She was so small. Ranma'd always known that Hinata was still a kid but seeing her laid out in a hospital bed with wires sticking out of her really drove that home. She was tiny, even more so than his cursed form, and it made him feel all sorts of wrong seeing her laid up, looking like she'd been ran over by a truck, after a fight that was pretty much on the whim of selfish bastard who thought that having a bunch of kids fight and die in a neat little tournament was better than fighting it out properly.
He'd made a promise when he'd took the hitai-ate, and he took that kind of thing pretty seriously, but these guys were some serious arseholes to send out a bunch of kids to do the fighting and the dying so they didn't have to. He sure wasn't going to shed a tear if snakey happened to slaughter the old guys who ran things. No, that didn't sound too bad at all, especially if he happened to, oh, slip over and choke on his own tongue while cackling over his greatness afterwards. That'd be just about perfect.
But it didn't do much for Hinata him getting all mopey and angry. Nah, that was Ryoga's idea of how to deal with things. He preferred to get even. Neji was going to get taught a lesson, alright. If he got past Naruto and Mousse, well, that just gave the brat a chance to go up against him and he knew very well how to deal with Hyuuga. If he could beat an ever-so-powerful missing-nin Hyuuga who'd been on the run for a zillion years and not been caught, then he could beat some murderous brat of a kid who thought that the best way to deal with his teenage angst was to kill someone who'd never hurt anyone in her life.
Well, okay, he wasn't really planning on pulling Neji's heart out, as much as it would be no real loss to the world, and it probably wouldn't be a good idea to show off that he could just walk on past a byakugan if he felt like it, but the kid didn't have anything that made Ranma think he'd be a challenge to him. If Neji lasted long enough to face him, then he'd teach the kid a lesson he'd never forget.
Him beating the tar out of Neji probably wouldn't make Hinata feel any better, though. No, that was why he'd slipped Naruto a scroll. Having the dead-last no-hoper who'd needed a fluke of bodily processes to get past her team-mate beat Neiji, well, that'd probably make her feel a whole bunch better. That'd prove that people could change and that her getting herself beaten to a pulp wasn't totally pointless. It wasn't much, just a single offensive technique, but the kid was stubborn as hell and had energy to burn. It'd let him blast Neji around a little if nothing else.
"Ah, I was wondering when I'd run into you here."
"Don't you have a student to train?"
"Shino practices clan techniques. There's little I can do to help him in those."
Hinata's sensei was one seriously pretty lady. Not as hot as his cursed body, of course, but still way up there. If his fiancees had looked like that, he'd have had a way tougher time dodging the bullet. Wouldn't have been able to get away with calling Kurenai an uncute tomboy, that was for sure, even if Akane wasn't really that uncute.
No, he didn't want to think about that. He wasn't getting back home anytime soon and there was no point dwelling on it.
"That cursed technique is truly remarkable," she said. "I couldn't pick up so much as a hint that your female appearance wasn't true."
"Not a technique," said Ranma. "Just a curse."
Kurenai cocked her head and gave him a querying look. "It's my experience that such things are nothing more than the stuff of myth and legend," she said. "I've seen some strange things, but a true curse - never."
Ranma shrugged. "Neither'd I till I paid a visit to Jusenkyo with my pop. Whatever made that place the way it is must have been weird as all hell. Probably something to do with those stupid Amazons."
Silence fell. Kurenai didn't look like she quite knew how to reply to that one. Ranma didn't really care. He was just there to see Hinata before he went off on his training trip to get ready to beat the hell out of Ryoga.
"She will recover," said Kurenai finally. "You needn't worry about that. The medics can cure almost anything short of death or amputation and Hinata's wounds are not so severe by those standards."
"Shouldn't be hurt like that in the first place. What sort of a psycho does that to family? Wasn't any cause for it."
"Relations amongst the Hyuuga are complicated, Ranma. They're not a normal family."
"Tell me something I don't know. But this is Hinata. She's never hurt anyone. I'd understand if he'd took a poke at someone like Hiashi, but Hinata? No way. She's about as close to an innocent as you're ever gonna get in a ninja clan."
Kurenai frowned and looked away from Ranma to Hinata, who was still dead to the world as the machines beeped around her. "I know," she said. "Hinata isn't a cruel person and would never take advantage of the branch families."
