Ranma was bored. Deeply, deeply bored. Guard duty sounded like it would be interesting when he was first given the job but when nothing happened again and again and again it quickly lost its shine and joined school on his list of truly monotonous things he just couldn't escape from despite hating them.
"How's your swordsmanship?" asked Isamu.
Ranma jerked in surprise. "Uh, pretty good," he replied. "Why d'you ask?"
"Training," said Isamu. "It's not easy to keep your skills up on journeys like this and I wouldn't mind a sparring partner if you're willing."
"Sure," said Ranma perking up. "I'm always up for training." Then he frowned. "Why'd you even need to ask, though? I'd have thought all ninja'd be good enough for sparring."
"Ah, most ninja I've known have never bothered with anything larger than a kunai," said Isamu. "Swords are large weapons and ninja tend to prefer something a little easier to conceal. And even when they do use swords few specialise in it."
"Most ninja suck. Really, they do."
Ranma's definition of suck was a tad different from the average but, really, most ninja did suck by it. They couldn't even manage a hundred punches a second; what sort of fighter couldn't do that? Even slowpoke Ryoga could do that.
Isamu looked somewhat taken aback by Ranma's words and it took a moment before he opened his mouth to reply. Before he could say anything, a ground-shaking explosion cut him off. Ranma was on his feet in an instant. "Shit!" he said. "That's the inn!"
Isamu was snapping off orders to the guards present in a second. "Eyes open," he barked at them. "Watch out for attack-"
Whatever he was going to say was lost as a kunai sliced across his throat and cut his words off in a spray of blood. "Ah, ah," said a tall man who stepped out from behind his falling corpse. "Less of that now."
More men dropped down from the roofs. Most looked like scummy bandits, the sort of people Ranma could beat without even trying, but there were a few who looked like they had some skill as well. The most dangerous looking of them all were a trio: two men and a woman. They were all tall, with dark, murderous eyes, armed with vicious looking spiked flails and wearing hitai-ates bearing the scratched out insignia of Kumo.
"I advise that you surrender," said the man, his lavender eyes gleaming as he spoke. "You are surrounded and outnumbered by a far superior force. You cannot win but there's no need for you to die here. Just . . . lay down your weapons. It's that easy."
"Hiro Hyuuga," said Ranma. "I've heard all about you, blood traitor and bandit king. Why would we believe that a man who would kill his own family would allow us to leave here alive?"
"Ah, a Konoha ninja," he said. "Well, I don't suppose there's much chance of a peaceful end with you. Such a shame. You have great talent, boy. To end it here, well, it seems like such a waste of material."
"I'm not so easy to kill, old man."
Hiro sighed. "As you wish," he said. "Any who wish to surrender, may. You will not be harmed. I swear that to you."
No-one dropped their weapons. Absolutely no-one. "You didn't think anyone would trust the word of someone like you, did you?" asked Ranma. "You're a traitor, man. A blood traitor. No-one's gonna take the word of someone like that."
Hiro shrugged. "Well, it's no loss for me," he said. Then his voice turned cold. "Kill them all. No survivors."
Ranma was the first to move. With absolute lightning speed he drew half a dozen kunai from the holster he had tied to his thigh and scattered the blades through the crowd of bandits, dropping half a dozen of them with painful but non-fatal strikes in the opening salvo. Then the forces of both sides, the normal fighters, caught up with what was happening and charged forwards in a massive clash of blades.
And away from it all Ranma could see Hiro watching with his hands folded behind his back and the veins around his eyes bulging.
Anko was worried. You wouldn't know it from the way she acted but she did have some care in her for her students no matter how much they irritated her and that explosion had came from the direction of the inn that they were staying in. She really didn't know how she'd react if they got took out by some moron with a fetish for explosive tags; it'd be another bout of losing the people she cared about and she really didn't need that.
