A tournament. That was how they were going to decide who was going to be promoted to chuunin. Okay, Ranma had known that from the end of the preliminaries, but what he hadn't expected was it to be in some gigantic stadium with thousands of people from all corners of the globe watching. It wasn't exactly the way to keep your ninja skills from becoming the stuff of public knowledge. But then nobody seemed all that worried about the whole bingo book thing, so maybe they didn't care all that much. It was weird but they weren't exactly normal ninja to start with.
Ranma grinned. She thought it was brilliant. A chance to show off just how great she was to a few thousand people at once. The whole thing was perfect. They wouldn't be able to keep her on these crappy D-rank missions after she'd showed the whole world had great she was.
"Hey, stop looking around," said the ninja guy who was in charge. "Face the customers. You guys are the stars here."
Ranma looked up at the baying crowd. It was pretty funny to see all those brats shifting around and looking all nervous and stuff, as they realised how many people were watching. That was all kinds of hilarious, the kiddy soldiers getting all nervous because they were going to be watched.
"We will now start the main tournament matches," announced the old man, his voice echoing throughout the arena and drowning out the crowd. "Please stay and watch till the end as these eleven young warriors battle to prove their strength."
The crowd roared in response. Man, it was like a baseball game or something. Except better because it was fighting and it had her in it. Only problem was the 'her' part of that. Damned stupid challenge.
"There's something I'd like to tell you before the matches," said the ninja guy around the senbon he had in his mouth. What was his name again? Oh, yeah, Genma. Small world. He had a tournament rankings sheet in his hand "Look at this. There have been some small changes. Check to see who you're fighting."
Still Ryoga. Good. She wanted someone who could give her a decent workout before she got her win. It'd be boring otherwise. These kids just didn't have enough to make her work up a sweat.
"Hey! Hey!" said Naruto, thrusting his arm up in the air to get attention.
"Sasuke's not here yet. What happens if he doesn't get here in time?"
Silence fell over the competitors briefly. The crowd more than made up for it. One missing fighter wasn't going to stop them having their fun, she supposed.
"Alright, guys, this is the final test," said Genma. "The arena's difference but the rules are the same as the prelims. No rules. Fight till one of you's dead or submits. But if I say the fight's over, it's over. I'll step in and stop it. Get me?"
Oh, the serious looks. "Did you say something?"
How nostalgic, someone called Genma glaring at her. It was almost like being back home, except this one wasn't a panda-man and didn't talk about the path of the martial artist or, well, anything like her pop. "If you're finished being a smart-arse, maybe we can get on with this?" he said.
"Hey, I can go on all day."
"Shut up," said Genma, senbon standing out from between gritted teeth. Ah, she still had it. "Dammit, you're annoying."
Ranma opened her mouth but Ryoga clamped a hand over it before she could say anything. "Just ignore her," he said. "We all do."
"Right," Genma looked away as Ranma slammed an elbow back into Ryoga's ribs with all the strength she could muster. The bastard didn't even bother to pretend that she'd knocked the air out of him. "First fight. Naruto Uzumaki, Neji Hyuuga, you two stay down here. The rest of you go wait your turn in the room we've got set up."
"Beat him like a drum, Naruto," said Ranma with a jaunty wave. She wasn't worried. The kid had been pretty useless against Kiba, but he had the look of someone who meant business around him this time and, hey, he had one of her techniques to use, so how could he fail?
By the time everyone had trundled on up, scaling half a dozen flights of stairs inside the stadium walls before coming out onto a balcony that overlooked the stadium floor, Naruto and Neiji were stood facing each square on, maybe twenty feet apart, with Genma stood between them.
"Is he shaking?" asked Mousse. "He can't be scared already."
Ranma pursed her lips. "Looks like he's eager to me," she said. "He'd better be or I'm gonna pound that technique right outta his skull when this is over."
"What did you teach him?"
"Ha, wait and see, bacon breath. Wait and see. I'm not gonna spoil the surprise."
"Looks like you have something to say," Ranma heard Neji say over the sounds of the crowd.
Naruto levelled his fist at Neji. "I already told you," he said. "I'm going to beat you."
There was not a shred of doubt in Naruto's posture. Not a bit. Every line of his body radiated confidence. Perfect. That was just what she had been hoping for when she gave him the scroll.
"First fight, begin!" announced Genma. He quickly disappeared, leaving the two fighters alone.
"I'm going to enjoy seeing you face reality," said Neji, not even bothering to assume a fighting stance.
"Less talking, more fighting. Kage bunshin no jutsu!"
Four clones popped into existence around with Naruto, each of them utterly identical to the boy who'd created them, right down to the hand seal they were forming and the look of intent concentration on their faces. It was an impressive technique, Ranma had to admit. There was no way she would have been able to tell which one was the real Naruto if she hadn't been watching as they'd sprang into existence.
And, briefly, so very briefly, Ranma saw a look of surprise flicker over Neji's features before they smoothed back out into the usual arrogant disdain. Then he assumed a classic jyuuken stance.
"Smart move," said Shikamaru. "He can't close the tenketsu if he can't get at the real Naruto."
And then the four Naruto clones yelled at the top of their lungs, yanked a kunai free from the pouch hanging from their belt, and charged forth as one. It wasn't a bad plan really. Half a dozen attackers, coming in from all different angles, with plenty of aggression - you'd think that if he was going to be able to land a hit all that would do the trick. Neji didn't look worried even in the slightest, though.
The first two to reach Neji barely had time to raise their arm for a slash of the blades they were carrying before he'd taken to the air, using their heads as launchpads to extend the leap as he flipped over their heads and allowing the combined momentum to send the pair sprawling. The two Naruto clones coming in from further behind those didn't time to blink before Neji was in the air between them and neither reacted before Neji caught them with a kick to the chest that sent the two sprawling back.
But the copies that Neji had flipped by were not done yet. They came charging in from behind him, blades flashing in the sun, but coming in from behind would be little help against a Hyuuga. He caught both of their blade arms at the wrist, stopping them dead, before quickly releasing and snapping their heads back with palm strikes. As they staggered from that he landed lethal jyuuken strikes to their hearts.
All four clones vanished with a small, woe-begotten popping sound.
"Become Hokage?" sneered Neji. "Fate will not allow such weak power to claim the position."
Naruto growled. "Don't underestimate me!" he bellowed. "I don't give up! Kage bunshin no jutsu!"
Ranma may have been surprised, just a little, by the number of clones that sprang into existence around Naruto. Dozens. Perhaps even fifty. How much ki did the kid have to do something like that?
Neji looked unimpressed. "Your attacks are transparent."
"I told you not to underestimate me!"
It wasn't so much an attack as a swarm that followed, and the sound of it was loud enough to almost drown out the crowd with each Naruto bellowing a war-cry as they charged towards their target in one great mass of horribly blinding orange and yellow. There were no free angles for Neji, all were covered by at least one of the clones, but still the boy dodged between the attacks and took clone after clone out with precise, disabling jyuuken strikes.
"Your student doesn't look like he's going to last long enough to use whatever you taught him," said Mousse. He sounded way too happy about it.
"Tch. You think I'd waste time on some weakling that wouldn't be able to stand up and fight?"
Then, saying that, she hadn't exactly spent a lot of time on slipping Naruto a scroll and hoping for the best. Eh. Technicalities.
Neji flowed through the clones as they mobbed him, pivoting this way and that to allow attacks to pass on by, and sending a steady stream of the conjured fighters back to whence they came with precise jyuuken strikes aimed at spots that would cripple or kill a normal person. It looked like he was just picking off the attackers, thinning the crowd, but there was a pattern to his movements, a purpose. He was working his way towards something.
And there it was. Neji's head snapped up and his focus turned entirely on to the Naruto that was stood slightly away from the crowd. The clones around him attacked as one to try and stop him but he was far, far too quick for them to arrest his charge. Clone after clone fell as they tried to get between him and his target, annihilated with quick strikes that caught them before they could so much as blink, and Ranma was sure she would have been able to see fear in the eyes of the Naruto he was heading towards if that one had been facing them.
