Strangers in a Strange Land
Chapter 11
By Chris Olsen

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

 Warning, for those extremely allergic to boredom, breakfast and shopping moments ahead!  Some waffy stuff for those extremely allergic to feelings of a non-violent nature.  Oh, and for those fight fans, who are waiting for a good knock down drag it out fight to the death?  Sorry, it's going to be a while.  For everyone else that knows what this story is supposed to be about... read on!  Essential plot stuff is scattered about liberally!  Don't forget to wait two hours after eating before diving in!  Wait, that's swimming.

        Strangers in a Strange Land
         Chapter 11

    Ranma blinked sleepily up at Akane as the short-haired girl tried to shake her awake for the third time.  "What is it, Akane?  Is it time to get up already?"

    Akane gave her sleepy exfiancee one final push and rolled her eyes.  "Ranma, come on.  Everyone else has been awake for awhile now!"

    Ranma blinked and looked up and around.  The door to the small room they had slept in was ajar, and outside she could see Bloodberry folding up a futon, still wearing what she had on when she had gone to bed.  Ranma pushed down the covers and sat up, inadvertently letting the burnt and overlarge kimono she had worn to bed fall to her waist, having come
loose during the night.

    Otaru pushed open the door to their room with a cheerful smile.  "Did you all sleep... erk!"  His eyes went wide and he took a step back in surprise as he got a good look at Ranma's naked chest.

    Akane immediately stepped between Otaru and Ranma, growling at the petite red-head.  "Cover your chest!"  Ranma glanced down, blinked, then hurriedly did so, pulling the kimono up.  Akane smiled wanly to the young man standing dumbfounded in front of her.  "Please excuse us, Otaru-san."  She noticed Bloodberry glaring their way incredulously and she bowed slightly to her as well.  "Sorry Bloodberry."  Akane pulled the double doors shut in front of Otaru.  "We'll be out in just a minute."

    Akane whirled on Ranma, her face turning a bit red.  "Ranma!  How could you embarrass me like that?"

    Ranma blinked.  "What?  I covered up, didn't I?"

    Akane rolled her eyes.  "Not before giving Otaru and Bloodberry an eyeful you didn't!  Why in the world can't you act like you have a tiny bit of modesty?"

    Ranma shrugged.  "Did I ever before?"

    Akane frowned.  "No, but that doesn't mean you can't start now."  She walked over to the pair of kimonos that Gennai had lent them the night before and took the top one off the pile, tossing it to Ranma.  "Here, put this on.  It should fit better than the one you're wearing... or should I say falling out of, now."

    Ranma shrugged and stood up, shrugging off the borrowed Orange Blossom kimono and letting it fall to her feet, then stepping out of it and unfolding the orange and white kimono that Akane had handed her.  At the sight of the petite red head in nothing but a pair of panties, Akane turned away with a blush.  "Now hurry up.  I need to get changed too."

    Ranma shrugged and started dressing.  "Sure."  She looked around the small room.  "Hey, where's Nabiki, anyway?"

    Akane glanced back at Ranma for a moment before looking away again.  "Nabiki got up a few minutes ago and went downstairs with Lime and Cherry.  You were the one who said you didn't want to freeload, but here you were, sleeping in as everyone else gets ready...."

    Ranma finished dressing and went to the door.  "OK, OK, enough already.  I'm dressed.  What about you, are you going to change?"  She glanced pointedly at the torn kimono Akane was wearing, its left sleeve still missing from when Panther had shot Akane with her laser.

    Akane made a pushing motion with her hands.  "I will in a minute, if you'd leave!  Now shoo, and find something useful to do."

    Ranma nodded quickly, opening the door and stepping through.  "Right, right.  I'll see what everyone else is up to."  The petite red-head shut the door behind her and glanced around the room.  Panther glanced at her with mild interest while handing Bloodberry a folded up futon.

    Bloodberry took the futon and was about to store it in the closet when she noticed Ranma.  "Why you....  Don't think I'm going to let you get away with that.  I haven't even gotten to show Otaru my chest yet, and then you go and spoil it for me!"

    Ranma raised her hands in self-defense.  "Hey!  It was an accident!  That kimono was way too big for me, OK?  With the explosion and all, I'm surprised I didn't pop out of it before then!"

    Bloodberry glared at the smaller girl.  "Well... alright... just as long as it doesn't happen again.  Otaru is mine, alright?"

    Ranma waved her hands in front of her.  "No problem!  Hey, I'm not the slightest bit interested in Otaru that way, trust me."

