I don't own these characters. Don't sue me; you won't get blood from a turnip.
Science teaches that all things trend towards entropy. All things fall apart; decay is the natural state of world. The new building begins to crumble from the moment the first foundation stone is put in place. Societies rise only so that they can glorify their ultimate fall. Even intangible things are susceptible to entropy. Ideas inspire, then are forgotten in the mists of time. Relationships are born in a fiery passion and burn out, leaving nothing but cold hard reality.
It was a little thing, really. A small, innocuous comment. However, little things are often just the opening larger problems need to exploit in order to snow ball into an irreconcilable differences. On this particular day, Ranma made the mistake of commenting on Akane's cooking. It didn't matter that he'd made similar comments for years up to this one. What was important was that the foundation for this relationship was so weakened, so unstable, that it couldn't bear the accumulated weight of one more comment. It was the the crack that weakened the dike, allowing all the pent up rage break free and spill forth, pouring out and devastating everything in its path.
And so Ranma and Akane argued. She asked him what he meant, he of course replied nothing. His answer just led to more questions, more baiting, and like a cigarette but smoldering between couch cushions, it caught, quickly building to a conflageration. It was all they ever did anymore. Argue about stupid stuff, important stuff. They couldn't say anything to each other unless they were arguing. It had been like this for too long. Ranma couldn't even remember what it was like to not argue anymore. Finally, hours before their arguments normally wound down, Ranma decided that he couldn't take it anymore.
He stood up. His abrupt action startled Akane out of her normal tirade. He turned and walked away.
"Where do you think you're going?" Akane jumped up and grabbed Ranma's arm. She wasn't ready for this to end yet.
"Out." He didn't bother looking at her, instead he just shook his arm loose and continued towards the entrance.
"You know why."
"No, I don't. Why don't you tell me?"
Ranma sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. He still didn't turn to face her. Akane. His wife. Briefly his joy, but more often his source of sorrow. Oh, he could make a million excuses, and he often did. They got married too young. They got married for the wrong reasons. They weren't right for each other. They were still grieving about the baby. But, the reality was, it didn't matter. It wasn't working. Their relationship wasn't like the dojo; it couldn't be fixed with a couple new boards and a fresh coat of paint.
At this point, he didn't care that it couldn't be saved anymore. He was only 22. He'd been married now for four years, but it felt like a lifetime. He'd done his penance. He was young yet. Even if satisfying the demands of honor doomed this relationship, maybe he could find happiness and recapture that heady feeling of self confidence he used to have when he was a teenager.
Maybe. But he knew he couldn't do it here. Maybe at one time he could have, but now...
"I don't want to argue anymore. I need to leave."
He cut off her growl before she could launch into another round of accusations and blaming. "I'm not going to do this right now, Akane. I'm going out. I'll be back in a bit." Ranma walked to the front door and methodically put on his coat, ignoring the fuming woman behind him.
"Where are you going, huh, Ranma? Off to see another one of your hussies?"
"Akane..." He shook his head. It was pointless. Round and round it went. They never had the trust necessary to build a relationship. It had been poisoned from the beginning. It was like watching a train barreling down broken tracks. It was derailing, and there was nothing that could stop it. Their relationship was a living corpse, old, frail, and on its deathbed. It refused to die a dignified death; it struggled to cling to life for a few more pain filled moments. Better to be alive and suffering then to die and face the unknown.
It was time to pull the plug. "I'm going out. I'll be back."
"Later." He put his arm through the sleeve and started to zip up the coat. Fall hadn't quite given away to winter yet, but it was better to be safe than sorry. Plus, he had a feeling he'd be sleeping outside tonight. He stooped down and slipped on his standard Chinese slippers, not wanting to bother with laces at this point.
"I'm warning you, Ranma." There was something in her tone that made him stop and face her. The hot rage was replaced by cold anger. This was different, more dangerous. "If you walk out that door right now, don't bother coming back."
"Yeah." Again, the cold, formal anger. This was it, then. He looked around the entrance hall of the Tendo Dojo, drinking it in. Things had been good once. This had been home; it had been the only home he'd known for a long time. But life had gotten in the way, honor had bound their hands, and a forced marriage had made them bitter and crushed the fragile love that had formed between them long ago. The stared at each other for a few seconds, a lifetimes worth of communication passing between them, willing the other person to understand all the words that should have been spoken years ago, before it got to this point.
He knew neither of them was strong enough to fix this problem. He gave her a grin, but it really didn't reach his eyes. Saotome Ranma didn't lose, and he wouldn't admit this defeat. "Abayo, Akane." He gave her a two finger salute and walked out the door, pausing only long enough to brush his hand on the entrance gate. He'd miss the dojo, but he wouldn't look back. It was for the best.
"Was it a bad one?"
Ranma took a pull on his beer, setting it down on the counter. "Yeah."
Ryoga grimaced. "How bad?"
Ranma shrugged. "I'm pretty sure I can't go back." He really didn't want the beer, but he couldn't sit at the bar and not order something. He picked at the label, peeling it off so he had something to do, anything to do, than focus on the actual problem at hand.
"Jesus, Ranma. You should have called me. Or called Tofu. Or someone."
"I did. I called you."
"Yeah, only after you got thrown out of the Dojo." Ryoga nursed his own beer, staring not at Ranma but at some point off in the distance. "Where are you going to go?"
Ranma shrugged. "I was hoping I could crash with you for a couple of days until I could get back on my feet."
This only elicited a sigh from Ryoga.
"Look, Ranma. If where up to me, it wouldn't be a problem." He shrugged, apologetically. "But with Akari pregnant and all..."
"Yeah, I understand. I wouldn't want to impose on you guys, anyway. Don't worry about it."
