Ranma grumbled underneath her breath and shifted as the surviving genin were lead into a large room. Really, had there been any need for Ryoga to get so pissy just because she'd maybe given him the impression that he needed to go fight an evil old Dragonball reject to save Akane's honour? It wasn't her fault that he was stupid enough to believe something like that!
Strangely enough, he hadn't got any less angry when she'd pointed that out. Sheesh, some people just didn't know how to take a joke.
The bruises were seriously uncomfortable. They reminded Ranma of why her normal approach to taking on Ryoga was to dodge like a lunatic till he wore himself out and then give him a pounding: he just hit too damned hard to let him land his punches. It was all that snake-freak's fault; if he hadn't hit her with that wind attack, she'd never have been sluggish enough for ol' clay-feet to land a hit on her. Just another thing to kick the guy's arse for the next time she ran into him.
Anyway, she wasn't the only one looking a bit roughed up. Most of the ankle-biters looked like they'd been dragged through a hedge backwards and then put between a horde of amorous Amazons and their airen. Not that Ranma had any experience of such situations, of course. No, sir, no tormenting of Amazons in his past. None at all.
It was a bit irritating to see three of the older-looking ones - Suna ninja by the look of their hitai-ates - look totally unmarked, though. She'd have to see about roughing those guys up nicely if she got the chance.
"First off, for the second test," said Anko, "congratulations on passing."
She was lined in front of the podium at the front of the chamber with all the other examiners. Behind them was old man Hokage - and, man, was he old; not Old Ghoul or Old Letch old, but still old - and behind him, stood in front of an enormous sculpture of a pair of arms forming a rat seal were stood what looked like the various team-leaders associated with the genin who'd passed. Ranma could see Fudo amongst those, stood with the other Konoha jounin, looking mildly bored with proceedings.
"Listen carefully," continued Anko. "The Hokage will now explain the third test,"
The Hokage didn't use a headset as Anko did. He simply spoke around his pipe. He wasn't even particularly loud, but no-one missed a word. "For the coming third test . . . but before I explain that, there is something I would like you all to know," he said. "It concerns the true reason for this exam."
Ranma blinked. What was this then? It wasn't just about packs of ankle-biters beating each other up to try and steal things from each other? Because that was kinda amusing, like feeding time at the zoo or something.
"Why do we have all the allied countries taking the exam together?" said the Hokage, "To promote friendship among the countries to raise the level of shinobi. That is the official reason, but I don't want you to be confused about the true meaning. This exam is-" he stopped to take a puff from his pipe, the old drama queen- "a replacement for war among the allied nations."
Well, wasn't that nice? Instead of fighting a war they had their kids kill each other over a promotion instead. There were times when Ranma really wished she was back in Nerima and nowhere near the land of the ninja.
"If you look back in time, these allied nations were enemies who fought each other over who would rule," continued the old man. "In order to end these wasteful conflicts, a stage was chosen by these countries for battle. That is the origin of this exam."
"Why the hell do we have to do that crap?" shouted Naruto. "Isn't this thing for deciding who's a chuunin?"
"This exam does indeed decide which shinobi have what it takes to become a chuunin," said the old man calmly. "But on the on the other hand, this exam has another side where each country's shinobi risk their lives to protect their land's prestige. Leaders and influential people from countries who make up the clients of the shinobi will be watching this third exam."
Well, Ranma could go along with that. The whole war bit kinda sucked, but she was always up to show off how awesome she was. There wasn't a better way to make sure you had some decent rivals to keep your skills sharp.
"And this will signal to potential enemies that our village has this much power, so it will send a political message to outsiders."
"Yeah but why!?" barked Kiba. "Why do we have to risk our lives in battle!?"
"The strength of the country is the strength of the village. The strength of the village is their shinobi. And a shinobi's true strength is found only in life-or-death battle. This exam is a place to see each country's strength, and to show off your own strength. It only has meaning because lives are at risk. That is why those that have come before you have fought in this exam, for this is a dream that has meaning."
TenTen looked outraged. "But then why do you talk about it being for friendship?" she asked. Loudly.
"As I said in the beginning, I don't want you to be confused about the purpose of this," said Sarutobi. "The taking and losing of life and the establish of balance, this is the shape of friendship within the shinobi world."
Ranma couldn't even think of a smart-alec comment to go with that. It just sucked. Everyone else seemed to be of similar mind, too, as they all went very quiet.
"Before we begin the third test, I will tell you one more thing," continued the old man. "This is not just an exam. This is a life-or-death battle with your dreams and the prestige of your village on the line."
"I don't care," said one the Suna-nin, the red-headed guy who looked like someone had blacked his eyes good and proper but hadn't bothered to hit anywhere else. And he looked ridiculously eager for someone who was going to get beaten like a drum even if he made it far enough to take her on "Just tell me what the life-or-death battle entails."
"Yes, I'd like to explain the third exam, but-"
A ninja appeared in a crouch near the Hokage and the examiners, his arrival heralded only be a whirl of leaves and smoke. Well, that was the aim anyway. Ranma had got to be able to see through that technique the second time Anko had tried to catch her out with it - it was pretty nifty, but anyone who knew what to look for would have no trouble spotting that flare of ki and the setup.
"I apologise, sir," said the ninja, not looking up from his crouched position. "From here on, as referee, will you please allow me-"
"By all means."
The man rose to his feet and turned to face the assembled ninja. Man, he looked like a stiff breeze would knock him over. This was a jounin? One of the elite? She didn't exactly have high expectations - out of the ninja she'd ran into so far, only the snake-freak was at all impressive - but this one really was a joke. The sunken eyes, the sallow complexion, the constant, irritating cough that seemed to interrupt every other word that came out of the guy's mouth - it didn't exactly add up to someone who was going to be a great fighter in Ranma's mind.
Then again, weren't ninjas supposed to be all about misdirection? Konatsu didn't seem like much, either, but he could fight alright.
"Hello everyone," said Mr. Diseased. "I'm Hayate."
Or he could just really be that hopeless.
"Umm, before the third test there's something I'd like you to do," he continued. "Umm, it's a preliminary for the third test, To decide who gets to take part in the main event."
There was a general outcry at that. Even the pineapple-headed kid who looked as if breathing was too much like hard work for his tastes got all worked up about is and started shouting. Ranma wasn't too happy herself. She wanted to get the stupid exam over with so she could start looking at new techniques to get strong enough to beat that snake-freak and get some revenge.
"Sensei," said pinky. "I don't understand this preliminary, but why aren't all the people allowed to take part in the next test?"
"Umm, because the first and second test may have been too easy this year. We have a few too many people left."