"What are we going to do?" asked Hikaru. This is . . . "
"Look you've got a ninja team and a small army of guards working for you here," said Anko. "It'll be enough. Just sit tight here with your daughter and don't do anything stupid and we'll be fine."
Yeah, she wasn't the best at being the nurturing, comforting sort. She'd blame the snake bastard but she'd never been any good at that crap and she kinda had more important things on her mind than civilian idiots. It was only a matter of time till the bastards made a move to get the two she was watching over and, shit, if it was the Hyuuga traitor than she was utterly, utterly screwed. She was good, damned good, no doubt, even if she said so herself, but that damn seal kept her from getting strong enough to be a real jounin.
Well, she could prepare at least. A few explosive tags around the door-frame later she was feeling somewhat better. Probably wouldn't catch a Hyuuga but if some stupid bandits came looking for trouble, well, she'd get some interesting gore. Be a bit of a problem if the kids came charging in looking to help her, though. Oh well. She'd just have to hope they used their brains a bit.
"Your skills are indeed as impressive as my daughter claimed them to be," said Hiro as Ranma smashed the last bandit between him and the traitor aside. "I have not seen such taijutsu skill in the hands of a mere genin in a very long time."
"Feh," said Ranma, every line of his body filled with dismissiveness. "I'm the best. That's all there is to it."
"We shall see I suppose," replied Hiro, sliding into the usual jyuuken stance with practices ease. "Come, child. Show me your power."
Ranma didn't need to be told twice. One moment he was stood several metres away from Hiro, the next he was burying his fist in the man's gut and sending him slamming back into the wagon behind him with enough force to smash the wood to splinters. He had just a second to gloat before the man shot him a triumphant grin and disappeared in a puff of smoke. That was all the warning Ranma received before he had to twist out of the way of a trio of shuriken that were aimed at his spinal cord.
But that was hardly the end of it. Hiro was upon Ranma immediately, not giving him a moment to regain his equilibrium, and Ranma found himself in actual trouble. The man had skill and speed, no doubt, and Ranma was off-balance enough that he couldn't quite bring his usual speed into play. Instead he found himself twisting this way and that, contorting in ways that the human body was never meant to, in a frantic attempt to avoid taking a hit.
Strike after strike rained down upon Ranma's defences and the boy was not terribly happy about it. Sure, he was more than fast enough to defend himself, but when even glancing blows left behind a stinging feeling of wrongness it wasn't a good situation. There was a numbness growing in his left forearm that he absolutely did not like and there'd only one slight glancing hit that landed on it.
And so he retook the offensive. A roundhouse kick flew over the top of Hiro's head as he ducked down underneath its path but the follow-up punch, delivered in a blur of motion, caught the mind straight in the centre of his chest and lifted him off his feet. It was a most satisfied Ranma who watched the missing-nin slide back along the ground. The attacks hasn't been up to his usual standards for speed or grace but they'd been enough. And those pristine robes of his were starting to look good and grubby.
"Is that it?" asked Ranma. "For a big-time missing-nin, that's kinda lame. My pop gives me a harder time than that when we spar."
Hiro rose back to his feet and brushed the front of his robes down. "It seems that I will have to take you seriously," he said. "I shall offer you one more chance. Surrender and I will allow you to leave this place unharmed."
"You must be joking," snarled Ranma. "Look around you. People are fighting and dying to stop you. You think I'm going to abandon them to save my own neck? You might be that sort of trash but I am not."
The Hyuuga traitor's expression turned ugly at that. "You have no idea of what you speak, you arrogant little child," he said, his voice frigid. "It seems that I shall have to teach your a lesson in respect."
Ranma slid his hands into his pockets and assumed the sort of casual stance that he knew drove people insane. "Bring it on," he said with a cocky grin.
There was something deeply satisfying about watching a bunch of bandits get reduced to a fine mist of gore as they tried to smash through a door to get at you, decided Anko. Perhaps it was the brief look of horror on their faces or perhaps it was the way their blood sprayed through the room. Either way, it certainly worked for her.
