Ah My Goddess Fan Fiction / Ranma 1/2 Fan Fiction / Sailor Moon Fan Fiction ❯ A Tale of Two Wallets ❯ Making Compromises ( Chapter 3 )

[ Y - Young Adult: Not suitable for readers under 16 ]

A Tale of Two Wallets

(An Altered Destiny)

Written by Jim Robert Bader

Proofread by Shiva Barnwell

"I don't see what you're so upset about," Akane said as she looked up from her homework to see Nabiki working out on her bed, "At least he was nice to you. I'm the one he kept insulting the whole day we were stuck in class together."

"I'm not upset," Nabiki insisted as she continued to count off her leg-lifts in her mind, stretching and flexing each limb to a pre-set pattern, "I can't imagine what you're talking about, Akane. He's just some guy we have to be nice to for a few days until Daddy gets tired of the freeloaders."

"This guy just happens to be your fiancée," Akane pointed out, then saw the scowl that Nabiki tried to conceal without success and found a perfect opportunity to tease her older sister, "Aren't you the least bit interested him? After all, you're going to be his wife and all…"

"I am not going to be his wife!" Nabiki sat up with an angry glare, "Just put that stupid idea out of your head this minute and get serious for once, Sis. The guy's a walking money pit, a bottomless stomach that will eat us out of house and home! He's an indifferent student with about as much ambition as good sense and he's violent besides that. You know I can't stand brutish jocks, so how in the world to you expect me to be interested in that arrogant baka?"

Akane tapped her pencil against her chin and mused, "Is it because of his curse that you don't like him?"

"Huh?" the question seemed to take Nabiki back for a full second before she replied, "No, of course not. It's not like I can hold a thing like that against him, and besides…I think it's kind of neat that he can change into a girl. Makes him more sensitive to girl-issues and all that…"

"Except that he won't fight me like an equal," Akane glared as though visualizing a punching bag with Ranma's face set upon it.

Nabiki had to blink at that, "Excuse me? Did you just say that you hold it against him because he doesn't want to hit you? I thought you hated the boys at school because they were always hitting on or at you, and so far he's done neither."

"That's because he's an insufferable male egotist," Akane declared flatly, "The other boys just want to take advantage of me, but he won't take me seriously as a person!"

"Oho," Nabiki smiled, "So that's it. The Little Princess has finally met a boy who doesn't bow and scrape at the altar to Akane."

"And just what is that supposed to mean?" Akane glared.

"Oh, nothing," Nabiki said as she looked away with her most patently false innocent expression.

There came a gentle rapping against the door, then after a pause during which both Nabiki and Akane exchanged looks they heard a voice politely inquire, "Yo…Nabiki? Got a moment?"

"Ah…" Nabiki slowly got to her feet and padded over to the door, then opened it a crack and said, "What is it, Ranma?"

"Ah…" the boy looked at her, then looked down and shuffled his feet as though concealing his discomfort, "I just wanted to say...well...I'm sorry if I did something to upset you before. I mean...I didn't mean to do that or nothing..."

"Ah…" Nabiki found herself at a loss for words, but forced herself to say something just for appearances sake, "That's all right, Saotome, and you didn't do anything to upset me. It's just…well…our school can be a little weird when it comes to newcomers…"

"Heh, tell me about it," Ranma gave her a lopsided smile, hands in his pocked as he shrugged his shoulders before adding, "So…you want to talk about it or anything? I mean…you don't have to if you don't want to…"

"Nani?" Nabiki blinked, "Talk about what?"

"I dunno," Ranma shrugged again, "Just talk."

"I…" Nabiki tried to come up with a good excuse, only to find herself being nudged from behind, which caused her to turn and glare at Akane, "Don't push me!"

"Go on, baka," Akane urged her sweetly, "You know you want to."

Nabiki balled her fist, but thought better about it. Akane could lay her out in no time flat if it ever came down to violence, so the most she could do was spare her a withering 'I'll get you later for this' glare before stepping out into the hallway to confront the boy who was supposed to be her iinazuke.

A full thirty seconds elapsed before either of them spoke, and then it was Ranma who finally broke the impasse.

"You don't have to pretend around me that this business about us being engaged is all right with you or nothing," he said simply, "I guess the guys at school must have teased you about it."

"Oh…nothing I can't handle, Saotome-kun," Nabiki replied, "A lot of girls pestering me to know what you're like, that sort of thing."

"Oh?" Ranma looked wary-but-interested, "And what did you tell them?"

"Only the truth, of course," she smiled, not bothering to add that she had charged the girls for the information, "All except the part about your curse, naturally."

"Oh," Ranma seemed to sigh in relief at that, "Well, I guess there really wasn't that much to tell, then?"

