Strangers in a Strange Land
Chapter 12
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 12

    Lorelei sat there, holding her teacup in front of her, as if she was paralyzed, following Nabiki's revelation.  "Oh.  Oh my."  She said quietly.  "Oh dear."

    Nabiki laughed shakily.  "Heh... that's just about what my big sister would say in your shoes, Lorelei-san."

    Lorelei blinked, then took a breath.  "Oh.  I'm sorry, I'm not handling this as well as I should."  She looked at Nabiki in concern.  "Nabiki, are you sure about this?"

    Nabiki frowned slightly.  "Do you think I wanted this?  I've never felt anything like it before in my life, but I'm positive that I am not ready for it.  I've tried to deny how I'm feeling, but it's useless."

    Lorelei took another deep breath, then nodded.  "I understand, Nabiki.  I'm sorry that you had to go through this alone."  She leaned forward and put her teacup on the small table.  "We could do some tests to make sure.  I can check the data from your Maiden Circuit in a few minutes.  The machinery to do so is all right here."

    Nabiki hesitated.  "OK... do you have to... open me up?"

    Lorelei nodded but tried to sound reassuring.  "It will be painless, I promise.  We won't even have to shut down any of your systems, alright?"

    Nabiki nodded.  "Alright... I've been morbidly curious about what my insides look like for a while now... is there any way I could watch?"

    Lorelei hesitated, then nodded.  "If you wish, I can set up a monitor for you to see as well.  Do you want to do it now?"

    Nabiki nodded quickly.  "Yes... let's get this over with."

    Lorelei stood and Nabiki joined her.  A moment later the outer door opened and Tamasaburo and Baiko were waiting for them outside.  Lorelei and Nabiki exchanged a look of comprehension but said nothing, and the foursome headed back towards the labs.  Before long, Lorelei indicated a lab table that was specifically designed for marionettes.

    "Here we are."  Lorelei explained, gesturing.  "Now, you'll have to take off your shirt."

    Nabiki pulled her new shirt over her head without hesitation, a wry smile suddenly gracing her face.  "Is this how you treat all your patients, doctor?"

    Lorelei raised an eyebrow.  "Hmm?"

    Nabiki winked.  "You know, getting them to take of their clothes and lay down for you to... inspect?"  She stressed the last word enticingly, and Lorelei nearly jumped.

    "Nabiki!"  Lorelei said disapprovingly.  "Are you teasing me?"

    Nabiki nodded smugly.  "Absolutely."

    Lorelei tried to hide a smile, then pointed at the table.  "Your bra too, then lay back.  I'll let you see what I'm doing on..." she pointed "that monitor."  Nabiki glanced that way and waited.  Lorelei went to a computer console and turned on the monitor, then wheeled over a complex looking diagnostic device.  She turned it on and let it boot up, then turned back to Nabiki.  "Alright, I can do this with the tools we have here, or if you want, I can show you how to do this yourself."

    Nabiki hesitated.  "You mean opening my chest?  You can show me how to do it to myself?"

    Lorelei nodded.  "Yes, if you wish."

    Nabiki looked thoughtful then nodded.  "Alright, show me.  I might need to know this later."

    Lorelei smiled faintly and bent over Nabiki, putting her hands on her lower chest.  "OK, Nabiki, I want you to put your hands here, and here... just put them on top of mine so you can feel exactly what I'm doing."

    Nabiki tried not to gasp out loud as the petite scientist touched her and did as she was instructed, covering Lorelei's hands with her own.  "OK... now what?"

    Lorelei nodded.  "Without tools this isn't normally possible to do unless the marionette does it herself, at least on Saber models.  Just push like that, and turn slightly... yes."

    Nabiki's eyes widened up as she felt her chest lose all sensation, and she saw a panel open up, the artificial skin parting around it automatically.  "Oh!  I felt that.  When I pushed... something responded inside me and opened up, right?"  She blinked.  "So I can do it by choice, but someone else can't just open up my chest?"

    Lorelei shook her head.  "Not without a special tool.  Anyway, let's take a look."  Nabiki turned to gaze at the monitor and watched Lorelei reach back to the diagnostic machine and pull some wires out, and attach them to a faintly pulsing circular device in the center of her chest.

