Ah My Goddess Fan Fiction / Ranma 1/2 Fan Fiction / Sailor Moon Fan Fiction ❯ A Tale of Two Wallets ❯ Gambling with the Future ( Chapter 102 )

[ Y - Young Adult: Not suitable for readers under 16 ]

A Tale of Two Wallets

(An Altered Destiny)

Written by Jim Robert Bader

Proofread by Shiva Barnwell

"Women…can't live with 'em, can't live…uh…with them."

"I hear that."

"No fooling."

"Tell me about it."

"Another round, barkeep."

"Girl," Genma sighed, "You just said a mouthful."

"Never thought I'd be agreein' with you, Pop," Ranma sighed, turning a glance to his right, "But what's the deal with you, Ucchan? Never thought you'd be saying a thing like that."

"Makes two of us," Ukyo sighed as she leaned her chin, "Just when I thought my life was starting to straighten out (in a manner of speaking) I went and screwed it up again, and now I don't know what I'm going to do about it."

"What are you talking about?" Ranma asked of his best friend, "I thought you and Makoto were getting along great together…"

"We are," Ukyo sighed, "But while we were in Pangea…and later on during that stopover in Paris…well…things got a little strange, if you know what I mean…"

"Akane hitting on your again?" Ranma sighed, "Guess she doesn't give up easy, huh?"

"If only it was as simple as that," Ukyo took a sip from her drink then stared morosely at the now-empty glass in her hand.

"What?" Ranma smirked, "Don't tell me you slept with the tomboy?" He waited in vain for the expected denial, but instead Ukyo just turned a bland look his way, which caused Ranma's expression to grow slack as he came to a rather disturbing conclusion, "You're kidding me…you didn't…?"

"What do you want me to say, Ranchan?" Ukyo replied, "I didn't plan it, I didn't intend it…it just…happened…"

"You don't have to explain yourself to me, Girl," Genma sipped from his own mug and set it back down on the table, "That's about how I wound up fathering Ryoga. Good thing Nodoka finds such things a sign of manly behavior…"

"Oh thanks," Ukyo rolled her eyes, "That makes me feel so much better, Old Man."

"I don't get it," Ranma shook his head as if to clear it, "How can you accidentally make love to Akane? I mean…not that I'm trying to lecture you or nothin' like that, but…"

"I can't really explain it myself," Ukyo replied, "It's almost like there's this…force at work trying to pair me and Akane up together. I mean…I like Akane well enough, but if Mako-chan ever finds out…"

"You didn't tell her?" Ranma stared in disbelief.

"I haven't found the right time to bring it up," Ukyo's shoulders slumped as she stared resignedly at the bar before them, "I'd like to at least get my affairs in order first. Do you think electrocution is a more painful way to die than getting whacked with a spatula?"

"I'd count on it," Genma replied, "Been there and done that."

"I think I'll have that other soda now," Ranma held out his glass and the bartender took it to refill it with Cola.

"For what it's worth," said Tenchi from where he was nursing his own Ginger Ale, "I understand exactly where you're coming from. I thought it was bad enough when the girls were always fighting each other over me, but since my aunt came to visit with us and put it in their heads that I could marry more than one of them…" he rolled his eyes as if beseeching the heavens.

"Now Tenchi," his grandfather replied, sipping from his glass of Seven Up, "You know you'd rather the girls were doing that than starting fights and blowing up real estate. What are you complaining about? Are you feeling like you're going to become obsolete or something?"

"That's pretty much what I'm feeling like right now," said the dark haired man further down the bar, "I come back from America on vacation to find my fiancée in the arms of another woman…and her best friend no less, a girl I used to date. How do you think that makes me feel?"

"Like Pop said," Ranma shrugged, "Been there and done that."

"Heh," said the pink haired girl at the far end of the bar, "If you call that a problem you haven't really seen anything just yet."

"And who are you, lady?" Ranma asked this unfamiliar face that had just intruded into a private conversation.

"Tenjou Utena," the pink haired girl replied, "I go to Otori Academy, but I'm here on this end of town for a fencing match. Other than that…I'm nobody special."

"Sounds like you've got a story of your own to tell," Ukyo noted with a sidelong glance, having almost mistaken the girl for an Amazon of her recent acquaintance.

"Ah…maybe," the pink haired Utena said evasively, "But…well…never mind, you'd never believe it."

"Try us," Tenchi sniffed.

"You might be surprised," added Chiba Mamoru.

Genma smirked as he exchanged knowing glances with his grandfather-in-law, silently commiserating on the innocence of youth that took for granted that they knew anything on the subject of women, at which point they were about to toast one another with a shot of Root Beer when a diminutive figure came hopping into the bar, caught sight of them and immediately made a B-line for their party.

"There you clowns are," he said gruffly, "What's the idea of ducking into a Malt Shop when we're supposed to be out on the town celebrating Ranma's Bachelor Party? There's wine, women and song to be celebrated, and you want to drown your miseries with Ice Cream and Soda?"

"Hey, you drink what you want, I'll drink what I like," Ranma said, "And besides which, I'm buying."

"That's just like a Saotome," Happosai said with a snort, "Drink away your life's inheritance when you ought to be out partying and celebrating your last few nights as of bachelorhood. Don't you know in two days you're gonna be wearing the old Ball and Chain around both ankles?"

"Lay off, Gramps," Ranma snorted, "It ain't gonna be that bad havin' Nabiki an' Shampoo for my wives, and it ain't like we're not already committed in all the ways that are supposed to matter."

"Sure, you say that now, Boy," Genma snorted, "But when you become the man about the Tendo House you'll start to sing a different tune, and the moment they try domesticating you and make you share the housework you'll be crawling on your hands and knees begging to go out on training missions."

"I ain't like you, Old Man," Ranma glowered, "Besides, who said anything about giving up on training? Nabiki an' Shampoo have to train too, in case you've forgotten."

"That isn't training, Boy," Genma shot back, "That's going out on picnic forays with the wife and kids, and mind you, there will be children tagging along and holding you back, that much I can promise."

Ukyo shook her head and said, "The more I listen to him talk, the more I wonder how you could still turn out to be such a great guy, Ranchan."

"I ask myself that all the time," mused Tenchi with a slight smirk, "I really don't know how you do it, Cousin."

"Me neither," Ranma said in total frank self-appraisal.

"Okay, enough lollygaging about," Happosai glanced around the bar and said, "Where's Ryoga?"

"He went looking for the privy about an hour ago," Ukyo replied.

"Guess that means we won't see him until sometime next month," sniffed Ranma, "Well, guess that means you get to be the ring bearer, eh, Ucchan?"

"Just as long as you don't call me the 'Best Man', Ranchan,'" Ukyo clinked glasses with his and silently toasted the vagaries of romance.

"Can't really have a party without the whole family being present," Happosai remarked, "Wait here and I'll see where that lost pup got off to."

