Wednesday was a nerve-racking day for many at Furinkan High. Every week a few students, two or three or more, would wake at dawn in a cold sweat, stare at their alarm clocks and wonder if they could afford to play hooky. They never did. But they thought about it hard.
It wasn't just because Wednesday was Ms. Hinako's favorite day for pop quizzes. It wasn't simply that Principal Kuno tended to put his most unique new ideas for the school into effect on Wednesdays. It wasn't even that Happosai planned his best raids during the middle of the week in hope of catching girls off guard, and hence the anti-hentai squads were out in force and quite touchy on Wednesdays.
No, the true anxiety for those few was that Wednesday was collection day.
Wednesday was also, not coincidentally, Nabiki Tendo's favorite day.
She didn't know what she enjoyed more, the actual receiving of the money, or the act of collection, prowling through the halls and schoolyard, finding those who owed and requesting- -never demanding; those truly in power never needed to demand—that they pay. They always did. Sometimes promptly, other times with a delay, which she would allow only as long as it were reasonable. She never feared they would refuse; one of her stipulations for taking a bet or giving a loan was that she had sufficient blackmail material to enforce it.
Not that Nabiki actually executed any of her threats—except with Ranma, and he didn't count, being a relative of sorts and a freeloader by any definition. To be honest, which she was only with herself, she seriously doubted she could carry out her worse intimidations, if the need ever arose. It never did. People were convinced she was heartless enough to do anything, and that served her purposes fine.
And she never denied that she liked seeing the touch of fear in their eyes when they faced her empty-handed. Just doing her part to bring a little excitement into their lives.
"What do you mean, you can't honor your wager?" she asked quietly. "Daisuke asked the new transfer student out yesterday, and was rejected. You're out of the pool. You need to pay off your credit. Now you're saying you won't?"
The student before her twitched. "I...I didn't say—I just need another couple days. Next week I'll have it. Promise. Please, I'm working as much over-time as I can—"
"Okay." She waved dismissively. "Next week. But you better have it. Everyone pays their debts." Which was fudging things a bit; there were a couple she had extended credit to indefinitely, knowing they really couldn't afford it, but she had to protect those interests with complete secrecy else risk total loss of control. "If you don't honor this arrangement, no one else has any reason to, and the whole system crumbles. You wouldn't want that, right?"
"Yes—I mean, no, Upperclassman Tendo. I'm sorry—next week, I swear. Thank you!" Bowing fervently, he took off down the hall.
Nabiki permitted herself a small, wicked grin and turned to her associates. "Who's next?"
Yukari checked her notepad. "Hmm—that'd be Fumiaki Takayama, boss. He still owes you big for February. And I know he's got it, I saw him splurge on that Sadoko girl this weekend. Full dinner at the Nekohanten followed by ice cream and a movie."
Nabiki's smile widened slightly. Fumiaki was low on her favorite people list—the word 'slimeball' came to mind. Watching him squirm would be pure fun.
They located Takayama at the end of the lunch period, hunched with his cronies at a table at the far end of the cafeteria, a safe distance from the warzone that was nominally the breadline. A short, chubby boy who was more mature to his mind than in reality, he watched the queue antics with a supercilious sneer.
As was the rest of the cafeteria, if less disdainfully. Nabiki spared a glance. Ranma was having it out with Tatewaki Kuno for the curry bread. The kendoist was as usual getting the short end of the stick. As Nabiki watched, Ranma casually caught his bokken by the blade between his palms and twisted sharply, using the leverage to flip Kuno into the air before he could let go of the wooden sword. The Blue Thunder of Furinkan High came down hard a few meters from Fumiaki's table, staggered to his feet, and promptly fell flat on his face.
The lunchroom exploded in applause. Ranma shrugged, grabbed the last curry bread, and stuffed it whole in his mouth before sauntering over to Akane and Ukyo's table. Nabiki, observing the lingering gazes of more than a few girls, made a mental note to print up a couple more rolls of male Ranma photos in addition to her productions of his girl half.
She cast a look down at Kuno, verified he was breathing properly, and sighed. When they had first started attending Furinkan, she had made a small fortune selling Tatewaki Kuno's picture to half the female population of the school. He had become the top athlete in record time, and was widely considered the most handsome boy in Nerima. His Shakespeare-spouting tendencies had attracted more girls than scared off; even his oft-stated Akane-obsession hadn't ended his market value by a long shot, however irritating it was. Funny that he had never dated anyone, when at one time he could have had the pick of the school.
