Ah My Goddess Fan Fiction / Ranma 1/2 Fan Fiction / Sailor Moon Fan Fiction ❯ A Tale of Two Wallets ❯ Storming the Art World ( Chapter 108 )
A Tale of Two Wallets
(An Altered Destiny)
Written by Jim Robert Bader
Proofread by Shiva Barnwell
Three lady warriors of very different temperaments and natures stood in the middle of a cyclopean cave that was dimly illuminated by wall lichen and a faint air of phosphoresce. In this diffuse lighting they could make out three branching tunnels veering off from the main one in which they were currently standing, and each seemed as darkly ominous and forbidding as the other two. It was clear to all concerned that only one portal would lead to the goal in which they wanted to be going.
"Nice work, Grandma," said one of these three as Atsuko nodded to herself in oddly hushed tones, "The texture's superb and the graphics are to die for…"
"Admire her technique some other time," Comb briskly chided, "We need to find Grandmother and quickly before the Demon unleashes any hidden surprises."
"I'm game for the concept," Yumi coolly noted, "Only which way do we go? Door number one, door number two or door number three?"
"Who cares?" Comb snapped, "They're probably all booby-trapped…"
"Yes," Yumi agreed, "And we'd be boobies to just plunge on ahead without strategy or plan for confronting this Demon and her illusions."
"Ah…" Atsuko winced slightly, "Actually only two doors are probably booby trapped, the third's a genuine portal. Grandma has to play by certain rules in order for her powers to work right. She taps into this really big system that penalizes you if you stray outside some pretty gnarly borders. It's called the Ultimate Force Complex, and according to the rules she has to give us at least an even chance of figuring out which one of these caves is gonna be the safe one."
"Well," Comb growled, "And can you tell which one that is?"
"Not without some effort," Atsuko replied, "Grandma's illusions have to conform to certain realistic patterns or they wouldn't be this believable. Spotting the fakes from the genuine article ain't gonna be no cakewalk even for me, 'cause she knows what I'd look for."
"I get it," Yumi mused, "In other words these tunnels have to work on the same principles as real tunnels even if they are illusions. So…what kind of threat potential are we dealing with here?"
"Hard to say," Atsuko replied, "Depends on what mood Grandma's in, whether she's feeling playful or downright nasty. Keep in mind my illusions have form and substance, and if I wanted to make them deadly then I could forge a sword that could cut through steel, or a spear that would go right through battleship armor…"
"That must take a lot of concentration though," Comb paused to consider the point, "I never knew your illusions had become so strong of late."
"I've had to learn a lot while on the road," Atsuko shrugged, "Mainly the thing to keep in mind is that all illusions work on the power of your beliefs. My belief in my illusions is what gives them a solid structure, and once I lock them into a mold they maintain a self-belief in their own existence similar to an Elemental. It's not the same as being real iron or steel, or having a soul for that matter, but if I believe them good and hard then their ability to cut through objects depends on its resistance factor and if the belief of whatever they hit is stronger or not. Armor plate, after all, has the belief of the blacksmith who forges it fused into the metal helping to reinforce its structure, so if my belief is stronger than the armorer…"
"Kind of like that old saw about my karma ran over your dogma," Yumi mused, "At least I now understand how you could create that Jacuzzi area in the space behind the dojo and have it operate like the real thing even when you're not around…"
"Actually that's folding Pocket Space and coaxing elementals into the pattern so that they weave their strength into its make up," Atsuko replied, "I've got Fire, Air, Earth and Water spirits working together maintaining that illusion, and if they weren't agreeable to helping me out the whole thing would collapse on itself and it would fade out of existence…"
"Who cares right now?" Comb snapped, "Can we get back to the subject? Now, what you're saying is that if your grandmother wants to play rough, then we should expect her traps to be deadly?"
"That's one way of putting it," Atsuko scratched the back of her head and looked thoughtful, "Only I can't really believe that Grandma Ganglot would be that nasty. She struck me as the more playful type, and she's really inventive in shaping her illusions…"
"Right," Yumi noted, "So we should beware of an Illusionist who's not only clever and ancient but has the tendencies of a practical joker. Well, could be worse…we could be up against your mother, and then I know we'd be screwed royal."
"Yeah, no fooling," Atsuko said nervously, "Of course if I had to pick one of them for an enemy, it's be a pretty hard toss up."
"So…we might as well pick a tunnel and get started," Comb noted cautiously, "Any preferences?"
"Other than just barging in like your usual method of entry?" Yumi wondered aloud, "Well, we could always pick a tunnel a piece and take our chances separately…OR…we could use a little intelligence and try to fathom out which tunnel is the one least likely to be booby trapped."
"Y'know, I kinda feel slightly insulted by that," Atsuko turned to Comb and asked, "You feeling insulted by that?"
"What have you got in mind…Ninja," Comb glowered at the chef with a "We'll talk about this later" expression.
"Actually, former ninja would be more accurate," Yumi pointed out, "And the correct term is Kunoichi…but since you mention that my earlier training was in the arts of invisibility and silence, I feel I have to point out that I was trained to detect and find traps, so I have a pretty good idea of what to look for. If you have no objections to taking me at my word, I'd like to take the point on this one."
Comb and Atsuko exchanged looks, then Comb said reluctantly, "I know about hunting and marking a trail, but some traps are a lot more subtle than what we trained for in Joketsuzoku."
"My thing is Illusions," Atsuko replied, "And like I said, I have to bow to Grandma on that front. She's got way lots more experience, craft and guile than me when it comes to laying out traps."
"Good," Yumi smiled, "Now that we have that settled, I suggest we stick together and pool our resources, or we'll likely be picked off individually, and who knows where we'll wind up? Keep in mind that even your grandmother obviously wasn't able to confront the Oni on a one-to-one basis, and she had a powerful mage backing her up. We're going to have to be more clever than that if we want to get through this one alive, and keep in mind the fact that we're not just doing this for us…we have our children to think about."
Her companions did not seem too sanguine on that point, but they silently nodded their agreement and resolved to watch out for each others' backs…at least until the current crisis was resolved, not that any of them wanted to make this a permanent arrangement, more like a temporary truce on all their back-biting and name-calling antics for the sake of their children. After all, they had to set a good example for future generations…
And unknown to them, a generation far removed from their own was watching their every move on closed-circuit TV, having discovered the channel during a random search to see what was available…only now the picture momentarily scrambled, leading one of the viewing audience to complain, "It never fails! Right when the program starts to get interesting, that's when somebody always screws with the reception!"
