Strangers in a Strange Land
Chapter 10
By Chris Olsen

All the characters in this story are the creation of Akahori Satoru, Kotobuki Tsukasa, and Rumiko Takahashi

        Strangers in a Strange Land
         Chapter 10

    Silence reigned around Castle Japoness' main hall after Nabiki's question.  "Well?"  The middle Tendo sister broke the silence that she had created.  "What's going to happen to us now?  The man who built Ranma, Akane and myself is dead, but does someone still own us?  As far as I've seen, marionettes don't have any rights here."

    Lorelei was the first to answer her.  "I'm afraid you're right, Nabiki.  Of course, up till very recently there was no reason for marionettes to have rights.  The only marionettes with any capability for free will are here in this room... save Tiger of course."  She nodded to Lynx and Panther apologetically.

    Nabiki looked surprised.  "Really?  I didn't realize that Maiden Circuits were quite that rare.  There are only...  nine Maiden Circuits in existence?"

    Lorelei blinked.  "Well... it is possible, I suppose, that there might be more, but there are no others that I am aware of.  The Maiden Circuit is an incredibly sophisticated piece of machinery.  To tell the truth, it was quite surprising to find out that the Kuno's had managed to reproduce them... although the Kuno family was involved in the manufacture of the Maiden Circuits put into Lime, Cherry and Bloodberry.  They were one of the primary manufacturers of many of the components involved in their creation.  I suppose that would explain how Godai Kuno was able to build you three."

    Nabiki blinked.  "I suppose that would explain it.  I'm going to have to brush up on world history a bit more since I'm living here now....  The Kunos didn't bother giving us much information about this place.  All I know I've figured out from newspapers and from talking to people."

    Otaru grinned.  "We can take you to the Pioneer History Museum once it's finished being rebuilt.  The whole story about how we came to this planet is there."

    Lime giggled and bounced up and down a bit.  "I was born in the Pioneer History Museum!"

    Akane, who was sitting to Lime's right, nodded to Lime with a smile.  "That's nice, Lime."

    Lime continued happily.  "Otaru woke me up!  I was the first one he woke up, and he found me in the Pioneer History Museum!"

    Akane nodded again.  "That's nice, Lime."  She blinked suddenly.  "What do you mean by he found you?"

    Lime answered easily.  "I was there waiting for someone to find me, and it was Otaru that did it!  He was the one that we were all waiting for to find us!"

    Akane looked a bit confused.  "I'm not sure I understand, Lime.  You were all waiting for him?"

    Otaru looked embarrassed and Lorelei spoke up to explain for him.  "Ieyasu the Thirteenth planned it that way when he built Lime, Cherry and Bloodberry to rescue me.  He left them all in stasis until someone who could bring their Maiden Circuits to full maturity awakened them. That someone turned out to be Otaru.  He was indeed able to get Lime, Cherry and Bloodberry's Maiden Circuit's fully active, so that the Mesopotamia's main computer would accept them in exchange for me."

    She lowered her head.  "Otaru unfortunately did not know the real reason behind this, only that they were needed to be fully mature to be able to rescue me."  Lorelei smiled faintly.  "Thankfully, Lime, Cherry and Bloodberry were able to return to us anyway, once the colony ship finished breaking down."

    Nabiki nodded.  "I remember you telling me about all of that while we were being held by the Kunos.  So that's what the Maiden Circuits were supposed to be for?  To trade to the computer for you?"

    Lorelei nodded.  "Faust created Lynx, Panther and Tiger for the same purpose, but wasn't able to get their Maiden Circuits to fully mature in time.  Tiger was badly damaged before the process was complete, and then only the ones Ieyasu had built could do it.  It took most of the last three hundred years for the rescue attempt to finally be ready, and a good portion of that was developing the Maiden Circuits.  Japoness and Garlant, Faust's nation, were the only two nations that completed work on Maiden Circuits... as far as I know, anyway."

    Gennai spoke up.  "I'd never heard anything about Maiden Circuits before meeting Lime and company.  The technology certainly isn't available to anyone outside the government, or government contractors, anyway.  I'd know!  I know most of what there is to know about marionettes, at least the more conventional kind."

    Nabiki frowned slightly.  "So... we're unique.  I'd just about figured as much.  Which is pretty much why I'm wondering what happens next?  Do Lime, Cherry and the others have any rights, or are they treated like the other Marionettes I've seen."

    Otaru shook his head.  "No one treats them badly, not in this town!  They deserve to be treated like everyone else is... only better.  They've saved the world.  They're heroes!  Everybody likes them."

    Lime nodded cheerfully.  "I have lots of friends!  Hana-chan... Yumi-chan, Gennai-san, Gemini-chan...."