Times change. New martial artists come. Though Nabiki still had the best of her Kuno photos in the back of her desk. Never know when things might come back into style, and there was more to a guy than his fighting prowess, after all. There had been those few pictures she had never sold to anyone, for whatever reasons...some of her best work, really...
But that was before Ranma, who made an utter fool of him either as a boy or a girl. "Kuno-chan, you're an idiot," she muttered, then leaned forward to plant her elbows on the table, returning her attention to Fumiaki. "Takayama, you're long overdue. When are you planning on paying up?"
The other student shifted in his plastic seat. "I have it, Tendo. But not on me. Meet me after school? Say, four o'clock, the alley behind Seki's Grocery."
The bell rang, announcing the end of lunch. "Fine," Nabiki agreed. "But you better be there with the money."
"I'll have it," Takayama promised.
And if he didn't, Nabiki had something positively wonderful in mind to enforce her claim. In this case she wouldn't hesitate to apply it. She had the addresses and numbers of all his former conquests, and doubted any of the girls would turn down a little chance at revenge. A win-win situation. It would almost be more fun if he didn't pay up.
She was smiling as she reached the classroom, and grinned wider when Kuno, arriving at the same time, gravely opened the door for her. "Thanks, Kuno-chan. Don't let anyone tell you chivalry's dead."
"Indeed not, Nabiki Tendo," he replied distantly, his mind seemingly elsewhere. But as she walked by, he murmured, "Are you considering attending this rendezvous with Fumiaki Takayama?"
Nabiki stopped. If it were anyone else, she might have been bothered by the eavesdropping. "I'm not considering, I'm going. It's a done deal."
Kuno looked oddly serious, honestly troubled. "I hesitate to imply interference with your affairs, Tendo, but you would be best to avoid this encounter. I have heard suggestion that he means you ill will."
"Takayama doesn't mean anyone any good will," Nabiki snorted, then frowned at Kuno. "What'd you hear, exactly?"
But the teacher appeared before Kuno could answer, and they hurried inside to take their seats before the bell rang a second time.
Though she saw him surreptitiously attempting to get her attention throughout class, Nabiki didn't get a chance to talk with Kuno again before she was free after school, and with only a half-hour until her appointment with Takayama she used the time to go home and change. She looked for Ranma to see if he might come along, but he wasn't around. P-chan hadn't shown up for a couple of weeks or she could have heated some water and asked Ryoga—she shook her head. Considering revealing her knowledge of that little secret solely on the basis of Kuno's vague warning...she usually kept her head better than that. Takayama was a jerk but he didn't scare her; she'd dealt with him and others of his like plenty of times. If he had the money it would go fine.
If not...chances were Kuno didn't know what he was talking about. Fumiaki had probably hit on either Akane or his pig- tailed goddess, hence rousing his suspicions. Kuno was not exactly stupid, but he wasn't the most perceptive owl in the tree, and his grip on reality was shakier than his poetry skills. A pity, really, with those looks, and those rare moments that proved his brain was made of more than solid granite.
But odds were against this warning being one of them.
She had convinced herself of that right up until a couple large men stepped out behind Fumiaki and aimed two polished Smith & Wessons between her eyes.
Nabiki felt as if she had been dunked in liquid nitrogen. She was amazed by the way her mouth could go right on working even when the rest of her was frozen solid. "Friends of yours, Takayama?"
She couldn't drag her eyes off the glittering gun barrels to identify the men holding them. "You're telling me it was cheaper to hire these guys than just pay me?"
"No." Takayama smiled. "But this is more fun." He took a step toward her. "I wanted to see you scared, Tendo. It's a good look for you. It'll help in our negotiations."
He took another step. "Now...let's see you kneel."
"Like hell I will." Part of her was proud of the defiance. The other part was screaming at the top of its lungs that this was not the time to be developing an honor complex. Courage had its place, and it had nothing to do with guns...when the hell did she end up on an American cop show, anyway?
Takayama was grinning openly now. "I was hoping you'd say that. Joji," he gestured to one of the men, "if you would..."
The man took aim at her leg, and damn that was going to hurt when he fired, look where your idiot ideas have gotten us, how are we gonna get out of this one, her brain gibbered—
And was answered by a whirling shadow which dropped into the alley out of seeming nowhere, with a short, shrill shriek of metal on metal.