"Not much," Nabiki replied. Only the fact that he was cute, single, incredibly handsome and one of the nicest guys that she had ever had the pleasure of meeting, of course. She had also left out the part about how confused he made her, going one minute from acting super-macho and exuding self-confidence to turning on a melancholy streak that made him sound rather lost and extremely lonely. She had also left out her personal estimation that Ranma was without doubt the finest athlete she had ever even heard about, doing feats that seemed to defy all the known rules of physics.

Kasumi was just then coming up the stairs and, of course, greeted them with her usual cheery smile as she said, "Oh, there you are, Nabiki. I was just going over the finances and I wanted to ask if you know of some way that we can squeeze out funds to pay for a plumber. We've been having some troubles with the hot water lately."

"I'll see what I can come up with, Sis," Nabiki replied, only to take notice of the way Ranma was looking from one girl to the other, which prompted her to ask, "What?"

"Ah, nothing," Ranma replied sheepishly, "I was just wondering…you girls do the finances around here?"

"Actually that's my area of expertise," Nabiki stated matter-of-factly, "Kasumi takes care of the domestic affairs, I handle the money. Why the interest?"

"It's just…well," Ranma shuffled again, "I was wondering how your family supports itself. I mean, I know this is a dojo, but Kasumi was telling me earlier that you haven't had any students for quite a while. Your father doesn't seem to work for a living, so…?"

"Are you offering to get a job, Saotome?" Nabiki could not keep surprise out of her voice.

"Well," Ranma seemed to be reconsidering the offer, but then he squared his shoulders and said, "I heard you complaining about me eating you out of house and home…"

Nabiki suddenly felt extremely vulnerable, realizing that the boy must have been eavesdropping on her conversation with Akane. She was not so much offended at the idea as put off her guard at the realization that he could be so sensible and sensitive on the subject of money. It made her feel very funny for some reason, and when she smiled it was not her usual detached cynicism showing on her face, "I'll let you know if I think of anything, Saotome. The school has a policy about working after class hours, so you'll have to talk to the administration, but I think I can square you a deal there. This begs the question, of course…what kind of job skills do you have?"

"Ah," Ranma looked down before continuing, "That's just it…I was wondering…maybe your father might not mind taking in some students for the dojo?"

Nabiki had to mentally lock her knees to keep them steady. Of course! Why had she not thought of such a simple answer? Her father had stopped teaching years ago after the death of their mother, and he only used it now for helping Akane to train, but it was a pity to let a school with such a long and honored tradition go to waste. She looked at Ranma with new respect, wondering if she had misjudged the boy's intelligence for coming up with such a simple, practical solution.

"You want to do this, Ranma-kun?" she asked, unconsciously using the more familiar term instead of the more aloof "Saotome."

"Well," Ranma ran his fingers through his wild, black mane of hair, "I'm still in training myself, and I've never really taught classes, but my dad's a pretty good teacher and I'm sure your father is as well, so maybe between us and your sister…"

Nabiki smiled at him broadly, "Just wait until I tell Akane! Do you realize what kind of students I can round up just on the reputation of you two alone?"

"I think so," Ranma said with such nonchalance that it was clear that he did not, "But I don't think we should just take anybody in. I mean, take those guys harassing Akane, for example. The Anything Goes School should stand for something besides bullying those who can't fight back…"

"Are we talking about Akane?" Nabiki asked him dryly.

"You know what I mean," he smiled, "She can handle herself around most ordinary guys, but she's got a long way to go if she's going to improve her technique. Maybe teaching a class will help mature her a little…"

"What do you mean by that?" Akane burst out of her door, proving Nabiki's point that eavesdropping was not an exclusively male occupation, "Are you calling me immature?"

"No, of course not," Ranma retreated with a deflecting gesture, "I just thought maybe you could work out that aggression problem of yours more by showing other people how a martial artist learns self-control…"

"Why you…!" Akane took two steps forward with her hand drawn back in a swing, and to escape her Ranma vaulted the railing to the stairs and started plunging several meters, only to land almost on top of Kasumi, who was at the moment descending.

Kasumi gave a little cry of surprise as Ranma reflexively put his arms around her to catch and steady her, unaware of where he put his hands at that particular moment. It took Kasumi a little longer to react to this than might have been the case with anyone else, but then she looked down in some confusion. Ranma himself belatedly realized what he was doing, and then he froze in dismay and quickly removed his hands, jumping back a step with a horrified expression.

"I'm sorry!" he cried, "I didn't meant to…I wouldn't…!"

"Nice self control there, Saotome," Nabiki said sourly as she looked down from above, "I'm sure Kasumi appreciates that you've got excellent reflexes."