"What about your parents?" Ranma gave him a flat lidded stare. "Right. Dumb question." The silence stretched, making Ryoga uncomfortable. Ranma was perfectly content to sit there, however. Finally, the formerly lost boy spoke up.
"Do you have any camping gear, at least?"
He gave a barely perceptible nod. This cause Ryoga to look around, searching for a pack. "Where is it?"
Ranma patted his sides.
"Hidden weapons technique?"
Again the nod. Ranma almost had the label completely peeled off by now. Just a few more tugs... with grim satisfaction, he pulled it free and rolled it into a ball.
"Well, I guess you could stay in the pigs' stables until we could find something else." Ryoga paused. "What are you going to do?"
Ranma shrugged in response to Ryoga's question. "Don't know what I can do. This place has no use for someone like me."
"What are you talking about?"
Ranma let out an exasperated sigh. "Ryoga, what am I good at?"
"You're the best damn martial artist I've ever seen."
"And..." Ryoga opened his mouth to continue, and shut it with a click. Embarrassed, he stopped short, then flushed.
"Exactly." Ranma took a long pull on his beer. He set the empty bottle down on the counter, and put enough coins on next to the bottle to pay the tab.
Silence reigned as Ranma made no move to get up. "I'm gonna need some help."
"Yeah. I know. Listen, I have this friend who works in the construction industry. I'm sure that he's got a lead on some jobs for you. And I think if we..." Ryoga rattled on, eager to talk about his plans to get Ranma back on his feet and back in Akane's good graces. Ranma let the words flow over him, not even listening or making much of an effort to understand. He grunted in the appropriate places to show he was listening, but in reality he drifted, conscious thought abandoned as he simply listened to the rise and fall of Ryoga's voice. He had no direction, no purpose. The Art used to be his life. But, the real world didn't have a place for a martial artist without a college degree and no real skills. He was almost a functional illiterate. Hell, he'd barely graduated from high school.
His focus in the Art had gotten more intense as his relationship had collapsed. He was better than ever, but still completely out of place in modern day Tokyo. A warrior without any wars to test himself against anymore. He was lost.
He perked up. "Ryoga?"
Ryoga cut off in mid-flow, turning to look at Ranma. The tone of voice he used was not what he would have expected from someone in his situation.
"What? Did you like the idea about trying to find some work as a stunt double?"
"No, not that." He paused, not sure how to phrase it. "I want to get lost."
Ryoga grunted and turned back to his beer. "That's not a solution, Ranma." He snorted. "Believe me. I tried it for years. It doesn't solve anything."
"I know." Ranma dropped the beer label on the bar and pushed around with his index finger. "Do you honestly think I can fix the problems I have here?"
"Akane might change her mind. You guys could get help, you know? Go to counseling, or something."
Ranma shook his head. "We've hurt each other too much at this point. Maybe at one time, we could have. But now? There's no trust and too much baggage. I was always just a prize to her, and we are both too damn proud to admit that we were didn't know what the hell we were doing. She just held on tighter because she knows she knows she didn't win fairly."
"You still blame her for getting pregnant, huh?"
Ranma shook his head. "No."
Ryoga raised his eyebrow. "Really?"
"Really. I don't." Ranma trailed off, frowning and staring at the wall as he remembered. "Sure, it was a shitty way to 'win,' but I was happy to have some sort of resolution, ya know?"
Ryoga nodded. "But you're still angry."
"Yeah, I am. I'm angry because of all the shit that happened after she told me about the baby. Going of to rub it in Xian Pu's face and putting me in that situation. Putting us in that situation. The hardest thing is..." He trailed off, unsure if he really wanted to voice his thoughts. "I wanted the kid. I was happy when I found out, Ryoga. I was. But when she had the miscarriage, she blamed me for it, even though was Xian Pu's fault."
Ryoga grew grim. "I didn't know it was Xian Pu's fault."
Ranma nodded. "What did you expect? That Xian Pu would take her taunting laying down? She was crafty about it, but eventually Akane took the bait. Oh, she was able to claim self defense in the end, but Xian Pu was much better than Akane. She could have incapacitated her without endangering the baby. You knock her out, use pressure points, whatever. You don't punch her in the gut."
"Xian Pu did that?"
"I would have killed her if she did something like that to Akari."
Ranma's smile held no mirth in it. "I got my revenge."
"What did you do?"
Ranma looked at Ryoga. He asked, "Do you really want to know?"
Ryoga almost answered that he did, but there was something in the way Ranma said it, in the flat tone of his voice and emotionless look in his eyes, made him reconsider. In the end, he decided it wasn't that important. There wasn't much to say after that. Ryoga regarded his frined calmly. Yes, sometimes it still amazed him that Ranma, his eternal rival, was his friend. But he was.
Partly, it was because Ranma had changed after the incident with Saffron. He was no longer the innocent boy he had been. He had stopped holding back as much. That, more than anything else, had been the reason Ryoga had buried the hatchet and eventually became his friend. To do otherwise was to risk permanent harm, because Ranma had stopped playing. After Saffron, when he fought, he fought to win.
"Do you still want to get lost?"
He didn't hesitate a for a second. "Really lost. I want to go someplace where no one will ever find me." He paused, then looked directly at Ryoga. "I mean nobody. Not even you."
Ryoga returned the stare, nodding slowly as comprehension dawned. "You sure?"
"All right. Let me call Akari." Ryoga pulled out his cellphone and hit the first number in the speed dial. He explained where he was to his wife and told her what he needed to do. There was a brief conversation, but Ranma could tell by the set of Ryoga's shoulders that the pig-boy was relieved. Akari must have agreed. When Ryoga hung up, he simply asked, "Are you ready?"
"No time like the present."
Ranma led the eternally lost boy outside. The air was chilly, but the real cold hadn't come yet. For a while the pair just stood there, breathing in the fresh air. It was crisp and clean and carried the first hints of dried leaves. They were both stalling; neither said anything, using the excuse of taking in the night air as a final chance to take comfort in their friendship. As rocky as it had been, Ryoga was Ranma's only true friend, and he knew that Ryoga felt the same way.