Then it was done. A quick palm strike to the chest left that Naruto sagging against Neji's arm and a mass of clones that had got between Neji and his target vanished in a series of pops and small clouds of smoke.
"Did you think I would not see your pattern?" he said. "The one holding back, the one with the fear of being disabled, that is the real enemy."
Naruto disappeared in a puff of smoke. The look of shock on Neji's face was absolutely comical
"What did I tell you about underestimating me?" bellowed Naruto as he charged at the flat-footed Neji. "I'm coming at you with everything I have and prepared to die!"
They had him. They absolutely had him. The real Naruto came in from one side, a clone from the other, more from the front and back, and there was nowhere for Neji to run; he was totally off-balance, caught between the oncoming foes. Ranma couldn't quite restrain the grin that came at that sight. He'd done it and he hadn't even needed any new techniques!
But Neji didn't look too worried. In fact, he almost looked smug as he folded his arms across his chest and hopped into the air. The Narutos didn't so much as slow down, they just kept on coming, ignoring the way that Neji was beginning to spin and the energy that was leaking out from him.
The Narutos' fists stopped dead on a shimmering barrier no more than an inch away from Neji's head. They had a heartbeat to look surprised before Neji's slow spin turned rapid and the energy leaking from him turned into a colossal wave that blasted Naruto and his clones away.
"Did you think you had won?" sneered Neji from the crater his defence had carved out of the ground. "You are no match for the ultimate defence of the Hyuuga."
Ranma's mind worked furiously as Naruto clambered back to his feet. Now that was a technique she wouldn't mind borrowing - it'd be a very nice way to get people like Ryoga out of her face. But how did it work? The spin had to be part of the key - he wouldn't have bothered with it otherwise - but how did he make his ki spiral out like that? The tenketsu? She'd have to see the technique again.
"I told you not to underestimate me," growled Naruto. The air around him started to glow a brilliant blue as ki flooded out of him. "I'm not done yet."
Neji assumed a wide stance. "Come," he said. "Let me show me the futility of your attempt to defeat destiny."
Naruto roared with the exertion of it as he summoned an absolutely stupendous amount of ki to surround him in a near opaque sphere of raw energy. It was as impressive a battle aura as Ranma had ever seen.
"What the hell did you teach him?"
The energy was colossal, enough so that it almost hurt Ranma's eyes to look at it such was the brightness of the aura, but much of it was leaking harmlessly away into the surroundings. Ranma could see the ground around Naruto, metres around, cracking and burning as the energy ran into it and the air was shimmering in a way that spoke of immense heat.
Then it vanished. No, that was her eyes compensating, it drew down into a point in front of his outstretched arms where it formed a sphere of energy so bright that Ranma couldn't bring herself to look directly at it.
Neji's stance had grown a great deal more narrow and Ranma could see the ki gathering as he prepared his defence.
Energy blew forth from Naruto's cupped forms to form a massive column of blue light. The column soon lost its shape, however, and spread to become a solid wall of ki speeding forth towards its target. Its spinning, glowing target.
And then the energies met in a fierce explosion. The mixed energies swept forth and billowed across the arena, filling it with an unearthly light, before they died away. What was left was an enormous crater where Neji had been stood, a Naruto dropped to his knees panting for air, and a massive wave of torn up soil, ruined trees, and finally a smashed arena wall.
It really wasn't fair when some brat you'd slipped a scroll to could cause more destruction with your technique than you could, Ranma thought.
Genma was stood off to the side, gaping, senbon dropped to the ground from his mouth and the arena had gone utterly silent.
"Ha, told you not to underestimate me!" crowed Naruto from his kneeling position, looking thoroughly impressed with himself. "Uh, where are you, Neji? Umm, are you dead?"
"Hey, Ryoga," said Ranma. "Looks like someone just matched your perfect attack. Someone I taught. How'd you like that?"
She might not like it but that wasn't going to stop her from rubbing ol' bacon breath's nose in it.
"Shut up, Ranma. It isn't over yet."
Naruto was on his feet and breathing easily already. Some stamina that kid had. Almost Ryoga-like, and he was only twelve. "Hey! Neji! Come out and fight, you bastard!"
Genma shook his head. "Kid, he's not-"
The debris at the arena wall shifted and finally a chunk of it was tossed aside. A distinctly battered and woozy looking Neji stepped out. But his arrogance looked barely shaken.
"How?" gasped someone near them. "He should be dead!"
"Most of the energy in Naruto's attack looked like it was wasted," said Shikamaru. "Damn. I had no idea he was that strong, but his control's still as bad as ever."
"So someone has given you a taste of power," said Neji. "But it is no match for the Hyuuga legacy of hatred. You will still be defeated. Fate demands it."
"Blah, blah, blah," said Naruto. "Just because your dad got killed to save the clan head and because you've got that stupid seal on your forehead you think you know everything. You're full of shit."
"Heard all about it when I was training. So your family sucks. At least you have one. It's no excuse to beat Hinata like you did."
"Tch, there's no hope for you," said Neji. "I'll show you the truth. Your place in the world is already set. There is only pain and suffering in fighting it as you do."
"It'll take more than pain and suffering to stop me! Kage bunshin no jutsu!"
Neji slid into a wide stance with one arm held so low that it was almost scraping the floor as a dozen clones appeared in a line in front of Naruto. Ranma shook her head in disbelief - the kid was absolutely, ridiculously full of energy. Then the clones all started to glow as one and Ranma couldn't quite keep her jaw from dropping. Full of energy? His energy was endless.
But Neji wasn't just standing still and watching. He wasn't going to wait to be hit again; he was already moving, from that familiar stance he rocketed forth, hands flashing as he twisted through the clones, launching dozens of rapid strikes as he went, till he came to a halt half a dozen paces short of a lightly glowing Naruto. Every single one of the clones promptly vanished in a puff of smoke.
"No matter what power you have been granted, you cannot defeat fate."
"You can cram fate up your arse!"
The shimmer of energy around Naruto vanished almost entirely before his fist began to glow brightly. He changed immediately and Neji quickly threw up a kaiten again.
When the light cleared this time, a deep furrow had been carved into the ground in both directions away from where they had met. Both fighters were flat on their backs and looking the worse for wear, but then Naruto disappeared with a pop and a much less battered looking one stepped out from behind one of the trees.
Neji still wasn't doing much more than twitching by the time Naruto reached his side. "Tch, to lose like this," he said, "to forget your favourite technique. How careless."
"I failed my genin exam because I couldn't go a bunshin to save my life," said Naruto. "Fate doesn't mean shit."
Neji said nothing.
"When I become Hokage, I'll change Hyuuga for you and Hinata."
"Winner: Naruto Uzumaki!"
The stadium exploded. Not literally, although that wasn't entirely unlikely in a ninja village, but in cheers. Naruto wasn't exactly slow to start lapping it up. As he bounded around the stadium soaking it all up, Genma moved over to Neji and said a few quiet words before walking away.
A bird flew overhead and Ranma could almost believe that Neji smiled.
"You know the rules," said Genma. "Stop when I say stop, otherwise it goes on till someone dies or submits. Simple."
Ryoga rolled his neck. "This is a man to man fight," he said. "Don't interfere."
Genma looked at Ryoga. He looked at Ranma, who looked and shrugged with a 'hey, nothing to with me' sort of expression on her face. He looked back at Ryoga. "You might want to invest in a pair of glasses, kid," he said. "Just do what I say, yeah? Easier on us both that way."
Ryoga shot him a quick glare but soon returned his attention to Ranma. And didn't she just feel flattered. "Come on, man," she said. "Quit talking and let us start fighting. I'm gonna start growing roots if I stand around much longer."
"Well, it's your funeral. Second fight, begin!"