Judging by the look Anko gave him, there'd probably be one less left over soon enough,
"So what do you want from us then?" said Ranma. "Another stupid exam paper? A treasure hunt? What?"
"Umm before I explain that, anyone who doesn't feel up to another test right now step forward to quit," said Hayate. "The preliminary will be commencing immediately and there won't be any time given for recovery."
Oh, the tension.
"Umm," said Kaubuto, raising his hand. He was even smiling. "I'm going to quit."
Everyone turned and stared at the older boy.
Hayate coughed. Umm, you're Kabuto Yakushi of Konoha, right? You may leave now. Umm, does anyone else want to go? Oh, umm, I forgot to tell you: from now it'll be individual battling. You may raise your hand based on your own judgement."
There was a bit of drama to go with Kabuto quitting. A whole spiel with Naruto asking him why he was quitting - loudly, oh so loudly - and Kabuto saying he was too beaten up, couldn't hear out of one of his ears, and yadda yadda yadda.
"Well, what do you expect?" said Ranma. "He's a loser. Why do you think he's failed the exam so many times?"
"He's not a loser!"
"He's quitting because he's a little banged up. What else would you call it, brat?
Naruto's glare could have melted steel. "You're wrong!"
There was a bit of fuss with the loudmouth, pinky, and the kid with the stalkers before the examiner guy spoke again, but Ranma didn't care enough to pay attention. Something about a mark on the stalked one's neck. She doubted it was all that important. Just some kiddy drama or something.
"Umm, now, let's begin the preliminary," said Hayate. "It's going to consist of one-on-one battles and you will basically fight as if it were a real-life confrontation."
Ranma grinned. Perfect. Just what the doctor ordered to work off some stress.
"Since we have twenty-three entrants, we'll have eleven matches and, umm, the winners will advance to the third test. One of you will get a bye. There are no real rules. The fights will continue until death, submission, or one of the participants being rendered unconscious. Umm, if you don't want do die, submit quickly."
There was a general hum of anticipation amongst the ninja. Ranma could see the anticipation, even tempered by nerves and fear, wrote large across their faces as they stood there. She was hardly an exception - she wanted to fight, and she wanted to fight now.
"Right, first fight, let's see," said the examiner. "Umm, Sasuke Uchiha and Yoroi Akado come to the front. The rest of you go to the balconies by the side till you're called down."
"I've heard of this Uchiha guy," said Mousse as the three of them headed away. "He's supposed to be a prodigy. Should be an interesting fight to watch."
"What is this?" complained Ranma loudly. "Amateur hour? I've seen better fights in school play-yards!"
Oh, behold the fierce glare of the pink-haired team-mate. Ranma: make friends and influencing people wherever he/she/it went. Mousse thought it was most controlled of him not to snigger.
"They are kinda weak," said Ryoga. "The little one's fighting like someone's tied weights to his ankles and the big one with the glasses is so bad he looks like he'd get his arse kicked by Kodachi in a fair fight."
"Now there's something I'd pay to see."
"What? Kodachi kicking his arse?"
"No, Kodachi having a fair fight."
Mousse hadn't had much to do with Kodachi but even the thought of hearing that horrible laughter again made him shiver. How it was possible for something that was supposed to be a joyful sound to sound like cats being tortured to death was beyond him.
"Be kind now, boys and girls," said Fudo, from behind them. "Not everyone can be as freakish as you three."
"Meh. He's supposed to be a prodigy," said Ranma in that annoying dismissive tone only he could manage. It was even, if such a thing were possible, worse in his female form. "I've seen cheerleaders that were more impressive in a fight."
"Looks like something's about to happen," said Mousse. "I think this is it."
Mousse had to admit the final attack of the bout was much more impressive than what had came before. He hadn't expected to see a genin - other than himself or Ranma - who could kick someone up into the air and then move quickly enough and with great enough flexibility to land a combination of blows such as that before the target had hit the ground again. Well, maybe Ryoga, but it wasn't his style anyway. And the final kick had been quite vicious. It looked as if the veiled boy the Uchiha had been fighting was bleeding from the mouth - never a good sign.
"Winner: Sasuke Uchiha."
The masked ninja, the Copycat if Mousse weren't mistaken, quickly moved to Sasuke's side and took him out of the arena. Hmm, that mark on his neck must have been quite serious after all.
"Umm, next fight," said Hayate. "TenTen and Mu Tse. Come on down."
"Ha, Mousse, if you lose here I'm never going to let you live it down," said Ranma. "Never. I'll even find a way to get a message back to Nerima to tell Shampoo that you lost to a little kid."
"Shut up, Saotome."
"I hear this one's a weapons nut," said Fudo. "Should be right up your street, Mousse. Just don't do anything stupid."
Mousse grinned. A weapons user? Against him? This was going to be a piece of cake. He vaulted over the edge of the balcony and took his place on the arena floor with nothing but confidence in his heart. No amount of beating from Orochimaru would change the fact that he was the master of hidden weapons, and not some crummy genin.
The opponent that faced him was a girl. A small, smiling girl - twelve or thirteen years old if he had to guess - with her hair up in buns. Ah, wonderful, he'd have to hold back because Ranma and Ryoga would get all uptight if he hurt a girl that age.
"Umm, remember the rules," said Hayate. "Stop when I say stop and submit quickly if it comes to it."
TenTen immediately hopped back, presumably to put some distance between them, and Mousse wasn't really inclined to do anything about it. He was curious; he wanted to see what these Konoha ninja could do with weapons. It couldn't be anything like proper hidden weapons - they just lacked the technique, and Orochimaru had looked more than a little surprised at his techniques - but, still, he was curious.
Her first attack was unimpressive. Half-a-dozen kunai thrown in a vertical brace that would have peppered his chest with steel if he hadn't blocked it with a chain summoned from within his left sleeve. Well, if that was it, he had no time for her. A twitch of his ki sent a similar chain forth from his right sleeve to wrap around her ankles and topple her, but she was ever so slightly too fast and managed to roll back out of the way before impact was made.
Mousse quickly brought his arms up and unleashed another pair of chains in her direction but this time she pulled a staff free from a scroll he briefly spotted inside her sleeve before batting the chains aside with a single, twirling manoeuvre and leaping forward to engage Mousse in melee.
He quickly ducked underneath the high swing aimed at the side of his head and lashed out with a quick kick in her ankles that knocked her to the ground, but she was deft enough to roll with it and come back to her feet in a flash and then it was he who had to move quickly to avoid the thrust of the staff that would have made a nasty dent in his sternum if he hadn't leaned aside to let it pass by harmlessly.
