What had she done to deserve this? She was a guy, a man amongst men, not a girl, so why did she have to dress up like a girly girl complete with sundress, pigtails, and glasses that made her look like a proper little anime girl just waiting to be drooled over by the fanboys? Even worse, she had a piglet riding along on her shoulder to make look about as ridiculously girly as she could possibly manage short of dressing up in a maid uniform and blushing a lot.
All of it was supposed to be in aid of this stupid mission. Hitomi'd asked who could get all disguised up so they'd not get picked out as being one of the guys who'd punched Orochimaru's teeth down his throat and of course everyone had pointed her. Ranma thought they were just bitter because she'd made them all look like idiots a few times, bit anyone listen? No, of course not. The fact that she'd fought Orochimaru and went through the entire exam as a girl didn't seem to come into it.
Well, okay, people probably wouldn't link a cute little redhead in a flowery dress with the lean, mean, ninja-pulverising machine she really was. She was even wearing a bow in her hair! But it still seemed stupid to her. Hardly anyone in this world would recognise her real body - she'd not been out in public that much with it, not anything like that stupid exam - and she was stronger as a guy.
Oh, well. She'd have gone crazy if she'd been lumbered with waiting outside the village for news. That was just a horrendous thought, being stuck waiting for gods only knew how long while someone else did all the work, and even being stuck as a girl wearing a dress for a bit wouldn't change that. Though she did think it was stupid and didn't understand why she couldn't just be a guy.
But nag, nag, nag. You could tell Hitomi was a real girl when she got started. She really should have knocked Mousse and Ryoga out before they could start blabbering on about her disguises. But how could she have known that Ryoga actually remembered that whole fiancée disguise bit? Ryoga normally couldn't remember what he'd had for breakfast that morning, the idiot. Hitomi was a bit on the unhappy side about her being put through the 'you don't eat till you're fast enough to defend your plate training' as well which probably didn't help. And Mousse was just a dick as always.
"Have you stopped whining yet?"
Ranma almost jumped out of her skin. That was another thing she really didn't like. Hitomi had came up with some nutcase communication technique that would let them stay in touch at a distance. Great. Wonderful. It all sounded very useful. What Hitomi hadn't mentioned was the fact that it would involve disembodied voices speaking to him without so much as a hint of a warning.
It really didn't help Ranma's peace of mind that it allowed Hitomi to see what she was seeing, but not vice-versa. And that she had to actually speak to send anything back. There hadn't been time for her to really learn how to use the technique properly so she was stuck looking like a lunatic to anyone nearby when she used it.
"Oh, I've never been better," said Ranma. "Nothing like having voices in my head to brighten a day up."
"You don't need to speak out loud, you know. Just think it."
"Saotome can't help being an idiot," said Mousse, joining the disembodied conversation just to make Ranma's day that little bit brighter. "It's just his nature."
"Shut up and go away, Mousse. You'll have plenty of time to show the world just how brilliant you are later. There might even be some twelve year olds for you to beat."
From Mousse's sputtering Ranma judged that one to be a swing and a hit at the old ego. Hopefully it would shut the blind idiot up for a while so she could get on with things without having him trying to be clever in her ear. Nobody deserved to have to put up with that. Well, maybe her pop. Or Happosai. Or Kuno. Or . . . well, okay. A few people.
"If you're quite finished with the comedy routine," said Hitomi. Ranma stuck her tongue out ready to give her the stinkeye before remembering that she wasn't there to be taunted. "Are you ready?"
"Go into the village, act normal, and find this Kentaro. I think I can manage that."
There was a long silence before the response to that came. "Normal? You? I'll settle for your not starting a riot."
Was there a sound on Earth more annoying than a pig's oinking laughter? Ranma couldn't think of one that didn't come from a Kuno's mouth. And Kodachi wasn't around to shatter windows with her laughter so Ryoga got the prize. And that prize was a punch to the top of the head to shut him up.
"I can be normal," said Ranma. "It's just boring."
"That's the problem. Just try and remember that you're not supposed to be an elite ninja."
The problem with annoying people at a distance, Ranma thought, was that you didn't get to see the look on their face. It was much less entertaining when you had to imagine it. That just wasn't the same as getting the real thing. She was sure that Hitomi's face would be a picture - and certainly not one of calm - but she just wasn't going to get to see it.
In any event, that seemed to have made Hitomi go quiet and hence quit being so damned bossy. He didn't much like the quiet but she'd take that over having disembodied voices bossing her around and insulting her. That was pretty high-grade insanity material right there.