Sparks flew. Two steel cylinders fell with distinctive clinks to the pavement. The thugs stared down at their blunted revolvers, from which the barrels had been cleanly sheared off.
Nabiki forced her eyes up to the shining silver blade which had so dealt with them, then to the face behind it, and promptly lost the last of her reason. "Ku—ku—ku—KUNO?!"
"I did attempt to warn you, Nabiki Tendo," Kuno intoned with a hint of reprimand.
"Get him!" Takayama bellowed.
His thugs dropped the useless gun butts and charged. Without glancing behind him, Kuno swung up his arms, catching one man in the solar plexus with his elbow and rapping the other across the brow with the hilt of his sword. Before the first man was fully upright, he kicked out and dropped him, then swept the katana around to touch the blade to the man's throat.
"Firearms are illegal," he reminded the man. "As is assaulting a lady. You would do well to refuse the command of one who bids you to act so ignobly."
"He means get a better boss," Nabiki found her voice. "So, Takayama, your family really is Yakuza, like the rumors say?"
Fumiaki was pressed up against the brick wall of the alley as if hoping he would melt through it, sidling toward the street. He froze when Nabiki addressed him, then narrowed his eyes. "You—you're one to talk, Tendo, hiring this sword-swinging maniac—"
"I have accepted no contract from Tendo-san," Kuno corrected. "I simply happened to be passing, and heard word that suggested a lady of my acquaintance might be endangered. It is the duty of every samurai to assist those—"
"Assist this!" The thug still conscious suddenly sprang up, a knife materializing in his hand as he lunged for Kuno to wrap him in a head lock. Simultaneously Takayama pulled a small pistol from his jacket pocket and pointed it at Nabiki. His unsteady grip spoke of a definite lack of experience, but with less than a meter separating them it was unlikely he would miss.
"I thought this would go better, but I always allow for worst case scenarios," he gasped. "Now, where were we?"
No time to think this one through. Nabiki glanced over at Kuno, struggling with the thug, then flicked her eyes to the mouth of the alley and cried, "Oh, thank God, officer!"
"What!" Takayama's head swiveled automatically toward the street, then snapped back around as he registered the trick...
...Too late. Nabiki kicked up hard and fast where it was calculated to hurt the most, ducking in case the gun went off, right as Kuno dropped down on one knee and flipped his assailant over his back, sending him crashing shoulder-first into the wall.
He straightened up and demanded, just as Nabiki asked him at the same time, "Are you all right?"
"Fine," they answered each other together. Nabiki kicked the pistol out of reach, then cleared her throat. "So, Kuno-chan...uh... Nice sword."
Kuno looked at the blade in his hand, then down at Takayama, groaning at Nabiki's feet, and shook his head with a distinctly un-Kuno-like smile. "Nabiki Tendo, I love you."
Enough was enough, and at this moment one factor too much. Everything went gray, her vision tunneling. Nabiki put the palms of her hands against the wall, lowered her head, and concentrated on inhaling and exhaling. She wasn't the sort to go to pieces in a crisis, she'd never fainted in her life and wasn't planning on starting now.
When she was sure she could breathe without conscious concentration, she pushed back from the wall, and spotted something on the pavement between the downed thugs. She picked it up, turned it over in her hands. A brown leather wallet.
He was gone. She walked to the mouth of the alley, but there was no sign of Kuno anywhere up or down the street. Nabiki glanced back at Fumiaki, flat on his back, his two goons crumpled in a heap behind him. Then, sighing, she took out her cellular phone and dialed the police.
"No, I'm sorry, Master Kuno is out. May I take a message?"
"No, thanks." Nabiki hung up and stared at the wallet.
She had stayed around only long enough to make sure Fumiaki and his hired help were arrested, disappearing before the police connected her with them. It might be bad for business to be taken in for questioning, though she was almost positive she had done nothing illegal. Eventually she might have to give testimony, but she'd arrange that on her own schedule.
Kasumi of course hadn't asked any questions when her sister walked in, paler than usual, and headed immediately for her room. Nabiki attempted to contact Kuno, then went downstairs to watch a news program that failed to completely calm her nerves, despite the report of three young men arrested for illegal firearm possession. Afterwards she went back to her room to phone Kuno again.
If he was around, he wasn't taking calls. She debated going over, confronting him face to face. Here's your wallet, thanks for saving my life, now what was that you said again?
Nabiki Tendo, I love you.
