A/N: This story was inspired by the song Days by The Rasmus. You should listen to it before you read this story if you can since it kind of sets the mood that I was going for.

If you didn't like my story Simplicity because it was overly verbose and used too many words like verbose, I doubt you'll like this one much more. I like writing fun little waffy stories like Calligraphy, and typically those stories are better received, but every once in a while I get a hankering to try and write something a little more deep and meaningful. Such was the intent for this story, and hopefully I pulled it off decently. To be honest I can't tell if I like it myself, and I've been nitpicking with it for months. I took a bit of a risk with the new writing style and subject matter, and I'm thinking it's either going to crash and burn or be well received. Either way I'm very anxious to hear what everyone has to say about it!

I will say however that this is not a story to skim. Technically you could get away with it, but you'd end up missing a lot, as there are a lot of little subtleties in this story that hint at what's really going on, something not fully addressed until the 3/4 of the way in. So pay attention, it'll make the story more worthwhile I believe.

That's it, I'm out. Enjoy, or don't, but please let me know what you think with a review. Like I've said, this is a different kind of story for me, an experiment of sorts, and I'm trying to see where I can improve with the style, so your comments are invaluable to me. Thank you!

Oh, and no I do not own Ranma 1/2 or any of the characters within. Bummer...

I don't know, I don't know.
What to do? Where to go?
Make it right, can you stay for the night?
Days in a maze, full of flames.
What to do? Where to go?
I don't know when the clouds fill the sky.
I get this feeling, I get this feeling every time.

~Days by The Rasmus~

Ranma stared vacantly at the dying embers of his fire, tapping a pencil against his notebook indecisively in a rhythmic hypnotic tempo. After a moment he sighed deeply and flipped the book open to the first page, which was as blank as the rest of the sheets in the empty book. His pencil hovered over the page for a while longer before he hesitantly began to scribble in the book with short, tentative strokes. After writing a single sentence, he paused and looked at the words on the paper. 'This is stupid,' it read.

He immediately scoffed at the attempt. "Couldn't have said it better," he mumbled under his breath before angrily chucking the book into his bag. "Waste of time," he growled.

Absently he scooped up the bowl he had used to eat his stew out of and leaned over the cooking pot that contained the leftovers. Immediately he winced, noting that more than half of it remained. "Made too much," he observed, reluctantly acknowledging the cause of his mistake. Out of habit, without thinking he'd prepared the meal for two instead of one. "Waste of food."

He deftly served himself another helping. "Ittadakimasu," he breathed numbly, holding his spoon over the bowl for countless moments as he stared at the mixture blankly. Then quite abruptly his expression shifted and he threw the bowl across the clearing. It clattered loudly and splattered all over the place as it collided with a tree and rolled to collapse amongst the bushes, but Ranma paid the calamity no mind as he heavily buried his head in his arms as they rested against his knees.

Moments passed where no sounds permeated the clearing save for the crackling of the wood in his fire. Eventually he looked up, his eyes narrowing on the cause of his frustration and stumbled to his feet. Stoically he lifted the cooking pot and purposefully carried it to a seemingly random spot in the small clearing. "Enjoy," he commanded to no one in particular as he placed the pot of stew down and returned to his place in front of the fire, his back turned to the cooking pot.

Ranma sighed again. He couldn't remember the last time he hadn't been hungry for seconds. "My cooking must really stink," he rationalized. He poked at the fire with a stick for a little while. "Maybe I should just go to bed."

His eyes rolled to the sky where a slight orange haze still lit the horizon that he could make out through the trees. "Can't be any later than 7:30. Too early to go to bed now. Guess I could train for a bit," he considered out loud. But the suggestion remained hovering in the air, and he made no move to stand. He poked at the fire a while longer and then stood to gather more wood, all the while keeping his back turned to the space where his pot of stew rested.

He threw kindling of twigs onto the ashes and expertly piled the wood on top, feeding the flames and working until his fire was once again thriving. Then he sat back to admire his work, remembering how his father had taught him to make a fire when he was only six years old. Under his father's management he'd burnt himself more times than he cared to count. "Stupid old man," Ranma grumbled, rubbing compulsively at a particular place on his forearm where the skin appeared lighter and rippled from an old burn. "Always so reckless, making me do things the hard way."

Despite his careless words, Ranma couldn't help but remember how excited he'd been the first time he'd prepared the fire all by himself. He smiled as he thought of how proud his father had been of him. Ranma had mastered the technique in no time, and eventually he was so good at it that he could get a fire going much faster than his father could.

His thoughts faded and he lifted a stick again to poke at the fire. But the action was pointless and failed to hold his attention, so he quickly tossed the stick aside and simply stared into the light of the fire that made his eyes burn and water from too much smoke and heat as he wrapped his arms around his knees and rested his chin on top of them. Bored, his eyes eventually rolled to his backpack, and after a few moments of weighing the options of how to spend his time he reluctantly removed the notebook from his pack once again.

'This is stupid,' he read before he began to add to the single sentence. '…But Akane said it might help me… I don't know, deal with my feelings or something. Whatever that means.' He paused to consider the word. Feelings… As he thought of the word nothing sprung to mind. At least not anything he could put into words. Even if he could put his feelings into words he didn't think he would want to. So instead he shifted his focus.

'I only took the stupid thing to get her to shut up about it. Stupid Akane. She can be so stubborn sometimes. But that doesn't really explain why I'm actually bothering with this now. Guess it's because I've got nothing better to do. I'd listen to music or something but my stupid old man broke my c.d. player and I…' He stopped again and in agitation scratched out the last line. He stared again at the sentence, and after deciding it wasn't enough to simply cross it out, tore the entire sheet from his book and threw it into the fire.

