The Right Side of the Ledger
By Richard Lawson
She waited for her prey. Although not in sight, she could almost smell him. The prey knew she was stalking him, and would try to escape. A few had tried before. None had yet succeeded.
She saw him scamper to the top of the wall. He blanched at the sight of the ten foot drop. Disappointing; she had stalked prey who would have leaped over that wall without thinking twice. This prey was definitely weak, in more ways than one. Still, it didn't diminish her pleasure in the hunt.
As she watched from the shadows of the alley, her prey swung his feet over, hung from his hands at the top of the wall, and let himself drop. He landed ungracefully but managed to keep his balance; a small victory. Quickly, he glanced around and headed down the street.
She knew where he was going. She scampered down the alley, across a couple of lawns, and through a garden gate, not even acknowledging the old man tending it. He couldn't touch her; no one could.
She stood in plain sight under a tree, waiting. As she had hoped, the prey was so busy looking over his shoulder that he wasn't really watching where he was going. She waited until he drew even with her, then pounced.
"My, my, finally decided to slink out of school, did we, Akihito?" Her tone was light, almost playful, but with a definite menace.
The prey jumped, and his eyes widened in fear. "Na... Nabiki!"
She shook her head sadly and tsked, her eyes never leaving his. "Did you think you could escape me? Come, you should know me better than that." She bore her "evil eye" into him, an expression of superiority and contempt that she had practiced and applied for years. Properly used, the subject could do no more than gibber in fear. "Where is the ten thousand yen you owe me, Akihito?"
To her immense satisfaction, he start gibberring. "I... I... I was g-going to t-t-talk with you before, I mean after, after school. I g-got held up b-by Miss Hin-Hinako a-and I was g-g-going to call you after I got h-home...." He trailed off miserably.
"Uh huh." She intensified the evil eye to let him know she wasn't fooled. He gasped and took a step back, a reaction she had never gotten before. It made her feel warm inside.
Finally, she relented. She glanced down into the pocket of her school uniform and pulled out her ledger. She flipped through several pages and ran her finger down a list of numbers for effect; she already knew what they said. "I let you borrow seventy-five hundred yen at ten percent interest for two weeks, that interest to increase one percantage point for each day beyond that time, up to a maximum of ten thousand yen, at which point the full amount must be paid or substantial penalties would apply." She looked up at him, a glint in her eyes. "Trust me, you don't want to know what those penalties are."
He looked very ready to faint. "R-Ranma?"
She pretended to think it over. Having one of the most powerful martial artists on the planet as a houseguest and future in-law had some advantages, one of which was the fear he instilled in those who were in awe of his powers. With seeming reluctance, she shook her head. "No, how would I get my money from you if you were lying in a broken heap three districts away?" Akihito flinched. She grinned and continued. "However, wouldn't your mother be pleased to know you borrowed money to buy that video game she had forbidden you to play?"
At this, his jaw dropped open. "How... how...?"
She reached over and patted his cheek. "Akihito-kun, you should learn that there is - nothing - you - can - hide - from - me." Especially, she thought to herself, when your sister is my classmate. "So... where's my money?"
He thrust his hands into his pockets and came out with a thosand yen bill. He thrust it at her. "H-here."
She looked at it with disdain, refusing to take it. "That doesn't even cover today's interest."
"It's all I have!" There was desperation in his voice. "P-please, I'll give you the rest tomorrow!"
She shook her head slowly. "That was not our arrangement."
"O-okay... twelve thousand yen! Tomorrow!" He was frantic now, his eyes wild.
She rested her forefinger alongside her cheek, tilted her head, and made a great show of considering his offer. She enjoyed watching him sweat out of the corner of her eye.
When a minute had passed and she had said nothing, he blurted "Fifteen! After school tomorrow!"
She smiled, took out her pencil, and made a mark in her ledger. "Right, fifteen thousand. Plus this," she said as she snatched the bill from his slowly falling hand. "Don't try any more of these childish escape maneuvers, or I'll let Ranma know about the pictures you bought of him a few weeks back."
He actually let out a little sob. Slowly, he backed away, as if afraid to leave without her express permission. When it became clear she was going to let him go, he turned and ran down the street.
