I Want a Refund!
Chapter 6: Anything
Dark puddles on the concrete were the only evidence of the afternoon's rain. Stepping out of the hotel, Kuno could see flashing advertisements on the building across from him. Well-dressed lovers walked by, pressed arm in arm for warmth. Such happy oblivion poured from their faces. Would that he could feel the same.
Near a pillar, Nabiki Tendo stood with her hands wrapped tightly around her arms. Gusts of wind from passing cars tugged at the delicate gauze of her dress, but she seemed not to notice, staring as she was, hard, at the buildings in front of her.
"The taxi shall arrive shortly." Kuno removed his tuxedo jacket. "It is rather chilly this evening. Perhaps you would—?"
"No," she said.
Her eyes were wet. A single tear slid down her face.
Pressure swelled in Kuno's chest, and he held his jacket like dead weight in his arm. It was over, and he had gotten all that he desired from her. So why then this feeling? The spell should be broken, the chains shattered, and the bells of freedom rung in glorious song. This—her quiet crying—it should not cut him so.
"Tears do not suit you, Nabiki Tendo," Kuno said. "You are too cold, too cruel for such maidenly emblems of distress."
Nabiki wiped her cheek with the back of her hand.
"You're heartless," she said.
"I, the heartless one? It was you who promised anything for my defeat. It was you who watched coolly as I fought day after day; you, Nabiki Tendo, who spun profit from my suffering time and time again. And you would call me heartless?" He looked away from her. "What I took from you was no more than what was justly owed."
"You hurt me."
"You deserved to be hurt."
The taxi arrived. Nabiki stepped in the vehicle and slammed the door behind her. Kuno was forced to enter through the other side.
"Where to?" the driver said.
The cab's motor hummed. Nabiki's whole body was turned against him, facing the door window. A faint mist from the heater crept over the glass and hid her reflection from him. Nabiki's shoulders were clenched; the ends of her hair plunged down like fangs.
"Are you angry with me?" Kuno said.
No reply came. No sound at all, save for Nabiki's breathing, soft and strained. Like the last note of a violin as it faded to air.
"Do you think that I enjoy seeing you so upset?" he said. "I do not. I much prefer your laughter to this silence. Even your sneering insults and biting sarcasm have a kind of lively charm to them. I have grown accustomed to such things from you."
Outside, a cat yowled and a trash can rattled. The taxi ground to a halt.
"We're here," the driver said.
"Do not scorn me Nabiki Tendo." Kuno laid a hand gently on her shoulder. "We were on friendly terms before. I would have us be so again."
Nabiki turned. Her eyes were as dry as steel.
"I hate you, Tatewaki Kuno," she said.
She wrenched open the door. The sequence of her dress flashed one last time under the dim glow of the streetlight, and she passed into darkness of her yard, drifting away from him. Drifting away from him. Air burst into Kuno's lungs, and he flung himself out of the taxi.
"Leave me alone!"
"I will not allow this!"
She was nearly to the door when he caught her by the wrist. Her skin felt cool and smooth. Her hair flew as she spun to face him, her dark eyes ice.
"Don't touch me!" she said.
"You have no right to hate me," Kuno said.
"I have every right!" Nabiki said. "You used me and took advantage of me! I never want to see you again! So get your hands off me and get out of my life!"
Her words stuck in his throat, and for a moment, he could no longer breathe.
The next instant, he could no longer see. The explosion of pain—akin to being hit in the head with a telephone pole—tore Kuno's vision to black. His grip loosened, and Nabiki slipped away… Clouds swirled through silver moonlight like wisps of dark cotton, but there were no stars in the sky tonight.
The material around his neck tightened, and Kuno's head rose from the ground. Two pretty, narrowed eyes glared down at him. Nabiki…? No. No, it was Akane. Akane Saotome, who had him by the collar.
"YOU TOOK ADVANTAGE OF MY SISTER!"