    Nabiki whistled.  "So that's what it looks like.  That's it, isn't it?  My Maiden Circuit?"

    Lorelei nodded.  "Yes it is... and everything looks fine so far. You're operating perfectly."

    Nabiki sighed.  "Somehow I'd feel better if you told me I had just caught the flu."

    Lorelei blinked, then giggled softly.  "Yes, I suppose that would be good news in your case, wouldn't it?"  She sobered, looking over at Nabiki's face in concern.  "Nabiki, I know this must be terribly hard for you.  I want you to know that no matter what happens I'll always be there for you to talk to."

    Nabiki sighed.  "Thanks, Lorelei."  She waited for awhile as Lorelei turned to the diagnostic machine and read the readout silently.  "So, Doc.  What's the prognosis?"

    Lorelei glanced back at Nabiki, then at the monitor again.  "Well, it appears my theory was correct.  Your Maiden Circuit is functioning properly... and you were right as well.  Your Maiden Circuit has bonded.  From the data I've received from it, it's clear that you've bonded yourself to me."

    Nabiki sighed and lay back.  "I knew it."  She turned her head toward Lorelei again.  "I know this isn't something you wanted, Lorelei, so... so just reverse it.  Do whatever it is you do to switch the thing that's making me... feel like this about you... off.  I don't want you to have to put up with a love sick Nabiki Tendo."  She laughed sadly.  "For that matter, I don't want to have to put up with a love sick Nabiki Tendo."

    Lorelei shook her head.  "I can't do that, Nabiki.  It's not that simple.  The Maiden Circuit isn't something you can just selectively erase and start over with.  If I wanted to erase your bond to me, I'd have to erase all the data on your Maiden Circuit.  It would be like killing you.  That seems a bit too drastic a solution."

    Nabiki blinked incredulously.  "You mean I'm stuck like this?  Isn't there anything else you can do?"

    Lorelei shook her head.  "No...  and even if you asked it of me, I couldn't erase you like that.  I'm afraid there is nothing else I can do scientifically."  She removed the wires from Nabiki's chest and closed the panel.  "I'm sorry."

    Nabiki sat up, shaking her head.  "Don't... don't apologize.  If there is nothing you can do, then there's nothing you can do.  I won't... I can't, hold it against you."

    Lorelei came around the table to stand next to Nabiki.  "I didn't say there was nothing I could do... just that there is nothing I can do scientifically."  She reached out and gathered Nabiki into a hug.  "I won't let you suffer alone, Nabiki."  Lorelei whispered into her ear softly.  "I can't stop you from feeling the way you do, but I won't turn you away."

    Nabiki returned the hug hesitantly, suddenly acutely conscious of her state of undress.  "I....  Lorelei... you don't love me... you're in love with Otaru.  It isn't fair to you...."

    Lorelei pushed away slightly to look Nabiki in the eyes.  "I didn't say that I would end up falling in love with you.  This is just as strange to me as it probably is too you."  She smiled faintly.  "But that doesn't mean I can't be your friend.  Otaru-kun will never see me as anything more than a friend.  He has Lime, Cherry and Bloodberry to occupy his attention.  I never had any intention of competing against them for his heart."  She shrugged.  "And I have yet to find anyone else I was willing to give my heart to."

    Nabiki closed her eyes, allowing herself to enjoy the intimate contact for a few moments longer.  "Well... if we're going to be
friends...."  She began, pushing Lorelei away a bit more with reluctance.  "You had better let me put some clothes on, or I'm likely to get the wrong impression."

    Lorelei backed away with a blush, glancing down at Nabiki's naked chest in embarrassment before whirling to find Nabiki's shirt and bra. "Oh my!"  She picked up the clothing hurriedly and handed it back to Nabiki.  "I didn't mean...."

    Nabiki chuckled quietly.  "I'm sorry, I was teasing you again.  You make it so easy sometimes."

    Lorelei frowned back at her with mock anger.  "Why you!"  She couldn't sustain the look and broke into giggles a moment later, Nabiki joining in just after her.

    Outside the lab, Tamasaburo turned to Baiko calmly.  "It appears there is no longer a need to monitor Nabiki's activities in the palace."