"No doubt there is some sort of interference causing these periodic disruptions," Cologne theorized, "Other than that it is quite remarkable how this system so accurately captures and depicts real events taking place in the world outside of these dimensional borders. If this is the system that the Demoness has used to make herself familiar with the changes that have occurred in the world during her incarceration, then it would go a long way to explaining how she has known how to anticipate our every move in advance…"
"You still think she's doing this for sinister purposes," Siren regarded her companion, "You don't forgive and forget easy, do you Kho-chan? I think you may be carrying this grudge with her a little too far, after all…she made this system available for us for an obvious reason."
"And what reason could she possibly have except to sow mischief and discord, like she has always done throughout all of her long history?" Cologne challenged, "Don't try to sell me on the idea that a tiger can change its stripes and not still remain a tiger! The very fact that she so easily led us into this prison is cause enough to believe that she is capable of anything, and don't tell me that you are comfortable being at the mercy of a being with this level of power."
"I don't usually enjoy being on the bottom and not the top if that's what you mean," Siren replied, "But I'm flexible either way, and I do believe that you are missing the point here. The fact that she could take more extreme measures-and I will leave it to your imagination to conceive of what forms that might assume-is a hint that she is using a great deal of restraint, though in truth her grudge is more with you than with me…OH LOOK, the picture's back! Now we can see what else is going on in the world of sports and weather."
"You seem remarkably casual about efforts being made to win our freedom," Cologne observed in sardonic irony.
"Oh, do you think I'm tired of your company already?" Siren mused, "Well, understand that I do hope your granddaughter does well finding her way in here, but if I have to put my money anywhere, it would be on the Oni. Lambs to the slaughter seems almost the appropriate line of choice at this point."
"I won't sell them out this soon, but I will admit that the odds do seem to be stacked against them," Cologne noted grimly, "Of course I am also concerned about events happening at the dojo…"
"You want me to flip back there?" Siren pointed the remote at the TV and caused the picture to change, opening out on an aerial view of the Tendo estate that was anything but typical of the real estate and its regular zoning…
Ranma did not know what to make of this entire situation. Fighting opponents with his fists he understood, but when it came to battles of wits he had learned to defer in part to Nabiki. Card playing was one of those gray areas that fell in the border area between wits and combat, and he had to reluctantly concede that he had very little skill in the art of card sharking.
This version of Nabiki, however, puzzled him greatly as there were subtle little things about her that were not consistent with what he knew about his iinazuke. In a way she was just like the Nabiki whom he had known when he first came to Nerima, a materialistic and deeply cynical person who covered over her feelings of loneliness and insecurity behind the hard mask of a calculating opportunist. It had taken him a long time to learn to see beyond that mask, and so he was not so easily mislead by mere appearance, but looking into her eyes and studying her expression had shown him a shy and introspective young girl who only pretended to be knowledgeable and capable of coping with any crisis.
In a way it was almost painful to watch her stumble through the things that his Nabiki had learned to handle with ease. There was less confidence, less of the cockiness and self-assurance his Nabiki so often manifested, and what pretence of confidence this version had came across empty bravado. She was faking it and badly, going by her formidable wits yet over her head in a way that was almost painful to watch. He cared too much about the Nabiki he knew not to feel sympathy with this pretender, but still if her pretence was not fooling him, then how obvious must it have been to anyone else who knew her, like Shampoo or Akane?
This Nabiki was evasive, cold and temperamental, unwilling to concede to feelings that he knew that she possessed and equally unwilling to compromise in the give-and-take of personal interaction. It was plain to him that she was avoiding something critical within herself, denying certain emotions that might make her seem vulnerable and even human. There were issues this Nabiki was unwilling to confront, feelings of inadequacy that she was desperately trying to deny and cover over, and there was a hint of insensitivity in her conduct that implied a certain ruthlessness, like she was willing to sell out principles and even people who placed their trust in her in order to make short-term gains. It had taken Ranma a long time to come to terms with his Nabiki's materialistic obsessions, but by the time he had learned to identify her negative qualities she had mostly renounced them of her own volition. Her growth as a person had long since undermined reliance on such negative tactics.
Ranma could understand not wanting to be thought weak and ignorant because he often felt that way himself, pretenses of overconfidence notwithstanding. It was not manly to admit to such inadequacies, or so he had long believed before discovering that Nabiki already knew all about his shortcomings and still accepted him as we was in spite of being less than perfect. On that level he could understand this Nabiki's desire not to appear to be at a disadvantage, but given the seriousness of the situation that confronted them it was clear even to him that such psychological tendencies were going to put her at an extreme disadvantage.
This worried him greatly as the fate of her family's dojo was resting upon her skills as a player. Ranma wondered if she really did know what all was at stake riding on her slender shoulders. She seemed to think it was just an issue of retaining the property in the family, but Ranma had been made aware that there were larger issues at stake the night before, such as the mysterious plot that seemed to be afoot with the Demon Mage Cybelle's handwriting all over the matter. The Gambler King was a relatively minor nuisance in and of himself, but when coupled with Ryoga's evil grandmother, his re-appearance in Nerima took on a very sinister connotation.
Of course the whole idea that there could be two radically different versions Nabiki was troubling in and of itself, even taking into account that ideas like "Alternate Universe Theory" and stuff of such an arcane nature made very little sense to him on anything but a practical level. He had to conceded that the proof of this theory was Nabiki herself with her lack of muscle tone and the way she moved, her stumbling awkwardness, the almost half-blind the way she walked as if lacking that sixth sense that she had so recently acquired, the foreknowledge of events that let her move to the left or the right in time to avoid unpleasant problems (like a certain ladle-wielding old lady who had this annoying tendency of nailing Ranma with an unexpected splash of water, and thank the kami that Lotion the Lore Master had thought ahead and provided him with a handy thermos full of hot water).
Ranma would have been the first to admit that he was not always comfortable with Nabiki's abilities as a Lore Master, but now he would had paid a great deal to have the "Old" Nabiki back, the one who could constantly surprise and confound him, who was never quite what you expected her to be and who could be the strongest ally any man could want in a confrontation. That Nabiki would make mincemeat out of anyone who dared to attempt to claim possession of her dojo, and come between her and her family members? Even Ranma would shudder and feel pity for such a dumb tactical maneuver!
