"Well, let's see," said the Hokage. "I have a house that needs demolishing on the outskirts of the village. How does that sound?"
"That's it," shouted Ryoga. "No more! Give us a decent mission, old man. I didn't sign up for this crap to be some damned salary man!"
You could have heard a pin drop after that little outburst. Well, for a moment anyway. Then Anko cuffed Ryoga over the top of his head. "Don't talk to the Hokage like that," she snapped.
"Gotta say," said Ranma, "I'm not disagreeing here. If I don't get a real fight soon, I'm going to start going soft. This skivvying crap just doesn't cut it."
"My friends are idiots," said Mousse. "But I think they might be right for a change."
The Hokage leaned back in his chair and took a puff from his pipe. "Oh really?" he asked. "You think you're ready for the real thing, hmm? Ready for kill-or-be-killed?"
"Yo, old man," said Ranma, "I was ready for that way before I ever met you guys. I kinda doubt you're gonna find anyone worse 'n Saffron or Herb to put me up against."
"Oh, I think I could find some who would qualify," said the Hokage. "I think your sensei knows of a few herself. But that's hardly the point. You are still new to this environment; I'm not yet convinced that it would be wise to send you into the field."
"You send the slowcoach here into the field, don't ya?" asked Ranma, ducking under the punch aimed at the back of his head by his ever-tolerant sensei. "I can beat her ten times out of ten, so what gives?"
"Defeating someone in a spar is different to defeating them in battle," pointed out the Hokage. "You were able to occasionally defeat your father in a spar from a fairly young age, were you not, and yet do you think you could have been victorious in an actual battle?"
"I could beat him nine times out of ten these days, too, so what's your point, old man?"
"Not short of confidence are you?" asked the Hokage. "And your team-mates? Ah, why do I even ask, I already know what the answer will be now. They would hardly back down after this. Hmm."
"For what it's worth, they're not entirely incompetent," said Anko. "Give them something to break and they'll break it in short order. Just don't ask for subtlety."
"Hmm," said the Hokage, as he rifled through the papers on his desk. "Ah, here. This should do the trick. We have a merchant caravan passing through Konoha at the moment and the master of it has decided to hire on some ninja escorts to join the existing guards. I believe he was impressed by one of the locals. In any case, it's a legitimate mission with a chance of combat."
"You don't mean the Tanaka clan train do you?" asked Anko. "You can't possibly be thinking about sending these brats to escort one of the most famously wealthy merchants in the world."
"That fame is why I send them," said the Hokage. "All but the most brazen of missing-nins would baulk at attracting the of attention that attacking the Tanaka would bring them and that type tend to be eliminated rather quickly. No, I think this is a perfect introduction to the world of ninja missions for the newly capable genin."
"Well, if you say so," said Anko dubiously.
"So we're not even going to get to fight?" whined Ranma.
"Some bandits, possibly," said the Hokage. "You can't expect much more for your first C-class mission. Yes, this is perfect. Have them called in."
One of the glorified salary men that always seemed to be hanging around the office whenever they came by slipped out of the door and then returned a moment later with two newcomers in tow. One was a short, grey-haired man wearing some very expensive looking clothes. The other was a younger girl, Ranma pegged her at being about five or six years old, clutching at the back of the guy's trousers, whose eyes were darting around the room, bright with curiosity. Neither moved like they were martial artists of any sort.
"So these are the ninja I'm hiring?" asked the man. "They look competent enough, I suppose. They're not kids anyway."
"Of course," said the Hokage. "Konoha would never deploy ninja unless they were appropriate for a mission. These are some of our most talented genin and their tutor is an extremely capable ninja in her own right."
"Good to hear," said the man. "I'm not expecting any trouble but you can never be too careful out there. Oh, yes. Introductions. I'm Hikaru Tanaka and this is my daughter and heir Aya."
"Anko Mitarashi. Are we ready to go yet or do we have to another round of bowing and smiling?"
Hikaru eyed her strangely. "I suppose we can go," he said. "I'll introduce you to the guards we've already hired on and then I suppose we can leave. I don't have any more business in Konoha."
"Great," said Anko. "Let's go."
Ranma blinked but then he supposed he shouldn't be all that surprised. Anko probably didn't like being cooped up in the village doing crap make-work missions, even though she didn't actually do anything, anymore than they did. And she was probably used to doing real missions with real action that got the adrenaline pumping. Being stuck in some pseudo-village doing damned near nothing after that would be pretty much the definition of hell, Ranma reckoned. Like why he wanted nothing to do with marrying Shampoo.