He ignored the paper as it turned black and writhed, its shape twisting as it dissolved into the flames. Instead he turned his attention to a new crisp white sheet of paper and simply began to write again, this time without any hesitation. 'I came out here to train, but I'm not really sure where to go next. I guess I should start looking for a job to earn some money or something and support myself. Or go on a long training trip.' He sighed, finding none of the excitement or exhilaration that he was accustomed to feeling whenever he planned such a journey. It seemed suddenly as if his life had been nothing but a succession of training trips that had ultimately led him nowhere and left him with nothing. His short time staying with the Tendos had been his only real reprieve and taste of a normal life.

Ranma shook his head violently to clear his mind and frowned, wary of the direction his thoughts were threatening to turn. "Nuff of that," he muttered before returning to his writing. 'If I don't travel I'm not sure what to do. Get a job I guess but all I really know is martial arts. Guess I could start a dojo or something…'

"Nah," he whispered, discarding the thought almost as soon as he had finished writing it. "One Anything Goes dojo is enough." In his heart he knew it would be an insult to the Tendos to start a dojo of his own. Especially to Akane. The dojo was hers, and running it had always been her dream. She'd never said it aloud, but then she didn't have to. He just knew. It was obvious in her every action. Every time she practiced under its roof, every time she defended its ownership, every time she stubbornly proclaimed, "I'm a martial artist too you know!"

The dojo was important to her. He couldn't do anything to take that away from her and it suddenly occurred to him that he should be ashamed for even penning the notion of starting his own. He was suddenly repulsed, and barely resisted the urge to chuck the new piece of paper in the fire after the previous one he'd written on. Instead he ignored the gut wrenching feeling in the pit of his stomach that he decidedly determined was a touch of indigestion and continued writing.

'Don't know where that thought came from. Guess I just got used to the idea of running a dojo. With Akane.' Without thinking he crossed out the last sentence, even though he knew perfectly well that it was the important part of the realization. 'Figures I'd realize that after it's too late.' He paused and stared at the page and then slowly wrote on the paper so lightly that he could barely make out the words he'd printed. 'Maybe they'd let me come back?'

He bit down on his pencil squelching another wave of 'indigestion' as his stomach clenched painfully. 'It's not like they asked me to leave or nothing,' he reasoned hopefully. 'But it doesn't feel like I belong there anymore.' Another pause. 'Guess I never really did.'

He had been allowed to stay with the Tendos for two long years. It had been his home. His first real home. But there was a price tag attached to his residency there. He could stay there as long as he was engaged to Akane and intended to marry her one day. It was a bother at first, but eventually he had forgotten about that single condition, and his life there had felt natural, and that condition that hovered in the back of his consciousness stopped carrying with it a sense of impending doom.

But the arrangement had never been up to him. It was forced upon him and Akane by their fathers. And those days of the two meddlesome fathers trying to push them together were at an end. They'd been released from the promise the two old friends had made so many years ago.

Still, the Tendo Dojo was home, and the Tendos were Ranma's family. Mr. Tendo was like his crazy goofy well meaning uncle. Kasumi was like an older gentle sister that took care of him and everyone else. Nabiki was like a mischievous troublesome cousin that he was always guarded around, but at the same time he couldn't help liking her and laughing at her general antics. And of course Akane… Well…

Akane was…

His fiancé. And home for him was wherever she was. And right or wrong he wanted so badly to go home.

His grip on his pencil tightened suddenly, as his hand had a 'spasm' and clenched involuntarily as he started to write once again. 'What is a home anyway?' Just asking the question made him feel empty, because he knew perfectly well that for most people the answer was a simple one. "But not for me," he stewed. He'd spent countless years searching for a home, without even realizing it was what he'd been looking for. It was the thing that had been missing from his life. And when he thought he had found it he felt so strangely at peace with the world. But peace wasn't for him, and neither was the Tendo Dojo, because just as soon as he started to settle there and feel secure, the glass walls of his illusion had crashed down around him, and a dark voice mocked him saying, "Sorry, this isn't for you. Move along, your journey's not over yet."

"Move along to where?" he asked the impious voice within his head. "I don't want to go anywhere else!" Ranma's eyes narrowed and he frowned at his thoughts. They were the thoughts of a weaker man, and he most certainly wasn't going to write something stupid like that down. Besides, it wasn't like he was without his options. He had options a plenty. He smiled and wrote that thought down instead, all the while reminding himself that he didn't need the Tendos.

'I still need a plan though. Something to do. Maybe I could still teach at the Tendo Dojo,' he wrote hopefully, failing to acknowledge how quickly his thoughts and plans had shifted back to the Tendos. 'Don't really know what else I can do except maybe travel Japan and challenge existing dojos. Except I've had enough of destroying the legacy behind dojos for a while I think.'

He was having trouble seeing all of a sudden and wiped his sleeve across his eyes to clear his line of sight before writing swiftly for no reason other than to distract himself. 'That's right. I almost forgot. The Saotome School of Anything Goes Martial Arts suffered a fatal blow today thanks to me. The Tendo School won't want anything to do with me now. I'm a curse…'

'But so what if they don't want me? I'm better off without them and their stupid dojo anyway. I'm fine right where I am. Although I can't just camp out in this clearing forever. Need to move on eventually. But when I do, I'll still have my tent at least. And hey, I've spent more nights sleeping under its cover than the Tendos' roof anyway. If anything this tent is my home. After all, I spent sixteen years living in this tent on and off, traveling the country with Pops on our blasted training trip.'

He frowned as he pictured his future once again, and ignored the strange clenching of his stomach that made him want to double over in pain. He didn't want to admit it to himself, but living like that again seemed so bleak and meaningless. It no longer served a purpose. It was just a path to travel with no end. A path to travel alone.

Ranma didn't want to be alone. 'Wonder where Mom will stay now. I could settle in with her, but I'm kind of getting to the point in life where I should be taking care of her, not the other way around. Gotta find a way to support the both of us now.'