Yes, Akane Saotome. And here was Ranma, too, standing beside her with his pigtail sticking up. And gathered near the door was Nabiki's other sister, the one with long hair, and a panda and some kind of howling demon bearing a faint resemblance to Mr. Tendo. But no Nabiki? Where was she?
The world spun into a nauseous cacophony of colors and shapes. Akane Saotome shook him until his teeth chattered.
"I said, what did you do to her!" she said. "Answer me! What on earth did you ask for?"
"A refund," he said.
"A refund!" Akane thundered. She blinked. "Wait, a refund? You mean money?"
"For all the photographs I purchased from her over the past year."
Akane dropped him. Kuno's head cracked against the ground. It hurt, somewhat.
"Wah-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha! You're telling me you took money from Nabiki. You did." Ranma Saotome's laughter was like the crowing of a rooster, foul and loathsome. "Oh boy, I can't wait to let her have it about this one."
Kuno stood and removed his sword.
"Fiend!" he cried, swinging at Ranma. "I will cut you where you stand before I hear you laugh at Nabiki Tendo!"
"Hey!" Ranma said.
His enemy stumbled back. Kuno slashed, and hit upon air. The cursed acrobat had already fled, springing backwards into a tree. With a yell, Kuno charged forth and sliced off a branch. The smack of wood was more satisfying than sawing through air, but Ranma had vanished once again.
"Coward!" Kuno said. "Stand and fight! I will strike you down! I will—"
Thunk. A weight landed like a stone on Kuno's head. Ranma's upside down face peered at him from above.
"What're you mad at me for?" he said. "You're the one that took her money."
"Villian!" Kuno thrashed. "Cur! Demon! Sorcerer!"
"Oh knock it off, you two," Akane said. "You're fighting over nothing."
Ranma flipped off Kuno's head. "It's not my fault. I was just trying to congratulate him and look what happens."
"Congratulate me?" Kuno said.
He slashed again, but the fiend simply somersaulted away.
"On what, pray tell? That my heart has been ripped still beating from my chest. That every breath I draw sickens me to the depths of my stomach. That even this starless night cannot compare to the blackness within my soul. Nabiki Tendo hates me!"
No sooner had the words left his mouth than the full meaning crashed down upon him like an anchor. Nabiki hated him. His sword became as unwieldy as a missile and wobbled in his hand. Kuno could no longer fight. He could do nothing but stand and stare in amazement.
"She hates me?" he said.
"Hey, you okay?" Ranma said.
"Why?" Kuno said. "Why should three little words shake me to my very foundation? Had I not known it before? Was her contempt for me not visible in every look she gave me, in every word she spoke? And yet, she never once said she hated me."
A single light burned in the upstairs bedrooms of the Tendo residency, and the curtains rustled in the breeze. For a moment he thought he saw the shadow of a person standing there. Was it Nabiki watching him, the same way she did everyday before school, with a twirling of hair and an insufferable smirk on her face? He shut his eyes. Why did she always smile even as she tore his heart to ribbons?
"Do you laugh now?" he yelled to the house. "Do you think to rob me of my victory with mere words? You are mistaken. From the beginning, your presence has been naught but a thorn in my side, and I have removed you. Good night, Nabiki Tendo!"
The cab driver waited outside the car, smoking a cigarette. Kuno fished out his wallet, now fat with Nabiki's money. Victory. Kuno handed the driver a wad of crumpled bills. Victory was joyless and tasted like ash in his mouth.
Nabiki shut the curtains with a swish.
I have removed you.
What the hell did that mean? He didn't want her in his life now? Well, his loss. Not like she didn't have better things to do than clue the moron in on how the world worked. Not like she didn't have problems of her own.
Nabiki threw her black account book on her desk. Thwack. The hard plastic smacked the wood. Top of the first page. Item sold: photos of the "pigtailed girl." Purchased by: Kuno-baby. Price: 3,000 yen. And the date—the first time she saw how profitable revenge could be.
