Mine eye and heart are at a mortal war
How to divide the conquest of thy sight;
Mine eye my heart thy picture's sight would bar,
My heart mine eye the freedom of that right.
My heart doth plead that thou in him dost lie--
A closet never pierced with crystal eyes--
But the defendant doth that plea deny
And says in him thy fair appearance lies.
To 'cide this title is impaneled
A quest of thoughts, all tenants to the heart,
And by their verdict is determined
The clear eye's moiety and the dear heart's part:
   As thus; mine eye's due is thy outward part,
   And my heart's right thy inward love of heart.

-William Shakespeare
 Sonnet XLVI

THY INWARD LOVE

by Richard Lawson

Part I: Of Men and Pandas

---

Ranma woke up slowly, as always. Sleep was one of his favorite things in the world, and he begrudged its end.

He patted his chest instinctively; one could never be too sure what one's gender was in the morning. He was thankful that it was male. Much as he had come to almost like his other half, he still thought of himself as a guy and preferred to remain in that form as much as possible.

He sat up and looked over at his father. He currently took up a lot of the floor space. Ranma grumbled to himself; why Pop would fall asleep as a panda remained an utter mystery to him.

Fortunately there was a cure to that. Ranma got up, put on his workout clothes, and walked down to the bathroom. Everyone was still asleep except Kasumi, whom he could hear humming softly to herself in the kitchen. He entered the bathroom, got a bucket, and filled it with warm water. Returning to his bedroom, he sloshed it around a little, relishing the buildup. Then he splashed it over the black and white furry mound.

"Gah!" Pop thrashed about before fixing Ranma with an angry look. "Is that any way to wake your father?"

Grinning, Ranma threw the bucket at his father, ran to the window, and jumped out into the yard. He spun in midair and landed lightly on his feet, waiting for Pop's counterattack.

It took a while in coming, since his father had to get dressed. Finally the bucket came flying at high speed directly at Ranma's face. Ranma blocked it easily with his forearm, knowing it to be a diversion. Sure enough, Pop dropped straight to the ground, then sprung at Ranma's legs. Ranma jumped and used his hands to send his father crashing into a tree.

The old man surprised him, though, using his arms to absorb the impact and then launching himself backwards right where Ranma was falling back to the ground. Ranma's legs got cut out from underneath him. As he fell, he grabbed his father's tunic with his right arm, hoping to bring him down also.

Pop grabbed Ranma's arm and applied pain holds to the elbow and wrist, causing Ranma to cry out. Ranma found himself in an untenable position, partially held off the ground by his father's grip on his arm. His legs didn't have enough purchase to be useful, and his left arm was being used to support his torso so that his right arm didn't get wrenched out of its socket.

Ranma released his father's tunic. Pushing himself up with his left arm, he used his right arm to grip his father's throat. Fighting through the pain, he tightened his grip on his father's arteries, hoping to eventually cause him to pass out.

Seeing that the pain tactic wasn't working, Pop released his hold and leaned forward quickly, letting Ranma drop. Ranma wasn't expecting this, and fell heavily, releasing his grip. The old man grabbed Ranma's tunic with both hands and threw him over his shoulder.

Ranma, in mid-air, knew where he was going to land. He somehow found his way there again and again, yet he never lost his dread of it. Bracing himself, he fell headlong into the pond.

The change was always sudden, and always a shock to his system. In a second, mass shifted itself inside him, taking away from some areas and adding to others. He became smaller and differently balanced. Of course, there were many other changes, internal and external, but these were the ones he felt most keenly.

Ranma broke the surface, frustrated. The old man had won that battle; he hadn't been winning many lately. The pain holds were a particularly vicious tactic. Ranma knew, however, that "Anything Goes" meant literally that. Anything to win the battle.

She readjusted her tunic so that it didn't hang so loosely. Akane had once berated Ranma for not having any "feminine modesty". The last thing Ranma wanted was to have "feminine modesty", but she had finally learned that everyone else became uncomfortable when she flashed her body indiscriminately. Probably just jealousy, Ranma thought. None of 'em have as good a build as I do. Ranma took a strange pleasure in how attractive her female side was.