"This is Isamu, head of my guards" said Hikaru "He may not be a ninja but he's been in my employ for over twenty years now and he's never let me down. You'll be co-ordinating your activities with him."
"My employer flatters me," said the tall, balding man with a slight nod. "I simply do my duty."
Ranma eyed the man. He didn't get any of the dangerous fighter vibes from the guy that he got from people like Herb or Saffron but he held himself like a guy who knew how to use that katana he had sheathed at his waist. Bonus points for not ranting about the heavens and the foul sorcerer like a certain other swordsman that Ranma'd had the misfortune to know, too. That was a neat new thing for Ranma to encounter: a swordsman who wasn't batshit insane.
So he waved. "Yo," he said. "I'm Ranma Saotome."
"Greetings, Ranma Saotome."
The others exchange greetings and Ranma's attention wandered, as it was wont to do, and he cast a look over the wagon train they were going to be escorting. He had to say that he wasn't entirely sure what different the four of them were going to make with over twenty wagons and twice that number in guards already there. It all seemed a bit superfluous. Yeah, that was the word for it. Superfluous. You'd have to be some sort of psycho to attack a group that large and that well guarded.
Oh well. He was getting paid for it and he'd get to see a bit of the world around him if nothing else. Might even get a clue about getting back to Nerima.
A tug at his trousers took his attention. The girl, Aya, was there, staring up at him intently through wide blue eyes. "You're a ninja?" she asked. Ranma nodded. "Show me a technique!"
"Aya!" called out Hikaru before Ranma could say anything. "Stop pestering the ninja."
"But I want to see a super-cool technique!"
She pouted as she tromped back over to stand by her father but she still did so. Just another kid with a thing for ninja, Ranma supposed. They weren't exactly rare in his world never mind here. Strange for him to be the ninja, though. That was new.
"She's not going to get underfoot, is she?" asked Anko. "Bad things happen to little kids who get between ninja in battle, believe me."
"No, certainly," said Hikaru firmly. "She knows better than that."
"Right, whatever," said Anko. "So we're heading for Kumo? That's quite a hike."
"There would hardly be a point to setting out with a train this size if we were only going around neighbouring villages," pointed out Hikaru. "What you expect?"
"Yeah, yeah. Okay, Ranma, you take the rear-most caravan. Ryoga, Mousse, you set about the middle of the train. I'll ride up front."
"You were supposed to consult with Isamu."
"I'm sure he won't have a problem," said Anko while giving said man a look that said that if he did have a problem he'd best keep it to himself if he knew what was good for him. Was he ever going to get a normal sensei? His pop was an obsessive lunatic, the Old Ghoul was a complete weirdo, Happosai was a horrific pervert, and now Anko was . . . he didn't have words for it. Psycho, maybe. Scary bitch, more like it.
Unsurprisingly, Isamu raised no objections. The fact that Anko could have extracted his intestines through his nostrils without a great deal of effort if she'd felt the need might have had something to do with it.
"So, ninja, huh?" asked the caravan driver as Ranma settled down next to him. "How's that working out?"
"Boring," replied Ranma. "Spent more time running errands like some kid after pocket money than doing anything interesting."
"Ha! Sounds like a real job."
"Ah, lighten up, kid," said the caravan driver. "Boredom's a damn sight better 'n death and destruction in my book."
"Death and destruction I'll pass on," said Ranma. "But a little mayhem really wouldn't go amiss."
"You kids don't know when you've got it made."
The conversation lapsed and Ranma took to eyeing the scenery as it passed by. That held his attention for all of,oh, a few seconds or so before he was bored again. Seen one dusty road going through a forest, seen them all. Boring, boring, boring. He really missed Nerima sometimes. Hell, he'd even lost his manga collection because of that stupid demon sending him to ninja-world.
"So, how'd you end up as a ninja then, kid?" asked the driver. "Come on, throw me a bone here. It's a long journey to be done in silence."
"Got lost," said Ranma. "That's about it really. Got lost without a way home. Signed up as a ninja so I'd have somewhere to stay."
"That's a really bad reason to put your neck on the line."
"I've done it for stupider reasons."
And so it went for the rest of the day's travelling till Ranma eventually got bored enough that he curled up in a handy sunbeam and fell asleep.
Ranma was dragged out of his sleep by a kunai heading towards his face at high speed. He simply plucked it out of the air and sent it back along the way it came, straight into the surprised face of his sensei, who promptly disappeared with a quiet pop as the blade made contact.
"Nice shot, kid."
"Ah, it was nothing."
He went back to sleep. No damned psycho sensei was keeping him away from sleep.