"Oh my," Kasumi remarked, then looked up and saw the Panda form of Genma at the foot of the stairs, his head partially soaked by the wash bowl she had been carrying up until a moment before this.

Genma just made a sour noise and looked blandly at Soun beside him. Soun heaved a sigh and said, "Back to the public baths, it seems. Oh well…"

"Mister Saotome," Kasumi descended a few steps with an apologetic smile, "I'm so sorry that I didn't see you standing there."

"My fault," Ranma said as he carefully moved around her, then looked up at his father and leaned forward to murmur something that Nabiki could not hear, though she suspected it was something like, "Good advise, Pop, she bought it, just like you told me."

Nabiki turned around, her good mood soured as she felt like a first class fool for believing in the line Ranma had fed her. What was happening to her well-refined sense of detachment, her ability to size people up at a glance and know to the yen their net value? Was she letting herself develop feelings for a boy who was just going to wind up hurting her, like everyone else who she ever cared about had hurt her in the past? Akane was so right to call her a baka, well, she would not make that mistake again anytime soon. Come the morning it would be back to business as usual, and none of this showing weakness in the face of her alleged iinazuke.

She just wondered why she was feeling so uptight in thinking this to herself. "Must be coming down with something," she murmured to no one in particular before seeking out her room, having no interest in anything that would be worth staying awake for the remainder of the evening…

The next day she walked ahead of Ranma and Akane, deliberately ignoring the boy doing his walk along the rails. She stared straight ahead and paid him no attention, even when he tried to initiate conversation. Akane was ignoring him for the most part, until Ranma finally asked what was bothering the both of them and then she snapped, "How could you do something like that with our sister?"

To his credit Ranma seemed genuinely contrite, "Hey, I didn't do it deliberately! It just sort of happened…"

"Sort of happened, Saotome?" Nabiki found herself voicing aloud, even though she had not meant to say anything at all, "I suppose you just sort-of noticed that she was there and copped a quick feel by lucky chance?"

"Hey, I'm not like that!" Ranma protested, "I don't take advantage of people, it's not manly!"

"Hah!" Nabiki scoffed, "Seemed manly enough that you paid attention to the fact that our sister is a woman."

All of a sudden Ranma was standing directly in her path, quite visibly angry, "Look, I'm telling you that it was an accident! I was trying to keep from knocking her over. Why won't you believe me?"

Nabiki looked up into his face and said, "You almost had me believing that you really cared, but it was all just a big joke to you, wasn't it, Saotome?"

"A joke?" Ranma looked as though she had slapped him.

"You and your father must have had a real laugh at my expense," Nabiki replied, "You know, make Nabiki think you care about the family finances? I saw you talking at the bottom of the stairs, right after you got through with Kasumi…"

"You…!" Ranma looked away, "You're right, I was wrong about you. I thought you might be different, like maybe you were a real person, like maybe you cared to hear my side of the story, but you're just like all the others."

"All the what?" she looked at him with eyes narrowed.

Ranma took a deep breath and said, "Look, I just mean that people make judgements without knowing all the facts, and a lot of times you get accused of something you know you didn't do, but you can't prove your innocent, so people presume the worst about you and won't hear my side of the story. It seems to happen a lot with me, and I don't know why it happens, but I was hoping maybe there would be one person in this world who might care enough to hear me out before jumping to conclusions. My mistake for thinking you might be different."

"Are you quite finished?" Nabiki said evenly, "You want me to believe you? Fine. Then tell me what you said to your father."

Ranma looked supremely reluctant to reply to that, but after a moment he said, "Well…Pop said I should say something nice to you, and I told him I'd try and see if you'd listen. He'd heard that you guys stood up for me when I got into that fight with Kuno, and he thought I should show that I appreciated the effort. The idea about restarting the dojo was mostly from him because he thought maybe your father needed a reason to get interested in something besides Shogi."

"Nice," Nabiki said, "I almost believe you…"

The sound of the school bell in the distance interrupted their conversation and Akane growled, "Great…now we're late, you two! I hope you're both happy!"

"Huh?" Nabiki turned to look at Akane in surprise.

"Never mind," Akane growled as she moved around Ranma at a dead run, "You're the smart one, you figure it out!"

"Don't tell me she's going to fight those guys again?" Ranma asked in disbelief.

"Oh sure," Nabiki replied, "It happens every morning, ever since Kuno made that stupid proclamation that I told you about."

"Well, I'm not standing around here," Ranma tensed as if about to leave her when Nabiki reached out and grabbed him by the wrist.

"Don't interfere, Saotome," she urged, "Akane will just wind up resenting it. This is how she works off her morning aggression."

Ranma fixed her with an angry stare, "But it's just not right! Nobody should spend their morning trying to beat up girls, even if she is built like a gorilla. Would you like it if people came at you like that?"