    Bloodberry brightened.  "No, that's right, isn't it?  He's not your type, is he?"

    Ranma shook her head.  "No way.  I mean, he seems like a nice guy and all, but I just don't go for guys... no offense."

    Bloodberry shrugged, letting her cleavage bounce nicely.  "None taken.  More for me that way."

    Ranma swallowed at the sight, then shook her head.  "Ah... so, what do you guys normally do in the mornings?"

    Bloodberry waved a hand around at the room.  "Well, as you can see, I usually put the futons away first.  Cherry prepares breakfast, downstairs, and Lime usually waters the plants or something."  She nodded to the blond marionette next to her.  "I was showing Panther the ropes.  She and Lynx are here to learn from us you know, how to take care of stuff besides fighting, that is."

    Panther frowned at that.  "Are you saying I can't do anything but fight?"

    Bloodberry grinned slightly.  "Are you saying I'm wrong about that?"

    Panther sniffed at her.  "Fine, you want to see me do something besides fight?  Give me that broom.  I'll clean up this place until you won't recognize it!"

    Bloodberry rolled her eyes.  "That's what I'm afraid of."

    Akane chose that moment to come out of the side room, wearing the black and red kimono Gennai had loaned her.  "Is there anything I can do to help?"

    Bloodberry nodded.  "Well, first we should put your futons away...."

    Akane nodded and turned around to do so.  "OK, no problem."

    Ranma came in to help her, and went to work at getting her own futon ready to be put away.  "I'll give you a hand."

    A minute later, they had finished cleaning up the upstairs.  Panther had, with only a little supervision, managed to sweep the place without destroying anything, which had impressed Bloodberry enough that she had stopped needling her, for the moment at least.  Bloodberry and Panther finished getting dressed and the five of them went down stairs in time to see Otaru coming in the front door with several bottles of milk.

    The young man froze for a moment upon spotting Ranma, but soon relaxed.  "Ah, good.  Akane, did you and Ranma get a good night's sleep last night?"

    Akane nodded pleasantly.  "We did, Otaru-kun.  Thank you."

    Cherry ducked out of the kitchen still wearing her nightshirt.  "Oh good, everyone's up."  She nodded to Akane and started upstairs.  "I'll just finish getting dressed and ready, and breakfast will be in another five minutes or so."

    Lime came in from the back wearing her bodysuit and carrying a water can.  "Breakfast!  Yay!"

    Cherry shooed her up the stairs in front of her.  "Get dressed first, Lime."  The blue haired marionette ran up the stairs with a cheerful wave to everyone, and Cherry followed her more sedately.  Nabiki came out of the kitchen, still in the clothes she had worn the night before, which were slightly rumpled, as she hadn't had anything to change into.

    Before long, everyone had gathered downstairs for breakfast.  Bloodberry had come up with the idea of bringing down the other table from upstairs, so there was enough space for everyone to sit comfortably.

    After only a few bites, Nabiki spoke up.  "This is really good, Cherry.  You could give my big sister Kasumi a run for her money in the cooking department."

    Cherry smiled politely.  "Thank you, Nabiki-san."  The demure, purple haired marionette looked curious.  "I didn't know that you had an elder sister, Nabiki."

    Nabiki blinked, then frowned.  "I don't suppose I do... anymore, anyway.  Kuno had a duplicate of her... but just the image, no memories or Maiden Circuit.  Kasumi was a very good cook, she took excellent care of all of us."  She shrugged.  "That's long in the past now, I suppose."

    Cherry looked apologetic.  "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to bring up a painful memory."

    Nabiki shrugged off the apology.  "It doesn't matter."  She glanced around the table, abruptly changing the subject.  "So, what do you all usually do during a normal day?"

    Otaru answered after a short pause.  "Well, Cherry cooks breakfast and dinner... she handles the restaurant for most of the day as well.  Lime does the shopping, and Bloodberry does most of the other chores around the house.  Faust asked us to help teach Panther and Lynx how to cook, proper etiquette... that sort of thing, so Cherry has been teaching Lynx how to cook, and Bloodberry has been giving Panther pointers on cleaning up and maintaining the house for the last few days.

    Akane looked at Cherry earnestly.  "Cherry, do you think you could teach me too?  I like to cook... but I'm not as good at it as I'd like."

    Cherry nodded with a smile.  "Of course, Akane-san.  If I can teach Lynx how to cook, I can teach anyone."  Lynx raised an eyebrow but didn't otherwise respond.

    Ranma rolled her eyes.  "You've never seen Akane cook before either."

