The wail of feminine despair that followed the announcement of a written test warmed Mousse's heart. Ah, but it was always good to see Saotome brought down a peg or a hundred. Truly, it was the sort of thing that made getting out of bed in the morning worthwhile. For a moment, it made all those humiliations that had been heaped upon him by the arrogant bastard fade away to be replaced by the warm glow of watching someone get exactly what they deserved. Glorious.
The other wail he heard mixed in with Saotome's was a bit of a surprise though. Could it be that there was another Ranma-level idiot in Konoha? It scarcely seemed possible - when you looked up idiot in the dictionary you'd see an image of that arrogant womaniser next to it - but his ears rarely failed him.
Ah, it was the orange brat. He certainly looked dopey enough to be as stupid as Saotome, and a ninja wearing a bright orange jumpsuit. . . it was up there with that Kuno moron and his incessant attempts to seduce Ranma. Well, okay, almost up there. It would take a great deal of idiocy to match Kuno.
"Settle down,"said Ibiki. He was actually quite imposing what with his large size and scarred face and Mousse could see many of the young hopefuls gulping and looking otherwise fearful of the elite ninja. "You are supposed to be ninja. Act like it."
The room was quiet and even Ranma was quiet for a change. It was quite a novel experience for Mousse to see Ranma rendered silent. The only other time Mousse had ever seen Ranma so quiet was when he had believed his fiancee was dead. Extremely novel.
Of course it might have just been the prospect of having to face an actual written exam that had stunned him rather than the intimidation that rendered the rest of the crowd silent. It was questionable whether the examiner would even be able to read the awful chicken-scratch Saotome had the temerity to call handwriting, never mind determine, inevitably, that his answers were totally wrong.
"You have your seat numbers, don't you?" he barked out. "So sit down. Do I have to give you instructions for that as well?"
General chaos followed as every brat in the room starting bumbling around looking for their assigned seat. Mousse ended up seated between a couple of people he'd never met before. One was an odd looking guy wearing an all-black outfit and makeup - what sort of a guy wore make-up? - and the other was a lanky-looking fellow with a pair of clip-on sunglasses covering his eyes and a piece of cloth covering the lower half of his face. Neither looking terribly strong to Mousse.
"Do not turn your tests over," said Ibiki. "Listen closely to what I am about to say. There are many important rules to this first test." He picked up a piece of chalk and started to scratch away at the board as he spoke. Without turning his head away from the children in front of him. "I'll write it on the board while I explain, but questions will not be allowed so listen carefully."
Mousse grunted in annoyance. This whole intimidation schtick was starting to get a little old.
"The first rule," he said. "You guys all start off with ten points. The test is made up of ten questions and each one is worth a point, but this test uses a subtraction system. Basically, if you answer all the questions correctly, you keep your ten points. But, say, if you miss three questions you lose three points and will have seven.
"The second rule," he continued. "This is a team test. Whether you pass or not will be determined by the combined score of your teammates."
Well . . . shit. Mousse heard someone slamming their head against their table and he was tempted to emulate them. Ranma was an idiot, and Ryoga had probably missed every single class he hadn't had someone to guide him to.
"Wait a second," cried a female voice. Mousse craned his neck to see . . . ah, it was the pink-haired girl. Sakura. "I don't understand this initial points system, either, but why is it a team test?"
"Shut up," said Ibiki, shooting the girl an absolutely poisonous look. "You don't have the right to question me. There is a reason for this. Be quiet and listen.
"The third rule is that, during the exam, anyone caught cheating," he continued, "will have two points deducted for every offence."
Oh, it just got better. So if Saotome didn't restrain himself, which he never, ever did, they'd get screwed on that front as well. Mousse was beginning to suspect that the exam was designed to mess with his team.
"So there will be some who will lose all their points during the exam and be asked to leave," continued Ibiki. "We'll have our eyes on you guys."
And lo and behold two of the ninja in the room just happened to be two of the guys that Ryoga had flattened. Hells.
"Realise that the pathetic ones who get caught cheating will be destroying themselves," said Ibiki. "As shinobi attempting to reach the level of chuunin, be proud ninja."
In other words, cheat like a maniac, but don't get caught. He just had to hope that Ranma could manage that.
Yeah, he was doomed.