From that position, it was easy for him to reach out and use his superior speed and strength to wrest the staff from her hands before swinging his newly acquired weapon around in a sharp blow aimed at the back of her neck. But she caught the staff in her hands before it could strike home. Judging the look on her face and the way her arms trembled, she must have wished she hadn't done that.
Mousse pulled the staff back from her and then lunged forward with a thrusting attack but she'd already jumped back outside of his reach and launched another brace of kunai his way. It was an almost casual thing for Mousse to slap those blades out of the air before they could strike home, but when he was done he found TenTen kneeling on the ground forming handseals with a thick scroll set on the ground each side of her.
For a moment the scrolls actually did look like dragons as they unravelled and surged up into the air. Some sort of chakra-based illusion no doubt, but it was certainly an impressive sight. And then TenTen was in the air hovering between the two intertwined scrolls. Mousse didn't have so much as a second to wonder what she was going to do before she was plucking weapons from the scrolls and the air filled with steel.
Mousse's response was simple. He thrust his arms out and unleashed his own storm of sharp, pointy objects in retaliation. Hundreds of kunai and shuriken and kama and every other sort of one-handed weapon you could possibly imagine met in a thunderous clash of metal-on-metal. Nothing could be heard beyond the clashing of the weapons as the chamber turned utterly silent.
But there could only be one winner. The storm ended with Mousse untouched and TenTen pinned to the wall by a dozen kunai that had pierced her clothing and left her attached to the wall several feet off the ground. And she did not look happy about it, though he supposed that was hardly shocking considering the chain wrapped around her throat.
"Not bad for a rookie."
Oh, yeah, that was a glare. It was almost like being back in the village seeing a female warrior glaring at him after he beat them.
Hayate coughed. "Winner, Mu Tse."
Ryoga was getting itchy-feet. Watching these kids fight wasn't even good to whet the appetite. Seeing Mousse and the girl fight had been about the closest thing to a decent fight and that hadn't been much either. Watching some wimp get beaten by an over-sized action figure or some idiot blow up his own arms didn't really do much for him, and the less said about the fight between Sakura and Ino the better because that had been like going to a concert with a band that had never touched a musical instrument before.
Still, it was kinda funny the way Ranma was carefully keeping him or Mousse between her and Shino. The great Ranma Saotome scared of bugs! Ha!
"Shut it, bacon-breath."
"Aww, is the widdle-Ranma scared of a few bugs?" said Mousse, eyes sparkling with glee.
"Now, now, boys," said Fudo. "It's not uncommon for girls to be scared of bugs. You should be more sympathetic."
"I swear, I'm going to kill you all in your sleep."
Hayate coughed. "Next fight," he announced. "Temari versus Ryoga Hibiki. Come on down."
Ryoga didn't need telling twice. Without so much as a second glance at his team-mates, he hefted his umbrella up to rest on his shoulder and hopped on down to face his opponent. It was a girl. She might have even been a cute girl if it wasn't for the look on her face. He got the feeling that she didn't have the cause to smile often.
"Sensei told me about you," she said, slowly unfolding her fan till three circles could be seen on it. "I won't be holding back."
Ryoga grimaced. He really didn't want to have to beat a girl up. Ranma would probably do it but such a thing just wasn't honourable and he'd feel all sorts of guilty if he actually hurt her. "You know, you could just quit now," he said. "I don't want to hurt you."
"Uh, yeah. Why?"
Ryoga had a moment to reflect on the fact that maybe it hadn't been the best idea he'd ever had to say that as he hurtled across the arena floor in the midst of an immensely powerful gust of wind. And then he smacked head-first into the concrete wall and everything went dark.
Well, it's hard to see when your heads embedded in concrete, isn't it? Really, had there been any need for that?
"Umm, start, I suppose. And end?"
Ryoga sighed. Could the fight be any more embarrassing? He could hear Ranma's laughter from the other side of the chamber and through however much concrete was between him and the little bastard.
With one mighty wrench he pulled himself free and then shook his head violently from side-to-side to clear off the dust that had clung to him on the way out. "You know," he said with a grin. "I almost felt that."
Temari growled - actually growled! - at him and swept her fan around again, but there was no element of surprise this time. Ryoga saw it coming and planted his feet firmly against the ground with his umbrella flipped open in front of him. This time, he was ready, and the wind didn't even come close to blasting him off his feet. He was forced back a few short steps but then he dug in and stopped dead.
Ryoga flipped his umbrella closed again and lowered it to rest by his side. Temari looked gob-smacked. And then her expression turned ugly. Well, uglier. This time when she swept the fan around it came around with the edge vertical and Ryoga's feeling that this probably meant something bad turned out to be fairly accurate when the thud of air against his hastily opened umbrella actually made his arms tremble. His arms! Trembling!
And then a small fist slammed into his jaw with enough force to twist his head around. He shook it off in an instant and returned fire with a swipe of his umbrella that sent the girl hopping back out of range. Before he could bring the umbrella up into a defensive position another blast of win slammed into his gut and sent him smashing back into the wall, creating a nice Ryoga-shaped crater.
"Ryoga, you moron, stop messing about," shouted Ranma. "You're making us look bad here. Or are you really that weak?"
Ryoga growled. "Shut up, Ranma."
Temari brought the fan around and down in a crushing blow aimed at the top of Ryoga's skull, but he caught it with his index finger. "Bakusai tenketsu."
For a heartbeat they froze like that, Temari staring at Ryoga in confusion as what he'd said filtered through her mind. Then there was horror. Then the fan exploded and blasted Temari back across the chamber till she skidded to a halt at the far wall. She didn't get back up. Damn. Now he felt all guilty.
"Winner, Ryoga Hibiki."
"She gonna be okay?"
"Bastard . . . I'll get you for this . . . just wait a minute."
"Umm, she'll be fine. Now shoo. We still have more matches to get out of the way."
Ryoga frowned but he obeyed. She didn't sound like she'd exactly welcome having him around anyway.
"That was lame, Ryoga. I can't believe you let her land a hit on you. Even old four-eyes here did better than that."
"Shut up, Saotome."
"Shut up, Ranma."
"Hinata Hyuuga versus Neji Hyuuga."
Ranma frowned. She wasn't good with names, but wasn't that the branch house prodigy kid? She vaguely remembered something along those lines. Something about some Well, it didn't matter. He was only a Hyuuga and Hinata was a Hyuuga with a bit of Anything Goes in her. She'd do fine. "Go, Hinata," said Ranma. "Just remember what I taught you and you'll be fine."
