The chuunin exams. From what Ranma could gather, they were supposed to be a defining moment in a ninja's career, the time when he was given the opportunity to set up and become a real ninja instead of a child playing at it, and something they would look back upon as a crucial, defining moment in their lives if not with fondness. He supposed it was was sort of like what graduating was supposed to be like for normal people in that way: when they were meant to leave childhood and move into the adult world as men.
Ranma just wished they'd not decided to hold the damned things so early. Was it really necessary to test his ability to get out of bed in the morning as well as his ability to break heads and take names?
Of course, he probably would have taken it a little more seriously if he hadn't already been able to beat his jounin-sensei like a drum. It really took some of the urge to advance out of things when you scored a straight-up combat win over said sensei in your genin test. Becoming a mid-level minion of the village instead of a low-level minion lost its lustre when you could already knock the elite around.
"Well, I think this is the place," said Mousse, squinting at the large, office-y looking building they were standing in front of. "Doesn't look like the sort of place where ninja get promoted, really."
"Mousse, they have a school here that teaches kids how to be ninja," said Ranma. "It's even crazier than Nerima. Don't try to make sense of it."
"Feh," said Ryoga, hefting his umbrella up onto his shoulder. "What sort of test can they have a in a place like this? It wouldn't last two minutes if we went at it."
Ranma shrugged. "Ninja suck," he said. "Let's face it. They do. I've already beaten one of their big, bad guys and he wasn't a patch on Herb or Saffron. Hell, wasn't even a patch on that idiot Ryu."
"Then why are we wasting our time here?" asked Mousse. "I want to get home, I want to see my beloved Shampoo again, and we're not doing anything to get back."
"They got some nice techniques. Remember psycho-sensei's water dragon? I want to learn that."
"Won't get us back home."
"Their summoning stuff might, though," said Ryoga. "Remember the cat-girl? She conjured up a monster from nowhere. Maybe if we can learn that-"
"Wow, Ryoga," said Ranma. "That was almost intelligent."
"Shut up, Saotome," said Mousse. "Now isn't the time. We're about to have a bunch of lunatic kids try to kill us so they can advance over our corpses; we should at least concentrate a little on that, don't you think?"
"You've been spending way too much time listening to Anko. I bet they're nowhere near that bad."
"I hope they are," said Ryoga with a fanged grin. "I could use a good fight. None of this sneaking around crap; just someone who wants to try and prove they're stronger then me."
It would have been too easy to point out that the chances of an ankle-biter ninja trying to take Ryoga in a fair fight were about the same as his chances of ever managing to find his way between two towns without someone having him on a leash.
And so, with that, they trailed into the building one by one to find their destiny. Well, that was the plan at least, but what ever goes to plan when Team Nerima is involved? Mousse and Ryoga managed to enter the building before the skies opened up and a sudden outpouring of rain fell upon the head of Ranma, who, caught by surprise, promptly became a rather fetching red-head.
Ryoga laughed. "You know, for someone who was the first to learn the technique, you really suck at it," he said. "You'd never get me that easily."
"I must concur," said Mousse with a sagely nod. "It is rather weak."
Ranma sniffed in disdain. "That's because you two morons have totally useless cursed forms," she said. "You turn into stupid, weak animals. I turn into a hottie that can still kick the arse of whoever needs it. That's the difference between us."
Again, Ranma sniffed in disdain and gave Mousse a superior sort of look. "You make your own luck," she said. "S'why I'm the best."
"Prove it," said Mousse, his eyes alight with a sadistic sort of gleam. "Beat this exam as a girl."
Ranma really should have known she was being baited. "Not even close to a challenge," she said.
"Then take the challenge."
And so the deal was sealed. Ranma wouldn't, couldn't, back down from a challenge no matter how stupid.