Kuno's eyes glazed over as he ogled the pictures. She knew the look—she saw it every time he stared at her sister. He felt up the edges of the photographs, and Nabiki felt up his 3,000 yen. What if she encouraged this? She might save up enough to start her own small business. And the fact that it was a boy Kuno was after—that was even more ridiculous than her crush on him.
Nabiki stabbed the page with her pencil. 3,000 yen. Gone. Crossed out.
She slashed again and again, hacking through dates and bleeding her profits. The point of her pencil wore down to a stub. So many transactions. She didn't intend for it to go on so long. But she was getting richer, so what did it matter? That stupid little tug in the pit of her stomach—as if she still liked him, as if he meant something to her. Money covered that up, and she was addicted to his money now.
Nabiki was out of breath. Her hand shook, her fingers clamped so tight around the pencil she thought it would snap.
And then, tonight…
If he wore that same glazed expression, she'd be fine. Through the mirror, she watched him come into the lobby. Dressed in a tuxedo, he looked like an old-fashioned movie star. His eyes flickered: from her dress, to the mirror, to her hair, back to the mirror again. And finally stopped.
His eyes were clear.
"I want a refund," he said.
A knock on the door.
"Can I come in?" Akane said.
Her sister poked her head into the room anyway.
"Are you okay?"
"Yeah sure." Nabiki quickly closed her account book. "Just peachy."
Akane brought a chair in from the hall.
"So, what happened?" she said.
"What usually happens when a boy takes a girl to a hotel, has her watched by the staff all night, and then tells her he won't let her out until she gives him the anything she owes him."
"What?" Akane leapt to her feet. "He told us he just took your money!"
"But—but you said a hotel—he didn't—I mean, he didn't even try to—?"
"To force himself on me?" Nabiki said. "Get your mind out of the gutter."
"But that means he wasn't after you," she said. "He didn't want you at all."
Nabiki bit her cheek. "I guess not."
"That's a relief," Akane said. "He's gotten better lately, less grabby, but Kuno's still Kuno. I was worried he'd try something."
"He did try something. He took my money," Nabiki said. "You know, he had lawyers at the front desk waiting to draw up a legally binding loan, just in case I didn't have the cash to pay him. As it was, I had to withdraw most of my savings from the hotel ATM. He acted nice throughout the date, right up until the end—then he robbed me."
"Yeah, but don't you do the same thing to other guys?"
Nabiki turned away. She didn't want to hear about that.
"You're being too hard on him," Akane said. "For once, he didn't do anything wrong. Not really. I know you're angry, but you want to make up with him at some point, right? You want go back to being friends?"
Nabiki flicked her fingernails across the surface of her desk. That's exactly what he said in the cab. We were on friendly terms before, and I would have us be so again. Let's roll the clock back and pretend none of this ever happened. Let's be friends.
"Friends," Nabiki said.
She curled her hands into fists.
"What makes you think he was ever my friend? He was a business transaction. An idiot willing to fork over huge sums of money for the most ridiculous things. Friends? Why would I want to be friends with a perverted, delusional, poetry-spouting freak?"
"Okay, I get it," Akane said. "You hate him."
"Glad you figured it out."
"But I still feel sorry for him," Akane said. "One minute he's fighting Ranma as usual, and the next he's just standing there with his sword hanging down. The look on his face was like—I don't know, like he lost his best friend."
Nabiki pulled her account book close to her chest.
"You look a little pale," Akane said. "Are you sure you're all right?"
"I lost half a year's income in one night," Nabiki said. "I am not all right."
"Is there anything I can do?"
"Just leave me alone."
Once Akane closed the door, Nabiki buried her chin into the top of her account book. What was she supposed to do? Tell her sister the truth? When Kuno grabbed her wrist and Nabiki said—what did she say, again? It was some final piece of melodrama, the climax of a great performance she'd been acting out since she left the hotel. It got a reaction though. The shock in Kuno's eyes, the expression on his face… like he was falling off a cliff. No, like she pushed him off. Well good. That's what she wanted, wasn't it? Except for afterwards, when she felt like she was going to be sick.