It didn't seem to help. She looked as if she were marching to the gallows as she slowly walked down the stairs that led to the chamber's floor. That girl, she really needed to pick up the Anything Goes attitude. The look on the boy's face as he marched past her didn't do much for Ranma's faith in her student, either. His face was absolutely rigid, the look of someone who was about two inches from doing really, really bad to someone.
"Don't think you student's going to enjoy this one," commented Fudo. "I've heard of Neji and the kid's supposed to be as talented a Hyuuga as they've seen in a good few generations. He's strong, and from what I hear Hinata . . . well, she isn't."
"She's stronger than she looks," said Ranma. "She just needs an injection of spine."
"I never thought I'd be facing you, Hinata," said Neji when he reached a position opposite Hinata on the arena floor.
"Okay, I didn't see that one coming," admitted Ranma amidst the general fuss. "Is she trying to mess with his head? Didn't think she'd picked up on that lesson."
"She's a real good actor if she is," said Mouse. "More likely she's got some idea in her head that's going to get her creamed."
Ranma said nothing. Eventually the crowd quietened down and he could hear the ninja below again.
"Before we begin to fight, I'd like to say something, Hinata," said Neji. "You don't make a good shinobi. Forfeit now."
Hinata stared at him, eyes wide.
"You are too kind," continued Neji. "You wish for harmony and avoid conflict. You agree with others, never resisting. Even with the new sensei that your father has recruited for you and your sister you still have not gained any confidence or alleviated your sense of Inferiority."
Hinata looked away. Ranma could see the trembling in her arms, the lack of confidence in her posture. What was it going to take to make that girl stand up for herself and fight?
"It would be best for you to remain genin, but this exam can only be taken in a team of three. You couldn't turn away your team-mates and thus you entered this ugly reality against your will. Am I wrong?"
Hinata looked back at him. "N-no," she said. "I-I-I just wanted, wanted to change myself . . . do it myself."
As I thought Hinata," said Neji. "You are a spoiled brat of the main house. People cannot change themselves. Losers are losers. Their personality and strength will not change. Because people cannot change, differences are born, expressions like elite and loser are created."
Hinata was starting to look seriously distressed. Ranma decided there and then to step up the taunts in training. She had to learn to shrug it off.
"Looks, brain, size, personality, all people judge and are judged on these values," continued Neji. "Based on these unchangeable facets, people discriminate and are discriminated against. And they suffer within their own means."
"Is it just me are all rich people crazy?" asked Ryoga.
I have seen through many things with this byakugan, so I know your strength os just an act. Deep down you just want to run away."
Hinata started. "N-no!" she said, though there was little conviction to it. "Really, I-"
A burst of killing intent from Neji quietened Hinata entirely, leaving her quivering and silent in the centre of the chamber.
"You can't fool my eyes," he said. Really, you needed super-eyes to see that Hinata wasn't exactly a goddess of war? Ranma had to beg to differ. "I can see from the movements of your eye that you are remembering your painful past, that you are imagining physical and mental pain. You are using your past to contemplate the inevitable defeat you face and the pain that will accompany it."
"Aren't you going to do something, Ranma?"
"Like what? I can't make the bad man go away, Ryoga. She's got to do it for herself or she'll never learn."
"And now your body betrays you," continued Neji. "Raising your arms in front of you is a classic way to try and raise a barrier between yourself and something painful. You cannot escape the truth, Hinata. Haven't you realised yet that you cannot change your-"
"YOU CAN!" bellowed Naruto. Ah, man, that kid was loud. Ranma was clear on the other side of the balcony and he still set her ears ringing. Everyone stared. "STOP DECIDING THINGS ABOUT PEOPLE, IDIOT! KICK THAT BASTARD'S ARSE, HINATA!"
"Naruto . . . "
"Stand up for yourself, Hinata! This is hard to watch!"
The look Neji shot Naruto did not speak of fuzzy feelings. "So you will not forfeit," he said when he looked at Hinata again. And she did actually look ready to fight. Man, if she'd known all it would take was a pep-talk from Naruto she'd have done it ages ago. "I am not responsible for what will happen."
The veins around Hinata's eyes bulged as she assumed a typical jyuuken stance. "Brother Neji," she said. "We will fight."
And look at that. She had the look of a fighter in her eyes. Just like that she'd suddenly found a spine.
Neji mirrored her stance. "As you wish."
And they moved. Neji closed the gap between the pair of them quickly and opened with a palm strike aimed at Hinata's left shoulder but the younger girl moved quickly to duck underneath the strike. Then it was Neji's turn to dodge. A sidestep carried him out of the way of a strike aimed at his stomach before he had to lean sharply backwards to avoid the follow-up uppercut that Hinata sent his way. The look of surprise on his face almost made Ranma's day. Hadn't been expecting that, had he?
They continued in that vein and Ranma found herself surprised by Hinata's abilities. She was moving with a grace and fluidity that she rarely managed for more than few moments in training and on top of that there was a determination, a fighting spirit, in those movements that had never been there. It had been easy to write her off as a lost cause at times, but there she was showing that she had some potential.
As surprises went, Hinata having a spine and ability as a fighter wasn't a bad one, but it still stuck in Ranma's craw that she hadn't really spotted it before. She'd always figured that Hinata couldn't possibly be as weak as she seemed, but she'd had no idea that was real talent underneath that meekness. It didn't say much for her a sensei that she'd been so quick to assume Hanabi was the talented one of the family.
"It seems I was wrong about this girl," said Fudo. "I heard that she was soft, but she sure as hell doesn't look it now."
"No student of mine is ever going to be weak."
It still wouldn't do to admit anything resembling weakness though. Better to pretend she'd been expecting it.
"So I see."
It wasn't going to be enough, though. Hinata could bounce off walls and throw rebound punches straight out of sensei's playbook all she wanted - Neji was peppering her arms with jyuuken strikes even if she wasn't feeling them. He had some serious hand speed, as these little ankle-biter ninja went, and Hinata just wasn't dealing with it. How well would a jyuuken user be able to fight once they couldn't focus their ki down their arms? Not very well, Ranma was betting.
And there it was. Hinata had darted in for a strike at Neji's chest and had instead received a strike to her own chest in turn as Neji once again struck her attacking arm with his other arm. Both fighters stopped dead for a moment and Ranma could hear the other rookies wondering if Hinata had done it. Then Hinata spat up blood.
"What the hell?" complained Naruto. "She hit Neji too!"
"No, she didn't," said Ranma. "Look."
Neji had rolled back the sleeve on Hinata's striking arm and chakra burns were dotted along it all the way up. "So, from the beginning-"
"Yes," said Neji. "My eyes can see the tenketsu."
