Disclaimer: This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual persons, groups, or events is strictly coincidental.

It had been this way for as long as Ran could remember. From birth her blonde hair and blue eyes had marked her as someone different – someone trying to stand out, a halfer, a delinquent, a yankee, a foreigner, not like us – whatever they thought, whatever was going through their minds, whatever their prejudices, the end results were the same. Not only the kids in her school, or in the neighborhood where she grew up, but their parents as well. They told their sons and daughters not to get too close to "that Yamazaki girl." She's no good.

Her father had thought the same. She was different. She was nothing like him. She looked nothing like him. He was a "good, pure" Japanese man: dark hair, dark eyes; everything proper. So was her mother whom he had at one time considered a "classic" Japanese beauty; but still it must have been his wife's fault. She must have had an affair with a foreigner, or there was something in her family background that she had never told him about. In spite of her denials he had filed for and been granted a quickie divorce; just because of Ran. He hadn't waited for the paperwork. He had moved out the day she had been born and had never looked back. Ran had never seen him, never spoken with him, never received a phone call, or a letter, or even a postcard. He had refused to pay child support and the courts had backed him up.

So her mother had raised Ran on her own; if you could call what she had done raising a child. Her mother cooked and cleaned the house, she worked to put a roof over their heads and clothes on their backs, but that was all. Ran knew her mother's calm, happy, or laughing voice because she had heard her speak to her friends or coworkers that way on the phone. In her fifteen years of life, Ran had never received a kind word from her mother. For the first few years the only words her mother had spoken to her were her complaints and accusations of how it was all Ran's fault that her husband had left her. She had never struck her, but neither had she ever shown any form of love or kindness.

Sometime after Ran turned five her mother stopped speaking to her altogether. Ran assumed that her mother probably felt she had told her enough times how everything was her fault so there was nothing more to say. Her mother would leave her a week's worth of money on the table by the front door and expected her to get her own food and clothing with what she was given. The first few days had been especially hard. No one wanted to sell to a five year old, even if she had the cash. So she had ended up buying everything she needed from the convenience store. They were more expensive, but the high school kid behind the counter didn't care who paid for the merchandise as long as he got the sale. About the only thing positive about the situation was that it forced her to learn how to read, add, and subtract at an early age.

It went that way for about five months until the weather started to turn towards winter. The only clothing that the convenience store sold was souvenir t-shirts, shorts, and underwear. Ran had grown out of last year's winter clothes and had nothing else to wear, so when she had to leave the apartment she wore her too small winter coat over layers of her summer clothes and a pair of tights with holes in them. Then one day the boy at the convenience store told his boss that he was taking the afternoon off, had grabbed Ran's hand and walked her around the neighborhood stores. Everywhere they stopped, whether it was the grocer's, the pharmacy, the second-hand store, the sweets shop, the general store, or the clothing store, he had taken her in, spoken briefly with the manager of each store, frequently pointing at her while whispering, and then the manager had told her that she was free to come and shop with them whenever she liked.

When she had tried to thank the kid after he had finished taking her around, he had just waived off her thanks.

"I can't get any more involved than that, but at least you won't have to pay the kind of prices the convenience store charges, and you won't get cold. From the way I've seen you pinching your coins you have to make every yen count. So for now, go directly to the second-hand store and get yourself some decent, used winter clothing. The manager there should be able to help you choose the best items. Then go to the grocery store and get some decent food. Do you know how to cook?" he asked. Since she had had to quickly learn how to cook for herself when her mother stopped, she knew the basics, enough so that she wouldn't starve. So, at her nod, he told her to get herself some rice, eggs, and fresh vegetables and to eat at least one decent meal per day so that she could keep some fat on her bones during the winter months. "And don't thank me. I've only done what any decent human being would do, but I can't do any more without getting in trouble myself. Now, get going."

It was the first time anyone had shown her any kindness and, she figured, it might also be the last, so she took his advice and went to the second-hand store and bought herself some old but well cared for winter clothes and some jeans with the manager's help. She had then gone to the grocer's and bought what he had told her plus a small package of meat; just enough for one small meal. Since her mother only came home late at night anymore Ran fixed herself a hot meal, took a bath, and went to bed with a warm, full stomach for the first time in months.

The boy at the convenience store may not have wanted her thanks, but she prayed that night for him, for his kindness and his caring, and asked God to keep him safe from harm.

With that, she was able to shop better, spend her money more wisely, and even start to save some up for things that she might want other than just the staples of life. Her first purchases were a book on nutrition and a cookbook, The Art of Cooking for One. The authors had set up different sections for each type of meat, vegetables, casseroles, and desserts. They also had everything broken into sections for 'expensive', 'moderate', and 'cheap'. Ran quickly learned every recipe in the 'cheap' sections.