    Akane growled at her warningly.  "Ranma...."

    Cherry continued to smile.  "Nonsense, it just takes hard work and practice!  We'll make a good cook out of Akane before you know it!"

    Ranma sighed, then shrugged.  "Oh well, at least I can't get an upset stomach any more."

    Nabiki chuckled under her breath before speaking up again.  "What about you, Otaru-san?  What do you during the day?"

    Otaru glanced at her.  "Oh?  Well I own my own boat... finally.  I fish for several hours a day, usually, and sell what I catch to the local cannery.  I used to work for them part time as a salesman...."

    Nabiki looked mildly impressed.  "Own your own boat, eh?  That's pretty impressive."

    Otaru shrugged sheepishly.  "It's not that much, really.  It's only a sixteen footer, no engine or anything...."

    Nabiki nodded with mild interest.  "It's a start.  Perhaps I could help you work out a way to expand."

    Otaru blinked.  "Do you know anything about fishing, Nabiki?"

    Nabiki shook her head.  "Not really, but I do know about how to run a business.  I took care of all the money matters for my family... before."

    Otaru looked impressed.  "That's great, Nabiki!  I don't really have much of a head for figures myself.  The first time I tried to run my own business we ended up losing money by the end of the first day."

    Nabiki grinned confidently.  "That will never happen if I'm handling things.  Why don't you show me your books, and I'll see what I can do for a start."

    Otaru hesitated.  "Books?  Cherry keeps one for the restaurant... but I don't exactly have one for the boat yet... I have most of my receipts somewhere...."

    Nabiki sighed.  "Just show me what you've got... I'm starting to understand what you meant by having trouble with figures."

    Otaru laughed nervously.  "Heh... I should have them around somewhere."

    "I'll go get them, Otaru-sama!"  Cherry piped in.  "I know just where they are!"

    Otaru hesitated, then shook his head.  "We can do that later, Cherry.  I was thinking of taking off work today anyway.  We need to go shopping today for our guests.  We need to get some extra futons, and we should go to the clothing stores too."

    Akane opened her eyes wide.  "Otaru, that's not necessary.  We can't afford to pay you back right now, and we couldn't ask you to...."

    Otaru shook his head.  "Don't worry about it, Akane.  I promised Lorelei I'd take care of you three, and I will."

    Ranma frowned.  "I thought I told you I wanted to pay my own way.  We're not going to freeload, alright?"

    Otaru put up his hands defensively.  "I understand.  This is just a loan, OK?  You can't go around in borrowed clothing all the time, right?"

    Ranma hesitated for a moment, then nodded.  "Yeah, I guess you're right... but I'm paying you back, OK?"

    Otaru nodded back.  "Right."  The shopping expedition started soon afterwards.

    As they walked, Nabiki maneuvered herself over by Cherry so they could talk semi-privately.  "Cherry, I was wondering if you could tell me what you know about Maiden Circuits?"

    Cherry blinked, then nodded.  "If you wish, Nabiki-san.  What is it that you wish to know?"

    Nabiki hesitated.  "Well, I was wondering about some of the things Godai said about them, really.  I know they give us emotions... is that right?"

    Cherry nodded.  "They're quite a bit more than that, however.  They hold our personalities... in some ways they are our very lives.  Nothing is more important.  Everything else can be replaced, or fixed, if our Maiden Circuit is destroyed or taken, however, we are, for all intents and purposes, dead."

    Nabiki blinked.  "I see... that's important to know.  Well, I suppose everyone has a weakness.  That doesn't seem too bad."

    Cherry smiled sadly.  "They are in the most protected part of our bodies... but it is not pleasant losing your Maiden Circuit, I'm afraid."

    Nabiki's eyes went wide.  "Don't tell me that you...."

    Cherry nodded.  "Twice, actually.  Once by force, and once by choice, my Maiden Circuit has been removed from my body."  She smiled.  "To save Lorelei, and this world, it was a small price."

    Nabiki was silent for a moment.  "Lorelei mentioned it... when we were imprisoned together.  You sacrificed yourself to save her?"

    Cherry nodded.  "To save her, and the world... and most importantly Otaru-sama.  We would sacrifice anything for his sake."

    Nabiki nodded slowly, not speaking, but looking slightly disturbed.

