It took only a few minutes for Chikane and Eriko to arrive at the base of the hill. After first cussing up a storm and then telling Ran how good it was to see her again, complete with hugs and kisses, instead of helping to support the injured girl the cafeteria manager simply picked her up in her arms and carried her along the bottom of the hill until it sloped back up to meet with the path. Megumi had valiantly and selflessly stayed with the car while Eriko fetched her wayward cousin. She was also extremely proud of herself for keeping her mouth relatively shut on the short trip back despite everything she wanted to "say" to the child. Within fifteen minutes from the time Shiori called her, Eriko was carrying Ran up the steps to her apartment.

Shiori was touched and had to wipe a tear from her eye when she noticed that the key Ran handed to her to unlock the door was strung on the extra ribbon from her uniform.

A 3m x 3m room becomes a bit cramped when occupied by six women and a full futon is laid out on the floor to hold what everyone now could clearly see was an extremely sick girl. Ran had quickly been stripped of her baggy sweats which had started another round of exclamations at the withered nature of her body. After putting what ice Ran had in a plastic zip lock bag and placing it on her swollen ankle, Eriko left to go buy more ice and some medical wraps with a stern warning not to get into any heavy discussions until she returned. She hadn't really expected them to honor that demand, but to her surprise they were still fussing over Ran, pouring out tea and fixing food for the girl by the time she got back.

Everyone waited until Ran had a second bag of ice under her ankle which had been elevated above her heart by the simple expedient of using her pillow. Shiori had volunteered her lap for Ran's head. Once everyone was settled and Ran had some decent food in her system a deep silence fell over the room. Ran knew what was expected of her and so she began telling them the story, from the time Shiori's and Himeko's mother exited the limo to the day that Kenji found her working at the Denny's.

"I assume it was Kenji-kun that finally told you where I was," Ran speculated after Megumi got her to swallow another two ibuprofen with her last bit of tea. It was Shiori that answered her as Megumi went to fix her another cup. The school's Headmistress had been relatively quiet the entire time, but Ran could see the lit powder keg just waiting for its time to explode.

"He was deeply afraid that you would be sick or dead by the time he was able to get back here to check in on you. He said that you had looked relatively healthy when he first saw you, but that you had taken a decided turn for the worse over the next few weeks. Please don't blame him," Shiori begged her, "he only wanted what was best for you . . . for all of us."

"I don't blame him," Ran sighed. "If anything I should thank him. He's probably right. I was so depressed that I simply stopped taking care of myself. I didn't see the point with all the pain I had caused everyone," she went on, her eyes staring into her teacup so that she wouldn't have to see the accusations in everyone's eyes.

"You've got that right, child," Megumi told her harshly, finally giving vent to all of her pent up anger and worry. "Many people at the school, and your own family, were worried to death not knowing what had happened to you the way you simply disappeared without a trace."

Ran chuckled sadly, "I sincerely doubt that my 'family' cared one whit about what happened to me. More likely they were happy to see me go."

The sharp crack of flesh on flesh as Megumi's palm struck heavily against Ran's cheek resounded through the shocked room.

"Megumi!" Eriko yelled, shocked motionless at the ferocity of the violence.

"I don't mean that bitch of a mother of yours, or that worthless father either! I mean your real family! Those of us that truly love you and care about you, Ran!" the Headmistress yelled at shocked blonde, both hands fisted to keep from striking out again.

"What family?" Ran screamed back at the angry woman. "I don't know anyone other than my mother! I've never met or even spoken to my father! Who else is there? I don't have any other fam . . ." It struck Ran like a ton of bricks. As she sat there rubbing her stinging cheek all of her anger drained from her just as quickly as the blood drained from her face as exactly what Megumi had said registered.

"'Us?'" Ran asked in a shocked whisper.

"Yes, 'us!'" Megumi screamed, fuming as she paced back and forth the three steps between the edge of the futon and the sink in the corner. No one else in the room moved or even dared to speak a word as the Headmistress of St. Timothy's Girls' Academy finally let loose. "You're my cousin and I'm damned proud of it! At least I was until you pulled this idiotic stunt!" she spat.