Upon entering the building they were directed by a bored-looking woman to make their way to room 301 on the third floor. Ranma was never going to get used to seeing ninja working with people that wouldn't be out of place in the normal world. It was almost like seeing Gosunkungi beating Cologne in a martial arts duel or something. Just didn't make sense in any sort of rational world.
Not that Ranma minded really. Rational was boring. Way of the salary-man. Not for people like her who could smash boulders to bit with a chop of a single hand.
When they reached the third floor, though it didn't feel like they'd went up enough flights of stairs to do so to Ranma, they found a small mob of young-looking types wearing hitai-ates clustered around a door marked as 301 by the sign atop it but not moving any closer to it as two older looking ninja stood in a sort of guard position.
Before Ranma could open her mouth to make a sarcastic comment and insult a few idiots, a guy in green spandex, may the kami cleanse her eyes of the abomination, lunged forwards at one of the two guarding ninja and was sent crashing to the ground with an almost casual backhand.
"Wow," said Ranma. "That was kinda pathetic. Could you have been any slower? Even my lame students would have done better 'n that."
Well, you gotta get your jabs in where you can. Where would the fun in life be if you kept your mouth shut and didn't start fights? Ranma couldn't even imagine living such a life. It'd be like taking away his martial arts or something.
"Look at that, kid," said one of the guards, the one with particularly spiky hair and two swords strapped to his back. "Even one of the other snots recognises how useless you are. Think you can take the exam like that? Don't make me laugh."
"Who are you calling a snot, toilet-brush head?" said Ranma, her facial expression showing exactly how very underwhelmed she was. "Just come over here and say that."
"Kid, you're not worth the energy it'd take for me to set one foot in front of the other," said the guard. "Go back to the crèche and play with the other brats, yeah? Find someone more your level."
Ranma could tell that the guy wasn't at her level, or even duck-boy's level, just by looking at him so she didn't exactly push the limit when she darted forward and levelled a straight punch at his head. Still, it came as a bit of a shock when the green meanie caught her fist in a bandage-wrapped hand.
"More than you look, huh," said Ranma with a grin. "Suppose you'd have to be."
"So much for not standing out," said a Hyuuga guy in a really stupid looking shirt and shorts combination outfit. Made him look like one of those American cub scouts or something. Not exactly the sort of thing Ranma normally saw back home in the land of vaguely normal ninja . . . and that was even taking Konatsu into account.
The girl stood next to him with a frown on her face was a lot more sensible, though. Why else would she be wearing the same style of clothing as Ranma was? Clearly a smart cookie in Ranma's eyes.
"You are strong," said the boy. "I am Rock Lee."
"Ranma Saotome," replied Ranma, backing off a step. "So, we gonna fight?"
The boy frowned, a move which brought his colossal eyebrows down to almost cover his eyes, before he replied. "Perhaps later," he said, giving her a thumbs up gesture. "You are strong but I have other opponents now."
Ranma shrugged. "Whatever," she said.
Another boy stepped forward, wearing a similarly cripplingly stupid-looking shorts and shirt outfit, but before he could say anything Ryoga swung his umbrella round and levelled both of the guards with a single swipe. "This is boring," he said. "Come on."
The sign above the door had started to ripple the moment Ryoga's attack struck home and changed to 201 as the bodies hit the floor. Tch. She could really get to hate that genjutsu crap. So cheap.
"Didn't you realise it was a genjutsu?" asked the boy. Twit. "Sakura, you must have noticed with your analytical skills and genjutsu know-how?"
The pink-haired - Ranma wondered if it was natural, like Shampoo's purple hair - girl blinked and looked a little surprised for a moment before her expression turned to confidence. "Of course," she said. "I noticed a while ago."
Ranma debated drilling a fist-sized hole in their faces for a moment before shrugging it off. So they could spot a cheap illusion a little better than her. Big deal. She hadn't even known that crap was possible till very recently. Soon enough she'd be better at it than either of those two would ever be. She was Ranma Saotome and she didn't lose to stupid-looking ankle-biters.