He just had to stay close to her side and offer her his support in the hopes that HIS Nabiki could be restored to them in good order. Surely the old woman would not let her chosen apprentice languish off in some nether realm, or wherever this Nabiki has originated, so whatever went down in the next hour, he had to back this Nabiki's play and hope against hope that it would all work out for the better.
Even as he studied this Nabiki however, he was being studied in turn by her, and the middle Tendo girl was reacting with mild shock upon discovering a version of Ranma who actually seemed to be using his brain and was thinking to himself without his lips moving. He seemed to be measuring his thoughts rather than blurt them out loud or leaving them written all over his features. There was an intensity to his scrutiny that seemed to be studying her every little nuance the way that she would normally read his expressions. This Ranma clearly had a brain in his head, and that took away a tactical advantage that she had long enjoyed and considered an edge in her dealings with Nerima's premier martial arts legend.
It was confounding for her to find a Ranma who actually seemed to be considering her as both a woman and a person, who was no doubt accustomed to a level of intimacy that Nabiki herself would never have permitted. It went beyond the obvious sexual relationship that he and her counterpart probably enjoyed together, it was as if he felt that he should know her, like she was a part of him as familiar as his own right arm or a trusted companion. This was not a boy who could be bluffed or befuddled as easily as the Ranma she had come to know and exploit on a regular basis, and he seemed to be putting a level of expectation upon her that she knew she could never live up to. All of this added up to her being at a serious disadvantage that she found most disconcerting, a sense that she did not, could not be the type of person that he wanted her to be. She hated feeling this inadequacy between them, and yet the very fact that he even could feel that way towards her other self spoke volumes about the sort of life that the two of them must have enjoyed before the transfer.
A Ranma who was sensitive to her needs, who wasn't a thoughtless, insensitive jerk who thought first of himself and only afterwards considered the effects he would have upon others? A Ranma who wasn't railing against the cruelty of the Fates or despairing about his girl-half? (Seeing him briefly turn female yet only shrug in weary acceptance of this fact did not seem comparable at all with the absolute loathing that the Ranma she knew had always felt about his cursed form) Surely the Apocalypse was just around the corner! It was almost like he wasn't really Ranma, just some really cute guy who had taken the place of the often hapless and clueless Saotome youth, and it was this very difference about him that was freaking her out (to say nothing of turning her on like crazy!).
Almost as disconcerting as this Ranma was Shampoo's casual acceptance of Nabiki with all her flaws and imperfections. It had been explained at length to the Chinese girl that she was not the same girl to whom she had given the Kiss of Life and now considered her "other airen," quite literally her wife (!?!), and yet Shampoo had just smiled and reassured her that she would be supportive of Nabiki until her "real" beloved put in an appearance.
This was not just a friendlier and more outgoing version of Shampoo (admittedly a frightening concept by itself), this was a Shampoo who was seriously working to bridge the gap between their cultures and who now took it on faith that Nerima was her adopted homeland. She wasn't trying to trap and lure either of her beloveds into coming back with her to China, seemed almost indifferent on the subject of Cologne and was nonchalant in displaying her affections with either of her two intendeds. She was more than just a motorhead with a bike fetish, she actually displayed a keen intelligence and a wit that clashed dramatically with her "bubble-headed" counterpart with whom Nabiki was far more accustomed. This Shampoo was sexy without being overwhelming, and there was something positively glowing about her that made her seem more alive than any other person whom Nabiki had ever yet encountered.
And-shock of all shocks-she had been informed that Shampoo here was expecting a child…a child by none other than Ranma! In a way all three of them were to be considered the child's parents, Nabiki no less than Ranma or Shampoo because the child's conception had taken place in the same bed where the three of them had made passionate whoopee. There seemed to be an enormous sense of happiness and mutual fulfillment in this strange three-way relationship which spoke volumes about it being a happy and reasonably stable kind of union.
And that worried Nabiki on an entirely different level. As recently as a few weeks ago she had hatched a scheme to profit at the expense of both Ranma and her little sister, Akane. The idea had come to her in a flash of a moment…Nabiki had been caught out borrowing things from Akane, which had set in motion a chain of events where it had appeared that Ranma was siding with her against her little sister, which naturally led to a typical Akane overreaction. Her sister had declared that the two of them should be engaged instead of herself and Ranma, so in a way the idea had come from Akane's lips and all Nabiki had done was take her up on her offer…
At least on the surface.
What had actually been Nabiki's conception of the matter was that she would exploit the situation to her advantage, make a few quick yen then bail out while helping her sister and Ranma to come closer together. She had never been serious about the engagement itself (not even when severely tempted on account of his being such a hottie-in either of his two genders!). Her aim was simply to take exploit an opening that would allow her to show up Akane and be the envy of their high school, grab a little of the spotlight for a time, then gladly slip back into the background after maneuvering the two clueless lovers into admitting their true feelings for one another, thus proving the superiority of her intellect and the utter lack of same in either of those two or their fathers, who made life so interesting for all concerned in Nerima.
Of course it had not taken her long to discover the downside of being Ranma's fiancée, namely that the other fiancées would have something to say about a new contender joining their merry little clubhouse. Nabiki had taken it for granted that she could outwit and out-maneuver the girls, and for a while it had seemed that her strategy would work, but then Shampoo, of all people, had called her bluff and actually threatened Nabiki's life, forcing Ranma to act in her defense, which had been semi-romantic and had given her such a thrill for all that she knew her life was inn actual danger.
Eventually she had managed to calm everyone down and got things off to a sound financial footing, but during the week that she was Ranma's official fiancée she had proven to her own satisfaction that they were not compatible enough to work as an actual couple. It was not just that they saw the world in radically different terms, or that he was a magnet for trouble and she was not a practicing martial artist, totally lacking in the resiliency that served Akane in many a perilous situation. At heart, though she found Ranma personally attractive and quite a lot of fun to be around, his heart had been given to her clueless little sister, and Akane's happiness depended on him...or so she had come to believe, for all that they were as stubborn as mules and refused to come to terms with their mutual feelings of attraction.
Her plan to get them back together had proven more difficult than anticipated, but in the end love had conquered all and Yadda-Yadda-Yadda. Things went back to relative normal and soon it was as if their brief engagement had never been. Ranma seemed to forget all about the cruel and thoughtless humiliation to which Nabiki had subjected him to for the sake of her own profits, and Nabiki herself returned to her profitable schemes, congratulating her own cleverness and thanking the kami for the hopelessness of young lovers and all that hearts and flowers rubbish.