"Dammit, don't you ever give up?" shouted Ranma as he knocked the half-dozen kunai that had been aimed his way out of the way. "Damned snake-wench!"
"Uh, kid?" asked the caravan driver, who appeared to be cowering down to hide behind the solid wood of the caravan front. "Not the woman this time."
"Then who . . . Mousse! Dammit, Mousse, quit it with your stupid Amazon mating rituals. Shampoo ain't even in the same world as us."
"Kid, you really need to take this seriously."
Ranma was about to ask why when he was engulfed in a fireball. When the fire dissipated he blew out a stream of smoke and blinked. "Ow," he said, patting ash away from his shoulders. "That hurt."
And then he moved. With a flex of his muscles he leapt into the air and then at the apex of his leap he cupped his hands and with a cry of 'Moko Takabisha' he launched a large ball of flowing blue energy down towards where he thought the fireball had came from. The attack smashed into the ground with its usual force and left a large crater but Ranma could see no sign of any enemy ninja in the vicinity as he landed in a crouch.
"What the hell is going on?" he asked one of the guards in the vicinity, who looked like he was about to wet his pants.
"We're under attack!"
"No shit. Who? Where? How many?"
The guard might have replied but a kunai to his throat put paid to that before he could say a word. Ranma replied to that with three thrown shuriken that thudded into the chest of the enemy ninja before they disappeared in a cloud of smoke leaving behind only a thick log with the shuriken embedded in it. Dammit.
He scanned the terrain but he couldn't make out anything useful; it was just too damn dark for him to see. So he concentrated on his other senses. Hearing, smell, ki. He'd pick up their attacks that way. He could feel enemies moving, their malice, their intent to kill, at the edges of his senses, arrayed around him.
"Get him," a voice ordered.
And then half-a-dozen seedy looking men armed with katanas charged out of the darkness at him. They came quickly and with skill born of using the weapons they carried in actual life-or-death battles, but Ranma was already moving. He flowed underneath the first strike, one aimed to shorten him by a head, and slammed a palm strike into the man's chest that sent him flying back into the trees he had came from with a dull thud.
Two more come in, one from each side, aimed to ventilate his chest with sword thrusts aimed to slide into his side between his ribs. It was but a simple matter for him to lash out with both arms and catch the blades before they could approach his torso and it wasn't much more difficult for him to focus his ki to protect his bare flesh from the impact of the swords' edges.
Everyone just froze around him and stared with wide eyes at what he had done, including the bandits who had launched the attack, until Ranma broke the tableau by yanking the swords out of the hands of the attackers and then slammed the hilts of said weapons back into their faces, sending them pinwheeling backwards before they smashed into some trees and slumped to the ground.
"Is that the best you morons can do?" asked Ranma with a cocky grin plastered across his features. "This is boring."
For a moment Ranma thought the other bandits were going to do the sensible thing and flee for their lives but then their features hardened and they charged him in unison. He actually had to put some minor effort into dodging their blows, just for a change, but they still didn't stand a chance. The first fell to a leg-sweep and then a heel kick to the bridge of the nose before he could scurry back to his feet, the second to an uppercut that lifted him off his feet and hurled him back into the darkness he had emerged from, and the third to a roundhouse kick that had a similar effect.
But what sort of bandits stood and fought when they had no chance of victory? And where had that fireball came from?
"Impressive," said a distinctly female voice. "Your taijutsu skills are highly impressive. And however did you survive my fire attack?"
Ranma was facing the voice in a heartbeat. Yes, definitely female, from what he could see underneath those loose black robes. Built like Shampoo, it looked like to him. Obviously a psycho too. So a lot like Shampoo, except that Shampoo didn't wear a mask. When she decided to play psycho she did it out in the open like a good little Amazon. "That?" asked Ranma. "Ah, that was nothing. Really. Takes way more than a little firecracker like that to take someone from Nerima down."
Ranma couldn't see the girl's face but he got the distinct impression from the set of her body language that she was pissed at him. Ah, she'd be a fiancee in no time at the rate things were going. She'd already tried to kill him. "So you say," she said. And then she slipped into a combat stance. "Now, let's see how your skills match up against something other than a worthless thug."
Ranma shrugged and with a quick flex of his leg muscles leaped forwards to attack. The way she slipped into the stance spoke of experience and she held herself like she knew what she was doing, but he wasn't worried. He was Ranma Saotome, dammit! She was quick, though. He had to twist hard at the waist to avoid the open-handed blow she sent his way to start with and then had to hop away with a cartwheel to avoid the roundhouse kick she followed up with,
And then she was on him. She was an aggressive one, to be sure, and precise too. Ranma couldn't place the style she was using and the constant use of open-handed strikes was certainly distinctive but it wasn't one he knew. Not that it mattered. He went with the old standby approach to unfamiliar styles: 'what doesn't hit me can't hurt me'. In other words, he dodged like a lunatic with speed borne of Amazon training. She was fast, he was way faster.