"Could you have made a bigger mess?" asked the female ninja who stepped through the door after the bandits. Damn, no more tags. "Well, I suppose it worked."
Anko noted happily that while the bitch in the ninja gear didn't look too bothered the bandits following her looked distinctly unhappy about the whole situation. "So you're the Hyuuga bitch who get the crap kicked out of her by one of my students?" asked Anko as she twirled a kunai between her fingers. "Can't say I'm impressed."
"You're nowhere near as strong as your student, Anko," said the ninja. "I don't think I have much to fear from you."
One of the bandits fell to the ground with a kunai sticking out of his forehead. "Well, we'll just see about that, won't we?" asked Anko, a demented smile spreading across her features. Beating some humility into a bloodline bitch was always fun.
The bandits charged.
"You know, I heard these ninja kids were real badass types," said the tall bandit. "But they died just the same as anyone else."
"Well, we did set a few hundred pounds of gunpowder off underneath them," replied the short, rotund bandit stood next to him with a snicker. "Hell of a wake-up call."
"Victory through superior firepower," said the third of the bandits, one who looked to be about ninety percent scar tissue. "It always works."
They would have probably continued gloating but it was at that point that a spherical device with a rapidly burning string rolled out of the flaming ruins of the inn to stop at their feet. "Oh shi-"
Suffice to say, boom. Bandits aren't the only ones who can play with explosives and Mousse is every bit as good at it as any random bandit was ever likely to be and, unlike them, could carry as much of it as he liked around with him.
"Getting kinda testy there, aren't you?" taunted Ranma as he leaned underneath a stiff-fingered jab that would have took his eyes out. "No need to get all worked up about being called a traitor, you know. It's just a statement of fact."
"Fool, you are within the range of my divination!"
And then he came at Ranma with a speed that'd have almost been impressive before he went through the chestnut training. His arms were little more than a blur as they lashed out in a series of pinpoint strikes aimed across Ranma's chest but Ranma responded by upping his own speed to chestnut levels and knocking the attacks aside as quickly as they could come and then some.
"Is that it?" asked Ranma. "Is that the power of the Hyuuga? Man, that's lame. My fat old panda of a pop could kick your ass without even breaking a sweat."
"This isn't over."
"Oh, I think it is," said Ranma. "I ain't got that time to waste playing with you. But I'll at least let you go out with a bang. Behold the technique that scared the piss out of Chinese emperors a hell of a long time ago: splitting c-c-feline hairs!"
It was something Ranma had been working on for a while, ever since he learned bunshin, and now he was using it in anger for the first time. He rapidly divided into sixteen identical copies that circled around the traitorous Hyuuga and then it was just a matter of using kawarimi to swap his real self for his illusionary self whenever he felt like landing a hit from one of his bunshin selves.
"So, how'd you like that?" asked Ranma as he clouted the Hyuuga across the back of his head. "I reckon this is it, don't you?"
"Oh, I quite agree, young man."
Ranma was so surprised when the Hyuuga lashed out at him with his super-speed attack again that he didn't have time to block. Each and every single attack landed as Hiro's stiffened fingers jabbed into his chest time and time again till the force of the repeated attacks lifted him off his feet and knocked him bouncing back along the ground in a twisted heap of limbs.
It took all of Ranma's willpower to lift himself back up. "What the hell?" he gasped between the rhythmic pulses of pure agony coming from his chest. "How?"
"It's simple, child," said Hiro. "I have byakugan. Your feeble little genjutsu technique is as nothing to these eyes. I'm amazed that you even tried it."
Well, didn't he feel stupid?
"Now," he continued. "I think I'm done here. The Yubari triplets should be more than enough to finish the job now and I have other affairs to attend to. Farewell. We shall not meet again."