"And the final rule," said Ibiki. "Those that lose all their initial points during the test and those that don't answer any questions correctly will be failed along with their team-mates."
The gods hated him. It was the only explanation.
"The exam will last one hour," said Ibiki. He let silence fall, drawing it out for a few seconds, and Mousse could see some of the genin twitching. "Begin."
Mousse sighed and turned the paper over. Time to see if the hell his mother had put him through in the name of education was going to be actually useful.
Ranma stared at the paper in front of her. What god had she pissed off this time? The questions were outrageous. She'd signed up to a ninja, not a science nerd that could calculate the exact path of a shuriken when thrown by a ninja from a certain height. Hell, she had no idea where to even begin. Give her the shuriken and put her in place to throw them and she'd so just fine, but doing it with numbers? Not likely.
Argh. And the others were all the same. Cryptograms? What? That was what you had computers for!
Ranma really had to wonder just what the hell she was doing there. It seemed quite pointless to her. Nobody would even half a brain would expect her to solve this sort of problem. Her speciality was combat not mathematics and she had absolutely no intention of changing that. Frankly the very idea brought her out in hives. Having to spend her life solving inane problems like this would be a special sort of hell in her opinion. And they sure as hell hadn't hired her for her sparkling mathematical skills.
Really, she was a martial artist not a science geek. She hadn't spent 10 years training so she could solve stupid maths puzzles and it was a little hard to believe that they would promote ninja based on this sort of crap. Sure she could believe that such skills were useful but they weren't exactly the sort of thing that were essential to someone who made their living fighting for their life on a regular basis. These brats needed skills that were a little more essential to the survival of a fighter than the ability to solve cryptograms without help.
Honestly, from what she had seen most ninja in the village where a bit lacking in things a little more important than that, like not getting the crap kicked out of them by a six year old girl who was throwing a tantrum.
Maybe she was missing the point. Maybe there was a trick. She was going to have to think of something, because there was no way she was failing an exam taken by brats like these. That would just be humiliating. Even more humiliating when the time Ryoga had actually managed to beat her somehow, and retaking an exam didn't have quite the same effect as winning a rematch, did it?
It was all Ranma's fault. Ryoga wasn't quite sure how it was Ranma's fault, but he knew it was. It always was. Who else would come up this sort of fiendish plan to humiliate him so abjectly? This exam was out of the same playbook as kicking him into Jusenkyo, posing as his fiancee, posing his sister, and a thousand, smaller schemes that had all been aimed at making him look a fool. What other point could there be to sticking him with the same nonsense questions that you saw in school exams?
Oh, he pretended to be all sorts of upset about having to take a written exam, but Ryoga knew the truth. Ranma was a high-school student; he could deal with this sort of crap, or he wouldn't have been let in there. It was all part of the scheme. He'd pretend to be all worried and crap, to lure him into a sense of false security, and then wham! He'd pull out his success when it was all over and rub it into his face.
It was typical Ranma.
He didn't really understand how Ranma'd persuaded all these people to go along with his little scheme, but then he didn't really get a lot of the stuff Ranma did because it didn't make a lick of sense to anyone who was even half-normal.
Look, even the uniformed guys holding the exam were glaring at him! Clear evidence that they were all in on it! Why else would they be giving him looks like that? It had to be because Ranma had lured them into some stupid scheme with some outrageous story he'd spun out of whole cloth.
Well, he'd show them! He was Ryoga Hibiki and he wouldn't be beaten by some stupid exam! No way, no how!
Okay, couldn't answer that one.
Or that one.
And certainly not that one.
For the love of the gods, he couldn't even understand what that question was asking him!
And so it went as Ryoga scanned through the questions looking for one he could actually answer, becoming just that little bit more frantic with each brain-twistingly impossible question he ran across. By the end he was ready to slam his head through the table and go get lost far away from the stupid test, somewhere Ranma and Mousse wouldn't be to make sure he stayed in the right direction.
How the hell were these little ninja brats supposed to be able to answer these questions anyway? He could see the old dude in the front row being able to - what the hell was someone like that doing as a ninja anyway? - but twelve year olds? They hadn't even been to junior high - did they even learn crap like physics? - so how the bloody hell were they supposed to be able to manage stuff like this?