"No," Nabiki replied, "But I never have to fight anyway. I solve my problems intelligently."

"Maybe that works for you," Ranma said as he turned and scooped her up into his arms, "But this is how I solve my problems. Let's go!"

"Hey, what are you doOOOIIINNNGGG?" Nabiki cried out as she suddenly found herself airborne with Ranma carrying her in a prodigious leap that carried them both across the street and over the wall to land on the other side in the midst of the carnage that Akane had wrought among the boys with her offensive. Another two leaps later and Ranma had carried Nabiki all the way to the main building and reached the balcony of the second floor, which he gripped with one hand as he slung her around with the other, then deposited her amidst the startled students who were gaping at their arrival.

"There," Ranma said, "I got you here on time, I hope that makes you happy."

"Hah?" Nabiki gasped, feeling her heart to be certain it was still beating a regular rhythm. It was with no great surprise that she found it was beating like a trip-hammer.

"Well, if that's all, I'll see you later," Ranma said as he perched upon the rail with a backward glance, "If you want to yell at me some more, do it around lunchtime."

"Hey, wait!" Nabiki turned to look at him, only to become aware of the looks she was receiving from her peers, so she modified what she had been about to say into a simple, "Um…thanks for the lift, Saotome."

"Sure," he replied, then looked down curiously and said, "Looks like the fight's done…but where's that Kuno guy?"

"Huh?" that got Nabiki's attention as she looked over the rail and saw Akane looking around in evident confusion, "That's weird…you could almost set your watch by Kuno."

"Well, that's her problem," Ranma sniffed, "I'm out of here," and with that he swung up to the next level and vanished.

"Wow," one of the girls named Miyuki said, then smiled at Nabiki with a cheerful, "So it's true about you having a new boyfriend."

"Boyfriend?" another girl named Hitome grinned, "I heard you were engaged to him…"

"Get real," Nabiki turned away with studied indifference, "If I were engaged to someone like him wouldn't I know about it? And besides, he's a year younger than I am."

"So what?" a third girl named Naruna cooed, "He's dreamy, what a hunk!"

"You said it," Miyuki enthused, "And what an athlete! You see the way he carried her up here?"

"Kami, I wish somebody would carry me like that," Hitome sighed with the delicate grace of the lovelorn.

"Say, Nabiki-san," Naruna smiled predatorily, "If you don't want him, would you mind very much if one of us grabs him?"

"Hah, in your dreams, girls," Nabiki turned away in disgust, her expression as flat and emotionless as always while she made a point of looking anywhere but where Ranma had been perched only moments before. Her heart was beating normally again and she had class to get to, and no way was she putting another mark on her otherwise perfect attendance record.

As she sat down at her desk, however, she thought about the experience of being held in Ranma's arms oh-so-briefly, the rush of adrenaline surging in her veins as she thought wildly about the way he had effortlessly carried her a hundred meters in only a few seconds. There had barely been time to organize her thoughts, yet she had somehow been aware of the feeling of incredible power in his arms, not just physical strength but something more indefinable, and it left her feeling slightly breathless the more she allowed herself to dwell upon the moment.

Stop it, she sternly commanded to both her mind and body. This is not about him, he's just a business investment, try not to think of him as a person!

And then his smile from the night before, and then his angry look when he accused her of being just like the other people in his life. There had been pain in his expression as well as anger, and the way she had spoken to him, accusing him of taking advantage of her, of betraying her trust. In plain truth she knew for a fact that she had believed him, but she had thrown the accusation at him anyway, intending to hurt, trying to make him angry…as though she knew implicitly that he could not retaliate.

At least not physically, but verbal had been enough. He had scored home with his accusation while she knew that hers had been false, and that in some way she had conceded to him the moral high ground.

There was some kind of struggle being waged between them both, and at present it appeared as though Saotome Ranma was winning. Nabiki did not know what kind of battle they were engaged in, or what the rules might be, or even what was at stake for the winner, but she knew that she had more than just her reputation on the line. She had given ground and that was never to be allowed in the competitive circles in which she operated. She would have to study matters more carefully, seek out Ranma for some casual chit-chat then do a serious probe to find out what made the boy tick. Until she knew where she stood with Ranma she was not going to know a moments peace, and besides which she had yet to make any real money off of him. Until she satisfied one of these criteria she would have to go slowly and not rush the matter. She would treat Ranma like she would treat any problem and puzzle him out later.

With that matter decided she at least made the pretense at concentrating on her schoolwork. In one corner of her mind, however, she was aware that there was something out of place, something missing from her morning routine, and after a few more moments she finally figured out what it was…or rather whom.