Either she had misheard or he had meant it sarcastically. Sarcasm she had a good deal of experience with, but not from Tatewaki Kuno. He probably thought irony was another word for steel smelting. Well, except for dramatic irony; the guy did know his Shakespeare, and he had a certain flair, goofy as it sometimes manifested, for recitation. Almost a talent for acting...
Nabiki Tendo, I love you.
He had enunciated it carefully, as if reading from a script written long before. Maybe it was all a planned prank? But that kind of joke wasn't Kuno's style. And Fumiaki really had wanted to hurt her.
Or worse. He had wanted worse. She had seen it in his face. She shivered before she managed to force her mind off that track. Seeking distraction, her eyes fell back on the wallet, laying on the middle of her desk blotter. With one hand she hefted its slight weight thoughtfully. She really shouldn't. It didn't belong to her. While she didn't necessarily respect other peoples' privacy, she understood it. She liked her own, after all. And Kuno had saved her life.
But she wasn't looking for blackmail material—she was getting enough from him on a regular basis already. And it was just a wallet.
If Nabiki had been a cat, curiosity would have already exhausted all of her nine lives. With a little smile an impartial observer might have labeled gleeful, she flipped open the wallet. The yen alone was enough to make her mouth water. She couldn't imagine ever carrying that much in cash. Kuno would definitely be wanting this back. Three credit cards too, two golds and a platinum—he could buy a sports car outright on credit.
Student ID...damn, even in that tiny picture he looked good. Several membership cards to various martial arts and kendo clubs.
And photographs. The two on top, the first to catch one's eye when the wallet was opened, she recognized, both taken by her own hand. Akane, gi flaring as she cleaved a cement block; Ranma asleep in female form, her red hair shining in the sun. Two of her best, Nabiki thought with a touch of artistic pride. Kuno did have a warped kind of taste.
Behind those was a picture of Kodachi, a school photo, the Black Rose looking absurdly demure. Then a family portrait of a younger Tatewaki and Kodachi standing before Principal Kuno in his regular wild Hawaiian shirt and palm tree hat. The tiny faces of his children wore identical expressions of stoicism, ignoring the arms of their father draped over their shoulders. Their matching haircuts were marvelously ugly. Surprising that Kodachi had managed to grow that ponytail back.
After that was a small photograph, a few decades old judging by the color quality. A couple in their twenties, holding hands and smiling. The woman looked a little like Kodachi with her dark almond eyes, but her smile was gentler, calm. The man also looked familiar, vaguely reminiscent of Kuno, something in the line of the jaw, though this man was more heavily built...
Principal Kuno, she recognized with a start like an electric shock. Slimmer, younger, and out of the tropical gear. Which meant that the woman...
Embarrassed without knowing why, Nabiki flipped to the last photo. And almost dropped the wallet.
Where had this one come from? A brown-haired girl seen from the waist up, talking on the phone with her chin propped on one hand, smiling slightly, the pen in her other hand thoughtfully pressed to the corner of her lip. She looked pleased, almost insufferably so. Satisfied. Happy in her element.
Nabiki knew she was. Because the girl was her, of course.
Who had taken that picture? And more importantly, what the hell was it doing in Kuno's wallet?
Nabiki had a well-earned reputation for being artfully devious, if not downright sly. But the cleverest obfuscator knows there is a time for directness. She had some candid questions, and there was one person who could answer them.
"Ranma, what's this about Kuno saying he loves me?"
Much as she might have hoped, her query didn't knock the martial artist off his stride, or head as the case were. She had found the younger Saotome meditating in the dojo balanced on his skull, an act that would look funny if it weren't so patently impossible.
Without uncrossing his arms Ranma slanted his gaze up at her. "'Bout time he told you."
And to top matters off, he had to upset her balance. "You mean—you—that—" She got a firm grasp on the doorframe and a firmer one on her equilibrium. "How long—have you known, I mean?"
Ranma considered the question. "Hm. A while, I guess." He cocked an eyebrow at her, a peculiar expression given his inverted position. "You really think I'd've let you keep selling him those pictures if I didn't?"
"You know about those—" Hold it, she was supposed to have the upper hand here. It was her interrogation; who was looking up to whom, after all? "I thought you didn't care what Kuno thought of your girl side anyway. Why'd a few pictures of his pig-tailed preoccupation bother you?"
Ranma frowned slightly. "Not my pictures. Akane's." In a motion too swift to be accidental he rolled off his head and onto his feet. "Wouldn't have trusted him not to get some sick idea if I hadn't known. That act of his is pretty convincing."