    Baiko nodded back.  "With her bonded to Lorelei, she is no longer a possible threat to her."

    Tamasaburo looked thoughtful.  "With proper training, Nabiki could  serve as an acceptable bodyguard for Lorelei, thus increasing herpossible range of activities without decreasing her level of safety."

    Baiko nodded again.  "Agreed.  As Nabiki's actions are those of a human in most ways, we should see that she is trained as a human would be."

    Tamasaburo blinked.  "Ranma and Akane were to inherit a martial arts Dojo in their past, correct?  Due to their connection to Nabiki, I recommend we request that they begin training her at once."

    Baiko nodded a third time.  "Agreed."


    Nabiki arrived back at Otaru's apartment just before it started to get dark.  She could see activity going on in the restaurant attached to the side of his place and decided to avoid the crowd, going around to the side entrance.  As she entered the house she could hear the sounds of laughter and talk coming from the restaurant area.  She listened for awhile, identifying Ranma's voice, as well as several of Otaru's other marionettes, and some unfamiliar male voices that seemed to be in a good mood.

    She smiled to herself.  "Looks like Ranma is as popular as ever.  I hope they haven't let Akane near the stove yet."

    Cherry's voice came ringing through the door to her suddenly.  "Akane, no!  That's cooking oil!"  A sudden tumult followed the flash of fire, but before long things had settled down and there was another round of good-natured laughter from the restaurant.

    Nabiki crossed her fingers.  "Don't hit anyone, don't hit anyone...."

    Otaru came in behind Nabiki suddenly, carrying a bucket of water.  "I heard something about a fire?"  He blinked.  "Oh, Nabiki!  Good, you're back."

    Nabiki waved a hand at the restaurant in dismissal.  "It sounds like they got it out without any trouble, Otaru."

    Otaru sighed in relief.  "Oh good.  That's the third accident she and Lynx have had today."  He reddened slightly.  "Not that I mean anything by it, Nabiki.  Akane really does seem to try hard... she just...."

    Nabiki rolled her eyes.  "Is a disaster in the kitchen?  I know."

    Otaru shrugged.  "At least she doesn't think gunpowder makes a good flavoring.  Lynx has some very strange ideas about food."

    Nabiki blinked.  "Well, that's a new one."

    Otaru shrugged again.  "If anyone can teach them, it's Cherry.  So, how did things go with Lorelei?  Get your questions answered?"

    Nabiki nodded slowly.  "Most of them, anyway.  We even ran a diagnostic.  I'm fit as a fiddle, everything running just like it

    Otaru nodded.  "That's great!  Are you going to go in and join the party?"

    Nabiki hesitated, then shrugged.  "Why not.  I could use a good laugh or two."

    Inside the restaurant, Ranma was acting as hostess, serving drinks and food, and not quite flirting with the customers, who were warming up to her very quickly.

    One middle-aged customer noticed Otaru and Nabiki entering and waved drunkenly to them.  "Otaru-san, welcome!"  He attempted to pat Ranma's shapely rear end affectionately as she moved past him, only to have the petite redhead dodge the attempt with a wink, causing him to nearly fall off of his stool.  Levering himself back into place with a hearty laugh the man slapped Otaru on the back.  "That's a fine picture of a marionette you have there, Otaru.  How do you always manage to get such beautiful marionettes?"

    Otaru blinked.  "Well, I...."

    The man interrupted, turning to Nabiki with a lecherous smile.  "Is this one yours as well?  She's a cutie too, ain't she?"  He patted the stool next to him.  "Why don't you sit down next to me and keep me company?  What do you say to that?"

    Nabiki's expression was icy calm.  "I really don't think so."  She glared at Otaru once, then walked around to sit in on an empty stool to the right of the stove, well out of reach.

    The man blinked.  "Hey, Otaru, what's wrong with your new one?  Don't tell me you're going to keep them all for yourself, are you?"

    Otaru shook his head.  "No, you don't understand, I...."

    Nabiki interrupted, her right eyebrow twitching dangerously.  "I am not HIS!"

    The man eyed her in confusion.  "Eh?  Not Otaru's?  Who is your master then?"