Only now her thoughts on that subject had been thrown utterly into a cocked hat and what had seemed so certain and right now was revealed for a sham, and all of her pretensions to the contrary would not shield her from a certain truth that she had managed to keep deeply buried.
That truth was brought home by the sight of her sister, Akane, flirting outrageously with Kuonji Ukyo, somehow having come to terms with the issues of her sexuality. It was suddenly quite clear to Nabiki why Ranma and his curse had always been a source of intense discomfort for Akane. Her sister had been avoiding a disquieting truth that undermined any chance she had of a "normal" relationship as between any man and a woman. Nabiki had long suspected Akane of harboring same-sex feelings but had refrained from giving comment due to her own latent bisexual tendencies and a belief that Akane's obsessions about male "perverts" was just a phase that she would eventually grow out from…as if this were a condition that could be changed with the passing of the seasons.
Akane had feared being treated like a pariah among her classmates and had secretly relished the tacit popularity that she enjoyed at her school, even if the crude efforts of the boys to try and force their attentions upon her must have been a truly hellish ordeal. It made Nabiki wince to think that she had even encouraged Kuno Tatewaki and the rest of his classmates, planting certain ideas in their heads, selling those photos that highlighted Akane's most attractive qualities…it meant that she had been indirectly responsible for torturing her own sister…and that was not an easy idea to digest in one sitting. How much more cruel to think that she and Kasumi had pushed her onto Ranma by mutual consent of the idea that a half-boy/half-girl might appeal to Akane's ambivalent nature…as if that would make everything all right, rubbing Akane's nose in the truth that all preferred to let be unmentioned.
Seen in that light, Nabiki had to wonder what Demon had ever possessed her soul to think that those two would ever make such a good combination. It was cruel to Ranma to force the confused young boy to not only cope with his changing sexual identity but to pair him off with someone even more twisted up inside on that very same subject! Yet here on this timeline that problem had somehow been avoided, freeing Akane to explore other relationship options, first with Ryoga and then Ukyo, the latter case being the one that had caused Akane to come to terms with her hidden desires like nothing else that she had ever before encountered.
Of course that brought to mind the differences in Akane herself, who not only was actively chasing after Ukyo but who also had a Jusenkyo curse that turned her into an Angel! (Never mind that Kasumi seemed more appropriate for sporting wings on most occasions) Said wings vanished with a douse of hot water, but their appearance did a lot to explain the curious slots that she had sported in Akane's current wardrobe.
And what a change in Kuonji this timeline had rendered! The version she was viewing coyly from the corner of one eye had a curse that oddly suited her own ambivalent nature. Ukyo had always seemed (to Nabiki's way of thinking) to be of two minds in regards to her own sexuality. Clearly she liked men, but was just as obviously drawn to women as evidenced by the statuesque girl who was hovering by his arm when he (gender courtesy of a certain old woman ladling water on the side-walk) showed up at the gates to the dojo, the presence of said tall girl causing intense annoyance for Akane.
And Ukyo did not seem quite as cock-sure about herself (or himself) as the version to whom Nabiki was accustomed. If anything the cursed chef appeared intensely uncomfortable about being in the middle of a potential catfight, much though he/she also seemed attracted to both the tall girl and Akane. Never mind the fact that Kuonji was GORGEOUS in male gender (small wonder Akane was enamored, sexual identity notwithstanding), easily competitive with Ranma himself, and a pretty nice guy, even if showing clear signs of being not entirely at peace with her/his switching of genders.
Slightly more disturbing was the sight of Kodachi turning up in the company of Nabiki's older sister, Kasumi, the two of them holding hands in a way that was a little too friendly for her liking. Nabiki could wonder what her counterpart made of these two being so close together, even albeit that Kodachi did not seem as deranged and potentially menacing as the Black Rose of her acquaintance.
All these thoughts and more flashed through Nabiki's mind as she confronted the group that was with her as she prepared to enter the yard of her house, her mind reeling at the possibilities and implications presented by this strange new world where everything was so topsy turvy. She was very much looking forward to reading her counterpart's journals so that she could get properly acquainted with these strange events and how it had all happened.
Of course entering the yard itself produced a shock that went up and down her spine, for the staid, traditional old house in which she had grown up had been transformed somehow into a mini-resort, with the temple at the center of a casino-like arrangement with people circulating in and out of the yard like refuges from one of the gambling dens that were notorious along the coastline!
"Oh my," had voiced Kasumi, which more or less summarized Nabiki's own feelings on this subject.
"This can't be legal," Ranma said as he scanned the yard and the people who were circulating in and out of both the house and the dojo, "How does that jerk he's gonna get away with this?"
"Logically he shouldn't," said the strange woman who looked like an older version of Nabiki, the one whom she had heard referred to as Nakamura Naomi, a half-Japanese American business woman whom Nabiki had been given to understand was in league with the forces arrayed against their household, "And were this America he would be facing all sorts of legal troubles by running a gaming hall in the middle of a residential district…but I am told that the police are somewhat lax in enforcing the laws out here in this suburb of the Tokyo region."
"And what do you know of all of this, dare I ask, Nakamura-san?" Kodachi not so politely inquired, "Is now the Gambler King a factor in your business alliance with my brother?"
"I'm afraid he's not on my payroll," Nakamura frowned, "I purchased the deed for the dojo on behalf of my company but I only said he could use the place temporarily until the matter is resolved one way or the other. I never said he could turn this into a mini-Casino Royale, and it's rather presumptive for him to be taking these steps without consulting with me directly."
"Just what is your angle, lady?" Ranma demanded, "What were you trying to prove by taking the dojo away from the Tendos in the first place?"
"Actually I only wanted to make a point with certain parties, but I'll agree with you that this is quite excessive, even by my standards."
"No doubt the Gambler King has been in touch with other agencies of whose very existence you were not previously aware," said the old woman named Lotion as she, too, regarded the circulating crowds with wary suspicion.
"This doesn't look good," said the burly man named Kento, "Why do I get the feeling that there's a lot more going on here than just a simple card game?"
Nabiki had to privately concede that this was a very good question, but at the moment she was too stunned to react with anything but a general level of non-plussed outrage. This was what they were doing with HER house and HER dojo? (All right, technically they belonged to the other Nabiki, but the principle was still the same!) HOW DARE THEY!!! She might once have joked to Kasumi about selling the dojo to make a profit, but the place had far more sentimental attachment for her than just a bit of real estate…that dojo had, in fact, belonged to her MOTHER!!!