    Bloodberry and Cherry exchanged a meaningful look that Nabiki caught.  "What about you two?  How does everyone treat you?"

    Cherry hesitated before answering.  "Everyone is quite pleasant here in Japoness.  Our neighbors treat us with a great deal of respect, and the local merchants adapted quite quickly to us as well."

    Bloodberry shrugged, grinning.  "Of course it doesn't hurt that we helped defeat Garlant almost single handedly during the war.  Otaru was the man of the year here in Japoness you know!"

    Nabiki took all of that in quietly.  "So... you all live with Otaru-san?"

    Otaru nodded.  "All five.  Faust asked us to help Lynx and Panther learn more about normal life, so they've been staying with us for awhile.  It's a bit crowded, but nothing serious."

    Lorelei spoke up.  "You, Ranma and Akane could stay here at the palace with me.  It gets lonely here sometimes, all by myself."

    Ranma blinked.  "You want us to stay in the castle?  Really?"

    Lorelei nodded.  "If you'd like.  You probably will find it... difficult if you remain at the Kuno estate, and I couldn't let you go homeless.  I feel I owe you all at least that much."

    Akane bowed low to her.  "Thank you very much, Lorelei-san.  I can't say how much I appreciate this."

    Tamasaburo and Baiko glanced at each other, then at Lorelei.  "Lorelei, are you sure this is wise?"  Baiko asked quietly.  "There are certain security concerns here in the palace...."

    Lorelei frowned.  "I don't think Ranma, Akane or Nabiki are any threat to security."

    Baiko hesitated.  "Lorelei, may we speak with you privately?"

    Lorelei raised an eyebrow.  "Oh?  Yes, very well."  She rose and followed Tamasaburo and Baiko outside of the main hall.

    Tamasaburo closed the door to the room behind them before she spoke up.  "At this point they might not pose any threat, but might I remind you that Ranma has at least twice penetrated castle security for her own reasons, and that Nabiki was the one who kidnapped you and held you in the Kuno mansion?  All three of them were designed and built by General Kuno.  Who knows what hazards they may present?"

    Lorelei shook her head.  "I disabled the device that controlled Nabiki, and I don't believe there is anything else that would make them threats to us."

    Baiko spoke up.  "They possess the bodies of Saber Marionettes, and have proven to surpass even Lime, Cherry and Bloodberry in power.  We know nothing about them, save what they have told us.  While it is true that they assisted in retaking the castle, and rescuing you, there is nothing to say that they do not have a private agenda.  If even part of what they have told you is true, then they have all the memories of three humans from the past.  Would you trust any human with the power they

    Lorelei hesitated.  "Not just any human... perhaps, but Otaru-san holds a great deal of power.  Lime, Cherry and Bloodberry would do anything for him, and you trust him with that power."

    Baiko responded immediately.  "The previous Shogun trusted Otaru-dono after a long series of subtle tests.  He would not have been allowed to be in charge of Lime and the others if he had not proven to be of impeccable character.  He has had repeated opportunities to use Lime and the others for his own benefit, but has not done so.  His loyalty to Japoness is unquestionable, at least so much as can be said for any human."

    Tamasaburo continued.  "Lime, Cherry and Bloodberry's loyalty is to Otaru, and is even more complete than Otaru's loyalty to Japoness.  If he can be trusted, so can they.  Lynx and Panther are loyal to Faust.  If they were not currently under Otaru's supervision, they would be much more closely watched.  Certainly, they would not be allowed into the palace without Lime, Cherry and Bloodberry here as safeguards."

    Lorelei protested.  "They aren't a threat anymore either.  Faust would never do anything to hurt me...."

    Baiko nodded.  "That is most likely true, but while your safety IS the most important security issue, it is not the only one we have to be concerned with.  Also," she pointed out, "Ranma and Akane may have helped rescue you and stop Godai Kuno for their own reasons.  They have every reason to have hated him, if everything they say is true."

    Lorelei sighed.  "So you're saying that Ranma, Akane and Nabiki cannot stay here in the palace?"

    Tamasaburo nodded.  "That is correct.  We will also be increasing our security measures to prevent further break-ins, now that we know that it is still possible."

    Lorelei sighed.  "We should do something for them.  They don't deserve to be put out on the street."

    Baiko shook her head.  "Nor would leaving them on their own be advisable, as they would be unmonitored.  It would be our recommendation that you request for Otaru Mamiya to take them into his charge, at least until a more permanent solution can be found."

    Lorelei sagged a bit.  "Poor Otaru... I hate to ask this of him.  He's done so much for this country and this world, already."