"Yeah, you know—" Abruptly Ranma leaned forward, inspecting her face from bare inches away. He pulled back shaking his head. "Aw, nuts, he didn't tell you yet, did he? Chicken." He paused. "Or...you didn't ask him yet?"
"Ask him yet?" She needed a new approach. Parrot impersonation was getting old fast.
Ranma patted her on the shoulder, a startlingly familiar gesture coming from him to her. "Look, I was going to meet Kuno at Ucchan's in half an hour. Why don't you go instead. Corner him at a table and ask him what you just came in here to ask me, okay?"
'Going to meet Kuno?' she nearly repeated, but stopped herself in time. Determined not to be thrown off center again, she only nodded, then stuck out her foot as Ranma strode past her. "One more thing. Do you know how Kuno got a picture of me in his wallet?"
Easily avoiding a trip by hopping over her leg, Ranma flashed her his notorious grin, the one she never could tell how her sister resisted. "Sure, I sold it to him. You think you're the only one who can capitalize on a good idea?"
He was sitting at a table in the far corner of Ucchan's. Nabiki spotted him right when she walked through the door, but tarried for a moment at the counter, chatting with Konatsu while she ordered a beef okonomiyaki.
"Oh, it's already paid for," the ninja waiter told her when she began to take out her wallet, and pointed to her benefactor's table. Kuno waved one hand, then watched intently as she approached and took the chair across from him.
"Thanks," she said. "I—didn't think we had an appointment today."
"I suspected a change in schedule after the earlier incidents of the day."
"Oh." She fiddled with her napkin, drew a breath. "About that. Thank you. Very much."
"You're welcome." He inclined his head graciously.
Her fingers of their own accord began folding the napkin into a wad. She watched them work, wondered why the hell she was so nervous. It was only Kuno, for pity's sake. "I didn't know you knew swords, other than the bokken."
"A wooden blade is not so effective against metal artillery as refined steel."
"Yeah. Makes sense." She abandoned the napkin and picked up her water glass. "You're, um, really good with the katana."
She put the glass down again. Silence draped over the table like a curtain. Nabiki wished her okonomayaki was ready, not because she was hungry so much as that eating would give her something to do. Talking with Kuno had never been this difficult—it had never been difficult at all. Even if she was in a more introspective mood, he always had plenty to expound upon, be it his poetry or his pig-tailed princess. Except at the moment he seemed dependent on her to keep the conversation going.
It occurred to her that Kuno was finding this as awkward as she was. Which in turn implied...
She took out his wallet and put it on the table. "You left this behind in the alley. I came to give it back."
He said nothing. "I looked through it," she confessed. "I saw your photos. All of them."
Still no response. "Kuno." Nabiki steeled herself. "What you said there. To me. Did you mean it?"
He met her eyes. His own were darker than usual, opaque in the shadows. "Yes."
"Oh." Smooth, Tendo. Real smooth. "How...how long? How long have you..."
He barely had to consider the question. "Since our first day of high school."
"But you knew me before that...and then you met Akane...and everything with Ranma—" She realized she was starting to babble and stopped. And looked at Kuno, realizing there was something in his expression she didn't remember seeing there before. A sharpness in how he watched her, and at the same time a furtive aspect. She knew that look; it was the one she got herself when she was considering a scheme. But she never had seen it on him before.
She leaned her crossed arms on the table and faced him directly. "Okay. You going to explain?"
Kuno glanced at her with something like embarrassment. Embarrassment, from the least self-conscious individual she knew. Or thought she knew. "Everything?" he asked quietly.
"Yes. Everything." Then, making the rare acknowledgment that his inner thoughts weren't entirely her business, "Please?"
Konatsu arrived then, put two plates of okonomiyaki before them, and disappeared. Nabiki, ignoring the food, sat and waited.
The silence stretched for nearly a minute. Then, at last, Kuno spoke. "The first day I saw you at Furinkan...something had altered over that break before we began high school. We had been in classes before, but then...it was as if I had never seen you before. Perhaps it was you who changed; perhaps it was I. But I had never felt its like before. And I knew then..."
He was interrupted by the sharp snap of Nabiki breaking apart her chopsticks. "Why didn't you just say something?" she demanded. "You never even..."
Kuno raised an eyebrow. "If I had marched up to you wielding a bouquet of roses and professed my undying affection down on one knee, would you have accepted it?"