Kuno. He arrived late to class and did not mind it when he was sent to stand out in the hallway. There was a strange expression on his face that Nabiki would have sworn she had never seen before, and when she finally placed it she was stunned into a completely ridiculous realization.

That Kuno Tatewaki was thinking…

"C'mon, Nabiki," Akane urged late that night when the two of them were alone together, "Why are you being so stubborn about this?"

"Excuse me?" Nabiki asked in her driest reproof, "You're calling me stubborn?"

Akane ignored the implied insult and said, "I can tell how much it's bothering you. You've been feeling this way because of Ranma, so why can't you just admit it?"

"Because the charge is completely ridiculous," Nabiki said scornfully, "What makes you think I'm thinking of him at all? I've just been trying to fathom why Kuno was acting so strange all day, didn't you notice?"

"Yeah, it was kind of weird him not attacking me this morning," Akane conceded, "And he even avoided spouting his poetry at me around lunchtime. If I didn't know any better I'd think he's forgotten all about me."

"I'll bet that will make your day if it's true," Nabiki sniffed in amusement, only to cock her ear to one side at the sounds of altercation.

"What is wrong with that family?" Akane growled, "Can't those two ever stop fighting?"

"Like father, like son," Nabiki sighed, then looked up when the next voice they heard was their father trying to calm everyone down, "Uh oh. I think we'd better check this out."

They both moved to the bathroom where the sounds of altercation had originated, only to find that things had quieted by the time they got there. However, they did find their father standing between both panda and the girl-type Ranma, and from the expression on Soun's face it was plain that he had only just discovered where his left hand was resting at the moment.

"Um, I…uh…" Soun tried to think up a good explanation when Ranma-chan put her fist into his face.

"Are you done squeezing me yet?" she growled in annoyance.

"Oh my," Kasumi startled Akane and Nabiki, who had not seen her approach.

"I guess maybe stuff like this does happen by accident," Akane softly murmured.

"Yeah, whatever," Nabiki narrowed her eyes, "That still doesn't excuse him beating up on poor Daddy."

"Oh," Kasumi said as though just remembering something, "This is for you, Nabiki-chan. It just arrived a few moments ago by arrow."

Nabiki looked at the folded piece of paper Nabiki was handing her and said, "Don't you mean by postman?"

"Oh no," Kasumi assured her, "It was definitely an arrow. I saw it hit a post while I was out drying the laundry."

"Did it come close to hitting you, Oneechan?" Akane sounded worried.

"Not by much," Kasumi replied as she watched Nabiki unfold the note, then asked, "Do you know who sent it?"

"It's from Kuno," Nabiki sighed as she read the carefully worded script up and down at a glance, "He wants to meet with me at a local café after school tomorrow."

"A challenge letter?" Akane asked.

"Not exactly," Nabiki looked up before adding, "He wants to talk about the 'Treeborne Kettle Girl with the Pig-tail'. I guess maybe he hasn't yet figured out that she and Ranma are one and the same person."

"What's that?" Ranma asked as he broke off from further argument with the two fathers, coming over to look at the note in Nabiki's hand, "Let me see that…"

Nabiki moved it away from his grasp, "Certainly not. I won't have you fighting with him until I find out what this is all about. If it's something that should bother you I'll let you know about it later."

"I wasn't going to fight with him," Ranma insisted, "But if it's about me then maybe I should come along and find out what he's up to."

Nabiki looked at him neutrally then said, "Can I trust you to behave yourself? Do I have your word you won't try and start anything with Kuno, that you'll let me do most of the talking?"

"What, you don't trust me?" Ranma frowned, then took a deep breath before saying, "I promise I'll behave, but if he's the one who starts something all bets are off."

"I suppose that will have to do," Nabiki said, but she was more worried than she let on. Ranma seemed a nice enough boy most times, but he did have a temper, and from the way he behaved around others it was a sure thing that having him tag along was bound to cause trouble. She folded the note up and smiled, so she told him to be at the address on the note at four o'clock rather than the time specified, thinking that an extra hour alone with Kuno would give her some advanced idea of what to expect so that she could prepare the way for the later arrival of Ranma…

The next day was pretty much uneventful as far as the morning went. They got to school early, Akane had her morning fight while Ranma and Nabiki looked on, and Kuno made his appearance in the end to renew his usual challenge.

Nabiki saw the look Ranma gave Kuno, which was neither hostile nor friendly, and for a moment she thought that he was going to go back out there to confront the older boy, but in the end he just turned away with a sad shake of his head and headed off to class without comment.

For some reason Nabiki felt oddly disappointed about the whole thing. There was no mad rush to class, no being carried in Ranma's arms at speeds that defied description, nothing but the ordinary pace she usually set for herself when she had to be somewhere in a hurry. She knew that Ranma was deliberately slowing himself down to match her stride and for some very strange reason she found this as irritating as his generally indifferent mannerisms. When the other girls pestered her with questions once again she had no patience at all for their antics and threatened to start raising interest rates on their loans if they did not leave her alone during class time.

