Umbrella of Lies

Chapter 6: Between Love and Hate

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Peering through the leaves, Ranma could see Nabiki and Kuno cross the street into the park. As soon as their backs were turned, he jumped out of the bush, hit the asphalt, rolled, and leapt into another bush. It took less than a second and he did without making a sound.

Ranma had been stalking them for most of their date, first with Ukyo and now that he had dropped her off, by himself. His legs ached and his arms were scratched. It was past seven. How much longer was this date going to last?

He hopped into another bush and caught the end of Kuno's comment. Nabiki laughed. Ranma frowned. If he didn't know better, he'd have sworn Nabiki was enjoying herself. How did she stand it? He could barely face Kuno for fifteen minutes as a girl before wanting to hurl. Or wanting to hurl Kuno into the nearest brick wall.

They turned down a lane of cherry trees, by now leafy green, and Ranma cursed as he tripped on a tree root. Kuno had better hurry up and ask Nabiki to be his girlfriend already. Ranma wanted revenge! He was getting sick of waiting.

……

And now they stood side by side without touching, looking across a small pond, as the setting sun cast an orange glow on the rippling water. In his head, Tatewaki Kuno had planned this moment a thousand times.

He would begin by reaching for the pigtailed girl's hands. "Pigtailed girl," he would say, "We have dated blissfully many times, and now I feel we are ready for more." Or, if it were Akane, he would gaze soulfully into her eyes. "Akane Tendo. You know you hold the key to my heart, and it is time the world knew it as well." He could picture their reactions: the cute giggle of the pigtailed girl or the tender blush of Akane.

Never had Kuno thought he would be doing this with Nabiki.

Nabiki. She had forced him to give up his two true loves, had forced him to take her to restaurants and amusement parks, had forced him to thoroughly enjoy his date with her. Nabiki, who tilted her head and made sarcastic expressions whenever she thought he was being stupid. Nabiki, whose eyes sparkled when she laughed.

Nabiki, who now leaned against the wooden railing and watched the fish splash in the water. Her fingers twirled slowly around a strand of her hair. Kuno stepped toward her. Was it her hair she was twirling or him: winding him like a spool of thread, drawing him closer to her?

"Nabiki Tendo," he said.

She looked up. "You know, I was just thinking we could end our date by going out for ice cream," she said. "There's a vendor somewhere in the park."

He stepped back.

And that was why that painful emotion that came over him whenever he looked at her and thought how beautiful she was—that was why it was not love. It was not remotely close to love. How could he, Tatewaki Kuno, love this mercenary in the guise of a maiden, this deception of light and sound, this trickster of greed; Nabiki's stone heart beat only for money and she saw him as means of purchase.

"Uh, Kuno-baby?" Nabiki said. "Ice cream?"

"Yes," he said. "Let us get ice cream then. But first there is something I must say. A question I must ask you."

"What is it?"

Kuno's chest tightened. "Nabiki Tendo, will you be my girlfriend?"

Nabiki smiled. "Do you really want that? Or are you just asking because Ranma told you to?"

"How did you know?"

"It doesn't take a genius to figure it out." Nabiki said, flicking her hair from her eyes. "How do you feel about me?"

"I…I am not sure," Kuno said. "You are not without your charms. When I am in your company, when I look at you, there are times I think…." He swallowed. "And yet you pull my emotions in different directions. In your presence, I no longer know up from down, right from wrong, love from hate. You confuse me, Nabiki."

"Well," she said. "I guess that's a start."

……

She acted cool, but secretly Nabiki's heart sped in her chest. The thrill of the chase. Kuno stared at her with dark, puzzled eyes.

"I don't know my feelings for you," he said. "I can honestly say I don't want you to be my girlfriend, but…" He hesitated. "Perhaps… I wouldn't object to another date."

"Really," Nabiki said. "Perhaps… I wouldn't either."

Somewhere in the back of her mind, she knew she was pushing the game too far, that she should stop before she got herself in trouble. But she didn't want to stop. She tossed her hair, and his eyes followed the movement. Nabiki smiled. She was still in control. And she was having fun.

"Come on," she said. "We can discuss it over the ice cream."

They walked through the park. The hydrangea flowers were blooming in shades of violet and blue. A couple boys ran by carrying a turtle. Nabiki felt relaxed. She saw Kuno glance in the direction of her hand, and then immediately stare straight ahead, pretending he hadn't.

"Want to hold my hand?" she said. "Standard price is 5000 yen."

"Is there nothing you won't sell?" he said. "Would you trade your heart for a lump of gold?"