    The shopping trip seemed to drag on and on.  To Ranma it was horribly boring, but she forced herself to pretend to stay interested.  After what seemed like hours, Nabiki managed to pick out an outfit that suited her.  A pair of light greenish yellow jeans held up with a leather belt, along with a loose fitting blue shirt with a white stripe down the middle that showed off several inches of her stomach.  They couldn't any shoes that she liked at that store, but Cherry and Bloodberry found a green on green shirt the same in the same size for Ranma, and a yellowish brown pair of shorts.

    Cherry gazed at Ranma for several seconds, analyzing her measurements with her onboard sensors.  "Alright, Bloodberry, these should fit Ranma.  Why don't you see if she likes them?"  As Bloodberry walked off toward her fellow red-head, Cherry turned to Lime, who had been fidgeting impatiently for several minutes.  "Lime, Ranma wears a five and a half shoe, could you find her something in her size?  Boots perhaps, in yellow and green if you could find a pair."

    Lime blinked.  "Huh?"  Cherry sighed and repeated the instructions, and then a third time just in case.

    Bloodberry brought the clothing over to Ranma with a grin.  "You're more of a tomboy type, like Panther, right?"  She held out the shirt and shorts.  "Cherry thought the color would suit you.  Go ahead, try em on."  Ranma sighed and went to a changing booth to do so.

    When she came out, Ranma shrugged.  "I like em, can we go?"

    Akane came over, looking amused.  "Don't you know how to shop Ranma?  You don't just take the first thing you see."  She took a good look at Ranma.  "They do suit you though."  Akane smiled.  "We'll take them!  It's good for you to wear something besides all those Chinese clothes you always wear."

    Ranma frowned.  "I like Chinese clothes!"

    Akane rolled her eyes.  "I know... just... try something different once in a while."

    Ranma looked down at herself.  "I thought I was?"

    Akane nodded.  "So you are.  OK, Ranma, lets make a deal.  You pick out at least one thing for yourself today, OK?"

    Ranma blinked.  "And?"

    Akane glared at the smaller girl.  "And that's it.  Just do it, alright?"

    Ranma threw up her hands.  "Alright!  Alright!"

    Lime ran up holding a pair of yellow and green boots that looked like they would come up to the ankle.  "Boots!  And they're the right color too!"

    Ranma blinked, then shrugged.  "Sure, why not?  They look kinda cool."  Trying them on she nodded.  "They fit great Lime.  I guess I'm done, eh?"

    Lime smiled brightly and ran off.  "Yay!  Boots!"

    Akane shook her head.  "Oh no you don't, Ranma.  You need something to sleep in to.  Now come on!"

    Lime ran back, carrying another pair of boots.  "Akane's size!  Akane's size!"

    Akane blinked and checked the foot deep, bright yellow boots with brown trim.  "They are the right size... but I haven't picked out an outfit yet Lime.  I don't know if I'm going to be getting anything that will match."

    Lime pouted.  "Boots."

    Akane glanced at the boots dubiously.  "Well they are cute, but...."

    Lime continued to pout.  "Boots!"

    Akane sighed.  "They're very nice, Lime.  Thank you."

    Lime brightened immediately.  "Boots!  Yay!"  She ran off again to search for another pair.

    Nabiki walked up to them, glancing down at the bright yellow pair of boots Akane was holding.  "Well now, those are... glaring, aren't they?"

    Akane frowned at her older sister.  "Lime picked them out.  She's really trying hard you know."

    Nabiki shrugged.  "Hey, did I say anything about Lime?"

    Lime raced back to them with an even taller pair of bright blue boots, each with a red glass jewel placed on the front decoratively, presenting them to Nabiki.  "Boots!!!"

    Nabiki looked at Lime in mild alarm.  "Lime-chan... this isn't exactly how people usually shop...."

    Lime pouted.  "Boots."

    Nabiki sighed and took the pair of boots from Lime's hands, glancing at the price tag.  "What, only 15 mon!  Alright!"  She patted Lime on the back.  "Great work, girl.  We may make a shopper out of you yet."  She tilted her head.  "Now that I think about it, these are actually kind of cool."  She waved to Otaru.  "Otaru!  We're ready!"  Otaru nodded and went over to pay the store's owner.

    Nabiki took off her sandals and put on her new boots before exiting the store.  "Now we just have to find you something nice, Akane."

    Akane shrugged.  "I really didn't see anything I liked in there.  I was thinking about something getting something special...."  She turned to Bloodberry.  "Bloodberry, I was wondering.  Where do you shop for clothes?"

    Bloodberry grinned.  "OK!  I get the feeling you'll like this place, Akane."  Bloodberry led the way, and Nabiki made her way to the front of the group to be able to talk to the tall marionette.