Ranma couldn't help but stare a little. He could see the pressure points? It took decades of study to learn all of the pressure points on the human body and this kid could just see them as if they were nothing more than some blemish or birthmark. Damn. If she'd known this guy back in Nerima, she could have fobbed him off onto the Amazons and been free. That just wasn't fair.
And then Neji slammed his palm into Hinata's chest, throwing her to the ground and sending her skidding back along the chamber's floor.
"This is the unchangeable difference in talent between us," said Neji. "The difference that divides the elite from the failure. You've been setting yourself up for bitter regrets since the moment you decided to fight. Right now, you should be desperate. Forfeit."
Something twisted deep within Ranma as she watched Hinata push herself back to her feet. The girl was bruised and bloodied, never a good sign when you bleed from the mouth, but she was going to fight. "I don't go back on my word," said Hinata with a bloody smile on her lips. "That is my ninja way."
Neji glared. "Come," he said, sliding back into his stance.
Hinata tried to do the same, but she was soon racked by an uncontrollable cough that had her spitting up yet more blood onto the ground in front of her.
"This match is over," Ranma heard Kakashi say.
"YOU CAN DO IT HINATA!"
Hinata, again, seemed to draw strength from Naruto's words and was able to pull herself back together and get back into her stance. Naruto was a loudmouth, but he was right. It wasn't over yet. "Anything goes, Hinata," Ranma shouted. "Remember that. Anything goes."
Hinata, this time, didn't simply charge with jyuuken. A pair of shuriken appeared in each of her small hands and she quickly dispatched them to each side of Neji. With his freedom of movement denied, then she attacked. But her lunging punch slammed into a large log that appeared in his place with puff of smoke. The follow-up kick she lashed out with at the space behind her, though, that caught Neji square beneath the ribs as he came out of his kawarimi and blasted him back off his feet.
But Neji rolled with it and skidded into a crouched position that allowed him to charge back to the fray before anyone even had time to wonder at Hinata landing a solid blow on him. And a moment later Hinata was down. He'd closed in and slammed her with a jyuuken strike to the chest so quickly that Hinata hadn't had the time to even try and defend herself.
"You still do not understand," said Neji. "No matter how many of your sensei's techniques you use to supplement your meagre jyuuken skills you cannot win."
Neji turned and walked away from her as a general air of disappointment rippled across the watchers. It was hard not to root for the underdog at the best of times, but when they're fighting against a total arse? Impossible.
"A decisive blow to the heart," said Gai. "I feel sorry for her but she will not get up again."
"She cannot continue and thus-"
"DON'T STOP IT!"
Pinky lit into Naruto for being an idiot but everyone else was staring at what was happening in the chamber beneath. Hinata was moving. Slowly, shakily, but she was moving, clawing her way to her feet and dripping blood from her mouth every step of the way, And eventually she made it to her feet. Ranma's gut twisted again and she found herself twisting the steel bar of the balcony in front of her.
"Why do you stand?" asked Neji. "You will die if you continue."
"It's not over."
"Acting tough is useless. You can barely stand. I can see that. From the time of your birth the responsibility of the main house has been forced upon you and you have suffered. You have always hated yourself for your weakness. But people cannot change. That is destiny. There is no need to suffer further. Let it go."
Hinata smiled. "That's not true, Brother Neji," she said. "Because I can see it - it's not me at all. The person lost and suffering within the destiny of the main the branch houses . . . is you."
Neji's killing intent flared up and his eyes bulged as he charged towards Hinata. Ranma knew, instinctively, what he was about to do, and, with a speed that she hadn't matched since the battle with Saffron, she vaulted over the balcony edge and hurtled across to place herself between Hinata and Neji. Once there she caught Neji's arm by the wrist and with a twist she turned his momentum against him and hurled him away to bounce off the wall.
And then the jounin were surrounding them. Hayate, Gai, Kurenai, and Kakashi had gone to restrain Neji while Fudo stood awkwardly in front of Ranma with a 'why me' look on his face.
"Neji, give it a rest," said Gai. "You made a youthful promise not to lose your head over this main family stuff."
"Why do even the other jounin jump in . . . oh, more special treatment for the main family."
"Yeah," said Ranma. "That must be it. Nothing about you deciding to up and kill someone after the fight's done with. Dick."
Neji glared at her but before he could let fly with whatever he was going to say Hinata let out a groan of pain and collapsed. That kinda distracted from whatever crap the brat was going to spew as everyone headed over to Hinata, including the genin who'd dropped down from the balcony.
"Hinata, you alright?" shouted Naruto. "Hey!"
"Her colour is bad," said Sakura.
Hinata's eyes closed. "Dammit," said Ranma. "Where are the medics? They should be here by now."
"Hey, the loser over there," said Neji. Naruto turned and glared at him. "I'd like to tell you two things. If you're a shinobi, then cut out the pathetic cheering of others. And one more, in the end a loser is a loser. They cannot change."
Naruto rose to his feet with a glare on his face and turned to face Neji. "You wanna try me?" he said.
The cocky snort that Neji gave in response and the loudmouth charged. He didn't get far before the kid in the green spandex, Lee, was in his way, though. Kid was pretty quick.
"Naruto, I understand your feelings so much it hurts," he said. "But the fighting should occur in the matches. Whether a loser can defeat an elite through the power of hard work, that's something to look forward to in the main test, though his opponent might be. But even if it's you, Naruto, there will be no hard feelings."
There was a moment where Ranma thought Naruto was going to tell the kid to go to hell, but then, "damn," he said. "Alright."
Lee and his older clone of a sensei traded blindingly bright grins and thumbs ups. Then Hinata spewed up a whole load of blood. Ranma stared down at the girl. She just didn't know to do. Give her something to smash, something to beat, and it was easy. She could do that. But this . . . this was beyond her. It wasn't something she could just stick a splint or a bandage on and call it a day.
"If you have time to glare at me," said Neji, "then take care of her."
"Medical team! What are you doing? Hurry!"
A trio of medics swept the rest of them aside and quickly lifted Hinata onto a stretcher as they fussed over her with techniques that Ranma didn't recognise. As they worked, Ranma heard one of them say something that made her blood run cold. "At this rate she won't last ten minutes," he said. "Take her to the emergency room! Hurry! Move!"
Ranma just stared after Hinata as the medics rushed her out. There was nothing she could do and she hated it. Being helpless was not what she'd spent her entire life training for.
"You are going down."
Ranma turning around to see Naruto glaring fiercely at Neji with blood dripping from the first he had pointed at the older boy. What had she missed?
Neji looked totally unbothered. "Bah."
Ranma fixed him with a fierce glare. "You'd better hope Hinata doesn't die."
