A Brand New Day

Chapter One: Runaway
A Ranma ½ Fanfiction
By Azurite

Ranma ½ is (c) Rumiko Takahashi, Shogakukan, Viz, Kitty, etc. etc. I make no claim to the characters within, but the plot is mine!

Edits: 2/22/06 - Some spelling and grammar tweaks, center justification changed, fangirl Japanese removed


Early Evening, Tendo Training Hall and Dojo in Nerima, Tokyo

A shadowed figure rested against the doorframe of the Tendo household, staring in with a melancholy expression on her face as she watched the annual Christmas festivities ensue. They started at the same time they always did, but so much had changed. People had changed. Everything seemed different now.

"I'm on the outside looking in..." the girl whispered sadly to herself.

"Then why not go inside?" her companion, also hidden in the shadows, asked. The girl turned to him, the dim light from the dojo's Christmas tree partially lighting her face and hair. Dark tresses tied in a tight pigtail gleamed in the multi-colored light, and her normally light eyes were dark as she regarded the young man.

"I- I can't."

"If you stay outside forever, eventually, you'll never get in," the boy sighed. It was no use arguing with this girl; she won every fight without even trying. But the lights -the happiness everyone radiated- made him long for his own home, which he hadn't seen in nearly a year. He knew his companion was feeling the exact same way. Here she was -home- but it was so different from the home she had left eight months ago. She had changed. They had changed. Everything was different, and she was afraid to enter a world where she knew nothing.

"I miss them so much, Ryoga..." the girl whispered again, her voice beginning to shake with sobs. Ryoga quickly comforted the girl with a gentle embrace, and soothed her by stroking her hair. She cried into his shirt, and as the tears fell, she made a single wish. That somehow, some way, she'd be welcomed into their hearts again...

"It'll be all right, Akane..." Ryoga whispered, staring at the sky. He too, made a wish, on a shooting star. He hoped that her family would understand why she had run away. He hoped that the one person he knew she loved would still love her, like he had eight months ago. He hoped everything would just... turn out right.


Eight months previous. Approximately 3:25 AM in the Nerima ward of Tokyo, Japan

Akane couldn't sleep. She had tried everything. She had tried practicing kata, jogging several times around the block, and she'd even tried the warm milk, drowned in cinnamon, honey and a splash of vanilla. Yet she couldn't sleep.

Groaning for the umpteenth time that night (or morning, as it truly was), Akane pushed the covers off her legs and sat upright. She glanced out the window and saw the stars just starting to set. In a matter of hours, the sun would rise, and the moon would finish its trek across the sky. She sighed dolefully and looked out to the koi pond, which glimmered in the moonlight, its waters still.

This was a good as time as any to get up and start the day. She had no school and nothing important to worry about later in the day. Heck, maybe if she got ready fast enough, she'd be able to practice-make-perfect a breakfast for everyone before Kasumi got up at her usual hour of 5:30.

Akane grabbed her clothes and rushed to the bathroom. She decided to save herself the trouble of drawing a bath; it would no doubt awaken someone, and the water would only get cold over the course of the morning. So Akane took a cold shower, washing and rinsing herself with the bucket and then drying with her favorite fuzzy towel. She dressed in a pair of loose fitting sweatpants and a long-sleeved, collared shirt, opened just barely at the neck to allow breathing room.

When she finished, it was already 4:00, but she wasn't feeling any more tired than she had when she had first woken. In fact, she felt energized and ready to start the day. But normally, her days started with Ranma getting knocked into the pond or something. 'But... that hasn't happened recently,' Akane remedied, slowly and quietly making her way downstairs.

She passed the hallway to the dojo and stared at it for a long while. A vision made the halls seem brighter, with colored streamers hanging from the ceiling. Red roses and white ribbons adorned every corner, tabletop, or doorway... the color of joy and festivity, and the color of death to the ties of a family - the colors of a wedding. Though this was a Western wedding, the traditional Japanese beliefs that certain colors and decorations brought ill luck were upheld.

As quickly as it had come, the vision vanished, and the hall was once again dark and bare. However, only a week before, it had been like that. A week before, Akane and Ranma had nearly married...

Nearly.

