"It will come as no surprise to those who knew her that the life of Anko Mitarashi came to an end in battle with Orochimaru," said Sarutobi. "Her life was dominated by his depravities and so, in the end, was her death. But it was not in vain. Anko Mitarashi died a hero of Konoha. She gave her life to defeat the gravest threat this village has faced in over decade and she shall be remembered for this great sacrifice."
They were nice words. Nice, flowery, complimentary words. And they might as well have been white noise playing in the background for all that Ranma made of them. The tight ball of rage in his gut, that senses-blinding whine of hate in his ears, the wheezing pain of each breath, they didn't lend themselves to soaking in the speech.
He'd never really wanted to kill anyone before, not even Saffron, but he could almost taste his desire to kill Orochimaru. It was like a live thing, this hate boiling inside him, and he wasn't sure he liked it. He felt out of control, driven by forces he couldn't put under lock and key, and he'd seen what happened with martial artists that went down that particular path. It wasn't pretty.
But he couldn't help it. Every time he tried to wrestle it down he'd see Anko's body sagging and the blade slicing through her and it'd be back just as strong as before. There just didn't seem to be an end to it. Whatever he did, whatever meditations he performed, he just couldn't get away from it.
Ranma closed his eyes and took a deep breath. If he didn't watch it, he'd start leaking killing intent again, and the last time he'd done that a little kid had wet their trousers and ran for their life. He really didn't want to get a reputation as a kid-terroriser. Anko would have probably found it amusing but then she wasn't there to enjoy it, was she?
He opened his eyes again. It was a pretty good funeral, really. Anko was front and centre, hero of heroes, as the one who'd given up her life to actually defeat the guy leading the invasion. Her picture was right there at the front, first one you saw, and most prominent of them. She'd probably have liked that, he supposed; it was always nice to have people acknowledge that you're awesome.
But she was dead. Kinda hard to appreciate that sort of thing when you were filling an urn in the local mausoleum.
And he could see Kurenai eyeing him. Ah, man. He really didn't like that. Dealing with sad girls was bad enough at the best of times, but when they were coming over all concerned at the same time? He had no idea how to deal with that. It was utterly beyond him - a problem he couldn't solve by hitting or insulting it.
"Her path was a difficult one," continued Sarutobi. "Torn between her loyalty to her sensei and to her village, she made some regrettable decisions in her youth, decisions that she has suffered for ever since, before she returned to the Konoha fold. But she endured and overcame. In the end she acted in the finest traditions of this village and that is what she shall be remembered for in the years to come: her heroism, her willingness to sacrifice it all to defend her people.
"She became the very embodiment of the Will of Fire," he finished. "And that ensures her place in the pantheon of Konoha heroes."
It didn't seem like much of a comfort to Ranma. All the praise in the world couldn't bring back the dead once they'd really passed on. Anko was dead and Orochimaru still tainted the world with his presence. He could have understood if they'd been burying Orochimaru's ashes in some tomb never to be seen again as well, but this wasn't a victory to celebrate. . . it wasn't even a tie. It was a time-out bought with blood and it left a foul taste in his mouth.
"Remember what we fight for," said the Hokage. "Remember what we have sacrificed and bled for. This is our village, our treasure in a world of blood and horror, and so long as we remember that, so long as we can emulate the spirit of Anko Mitarashi and maintain our Will of Fire, then Konoha shall never fall."
Oh, yippee. An uplifting speech to boost the morale of the locals. Just what everyone wanted to have at their sensei's funeral. All they needed now was for some psycho to burst in yelling about getting revenge for something his pop had done back in the day and it'd be just perfect.
The crowd started to break up and move away. Condolences were muttered by those who passed by him and the slowly but surely the masses drifted away till only those who had lost directly remained. It was an awful lot of people and scant few of them looked like they were eager to leave any time soon.
"Ah, Ranma," said the Hokage. "My condolences. I am aware that you certainly don't wish to deal with these things now, but time presses us all. My office, noon tomorrow - bring your team."
Ranma nodded. He really didn't feel like talking.
"Again, my condolences. The first time is always difficult."
And with that he left. First time? Ranma really didn't want to think about that. Having one person die right in front of him was quite bad enough as far as he was concerned, thank you very much. He didn't need any more of it.