Genma promptly disappeared in a puff of smoke, leaving Ryoga and Ranma alone on the battered stadium floor. They immediately started circling around, never taking their eyes off each other as they looked for an opening to begin the offensive.
"I won't lose to you, Ranma," said Ryoga with a fanged grin. "I've got all sorts of new techniques to show you."
Ranma smirked. "Heard that before," she said. "Never seems to work out all that well for you."
"I'm going to wipe that damned smirk off your face once and for all!"
And with that Ryoga charged. He came with a fierce battle cry, moving as quickly as Ranma had ever seen him move, with his umbrella held high above his head to deliver a crushing blow. She did nothing, moving not a muscle, till he was virtually on her and then in a flicker she was behind him and his strike slammed harmlessly into the ground.
"You know, that would have really hurt," said Ranma, looking at the crater Ryoga had created from her position just off his left shoulder as the dust settled. "Good thing you're such a slug, eh?"
Ryoga roared and swung around, bringing umbrella with him in a vertical swipe that cut through the air with a fierce slicing sound. Ranma, again, didn't move till it was virtually on her and then she was atop the umbrella as it came to a halt where she had been stood. And from there, before Ryoga could react, she came around in a graceful twirl and slammed the hell of her foot into Ryoga's temple before using the momentum to flip away from him.
"Fast as the wind, Ryoga," said Ranma as her opponent halted the skid she'd sent him into. "That have any meaning to you? It's what I am now."
"If you're as fast as the wind, then I'm as enduring as the mountain range."
Ranma coughed. "Horaisan."
Ryoga's expression took an alarming turn for the wrathful.
Ranma coughed again. "Jusendo."
Ryoga lost it there and charged, but an attack in anger was an attack easily dodged by Ranma. And then she was on him. She came in low to his left first, slamming a combination of punches into his diaphragm before he could react, and then she was high to his right, delivering a roundhouse kick that twisted him around and forced him to lower his head, before she delivered an axe kick to the now exposed back of his skull that dropped him to his knees through sheer force.
"Give it up, bacon breath," she said. "You're just too slow. I have more of a challenge hitting a punching bag."
Ryoga looked up at her and grinned. "Your blows are as a baby's tap to me, Ranma!" he shouted. Yeah, because that's so original, Ryoga. She didn't have time to say that, though, before he prodded his finger down into the ground. "Bakusai Tenketsu!"
The ground where she had been stood exploded upwards in a shower of dirt and rock fragments but she was already well away. "That won't work," she said. "I've seen it all before."
He stabbed his finger down again. What was the point? He couldn't affect the ground she was on from all the over-
Ranma barely got away in time as a massive, jagged rock spike burst up from the ground beneath her feet. She had only a moment to wonder just what the hell what was going on before she had to squirt a mass of ki from her feet to change direction mid-air to avoid another spike that ripped up to skewer her on the path she was on.
"You won't get away from me that easily, Ranma!"
More spikes ripped up from the ground and Ranma found herself dodging frantically, using the sides of the spikes as launchpads to bounce from place to place to keep from being gutted. It wasn't a position she enjoyed being in. Forced on the defensive by Ryoga! It was just embarrassing, and it wasn't the way to win. He had control; she couldn't let it stay that way or she might, gods forbid, lose!
She twisted in mid-air as another spike tore through the air by her. That one she felt brush against her, so close to actually hitting that it actually tore the sleeve of her shirt. Almost enough to dent her confidence.
Time to fight back. She twisted in mid-air to face Ryoga and took a deep, deep breath, inflating her lungs to the maximum, as she raced through the hand-seals. "Tajuu kaze dangan no jutsu!"
And with those words she vomited forth a series of blasts of solidified air that rocketed outwards at anything and everything that looked like it needing smashing to bits. Ryoga was able to dodge the one aimed at him but the spikes weren't going anywhere. Explosion after explosion followed and vast amounts of shattered rock rained down on the stadium floor as Ranma finished her technique.
She wasn't finished there, though. As Ryoga rolled to his feet she tapped into her new affinity for the wind and blurred down to the ground and met him with a full-blooded, full-speed series of punches from both hands. The thuds made by fist impacting on face quickly blurred into one long sound till the sheer force of the impacts threw Ryoga back into the stadium wall. Ranma followed that up with a leaping kick that smashed Ryoga's head back into and through the wall.
He kinda squirmed and struggled a little as he tried to pull himself free of the wall, but he was far too well embedded. Made it nice and easy for Ranma to throw another combination of punches into his gut. Opportunistic but it took an awful lot of tenderising before Ryoga was hurt enough for it to count.
She heard a growl come from where his head was located and then he jabbed his finger into the wall. No way. Even he wouldn't-
Of course he would. It was Ryoga. The wall exploded outwards - Ranma used her speed to bat the rock fragments aside before they could hit her - and Ryoga stood tall and free with a fierce look on his face. Skin wasn't even broken where he'd blown a wall to pieces around him.
And then they met. Ryoga led with a straight punch that she easily dodged but then followed it up with a left hook that she had to bend in half at the waist to avoid. From that position she snapped out a kick that caught Ryoga beneath the ribs before straightening up and letting loose another barrage of punches straight into Ryoga's face with a yell of exertion.
Ryoga staggered back a step under the assault but he quickly recovered. Ranma leaned aside to let his retaliatory punch pass by her head and then with a quick grab and twist she tossed him back over her head to land in the centre of the arena. It would never do for her to get into a slugging match with Ryoga, and that was what would happen if she didn't get it back away from the walls and into the open.
"Shi shi hokodan!"
Ranma reacted in a blur "Moko takabisha!"
The two beams of ki impacted in the centre ground between the two and exploded in a blinding flash of blue and green light. The next thing Ranma saw was Ryoga charging out of the light, a growl on his lips and fist cocked to deliver a devastating blow. She quickly side-stepped her way out of that attack but Ryoga wasn't one to give up at the first attempt.
Ranma leaned back to allow an incoming uppercut to connect with nothing but air before catching a high-kick on her left bracer. Her return punch rocked Ryoga's head back but that was barely even noticed. He just barrelled on through with a combination of straight punches that she had to move frantically to avoid.
But even Ranma couldn't dodge forever against Ryoga. Eventually she slapped one punch aside with a palm strike, but the next after that came just that little bit too quickly and connected straight on with the centre of her chest. The force of that blow slammed her back off her feet and sent her bouncing back across the arena floor before she managed to twist around to land in a skid.
Ryoga came charging after her to follow up the attack but she wasn't going to stand around waiting to be pounded. In a blur of motion she was away, clear over at the other side of the arena, stood next to a fair-sized boulder that was just begging to be used as a weapon. Really, she could hear it calling to her.
And so she plucked the boulder from the ground and, with a quick twist for extra speed, she launched it at Ryoga's head with as much force as she could manage.
"You think that will work?" he shouted. "Bakusai tenketsu!"
The boulder exploded the instant his finger touched it, utterly harmless to someone with skin like his, but it gave Ranma the time she needed. "Kaze bunshin no jutsu!" she called out. Three copies of Ranma appeared behind her, as if something was colouring in the air itself. She pointed at Ryoga. "Get him!"
The three clones immediately blurred past her to attack Ryoga. She wasn't holding out much hope for them to accomplish much on their own; three clones at a fraction of her power wouldn't be able to hold Ryoga for all that long, but it was enough time to get through the hand-seals needed.
The first clone fell quickly, unable to manage quite the same level of speed as Ranma it misjudged a dodge and took a right hook directly which dispelled it. But the others dropped back and came in from opposite angles to ensure that they were able to drive Ryoga back away from Ranma as she worked through seal after seal. Times like that, she really wished she'd had the time to perfect the technique so that it didn't take so many damned seals. It was pure brute force nonsense as it was.
One of the clones managed to slip through Ryoga's defences and slam him back with a powerful kick to the sternum. The other got behind, looking to follow-up the attack and keep him stunned, but Ryoga quickly twisted and took her down with a quick down to the side of the head the dispelled her.