During lunch, however, she found Akane pressing the matter from a different angle, not so easily put off as the others since she knew Nabiki better and was not afraid of her threats of financial retaliation. Akane simply would not give the matter a rest as she teased Nabiki mercilessly until Ranma came to sit down with them, then she made a lame excuse and got up, leaving her alone with her unwanted iinazuke.

Ranma was looking at her in a very odd way, as though Nabiki had grown horns or something, and she was about to say something nasty to that effect when he spoke first and surprised her, "What's this about between you and Kuno? Do you like the guy or something?"

"Hah?" Nabiki asked, taken aback for only half a second, "Well…he is a client, of sorts, somebody I do favors for…at reasonable interest. I've known him longer than Akane, and he isn't all bad when you get to know him."

Ranma looked down the table, only to see Kuno glaring back their way, not wearing his Kendo gear but a mere shirt and trousers like other students.

"I've been thinking about what you said…about his mother," Ranma said simply, "You said she committed suicide?"

"Uh-huh," Nabiki said softly so as not to be overheard, "I call it that, but he calls it Seppuku. Kuno really is descended from one of the Daimyo clans of the pre-Tokugawa era. His mother was very big on Bushido, but…like I said…she had problems. From what I've been able to piece together…she wasn't a very nice person. She used to be an Olympic class gymnast, medals and everything, but she was a perfectionist in everything she did, a real control freak, and I think living like a rich housewife drove her slowly crazy. I also think that's why Kuno's sister is even nuttier than he is."

"You said he had a sister," Ranma said as he continued to glance towards Kuno, "Does she go to Furinken?'

"No," Nabiki replied, "She attends a private all-girls school on the other end of town, Saint Hebereke, which used to be a Catholic school called Saint Bacchus, after the Roman god of wine and madness. In a way the name fits her, she gives me the creeps."

"You don't like her?" Ranma asked.

"The feeling's mutual," Nabiki nodded, "But we tolerate each other, when she bothers to even acknowledge my existence. She's sort of like a really warped version of her late mother, and I'd say well away from her if I were you, Ranma. She's into chemistry and the use of herbal potions."

"No problem," Ranma said, "I wasn't planning on getting too close to the Kunos. I just wanted to understand what makes him behave like that. I can't understand him going after your sister, especially the way he does it."

"Well, his actions probably make sense to him," Nabiki shrugged, "Kuno's mind is a strange labyrinth, and it does no good to wander around amid the cobwebs. Outside of his fantasy delusions he's really basically quite harmless."

"I wouldn't call him that," Ranma sniffed, "I've seen his moves, and I can tell he's taking it easy with Akane. If he really got serious about it, your sister might be in real trouble. Of course I could take him, no problem."

"You're just full of confidence in yourself, Saotome," Nabiki sniffed.

"Well, like I said," Ranma replied matter-of-factly, "I am the best, and someday I'll be a lot better than my father ever was. When that day happens I'm going to make him understand that he can't push me around or try to make me do stupid things against my will, like marrying you for some dumb idea that he calls honor."

"You really know how to make a girl feel special," Nabiki said dryly.

"I didn't mean anything against you," Ranma insisted, "You're a nice enough girl, but I'm too young to think about this marriage stuff, and you've got plans of your own, right?"

"Uh, right," Nabiki reluctantly nodded.

"Maybe in a few years, who knows?" Ranma shrugged, "Maybe we'll know what we really want, and maybe we'll both meet other people. It's not like we've got to tie ourselves down with something this permanent."

"I couldn't agree with you more, Ranma-kun," Nabiki said, then inwardly winced as she had forgotten to call him Saotome.

Ranma hesitated, looking away for a moment before giving her a side-glance, "I…um, well…it is possible sometime…maybe in a few years…if we do, uh…kind of like each other…"

"We'll see what happens," she promised with a very faint smile.

"So…" he paused as if looking for something else to talk about, "You still mean for us to meet with Kuno after class?"

"I'm not afraid of Kuno, Ranma," Nabiki assured him, "And besides…it's your girl half that he wants to know about."

"I…" he hesitated again, "What are you going to tell him?"

"Well," Nabiki inclined her head speculatively, "That depends. How much do you want him to know about you?"

"Not much," Ranma said grimly, "I wouldn't like it if another guy found out I had this problem. How would you feel about it if you changed sex every time you got wet?"

Nabiki had to laugh at the mental image, "I'd probably feel the same way. All right, so maybe I'll tell him a version of the truth, like maybe your girl-half is another guest at our place. How would you feel about having a sister?"