"If there's nothing else."
Ranma looked to his left. Mousse looked grey. The stupid duck hadn't complained, not even winced, but Ranma could tell by looking at the idiot that he was having trouble. Ranma supposed that the Amazon just didn't heal as quickly as himself or Ryoga. Not many did. And he promptly wandered off in that rigid, precise way that came to people who were all kinds of banged up but didn't want to show it. Oh, well. He was a big boy; he could look after himself.
"I'm going too."
Ryoga, well, Ryoga was Ryoga. His aura was a little heavier than normal and he looked slightly more depressed than his norm, but you'd be hard pressed to tell the difference if you hadn't known him a few years. He'd gone from 'woe is me for I cannot find the toilet' to 'I'm so depressed I can't even be bothered to slit my wrists'. Easy enough to tell from the level of weight in his aura but there weren't many who could read it.
And he was leaving. Okay, the flowers wilting in his wake were new. Ranma hadn't seen that happen before. It was new and also excessive, even by Ryoga's standards. The lost boy really needed to find something to hit . . . so long as it wasn't him, for a change.
That left Ranma alone. He really didn't like that one bit. It really wasn't the sort of place he fancied hanging around on his own. Just didn't feel right. Uncomfortable. That was the word: uncomfortable. Like he was intruding.
But he didn't feel like going back to the flat. A night cooped up in those little rooms staring at a ceiling held about as much appeal as being repeatedly punched in the face by Lime while Herb set him up for life as a girl. He was already feeling claustrophobic just considering it. No, it was a night under the stars for him. There was plenty of room for it in Konoha.
He gave the picture of a smiling Anko they'd dug up from somewhere for the shrine one last, long look before trudging away.
Ryoga swivelled around and stared. Hadn't he been next to the hospital a second ago? He was pretty sure the hospital wasn't in a forest . . . Yeah, there were houses around it. Electricity pylons. Stuff like that. You know, civilisation.
"ARGH!" he shouted at the top of his lungs. "I'm lost again!"
A whole flock of birds took wing and fled at the volume of his shouting, but it barely registered with Ryoga. His mind was spinning off elsewhere. On coming to from being taken down by a sneaky ninja trick to see Anko and Ranma laid out next to each not moving. For one horrible moment he'd thought Kabuto had killed the pair of them while he'd been out cold and he'd felt like his whole world had been tilted on its axis and kicked out to twin up with Pluto. Then Ranma had twitched.
A thunderous crack filled the clearing as Ryoga smashed his fist through the nearest tree with a roar of anger. The tree promptly collapsed to the ground in a shower of wood and leaves. Then the only sound was that of Ryoga's ragged breathing.
Dammit, it wasn't right. He wanted to tear something to pieces. He wanted to hunt Orochimaru down and beat him till he was a greasy spot on the floor. He wanted to pull Kabuto's arms off and beat the bastard to death with them. He wanted to find those transforming weirdos and smash them to bits. He wanted to find those masked ninja that had been working for Orochimaru and decorate the world with their guts. He wanted to do many things and it was all pointless.
He wasn't strong enough to defeat Orochimaru. He probably wasn't even strong enough to defeat Kabuto. All the reasons, all the excuses, in the world wouldn't change the way he'd been swatted down like some Kuno when he'd tried to take on that bastard. It had been pathetic. Absolutely pathetic.
Another tree was smashed to bits.
Years of training. Years of wandering through the wilderness never knowing if he'd see his home again. All worthless. All pointless. He'd been crushed like a bug the moment it had really mattered, when lives were on the line, and Anko was dead because of that weakness. If he'd just been that little bit stronger . . .
Well, it wouldn't happen again. He wouldn't be weak again. Oh, no. All those fancy techniques, all those powers, he'd take them and make them his own. He'd learn and match everything they could do, learn the most powerful ninja techniques in existence and then top them with ones of his own creation, and then . . . then he'd smash Orochimaru to paste. Anko's death wouldn't go unavenged.
A low, rumbling growl from behind him broke Ryoga from his thoughts. He turned to see a massive sabre-toothed tiger - almost tall enough to reach his shoulder - growling at him with its enormous teeth bared and shoulder muscles held tense ready to pounce at a moment's notice.