Finally, Ryoga broke the silence. "Alright. Hold on to my sleeve or something. I'm just gonna close my eyes and walk. I won't open them again till you let go, okay?"
Ryoga chuckled softly. "I can't believe I'm actually trying to get lost this time."
Ranma smiled a bit, too. "And I can't believe I'm willingly going with you." Ranma reached out and grabbed Ryoga's shoulder. He gave it a squeeze. "Thanks."
Ryoga stepped forward. He really did keep his eyes closed the whole time. For Ranma, it was an incredibly weird sensation. Each step brought him farther from the world he knew, but he wasn't able to track the transition. One moment he was in Tokyo, the next...? After what seemed like an eternity, he gave Ryoga's shoulder a final squeeze.
"Tell Akane I'm sorry." With that, he let go.
Ryoga didn't cry for a whole two steps after he felt Ranma let go. He kept his eyes closed, though, and kept walking. He didn't want to see, he didn't want to know. Instead, he concentrated his thoughts on Akari. When he finally opened his eyes, he was standing on the front steps of the small farm house they shared.
Akari opened the door and gave him a hug. "You alright, Ryoga?"
He returned the hug gently and looked over his shoulder into the night. Where ever Ranma ended up, he hoped he was happy. Back when they were teenagers, his whole reason for being had been to destroy the happiness of Ranma Saotome. Seeing it actually happen was too much for him to bear. He didn't trust his voice just yet. He nodded into the top of her head and kissed the part of her hair softly. He wasn't, really, but he knew he would be in time.
She looked up at him, and extricating one arm, wiped his tears away. They stood there for a bit longer until she got cold.
"Come on. Let's go inside."
Ryouga gave her a gentle squeeze.
"You go in first. I'll be right there."
"Are you sure?"
Ryoga nodded. Akari stood on her tiptoes and kissed him gently. She clipped the end of a retractable lead line to his belt loop and attached the other end to her hip. Even though he didn't need it as much anymore, that little guesture of comfort and support made him feel better.
When she went inside, he turned out to look at the night. It was quiet on the farm, and the pigs were sleeping. The night didn't bring any answers. With a silent prayer for his friend, Ryoga turned and went inside, following the pull of the lead line.
Hiruzen Sarutobi, the third Hokage of the Hidden Village of the Leaf, dropped the portfolio on his desk and looked up at the Kunoichi that barged in his office. She was waving a letter back and forth in her hand, shouting that it wasn't fair. He didn't respond at all. He merely stared at her till she became aware that she was yelling at the village Hokage. The anger died down and she stopped yelling, but the difiance was still there. Good.
"Close the door, please."
Anko nodded and closed the door to the Hokage's office, then returned to stand in front of the desk.
"Did you hurt any of the guards?"
She shook her head. The movement only drew attention to her rather... interesting attire. While he was old enough not to be distracted by the fishnet mail shirt she was wearing, he sometimes found himself wishing he were fifty years younger. Or hell, even ten. The long over coat she was wearing did little to hide her shirt, in fact it accentuated it by drawing attention to the tantalizing hints of what might light beneath.
"What brings you here today?"
Anko narrowed her eyes and slammed the letter she'd been waving around on his desk. Luckily, she didn't disrupt any of the various piles of paper, or he would have been truly upset. He plucked the letter out from under her hand and quickly scanned its contents. Ah. So that is what this was over. He looked up at her, bemused.
She put her hands on her hips, and arms akimbo, glared at him. He wished she wouldn't do that. It did rather distracting things to her wardrobe. "Are you going to fix it?" She pointed at the letter.
He cleared his throat. "I can't."
Anko scowled. "What do you mean, you can't?"
Sarutobi arched an eyebrow. Anko had the grace at least to blush a little bit, but she still looked him right in the eye, demanding an answer. "You must fulfill certain requirements before promotion. I can't promote you to full Jonin until you take, and pass, genin students."
"You want me to teach a bunch of snot-nosed little brats?" Anko snorted. "I'll do it, but you won't like the results."
The Sandaime took out his pipe and began to pack it with tobacco. "I do want you to start teaching, and I had better like the results. More than just your promotion is riding on this, you know."
She didn't say anything. He lit the pipe and took a couple puffs to start the dottle burning. "The village needs to know it can trust you." Before she could say anything, he held up his hand. "I trust you. But the rest of the village..." He shrugged. "Blame Orochimaru, and you would be only be partially correct. They fear you, yes. But you've made no effort to win their trust, either."
She crossed her arms under her breasts, clearly annoyed. Sarutobi was extremely grateful that his face didn't betray his delight at the motion. "I'm an assassin, Hokage. It's what I do. What do you want me to do, start helping old ladies across the street or something?"
"Or something, yes." He gestured with his pipe. "You use their fear of you to keep separate from the rest of Konoha. Until they know that they can trust you with their most precious asset, they won't trust you. If they don't trust you, I can't promote you to full Jonin."
"You could promote me. It's your right as Hokage."
"I won't be Hokage forever, Anko."
She grunted, clearly not pleased at the reminder.
He sighed. "Your right, of course. I could promote you. But that would do you no good. Nobody would work with you. Nobody would hire you. You'd end up as canon fodder, sent out on boring, dangerous missions until you end up dead, instead of being hand picked for special missions suited to your talents. I have that luxury right now, as you are the only special Jonin in the village. If I remove the distinction, you also lose my protection."
She mulled it over. He was right, of course. But she wouldn't give up without a fight. "So your saying I've got to start teaching brats, huh?"