Pop was circling the pool warily, waiting for Ranma to make a move. Ranma watched for an opening, but the old man was unusually sharp today; he was giving nothing away.

Finally Ranma used her hands to send a huge wave of water splashing towards her father. He cried out and jumped backwards, and in that instant, Ranma launched herself at him. One advantage to this form, Ranma had learned, was that it was much quicker and more responsive. Her male side had strength and reach; her female side had quickness and balance.

Not that she was hurting for strength in this form. She grabbed her father's tunic, flipped over him, hauled him over her shoulders, and sent him flying towards the wall. The old man recovered enough to absorb most of the impact, but enough got through to him to daze him temporarily.

Ranma jumped high up, extended her arm, gave a triumphant shout, and landed astride her father, her fist millimeters away from the tip of his nose. She would merely have had to extend her fist a few centimeters as she came down to have shoved his nose into his brain.

Pop seemed taken aback by this. "Planning to kill me, son?"

She stood up, dripping water on him. "Well, those pain holds weren't exactly nice. Seemed to be the right way to answer."

"An enemy would not hesitate to use any advantage he could, son. You must be prepared!" He shouted the last word as he attempted to sweep Ranma's legs.

She had been expecting this, however, and flipped backwards beyond his reach. She held herself in the ready position, awaiting his next attack.

"Ranma-kun! Uncle Saotome! Breakfast!" Kasumi's voice carried pleasantly across the yard.

Food was another one of Ranma's favorite things. Fortunately, it was one of the old man's favorite things, too. Warily, they walked sideways to the porch, never taking their eyes off of each other, waiting for the other to relax. Finally, Ranma stepped backwards inside the house, which was neutral ground as long as Kasumi was around.

Ranma dropped her guard and walked over to sit next to Akane. Akane was looking at her strangely, which was enough to make Ranma irritated. She wondered what stupid thing Akane was going to be yelling about this morning.

To her surprise, Akane said nothing, and they both ate breakfast in silence. Kasumi chattered brightly away with Uncle Tendo and Nabiki. Nabiki was excited; she was graduating soon, and talked of the upcoming prom and graduation ceremony. Uncle was nearly as excited; any achievement of his daughters seemed to fill him with an inordinate amount of pride. A balance, Ranma supposed, to how much he carried on when something threatened them.

Kasumi smiled at something Nabiki said, then turned to Ranma. "Ranma-kun, don't forget, your mother and I will be cooking dinner tonight."

Ranma brightened; she always looked forward to seeing her mother. After the damage the Saotome home had sustained during the rampages of Ukyo, Shampoo, and Kodachi had been repaired, her mother had announced that, in order to protect the family's limited finances from other such costs, Ranma should continue to live in the Tendo home, which was much better protected. Ranma had been surprised and strangely relieved by Mother's decision. The relief Ranma had felt had also made her feel guilty for some reason. She had brushed those feelings aside and quickly agreed with her mother. Mother came over often enough that she felt like a part of the Tendo household. It was nice not having to live in fear of her anymore. What Ranma still didn't understand is why her father was still staying with the Tendos.

"I won't forget, Kasumi. Just don't let Akane help you this time. That way Pop won't have to eat her disasters as panda food."

Ranma expected a reaction out of either Akane or the old man. Her father just stared at his breakfast, apparently unaffected by the announcement of his wife's visit. Akane did look a little mad, but there was some other emotion on her face that Ranma couldn't recognize.

Ranma shrugged and stood up. She went upstairs, washed, changed (in more ways than one), then came back downstairs. Ranma went into the kitchen to get his lunch, and found Nabiki there, still chatting with Kasumi.

"Do you think we'll be able to afford Nekomi Tech, Nabiki?" Kasumi was wrapping up some lunches as she spoke. "It's awfully expensive."

Nabiki wore a smile that, to Ranma's eyes, looked uncharacteristically warm. "Tatewaki-kun is going to give me a long-term low interest loan. I've worked the details out with his family's accountants; basically, I don't have to start repaying until I graduate. Until I've paid in full, the Kuno family has the right to retain my services free of charge. Kuno-baby has already testified to my business acumen. This will leave our family with enough so that Akane could go to college next year, if she wants."