The village looked pretty normal at first glance, like any of the many small villages Ranma had passed through in the hinterlands of whatever country he'd been wandering about at the time, with people bustling about to and fro and only a few signs of any sort of technology to stink things up. But she couldn't help but notice, after a while, that it was a little quieter than it should be.
And when she noticed that she started looking at the people a little more closely and she realised that even the men weren't looking at her. That was unusual with the weapons of mass distraction she carried on her chest, she was used to getting a whole lot of attention even without clothes that showed off her figure, but the men were far more interested in the ground just a few inches of front of them than in looking at her or, in fact, anyone at all. They scurried by like there was nothing more important than getting the hell away without attracting any attention at all.
It was probably better that people didn't look too closely at her - she'd just blend into the masses that way - but it was kinda disturbing. How horrible was the place to make people act like that?
She didn't have time to hang around trying to figure that sort of thing out, though. It wasn't what she was there for. Ranma had places to be and no particular appetite for spending any more time in Orochimaru's little fiefdom than she absolutely had to. Bad enough that it existed and that she wasn't going to do much of anything about it, never mind spending time in his personal little empire. The idea made her feel ill.
Finding the building she'd been told to go to didn't take too long. The village wasn't that large and the surroundings of the shabby looking house were remarkably devoid of passers by despite it not being too far off the main thoroughfare of the village. It didn't take many guesses to figure out why the locals were staying well away. At least there wasn't much danger of anyone getting suspicious with there being no-one to get suspicious. That was helpful, she supposed.
Well, there was no point in standing around thinking. Ranma rapped her knuckles against the building's front door and waited. The answer came in the form of a pretty but drawn looking woman in a flowery kimono pulling the door open. "Yes?"
"I'm here to see Kentaro."
There was something distinctly off-putting about the evaluating look the woman gave her before she spoke again. "I see," she said finally. "He's in the back. Try not to make too much noise."
Ranma resolved to not so much as scratch the surface of a single thought about what that woman thought she was there for. Some things were just not for mortal minds to ponder.
The innards of the house weren't exactly pretty. It was pretty obvious that the people living in it didn't really care if it fell to bits from looking at the state of things. Oh, the place was clean, but it was pretty obvious from just a quick glance around that half the furniture was on its last legs and there was damage to some of the walls and fittings that whoever actually tried to keep the place in decent nick just hadn't been able to do anything about.
In truth it looked like a house lived in by a bunch of brats with one person who tried to keep it tidy and in one piece and just couldn't manage it. Ranma had some sympathy for that person what with having to live with Ryoga and Mousse.
She found Kentaro in the back just like the woman had said she would. He was every bit as huge as Hitomi had claimed and she felt like an absolute midget when he stood up. The guy had at least thirty centimetres on her male form and her girl body was an awful lot smaller. All of a sudden Ranma liked being a girl for this even less than usual.
"Well look what the cat dragged in," he said. Ranma was so busy shivering at the use of a certain word that she almost didn't catch the second part. "Looks like it's my lucky day."
"I'm with Hitomi."
"I bet you are. I don't know where you got that name, but Hitomi Hyuuga didn't waste her time hanging around with stupid little girls who had nice pretty faces and not much else going for them when I knew her."
Ranma riposte came in the form of ramming her fist through the wall next to Kentaro's head. It didn't take all that much, really. The walls were wood, not concrete, so the only problem in the breaking came from the splinters.
Judging by Kentaro's expression he got the message. One hundred percent less lechery, well, close enough, and a great deal more respect. "Okay, fine," he said. "More than a pretty face."
"That's me," said Ranma. "I'm Ranma Saotome, heir to the Saotome School, and I'm here to smash up some of Orochimaru's things."
"That's nice," said Kentaro. "I'm here for the money and you Konoha guys pay well, so let's deal."
And all of a sudden Ranma regretted punching the wall and not the man. She couldn't imagine a much more repulsive sort of man than someone who'd decide whether or not to work for an absolute monster based on the size of the pay cheque. Well, other than said absolute monster anyway.
"Okay," he said. "So, you're here for the local ninja? That's not going to be easy. They don't come here often and not without all sorts of security. It won't be a straight fight. They send those copies in to give out missions when they do come themselves and they send payment by messenger bird."
"When do they come in person?"
"When you fail. If you piss them off enough, they come in the night and slit your throat. Usual stuff, you know. Ninja."
That sounded like Orochimaru alright. Slip up and get executed. And it was still a better reward than those stupid kids he'd sent to the exams had got for their troubles.
"So, we just need a mission failure to bring them out for the taking then. That sounds simple enough."