    Nabiki's eyebrow twitched again, more violently.  "I belong to no one."  She stated with deadly stillness in her body.  "No man is my master!"  She stood up, staring down the quickly sobering man in front of her.  "Don't you ever forget that."  Nabiki turned away and walked out of the room, leaving silence behind her.

    When she was out of the room a wave of shocked whispers followed her.  "No master?  She has a Maiden Circuit, doesn't she?  Where did she come from?"

    The man who Nabiki had shouted at turned to the younger man in confusion.  "Just what is going on here, Otaru-kun?"

    Otaru frowned slightly.  "I was trying to tell you that they weren't mine.  They're just staying with me for awhile, like Panther and Lynx."

    "So where are they from?"  The man asked curiously.  "Why does that one say she doesn't have any master?"

    Otaru hesitated.  "Well... that's a bit complicated really.  It's a long story."

    Several men spoke up.  "Tell us!  Yes tell us the story, Otaru-san!"

    Otaru glanced at Akane and Ranma questioningly.  "Well...."  Akane had been frowning at Ranma from her place next to Cherry but when she caught Otaru's look she just looked helplessly back and shrugged almost imperceptibly.  Ranma had been watching Otaru closely but gave no sign of her thoughts.

    Otaru hesitated for a moment more before turning back to the small group of men.  "Well why not?"  He said, shrugging.  "I guess it all started when Lorelei-san asked us to come down to help her with a problem...."

    Otaru went on to explain, skipping much of the detail about what Godai had claimed about Ranma and the others, giving his own thoughts on the events.  "You see, Godai Kuno was plotting to take over the palace, so he didn't tell us the truth about Ranma and the others.  Not only did he give them Maiden Circuits, but also he gave them the memories of women that lived on Earth.  Kind of like what the Shogun did with Tamasaburo and Baiko, only because they have Maiden Circuits they have
emotions too.  From what Lorelei says, they're practically human."

    Ranma frowned slightly.  < Practically?>  She shrugged and turned slightly away.  < I guess that's what we are... almost human, but not quite.  We're marionettes still, after all.>

    Akane stared at the stove, trying not to react outwardly.  < We're just machines.  What does it matter what we feel?>

    Otaru missed their reactions and kept speaking.  "Anyway, Godai kidnapped Lorelei and tried to blame it on them, but thanks to Gennai we found out that they couldn't have done it.  So we found Akane and turned Ranma back on, and they helped to rescue Lorelei and stop Godai from taking over."  There was a happy cheer, and the men started to ply Otaru
with questions about everything that had happened.

    While Otaru tried to answer everyone, Cherry put a hand on Akane's shoulder in concern.  "Akane, is something wrong?"  The small marionette asked in a low voice.

    Akane shook her head and forced herself to smile.  "It's nothing, Cherry."  < How can I complain to her about being a marionette?  She accepts what she is because it's all she's ever known.  Why should she understand?>

    Cherry looked doubtfully at Akane.  "Well... if you say so."  < Something is obviously bothering both her and Ranma-san.  What could it be?  Perhaps it has something to do with Otaru's story?>

    Cherry put the thought in the back of her mind for later and went back to cooking, waiting for a chance to talk to Otaru about it.

    A few hours later when the restaurant was closed and Akane and Ranma had gone upstairs to help Bloodberry set out the futons, Cherry finally brought the matter up with her master.  "Otaru-sama, I am concerned about Ranma and Akane.  Something is bothering them, and I believe it might have something to do with your story tonight."

    Otaru blinked.  "Oh, really?  I hope I didn't say anything that would offend them...  I guess I don't know how real human girls think.  I wonder what I said?"

    Cherry frowned slightly at that, then brightened.  "That's right! They are real girls.  At least they have the memories and personalities of real girls.  Perhaps they don't like being reminded that they're not human any more?"

    Otaru blinked, then reddened in embarrassment.  "Oh no, what did I say?  They must be feeling awful."  He frowned thoughtfully.  "I never really thought about what it's like for them, but I guess it must be very strange remembering being human, and then waking up as a marionette."

    Cherry nodded slowly, deciding not to take offense at that.  "You're right, Otaru-sama.  I'm sure they're feeling confused and sad."