"Are you threatening me?"
"Hiashi might not exactly be the textbook loving father," said Ranma, "but a branch brat killing one of the main house? That's going to go down about as well as a cholera epidemic. Seems to me you have an interest in seeing Hinata stay among the living, bastard."
That took the smug confidence straight off his face. Ranma felt a little better, but it was cold comfort.
Hayate coughed. "If you interfere again," he said, "I'll have to disqualify you."
"So, how long before you kick that little shit's arse all the way to Kumo and back?" asked Ryoga. "Because if you're not going to call it, then I'm going to crush him like he was a Saotome who couldn't dodge."
Neji glared at Ryoga. Ryoga glared back. "Lay off, Ryoga," said Ranma. "We'll get him in the exam sooner or later."
Ryoga growled and looked away.
"It's about time for your turn," said Gai. Loudly. Then again, did those two do anything quietly? "Let's go Lee!"
Lee closed his eyes and looked away. "No!" he said. "I've come this far so I might as well go last."
"Gaara versus Rock Lee."
"You fell for it!" shouted Lee, kicking at the air in front of him. "If you say you wanna be last, it won't happen! It's the rule that if you try and throw a stone at a pole you'll miss but if you throw it to miss you'll hit! I never wanted to go last!"
Lee . . . wasn't exactly the most serene soul around.
"Lee, I've come across some great advice that everyone else would have missed," said Gai.
"That gourd is suspicious."
"Stop the memo. There's no way you'll have time to look at it during battle."
Ranma couldn't help but gape. Did she look as weird as that when she was going over something with her pop? She didn't think so, but she sure as hell hoped not. She was pretty damned sure she didn't take her pop's idiot advice that seriously anyway.
"ALRIGHT, LEE! GO DO IT!"
Lee vaulted over the edge of the balcony to face Gaara, who'd used some sort of sand-based sunshin to get there before him. "To face you this early," he said to the stoic-looking redhead. "I couldn't be happier."
Gaara said nothing. Kid was real creepy looking, what with his tattoo, permanently blacked eyes, and his general 'I'm a psycho horror-movie kid that wants to drink your blood and eat your organs' attitude. He was about a friendly as Herb and not half as pretty.
Lee snatched the cork that had popped out of Gaara's gourd from the air in front of him. "No need to get antsy."
Lee rocketed forward as sand began to pour forth from the gourd. He was actually pretty quick for a kid, and Gaara made absolutely no movement to avoid or block the leaping roundhouse kick that was coming at him. Ranma was sure it was going to end right there, but instead it impacted upon a barrier of sand that leaped forth from the ground at Gaara's feet. Lee reacted sharply and launched a trio of punches at Gaara's head that met equally sandy fates before he was forced into a bounding retreat by a tidal wave of sand that exploded up from the floor between him and his foe.
"Sand?" said Ranma. "That's one weird technique."
"The Sandaime Kazekage had a similar technique," said Fudo. "This doesn't seem quite as refined as the history books make that sound, though."
Ranma watched as Lee was forced into a full-scale retreat, bouncing around the arena to avoid the sand that was slashing at his limbs. "Seems pretty effective anyway."
Lee came whipping around at high speed to launch a series of strikes at Gaara's blindside, but they met the same fate as his other attacks, intercepted by walls of sand that seemed to appear out of nowhere as soon as the punches or kicks came within a few inches of Gaara's body. The sand-brat wasn't even moving. He just stood there, arms folded across his chest, with an expression of disinterest on his face.
"Why is Lee only using taijutsu?" asked Sakura. "This close-range combat isn't working. He should try from a distance with ninjutsu."
"It's not that Lee doesn't use ninjutsu," said Gai. "He can't use them. Lee has almost no skill for ninjutsu or genjutsu."
"No Way! Then how did he get this far?"
"When I first met Lee he had nothing. No talent at all. So the only skills left for Lee as a ninja are taijutsu," said Gai. "There aren't many ninja who can't use ninjutsu or genjutsu."
Lee leaped high into the air away from a particularly wide wave of sand to land atop the hand seal statue in a crouch.
"That's why he can win!" said Gai. "Lee! Take them off!"
"But, sensei, that's only for a time when I must protect many precious people, isn't it?" Lee shouted back from his perch.
"It's alright!" said Gai with a blinding grin and a thumbs up. "I'll allow it!"
Lee started laughing as he pulled off his blindingly bright orange leg-warmers and exposed a whole bunch of weights strapped to his lower legs beneath them. "What an old-fashioned training method, Gai" said Kakashi
Lee dropped the weights down to the ground. Judging by the crash and the massive cloud of smoke they kicked up, the kid had been carrying an elephant's worth of weight on each leg or something in that area. "This should be good," said Ryoga. "Kid looks like he actually does proper training."
To say that Lee's speed had increased dramatically would be like saying Cologne was a little old or Happosai was a little perverted. He was off the statue and behind Gaara before the boy had time to blink and then he was attacking. His first punch was blocked solidly a few inches away from Gaara's skull but then he was elsewhere to Gaara's side and his blow came within an inch of Gaara's cheek. And he just kept going, zipping around Gaara and throwing punch after punch with each coming that hair closer to Gaara as the sand struggled to keep up.
And then Lee landed a hit. A leaping heel kick that drove Gaara's head down and opened up a cut on the redhead's cheek.
"This kid's almost as quick as you Ranma," said Fudo. "You might have some competition."
"He's a hundred years too young to match me."
"He is pretty quick," said Ryoga. "Worried?"
"Don't be stupid, Ryoga," said Ranma. "I know that's difficult for you, but give it a try. He's got talent but his hand-speed is way too low to hit me and he's as predictable as you."
"Lee has more strength that he has yet to show," said Gai. "Do not underestimate his power."
Lee followed up his attack, speeding around the wall of sand and throwing blow after blow to wear it down again. Ranma had to admit that she was impressed. He was probably as quick as Hiro, certainly a little quicker in movement, and he was only a genin. And then he landed another hit, a heavy haymaker that smashed Gaara off his feet and sent him rolling back along the chamber floor.
"This is bad," said the puppet-boy, he of the terminal lack of common sense. Who the hell wore all-covering black in the desert?
"It sure is!" said Naruto with a wide, teeth-baring grin. "That black-eyed bastard took a pretty heavy one."
"That's not the bad I mean."
Gaara rose to his feet, and what the hell was with his face? His eyes were wide-open, staring and bloodshot, and his mouth was opened in a maniacal approximation of a grin as sand fell from a crumbling layer around his face and body. All in all, it was fucking creepy, and Ranma did not hand that label out lightly.