The very thought shook Akane to the core, as she remembered with great detail what had led them to the event, and just why it hadn't gone through. Ranma hadn't made a decision between all his fiancées, and so they had interrupted in the worst possible way- right when Mr. Saotome and Mr. Tendo attempted a "surprise" wedding. The wedding was indefinitely postponed, leaving the two fiancées with mixed feelings about the whole ordeal.

Truth be told, Akane still didn't know for sure how Ranma felt. The best she had was what she thought she knew he felt... and even that was confusing. But she knew how she felt -though she'd never admit it, even if held at gunpoint. She was disappointed. Not just in herself and Ranma, but in everyone. More in herself than anyone else, but the way she lived life, everyone had a share of blame in the now-dubbed "wedding disaster". She had told Ranma that if he didn't marry her, he'd regret it. No, she was the one who'd regret it. She had regretted it minutes after, hours after, and now, a week after. She had wanted to finally settle down, end all the insanity that came with just being a "fiancée" and not Ranma's wife. Moreover, it would end all the fights for Ranma, the denials of her feelings... she'd finally be able to admit what she'd known in her heart for so long... that she loved him.

'I can't take this anymore...' Akane thought to herself. Every minute was a painful reminder that hell would freeze over before Ranma would make up his mind. Every detail about the house -about the people in it- made Akane think more and more about the pain that came with every wood panel, every nail and tile.

'I... I have to get out of here.' Akane walked blindly back upstairs, her eyes vacant. She knew what she was doing and why, and now that the thought was implanted in her brain, it wouldn't be freed for anything.

Akane slowly rooted her closet, cleaning it to the bone. She packed a camping bag with all her necessities, clothing, and gear. She put a few more layers of clothing on so she wouldn't be cold outside. She put the finishing touches on her room by removing all the pictures and placing them inside a drawer, save a few -one of her family, one of her friends, and one of Ranma. She placed these in a new leather-bound journal Nabiki had given her some time ago, a "little black book" of sorts. She remembered a few new pens and pencils, as well as a wallet, and some stationery. She doubted she'd ever write, but it helped to be prepared anyway.

She removed all the books from her case and put them inside her now-empty closet. She made her bed perfectly, as if Kasumi herself had spread the sheets and folded the blankets. Everything looked as if the room had barely been lived in. Casting a sad, yet satisfied look at her work, Akane picked up her pack and left her room. She hesitantly walked out to the patio, and cast a sad look at all the bedrooms on the second floor.

"Goodbye..." Akane whispered, and blew a gentle kiss up to the room where her fiancé slept. She turned her back on the dojo, and left the complex as the sun rose, and the hour struck 5:00.


Later...

"Hey, wake up Akane, it's... breakfast...?" Ranma poked his head into Akane's room, and suddenly noticed something was very wrong. Had he somehow gone into the wrong room? No, here was Akane's nameplate on the door. Right next to Nabiki and Kasumi's room. Yet... it looked as though it had never been lived in. The furniture was clean and bare; the bookcases empty. The bed was freshly made, as if it had never been slept in, and the closest door was ajar slightly, to reveal nothing hanging on its racks.

"Uhm... Kasumi...!" Ranma managed, calling over his shoulder. The eldest Tendo daughter came up from behind Ranma and asked him what was the matter. When she saw his fixated gaze on the empty room, Kasumi uttered the only thing appropriate she could at the time.

"Oh. My."


Akane had taken a taxi out of Tokyo and asked the driver to drop her as close to the countryside as possible. She'd been wanderingfor the past several hours, and now she was in a forest of sorts. She was desperately hungry, but she realized that for food, the only thing she had packed were some dinky little non-perishables: chips, fruit bars, and a thermos of tea. She did, however, have all of her savings, and a lighter that was part of her emergency travel kit. She wandered a short distance until she found herself in a small village, with no distinguishing signs or postings. It was almost like Ryuzengawa, with the tiny town of Ryugenmachi, having only the necessities: a general store, a bathhouse, a small inn and tavern, and a bed and breakfast that looked more like an abandoned warehouse.

"Where am I now?" a loud voice cried, echoing off the buildings. Akane blinked twice and looked to the source of the shout, and saw birds flying up from the trees just outside the edge of town. A rustle of bushes, and a second later, a soiled, disheveled Ryoga emerged. He looked around hopelessly, and by some chance, his eyes met with Akane's. They simply stared at each other for a moment before Ryoga walked up to her slowly, and then spoke.