And then of course there was the idea that total and complete strangers were wandering around in that house and no doubt using HER ROOM that left Nabiki more than a little outraged. This entire situation was totally and completely unacceptable for her, and she intended to get to the bottom of it and quickly! She resolved to have it out with this Gambler King Joker once and for all to end any claims that the creep might have on what rightly belonged in he hands of a Tendo! She squared her shoulders and marched resolutely up to the steps of the dojo itself, intending to draw blood if it was required in this matter.
Inside the dojo it was worse than she had had dreaded. Slot Machines, Roulette Wheels, a Pachinko area and numerous card tables greeted her eyes as she scanned the room, taking notice of numerous students from her high school who were circulating about among the older and younger players. Two of them were none other than her factors (some might call them her best friends, though their relationship was rather informal), Hitome and Ryonami!
And there at the far end of the room sat a burly man who looked as if he had walked right out of a deck of cards, the redoubtable Gambler King, presiding like a literal king of his court dealing cards out to a number of interested players. Most of these were young students around Nabiki's own age group, with a few older and even younger players, all gathered around that penultimate of all sucker's bets, the Card Table, and apparently losing to the King from the sound of things as she could perceive them from her end of the dojo-turned-casino.
"Old Maid, you all lose!" cried the faintly accented voice of the king, obviously relishing his triumph over the hapless players gathered around him.
"Senpai!" Ryonami called Nabiki's attention her way, along with Hitome, who gave a cheerful, "Glad that you could make it, Boss."
"What are you two doing here?" Nabiki asked before she had time to think about it.
"We're undercover, Senpai," Ryonami responded with a somewhat surprised expression, "We got jobs working the tables, just like you asked."
"We're ready to give you our report, just like you asked, Boss," Hitome added.
"Oh, right," Nabiki noted lamely, realizing that it did indeed sound like something that she would have ordered of her two Lieutenants, "What have you got to report?"
"This guy's slick, but he a real con artist," Ryomi leaned closer so as not to be as plainly overheard, "I've seen him count cards and pull them out of his sleeve. He's a snake, just like you thought, but a real smooth cheater and no where near as good with a bluff as you are."
"He also liked to play kids and adults who aren't too much on the ball," Hitome added, "Guess that's why he almost never loses. He spots the bad players and tempts them to bet high, then he either pockets a card or slips one into the deck so it's not a real contest."
"Hah!" Ranma snorted, "I knew that guy was a phony to begin with!"
"He's just as bad as when he cheated us all those years ago," Ukyo noted in a voice so deep and rough that Nabiki found it disconcerting, like the raw air of male sexuality the chef was currently putting out, "We outta bounce his sorry bet out of here for the low life creep he is, trying to cheat Mister Tendo like this…"
"Only one problem with that," Ryonami nodded with her head to some of the taller figures sitting back at the far end of the dojo, "The guy's brought some friends with him, and they don't look too friendly."
Nabiki had wondered about the oddly costumed figures dressed like playing characters but had taken them for mere showcase performers hired by the King to fit his odd fetish for dressing like a playing card. That notion, however, was put to rest when she sensed Naomi tense, then heard the older woman say, "I wasn't expecting this…and I sure didn't clear it either."
"Aiyaa," Shampoo murmured faintly, as if sensing about these six figures an aura of real menace.
"Who are they?" Akane asked, "A bunch of clowns playing dress up."
"Nothing so mundane," Naomi replied, "They're called the Royal Flush Gang and they're from America, what we tend to call a gang of super-criminals who've even been known to give the Justice League some problems. I'd heard the current membership of the gang includes an enterprising entrepreneur who figured out that there was more money to be had in hiring themselves out as mercenaries than in ordinary thieving. I've read about several businesses that've made use of them on occasion, but I'm surprised to see them here in Japan. They're a pretty expensive outfit for a low-rent hood to be employing…and that could mean serious trouble."
"How so?" Nabiki wondered.
"It means somebody with a larger expense account that I'd authorized for this operation is funding their ticket," Naomi curled a lip and bit it, " I wonder if the Chairman himself, or someone else in one of our departments is finding their inclusion…or…someone even worse."
"Like who?" Makoto asked.
"I'd…rather not say," Naomi replied, appearing quite troubled over the matter as she turned to Nabiki and said, "For what it's worth, Tendo-san, I do apologize for this. I had no idea something like this would happen…"
"The fault may not be with you, Nakamura-san," Kodachi spoke up, nodding towards the yard where a tall figure was making his way with the trademark arrogance that was distinctively Kuno-esque, though it did surprise Nabiki to hear the sharp disapproval in the Black Rose's voice as she added in a low voice, "Tatewaki has indeed been behaving in such a way as would suggest this sort of behavior."
"Whoah," Kento responded, "You mean actual Super Villains are for rent in America? What happened to the old days when bad guys just wanted to rule the world and all that?'
"Sorry," Naomi said with a lame smile, "Progress is like that."
"Aw, it don't matter who the creep hires out to be his muscle," Ranma said with typical bravado, "We're still gonna clean house no matter what he and Kuno try to pull, right Nabiki?"
"Huh?" Nabiki was more than a little surprise to hear him address her in such a jaunty manner.
"You just do what you have to do," Ranma winked at her with a smile that seemed unaffected, "Shampoo and me'll back you up no matter what, right Sham-chan?"
"You is right, Airen," Shampoo leaned closer and added, "You is who you is, Nabiki, Shampoo know deep down you just like her Airen. Is no way you can lose with us behind you."
"You can do this, right Sis?" Akane asked in a more cautious manner.
"Ah…sure," Nabiki tried to sound more confident than she felt, "I never lose in a straight match."
"That's the ticket," Ranma squeezed her shoulder gently but reassuringly, adding as he did so, "I've got faith in you, Nabiki, you'd never let me down no matter what reality you're from."
With those simple words the boy almost shattered Nabiki's delicate frame of mind and came close to collapsing her all of her pretenses to bravado. HE had faith in HER??? Ranma, frequent victim of many of her fast buck pranks, possessor of an ego the size of Tokyo, who always professed never to need anyone, was giving her his backing? Just what kind of a relationship did he and her counterpart enjoy anyway, and why was the thought of this making her chest feel so tight all of a sudden? She wanted to turn around and run from the place like mad, afraid that she was about to break down emotionally for the first time in her life, but she knew she did not dare to do this with the stakes so high and the fate of her family riding in the balance.