Ryoga groaned and lightly smacked his head off the desk. Well, lightly for him. It still left a large dent and attracted the attention of everyone in the room with the thud of flesh on steel-reinforced wood.
Well, Ryoga was freaking. No great surprise there. P-chan was about as good at thinking on his feet as he was at finding his way around Tokyo, so, yeah, Ranma wasn't surprised to see him tenderising his forehead against a table that was starting to bulge alarmingly beneath the blows. It was kinda amusing, Ranma thought, seeing the big, bad lost boy getting so worked up over some stupid test. He was a one-man siege engine, but he couldn't handle maths.
Well, okay, it wasn't like he was much better at this crap than Ryoga was, but he could manage one thing that Ryoga seemingly couldn't: he could cheat like he was his pop dealing with Ukyo's pop. Ninja? Ha! Ninja didn't have anything compared to a Saotome when it came to cheating.
Really it was easy. He'd panicked a little at first, but he'd listened when Fudo and Anko had been speaking, so he'd snuck a few little tools in underneath the leather bracers he wore on his forearms on and off, and now he was just getting along nicely with them. A little mirror sticking out of the bracer and into his palm ever so slightly let him see what the guy behind him was doodling and between that and being able to see the way the guy in front of him was moving his arm it was pretty easy to put together answers that looked like they made some sense.
Now, he just had to see what this question ten was. Revealed 45 minutes after the test has begun? They were either trying to intimidate the rookies or they were winding up for a real bastard of a question.
Watching some random genin get pounded into a wall by an examiner for cheating and refusing to accept he'd been caught at it was enlightening. This strength is our proof? Well, they'd have an interesting time trying that with Hibiki. They sure as hell wouldn't be able to bounce him around the room one-handed, though they were welcome to try it. He was sure it would be entertaining. Same went for Saotome, as well, though he'd probably concentrate more on humiliating the examiner rather than pounding his skull in.
Well, whatever. Hibiki could get up and dance the polka in front of the class for all Mousse cared so long as he didn't ruin the team's chances. It really didn't matter, so long as he didn't get a zero.
Though judging by the look on his face that was a possibility. Wonderful.
Okay, okay, so he couldn't answer the questions. It wasn't the end of the world. Stupid exam questions didn't prove that you could be a good ninja. He just had to find another way, right?
He just had to find one.
That weird boy in the make-up who was stood in front of him put his hand up. "Excuse me," he said as he stood up.
"What is it?"
Ryoga watched as the boy was cuffed and walked out of the room by one of the examiner guys. That gave him an idea. The examiners would have a copy of the exam answers, right? It was a test of ninja stuff so they'd have answers for people to steal?
Well, it was worth a try.
He waited till make-up boy came back, still with that smug grin on his face that he'd had whenever Ryoga had looked at him, and then he raised his own hand. "Bathroom," he said, standing up.
The examiner, the one with toilet-brush hair, rolled his eyes and came over to Ryoga with a pair of shackles that he'd pulled out from underneath the chair he was sitting on. "Like little kids," he said. "You sure you're a ninja and not a nursery school baby."
Ryoga clenched his teeth as the urge to smash rose. No, no, it wasn't time yet. He had to get him away from the rest before he pounded him flat. Unclench those fists, drop the scowl, untense those muscles - he had to be like one of those sneaky bastard ninja and not give himself away before he smashed the bastard flat. Yeah, that was it. Look nice and relaxed and not violently angry.
"Come on then, kiddy," he said. "Time to go potty."
Ryoga said nothing and the weight everyone around him felt pressing them down into the ground was entirely coincidental and, of course, nothing to do with him.
Watching the spiky-haired idiot slump to the ground in a shower of dust and chunks of wall was ridiculously satisfying. Not as good as the times he'd managed to smack Ranma round, but good enough. Between the look on the bastard's face when he'd snapped his shackles like they were twigs and the thud of skull on concrete, Ryoga was certainly feeling a lot less stressed. Nothing quite like beating the hell out of an annoying idiot to brighten a day up.
Now, to go through those pockets and see about getting some answers. It would be kinda disappointing. He'd have to find someone else to beat for answers . . . it would just be terrible.
And there they were! Ah-ha! He was a genius! Take that Ranma! Now . . . uh, he just had to get back into the exam hall without them realising he'd cheated.
