An alarm clock blared. An alarm clock was smashed to teeny, tiny pieces by a fist moving at near the speed of sound. Never let it be said that Ranma Saotome was ever a morning person. Oh, he'd spent years being dragged out of his pit at the crack of dawn, or even before, by his idiotic panda of a pop, but it was never something he'd ever grown accustomed to and most certainly not something he'd ever enjoy. As far as Ranma was concerned, morning people always had been and always would be weirdos of the highest calibre.
Which really made the fact that he lived with a pair of early birds really bite. He'd always known they weren't quite normal - how else do you explain the inability to walk in a straight line? Or the stalkerish tendencies? - but he'd never expected them to be anything so vile as a morning person. That was just beyond the pale. Even Happosai wasn't a morning person! Though that might have had something to do with the heavy drinking.
And so that was why the morning found Ranma bleary eyed and somewhat less tolerant than his usual cheerful self as he prepared himself for the day ahead in his sparsely furnished room. Just why did he agree to hold a training session with the brats so early in the morning?
Oh, yeah, he had his own training to do and needed to get the brats out of the way so he would be able to get there in time for yet as well as dealing with the whole 'train my daughters or bad things happen to Hitomi' deal. Humbug. This was what he got being such a great guy that he even saved someone who'd tried to make Ranma barbecue out of him.
Well, at least she wasn't a fiancee. That really would be the cherry on the top.
He made it as far as the living room before he trod on a shirt that really should have been elsewhere and almost fell flat on his face, almost by Ranma's standards anyway, and a wave of utter irritation struck him. "What the hell?" he snapped. "Can't you morons at least tidy up after yourselves?"
"Well, you know, Ranma," said Ryoga, looking up from the weights he was adding to his umbrella. More weights? Wonderful. Ranma was really looking forward to their next fight. Nothing like getting smashed by a ten-ton umbrella to make your day. "It's normally the girl's job to keep the house tidy."
"Ow . . . "
Wham! Wham! Wham!
A moment's silence.
Ranma brushed some imaginary dust off his hands with great satisfaction. He was damned if he was going to let that idiot lost boy get away with saying something like that to him. That and it always made the morning seem that little bit brighter when it was started off with kicking around one of the resident idiots.
"What the hell's up with you?" asked Mousse, toothbrush hanging out of his mouth. "That time of the month?"
It would be several hours before Mousse could get his legs to point in the right direction once more.
Ranma frowned as Hinata lost her balance and slowly, ever so slowly, tilted to the left before finally sliding off the pole and crashing to the ground with a rather loud thud and a hiss of expelled air.
"Is that the best you can do?" asked Ranma after waiting for a moment to see if Hinata would show some drive and get back to it on her own; as usual, he found himself being disappointed. "Get back up there and start again."
"Yes, sensei," mumbled Hinata as she hopped back up and resumed her place balancing on top of the bamboo pole.
What was with that girl? Sometimes she'd almost - almost - seem as if she was competent, even that she might have some small amount of useful skill, but then, inevitably, she'd go back to being useless and slow and weak and it rarely took all that long. He just didn't understand it. She was supposed to be a ninja, right? From some big, bad clan of uber ninja with super-eyes? Then why was she so damned meek and weak? Didn't make a lick of sense to Ranma.
"You need to master this, Hinata," said Ranma. "You too, Hanabi. Without balance a martial artist is nothing. If you can't be sure of your footing, what can you be sure of? It's essential."
That, combined with the rubber ball he bounced off the back of her head, was apparently enough to break Hanabi's concentration and she promptly fell off her pole and landed face-first with a rather nasty crack. Ranma didn't need to tell her to get back up and get back on with things, though. She bounced back up off her own merits without encouragement and was back up on the pole with a look of intense concentration on her face immediately. Sure, there was a little blood leaking from her nostrils, but it wasn't stopping her.
Stuff like that was why Ranma kinda liked Hanabi, not that he'd ever let her in on that little fact. She had the right attitude. She fought back, didn't give up, and didn't let a few lumps stop her. That was how a martial artist should be. You didn't get anywhere by letting a few insults or a hard hit stop you in your tracks. That crap was for losers, not someone being trained in Anything Goes.
Still, those flashes of competence and the agreement were enough to keep Ranma training Hinata even if he'd normally give it up as a bad job. He'd get her to start acting like a real martial artist if it was the last thing he ever did. Heh, probably would be.
"Hey, Hinata," he said a moment later. "You're going to be in the chuunin exams, right?"
She almost fell off her pole but to her credit she steadied herself and managed to stay atop it after a moment's struggle. Better. "Y-yes, sensei," she said. "My team will be there."
"Well, remember what I've taught you," said Ranma. "Do that and you'll be fine. You might not be the best student that Anything Goes has ever seen but most ninja have truly pathetic taijutsu skills."
"Anyway, I suppose I'll see you there."
"You're going to be one of the examiners?"
"Nah, I'll be taking the exam."
"You're a genin?" blurted out Hanabi, sliding alarmingly to her left in surprise before managing to right herself.