As Happosai bounded away, Mamoru gazed into his glass and said, "I guess I might as well tag along with the rest of you a while longer, if you don't mind having me about."

"Nah," Ranma said, "Be good to have more time getting' to know the guy Usagi wants to marry. She really does like you, y'know…just because she'n Rei got a thing going on between 'em's no reason for you to feel left out."

"Maybe," Mamoru sighed, "I suppose I should count myself lucky to get such a great Two-For-One offer, but I just wish they weren't offering it up to me like it was an ultimatum."

"Could be worse," Utena mused, "Trust me on that."

"Y'know," Ranma sulked, "I dunno what we got to celebrate an' all. Mister Tendo's in danger of losing the dojo and it's all my fault, all because of that Gambler Fink showing his face back around Nerima."

"Well, you shouldn't have bet the dojo, just like I shouldn't have bet my Dad's yatai," Ukyo reasoned, "Of course we were both six at the time, and he won those markers by cheating…"

"Only we can't prove it, so we gotta win it back in a card game," Ranma glared down at the bar and growled, "Stupid Nabiki…don't she know I gotta be the one to do this? How'm I supposed to feel right about her being the one to face that creep in a card game?"

"Well, not to belabor the point, Ranchan," Ukyo noted, "But you are just about the worst gambler I've ever met. You've got as much of a poker face as Akane has culinary talent."

"I could have told you that," Tenchi snorted, "Back when he came to visit with us, Ranma couldn't even play fish without giving away what his cards were."

"Now Boy," Genma chided, "You know there's no shame in admitting to having a weakness. A True Martial Artist knows where his strengths lie and where he lacks potential, and Nabiki could face down the best dealers in Shanghai without losing out, like to those pedophiles that I had to rescue you back from later."

"You mean you lost me out to those Ecchi creeps," Ranma glowered, turning a pleading look towards Ukyo, "Can't I beat him up just a little? It'd be sooo therapeutic."

"You did promise to try and keep a low profile tonight, Ranchan," Ukyo cautioned, even as Tenchi and Mamoru both mouthed the word, "pedophiles" with questioning expressions.

"Seems to me I can recall a time when you were something of a gambler, Genma my boy," Yosho noted with a sly expression, "Not a very good one, mind you, but there was that game of strip poker you wound up playing with your girlfriends, and I seem to recall Nodoka was doing her level best to lose as many rounds as she could, but you kept trying to cheat and slip fresh cards into her hand to help her out."

"When was this?" Mamoru asked with raised eyebrows.

"Ah…before any of you were born," Genma said evasively, "Think nothing about it…"

"Found him," Happosai came back into the bar in his cursed form, all but dragging a reluctant Lost Boy behind him, "Now we can get this party back on track like I'd originally intended."

"Where are you taking us, Master?" Genma asked, half-relieved at the sudden distraction.

"Someplace that's perfect for Ranma's last few nights as a free man," Happosai responded, "It's even got the perfect title, the 'Sexy Girl Tea Shop.' You can't miss with a title like that…"

Ukyo groaned, "Don't tell me you're dragging us to a massage parlor?"

"Oh man," Ranma winced, "If Nabiki and Shampoo ever hear about that…"

"They'd probably be mad at you for not taking them along," Tenchi commiserated.

"Now, now, you can all thank me for it later," Happosai said with a benevolent wave of a slender hand, "And no slacking off either. Right this way, Gentlemen, and last one left behind is a celibate old monk."

"I think I'm insulted by that," Mamoru sniffed, "You're describing my granddad."

"Now, now, don't get left behind," Happosai smirked as he spotted the pink haired girl and said, "Why don't you come along too? We could use another girl in this party to help liven things up."

"Who, me?" Utena blinked at the handsome youth, who oddly enough reminded her of the old man who had just been there, "Ah…no thanks, I'm not looking to get into any more trouble…"

"Nonsense," Happosai insisted, "Since you're also a cross dresser like young Squire Kuonji here, this group's the perfect company for a cutie like you to tag along with. Or is it possible that you've got other plans for tonight, something more intriguing and exciting than visiting one of the oldest Tea Shop establishments in the Furinkan district?"

"Ah…well…" Utena sighed and took a sip from her Sarsaparilla, then set it down as she added, "Might as well…I've been trying to cut back on these things, they're too addictive."

"I don't know about this," Ryoga said in obvious reluctance, "I don't think Mina-chan would want me going to a place like…"

"Ah, put a sock on it, Bro," Ranma clapped Ryoga on the arm, "You're still in training to face off against that Picket-face boy again, right? Well, a Tea shop ought to have food you can practice pigging out with, so consider it a favor to me, okay?"

"Since when have I started owing you favors?" Ryoga replied, but nonetheless agreed to join the others in their nocturnal forays…

Naomi was deeply disturbed and didn't mind admitting so in the privacy of her own heart.

After a furious week during which she had boned up on Japanese law regarding Real Estate ownership and had expanded her company's assets by purchasing up land at depressed market value (an astonishing thing in itself given what a premium land was worth in Japan, which had half the population of the United States living on a gross cumulative landmass roughly approximating the state of California) to where she now owned most of what her company had its eye upon for developing, she was close-tangibly close-to fulfilling the Chairman's stated goals through numerous trusts, blind trusts and third-party corporations. She had-if anything-exceeded the projected time in which she had set for herself to reach her targeted deadline for these acquisitions, and now only a handful of lots had yet to be purchased. The Shark was sensing blood in the water and the triumph at hand that would secure her reputation in the business world as a lady who got results for the asking.

It was those few remaining lots that were now giving her some unexpected troubles.

That one of these few remaining "hot spots" should turn out to be the Tendo dojo itself was something of a surprise in itself given the overall financial structure of their family assets, which had barely managed to stay out of the red during the better part of a decade when the nominal head of the family had not been bringing home the bacon. Tendo Soun seemed to have retreated into a ten-year emotional shell after the death of his first wife, and the medical costs accumulated during his wife's year of declining health had bankrupted their modest holdings and brought their family dangerously close to an eviction. Yet somehow the family had stabilized the picture and arranged for structured payments on their mortgage that eventually cleared out their debts and saved the lease upon their property, so much so that they still had enough at the end of each month to put food down on the table. More astonishing than this was the discovery of who had saved the Tendo family from financial ruin…an eight year old child who-by all accounts-had proven surprisingly adept at coming up with raw capital from a number of (admittedly) questionable sources.

Tendo Nabiki, middle daughter of Soun, and a somewhat gifted young entrepreneur whom Naomi now considered worth a much closer study than any other member of the household.