"Megumi," Eriko said again, this time more softly, grabbing her hand as her lover paced past her, trying to calm the highly emotional woman and bring her back to earth. The look of shock on Megumi's face as she started to cool down – as she realized she had just hit a girl she dearly loved; a girl who was not only sick but had every right to question why she would have any family that cared for her – told Eriko that her lover was finally back in control of her emotions.

"I'm so sorry, Ran," the woman said softly as she quickly dropped down and took hold of the stricken and confused girl's hands. "I shouldn't have hit you. Nor should I probably have told you in just this way, but you need to know that you do have family that cares about you."

"C-cousins? You're my . . . cousin? I . . . I have a real family?" Ran whispered, too surprised to understand it all.

"Yes," Megumi smiled as she kissed Ran's forehead and gently brushed the cheek she had slapped, "cousins. We're family. Actually, you have a lot of family that is worried about you. Aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews, and your grandparents; they were all worried sick to death when you disappeared.

"As long as you were still legally in the care of your mother, we couldn't do anything," Megumi explained. "We wanted to take you away from her and raise you the way you should have been, but she adamantly refused and we knew the courts would have forced you to stay with her as long as she wasn't physically abusing you. We would have disowned her except we didn't want to take any chances of even more stigma being heaped on you than you already had. So we had to stay hidden from you; only able to watch over you from the shadows. That is, until I became the Headmistress at St. Timothy's. Then, as soon as I could . . . as soon as you became a third year in middle school and would have to soon move out of that apartment, I put a plan into place where I could hopefully get you into the school where I could watch over you more closely," she told her shocked and silent audience.

"Don't get me wrong. You deserve every bit of the honors and scholarships that you were given, so please don't think that you have not earned your place at St. Tim's. All I did was to make sure that Hideo-kun was in a position to see you when you were running. I knew he'd want you on the track team if he had the chance. Everything else was up to the two of you."

"I-I have family?" Ran whispered to herself again, still trying to comprehend this world changing fact.

"Yes," Megumi smiled at her, brushing a few strands of hair away from her eyes, "you have family."

"And friends," Himeko grinned at her from her perch on the lone chair in the room, Chikane nodding her head emphatically in agreement.

"And a girlfriend," Shiori said quietly as she put her arms around Ran from behind and kissed the nape of her neck. "One that loves you so much it hurts."

Ran turned her head and briefly captured those soft, red lips with her own and then took hold of the hand Shiori offered, twining the older girl's fingers within her own, and giving her a look that said more eloquently than words just how much Ran loved her in return. Shiori placed another gentle kiss on those thin, chapped lips and then pulled the blonde closer so that Ran sat between her two extended legs.

"I'm . . . I'm so sorry . . . to all of you," Ran stammered as tears began streaming down her cheeks. "I know I shouldn't have run . . . but I couldn't think of anything else to do. That woman, your mother, somehow knew that she couldn't threaten me directly. So instead she threatened you, the people I love, so that I had no other choice but to leave."

"As for that I have an idea of how to return her 'kindness' such that she will never be able to threaten us again," Himeko smirked evilly.


Eriko ran Himeko and Chikane back to school and then returned to pick up Megumi, Shiori, and Ran and take them to the hospital so that Ran could be checked out. Her ankle was diagnosed as a simple sprain caused by her rolling down the hill after being tackled, for which Shiori apologized profusely. The doctor was more concerned with Ran's weight loss and dehydration. They gave her two 1000ml bags of dextrose infused saline and prescribed a week of food and bed rest before she could even think about resuming classes.

Knowing that she had no chance of keeping her job, Ran made them take her by the Denny's so that she could speak with Jiro-san directly rather than over the phone.

"I'll be sorry to see you go," the manager said with a smile not only for Ran but for the three women that crowded behind her in his office, "but I'm glad that whatever was bothering you seems to have been resolved. We were really worried about you, Ran-chan. I haven't seen that smile of yours for a while. It's nice to see it back, no matter what the reason," he grinned as he leaned forward in his chair. "But I fully expect to see you again, young lady," he admonished her. "We've kind of gotten used to seeing your face and would like to see it again."