Ranma looked down at what Nabiki's book bag. It bulged with the two lunches it was carrying. Recently, Nabiki had asked Kasumi to make an extra lunch for Kuno. Nabiki's lunchtimes spent with Kuno were the gossip of Furinkan High. Most of the students speculated that she was after his family's fortune.

Ranma brightened with the answer he thought he'd uncovered. "So that's why you've been so lovey-dovey with Kuno! Gotta hand it to you, Nabiki; you're good at manipulating that moron. After you're in college, maybe we can set him up with Akane and see if he won't give her a lot of money, too."

Nabiki stared at him, her mouth opened wide, a hurt look on her face. It was quickly replaced by outrage. She shifted her feet, turned her torso, hauled her hand back, and slapped him quite hard.

Ranma staggered back a step, aghast. How could he have let that happen? Nabiki had telegraphed that move; he could have blocked it a hundred different ways, or simply stepped back and let it miss him completely. Instead, he had watched her set it up, and he hadn't even braced himself. Where had all his martial arts skills gone? If he left himself that open in a fight, he'd be dead before he hit the ground.

Nabiki, meanwhile, had put her face into his, anger working her features. Ranma was shocked to see that her eyes were moist, on the verge of tears. Nabiki seemed to be trying to find something to say. Apparently unable to formulate any words, she spun on her heel and stormed out of the kitchen.

Ranma looked over at Kasumi, intending to ask her what had just happened. He was brought short by the look on Kasumi's face. Her mouth was turned down, and her forehead was wrinkled just the tiniest bit. On anyone else, it was a just a very slight irritation; on Kasumi, it was a full-blown rage. It chilled him to the bone in a way he hadn't experienced since he thought Akane had died.

"Ranma." Not Ranma-kun; she *was* angry. "That was not a nice thing to say. You must learn to treat your family and your elders with respect and decency."

She held his eyes. Ranma quailed under her gaze; this mild rebuke from Kasumi affected him more than anything Akane had ever yelled at him about. Kasumi finally turned to the sink, putting her back to him, dismissing him.

Ranma stood there, forlorn and forsaken, not understanding why everyone was being so unfair to him this morning. Fortunately, Akane came rushing in. "Come on, Ranma, we'll be late." She grabbed her lunch, and tossed his lunch to him.

Ranma watched the lunch arc towards him, and wondered if he would catch it. His arms seemed quite unwilling to move. Just as it seemed inevitable that it would hit him in the face, he snapped his right arm up and snatched it out of the air a centimeter in front of his nose.

Akane snorted. "Very cute, Ranma. Enough playing around, let's go!" She tugged at his arm.

Ranma gave one last look at Kasumi's unforgiving back, then turned to follow Akane.

They ran to school, Ranma's mind whirling. Nothing made sense so far today, and school hadn't even started.

Akane's voice sounded peculiar. "Ranma, why did you try to kill your father?"

"What!" The question caught him completely off guard. He nearly fell off the fence, only recovering his balance enough to make a graceful dismount. "I didn't kill him!"

Akane stopped and walked back over to him, the strange look on her face again. "You could have. If you had been a little off, he would be dead."

Ranma was really getting angry now; the whole world was against him. "Don't you know me well enough to know I have complete control over my body?"

"Uh huh." Akane's eyes narrowed. "What if you'd been hit by warm water as you were coming down? Your arms would have gotten longer and you would have hit your father."

Ranma made an exasperated sound. "People don't get hit by water for no reason!"

Akane raised an eyebrow. "Nobody else does, you mean."

Ranma glowered at her, but had to admit to himself that she had a point. Water seemed to find him everywhere he went. Admitting it to himself, however, was far different than admitting it to Akane. "You don't know nothing. I would never have touched him."

Akane's familiar, angry face appeared. "I know you well enough, Ranma, to know that you sometimes lose control. If you play these dangerous games, you're gonna end up killing someone!"

Ranma opened his mouth to really let her have it and then froze. Nabiki, in the kitchen, slapping him with the skill of a first-year dojo student, and Ranma unable to stop her. Where had his control been then?

Akane seemed to draw satisfaction from his frozen expression. Turning, she ran off towards school.

Ranma grimaced and ran after her. More than ever, he was regretting letting go of his sleep.