"Gold? I take cash."

Kuno scowled. She did so love to tease him.

They found a faded concession stand, with a sign advertising chocolate and vanilla soft serve. The man at the window had hollow cheeks, and he glared when he saw them. He pulled down the shutter above the window. Bang!

It would have slammed shut on them, if Kuno hadn't jammed his wooden sword into an open space. The ice cream vendor pulled the shutter back open.

"I'm closing," he said.

"But you're not closed yet," Nabiki said. "Surely, you have time for two more customers."

"Well, make it quick then."

"We'll have two cups of ice cream." Kuno tossed down a 10,000 yen bill.

"I don't have change for that," the vendor said. "Don't you have anything smaller?"

Kuno frowned. "I have already spent my lesser bills."

"What about your girlfriend?"

"What kind of a gentleman would make his girlfriend pay for his ice cream?" Kuno said. "And she is not my girlfriend!" he added, blushing.

Nabiki smiled. "Then, since I'm not your girlfriend, I guess it doesn't matter if I pay."

She flicked the 1,000 yen bill Kuno gave her last night on the counter. The vendor picked it up sourly. From the far off bushes, Nabiki heard a loud crash. Like someone had fallen down and was having a seizure. Kuno gaped at her, his mouth hanging open so wide his chin was practically to the floor.

Wait a minute. What the hell was she doing?

Nabiki darted back for her money, but it was too late. Bang! The window shut. On the counter sat two cups of ice cream and the four gleaming 100 yen coins. The transaction was finalized, and she had spent her own money.

She had spent her own money! Suddenly, Nabiki felt dizzy. Her knees wobbled, she couldn't keep her balance. She swooned. Kuno caught her by the arms and held her steady.

"Nabiki, are you all right?" he cried.

In a daze, Nabiki shook her head. No, she wasn't all right. She had spent her own money. On Kuno. Why on earth had she done that? That wasn't like her at all. She would have to find a way to get her money back. At least double. Triple. Kuno would pay for this on their next date. He would—

Kuno's arms tightened around her, pulling her closer. Nabiki had to grab his arm to keep from falling over. She found herself breathing onto his neck; had he pulled her a little closer she would have been pressed up against his chest.

"I had never thought to see you do such a thing," Kuno said, eyes shining feverishly. "Your sacrifice was not in vain. For now at last, I do understand: the true depth of your feelings for me."

Oh shit. Now she was in trouble.

Nabiki leaned backward, trying to break out of his embrace, but he wouldn't let her go. His grip on her was gentle, but strong. She forgot how strong he was, she was so used to seeing him get trounced. Nabiki couldn't pull back, and she wasn't Akane, so she couldn't beat her way out either. Panic was rising, her heart was slamming itself against her chest like a sumo wrestler, but she had to stay calm. She willed herself to stay calm.

"You're making too big a deal out of this," Nabiki said. "Really, Kuno-baby, it's just ice cream."

"No," he said. "It's more than that."

……

"For you, Nabiki, to spend your own money—it can only be love," Kuno said. "You told me before, yet I did not believe you. Forgive me. Time and time again, you spoke your heart, and I rejected it."

"Kuno…."

"But I will not reject you anymore, Nabiki Tendo."

There was a tremor in her eyes, a spark of something vulnerable. Mayhaps, she was frightened. But then, so was he. He had never held her like this. He had never felt her hand hold tight to his arm, her fingers pressed through the material of his shirt. It set his heart pounding. She opened her mouth slightly, as if to speak, but no words came out. His gaze fell to her lips.

"Nabiki Tendo," Kuno said quietly, "I will kiss you now."

And when she didn't object, he pulled her closer. Her grip on his arm loosened and slid away. Then he leaned forward.

"All right, you win! Enough is enough!"

Saotome. He sprang from the bushes like a cat out of hell, foot jutting out. An ambush! Kuno let go of Nabiki and tore his sword from his belt.

"Coward! I shall teach you—"

WHAM!

The next thing he knew, Kuno was lying in the dirt, staring up at the sky. The back of his head was pounding. His face felt numb and a little flatter than usual.

"—really do have ice in your veins, Nabiki," Ranma was saying. "He was going to kiss you! And even then, you wouldn't just admit—"

"I'm not finished yet!" Kuno said, rising from the ground.

"—that you faked the Umbrella of Love."

Pause.

"Faked? You lie, Saotome!" Kuno said. "It was the Umbrella of Love that first awakened Nabiki's feelings for me. If it were faked, then that would mean everything she said was a…."

His voice died off.