"Are you Akane Tendo?" Akane blinked again, her face a mask of surprise, and then blank as a sheet of paper. She should have known.

"Ryoga... what are... what are you doing here?" Ryoga blinked and then grinned, his sharp canines showing out of the corners of his lips.

"So it is you! I ... I don't even know where here is, though..." Ryoga trailed off sheepishly. He scratched the back of his head in embarrassment, and stared at his feet. It had been at least a week since he had come across civilization, and he desperately wanted a bath. Of course, even if Akane noticed, she was much too polite to say anything about it...

"Neither do I. But since you're here..." Akane began. Despite the fact that she had left Nerima to get away from all reminders of her painful life, Ryoga, one of her dear friends, was not as painful a reminder when Ranma wasn't out to get him -for reasons unknown. Just the thought of Ranma made Akane start to tremble, and she felt tears coming on. She bit her lip until she felt the coppery taste of blood in her mouth; she looked up at Ryoga with wavering eyes to see what he was going to say or do.

"Ehm, I sort of need to go to the bathhouse. I mean, you could..." Ryoga trailed off, unable to finish due to embarrassment. Akane also blushed lightly, and then nodded her assent. She wouldn't actually bathe; she had taken a bath just this morning, and despite all her travels, felt clean anyway. Perhaps Ryoga would agree to be her traveling companion; with his random travels, perhaps she could actually get some training or something done. Surely she wouldn't let her "running away" be for naught.

However, if she was to ask him, he first had to be clean and comfortable, she had to be fed, and he had to not wander off somewhere.

"Look, you go take a bath. I'll have some... er, breakfast, and then I'll meet you outside of the men's side. Think you can manage that?" Akane asked, smiling faintly. Ryoga nodded dumbly several times, and entered the bathhouse.

Because the atmosphere here in --wherever here was-- wasn't as luxurious as Tokyo, Akane had to settle for getting a small snack at the restaurant and tavern. She felt very out of place, and rather uncomfortable with all the drunken men leering at her, but, she knew that if any of them tried anything, she'd be able to send them into the stratosphere with ease. They obviously weren't martial artists, and the few that did look close were so drunk, that, unless they were practioners of Drunk-Fu, wouldn't be able to stand up straight in a match.

After waiting a few minutes, Akane got her order: a small sandwich and a drink. She sniffed the drink to make sure it wasn't spiked or anything; she was relieved to find it clean. A kind woman who looked about Nodoka Saotome's age stood behind the counter, smiled, as if to assure Akane that she would take care of the troublemaking men if they did decide to hassle her.

Having gotten her order in a small bag and the drink in a plastic cup with lid, Akane waited outside the hathhouse. There was only one exit, so if Ryoga actually had the mind to Bakansai Tenketsu through the floor, she'd be able to catch him by his trail of rumbles and upthrown dirt and rock. It was relatively sunny outside for this April day, when it was normally humid and rainy. Cherry blossom trees poked their bright pink blossoms through the evergreen trees, adding a bit of color to the otherwise drab scenery. But it seemed to suit the villagers just fine, as none of them looked in the least bored or upset with their surroundings.

"AH! A pervert!"

"I'm sorry!"

BONK! CRASH! SMASH!

Akane sighed. It seemed Ryoga had taken a wrong turn and somehow ended up in the Women's side. He needed to be able to fix that horrible sense of direction of his. It couldn't be permanent, could it? After all, it was just coincidence that both his mother and father had it (unless he was a product of a family marriage... Akane shuddered at the thought), so the gene had to be recessive somehow. Not that Akane desired to get into Ryoga's gene structure. But if guys could turn into girls, then there had to be a way to cure Ryoga's curse of bad direction. Maybe it had something to do with that bandana of his that never came off?

"Ryoga, are you all right?" Akane called into the bathhouse. After a minute of silence, a badly beaten Ryoga stumbled out of the building, covered in bruises (from rinsing buckets and soap bars hitting him, no doubt), but clean nonetheless.

"Didja 'nyone catfh the numba of dath busf?" Ryoga mumbled, and then collapsed into Akane's arms. Akane sighed, and dragged Ryoga on, outside of the town, where things might not be so dangerous.


Back in Nerima...

"Idiotidiotidiotidiotidiot IDI-OT!" Ranma repeated, yelling as he performed a choppy kata.