The thrill of the hunt accomplished filled Nabiki. She had pummelled him nearly into unconsciousness, without ever laying a finger on him. Ranma could never do that, she thought with tremendous satisfaction.
She walked home, still full of her victory. Her technique had been flawless; the thought of not paying her the money he owed would not occur to him again. A few other students had tried similar ploys, and had been punished appropriately, until the word had gotten around that Nabiki was not one to be crossed. Some, though, still needed to learn the hard way.
She slipped off her shoes as she entered the house. Hearing the rest of the family in the dining room, Nabiki padded down the hall and joined them.
Kasumi had just sat after placing the dinner dishes on the table. She looked over at Nabiki. "We were worried about you, Nabiki. I'm so glad you made it home in time for dinner. Did you wash your hands?"
Nabiki glowered at her. Sometimes Kasumi carried the mothering thing a bit too far. Still, the smile and slightly vacuous expression on Kasumi's face took the sting out of her words. Grumbling, Nabiki went into the kitchen, washed her hands, and rejoined the table.
"Nabiki, why were you late?" Father had a stern look on his face. "Your sister works so hard to make you a delicious dinner, the least you can do is to be home in time to enjoy it."
Nabiki bit back a growl. She had just completed a successful hunt; the last thing she needed was grief from her family. She could deal with her father, though. All she had to do was to put the slightest bit of irritation into her tone. "I wasn't late, Daddy. I'm here now, eating. No need to yell at me."
As she predicted, his stern look fell off his face. "I... I was only trying to...." He trailed off, looking vaguely hurt.
At least he's not crying, Nabiki thought to herself, satisfied with the results. He could be such a baby sometimes. Akane was giving her a reproachful look, which Nabiki chose to ignore. She concentrated on her dinner, which was delicious. Kasumi certainly did know how to cook them.
After dinner Nabiki left Kasumi to the dishes, Ranma and Akane to their fighting, and Father and Uncle to their game of shogi. She went upstairs, turned on her computer, and started up her spreadsheet program. She scrolled through the list of spreadsheets until she found the one marked "Debts to be Collected - Personal". She opened it up, found Akihito's name, and began entering the details of the day's business.
She went on to do her homework, balance the family books, and do some aerobics to the sound of music pounding from her CD. Panting a little, she flopped into her chair and opened up her spreadsheets again, just for fun. She opened up the "Debts to be Collected - Family" spreadsheet and scrolled through the names of the dojo students. Everyone was more or less up to date, she was disappointed to note. Half the fun of the job was the collections.
Nabiki amused herself by using her abacus to confirm the computer's totals. Her skills on her abacus were second to none in this day and age. Her fingers flew effortlessly over the tokens, flipping them to and fro and confirming that the computer had, indeed, gotten it right. She smiled; if there had been a discrepancy, she would have begun by doubting the computer.
Leaning back in her chair, Nabiki put her hands behind her head and closed her eyes. She was extremely gratified with the day's events. She replayed the scene with Akihito in her mind over and over again, savoring his reactions, his obvious fear of the power she held over him.
She smiled, exultant. She was Tendo Nabiki. No one could touch her.
Nabiki looked over her shoulder. A familiar figure was standing behind her. She struggled to recall who it was. Pleasure washed over her when she remembered. "Hi, Mother." She frowned; Mother didn't look right. Her face was a little blurry, and she had her long hair tied in a pony tail and hung over her shoulder. When had she grown all that hair? Nabiki couldn't remember.
"Nabiki, beloved, be warned."
Be warned about what? Nabiki looked back over at the spreadsheets, at the wonderful job she had done with the finances. The family wasn't exactly rolling in money, but they were a far sight better off than a few months ago, when they didn't have the money to buy food. Nabiki had guided them through that storm and was well prepared for another, should it arise.
"Are you sure about all of your spreadsheets, Nabiki-chan?"
Nabiki frowned, opening up the list again and scrolling through it. She stopped about halfway down; there in the list was a spreadsheet she had never seen before. It was called "NABIKI". The letters of the name seemed to glow brighter than the other spreadsheet names. Hesitantly, Nabiki clicked on her name.