He started to weigh his so called 'options' out of necessity rather than genuine consideration. 'Wonder if she'd like China. Living with the Amazons? Probably not. She never took to Shampoo that well anyway. And I'm sure she wouldn't care much for her 'manly' son being treated like a second class citizen. Ukyo? That would be better. At least I could contribute to helping with the restaurant somewhat but… I don't love her. Shampoo either for that matter. But I need to do something and… Ah how lame am I? Trying to rely on some woman to support me? Guess I am a mooch after all just like my stupid, good for nothing old man…'

Again he ripped the page out of his notebook and tossed it into the fire, refusing to look at it, simply starting his writing again.

'But I don't know what to do now. And I don't know where to go next… I want to go back there, but I don't know if I can and I…' The pencil suddenly snapped between his fingers and in frustration he tossed it in the fire. He could feel himself slipping. Everything was spiraling out of his control. He felt useless. Powerless. Weak. Was this what the stupid journal was supposed to do to him? If that was the case he didn't need it.

"Screw this!" he cursed. "This most certainly isn't helping things! Stupid Akane and her lame ideas," he shouted. "She thinks she knows everything. But guys don't write in journals. Guys don't dwell on their feelings. Guys don't cry…"

He glared at the page in front of him without knowing how long until droplets began to hit the paper and he snapped the book shut looking up at the cloudless sky. "Looks like rain," he remarked, dragging himself and his things into his tent before the weather had a chance to contradict him. He settled back on his bedroll and stared up at the canvas ceiling.

"Yep. This is the life. You and me old tent. We've been through a lot together, and we'll get through this no problem, what do you say?" He waited but there was no response, and he frowned at the silence. It wasn't that he expected to hear anything, but it felt as if something was missing. It was just too quiet.

He sighed and rolled to his side, closing his eyes and attempting to sleep. He tried to meditate, and clear his mind, but the emptiness and the silence was deafening, and there was still something missing that he didn't want to acknowledge, though it gnawed at the back of his consciousness like an annoying mosquito bite he couldn't help but scratch. Or more appropriately maybe, a calloused burn that had healed more than a decade ago.

"Breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out…" He continued the mantra, exerting all his concentration needlessly on the action and thought of breathing, as the minutes passed by without notice. But it still did no good. He couldn't sleep. Something was missing.

Before he was forced to acknowledge what that something was his trained ears were alerted to the sound of a twig snapping under someone's foot followed by a quiet whisper of a curse. He breathed a sigh of relief for the coming distraction, and unchecked a faint smile spread across his face. "Heh. I knew it! I knew she'd come poking around sooner or later… She couldn't just leave well enough alone." He had mixed feelings about her being there, but he was thankful at least that her timing could not have been any better.

He listened intently as her light, hesitant footsteps, halted, and then there was the sound of rustling bushes as his bowl was retrieved from the place he had thrown it earlier. In his mind he could almost picture her as she glanced around the camp site with a concerned and critical eye. He knew perfectly well what she must think of him.

The thought shamed him. Still, in that moment he didn't care. A part of him was just so glad for her being there, even if he couldn't admit it to himself, or to her.

"Why is she here?" he wondered. "Akane." She'd always been an unfathomable mystery to him. One minute she hated him and would pummel him within an inch of his life, and he would want nothing to do with her. But then the next thing he knew she would laugh and smile and… His heart would stop.

And she would care for him. Cry for him when he was in pain. Help him when he was in need. Those acts terrified him, even though he knew they weren't meant to. He wasn't used to depending and relying on someone to help him. He was used to sustaining himself. He didn't want to need her so much. It made him weak while at the same time making him strong. He was more with her than without her, but he knew the moment he started to trust and depend on her it was all over. He'd have lost. And when she left him he'd be unable to carry on alone anymore.

And that was why she was there after all, wasn't it? To say goodbye? To confirm his suspicions that there was no future for them anymore. "Very well then. If that's the case, I'll show her that I'll be fine on my own. I don't need her or anyone else… Everything's fine. It is. I'll show her…"

He listened again as her feet once again resumed their travel and she padded lightly on the ground, stopping just outside his tent.

"Ranma?" she finally called hesitantly.

"Yeah, Akane, what's up?" he responded, his voice steady and calm.

The fire behind her cast her silhouette on the walls of his tent and he watched her image as she fidgeted awkwardly before answering. "I've been trying to find you all day. What are you doing here of all places?" she asked.

"Sleeping," he answered as if it was the most obvious thing in the world.

"…" She paused. "It's only 8:30," she finally pointed out.

"Huh," he responded simply. Then after another pause he took a deep breath, secured a mask of his normal confidence and unzipped his tent so he could step outside. He smiled at her as he stood before her. "Guess there's no reason for me to be sleeping then is there?"

"Guess not," she stated uncertainly. He noticed how her eyes were tracing his face searchingly, and determined that she wouldn't find anything there to concern her he turned away and gestured dramatically to his campsite.

"Welcome to my humble abode," he jested pleasantly. "It's not much, I know, but I can sleep when I want and eat whatever I choose, and however much I want," he said as he took his bowl from her hand and smiled gratefully. "Oh, and best of all there's no one to distract me from my training," he smiled again, trying to prove to her that he was perfectly fine on his own, although he suspected his efforts were wasted as she could hardly see him in the dark. However, he hoped she could at least hear it in his voice. He really couldn't stand the thought of worrying her needlessly, especially considering everything was fine.