I have removed you.
Nabiki shut her eyes.
He didn't mean it. He never did.
Today, I made my first enemy.
The unrefined lettering blurred together on the aged yellow paper. Kuno rubbed his eyes. The constant glare of the artificial light formed a glass shard which dug into his skull. If he could throw down his diary, fling himself upon his bed, and surrender to the sweet amnesia of sleep, he would do so. But he could not—so he stared back at the page and kept reading.
Today, I made my first enemy. Her name is Nabiki Tendo.
Nabiki Tendo, his enemy. If only it were so simple.
She said she would show me a trick if I let her borrow a 1,000 yen bill. Then she folded my money into various shapes: a samurai hat, a cat's face, a snake. But in the end, she stuffed my 1,000 yen in her pocket and would not give it back.
In that she had not changed. Ever clever, mischievous, and obsessed with money.
And then Nabiki Tendo said—and I shall never forget this—she said, "Kuno-baby, Kuno-baby. You know your shaved head kind of makes you look like a caterpillar." How dare she say that to me! I, Tatewaki Kuno, age 13, will not be compared to a worm!
Even at this young age, her words had the power to strike to his core. The words of all others he forgot, but not hers. They wedged splinter-like beneath his skin. "I hate you." Why could he not forget that?
One day, I will be the shining star of our school, and she will see! I am not some puny insect crawling on a leaf!
Kuno turned to look at the next page, but found only the back of the cover. There was no more.
He had read through his entire collection of diaries, from yesterday's entry to the first day of junior high, and still he had no answer to the question that had seared itself into his brain: what had changed about Nabiki Tendo?
He tossed his diary aside. It landed with a thud among the others, sprawled and upset, covers jutted out, delicate pages exposed. What had changed? It was nothing about her physical appearance. Not the cut of her hair nor the style of her clothes nor the way she held herself, proud and aloof, with just a hint of seductive charm. And he knew of no major shift in her personality either. Yet something must have changed. Nabiki hated him, she never wanted to see him again, their relationship now lay in ruins at his feet—but for all that, try as he might, he could not stop thinking about her.
Outside his window the lacquer black of the sky had faded to a more charcoal color. Very dim sunlight perhaps, but enough to practice his swordsmanship by. Kuno pulled his kendo wear from the closet and hastily dressed. A few hundred strokes, a few thousand strokes would certainly cure him of this disease. He reached for his sword upon its stand in the alcove, when suddenly he noticed an object on the floor besides it.
Nabiki Tendo's lunchbox.
Kuno picked it up. It was clean; he had washed it but a few days earlier. The lunchbox was manufactured from cheap red plastic, and on the bottom was written the words "property of the Tendo family" in faded permanent ink. Quite an ordinary thing. And yet extraordinary that she had given it to him at all.
Why had she continued to nourish him at lunch day after day? Why behave as though what was for her a severely unnatural act of generosity was perfectly normal and reasonable?
And why, too, did she sometimes laugh and try to hide it from him?
The first time she moved her hand to her mouth and made a muffled sound he assumed she was coughing. But then Kuno saw the twinkle in her eye and understood. Why cover it up? If she thought she was offending him—but no, it could not be that, for she had offended him before, openly, without the slightest show of remorse. Besides, it was not the kind of smile that could offend. Once, when she did not move her hand fast enough, he caught a glimpse of it: brief, sweet, and natural. The memory made his heart ache.
"You have such a lovely smile," Kuno said. "Like the early plum blossoms or the first warm day in February. Why do you keep it a secret? Why do you hide everything about you I love?"
The word seemed new and strange upon his tongue, as though he had never before uttered it. From outside came the chirp of a bird, a pretty trilling tune that made the heart stir and the spirit rise. Morning was coming, yet Kuno felt as if he were caught in a dream.
"I love her?" he said.