***

Lunchtime brought the students of Furinkan High outside to the warm, late spring air. Akane was surrounded by her friends and was ignoring Ranma, which suited him just fine. He walked through the school yard and leaned against the wall, where he could see Akane laughing. Disgusted, he went over to a tree, sat under it, and discovered that he could see Akane's back. Ranma swore to himself. He was not trying to stay near Akane. He could live without her; he'd show her.

He got up and wandered through the sparse trees. They really had a nice yard here; he wondered how they could afford it. Then again, he thought as he regarded the principal's statue, they could afford a lot of strange stuff.

"Saotome!" The shout was loud and angry, but then again, Kuno often sounded loud and angry when speaking to Ranma. At least, Ranma thought wryly, he sounded angry half the time. The other half he spent spouting love poems while offering Ranma red roses.

Ranma turned to regard Kuno. He was holding his bokken angrily thrust directly at Ranma, and his face was covered with barely suppressed rage. In fact, Ranma thought, he had seldom seen Kuno so worked up. No matter. Kuno on his best day could never handle Ranma single-handedly. Ranma slipped easily into his ready stance, eagerly awaiting the coming battle.

"Tatewaki-kun, no!" Nabiki ran up and pulled on Kuno's arm. "He's not worth it."

Smart girl, Ranma thought. Best not to let the golden goose get pounded yet again.

Kuno's voice took on a much gentler tone, although the anger was still evident. "He has vilified thee, Nabiki-chan, and that I will not abide."

What was with all the endearment stuff? It made Ranma sick to know that Nabiki would let herself sink so low. To call him "Tatewaki-kun" must give her the creeps.

Except...

Except, in the kitchen, she had called him "Tatewaki-kun", and Kuno hadn't even been there.

She would never do that, unless...

Unless she really liked him.

Ranma stood frozen in horrified realization as Kuno shouted some speech about rage, vengeance and the fires of heaven.

Kuno charged, and Ranma tried a clumsy sidestep. Kuno adjusted easily, giving Ranma a good whack on the ribs. Ranma's breath left him, and he doubled over as Kuno followed with a blow to the side of Ranma's head.

Ranma fell, dizzy, trying to get his breath back. He vaguely noticed that someone had put herself between him and Kuno. At a guess, Ranma thought, looking up at the short black hair, it was Akane. She was shouting something, but Ranma couldn't hear it over the ringing in his ears. Nabiki, too, seemed to be doing her part, tugging on Kuno's tunic and talking into his ear.

Kuno calmed down. Assuming his normal air of superiority, he uttered some other speech that Ranma couldn't make out. He then made a majestic turn and walked out of Ranma's line of sight. Nabiki looked down at Ranma, a tremendously satisfied look on her face, before she walked after Kuno.

Ranma laid on the ground, unable to deal with reality. He had lost to Kuno. Kuno, whose martial arts skill was more academic that practical. Ranma could usually dispatch him with one well-placed kick. How had Kuno been able to get through his defenses?

Akane knelt down next to Ranma, asking him a question, a worried look on her face. This was another facet of reality he couldn't accept: Akane had saved him. *She* had come to *his* rescue during a fight.

Ranma couldn't stand it. Getting up, he nearly lost his balance. Akane caught him as he sagged. Throwing her off, Ranma ran from the schoolyard. The rest of the school day be damned; he was not going to stand around and let everyone beat up on him while Akane played the hero.

Coming to a fence, he jumped up on it, more reflex than clear thought. This became evident as he stumbled, still suffering the affects of the blow to his head. He fell, rolled as he hit an embankment, and landed in a stream of water.

Water, Ranma thought disgustedly. Why did it always have to be water.

She sat there and let her head clear. She had a lot to think about, and this was as good a place as any.

Her martial arts skills were extraordinary. This morning, in the battle with Pop, her skills had been as sharp as ever. The old man had pulled a few new tricks, and she had overcome them. The moves came easy, her reflexes swift, her timing perfect. It was moments like those that she lived for, when her body and mind were as one, flowing instinctively, reacting beautifully.

Then Nabiki had slapped her, and Kuno had beaten her. Ranma had responded to those two attacks like she was stuck in slow motion. The skills she had spent a lifetime acquiring had deserted her in an instant.