Akane simply watched him, a puzzled expression on her face before responding. "It uh… It's nice." She swallowed and fidgeted once again as she glanced around the site awkwardly. "B-But Ranma," she stuttered uncomfortably, and there was a sympathetic quality to the tone of her voice that he found exceptionally annoying, and he wanted nothing more than to make the sound disappear. He immediately vowed that it was his own personal mission to do just that. "I mean why here? It's just so… So… Dark…"

"Only at night," he shrugged, ignoring the true meaning of her words. She leveled him with one of those knowing glances, and he could tell she wasn't about to let it go at that.

"You know that's not what I meant. I mean… Isn't this where… Where he… Uh…"

Ranma's fake smile wavered briefly, but he quickly regained control of his senses and continued with his facade. "Is it?" he asked in mock bewilderment as he made an exaggerated show of looking around the campsite. "Huh. Guess you're right. Hadn't even thought about that. We've trained in so many places, this spot in particular more times than I can count. I guess I just came back here out of habit without thinking," he rambled, but despite his attempts he could tell that he wasn't fooling her, and was further annoyed to find her gaze was fixated on his cooking pot with a look of barely suppressed anguish.

She knew. That was one thing he hated about her. She was too smart. He'd found that there weren't many things he could successfully hide from her anymore. She saw everything. He saw everything about her too. He didn't miss much, certainly not the way her lip was quivering slightly, and the fact that she clenched her jaw tightly in order to fight back her unshed tears, unable to tear her gaze away from the blasted pot. She was trying to be strong for his sake he knew.

Frustrated and agitated by her pointless troubles he quickly went back to his tent to retrieve a second bowl from his pack. They may not have been able to fool each other, but he wasn't about to give up trying.

"Hungry?" he asked, desperate to keep the conversation going, and prove to her that nothing was wrong as he swallowed his trepidations and forcefully trudged smoothly towards the pot, scooping up a serving for her without waiting for her answer. "There's plenty left, and it's not that bad if I do say so myself. Been a while since I've cooked for myself. I was afraid it would turn out horribly. But it's actually not that bad!" He laughed nervously. "Sorry, guess I already said that didn't I? Well anyway, here," he finished as he returned to stand in front of her and held the bowl out to her expectantly, hoping that she would take it. He felt he wouldn't mind her being there so much if she would just stop… Caring…

"Thank you," she whispered as she took the bowl from him and stared into it for a moment just as he had earlier. She raised her eyes to his and to his relief forced a smile of her own, deciding to play along with his warped reality, gesturing towards the fire. "Mind if I sit?" she asked.

"Yeah sure," he shrugged indifferently, but to himself grinned appreciatively as they both made their way to sit by the fire. He watched as Akane tucked her legs underneath herself and slipped a backpack off her shoulders, placing it carefully on the ground before focusing her attention back on the stew. Ranma's attention remained on her backpack, anxious to know what it was for, but too afraid to ask. The backpack, something seemingly simple, was something new to fixate on, carrying with it an unending list of questions for him. Why had she brought a backpack? What was it for? What was in it? Her stuff? Just how long was she planning on staying? Or was it full of his own stuff?

He'd left her house in a hurry and hadn't taken the time to gather up all of his belongings. Therefore it was quite possible she was there simply to bring him the rest of his things, thinking it would be too awkward for everyone involved if he were to ever come back to collect the stuff himself. That would of course confirm his suspicion that he was no longer welcome in the Tendo household. His shoulders drooped at the thought, his cynical mind convincing him quite effortlessly that was the most logical reason for her coming. "Feh. So much for my idea of teaching there. They don't even want me to visit!"

Still Ranma clung to a ray of hope. The Tendos collectively may not have cared to ever see him again, but Akane at least had come to meet with him. Maybe for the last time. Or maybe she had forgiven him for what had happened, and perhaps she didn't care about what had been said. Perhaps the backpack contained her own things. Perhaps she had left the dojo as well. Perhaps she was there because she...

"Ranma? Are you listening?"

"Hmm?" His eyes immediately snapped back to her concerned, questioning face.

"I said this is really good."

"Oh, uh, thanks. I'm glad you like it."

"I do," she grinned. "I guess it's good that one of us can cook."

He perked up at her statement, studying her closely as he responded. "Not that it matters now…" he prompted.

She cocked an eyebrow at him curiously as she continued eating. "What do you mean? Is there a reason it would matter less now than before?"

"I guess not," he said, wondering if he was reading too much into the implications. She did after all seem rather oblivious to his thoughts as she shrugged and focused her attention fully on her meal once more. He watched her, not wanting to admit that he was feeling oddly at peace for the first time that day.

He was surprised by how happy he was to see her. She really was annoying him to no ends with her questions and her implications and the journal she'd given him... "Ugh!" She was nosy and pushy and he'd told her over and over again that he just wanted her to leave him alone. And yet there she was, sitting there eating his food, at his fire, at his campsite…

"And I don't want her to leave…" The thought hit him like a ton of bricks. He swallowed uncomfortably, unable to take the thought back once he'd voiced it in his mind. The truth was, he felt giddy and hopeful and alive again simply having her around once more and he was amazed with her ability to effortlessly ease his feelings of discomfort the moment she'd arrived. She'd given him reason to believe, and hope that possibly things really would be okay after all. No pretending. Really, truly… Okay…

"Maybe I was just worrying about nothing," he considered briefly. "Heh. She's probably here because she wants to beg me to come back or something…" he thought wishfully, his eyes once again trailing to her backpack.

This time she took note of his line of sight. "Oh yeah," she said placing the bowl down and digging through her pack. "I brought you some of your stuff," she said, and his hopes suddenly shattered almost as quickly as they had formed. "Your warm coat," she said as she pulled it out. "Oh and a few other things. I was worried you might get cold out here."