    "Bloodberry."  Nabiki addressed her in a serious tone.  "Could you tell me something about the relationship between you and Otaru?"

    Bloodberry looked surprised.  "Me and Otaru?  Well... I guess you could say I love him."  She smiled fondly to herself.  "He's a great guy.  He really cares for us."  She frowned slightly sadly.  "I just wish he could take some time to just be with me once in a while."

    Nabiki hesitated before speaking again.  "All three of you love him, don't you?"

    Bloodberry frowned slightly, then glanced back at Cherry and Lime, who were walking on either side of Otaru looking cheerful.  "Yeah."  She sighed, then smiled faintly.  "I think we figured out a while ago that none of us was going to get him just for ourselves.  He likes all of us, and if he knows one of us is hurt, Otaru feels bad."  She shrugged.  "We try and keep it from him... when we're sad, because we can't stand to see him unhappy."  Nabiki's eyes were wide, but again she said nothing.

    Bloodberry shrugged.  "It's hard to explain I guess, if you don't feel the same way about someone yourself.  I'd do anything for him.  Anything at all."  She grinned broadly.  "And one of these days, he'll actually let me!"  She winked knowingly at Nabiki, who found herself chuckling along with the boisterous Saber marionette.

    Before long they arrived at a specialty store, holding a variety of different exotic martial arts supplies and outfits.  Bloodberry gestured around proudly.  "I love this place!  They have all the best stuff in here!"  She walked by a section holding various formfitting outfits like the ones she and Lime wore under their outer clothes and nudged Akane.  "Perfect for getting the attention of your guy, eh?"  She winked at the short haired girl knowingly.  "Or in your case, your girl.  What do you think?"

    Akane blushed slightly, but nodded, eyeing the various outfits thoughtfully.  A dark blue one-piece outfit that covered the legs but would leave the arms bare caught her eye, and she held it up.  It had a white collar, and it looked like it would fit her like a glove.

    She hesitated, then nodded firmly.  "I'll take it."  Walking around the store for something to go with it, she spotted a sleeveless, off white Gi top with light greenish yellow borders.  She grabbed it, holding it up to her body thoughtfully.  "This is a bit like my gi at home... now I need a belt."  After a bit of searching Akane found a black belt to go with the top, and a white headband that she liked.  She went into the dressing room and tried on her choices.

    While Akane was in the dressing room, Nabiki went over to the corner of the store, where Lime was looking interestedly at a rack full of different color sashes.  "Hey Lime, can I talk to you?"

    Lime grinned and posed for her.  "Hoh!"  She tilted her head curiously.  "What do you want to talk about, Nabiki-chan?"

    Nabiki chewed on her lip thoughtfully.  "I wanted to ask you about how you feel... about Otaru, for example.  He's the one you saw when you first woke up, right?"

    Lime nodded happily.  "I love Otaru!"

    Nabiki nodded with a smile.  "I can tell.  So, how do you feel... when you're away from him?"

    Lime thought about that.  "I don't like it.  I want to be with Otaru all the time!"

    Nabiki quirked her head.  "Really?  All the time?"

    Lime blinked.  "Um... well sometimes I go play with my friends in the forest... all the baby Pontas are so cute... and I talk with Yumeji... he's my friend too, and I go to the market and buy things for Cherry...."  She giggled.  "I guess I'm not with Otaru all the time."

    Nabiki nodded in agreement.  "Not all the time.  But you want to be with him when you're not?"

    Lime nodded.  "Yup!"

    Nabiki patted Lime on the top of the head affectionately.  "Thanks for answering my questions, Lime-chan."  She walked over and picked up a large white sash.  "I bet Akane would like this one.  Why don't you take it to Cherry and see if it fits?"  Lime nodded and ran off, and Nabiki sighed to herself.  "I guess there's only one way to know for sure."

    When Akane came out of the dressing room, a minute later, Bloodberry nodded with a grin.  "Looks good, Akane... it needs something more though...  But what?"

    Cherry came up with a large white sash.  "How about this instead of that black belt?  It'll go with your headband."  Akane nodded and took off the belt, then let Cherry tie the sash around her waist from behind.

    Ranma walked up and blinked.  "Hey, Cherry, I don't think you're supposed to put a big bow in back, are you?"

    Akane glanced around to see, and blinked.  "Oh... well, actually...."  She turned around and looked at herself in a mirror.  "Actually I like it like that!"