She spent a long time trying to figure out why. The water soaked and chilled her, but she ignored it, trying to sort things out. It didn't make any sense.

Someone shouted her name; she looked up to see one of her classmates waving at her. She blinked; a lot more time had gone by then she had realized. School must be out. She needed to spend less time going around in mental circles and more time finding the answer.

Maybe, just maybe, there was one person who could provide an answer. The old man had to be good for something. After all, he'd been doing this a lot longer than she had.

Happy to have a plan of some sort, Ranma got up, jumped back on the fence, and made her way home.

She burst through the front door, letting her shoes fly off, and skidded to a halt as she saw Nabiki and Akane climbing up the stairs. They both turned to give her nearly identical cold stares. Ranma shuddered under the impact.

She put her hands in her pockets, hunched her shoulders, and walked by them. Going down the hallway, she could hear the voices of Kasumi and her mother talking in the kitchen. Ranma grimaced; best not to let Mother see her like this.

She went outside and was relieved to see her father in human form sitting on the porch. He was staring out into the yard, his arms and legs crossed, his expression neutral. Ranma sat down next to him.

"Pop, I got a question for you. It's sorta important."

She waited for an answer; after a minute, Pop nodded his head slightly.

Ranma drew a breath. "I've been having... I dunno... I've been freezing up in a couple of fights." Ranma looked down, ashamed. "I let Nabiki slap me when I could have stopped her, and Kuno beat me up pretty easy. And they're not nearly as good as I am!" This last she said angrily. "What's going on? How come I can beat Saffron and Pantyhose and Ryoga, and then all of a sudden Kuno gets through to me?"

She peered up at Pop, who continued to stare straight ahead. His expression wasn't changing; if his eyes weren't open, she would have thought him asleep.

Ranma beat her fist against the floor in frustration. "What is it? Is there a flaw in our technique? How do I... we... keep this from happening?"

"There is a flaw here, son, but it is not in the technique."

Ranma started, for the answer had come from behind her. She felt warm water being poured onto her head. Ranma flinched, then looked up to see his mother lowering a kettle, her normal smile replaced by a sad, quiet look on her face.

She knelt down beside him, set the kettle aside, and put her hands on her thighs. She stared out into the yard. Ranma looked from his mother to his father. They each had neutral expressions on their face, and each seemed to be fixing their gazes at the same point out in the yard. Ranma found the whole thing very disturbing.

His mother spoke in an even, quiet, slightly sad tone. "Your father chose, at a very early age, to devote his life to the 'Anything Goes School of Martial Arts'. This is not a very honorable school; it teaches victory above all else. Your father and his friend learned the art from an unscrupulous man, and they repaid his teachings by sealing him inside a cave.

"Your father was not as amoral as his teacher; some good still remained. Whenever he took part in a fight that conflicted with what he thought was right, he would lose his martial arts prowess and allow himself to be beaten." Mother paused for a moment, her eyes still distant, lost in the past. "In a way, it spoke well for him. He would not allow his superior skills to win a battle he felt he did not deserve to win."

Ranma looked over at his father to see how he was reacting. He continued to stare out into the yard, his face set, unmoving. Ranma turned back to look at his mother.

"Your father felt as you did, Ranma, that there was a fault in his technique. He worked on it with Soun-san, but they could not discover what your father was doing wrong. When Soun-san got married, he had less time to spend on perfecting the art. Your father became obsessed with the 'flaw' in the art. When he met me, he got me excited in a plan to raise a child in the arts; this child would be perfect, and not have the same faults he did."

His mother swallowed, and raised her chin a little. "I was a fool, of course, to think that he would succeed. After you were born, you became his whole life. Or, better put, teaching you the art became his whole life. Soon he left me in order to reduce the 'distractions' our family life caused. I allowed him this, with the stipulation that you become a real man."

Mother paused, and her voice hardened slightly. "I said this because it became apparent, in those days, that your father was not a man. He was a child, grown to adult form. He could not face the faults within himself, so he looked to create a son that would be without faults. He went from place to place, running away from his problems, using the rationalization that you needed to be taught the art. If you would only become a perfect martial artist, anything he had done would be justified."