The last clone, sensing that it was out-gunned, quickly clasped its hands together. "Moka takabisha," it cried, letting lose a beam of blue energy.
"SHI SHI HOKODAN!"
The blue energy released by the Ranma clone was met halfway by a massive beam of green that surged forth from Ryoga's palms. A moment later the blue energy was smashed aside and the green slammed forth to obliterate the last Ranma clone.
But it didn't matter. Ranma had been given as much time as she'd needed. With a deep, deep breath she called forth the last of her new techniques. "Ryuujin no kamikaze."
The beast that flowed forth from Ranma's mouth as she finished her technique was vastly larger than she was. A monstrous, semi-solid creature of air and wind it was as large as any dragon of legend and as fierce looking. It was the sort of thing designed as much to strike fear into the hearts of enemies as to fight them. And it was heading straight towards the stunned looking Ryoga at speed.
Belatedly, Ryoga moved to dodge, but it was far too late. The beast was upon him and in one swoop it seized the lost boy within its gaping maw. Ranma winced. Ah, man, even Ryoga wasn't going to be getting back up from that anytime soon. The idiot was supposed to dodge so he didn't get the full hit. Look, he was even bleeding, and to get Ryoga bleeding it took enough force to cut a normal martial artist in two.
Wait, the blood. It was way too solid. And way too brown. Oh, shi-
Light exploded before Ranma's eyes as a crushing weight slammed into the base of her spine and catapulted her up into the sky. The pain surged up and down her body as the power of the blow registered with her, and dark spots crept into her vision as she felt the world turn fuzzy around her. It was real hard to keep her eyes open.
But seeing Ryoga swooping down towards her, snarl on his face and umbrella cocked above his head to deliver a finishing blow, was plenty of motivation to snap to. Nothing like having someone trying to crush your skull to wake you up. Ryuujin swept around as its victim disintegrated and hurtled up towards Ryoga with murder in its translucent eyes but this time Ryoga was prepared and quickly swept his umbrella around in a strike that smashed the dragon aside and sent it falling back to the Earth. It promptly disintegrated.
With a quick gesture she unsealed the fan she was carrying and quickly slapped it upwards in a parrying motion. For a moment Ryoga's strike stopped dead against her fan and he looked at her in utter shock. Then the technique really kicked in and the energy he tried to attack her with was applied to him, and away he went soaring into the wide blue yonder.
Ranma gasped in pain as the impact of landing on the ground jarred her. Dark spots danced in front of her eyes and she couldn't feel a damned thing in the arm she'd used to parry Ryoga's attack. Not good, not good at all. She was slowing down, she could feel it, and that would be fatal against Ryoga; he was too strong to get into a slugging match with, that was his game.
And there he was, coming down from the height she'd blasted him to. Feh. At least she'd bought herself a few seconds recovery time with that one. Enough time to summon up her energies, at least. "MOKA TAKABISHA!"
The blast of ki rocketed forth from her good arm and cut through the air between her and Ryoga in a blink. It was met by a swing of the umbrella that sent the energy careening off to the side into the lip of the stadium's roof, blasting a good few chunks of concrete loose to fall to the stadium floor.
"What?" she yelped. "Oh, come on! You can't do that!"
There was no more time to do anything else. In a flicker she moved away from the impact zone to the other side of the arena. Then Ryoga made impact and the cloud of dust that kicked up obscured the whole arena.
When the dust cleared, Ryoga was stood in the centre of a massive crater stretching out a dozen meters all around from where he'd impact. He hadn't moved a step, still stood with his back to her and with his umbrella held at his side.
"What?" said Ranma. "You done already? I've still got plenty left."
"I want to take my time," he said. "I want to enjoy this. Ranma Saotome, limping and injured, running out of power, on the run from Ryoga Hibiki. Do you have any idea how long I've waited?"
"Since when did you stand around gloating when you could be fighting?"
"Since I tricked you."
Ranma didn't have a moment to reply before Ryoga came bursting up from the ground beneath her feet and caught her flush on the jaw with an uppercut that sent her back into the sky.
Then she disappeared, strands of colour floating away on the breeze.
Ryoga didn't get a second to wonder what had just happened before Ranma flickered into view in front of him and slammed a full-bore series of punches into his face with all the speed and power she could muster. Ryoga, for all his strength and endurance, was still no heavier than a normal man and was blasted off his feet and smashed through the stadium wall by the power of the attack.
The Ryoga in the crater turned to move at her but she sliced it in two with a vacuum blade before it could so much as take a step. It promptly dissolved into a puddle of mud.
"Trying to get me with the same trick twice, Ryoga?" she asked. "You must be going soft in the head. Softer."
She sounded an awful lot more confident that she felt. Pain was ever-present, her back felt as if it were on fire, and she would almost rather that the feeling wasn't coming back to her arm given what it was telling her right then. It really was turning out to be one of those days. Damn them for goading her into doing this in her weaker body.
The wall exploded and Ryoga burst forth, veins in his forehead bulging with rage. He looked almost intimidating. "Kaze dangan no jutsu.."
Shame he made real easy target, really. Wasted the whole mad, intimidating berserker thing a bit when you just got blasted back to oblivion when you showed up looking all ready to tear someone's arms off and beat them to death with them. But that was Ryoga for you. Too stupid to even do brainless aggression right.
"SHI SHI HOKODAN!"
Ranma quickly rolled to the side to allow the green blast to pass on by and impact harmlessly, well mostly harmlessly, against the opposite wall. "Kaze dangan no jutsu." Ranma fired another blast from the diagonal, crushing more of the wall on top of Ryoga as she did so. She really had to wonder just how many more of these hits he could take. Or how many more she could deliver.
This time when Ryoga came bursting out of the rubble he did so with sufficient speed to carry him clear of Ranma's firing zone before she could blast him back. And then he was on the offensive, using his umbrella like a sword to drive at Ranma. But she was ready with her speed technique and flickered around the strikes like a river flowing around a blockage.
The look of sheer annoyance on Ryoga's face was almost enough to make Ranma stop and burst out laughing. He just looked so damned angry because he couldn't hit her. Wasn't he used to it? He always had trouble landing hits on her, even when she didn't have a swanky new technique to make dodging around easier.
Then in a flash it stopped being so funny. One moment she was dodging easily, as always, and then a terrible weight was pressing down on her and she could barely breath never mind dodge around. And there stood Ryoga, glowing a motley combination of green and red as his ridiculously heavy ki swept out around him and drowned the whole arena in its force.
Ranma tried to summon up her own power to break the hold as Ryoga slowly walked towards her, slowed by his own power, but the sputter of energy that came to her call was far from enough to break the weight of the energy Ryoga had unleashed.
And then she was being held aloft by the throat. Ryoga laughed. "I've done it!" he shouted. "I've beaten Ranma!"
"Before you get all happy," Ranma croaked around the grip, "I've got something to say."
"HIRYU SHOTEN HA!"
The winds tore them apart. Ryoga, even with all his strength devoted to anchoring himself, could not resist the force of his power being turned against him in one great blast. Ranma herself was buffeted by the force of the hurricane she had created from Ryoga's powers and she was anchored to the ground by the contrast of the powers used in its creation.
As she'd suspected, the contrast didn't have to be hot and cold. It was ki, not real weather, so confidence and a combination of rage and depression worked just as well as temperature. Simple really.
Ryoga had some serious power behind him, though. She hadn't seen a bigger result outside of the fights with Herb and Saffron and neither of those were even human. If he wasn't such a moron, he could actually pose a real threat. But how likely was that? He was a straight-forward thinker. Charge and smash. Those were his tactics. Always. Okay, so he'd managed to pull a couple of clones out of the hat, but he'd been around ninja a while now so a few things were bound to rub off. It didn't mean anything.