He smiled. It was a grandfatherly smile, designed to take the sting out of his victory. "Yes, I'm afraid so. It's rather too bad this year's crop of genin will be assigned teachers shortly. I bet you and Naruto would have gotten along great."
"The trouble maker?"
"Takes one to know one, Anko." He puffed on his pipe.
"So you're saying I've got to wait at least a year." Her nose wrinkled in disgust.
"Oh, more than that, I would think. You've got to pass a genin to chunin."
"I've got to pass one? Are you kidding me? That could take years!"
He smiled. "Not if you're a good teacher."
He nodded. "At least one. Preferably, the entire team."
"But one would be enough, right?"
He nodded in agreement.
She sighed in defeat and dropped her arms. "Oh, alright. I'm totally going to get you back for this, though."
"I hope so. On your way out, could you please ask the guard to come in? I would like to speak with him about allowing unannounced visitors into my office."
Anko blushed. "About that... You see, he really didn't want to let me in, but..." She shrugged. "I can be persuasive."
Sarutobi chuckled. "I bet. Will he require medical attention?"
She paused to think. "I don't think so. But he may have an irrational fear of dango after this."
The Hokage gave a wan smile. "That's too bad. At any rate, send him in as you leave."
Anko recognized the dismal and left with a nod, but not before flipping the Hokage a rude hand gesture. He smiled and waved her away. If only everyone in the village was as spirited.
Ranma woke with a start and nearly fell out of the tree he'd been sleeping in. He looked around, trying to get his bearings and failing miserably. He didn't recognize the species of the tree he was in, nor any of the other plants he saw around him. They resembled trees he was familiar with, but only if you didn't look too closely. Where ever he was, it sure as hell wasn't Earth.
Ranma was no astronomer, but he'd slept under enough nights under the a starry sky to be pretty familiar with both the Southern and Northern hemispheres. He hadn't recognized a single constellation in last night. Ryoga had done his job. He was absolutely lost. He didn't have a clue where he might be, which suited him just fine. If he didn't know, chances are he'd be safe here.
Regardless of where he now was, a few things remained the same. There were only three rules to surviving in the wilderness. The first rule his father drilled into him: find shelter. The second rule of survival was find some water. Worry about food only when you've taken care of the first two. The corollary to the first rule was that when in unfamiliar territory, high ground might not offer the best shelter, but it usually offered the best protection, which is why he spent his night in a tree.
He hopped out of the tree, bouncing of branches on his way down to the ground.
It took him the better part of the morning, but he eventually found a stream. The water was cold and clear, but he wasn't going to drink out of it till he could boil some. He had no idea where he was, and he didn't want to end up sick with some sort of parasite. With no particular direction in mind, he walked down stream until he found a likely spot to fish in. It was a quiet pool with a rock overhang, the kind of areas fresh water fish loved. He changed sex as soon as his arm was in the water, but he didn't mind. Females, in general, tended to fare better in wilderness survival, anyway. She was unsuccessful at first, not used to having to catch her own meals anymore. However, after a while, she was able to grab a fish and toss it onto the bank. She kept at it until she had a couple more.
As nice as it would be to have some vegetables, she was reluctant to forage. Eating stuff you didn't know was a good way to end up sick. Better to stick to game until she found someone that knew the local plants. She gutted and cleaned the fish, stuck them on a stick, and started a fire.
Time to do an inventory. She began pulling her camping gear of the fold in space that stored all her hidden weapons. It was a very strange technique, and getting Mousse to explain had required a steep price. It wasn't a ki technique, like she had originally thought. It involved the manipulation of ki, but the amount was minuscule. It was difficult to describe. Mousse said it was drawing a tangent line to a circle. the line touched at only one point, and with the appropriate ki manipulation, you could turn the point where the two figures intersected into yet another circle of infinite size.
Ranma hadn't cared about the theory. All he cared about at the time was that it worked. She pulled her camping gear and a knife out of her hidden weapons "stuff space." She filled a pan with some stream water and set it directly on the coals and then stuck the fish skewers in the ground so they could catch the flames as well. By the time the water was boiling the fish was almost done. He set the pan aside so the water could cool and immediately attacked the fish. The meal wasn't anything special, but it was enough. Hell, it was certainly better than anything Akane ever made.
She felt a pang of guilt and intense sadness before forcing it away. She could mope latter. Right now, she needed to concentrate on making camp.
Sixty-seven days. At least, that's how long Ranma believed she'd spent in the woods so far. She'd started keeping track the second or third day she arrived. At first, she was glad for the solitude because it gave her some time to deal with her feelings. But eventually, even she got tired of camping. She was tired, dirty, and was really craving a good bath. There was only so much wild game you could eat before you craved some processed food. In addition, her supplies of essential gear - salt, pepper, cooking oil, string, matches, and more importantly, weapons - were getting dangerously low.
Sure, she didn't need matches to survive in the wild. Hell, her entire upbringing had been nothing but a lesson on wilderness survival. But matches sure as hell beat the flint and steel or the fire bow method. The reason she was most worried, however, was that she was running low on weapons.
Some of the things she killed for food were pretty recognizable. A deer was a deer, even if the coloration was a bit different than she was used to. The porcupines were a bit larger than she was used to, but tasty enough. But some of the other things? If she doubted she wasn't in Kansas anymore, her first run in with the local predators confirmed her first suspicions that was definitely not Earth.
She had the misfortune of running into a nest of things that looked kind of like a cross between a armored boa constrictor and a centipede while tracking an animal through a sandy area of the forest. It had been only her second day in the forest, and she'd yet to run into anything really dangerous, besides some toxic looking plants. The sandy forest floor was different from the normal loam covered ground, but she hadn't really noticed it since she was intent on her target. Right as she had started spinning her sling up to take down her intended dinner, the forest floor had erupted and a mass of these creatures poured out of the ground. She leapt clear instantly, but the deer she'd been hunting was taken down and pounced on by several creatures before it could do the same.
