"Anko, such harsh words!" said Orochimaru. "You break your master's heart with your cruel ways."
Anko ground her teeth and yanked another trio of kunai free from the leather pouch tied to her thigh. This was her chance, her chance to make things right, and all she had to do was kill one bastard snake-fetishist. Small price to pay.
"Oh my," said Orochimaru. "Are you going to kill me, Anko? You're so horrible to your master."
"Shut up, you bastard," spat Anko. "You lost the right to call yourself my master a long time ago."
And with that she launched the three kunai she held in her right hand at Orochimaru's face. He swatted them aside with contemptuous ease but her snakes were already curving through the air towards his throat in a follow-up. For a moment she saw a look of disturbed surprise on his face before snakes erupted from his own mouth, larger snakes that gobbled up hers whole like some sort of demented cannibals.
She wasn't finished yet, though. She pulled another kunai free and launched herself forwards to close into melee range. Well, that was the plan anyway. Ranma drop-kicking Orochimaru in the side of the head and sending him crashing into and through a small tree put a slight kink in that idea.
There were times when Ranma reminded her way too much of Gai for comfort. If he started in on the spandex, there were going to be words exchanged. And possibly kunai and shuriken too.
"Ha! Take that!" she shouted, face flushed. "Not so confident now, are you, your freaky Musk-wannabe?"
Ranma's words were confident but her body - and why was she female anyway? - gave lie to that. Anko could see the slight trembling in her limbs that spoke of over-exertion, the stains on her tattered shirt where blood had started to seep through from her wounds, and the slightly unequal pupils that spoke of a concussion. Even like that, she was probably more than a match for anything short of a jounin, but Orochimaru?
"Ranma, stand down," said Anko. "This isn't your fight."
"Like hell it isn't!"
Typical. Anko should have known better than to expect Ranma to willingly back down from a fight. "And what about Mousse?" she snapped back. "Are you going to let him die while you go off to play the hero?"
Anko fished a vial of anti-venom out of her jacket pocket. The snake summons all had very similar poisons and the village had long ago created chemicals to counter all the possibilities. "Here," she said, tossing the vial Ranma's way. "That should keep him going."
Ranma looked between her and Orochimaru, and just for a moment Anko thought he might just tell her to get screwed, but then he shook his head violently and darted off towards Mousse.
"What did I teach you about wasting energy on the weak, Anko?"
"I've taken great delight in doing exactly the opposite of what you taught me for a long time now. Why change the habit of a decade?"
"Ah, still a disappointment. Your students gave me hope that you had grown past that weakness, but it seems not. Such a shame . . . I thought you had such potential once . . . but even I make mistakes, it seems."
"Dosei haji no jutsu!"
As Anko finished her hand seals an enormous rock fist burst up from beneath Orochimaru's feet in a shower of mud, flexing its massive fingers as it reached for its target, but he was too quick. Just too quick. Anko let fly a shower of shuriken as he leaped for safety but they flew harmlessly by and embedded themselves into the trees behind as he flashed by her.
Then it was Anko's turn to dodge as a rapidly elongating sword cut through the air that had been occupied by her throat a moment earlier. Not that it saved her for long as the freakishly long blade quickly came around and gouged a deep furrow into the soil she had been standing upon as she made a prodigious bound upwards to take the fight into the forest canopy.
After all, it was still just a sword, right? Could only be extended so far?
She barely had time to leap away as the blade sliced through the trunk of the tree she'd been balanced atop like a hot knife through butter. Dammit, it just wasn't fair. He was already stupidly strong; why'd he have to get a magic sword, too?
"You've grown quicker, Anko. If only you had the will to match your speed, then you might be something worthwhile, like your students."
Anko knew she shouldn't let it get to her - she hated the man, wanted him dead, had no respect for him or his views - but his disdain hit her in her childhood and it really did sting even years after she'd grown to hate him like the malevolent, inhuman monster he really was. With a growl and a wide, sweeping gesture of her arms she unleashed a veritable storm of shuriken and kunai the way of her former master, who actually looked surprised for a change.
Not that it was likely to be enough, but it gratified Anko to see that moment of surprise before the attached explosive tags - because what was a bombardment without explosions? - went off and obscured him from sight in a blaze of glorious fire. She really wanted to watch and see what happened but it was just too bright; she had to cover her eyes.
"Now, that's what I expect of you Anko," said that damned hissing voice from directly behind her. "Vicious, and utterly lacking in anything remotely resembling mercy. If only you had a mind and some talent to match that, then you might be worth something."
Anko whirled around with her kunai aimed to slash across Orochimaru's eyes and blind him, but he caught her by the forearm long before the blade made contact. And then, with a grin on his face, he twisted his arm and snapped the bones beneath his grasp like so many twigs.
"Anko, Anko, Anko. You should know better than to think you can beat me by now."
The pain was great, blinding even, but she'd had far worse she knew better than to show weakness to Orochimaru. That, and she wasn't quite done just yet. Snakes hurtled out from her free arm and curved around to bind Orochimaru before he could react.
