There was no-one else there at the memorial stone when Ranma arrived and that suited him just fine. For this, he preferred to be alone. When other people were around he tended to shoot his mouth off, he knew it, they knew it, everyone knew it, and this just wasn't the place for that sort of thing. It'd be all kinds of disrespectful and while he didn't normally care much about being that it wouldn't be right when he was at the memorial for everyone ever killed serving Konoha.
Picking out Anko's name wasn't difficult. She was still the last one listed with no-one else being killed since the invasion. That wouldn't last long, he expected, but she was still there for now. The latest and greatest of Konoha's dead servants. The latest on a list of thousands.
Not that he'd have much difficulty picking her out even when that changed. He knew exactly where her name was on the stone and he'd not be forgetting any time soon. The very idea made him feel cold inside. She'd given her life for him and the least he could do was remember where she rested on the memorial.
"I'm still training them," said Ranma. "It's probably a waste of time and I'm still not sure if helping Hitomi get stronger is a good idea, but they're coming along pretty well now. Even Hinata's improving. I think that fight with Neji taught her a lesson and put a little steel in her spine.
"I thought she was hopeless, you know," he continued. "Just another wimp playing around at being a fighter, but she's changed. There's some actual determination there now and she doesn't give up so easy. Still too timid for my tastes but there's time yet to fix that. She's just a kid."
Ranma paused for a moment. He felt a bit stupid talking to a stone, to be honest, but still. This was all that was left of Anko. "Hanabi's the same as ever," he continued. "She tries to be the big, old emotionless Hyuuga that's too good to crack an expression, but she's about as good at is I would be. It's pretty funny to poke till she cracks and comes over all righteous feminine anger on me, though, and it gets her nice and motivated for training when I do so I won't complain too much.
"Hitomi's still a lunatic," he continued. "I don't know if she's going to be all friendly or try to kill me when she gets strong enough. Don't suppose it matters much, there's no way I won't be able to take her if it comes down to it, but I'd rather not have to, you know. I kinda like her even if she is a nutcase who probably hates me for killing her dad and this place isn't so forgiving when it comes to people who go a bit crazy like that.
"Anyway, I don't suppose you're too bothered about those," he continued. "You didn't much like Hitomi or care about the Hyuuga when you were still alive never mind now that you never have to see any of them again."
He paused again. What was the point? He was talking to a rock. It wasn't going to answer back and Anko, wherever she was, wasn't there. It was a waste of time and energy. "This is kinda stupid, isn't it?" he said. "We didn't even talk like this when you were still around. Too busy running around training and fighting and arguing and just . . . stuff."
Had he even known Anko? She'd been his sensei for a while and she'd taught him a few neat tricks, like walking on water, and he'd liked her, but he didn't know her. Not really. And now she was dead and she'd died to save him and he'd never have a chance to because of Orochimaru.
Gods, he'd never wanted to hurt anyone like he wanted to hurt Orochimaru. Even Saffron had just been an obstacle he needed to get past to save Akane's life in the end. But Orochimaru . . . it was different. The man, the thing, was a complete monster. He didn't have a shred of humanity in him. Ranma'd run into some bad people over the years, it was inevitable with the life he lived, but none of them were a patch on Orochimaru. That one was just . . . vile.
Nothing was right in the world. Anko hadn't deserved to die like that. She really hadn't. And Orochimaru was still walking around free as a bird and with nothing to stop him from cooking up another scheme to attack the village and kill a few hundred more people so he could prove how strong he was and get one over on his teacher. There was no justice in any of it.
"Just you wait," he said. "I'll get him. It might take a while, but I'll get Orochimaru and I'll make sure he never hurts anyone ever again. That much I can promise you."
It wasn't much, really, and it wouldn't bring her back anymore than it would have the last time he'd made the promise, but it was something. He needed that much and he reckoned Anko would too. She'd lived to see Orochimaru brought down for years. He had every intention of picking that torch up and running with it to the very end.