    Baiko stared at her expressionlessly.  "If it would be possible to shut them down for the time being, so that their systems and programming might be fully tested, then...."

    Lorelei hesitated, then shook her head.  "I don't think they would agree to that, and I certainly wouldn't blame them if they refused."  She sighed.  "I will ask Otaru-san, since there seems to be no other choice."

    Lorelei slid open the door and forced herself to smile politely.  "I'm sorry we took so long.  Now, what were we discussing?"

    Nabiki spoke up.  "Before you left we were talking about where we might stay.  If you are worried about security here at the palace, perhaps we could find our own place.  We've been talking with Otaru and the others, and I think it's possible for us to find jobs here in the city, and pay for a place to stay."

    Lime chimed in.  "Cherry is our washboard girl!"

    Otaru shook his head.  "That's signboard girl."  He glanced at Ranma and Akane to explain.  "Cherry cooks for our little restaurant.  She's a great cook."

    Ranma spoke up.  "I used to work for a restaurant.  I could work as a waitress again I guess."  She shrugged.  "If you needed any help that is...."  Ranma leaned over nearer to Otaru to whisper.  "Just don't let Akane anywhere near the stove.  Her cooking could bring down a horse."

    Lime spoke up quietly off to the side, "What's a horse?"

    Akane punched her ex-fiancee in the back of the head lightly, mindful of where they were sitting.  "I heard that, idiot."

    Lorelei spoke up.  "That's a good idea.  Otaru-san, if it wouldn't be too much trouble, do you think you could let Ranma, Akane and Nabiki stay with you for awhile?  Just until they become used to life here on Terra Two.  You are the best person to help them with adjusting, Otaru."

    Otaru blinked.  "Er... um... sure."  He glanced at Nabiki, who looked back coolly, then over at Ranma and Akane who both looked back with concern.  "Sure!"  He repeated with more vigor, smiling broadly.  "I'm a man of Japoness after all.  I'll be glad for you to stay.  I'll take care of you all, don't worry!"

    Akane continued to look concerned.  "It's not necessary, Otaru-san.  We don't want to impose."

    Otaru shook his head.  "No way!  You'll stay with me.  What are three more?  Don't worry about a thing."

    Ranma was frowning, but forced herself to smile.  < Damn it, I don't like this.  Freeloading at the Tendo's was bad enough, and I was going to inherit the place.>  Ranma looked Otaru sharply in the eye.  "We'll pay our own way, alright?  I'm not going to freeload."

    Akane raised an eyebrow.  "Oh no?  You sure didn't seem to mind freeloading at our place."

    Ranma glared at her.  "That was different, I was supposed to be marrying...."  She stopped suddenly, then continued awkwardly.  "Into the family... and I was going to inherit the dojo anyway.  I wasn't just freeloading."

    Nabiki had been watching how the others had all reacted to the announcement that they would be moving into Otaru's place.  Lorelei had seemed slightly nervous, and Tamasaburo and Baiko had remained watchful, not that that told her much.  Lime hadn't really reacted to the news, although Cherry and Bloodberry had shown signs of concern.  Lynx and Panther had taken the news unemotionally, although they had exchanged a meaningful looking glance at the announcement.

    Nabiki concealed her own mixed reactions.  < Why does Lorelei want us to go with Otaru, unless it's because she's not really sure if she can trust us?>  She considered that possibility for a moment.  <Otaru's marionettes are the only ones strong enough to deal with us.>  Nabiki did her best not to sigh.  "Well then, I suppose it's settled.  We'll stay with Otaru until we're ready to get our own place."  She smiled winningly at Otaru, trying to appear grateful.  "Thank you, Otaru-san."

    Otaru put one hand behind his head.  "Don't worry about it.  No problem, no problem at all!"

    Nabiki turned to Lorelei.  "Lorelei, you removed the control program... or whatever... that Godai put into me, right?"

    Lorelei nodded.  "Yes.  There was a small computer hooked up to your central control matrix..., which is something like your nervous system. I removed that, and reconnected the wiring in-between.  I'm planning on going over its programming later, after we get all the Orange Blossoms back on line, anyway."

    Nabiki nodded.  "I understand.  Do Akane and Ranma have similar computers in them?"

    Lorelei blinked.  "I don't think so, at least from what you've told me.  The module I found seemed to be a more recent addition than the rest of your systems.  Its programming seems to be hardwired into its circuitry, so that it could be replicated and put into any other marionette in the same way.  I removed similar devices from several of the surviving Orange Blossoms, and our technicians reported that they were the devices that General Kuno had them installing to increase the combat efficiency of the palace security force.  Those were what was controlling them, as well as giving them access to the techniques of Ranma-san's school of martial arts."