Ranma glared at Hiro's back as the tall man leapt away. No way in hell was he letting the bastard get away without a fight. Within the blink of an eye he was reaching into his ki and projecting it to his arms for a ki attack. Bad idea. The burning pain that promptly shot through his entire body dropped him to his knees in an instant and left him gasping for air. What the hell had that bastard done to him?
"Well this is going to be boring," said one of the triplets. "No challenge at all."
"No fun killing someone whose chakra's been blocked," said another. "So easy."
"They bleed just the same," said the girl. "And we can take our time with them. It all balances in the end,"
A wide spray of arterial blood heralded the fall of the last of the bandit minions who hadn't turned on their heel and fled when Anko set about them. "Ah, there's that blood I love," said Anko, her long tongue darting out to catch some of the spray as it spattered against her face. "Now, princess, your turn. I've always wanted to know what Hyuuga blood tasted like."
"God, you're disgusting," said Hitomi as she slid into a standard jyuuken stance with a look of utter revulsion on her face. "No wonder Orochimaru chose you as his apprentice."
"Oh, you really shouldn't have brought that up. Now I'm going to make it hurt."
And then they joined battle. Anko's hands flew through a set of seals in a heartbeat before, with a yell of 'fuuton: daitoppa' she expelled a mighty gust of wind from her mouth that smashed the Hyuuga girl back through the door as the front of the building was blasted to matchwood in the attack's wake.
"Not so smart-mouthed now, are you?" crowed Anko before the girl's limp body turned to a male body with a distinctly slit throat in a poof of displaced air. "Yeah, there's a surprise."
Anko leaned back out of the way of the palm strike that had been aimed at her temple by the newly appeared Hitomi before slashing her kunai up in a vicious motion that would have cut the girl's wrist clean through if she hadn't jerked her arm out of the way. Anko's follow up strike with the side of her other hand caught the girl in her throat, though she was able to roll with it, and sent her staggering back, gagging on the impact.
Anko's follow up sent four snakes crashing through the wall as they flew forth from her coat sleeve in a strike that would have went straight through Hitomi if she hadn't rolled out of the way sharply. The hail of kunai that landed at her feet would have done a very good job of perforating her if she didn't stop her roll sharply though.
"Come on, princess," taunted Anko. "Is this all the famed Hyuuga clan can do?"
Hitomi lunged up from her crouched position and roared down upon Anko with great vengeance, pushing herself to extremes of speed that she had not achieved before as she launched jyuuken attack after jyuuken attack upon the older woman, who dodged away with a manic grin on her face.
And all this as the little girl, Aya, cried in fear in the background.
"So what now?" asked Ryoga. "Do we go to Anko or Ranma?"
Mousse paused in thought as another bandit fell before his shuriken bombardment. "Good question," he said. "Saotome can take care of himself but he's bound to be wherever the real action is."
A bandit screamed as Ryoga's umbrella caved his ribs in like so much cardboard. "And he'll never let us live it down if he gets to fight the real fight while we do some weakling minions again," he said. "You know what he's like."
"All mouth, no filter," said Mousse. "Yes, I know."
And these bandits are really starting to piss me off," snarled Ryoga as he slammed yet another bandit through a building. Yes, through the building. In one side and out the other. "Why don't they just give up!?"
"I think they're starting to get the message now," said Mousse. "Look they're running."
"About damn time. I was about to get really angry."
"Perish the thought," said Mousse. "So, are we going after Anko or Ranma?"
"I say Ranma," said Ryoga. "Get a real fight."
"Anko's where the mission objective is, though," pointed out Mousse. "Mr. Tanaka and Aya. Protecting them is the mission. The rest is tertiary."
"Whatever hell Saotome has brought down upon himself he can deal with. He's too stupid and stubborn to die."
Ryoga looked conflicted for a brief moment before his features cleared. "You're right," he said. "Ranma can deal with these ninja wimps easy enough. Come on, let's go."
Ranma barely, by the skin of his teeth, managed to jump backwards out of the way as the spiked flail whistled past his face close enough that he could almost feel the spikes slicing into his flesh. This was turning out to be a really, really bad day. He hadn't been so slow since before he'd hit puberty!