    Ranma shrugged.  "It's not bad."  Before Akane could respond to that, the short red head glanced off to one side.  "Hey!  Bracers, cool!"  She ran over to a shelf and put a set of dark blue bracers on her forearms.  "Alright, now that's more like it!"  She grinned.  "Hey Akane, see?  I did pick out something!"

    Bloodberry blinked, then nodded.  "Works for me."  She turned back to Akane.  "Hmm, still needs something... ah, I got it."  She went over to a rack and pulled out a pair of leather gloves.  "Try these on."  Akane blinked, then did so.  Bloodberry stepped back and grinned.  "Now that works."

    Ranma wandered over to the glove bin, and pulled out a fingerless glove that looked like it might fit her tiny hands.  "This looks kinda cool too."  She tried it on and flexed her hand experimentally.  "And it don't get in the way either."  She started searching through the pile.  "Now where is the other one...."  Minutes later, gloves strewed across the floor, Ranma growled in annoyance.  "Darn it... and there isn't another pair I like!"  She wrinkled her forehead.  "Well, I don't care, I'll just get the one glove then.  It's still cool."

    Akane sighed.  "You sure, Ranma?"

    Ranma nodded firmly.  "Yeah, let's buy this stuff so we can go home and eat!"

    Akane frowned.  "You still have to get something to sleep in, Ranma."

    Ranma blinked, then walked over to the bodysuits.  "Well... how about one of these?"  She picked out a dark blue shoulderless one that would go halfway down her thighs and just cover her breasts.

    Akane blushed slightly, picturing Ranma in it.  "Er... are you sure you want this one?"

    Ranma shrugged.  "It's for sleeping, right?  I can wear it under my clothes like Lime does, in case I get into a fight where I get my clothes wrecked."  She grinned wickedly over at her ex-fiancee.  "And I'll look damn sexy in it too."  Akane's jaw dropped and Ranma smirked.  "Heh.  Never know when that'll come in handy in a fight... I'll take it."  They headed up to the front to pay for their purchases, and Ranma glanced at Akane hopefully.  "Now we're done, right?"

    Akane nodded.  "For now.  We can get some other stuff after we pay Otaru-san back."

    Ranma nodded happily.  "Great, so we don't have to shop anymore?"

    Akane shook her head.  "Sorry, we still need at least two futons."  Ranma groaned in defeat.

    Nabiki went over to Otaru as they left the martial arts supply shop.  "I think I'll drop by the palace and check up on Lorelei."  She told him calmly.  "I want to ask her some technical questions today.  You can get the futons with Ranma and Akane's help?"

    Otaru nodded, looking slightly dubious.  "Are you sure you want to go by yourself?"

    Nabiki frowned slightly at him.  "Don't tell me you don't trust me."

    Otaru shook his head.  "No, that's not it... you're just really new in this city, so I was worried you'd need a guide or something."

    Nabiki shook her head.  "I won't have any trouble.  I can see the palace from here, and I know the way to your place fine.  Go ahead, I want to talk to Lorelei about some stuff, and it's nothing you can help with, OK?"

    Otaru hesitated.  "Well, OK, I guess you can do what you like.  Just be careful."

    Nabiki raised an eyebrow, but his genuine look of concern won her over.  "I'll be careful.  I promise.  I'll be back at your place before dark, OK?"

    Otaru nodded.  "OK, Nabiki.  Say hi to Lorelei for me."

    Nabiki nodded back and started walking off.  "Sure.  See you later."

    Akane and Ranma watched her walk off in some concern.  "Want me to go after her?"  Ranma whispered.

    Akane shook her head slowly.  "No, Nabiki can take care of herself... and Godai's gone, remember?  No, she'll be fine."

    Ranma nodded once.  "Yeah, you're right."

    Cherry waved for them to catch up, as the rest of the group had gotten a bit ahead.  "Come on, Ranma, Akane.  The futon store is over this way!"


    Nabiki walked toward the palace quickly, but not anywhere near as quickly as she knew she could run.  If anything, Nabiki Tendo prefered to be at least a bit dignified.

    < I do not run!>  Nabiki told herself firmly.  < Not unless there's a damn good reason.>  She ignored the ache in her chest as best as she could.  < I do not let my emotions get the better of me.  I'm the Ice Queen of Furinkan high... I don't let my better judgment be impaired because of my feelings.>

    The trip to the palace seemed to take hours, but it was really more like twenty minutes when she finally reached the front gate.  "I'm here to see Lorelei."  Nabiki told the gate guard coolly as she reached him.  "Where is she?"