"Uh huh," he acknowledged absently, his neck craned to look closer within her bag. He couldn't help noticing she hadn't brought him everything, although her backpack was still quite full, even after she had stopped handing him things. "Okay," he thought, finding again a reason to be hopeful. "No reason to jump to conclusions. Maybe she doesn't mean anything by it. Maybe she really is just bringing me warmer clothes…"

He took a deep breath and opened his mouth to test his theory. "Yeah… Sorry I left so much of my stuff behind. I'll uh, come by and pick the rest of it up after the uh…" She winced and he stopped, coughing instead to divert the topic.

Her eyes stayed downcast for a moment, and finally she looked up, forcing an awkward smile. "No need. We don't mind. Your… Your stuff can stay there as long as you want."

He breathed a slight sigh of relief. "Okay, so I can come back, at least to visit, but…" He frowned, trying to figure out the meaning behind her statement. "Wait, my stuff can stay there but not me? Dangit!" he cursed inwardly. "Why does she have to be so vague?" he lamented, still not receiving the definitive answer he was looking for. "Can I come back?" he wanted to ask.

However, he didn't ask, and she didn't answer, and as she went back to rummaging through her bag he went back to asking himself why he cared so much in the first place. "I don't need the Tendos. I don't need their dojo. I've got my tent, I've got the art, that's all a guy like me needs. I don't need Akane or anyone else."

"Ah, here, I got this for your birthday, but I thought maybe I should give it to you now," she said, handing him a new c.d. player.

"Oh uh, thanks," he said taking the player and staring at it, his thoughts more focused on her reasons for giving it to him early than the gift itself. "Is she giving this to me now because she thinks I need it more now, or is it because she's not expecting to see me when my birthday actually comes around?" Deciding that pondering so many 'what-ifs' would certainly drive him crazy, he tamped down the questions and instead smiled at her. "That's actually kind of perfect at the moment," he said amicably. "It is a good gift. Something to drown out the lack of noise…"

She smiled glad to have done something right. "Yeah, well your old one looked like it was about ready to die so..."

She immediately clamped a hand over her mouth and looked horrified for a moment. But rather than being upset or angry, he was thankful for her little mistake, and somehow the look on her face seemed immensely humorous to him. He suddenly burst into a fit of laughter and she jumped at first in surprise before her eyes narrowed, and her lips pursed into a scowl. "Geez Akane," he joked. "You're such a klutz, even with words!"

"Well sor-ry!" she sniffed crossing her arms over her chest and glaring.

"No, no, forget it. But stop being all nice, okay? You're freaking me out. There's no reason to be so worried about me. I'm fine, really."

"You are?" she asked skeptically.

"Yep," he nodded confidently; proud of his ability to say it out loud so easily. "I was a little shocked is all. Timing wasn't too great." He looked over to the random spot in the clearing where he had placed the cooking pot as he continued speaking. "At first I thought he was meditating, and then I thought he'd just fallen asleep while meditating," he said rolling his eyes. But then quite suddenly his expression and jovial façade fell, and his eyes glossed over, as if the thought was really hitting home for the first time. "Wish I'd checked on him sooner," he continued. "Maybe…"

In an instant she had moved closer to him and her small hand had covered his own. He looked up to meet her eyes. He already knew what she would say, but felt he needed to hear the words anyway, even if it ultimately would mean nothing to him.

"Ranma, there's no way you could've known something like that would happen. Besides, the doctor said he went really quickly and…" her voice choked slightly and she had to pause before continuing. Suddenly his attention was completely focused on her face, rather than her words and he found himself marveling at the way the unshed tears welling up in her eyes changed their hue from the rich chocolate brown he was so familiar with to a mesmerizing luminescent amber he had never seen before. Then her lashes momentarily fluttered shut, and her tears broke free, trailing down her cheeks like tiny rivers. She looked at him again with so much raw anguish, that for a moment he wanted to comfort her instead, forgetting for a second that it was him she was sad for. As if his hand possessed a mind of its own it flew to her face, brushing back the tears with his thumb as the rest of his hand cupped her cheek reassuringly. She smiled shakily and reached up to place her hand over his own, and he wanted to focus on nothing more than her smile and the feel of her hand. But unfortunately her voice broke him from the spell he had been under.

"This wasn't your fault, Ranma," she whispered, her voice pleading for him to understand. The words were like an electric jolt, jarring him back to reality. He stiffened, and she thought she could almost visualize his barriers as they once again fell into place. "There… There was nothing you could've done," she insisted desperately, but he was already pulling away.

"Yeah, I know that," he said unconvincingly as he shrugged her off and turned to busy himself with checking out his new c.d. player. "Oh hey cool, it picks up radio? That's nifty."

Akane frowned. "He didn't mean it you know?"

"Huh?" Ranma asked distractedly.

"My dad. He didn't mean it. He was just upset, and shocked and… He doesn't really blame you for this."

"Oh geez. I know that," he answered, once again unconvincingly. "He's not worried about something like that is he?"

Still he fiddled with the player, and still she watched in concern refusing to be deterred by his line of questioning. "He wanted me to tell you he was sorry."

Ranma stopped, his questions about her reasoning for being there once again fighting to the forefront of his mind. "Is that what you came here for?" he asked in a low voice.

The question somehow managed to fluster her. "No! I mean yes. I mean… Well, that's part of the reason, but also I was worried and I…"

"I told you before Akane, I don't want your pity. I'm fine," he growled a little more fiercely than he had intended. Fortunately she was immune to his displays of anger and continued unaffected.

"Ranma. You're not fine. How can you be fine? Your dad just… He…"

"He died!" Ranma shouted. "Okay? He died. You happy now? I've said it! I'm not denying it anymore. I've moved on. Congratulations on getting me past that first stage of grief you've been going on and on about. What's next huh?"

"Anger," she answered, straight faced, nonplussed by his behavior.

"Feh," he scoffed, feeling slightly chagrined. So he stood and began pacing the clearing until he could calm himself down. A part of him wanted to do it just so he could prove her wrong. He wanted to show her that he wasn't angry and that he wasn't grieving, and most importantly that she couldn't predict his moods based on some stupid book on grief she'd read.