Of course it was not just to this child's budding financial skills that their success had been achieved. The Tsukino family had pitched in its own resources when the clan patriarch had learned of their financial troubles. Naomi had been very much surprised upon discovering the complex weave of three other distinctive families that figured into the clan structure for this branch of the family of Tendo, the names Masaki and Saotome also coming together to form the other half of an impending union between the two branches of the Musubetsu Kakuto Ryu. Tsukino Nauru had been the silent family beneficiary who had bailed out the Tendo bacon at a critical juncture, thus staving off a potential confiscation of land when another real estate company had expressed an interest in the family's financial situation. Nauru was also key to the engagement itself and had betrothed to young Saotome Ranma a considerable inheritance that was due to fall upon the lad during his eighteenth birthday, a little more than a year from the present.

Naomi at long last understood something of why Tendo Soun was so insistent that one of his daughters should marry this Saotome boy, who otherwise did not seem a very good prospect, having only trained in the martial arts his whole life and having (according to reputation) few other marketable skills beyond those of a fighter. When Saotome came into the money promised to him it would secure their family's fortunes well into the next generation.

So it came as something of a surprise when she later discovered that there was someone else who had a claim upon the Tendo family dojo, which was the stated dowry for this Nabiki to marry Ranma. As a young boy the lad had made a foolish bargain with a carnival card shark who styled himself as "The Gambler King," to whom the boy had written a promissory note pledging the dojo itself as a marker in a card bet. The boy had lost but subsequently discovered that he had been cheated, at which point he and some other young boy had exacted revenge against the Gambler King by tying him up and tossing him into a river.

Of course the cheating aspect could not be proven after all of these years, and the king had retained possession of the marker, which he steadfastly claimed to have won fairly and squarely. Said marker was little more than a piece of paper on which childish scrawling and a hand-print had pledged the dojo to the possessor, but that had enough weight to count as a legal document, and the king had been most easily persuaded to part with said document at an astonishingly low price of less than five thousand yen. It was an interesting bargaining chip to use, and one Naomi intended to exploit in order to exact her token revenge upon those who had dared to make her look foolish.

What exactly she was to do with the property if she did, indeed, retain possession of it even she was not entirely certain. She had no real intention of evicting the family, but shaking them out of their complacency was certainly near the top of her agenda. She had yet to decide upon a development project there and was currently only concerned with property acquisition in order to clear the way for such a possible decision.

Of course the whole thing hinged on whether or not young Saotome was indeed entitled to stake his claim upon the dojo in the first place, seeing as said claim was contingent upon his marrying a Tendo and inheriting it as her dowry in the first place. To put it mildly, Tendo Soun had not been too kindly disposed towards his future son-in-law on the discovery of this arrangement, and there were some legal niceties to be considered over whether the document itself was legitimate or no. The whole thing could easily be tied up in court for years without a clear resolution.

That was why, once Ranma and Nabiki had returned to the Nerima scene and discovered all that had happened during their weeklong absence, and Nabiki had immediately challenged the claims of said document, that Naomi had agreed to allow the matter to be settled with a card game, especially in light of the fact that Soun had bungled matters most unwisely by challenging the King himself and losing nearly all the rest of his property. His newly engaged fiancée had stepped in to reverse this trend in their declining fortunes, but even she had not proven adept enough to defeat the King in the final round. Young Ranma had offered to take up the banner but was voted down by his own fiancée, who insisted that it was her battle to be waged, her dowry that she had to win back, an insistence that had not gone down all that well with her prideful future husband.

Naomi's first impression of this Tendo Nabiki was that of a young, highly intelligent and quite attractive girl whose instincts for business were as sharp as Naomi's own. Indeed, it was almost like meeting a younger version of herself, right down to their matching haircuts as Nabiki also wore her hair trimmed short like a helmet. She had developed an instant liking for this saucy, sassy, calculating and inquisitive young lady who seemed to miss very little that went on around her and whose eyes reminded one of a shifty ferret. A girl like that was worth keeping an eye on for a possible career, once she had some business academia in her credentials. Naomi very much expected this one's portfolio would one day rival her own impressive list of achievements, and it was better to recruit raw talent such as this at a young age before somebody else discovered the child's potential.

What disturbed Naomi was that someone in her company had leaked the word that the Tendo property was now under new ownership and had served a notice to that end to the household without Naomi's direct authorization.

She was wondering now who would have done such a thing but dismissed the Chairman immediately from a likely list of potential suspects. This seemed to have originated from a lower department and no one would claim credit (or blame) for the unauthorized memo. It had served to put the Tendo family on its guard prematurely and even threatened to bollix up the whole deal…after all, the simplest solution for the Tendos would be to break off the impending marriage. If Ranma did not inherit the property then the document itself was not worth the price of the ink spilled on the paper.

She next considered Kuno Tatewaki, the young and rising star of Kuno Industries, who had impressed Naomi very much upon their first meeting. She had found him charming, highly intelligent and with a good head for business on his shoulders, surprisingly mature for a boy who had just turned eighteen and was showing so much promise. Tatewaki had been a gracious host during their negotiations and had shown remarkable enthusiasm for the Shohan project when Naomi had detailed her company's proposal. Kuno had then revealed the extent to which his own company had already invested in the Bio-Technologies aspect of the overall program, and Naomi had been enormously pleased to close the meeting with the thought that her report to the Chairman would be most glowing in her appraisal. It was beginning to look as if her project would finally get off the ground (both literally and in a physical aspect) and might even come on time and under budget, which would certainly secure her own future as a rising Corporate VP-slash-Division President (as hinted by the Chairman during their most recent on-line conversation).

It has surprised her that Kuno Tatewaki voiced an interest in the welfare of the Tendo estates, but then again his sister was currently staying there as a guest under some private arrangement for which Naomi had not heard any details. She was interested in learning that the younger Kuno sibling had shown a talent in Botany and Pharmacology, marking her as someone else whose career was worth keeping an eye on in the future. That the Kunos were family friends of the Tendos was something rather remarkable in itself…but then again, Naomi was beginning to suspect that much of the activity in Nerima in one way or another revolved around that notorious dojo.

Which did greatly concern her on another level…that of the weirdness factor that she was more and more discovering was a living, breathing, vital part of this most peculiar district. The reason why so many spots of land had been easy to acquire was simply that most land owners had an unspoken fear of impending disaster that could strike without warning and reduce thriving companies to vacant lots with next to no warning whatsoever. It was something on the level of an urban legend that fights that broke out between rival martial artists would invariably lead to disaster, which made insurance rates frightfully high and kept the repair contractor business the only real industry that was expanding its assets. (Naomi had already had one encounter with the chief repairman of the region, and just the memory of that chance meeting still could make her heart do fluttering motions, making her wonder if she should pay his boss a friendly visit).

What was there about Nerima that seemed to attract all of the loonies? If even half the stories she had heard were true (and admittedly the memory of a blimp carrying a Chinese Junk in the air clashed rather noticeably with a runaway bull elephant that had stomped the Tendo dojo to so much kindling, leading her to suspect that truth itself was highly subjective in this region) then she might have to reconsider all thoughts of establishing a branch office in the Furinkan financial district. If there really was some "weirdness" factor involved here, then she would have to explore alternative sites in other regions, such as-say-the Tomobiki district. She had heard that the young head of Shingo Industries had assets that vastly exceeded even those of the Kunos.