Finding out that she was starting school the next spring came in the form of a note from her mother telling her the name of the school and the date of the entrance ceremony along with some extra money to buy a school uniform and a red backpack. An envelope containing all of the necessary paperwork, including a letter from her mother's attorney that told her mother that by law she was required to place her daughter in a proper school, was the only other item.

Ran was able to save over ¥5,000 by purchasing her uniform and backpack at the second-hand store. She also saved buying her school supplies there. The store manager, when Ran had shown her the list of school supplies that she would need, took her around the store and gathered up the cheapest but most reliable of all of the necessary items on the list. Ran was tempted to celebrate the huge savings with a recipe from the 'expensive' section of her cookbook, but settled for one from the 'moderate' section. There was no need to go overboard and spend everything she had saved.

Then school started and things got even worse. She had earnestly hoped to make friends at school, but from the very first day she had been ostracized for her "foreign" looks. At the end of classes some of the boys decided to pick on her by throwing rocks at her. The teacher immediately stopped and scolded them, but by that time Ran had already started running.

And she had never stopped.

For the first time in her life, she felt free. The wind in her face, her ponytail bouncing behind her as her feet slapped the pavement, the burning in her legs and in her lungs, she had never felt so alive. The boys had been forced by the teacher to apologize the next morning, but Ran almost wanted to thank them for introducing her to the absolute joy of running. With this she wouldn't need friends.

The next nine years of her life, from elementary through middle school, followed a simple schedule. She would wake up in the morning, fix her breakfast, shower and dress for school, and then run the ten or fifteen blocks from her small apartment to school; ten for elementary, fifteen for middle school. After classes were done for the day she would gather her things and run back to her apartment where she would change clothes, do her homework, clean the apartment, and then do any necessary shopping. As a reward for accomplishing her chores she would change into her old set of warm-ups and run a 5km course she had devised that kept her out of the more dangerous parts of the city; much of the course spent along the storm water canals that crisscrossed the town. Upon returning home she would eat a light dinner, shower, and go to bed early. On weekends she ran either a 10K or a half-marathon as reward for her accomplishments during the week, and once a month would run a marathon of 42.2km.

Ran kept to this schedule no matter the weather except for those very rare instances when snow actually covered the ground. She tried to learn proper form from a book on running that she purchased along with watching how other runners moved. Ran never bothered to time herself, but she noticed that over the years, even using her normal, comfortable gait, she began to pass those that had once passed her on the paths. It wasn't something she was proud of, it was simply an observation over time. How fast she ran had never been an issue or a goal for her; only the running itself and the way it made her feel mattered.

Then one Fall day in her third-year of middle school she passed an older man. He was probably in his late twenties or early thirties, dark hair, around 172cm, slender but with good runner's muscles. He was decent enough looking she guessed, but she was more interested in his running form than in his body. She had seen him a number of times on her regular runs and had decided that his form was probably the best of everyone she had seen. As she passed him it seemed to her that he came to some decision because he increased his pace, trying to catch up with her.

Ran, at just around 160cm, with her long, mid-back length blonde hair that she kept in a ponytail when she ran and her ice blue eyes, seemed to attract her fair share of molesters and pickup artists. Her habit of eating light, on top of her running, gave her a slender, feminine figure coupled with firm but not overly developed muscles in her legs, arms and abs. Although short by some standards she could easily have been a top Eurasian model on her looks alone. She even had the high cheekbones and small, B-cup bust size that most fashion magazines seemed to want these days, although she still harbored some small dream of eventually needing a C-cup bra.

Despite her good looks, this guy must have also only been interested in her running form. Unlike some guys that had tried to hit on her in the past she had felt no malice from him, only an earnest desire to help her out. He started talking as soon as he got somewhat close to her. "Lean forward just a touch; it will be better for your back and legs. And try to land just a bit more on the balls of your feet. You're doing pretty well landing in your center of gravity, but you are a tiny bit flat-footed. Loosen your wrists and don't clench your fists. Let them hang freely. And bring your elbows in just a touch closer to your body."

Ran listened to him as he listed the minor changes she should make to her form and tried to put what he was recommending into practice. She didn't respond, just nodded to each thing he said.

"Good. Now, try that for a few days and see if it feels better," he said as he started falling back again so that he was running about fifteen meters behind her. He didn't say anything else, but she could feel his eyes on her as she ran. When she came to her usual turnoff he continued on his own way. She looked back and saw him wave. She returned the wave with a shy smile as she continued on with her run.

Ran usually ended up seeing the man only once or twice a week, but she made sure to thank him the next time she saw him. His recommended changes had made a difference. Her running became a bit more comfortable and her legs and ankles didn't hurt quite so much at the end of her run. He just waved off her thanks with a grin, saying it was a pleasure to see someone so young interested in long-distance running.