Nabiki Tendo, whose sparkling eyes quickly turned to look upon the dull silver sheen of a 100 yen coin. Nabiki Tendo, whose long clever fingers sifted through stacks of 1,000 yen bills. Nabiki Tendo, whose heart—for yes, she had one, and it was mysterious and convoluted and beautiful—whose heart she rented out but never simply gave away, not to be had, not be owned, not by anyone, least of all him.
"I? Love her?"
It was impossible. Was this not the same girl who had not ceased to torment him for all six years he had known her? A playful smile, a flick of her hair, and some witty barb lodged deep into his soul. A caterpillar, she called him. He would not be that to her—nothing so small and insignificant. He wanted her eyes to gaze at him and her fingers to twine around his own and her heart to belong to him and no one else.
Kuno fell to his knees. "I love her."
Rays of yellow light poured down from the window onto the tatami mat, but his fingers were cold and trembling, clenched around the lunchbox she'd given him. He loved her. Well and truly, as Romeo loved his Juliet.
Kuno closed his eyes.
"I am fortune's fool," he said softly.
Tick, tick, tick. The living room clock read 6:05.
Way too early to be up and dressed on a Sunday morning. Nabiki yanked a comb through her hair. She couldn't stay asleep, though. Too many thoughts stuffed in her head. All that money lost. Money was part of it, anyway. She glanced at her reflection in a mirror. Bloodshot eyes and hair stuck up in the back. Lovely. Well, who'd she have to look pretty for anyway? She tossed the comb on the table and went into the kitchen.
White chrysanthemums sat on the windowsill.
Nabiki looked at them for a minute, before getting a carton of orange juice out of the fridge. So. Akane received his heartfelt apologies. And she received a broken heart. How fitting. Nabiki poured the juice in a glass and gulped it down. At least he wasn't in love with her sister anymore; she was grateful for that.
Sunlight poked through the curtains. Nabiki peeked out the window. It seemed like a nice day. Maybe she'd go for a walk. Clear her head. Nabiki put on a sweater and opened the door. Tatewaki Kuno stood in her front yard, his neck was craned up, eyes glued on the upstairs windows.
"Nabiki Tendo!" he bellowed.
"What?" she said.
He startled. "Oh! You're awake."
"Yeah." Nabiki crossed her arms. "What do you want?"
"I have come to put an end to this animosity between us," Kuno said. "We were once friends and shall be so again, whether you wish it or not. I will not leave the premise until I hear from your lips, Nabiki Tendo, that you do not hate me."
"Okay," Nabiki said. "I don't hate you."
"Are you going to leave now?"
"No!" he said, coloring. "You play with my feelings yet again! Do you not know how utterly wretched you made me last night?"
"I wasn't dancing for joy, either."
"What were you feeling?" he said. "Tell me honestly."
"You expect me to stand here and pour my heart out to you first thing in the morning," Nabiki said. "I haven't even eaten breakfast yet."
"I believe there is a café near your house," he said. "Would you care to accompany me there?"
"Are you paying?"
Nabiki shrugged. "Sure. Why not."
They walked without saying much. The sky was a pale blue, and Kuno's pale blue kendo shirt was inside out. There were dark rings around his eyes. Once or twice, a car went by. Once or twice, Nabiki glanced at Kuno's hand, swaying at his side. If things had gone differently last night… But they hadn't. She shoved her own hands deep into her pockets.
The café smelled of bread and coffee. The only other person there was the owner, a woman in her thirties who showed them to their table. Nabiki ordered the morning service set: toast, eggs, salad, and choice of drink. The owner nodded and asked Kuno what he'd like to eat. He didn't answer. He was staring rather forlornly at a tiger lily in a vase at the other table. Nabiki poked him.
"Kuno-baby? Food?" she said.
"I'll have the same," he said.
"You drink coffee?" Nabiki said.
After the owner left, Kuno rubbed his eyes. He looked exhausted.
"I take it you didn't sleep well last night," Nabiki said.
"I did not sleep at all." He shook his head and straightened up. "Now since I have bought you breakfast, perhaps you would be so kind as to answer some questions for me."
"You want to interrogate me?"