As her mind wandered over all of these aspects, her chauffeur announced that they had arrived at the latest destination that she had requested. Deciding that it was time to pull her head back out of the clouds, Naomi thanked her driver and got out of the limousine, studying the address given for one of the few properties not yet in her company's possession, which appeared to be an art studio of some type that was sporting a banner proclaiming that they would shortly be opening for business.

"Hmm," Naomi mused aloud as she knocked on the door and waited to see if anyone would answer. The gallery owner was probably one of those Art Nuveu types who had eccentricity down to an art form, and she steeled herself for having to deal with some lengthy lecture on the topic of modern aesthetics.

To her surprise the doors slid open on their hinges as though operating electronically, and the studio itself beckoned before her like the cave to some great beast out of legend. It did not help at all when she heard the pleasantly charmed voice call out to her, "Welcome to my home…enter freely and of your own will, go swiftly and leave some of the happiness that you bring here."

"Okay," Naomi murmured softly to herself, disregarding the Bram Stoker references that popped a little too readily into her mind. It was just a business venture, nothing to be alarmed about, and so the owner liked to create a Neo-Gothic atmosphere that hinted a little too much of the set of a horror movie. Nothing to get rattled about, all perfectly harmless, and never mind that her thoughts were traveling back to a time when she had been a wee lass of only nine wandering lost in a Haunted House type setting during one Halloween carnival type setting that had seemed a lot more scary than to which the adult version of her mind would care to admit.

Stepping in past the threshold she began upon a journey the likes of which she could never have imagined, even after listening to Kento's bedtime stories relating the exotic strangeness that was a Japan of old and not of the modern era…and into the lair of a most unusual type of beast who would change the course of her life forever…

Shampoo's Diary Resumes:

I have long known that my husband is a warrior of great courage and ability who not only has mastered the fighting arts but has come to embody the art itself to a degree that even impresses Great Grandmother on occasions. Given that, I am forced to reluctantly admit that there were some arenas to which even Ranma is a stranger, and in the art of gambling with cards the both of us my acknowledge our wife is the superior combatant.

I know of only a few such games that I have ever played, and mostly those were taught to me by my father. Great Grandmother has always discouraged an interest in gambling, calling it an arena for fools who like losing their possessions. I must observe that this wisdom holds true for Amazons and Japanese alike as neither my Father-in-law nor Lore Master Silk proved as adept at card playing as the rogue known as the Gambler King, he who had dared to cheat my husband of his rightful title as heir to the family dojo.

No one has ever accused my husband of having-as Nabiki put it-a face like a poker (why on earth that should be accounted as a bad thing is something I am completely at a loss to explain). Nor can he conceal his emotions very well (a fact with which I am well and happily acquainted), so when he plays at cards he seems unable to hide either his enthusiasm or his disappointment. From that it is easy to discern if the cards he holds are favorable or not, which is the equivalent of giving away tactical secrets to the enemy. Small wonder that Nabiki insisted that we both sit on the sidelines while she takes on the Gambler King in a no-holds-barred competition to regain title to the dojo.

Watching her practice against Silk-the only other acknowledged Master of this form of combat among us-showed me why my wife is a formidable card player. Silk could shuffle the cards in a variety of ways dazzled the eye and distracted one's attention from their actual placement, almost making the deck appear to be a thing alive that snaked out from one hand to the other, and still Nabiki had no trouble keeping track of the cards when they were dealt out between them. It was an amazing sight, really, one Lore Master pitting her skills against another, and yet I felt as if both opponents rather enjoyed the encounter, and in a very real sense it was helping to bridge some of the distance between them that had arisen because of Silk's recent marriage to my wife's father.

Now that I think on it, that means that Silk is now my mother-in-law, which makes Kachu my cousin by adoption. So many surprising implications to work through here…but then I should have anticipated this development seeing as I have been marking the deepening ties between Silk and Tendo Soun. It also means that Silk is now a Tendo by marriage, which also means that I am now marriage bound to Doctor Tofu and…Aiyaa! So many thoughts that I must come to terms with! How strange and wonderful my life is now that our families have grown so much closer together!

Of course I will admit to surprise on learning that my father-in-law actually had gathered the nerve to make his challenge gesture in the first place…such a change in him from my first impressions that he was an unusually emotional man without the temperament to make a proper warrior. Given my mother's description of his performance in the marriage battle, I must now happily revise my opinion of my wife's father for the decidedly better.

Now if only my other father-in-law could demonstrate as much personal growth in his own behavior…but then I suppose one should not expect the impossible before it has actually happened. It would actually disturb me more than I dare admit at the thought that he might gain sufficient backbone to issue a similar challenge to my mother…and I have no doubt at all that he could defeat her were he to go all out. If mother chose to take Genma on as a second husband…Aiyaa! That would make him my second father! Ranma would then become my brother by adoption and…I think I would rather not go there. Even I must sometimes admit that there are limits to which an Amazon might venture.

I think I would even prefer having Atsuko for my second Mother-in-law on my husband's side of the family. She at least is a warrior worthy of the name Amazon, even as her son would make some other warrior a fine husband. Their ties to the bloodline of the Oni…well…no one I know is all that perfect.

I should like to mention, before getting back to my favorite subject of my wife, that I continue to be baffled and amused by the antics of Kuonji, who seems to have a habit of taking one step backwards for every two feet she places forward. Just as she and Lightning Girl seem ready to bond in a Warrior Marriage, she lets herself become distracted by my clueless student, Akane, whose persistence even I find rather astonishing. Akane seems to have actually bedded Ukyo sometime during our voyage on the Sky Ship, a fact that Makoto does not apparently yet know about, which even I can tell is going to lead to some explosive (and no doubt painful) difficulties for Kuonji.

I wonder if this might have something to do with my wife's mother, whose spirit I have seen twice now in dreams in the company of a celestial who bears her likeness. Nabiki does not say much about the subject of her mother, but her Lore Master training has obviously advanced to the point where she can speak with her departed ancestors, and it is well known among the Amazons that a restless ancestor can be the cause of much strange fortune for the living. If Akane's late mother has taken an interest in her daughter's romantic or marital status it would go a long ways to explaining some of the very odd things that I have been taking notice of lately.

Ah well…back to the subject of my wife and her skill as a Gambler, which-as I have already said-quite impressed me when she defeated Silk nine hands out of ten. The Shogi-stones that they had been using for markers were almost all on Nabiki's side of the table, and Silk conceded the last round, pushing all that was left into the possessions of Nabiki.

"Very well played," Silk complimented my wife, "I tried a new variation on that last round and yet you still managed to beat me."

