from this morning. If I was your mother I would say that there would be no school tomorrow." She glanced over at Kasumi, getting her instant agreement before continuing, "If you stay in bed until I get home from work, we can see if the bond took — not before then! Understood?"
Akane found herself grinning through her pounding headache and fighting an urge to laugh — what that would do to her head was terrifying to consider, but Nodoka had shifted her attention to Nabiki and Ranma. Her expression must have been formidable because the pair was very eager to agree.
Then Kasumi was dabbing disinfectant on her lip before Ranma again scooped her up from the floor and carried her to her bedroom (the feel of the nature spirit's bare breasts was as embarrassing as it had been the first time, even with her headache). Kasumi tucked her into bed and gently kissed her on the forehead as she'd used to just after their mother's death before turning out the lights and closing the door.
Akane waited as she listened to the retreating footsteps, then quietly slipped out of bed. Making her way over to the window, she looked down at the night-shaded lawn with its koi pond and bordering flowers and felt tears trickling down her cheeks that had nothing to do with the pain pounding in her head. The night was alive with tiny glowing naked winged people, dancing about each other in the air and drifting from flower to flower like so many giant humanoid bees.
Making her way back to bed, Akane smiled as she drifted off to sleep. Even if the bond hadn't taken, Nabiki would be able to perform the ritual tomorrow without a problem, because there was nothing to be afraid of anymore — she could see, her world was once again her sisters' world.