And that went double for the one in orange.
Room 301 turned out to be some sort of waiting room filled with ninja of all shapes and sizes. Shockingly, they weren't all little kids as she'd been expecting. Ranma didn't even want to contemplate how bad the average ninja was if they couldn't make chuunin by the time they started sprouting facial hair. It just didn't bear thinking about, and she kinda doubted they were all late to the game like she was.
The way they all glared at her and the others as they entered the room was pretty amusing, though. Were they trying to intimidate her? Without so much as a scrap of proper killing intent? Tch. She was almost tempted to go over, pinch their cheeks, and call them cute just to see how they'd react. Such a thing really couldn't fail to amuse, but it was a little too far into playing the girly role for her tastes just then.
So she pulled her eyelid down and wagged her tongue out at them in the classic childish taunt that had always got a good rise out of Akane. It worked a charm. Even got some pitiful killing intent out of the mob of wannabes.
"Was there really any need for that, Saotome?" asked Mousse. "Now they're all going to be as focused on us as all the people you pissed off in the last ten years were on you when you settled down in Nerima."
"What are they going to do? Cry on us?"
"That's what I'm talking about," said Mousse. "Needless antagonism. You don't have to make an enemy of everyone you meet."
Ranma shrugged. "Keeps life interesting," she said.
Her attention was already wandering, sweeping over the crowds and searching out anyone she actually knew. She managed to pick out a couple. There was Hinata, looking as nervous as always, with the team-mates that Ranma had never actually met but knew enough about to recognise. They sounded like an interesting pair from what she'd gathered. The whole bug-thing Shino had was more than a little creepy, but the idea of having a dog companion to fight alongside you, as the Inuzuka did, was more than a little intriguing even if it was more up Ryoga's street than hers. Other than Hinata, there were only a few she'd ran into in the village, but they weren't people she actually knew beyond recognising their faces.
Oh, and there were the trio of irritants. Pinky, her stupid-looking black-haired teammate, and the one who was so bright that it almost hurt to look at him. Looked as if someone had roughed the two guys up a little before they'd managed to get from A to B to Ranma, which didn't exactly break her heart.
They didn't get far before some blonde girl wearing an outfit that looked like it was mostly made of bandages jumped on scout-boy's back. The look on his face almost made up for his comment earlier. Yeah, Ranma could sympathise. Being glomped on had never exactly made her day either. Didn't look like pinky was going to smash him through the ceiling, though, so he was still a step behind her on the suck-o-meter for glomping.
"Another playboy," said Ryoga, his voice laced with disgust. "Isn't Ranma enough?"
"I quite agree," said Mousse.
"Laugh it up, morons," said Ranma. "Doesn't look like he's asking for this any more than I did. Not my fault you're jealous idiots."
Oh, killer glares. Those morons were still holding grudges because Akane and Shampoo weren't interested in them? Tch. Would they never learn?
"Ah, come on," said Ranma. "Let's go see what the brats are up to. They're supposed to be our competition or something, right?"
The idiotic duo shrugged but they followed when Ranma wandered on over to where the local rookies had gathered around pinky's team. There was something ever so slightly wrong about seeing a bunch of stupid little kids banding together in a room preparing to go out and take part in an exam that was basically kill-or-be-killed for most of the entrants. Ranma'd been through some pretty harsh training when she was young but she'd not had to do anything like that. Even her pop would have baulked at it. Well, she hoped so.
"Hey, you guys," said a taller, older-looking blond guy wearing glasses to the rookies as Ranma made her way over. "You should be more quiet. Jeez, screaming like little girls. You guys are rookies right out of the academy, right? This isn't a picnic."
"Who do you think you are?" snapped the blond girl who'd been doing the glomping.
"I'm Kabuto," said the boy. "But instead of that that look behind you."
Okay, Ranma had to admit there was some comedy value in seeing the kids' faces when they realised half the hardened killers in the room were glaring at them for having the nerve to act like human beings.