"A defence," said Ranma. "Armour of some sort. It won't protect him entirely, though. No armour does."
"That is Gaara's absolute defence."
"There's nothing you can do against it then," said Naruto. "There's no weakness!"
"There's always a weakness," said Ranma. "Always. You just gotta find it before the other guy beats you. This guy, I'd just pound him till his brains started to dribble out of ears. Armour doesn't do much to stop that."
Lee looked at Gai and then started to unwrap the bandages he had wrapped around his forearms. Now, Ranma was curious. What use did bandages have for techniques? Once the bandages were dangling he raced forward and started to circle around Gaara, kicking up a cloud of smoke from the sheer speed of it as he went. Words were exchanged but Ranma couldn't hear them.
Then Lee connected with a powerful kick to Gaara's jaw that lifted his opponent up into the air. And he followed that up, leaping after the boy and connecting with kick after kick after kick, each one lifting Gaara a little bit higher into the air till they were near the roof. It was an impressive display, but a futile one.
Ah, that was what the bandages were for. Binding. He used them to virtually mummify Gaara - some sort of technique like Ryoga's endless bandannas behind the amount of bandaging, Ranma figured - and then took a firm grip around Gaara's waist from behind before starting to spin him like some sort of top as they came down.
And then they impacted with an enormous booming sound as the floor virtually exploded around the point of impact. Lee had leaped away at the last moment but he had driven Gaara down head-first.
"It's over," said Ranma. "Lee's got nothing left. Look at him."
"Does it matter?" asked Mousse. "Gaara's been well and truly beaten."
He certainly wasn't moving and the wide, staring eyes that saw nothing certainly didn't look like those of someone who was going to be able to fight on.
Kankuro looked like he'd moved beyond shock and was well and truly on the way to hysteria. "No Way!"
"Is he dead?" asked Naruto, sounding more curious than anything.
"Lee won!" shouted pinky with a clenched fist salute.
Gai's response was simple and loud. It seemed appropriate for him. "YES!"
Cracks started to appear all along Gaara's head and body, even his clothes, and Naruto saw Lee's eyes widen dramatically as the boy's ear simply fell off and crumbled to so much sand. Then the whole face caved in to reveal a totally hollow space.
"Replacement," said Ranma. "Told you. Have to get up earlier than that to fool Ranma Saotome." Unless your name was Orochimaru. Ranma really, really hated that guy.
"When did he leave the sand?" shouted Gai. "There's no way Lee could miss that!"
"It was when you closed your eyes to pray, Gai," said Kakashi. "Lee stopped for a moment because of the pain. It was then."
A huge pile of sand erupted from the floor behind Lee and dispersed to reveal a maniacal looking Gaara who actually laughed at Lee, though there was little humour in it. And then with a wave of his hand Gaara summoned forth a huge wave of sand to attack Lee. Lee tried to dodge but his movement was too slow and he took the full brunt of the attack, slamming him back against the chamber wall.
Then, before Lee could move, a second wave came force and pounded Lee with the wall with enough force to crater the solid concrete deeply, leaving the boy crouched on the ground amidst a pile of rubble.
"Why didn't he dodge it?" asked Sakura.
"The lotus is a double-edged sword," said Gai.
"It is normally forbidden due to the stress it places upon the user's body," said Kakashi. "Right now he's feeling so much pain that he can barely move, right, Gai?"
Gai said nothing as wave after wave of sand battered Lee around the Arena till he was left crouched in the centre of it, one eye swollen shut, panting for air that would never be enough to fill his battered lungs. Ranma knew that feeling. Another strike came and Lee was pushed back further.
"Lee, no!" shouted Sakura. "Anymore and you'll die!"
And then Lee dodged. The next attack struck nothing but air as Lee darted aside and re-assumed his usual fighting stance looking little the worse for wear.
"Lee is smiling even though he's getting pushed around."
"No, now the tables will turn," said Gai. "The lotus of the leaf blooms twice!"
"Now there's a technique I wouldn't mind learning," said Ranma.
"It is as you suspect"
"Then that genin kid has the ability to open the eight celestial gates and use primary lotus."
"Yeah, he will open them. He had the ability"
"Even if he had the ability, the primary lotus is one technique that shouldn't be taught!" snapped Kakashi. "I have no interest in making you tell me what the kid means to you and your reasoning but there are limits. I've lost respect for you, Gai."
Gai snapped back. "What would you know about that boy?" he said "He has a goal that he would give up his life to prove, so I wanted to turn him into a man that could accomplish it. That is all."
"Gai, how many?"
"What are these gates?" asked Sakura. "What is this?"
"The gates are a method of removing limits in preparation for the primary lotus," said Gai.
That is correct," said Kakashi as he pulled his hitai-ate up to reveal another frigging super-eye. Sharingan if Ranma wasn't mistaken. "Chakra flows through eight spots in the human body. These are known as the eight gates. Initial, heal, life, harm, limit, view, wonder and death. They regulate the flow of chakra to safe levels, but the lotus forcibly releases those restraints and allows a much more powerful flow of chakra at the cost of destroying the user's body."
"Yeah, forget that," said Ranma. "I'll pass. I like my body, thanks."
"For example, the secondary lotus opens only the first gate."
"Then the primary lotus-"
"You release the brain's restraint with the initial gate. Then with the heal gate you forcibly raise your stamina. Then from opening the third, the life gate, you enter into the primary lotus."
"But even the secondary lotus-"
"Yes, the technique is truly a double-edged sword. To open the eight gates would temporarily give you the power of a kage but in exchange you sacrifice your life."
Lee finally finished whatever he had to do to unlock the technique as Kakashi finished his explanation and his aura promptly exploded outwards in a monstrous display of utter excess that even Ryoga would be ashamed of. The blue energy blazed around the boy in an inferno of wasted power and Ranma could see the ground distorting beneath his feet, Well, distorting further. They'd already done a pretty good job smashing the place up.
It wasn't just the ki, though. Ranma could see the effect it was having on the boy physically. Every bit of exposed flesh, which wasn't much other than his face, was marred by bulging veins and his skin had turned a deep, deep red as his blood flow was forced up to some ridiculous level.
Then with a yell the power increased again. Lee sounded like someone was ripping his lungs out via his throat but the sheer power that he was exuding was beyond ridiculous. Ranma'd thought Ryoga had hit the height of excessiveness when he'd decided that the way to beat the Musk guy he was fighting was to smother him with his chakra - that had given Herb the willies from clear a mile away. The ground was being crushed beneath the weight of his ki - something Ranma had only ever seen when Ryoga was reaching the heights of depression, and never at that scale.
It was ridiculous.