    Nabiki looked slightly disappointed.  "Oh, I guess that means I can't do any of Ranma's moves anymore."

    Lorelei shook her head.  "No, not unless you could do them before."  She glanced at Ranma.  "If you or Akane would like, I could do some diagnostics on your systems and see if there is anything else Godai-san left behind."

    Ranma hesitated.  "Well...."  She shrugged.  "I feel fine, actually.  I could use a good bath, and something to eat, but I didn't get hurt."

    Akane smiled at Lorelei.  "Thank you, Lorelei, but don't you have a lot of more important things to do?  There are all the Orange Blossoms to repair, and Lime told us you're repairing a broken Maiden Circuit too.  We wouldn't want to get in the way."

    Gennai slapped his knee.  "I can give the ladies a check up if they like, Lorelei.  I'm no genius, but I know my way around well enough."

    Lorelei nodded.  "Of course.  You will tell me if there are any problems, alright?"  Ranma, Akane and Nabiki all nodded.

    Otaru spoke up.  "Ranma reminded me.  I'm feeling hungry too, and it's getting really late.  We should go back to my place and eat something, and see what we can do about getting some extra futons for you three."

    Lorelei nodded.  "It is very late, and I'm sure we can all use a rest.  I'll see you all soon.  Thank you all again for your assistance."

    Ranma nodded easily.  "No problem."  Akane smiled and nodded as well. Nabiki looked at Lorelei thoughtfully then shrugged.

    Otaru stood and the other marionettes followed him to the door.  "Come on, you three."  He waved for them to join him.  "I'll show you the way."  Akane, Ranma and Nabiki rose as well, and the whole group filed out of the main hall, trailed slightly by Gennai.

    As they left the palace, Ranma glanced at her ex-fiancee.  "Hey, Akane.  You sure you don't want Lorelei-san taking a look at you?  She practically invented marionettes after all, right?"

    Akane shook her head.  "No, Gennai-san did a great job repairing my arm.  I'm sure we'll be fine with him."  She turned to the white haired old man.  "I have to thank you for that again, Gennai.  You did do a wonderful job."

    Gennai nodded with a smile.  "I was happy to help, Akane-chan.  I was lucky enough to have the materials on hand, just in case Lime or one of the others needs a repair.  It's not easy getting materials of that quality you know!  Saber Marionettes are generally military grade at least."

    Akane looked shocked.  "Oh my.  I had no idea it was that expensive....  I'll pay you back, I promise!"

    Gennai blinked.  "What?  Oh, nonsense!  I owed you that much and more, for saving Komatsu's life.  If that tree had hit him it would have been my fault, and I never could have lived with myself after that.  No, no, the repairs were nothing at all.  In fact, as I see you and Ranma here need some new clothing, I'd be happy to lend you one or two of Gemini's spare kimonos until you get something of your own.  She's a general-purpose marionette that I have at home.  Nothing like you two, of course.  She certainly won't complain if I lend out some of her clothing."

    Akane was about to protest, but a glance at Ranma's borrowed, much too large and badly burned, orange and green kimono changed her mind.  "Well then... thank you, Gennai-san.  I don't think we have much choice.  Ranma's kimono won't last much longer, and I'd prefer it if she didn't start running around half naked."

    Ranma growled.  "Hey!  It's not like I do it on purpose.  Stuff just... happens, alright?"

    Nabiki chuckled.  "Stuff just 'happens' around you all the time, Saotome.  I never had any problem getting shots to sell to Kuno."

    Gennai looked confused.  "General Kuno?  I don't understand."

    Nabiki blinked.  "Oh yeah, same last name.  No, I'm talking about Tatewaki Kuno, from when we lived on Earth... five hundred years ago or so.  He's the one that had our memories... copied, as I understand it.  He had a huge crush on Ranma and my little sister.  The poor guy just couldn't make up his mind between them."

    Gennai looked interested.  "That's fascinating!  I wasn't aware that they had the technology to do that sort of thing all those years ago."

    Nabiki nodded.  "According to Lorelei, the scientist who Kuno paid to do it, Iago Ikari or something, was some sort of genius, way ahead of his time.  Godai seemed to be pretty bright too, at least for a psychopath.  He did manage to put our memories into these bodies.  Aside from a few tiny physical details, I really can't tell that I'm any different.  It was like waking up from a nap.  One minute I'm over at Kuno-chan's place, and the next I'm on Dr. Frankenstein's table."

    Gennai blinked.  "Frankenstein?"

    Nabiki looked surprised.  "Don't tell me you haven't heard the story of Dr. Frankenstein and his monster."