"Yes. And I would have the truth from you."
"Well, the truth costs extra."
"Somehow that does not surprise me." Kuno reached for his wallet. "Will 5,000 yen be sufficient?"
She'd intended to press him for a pastry.
"I suppose it'll have to do," Nabiki said, pocketing the cash.
The drinks arrived. Nabiki tore open a packet of sweetener and dumped it into her coffee.
"So what do you want to know?" she said.
Kuno, despite not adding cream or sugar, stirred circles in his tea.
"Do you really hate me?" he said.
"Then why did you say so last night?"
"Why do you think?" Nabiki said. "You took my money. I was angry with you."
"And when you said you never wished to see me again—?"
"A lie. Obviously, I wouldn't be here if I meant it."
"I see." Kuno sipped his tea. "Tell me, Nabiki Tendo. Did you plot from the beginning to ensnare my heart or was it simply an opportunity that arose from the occasion?"
"What are you talking about?" Nabiki said.
"I am in love with you."
She stared. Was this a joke or—no, Kuno wouldn't joke about something like that. He was in love with her? Nabiki's cheeks burned. She knew he'd liked her—sort of—but love? When did that happen? Her stomach fluttered, and her palms were wet. She quickly wiped them on her pants.
Kuno frowned, a flicker of uncertainty in his eyes.
"You did not plan this?" he said.
"How could I possibly plan something like that?"
"I would not put it past you. Surely, it is to your advantage. You have me at your mercy. You control my heart and thus my wallet. My money is yours to do with as you please."
"You're in a romantic mood this morning," Nabiki said. "First you tell me you love me, then you accuse me of manipulating you into it to get at your money."
"Oh," he said. "Then I suppose I simply love you."
The thought didn't seem to make him any happier. Kuno took another stoic swallow of his tea. He was acting strange for someone claiming to be in love. Shouldn't he be reciting poems or cascading her with flowers or at least smiling?
Without thinking, Nabiki added more sugar to her coffee. Too much. She wasn't sure she could drink it now. She wasn't sure she'd be able to drink it anyhow, the way her stomach was hopping around like a toad.
"Do you love me, Nabiki Tendo?" Kuno said.
Her stomach plummeted, and her throat clamped shut. Nope. Not able to drink a drop.
She cleared her throat.
"Do I love you?" she said. "Well, no, not exactly—"
"No," he said, as if expecting it. "Such a short, cruel word to dash my hopes." He opened his wallet.
"Kuno-baby, just because I don't love you, doesn't mean I don't—"
A stack of falling 10,000 bills stopped her short.
"Uh, what's this?" Nabiki said.
"Your refund," Kuno said. "I give up, Nabiki Tendo."
"You give up?" Nabiki rubbed her head. "We stopped playing this game last night. You already won."
"Won? Do you think it was money I hoped to gain?" Kuno said. "I took what was most precious to you in the world, and you do not hate me, you do not love me, you do not feel more than a flash of anger, quickly passing. I wanted to affect you."
Kuno gestured vaguely in the air.
"Some days you smile, some days you frown, but these are mere moods, ripples upon a still lake. Your true feelings, what's hidden deep within, I cannot reach. You do not know how easily, how unthinkingly you can smash my heart to pieces. And yet I cannot touch yours. I have tried. But you keep it locked away, a beautiful object encased in glass."
Nabiki was quiet. He thought she was indifferent to him? And that what, she opened five packets of sugar because she liked her coffee that sweet?
"You affect me more than you think," she said. "I may not love you, but it's not as if I don't have any feelings for you. I enjoyed most of our date yesterday."
"I did as well," he said.
She leaned in closer. "I wouldn't say no if you asked me again."
"I would much desire to do so," Kuno said. "But it cannot be. I will not date with you anymore."
Like a slap. Nabiki flinched back.
"Why not?" she said.
"Because I have no wish to be added to your long list of admirers who dated you, showered you with presents, handed you their heart on a silver tray, and were promptly thrown away," Kuno said. "If you so desire my money, you may have it, but I will not allow you to break my heart again."