Nabiki's arms were crossed, and she cast a dark look in Ranma's direction. Kuno's stomach twisted. Doubt, like a chill mist, was creeping over him.

"It isn't true, is it?" he said.

She sighed. "I didn't want you to find out this way."

Everything changed.

"Then… Then, it was all just a scheme to make money off me," Kuno said.

"I didn't just want the money."

"What did you want?" he said, and the wrath was rising in him. "To mock me, to see me humiliated."

"No! I was trying to get you to like me," she said.

"Nabiki Tendo," Kuno said, "I despise you!"

She blinked back tears.

It would have been a pitiful sight to see, a maiden with water beaded at the edges of her eyes and one hand clutched over her heart. But such gestures no longer had the power to move him. Nabiki was beautiful, beautiful and treacherous, like a winding road in a scenic mountain that plunged suddenly off a cliff. Tears were but a guise, painted on at her convenience, and he did not trust them.

"Unscrupulous merchant," Kuno said. "You have always been such, Nabiki, and you will never change. Our date is finished! Now sell me the photographs that we may bury this farce once and for all."

Nabiki wiped her tears with her back of her hand. "Kuno-baby, you've hurt me deeply," she said. "But after all, a deal's a deal."

Slam! Five strips of film were dashed across the counter of the concession stand. "The negatives of you and Ranma under the umbrella of love," Nabiki said. "Set of five…fifty thousand yen."

"Fifty thousand!" Ranma said.

Slam! Five ten thousand yen bills lay across from the film. "Sold," Kuno said.

It was a small price to pay to be rid of her. Nabiki twirled the cash in her fingers like a ribbon, before stashing it in her purse. The sight of her leering grin sickened him; her conceit was insufferable. Nabiki picked up her melted ice cream and jauntily stuck a spoon between her lips.

"Always a pleasure doing business with you, Kuno-baby."

……

"Ha! It's mine, it's mine at last!" Ranma, disk between his fingers, danced like an idiot all the way up to the carp pond. He set the disk carefully on a rock, smiled evilly, and smashed it to bits. "I'm free at last!"

At least someone was enjoying himself.

Nabiki sat cross legged at the table, counting 1000 yen bills and noting the profits in her book of accounts. The final calculation came to 59,400 yen. Plus two fancy dinners, breakfast, lunch, a trip to the amusement park, and transportation costs. It was actually a pretty good haul for the weekend. Nabiki sighed and slammed the book shut.

"Hey, Nabiki," Ranma said. "You all right?"

"Why wouldn't I be?"

"Well, you've been acting all quiet since we got back from the park. What's the deal? You're not upset that Kuno broke up with you?"

"Broke up? It's not like we were going out," Nabiki said. "It was business, that's all."

"But you paid for his ice cream," Ranma said. "I thought you must have cracked for sure. Since when do you pay for anything?"

Nabiki prickled. "Sometimes," she said, "you have to spend money to make money. I was earning his trust so that I could squeeze another date out of him. Do you actually think I liked that big moron?"

"You didn't seem to mind that he tried to kiss you," Ranma grumbled.

"It's called acting," she said. She snapped a rubber band around her wad of bills and flounced upstairs.

In her room, Nabiki pulled a small safe out from under her bed and chucked the money inside. She was going to be rich someday. She decided that long ago. Her sisters could marry whatever dope they liked and spend the rest of their lives struggling to make ends meet, but she had bigger plans in mind. Nabiki was going to live a good life and she didn't care who she had to manipulate to get there.

Is there nothing you won't sell? Would you trade your heart for a lump of gold?

Nabiki kicked the safe back under her bed with the heel of her foot. It hurt. Why did she keep thinking about him, about his dumb face, about his stupid lovesick eyes? The way he stared at her for what seemed like an hour before deciding he wanted to kiss her. The way he studied her like she was some kind of a painting… like she was some kind of wonderful piece of art… She should have said something. If she told him it was a hoax then, he might have let her go.

Except… she didn't want him to let her go. She wanted him to kiss her. Just for a moment. She didn't care if she had pushed the game too far, she wanted to know if kissing Kuno would be as horrible as everyone seemed to think it would be. Or if it would be soft… Maybe a little clumsy… Nice…

Just for a moment. Then it was gone.

THE END

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Author's Note: Sorry that they didn't get together at the end. I stole the idea from the "Umbrella of Love" episode in the comics and I was trying to stay faithful to that world. If they had gotten together, I would have spun off into an AU. Mostly what I wanted to show from this story was that they had potential for a relationship…and who knows, someday they might still get together. After the end of the series.