"He fell down the stairs?"
Ranma stuffed her fist into her mouth as she desperately tried to restrain the giggles that welled up within her. Oh, man. Only Ryoga would try to pass a test of cheating skills by beating an examiner senseless.
Ryoga let loose a nervous chuckle and scratched the book of his head. "Uh, yeah?"
Ibiki did not look impressed. "Right," he said with a deep, deep frown marring his face. "Sit down and get on with it then."
Ranma felt like she was about to explode. It was just so very Ryoga to try something like that. When in doubt, Ryoga smashed. Ah, man. It was stuff like that which made having to put up being on a team with bacon-breath and the amazing stalker-boy almost worthwhile.
Still, it was a good thing it was only two points of per cheating attempt, because even the blind examiner would have caught Ryoga on this one, and Ranma really didn't peg Ibiki as the sort of guy who'd miss something like that. It would have been a whole lot less funny if he'd got them kicked out of the exam.
Ryoga'd barely had time to scribble down whatever he'd stolen from the examiner he'd battered into submission before Ibiki spoke again. "Okay," he said. "We will now begin the tenth question."
The atmosphere was so thick you could have cut it with a vacuum blade. Ranma leaned back in her chair and put her feet up on the table. No way was she letting scar-face think he scared her. No way in hell.
"Now, before we get to it," he continued, casting an icy gaze over the room as he spoke. "I'd like to go over the added rules for the tenth question."
Oh, yeah, that got the kiddies jumping. Ranma could almost smell the sweat. Oh, wait, she could smell the sweat. How . . . nice.
"There are the rules of desperation," continued Ibiki. "First, for this tenth question, you must decide whether you will take it or not."
Ranma blinked. What? "Choose?!" shouted a blonde girl. "What happens if we choose not to!?"
"If you choose not to, your points will be reduced to zero," said Ibiki as if nothing had been said. "You fail! Along with your team-mates."
There was a general chorus of disbelief and a couple of guys let their emotions get the better of them as they shouted their denials. Eh, she'd have probably been the same, but she wasn't worried. She'd got the first nine, so what was another?
Ibiki paused and allowed just enough time for people to start squirming before he continued. ""And now the other rule," he said. "If you choose to take it . . . and answer incorrectly, that person will never again be allowed to take the chuunin selection exam."
Ranma dropped her legs down to the ground and sat up straight. What the hell? No-one had ever warned her about anything like this. Was he even allowed to do that? Keep away from all those precious new techniques forever?
"What kind of stupid rule is that!?" bellowed Kiba, Akamaru barking in agreement from his perch atop the boy's head. "There are guys here who have taken the exam before!"
Ibiki showed his teeth in a shark-like grin. "You guys were unlucky," he said. "This year it's my rules. But I am giving you a way out. Those that aren't confident can choose not to take It and try again next year."
Ranma leaned back in her seat and plopped her feet back on top on the table. Challenge her, would he? She'd show him. Ranma Saotome didn't lose, especially not to people who couldn't lay a hand on her in a fight even if she didn't bother to go back to being a guy!
"Those that do not wish to take the question raise your hands," said Ibiki. "Once your number is confirmed, leave."
It took all of about thirty seconds before the numbers started being read out as kiddies caved and got tossed out of the hall no further forward than when they'd started. Tch. It was kinda pathetic, really, watching all the wannabe ninja folding like cheap cardboard underneath the first bit of real pressure they ran into. They sure didn't breed 'em tough in those parts. Konatsu could take way more 'n that without even blinking, and he was a complete weirdo. Anyone who folded like that, well, Ranma wouldn't want to have them watching his back . . . not that he'd ever need it, of course.
And she swore, if Mousse or Ryoga gave up there, she'd pound 'em till they were as stupid as Kuno.
Huh, that brat in orange looked like he was putting his hand up. So much for not letting anyone beat him. Kinda disappointing really. He'd had the right attitude before. No fear. Don't let 'em see you sweat. Get in their faces and make them sweat. That was the way to be.
His hand slammed down onto the table-top with a resounding, fleshy thud. "DON'T UNDERESTIMATE ME!" he bellowed. "I WILL NOT RUN! I'LL TAKE IT! EVEN IF I'M A GENIN FOREVER, I'LL STILL BECOME HOKAGE, SO I DON'T CARE! I AM NOT AFRAID!"