"Eh, don't pay attention to it," said Ranma. "They're just jealous because you don't suck as much as they do and got to take the exam earlier 'n them."
Kabuto pushed his glasses back up his nose. "Now, I wouldn't say that, Ranma," he said. "No village sends anything but their very best available genin to an exam in a foreign village."
"They don't look like much," said Ryoga dubiously. "You sure they're the elite?"
"Well, not everyone can be a taijutsu genius with access to a family school of assassination techniques like your team-mate."
Ranma frowned and shot an askance look Kabuto's way. "How do you know all this stuff about me?" she asked.
"How else would an ordinary genin survive but by keeping an eye on the competition?" asked Kabuto. "That's why I keep these information cards."
"Wow," said pinky. "So you know a lot about the exam, right?"
"As much as you would expect someone on their seventh attempt to."
The looks of dismay on the faces of the kids amused Ranma to no end. "Seventh attempt?" asked Ranma. "And you guys are going to listen to him? He's only an expert in losing."
"As loathe as I am to admit it," said Mousse, "I think Saotome might have the right of this one. Taking exam advice from someone who cannot pass it seems like a bad idea."
"And when even this idiot recognises something as a bad idea, you know it is," said Ranma.
Pinky looked scandalised. "You shouldn't say such things," she said. "I'm sure the problem is with the difficulty of the exam and not Kabuto's skills."
Ranma shrugged. It worked out pretty much the same in her mind. Either way it ended up with him not being good enough to pass.
"Do you have cards with information on individuals?" asked scout-boy.
"Ah, you've met some guys you're worried about," said Kabuto, his glasses gleaming as the light reflected off them. "It's quite difficult to acquire accurate information about foreign ninja, but I have at least something on everyone. Who are you interested in?"
"Rock Lee, Gaara of the Desert, and Ranma."
"No, Sasuke," wailed blondie. "What does she have that I don't!?"
"Talent, good looks, a fantastic body," said Ranma, ticking each item off on her hands. "You know, little things like that." She looked down. "Or not so little things."
If looks could kill . . .
"Ranma, you perv-"
Ryoga found himself embedded in the wall behind him before he could finish that statement.
"Don't even think it, pig-boy."
"It's a good thing we weren't planning on doing anything intelligent like pretending to be weaker than we really are," said Mousse. "Hibiki, don't even think about doing what I know you want to. Now isn't the time to try and smash him as much as I can sympathise with the feeling."
"Ah, if you're finished," said Kabuto. "Yes, let's start with Rock Lee. He'll be the easiest of the three."
Watching Kabuto shuffle through the cards and then apply a burst of ki to one of them to get the information to show was enlightening. For someone who couldn't even pass a stupid exam that looked like a pretty decent technique he had going.
"Rock Lee," said Kabuto, placing the card on the floor to allow all to read it as he spoke. "Ah, a year older than you guys, excepting you and your team-mates, Ranma, obviously. Mission history: twenty completed D-class and twelve completed C-class. His taijutsu is noted as having improved greatly but his other skills are nothing to write home about. He's on a team with Neiji Hyuuga and TenTen under Maito Gai."
Another shuffle. "Ah, Gaara of the Desert," he said. "A newcomer from a foreign village, so I don't have much. I don't have much information, but . . . eight C-class and one B-class mission. Wow, a B-rank mission as a genin. And it seems that he returned from all of his missions without even a scratch."
Looking at all the kiddies sweating over that was kinda amusing. "Sounds like there's at least one guy here worth fighting then," said Ranma.
"Hmm, we shall see," said Kabuto. "Now, Ranma Saotome. Ah, now this is interesting. His file marks him as, well, a he. I wonder what happened there."
"Must be a typing error."