    Gennai shook his head.  "I'm afraid not.  Much of earth's culture and history have been lost here on Terra Two.  The shuttle that escaped from the Mesopotamia held some records, and Lorelei managed to transmit a bit more from the Mesopotamia's storage banks before she went into suspended animation, but a great deal was lost in the original explosion."

    Nabiki nodded.  "I see.  I guess at least some of the personal histories of the people on the ship survived.  Godai said that they had read the journals of Tatewaki Kuno, not to mention having our memories in storage somehow."

    Gennai nodded.  "The Kuno's were one of Ieyasu the first's ancestors.  Ieyasu, being a scientist by training, had brought along a great deal of information with him on the shuttle, stored in his personal computers.  When the cloning began, they were able to separate out individual traits that made up the genetic codes of many of his ancestors, thanks to Faust's knowledge of genetic engineering.  To preserve some sense of family, each group of clones received a family name from those of Ieyasu and the other's ancestors."  The old man shrugged.  "It's been three hundred years now, but many of those names live on, passed down from Earth to us."

    Nabiki nodded thoughtfully.  "The guys who crash landed here three hundred years ago... they must have been very resourceful to have managed all that.  I'll really have to learn more about this planet's history.  It sounds fascinating."

    Gennai smiled.  "I would be happy to tell you more later.  Perhaps you can tell me something about Earth, and what it was like in your time."

    Nabiki held out her hand.  "It's a deal."

    Several minutes later, the group reached the small apartment complex where Otaru and Gennai lived, Kashahari apartments.  An effeminate looking blond haired young man was waiting out in front, and he ran over to meet Otaru as they approached.

    "Otaru-kun!!!"  Hanagata wailed.  "I was so worried about you!  I heard about everything that happened.  Are you alright?  Let me look at your injuries so I can make them all better!"

    Otaru sighed, rolling his eyes in frustration.  "Cherry already bandaged my ribs up, Hanagata, I'm fine."  He fended the overly affectionate man away with one arm.  "It's late, and I'm going to try and get some sleep, so I'll see you tomorrow, OK?"

    Hanagata released Otaru, only to eye Ranma, Akane and Nabiki with suspicion.  "Who are these new marionettes, Otaru-kun?  Don't tell me you're putting up even more of them in your home?"

    Otaru glared at the blond haired man in annoyance.  "It's none of your business, Hanagata."

    Cherry and Bloodberry quickly stepped between Otaru and the annoying young man.  "You heard Otaru."  Bloodberry stated calmly, poking Hanagata firmly in the chest.  "Now beat it, before I have to beat you!"

    Hanagata backed off finally, glaring at the tall red headed marionette.  "Don't think you can keep Otaru-kun for yourselves!  He and I are meant to be together!"

    Cherry stepped in and hit him with a backhand, sending him on a parabolic arc directly to his own door, next to Otaru's place.  "Otaru is not yours!"  She rebutted firmly as he flew through his front door into his living room.  "And you are not meant to be together!"

    Bloodberry blinked at Cherry.  "You didn't hit him very far this time Cherry.  Why is that?"

    Cherry shrugged.  "It's so late, I wouldn't want Yumeji to have to go get him this much after dark."

    Bloodberry nodded.  "Yumeji does care about his older brother a lot, doesn't he?"

    Cherry nodded.  "He's very responsible for eight years old."

    Otaru walked up to his front door and opened it.  "This is our place.  Ranma, Akane, Nabiki, please think of this as your home for now."  Otaru showed everyone inside.  There was a set of stairs going up to the second floor near the front door, and to the left was a medium sized room with a short round table in the center of it, around six feet wide.  There were two other doors wood and paper door leading out of that room, one to the left, and a second across from the entrance.

    Otaru walked inside, and gestured to the door on the left.  "Our restaurant is through there."  He pointed at the stairs.  "And the sleeping quarters are upstairs."  Otaru nodded to the back door.  "The back yard is through there.  We don't have enough futons to spare right now, but we'll see what we can come up with."

    Cherry walked through to the restaurant door and opened it.  "I'll fix us all something to eat while you set things up for our guests, Otaru-sama."

    Otaru nodded.  "Good idea, Cherry."  He mused for a moment.  "Lets see, we have one spare futon...."

    Gennai, who had walked into the doorway behind everyone else spoke up.  "I have a futon you can borrow as well, for company.  If one of you ladies would come over to my place to pick it up?"

    Akane nodded quickly.  "I'll come with you, Gennai-san.  You're very generous."

    Gennai put a hand behind his head and laughed.  "Nonsense!  It's nothing at all.  I get visitors so rarely, I never use it.  Come now, I'll show you where it is.  My apartment is just across the way."