Ryoga was in no mood for it. The last thing he needed was some stupid animal trying to push him around. He had enough trouble with snakes without adding tigers to the list of troublesome beasts. And so he bared his fangs and growled right on back at it.
It turned on its tail and fled. Smarter than it looked.
Neither of the idiots had returned to the flat. Mousse couldn't exactly claim to be heartbroken as he collapsed into the nearest chair and allowed himself to drop the act of being perfectly fine. He didn't even know why he was doing it, why he'd bother to hide that he was hurt, when Saotome and Hibiki were lucky if they could manage more than half a dozen steps before they had nurses fluttering around them. It was pointless, and yet he kept on doing it.
Well, it didn't matter. They weren't there and he could relax just a little. Ryoga had probably ran face first into a mountain or something equally stupid and Saotome was probably off trying to provoke someone into picking a fight so he could work off his angst on their face. Either that or he was sulking in a corner and scheming over what ridiculous technique he'd learn to beat Orochimaru.
Mousse closed his eyes and sighed. He didn't want to think about it. He didn't want to think about it at all. Thinking about Orochimaru made him remember what it was like to be trapped as a small animal and helpless at the hands of someone who would have happily killed him. Oh, it wasn't as if Kabuto had bothered with grandiose threats or putting up a 'look how scary I am' aura or anything like that, but he'd know all the same that he was a second away from death with that chakra wire wrapped around his throat. And, needless to say, he hadn't much liked it.
And then, when he'd been sensate again, Anko had been dead. Just like that. No epic showdown, no spectacular duel, just dead. It was everything he'd had nightmares about when he was a child after some particularly harsh training sessions. Dead and gone in thirty seconds flat and set to be forgotten just as quickly after the eulogies were all done and dusted.
Yes, it was something out of a nightmare. For someone with as much life in her as Anko to be just snuffed out and sent on to the next like that just seemed wrong. He'd never even considered the idea that Anko could really die, not even when Hiro had taken her, and he still half expected her to come bounding in through the flat door and start ranting at them about being so pathetically mopey.
A loud crack startled Mousse out of his contemplation and he looked down to see that he'd snapped the arm off the chair he was sat on. He frowned. Had he slipped so much that he couldn't even control his own strength? No, that was Hibiki's style, not his, and he wouldn't, couldn't, allow himself to be that person. He had to remain in control. Anything else was idiocy.
Idiocy or not, he needed to get himself under control. He needed every erg of strength he could lay his hands on if he was going to avoid being back in that position, his life in the hands of an enemy, again and he wouldn't have if he let himself get soft in the head. No, he needed a cool head and new techniques. The only question was where to get them from.
"Ah, good. You've arrived," said the Hokage. "Again, before we begin, my condolences for your loss. I well remember the pain of losing my sensei to war. All I can tell you is that time heals most wounds and will distance you from the rest."
Ranma said nothing. He simply didn't trust himself to reply. The last few days had brought enough platitudes to last him a life-time and he was in no mood to nod and smile as more were heaped upon him. If the old man understood, then he'd stop at that.
"But we didn't come here to talk about such things," he continued. "I have items to discuss with you. For a start, I have some good news for all three of you. You are to be promoted, effective immediately. Congratulations. I know it may not seem like much consolation now, but this is what you were working for and Anko would be very, very proud of you."
Ranma shifted but Mousse spoke first. "So we're chuunin then," he said flatly. "Yippee."
Sarutobi smiled slightly. "Chuunin?" he asked. "Oh, no. The time for half measures is past. While you lack the complete skills of a fully-fledged jounin each of you is far too strong to stand as a mere chuunin. I must congratulate you all on reaching the rank of special jounin. Few ninja reach such heights and I expect you to reach higher yet given time.
"Of course," he continued. With a wave of his hand three of the armoured vests that Konoha-nins tended to wear appeared in front of him on his desk. "This will be almost meaningless till you have recovered from your injuries. Till then you will be confined to having earned the right to wear a tactical vest and access to the Konoha technique library Use them well."
The conversation paused for a moment as they donned their new armour. Ranma had little enthusiasm for it, but even he knew better than to not take it up when someone made a big fuss over something like that. Well, not when he was still too hurt to get away cleanly anyway.