They had been nearly thirty feet long, moved lightning fast, and had definitely been predators. The deer was torn apart by the time Ranma had made it up into the upper branches of the trees. However, the tree tops hadn't offered as much protection as she hoped, as the creatures started to climb up towards her, mandibles snapping in anticipation. The first stone from her sling bounced off the armored carapace of one the creature, but the second stone took the nearest one in the eye. It fell out of the tree and was pounced on by the others on the ground. That only bought a little time, though, because more of them were climbing towards her. She didn't have enough ammunition or time to take out the rest of them, so she utilized the Saotome Secret Technique; she fled.
She'd been able to get away because the creatures didn't follow her very far once she jumped down from the tree and ran. She'd since learned to recognize the signs of nesting sites and avoided them. But there had been some things that we a bit more tenacious than the centipedes. She'd been forced to fight more often than not, and usually her only choice was to kill whatever was after her before it could get her. Pretty much everything she'd encountered was either over-sized, aggressive as hell, poisonous, or some combination of all three.
It made her think of Ryugenzawa on steroids.
The plants were just as much a problem as the local bestiary. Half the plants were toxic to the touch, and the rest were either thorn filled or noxious. The sap of some of the more frequent bushes was acidic and pitted the metal of her weapons. Between hunting, defending herself, and fighting off creatures interested in adding her to the evening menu, she'd lost a vast majority of her bladed weapons, and was now reduced to mostly ranged items.
As much fun as it had been, she was ready to have a hot shower and some real food, preferably something she didn't have to kill herself. She had a hankering for some ramen that just wouldn't quit. This morning she'd packed up camp - which hadn't taken long. She'd found out early that tents seemed to attract curious and hungry creatures- and went looking for some signs of civilization. She eventually found a path in the forest and followed it. It could have been a game trail, and looked like one. But she had a hunch that the way it wound through the trees was too purposeful, too random. Someone had spent a lot of effort making the trail look natural, but there were some tale-tell signs that this was for human use. Certain scratches on tree trunks, made just above eye level where the unobservant would easily miss it, or a small branch bent upwards, not forwards or backwards along the trail.
It took opposable thumbs and brains to do that sort of stuff.
So she followed it. However, if someone had gone through the pains to hide the trail this much, then it warranted being careful. She stuck to the trees or the ground on either side of the trail, stopping often and double backing to ensure she was still alone. Her caution paid off quickly, as on several occasions, black clad men and women leapt swiftly and silently through the trees above the trail, scanning either side. They looked like ninja wearing flak jackets.
They were quiet, fast, and armed to the teeth. They moved like people accustomed to fighting. Plus, the nature of the weaponry they carried told Ranma they weren't out hunting. Those weapons were meant to kill, and more than a few of them looked well worn. But, they were human, at least, which was a great relief. She'd seen three groups of three so far, and all of them seemed to be heading in the same direction she had originally chosen. With nothing better to do, and the promise of some sort of human civilization at the end, she continued along the trail, taking care not to be discovered.
Because she didn't dare move as fast as the ninja she followed, it was nearly a week to reach the first sign of civilization she'd seen in months. It was pretty simple; just a fifteen foot tall chain link fence topped with barbed wire. The path she had been following led to a simple numbered gate. The fence didn't look sturdy enough to be a serious barrier to some of the animals she'd seen in here, so it must have been to keep out people. Unsure of what to do, Ranma watched the gate for some time before deciding it would be safe to cross over.
Rather than take the gate, though, she hopped over the fence. Once on the other side, she continued to follow the path, keeping her ears and eyes open. Considering how well armed the people she'd seen had been, it wouldn't do to get taken by surprise. They also didn't seem like the type to trust strangers.
The forest thinned fairly quickly one past the fence. Cover became less available as the trees thinned and offered less protection. She took even greater care not to leave any traces behind and was thankful for her caution a few moments later. The forest ended abruptly; the reason was that the ground had been cleared completely for several hundred meters in front of a giant wooden palisade. Ranma watched from the cover of the trees, noting the guards that patrolled along the top of the wall, giving her a sense of scale. It must have been a good fifty meters to the top. Definitely higher than she could jump, which is all that mattered. The wall curved around in either direction, the ends lost in the distance. She could make out a entrance towards the east, but there was no way to approach it unseen.
She faded back into the trees and, using the trees for cover, worked her way over towards the entrance to study it a bit more carefully. She selected a sheltered vantage point to observe the path leading into the town. There was a fair amount of foot and cart traffic. She noticed quickly that there were no motorized vehicles; everything was pulled by a beast of burden of some sort, either a donkey, horse, or ox. Traffic coming to the gate was questioned and carts searched briefly, but the guards stationed out front were efficient and allowed commerce to flow unimpeded.
She watched until night fall. The was gate closed at night, pushed shut by a troop of men wearing the flak jacket and combat fatigues she'd seen earlier on the people in the forest. She wasn't getting in tonight. This much protection meant that any attempt to slip in under the cover of darkness would be punished. Ranma knew you didn't show this much force unless you were prepared to use it, and she had no inclination to find out exactly how willing these people were to resort to force. Finding a heavily fortified, heavily guarded village in the middle of a forest rife with deadly creatures hadn't exactly set her mind at ease about her new home, but it at least she knew there were people here.
She slipped back into the forest and took to the treetops, ready to settle in for the night. She was pretty confident she'd be able to get into the town no problem. Once inside, though, she had no idea what she was going to do.
"Are you sure about this?" Anko flipped through the report quickly, taking in the vital data with a scowl.
The ANBU guard wearing the dog mask nodded. "Positive."
"Does the Hokage know?"
"He was informed as soon as the survey team came back."
"And?" Anko prodded, wanting him to continue. She read the report, but she wanted a verbal read out of the situation as well.