    Otaru turned to Lynx.  "That reminds me.  Hanagata has an extra futon.  Could you go next door and ask if we could borrow it for tonight?"

    Lynx nodded.  "Of course."

    Gennai and Akane started across the apartment complex, and Akane waved at Ranma to follow them.  "Come on, Ranma.  Make yourself useful for once!"  Ranma shrugged and followed them over to Gennai's place.  The old man opened his door and showed them in.

    An attractive marionette in a kimono and with long black hair nodded to them in greeting.  "Welcome... welcome."  While her expression was pleasant, she had the same lack of recognition in her eyes that most non-saber marionette's shared.

    Gennai gestured to her.  "This is Gemini.  Gemini, please bring out the spare futon, will you?"  Gemini blinked slowly, then turned and started walking toward the wall closet.  Gennai nodded and went over to a chest on the floor in the corner of the room.  "Now then, I keep Gemini's spare kimonos in here."  He opened the chest and brought out two folded kimonos, one black and red, the other orange and white.   Gennai turned to Akane and handed them to her.  "Here you go my dear.  Don't worry about returning them right away, Gemini will be fine without them for a week or two."

    Akane bowed to him again and took the kimonos.  "Thank you again, Gennai.  We'll make sure to wash them before we bring them back."  Gemini had opened the closet door and was struggling slightly with the futons inside.

    Ranma stepped over quickly.  "Hey, let me give you a hand there."  She stepped in beside Gemini, holding the futon on the top up so the marionette could pull the bottom one free.

    Gemini brought it out and carried it over to Gennai, who gestured to Ranma.  "Give it to Ranma here, Gemini."

    Gemini nodded slowly and handed the futon to Ranma, who took it with a smile.  "Thank you, Gemini."

    The domestic marionette bowed automatically.  "You are welcome... Ranma."

    Ranma shouldered the burden easily and started for the door.  "Thanks a lot, grandpa."

    Akane slapped Ranma in the back of the head as they walked across the courtyard.  "Can't you try to be even a little bit polite, Ranma?"

    Back in Otaru's apartment, Lime was helpfully showing Nabiki around the main room.  "And this is the cup Otaru made for me!"  She explained, holding up a misshapen bowl with an elongated hand drawn picture of what was probably Lime's face.

    Nabiki regarded it dubiously.  "That's nice, Lime."

    Lime giggled, holding the bowl next to her face for an example.  "I look so funny, don't I?"

    Nabiki laughed quietly and nodded.  "Yes, it does look funny."  She shook her head.  "Must have been too long in the kiln or something."  She glanced over at a chest of drawers which had a hand painted teacup resting on top of it.  "Oh, that's Cherry on this cup here, right?"

    Lime nodded.  "Otaru made one for Cherry and Bloodberry too!  Only mine's special!"

    Nabiki glanced toward the kitchen, where Otaru had gone to help Cherry set up for a late dinner.  "Otaru really cares about you three, doesn't he?"

    Lime nodded firmly.  "Otaru takes good care of us, and I love Otaru!"

    "I can see that."  Nabiki smiled to herself knowingly.  < This guy is worse off than Ranma was!  He's got three girls after him right at home, and a fourth who's the most important person on the planet.  I wonder how Lynx and Panther feel about the guy?>

    Ranma and Akane came back in carrying their bundles, and Bloodberry came down the stairs to greet them.  "Bring that stuff upstairs."  The tall red head instructed.  "I've been setting up the futons for tonight.  I'll show you where you can put yours."

    Panther and Lynx were already upstairs, setting out their own futons as Bloodberry escorted Ranma and Akane into a Spartan room that stretched a good thirty feet across, and fifteen or so wide.  On the far wall was an open double door that took up most of that wall, leading into a smaller room, perhaps fifteen feet square.  Bloodberry led them to the far room, which held several chests of drawers.

    "We keep our clothes and things in here."  She explained.  "The futons go in the closets when we're not using them, and we sleep in the room Panther and Lynx are setting up."

    Akane blinked.  "All of you?"

    Bloodberry blinked.  "Well, it's a bit crowded, so we'll probably leave the doors open to this room so we can use the floor in here too.  In fact, why don't you two and Nabiki take this room."  We can just fit three futons in here with some space to walk, don't you think?"

    Akane hesitated, then nodded.  "Yes, you're right."  She smiled at the taller marionette faintly.  "This will be fine.  Thank you Bloodberry."

    Bloodberry shrugged.  "No problem, Akane."