She didn't give up though, intent on pushing the issue. "The funeral's on Friday," she said. "Think you can come down off your precious mountain long enough to attend?"

"Yeah, I'll be there," he spat, shoving his hands into his pockets and kicking at the dirt.

"Good," she returned. "Your mother was worried you might not come back in time. She's upset too you know."

He winced feeling a little guilty at that. "Yeah, yeah," he muttered, his agitation deflating. Eventually he gave up on his moping and returned to the fire where she quietly sat eating her stew, her expression fixed into a concentrated, unchanging mask. He let out a sigh and heavily plopped down on the ground next to her, preparing for round two of their argument and debate. However, she made no move to acknowledge his return, which only served to frustrate him further.

He crossed his arms over his chest and pouted like a little boy, glancing at her stubborn face. "Oh, so now she's done talking?" He opened his mouth a few times to speak and then repeatedly snapped it shut again before finally finding the perfect dig that he was certain she would have to respond to. He smirked already feeling he had won. "I thought you were supposed to be nice to people when they're grieving," he taunted.

"And I thought you were supposed to be fine," she returned all too quickly, without even glancing away from the fire.

His smirk immediately disappeared and he turned away with an audible, "Hmph."

Needless to say her response left much to be desired. She was providing him with none of their comforting banter that he often thrived on. He glanced sideways at her as she picked at the stew which she pointedly focused all of her attention on, an agitated expression of her own adorning her face. As he watched her, his expression softened, giving way to a sudden wave of comfort and fondness for the strange girl that was never what he thought he wanted, but always exactly what he needed. He hated to admit it, but Akane was a good friend. The best kind of friend he could have asked for. She was the kind of friend that would always be brutally honest with him, and would never simply say what he wanted to hear. He could always rely on Akane to give him the bitter truth that he needed to face, even going so far as to force it down his throat if necessary. She cared too much to not say what he needed to hear, even if it meant getting him mad at her, and he also knew that no matter what, she would always be there for him, at least until fate tore them apart.

It all seemed so strange to him. His feelings for her were so contradictory that they baffled his mind. He couldn't begin to comprehend how she could get under his skin and frustrate him like no one else, but at the same time… He couldn't stand being away from her. It didn't make sense.

"I suppose that means I'm in love with her… Not that it matters anymore."

His expression grew more curious as he continued to stare at her, considering what the death of his father would mean for the two of them.

He wished he could be sure that nothing between them would change. He wished he could be sure they could always be together. He couldn't imagine his life without her. He didn't want to lose her. He'd had enough of loss, and he felt she was the only thing holding him together at that moment.

But he didn't know how to hold onto her anymore.

"We were only engaged because of our fathers. Spent so much time fighting it, and now… Well, I guess we're free of it now. Mr. Tendo will probably give up on pushing us together. Besides he made it perfectly clear what he thinks of me."

"'He wanted me to tell you he was sorry,'" Akane's words echoed in his mind. He wondered if it was really true, or simply something she had made up to ease his pain. Had her father really forgiven him that easily? It didn't seem to be the kind of thing one would just get over so quickly. After all, Mr. Tendo's best friend had died, and Ranma couldn't help but feel responsible. "I am responsible…" he thought, his reality crashing down upon him once again, causing him to push away his one source of comfort that he was reluctant to acknowledge existed. "I don't deserve her friendship, let alone…" He swallowed and cut the thought short, instead following the previous train of thought, which he actually found to be less intimidating.

"It was my fault you know," he admitted slowly, only partially aware of the fact that he was speaking aloud. "I was the one that wanted to come up here and train for a while. Even though I knew he hadn't been feeling well… I don't know what I was thinking. I guess I thought he was getting too sluggish and a bit of exercise would do him some good. He didn't want to come. I should've taken that as a sign. He'd never turned down a training trip before. But in the end he came anyway. And then we did nothing but fight. Just like usual. And he stormed off over there in a huff, to meditate," he said indicating the blasted cooking pot again with an erratic gesture. "And I just left him there," he shouted, his emotions careening more and more out of his control as he continued his rant, his voice raising in volume. "For three hours I left him there! I should've checked on him sooner. I should've known something was wrong. I shouldn't have brought him all the way up here. We were too far away, and I couldn't get him help in time and…"

"Ranma, stop!" she yelled. "Please! It won't do you any good. None of those things matter anyway and you know it. Even if you had done everything right, it wouldn't have changed anything. He still would've died. It wasn't your fault!" she insisted.

He clenched his jaw, refusing to accept what she said and stared into the fire.

"Ranma? Did you hear me? I said it wasn't…"

"Yeah, yeah, I heard you. Stop saying it already."

"Look at me then."

He sighed in an exaggerated manner and rolled his eyes towards her looking back at her in annoyance. "What?"

"Ranma," she began. "It wasn't…"

"You know what the last thing I said to him was?" he asked, cutting her off. She considered for a moment whether or not to ask and then simply shook her head no. "I said, 'who needs you anyway, you stupid old man?'" She flinched and looked down sadly and he grinned darkly, taking a twisted pleasure in the fact that he had somehow won a small battle of his own. She'd forced him to look at her, to prove to him that she wasn't disgusted by him, and he had proven her wrong instead, forcing her to look away because of her discomfort. Because it was true. He really was despicable.

"Go ahead," he prodded further, feeling he wouldn't be satisfied until she hated him as much as he hated himself. "Just try and fix it now. Try and make it better. I dare you."

"I can't," she whispered.

"You can't?" he scoffed. "Oh bravo Akane, good job! That really helps a bunch!"

She glared back at him but refused to give up. "I'm only telling you the truth. I can't fix this because it's not supposed to be fixed. Death sucks. It hurts. It's supposed to. That's how you know you cared."