    Otaru smiled at Cherry.  "You're the best, Cherry.  I don't know what I'd do without you around to help out."  He sighed.  "I'd better go apologize to them."  Without another word Otaru hurried for the stairs and ran up.

    When he reached the top Nabiki confronted him.  "Otaru, I think it's time we discussed a salary for Ranma if you intend for her to keep working as a waitress.  And if you expect me to do your books for you we should talk about my fee for that as well."

    Otaru blinked.  "What?  You want a salary?"  He hesitated.  "Well, around here everyone just pitches in....  We buy things when we need them, so...."

    Nabiki shook her head.  "Not acceptable.  I understand that you've been very generous with us, but we're not staying here forever.  If we want to be able to afford our own place, we're going to need money."

    Otaru blinked again.  "I guess you're right...."  He scratched his head.  "What do you think is fair?"

    Nabiki smiled and took his arm.  "Let's go over your books and see if we can't come up with something we can both agree on."  She started leading the bemused young man off by the arm.

    Otaru stopped suddenly, remembering.  "Oh, I wanted to talk to Ranma and Akane."

    Nabiki glanced at him.  "Oh?  Very well, I'll look over those books while you're talking."  She started downstairs.  "Cherry has them, right?"  Otaru nodded, then turned back around to find Ranma and Akane.  They were in the side room and looked like they were talking quietly, so he went over to join them.

    "Can we talk?"  Otaru began, looking a little embarrassed.  "I wanted to apologize for what I said down in the restaurant."  The two girls looked up at him together, both of them with somber looks on their faces.

    Akane shook her head.  "You didn't say anything wrong, Otaru-san.  We just aren't used to the idea that we're not... that we're not really human anymore.  It's not an easy thing for us to accept."

    Otaru nodded slowly.  "I understand... and I don't think I would deal with it as well as you two if something similar ever happened to me.  I can't imagine what it must feel like to be... well to be so far from the place you knew as home, to be changed into something different....  I don't think I'd be very accepting if I was in your shoes."  He smiled at them warmly.  "If it means anything to you, I think you're two of the bravest people I know."

    Otaru looked back at Bloodberry and Lime, who were getting ready for bed, then back to Ranma and Akane.  "It's taken me a while, but I've started to realize that being a good person doesn't depend on being a flesh and blood human.  Lime and the others are some of the best people I know, and they're machines too.  I'd trust them with my life any day, and I value their lives over anyone else I know.  I don't think being a marionette makes you any less of a person, not if you have a heart."

    Akane smiled gratefully.  "Thank you, Otaru."  She glanced toward Ranma.  "I think I'm beginning to understand a little more about what being changed into something different... can be like for a person.  I know now that it doesn't change who we are inside, it just makes us different on the outside."

    Ranma nodded firmly.  "Didn't I tell you that, Akane?  I figured that out a while ago."  She frowned to herself.  "Not that what's on the outside can't be really annoying to have to live with."

    Akane shook her head.  "Oh?  You've never really explained why being a girl... um, marionette was so bad."

    Ranma chuckled a bit at the slip.  "It's not really being a 'marionette' that's bad."  She explained patiently, putting an emphasis
on the word marionette.  "It's not being yourself anymore that tends to suck."

    Akane looked thoughtful then nodded.  "I never really thought about it that way before, but you're right.  I don't really mind being a marionette so much... although there are things about that I don't like, but not being human is the problem.  I don't feel like me... oh, just about everything feels right, the sensations and everything, but the fact that it's not really my body that I'm in is the worst part."

    Ranma nodded.  "That's the part you gotta get past, Akane.  This is your body now, nobody else's.  You're different, but everyone changes.  You just have to accept who and what you are, and like yourself for what you are, for what you have, rather than what you don't."

    Otaru grinned.  "That's great, Ranma!  You really sound like you've given this a whole lot of thought."

    Ranma rolled her eyes.  "Oh, I don't know, just about two years worth."

    Otaru blinked.  "Huh?"