"Looks like this one still has some fight in him."
"Just makes it all the more entertaining, don't you think?"
Ranma yanked a kunai out of his thigh holster. It pained him to admit it, but he needed the extra reach if his speed was going to be so badly reduced. Sure, it wasn't much, but he didn't think he could get to one of the fallen swords before they pulped his skull. Too slow. He hadn't been too slow in years. And against ninja . . . he didn't like his chances.
"How amusing," said the girl. "He thinks he can win, I think . . . he thinks this is a fight."
"Boy, kid, this isn't a fight. This is a massacre."
"You talk big," said Ranma. "But I'm still standing here. Where's the massacre? Or do you need your master to hold your hands before you can actually do anything?"
"He's got a wicked tongue. I think I'll cut it out and keep it for a souvenir."
The smart thing to do would have probably been to set himself to defend and hold them off waiting for reinforcements to arrive, but no-one had ever called Ranma smart and he didn't like being treated as if he was some easy victory one bit. It was insulting! He brought his arm around in a blur, or at least as close to a blur as he could manage with his muscles straining for every erg of power, and sent the kunai heading on a straight path towards the taller guy's heart.
Precision, speed, surprise. He had them all with the attack. It wasn't enough. The target knocked the kunai away with his flail without even the vaguest sign of effort, giving Ranma the most arrogant look of superiority all the while.
"Pathetic," said the man. "Even with your chakra blocked, that was pathetic. You are weak."
"Come over here and say that," Ranma snapped back. "I'll show you just how weak I really am."
The man's smirk said it all. "Well, why not?" he said. "I could do with a bit of taijutsu practice."
He dropped his flail. It was all Ranma could do not to break out in a wide smile. He approached, every line of his body screaming arrogance, and when he closed in he threw a quick straight punch at Ranma's head. A punch that Ranma saw coming a mile off even without his ki. It was almost too easy for him to catch the guy's wrist and then jab his other arm up into his elbow and snap it went. Then, ignoring the guy's scream of pain, Ranma slammed an elbow up into the guy's nose with a wet crunch before twisting his legs around and sweeping the guy's leg's out from underneath him in such a way that the base of his spine slammed into Ranma's knee.
All in all, it took Ranma about two seconds to break the ninja. He was down on the ground twitching in a distinctly unhealthy looking way and moaning in a way that was beyond pain and into 'I think I'm dying' territory.
"You'll pay for that," hissed the girl, her pretty features screwing up in a distinctly unpretty way. "You'll pay for that in blood!"
Ranma didn't have so much as a moment to blink before her flail snapped out and slammed into his chest. Down he went, but he rolled with it and came straight back up. Any other way led to death. He managed to slide out of the way of the next attack that came his way but he could feel his breath rattling in a way that was distinctly not good on top of the burning feeling left behind by the bastard with the girly eyes and his stupid attack.
Pain all through your body, breath rattling in your chest, enemies around you, what do you do? You fight. Ranma wasn't going down easy.
"Not so tough now, are you?" taunted Anko. "Come on, princess. Where's the smart mouth now?"
Victory was so close that Anko could almost taste it. The girl was good for her age, no doubt, but she was better. That simple. She'd sliced half a dozen strips out of the girl so far and no-one could take that sort of damage without it catching up with them . . . well, unless they were the snake bastard. It was almost over.
"I'm not done yet," snarled Hitomi, wiping blood out of her eyes before lunging at Anko again. Ah, the futile aggression of the out-classed. It was almost embarrassingly easy for Anko to slide out of the way and draw her kunai across Hitomi's back as the girl passed her.
"Now, now, princess," said Anko. "You go and throw a tantrum and I might just have to spank you."
"I'll kill you."
