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Obligations: Chapter 14

 

Monday morning, the three students walked to school together. Nabiki had been working on her new computer late into the night and had overslept for once. Akane had to get her up at the time she normally got Ranma. Nabiki covered a yawn as she listened to Ranma and Akane debate technical issues of evaluating an opponent. Ever since Ryoga had uncovered the fact that Akane didn't have a sensei, Ranma and his dad had been, in essence, taking her under their wings. The weekend had been full of lessons, examples, fights, and more lessons. Nabiki had even heard Genma talking to Soun about it once; but the subject had been dropped at the first mention of Midori Tendo's death. Just thinking about it, Nabiki was depressed again. But she glanced at Akane and Ranma and had to grin – they really were a cute couple, and it would be fun to be an aunt. A little child to laugh at, to play with, to teach, to sing to…

"Onii-san? Is something wrong?"

Nabiki blinked quickly, drying her eyes out, "'Course not." Luckily, school was in sight and Akane didn't pursue it. They separated as Nabiki went to her Homeroom and Akane and Ranma went to theirs.

Nabiki sat down, not thinking about much of anything until the teacher came in and determined the roll.

"And I see that Tatawaki Kuno is back with us again – finally."

"I had an excused note."

"I know – I read it." The teacher's voice was exasperated.

Nabiki grinned to herself – Kuno must have used his pompous tone in the note, and probably didn't include a time table as to when he would be back. The day just started to look up. First, her payment. Then, Nabiki would have to see what mischief she could work up.

 

Kuno moved his lunch and looked up as someone sat on his desk. "Nabiki Tendo," he proclaimed her to be. A very slight sparkle in his eye said 'hello'.

Nabiki grinned sardonically, "Why, hello, Kuno-chan…" she purred.

Kuno's lips twitched, "Would you like it in a cashier's check or a direct deposit?"

"Neither." Nabiki plunked down a stack of papers in front of him. "For some odd reason, the bill collectors respond better if your stamp is on it."

Kuno blinked at the stack, then looked pointedly at Nabiki. She raised her eyebrows. Kuno kept a straight face as he remarked, "I can't sign them while you're on my desk." Nabiki choked down a laugh with an effort as she languidly got up, trying to appear as if it had been her idea all along. Point to you, Kuno-chan.

Getting out his jitsuin, Kuno went through the bills, reading them carefully before he put his seal on them. "I presume you've already tallied the total…"

Nabiki silently handed him another piece of paper. Kuno glanced at it and nodded, putting it to one side of the stack.

A few minutes went by as Nabiki ate her lunch while watching Kuno work. Towards the bottom of the stack, Kuno paused, "You were over-charged."

"What!?" Nabiki lost her cool and grabbed the bill from him. "Oh," she handed it back, her lips quirking slightly, "No, it's alright – it was more of a 'TV replacement', rather than the 'TV repair' it states."

Kuno raised his left eyebrow.

She shrugged, "Akane put a dumb-bell through the screen." Kuno just looked at her, and Nabiki shrugged again, "She was angry at Ranma." She paused for a moment, "From what I understand, that is. I wasn't there that night. Neither of them wanted to talk about it."

Kuno tried hard not to laugh. With a straight face, he nodded and sealed that bill without another comment.

Nabiki watched him, time to get my points back. "Are you sure you want to marry my violent sister?"

"Against Ranma, violence is an acceptable response."

Nabiki blinked, two points to him? Tatawaki's in a damn good mood today – good form.

He grinned, recognizing the hit. Then he turned serious, "Akane-san is a studied and practiced lady. She is sweet and kind, yet generates a fire that lights the land and vanquishes her foes. Independent and strong, she needs no one to stand on her own, yet her friends flock to her side and she keeps their admiration and respect. To join the noble House of Kuno as a warrior's wife, she would be a cherished asset by my side."

"And in your bed," Nabiki had been disconcerted by Kuno's frankness – they normally kept their conversations on a more sardonic level.