And then he moved. The barely controlled energy that Lee had released tore the floor beneath him to shreds and warped the air around him as he charged towards his target, who didn't have enough time to even consider dodging before Lee was upon him.
This time it took Lee only a single blow to hurl Gaara into the air. The sand-brat didn't see it coming, even with the wave of pure ki that followed in Lee's wake, it was just a case of one moment stood, the next moment floating. And it did actually look like he was floating with the way Lee was bouncing off walls and ceiling at a ridiculous pace to land hit after hit after hit on his prone opponent.
"This is absolutely nuts," said Ryoga as another wave of errant ki washed over them.
"As nuts as a Kuno."
"Nothing's that nuts."
They joked, but it was pretty impressive. Not quite at 'holy shit, that bird-man's spitting lava at me' or 'did he just blow the top off a mountain?' impressive but that guy wasn't even human so he didn't really count.
It was working, too. The armour of sand was being torn off piece by piece as each blow landed and Ranma could see the dawning look of fear on Gaara's face in between the blurred attacks that obscured her vision. Couldn't exactly say she was feeling much sympathy for him, either, given that he was the creepiest kid in the history of all creepy kids.
But there was a price. Ranma could see the strain it was putting on Lee just by looking at him. They didn't call it a suicide technique for nothing; it was tearing his body apart from the inside out and anyone whose eyes could keep up with the speed would have been to see it. The strain was obvious, face twisted into a grimace, the muscles in his arms bulging, it was impossible to miss.
And so it came as no surprise to Ranma when, at the apex of another leap, Lee threw the throttle even wider. He was shooting for a finishing strike. A single punch with all of the power that his suicide technique granted him. It smashed Gaara back down towards the ground but his gourd had already started disintegrating into yet more sand. The impact kicked up a could of dust and debris which obscure the whole arena and had Ranma squinting her eyes in protection.
When the dust cleared both fights were down. Lee was on all fours, struggling to move but getting nowhere fast, while Gaara was laid on his back in the centre of a massive, sand-filled crater.
"Did he do it?" asked Ryoga.
The sand started moving.
"Doesn't look like it."
Lee struggled and fought to try and get to his feet and dodge the incoming attack but he'd barely made it a step before the sand wrapped around his arm and leg.
Lee screamed. His limbs were pretty clearly crushed by the impact of the move and he was was already out cold as he hit the ground. That wasn't the end of it though. A tidal wave of sand roared forth from Gaara's position to attack the defenceless Lee.
But it never reached him. His sensei was between the two and the sand was smashed away before it could so much as touch Lee.
"I'm never going to be able to look at a beach the same way again. What? Why are you people looking at me like that?"
"And with that, this preliminary exam is over."
The last fight had been monumentally unimpressive. Useful in that it had allowed him to see the techniques of a possible opponent, but still unimpressive. He'd seen some bad fighters in his day but Mousse had never seen anyone with such a potentially useful talent waste it so. If you had the ability to alter the size and shape of your body at will, then why the bloody hell would you turn yourself into a giant fleshy cannonball?
"What, what?" yelped Ranma. "I haven't had a fight yet!"
"Saotome, you moron," groaned Mousse. "There's no-one left to fight. Those two were the last."
"But I wanted to fight!"
The pout might have been adorable on a different face, but Mousse was wise to Ranma and his ways. He knew better than to feel anything but loathing for that person who would entice and entrap his beloved Shampoo with his arrogant wiles. No, he was no Kuno, he knew better.
"Please, approach the stage."
And so they did, Ranma grumbling all the while, till they were lined up atop a floor that had been even once upon a time but now looked like the surface of the moon in front of the Hokage, the examiners, and the team leaders who hadn't run off to be by the side of badly wounded underlings.
"Congratulations on passing this preliminary exam," said the Hokage. "With this you are now permitted to pass through to the third and final round of this chuunin exam."
"Not it is time to explain what you will face in this final round," continued the old man in the fancy hat. "As I have told you before, in the main event your performance will be seen by all. Each of you will fight to display the power of your village and I wish for you to fight without reservation and demonstrate your true strength, which is why the final will be held one month from now."
Mousse shrugged. It just delayed his triumph.
"This time shall be one of preparation," continued the Hokage. "The leaders of our world shall be summoned to the event, the necessary preparations shall be made for their arrival and the holding of such an occasion, and you shall prepare yourselves for the challenges you shall face. This will be a time for you to gather intelligence on your foes, to analyse what you have seen, and to formulate strategies in order to triumph. No longer shall you be fighting total unknowns but those who you have seen in battle."
Unless they were Ranma. Ha. His pout had deepened if anything.
"I would dismiss you now, but there is one last task to be completed before that can come to pass."
"What the hell is!?" roared Naruto. "I've got to train now!"
"Now, don't get so excited," said the Hokage with what might have been a very carefully concealed smile. "Just take a piece of paper from the box Anko is holding and all shall become clear in short order."
"I'll come around so wait your turn," said Anko, sounding ridiculously normal for someone wearing glorified fishnet. "Only one now."
Mousse reckoned it had to be killing her to act so normal.
"Now, read your numbers out in order starting from the left. "
They did so and Ibiki scratched away on a clipboard as they spoke, till all eleven had reeled off their number.
"And now I will reveal to you the final tournament."
Ibiki turned the clipboard so they could all read what was on it. A tournament draw with four rounds, the first of which had only three fights in order to eliminate enough people to even the numbers out. Mousse almost laughed. The gods had favoured him with that draw. He had a bye to the second round and would be facing the winner of a grudge match - Neji against Naruto - which would certainly leave the winner, Neji, the worse for wear. Excellent.
And on top of that, Ranma and Ryoga would meet each in the first round. By the time they were done beating each other half to death they would be easy prey for him to defeat on his way to victory. And that was assuming they didn't beat each other out of the tournament entirely. Perfect.
"I won't lose to you, Ranma."
"In your dreams, bacon breath. I'm gonna beat you so bad your grandkids feel it."
"If this is a tournament, does that mean that only the winner will become a chuunin," asked Shikamaru. The goblin-looking kid with the pineapple hairdo.
"No. The judges, myself, the Kazekage, and the daimyo, shall select those to be promoted based on their demonstrated skills. Anyone could be promoted, even if they were to lose in the first round."
Ah, shame. "So we could all become chuunin?" he asked.
"Or none. You may leave now. Prepare yourselves for this will be the most important day of your lives so far."
Mousse was more than slightly disturbed to see Ranma sidle up to Naruto and hand the boy a scroll as they left. He didn't need an opponent equipped with one of Ranma's more insane techniques. He really didn't.