"Get lost," said Kentaro. "I'm not putting my neck on the line so that you have the ghost of a chance. This is as far as I, or my boys, go for you."
"What's the point in even calling for us if you're not going to give us anything to work with?" asked Ranma. "This is a complete waste of time if you're just going to stand there and tell us that bad people sometimes, occasionally, wander around the village when they feel like it."
"Hold your horses, girl," replied Kentaro. He looked vaguely irritated, which made Ranma feel about as guilty as she did when she realised that she'd upset Happosai. "I never said that. I can't give you the ninja but I can tell you where to start looking: the mayor."
"He knows where to find them."
"I don't know about that, but I bet he'll be able to set you up with somewhere to start looking. He's the only one in this miserable little hole of a village that I know has dealt with these people directly."
It made sense. They'd need to keep in touch with the local boss to make sure that everything kept running nice and smooth. Oh, sure, they could do without, it wasn't like they cared about the locals, at all, but it was easier to work when things were nice and stable. Less chance of interference. Less chance of the locals doing anything stupid like talking to strangers wearing some strange hitai-ate.
Ranma turned away. She didn't want to spend a moment longer than she absolutely had to. "I'll see you around then."
"Hey," said Kentaro before she got more than a couple of steps away. "Where's my money? I don't work for free."
"You can talk to Hitomi after we're done for that. Don't worry. You'll get what you deserve."
And with that she left.
There was one unfortunate flaw in Ranma's plan. She could hardly go bashing down the door to the mayor's office in the middle of the day, could she? That would attract rather a lot of attention. Attention that would be rather counter-productive to her aims.
Damn but life had been a lot simpler in the old days. Find bad guy. Beat bad guy to a pulp. Maybe befriend him afterwards. Avoid girls. Easy. It beat the hell out of being a ninja. And there'd been an awful lot less bodies on the floor after all was said and done in Nerima than there normally was in the ninja world.
Ranma realised that she'd tensed up and, with a quite deliberate effort, relaxed and unclenched her fists. She'd been getting too close to some uncomfortable topics there. She needed to keep her head clear and her focus on what needed to be done for the mission.
But, still, she needed to find something to do to pass the time. It was going to get too tempting to find something to start smashing if she didn't have something to occupy her hands at least a little. There were too many bastards around taking Orochimaru's cash for doing various evil deeds. Too much temptation. It couldn't end well. She needed a distraction.
And she was feeling a bit on the hungry side. Really hungry. When had she least eaten? Damn but it was times like that when she really missed the Tendos. Kasumi's meals were really, really good and she hadn't had one in months. She could cook for herself, sure, but it really was never the same. She was no Akane, her food was edible, good even, but nothing like the meals Kasumi would cook up.
Well, there was no point dwelling on the things she missed from Nerima. She was hungry and there had to be some places to eat in the village. Ryoga was starting to stir, too, and shoving his face into a plate of something would keep him from turning into super-pig the revenge with added energy attacks and depressive rage.
And in a happy coincidence there turned out to be a ramen joint not far from the house of doom. Maybe the place wasn't so bad after all.
It turned out to be a small place with only room for a handful of small tables and chairs inside it. Not all that different from the Ghoul's place, really, in that way, but the atmosphere was nothing like that place. The Cat Café was always a lively sort of place, even when it was empty, but this restaurant was pretty much dead. The only person in it was the girl behind the counter and she looked thoroughly bored.
Needless to say, no-one was ever bored in the Cat Café.
The girl soon perked up when she looked up from the book she was reading to see Ranma on the café side of the door. She was actually kinda cute in a very normal sort of way - nothing like the crazy lunatics he normally dealt with.
"So," said Ranma. "Where is everybody?"
That dropped her smile but it was back a moment later even if it looked a little forced to Ranma. "The locals don't go out to eat much these days," she said. "And the mercenaries prefer a more liquid diet."
Ranma gave her a blank look. "But ramen has broth."
The look Ranma got in return was even blanker. Sheesh. She was beginning to wonder if anyone had a sense of humour in that world.
"Okay, fine," said Ranma. "I'll have two bowls of pork ramen."
What could she say? She liked to live dangerously. And pork tasted good.
The girl looked a bit dubious, too. "What about-"
"Oh, don't worry about that," said Ranma with a grin. "He'd taste like old shoe leather anyway."
"Take a seat, then. It'll just be a minute."
Ranma took a perch in front of the counter and set the still unconscious Ryoga down in front of her as she waited as the girl set about preparing the food. Before the job was done and the good was served Ryoga twitched and jumped on to his stubby little piglet legs with death in his eyes.