As so often in the past, it was Kasumi who came to her rescue, "Just be yourself and play well, Nabiki. We know you can win. In fact Kodachi's even placed a bet that you'd come out on top in your match."
"She did?" Nabiki regarded the Black Rose as if suspecting her of being one of the Pod People.
"Don't look so surprised," Kodachi smiled back, "I know you can do it, and I'd never place my wager on anything but a sure bet. Besides, I can't wait to see the look on Tachi's face when I collect my little favor."
This screwy universe just kept right on surprising Nabiki. She had never been on particularly good terms with Kodachi, regarding her simply as a client and ignoring the obvious manic behavior that seemed typical of the entire Kuno family, but this Kodachi seemed relatively straight laced and sober (well…she wasn't entirely sure about the **straight** part at the moment…), and there was a studious look of calm determination in her brother's eyes that did not at all read like the Kuno with whom she was well and truly familiar, never mind the fact that he was wearing a business SUIT rather than his traditional Kendo outfit, with his bokken no where in evidence!
"Nabiki-san," said youth remarked as he came to join their party, "Nakamura-san, Saotome, all of you others," he gave them all a sweeping look before his eyes came to rest on Kasumi, hesitating there slightly before turning at last to Kodachi and saying a polite, "Sister."
"Come to watch the games, Kuno-san?" Naomi asked, "I'm surprised that a busy man such as yourself would have an interest…"
"You would be mistaken, Lady," Kuno nodded to her graciously in a curiously sane and level voice, "I have a passionate interest in anything that may concern my good friend, the Tendos, and this game holds a more private interest for me as well," he nodded to Kodachi without meeting the smirking expression of his younger sibling, "Besides which we share business interests regarding certain tracts of land that have recently come into your possession, as well as my own. I'm curious to see what may come of this match. I have heard that the Gambler King has only once lost a match to a player, but the redoubtable Silk is no where presently in attendance."
"She'll be along later, along with Dad and the others," Akane revealed.
"All well and good," Lotion spoke up, "But first the game awaits you, young lady, and you've dawdled enough playing tourist."
"Ah…right," Nabiki lastly regarded this crafty old Amazon who was said to be her mentor on this timeline and said, "Any last minute words of encouragement, Sensei?"
"Play well and don't let yourself be too distracted," Lotion replied with a shrewd expression, "You already know that this fellow cheats, so don't hesitate to use any means at your disposal."
"Right," Nabiki was more than a bit surprised at the practicality of this suggestion and wondered what sort of card player this Lotion might turn out to be if she ever were tested. Without knowing quite why she did begin to relax slightly, feeling more in her element than she would have felt had this been a martial arts duel. The Gambler King was, after all, just a rube who liked taking advantage of children, only she was no ordinary child, she was Tendo Nabiki, and woe betide anyone who dared step in the path of what was hers. No one messed with HER family without paying the price, one way or another. She might not be a Lore-whatever like her counterpart but she had her own resources to tap into for such emergencies, and Ranma was not the only one who could prove to be full of surprises.
She just hoped that her counterpart, wherever she was, appreciated the gesture, because Nabiki was ready to pull out all of the stops for the sake of the dojo, regardless of who was to inherit be it her or Akane!
Thus resolved, Nabiki advanced towards the Gambler King with her peculiar entourage following in step, all the while wondering how her counterpart could handle being this much in the limelight, not a bit player but the star of the show with a heroic task to accomplish, and never mind how weird that felt or what those butterflies were doing holding a Kickboxing tournament in the middle of her stomach…
Nabiki's Journal Resumes:
We sat facing each other with candles burning all around us, breathing regularly in slow and even tandem while allowing our spirits to touch so that my mentor could properly establish a rapport with me, her humble (if unexpected) student.
Ranma, Akane and Shampoo sat outside the dojo and no doubt wondered what the both of us were up to. These three had no familiarity with either Lotion or her methods, and in a sense I could understand their feelings as it was not all that long ago that I would have been just as clueless, back when I only believed in what I could touch, see, feel and taste, before I learned to take it for granted that there are more things in heaven and earth than were once dreamt about in my philosophy. I could only wonder what they made of me being comfortable with such mystical trappings, but with all the magic they've seen in their time they had to at least accept the concept as valid and worthy of study and reflection.
Right now I was attempting to establish a bond with this version of my teacher by letting her see who I was and where I was at in my current level of training. After receiving a few compliments for progressing from what had been a virtual start only a few months ago to where I was now able to manifest Chi-attacks, she got down to a more critical examination of my abilities and potential. This was necessary for us both to know if I had what it took to be able to help correct whatever it was that caused my trading places with the other Nabiki. Since she quite obviously was still ignorant of her dormant powers, it was unlikely that my counterpart could have done anything to cause this.
Of course, though I was eager to get back home, there was a temptation for me to stay a little while to help matters out on this timeline. There were a lot of problems that the family was facing here because the dojo was not turning a profit as it was on my side of the fence. Apparently my counterpart had worked as hard as I used to just to put food on the table, but without a more legitimate source of income (and some healthy investments made by yours truly on the sly) she had only a limited amount of capital to work with. This seemed to make her very angry and resentful towards the people whom she viewed as a major drain on the family budget, not least of whom had been Akane herself. Hearing the details of what my other self had done to her and Ranma by briefly becoming the "official" fiancée went a long way to explaining just why he had been so disconcerted by my open displays of affection.
And that made me just a wee bit ticked off with her, this other version of me who used and discarded people with the same nonchalant ease that I used to practice. Loneliness and a desire for change had been the primary causes for my accepting the engagement, but she had ignored these twin calls and opted for the status quo, totally unaware of how much living costs would escalate having the Saotomes living under our roof. The profits earned by bet-taking and photography would easily get eaten up in repair and food costs, and there were other less "legitimate" expenses that came from running a small sting and graft outfit like my own that barely allowed one to earn a meager profit. My counterpart had been scrambling around chasing the all-mighty yen and getting nowhere very quickly. The family had all but starved as little as a month back when all the family savings had gone to pay off accumulated debts that had all come calling at once, and for a while the family had been reduced to living on nothing but rice and pickles, provided courtesy of Prince Kirin, who seems to have been after Akane this time before Ranma and company…talked him out of it.