"Nothing to it…Mom," Nabiki arched the last word, but she said it with a smile that barely hinted at any resentment, "I'm not such a novice that you could pull something like that without me catching you in the act. You're not a bad player, but I can still read your every move before you make it."

"Oh really now?" I saw Silk's smile take on a calculating aspect, "Then perhaps you might care to try me for another round? I think this time you'll find a different outcome."

Nabiki pushed the white Shogi stones over to Silk and said, "Your deal, but I don't see what makes you think you'll do better this time."

"Watch and learn, Apprentice," Silk's smile took on a slightly predatory aspect, and then her hands went into motion, almost becoming semi-translucent as I saw them seemingly divide into four sets, and before our astonished eyes she suddenly appeared to be sporting eight arms, each holding an identical deck as her hands began to rapidly shuffle the cards one from the other.

Nabiki's eyes widened noticeably and she said in mild wonder, "Neat trick…"

"It's not just any ordinary trick, Nabiki-dear," Silk noted slyly, and then the cards began to fly across the table, almost magically landing in a neatly folded pile in front of Nabiki.

My wife "cut the cards" (a very odd term that does not involve actual cutting) and folded the deck in half (not actual folding, another confusing term, I will admit) then allowed Silk to finish dealing them out, after which they examined their hands (yes, I know, it is the cards they examine, not their hands, don't ask me to explain this), and after exchanging a few old cards for new ones they each made their bets and began the curiously intense phase known as "Bluffing your Opponent."

When the cards were laid down, however, it was Nabiki's turn to be astonished, for Silk held all four aces while Nabiki held three Kings, a Jack and another Ace…and even I know you can't have five aces in a normal card deck!

"Whoah," said Hibiki Kennou, who had largely been quiet and non-committal during these contests.

"You cheated?" Nabiki blurted out.

"Are you surprised?" Silk replied, "Don't be. The Gambler King cheated me during the last match, and I never even saw it coming."

"I never saw this coming," Nabiki's eyes narrowed, "You're telling me I should be on my guard against his pulling a fast one?"

"I'm saying that you should not anticipate honorable behavior from a man who would cheat children," Silk replied as she gathered up the cards and folded them again, then made them vanish from one hand, only to reappear within the other, "Things are not always as we perceive them, and it will be up to you to be on your guard should he try anything underhanded."

"Of course you only figured that out AFTER you lost the property in that last gamble," my mother complained before turning to give Ukyo's aunt a friendly nod, "And thanks for putting them up for the night. I know it's a little crowded in this restaurant…"

"Oh, I'm sure Ukyo doesn't mind the company," Yumi said with a dismissive wave of one hand, "Besides, this is a matter of honor, and that Gambler King creep cheated my niece very bit as much as he did your son-in-law. He has to be made to pay for it…in blood, if necessary."

"Let's hope it doesn't actually come to that," my father-in-law remarked, "Just remember, Nabiki, we're all counting on you to win back the dojo."

"Like I need more pressure, Daddy?" Nabiki stretched and leaned back from where she was sitting, "I'm a little more worried about this lady you say is out to take our house in a redevelopment project…and you think Tatewaki's involved in this?"

"Almost certainly," Yumi replied, "He and that Nakamura woman are in cahoots, I can almost taste it, like a moldy okonomiyaki."

"My brother…conspiring against the Tendos," Kodachi stared down in deep shame at the floor, even as Kasumi put her arm around her shoulders, "The dishonor of it all…how Tachi has debased the already tarnished name of Kuno…"

"Much as I hate to say it," my wife replied, "You're not to blame for your brother's madness…at least this time around. And here I was hoping Kuno-san was at least getting his act together and learning to fly right for a change…"

"Now, Nabiki-dear," Nodoka chided, "That's no way for you to look at matters. I'm sure you'll do splendidly in tomorrow's match against the Gambler King. What we need here is for everyone to cheer up and get back into good spirits, so I propose we take a page from the men and given Nabiki-chan here the Bridal Shower that she and Shampoo have never had time for."

"Excuse me?" my wife blurted in an eerie echo of my own thoughts, "A Bridal Shower? You've got to be kidding me…"

"Kinda late in the show considering that the wedding's in two days," Atsuko remarked, "But y'know, that ain't half bad as ideas go. Maybe we oughta have a Bachelorette party to celebrate the blushing brides-to-be…and maybe you'd like a piece of that action while you're at it, Silk baby."

"Who…me?" Silk blinked her eyes then smiled, "What a wonderful suggestion! Soun and I are planning to formalize our marriage with a proper Japanese ceremony by the end of the week, but I don't see why we can't have a little fun before that happens. I can still remember the festival we had when you and your husband got hitched, Comb."

"Maybe you can remember it," Mother said with a rueful smirk, "But all I remember is three days into our honeymoon, which must mean that Grandmother used one of her old family recipes when brewing the punch. I'm sure if I'd had a full batch the rest of the week would have been a blank…" she shook her head as if relishing the memories she claimed not to remember.

I fear that I must remark that on occasions I have heard people-even my wife and husband-voice the opinion that I am somewhat easy going and relaxed when it comes to outward displays of emotion and affection, but there are times when I must confess that even I find the antics of my elders bewildering and intimidating. Perhaps I have been too long in Japan and am starting to develop odd notions concerning this thing called modesty that so many are obsessed with, but I have arrived at the awkward conclusion that there are some aspects to my parent's family life to which I am better off not being too well acquainted.

That being said, the idea of a party celebrating Nabiki's impending marriage (Official, that is) to our husband had an appeal that I shared with the rest of our party, so it was decided that we would go out on the town later that evening and revel in our femininity as a night of liberation prior to total commitment to Ranma. It is a strange custom I will admit, but less strange than many others that I have learned in my adopted country, so I gladly accompanied Nabiki and our elders taking in the night life, joined by Akane, Kennou and the demon-hound, Shirokuro (who chose to done a human aspect for the occasion).

I must confess that a night of song and dance is a fine way to prepare one's self for the journey into marriage. We stopped off at a karaoke bar and regaled each other with song, which delighted me in no end as it gave me the chance to show off my singing voice to my wife, who seemed appropriately enchanted, even if the song I saw was in my native language. To my delight I found her singing voice was both strong and melodious, prompting us to sing a duet together, even granted that I had to mimic most of the words as I was not so familiar with the ballad. Of greater surprise was the discovery that both Akane and Kennou can sing with equal dexterity, and then Shirokuro amazed us with a haunting romantic ballad that made one almost tearful. Silk and Mother, of course, sang a duet together that displayed an amazing harmony, though the words of the song they chose were in English, a language in which I am almost totally ignorant. Atsuko warbled a bit without going too far off key, but Yumi declined when the microphone was offered to her, claiming her vocal talents did not bend in that direction. My father-in-law similarly declined the first offer made to him to sing when his turn came, but Silk prevailed on him and soon got him to sing with a surprisingly strong and manly tone that was directed towards her. I could tell that she was much impressed by his efforts, just as we were that the two of them were much in love like a properly married couple should be.