So, Ranma took what was obviously the most sensible option and cracked him over the head again. The ramen girl didn't half give her an odd look and the beaming smile Ranma sent her way didn't seem to help for some reason, but after an uncomfortable moment she turned back away so Ranma could lean down to Ryoga's level and have a quiet word.
"Hey, P-chan," she said. Quietly. it wouldn't do to look insane. "This isn't the Cat Café. We can't just trash someone's restaurant fighting."
The return oink wasn't particularly welcoming. More of an 'I'm going to tear your lungs out and wear them as a hat when the world stops spinning' sort of oink if Ranma was reading it right. Pigese wasn't what you'd call a well-defined language but Ryoga was nothing if not predictable. If he wasn't trying to beat her, he was probably off learning a technique so he could try and beat her later.
"Look, I've even bought you some food," said Ranma. "You should be grateful."
And there came the girl with two steaming hot bowls of rather delicious smelling pork ramen. Mmm. Ryoga gave her a glare that would have melted paint when he realised what was in the bowls but he subsided when she wagged a finger at him. It probably wasn't the smartest thing she'd ever done but it amused her and she was pretty short on that just then.
"You're not from around here are you?" asked the ramen girl. "No offence but you don't look like a local."
Ranma stopped shovelling noodles down her throat for a moment. "Nah," she said. "I'm a good long way from home."
That got her a strange look. "Then why come here of all places?"
"Just passing through," said Ranma with a shrug. "I don't plan on being here all that long. I'm not one for letting the grass grow underneath my feet.""
And she was even telling the truth. She had every intention of leaving the place as soon as she humanly could. Otherwise there was a distinct chance she'd end up playing basketball with a mercenary's head just to relieve her irritation at how many people were willing to work for a heel like Orochimaru. It made her feel sick to her stomach. Almost enough to put her off her food. Almost.
"That I can understand."
"If you hate the place so much, why not leave?" asked Ranma between mouthfuls of ramen. "There are plenty of other places you could set up."
"This place has been in my family since my grandfather decided to start his own restaurant," she replied. "I can't just leave."
"Oh. Sucks to be you then."
That kinda killed the conversation stone dead. She'd never been very good at talking to people without pissing them off and it looked like her talent had paid off again right there. Ah, man. Pissing off some nutcase like Kuno didn't bother her at all but she actually felt a little bad pissing off a normal girl who was just trying to make conversation.
It wasn't something she normally bothered with but seeing a normal girl looking all hurt had her beginning to feel like she should apologise or something. She felt like a bit of a heel.
But before she could go through with it, and probably make a hash of it by usual form, the restaurant doors banged open and her attention went elsewhere. Two men were stood in the doorway, the door now hanging off its hinges, and they looked like trouble. One tall and one short and stocky with an eye that was swollen shut from someone giving him a good whack. The tall one had a sword strapped on his back. The short one had knives hanging off his belt which didn't say much for his brains. Any man who kept sharp objects that close to his crotch couldn't possibly have two brain cells to rub together.
They could have been there for the noodles but she doubted it. They walked in that slightly loose limbed sort of way that said they were well short of sober but that their heads hadn't quite caught on to it. Drunks were trouble. The sort of men who walked around a mercenary town carrying knives and swords were probably more so.
"Well, hey," said the tall one. Ranma immediately dubbed him lanky in her mind. "They weren't lying."
The short one's eyes flicked between Ranma and the ramen girl. "Pretty."
"Yeah, I think so, too." Lanky smiled. "This will be fun."
Ramen girl looked terrified. "I, uh, what will be your order?"
"Oh, that's easy," said Lanky. "You and your friend and the back room. How much will that be?"
Ranma slid out of her seat and positioned herself between them and the ramen girl. "You should leave now," she said. "Before I decide to take that personally and do something about it."
That got all of Shorty's focus onto her. There was a hungry look on his face that she really didn't like the look of.
"You don't want to try it, Red," said Lanky, "Trust me. My friend here, well, he gets carried away when a girl gets him all worked up like that. Bad things happen."
Ranma felt like sighing. "Does being drunk kill your survival instincts or are you just stupid? Honestly, you'll be lucky if you can even make me breath hard."
"Now you're just insulting us. We specialise in making ladies breath hard."
"Oh, well. Who am I to complain if some idiots want to help me work off some stress as human punch bags?"
Shorty's hand went to one of the knives at his waist. Well, that was her cue. No-one could complain at her for not being discreet when some drunken thug decided to pull a knife on her. That was just too stupid to be tolerated.