    Akane giggled.  "I think Ranma means it just felt like two years."  She winked at Ranma, then turned to Otaru.  "Being a marionette isn't all bad.  I'm stronger and faster than I ever was before... if I get hurt Gennai or Lorelei can fix me in no time.  I'm not missing out on much."  Her smile faded slightly.  "I can't do everything as a marionette that I could as a human... but there's a lot I get in exchange."  She sighed.  "If Ranma can deal with it, then so can I."

    Ranma patted her shoulder.  "Now that's the Akane I remember."

    Otaru smiled and nodded.  "I'm glad you two are feeling OK.  I've got to go and talk to Nabiki about your salary now, Ranma.  She's looking out for you, you know."

    Ranma blinked.  "She is?"

    Akane sniffed and nudged her.  "Of course she is.  Nabiki cares too, you know."

    Ranma hesitated a moment, then nodded.  "Yeah, she does."  Otaru nodded and left them to go downstairs again.  Ranma sighed.  "I'm glad that you're able to adjust, Akane.  Otaru seems to think pretty highly of you."

    Akane blinked and turned to Ranma.  "I suppose so... but you're the one that helped the most, Ranma."  She paused for a moment then continued softly.  "You always are."


    The next morning, it was back to business as usual for Otaru and the others.  Ranma continued to waitress at the restaurant, and Akane continued to help Bloodberry with the chores, while Cherry continued to attempt to teach her and Lynx to cook.  Otaru had left early for his boat, and Nabiki finished updating his books, having discussed possible changes with Otaru the night before.  By the time lunch rolled around, Nabiki was finished with all the paperwork she could find.  She ducked into the restaurant to say goodbye.

    "I'm going out."  Nabiki announced as she came through the restaurant door.  "I'll be back tonight."

    Ranma and Cherry both looked up curiously, and Akane walked over to her older sister.  "Where are you going, Nabiki?  Shopping again?"

    Nabiki shrugged nonchalantly.  "I thought I'd see if I could find a job somewhere.  We do need to bring in some money if we're going to move out to our own place sometime, you know."

    Akane frowned guiltily.  "I guess I should be looking too.  They don't really need another waitress here, and Cherry can handle the cooking without me.  It shouldn't just be you and Ranma that get jobs."

    Ranma looked up quickly.  "Hey, Akane, don't worry about it.  I'm just keeping busy.  It was Nabiki's idea that Otaru hire me on a salary...."

    Akane frowned.  "Don't think I can't find a job.  I'll get a great job in no time.  You'll see!"

    Nabiki raised an eyebrow.  "If you say so Sis.  If you need any help looking, tell me.  I probably could find you something too."

    Akane shook her head.  "I can do this myself.  You'll see."  She started pulling off her apron and turned to Cherry.  "Is it OK if I go early?  You don't need my help in the kitchen, do you?"

    Cherry shook her head quickly, beaming.  "Oh no, Akane!  We'll be fine here without you.  Go ahead and go."

    Akane nodded and tossed Cherry her apron.  "I will.  Wish me luck!"  With a wave, Akane marched determinedly out the door.

    Nabiki shook her head.  "Good luck, Akane.  You'll need it."  She sighed.  "Well, I'm off as well.  See you all tonight."  She nodded to Cherry and Ranma, then walked out the front door.  Turning the corner, Nabiki headed directly toward the palace.  She reached castle Japoness after twenty minutes and was escorted in almost immediately upon her arrival.  Lorelei was working in her garden near to the top floor of the palace when Nabiki arrived.

    "Hello Nabiki."  Lorelei smiled as she stood up, brushing herself off.  "What brings you here today?"

    Nabiki hesitated before speaking.  "I... I just thought I'd stop by.  I was going to try and get a job today... but since I was passing by."

    Lorelei nodded calmly, not really believing Nabiki's explanation, but not wanting to upset her.  "That's nice of you.  It can be lonely here in the palace, as I am generally kept from seeing most visitors."

    Nabiki frowned.  "I didn't know.  Don't you have anyone around here to talk to?"

    Lorelei smiled faintly.  "Well the boys down in the cloning chamber always seem pleased to see me when I come down, but we don't really seem to have much in common outside the work."

    Nabiki shook her head.  "That's right.  No other women on the planet to talk to."  She frowned thoughtfully.  "And I'd guess that most of the men tend to put you too far up on a pedestal to talk to."