"Maybe too close to the truth," Ranma frowned, "People are bound to ask questions, like why Pop only enrolled one of us in school."

"Hmm, good point," Nabiki was silently impressed that he had thought of this, "Not like you can be in class at the same time in both forms. All right, let's call her your cousin…say, Ranko Saotome?"

"Ranko?" Ranma repeated, the shrugged, "I guess that'll do for now. Maybe if other people think there really are two of us they won't make the connection either."

"Right," Nabiki nodded, "We'll say she's just visiting with you and hasn't transferred her records yet. That ought to at least temporarily defray suspicions. So…Saotome Ranko, better get used to that name when you're in your girl form, and try not to react to your real name either. Think you can work on that?"

"I can try," Ranma nodded, "But I hate having to deceive people. It's not very honorable."

"And turning into a girl is?" Nabiki asked.

"It's not something I can control," Ranma replied, "And I'm still the same person in either form. I just don't feel comfortable with it either way."

"There's worse things to be besides a girl, Ranma," Nabiki smiled at him knowingly, "Trust me on that. Maybe one day you'll find a way to break the curse, but for now you've got to learn to make adjustments, and that means no falling out of windows into swimming pools, got it?"

"That wasn't my fault," Ranma winced, but he seemed to be reassured by this, and lunch proceeded normally from that point on, although for some strange reason Nabiki felt better than she had since early morning…

Three o'clock sharp found her stepping through the door to the café in question, where she found Kuno already seated in one of the booths wearing his Kendo outfit and clutching a dolly. It was this latter point that got most of her attention, Kuno hardly seeming the type to her to have any sort of doll fetish, but she decided not to ask any questions until after she was seated.

"All right, Kuno-chan" she began, "You wanted to see me, I'm here, so let's talk."

"Very well," Kuno replied, "The pig-tailed kettle girl…?"

"You mean Ranko?" Nabiki asked matter-of-factly.

"Ranko?" Kuno straightened up in his seat, "The name of my goddess is strangely sweet to my ears…"

"Yeah, whatever," Nabiki said, "Saotome Ranko, she's staying with us, along with her cousin, Ranma…"

"Saotome Ranko," Kuno said dreamily, then paused as he absorbed the significance, "Her cousin???"

"Actually she's more like a sister," Nabiki continued as if she had not been interrupted, "We talk a lot, and I'm pretty sure I know how she feels about most things. Why are you interested?"

"I wish to know if she might consider dating me," Kuno replied, then extended the doll out to her as if making an offering.

"What's this?" Nabiki asked him coolly.

"It's a doll," he replied irritably.

"I know what it is," Nabiki said with annoyance, "But what is it for?"

"A present," he answered.

"No thanks," Nabiki said aloud as she thought to herself that she had not had a doll since she was very little (she refused to think of herself as younger, insisting that she had never been THAT young).

"It's not for you," he snapped in increasing temper, "It's for Saotome Ranko."

"It's…?" for a moment Nabiki could not help but stare, and then she broke out laughing, imagining Ranma cradling a dolly.

"What's so funny?" he growled.

"Oh, nothing," Nabiki could not help but smirk, "Tell you what, why don't you buy me something to eat and I'll tell you what I know about Ranko…

Ranma stood perched atop a building across the street from the café where he had followed Nabiki. Sticking to the rooftops had been the perfect way of avoiding her attention, and he had wondered why she had seemed to be in such a great hurry to leave class ahead of time. He was tempted to follow her inside but decided to wait where he was until he could think of a good reason for arriving "earlier" than she had wanted.

He had not wanted to suspect her of deceiving him, but knowing it had seemed very likely that she believed he intended to start trouble, so he could not actually blame her for not trusting in him enough. Still it did bother him that she was probably in there alone with Kuno, saying who knew what about his girl half, and probably keeping the baka on edge about the two great martial artists that were visiting with the Tendos…

No, that did not sound like her somehow. His impression was that Nabiki was somebody who was difficult to impress, and the fact that he was a great martial artist seemed only of slight interest to her. It was Akane who practiced the art, and Akane could barely stand to be around him for some reason, not that he much cared what she thought of him he thought with a sour note.

The hell with this. Waiting patiently until four was not his style. Ranma wanted to know what Nabiki was up to in there. There was something about the way that she got along with Kuno that grated on his nerves. He could understand feeling sorry for the guy, but was it all about sympathy? She seemed to like him in some way in which Ranma could not relate and it left him feeling oddly excluded.

He leaped down to the street and paused, wondering what he was going to do and how he could explain to Nabiki his desire to check on her this way. She seemed able to handle herself in most respects, but she was not a martial artist, and that made her seem vulnerable in ways that could never be true of Akane. She might think Kuno was harmless but Ranma had a pretty good idea of what the boy could do if he ever became truly unstable.