A presence flicked into being at the edge of his senses. Ranma turned to find a ninja, one of the chuunin administrators, dropping out of the trees. "What is it?"
"The Hokage wishes to speak to you."
Ryoga grunted with exertion as his sword stopped dead against the umbrella his clone was wielding. Before he could withdraw for a second slash he was forced to roll away as another umbrella cut through the space where he had been standing. When he came back to his feet he was facing both of the clones he'd summoned for his practice session. Both of them looked eager to continue.
Well, where else was he supposed to get a practice partner? Ranma was for finished techniques, not for learning, and Mousse would just make it too tempting to give it up and start smashing. Not that he was the sort to hold grudges because the Amazon had beaten him up when he'd been turned into a six year old or anything. Not at all.
He brandished his sword, Anko's sword, and charged forth with a battle cry on his lips and his sword held above his head. The clone he'd aimed for quickly leapt aside, away from the blade that sliced through the air its head had occupied, and then the blade stopped dead with an almighty clang as it struck home against the umbrella which had taken the first clone's place.
The fight stopped immediately as the two clones backed away to give Ryoga time and space to check they hadn't broken the sword. He knew, intellectually, that it was pretty stupid to worry about it, this wasn't the sort of blade that would break as soon as it ran into resistance, but the idea of breaking Anko's sword made him feel like someone had kicked the guts right out of him and he just had to check and see with his own eyes that it was okay.
It wasn't even nicked. He turned the sword over and around in his hands, examining every centimetre of steel. Not so much as scratch. Hell, he couldn't even see a breaking point and there weren't too many things he could say that about. Now that he stopped to think about it, he couldn't think of anything else he could say that about. Huh. Anko's sword was kinda awesome.
"Are you done admiring the shiny sword or are we going to get on with it?" asked one of the clones. "I always through getting distracted by whatever shiny thing was passing by was a Ranma thing."
Ryoga's head snapped up to glare at the clone. He bared his fangs. "If you're so eager to die," he said, "come on."
The clones both bared their own fangs and charged. Ryoga met them in the middle, blocking both of their umbrellas with his sword at the same time. They had just enough to look surprised before Ryoga hurled them both back the way they'd came with a single heave. Ha. That'd show them to try and mock the real thing.
They recovered quickly, though. Of course they did: they were him. Being slapped around a little didn't stop him for long. The pair of them rushed in again and this time they came in at wide angles so he couldn't get them both with one swing. Annoying. He quickly stepped back to let the attack from the right-most close swing by harmlessly while snapping his sword up into position to block the attack from the clone to his left.
That held for a moment before Ryoga lashed out with a right-handed punch that caught the clone to his right across the temple and sent it sprawling. The second was quick enough to withdraw its umbrella and come in again with the weapon raised high above its head for an overhand strike. But Ryoga was quicker, and his blade pierced the clone's chest before it strike.
Both promptly dissolved back into the mud he'd formed them from.
He'd won, but that wasn't exactly a great surprise when he was sparring with a couple of weaker copies of himself. It'd be time to head for the retirement home if he couldn't manage that much. There was more, he knew it, and he just had to figure it out.
Ryoga turned to see a little guy wearing a hitai-ate. Probably a genin he'd never ran into before. "Yeah?"
"The Hokage wants to speak to you immediately, sir," said the kid.
Mousse arrived at the Hokage's office to find Saotome and Hibiki already present and standing around waiting for him. That wasn't particularly remarkable, beyond the fact that Saotome was actually wearing the tactical vest he'd been issued on promotion, but what was new was the Hyuuga bandit being there with them in the office. He hadn't been expecting that and he didn't really like it too much. That one was dangerous, even if she wasn't as skilled as they were, and she was not to be trusted.
Not that Saotome seemed to agree with him. He was even training her, the lunatic. The last thing Mousse wanted was someone who had spat fireballs at him so she could steal from a merchant hanging around, but no-one else seemed to agree. The fact that she could summon giant monster cats just made it worse. They didn't even dare mention that around Saotome. There was no possible way it could end well.
