For the Love of . . .

"Oh, hello Nabiki, how was school today?"

Oh, yea, Kasumi was her usual cheerful self. What a shocker that was. "Yeah sis, just fabulous. Ranma and Akane found some time alone at lunch today, then Kuno showed up and was his usual poetic self. Ukyo heard the ruckus and started fighting with Akane which, to make a long story short, ended up getting our dear little sister mad at Ranma once more. Shampoo showed up as school was letting out without making her own door for once, so I lost a bundle on that pool."

Kasumi smiled vacantly, "That's nice! Dinner will be ready in a couple of hours."

Nabiki stared at her clueless sister for a moment, "That's great Kasumi."

Shaking her head, Nabiki made her way up to her room, immediately changing into a pair of shorts and a tank top. The school year was coming to a close and an early heat wave had hit Nerima with a vengeance reminiscent of a certain Lost Boy. She lay on her bed and pulled out her ledger and abacus. Moments later a repetitive clicking would be punctuated by occasional scribbling noises as she attempted to stretch the yen.

An hour later she sighed and nibbled on her eraser with a frown. After the losses she took today combined with a few more minor ones from the last week, things could be getting iffy with the upcoming monthly bills. She flipped through the debts she was owed, but didn't see much potential there either. She scanned the entries from the last couple of weeks to see where she'd slipped, her frown deepening a moment later.

She went back through her records and her frown became a little more worried than confused. Gathering her paperwork and ledger, she left her room and then then the house, setting her mind set for the hike to Kuno-baby's place. Just outside the gates however, she heard her sister and Ranma quarreling as usual. The pair rounded the corner, Ranma on the fence and Akane stomping quickly down the sidewalk and pulling ahead of her fiance.

"Hey Nabiki."

With a nod of greeting Nabiki paused where she was to wait for the flustered and confused martial artist to approach. "Another fight Ranma? What did you do this time."

He shrugged and avoided eye contact, "Aw, she said she wanted to cook dinner. Since I don't want to die a horrible death any time soon, I told her we should just go out." He shrugged again, "Then she screamed about her food being perfectly fine and ran off."

"Well, I would reccomend something but . . ."

The martial artist looked a little frightened for a moment, then skeptical as he studied her carefully for a long moment before reaching for his wallet. "How much?" After determining a price, Ranma grumbled angrily and counted it out carefully.

With a ferral smirk she pulled his head in for a brief conversation. Pocketing the money a moment later she watched Ranma stride purposefully into the Tendo complex with a determined smile. Nabiki shook her head and started off. The instant she hit the sidewalk she began to sweat. She wrinkled her nose in displeasure and began to compulsivly clench and unclench her left hand, her right hand clutching nearly franticly to the ledger and a file marked simply, 'Kuno'.

She'd made it most of the way there when she saw her reflection in a window. She paused to study the young girl watching her. She looked down the street to Kuno's house, then back to her reflection. She now wished that she'd changed, but she couldn't do anything about that now and she wasn't about to go all the way home now to change. She slowly unclenched her hand to smooth her hair, then settled a confident smirk onto her lips as she gave herself a satisfied nod. Turning, she began her liesurely stroll to the Kuno Estate.

If there was one great thing about being rich, it was being able to keep this monster of a home cool in this hundred-plus degree weather. She closed her eyes briefly as she sat on the hideous antique chair that she wasn't at all fond of, no matter how much it was worth, perching on the edge in pure bliss as a aesthetically hidden vent kicked on. All she needed now was to lie on that couch over there and sip some icy lemonade. Her eyes snapped open as she heard the door open, and she turned a blank expression to one Tatewaki Kuno as he strode in, bokken in hand.

He sat across from her in the wingback chair as his eyes rolled down his nose to study her. They regarded each other silently for a long moment until Kuno cocked his head and said, "To what god should I pray to for forgiveness, as your presence here in my humble abode is obviously my punishment for some grievous act that I have performed?"