"It depends. How expensive roses are we talking?"
Kuno shook his head, but the corner of his mouth quirked up. "What I wanted I never could have bought. Not from you. There's little you won't put a price on, but your heart is one of those most precious few.
"I knew that I must prove my worth. You are not an ordinary woman; you would never fall for mere poetry, or promises, or prowess in the martial arts. But intelligence you respect. In wit and cunning there are few who can match you, and I believe I am of those worthy few. Together we could do anything. I remain so convinced.
"But how to prove it so to you? I decided there was but one proof you would accept, and that was to be outwitted. At the same time I wanted to spark in you some hint perhaps of what I felt myself. So I decided to use my own talents, which extend to fighting and acting. A battle would not win you. But a performance...an act that even you didn't penetrate, that you would appreciate. And thus the Blue Thunder of Furinkan High was born."
"Wait a minute." Nabiki stopped eating and held up her hands. "Okay, let me get this straight. To prove to me that you were bright, you decided to become the biggest fool in the school?"
"It was an act you could appreciate the value of. Few people hesitate to talk openly before an idiot, as evidenced by Takayama. And few willingly oppose a lunatic, especially one well-armed. It also lowered the chances of anyone trying to interfere with matters of romance. At the same time I hoped to inspire some spark of jealousy in you, hence I developed my passion for Akane and Ranma.
"It's the most entertaining role I've ever performed," Kuno remarked. "It's really quite relaxing to be completely insane, once you get into it. I was careful not to act out of character, lest I alert you—you have observers everywhere, I'm well aware. But I believe I succeeded in fooling everyone. Even you."
"Maybe." Nabiki leaned back in her chair and hoped she was pulling off an easy-going look, quite a feat with her heart thumping as fast as it was. "Now you just have to convince me it was an act."
"Oh, you know it was," he said blithely. "The Kuno you usually talk with sounds nothing like this. Besides, he's utterly infatuated with your sister and Saotome's female side."
"So you do know about Ranma's curse. And he knows about your...performance."
Kuno nodded. "He guessed. He realized when fighting me at school that I was underplaying my abilities, and so eventually confronted me in confidence to learn why."
"But if you're really as good as you are with the sword, why do you always let Ranma win?"
Both of Kuno's eyebrows shot up. "Let him win? Nabiki Tendo, have you ever seen Saotome actually fight? I'm lucky I've broken as few bones as I have, going against him for the sake of Akane and the pig-tailed girl."
Nabiki thought this over. "Fair enough," she said. "But...why Ranma? Why Akane? If you wanted me to be jealous, why them?"
"You can't guess?" Kuno looked slightly surprised. "Other than they gave me the perfect excuse to visit your house— they were the two girls at the school I was one hundred percent positive would reject me."
"Of course," Nabiki murmured. "I just...it seemed like I wasn't your type."
Kuno drew himself up pompously. "Perhaps you would not be a suitable consort for the Blue Thunder, rising star of the student kendoist league and champion of all that is noble, just, and long-winded." Then he relaxed, with a smile that was pure rascal. "But for Tatewaki Kuno, there could be no one more perfect."
He shifted again, becoming more serious, at once mature and nervous as a boy called to the principle's office. "That is, if you are willing. Rather, if you have any interest. I mean, if you would accept...perhaps a date?"
Nabiki considered. "Perhaps. A date. Somewhere nice and expensive. That would be good." She smiled. "For starters."
Acting or not, his expression was as joyous as the Blue Thunder's ever became when in the presence of his pronounced true loves.
"Maybe tomorrow," she added conditionally. "Not tonight. I need some time to get used to this. It's been one hell of a day." She paused. "And I need to get to know you. The real you."
"The chance is all I wanted," he told her sincerely. She could tell his sincerity; it was nothing like anything he had exhibited before. As was his smile, unguarded and happy; it made her smile, its candor contagious with a freedom she hadn't felt for years.
"One more question," she said before wholly giving in. "Did you really drop your wallet by accident?"
Kuno picked up the wallet in question and contemplated it. "What do you think?"
Nabiki studied him for a long moment, looking past the innocent expression, past the ridiculous act he performed and the games he played far more skillfully. Looked into his eyes all the way to the truth. She saw it there, and, knowing now where to look, knew he couldn't hide it from her again.
She grinned, as wickedly as he ever could. "Ah, Kuno-chan, I love you when you're devious."