So why was she getting a chill down her spine? Even Ryoga wasn't just going to shrug off something like the attack she'd just hit him with. There was no way he could be behind her ready to smash. Just wasn't possible, not with the force of this attack. No. She was just turning around because it seemed like something she could do, not because she was worried or anything. Not at all.
And she absolutely did not shriek when she saw a twenty foot tall Ryoga made of solid stone leering down at her. Shrieking was for girls, not for men amongst men who happened to have a pair of boobs half the time - a stunningly nice pair, if she did say so herself - and there was no way he, Ranma Saotome, would shriek like a little girl being caught in the nude by Happosai.
Well, maybe a little shriek. But a very manly one.
"KIJIN-GUN DAI RANBU!"
Vacuum blades poured forth from Ranma, hurtling outwards in all directions to slice their way through whatever they came into contact with. It was with great satisfaction that Ranma watched as the monstrous Ryoga thing slowly slide apart and fall to the ground with a series of almighty crashes. Then she realised what she'd just done. "Oh, shi-"
Ranma was promptly whipped into the air as she lost control of her own technique. There was no time to wonder what she could do to regain control; it was gone, and there was no way she could concentrate well enough to actually do anything while she was being thrown around the arena by a towering hurricane that felt like it was doing its level best to tear her body apart.
The first chunk of golem that smashed into her was barely even noticed. Once you've had the right sort of training and the right sort of fights, a few measly tons of rock doesn't hold much power over you. But then came the second and the third and the fourth and it just doesn't stop. Getting hit enough times by even a lightweight and it starts to ache; get smashed in the face enough times with a few tons of unyielding rock and you start to lose your memory of what day it is.
It was all Ryu's fault, giving her all those tempting techniques to copy.
But even a hurricane of that power had to die down eventually and so it did slamming Ranma down into the ground with enough force to drive what little air she still had in her lungs right out and leave her gasping. She managed to force herself to her hands and knees but could manage no further as her body gave up on her and sheer agony lanced through her mind.
Ryoga came down a few metres in front of her. He at least had the grace to look like he was hurt, too. Bacon bits landed on his back and Ranma could see his chest heaving as he tried to fill his lungs. But then he rolled over to his front and started to life himself to his feet, and he seemed to be having more success than she was. She could see the muscles in his arms trembling as he lifted himself up, but he was still moving, and she wasn't.
Damn it, damn it, damn it. She had to move. She had to. Ryoga was up to one knee and she couldn't even get off her hands and knees. Dammit. She was going to lose. She was going to lose to Ryoga! And with that thought a great wave of disgust welled up within her and with that came a little burst of strength. She raised one arm from the ground. "Shi shi hokodan."
The attack was nowhere near as large or as bright as her typical but it still flew true and Ryoga didn't see it coming. The blast caught him behind the ear and sent him skidding across the arena floor to land propped up against the far wall. Didn't looked like he was moving anymore, either.
Now she just had to get up. Just had to will her muscles into one last effort. Then it'd be over and she'd be the winner. She could could it. She could. She'd done it before, when she'd been too hurt to stay standing more than a few seconds after the end of the fight, like after the shi shi hokodan duel. Just one last effort.
She could do it.
Anko cackled. "What did I tell you?" she said. Well, shouted. There may have been a little sake in her system. Just a little. "You can keep your prissy Hyuuga princesses, your lazy Nara, and your uptight Uchiha. My students are brilliant."
The sound of the crowd echoing in her ears, her blood pumping from the performance the brats had put on - it was all brilliant. She'd known they were strong, oh she'd known, but that had been something else. It was one thing to see Ranma stick his hand through a missing-nin's chest or dodge through a hail of kunai without taking a scratch, but this had been something else. She'd given them a couple of basic scrolls, things that any chuunin ended up getting eventually, and they'd gone from naught to near S-class techniques in a few weeks flat.
Asuma blew out a ring of smoke and flicked a seizable chunk of ash from the end of his cigarette to the ground in front of him. The civilian sat in front didn't look too happy, but he said nothing. "Anko, your students are even crazier than you," he said with a frown. "What the hell?"
"Pfft, you just don't appreciate genius when you see it."
"Genius, madness, what's the difference?"
"What's that? I can't hear you over the sound of my students proving they're more awesome than your brats could ever be."
Asuma grunted and went back to his cigarettes.
"What have you been teaching them, Anko?" asked Kurenai, who looked like she'd probably have been working up a good head of steam about responsibility or some such boring shit if she wasn't so shocked. "I've seen jounin who wouldn't be able to take a fight like that."
"Brilliant isn't it? I told you Ranma had beaten an A-class missing-nin, but did you believe me? No. Ha! Smell that? It's the scent of victory. My students. Chuunin, all. That'll show 'em."
Kurenai didn't look like she knew quite what to say and turned to watch the assorted chuunin who were trying to get the stadium back into some sort of order so that the exam could continue. It was kinda entertaining, Anko had to admit. Seeing the plebs running around trying to deal with the fact that Ryoga had turned half of the rock in the ground into a twenty foot golem and that Ranma had torn up the place but good with that crazy tornado technique was seriously, seriously funny. And, hey, there was Fudo looking like he regretted helping Ryoga. Maybe she'd buy him a drink to make up for it . . . ah, who was she kidding.
"I hope you know what you're doing, Anko," said Asuma, flicking yet more cigarette ash away as he spoke. "Don't want to see you end up getting burnt by a student who got too strong too quick."
There was an undercurrent of anger to Anko's voice as she replied to that. "I'm not some rookie, Asuma."
"Yeah. Suppose so."
Silence fell for a moment. "Looks like your other student is up next," said Kurenai. "Against Naruto."
Asuma grunted "Kid's annoying as hell," he said, "but I kinda feel sorry for him if this one's like the other two."
Anko's grin was not altogether sympathetic.
Ranma groaned as an ice-pick slid into her brain. At least that's what it felt like when she woke up and was stupid enough to actually open her eyes. Dammit but Ryoga hit like a freight train that someone had wired a jet engine to for kicks, and she'd . . . she'd . . . "I lost."
Someone snorted off to the side but she wasn't paying much attention. She'd been beaten. What else could you call it when you were knocked flat on your back and couldn't get back up? Defeat. That's what it was. Abject defeat. There was no other word for it. She'd been defeated.
A great hollow pit of despair opened up within her at that thought. Losing to Ryoga, could it be any worse? Well, she could could have lost to the blind twit. That would have been worse. But still. Ryoga. Of all the people.
"Oh, you're awake," said an altogether too cheerful sounding female voice. Ranma cracked an eye open ready to throw an insult but quickly decided that she was far better off with her eyes shut. "You recover almost as quickly as your friend here."
Ranma did open her eyes at that. "Oi, what do you mean almost?" she said. "I recover way quicker than that idiot."
"But he's been awake for a few minutes now."
"Not that it matters," said Ranma quickly. "You don't need a head like a concrete block if you don't get knocked out all the time."
"Hmm," said the nurse. Her hand was glowing a weird sort of soft green and she was staring at it. Must have been some sort of fancy technique. Maybe more than some nurse, then. "You seem remarkably well recovered for someone who was beaten unconscious . If you'd try and not get your head beaten in for the rest of the day, you might even be fit for active duty in a few days."
Ranma shrugged. The burst of semi-outraged energy had passed and she just wanted to be left alone. Losing sucked. Losing with an audience sucked worse. Losing with an audience and having to talk to people afterwards was just the cherry on the top.
"Oh, don't be so glum," she said. "In my day girls were more interested in attracting boys like that than beating them to a bloody pulp."
Ranma's glare would have stripped paint off walls if she'd been aiming it at them. If she hadn't been so tired, her battle aura would have probably given her a suitable demonic look to scare the woman off. As it was, she barely got a flicker. And so occupied was she with glaring at the doctor that she almost didn't notice the choking sound coming from the other side of the room.