"I'm not after your money this time," Nabiki said. "I like you."
"Would that I could believe it."
His eyes drifted past her. That look again. She hated that look. Like his thoughts had run into a glass wall. Nabiki clenched her hands. There had to be some way to convince him she cared about him. She looked around the table.
10,000 yen bills were spread out, like cards, near her coffee cup.
Nabiki's insides froze up. No. She wasn't even considering that. For him? He wasn't worth it. Just because she liked him. Just because he said loved her. Just because he stared at her like she was the most beautiful, interesting, frustrating girl in the world and she wanted him to keep looking at her like that.
Nabiki sighed. Damn it, she was an idiot.
She unclenched her hands and shuffled the 10,000 yen bills together.
"Well," she said. "I have my money back, and I guess that's all that really matters. Profit is profit, right?"
She bent back the edges and began counting, slowly and loudly.
"10,000 yen. 20,000 yen. 30,000 yen..."
"There is no need to count," Kuno said. "I have not shortchanged you."
She ignored him. "60,000 yen. 70,000 yen. 80,000 yen…"
The way he ground his fists into the table and glared at the money, you'd think it was a rival suitor she had her hands all over, not some limp pieces of paper. She smiled. Nice to see him so jealous, though.
"220,000 yen. 230,000 yen. 240,000 yen..."
Kuno folded his hands over his chest and looked away.
Once she finished counting, Nabiki rapped the bills together to make an even stack and laid the money neatly onto the table.
"It's a lot of money, isn't it?" she said. "It took me half a year to save this up. There are so many things I can use it for. College, my own business, maybe something frivolous like a vacation. You have no idea how hard it was for me to let it go."
Nabiki took a deep breath and shoved the stack toward him.
"Take it back," she said.
Kuno melted into a puddle of confusion.
"What?" he said. "Why?"
"Maybe now you'll believe me when I say I have feelings for you."
"I like you, Tatewaki Kuno. Not love—it's too soon for that. But you mean a lot to me." She glanced down at the stack of bills. "More than money does."
She felt him suddenly sweep her hands into his and squeeze them gently, causing a pleasant tingling right down to the pit of her stomach. Kuno beamed at her, eyes bright and clear and overflowing with joy. As if she were the only girl he'd ever seen. Nabiki found herself smiling too. Crazy how she could throw away this much money and still feel happy. Crazy—like a character from a cheap T.V drama—a silly, love-struck teenage girl.
The café owner interrupted just then with two large plates and apologies for breakfast being so late—she'd run out of butter and had to ask a friend to bring her some more. As she set down the plates, Kuno let go of her hands. But he continued to stare at her in wonder for several seconds more, even after the owner had left.
"Am I dreaming?" he said.
"Hard to do if you don't sleep," Nabiki said.
"You would choose me over money?"
"Yes. And don't you dare make do it again." Nabiki swirled the dressing around her salad. "Money's still important to me, you know, and I never could tolerate stingy men. My boyfriend will have to be very generous."
Kuno had been raising a forkful of eggs to his mouth. The eggs promptly slid back to the plate.
"Your… boyfriend?" he said.
She laughed. "Don't look so nervous, Kuno-baby. You aren't my boyfriend. Yet. To be honest," she said, with a sigh, "I doubt you ever will be. It's a tough application process. So far, no one has ever made it through."
Ever so slowly, a smile formed on his lips.
"That sounds like a challenge to me."
"Then you have met your match," Kuno said. "An epic struggle it may prove to be, but I assure you, I will prevail. I look forward to it, Nabiki Tendo."
"So do I, Kuno-baby," she said. "So do I."
Author's Note: Two months. 130 pages of rough drafts. Half my sanity. That is what this chapter cost me. I hope you like it.
"I am fortune's fool" is from William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. 10,000 yen is about 100 US dollars and 200,000 yen is about 2,000 US dollars. Yes, they eat salad as part of their breakfast in Japan.