She raised one eyebrow slightly, "Sorry Kuno-baby, I was just looking through my records when I came across a discrepancy that I thought you might want to be aware of."

"And what discrepancy is that, Nabiki Tendo?"

She pulled out her numbers and laid them out on the coffee table with one sweep of her arm. "You will notice, Kuno, that you are a significant portion of income to the Tendo household. If you notice here, you have apparently ceased all cashflow to my family in general, and me in particular." She looked up into his eyes, forcing herslef to even though the last thing she wanted was to do was be here practically begging Kuno for money. "I just want to know why."

He stared at her silently, his face perplexingly unreadable. Then he looked down and reached out to grab a paper seemingly at random from the half dozen on the table. He read through it slowly, then looked equally slowly up at her where she desperately wanted to fidget in the silence.

"Nabiki Tendo, have you any other such papers that you have not yet revealed?" He turned the paper in his hand so she could see it, but did not place it within her reach. She scanned it, then her brow dropped slightly in confusion. It was the page that detailed just where the family's money was coming from this month. It showed every yen of their income, down to the last coin. She read it, horrified at its unexpected appearance, then shook her head.

"No, that's it. What are you getting at Kuno?" How had that page gotten in there? She could have sworn she'd left that at home, bringing only the items that dealt particularly with Kuno. Surely he wouldn't comprehend exactly what the page meant . . .

He frowned and looked down at the paper once more. "Are the finaces of the Tendo houshold so strained?"

She pulled back ever so slightly in her seat, eyes widening perhaps a hair, but probably not since she was Nabiki Tendo the Ice Queen who never showed emotion. She licked her lips, then reached out. She gathered the papers from the table and swept them into her ledger as she stood. She left the room, ignoring Kuno's protests. She was soon out on the street again. She was walking quickly, one might say almost running. She felt an odd burning sensation around her eyes as her skin seemed to tingle in a distinctly unpleasant manner. Realizing she was about to cry, she ducked into an alley. She found a dark shadow and leaned against the wall, resting her cheek on the cool bricks.

Her icy tears burned tangible trails in her burning skin. She reached up and angrily rubbed the annoyances away with hands made clumsy with emotion before turning her back to the wall and sliding down to a seated position. She tucked in her knees and rested her chin on them as she stared forlornly at the wall across the alley.

It wasn't fair. She tried so hard, but she never came up on top. She squeaked by each month on bills with her meager winnings from the school betting pools. Ranma and the Wrecking Crew caused so many damages that the dojo was held responsible for that she couldn't even manage to save anything back. She could barely keep her family fed, clothed, and sheltered. Hiding her face in her knees she cried out all of the tears she'd been hiding back for so long.

She didn't have to do all of this. She coul kick Ranma and his father out, or make Akane marry him and get it over with. Wait, no, she still needed Ranma. As much as he cost her, he was a direct source of income she would need to pay off their debts. As much as her family hapred about her money grabbing ways, they wouldn't be able to eat if she 'behaved' herself. She roughly wiped more tears away with a glare at the trashcan overturned across the alley.

And that blasted Kuno. Why couldn't he just wake up? Everynow and again he actually seemed smart, maybe even a little likeable. Instead he pranced about in his little dream world without a care for anyone else. Of course, if he would act fairly normal every once in awhile, maybe a sensible girl would actually fall for him. Not that it could possibly be Nabiki. OH no, how could calm, proffesional Nabiki Tendo fall in love with a raving idiot?

She took a deep breath and swept her face clear. She closed her eyes to gather herself for a moment. With a nod, she reached down clumsily to get her arms beneath her. One arm braced on the wall just above the dirty ground. She tried pushing herself to her feet while hugging her papers to her chest. She stumbled, but caught herself . . . on Kuno's shoulder. She glanced up at her, then jerked away a step and turned away from his blank face. He simply stood there, and she so wanted to leave him there. The problem was that she'd jumped away from the street at the same time she jumped away from Kuno.