"I know, I know. How can someone as awesome as me be a genin? Shocking isn't it."
Ranma wasn't entirely sure but he thought Hanabi might have rolled her eyes at that, but she didn't say anything. Tsk. She should have known better than to antagonise her sensei by then. He was mildly pleased that she managed to keep her balance when he bounced a rubber ball off the back of her head but he was just amused by the look on her face when a second ball caught her beneath the ribs and sent her crashing down. That'd teach her.
As Ranma was heading out of the Hyuuga compound, and being given the gimlet eye by all and sundry as he did so, snobby bastards, he caught sight of Hitomi. She looked angry. No great surprise there, really. She was always angry. Not a good loser, that one, really.
"You know, cute girls shouldn't scowl all the time," he said. "Your face'll get stuck that way eventually and that'd be a real shame."
"Piss off, bastard."
"Hey, I'll have you know that I know exactly who my parents are," said Ranma. "They might be lunatics but I know who they are."
"Do I look like I care? Just go away. Find someone else to torment."
"Torment? Me?" asked Ranma. "You wound me. I just wanted to see how you were doing."
"Oh, I'm great," said Hitomi, her expression somewhat incredulous. "Just great. There's nothing quite like having everything you and your family fought for smashed to pieces to brighten up a life. It's just magnificent. I think next I'll see if I can marry into the main house just to really round things off."
"Uh, aren't all the main house guys like a million years old?"
"Shut up, Saotome."
Ranma held up his hands defensively. "Just saying, just saying," he said. "And it could be a lot worse, you know. They wanted to kill you."
"Because being a slave is so much better," she hissed. "Just go away. You have no idea what it's like."
"What the hell are you talking 'bout? Slave?"
"What, you didn't know about the seal?" asked Hitomi with a contemptuous snort. "About how any main family member can torture or kill me at a whim? Give me a break. Are you some sort of mental sub-normal?"
"I had no idea."
"Sub-normal it is, then."
"Really, I didn't," said Ranma. "I'd have cut you loose and let you run for it or something if I did."
"You think that makes any difference?" asked Hitomi, her features twisted into a serious scowl. "You killed my father, you bastard."
"He tried to kill me first, you know. It's not like I go out looking for people to kill."
"Do you really think that matters?"
Ranma thought about what he'd do if someone killed his pop. "Suppose not," he said finally. "I'll see you around, I guess."
"Not if I can help it."
Ranma's head was in a whirl as he made his way out. The idea of people sticking seals on their family that did stuff like that was just . . . it was wrong on levels he'd never before even contemplated. He'd known some crazy, crazy people back in Nerima, just look at the Kunos, but that was beyond even them. Even the real bastards, like Taro or Happosai, wouldn't do stuff like that to their own family . . . well, maybe Happosai, if he thought it would be funny.
Anyway, it was wrong. They probably had some stupid excuse for it, like that stupid family he'd ran into that'd had a monkey fighting in tea ceremony style to determine an arranged marriage, but it was still wrong. Totally wrong. But what could he do about it? Somehow, he didn't think his usual way of solving problems would work. Sure, he could beat the snot out of them, but so what? Wouldn't make them change and the village'd probably be on their side. He didn't think he could take on everyone in the village at once; there was an awful lot of them.
There was nothing he could do. For now. Some day, maybe, he'd figure something out, of course he would, but for now it'd have to wait. He'd train Hinata and Hanabi and he'd watch and see how things worked.
"Well, that's it," said Fudo. "We're done for the day and I suppose that means we're done completely."
"No more forests?" asked Mousse. "Or is that too much to hope for?"
Fudo shrugged. "How am I supposed to know?" he asked. "They come up with all sorts of weird and wacky tests for the chuunin exams. Keeps things from getting stale, they say. I think they just get bored with babysitting duty and try to liven it up by making the brats' lives hell."
Silence followed. Ryoga really wasn't impressed. No stupid exam was going to scare him. He'd spent half his life getting lost in places that were full of idiots who took violent exception to his being there, so what was an exam? Nothing.
"Anyway, even if Ranma's performed like a drunken elephant today," said Fudo a moment later, "you're ready. Really, how many genin have skills like yours? Unless you do something stupid you're set."
"Easier said 'n done with these two," said Ranma.
It really didn't break Ryoga's heart to give Ranma a swat with his umbrella. Just payback for that morning. Honest.
"What sort of thing will we face in the exam?" asked Mousse, pushing his jam-jar glasses back up the bridge of his nose. "Duels?"
"Ah, sometimes," he said. "They normally have three tests: one for information gathering, one for teamwork, and one for leadership. Least that's they're supposed to be. Sometimes they kinda stretch the definitions so they can have fun watching what goes on during the exam."
"Duels don't really fit those tests."
"You wouldn't think so," said Fudo with a shrug. "But you guys have nothing to worry about there anyway. It's the stuff that needs a slightly more delicate touch that could undo you. You have to keep in mind the essence of a ninja and that isn't spectacular combat skills. Do that and you'll be fine."