"Well, if you're determined to be a downer, I'll leave you to it," said the doctor. She then pressed a vial of some horrible-looking purple fluid into Ranma's hands. "Take that and get some sleep. It'll help you rebuild your chakra." She turned and pointed across the room. Ranma followed the woman's arm and saw Ryoga. "You, too," she said. "Rest and recover. No more fighting."
And then she left. Ranma stared at the vial for a moment, and then she poured it into the potted plant on the table next to the bed she was in. It could have been her imagination but the plant didn't look terribly pleased about it. Better it than her. Then she closed her eyes and laid back in the bed, not in the mood for actually, you know, interacting with people or anything like that.
The door to the room slammed open. "You're teaching me how to do that."
So much for that idea. Ranma cracked open an eyelid and stared at Hitomi. "You couldn't handle it," she said. "Too soft. Come back when you don't scream like a baby during training, you big wuss."
"I am not a wuss. You're just a lunatic who throws wild animals at people and calls it training."
Ryoga's laughter made Ranma feel as if someone was digging an ice-pick into her ears. "Going to get a panda curse next, Ranma?"
"Shut up, P-chan. Just wait till the rematch."
"I'm looking forward to it. Next time, I'll beat you for sure."
"How the hell can you two want another fight?" blurted out Hitomi. "You've just beaten other unconscious and you want to do it again?"
Ranma perked up. Did that mean she hadn't lost? She hadn't thought Ryoga was getting back up anytime soon, but she didn't get back up at all, so she'd thought it was game, set, match to the pig. Maybe not.
"Uh, yeah," said Ryoga. He was staring at Hitomi as if she was some sort of interesting alien that had popped up. "Why wouldn't I? I want to beat him!"
Yeah, he hadn't beat her. A great sense of elation swept through her, blasting aside the previous melancholy as if it had never been there. She hadn't been beaten! Okay, a draw was still rubbish against Ryoga, but she'd win the rematch when she didn't have to fight as a girl!
Ranma nodded. "I can't let him think he can beat me," she chirped. "That's just embarrassing. Next thing you know Kuno will be showing up thinking he's got a chance. Again."
"Madmen. That's what you are," said Hitomi. She actually looked surprised. "I'm going, before I get infected with insanity."
"And you call yourself a ninja!"
Hmm, not a nice hand gesture, that, what she sent Ranma's way as she left. Students. Couldn't live with them, couldn't throw them in a pit of c-c-hellspawn.
"I will beat you, Ranma. Just you wait."
"Ah, shut up. I'm going to get something to eat." Now she thought of it, she was horrifically hungry. "Suppose you can come along if you want. Or feel free to stay here and drink that poison. I wouldn't mind."
Saotome really was an annoying bastard. Okay, that wasn't exactly the greatest of revelations, Mousse knew, but even in defeat he'd found a way to make Mousse's life more difficult than it would be otherwise. That took some talent, to lose and still find a way to screw up someone else's attempt to win the prize. It was exactly the sort of thing made Mousse want to grind Saotome's face into something sharp and pointy: that effortless way he set about pissing people off.
Honestly, teaching the kid how do ki attacks? That was almost cheating, teaching some random kid something like that and letting them loose in a kiddy tournament. Saotome probably thought it was funny.
Not that it mattered. So he couldn't do a ki attack of his own. It made no difference. With Ranma and Ryoga gone - the gods certainly did smile upon him to give him enemies so stupid - he had a clear run at success. They were the only ones strong enough to give him a run for his money, and they were gone, so all was well. He'd go on through, win the tournament, and laugh as the idiots he was teamed with fumed in a corner at being defeated by him.
It was such a wonderful mental image.
But there was an obstacle to get past, still: the kid Saotome had decided to pass his technique onto. It wasn't much of an obstacle, really. He was so young, so small, and he moved like an ape. What challenge could the fool possibly be? He only had to look at the brat, standing there, grinning like an idiot, to know that it was going to be a nice, easy victory. What sort of brain-damaged fool thought it would be a matter to smile about to fight someone several years older and vastly more skilled than them in a tournament?
"You know the rules," said Genma, pushing the senbon around his mouth as he spoke. "Fight till submission or I say stop. When I say stop, you stop, or I'll make you stop. Understand?"
Mousse didn't even bother to acknowledge that. Had the fool been replaced with some sort of robot that could do nothing but spout variations of the same line? He'd seen stranger in Nerima and it would explain a lot.
Naruto flew at Mousse immediately, hurtling through the fluttering leaves left by Genma's exit, aiming a punch that could have been seen coming a mile off by a blind man who'd never practised martial arts in his life. It was a pathetically simple matter for Mousse to sidestep out of the way of the attack and then spin around to slap a palm strike against the base of Naruto's skull as he ploughed on by.
It was almost comical the way Naruto was sent crashing to the ground. Did he have no skill at all? It was almost as if he didn't know the most basic elements of how to roll with a blow and spread the impact. How could-
Mousse ducked and twisted as a pair of Narutos flew over his head, kunai flashing as they tried to score a blow against him. It was a narrow thing, narrower than he'd care to admit, but he did it without so much as a slash in his robes. And then, before the clones could land, Mousse launched a pair of shuriken forth with a flick of his left wrist that sliced into the pair and sent them back to wherever such things came from.
And then Mousse jerked backwards out of the way of a haymaker sent his way by the real Naruto. A quick one-two retaliation to the jaw sent the irritating brat sprawling back to the ground, but he was back on his feet and advancing almost as quickly as Mousse could leap backwards to open up some room between them. Mousse launched forth a short barrage of chains to try and dissuade the boy but he slammed right through the things, smacking them aside as they came close.
Okay, maybe he wasn't as pathetic as he seemed, and he did have that damned ki attack to watch out for as well. Mousse leaned aside out of the way of Naruto's punch and quickly rammed a knee into his gut before smashing a backhanded strike into the side of his head that sent him sprawling away to the side. Naruto rolled with it, this time, and would have been back on his feet in a flash if Mousse hadn't nailed him to the ground with half a dozen kunai through that baggy orange jacket.
"Just give in," said Mousse. "It'll be a lot easier on you. I'm not going to let you score some heroic, underdog win off me."
Naruto glared, and, with a shout of exertion, tore himself free of the knives that were holding him down with a mighty ripping sound. His jacket didn't make it with him, he was left in a mesh undershirt of the type Anko wore - except she wore that and that alone, and that was it. Mousse just rolled his eyes and belted the kid back with a punch to the cheek that twisted his head around and sent him skidding through the dirt.
He was quick to bounce back up, but Mousse wasn't one to leave his opponents breathing room. The chain he sent forth was wrapped around Naruto's throat in a heartbeat and the brat's attempts to pull it free were nothing if not ineffective. He pulled and he tore at the metal links but you were never going to pull a steel chain free like that and his complexion turned a deeper and deeper red.
Then he stopped. His arms dropped to his sides and his head lowered. Was he beaten? No, it wouldn't be that easy. The boy was stubborn if nothing else, Mousse had seen that much from the last fight.
A blue glow lit the arena. Oh, wonderful. Well, he was having nothing of that. That technique was annoying enough when Ranma was using it, he wasn't letting some little kid use it on him. He raised his other arm, allowing the sleeve to drop down, and launched forth another chain to slam into Naruto's head. When the boy jerked his head up to look at Mousse, he got another chain, this time to the bridge of his nose. And again and again and again till Naruto looked quite dazed and had long since stopped glowing in favour of lolling back and forth. It really was nice to fight someone who didn't think that having a hundred pound chain bounced off their face was a weak attack.
Well, that looked like that was that. Underwhelming, to be sure, but it was only to be expected. He was a highly-trained, powerful Amazon warrior and Naruto was a young idiot who moved like an ape and had about the same intellect as one to boot. The result had been inevitable from the start; he'd had no more chance than that of an antelope trying to defeat a lion.
Then Naruto's head snapped up and he stared Mousse in the eye. For a moment, looking into those crimson orbs, Mousse almost felt like the antelope himself. There was just something terrifying on a primal level about those eyes, and the weight of malice that filled the air around him. They weren't human eyes, slitted and crimson as they were, and that wasn't human malice. Mousse could feel that much. But he shrugged it off. He'd seen, and been up against, far worse than Naruto.