"But that doesn't stop psychos like Neji taking their hissy fits out on her."
"I wouldn't phrase it like that, but no."
Ranma said nothing.
"And I wouldn't have expected you to be so surprised by this," she said. "You did teach her to fight Hyuuga, did you not?"
Ranma let out a humourless chuckle. "You noticed, huh? Yeah, I knew some of the Hyuuga were a little off, my first real mission proved that, so I passed on a few helpful little hints. They're pretty predictable so it wasn't all that difficult. Didn't help much, though, did it?"
"You're not only one whose teaching has failed. Mine, yours, her clan. She has no belief in herself and so her combat abilities have always been weak. That is changing, and your teachings are some part of that, so don't be too down on your work."
"Ha! Like I would be! Anything Goes is the strongest school of martial arts there is. Just didn't know if Hinata was going to be suited for it. Anyway, I got to go. Anko gets all sorts of nasty when you blow off meetings with her."
Kurenai's smile spoke of prior knowledge.
"Oh, hey, make sure Hinata knows we'll be picking up training again when I get back, yeah? No way I'm letting her run off to do whatever is kiddy ninja do when they're not training properly around here now."
Anko looked up from the scroll she was doodling on. "About time you got here, brat," she said. "I was about to start setting up traps."
Ranma hopped aside as the ground beneath his feet exploded upwards in a shower of dirt and grass. "Then again, sometimes I just can't help myself," said Anko. "Terrible, isn't it?"
"One trap? That's just tame by your standards."
"Who said it just one?"
Mousse couldn't help but take some pleasure from seeing the paranoid expression appear upon Ranma's face at that. He was twisting around, eyes darting from place to place, and Mousse was sure that he was using his sixth sense to try and pick out any traps that had been planted in the vicinity, and it was all quite hilarious to see the great and arrogant Ranma Saotome suddenly so worried because of someone he didn't really consider to be a threat in a fight. Ah, it was balm to the soul.
"Well, you made it," said Anko, leaving Ranma to his examinations. "Well done and all that. You managed to get past a bunch of kids. Real achievement. Now comes the hard part."
"Beating those kids won't be difficult," said Ryoga. "One I fought was even weedier than Ranma."
"Winning the fights isn't the hard part. Convincing the old shits watching that you're worthy is that. Don't expect them to be fair or anything like that. They're politicians. That means they're a bunch of bastards who'd sell their senile, old granny to slavers for a few extra pieces of gold and silver. The only one worth trusting is the Sandaime and he's only one of the votes."
Ranma was hanging upside-down from a nearby tree. The resemblance to a hairless monkey had never been stronger. "Someone sounds bitter," he said.
The branch exploded. Mousse may have gloated. Just a little. Watching Ranma hop around trying to put the fire burning at the seat of his trousers out was far too entertaining not to, really.
"Dammit, you set my trousers on fire!" hollered Ranma finally.
Anko didn't look too bothered. "And?"
"How would you like it if I set your coat on fire?"
"How would you like it if I set your face on fire?"
"I'll be quiet."
Yes, there were times when having Anko as their team leader was a very, very good thing indeed. She just had a way about her that Mousse liked, and the fact that said way happened to occasionally involve making Ranma look like a fool had nothing to do with it, of course.
"Now, as I saying before I was rudely interrupted," said Anko, shooting a glare the way of Ranma, who was still trying to put the fire out, "this exam isn't about who happens to be the strongest or the most skilled. It's about who can win the audience over. Being strong and skilled helps, but you need to play to the preferences of the old guys. I can't tell you too much, still an examiner here, but you might want to look into who they've roped in for this and what they like to see. Play to the crowd."
Mousse could almost see the thoughts passing through Ranma's head. "I'm so awesome that I don't need to worry about that crap - they'll promote me anyway." It was as predictable as the rise and fall of the sun. He could no more switch off his arrogance than he could stop breathing, as pleasant as that idea was. Oh, did Mousse look forward to seeing him fall flat on his face. The look on Ranma's face if he failed while Mousse made chuunin would make a century.
"Anyway," said Anko. "I can't give you training for this. I'd get in a whole bunch of trouble, even more than normal, and you're going to be fighting each other anyway, which is whole other can of worms."