    The gate guard hesitated, then held out a hand in front of her.  "Please wait here.  I will relay your message."  He nodded to the other man guarding that gate, and opened a small door in the middle of the gate to let himself through.  Closing the door behind him he hurried off in the direction of the palace.  Nabiki frowned at having to wait, but decided not to make an issue of it.

    When she was about to start complaining about the wait, the guard that she had first spoken to came back accompanied by the palace's main sentries, Tamasaburo and Baiko.  "Come with us."  Baiko told her, and they both turned to lead the way toward the main castle.  Nabiki followed along without bothering to strike up a conversation with the two stoic palace sentries, instead focusing on memorizing their route, as well as all of the landmarks on the way in.

    After entering the palace they headed to an elevator, which they took down several flights of stairs.  The elevator opened up into a futuristic corridor, which led to an equally impressive looking laboratory.  Lorelei was inside, bent over a computer, and a marionette with short red hair was up against one wall with her eyes closed, enclosed in some sort of diagnostic device.

    Lorelei looked up as they came in and her questioning look turned into a genuine smile.  "Nabiki!  It's good to see you again."  She stood up and walked over to the middle Tendo sister.  "What brings you here today?"

    Nabiki smiled back at Lorelei, finding herself smiling genuinely for the second time that day.  "Actually I had some questions I wanted to ask you."  She walked into the room to meet Lorelei half way.  "It's... good to see you too though."

    Lorelei quirked her head sideways questioningly.  "What questions do you have for me?"  The demure scientist glanced around as if just noticing their surroundings.  "Oh dear... where are my manners.  Would you like some tea?  Why don't we go sit down some place a bit more pleasant, and we can talk."

    Nabiki nodded.  "I'd like that.  Please."

    Lorelei nodded.  "Good.  I've been meaning to stop for a break for hours now, but I just can't seem to find a good excuse, so I am glad you stopped by."  She started leading Nabiki out of the room, and Nabiki followed with a glance back at the marionette standing in the complicated looking device in the lab.  "Since that isn't one of the Orange Blossoms, can I ask who that is?"

    Lorelei smiled faintly.  "That is Tiger... I've been trying to fix her Maiden Circuit for almost a week now... being kidnapped stalled my research slightly...."

    Nabiki nodded.  "You mentioned something about that before.  Have you had any luck?"

    Lorelei hesitated.  "Not really, I'm afraid.  I believe I can repair her, but I'm not quite sure how to go about it yet.  Since it's her Maiden Circuit that's damaged, its quite tricky, I'm afraid."

    Nabiki nodded again.  "I can imagine."  The two women were silent for awhile as they continued walking.  When they reached the small tearoom Nabiki saw with slight amusement that there were already two cups set out for them on a tray.

    Lorelei smiled.  "They do a very good job of anticipating my needs here."  She sighed faintly.  "Well, most of them, anyway."

    Nabiki felt a twang of sympathy.  "I think I understand.  You're stuck here, aren't you?  You're the one and only female on the planet, so they treat you like the crown jewels."

    Lorelei smiled faintly.  "Except I'm not on display five days a week."  They shared a chuckle, and they both sat down on either side of the small table in the center of the room.  "Now then... how can I help you?"

    Nabiki hesitated, then glanced at Tamasaburo and Baiko.  "Could we talk... privately?"

    Lorelei blinked, then nodded, turning too the two palace guards.  "Please leave us for now."  She ordered quietly.  "I'm in no danger in Nabiki's company."

    The two Amazonlike marionettes exchanged a long glance, then turned back to Lorelei.  "Very well."  Baiko agreed.  "We will be outside if you call."  They bowed slightly and left.  Lorelei blinked in faint surprise.  "They actually left me alone?  Will wonders never cease."

    Nabiki frowned slightly.  < Why did they, I wonder?  I had the impression they didn't really trust me.>

    Outside the small room, the two sentries looked in though a large panel of one way glass.  Tamasaburo's finger was on a button, while Baiko stood ready to burst through the glass at any sign of danger.

    Baiko spoke quietly, so as not to be heard through the glass.  "Must we leave her unprotected?"

    Tamasaburo shook her head.  "She is not unprotected.  At any sign of danger, you will attack, while I will activate the hidden panel beneath Lorelei, taking her clear of the threat... should Nabiki turn out to be one."  She paused, then continued, never taking her eyes of the other room.  "Lorelei is becoming restless enough that she is likely to take chances with her safety, unless we allow her some sense of freedom. This is a necessary risk at this point."