The spreadsheet that opened up was simple enough. It had two columns. The left had normal, black letters that somehow seemed darker than usual. The right column had silvery letters.
Nabiki tried to focus on the column headings. The right seemed to say "Good Things Nabiki Has Done". The left said "Bad Things Nabiki Has Done."
She concentrated on the entries under each heading. They seemed to be more images than words. Under the right side, she could see herself working on the family bills; sitting by Kasumi's side while she was sick; helping Ranma buy Akane a Christmas present. On the left side she could see herself selling pictures of Ranma; teasing Akane about her engagement; forcing Ranma to spend time alone with Ukyo, Kodachi, and Shampoo while Nabiki collected fees from them. The last entry on the left side was of Akihito sobbing as he ran.
Suddenly the entries of the spreadsheet changed. The black entries shaped themselves into hulking, frightening, growling wolves. The silver entries turned into little samurai carrying fearsome swords. The two sides attacked each other across her monitor, each side fighting ferociously. The wolves pounced and snapped and howled. The samurai fought valiantly and skillfully.
Unfortunately, it was soon apparent that the wolves outnumbered the samurai. Although the samurai never gave up and dispatched a large number of the wolves, they were eventually overwhelmed. The last samurai fell, still hacking with his sword as a wolf consumed him.
The remaining wolves flowed together, forming one giant wolf. It turned to stare with red, glowing eyes at Nabiki. Nabiki shook in her chair, trying to get up but somehow unable to move. The wolf's face filled the screen, its tongue hanging out over its long sharp teeth. It lifted its chin and howled.
Terror filled Nabiki. She tried to reach over and shut off the computer, but her hand wouldn't move.
The wolf seemed to sense her helplessness. She could feel its amusement over her fear. It slowly came out of the screen, its body growing as it emerged. Its huge front paws came down squarely on her chest, making it impossible for her to breathe. It panted over her, its hot breath filling her nose and mouth.
Nabiki wanted to scream, to run, to move, to close her eyes so she wouldn't see the wolf laughing at her. All she could do was stare at the wolf as terror filled her.
The wolf gave one final howl, this one so full of hate and triumph that what remained of Nabiki's sanity fled. It bent and licked her neck, its rough tongue scratching like sandpaper. With a growl, it opened its jaws wide and clamped down on her neck. She could feel its teeth penetrating her; she could feel her own blood filling her throat. It began to shake her like a doll, and she could feel her flesh giving way. Tears of helpless fear streamed down her face; feebly, she managed to raise one of her arms an inch. The wolf laughed at her, somehow. In its eyes, she could see it promise that the terror would never end; she would never die and never stop feeling its teeth.
Nabiki screamed and fell out of her chair. She thrashed and cried but it was no use; the wolf had her, the wolf would always have her. She screamed, her scream full of denial and despair. Then she saw the woman with the long pony tail, and the woman was trying to talk to her. Nabiki cried out "Mother!" and hugged the woman tightly. The woman rocked her gently and spoke soothing, comforting words. And the wolf was gone.
Rationality returned gradually to Nabiki. She slowed her sobbing and let Kasumi continue to rock her while she considered what had happened. She must have dozed off in front of the computer and had a dream. More than a dream; the worst nightmare she had ever had. She must have screamed at the end and Kasumi had heard and been there as she woke up. Thankfully.
Nabiki stopped Kasumi's rocking and slowly brought herself into a kneeling position. She was sniffling uncontrollably, and found a box of tissue thrust in front of her face. She looked up to see Akane looking scared and worried, and that was somehow comforting. Nabiki took the tissue and blew her nose and dried her tears. After a few moments she was relatively clean. Nabiki gave Akane a weak smile.
Everyone seemed to breathe a sigh of relief. Nabiki looked around, aware for the first time that the whole family was in her room. They all had expressions of worry on their faces. Father looked almost as terrified as Nabiki had been moments ago. She reached out, took his hand and gave it a little shake, showing him a stronger smile to convince him that she was all right.
"What happened, Nabiki?" Ranma was wet, and Nabiki wondered what could have caused Ranma to assume her current form. Any number of things, Nabiki knew, Akane being the most likely source.