Thus decided he prepared to cross the street when something hit him from above. Ranma winced at the familiar sensation of water triggering his transformation into his girl half, then looked up forlornly at the woman with the wash bucket who had not seen him standing there until the last second.

"Oops, sorry!" she called down.

Ranma mumbled something under his breath about people looking before they leaped, then paused to consider his transformation. She wanted to check up on Nabiki, well why not go in disguise? And besides, it was his girl half that Kuno wanted to know about. Well, Ranma smacked palm to fist as she considered the implications, that was just fine in her book, and what better time to discourage the Baka into finding some other way to amuse himself besides picking on girls.

Her course determined, Ranma crossed the street and entered the café…

Nabiki had Kuno spellbound and eating out of the palm of her hand, which had already resulted in a bowl of Miso soup, some Ramen with fishcakes and a rice, steamy cup of latte, all of which he had paid for. In return she had trickled out information that-while technically true to a point-was liberally spiced with added little tidbits that were entirely of her fabrication.

For example, Nabiki knew that Ranma had traveled through most of Japan and had visited the Manchuria province of China and had seen many strange and exotic sights, but she rather doubted that Ranma would recognize many of the places Nabiki mentioned as stop-over points, which she actually gleaned out of a book about China that she has borrowed from Kasumi…

Or rather that Kasumi had borrowed herself from Doctor Tofu.

Secondly, while Nabiki had only known of Ranma's existence for a little under seventy-two hours, she had gleaned enough of his personal likes and dislikes to come up with something comparable for his girl half. Kuno looked utterly amazed that his "Pig-tailed goddess" was actually into sports such as soccer and baseball. That Ranma was a loner who had grown up without a permanent roof over his head was enough to make Kuno weep with sorrow and break out in bursts of poetic insight. That Ranma was a top-notch martial artist provoked Kuno to compare her to the Roman goddess Diana, and it was about that point that Nabiki started to seriously suspect that the boy was enamored with the redheaded version of Ranma, while the same details as related to Ranma's male half only provoked derisive scorn. It was really quite amazing.

"So," Nabiki mused, "You like the girl, eh? Too bad about Akane…"

"Akane?" Kuno seemed to do a mental shift at the mention of her sister.

"Cast aside like yesterday's laundry," Nabiki shed a crocodile tear at the thought, knowing what Akane would say if she could hear this, "How fickle are the ways of the male heart…"

"Who said anything about casting her aside?" Kuno responded, "The heavens do weep at the very injustice of the notion…"

In spite of her amusement Nabiki frowned by a fraction, "You mean you intend to date both of them? That's two-timing, Kuno-chan. You don't really want to go there."

"Who's two-timing?" he demanded hotly, "I could never give up on my quest for the hand of the lovely Akane, but my pig-tailed goddess beckons to me with open arms…"

"More like a fist to your face," Nabiki murmured under her breath, then said, "I'd call that two-timing."

Kuno paused to consider this, then said almost thoughtfully, "So that's what they call it…"

"Yo, Nabiki-chan," a feminine voice called out, which caused Nabiki to almost choke on her latte, "You wanted to see me?"

Kuno whirled in his seat and cried, "Pig-tailed one! You have come to me for a date…"

"Stuff it," Ranma said sourly, giving Nabiki an even more sour look, "What have you been telling him about me?"

"Oh, nothing much," Nabiki replied with a hastily covered guilty expression, "Just telling Kuno-chan here about some of your better qualities…"

"Oh?" Ranma asked, a sudden spark of mischief causing her to smile as she added, "Did you tell him about us?"

"About you?" Kuno looked puzzled, while Nabiki made faint strangling noises.

"Sure, you know," Ranko shrugged, "She's so shy, almost like a big sister. I know she wants to share some of the good times we've known since we met a couple of days ago, but she doesn't want to create the wrong impression about…"

"Our friendship," Nabiki promptly cut in, "Two peas in a pod, like rice and fishcakes, that's us, just a couple of crazy girls out to have fun," her expression, though, conveyed anything but enjoyment.

"I see," Kuno said, plainly not seeing anything at all as he brought up the dolly and extended it towards Ranma, "This is for you."

Ranma's expression mirrored that of Nabiki's from thirty minutes ago, "What's this?"

"It's a dolly," Nabiki said helpfully.

"I know what it is!" Ranma said snappishly, "But why would you think I'd want something like that?"

Kuno seemed at a loss for a full second before he asked, "What do you want, Pig-tailed one?"

Ranma smiled, affecting an innocent expression that almost made Nabiki choke and said, "How about some ice cream…?"


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