Bound as he was there was absolutely nothing he could do when she grabbed hold of one of his hands and formed a single hand-seal, one of the ones that Orochimaru had taught her, with their joined limbs. Ah, yes. There it was: the dawning look of realisation in his eyes. That was what she wanted: to see the sure knowledge of his impending death right there, death coming at her hands. She was going to savour that sight right down to her grave.
It was a suicide technique. When the chakra built to the appropriate level the two snakes would come forth from her coat sleeve: one for her, one for him, their venom entirely fatal with barely an instant between bite and death, even for someone as inhuman as Orochimaru.
"So eager to die, Anko?"
Oh, no. No, no, no. He couldn't be. He couldn't be!
Orochimaru dissolved and the snakes she'd had binding him promptly fell harmlessly to the ground and slithered away as she stared at the puddle of mud left behind as a cold horror spread through her. She'd had him. She'd had him!
And then agony lanced through her, emanating from that cursed mark on her neck, and dropping her to her knees in a helpless heap. It was all she could do to cancel the suicide technique before she lost control of her body entirely.
"Do you see the difference yet?" he whispered into her ear. "The difference between you and I? No matter how much you train, how powerful your techniques grow, how clever your traps, you will always be weaker than I. Do you know why this is, Anko? Why you will always be weak?"
Anko said nothing. She just glared.
"Because you are weak," said Orochimaru. "Because you refuse to be strong. Look at you, fighting to protect some foolish students. Weakness! Pathetic weakness! You lack the proper will."
Anko spat at his feet. "Hell with you and your shit," she said. "I decided a long time ago who I was going to follow and it isn't you and it sure as hell isn't your bullshit about caring making you weak."
"You'll never learn, will you? Ah, it hardly matters. I long since ceased attempting to teach you anything but the futility of standing against me."
"And yet you still talk a damn lot. In love with the sound of your own voice or something?"
"Anko, Anko, Anko," he said. "I know I taught you how to be a civilised human being at some point. You should act like it. Perhaps then the village you love so much will treat you as something other than a dangerous animal that's barely leashed."
The rage that Anko felt at that burned right through the pain from that damned seal like it was so much dry undergrowth. She lunged forth at Orochimaru, hand flexing as if it were around his neck already, but before she managed more than a couple of steps towards her old teacher the pain surged and she found herself back on the ground gasping.
"Go fuck yourself with one of Manda's fangs."
"Such charming imagery. You truly do justice to the time I wasted trying to force some semblance of intelligence into you."
Anko snarled but it was an impotent gesture. There was nothing she could do to him and they both knew it. She was still too weak. "Why are you here?" she spat. "Going to assassinate the Hokage?"
"No," he replied. "No, I don't have enough men for that yet. So I thought I'd recruit some of the outstanding ones from this village. Your students are interesting, perhaps I should go now and give them a little seal to join the Uchiha?"
"Thought you said they were weak."
"If they die. Such is the fate of the weak. I do not cosset even the interesting, Anko. You of all people should know that . . . did I not abandon you to your miserable fate when you failed me?"
"You mean when I wasn't rotten enough to give in to this damned seal."
Orochimaru crouched down to look her in the eye. "Ah, the weakness that kept you from unlocking what potential you have," he said. "How pathetic that you would try to make a strength of it." He smiled. "Thankfully, I believe the Uchiha will not be inclined so. He knows the true value of power, no matter its source, and has the drive to claim it. An altogether more worthy student for one of my stature."
As the adrenaline borne of her rage receded, Anko found herself doubled up and sweating as the waves of pain racking her body as a result of Orochimaru's seal made themselves fully known.
"He may die," continued Orochimaru, paying no visible attention to Anko's pain. "You know the chances he takes. One in ten. But if he does, if he dies, that just means he was unworthy of my attentions. It would be unworthy of his talent, but I have no time for weaklings."
He smirked at Anko. "But, I don't see it happening," he said. "He has far more talent than you could ever dream of having. My beautiful new servant will not fail me as you did, my dear Anko."
"Time for you to get the hell away from her."
It was Ranma. And Mousse. Oh, God, they were going to get themselves killed. Anko tried to force herself back to her feet but a wave of agony forced her back down before she could get much past kneeling.
"I only I had the time," said Orochimaru, moving out of his crouched position. "But no, I'm sure Anko has summoned the ANBU, and so I have no more time to spend playing with you unless I wish to fight a war."
Ranma launched herself towards Orochimaru in a leaping kick that would have took a normal man's head clean off, but he was already gone. Time-space techniques weren't exactly the bastard's speciality but when you were one of the legendary three that was a relative thing.
"I can't say I'm sorry we're not going to get to fight him," said Mousse. "I've had enough of a beating for one day."
Ranma kicked the tree in frustration. Judging by the hole she left, it was a hell of a lot of frustration. Anko could sympathise.
The humiliation of being dismissed and left to die like some sort of worthless trash burned deep in Mousse's gut as he dressed Ranma's wounds. It was one thing to lose to Saotome in battle - it had grown almost predictable - but being tossed aside like that . . . it rankled. It left behind a feeling that normally only came when his beloved Shampoo, seduced by Saotome's disgusting tricks, cast him aside to run to her 'airen'.