"Boy, your moves are becoming sharp and uneven! What's wrong with you?" Genma called from the corner. Genma knew it was a stupid question, since Akane had been missing without a trace for almost eight hours now, without word from Nabiki and Soun who were searching for her in her "usual haunts". Ranma was becoming more and more agitated. With one quick slice of his foot, he sawed straight through the dojo floor.

'You shouldn't come with us, son. If Akane calls, or you find out anything, you should be the one to find out where she is. After all, you can get out of Nerima faster than either I or Nabiki can, if anyone does call.'

It was Soun's foolish reasoning, Genma remembered, that had forced Ranma to stay at the dojo. But part of Genma agreed that his best friend was right. If someone did call about Akane, Ranma would want to be the first to know, so he could know where Akane had disappeared to. But it was now 1:00pm, and there was no word from either Nabiki or Soun, who had started searching at 7:00am. And no word from Akane herself, either. No note, no call... nothing. It was obvious this was getting to Ranma.

"I'm home!" a voice called out, causing Ranma to stop mid-kata and rush for the door like the hounds of hell were after him.

"Oh. It's you," Ranma mumbled unenthusiastically as Nabiki, looking incredibly weary, removed her shoes.

"Calm down, Ranma. You might give yourself a heart-attack if you get any more excited," Nabiki remarked sarcastically. Ranma simply rolled his eyes, and looked to either side of Nabiki to see for himself if Nabiki had found Akane. There was no one with her.

"I didn't find her," Nabiki said, a trace of sadness in her voice. She didn't quite understand what would have driven her sister to suddenly leave home without notice, warning, or any kind of message saying why.

"Really? I couldn't tell," Ranma bit back, the maliciousness and sarcasm in his voice greater than Nabiki would have anticipated. She gave him a cold stare and wordlessly headed toward the kitchen to speak with Kasumi.

"Any luck?" Kasumi asked. Nabiki shook her head wearily, and grabbed a box of graham crackers from one of the upper cabinets. Leaning against the counter top while Kasumi prepared a light lunch, she sighed.

"No word from Yuka or Sayuri?" Kasumi asked, methodically stirring the stew which was to be that day's lunch.

"They're still calling around, checking out the places I don't know about that Akane goes to when she's upset. But..." Nabiki looked off into the distance, watching Ranma as he continued practicing his choppy katas in the front yard. "I highly doubt she's still in Nerima."

"Why do you think that, Nabiki?" Kasumi asked, a worried tone creeping into her gentle voice. She was normally so oblivious to the outside world. Kasumi always seemed so cheery and happy, as if nothing could faze her, but it was obvious that, when it came to family, Kasumi had a weak spot.

"Because... she had almost everything with her. Even her camping gear is gone. I think all this craziness has finally got to her."

"Craziness?" Kasumi inquired, almost innocently.

"Oh, come off your high chair, Kasumi." Nabiki turned to her older sister and scowled. This time, Kasumi's sweet and innocent act was really bothering her. Normally, Nabiki could just shrug it off; everyone had his or her own quirks... but Kasumi was acting like there was no wrong in the world. She had been this way since Mother had...

"Akane is upset because stupid Ranma can't make up his stupid mind. She's had enough with the rivals, the hidden vendettas, the bimbos from who-knows-where, the magic potions, the evil demons, panty-thieves, curses and cross dressers. And you know what?" Nabiki continued, her voice on am increasing rise.

"What?" Kasumi asked, almost sounding afraid.

"I agree with her completely." Nabiki finished sorrowfully, chewing on the last of her cracker as she left the kitchen. Kasumi stared after her, the stew forgotten and boiling over into a gooey mess.


"Idiotidiotidiotidiot--IDIOT!" Ranma muttered to himself as he tried to focus and perform his katas. But for some reason, he couldn't do it. He wouldn't even admit it to himself, but he was afraid... worried, concerned, that something had happened to Akane. He had felt this a few times before. When Herb had attacked -and then when Saffron had nearly killed her!- he was so afraid that something had happened again, or that without him, Akane might become careless, and stray into the path of an enemy.

"Calling her an idiot isn't going to bring her back, you know." Nabiki's voice snapped Ranma back to reality, and he paused mid-kata. It was useless for him to even try and do katas now anyway. Without his emotions in check, he couldn't focus, and thus his balance, concentration and grace were all compromised.