"Ah, you do your sensei proud," said Sarutobi. "But now we must move to less pleasant matters. Anko has died intestate. She left behind neither family nor documentation as to how to dispose of her belongings in case of her death. In such a case we are left only with Konoha tradition to guide us. At this point, I hand proceedings over to Anko's family in all but blood, Kurenai."
Ranma turned his head just in time to see Kurenai walk into the office. She was back out of her funeral kimono and in her usual outfit of bandages that didn't really cover all that much at all. Some would have probably called it inappropriate for such an occasion but Ranma knew better - this was Anko's send-off, and Anko had never been one for standing on ceremony, or for modest clothing for that matter.
She didn't look much happier to be there than they did. Oh, she hid it well, behind a carefully schooled facial expression, but if there was anything Ranma could do it was read body language and hers wasn't speaking of happiness at all. Rather the opposite, in fact, and Ranma could sympathise.
"Anko had no children and no students but you three," said Kurenai. "In the absence of other claims and documentation to any other effect, you are her heirs to all but that tithed to the village."
"Want it?" asked Kurenai. "Of course not. You want Anko, not her few belongings, but we can't have that. Don't disrespect her memory now, please."
Ranma subsided. What could he say? It probably didn't matter anyway; if Konoha was anything like Japan it'd all go into inheritance taxes anyway, so it didn't really matter all that much no matter how utterly small it made him feel to be taking stuff that belonged to someone who'd got killed saving him.
There isn't much to distribute," said Kurenai. "The flat she lived in, her ninja tools, scrolls, and her wardrobe. Her scroll library is extensive, especially for one of her rank, but I'm sure you can split that between you in your own time and in privacy. But there is one item that we must cover here and now."
Kurenai placed a long, brown bag on the table. It didn't take a genius to recognise it for what it was.
"This is her sword," said Kurenai as she pulled the bag clear to reveal the weapon within, a spectacularly lethal looking katana. "Passed down from her sensei many years ago. Anko rarely used it due to the associations it held in her memory, but it is still her blade, a piece of her, and an extremely potent weapon."
Ryoga was the one to speak. "Orochimaru gave her that?"
"Orochimaru always believed that a shinobi should be well-rounded," said Sarutobi, "and that swordsmanship was part of that rounding. This weapon is modelled on his own Kusanagi, though considerably less powerful and single-edged. It would be wise not to allow its origins to taint such a fine blade."
"There are two options in handling the blade," continued Kurenai. "It will be buried with Anko or handed down to one of you with the consent of the others. Whoever takes the blade will, essentially, be marking himself as her successor."
Ranma absolutely didn't want it. He couldn't even look at the weapon without seeing Anko being ran through by Orochimaru and it made him want to retch. Anko's blade or not, he just couldn't bring himself to it. Who wants to remember their sensei being killed right in front of them every time they come to mind? No, some things were just too much, even for him.
Anyway, Mousse was the weapons freak of the group. He'd be the one who'd get the most out of some magic sword. Ranma just had to hope that the Amazon wouldn't throw a fit at some point in the future over Shampoo and pull the sword. That'd be messy. But Mousse wasn't that stupid.
"I'll do it," said Ryoga. "I'll take up the sword."
Huh? Ranma jerked around to face the others with a look of utter shock on his face. Since when did Ryoga use swords? Or even care for them? Ranma'd always seen him as more of a blunt force trauma sort of guy, with a bit of razor-cloth throw in to keep things interesting. Swordsmanship required finesse and Ryoga had about as much of that as he had a sense of direction.
"Does anyone disagree with this?"
Ranma really expected Mousse to say something, he was the weapon guy after all, but he looked unbothered. "I have no objections to Hibiki taking up the sword."
Ranma shook his head. "If he wants it, he can have it," he said. "No objections from me, either."
It felt like he'd tumbled into another alternate universe, one where Ryoga didn't just smash his way through things and used precision weapons instead. Such a thing was almost strange enough to make him want to check the number of suns, the colour of the sky, and whether things had started falling up. But there wasn't a whole lot he could do about that just then.
"Use it well, Ryoga Hibiki," said Kurenai as she passed the blade to him hilt-first. "This is no small thing, taking on this blade."
Ryoga took the blade. "I will," he said. "You have my word."