She obviously realised the same as she leaped away after Ranma parried another attack aside with a quick chop to her wrist that sent the blow well waywards of its target.
"Your speed . . . is impressive," she said, her chest heaving with exertion. "But . . . it is not everything."
Her hands flowed through a series of movements that Ranma immediately recognised as handseals and he tensed his muscles ready to move out of the way of whatever attack she launched. "Katon: Goukakyuu no Jutsu."
Ranma was well clear of the target zone before the fireball impacted, hurtling though the air towards a tree branch he had spied as being sturdy enough, but he had to twist himself in some truly impossible-looking contortions to avoid the hailstorm of kunai that came his way before he settled down onto the branch in a crouch. And he didn't get so much as a moment to take a breather there as the ninja had somehow arrived there before him and opened up with another series of open-handed strikes the moment he landed.
This time, though, Ranma wasn't of a mind to take it easy on her and after weaving between two strikes aimed for his lungs he lashed out with a straight kick that caught her in the chest and sent her plummeting down from the branch before she she twisted in mid-air and planted her feet against the side of the three, stopping dead there. Ranma charged down the side of the tree himself and there they fought.
Well, fought was a generous term for it. The enemy ninja aimed a quick palm strike at Ranma's face as he charged but he simply leaned ever so slightly to the side to let it fly past harmlessly before smashing a straight punch into into her jaw. She wobbled in place for a moment and then she fell. Ranma considered, briefly, jumping down to catch her or something but another ninja in a similar outfit came swooping down from a nearby tree and beat him to it.
Ranma frowned and jumped down after them and landed a few paces in front of where they'd set down. "Oi," he said. "You with these bastards?"
The ninja looked at Ranma. "Oh, yes," he said. "I'm with them. I suppose you have a problem with that?"
Ranma cracked his knuckles. "I reckon so."
"Ah, well. I'm afraid I have no time to fight you now," he replied with a shrug. "Till next time."
And then he vanished in a puff of smoke with the other ninja he'd been fighting. Bastards.
"Wow, Mousse," said Ranma. "I think you missed a spot. You see? There's a piece of the guy there you didn't put something sharp and pointy through."
"Shut up, Saotome."
Touchy, touchy. Ranma shrugged and headed off to find Anko. He found himself grimacing as he went. There were more than a few corpses littering the area and it made his guts churn. Maybe he went too easy on the bastards he'd went up against. While he didn't like killing all that much he sure as hell couldn't find much desire to leave scum that did this alive.
In the end he found Anko at the front of the caravan with Isamu and surrounded by dead bandits. Somehow, he wasn't surprised.
"Yo, sensei," he said. "Got a question for you."
"What is it, brat? We've kinda got things to be doing here."
"Ever seen a style that uses all open-handed strikes?" he asked. "It was weird. No power behind the attacks at all."
Quite suddenly Anko was giving him her full attention. "Show me," she said.
Ranma slid into the same stance that the ninja girl had used: one leg behind the other with its knee bent and with his hands held flat pointing out away from him.
"Ah, shit. You sure?"
"Well, that looks like jyuuken to me. Fuck. There's only one Hyuuga missing-nin I know of and he's out of my league."
"He?" asked Ranma. "It was a girl. Real sure of that, unless you know guys with breasts."
"You'd better not be pulling my leg, brat."
"Would I? Well, okay, I would. I'm not, not this time."
"The responsible thing to do now would be to turn back," said Anko. "Get Kakashi or someone to deal with the situation."
"Boring," said Ranma. "And they'd not show up again if we went for reinforcements. We want to figure this mess out, right? Catch the guy? Can't do that if we turn on our tail and run."
"Yeah. But, I'm only a special jounin and this guy is an A-ranked traitor. He was a jounin nearly twenty years ago. We'll just get ourselves killed against him."
"You're not even persuading yourself. C'mon. Between me and Ryoga we can take down pretty much anyone in hand-to-hand and Mousse is like a one-man artillery unit. And you're not that bad."
Anko shot him a venomous glare. "Brat, you're going to regret saying that," she said.
"Yeah, yeah. So we gonna fight or we gonna run like some scared little girls?"
"Well, we did take the mission."
"And we can take this guy, I promise. No doubt."
"So we go on."