    Lorelei sighed.  "Even Otaru-san.  I am so 'precious' to everyone that they treat me like I'm made of glass.  It will be nice when the clones are born, and I'm no longer quite so... irreplaceable."

    Nabiki nodded in sudden comprehension.  "It makes you feel like a thing.  An object of value, but not a person, right?"

    Lorelei blinked.  "I suppose so, in a way."  She smiled faintly.  "But you would know what that feels like as well."

    Nabiki shrugged.  "So we have at least one thing in common."

    Lorelei nodded.  "We do.  I want you to know, Nabiki, that I consider you to be a person, not an object.  You're as much a woman as I am, save that you're body is made slightly differently then mine."

    Nabiki frowned.  "Am I really?  Most women aren't programmed to fall in love with the first person they let their guard down with."

    Lorelei sighed.  "I wish it hadn't happened this way... against your will.  I don't consider that a reason to think of you as any less human though.  Being in love, forced or not, is a very human trait.  You know as well as I that humans can be programmed almost as easily as marionettes, given the proper conditions."

    Nabiki blinked.  "I'll give you that one."

    Lorelei smiled and walked over to her.  "Now what is this about you finding a job?"

    Nabiki shrugged.  "We can't exactly freeload off of Otaru forever, and his place is crowded enough with six.  Three extra of us is three too many."

    Lorelei nodded, looking apologetic.  "I should have known I was asking Otaru-san for too much, but he'd never be the one to complain about it."

    Nabiki shook her head.  "No, you were right.  There really wasn't any other place for us to go, so Otaru's was a good compromise."

    Lorelei hesitated.  "If... if you're looking for a job, Tamasaburo and Baiko had a suggestion that they mentioned last night that might serve."

    Nabiki looked suspicious.  "Oh?  And what would that be?"

    Lorelei smiled.  "You could work for me... sort of as a bodyguard and personal aide.  They're always worried about my security, but having a Saber Marionette built just to protect me wasn't something I would agree to."  She hesitated.  "I wouldn't mind having you around, however...."

    Nabiki listened most of the way through, but as Lorelei explained further her face darkened.  "What do you think I am, anyway?  Just because my Maiden Circuit happened to bond to you in my one moment of weakness doesn't mean I want to be your personal slave!"

    Lorelei looked shocked.  "I wasn't suggesting anything of the sort, Nabiki!  I was willing to go along with the idea because I thought it would be nice to have someone around to talk to... someone near my age, intelligent, who doesn't think of me as some sort of symbol of everything female.  I don't want a slave.  I don't want you to feel like you have to do everything I say, but given the circumstances I thought...."

    Nabiki interrupted.  "You thought that I was so head over heels in love with you that I couldn't say no?  Well you can just forget it!"  She turned and started quickly started walking away.

    Lorelei hesitated for a moment too long and Nabiki was through the door and heading down the hall before she could react.  "Nabiki, wait!"  Lorelei started running after her, discarding dignity as she raced into the hall and started to chase the short haired marionette down.  "Nabiki, just listen to me for a minute!"

    Nabiki halted in mid stride and turned around, her face set as if out of stone.  "Fine.  One minute."

    Lorelei stopped in front of her and panted for several seconds.  "Nabiki... please."  She shook her head.  "Don't think I'm trying to use your feelings against you.  On the contrary, I've very concerned about what you've been going through.  I may have inadvertently caused you to bond to me, but I don't want you to suffer because of that.  I know that it hurts for you to be apart from me for even a day.  I designed these circuits, so I should!  I wanted to give you a legitimate way to spend time with me.  If I didn't, you'd find yourself drawn here over and over, driven by your emotions.  You're very strong, I'm sure you could
resist for a long time, but it would make you miserable."

    Nabiki frowned deeper.  "Thirty seconds."

    Lorelei rushed on.  "At least if you're working for me you can control things to some extent.  You have an excuse to come here, and you'll be well paid for your time so you can afford to get your own place if you like.  You needn't actually do anything, just be here.  I do my own cooking and cleaning, and aside from Godai I've never been in any danger, so it's not asking a lot...."