Kuno blinked, then raised a hand to his nose and rushed out of the room.

"And you didn't even finish all the bills," Nabiki commented as she gathered up the paperwork, putting it back in her bag.

In the bathroom, Tatawaki Kuno held the tissues up to his nose and glared at the mirror, "Curse you, Nabiki Tendo – you did that on purpose." His comment came out muffled and he cautiously took the tissues away. The bleeding didn't resume and he mopped his face. Nabiki… he grinned – she'd been totally taken aback by his frank reply. And driving him out of the room didn't count as a rebuttal. I actually won that round!

The door opened and he glanced in the mirror. Kuno rolled his eyes, "Ranma Saotome. Fancy meeting you here."

Ranma blinked, "It's the school bathroom – what's so strange about that?"

Even though his instinct was to get mad at the young upstart, Kuno was in just too good a mood to let the cretin ruin it. Even if he does sleep in the same house as Akane-san. The thought wasn't extreme, but his nose was still tender. "God Damn," he grabbed the tissues again.

Ranma shook his head – Kuno was strange. He moved over to one of the stalls. When he came out, Kuno had his shirt off and was washing the blood off in the sink. As Ranma washed his hands, he couldn't help but keep glancing over.

"What?" Kuno finally asked.

"Are you actually going to wear a wet shirt to class?"

"No," Kuno mocked, "I'm going to dry it with the hand-blower!" Actually, he planned on going down to the lockers and getting a fresh one, but he wasn't about to tell Ranma that.

Ranma frowned, "I don't think that's such a good idea. It'll wrinkle and the teachers won't like that."

Kuno rolled his eyes, is this person totally clueless to sarcasm? "As if you'd know what the school uniform is. You never wear it."

Ranma's eyes narrowed, still tender from Ryoga's teasing on the subject.

Kuno blinked. Did I just score a hit? On Ranma? What on earth about? He experimented, "You're so enamored of your Chinese clothes, you have no pride in Japan or our school." Well, that wasn't it. It would have gotten Kuno, but Ranma was starting to relax. Oh, wait… "Or is the uniform just too bland for you? I know that most girls like the brighter colors… Maybe your taste—" He dodged the fist that came at him. Yep. That was it. He reached behind him for his bokken… Damn. It's in the locker with my other Kendo stuff. Well, there's always the old stuff. The next time a kick came towards him, he twisted just far enough for it to miss him, then turned with the move and got behind Ranma and retaliated with a punch that combined with Ranma's own momentum and knocked him out the door. Kuno paused for a moment, what are we fighting about? Then he shrugged and followed Ranma out – who really cared?

 

"Hey! Come and look at this! Kuno's fighting Ranma – and he doesn't have his shirt on!"

"Is Ranma in girl or guy form?"

"Guy – but it's Kuno without the shirt!"

Most people had been looking interested anyhow – any fight Ranma had was always entertaining – but Kuno without his shirt… Most of the girls instantly ran out into the hallway to watch. The hallway not being able to hold most of the students in the school, the fight moved outside to the usual lot without much seeming thought being given to it by either of the opponents.

Nabiki came out and watched for a moment. "Humm…" her eyes started to sparkle, and she called her friends over to her. Within moments, a betting pool had started. "Oh, this is going to be good," she chuckled.

"Nabiki – what are you doing?" Akane walked over, glaring at her sister.

Nabiki looked between the students giving money and getting receipts, the fight, her watch, and her sister, "What does it look like?" She turned to the crowd, "Two minute call! Only two more minutes to place your bets. All bets are final."

"But what sort of a bet could this be? Ranma always wins, and everybody knows it."

"Exactly," Nabiki grinned wildly – this was going to make her rich. Only the people who knew her best were betting on Kuno.

Akane frowned at her sister, "Nabiki – you haven't fixed the fight or anything, have you?"