Ranma hadn't had a lot of experience with that sort of moment in his life, the closest he'd been to a family blade had been when his mother had nearly skewered him with theirs by accident, but he knew something serious when he saw it. This was something a bit important, something that Ryoga was going to have to live up to, and he had to admit that he wasn't sorry it was Ryoga and not him.
"There is nothing left to be disposed," said Kurenai. "Anko's property remains open with a chuunin honour guard but it is expected that you shall take possession and dispose of it promptly."
With that Kurenai let out a deep breath and a whole load of tension just seemed to drain out of her body. Looked like she hadn't been looking forward to that business anymore than they had.
"I suggest you take advantage of the time left to you," said Sarutobi. "Time to process and move past your grief will be at a premium once your health has returned and you join the other jounin on the mission roster."
Ryoga wouldn't have been able to explain to anyone why he took the sword if they'd been there to ask. It had been a spontaneous decision, something he'd just felt that he had to do in that moment of asking, and now, there he was, with a sword. Anko's sword. And he had no idea where the hell he was supposed to go from there.
Oh, it was a nice enough weapon, and putting the pointy end into the bad guy wasn't a difficult idea to master. But . . . it was more than that. He had to be worthy. He couldn't just run around stabbing people with it when they annoyed him. Well, he could, and Anko would probably find it funny, but it probably hadn't been what Kurenai'd had in mind when she said to use It well.
He had to live up to it. It was a really, really nice sword, even if it had came from a bastard, and it had been Anko's. That meant something. That meant he had to be a good Konoha-nin with all that went with that. And it meant he had to avenge her. Well, he'd been planning on doing that anyway, but now it was formalised. He'd taken up her sword so he had to help kill Orochimaru. That simple.
She hadn't deserved to die. Anko had been . . . Anko. Always loud, always in your face, always there. Having her just go . . . just be quiet. It was wrong. He'd felt like he'd had his guts ripped out when he'd came to and seen Anko and Ranma just laid there not moving with all the blood around them. For one horrible moment he'd thought he'd really failed and Kabuto had killed the pair of them. Then Ranma had twitched. Just a little, almost unnoticeable, but a twitch, enough to so he'd known he was alive, and . . . well, it wasn't a whole lot better, but it was something.
But he'd been weak. His defeat, his one-shot defeat, at the hands of Kabuto had left the field open for all of that to happen. Ranma hadn't been in the mood for talking about it too much but it didn't take a genius to figure it out: Anko had been left to defend them against Orochimaru, alone, and hadn't been able to come up with anything better than a suicide technique to do it with.
It wouldn't happen again. He'd take her sword, her memory, and he'd make sure it was known to all. He wouldn't be so weak as to lose a second time and Anko wouldn't be forgotten. He'd make sure of that.
Ranma could still feel it boiling inside him, that rage, but it was a controlled thing now, simmering beneath the surface. He knew what he had to do and that he was going to do it. Now, now it was just a matter of time and finding the exact path to walk that would lead him to his goal: the death of Orochimaru.
And so long as Anko's coat still hung in his wardrobe he would never be able to forget his choice. It would always be a reminder of what had happened and what was going to happen, a little spur to keep him moving towards his goal. So long as he had that he wouldn't be able to get distracted.
When the time came, he'd wear that coat, but not before. It was for the final showdown, the end of Orochimaru. No more, no less. The snake had to know why he was being killed and the coat would accomplish that. And it just seemed so right that something so distinctively Anko's be there for the moment.
Looking down at the scroll he'd retrieved from Anko's library . . . their library . . . was almost enough to give Mousse second thoughts. There would be no going back once he'd signed. You couldn't take back a signature made in blood, he knew that much. There were all sorts of powers involved in that sort of thing and he'd known that since long before he'd ended up in this crazy world.
But there was no going back now. He'd made his choice. Taking up this contract was why he hadn't offered up any objection to Ryoga taking the sword: he didn't want to leave himself open to comparisons with Orochimaru. And the scroll was ready, his thumb was bleeding, and he needed that strength. He couldn't be vulnerable like that again. He just couldn't.
There was no flash of light, no fanfare, no great burst of chakra, when he pressed his thumb to the contract and made his mark. It was just done. He'd expected . . . more, somehow, from something like this. It wasn't every day you signed a contract with inhuman creatures in blood.