Partial evidence of my other self's misbehavior had come from Akane's own lips when "my" sister had angrily denounced "her" Nabiki for borrowing clothes and other personal possessions. This had revealed to me that my counterpart had been skimming on wardrobe by taking from Akane, the "Little Princess" of our house on whom Kasumi and our father lavish so much time and attention. I could understand these feelings, of course, having been there myself, but going to these sorts of petty extremes seemed more than a bit excessive from where I was sitting on the sidelines, especially in light of the fact that I knew a better way existed.
This family definitely needed a guardian angel, and if I had only a few weeks to work with them I was sure I could get everything back in a financially stable picture. Barring that I had only to hope that the few suggestions that I had written out on a memo-pad in her room would get the ball rolling on her end of the wall. A pity my counterpart lacked a personal home computer or I could have worked up a draft sheet using Excel™ to give cost/income projections based on my recommendations.
Of course I had no time to spend on further reflection of what a mess my other self's life was in, or the pity I felt towards her knowing how isolated she was from the people around her, who seemed to think that the version of me here was some kind minor Yakuza Obuyan wannabe…either that or the Devil in shorts and a tank-top. What a difference in both of our lives, marking how much of a change I had undergone from the time when I was her…and how little difference there was from the way she started the year to how it was likely to finish. I think I would go a little nuts if I had Ranma and Shampoo eyeing me with such barely reserved hostility and suspicion.
Of course Ranma isn't really the kind of guy who nurses grudges, like Ryoga. He had pretty much forgiven (but not forgotten) the abuse that he had suffered at my other self's hands, and talking with him gave me a sense of hope that he might actually come to see the Nabiki in his life through different eyes and a less critical evaluation. Shampoo here, apparently, had never much thought one way or the other about the other Nabiki and had long ago formed her opinions about a "weak" girl who used her clever tongue to con and harass her airen. (I think that part was even more painful, though maybe it's just because I've taken it so much for granted that Shampoo is a major factor in my life, and her good opinion of me counts as much as that of Ranma) Maybe they'd find it in their heart to include her in some future arrangement. I certainly hoped someone would take pity on this other me because-for all the obvious mistakes she had made with her life-she was still me deep down, and I'd like to think that no version of me could ever be totally evil.
Anyway, I had to get back because of the threat to my dojo and my impending marriage in the morning, so you could damned well believe that I was prepared to move heaven and earth in order to effect a correction. The old woman gave me great hope that this could be accomplished because I've come to think of Lotion as my Guardian Angel, one who can get nearly anything done if she puts her mind to it, or who knows where to look in case it happens to be beyond the range of her powers.
This proved to be an example of the latter part, for after testing me for several long moments, she looked me in the eye and said, "I believe that I understand now something of what has happened to you, young lady."
"By all means, Sensei," I replied, "Tell me what you've found out."
"You come from a universe almost exactly the same as this one," she began, "Only the path of our two timelines radically diverged close to a year ago with your timeline becoming the more stable."
"Your counterpart has given me to understand that some future time version of me was responsible for that," I replied, "One with full Lore Master Abilities…only I don't see how even a more powerful me could recreate an entire dimension."
"The path to great things can begin with only a single step," she explained, proving beyond any remaining doubt that she was exactly the same, exasperating Riddle Master who loved to tease me with these pithy little sayings, "It would seem your future self selected a precise moment in time where just such a small change could effect a larger outcome."
"By making me accept the engagement?" I asked.
"By implanting foreknowledge of the future in your past self," she revealed, "By making that other version of you unconsciously aware of what your life would be like without being engaged to the boy named Ranma. I suspect she did something similar to the Ranma and Akane of that timeline, leaving in the both of them some residual sense of the futility that would be shared in a relationship between them. You say your counterparts act as though they were lifelong enemies…?"
"More like they insult each other and try to avoid having these confrontations," I replied, sensing something enormous in this newly uncovered detail concerning the engagement, "I was given to understand that originally they were headed for an essentially loveless marriage with Akane turning more abusive while Ranma became more passive-aggressive. Are you saying the both of them have some knowledge of what their life would actually be like together?"
"Knowledge is not so easily erased once the pattern has been set within the spirit," Lotion informed me, "If you knew that a road you were about to take would lead to heartbreak and disaster, would you gladly tread the path again or choose the one not taken, which might make all the difference?"
"I think I see your point," I nodded slowly, "If my life was fated to be anything like the Nabiki of this timeline…I think I'd do just about anything to avoid it."
"Of course what I say of memories holds equally true of roads formerly taken," she resumed with her usual mixing of metaphors, "I suspect this world was dissolved into a background pattern…only somehow it has been re-established in all its former complexity, and that takes an enormous degree of power, far more than any Lore Master could generate. The only thing that seems not to have changed is you, which no doubt is a benefit of your training."
"But wouldn't the same thing also apply to you?" I asked, "I mean, you're so much more knowledgeable and powerful than I am…"
"But I am not as central to these affairs as you," she pointed out, "Nor do I enjoy a satisfying physical and spiritual relationship with a dimensional Nexus. I believe your transfer was an unexpected side effect caused by whomever it was who had the resources to pull this off. Of course such a being would have to be on the level of the Gods themselves…"
"The Gods…?" I blinked, "As in…a Goddess?"
"One term generally does imply the other," the old woman eyed me shrewdly, "You have someone in mind?"
"Ah…yeah…you could say that," I replied, suppressing the urge to bang my head against the floor for having missed the bloody obvious, "There's one Megami in particular I know who might have a few ideas on what's been happening since this morning. Please wait here, I have to place a certain phone call."
"I shall endeavor to keep the home fires burning until you get back…Apprentice," she smiled at me in a way that almost brought a smile to my own lips but I had some serious work to do, and thank the kami above (no pun intended) that I had memorized the number given to me as an emergency hotline by my spiritual "Mother."
That call would go direct to the highest (and I mean that both literally and metaphorically) level one could ask for, and when she finally did respond Peorth would have some explaining to do about her latest efforts at meddling with my personal life, although I did think it strange at the time since the usual object of these antics tended to be Akane, but what do you expect with having a mother who has so much in common with my little sister…to a frightening degree that did not speak well for the organizing powers that governed the cosmos…
Peorth had finished examining the various simulated timelines projected by the well and had come to some interesting conclusions. It seemed that her daughter had very strong preferences and tastes that could make certain objectives more difficult than others, but by working with the grain of the wood here (to use a crude analogy, of course) she believed she did know a way that could enable Akane to know true happiness and fulfillment…just not quite the way that Peorth would have expected.