"Our surveillance detection unit detected a perimeter breach in the Forest of Death near entrance 42. We sent a team out to investigate. They quickly ruled out the local fauna and they managed to find traces of a person of unknown origin. They followed it in both directions as far as they could. The person had come from the Forest but avoided the main trails, staying between 50 to 100 meters away at all times. Once over the fence, the trail disappears once the perpetrator reached the burn zone."
Anko grunted. She hated the burn zone, but it was necessary. Konoha regularly burnt the undergrowth leading up to the forest of death. It made for faster travel, less predatory creatures, and less cover for hostile forces to use against them. But at the same time, it also made tracking harder as people tended to stay above the forest floor, and there was less underbrush and grasses to mark the passage of someone moving through the area.
"Did you try tracking by scent?"
The ANBU shook his head to the negative. "No one on the initial team had that capability."
Anko growled in frustration. The report was now hours old. There was no telling where this person was now. "Assessment?"
"Threat assessment is high. Evidence suggests that it was only one person, not a team. We think it's either a missing nin or a reconnaissance mission. In either case, unless the person's from Konoha, the necessary level of skill required to traverse the Forest on a solo mission is quite high."
"Give me a rank," She demanded.
"B rank or better." The ANBU shrugged. "Difficult to know, considering. Your orders?"
Anko thrust the report back at the ANBU. "Stay here. Have someone from the survey team take me to where they last found the trail. In form the Hokage that I'm out hunting. If I'm not back by noon tomorrow, we have a problem on our hands."
Anko's night vision was pretty good, but this close to the Forest it was almost pitch black under the canopy. Here ANBU guide showed her where the trail had been lost. In the dark, it was considerably harder to find the footprints the infiltrator had left behind, but they managed. Anko considered asking the ANBU to stay, but in the end decided it be better for the him to return to Konoha to patrol the wall. It was a long shot that the infiltrator was still in the area, anyway.
Once alone, she pulled out a kunai and made a small incision on her thumb. She pulled the sleeve of her coat up on her left arm and rubbed a small amount of blood on the tattoo there before pushing the required amount of chakra through the hand seals for summoning creatures. She molded the chakra quickly, and with a diminutive 'pop', a couple of rat snakes landed on the ground at her feet.
The pair of snakes flicked their tongues at her, sampling the air. Anko bent down and brought her face close to the serpents. She pointed at the foot prints. "Do you think you can track that scent?"
The snakes slithered over to the footprint and flicked their tongues into the air. One of the pair reared up in the air, flicking its tongue out as the other one continued to sample the footprint.
"Well? What do you think?"
The snakes both nodded in unison and started heading in the direction of Konoha. Even moving as fast as possible, snakes don't have nearly as much speed as a blood hound. But, they were just as capable trackers, given the right breed. Anko followed the snakes at a slow walk, keeping here ears and eyes open for any possible attacks. Anko had spent the entire night weaving back and forth between the trees, following her summons as they tracked the scent.
Near dawn, one of the snakes returned to the base of the tree where Anko was crouching to give a report. Apparently, the prey had holed up in a tree for the night and was still there. The other snake was watching in case the target woke up, ready to attack.
Anko's respect for her prey went up a notch. Whomever it was had been thorough and carefully covered their tracks. It was obvious that the target was Konoha, otherwise there would have been no reason to stick around. She did a quick inventory check before moving out. If possible, she wanted to capture this person. Ibiki would be interested in hearing what they would have to say.
She followed the snake back to the tree where they had followed the scent, every sense on full alert. Anko scanned the ground and the tree tops closely for traps. It made her nervous when she didn't find any obvious ones. Either her target was incredibly confident in their abilities, or had made a careless mistake. Given how thorough the approach to Konoha had been, Anko was inclined to believe the former, rather than the latter.
B ranked her ass. She contained a snort. This was going to be fun.
She kept her eyes open and senses aware as she scanned the tree her prey was supposed to be in. It was a while before she saw what she was looking for - a person was sitting upright against the bough of the tree, a good twenty meters off the ground, carefully disguised by posture, position, and coloration. If she hadn't been actively searching for her, she would have missed it. She squinted. A woman. Pretty, with red hair and a slight frame. Still sleeping. She couldn't detect any chakra. Careful not to let any killing intent or chakra leak out and tip off her target, Anko studied the woman as best she could from the distance. She wasn't dressed like any ninja she'd seen before, wearing some dirty, nondescript clothing and no forehead protector. She didn't see any back pack or signs of gear.
Anko prepared her assault. A good offense always beat a strong defense, and her target was at her most vulnerable right now. She turned her options over in her head, considering the best way to incapaciate her target without causing lethal injury. Most of her ninjutsu techniques were out, as they were expressly designed to kill. Genjutsu was risky, as they weren't her specialty and she wanted her target to be sane enough to talk.
That just left one option. Taijutsu. She didn't mind, though. She picked up a fist size rock from the ground and took careful aim. Using a minute burst of chakra, she threw the rock at her target's head, giving it enough power deliver an incapacitating blow. At the same time, she leapt after her projectile, intent to use it as a distraction to engage her target.
Right before the rock impacted with her target, she twitched her head to the side, and her carefully aimed stone whizzed by with barely a millimeter of clearance. Anko landed on the branch a fraction of a second later and moved to deliver a knockout blow with the heel of her foot, but her target dropped out of the tree before she could connect and plummeted towards the forest floor, deftly weaving through the tree branches below.
Anko smiled grimly and followed. This was even better than she thought. Her target landed in a crouch, and Anko hit the ground next to her just a blink of an eye behind her. She lashed out with a front kick, but her opponent rolled away from her and created some distance.
Her opponent yawned and blinked rapidly as if she were just waking up. She looked at Anko without comprehension, and dismissed her as an afterthought before arching her back, stretching the kinks out of her spine from a night sleeping in a tree.