    Baiko nodded in agreement.  "Yes.  Nabiki's combat abilities are minimal, in comparison to our own at this point.  I should be able to reach her with approximately 0.03 seconds to spare.  Given a worst case scenario that is."

    Tamasaburo nodded.  "Agreed."

    Back in the tearoom, Nabiki finally broached the subject she had come about.  "Lorelei, I wanted to ask you what you could tell me about Maiden Circuits."

    Lorelei blinked.  "What exactly was it about Maiden Circuits that you wanted to know?"

    Nabiki hesitated for a moment.  "Well... when Godai Kuno first told us about them, he said that they should have caused us to become loyal to them upon first sight... but obviously they didn't.  Do you have any idea of why that might have been?"

    Lorelei put one finger along the side of her face, thinking intently.  "Hmm... interesting.  Yes, I did wonder a bit about that myself... but I think I can come up with a reasonable theory or two."

    Nabiki gestured for her to continue.  "Please do."

    Lorelei nodded.  "Alright.  Godai suggested that your Maiden Circuits were somehow at fault, correct?"

    Nabiki nodded.  "Do you think that was the reason?"

    Lorelei shook her head after a moment.  "No, it's possible, but I've given the matter some thought in the meantime and I believe there is another explanation."  She put up a hand.  "This is only a theory, mind you.  You see, Maiden Circuits were designed not only to give a marionette emotions, but as a fail-safe device as well.  The Maiden Circuit, in theory, should cause a marionette with it to emotionally bond to the first friendly face they see.  That way the marionette, despite having emotional responses, would not prove a threat to its creator."

    Nabiki nodded encouragingly.  "In theory."

    Lorelei nodded back.  "And in practice... at least when they are used in the manner for which they were designed.  General Kuno, however, made a considerable change that altered the function of the Maiden Circuit when he created you, Akane, and Ranma.  He gave you memories... a past.  As soon as you became active, those memories affected your Maiden Circuits,
causing them to start maturing at an accelerated rate."

    Nabiki blinked.  "OK, I'm following so far, but why would that cause them not to work like he planned?"

    Lorelei shook her head.  "General Kuno was a genius with computers, but he did not understand people, more specifically, how people mature.  When a baby is first born, it is very impressionable, it bonds emotionally to the first thing it sees... usually its mother.  This bond strengthens over the first few months, and never really goes away.  An adult, however, has passed that stage of bonding.  For a bond to form between adults, a certain minimum of trust is required.  It can happen quickly, but not with just a look, not for an adult."

    Nabiki nodded.  "I... I see.  So... just seeing the Kunos for the first time wouldn't have been enough to bond us to them, because our Maiden Circuits were more mature?"

    Lorelei nodded.  "Exactly.  The bonding only occurs under friendly conditions, remember, even when it works properly.  A newly awakened marionette won't, for example, bond to something that attacks it when it wakes, it will wait until the first amicable contact."

    Nabiki nodded slowly.  "And a marionette with a mature Maiden Circuit would have to feel... amicable about the person she sees to form a bond with them?  In theory, I mean."

    Lorelei nodded.  "That's correct.  In theory.  In fact, I suspect that you, Ranma, and your sister already have bonded, to each other.  It's possible that you didn't even notice, if my theory is correct...."  She frowned.  "But from your line of questioning... and the look on your face, I suppose you have noticed something?"

    Nabiki nodded shakily.  "Yes."

    Lorelei looked concerned.  "What is it, Nabiki?  I thought that perhaps you may have bonded to your sister, especially given the way you obviously care about each other... or perhaps it was Ranma?"

    Nabiki shook her head very slowly.  "No... it wasn't them."  She sat back and took a deep breath.  "You see... I've been keeping my guard up... for a long time.  I've done my best not to let my emotions cloud my thinking... especially when I need to think clearly... as I did when I found myself five hundred years in the future in the body of a robot."  She took another deep breath.  "From what you've said, and I'm inclined to agree with your theory, doctor, is that a marionette will bond with a person they see that makes them feel... happy, I guess, at least a little.  Seeing Ranma and my sister in the same boat I was... all I really felt was my gut clench up inside.  I was worried, scared... I just kept my feelings locked away until I could afford to let them

    Lorelei choked, a look of great sympathy coming over her face.  "Oh Nabiki...."

    Nabiki winced visibly at Lorelei's look of concern.  "Lorelei... don't look at me like that... I don't know if I can say this already."

    Lorelei's eyes went wide.  "Oh my!"

    Nabiki nodded faintly, holding on to the arms of her chair tightly.  "It's true... the person I bonded with... was you."