"I just had a bad dream." Nabiki's voice sounded much too tremulous for her tastes, and she forced herself to continue in a stronger voice. "I'm okay, it's over, everyone out of my room. Especially you, Ranma, you're dripping all over my things."
At the return of her normal acerbity, the worry went out of most of their faces. Father gave her hand a quick squeeze, more to reassure himself than her, before he joined the others in shuffling out of her room.
All but Kasumi, who was still kneeling on the floor with Nabiki. The look of worry was still on her face. That scared Nabiki a little; she hadn't realized how much she depended on Kasumi's constant smile and seeming obliviousness. Now there was no trace of either; rather, Kasumi looked sad and concerned.
"Nabiki, tell me. What happened?" There was a tone of command there that Nabiki hadn't heard since her mother had died.
Nabiki adopted a tactic which had always worked with Mother, which was to assume a sober expression and stare Kasumi in the eye. "It was just a bad dream. It scared me and I screamed, but it's over and I'll be fine."
Slowly, reluctantly, Kasumi nodded and stood up. After a long, probing look at Nabiki, she turned towards the door.
"Older sister," Nabiki blurted out. Kasumi turned her head back towards Nabiki. "Thank you."
Kasumi's smile returned. Giving a slight bow of her head and shoulders, Kasumi left the room.
Nabiki stood up, glad that Kasumi wouldn't see how much her legs were shaking. She straightened the chair. Without looking at the computer, she shut it off. She just couldn't deal with it right now.
Nabiki took off her clothes, put on her pajamas, turned out the lights, and got into bed. After a few seconds, she reached over and turned on her desk lamp.
It didn't help. Nabiki spent all night staring at the ceiling.
Nabiki sat under a tree, the lunch Kasumi had made resting by her side. It didn't particularly interest her. Her normal lunchmates had fled her presence after she made it pointedly clear how unwelcome their company would be.
Her thoughts were a complete mess. She couldn't bring any order to them, and that troubled her deeply. She didn't remember a thing that her teacher had said that morning. She couldn't seem to recall what Kasumi had made her for lunch, even though she had opened the tin a minute ago. She stared at the statue of the prinicpal in front of her, its laughing face seeming to taunt her. She watched it closely to see if it would grow fangs.
A shadow fell over her. Annoyed, she looked up, ready to bite someone's head off. She was in no mood for any conversation.
Her annoyance grew when she saw it was Tatewaki, holding his bokken as always. Yet, somehow, the scathing tirade she had prepared died on her lips. She scowled at him; he looked down at her, bemused. That made her angrier. "What do you want, Kuno?" she growled.
It didn't ruffle him. He could go from one emotional extreme to the next, but it often took a lot for him to change. Most of the world seemed to flow by him, and he chose what was significant and what was to be ignored. Nabiki had always envied and admired that quality.
"I believe, Tendo Nabiki-san, that you were to obtain for me some more pictures of my beloved pig-tail goddess?"
Damn, Nabiki thought, I forgot about the property taxes. Gotta pay that by the end of the week. Yet, she couldn't bring herself to worry about it too much. If necessary, she could cover the expense out of her own earnings, and she wasn't particularly inclined to deal with Tatewaki right now.
"Sorry, Kuno, I don't have them. Lost them, sorry. I'll let you know when I have more."
She could see the confusion on his face. The very concept of Nabiki losing anything seemed alien to Tatewaki. Her fault, she supposed, for building a reputation for ruthless efficiency.
To her absolute shock and irritation, Tatewaki knelt on the grass. He put his bokken across his legs and sat facing her. "Something troubles you deeply, Nabiki-san. Others have mentioned this also. If I can be of service, please command me."
She regarded him skeptically. Nabiki tried to form the evil eye but it got lost somewhere in his stern features and even expression.
She opened her mouth to 'command' him to go jump into the pool. "Kuno, have you ever needed money?"
The words hung there and she couldn't take them back.
His expression remained even, but he took a while to answer. "Does it bother you that I have so much to spend, while you have much less?"
"Yes!" The vehemence surprised her, but Nabiki rushed on before she could stop herself. "Our family used to be well off. Not rich, but never wanting. Father had a good practice and a steady income. Then Mother got sick, and all our money disappeared. I took over the finances because Father couldn't function and Kasumi had too much else to do. And I was good!" She grabbed her ledger from her uniform and shook it at Tatewaki. "We survived even though most of Father's students left. We had food and clothes, but not much else. I scraped together what I could, and I soon found other ways to raise money."