Anko's grin became feral as she pumped chakra into her legs and really started the fight.
Ranma yawned and blinked. Okay, this was different. She really didn't remember how she got down out of the tree, but there was a pretty good-looking woman wearing a pretty revealing shirt in a combat stance in front of her.
Judging by the way she held herself, this woman knew her way around a fight. Ranma decided that this must be a dream, because that was the only explanation she could find for the outfit that woman was wearing.
Her certainty that this was not real faded quickly as the woman moved. Ranma was faster and managed to avoid the blow aimed at her midsection, but the woman flowed in a way that was nearly impossible to read until the last second. Still sluggish from waking up, Ranma only just managed to avoid her blows during the first rapid exchange before jumping back to create some space.
The woman followed and continued the assault. She was speeding up, and Ranma was hard pressed to keep up, due to the difficulty she was having reading her body language. The woman fought in a style she'd never seen before, which in and of itself was surprising. Not only that, this woman was incredibly good. Ranma didn't get a chance to go on the offensive, though, as a blow got through, catching Ranma in the upper left pectoral, spinning her slightly and breaking her guard. A withering set of blows followed, hammering through her compromised guard. A whip fast round house completed the combo, catching her on the jaw and sending Ranma crashing into a tree a few meters away.
Ranma leapt to her feet and turned to face her opponent. She was fast and strong. Those blows had hurt. The woman smirked at her and raised her hand, taunting her with a 'come hither' motion. Fully awake now, Ranma grinned and cracked her neck. Holding her fists up in the air, she slowly made a fist and cracked each joint in her fingers as she stared the woman in the eyes. No holding back this time.
Anko's elation rose when the woman popped up from the combo instantly. Good. This fight wasn't over by a long shot. So far, neither of them had broken out any techniques. So far Anko hadn't felt any chakra from the other woman, which meant this was her natural ability in taijutsu. This was puzzling; if her job was not to be discovered, she'd want to put any enemy ninja out of commission as soon as possible.
She wasn't able to devote anymore time to that that line of thought because her opponent charged. Anko was ready for her, but to her shock her opponent ripped through her guard like it was practically non-existent. She tried to minimize the damage she received, but she took a knee to the sternum, driving the air from her lungs and exposing the back of her head to overhead hammer blow. She hit the ground so hard she bounced nearly to the woman's waist, where she delivered a vicious double punch to the stomach, which sent her careening through the forest until she smashed into a tree.
Anko got to her feet unsteadily, trying to catch her breath. Her opponent just stood there, guard up but completely relaxed. Anko was grateful the woman was so cocksure she didn't finish the fight immediately. She was going to regret it. Her breath restored, she poured more chakra into her muscles and decided to return the favor.
And was quickly sent to the forest floor with a taijustu combo that she didn't even see. Anko groaned and cursed her stupidity. She should have stopped dicking around after the first exchange and gone for the kill and ended this ages ago. But her love a good fight caused her to make a stupid mistake, which she'd pay for now.
Her opponent backed off again. The bastard was dragging this fight out, obviously enjoying it as much as she was. She seemed content just to fight. Not once had Anko detected any killing intent, nor had her opponent used any ninjutsu or genjutsu yet. It was puzzling, and very strange.
She'd had enough, though. No mister nice Anko. The more this fight dragged out on the taijutsu side, the more likely she was to lose. Anko was a good fighter, but she was better at ninjutsu.
Let's see how she handled some of her other skills, then.
She stood up and made a simple one handed seal, molding chakra into a simple Kanton justsu as a distraction to hide her more serious shots. She was hoping her opponent would dodge or counter, so her other techniques would have a chance. The fireball shot from her fingers towards her target, expanding as it approached. She immediately began preparing for a much more complex raiton jutsu, but let it died when her opponent to yelp and jump to the tree tops.
Anko blinked owlishly at her opponent, who blinked warily back at her. It couldn't be...
She tried another simple jutsu, this time a suiton jutsu, a simple water spout normally used as a diversionary tactic. Her opponent squawked as she was blown off the branch and fell to the forest floor.
Anko's hunch was right. Her opponent didn't know ninjustu. She probably didn't even know how to use chakra! Which meant two things. First, she probably wasn't a ninja. Given her taijutsu skills, the Forest of Death would have been no problem. Second, it meant her ass was grass.
Ranma was grinning like a maniac now. Whoever this woman was, she was able to meet him step for step. He hoped she could keep it up; It was like fighting a younger version of Ku Lon or Happosai. He could tell she was enjoying it too, but the look of grim determination on her face betrayed that this was much more serious for her than him.
She charged at him. Sloppy. It was much easier reading her body movements now that she'd had a chance to study her a bit. He redirected her first punch, and letting loose with a few Kachutenshin Amaguri ken speed punches, lit up her ribs on one side, sending her to the ground. The woman popped up again, made some weird signs with her hands, and then moved. Ranma smirked and anticipated her charge, ready to take her down again, confident she had the measure of her opponent.
Then the lady threw a fireball at her. Ranma's danger senses screamed out a warning and leapt to the tree tops. The ground where she landed was a charred mess, with embers still smoldering.
That thing, what ever it was, had been seriously powerful. She'd felt nothing. Not a single damn thing, except a small burst of ki, not nearly powerful enough to make a blast that size, and no amount of Ki ever burst into flames like that.
Unless you were Saffron, of course. Ranma looked at the lady warily. She was looking back up at her, clearly surprised as well. Had it been an accident?
The ladies fingers moved, and Ranma was suddenly hit with a strong blast of water, knocking her to the forest floor. She hit the ground with a thud and sprang back to her feet, bewildered and ready for anything.