Then, one day in mid-October, he purposely caught up with her again on one of her weekend half-marathons.

"So, what high school are you going to go to?" he asked her.

"Not," she replied in a matter-of-fact tone, her long blonde ponytail bobbing as if to emphasize her answer.

"Why not?" he asked as if he were truly perplexed by her one word answer.

"No money," she answered in the same monotone and then took her pace up a notch. High school was not a topic she really wanted to consider. The law required her mother to put her through elementary and middle school. It did not require her to put her unwanted child through high school. Nor did it require her to provide a roof and food after she graduated middle school. Her mother had not said anything in her notes, but Ran already knew that she would have to move as soon as she graduated. She had probably seen her mother a total of twenty times in the last nine years. They had not spoken a word to each other, which did not really surprise her, but from the looks she received it was apparent that her mother would prefer for her daughter not to be there.

Ran had already spoken to their landlady who had recommended a place for her. It was an older apartment complex, nothing special and the rooms were more like studio efficiencies. Each apartment had one single 4 ½ - mat room that combined living room, bedroom, and a small kitchen area, but with a separate, tiny bathroom. They weren't much, but the landlord was a friend of her current landlady's and he made sure that the place was always in good repair and clean. And he only allowed decent folks to live there. Any delinquents or rowdies found themselves out on the street pretty quickly.

Most importantly, the rent was within reason if she were able to get a half-way decent job.

She heard the slap of the man's footsteps as he caught up with her again.

"Don't slouch your shoulders," he admonished her.

Ran hadn't realized that she had started to hunch into herself as she thought about what her future, or lack thereof, might be like.

"Here," he said as he finally came up beside her for the first time. He was holding out a business card. She must have looked confused, since he went on to explain, "I'm the track coach at St. Timothy's. I might be able to help."

Ran took the card from his hand and glanced at it. It certainly looked legitimate. If it was, his name was Hideo Saito and he was, supposedly, the track coach at a private, all-girls high school; one of the best in the city if she remembered correctly. Why would he be carrying a business card while running?

He must have read the confusion in her expression because a grin appeared on his lips and he started to explain, "I started carrying one with me since the first time I spoke to you. You have decent form, a good pace, great stamina, but more importantly, you're willing to be coached. Do you know how many students I have who are absolutely sure that their way is the best way; the only way?" he laughed. "And each and every one of them end up with shin splints, knee or ankle problems, even broken heel bones. Yet you immediately made the changes I recommended and stayed with them when you realized that they worked for you. I haven't felt that satisfied in coaching someone in a number of years. Look, do you mind if we take a break? I don't mind talking while running, but it interferes with my breathing."

Ran again felt no malice from the man as she had from all the previous men that had tried to approach her, only a desire to help. The pedophiles she had encountered when she was younger had been the worst. Luckily they had also been the easiest to outrun. No, this man seemed more like the shopkeepers that had been watching over her for so many years; or even the young man at the convenience store that went out of his way to ensure that she survived. So she decided to take a chance and motioned for him to follow her.

She took a turnoff that she usually saved for warm, summer days and headed down towards the lake in the city park. There should still be plenty of people around if her guess about his nature turned out to be wrong. She slowed her pace gradually until, by the time the two reached the pavilion by the shoreline, she was walking and getting her breath back. As soon as she got there she started her stretches. Keeping her muscles warm after a run was not only good for her body, it would also allow her to make a quick escape if necessary.

"My God, someone who knows the benefits of a good warm down as well," he exclaimed with a grin as he started in on his own stretching, "you never cease to amaze me. By the way," he said a little more formally, with a nod of his head, "although you already read it, my name is Hideo Saito and I am the track coach at St. Timothy's Private Girls' Academy. I coach and train the girls track team . . . and I am not a molester," he finished with a grin as he held his arms out to his sides, almost like he was saying 'look, I'm unarmed.'

It was almost enough to make her giggle, but not quite yet. She still wasn't totally sure of the man, but it never hurt to be polite. "I am Ran Yamazaki. I am a third-year middle school student at Mochizuki public school," she introduced herself with a bow, "I appreciate all you have done to take care of me. Your recommendations for changes in my form made running just that much more enjoyable for me," she smiled.

"And she has good manners as well. Now I know I have to get you on my team."

"I'm sorry, Saito-sensei, but I will have to get a job as soon as I graduate. I will be on my own then and will need to work to support myself," she told him, refusing to allow a frown to appear on her lips. She wanted no pity due to her circumstances.

Hideo frowned at her blunt declaration, but he was smart enough not to delve into her personal issues . . . yet. "What if I could help you with housing, food, books and uniforms as well as tuition and a small allowance?"