He put that aside and worked his way through the five seals he'd seen Hitomi use when she'd summoned that giant cat before he slammed his bloodied hand down to the ground to complete the technique. "Kuchiyose no jutsu."
Mousse sagged and almost fell onto his back as smoke billowed out to fill the valley around him. It was absolutely the most draining thing he'd done in his entire life, using that technique, and it made him wonder if maybe it had been a good idea for a moment.
"Orochimaru! What have I told you about summoning me without good reason?"
And Mousse knew it hadn't been a good idea when the smoke cleared to reveal the most hideously over-sized snake he had ever seen. It made that enormous cat Hitomi had summoned to attack him look like a runty kitten. The damned thing barely even fit in the valley, never mind anything else.
"You! Boy! Where is Orochimaru? Is he not brave enough to face me?"
Mousse straightened his posture and rose to his feet as some strength returned. "Orochimaru is not here," he said. "I don't know where he is, but I'd assume nowhere near here with the number of people after his head."
The snake let loose a distinctly displeased sounding hiss, loud enough to dislodge several rocks. "Are you claiming that an insect like you could summon me?" it hissed. "Summon Manda? I will swallow you whole, whelp!"
For a moment Mousse knew true terror, again. There he was, small, insignificant, wounded, and drained from his already weakened state, with a damned kaiju threatening to swallow him whole. It was just like being under Kabuto's whip, he was just as tiny, just as utterly defeated, and in that he knew terror.
No. No, he wouldn't let it end there. He grabbed hold of that terror and he forced it down just as he forced himself to stare Manda in the eye. He had summoned this creature to gain the strength he needed and he wouldn't let it end like this. "Look at the contract," he shouted back, loud as he could manage around his wounds. "My signature. My summoning. I don't need that bastard to summon."
Manda reared up, blotting out the moonlight with his sheer bulk as he did so. "You would dare speak to me in such a tone? I will not abide it!"
"I summoned you to gain the strength I need to defeat Orochimaru. If you won't give me that, what does it matter?"
The noise Manda made in response to that honestly left Mousse thinking he was a dead man walking for a moment. That loud, staccato hissing, he thought it was some sort of animalistic bellow of rage, but he quickly realised it was, in fact, laughter. "You? Kill Orochimaru? You have ambition if nothing else, but I see no reason to humour you."
"I summoned you, didn't I?"
The laughter stopped. Manda seemed to be giving him a more contemplative look, but it was hard to tell with something that big and that inhuman. "Snakes don't grant power without exacting a price."
Mousse's reply came without hesitation. "Then I'll pay it."
"We'll see. You won't summon me again if you value your life."
"Then how-" Manda disappeared in a cloud of smoke that quickly had Mousse coughing his lungs up. "Dammit."
That . . . hadn't gone quite as planned. He'd thought the snakes would be more than happy to find someone they could try and make into one of them. Summoning a kaiju that seemed like it wanted nothing more than to squash whoever summoned it and then be left alone had not been in the plan, not at all, and now he had no idea what the hell he was supposed to do. He didn't really fancy the idea of summoning that thing again; he wasn't sure he'd live to tell the tale of it.
He sat down and pondered the situation for a few minutes, turning it over in his mind, as he tried to find a solution. He didn't want to face Manda again if he could help it but he wasn't going to just give up either - that wasn't his style. But getting himself killed wouldn't help too much.
Wait. He'd said 'snakes don't grant power' now 'I don't grant power', and he'd seen plenty of summoned snakes that weren't anywhere near that size. All he had to do was throw a little bit less ki into the technique and he'd have something he could work with.
"Kuchiyose no jutsu."
"Took you long enough, moron. Whatever it is the boss saw in you that made him not turn you into a snack is beyond me."
"It only took a minute!"
"That's a minute too long." The snake slithered up Mousse's arm to wrap around his shoulders. It was all he could do not to throw the damned thing off. "This isn't going to be fun, you realise."
"I'll do whatever it takes."
"Oh, I do like to hear that. All that enthusiasm and innocence that comes with youth just waiting to be broken. It never gets old."
Mousse didn't feel particularly enthusiastic or innocent. But he wasn't going to say anything that would affect his chances of getting training.