Next we sought out a place where they had loud music and dancing, and I got to enjoy myself more thoroughly taking Nabiki out onto the floor and showing off some native Amazon dances that were designed to serve as a kind of foreplay following Victory in battle. Silk and Soun were more genteel in the way they chose to dance, but this left a more awkward situation in pairing up the rest of our party as there was not much love to be found among Atsuko, Yumi, Akane, Kennou and my mother. They did as best as they could manage, but I was rather surprised when I saw Akane take Kennou to the floor in a swoon, only to surrender the Hibiki girl to Shirokuro, who chose to cut in mid-way through their dancing. I think the yellow haired younger sister to Atsuko was rather amazed that the Demon Hound could dance so well, and for once there was no real sense of antagonism between them.

Mother danced briefly with Atsuko, but I could tell neither of them was entirely into the motions, only then Nodoka cut in and chose to dance with mother, then with Atsuko, and both times I saw the expressions on their faces convey surprise and amazement that Ranma's mother was such a very good dancer. Yumi declined at first until Nodoka insisted, but then Ranma's mother contrived to steer their dance over to where Silk and Soun were dancing, and to our near-universal amazement she offered to switch partners so that she wound up dancing with Silk while Soun danced with Yumi. The surprising thing was that both parties seemed to enjoy that dance immensely, leaving me to exchange puzzled glances with my wife before we decided to follow their example and switch partners with Akane, Kodachi, Kasumi and (eventually) Kennou and Shirokuro.

Dancing and a meal fulfilled two of the requirements of a warrior's spirit, but then Nodoka surprised us yet again by insisting on taking us to an establishment that you had to pay up front before they would even permit you to enter. Inside was a somewhat noisier environment, but relaxed from what I could tell of it, and it had an interesting décor in that men with handsome physiques were dancing on a stage while removing articles of clothing, much to the enthusiastic approval of the women who were present. It began to feel a little more like home when drinks were served and we could make a proper study of these males, who were certainly very nice to look upon, even if they were a bit overdeveloped.

To say that I was puzzled at the way some of our companions behaved would be an understatement, because you would think they had never need an unclothed man before to hear them carry on as they stuffed yen into their jock-straps. A few of these men were quite handsome with well defined physiques that were appealing to gaze upon, but none of them impressed me as much as Ranma. I guess a warrior's tastes do alter with time, and married life has left me a bit jaded on certain matters (not that I don't sometimes take the time to appreciate a good-looking male of course). On the other hand perhaps too much married life does something to the brain, or so I must reluctantly conclude after watching my mother and Atsuko carry on as if they were as man-crazed as my younger sisters. Yumi evidenced no shame at all as she gave whistles, hoots and compliments to the men who danced near to our table. About the only one in our group who did not seem to be enjoying himself was Soun himself…or perhaps Akane, who seemed more morose than excited, and more than a little embarrassed.

Nodoka finally acknowledged that certain members of our party were not enjoying themselves as much as were the others, so she guided our party from the room and through a door leading to a nearly identical room adjoining the first one, only here it was women who were dancing on tables without the impediment of too much clothing. Here Akane actually seemed to relax a bit while her father covered his eyes until Silk convinced him that it was all right that he could ogle. The rest of us adjusted similarly to this change of atmosphere as the party relaxed noticeably, soothed by the more subdued atmosphere of men who were content to watch while drinking in relative silence.

On reflection I must say that it is a bit of a revelation to discover that Japanese women…so quiet, prim and proper on the surface…can become so wanton and raunchy when given a permissive environment in which to release their emotions. Japanese men, by contrast, are more subdued when they are entertained by attractive women, as though they let down a different kind of mask that hides their real selves from the public. Among Amazons it can be a similar experience as warriors revel in their emotions while men are more quietly domestic. I do not know why this is so but it appears to be a valid observation, and one more pronounced in Japan than it is in China.

I remember taking my wife by the hand and squeezing it as we both eyed the same near-naked beauty who danced wantonly near to our table. Kasumi and Kodachi were similarly enraptured by a girl who appeared to be openly flirting with them as if sensing that they are a couple, while I suspect that more than a few in the rest of our party were likewise entertained, and not just at appreciating the lithe build and physical qualities of the women who were on stage, very few of whom manifested true Warrior aspects. I think it was Akane who demonstrated the most fascination with what she saw, as if her recent discovery of her true sexual nature had released her from the shackles that had so long been imposed upon her appreciation of other women.

Of course the unexpected happened while we were just settling in to enjoy the show, but how were any of us to expect that we would be sharing the same club into which Ranma and the others were shortly to take refuge…?

"Oh man!" Ranma shuddered at the memory of their recent escape from the ruins of what had moments before been a teahouse, "Next time I let the Old Coot drag me into a place like that, just shoot me!"

"I'll shoot you if you'll do the same for me, Ranchan," Ukyo replied with an equal sense of revulsion, "That was one of the scariest experiences of my life, and next to those three, I'd prefer seeing another Velociraptor.

"Nice going, Gramps," Ryoga growled, "That was a great way to bring the house down…on our heads!"

"Oh, pipe down, you three," Happosai groused, "Anyone can make an honest mistake! And how was I to know a place that calls itself 'Sexy Girl' wouldn't have any sexy women?"

"Truth in Advertisement," Yoshi sighed, "It is a rate commodity in this day and age…"

"Frankly," revealed a sign currently held by a giant panda, "I always thought Truth was highly overrated…"

"We know," Tenchi growled, "But did you have to wind up blowing up the place when we made our exit?"

"I just hope Usagi and Rei never hear about this," Mamoru visibly sweated, "I'll never be able to live this down…"

"So," Utena said sarcastically, "What next to do we do for an encore?"

"Let's duck in here until the coast is clear," Happosai recommended, pointing at a back door at one end of the alley.

"Might as well," Genma remarked, "Less chance of those ladies catching up to us if we take cover."

"Those were ladies?" Ranma blurted, exchanging puzzled looks with Ukyo.

"Look, you wanna remain out here where they can catch us?" Tenchi argued, "Trust me, I've got some experience when it comes to being chased by women."

"That almost makes sense," Mamoru noted, "Why does it make me worry?"

"Constant practice?" Utena asked, but nonetheless followed the others as Happosai picked the lock by jiggling the handle to the door, then led the way into the darkened environs.