    Nabiki wandered in, overhearing.  "The three of us in here?"  She glanced at Ranma and Akane slyly.  "You two sure you're OK with that? Wouldn't you like some privacy?"  She winked.  "You know... in case you want to... have some... quality time together?"

    Bloodberry blinked, then glanced from Akane to Ranma, who were both blushing at the suggestion.  "What...?  You don't mean... you two...?"

    Ranma and Akane shook their heads and protested at the same time.  "No way!  We wouldn't!"  They glanced at each other in surprise, then continued.

    "With that tomboy?"  Ranma exclaimed.  "Why would I...?"

    "With that pervert?"  Akane protested simultaneously.  "You've got to be kidding!"  They glanced at each other and blushed again, then pointedly turned away from each other and faced opposite sides of the room.

    Bloodberry scratched her head.  "What's going on here?"

    Lynx walked up, attracted by the commotion.  "If my interpretation of human responses is accurate, they are both prevaricating in their assertions."  She scratched her chin.  "Although I don't quite understand what they are protesting about."

    Bloodberry blinked.  "What?"

    Nabiki translated.  "She means they're both lying through their teeth."  She winked at Lynx.  "And if you'd like to know exactly what they're protesting about, I can explain in detail... for a small fee."

    Akane turned on her older sister angrily.  "Nabiki, quit it!  And stop trying to make a profit off of people we're living with!"

    Nabiki shrugged.  "Hey, that never stopped me before."

    Lynx hesitated.  "I am curious.  Exactly what would you require to fulfill this 'small' fee."

    Nabiki smiled.  "Let's talk about that in private, eh?"  She led Lynx away toward the stairs.  Panther hadn't paid any attention to the commotion and was finishing putting out her bedding, while Bloodberry looked confused.

    "I don't get it."  Bloodberry admitted finally.  "There's been something weird going on between you two since we first met.  What's up?  You're both girls... its not sex...."  Ranma and Akane both turned bright red at that and Bloodberry blinked.  "No way!  That can't be it!"  She looked at one then the other carefully.  "Wait, are you two like Hana-chan?  You know, do you like girls instead of boys?"

    Akane shook her head violently while protesting.  "No!  I'm not like that!"

    Ranma didn't answer at first, too shocked to speak.  "Like... girls?"

    Bloodberry nodded to Ranma in encouragement.  "You know... do you like girls, or guys?"

    Ranma shook her head.  "There's no way I like guys like that, OK?"

    Bloodberry's eyes widened.  "So you do like girls!"  She paused for a second thoughtfully.  "Well... I don't care, as long as you're not after Otaru it doesn't matter to me."

    Akane kept protesting.  "No.  No way!  I am not a pervert like he... like she is!"  Ranma twitched, but pretended to ignore her.

    Bloodberry regarded Akane levelly.  "If you say so.  What's the big deal, anyway?  I mean, it's kinda strange, but no stranger than Hanagata is I guess."

    Akane stopped in mid protest.  "I...."  She shook her head.  "It's not like you think, but it's too much to explain right now."  Akane rolled her eyes.  "I don't know if I could ever explain it."

    Ranma turned to face her ex-fiancee in concern.  "Akane...."

    Akane sighed.  "Never mind, Ranma."  Akane looked at Bloodberry.  "It's complicated... but Nabiki's exaggerating things.  There is no reason we can't share this room with my sister.  We're all girls, after all."  She glared at Ranma, waiting for the red head to contradict her.

    Ranma just put up her hands in surrender.  < Like I want a fight with Akane right now?>  She shook her head when Akane looked away.  < Oh brother... this is going to be uncomfortable.>

    Bloodberry raised an eyebrow.  "Sure, if you say so."  She winked at Akane.  "But if you two ever need to have some... quality time together, you can count on me to help out."

    Akane tried not to fall over.  "Ah... thanks... I guess."  She watched in bemusement as Bloodberry walked away, then turned to Ranma.  "You and your big mouth."

    Ranma held up her hands in protest.  "What did I say?"

    Akane sighed.  "You made her think that we're both lesbians you dolt!"

    Ranma blinked.  "Oh...."  She frowned.  "I ain't no lesbi-whatchamacallit."  She looked to Akane in confusion.  "Am I?"

    Akane hesitated.  "Actually, Ranma, you are... at least right now you are.  A lesbian is a girl that likes other girls... you know... that way."  She narrowed her eyes.  "Unless you've suddenly decided that you like guys like that."

    Ranma waved her hands in front of her face.  "No way!  There's no way I'll ever be like that!"

    Akane shrugged.  "Well, then that makes you a lesbian."