Or so she thought. Her danger senses flared again, and she dodged a vicious axe kick that came from her left side. Unfortunately, she dodged right into a crushing backhand blow for the other side. She dodged, and saw two smirking copies of her opponent standing there, ready to attack. They launched themselves at her, and Ranma dodged frantically. These were nothing like Ku Lon's technique - they could actually hit. Finally, a solid blow got through and caught her in the thigh as she moved to chamber a kick. It was just a glancing blow, but it was enough to put her off balance. Her opponent followed up with a bruising uppercut that launched her skyward, temporarily stunned. Her opponent leaped into the air to take the fight to her.
Big mistake. This woman didn't know that aerial combat was a specialty of the Saotome School of Indiscriminate Grappling. Before she realized what had happened, Ranma landed a cross-counter on her jaw, causing her to spin and exposing her back. She pulled out all the stops and delivered a series of lighting fast blows to the kidneys, spine, and neck. Gravity was pulling them both back to the ground, and rather than give her time to recover and make a good landing, Ranma's foot swept her legs out from under her, so she landed on her stomach hard enough to knock the breath out of her opponent.
Ranma leapt away, ready to re-engage should it prove necessary. Her opponent's body started to slowly dissolve into a pile of mud. Ranma's eyes bugged out, but didn't have any more time to consider it as two copies of her opponent moved to engage. Ranma grit her teeth and stepped up the pace just a bit more. She had no idea how in the hell the woman was doing this, but she wanted to win this fight. It was time to go all out.
Safely concealed in a minor genjustu, Anko smirked and watched her mud clones take the fight to the red-headed woman. Even three against one, the woman was still giving better than she got. Who ever the red-head was, she definitely wasn't a ninja. She hadn't used a single common technique to disrupt her clones, and had obviously failed to detect the genjustu she was under. It was interesting to watch the fight, though. The red-head had been holding back, that much was apparent. Another clone died under a withering barrage of punches and dissolved into mud.
Anko made the seals and replaced it with two more.
Four against one, and the red-head was still holding her own. Two clones died in a clever move that redirected their attacks against the wrong target. Three clones immediately sprang up to replace them. At five against one, the red-head was no longer able to effectively counter attack, forced on the defensive. One more clone joined the ranks. More blows were getting in now, and so her opponent changed tactics.
She retreated. Anko gave her credit. The red-head knew her limits, and obviously was very comfortable fighting multiple opponents at once, and had pulled back as soon as she could no longer deal with the numbers.
Having had time to observe her opponent carefully, she could say with authority that she'd never seen anyone using a fighting style like hers. It was incredibly fluid and changable, and very hard to predict. What was more, she could tell that the red-head had already effectively figured out counters for the style that Anko had learned from Orochimaru. It was thrilling to watch, really. From the first exchange, Anko could tell that the woman had never seen the Hebi style. But, her opponent had adapted to it and was now starting to incorporate elements of it into her own fighting style.
The other thing that was remarkable about the red-heads fighting methods is that it was designed to incapacitate.
During the whole time she'd been watching, Anko hadn't seen one killing blow delievered, even though there had been ample opportunity to do so. Rather than ending the fight quickly, the red-head prefered to dodge, block, or worse yet, take a blow in order to incapcitate the opponent she was facing.
It was interesting, and very puzzling. She still fought; she didn't fight like a ninja. Rather than taking on six clones, some kunai with explosive tags would have saved a lot of time and bruises. Or, using killing blows to reduce the amount of time actually spent fighting, to reduce fatigue. It was like someone had created a perfect Taijutsu weapon, and neglected to finish the training and turn it into an effective ninja.
In the time that Anko had been ruminating over the red-head, she had managed to disable all the clones.
She stood standing in the middle of the clearing in a ready posture, eyes scanning back and forth rapidly, looking for her attacker.
Anko let the genjutsu drop. The red-head spun to face her as soon as her presence registered.
Anko waved at her opponent and smiled.
The red-head gave her a puzzled look and a tentatively returned the wave. While her guard was relaxed, Anko started letting hand seals fly as quickly as she could. The water and churned up earth around their battle sight gave her plenty of ammunition for a couple doton jutsu. A couple of mud clones sprang up from the ground, taking the fight to her opponent. Her opponent moved to engage the clones, which left her completely open when Anko molded some chakra for a swamp entrapment technique.
Her opponent's feet sank into the suddenly unstable ground up to the knees. She didn't have time to extricate herself as the clones pressed their advantage, giving Anko time to use another technique. She finished the last hand seal and the ground swelled up around her opponent, slamming her opponent back and forth between walls of mud and stone, before a giant fist of mud slammed into the trapped girl from behind, knocking her out cold.
Anko let out a sigh of relief. Sure, it was anti-climatic, but she was tired of getting her ass handed to her.
She pulled out a radio and contacted the ANBU headquarters. Ibiki would want to see to this one, she was pretty sure.
End Chapter 1
This was inspired by the Chinese proverb, "over a long distance, you learn about the strength of your horse."
It means that character is revealed over time.
This will take place mostly in between the time of the Chunin exams and Naruto's departure with Jiraiya for three years. Naruto will not be a main character in this story.
Ranma's much older than Naruto in this (22-23, as opposed to 12). He's closer to Anko's age, though she's a bit older (I'm not sure, but I think she's in her mid 20's at this point in time in the comic, right?)
I've noticed that most of my recent stories tend to be dialog driven. Not that it's necessarily bad, but I recently read Elantris by Brian Sanderson and was really amazed by how he was able to move the story along without dialog. It was a masterful piece of writing, and I'd like to try and emulate that with this story (not the plot, but the writing style.)
As always, questions, comments, constructive criticism, and encouragement welcome. Flames used to BBQ.
And yes, I'm still working on A Slight Misunderstanding. Not sure when the next chapter's coming out. Not sure when the next chapter is coming out for this one. Not sure about much, really.