As the party of seven vanished from the alley, however, a pair of eyes gazing from beneath a hood narrowed slightly and a muffled voice murmured softly, "Nice try, but you won't escape from me that easy…"

"Oh me oh my," Cologne murmured to herself as she at long last arrived at the Nekohanten restaurant, the first time that she had seen her business establishment in close to the two full weeks since she had decided to spend some time with her father and nephew, "What a month this has been. Well, home sweet home at last, time to return to the humdrum and the madness…"

Ordinarily she would have chided herself for speaking her thoughts out loud where others could hear them, but in light of all she had been through recently, she was not really all that inclined to fall back upon her regular secretive habits.

The news that Shampoo and the others were back from Nekonron was certainly heartening, although Cologne had not even been aware that they were gone in the first place! Trust Lotion to keep her in the dark about such a thing as Shampoo's wife being kidnapped by the Prince of the Seven Lucky Gods Martial Arts school, as if Cologne only needed to be informed of such things on a need-to-know basis!

Only slightly less alarming was the news about the potential loss of the Tendo dojo, but that was a minor thing in Cologne's eyes, surely nothing beyond the means of her son and daughter-in-law's abilities to win it back in a card match (well, in that she had to concede it was more Nabiki whom she was counting on than her blunt-speaking husband). Of considerably greater concern was that there were people at large who were angling to gain possession of large tracks of real estate, the dungeon chief among them, and Comb had informed her that someone had been making inquiries about the restaurant. With Cologne gone, however, they had been able to tell the concerned parties that there was no one in residence authorized to make any transactions, a neat way of passing the buck back to Cologne when she came back to Nerima, all innocent and doe-eyed with no more thought than attending the marriage of Ranma to Nabiki.

The real estate business was the thing to be truly concerned about as it hinted a bit too suspiciously of Cybelle's handiwork, working through proxies and third parties to whatever nefarious aims Cologne could not begin to fathom. Whatever plans the Demoness had, though, it could not mean anything good for the citizens of Nerima.

Far less surprising was the fact that Silk and Soun were now officially item…the only surprise there being that Soun had been the one to issue the challenge. Cologne sorely regretted not being present to watch the brawl that must have ensued with the Tendo patriarch pressing home his claims while Silk played hard to get in an all-out grudge match that would put the World Wrestling Foundation on notice. It truly must have been nothing less than epic, hearing it described in awed terms by her granddaughter.

There were many other bits of news that had impressed and interested Cologne as she had listened attentively to Lotion giving her a debriefing. Kuonji's romantic troubles had blown alternately hot and cold with Makoto taking the lead as Kuonji's stated fiancée, only somehow Akane had contrived to win herself a place as the "Other Woman." Ryoga had apparently given up on being a doormat for the Winged Tendo's romantic flirtations and was taking up with another girl who seemed not to mind his various shortcomings. Akane had somehow mastered the art of flying (landing was still a bit of a problem) and would regularly take to the air for the joy of freedom afforded in her "cursed" form. Nabiki had progressed to an astonishing rate in her ascension as a Lore Master…oh yes, and Ranma and Ryoga had finally developed Chi attacks without Cologne being around to take credit for their teaching.

About the best news all around (at least to Cologne's way of thinking) was the news that Happosai had finally accepted Hinako professions of love and devotion and was committing himself to her (while not entirely giving up on his life of perversion). It looked as if Cologne was finally off the hook with the old fool, and good riddance! Let Hinako deal with the man's constant pursuit of other women, she was obviously better equipped to rein him in with her Coin technique (ironically taught to her by Happosai).

Thoughts of her old flame, however, rekindled memories of her own recent troubles with a certain blonde Enchantress of her acquaintance. Cologne frowned as she thought of Siren, her childhood friend and current pain-in-the-rear (Oh, but she'd like it that way, wouldn't she?) who had only a week ago made her profession of love and her intent to win Cologne over.

The annoying thing about Siren was that she usually got what she was after, and in a way her antics would have been infinitely more amusing were it not that Cologne was the object of her current obsessions.

She recalled the incident in the bath, followed shortly thereafter by Siren appearing once again (fully clothed this time) to declare before Cologne's Masaki kinfolk to declare herself as Cologne's one and only intended. The response to this news was (predictably) comical, Ayeka being outraged that a member of "Jurai's Royal House" would be courted by some rustic commoner (Cologne wondered if she had gotten used to webbed feet by now?) while Ryoko could not stop laughing for a solid hour. Tenchi had been somewhat blank-faced at the news while her father greeted Siren as if she were already a member of the family. Washu had given Siren that hungry look she always gave to all potential lab victims while Mihoshi and Kiyone…well…anyone not wanted on their Intergalactic Crime Logs was okay in their opinion. Ryo-Ohki and Siren had immediately hit it off as though the Cabbit were an old familiar.

Life was certainly a lot less "interesting" when she had been able to disguise her real age and pose as the withered Old Lady benevolently shepherding her backwoods tribal flock through the darkness of pre-history into the 20th (or make that 21st) century in spite of all the odds the past three hundred years had hurled against them. Now she had romantic problems, a mortgage and great-great grandchildren on the way, and worst of all (depending on how you look at it) she was behind on finals for the semester! All she needed now was another run-in with Hinako for her life to be just perfect.

Surprisingly enough she made it through the front door of her place without incident, glanced around at the empty interior and said, "Nihao…is anyone at home?"

"Just me, Grandmother…and the twins, who are upstairs sleeping it off."

"Son-in-law?" Cologne sought out Hairbrush where he was sitting by a table in the darkened restaurant, nursing a bottle of sake from the looks of it.

"I've been hoping you'd come back to us soon, Grandmother," Hairbrush remarked, "A lot's been happening while you were away on your vacation."

"So I've heard." Cologne approached her granddaughter's husband and took a seat next to him, adding as she did so, "I'm surprised Comb isn't back home by now…"

"I'm not," Hairbrush replied, "She spends most of her time over with the Tendos these days, keeping tabs on Shampoo, though I'm sure that isn't her only reason."

"What's this?" Cologne asked as she arched indigo eyebrows, "Do I detect a note of self-pity? Surely you're not jealous of a certain fat fool stealing your wife away…are you?"

She had meant her comment to be gently teasing, but Hairbrush did not smile as he said, "Wouldn't you be…given their history together?"

Cologne took a long time before she replied to that, "I see…and you think she's already starting to fall for him all over."

"I don't believe that in her heard Comb means to cheat on me," Hairbrush sighed, "But though she denies it to herself, I can tell that she still has strong feelings for Saotome, or his antics wouldn't get to her the way they do. I doubt even she knows how deep her feelings run, but until she reconciles herself to the fact that he belongs to another I don't think I could expect her heart to be unconflicted."

"So…what are you doing with your time, other than sitting here and moping?" Cologne asked, not meaning her tone to sound brutal.

"Me?" he smiled as he took a sip from his cup of sake, "I've been managing the restaurant in your absence, of course. Someone had to, after all, and the twins have helped out, playing waitresses and bussing tables."

"You actually put those two to an honest day's work?" Cologne's eyes widened appreciatively, "I am impressed, Son-in-law, you've exceeded my expectations."