    Ranma blinked.  "Oh."  She nodded slowly.  "I guess so, huh?"  Ranma's face grew thoughtful for several long moments, then slightly sad.  "I guess you're not one, are you.  A lesbian I mean."

    Akane blinked incredulously.  "Of course not!  Why in the world would you think....?"  She went silent for several moments as well.  "Ah... well... that's complicated, OK?"

    Ranma shrugged, pretending it wasn't important.  "It's no big deal, Akane.  I mean, it's not like you have to marry me anymore.  Our families are on earth, and there isn't any dojo for us to inherit.  You can find anyone you like."  She turned around and started setting up the futon she had carried from Gennai's place.  "We should get this place ready, OK?"

    Akane hesitated.  "Ranma...."  She sighed, then picked up another futon and started laying it out as well.  "I suppose so."

    A few minutes later, Cherry called everyone down to the main room downstairs, where she had put out nine bowls of rice and fish, just lightly grilled.  "It's not fancy."  She explained modestly.  "But I hope it will be enough to help everyone get some sleep."

    Otaru smiled at Cherry gratefully.  "It's great, Cherry.  I'm looking forward to a full stomach, and to getting some shuteye!  It has been one heck of a long day!"  It was a tight fit around the table, but everyone dug in with gusto, finishing off the meal quickly and one by one heading upstairs, leaving Cherry and Akane downstairs at the last.

    Cherry started clearing away the dishes and Akane moved to help her.  "I can help you wash up."  The short haired girl offered cheerfully.  "It's the least I can do after you put us up in your home."

    Cherry smiled back.  "It's nice of you to offer, Akane."  She glanced up at the stairs.  "Did you three find a place to sleep tonight?"

    Akane nodded.  "We're taking the back room, if that's alright."

    Cherry smiled and nodded.  "Certainly.  That should work fine."  They worked companionably together for a minute before she spoke again.  "I was curious... what were Nabiki-san and Lynx talking about earlier?"

    Akane rolled her eyes.  "I couldn't say.  You should probably ask Nabiki."

    Cherry blinked.  "Oh.  Well, it was probably nothing important."

    Akane nodded, forcing a cheerful smile on her face.  "Yes, probably nothing important."

    When they got upstairs they were greeted by a line of six futons arranged side by side through the center of the room.  Otaru and the other four marionettes that had been living here previous were in the middle of changing for bed, standing around the room while they undressed.  Akane tried not to blush as she made her way around to the other end of the room to join Ranma and Nabiki in the far room.  She noted with some relief that no one was stripping down past their sleep-ware, only going as far as to remove their outer clothing.

    The ones showing the most skin were Bloodberry and Panther.  Bloodberry apparently wore a tight fitting halter top that showed off plenty of cleavage and her form hugging bicycle pants, while Panther wore a muscle shirt and boxer shorts, much as Ranma had used to.  Lime apparently wore the body suit she had on under her fluffy white shirt to bed.  It was form hugging, but otherwise modest enough, leaving her arms bare, and her legs covered to mid thigh.  Lynx wore her white shirt to bed, and
was laying her skirt, tie, and suspenders in a neat pile.

    Nabiki and Ranma hadn't changed for bed yet, not having anything decent to change into.  Akane joined them, still blushing slightly, and glanced back into the main room.  Otaru had just kicked off his shoes and taken off his jacket, and was getting ready to sleep in his sleeveless shirt and pants, while Cherry had taken off her outer kimono, leaving her wearing a short shirt to sleep in.

    Nabiki wrinkled her nose once, then shrugged.  "I guess it won't kill me to wear a kimono to bed for once."  So saying she pulled back the covers to her own futon to lay down.  Ranma glanced at her own burnt kimono, then at Akane, then got into her futon as well, turning her back on the rest of the room.  Akane glanced out at the others again, and realized that the bra and panties she had on under the kimono showed quite a bit more of herself than she was willing to show at that point.  She
shrugged and got into her own futon.

    "Goodnight, everyone."  Akane called softly toward the other room.

    "Goodnight Akane."  Cherry replied quietly.  "Goodnight Otaru."

    "Goodnight, Cherry."  Otaru replied sleepily.  "Goodnight Lime, goodnight Bloodberry."

    "Goodnight Otaru."  Bloodberry answered.  "Night all."

    "Goodnight Otaru!"  Lime said cheerfully.  "Goodnight Cherry!  Goodnight Bloodberry!  Goodnight Lynx!  Goodnight Panther!  Goodnight Akane!  Goodnight Nabiki!  Goodnight Ranma!"

    Everyone else sighed.  "Goodnight Lime."

    For several long moments the house was quiet, but Lime finally spoke up again.  "Ranma... what's a horse anyway?"

        End Chapter 10