Ranma nodded. That was more like it. Brave. Stupid, but brave. Better 'n just stupid any day.
"I'll ask you again," said Ibiki. "Your life is riding on this decision. This is your last chance to walk away."
"I follow my unbending words," replied Naruto. "That's my ninja way."
Ibiki's eyes swept across the room as he looked away from the blond brat. No-one shrank before his gaze this time. It was as if he was looking at a completely different group to the brats that had been about ready to wet themselves earlier. Kinda pathetic really, how they needed some loud-mouthed kid with more balls than brains to shore up their confidence, but whatever worked, Ranma supposed. Just meant more people she'd get to fight through, she reckoned.
And then Ibiki smiled, which was more gruesome than his glare as far as Ranma was concerned. "Good decisions," he said. "Now, to everyone still remaining, I congratulate you on passing the first test."
Absolute pandemonium followed as the brats went more than slightly mental at having passed the test without understanding why. It was like feeding time at the zoo. Hmm, food. She was starting to feel a little peckish. Must be the mental strain of dealing with all these weirdos.
"HEY!" screeched a blonde girl. "Then what were the first nine questions for!? They were pointless then!"
"They were not pointless," replied Ibiki. "They've already served their intended purpose."
The blonde girl looked as clueless as Ranma felt.
"To test your information gathering skills," said Ibiki. "That purpose. First, as the rules explained, success in this test is based on the whole team doing well. This puts pressure on each member not to mess things up for their team-mates."
"I had a feeling this test was like that," said Naruto with a nod and a laughably serious expression on his face. Hinata, sat next to him, started to giggle into her hand.
"But the questions on this test were not the sort that a mere genin could answer," he continued. "Because of that I'm sure most of you came to the same conclusion: you'd have to cheat to win."
Well, yeah, that's what happens when you give a science and maths exam to ninja.
"Basically, the premise of the exam is to cheat," continued Ibiki. "And to that end we planted some Chuunin amongst you to provide the correct answers."
Naruto laughed loudly. "I saw right through that!" he said. "You've have to be a moron not to notice." The next came out much more quietly. "Right, Hinata?"
"But those who cheat poorly fail of course," said Ibiki, before unstrapping his hitai-ate and taking it off along with the rest of his head-covering. Whoa, he was even uglier underneath that. Looked like the surface of the moon. "Because in times of war information is more important than life, and on missions and the battlefield people risk their lives to get their hands on it."
He started to wrap the head covering back on, after seeing that it had the effect he was aiming for, Ranma assumed. "If the enemy notices you, there is no guarantee the information will be accurate," he continued. "I want you to remember this. Information is a powerful weapon for your comrades and for the village."
"Right," said Mousse. "I understand that. But . . . I don't understand the final question."
"What use is a ninja that cannot stand up to pressure?" asked Ibiki. "Think about it. Say you make chuunin and you're given a mission to steal a secret document. The opposition you will face is unknown and of course there could be traps all around. Now, do you accept or not accept? Because you don't want to die, because you don't want your comrades hurt, can you avoid the dangerous mission?
"The answer is no!" he said. "No matter what the danger, there are missions you cannot avoid. The ability to be courageous and survive any hardship: that is the ability required to become a chuunin. Those who can't put their destinies on the line, who cling to the uncertain future of 'there's always next year' and then walk away from their chance . . . those pieces of trash do not have the right to become chuunin.
"Those who choose to take it, who answered the tenth question correctly," he continued. "You will be able to survive any troubles you face in the future. You have made it through the entrance, the first test of the chuunin selection is now finished. I wish you guys luck."
Wow, she almost felt like wiping an imaginary tear away. That was positively inspirational in its total lack of self-preservation instinct. Still, Ibiki had to be one tough old coot to be willing to go on like that after getting beaten up like that. Took some balls to still act the hard-nut after someone'd used your head as an ash-tray.
"Hell yeah!" bellowed Naruto, pumping his fist. "Wish us luck!"
It was at that point that Anko came smashing in through the window to start the next leg of the exam. And people called her flashy! Ranma knew for a fact that she wasn't a patch on her sensei when it came to that sort of thing