"Ah, come on. You know I'm going to win anyway, so what's the fuss?"
The grinding of Ryoga's teeth would have probably started a forest fire if there'd been any trees nearby.
"Shut up, Saotome."
Anko looked up the sky. "What did I do to deserve this?" she asked. "I mean, there was that time with the nuns . . . and that time with the monks . . . heh, heh . . . ah, forget it."
"And back on planet sane?"
"Ah, shut it, brat. If you had memories half as awesome as mine, you'd understand."
"Are we done here?" asked Mousse. "I have training to get to."
"Hold your horse. I've got something here," she said. And then she plucked three rolled-up scrolls from one of the larger pockets of her jacket. "Just a trick apiece to give you all something new to show off if you can master it."
Ranma was like a dog shown a particularly tasty looking bone. She had all of his attention.
"Now, these aren't simple techniques," she continued, waving the scrolls as she spoke. "No, these aren't just a list of hand seals and an effect you get from them. That's easy and boring. These babies are the beginnings to a whole school of techniques, letting you create your own style from basic principles. And I've picked one for each of you based on how I've seen you fight."
Mousse perked up. Now that sounded interesting. What would she pick to go alongside Hidden Weapons?
"For Ranma, who dodges like a monkey on crack and spends more time in the air than the average bird, I have a scroll on elemental manipulation," she said, presenting the scroll with a flourish. "Wind manipulation. Try not to do more damage than I would to whatever's around you when you start learning this."
"Ha, that doesn't exactly stop me from doing much."
"Yeah, yeah," she said. Ranma snatched the scroll out of the air before it could bounce off his forehead. "Ryoga, I have the same thing for you. Earth instead of wind, but the same idea."
Ryoga caught the scroll. Ah, Mousse really hoped that wasn't going to give him any more damage resistance. It was going to be hard enough to stop the fool as it was.
"I could have set up the same for you, Mousse," said Anko. "But it just didn't seem to fit. You're not the straight up fighter these two are, so you need to play to different strengths to win. So for you I have a scroll on genjutsu. They can't hit you if they can't figure out where you are."
Mousse took the scroll. It seemed fitting. He had, once, worked as a circus illusionist, entertaining the crowds with sleight of hand and some simple martial tricks, and now he would be able to execute real illusions. Yes, it appealed.
"Try not to kill each other, kiddies. It'd be inconvenient if I had to try and find someone to fill out the team."
They started to disperse.
"Ranma, a word of warning," called out Anko. "Don't get mixed up with Hyuuga family squabbles. It won't end well. Trust me."
Ranma didn't reply. He just bounded away. Ah, that was probably going to end badly if even Anko thought it was trouble. And knowing Ranma it would be trouble for them all. Wonderful.
"Hey, Mr. Hyuuga, you there?" shouted Ranma. "It's Ranma."
A moment of silence passed and then Mr. Hyuuga came strolling out of the one of the doors leading out of the entry hallway with his arms folded within the deep sleeves of his white robes. "Who else?" he asked. "I presume you have some reason for this loud visit."
Ranma scratched the back of his head. "Just came by to tell you I'm going on a training trip," he said. "Won't be around to train the squirts any till after the exam's done with. Doubt Hinata will be up to much for a good while anyway."
Ranma almost winced when he realised what he'd said. Even he knew it was probably a bad idea to bring up the whole thing about Hinata being beaten half to death with her father. Father of the year Mr Hyuuga probably wasn't, but it couldn't sit well with him.
And that might have even been an actual facial expression being cracked by the guy right there. Ranma was never going to get used to seeing someone who looked so much like Mr. Tendo but was about as likely to burst out into tears as Mr. Tendo was to defeat Happosai. "No," he said. "She's unlikely to be fit for training for a very long time given her injuries."
"Uh, yeah," said Ranma, shifting from foot to foot. "But she did pretty well out there, really. I've never seen her fight like that before."
Having someone with no pupils stare at you was seriously freaky, Ranma decided.
"I'm not kidding. She didn't win, sure, but she went up a level. She showed real fighting spirit. It's something to build on."
Ranma really couldn't get a read on Mr. Hyuuga, but he thought the guy might have been happy to hear that. It was hard to tell. "That is good to hear," he said in a very quiet voice. "Very good to hear indeed. We must take what we can from these occasions."