Said knife hadn't even fully left its holster by the time Ranma entered punching range. The look on Shorty's face as she slammed her right hand into his chest and smashed him right back out of the ramen place was something she'd savour for some time to come.
There was no time to stand around gloating, though. Lanky was coming at her with sword drawn. Well, there wouldn't have been time to stand around gloating if he hadn't been such a slow-poke. As it was Ranma had plenty of time to stand around gloating and could probably have polished off her ramen while waiting if she'd been so inclined. He soon joined his friend on the other side of the door.
The look on their faces as Ranma followed them out made for quite a picture. Bit of shock, bit of horror, and a lot of fear. She didn't normally go in for terrorising people but she'd make an exception for these guys. If there was one thing in the world that she couldn't stand, it was shits like this going after women. It was pretty much exactly the opposite of what a martial artist should be doing with their skills and it was an insult to everyone who practiced the art.
Still, Ranma had to give them some credit. Their response to being blatantly over-matched wasn't to curl up in a ball and beg for mercy or to flee. It was to become more belligerent. Some credit. A very small amount. That response said they had some balls, even if the alcohol put them there, but it didn't say much for their brains.
She cracked her knuckles. "I could say this is going to hurt me more than you," she said. "But I'd be lying and everyone knows I don't do that."
It was almost embarrassing how easy a time she had dismantling the pair, but then it was her. You couldn't really expect a pair of common thugs with delusions of adequacy to be able to take on Ranma Saotome.
The 'fight' ended as Ranma was interrupted mid-wrapping a lamppost around Lanky's-neck by the sound of someone clapping behind her. "Very impressive. Full points for artistic effect."
The guy didn't look like much at first glance. He was tall and slender, as far as she could tell with the baggy clothes he was wearing, with a face that'd probably earn him a nice collection of fangirls at the average high-school. But none of that exactly screamed fighter and any idiot could wander around with a sword strapped to their belt if they felt like it. But when he started moving towards her she got all she needed to see. He moved like a fighter.
"So where did a pretty little thing like you learn to move like that?" he asked. "It's not every day I see a couple of hulking brutes like that pair get dismantled by someone who can't reach the top shelf in shops."
The answer almost came straight out and Ranma just about had to bite her tongue off to keep from blurting out the truth at this twit. It really wouldn't do to announce that she was Ranma Saotome of the Saotome School of Anything Goes Martial Arts to someone wandering around one of Orochimaru's little hidey-holes.
"I didn't learn from any one teacher," said Ranma finally. Stick to some of the truth and it makes the lies easier. "You don't get as good as I am from picking up one guy's ideas."
There was something about this guy's smile and the way he held himself that made Ranma feel like she should be getting ready for a fight any second. There was a real feeling of violence just waiting to come out.
"Really now?" he asked. "How interesting. What's your name, little omnivore?"
Oh. Er. That was a really good question. Ranma hadn't bothered to come up with a fake name for this. She hadn't really expected to start talking to people who weren't in on it.
"Ryu," she blurted out after a moment of blankness. "Ryu Kumon."
Hey, if he could steal her name and pretend to be her, why not do the reverse? It would serve the idiot right if he ever managed to show up in ninja world and got into trouble because of something she'd done. That would be poetic justice as far as she was concerned.
"Ryu? You don't look much like a Ryu to me." He was circling around her now. She didn't bother to keep him in sight. There was hardly a need with how easy it was to read him. "But maybe you're good and fierce when roused."
"You know, it's not polite to ask for someone's name and then not bother to give your own."
He stopped in front of her. "Oh, of course," he said. "I'm Yasu."
Ranma blinked. "Right," she said. "I'm sure you're world renowned for being such a peaceful soul."
"What can I say?" he asked. "My parents had a fantastic sense of humour."
"I'm sure." Ranma looked away to see Shorty and Lanky heading away down the street at a speed generally matched only by people who had felt death nipping at their heels. "Feh. There goes my stress relief. Thanks a lot."
"I'm sure we can think of some other way for you to work it off."
"Yeah, yeah." Ranma waved him off. The last thing she needed was to get into a pissing match with someone who might be at a decent level. That would scupper everything. "I've got things to do. See you around."
"I'm sure I will."
The ramen girl looked thoroughly gobsmacked when Ranma walked back into her shop and planted herself back down on the stool she'd been sitting on. "So," said Ranma. "How much for a second helping?"
"Your money's no good here anymore. You eat for free."
Now there was an idea Ranma could really get behind.