Nabiki raised her hands, "Mwa?" She snorted, "Of course not." She lifted the megaphone, "Betting is now closed. Thank you very much. Hold on to your tickets." Turning back to her sister, she gestured to the fight, "Are you actually watching the fight? Or are you just out for the casual entertainment like the rest of the school?"

Akane's eyes narrowed, partly in surprise – Nabiki normally reserved her sarcasm for outside the family. Except when she's excited… Akane looked to the guys, and watched. "Oh!" For the first time, Akane started to worry.

"Exactly." Nabiki hummed, sorting the vouchers with her friends.

"But… but…" Akane shook her head, "Why's Kuno so good all of a sudden?"

Nabiki looked up, then moved to her sister's side. "You're the one learning tactics all weekend… But I noticed a few things right off the bat." She ticked a point off on her finger, "First of all, Kuno-chan doesn't have his bokken."

Akane blinked. She hadn't actually noticed… But it was true. He wasn't in his Kendo uniform, he wasn't using the bokken… And his style was totally different than normal. Completely different. Mostly forms of Judo and Aikido, but incorporating a lot of other styles as well. It wasn't anything that Ranma would normally have problems with, but apparently Ranma hadn't gotten over being disconcerted by the change. He was still trying to fight Kuno as if Kuno was fighting Kendo style. That's not like Ranma, not to adjust… But he's been fighting Kuno so long the same way… She noticed it the other week when Ranma and Ryoga were fighting, that the two guys seemed to have a routine set of blows that they fought with – and fought differently against other opponents. Mostly, she'd noticed it with Ryoga, he never uses his headbands against Ranma anymore, and rarely the umbrella – but he still uses both against others. Against real opponents. And now with Kuno… Ranma's gotten into a rut. He fights against a lot of good opponents, but the same ones every time. And now he's not even thinking about his fighting – he's just getting madder and madder that he's not landing any blows on Kuno.

"And?"

"Humm," Nabiki had been counting the money, setting aside the amounts for those who bet on Kuno, and dividing the rest in thirds.

"What was the other point?"

"Oh." Nabiki looked back to the fight, "I think Ranma started this fight. Kuno's not mad or upset."

Well, no… Akane frowned, "What difference does that make?"

Nabiki blinked, "You've never noticed? Oh, well, I guess he doesn't fight calm that often. Kuno-chan is one of those people that should never, ever fight when mad or excited. He loses all control when he does that. And Ranma-chan really gets his goat!! Most times." She grinned at the two guys, "Usually when Kuno challenges Ranma, it's Kuno who's mad, and Ranma who's calm. It's completely opposite this time."

Akane also looked back to the fight. Nabiki was right. Kuno was perfectly centered within himself. And Ranma was completely overwhelmed. She clenched her fists, wanting to yell out advice to Ranma, wanting to run to him, wanting to help… I could distract Kuno easily. I know how to make him loose his calm… I can help Ranma… Akane stayed silent, remembering Ryoga's words. No matter how much I want to help – he has to do it on his own, win or lose. Otherwise, I insult him. She closed her eyes, Ryoga! This is hard. How do I just watch? Ryoga-kun, help me.

"Want an example?"

Akane blinked, "What?"

Nabiki grinned mischievously. She cupped her hands, "Hey Kuno! Put your shirt back on – the pig-tailed girl is watching."

Kuno's attack faltered, lost momentum… and he was floored by one of Ranma's flying kicks. He quickly rolled out, and got back up, recovering his balance, but now on complete defense, and getting hit every other blow.

"Just kidding!"

Even from the hillside, Akane could see Kuno's mouth tighten. But then he laughed, and his defense became smoother, now blocking all of Ranma's blows, now he was on offense again… "Damn, Nabiki. That's incredible."

"Yeah. Kuno-chan really needs to keep his cool better." Nabiki watched a moment longer, "Ah, well. Tit for tat." She called out, "Ranma! I got the pictures back from our trip to Doll Inn – wanna see?"

"Nabiki!!! Don't you dare!!!" Akane was furious.