But what did he know? Well, he knew that the moment she conjured up that monster cat around Saotome he was heading off to somewhere a safe distance away. Like Siberia.
"Ah, good," said the Hokage. "That's everyone I was waiting for. Please, close the door behind you. We have much to discuss."
Mousse closed the door and moved further into the office to stand with his wonderful team-mates.
"To start with, I'm sure you'll all be happy to hear that the medics have agreed that you are all fit for duty," said the Hokage. "Your medical leave is at an end and you are now back on the field duty roster."
Oh. That really was good news. Training was all well and good but it got boring after a while. He wanted to put a few of his new tricks to some use and see how well they worked along with his usual techniques.
Well, that and he was getting more than a little sick of dealing with a bored Saotome. That fool was bad enough under normal circumstances. When he was kept from doing things he considered fun, like picking fights with all and sundry? It was beyond maddening. And then there were the times he'd caught Saotome actually moping. He'd not thought that was even possible, before, and he had no idea how to deal with it beyond pretending it hadn't happened.
The idea that his rival had the emotional depth to actually grieve for their lost sensei was just more than he could handle.
"I guess you have a job for us then," said Ranma. "What is it?"
"Orochimaru has proven to be an elusive target," said the Hokage. "That's no surprise, but we must flush him out into the open. If we don't, we lose face in front of the other villages. They would seek to take advantage, I guarantee it."
"That was what he wanted," said Ranma. "He wanted to start a war using us as the bait."
"Correct," said Sarutobi. "Our destruction was to be the spark, but survival alone will not save us. We must destroy him utterly to maintain our image of strength."
"And our friend here has happened across some information that may help us in this," he continued. "Mercenaries and other undesirables are gathering in a small town in Oto. This offers us an ideal target to strike a blow against Orochimaru and his forces."
"You want us to destroy it?" asked Ryoga.
"No," said Sarutobi. "There will always be more mercenaries to recruit. That scum are nothing if not endless in numbers. I'm interested in the base that must be nearby. Orochimaru and his men make for difficult targets but they must have a real presence somewhere in that region for so many to gather there for work. You are to find that presence and crush it.
"The mercenary gathering is a secondary objective," he continued. "Destroying them would deny Orochimaru some of his low-level manpower and send a message to others of that ilk that Konoha will not idly stand by and allow them to consort with our enemies, but Orochimaru's own men and facilities are the priority."
This was a mission that Mousse could get behind. A chance to strike back at Orochimaru and get a little bit of payback for Anko? Sold. He looked at Ranma and Ryoga. They both had expressions that said much the same story. Getting back at that bastard even in a small way as exactly what they all wanted. But there were still some questions to be answered.
"How does she know of this?" asked Mousse. "Where did she get the information? And why is she here?"
He had a feeling that he wasn't going to like the answer to that last question but he had to ask it anyway.
"You destroyed one of the bases my father used and killed a lot of his men, but most of his contacts are still around," said Hitomi. "I know a lot of interesting people who know a lot more interesting people. Stories get back to me."
"Such information is useful," said the Hokage. "And her skills are sufficient to justify a place within our ranks. She will be assisting you on your mission. A Hyuuga's eyes will come in quite useful for this task."
Wonderful. Mousse could barely contain his joy at that pronouncement. "She's going to be joining the ranks?"
"If this mission is a success, yes. She will join the ranks of the Konoha shinobi as a teamless genin. Anything beyond that will have to be earned in the usual manner."
Which sounded an awful lot like a polite way of saying 'never' to Mousse. She couldn't exactly run off to join a chuunin exam without a team or jounin-sensei to back her. She was doomed to be an eternal foot-soldier limited to learning scraps of low-level techniques that she could scrounge from libraries. That was an end Mousse could live with her achieving.
"I do not believe you will need any further resources for this mission," continued the Hokage. "But if you do then the administrators have orders to provide whatever you require. I wish you luck, though I rather doubt you will need it."