He scoffed once again, but couldn't deny she'd gained some more ground with the statement, and feeling uncomfortable once more he looked away from her. "Yeah well, if I cared I certainly didn't show it."

"There's no point in regretting what you did and didn't say," she whispered. "But I know one thing for sure. Your dad was very proud of you."

He rolled his eyes at her statement. The words just seemed too cliché and meaningless, and he wanted her to quit talking. "Yeah, whatever Akane. Just give it a rest will ya? You're obviously not helping. Just… Go home already will you? I don't want you here. I don't need you or anybody else!" he insisted.

"Say what you want, but you're not getting rid of me that easily. Your dad didn't hate you and neither do I."

He sighed, suddenly losing the will to argue any further. She'd won again and successfully called his bluff. She was annoying, but he didn't really want her to leave and they both knew it. But there was some kind of backwards satisfaction to be gained from playing the martyr and he felt like wallowing in misery and pushing her buttons just to see how much she would take from him. She'd take a lot without flinching. That was for sure. So inevitably he'd chosen to give up.

He hated losing, even if it was at some lame battle of words. "Maybe I really do want her to go. I don't want to talk about this stuff. Why can't she see that?" He could almost see the wheels turning in her head, contemplating her next words, and he waited in a mix of anticipation and dread for her to speak. When she finally did, the words that tumbled out of her mouth were the last ones he expected to hear.

"I hate you," Akane whispered solemnly.

"E-Excuse me?" he asked, bewildered and surprised that anything she said could actually make him feel worse about himself. But then she continued and he understood.

"Last thing I said to my mother. I told her I hated her."

"O-Oh," he breathed, afraid to admit just how relieved he felt at her explanation. But then he thought about her words. "Oh!" he said again, stunned by her sudden admission. She'd never told him that before. "Why?"

She laughed bitterly. "I don't even remember. I think she'd accidently thrown one of my favorite stuffed animals in the wash and ruined it or something… And then she died," she said whimsically. "It happened unexpectedly, out of nowhere. Just like it did with your dad. And of course I blamed myself for the longest time. I couldn't forgive myself, knowing that she had died thinking I hated her. But eventually I realized that wasn't true. My mother knew that I loved her. I highly doubt that the last thing on her mind was what I said. Still, I wish my last memory of my time with her was a bit more pleasant. But I know even if it had been, I would've found something else to feel guilty about. I didn't help her out enough around the house, I spent more time with dad training than I did with her or… Something." She shrugged. "It's normal to miss someone and have some regrets, and when you can't understand why something had to happen it's natural to want to find someone to blame, and the easiest person to blame is yourself."

She looked over at him sitting silently in the firelight and could tell he was digesting what she said, even though he had his jaw set and was trying his best not to. She smiled fondly, thinking about how that was just the way he was, a fighter to his very core, stubborn until the end.

She leaned over and patted him on the back encouragingly. "I am sorry you lost your father Ranma… But you have to know, that's the only thing that you've lost. Everyone else… We're still here. Nothing has changed."

He caught her eyes then. "Nothing?" he asked looking back at her hopefully.

"Nothing…" Akane responded with a smile before returning to her food.

They sat in a companionable silence as Ranma pondered all she had said. Somehow he was still filled with doubt. He wasn't satisfied. Wasn't sure. After all, she still hadn't answered the one question he most wanted to ask. Or maybe she had but he wasn't ready to accept it. After all, an unacknowledged part of him still felt that he was to blame and he didn't have a right to go back. And he didn't want to build himself up on false hope, too afraid of what would happen if he found he was wrong, and that he really didn't have a permanent place with them anymore.

And another thought nagged at the back of his mind. He was at peace with her sitting beside him, even in silence. He could fight it and deny it all he wanted but the truth was, for some crazy reason, as annoying and pushy as she was, he wanted her beside him. That was where she belonged. Always with him. And he knew that the moment she left, he would be lost again. He didn't want her to leave.

That was the problem. As happy as her being there made him, it cut at him deeply. Because he knew that when she left again he would feel a thousand times emptier than he had before.

But he could barely admit that to himself, let alone her, and he had no idea how to ask her to stay. Even if he could, what exactly would he ask? "Hey Akane, wanna spend the night? Yeah, right, that's gonna go over well. She's so gonna get the wrong idea."

Still his silent prayer echoed in his mind though he refused to acknowledge it. "Stay with me. Tonight. Always. Please don't leave me alone again…" He felt she was the key to everything. But he couldn't say it, and he didn't want to admit just how badly he needed her. Because it scared him, the thought of losing her, and he still couldn't fully understand why. All he knew was that for some strange reason, everything would be alright if she would just… Stay.

"Gochiousamadeshita!" she announced, and he jumped slightly caught off guard by her sudden proclamation. If she noticed, she said nothing and instead simply held the bowl to him with an awkward smile, her apparent annoyance from before having left her expression. "Thank you Ranma. It really was delicious."

"Yeah, sure. No problem," he said plainly, as he took the dish not sure what else to say. An uncomfortable silence fell upon them as they stared into the fire, both fidgeting nervously.

Akane looked around awkwardly for a moment and chewed her lip. "Yeah, well… Uh… You probably want to be getting to sleep. I mean it's already…" she trailed off looking at her watch and frowned. "9:00," she finished, feeling rather lame. In all the time she had known Ranma he had never gone to sleep so early. "Yeah… Soooo late…"

"Ye-yeeeah," Ranma drawled uncertainly, still trying to work out in his head a way to ask her to stay. He didn't want to appear weak, like he needed her, but at the same time, he didn't want her to think he didn't want her there, or that she had outstayed her welcome. She had come to help him after all, and he had been difficult and disagreeable, a fact that had only made her reach out to him more. But then a part of his pride still didn't want to let her know that he needed her, and he most certainly didn't want to ask her to stay and risk her getting the wrong idea that he was thinking something perverted.