"Besides that, you're the fool," Nabiki continued, her eyes narrowing into thin brown slits. Her own eyes were just a shade darker than Akane's, and more brown than her younger sister's near-hazel. He had seen the same look on Akane's face all too many times, after he had insulted her in some way.

'She's right. I'm the idiot...' Ranma thought dismally. Aloud, he said, "How so?"

Nabiki sighed and sauntered over to Ranma, using the unchopped half of a wooden post to rest her elbow on.

"Please, Ranma. Spare me the dumb-boy act. I know how you feel about Akane, I've known for a long time. All this time, while things gradually get worse and worse, you string her and the others -one of them your own best friend, for God's sake- along, not solving your problems, but making them worse. Now, just like before, you might lose her, and for once, not to an enemy you can't fight... but to herself. Even if we don't find out where she's gone, I suggest you attempt to look. Because otherwise, you don't deserve to be called Akane's fiancé."

Nabiki scoffed and continued, "And you always tried to be better than her. Better at singing, better at martial arts, better at acting, her passion. You said you were built better too. That coming from a guy who's not even a guy, but a half-guy, half-girl! Akane's right, you must be proud of your fem-side. She always wanted to be best at something, just so you wouldn't be so cruel and sexist to her, but do you see? No! She's so much better than you at life though. At least she knew how she felt, and could admit it to herself."

Each word brought new pain and truth to Ranma; she was right, and he knew it. He was so stubborn, and he had lost the one thing he had grown to cherish and love, despite the abnormality of his life. And to who? He'd lost Akane to herself. He was horrible. He had spent all this time giving excuses.

'How can I tell her how I feel when I'm not even a whole man? Why would she love some freak like me?'

Excuses, excuses. That's all they were. They didn't make the problems go away; they just put them aside for a short time. And what good did they do him? None... nothing. He had lost. He was utterly defeated, and by the one woman he strived to love and protect if it cost him his own damn life. The one woman who made him act like a complete idiot... and she didn't even notice.

"Dammit..." Ranma whispered, fighting back tears.

For a moment, Nabiki was surprised. She hadn't expected his reaction to bring forth tears. This was Ranma, overconfident, stubborn and pig-headed Ranma Saotome. He knew nothing of emotions like pain, hurt and regret. Or at least Nabiki never thought he did. Mousse had told her about what happened at Jusendo... and how upset Ranma had been, thinking Akane was dead. Not upset. That was a drastic understatement. The understatement of the year, in fact.

Ranma, Mousse had said, had willingly punched himself when he'd accidentally insulted the "dead" Akane. And after she hadn't responded to his words for so long, Ranma had begun to cry, actually cry, into Akane's breast. It was if he had said to the world, 'To hell with martial arts and honor. Because of that, I've lost her, and I renounce all of it!' After all, a martial artist was never to show any weakness, and tenderness and love were considered the ultimate forms weakness. Ranma broke all the rules tenfold with his methods, his feelings, his ways. Through and through, he was still a good person... but Akane's "dying" had shook him to the core, and the damage was irreparable.

"Find my sister, little bro. I need her. You need her." Nabiki gestured with her hand to the newly-arrived Soun, in hysterical tears because he didn't find his 'baby girl.' "We all need her."

Ranma nodded derisively, and rushed into the house and upstairs to get his gear. Without a word to anyone, he left and began his search for Akane. She couldn't have gone far.


Somewhere in the woods...

"Ugh, where- where am I now...?" Ryoga mumbled, rubbing his sore head as he attempted to sit up. He was pushed back to the grassy ground by an unseen hand, and not having the strength to fight back, he complied.

"You should rest, Ryoga," a soft, feminine voice called to him. It was caring, and kind...

"A-Akane? Am I... am I in Nerima?" Ryoga murmured, closing his eyes as the bright sunlight shafting through the treetops glared at him.

"No... I don't know where we are..." Akane frowned. Why should it matter, anyway? As long as it wasn't Nerima, or Jusendo, or any other place filled with craziness. Obviously, Ryoga didn't remember meeting Akane in the small town a while back.

"But..." Ryoga mumbled, confused. Akane shushed him, and he willingly fell asleep under her watchful eyes. Akane sighed. This was going to be a long journey.