Ranma could hardly believe what he was hearing. Her even tone belied the emotional impact of her words. Coming from his mother, who usually struck him as a carbon copy of Kasumi, they were devastating. Ranma looked back over at his father, hoping somehow that he would stop this. His father was unchanged, seemed to be carved out of stone. Fearfully, Ranma looked back at Mother.

"I imagine," she continued, somewhat dryly, "that becoming a panda was a great relief for your father. Whenever the world threatened to force him to face his problems, he was a bucketful of water away from assuming a form that didn't have any problems at all. He used his panda form to hide from me when you were first introduced to me as 'Ranko'. That he dragged you into his deception was shameful. That he tried to hide your problems, even when I finally saw you as my son, is further evidence that he is still without honor."

Mother turned her head to stare into Ranma's eyes. Her face was still neutral, but her words were forcefully delivered. "Don't become a panda like your father, Ranma. Rather than run from your problems, face them. There is a voice inside you that is telling you when you are behaving badly. It is that voice that makes you lose the battles you deserve to lose. Listen to the voice, before all it can tell you is to be a panda."

Ranma swallowed, unsure how to respond. He looked at his mother's face, desperately looking for a sign that she was kidding, that this was all a joke of some sort. His eyes wandered to look at the carefully wrapped katana strapped to her back, and he shuddered. He did not want to find out how far she would go to convince him it wasn't a joke.

Mother turned back to stare out into the yard again. "Leave us, son. Your father and I need to talk."

Ranma glanced back at his father, then stood up. His legs were awfully unsteady, and he stood there a moment to try and clear his head. It didn't help, and eventually he turned to go back inside.

"I imagine," he heard his mother say, "that there is someone you know who could help you to listen to the voice."

Ranma gulped, stood still for a moment trying to think of something to say, then went inside.

He wandered down the hallway, going nowhere in particular, his mind in more of a whirl than ever before. He almost missed Nabiki hissing at him from upstairs. She repeated the hiss, more loudly. Looking up, he saw her motion to him furtively to follow her. Ranma stood his ground, unsure what revenge Nabiki was trying to undertake. She gritted her teeth and spoke in an urgent whisper. "Come on! Hurry!" She ran back into her room.

Ranma climbed the stairs slowly, preparing for an attack. For all he knew, Kuno was just inside her door, ready to pounce on him with his bokken. Kuno would be in for a surprise; Ranma felt none of the hesitation he'd had earlier that afternoon.

He stepped warily into the room and blinked. Nabiki was sitting at her desk, wearing headphones and fiddling with her stereo system. He saw a cord going from the receiver across her bed to the window. Walking over to the bed, he could see a microphone hanging just outside the window.

He turned to glare at Nabiki. She looked up at him and saw his anger. Making an annoyed sound, she unplugged her headphones, plugged in a Y-adapter, plugged her headphones back in and offered another set of headphones to Ranma.

Ranma stared at them, knowing what she was offering, unsure if he should accept. He had too many questions, though, and this might be his best bet to learn a few answers. Reluctantly, he took the headphones, put them on, and plugged them in.

All he heard was a hissing sound. He looked at Nabiki, who made a "wait" gesture with her hands. Ranma sat down on her bed.

"WAS THAT REALLY NECESSARY?" His father's voice blared in his ears. Nabiki winced and adjusted the volume. Ranma barely noticed, intent on the words.

"You promised me you would make him a man, Genma. Instead you made him just like you. I will not permit that."

"You go too far, Nodoka. He is a fine young man, and his skills as a martial artist-"

"I don't care about his skills as a martial artist any more. It's his skills as a human being that worry me. He is petulant, impatient, inconsiderate, and disrespectful. Most of all, he's immature. He is not the man you promised."

There was a long silence. Finally, his father spoke. "When I took him away-"

"When you left, I was as glad to see you leave as you were to be gone. I allowed you to take my son because I knew that he meant the whole world to you. If you didn't have him, you had nothing. I had hoped that raising a child would teach you some responsibility. I see that I was wrong."

After another silence, Pop spoke in a quiet voice. "I'm sorry."

Mother's voice was softer. "Genma, I think that's the first time I've ever heard you say those words and mean them, too."