    Nabiki held up a hand.  "Wait right there.  You say you're doing this for me, but why should you?  We barely even know each other, and you've already admitted that you're not sure if you could ever love me.  Why the sudden burst of altruism?"

    Lorelei shook her head.  "It's not altruism.  I've already told you how much of a prisoner I am here.  If you're around, however, I could get out of the palace occasionally, and not have to worry that my every movement was being monitored here inside the palace.  There are few things out there capable of defeating a Saber Marionette, much less one with a Maiden Circuit, and none of them could get to me without notice, especially if you were around."

    Nabiki frowned.  "So I'd really just be a bodyguard?  Despite the body, I'm no fighter... and I've always preferred to let my brain do all my work for me... not my muscles."

    Lorelei nodded.  "I understand.  Listen, Nabiki, I don't wish for you to do anything you don't want to.  Forget the job offer.  I should have thought it out better before even asking you."

    Nabiki hesitated.  "Just a minute.  How much exactly were you thinking of paying me?"

    Lorelei blinked.  "Oh?  I hadn't really considered the exact amount.  Marionettes hold most positions like this, so there isn't a
regular pay scale to compare to.  We're breaking a bit of new ground here, but I don't think it would be fair not to pay you.  As I said, I consider you to be every bit as human as myself."

    Nabiki nodded, frowning thoughtfully.  "Well, it's a unique position, with the possibility of extreme risk.  I'm not quite so sure
there isn't a pay scale to compare it too.  Aren't there a number of companies that rent marionettes on a day by day basis?  What do they charge?"

    Lorelei blinked.  "I'm not sure... but I suppose we could find out."

    Nabiki smiled slightly.  "As I'm more valuable then your average marionette, I'd say my services would go for considerably more, wouldn't you?"

    Lorelei hesitated, then nodded.  "I agree.  Why don't we call up one of those rental services and see what they do charge."  She pointed down the hall.  "There's a phone right over here."  Lorelei led the way to a small room with some couches and a phone in the corner.  "This is supposed to be a waiting room I believe.  They have them all over the palace, apparently."  She picked up the phone.  "Yes, I'd like for you to dial me the number of a local marionette rental shop please.  Yes, put it though to this phone."

    Lorelei waited patiently for several seconds, then nodded to Nabiki.  "Hello?"  She spoke into the receiver, purposely lowering her voice to sound more masculine.  "I'd like to rent a marionette to serve as a bodyguard.  What is your fee per week?"  She blinked.  "I see. Thank you.  I'll call you back."  She hung up and looked at Nabiki.  "They told me that the fee is eight hundred mon a week and up, depending on options."  She frowned slightly.  "I'm not exactly sure how much that amounts to here.  I don't really have the opportunity to go shopping...."

    Nabiki nodded with a grin.  "I do happen to know exactly how much that is.  I took the time to find out when I first came up with the idea of getting a job.  So... if the basic model is worth eight hundred a week, how much do you think you should pay for me?"

    Lorelei hesitated.  "Well... how does two thousand a week sound to you?  I'll have to request it from the council, but I don't think they'll complain too much."

    Nabiki nodded, smiling.  "It's a deal."  She shook her head.  "I don't believe I'm agreeing to do this... but it's more than I'd make anywhere else... and you're right, it does give me an excuse to... be with you."  She took a deep breath.  "OK, consider me hired.  What would you like me to do first?"

    Lorelei smiled at her cheerfully.  "How about lunch?  I'll make it.  All you have to do is eat with me.  Then we can go break the news to whoever handles the money matters here in the palace.  From what Tamasaburo and Baiko told me, however, it shouldn't be any problem.  They seemed quite desperate to get you to agree."

    Nabiki raised an eyebrow.  "So it was a conspiracy, eh?  Maybe I should ask for more than two thousand, and get them to talk me down."

    Lorelei giggled.  "I promise not to tell on you.  It's not my money, anyway."

    Nabiki rubbed her hands together.  "OK, lets go find out whoever it is that pays the bills around here and find out what the market will bear... and after I've made a meal out of them, then you can make me lunch so we both can eat."

    Lorelei nodded firmly.  "It's a deal."

End of chapter 12