The girl's hands started to move through a series of hand seals but there was just no way it was going to happen. Anko closed the gap between them with three long strides before she'd finished the second seal and smashed her fist into the bridge of the girl's nose before she'd finished the third. And down she went, with a nice new wound pumping out blood steadily.
"I think that's enough," said Anko. "Time to end this."
"I quite agree."
Anko whirled around to try and do something, anything, but the last things she saw before the lights went out were a pair of bulging lavender eyes.
Ranma grimaced as he shielded his ribs with his left arm and listened to the air rattle in his lungs. Things were looking really, really bad. He was beaten to hell and he hadn't so much as landed a hit on the bastards since he'd took that one guy down with some, in his opinion, nifty moves.
"Looks like the fight's been beaten out of him now," said the guy. "Such a shame. We were having such fun."
"I want to see him bleed. I want him broken."
Where the hell were the idiotic duo? The one time he needed them and they didn't show up. Typical.
"Oh, you will. You will."
It was all Ranma could do to scramble out of the way of the swinging flail that would have taken a large chunk out of his side that came as way as the bastard guy finished speaking.
"I'm tired of this," said the girl. "He dodges too much. It's boring."
"So, it's time?"
"Yes," she hissed. Then she bit her thumb and began to move through hand seals. A hell of a lot of hand seals. More than Ranma had ever seen used for a single technique. He had no idea what it was but he knew it was going to suck for him, and there was absolutely nothing he could do about it. "Kuchiyose no jutsu!"
Ranma squinted as an enormous cloud of white smoke blew out from where the psycho chick had slammed her hand into the ground. He . . . he could see something big moving in there, something that made the hairs on the back of his neck stand up straight. What the hell?
The smoke cleared.
"Yes," hissed the girl. "Now you see the futility of it. I can feel your fear."
All the humanity drained out of Ranma's eyes as he dropped onto all fours and hissed at his enemies.
"This, I did not expect."
"Sod this for a game of soldiers," blurted the summon before disappearing into thin air.
"Hitomi, get up!" barked Hiro urgently as he scanned around using his byakugan. "We need to leave. Now."
"What?" she slurred. "We've won. The bitch is down. You must have beaten the brats. We've won. It's over."
"I have no time to explain," said Hiro, his voice rising. "Get up. Act like a ninja! The mission is not yet complete."
"Alright, alright," said Hitomi as she levered herself to her feet. "What do you want me to do?"
"Get the girl."
Hitomi had just grabbed Aya, smacking Mr. Tanaka across the room to quieten his protests, when the other two genin dropped down to the ruined front of the building. Hiro simply moved. One moment he was stood there, where he had been delivering his orders from, and the next her had a blade to the unconscious Anko's throat.
"Not one step closer," he said. "Or your sensei dies."
The fanged one stepped closer, a deep growl rumbling forth as he did so, but the boy with glasses slammed an arm across his chest before he could do anything. Hiro showed nothing but internally he breathed a sigh of relief. The one boy had been enough trouble and Hitomi was in no shape to offer aid to him. Two of them at once with that monstrous chakra he felt rising from where he'd left the first didn't fill him with a desire to fight it out. He hadn't survived as long as he had by playing those odds.
"You're too late for that," he replied. "Now, it's simple. You let myself and my daughter leave unmolested with our burdens or our hands . . . slip. It doesn't need to get any messier than it already has, boys. No-one else has to die here."
For a moment, he really did think they were going to say the hell with it and attack. He could virtually see the rage pulsing off the pair of them, oh, wait, he could, their auras were visible, but then they sagged. "Fine," said the boy with the glasses, "But we will find you and we will kill you. Make no mistakes."
"Till another day then."
Ranma came around to the smell of blood and death and the sensation of being coated in the blood of his enemies. All round him he saw . . . pieces, pieces of the three ninja he'd been fighting. He rolled over onto his side and emptied his stomach onto the ground.
On the plus side, it felt like his ki had been knocked loose; on the down side, his neko-ken had turned to slaughtering everything around it. Somehow, it didn't balance.