The chain shattered like so much glass underneath Naruto's hands. Mousse raised an eyebrow. Okay, he was definitely going to have to start taking this one a little more seriously. He flicked his wrist and shot forth a barrage of chains at his opponent. Naruto smashed through them with ease, but it was more than enough time for Mousse to take to the air and land at the opposite side of the arena from Naruto.
"I don't know what this is," said Mousse as Naruto growled. "But it won't help you."
Naruto roared and charged, fist held above his head to deliver a crushing blow. The sheer speed of the attack caught Mousse by surprise - he'd not seen a ninja move so quickly before - and he was actually pressed to get out of the way. But he still did so, sliding a step to the side and leaning away, leaving Naruto to go whistling by before he slammed fist first into the arena wall, kicking up a thick cloud of dust and pulverised concrete.
He didn't have even a second to catch his breath before Naruto came back out of the cloud swinging and he found himself on the defensive. The attacks were almost transparent, there was little skill or thought behind them, but they came in a fury, with speed Mousse hadn't seen from many ninja, and he found himself actually having difficulty dodging. Difficulty dodging attacks from this fool! He had to hope Saotome was still unconscious somewhere, or he'd never live it down.
They rattled around the arena, Naruto relentlessly throwing punches while Mousse twisted to and fro to avoid the attacks, till they came to be near an arena wall. Mousse leaned his head aside to dodge a punch from Naruto and before the boy could pull his arm free of the wall Mousse lashed out and stuck a thumb in his eye. Ha, that'd show him. He'd like to see how intimidating those demon eyes would be when they were bloodshot and streaming with tears.
Mousse wondered distantly how an idiot of a child could hit that hard as he crashed through the arena wall. It just didn't seem fair; he hadn't been able to hit anywhere near that hard till he was much older. Oh, it hurt. It hurt like the Three Year Smile of Death. Well, not really, but it did hurt. He hadn't expected to be hit hard enough he'd actually feel it, not going up against this kid.
And there was Naruto coming in, screaming at the top of his lungs, looking to deliver a knock-out punch to finish things up, his ki manifesting physically in a red coating around his body and fist as he lunged.
But he hit nothing but air as his fist passed clean through Mousse, whose from promptly wavered and disappeared. Naruto twisted around, growling in frustration, and charged at Mousse, who was stood in the centre of the arena forming hand seals.
Naruto got about halfway across that distance before Mousse completed his seals and a veritable forest of weapons arose from beneath the arena floor. The sight of them, the vast swarm of steel shining in the sunlight, was enough to give Naruto pause and that was enough time for the weapons to swing through the air, seemingly moving under their own power, to form a sphere of steel around the fighters.
"Welcome to my circle of death, Naruto," said Mousse. "Are you sure you want to continue this?"
Naruto did look uncertain for a moment, but then his expression hardened. "I won't give in," he said. "That's my ninja way."
He charged. It was impressive, really, just how stubborn the fool could to continue the attack even when surrounded by evidence of his own demise. Mousse knew that he certainly wouldn't have kept up the fight under such circumstances. Such an act was just insanity by another name.
Well, there was nothing for it. Mousse triggered the next stage of his technique and the weapons came down in an endless rain of death. Even Naruto couldn't quite avoid the instinctive cower and cover-up reaction that came from seeing that heading his way, and he stopped half a dozen paces short of Mousse as he the bombardment started to reach his flesh.
And then the weapons disappeared. Every last one of them simply blinked out of existence as if they had simply never been there. Naruto looked up from between his arms and blinked in surprise. That was the last act he was able to take before Mousse's fist crashed into the base of his skull with boulder-shattering force. No amount of stubbornness was going to work around that.
Well, maybe Saotome's stubbornness. There was something inhuman about that, Mousse was sure. And Ryoga's skull was thick enough that he probably wouldn't even notice the blow. But never mind that.
"Snacks! Get your snacks here! Pork buns, curry bread, rice balls! We've got it all, and you won't find 'em cheaper anywhere else! Get your snacks here!"
Ranma was in front of the seller so quickly that she might as well have teleported there. Well, what could she say? She was hungry. That explained everything as far as she was concerned. "Oh, it all looks so good," she said, staring at the tray hung around the seller's neck. "What shall I have?"
Ranma looked up at the seller, a teenage boy, with big, sparkly eyes. "What do you think?" she asked.
The boy gaped.
A few minutes later Ranma walked away with a somewhat lighter money-bag and a tray of food hanging from her neck. And the food was disappearing rapidly. Oh, but it was good. She hadn't just been saying that to befuddle the seller - though she had definitely done it at least partially for that - but because she was starving. Sleep? Pfft. It was food she needed. Lots and lots of food with as much energy contest as she could get. Enough to make a panda feel bloated, if she could get it.
Ranma stopping shoving food down her gullet for a moment to stick her tongue out at Ryoga. "Quit glaring at me, P-chan," she said. "Get your own high-calorie goodness. This is mine."
Ryoga looked about as happy as he ever did when she opened her mouth. "Ranma!"
Ranma lazily dodged out of the way of Ryoga's half-hearted swipe and set about weaving her way through the crowd to where she could see some people she recognised. Of course she continued stuffing her face all the while. No mere crowd was going to get between her and her food. No way.
"Yo, blondie," said Ranma when she reached them. "Shouldn't you be getting ready for your next fight or something?"
Naruto's expression darkened for a moment before he looked away.
"He's just moody because he lost," said the pink-haired girl sat near him. "Your team-mate beat him."
Ranma blinked. "But Ryoga . . . you lost to Mousse?" she said. "Wow . . . you really do suck."
Judging by Ryoga's laughter, he agreed.
"Oi! I'll beat him next time!"
"Yeah, yeah," said Ranma. "You couldn't even beat the blind idiot with the moka takabisha and I know for a fact he doesn't have a technique like that. Oh, the shame of my teachings being so poorly used. However will I ever live it down?"
Naruto looked like he was about to explode. "I'll show you!" he shouted. "I'll be ten times as strong as him!"
Ranma shot Naruto an askance look before swallowing a rice ball hall. "Might want to get to work then," she said. "Because you've got a long way to go."
If looks could kill, Ranma would have been a greasy spot on the floor. Now, there was a thought. Looks that could kill. That'd be a nice technique to show the old snake bastard next time they met. Would sure as hell make the bastard take her seriously. Well, not so much, because he'd be dead, but the principle was there.
"Ah, the flames of youth!" Ranma turned to face the voice. Oh, it was the guy with the really bad haircut, and the other one: the tall guy whose haircut made him look like a giant toilet brush, the Cyclops. "You have done your sensei proud!"
Did he polish those teeth? Seriously? There was something really unnatural about that gleam.
"Yes!" And there was his half-grown clone kicking at the air, despite his being half-crippled or something. "If I cannot become as strong as you, I will run around the Fire Country a hundred times!"
Uh, wasn't this the kid who'd let rip with enough ki to make Saffron jealous against the sand psycho? Okay, it was a suicide technique, but it was still pretty powerful as things went.
"Looks like the fight's about to start," said Ryoga. "I don't much like the chances of that black-haired one."
Ranma looked down at the arena. "Yeah," she said. "He didn't look like much at the preliminaries and that other one's a total psycho."
"Don't worry so much," said Cyclops. "He's ready."
Ino was on her feet. "YEAH! YOU BEAT HIM, SASUKE!"
"You think you could do that again?" asked Ranma. "I've still got some hearing in one of my ears."
"YEAH! YOU BEAT HIM, SASUKE!"
"I hate you."
Ino's response was to simply stick her tongue out at Ranma and then turn back to the fight.