She stopped to wipe her sleeve across her eyes. "I discovered that I could sell things. I could lend money to people and make them pay me more back. I found out information that was embarrassing to people, and used that knowledge to make them give me money. I found out what people desired, and became a way of fulfilling that desire, at a cost."
Nabiki stopped, realizing what she had just said, wondering if Tatewaki would be offended. When he said nothing, when he did nothing but continue to look at her, she went on.
"It... it became a fun thing to do. I was good at it, and was soon making almost as much money as Father. Making money became the most important thing in the world to me. More, though, I found that I enjoyed dealing with people when I was making money. I enjoyed making them happy...." She trailed off, unwilling to say the next part out loud. But she had to, she needed this out of her. "I enjoyed making them afraid, too. I liked seeing them suffer because they didn't have money. It was nice to see someone scrabbling for money like our family always is."
Nabiki got up on her knees and leaned forward to look into his eyes. "Is that wrong? Our family needs the money! We'd have lost the dojo and been living in a small apartment if it weren't for me. We'd never have been able to take in the Saotomes, and they might have bumped into Auntie Saotome too soon and been forced to kill themselves." Tears were pouring from her eyes now, but that was less important to her than getting an answer from Tatewaki. "Is it wrong? If I made money for the family and kept Ranma and his father alive, does it matter what methods I used to get the money?"
Tatewaki looked up from her eyes and stared at something off to the side. Following his eyes, she saw that he was staring at the statue of the principal. His father, Nabiki remembered with a start. It was still difficult to accept that they were from the same family.
"My father was a businessman," Tatewaki said with an even tone, his words less flowerly than usual. "A very good one. He spent all his time on the business and made for the family a substantial sum of money. My sister and I grew up never knowing him. Our mother was very unhappy and she took out that unhappiness on us."
Tatewaki paused, the pain of some memory evident in his eyes. "It was almost a relief when she... died. Father took time off from his business to take care of the family. It was his duty." For the first time Nabiki could recall, the word "duty" sounded like an epithet on his lips.
"He discovered a house full of strangers. We didn't know him and didn't want to know him. My sister and I were barely civil to each other. She found her solace in horticulture and raising dangerous animals." He grabbed his bokken in one hand and gripped it tightly. "I found this... and poetry." His hand relaxed, and his tone took on a softer, almost wistful tone.
"Such and so finely bolted didst thou seem:
And thus thy fall hath left a kind of blot
To mark the full-fraught man and best indued
With some suspicion. I will weep for thee;
For this revolt of thine, methinks, is like
Another fall of man."
Nabiki drew a sharp breath. She reached out and rested her hand on his forearm. Tatewaki glanced down at it, then looked back at his father's statue and continued.
"My father could not handle the death of my mother and the uncaring of his children. He provided for us, left us servants and money, quit his business, and disappeared. It made little difference to Kodachi and I; we had gotten along very well without him before. We preferred his absence to his presence. He eventually returned and he... was different.
"The body's delicate: the tempest in my mind
Doth from my senses take all feeling else
Save what beats there. Filial ingratitude!
Is it not as this mouth should tear this hand
For lifting food to't? But I will punish home:
No, I will weep no more. In such a night
To shut me out! Pour on; I will endure.
In such a night as this! O Regan, Goneril!
Your old kind father, whose frank heart gave all,--
O, that way madness lies; let me shun that;
No more of that."
Tatewaki turned his head back to face Nabiki, and his eyes bored into hers. "I would give all the money I had, Tendo Nabiki-san, to be in a family such as yours."
The tears returned to Nabiki's eyes. She had lived all her life in a loving, supportive family. To hear that others didn't know such love shocked her to the core of her being. She had thought Tatewaki obsessive and Kodachi deranged; she now saw that it was not so simple as that.
She looked down at the ledger, and a sudden loathing came over her. Nabiki got up, anger filling her, and grabbed the ledger in both hands, preparing to rip it in half.