"So… I um… Guess I should…" Akane started, standing up in a rather slow, exaggerated way and shouldering her backpack, making a show of stretching like she was tired. She even went so far as to yawn. "Hmm, I guess I should head back…"

"Y-Yeah, I guess so," Ranma answered bleakly, hanging his head, rather disappointed in himself for giving up so easily.

He failed to notice as Akane studied his reaction closely, in an instant, knowing everything that his pride and fear kept him from saying or asking. Her lips turned upwards briefly before she sighed loudly and crossed her arms over her chest. "Honestly Ranma, you're such an unbelievable jerk!"

"Huh?" Ranma asked dumbly, his eyes snapping to her instantly in his surprise. Those were definitely not the words he expected to hear from her at that moment.

"I came all the way out here to bring you your stuff, and you're just going to send me back home in the middle of the night to go traipsing down the side of this mountain in the dark? Honestly! Talk about your lack of gratitude. You could at least offer to let me stay for the night!"

"Wait… What?" his mouth fell open and then he quickly snapped it shut again. "You want to stay here tonight?"

She smirked triumphantly before making a show of rolling her eyes and dropping her pack to the ground. "Oh okay, if you insist!"

Despite her cocky nature at acting as if she had one-upped him, he couldn't help but smile and in relief let out a breath he hadn't realized he was holding. And as she sunk to her knees and pulled out her own bedroll from her bag his smile grew even larger, realizing it had been her intention to stay all along.

Together they quickly cleaned up the site, something Ranma had neglected to do before, and both feeling a little bit awkward had set up Akane's things and bed roll within Ranma's tent. Minutes later, faces flushed they faced away from each other at the far opposite ends of the tent, prepared for sleep. Despite the uncomfortable friction her presence created, he was feeling more at ease than before. Instead of silence he could listen to her breathing, and he absently wondered if Akane snored like his father always had. The thought made him want to laugh. Somehow he doubted it, even if she was a tomboy.

But Akane was burdened with her own thoughts, and eventually broke the silence with a sudden, "Huh. I just realized…"

"What's that Akane?" he yawned sleepily, feigning disinterest, even as she rolled and propped herself up on her elbow to face his direction.

"I guess we don't have to worry about the engagement anymore do we?" she stated awkwardly.

He froze. "Uh, yeah..." he drawled agitatedly. "Seriously? She just now figured that out?" He could imagine her mulling it over, going through the same thoughts he had, considering each and every implication. And is she did, he saw all his hopes and dreams shatter around him, and his peace was gone, because she had always been the key to it all.

A life. A home. A love. A future.

It had all slipped through his fingers in an instant, and despite the fact that she was there with him, right where he wanted her to be, and despite the fact that he knew he loved her and that he was certain she genuinely cared for him as well…

None of it mattered… It was too late now for them to figure things out. It was over…

He'd lost her.

They weren't engaged. There was no obligation. There was no reason for them to get married anymore.


"Hey Akane?"


He swallowed roughly before gathering his courage. "Ah screw it! Just do it…"

"Marry me anyway?" he asked.

She tensed, and took a moment to consider it before simply nodding.

"Okay," she answered, even as he released a breath of relief and with a smile she scooted closer to him, his arms automatically wrapping around her back, even as she continued. "But I do have one condition."

"What's that?" he asked hesitantly.

"Can we please go home tomorrow?"

"Home?" His eyes welled up with tears, and he smiled, the last of his apprehension and fears slipping away as he held her tighter and buried his face in her soft hair.

"Yeah sure," he said gladly, feeling certain that everything truly would be okay. He wouldn't be alone. He had someone to love, and just as importantly, he had a home. "It's a deal Akane."

"Good," Akane smiled, closing her eyes and starting to drift off. That was when a thought occurred to Ranma, and he laughed briefly.

"Something funny?" she asked.

"I was just thinking… Heh. Stage three. Bargaining!"

Akane laughed briefly as well. "Dummy," she mumbled. "I don't think that's what they mean…"


Named for the Stages of Grief. Step 1 Grief, Step 2 Anger, Step 3 Barganing, Step 4 Depression, Step 5 Acceptance. 'Cept I didn't really feel the need to get into the last two. :-p

Sorry. I don't know if this LONG story really justified killing off Genma, especially with inexplicable reasons. But I'm trying to write different kinds of things, and it's interesting to try and imagine how characters would react to real tragedy and guilt and grief.

I like exploring new territory for Ranma and Akane and seeing how they respond. They're both fairly predictable in most circumstances but you get them outside their routines and all bets are off and anything can happen. I like to think that they aren't just a cute anime couple and that they have what makes for a really solid relationship built on deep understanding and the ability to truly always be there for each other. That's the one thing I think they definitely have going as a couple. Through everything, even if they're fighting, they'll both always sacrifice anything to help the other one out, and I like that about them. Despite their faults and troubles they are selfless towards each other when the chips are down. Ranma and Akane are okay in my book…

I also like wondering what would happen if the engagement got canceled. Would they let it be or would they shape up and claim the relationship for themselves? I'd hope the later.

Okay, that's it. It's late and I think I should just post this thing before I chicken out. As I said before I still don't know if I like it. I'd really like some comments because ultimately I would like to alter this and use it for a different series I want to work on in the future, but I want to know what worked and didn't. Felt my imagery was a little weak, and I don't know if Ranma's true feelings really showed through. My experience with grief is that it fractures your mind slightly and your thought process begins to degrade and spiral out of control and your focus doesn't always go where you wish it. That's kinda why he was all over the place with his thoughts, but it might just have come across as I was all over the place with my writing. Lol. Oh well, let me know!

Thanks for reading.