Genma flickered away and Sasuke immediately bounded back to put some room between himself and his opponent. Sand began to pour forth from the gourd on Gaara's back, moving through the air in a way that real sand never could, but then it stopped and Gaara clutched at his forehead. Ranma couldn't hear a word that he was saying to the confused looking Sasuke, but judging by the look on the red-head's face it was probably something like 'I'll eat your soul and wash it down with a pint of your blood'. You know, the usual psycho stuff.
Gaara straightened up and more sand poured forth. There sure was a lot of it for a gourd that could be carried by a little guy like Gaara, Ranma thought. He was a weedy, little thing, didn't look like he'd done any strength training in his entire life, so how could he manage it?
And then Sasuke opened the actual fight by launching a pair of shuriken Gaara's way. The sand reacted immediately, erupting upwards to form a defensive wall in front of Gaara, trapping the shuriken within its mass. It didn't stop at that, though; the sand twisted and writhed and a shape emerged as it did so. Eventually a copy of Gaara, a sand clone, stood there with the shuriken held in its left hand.
But Sasuke had not been standing idle waiting for this. He was in mid-air, hurtling down towards Gaara, fist held cocked above his head. The clone tossed the shuriken up at Sasuke, but he was quick to pluck forth two more from his pouch and knock them out of the air with his own as he came down.
The clone caught Sasuke's arm as he landed, but Sasuke was quick to twist free and quickly lashed out with a pair of punches that pulverised the clone's head. And then, before the sand could fully reform, he quickly spun on his heel and destroyed the clone entirely with a roundhouse kick that scattered it to the four winds.
Then he moved on to Gaara himself. Sasuke moved quickly, much more so than Ranma would have expected after the preliminaries, and launched a fast head-on attack that was blocked in a shower of sand. And then again, but then he moved, and this was quick, around to launch a punch at the back of the stationary Gaara's head. Gaara moved, finally, but all that accomplished was to have him take the punch on the cheek instead of the back of the head,
Sand fell away from Gaara's cheek as he picked himself up from the floor where he'd landed after taking the blow. Words were exchanged and then Sasuke took a familiar stance, one hand folded behind his back and the other held out in a taunting sort of gesture. She'd only seen Lee fight once, but that was his stance, and the way Sasuke was moving.
"So, this is the famous sharingan," said Ranma. "I'll have to watch out for this one."
"He's copied the entire fighting style?" asked Ryoga. "Ranma, we've finally found someone even more annoying than you."
Sasuke was upon Gaara now. He was moving too quickly, striking too strongly, for the sand to keep up with the attacks, and was basically having a free run of it as he belted Gaara around the arena floor. But Ranma could see the slight hitch in his chest as he breathed in, the slight tremor in his legs as he pumped more and more energy into the technique that allowed him the speed he was using. It was far from over.
Gaara planted his feet as Sasuke came at him again and quickly formed a handseal that had the sand gathering around him in a sphere. It was quick and within a heartbeat Gaara could not be seen as the sphere enveloped him.
That didn't stop Sasuke, though. He was committed to his attack, his charge, and he didn't stop. His fist struck true against the sphere, between the spikes that surged forth against Sasuke as he entered range, and they stopped like that for a moment- Sasuke's fist planted against the sphere - before the boy hopped back. Oh, yes, there it was. Blood. Sasuke was bleeding from his knuckles, from his cheek, from his left arm, and from his right leg.
"Just watch, Naruto," said Kakashi. "We weren't late for nothing."
Sasuke went in for a few more strikes, coming in fast and hard from multiple angles with kicks and punches, but they had no more effect than the last and each left him with more of those superficial wounds. It wasn't long before he gave up and backed away. Far away. So far away that he was halfway up the very tall arena walls when he stopped backing away.
"The reason I trained Sasuke is because he is the same type as me," said Kakashi.
Ranma wasn't paying any attention. She was watching Sasuke, who was shouting in exertion as he performed his technique. What was it? He was holding his right wrist with his left hand, bracing it, as he summoned up a large mass of crackling energy in his right hand. Lightning? Yes. Lightning. It was glowing, crackling, and Ranma could see the concrete around Sasuke splintering as the energy grew.
Gai turned to Kakashi. "So this is why you trained his speed."
Sasuke charged. The energy he had summoned left a trail of cracked concrete and a trench in the dirt as he went and the sound - the sound was loud, and high, like the sound of birds chirping.
"What is this sound?" asked Sakura. "And this technique?"
"A simple stab," said Gai. "But it is Konoha's number one technician, Copycat Kakashi's, sole original technique. It is a technique for assassination. The speed of the stab and the amount of chakra behind it allow the technique to penetrate almost any defence. Because of the concentration of chakra and the speed of the movement, it produces a sound like a thousand birds are running towards you."
Ranma snorted. "So you guys assassinate a lot of blind people, huh?"
"Well, look at it," said Ranma. "You'd have to be blind, deaf, and dumb to not see it coming a mile off. Hey, it might be effective, but assassination? Come on."
Kakashi didn't look too happy but he didn't have time to say anything before Sasuke struck home. And this time he penetrated. It was hard to make out around the flash of energy but once that had cleared there was Sasuke with his arm buried to the elbow in Gaara's cocoon.
"Has he done it?"
Sasuke looked confident enough. Cocky even. She had to admit, it looked like a pretty effective technique he'd used. Assassination it really wasn't, even she knew that much and she wasn't exactly a sneaky little ninja who slit throats in the night, but it looked like it had some decent power behind it. She'd stick with the yamasenken, no need for a run-up, but it wasn't entirely awful.
Then Sasuke's expression changed. Confusion flitted across his features before quickly turning to fear, and he started to pull at his arm, trying to work himself free. What on Earth had put that fear into him? Whatever it was, he was frantic; he looked like he was about to tear his arm off if that was what it took to work himself free of the sand. But it wasn't giving him up easily, despite his efforts.
"What's happening?" asked Sakura.
Sand exploded out as Sasuke pulled himself free, but that wasn't the only thing that came out of the cocoon. A monstrous, mottled arm followed grasping blindly at the air as Sasuke leaped backwards beyond its reach. It was a hideous, misshapen thing, obviously not human, and seeing it made Ranma's hair stand up on end. There was just something intrinsically wrong about it and looking at Sasuke he felt about the same because he was back-pedalling like a good one.
But it didn't get all that far before it withdrew back inside the cocoon, grasping at the air all the while. For a moment the arena was silent and still, no-one knowing quite what to say, but then then the cocoon collapsed, revealing Gaara, clutching at his bleeding shoulder, breathing hard, barely able to stand.
The arena roared. Konoha wasn't slow to voice its approval of Sasuke's success, but Sasuke himself didn't look quite so happy. He looked uneasy, wary, and he was tensed to fight on.
"YEAH, SASUKE! KICK HIS ARSE!"
Ranma rubbed her ear and was about to say something sarcastic but before she could a weight fell upon her eyes and a mass of feathers slowly drifting through the air took her attention. So tired . . .
Hearing Gai and Kakashi snapped her out of it. "Oh no you don't," she groused. "Kai!"
The feathers disappeared as if they'd never existed and Ranma felt as energetic as she ever did. Ryoga, stood next to her, shook his head, grunted, and did the same. She looked around the arena, at the people laid out all around it, snoring, and couldn't quite wrap her head around it. Were they under attack?
The towering part of the stadium that the Hokage was seated in erupted in a thick, billowing cloud of smoke. Masked ninja rocketed forth from where they'd been situated around the stadium towards that part of the arena, ANBU, and for a moment Ranma thought the situation was in hand. After all, they were the ANBU, they were supposed to be the elite of the elite, hand-picked to be absolutely incorruptible.
When the smoke cleared the first thing Ranma saw was the bloodied corpse of the Hokage's aide held up by the knives that had been stabbed through him and into the wall. Her eyes tracked up, and there was the Hokage on the roof, with the Kazekage holding a kunai to his throat. And at each corner of the roof stood an Oto-nin with a discarded ANBU uniform around their ankles.