"As you say," said Kabuto. "Interesting that even the picture in the file is different, though. Hmm, new to the village apparently: only arrived in Konoha two months before the current class of graduates was assigned to teams and was promptly assigned to a team under Anko Mitarashi with two others who arrived with her. Skills wise, the information I have indicates that she is possessed of very high level skills in all areas except genjutsu and is also trained in a family school of taijutsu and ninjutsu techniques. Mission history, hmm: five D-class missions, one C-class, and, oh my, an A-class mission."
Ranma shrugged. "It wasn't meant to be an A-class mission," she said. "Just turned out that when a loony missing-nin turned up causing trouble. Things got quiet again after I kicked his arse."
"Hey, hey," said the eye-wateringly bright brat. "That sounds like what happened with us and Zabuza. Do we have an A-class mission on our file?"
"The Demon of the Mist, Naruto?" asked Kabuto. "That's an impressive opponent to survive at your age. Let's see." He pulled out another card and fired it up with a burst of ki. "Yes, you do. An A-class mission. I'm impressed."
The kid virtually glowed under the praise. You'd think no-one had ever said anything nice about him before or something. Pinky and scout-boy seemed to get a little more relaxed as well.
"So these guys," said blondie, "they're all like Gaara and Rock Lee and Ranma?"
"The elite of their village?" asked Kabuto. "Oh, yes. They'd send nothing less to an occasion such as this. How else could they demonstrate their strength? Leaf, Sand, Rain, Waterfall, Sound . . . many outstanding genin from the hidden villages are here to take the exam. Well, the Hidden Sound is a new village and there isn't much info, but the rest of the villages are filled with talented youngsters."
"M-makes you lose your confidence," said Hinata.
Everyone looked nervous again. Heh, was Kabuto playing with them? Get 'em nervous, let 'em down, and then back again for double the effect - not the nicest thing to do to a bunch of nervy little kids. Even the loud one in orange, Naruto, was trembling. Tch, if they were that scared then they had no place-
"MY NAME IS NARUTO UZUMAKI," he shouted, finger pointed at the crowd. "AND I WON'T LOSE TO ANY OF YOU BASTARDS!"
Ranma rubbed her ear. Yeah, he was terrified alright. "You tell 'em kid," she said. "But a little less loudly, please?"
"YOU GOT THAT!?"
"Hey," said blondie. Ranma really needed to learn their names. "What is he?"
"He's too stupid to get down," said pinkie.
"Ah, that feels great," said Naruto, arms folded behind his head and a satisfied grin on his face.
The dark-haired glomp-target, scout-boy-smirked.
"What a moron," said another boy, who was immediately dubbed pineapple boy in Ranma's head. "He's just made everyone his enemy."
"Lose to those bastards? Big words," said Kiba, before following that up with a stage-whisper to his dog. "Show-off."
An amusing sideshow followed with pinky grabbing Naruto in a sleeper hold and trying to persuade the crowd that Naruto was some sort of mental deficient that didn't really mean to insult them all, but Ranma was more interested in the attempt at rapid movement he could make out from within the crowd. Looked like someone was looking to get in a pre-emptive beating . . .
A guy jumped from out of the crowd and launched a pair of kunai at Kabuto's head, but the bespectacled ninja was able to easily slide back out of the way of the attack before Mousse knocked the two kunai out of the air with a pair of his own.
Another ninja, his face covered in bandages and his upper body clad in an over-sized coat, came rocketing out of the crowd straight towards Kabuto. At least, that was the plan. A well-placed foot from Ranma sent the guy crashing down face-first before he could get into range to do a damn thing.
"Clumsy, ain't ya?" asked Ranma.
It was amazing how the tension would just flow out of a room as everyone joined in the age-old tradition of laughing at the guy who just got humiliated. Heart-warming, really.
An explosion of smoke interrupted the mockery. "Quiet down you worthless bastards!" yelled a deep, male voice from within the cloud. And when the smoke cleared . . .
"Oh, hey, it's scarface! And he's got minions!"