Ryoga awoke many hours later, under the night sky. A warm fire crackled nearby, and Akane sat on a rock, roasting something on a long branch. It smelled like meat. Ryoga sniffed twice. Beef jerky. He sat up, fumbling with the covers on his body that he didn't remember how they had gotten there. As his fuzzy memory came back to him, he recalled getting into the men's sideof the bathhouse, and then, when he tried to exit, he'd gone the wrong way. Then he was hit with an onrush of buckets and soap bars. Akane's sweet face looking concernedly at him, and then blackness. Vaguely, he remembered hearing her voice later, but had no visual to associate with the sound.

But how had Akane been wherever he was -if they weren't in Nerima? She herself had said...

"Oh, you're awake... want some food?" Akane held out the skewered meat to Ryoga, and then grinned blithely at his skeptic look. She knew what that look was. It was the same look she had seen on Ranma many times before he made some insulting remark about her cooking abilities- or lack thereof.

'I won't think of that... that...' Akane thought angrily to herself. She had left because of him, and wasn't going to be reminded of him in any way when she was so close to being away from that horrid life. All she wanted to do was start anew... sure, she would have her memories, but...

"It's safe," Akane said automatically, as if speaking outside of herself. "I just bought the raw meat from the town down there, and started cooking it. No spices, no sauces. Just plain meat." Ryoga took it and sniffed it carefully before eating it. He was glad Akane hadn't gotten pork or fish. Of course, Akane had no idea why he didn't like pork, but ever since the Mao Mo Lin "Ghost Cat" incident, he had been turned off fish.

Ryoga ate it tentatively, savoring the taste as he chewed. However, it seemed as the meat quickly became flavorless as millions of questions regarding Akane entered his mind. Why was she here? Here was obviously not Nerima, she had said that... and it was rather obvious, judging from the forest scenery.

"Akane..." Ryoga began, between bites of jerky. He noted quickly that he still wore soiled clothes; well, what was he to expect- that Akane would undress him, and wash his clothes? Just the thought colored the boy's cheeks a deep scarlet. He finally mustered the courage to look up at his companion; after all, she hadn't heard his thoughts. Suddenly seeing her in the firelight made Ryoga gasp a little; she looked so melancholy, and yet so...

'Beautiful...' Ryoga thought to himself. 'Idiot! What's WRONG with you?' Ryoga cursed himself. He had Akari, so why was he...

Ryoga groaned mentally. It seemed that his battle with his heart was not yet over. And being so confused about women in the first place since getting cursed, he didn't really know which side to take. Sure, he liked Akari a lot... but the fact that she all of a sudden loved him just because he beat her pet pig and turned into a piglet... well, it kind of disturbed him. Of course, Akari was beautiful, sweet, and kind... but then, there was Akane. But Akane didn't know about his curse, and yet, she never doubted him. And she seemed to care for him so much... Akane, though she didn't know about his curse, never had a reason to doubt him and cared for him so much...

'How can I think like that when--' Ryoga remembered it. How could he not? Jusendo. Akane... and Ranma. The wedding. Akane wanted to get married to Ranma. She loved Ranma. Suddenly, Ryoga didn't need to hear any reasons from Akane about why she was here. He knew. Though his sense of direction and wandering spirit came from genes or some such, Ryoga knew, from all his travels; someone who'd been hurt had to escape... somehow. Pain was unbearable sometimes, and only getting away from all the craziness that caused it made the pain dissapate.

"Can... can I stay with you, Ryoga? Please?" Akane asked. Over the past few minutes, she had tried not to think of all she left behind. She tried not to think of the people that needed her -at least a little bit. Then again, would they even miss her? Would Kasumi, Nabiki, Nodoka, Mr. Saotome, and her father even care? And... would Ranma?

Akane knew perfectly well why it was always Ranma's opinion of her that was foremost on her mind, but she really didn't want to admit it. Even without his presence harboring over her, it still felt strange to hear herself say that she...

'That I love him...' Akane finished. She looked up again at Ryoga, and noticed that he seemed to be on the alert. She let her breathing quiet, and she too, listened. Somewhere in the distance, bushes rustled. The fire before them crackled. Using her foot, she quickly placed some dirt on top of the glowing embers and dying flames, and poured water on what small amount of heat was left. She continued to listen.