"Just kidding. I didn't – Whoa!" Nabiki's eyes went wide.

In the time that Ranma's attention was off Kuno, a solid punch landed on his jaw and Ranma went flying across the yard to land with a thump, not moving.

Kuno turned around, "Nabiki! No fair – interference!!"

"Hey, I just did the same thing to him I did to you – you took it, he didn't."

His dark eyes were sparking in anger, "A lucky blow. You had no right!" He turned and walked to Ranma, picking him up and slinging him over his shoulder, "I call this match, a draw." And he strolled off towards the nurse's office.

Akane was on her feet, ready to run to Ranma, but she paused as Kuno yelled at Nabiki. She swallowed, Ryoga was right – even for a win, he was insulted. And Kuno's pride matches Ranma's. And she watched as Kuno walked off. I think… I better wait.

"Give us our money back!"

"It was a draw. Only one person bet on a draw – he's the winner. Everybody else loses."

"But there was interference!"

"Oh yeah? Who calls that interference?"

"Kuno did!"

"And what does Kuno know?"

"In that case, Kuno won."

Akane glared at the group surrounding her sister and walked off in disgust.

 

Ranma opened his eyes. And closed them His head hurt. Bad.

"Are you okay?"

The voice wasn't Akane's… Ranma opened his eyes again. And stared in confusion at Kuno, who looked away in embarrassment. Kuno cleared his throat, "I declared that match a draw because of the interference."

Ranma sat up carefully, holding a hand to his head. He chewed on his words for a moment, but got them out, "You were winning."

Kuno shrugged, "A lot of chess players start out in good positions – it's the final move that makes the game." He paused, then quoted, "---------"

Between Kuno and Ryoga, I don't think I can any more quotes… A dog barked.

Kuno looked down, "Down, Spots! And keep quiet or the nurse will toss you out." He glanced around, "Sasuki!"

The short ninja popped up behind the bed, "Yes, Tatawaki-sama?"

"I thought I told you to keep Spots at the mansion."

Sasuki shrugged, "Have you ever tried to tell a Matane anything they don't want to do?"

Kuno rolled his eyes, and then glared at the dog, who stuck his tongue out the side of his mouth and panted happily.

Ranma blinked rapidly, "Wait-a-sec… That's one of Ryoga's puppies!"

The look on Kuno's face could only be described as 'pained'. "I finally managed to give the rest back to Checkers-san last night, but this young whelp would not go away, and Checkers-san let him! But one doesn't argue very long with a Matane."

Ranma's head was really hurting now. He cradled it carefully. "Matane…"

"Matane are creatures that look like animals, but are not. They—"

"I know. I know. I know." Ranma lifted his head, "I just didn't know Checkers was one." And he started to laugh. And laugh. "Oh Shiva! No wonder Ryoga and I didn't think anything of Akane's reaction to P-chan. Akane treated him like we treat Checkers." 'You thought we thought he was a normal pig?' "Yeah – we don't know any normal pets!!!" He couldn't stop laughing. And wondered what the heck Ryoga would say when he found out his childhood pet and companion was something out of an old legend. He laughed harder.

Kuno was sitting back in the chair beside the bed, his long eyebrows raised gracefully as he waited for Ranma to calm down. "Are you finished?"

Ranma choked down one last laugh, "Sorry." He hopped down from the bed and stood there for a moment, looking at Kuno.

The older student regarded him from where he sat with calm, grey eyes that evaluated him carefully. Ranma remembered what it had been like the first time he'd met Kuno, when Kuno regarded him in the same measuring way – before he found out that Ranma was staying with the Tendo's and lost his cool. When it comes to Akane… That first fight had been closer than any of the others. And interrupted by the rain. Every other time he'd fought Kuno, he won so easily it wasn't even a fight. But there was no denying that today, he'd beaten Ranma. And Ranma didn't count it a draw. If he did… then I'd have to count all those other times draws when Akane helped me. Against Kuno, against Ryoga, against Mousse... No, Kuno won. Fair and square. "But how?"