She leaned against the wall, staring fixedly at the opposite wall while clutching her ledger to her chest with shaking arms. He stepped up beside her, but thankfully didn't reach out.

"Perhaps, Nabiki Tendo, you should speak with someone. I would gladly volunteer to aid a . . . friend."

She glanced up at him to study his face, a soft blush coloring his cheeks as he looked at her without making exact eye contact. She smiled softly as well. "Oh Kuno-baby, you don't have to do that to yourself. I'll be fine. I just, er, fell and twisted my ankle a little."

He shook his head and frowned down at her. "I do not believe you. Now, you're coming back to my home to finish this."

She tried to jerk her wrist away from his grasping hand, but he caught her easily and stepped to the street. She dug in her heels and glared at his back.

"No, Kuno, I don't think so. I'm going home. In case you hadn't noticed, I have some little money problems I need to iron out." She tugged at her wrist and tried to walk past him, but he caught her about the waist and led/dragged her back to his home. He practically threw her onto the couch before settling onto the other end of it. She glared at him, and he looked right back at her with a cool expression that was so un-Kuno-like that she froze.

"Oh Kuno, why can't you always be like this?" She wanted to say it outloud, but she couldn't. He was staring right at her with no fuzzy veil of insanity covering his eyes. He had real concern in those eyes, buried only beneath a thick layer of pride just this once. Instead of opening her heart and begging him to hold her, she shrugged and tore her gaze from his.

"This is ridiculous Kuno," she started, "There's nothing you can do. I might as well start home. It's awfully hot out and I'd like to make it a liesurely stroll so I don't have to hurry home for dinner." She snatched out a file and began fanning herself as a distraction.

He studied her closely, then cocked his head. "How do you do it, Nabiki?"

She blinked and stopped the sweeping of her improvised fan, "Do what?" Was this her voice? Short, shaky sentences with little if any wit behind them?

His concern was open now, not even hidden behind pride, with a little admiration surprisingly thrown in. "How do you manage to pull out on top with such limited resources?"

She looked away and struggled to regain control of her face and emotions, not managing to hide all of the bitterness from her retort, "Come out on top? That's a laugh Kuno! I can barely keep food on the table and a shirt on my back, and you call that on top?"

He shook his head slowly, "No Nabiki, you're wrong. You keep your family well fed, even with that lout Ranma and his father as added burdens. Your father and sisters are happy and healthy, blissfully unaware of the strained finances thanks to your careful actions. I call that on top."

She stared in amazement at the wisdom pouring unexpectadly from the mouth of a Kuno. After swallowing hard, she pushed herself to her feet, but he stood and grabbed her arm. "No, sit down Nabiki. I doubt anyone had thanked you for your actions and aid, but they should have. You've done admirably, and I would like to offer my aid in any way I can."

She stared into his shiny, clear eyes and wanted to just be held for a moment while she cried out her tensions and problems. Instead, she smiled softly. "Thanks Kuno Baby, but you know I can't do that."

He smiled sadly and nodded, "I know, but perhaps we could strike one of your deals? I could loan you a little money at a small interest rate . . ."

She chuckled a little, "I'll keep that in mind." She walked over and opened the door, turning back to smile at him. "Thanks Kuno."

He nodded and watched her back as she left. She did take her time on the way home, pondering Tatewaki's sudden mood change. Why did he do that? Surely it was all just an act if he could pull a stunt like that. She smiled ever so slightly to herself. Maybe he wasn't so bad after all.

The sun was setting, so the heat was more residual than anything. Her step gained a slight spring and she smiled into the breeze as she made her way home. It may not be an easy job, and it may not make her popular, but she could keep her family healthy, happy, and fed. She'd been doing it for awhile now anyway. She'd just have to work a little harder at it, that's all. She could be strong, and pull it off. And she would, for the love of her family.