"Are you talking about a scholarship or are you offering to become my 'sugar daddy'?" she asked, still a little unsure, her arms crossed over her chest and her left leg back a bit, ready to run if he answered the question in the wrong way.

"I'm talking about a full athletic scholarship to St. Tim's," he replied with a grin, somehow glad that she was showing a little restraint and common sense.

Now he had Ran's full attention! "Ah, ah, ah,"

He laughed at her tongue-tied expression. Watching as multiple expressions, including confusion, shock, and hope, flowed across her face was extremely entertaining. "Since we are a small, private Catholic school I have the authority to offer scholarships, both athletic and academic, from just a small monthly allowance up to and including full scholarship. By the way, how are your grades?"

"Ah, um, well" Ran stammered, still somewhat in shock at the turn of events, but she was eventually able to control her wayward speech, "I-I am currently holding a 3.78 average out of a 4.0 in all subjects; just a hair under 95%."

"Alright, that cinches it," he said as he took back the card she was still holding and pulled a flexible, rubber pen from his back pocket. He started to write on the back of the card, "this is my office number and my personal cell phone. I am adding the number for the Registrar's office and . . . you will meet me at my office at 3:30 next Monday and I'll get you a brochure on the school along with the required paperwork," he finished as he gave her the card back.

"Y-yes, sensei," Ran stammered, unable to believe her good fortune.

"Before you start thinking that I'm being overly generous, I warn you that I'm going to run your butt off. I expect you to take us to the prefectural and regional tournaments next year and as decent as you are now you still have some ways to go. What are your times in the 3K and 5K?"

"Uh, I don't know. I've never felt a need to time myself," Ran replied, a little embarrassed.

"You're kidding! Alright, today's Saturday; what are you doing tomorrow?" he asked with a serious expression. "Wait, before that, I only know what distances you run when I catch up with you. What's your normal routine "

"Um, well," she said, "I usually run 5 kilometers every evening and then 10K or half-marathons on Saturday or Sunday, depending on the weather. Once a month I run a marathon."

He just stared at her. "You're joking, right? I mean, I see you doing about 2K or 3K in the evenings and about 5K on the weekends. Where the hell do you live?"

"I live about fifteen blocks from my school," Ran said, trying to put some form of relationship between the distances he was talking about.

"So, how far have you run today?" he asked.

"Um, this park is a little less than half-way along my normal summer half-marathon route, so about 9 or 10K?"

"Geez, girl! How long have you been doing this and why aren't you burned out?"

"Um, well, I've been running since my first year in elementary school, and I set up this routine relatively soon thereafter, so about eight-and-a-half or nine years? And as for burnout," she shrugged her shoulders, "what can I say; I just love to run. There is nothing better in the world than the feel of the wind on your face and the pounding of your feet on the ground. You can go anywhere when you're running," she answered in a wistful voice, "you can escape all your troubles, all the pains of the world, as long as you're running. There's only you and your freedom, you can think or believe you are anything while you're running," she said while staring out across the lake. She was trying to explain something that she had never had to put into words before. She just knew how she felt when she ran. Trying to tell someone else what it was like . . .

"Don't worry," he said gently, "I understand. I get the same way sometimes." He turned and sat on one of the benches situated between the pavilion and the lake, looking out at the sparkling water. "When you run, you're free."

Ran just nodded and sat down next to him. They sat that way for a bit, each thinking their own thoughts. The comfort she felt with him was somewhat surprising. She thought she might actually like Saito-sensei. He might be a strict coach if what he had told her earlier was the truth, but if he could help her, not only with running but with high school, something she had given up on two years ago when she realized that her mother had no intention of putting up with her that long, than she was willing to see where he could lead her.

"So, tomorrow," Hideo said, finally breaking the silence, "do you know where St. Timothy's is?" at her nod he continued, "good, be at the main gate at 9 tomorrow morning. Take a bus, don't run. Do you need bus fare? No? Alright, I'll meet you at the front gates and take you around the campus. I'll show you the track and we'll get a few simple times for you in the middle and long-distances. I don't want you to push yourself; I just want to get a baseline of where you are now so that I know what to coach you on next year."

"Aren't you being a just a little bit presumptuous, sensei?" she grinned, "You seem to think that my going to St. Timothy's is a fait accompli."

"Do you have any other options?" he replied with his own smirk and a twinkle in his eyes.

"Not really," she replied with a small smile, rising back to her feet and stretching out her Achilles and hamstrings, "but let's talk again tomorrow and see where we go from there. Alright?" she asked, holding out her hand to him.

He shook her hand, not bothering to rise himself. He knew she would need to run by herself and think about his offer. "Deal," he smiled.

Many thanks for reading. Reviews and comments are always welcome.

Take care,