"Th-thank you, Kusanagi-san," Ran said with a slight blush. "I really enjoyed working here, and I promise that I'll come back to visit as often as I can. You all have been so kind to me."

"If you ever need a job again, come see me first, Ran-chan. I'll hire you on as the assistant manager in a heartbeat. And if I need to have any more of my waitresses trained in the 'Yamazaki Method' I'll be sure to give you a call," he chuckled.

Jiro promised to mail her final check to her address at school and then gave her a hug before allowing them to leave.

The final stop was back at Ran's apartment where she squared up any remaining money issues with the landlord and packed her few belongings into the back of Satou-sama's car.

In the meantime, Himeko and Chikane had been very busy combing the society pages of the various newspapers in the library as well as doing extensive research on the internet. By the time the others got back to school and ensconced Ran in the school's infirmary for a week so that she could recuperate, the two had developed a first cut of their plan to get back at Yoshida-sama.

"H-Himeko, you can't print that!" Ran exclaimed from her bed as she read over the draft newspaper article. Shiori was sitting on the bed with her, holding her right hand while Chikane was sitting on a guest chair and Himeko was standing over her roommate, wringing her hands.

"Why the hell not!" Himeko replied in confusion.

"Because this says 'Yamazaki-san was found in an apartment on the East side of Tokyo by her girlfriend, Matsuo Shiori-san!' No one is supposed to know that we're dating!"

"Um, I think it's a little late for that," Chikane said with a wide grin and a chuckle.

"Why?" Ran asked, perplexed.

"Because I already told everyone, love," Shiori replied with a smile and a squeeze of her hand. "At least everyone that hadn't already figured it out for themselves."

"Eeehhh?" Ran squealed, causing the other three girls to break into laughter.

"When you disappeared," Shiori calmly explained to the befuddled girl after she had gotten control of her giggling, "I was so distraught that I really couldn't even function properly. Oh, don't go looking so apologetic, Ran! It's all over now and you're back. That's all that matters to me," she said as she saw Ran's face fall at the reminder of all the pain she had caused everyone. "Anyway, it became obvious pretty quickly that you meant a lot more to me than just a friend, so I gave up trying to hide it and told everyone how much I loved you and what you really meant to me. Everyone was very supportive and accepting of our relationship, much more so than I had ever anticipated," she said with a smile. "It embarrassed me that I had worried so much about what everyone would think and say about our being together when I should have been worrying about you instead. I promise that I won't be making that mistake again."

She leaned over and placed a soft kiss on Ran's lips that the younger girl was more than happy to return.

"I'm surprised, but very happy," Ran said softly with a smile as she pulled Shiori towards her so that she could put her arm around her waist.

"So, now that that issue has been put to bed, what do you think about the rest of the article?" Himeko grinned, enjoying every minute of watching the two lovebirds getting reacquainted.

The plan was to use the strategies of Sun Tzu and treat the issue with their mother as if it were a battle. Since Yoshida-san was currently unaware of Ran's return, and was sitting back quite happy and unconcerned believing she had already won the war, they would attack without warning by publishing an article in the school's newspaper regarding Ran's return and some of the particulars as to why she had left in the first place.

The second part of the strategy was to include information in the article questioning the ability of Shiori's and Himeko's mother to even make such threats given her well known hypocrisy and her own relationships with other women.

"Isn't that going a bit far," Ran asked with concern. "I mean, it's not like we really have any proof."

"Ran," Himeko chided her roommate, "what is the school newspaper best known for?"

"Um, I guess it is best known for its gossip pages," Ran replied slowly.

"And how much of that gossip is actually true?" the short haired girl smirked.

"Probably only about half of it?" Ran guessed.

"And how much of it do people really believe?"

"Ah, probably most of it," Ran grinned, finally beginning to see the stratagem.