"Nodoka...."

Mother spoke in a sharper voice. "If you think one apology makes up for twenty years of your mistakes, you're very much mistaken. Right now, all that matters to me is getting our son to marry his fiancee."

"Ranma isn't quite ready...."

"HE HAD BETTER BE READY!" At first, Ranma thought Nabiki had turned up the volume. Looking over at her, he saw her hands folded in front of her, her eyes wide. That meant that Mother really had shouted. "I found my son after ten years, and wanted to take him home. AND HE DIDN'T WANT TO GO! He would rather be with *her* than his mother." Mother sounded close to tears. "When our house was wrecked, he was almost relieved; he got to come back and be with her again. I let him stay here because I would rather be a welcome visitor than an unwanted housemate."

Pop said nothing, and after a moment Mother continued. "I don't begrudge her his love. She is a wonderful young woman, and I like her very much. But if Ranma would choose her over me, then he had better be her husband rather than her houseguest." She then spoke slowly and forcefully. "I will not rest until they are married."

Pop spoke somewhat scornfully. "Or until we are dead?"

Mother sighed and sounded tired. "Genma, do you really think I would force my son to kill himself? I had hoped the threat of seppuku would force you to take your responsibilities seriously - certainly nothing else I tried during our marriage worked. For now, I have declared him 'manly' enough to meet our vow. But he has much to learn before he truly is a man."

"Nodoka, what would you have me do?"

"Help our son to grow up. And I don't mean having him learn yet another martial arts technique. Teach him honor, discipline, and respect. I think you know what those things are; you did once. Also, help me to get him married."

There was another silence. Then Mother spoke again. "After that, we will see what is to be done about you and me. If we get that far and you have helped, it will speak very favorably for you."

With that, Ranma heard his mother get up and walk back into the house.

With shaking hands, Ranma removed the headphones and set them on the bed. Nabiki put hers around her neck, her eyes still wide. They looked at each other for a moment.

"About this morning...." Ranma trailed off, swallowed, then continued. "I'm sorry. I wasn't thinking. I didn't mean to hurt you."

Nabiki gave him a weak smile. "That's okay, Ranma. I think you paid for it already."

Ranma nodded glumly and looked down at his hands.

"Ranma, let me give you some advice, based on my personal experience." Nabiki sounded worldly, as if the eleven month difference in their ages was a lifetime. "Go talk to someone. Get it out of your system. You'll just feel miserable until you do."

Ranma looked up at her, unsure what to say. He tried to get some words out of his mouth. "I... it's just... I can't...."

"Not me, idiot. I couldn't care less about what you're feeling." Nabiki thinned her lips and looked off to the side. "All right, I'm sorry, I didn't mean that. I do care." She looked back into Ranma's eyes. "But there's someone who cares more."

Ranma sat absolutely still for a few seconds, thinking. Then he nodded and stood up slowly. He walked over to the door, then turned back towards Nabiki. "By the way, Nabiki, don't ever eavesdrop on me or my parents again."

Nabiki looked amused. "Moi? I would never dream of it, Ranma-kun."

For some reason he couldn't identify, this made Ranma smile briefly. He turned and went down the hallway.

He stopped in front of a closed door. There was a wooden duck on the door, and it had someone's name in English on it. He could make out the individual letters, but for some reason, at this moment, his mind couldn't synthesize a meaning out of the whole.

Ranma stood there, irresolute. Phrases kept flashing through his head. "He is petulant, impatient, inconsiderate, and disrespectful." "You must learn to treat your family and your elders with respect and decency." "I think you know what those things are; you did once." "I know you well enough, Ranma, to know that you sometimes lose control." "I let him stay here because I would rather be a welcome visitor than an unwanted housemate." "He has vilified thee, Nabiki-chan, and that I will not abide." "I was a fool, of course, to think that he would succeed." "Don't become a panda like your father, Ranma."

One phrase stood out from the rest in his mind. "I imagine that there is someone you know who could help you to listen to the voice."

Ranma raised his hand and tapped the door once. When he didn't get a response, he rapped it with his knuckles twice, using more force. After a few seconds a voice called out, "Come in."

Ranma opened Akane's door and stepped inside.

~*~

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