"Umm, yeah, right."
"Indeed. And a training trip? Do you have anything in particular planned?"
"Just going to head off to somewhere isolated and work on some new techniques," said Ranma with a shrug. "The usual sort of thing."
"So nothing specific then. Excellent. You shall have plenty of time to continue my daughter's training in that case."
"Well, y-wait, what?"
Mr. Hyuuga eyed him with disapproval. "You are her sensei, are you not?" he asked. "You can hardly abandon her training for a month when you have so few other responsibilities and still call yourself that."
Ranma scowled. And if he couldn't call himself Hanabi's sensei anymore then Hitomi's not being dead went out of the window. "Yeah," he said between gritted teeth. "Right. Hanabi's at a real important stage of her training. Gotta take her with me and keep things going."
"I'm glad we see eye-to-eye on this matter."
So many insults, so little time, and so little a good idea. Ranma hadn't wanted to hurl a few insults so badly since Orochimaru . .. well, okay, that wasn't so long ago, really, but it was the principle. The guy pissed him off almost as badly as Nabiki did, and he had way more pull to back it up, and he couldn't smack the old geezer around to work it off even if he was a fighter.
"I believe that concludes your business here."
"Yeah. See you around."
Ranma left quickly before the temptation to ram a fist down Mr. Hyuuga's throat grew too great. Forget Mr. Tendo - this guy was way more annoying. At least the Tendos hadn't held a death threat over his head. Jeez, Anko was right. This was one seriously busted in the head family.
Ranma was nearly out of the district when Hitomi dropped down from a low roof to land in front of him. She still wasn't wearing a Konoha hitai-ate - instead, there was a plain, white bandanna wrapped around her forehead to cover the seal that had been burned into it by her ever-loving family. Otherwise, she looked pretty much like any other Hyuuga he'd sen that day, except, you know, with an actual facial expression.
"Aren't you supposed to be a noble or something these days?"
"Pfft, forget that," she said. "They don't want me here and I don't want to be here. Anyway, I'm only a branch member. We don't count."
"Yeah, yeah. What do you want?"
"Testy today, aren't you?" she said. "Eh, I suppose the old bastard has that effect on everyone. My dad wanted to kill him more than anyone."
"Not exactly going to make many friends round here by talking like that."
"Who cares? I sure as hell don't. And I'm not here to talk about that sort of crap anyway, Saotome. You're training the main house brats, right?"
"Tch. Well, I heard that Neji beat the crap out of one of them, but I don't reckon that was because of you. She must have just been weak. Anyway, I want training-"
"Come on, if you can train those squirts, you can train me."
"What, so you can run off and do what your pop did? Follow in his footsteps and knock off a few main house guys before running off to play bandit king? No. That's not what Anything Goes is for."
Ranma didn't think it was a good idea to mention that Anything Goes was really for perving on girls. Would kinda spoil the noble bit.
"Oh, come on. I'm all sealed up now. What the hell can I do? I'm one hand seal away from getting my brain fried. Might as well try and fight the Kyuubi for all I could do against those main house bastards now."
"Because I want to be strong," she said, her voice ringing with conviction. "My pop always wanted me to be strong, but these bastards aren't letting me learn a damned thing. It's all family secret this and family secret that. They don't trust me, they'll never trust me, and I'm getting all sorts of rusty here. They don't even spar with me! I'd think I was going to be a brood mare if they didn't think my blood was tainted."
Ranma looked away and frowned. He didn't know. She sounded sincere enough but she was a kunoichi. They could lie like nothing else, and if Nabiki could fool him then sure as hell a kunoichi could.
"Come on, what do you want? I give you my word I won't go all Itachi on my family and I'll even be respectful if I have to. Just give me a chance."
"AH, what the hell. Fine. Anyone else want to come along? What's a training trip without a crowd? Oh, yeah, an effective one."
"Oh, stop complaining. I'll meet you at the village gate at dawn tomorrow. That sound okay?"
Ranma shook his head. "Noon will be fine. Bring Hanabi."
"Oh, come on, you can't expect me to-"
"Just do it. I'm your sensei now, remember? You still want training, yes?"
She grumbled, but she agreed.