With a single graceful movement, Tatewaki rose and gently put his bokken between her arms in such a manner that she couldn't complete her ripping motion. "She that wants for money, means and content is without three good friends. It is not the search for money, Nabiki-san, that condemns thee, but rather the manner you use to obtain it.
"Though you and all the kings of Christendom
Are led so grossly by this meddling priest,
Dreading the curse that money may buy out;
And by the merit of vile gold, dross, dust,
Purchase corrupted pardon of a man,
Who in that sale sells pardon from himself,
Though you and all the rest so grossly led
This juggling witchcraft with revenue cherish,
Yet I alone, alone do me oppose."
Nabiki blinked and tried to work it out. Shakespeare was not her specialty. Tatewaki saw the puzzlement on her face and smiled. "Do you make money, Nabiki-san, because you feel a guilt that you believe money will assuage, or do you make money so that others will not be wanting?"
She stood there, resisting the urge to give the easy, safe answer. She let the feelings and thoughts troubling her soul roil about and show her the truth. The answer finally came in a form she did not expect. "I love my family."
Tatewaki extracted his bokken. "Then do not deprive them of your labors. Instead, make certain the labors do not become a means unto themselves. She who hunts to feed her family is a better person than she who hunts for the pleasure of the kill."
Nabiki stared at her ledger, then slowly put it back into her uniform. She looked over at Tatewaki, who for once didn't look either stern, superior, obsessive, or angry; rather, he seemed pleased, relieved, and almost happy.
Very similar, Nabiki decided, to the way she was feeling right at this moment.
Nabiki sat down next to her lunch. All of a sudden, she was famished. She took her chopsticks and lifted some sushi from her box. She paused and looked up at Tatewaki. "C'mon, Kuno-baby, siddown."
He looked a little surprised at this, but sat down across from her. She waggled the sushi in front of him. "You want some? Kasumi makes the best."
He looked around. "I did not bring my chopsticks, Nabiki-san."
Nabiki smiled. "Open."
Tatewaki looked almost amused at her tone. He leaned forward and allowed her to put the sushi in his mouth. He chewed and nodded his appreciation.
Nabiki took a bite herself. "Tomorrow," she said after swallowing, "I'll ask Kasumi to make you a lunch as well. I'm sure she would love to fix another one for you."
Tatewaki looked over at her, a strange look on his face. "I would like that very much, Tendo Nabiki-san."
They finished lunch together in comfortable silence.
Nabiki watched as Akihito looked nervously around the front of the school. To his credit, he wasn't trying to escape her this time. She grimaced; she had certainly scared him enough to make sure he wouldn't.
He saw her and approached with extreme trepidation. He reached a trembling arm into his pocket and pulled out some bills. "I-I could only come up with eight thousand yen." He flinched, as if expecting she'd hit him. "Just g-give me a little more time and I'll g-get the rest."
He looked so desparate and afraid; Nabiki wondered how she could ever have found this fun. She ignored his handful of yen and reached into her pocket. She held out a thousand yen bill towards him.
He looked at her, confused.
Nabiki snorted. "I had a computer glitch last night. My files were damaged; I lost all records of your loan. All I had on the ledger was the thousand yen you loaned me." She took his hand and pressed the bill in with the rest he was holding. "I always repay my debts."
Akihito stared at her, not daring to believe what he was hearing. "B-but I borrowed seventy-five hundred...."
Nabiki gave him the evil eye. "If you believe you owe me anything, Akihito-kun, repay me by never disobeying your mother again as long as you live in her house."
Slowly, a smile came over his face. He put the bills back in his pocket. He walked backwards, bowing deeply. "Thank you very much, Nabiki-san. Yes, certainly, I'll obey. I'm very sorry to have troubled you, Nabiki-san. Thank you."
He was babbling. With a mischievous smile and a playful air, she shouted "Get out of here! Go home!"
Akihito started, smiled, and ran off, slowing once to wave at her over his shoulder.
Nabiki continued to smile after him. Now this felt good.
She reached into her pocket and pulled out her ledger. She opened it and turned to a newly-created balance sheet towards the back.
With her pencil, Nabiki moved one entry from the left side to the right side.
Spying Akane and Ranma walking together in the distance, she ran to join them on the way home.
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