Kuno got up and walked out.

Ranma stared, then ran after him, "Kuno-sempei!"

Kuno stopped, but didn't turn around. His voice was low and almost dangerous, "Don't even think it, let alone say it, Saotome. Maybe some other time. But not now." Changing tones, he called, "Sasuki!"

"Yes, Tatawaki-sama?"

"We're going home. Get my homework from the other teachers. I'll turn it in tomorrow." He left without waiting for an acknowledgment, the dog at his side.

Ranma stared, long after Kuno had gone. He was still looking at the trees when Akane and Nabiki joined him. "Ranma, are you okay?"

He stirred, "What was up with Kuno? He was almost… nice. And almost…" a friend. And that's what he didn't want to hear me say. What is it with me and my friends? Don't I have any that will admit to it? Is it me?

Akane shrugged, "Well, he's been gone before, and I have to admit, I like it better when he is, because he usually is nicer when he comes back. It takes him three whole days before he starts bugging me again. Or used to." Of course, I never knew before that he was off fighting bandits. Maybe it has something to do with the responsibility.

Nabiki got to the heart of Ranma's question, "He doesn't like having friends. Friends can be hurt. He'd rather be the class clown and let people scorn or admire him just as long as none get too close." She let her breath out in a long sigh. "I think I'm going to go home too. With the extra money I just made, Kasumi and I can finally get that room renovated like we were talking about."

"Renovated?"

"Well yeah, you know," Nabiki blinked languidly, "When you two have children, the kids are going to have to have a room of their own."

Ranma and Akane turned red and started stuttering and backing off, not looking at each other, hands raised in protest.

Nabiki laughed, "Relax. I was joking. We were going to change it into a second guest bedroom and maybe add an extra bath. One for the girls and one for the guys. With all the use it's been getting lately…"

Suddenly she stopped dead. "What the hell?"

Ranma and Akane looked around and then back at Nabiki.

Nabiki was shaking her head, "I was talking with him last night on e-mail. He was in the village last night, just getting ready to leave. It should have taken him at least three days to get back here. How the heck did he do it? I didn't notice. Why didn't I notice? This is weird."

Ranma drew a breath in, and then let it out again in a laugh. He laughed so hard he fell to the floor, curling around himself.

Nabiki and Akane looked at each other and then at him. "What?"

Eventually, Ranma got up, "Did you see that dog with him?"

The sisters again looked at each other, "What dog?"

"What do you mean, 'what dog'? The dog that…" Blinking, Ranma thought about Kasumi's lecture, 'people will instinctively avoid Matane' and not notice them either? Well, that could explain some things about Checkers… "He had one of Ryoga's puppies with him. I mean Checker's puppies."

Nabiki snapped her fingers, "That's right. Actually, he had the whole bunch of them on his trip – he never did get around to explaining that one. Neither did Ryoga." She raised an eyebrow, "Are you telling me that Ryoga's dogs have the same miserable sense of direction that Ryoga does?"

"Not the direction, but the…" Ranma searched for a word – and only found one that fit, "talent." He shrugged, "Checkers used to come and get Ryoga when he'd get really lost – he was telling me some of the tales the other night – and bring him home again."

Nabiki opened and closed her mouth, "That's…" Her eyes narrowed, "Matane?"

Ranma couldn't help it, he started laughing again. Mostly at himself and Ryoga. But he felt some vindication when Akane looked totally puzzled and had to ask her sister what a Matane was. Nabiki treated her to much the same speech that Kasumi had given the boys.

"Oh!" Akane exclaimed, "So that's why you always accepted P-chan!"

"No – we knew from the start he was Ryoga. All you ever had to do was ask Kasumi. That's all we ever have to do."

Ranma started to ask a question, then was interrupted by the school bell. He rolled his eyes, "Let's all go home. If I have to spend one more class out in the hall…"


 
 

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