"A girl, you say?" came the distant echo from below, where the town was. There didn't seem to be a reply. Akane peered over the bushes lining the hilltop she and Ryoga were stationed at, and felt her heart come to a grinding slow.

'R-Ranma! How did he...!' Part of Akane wanted to laugh... or cry, or scream in frustration, or run and hide. Another part wanted to be found. Akane didn't like any of her options very much, so withdrew from the bushes, a terrified and pale expression on her face.

"He's here, isn't he?" Ryoga muttered, clearing up his belongings. Akane nodded dumbly, still in shock from the fact that Ranma had FOUND her! How had he known which direction to go, and how had he caught up so fast?

'Stupid... you were sitting here, doing nothing for the past god-knows-how-many hours.'

"You want to go?" Ryoga asked, offering her his hand. Shakily, Akane took it, hoisting her bag on her back as she stood. She cast one longing, sad glance back in the direction Ranma was approaching from. No, she finally decided. No matter why he was here, or how he had found her, she had to get away. It wasn't fair to her, Akane reasoned, that Ranma could make her feel these things, and then dismiss them like they were nothing. Jusendo. The major battles. Everything... he always denied it... he could never come to terms with the fact that...!

Without looking back this time, Akane ran. If she couldn't find love, then she'd run away.

All of a sudden, Ryoga reached out and grabbed her hand. Akane nearly stopped and dragged Ryoga down with her, but ran when she realized why. Footsteps-- other than theirs-- running towards them. A pained cry--

"AKANE! AKANE!" It was Ranma. The inner turmoil surged up in Akane like a wave at high tide.

Go to him!

Run away!

Can't you hear his pain?

He'll just hurt you again!

Akane clutched her head with both hands, causing Ryoga to let go and stop.

"Akane," he began, softly to make sure the quickly approaching Ranma could not see or hear them, "are you sure you want to do this?" Run away? Hide from Ranma, when they both knew what she really felt for him?

"I-I have to..." Akane managed, her breathing labored.

"You have to want to..." Ryoga whispered, even softer than the first time. Ranma was close. His dark hair tied up in a pigtail was now visible from where they hid behind several trees and bushes. Akane's breath was sharp and quick as she watched her fiancé bend down and smell the extinguished flames.

"Not too long ago..." Ranma muttered, just barely loud enough for them to hear. She was around here somewhere, all right. He could sense her. Her aura, though supressed, was glowing mightily from some tiny space. But it was darting around... as if she were moving. It didn't seem possible, but...

'Guess I gotta rely on my other senses, then,' Ranma figured. If Akane were truly hiding around here somewhere, he knew already that no amount of coaxing would bring her back. He had learned that much over the time he had spent in Nerima...

He sniffed. He looked absolutely ridiculous to Akane and Ryoga, both watching him from a shrouded darkness. He was sniffing the air like a rabbit. But unfortunately, however stupid he looked didn't matter-- he was coming right toward them.

"He can smell you," Ryoga hissed. Akane blushed in the darkness; she never would have thought that someone could track her by her scent. After all, she had been traveling for hours, and then sitting down in a dusty, dirty forest for even more hours. How could she possibly have a recognizable scent?

"Let's go," Akane whispered back. She had no intention of being found and dragged back to a home where all the craziness and unhappiness would set in again.

Nobody said it would be easy. Nobody gives you guarantees. 'Cause a heart can always be broken, and there can be no loving without tears.

Ryoga motioned for Akane to crawl, so she wouldn't rustle any bushes or be seen by standing up. He did the same, and within minutes, they got far away from the site where Ranma still searched futilely. They were long out of earshot when Ranma finally whispered, "Why, Akane? Don't you know that I... I love you?" He turned away and went back down the hill, dejected. It was obvious that even if she wasn't all that far away, she didn't want to be found.

Farther away, Ryoga and Akane sat up against the trunk of an old tree, waiting and listening to see if Ranma had followed them. He hadn't.

"Thank you." Akane whispered, smiling beautifully though a tear tracked down her face. Ryoga didn't exactly know how to respond, so he simply uttered, "Any time."

Run away to a place where nobody knows. Run away- Gotta let this feeling go. Run away- if I can't find love, I'm gonna run away


End of Chapter One

Creds to Cher (THE) because those lyrics above are hers, from the song"Runaway" on the Believe CD. I may or may not use the rest in the next or future part.