"Not bad for a man, you mean," he gave her a benevolent smile and his dark eyes twinkled with amusement.

"Pshaw," Cologne made a face, "You know I've never been one to play that particular tune. I've known all along that you are a capable enough fellow, regardless of the accident of birth that caused you to be born a man from another province. I've never told you this before, but I was proud of my granddaughter when she chose you to be her husband. You are the son I wished I could have had…and had you been my blood daughter…I would have proudly trained you to be my successor."

"Grandmother," Hairbrush set his cup down and really looked at her, "You mean that?"

"Have you ever known me to say something that I truly did not mean?" Cologne asked, then hastily added, "Don't answer that question!"

"I won't," Hairbrush said solemnly, but just the same he could not keep from smiling, "And thank you. I must have done something right to earn a compliment from you."

"Am I really that critical of people?" Cologne wondered, "I've never really thought about it…I've always just assumed that I should be as stern and aloof as people expect someone to be in my station. I can't be seen to play favorites, not even with my own flesh and blood. Shampoo in many ways is all that I have sought to make her, and yet…" she sighed.

"And yet in her heart she doesn't want to be the next Matriarch," Hairbrush said quietly, "I've known this all along, I've just been waiting to hear you say it."

"She's as much a part of you as she is her mother," Cologne made a face, "And you know what I think of Comb's leadership potential."

"Would it surprise you to know that she agrees with you completely?" Hairbrush replied, "Though it cost Shampoo her freedom, I think she made the right decision in petitioning you for her freedom. As a healer she has found a kind of peace that she never knew as a warrior and she's earned the respect of our tribespeople. I love her very much and I'm as proud as any man could be to have her for a wife…but still at times she can be quite a trial."

"She is at that," Cologne agreed, "Don't give up on her just yet. She's bound to come around sooner or later to seeing reason."

"I live in that hope, Grandmother," Hairbrush raised his cup in salutation.

"It is disgraceful for her to neglect you," Cologne remarked, "I shall have to speak about it with her and make her see that she needs to spend more time in the restaurant."

"Just as long as she stays out of my kitchen," Hairbrush gave a boyish grin as he added, "Though truth to tell I would love to be able to convince her to put on a waitress uniform…just to see her reaction."

"Oh my," Cologne chuckled, "That would be most…amusing…"

"So," Hairbrush said as he poured himself another cup, then passed the rest of sake bottle over to Cologne, "How are you getting along, Grandmother? Enjoying time looking up your Juraian roots?"

"I never ceased to be amazed at your devious way of ferreting out information," Cologne shook her head with a mild chuckle, "Must be those years you spent with Military Intelligence, spying for the government."

"I'll admit my informal training has come in handy on occasion," Hairbrush replied, "But you know the rules of the trade…never give out as much as you know, and never enough that you stop being an asset to your masters."

"And what do you tell them about your relocating to Japan?" Cologne wondered.

"They couldn't be more happy about it," Hairbrush replied, "They love having eyes and ears in the world beyond the mainland. Some think I've been wasting my talents in a backwoods country village and they see my position near to Tokyo as a step up in the world, almost on the level of a promotion."

"Considering that they sent you to us originally as token punishment for siding with the wrong faction," Cologne sipped her bottle and waited until satisfied that the effects were wholesome, "They probably never expected you to amount to much of anything, but imagine how they must have felt when you gained a place in the home of the Matriarch of the Nyanchiczu."

"Grandmother," Hairbrush sighed, "You've known the truth about me all along, surely you know I'd never betray any of your secrets, especially not to those idiots in the Forbidden city."

"I know," Cologne smiled all the more gently, "And you have been a tremendous boon to me, passing on the information that I provided you so that your masters would be satisfied that all was well and that we were not worth the bother. What do you suppose they'll do if we are not able to return to our village?"

"Probably send some other poor schmuck in my place," Hairbrush raised his cup to the air and said, "Whoever my poor successor is, I pray the Gods pity him, because he won't know what will hit him."

"It's good to be able to discuss these things aloud without fear of possible eavesdropping," Cologne remarked before arching her tones and saying, "And you two should be in your beds. Don't you have weapons training in the morning?"

There was a pause before Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung timidly came down the stairs, both in their Cheosong pajamas.

"Great-grandmother," Ling-Ling said sheepishly.

"We have something tell you," Lung-Lung finished for her.

"And what is it that is so important that you would spy upon your elders?" Cologne asked with token sternness, giving no hint as to her actual amusement.

"Great-grandmother," Ling-Ling began, "We follow strange man and strange girl other day…"

"See them chased by mob," Lung-Lung added, "Crash through many wall, lost mob in alley."

"No lose us," Ling-Ling resumed, "We follow from roofs, them wander lost all over village."

"Then they go into building and no come out again," Lung-Lung continued, "Is strange because we find war sign all around building…"

"Is strange kind," Ling-Ling paused before adding, "Is magical protection. We go to Devil Hunter and she say place is home of Ancient One, say we no go near place for our sake."

"But we go anyway," Lung-Lung bit her lip before finishing her statement, "And we see who there…is no womans of Japan or China."

"She very strange," Ling-Ling tried to describe the vision they had witnessed, "Is tall like Mother, but she have skin like bronze statue and hair like silver…and there strange markings on face…"

"Markings?" Cologne's focus sharpened, "Describe them."

"Is strange, like three slash on forehead, two triangle on cheeks," Lung-Lung replied, "And eyes like gold…you know, Great-grandmother?"

"I know…I know who you are describing," Cologne looked pale even in the dim light of the restaurant, "But…it cannot be her…not after all of these years…"

"Grandmother?" Hairbrush was disturbed by the unusual hint of fear in the Matriarch's voice.

"I don't know how such a thing could be possible…but she must somehow have gotten free…after all these centuries. Show me to this place, Children, at once!"

Both girls were surprised at the request but immediately acknowledged their instructions, knowing that only a major emergency could bring such alarm to the face of their indomitable Tribal Elder.

"Who is she?" Hairbrush asked, "An enemy?"

"Worse than that," Cologne replied, getting to her feet as she leaned on her staff, feeling her age in spite of her Juraian lifespan, "I pray that I am wrong, but if it is her then I must go alone to face her. No else could confront her but me and have a hope of surviving. Tell no one where I have gone, and with any luck…this may be over before morning."

With that she turned to leave, the twins falling into step behind her as the Matriarch burst from the restaurant and out into the night, leaving a bewildered son-in-law in her wake, who murmured softly to himself, "Good luck, Grandmother…I pray that you be safe, for your family still needs you."

He thought he heard a voice murmuring softly in the empty space of the restaurant, whispering something that sounded like "Amen," though it could have been the wind and his overactive imagination…


Comments/Criticisms/Kunoichi Beauty Secrets: Shadowmane@msn.com