"Exactly! Whether it's true or not, most people will believe it. And you know that the girls here whose mothers are friends of my mom will send copies of the newspaper home. Soon it will be all over the high society crowd that my mother threatened not only you, but both of her daughters as well, just so that her own name and place in the world would be maintained. Even if it's untrue, her name and honor will be besmirched. If that happens, she can try to disown us or dishonor us, but it would only be seen as retaliation for the information printed in the article, which would only hurt her honor all the more! She won't dare try anything like that, so she'll be caught up in her own web and unable to go through with her plans! Her hands will be tied and the war will be over with us the victors!" Himeko finished with a large grin and flashing the victory sign.

"But . . . but what about your father? Won't his reputation and honor be hurt by proclaiming our relationship? Ran asked worriedly.

"He already knows and has accepted it," Himeko smiled. "I told him while we were on summer break. He was so thrilled that Shiori had found someone to love, and that loved her in return, that he could have cared less that you were a girl. I'm the one that will be taking over the family business so Shiori is free to love whomever she wants."

Ran just shook her head, unable to fathom a man that was that understanding in this day and age and in this culture. Shiori just bent over and gave her another kiss and a smile, knowing what the blonde was thinking.

"What can I say, he loves me," Shiori giggled and shrugged her shoulders.

"Last, but not least," Himeko went on, "since all of my mother's living expenses are paid for either by her family or my father as part of the divorce settlement, she doesn't dare get either of them angry or they'll cut off her allowance. She'd actually be forced to work for a living!" Himeko screeched in laughter.

"I know a certain Denny's that is looking for a new waitress," Ran giggled, "but I wouldn't want to do that to Kusanagi-kun."

The room dissolved into laughter at that remark.


"Since you have been out of school so long, I'll have to have you take another placement exam," Megumi told Ran the next morning. "You might have to repeat your first year."

She had had one of the first truly peaceful night's sleep since she had left the school almost four months earlier. Instead of crying herself to sleep, she was able to snuggle up with the girl she loved in the large infirmary bed. They had kissed and cuddled for a while, but Ran had been unable to keep her eyes open for very long. Waking up to the beautiful, sleeping face of her love was probably the most enjoyable thing that she had ever had happen to her in her short, sixteen year life.

Shiori awoke shortly before eight in the morning, just before the start of classes. Shiori was loath to attend, and the two had argued briefly, but Ran talked her into going so that she wouldn't fall too much further behind in her schoolwork. It was just after Shiori had left to get ready for classes that Megumi had shown up in the infirmary and told her the news.

"I'm sorry, Ran-chan, but it's school policy. I can't waive the rules for you even if you are my cousin. The Board would have my head," she explained worriedly.

"That's alright. I understand," Ran replied with a small smile. It wasn't like she hadn't been expecting it. Nor was she overly worried that she would have to repeat a year. She had kept up with her studies while she had been gone. Megumi was nodding her head, thankful that Ran had accepted it so well, when she noticed a gleam in the young woman's eyes.

"Megumi-san, can I make one request?" the blonde asked, a slight smirk on her face.

"Well, I think that will be alright," the Headmistress said with a slight frown after Ran had made her request, "but you realize that it won't be easy."

"That's fine," Ran smiled. "It's something that I would really like to do."

"Alright, but don't come crying to me if you fail," the woman warned her. "I can't show any favoritism."

Using her contacts within the newspaper club, Shiori made sure that the article would be published in the very next edition of the St. Timothy Times. The article would run along with photos of Ran in the infirmary, her tiny apartment, the Denny's where she had worked, and a photo of Yoshida-san hanging all over another woman at a party that they had found on the internet.

By the end of the week the news that had come out of St. Timothy's regarding Yoshida-san and her daughters was all anyone in high society was talking about. The girls had been correct in their summation of the backlash that would hit their mother. Her parents, who were also well known in the upper circles of society, put her on family probation and required her to withdraw from society for a period of six months and cut her allowance by two-thirds. Of course she proclaimed her innocence, but word had gotten around too fast for her to do anything more than whimper at the injustice of it all.

With Megumi's help and the aid of her attorney they also filed all of the necessary paperwork to petition the courts for Ran to be declared emancipated from her mother. The attorney assured both of them that there would be no problem receiving a positive response from the courts. Ran had already proven that she could take care of herself, both in school and out in the real world, and the courts would have to take that into account.