So strong was this feeling that he didn't so much as let loose the slightest blush at the fact that he was handling the nude upper body of someone who had an extremely attractive female body. Even if it was Saotome, even if he knew that he hated the bastard's guts with an undying passion really, that took some doing, because he'd been blessed with one hell of a chest in that cursed form.
"This sucks," said Ranma. "I thought this was supposed to be a genin exam."
"That was the idea," said Anko. "Where's Ryoga?"
"Eh, rampaging around the forest like a loon, probably," said Ranma with a shrug. "That's what he was doing the last time I saw him, the idiot."
Mousse stopped. "What did you do, Saotome?"
"Well, he was under a genjutsu, snoring away like a moron in the middle of the forest. Anyone could have come along and slit his idiot throat."
"What - did - you - do - Saotome."
"Uh, well, I might have told him that Happosai was about to molest Akane. Might."
"I have no idea what you two brats are talking about, but I can feel it killing braincells anyway. Like sake, but really annoying."
You know you love us anyway, sensei."
Mousse rolled his eyes at Ranma as he finished applying the last of the bandages. "So who was the wierdo?" he asked Anko. "I mean, I know his name, Orochimaru, and that he has a thing for snakes, but that's it. Who is he? What does he want?"
"That's a really long story."
"Doesn't look like we're going anywhere," said Ranma with an expansive wave of her arm. "And I don't exactly see anyone rushing along to interrupt."
Mousse rolled his eyes at Ranma. "Saotome might be a moron," he said. "But it'd be nice to know who the over-powered Musk-wannabe trying to kill us actually was."
"He wasn't trying to kill you," said Anko, who abruptly moved away from the tree she had been leaning against. "He was testing you."
Mousse's hand went to his neck. "Felt like he was trying to kill us to me."
"Yeah, well, he's always been big on the strong survive and the rest can get fucked. Not like this should be any great surprise to you; there are plenty of ninja like that."
"Yeah," said Ranma. "The Hyuuga, I know."
"The Hyuuga are pansies compared to Orochimaru. He could take out that entire damned clan on his own. Orochimaru, people like him, it's a whole different level to what you're used to."
"Someone's coming," said Mousse. "More than one, I think."
"Probably some brats."
And yet she still had a kunai in hand. The fact that she was twiddling it between her fingers in mock-nonchalance didn't change the fact she'd armed herself, and Mousse followed suit, summoning a katana to hand.
"Hey, Hinata," said Ranma with a jaunty wave. "Shouldn't you be off hunting down ankle-biters or something?"
Typical. It would be Saotome that spotted them first.
"Ah-ah, do I know you?"
"What, didn't I tell you about the curse?"
"Hinata, we need to-gurk."
Mousse sniggered. Judging by the thin stream of blood dripping down from his nose and the glazed look in Kiba's eyes it looked like Ranma had picked up another admirer. Well, what did she expect, parading around with no top on?
And Ranma didn't look terribly happy about it. "You ask me out and I'll beat you like a drum," she said. "Beat you like a drum that's about to go pop like a zit."
"I wasn't aware that you would be taking an active part in the examination, examiner" said Shino as he stepped out from the trees. He wasn't even looking at Ranma. "It seems somewhat irregular."
"There's a missing-nin loose in the forest."
Hinata gasped and covered her mouth with her hands. Kiba started eyeing the area eagerly, attention torn away from Ranma momentarily, as Akamaru barked. Shino raised an eyebrow. "Hinata," he said.
That really was disgusting, the way the veins around her eyes bulged when she used that technique. It made Mousse feel vaguely queasy; the way the blood vessels stood out just wasn't natural.
"Those eyes only go so far, girly," said Anko. "You won't catch Orochimaru if he doesn't want to be caught."
"Even the sannin aren't invisible."
Ranma coughed. It must have been hell for her not to brag. Mousse couldn't say he felt much sympathy.
"You don't have to be invisible to beat a bloodline, kid. Just smart enough to figure out the weaknesses and take advantage."
Three masked men dropped out of the threes. Mousse thought he showed great restraint in not filleting them on the spot. Honestly, what sort of idiot snuck up on someone carrying a sword? Well, other than Ranma, and Cologne, and Happosai, and-ah, forget it.
"Anko, the Hokage wants to see you," said the one in the centre. "Immediately."
"You're not going after him?" asked Ranma.
"He's gone and if he doesn't want to be found we won't find him."
"And if he does want to be found, we won't need to go looking."
"Tch. So much for the big, bad ANBU."
They ignored Ranma. Mousse felt a tiny, little bit of glee at that. Well, maybe not so tiny.
"That's me then," said Anko. "Have fun looking for your scrolls, brats."
"Huh?" asked Ranma. "Oh, yeah. These." And she pulled out two scrolls from her trouser pocket. Everyone stared. "Well, these two bunches of kids were fighting over them, so I thought, well, they probably won't even notice me walking off with their stuff. And they didn't. I got a pouch of kunai and a box of rations, too . . . but those are gone now. Anyway, it'll teach them a lesson, right?"
"You keep telling yourself that."