In a way it made a kind of sense, now that she thought on the matter. Her daughter, after all, was still very young even by the standards used by mortals and could not be expected to act in a mature and levelheaded fashion. Peorth might be centuries old but she had a pretty good memory of what things had been like for her when she went through adolescence (frightening in itself, though the universe somehow seemed to have survived that ordeal). Her high-strung daughter tended to react on impulse to situations and could not be blamed for sometimes choosing rashly. In truth Peorth might have behaved much the same in Akane's situation, but given the perspective of a Goddess, Peorth could see that this path was likely to lead into outright disaster.
Fortunately there was a way to get around certain obvious hurdles, one that might require some finagling and "fine-tuning" to manage and guide Akane's fate past the obstacles so that she could enjoy a fulfilling life that (not incidentally) resulted in offspring. Being someone who intended to be around for quite a while, Peorth wanted to see a continuation for the future, and it wouldn't displease her at all if any of Akane's children might look at bit like their grandmother. It would take some doing on her part to make certain her plan was carried out to the letter (and not foiled by that annoying string of unfortunate coincidences that had been plaguing her lately) but she had ever hope of success in securing future happiness and marital bliss for her much beloved daughter.
She nodded to Toltiir and said, "Very good…I owe you one for the favor."
"Well, I don't mind helping you out, P-chan," the Lord of Mischief turned his gaze off to the side and took on a very worried aspect, "But somehow I don't think my personal views are presently being shared with certain other parties."
"Huh?" Peorth wondered what he was going on about, but when she turned to follow his gaze she got a very unexpected answer.
"So," said a certain angry-looking War God as he stood at the head of a virtual committee of their fellow divine host, "You're the one who's been screwing with our reception."
"We might have known," said Urd in a "I saw this one coming" tone of voice.
"Shame on you, effecting repairs without notifying the rest of us" complained Aphrodite, "Just who do you think you are, Daddy?"
"You had better have had a good reason for messing around with our playthings," purred a somewhat cross-looking Bubastus (known as Bast for short).
"Or else," growled a grumpy-looking Thundergod by the name of Raiden.
"Ah…did I do something wrong?" Peorth wondered what in the name of Niffleheim she had done to tick off this many of her fellow Kami, but right before explanations could be afforded (or a divine lynch mob went to work venting their frustration at being denied their favorite Soap Operatic entertainment), she was quite literally saved by the bell…or to be more accurate, her pager going off, as did her personal cell phone.
"Mushi-Mushi," she said at once, holding up a hand to urge her fellow divine beings to grant her a moment of relative silence. Once she heard the UNMISTAKABLE voice on the other end, though, she all but snapped to attention, saying, "Dad? I mean…Sir? You what? HE what? You mean…er…no I didn't know I was screwing around with Kami Sama's…oh…ah…yeah, I know, I've been warned about that. Er…well…I was trying to do some research…oh, HE already knows that? Ah…well…tell Uncle I'll get right on the ball then. Here, why don't you talk with my associate and explain what you want him to do to restore things to relative normal."
That said she hastily shoved the receiver of her phone to Toltiir, who morphed into a form that had prehensile digits to allow him to take it in hand while Peorth turned away and consulted with her pager.
Her worst fears were realized…it was the number she had given to Nabiki!
"Oh Felgercarb," she winced, giving a jaunty nod to the angry-but-puzzled gods and goddesses crowding by the exit, "Look, we need to table this until later…orders from above and all that, okay? I'll get back to you guys after I get back from fulfilling Kami-sama's orders…until then, Ciao mes Ames!"
And with that she jumped into the pool, knowing it was the one quick exit point that could not be blocked as she made her way towards a certainly timeline, hoping she could put things to rights in good order or…well…she only hoped her fellow goddesses would cool down by the time she got back to Heaven, or she doubted it would be safe for her to show her face anywhere in the next millennium.
Besides which her other daughter had summoned her, and no way did Peorth want to get any further on Nabiki's bad side. The young Lore Master had a promising future ahead of her, provided things could be restored to normal, and if not…well…that simply did not bear reflection!
Armed only with the knowledge that something was very wrong in the district of Nerima, Peorth raced through space and time to emerge from a certain koi pond in the yard of the Tendo estate, causing considerable surprise to the parties who witnessed her sudden and dramatic appearance.
"What they…?" this from a boy named Ranma.
"Aiyaa," exclaimed that purple haired girl engaged to Nabiki.
"Who in the…?" that from a very different Akane than the one Peorth remembered, one whose expression registered shock, as if she had never set eyes on Peorth before, which the goddess very much suspected to be the case here.
"Subtle as always," that from Nabiki, who stood on the porch to her house with a more than slightly cross expression, the only one present not to evidence surprise at Peorth's sudden appearance.
Of course the reactions of the panda and the mustached man sitting across from him playing Shogi was infinitely more comical, only seeing the stunned expression on Soun's face caused Peorth to suffer a strong twinge of remorse as she could only imagine what effect this would have upon a man she still technically considered to be her mortal husband.
"Ah…I got your call, Cheri," Peorth attempted to sound nonchalant (and failed rather badly) as she drifted over to where Nabiki stood with arms akimbo, "What's this I hear about you waking up on the wrong timeline?"
In answer Nabiki pointed to the others, for Akane and Soun had both fainted, while Kasumi dropped the serving tray she had been carrying and stared in disbelief at the face of the Rose Goddess.
"M-M-Mother?" the oldest of the Tendo sisters hesitantly asked before joining her father and youngest sister off into dreamland.
Nabiki moved to catch Kasumi before her sister could hit the floor, then eased her down as comfortably as she could manage, seeing that Ranma had done the same for Akane. Straightening up once again, Nabiki gazed unflinchingly at the Goddess and said, "We need to have a little talk…Mother."
"M-M-Mother?" Ranma stammered, though unlike the others he thought fainting too unmanly.
"Aiyaa," Shampoo acknowledged with an awed expression.
"Well then," said Lotion as the aged Lore Master hobbled her way to the house, flanked by her fellow Elders, Cologne and Siren, "Now that you're here shall we get started putting matters to right?"
"Er…I'd be only too glad to," Peorth glanced around and said, "Oh dear…this is quite a mess, isn't it?"
The panda held up a sign that read, "Bit of a slow day, really," but naturally enough everyone present opted to ignore him…
Comments/Criticisms/Out of Dimension Experiences: Shadowmane@msn.com