The female attorney also informed them that the groundskeeper that had raped Ayami Misaki had finally plead guilty to the charge and would be serving a sentence of not less than twenty years. The video of the pretty young girl and Ran discussing the crimes had been more than enough to force the man to throw himself on the mercy of the courts once he and his attorneys had seen it. If Ito-san's treatment in jail was any indication, Ran figured that the odds of the rapist ever seeing the light of day, at least whole in body, were pretty slim.

Ran took her placement exams the same day that she was finally released from the infirmary after more than a week of food and bed rest.


Shiori was sitting in her usual seat when the homeroom teacher entered the following Monday morning.

"Stand. Bow," she called out as the teacher situated herself behind her desk but remained standing.

"Everyone, we have a new student joining us today. I know it's a little odd at this time of the year, but please help her wherever you can. You can come in now," she called to the person still standing in the hallway.

The door opened and a blonde haired, blue eyed girl entered the classroom and stood just in front of the blackboard.

"Um, hello everyone. My name is Yamazaki Ran and I will be joining you for the rest of the year. Some of you may have heard about what happened to me earlier this term. I can tell you that there wasn't much for me to do but work and study, so I was able to get a little ahead in my school work." A number of the girls in the class giggled at that statement and Ran blushed. "Anyway, I hope that we can get along. Please take care of me," she finished with a bow.

Most of the class was out of their seats and surrounding the blonde, questions flying every which way before Shiori got to Ran and put her arms around the befuddled second-year student.

"Alright everyone, back off," she yelled out to the rest of the class before turning back and looking once more into Ran's deep blue eyes.

"This one's mine," she grinned before gently kissing her girlfriend, much to the delight and cheers of the other girls in the classroom.

Ran returned the kiss with every bit of love that was bursting from her heart, wondering what she had ever done to deserve all of this happiness.

"Alright, enough of this," the teacher tried to call out in a stern voice, trying to restore order, but her smile gave her away. As a former distance runner herself in high school she had been a staunch "Ran-Fan" ever since she had watched Ran pacing the field at the first track meet of the season. It warmed her heart to see the girl that had been the victim of so much bullying finally finding some happiness of her own. She couldn't begin to understand the courage and strength Ran-chan must have to remain so steadfast, caring and cheerful after everything that had happened to her this year.

"Everyone back to your seats," she told the rest of the class causing many moans of consternation and complaints before turning back to the couple that still had their arms around each other. "I can see I'm going to have to separate you two if I'm going to be able to actually teach you anything for the rest of the year," she chuckled, "so Yamazaki-san, if you would please take the empty desk in the rear of the classroom, and Matsuo-san, please take your seat. You two can see each other again after class."

"Yes, Sensei," the two girls replied in unison with wide grins.

Ran and Shiori reluctantly released their clasped hands as Ran, unable to stop smiling, picked up her backpack that contained all of her second-year schoolbooks and made her way to her new desk. After getting out her notebook and text book for the class she took a moment to look around the room. Most of the girls were still giggling or chuckling, many trying to tease her girlfriend.

It looked like things were going to be a lot better from now on. She was back in the school where she belonged. She had good friends and a girlfriend that she loved dearly. She even, for the first time in her life, had family that truly cared for her. She couldn't see how life could get any better.

About to turn and ask the girl next to her what page they were on in the text book she noticed a dark haired girl sitting near the windows glaring at her with a look of pure disgust. She sighed and smiled at the girl until she turned away in a huff.

Sighing again she forced herself to continue smiling until it felt more natural and her good mood returned. She refused to allow one person's hatred to upset her and bring her down.

Yes, the future was looking much brighter . . . even if some things seemed like they would never change.

A/N: I wanted to thank everyone that has taken the time to allow Ran and her friends into your lives. I'm going to give them a break for a little while and let them catch their collective breath. I think I've put them through quite enough for now, don't you?

I hope that you have enjoyed the story. If so, please leave a review or feel free to PM me. I love hearing from you.

Take care everyone. I hope we meet again in the near future.


And now for the legalese:

The preceding is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual persons, groups, or events is strictly coincidental. All rights are reserved by the author.

I do not own Denny's.