The only sounds as Ranma bounced from tree to tree were those of the local wildlife hooting and scurrying their way through the quiet night. Well, that and the occasional burbling from Hitomi over that communication technique, but it was real easy to ignore someone who wasn't there to stick a hammer in his face to make him pay attention.
It was almost relaxing, in a way, to have nothing but small animals as company but Ranma knew it wasn't going to last long. He was there on business and that business was to extract information from the local mayor.
That probably wasn't going to be the most pleasant job he'd ever had. Breaking into someone's house and squeezing what they knew out of them wasn't exactly the sort of thing that happiness and sunshine and lasting friendships were made of. But it had to be done. He had to find the local ninja and where they were operating from and the mayor was the best way to do that.
Hopefully he'd just have to light up a bit to scare the guy and he'd fold, but somehow he doubted it. Whatever he could do to scare the guy probably wasn't going to match up to the threat of whatever Orochimaru would do to a traitor. That much was pretty much a given really. Ranma couldn't imagine a single low that Orochimaru wouldn't sink to and he could imagine some pretty low lows.
But that didn't matter. He would find a way. Anything less would screw things up and lose him a chance to stick a thumb in the bastard's eye. That wasn't going to happen. Not in this lifetime. Not while he still had enough strength to have a say in it.
And, if nothing else, it was nice to get out his cursed form for a bit and be in his real body. Having to dress up all girly didn't bother him as much as it had when he'd first picked up the damn curse but it still wasn't his idea of fun. Not outside of short-term schemes to cause entertaining trouble anyway.
Being in the middle of Orochimaru's bit of the world with nothing more solid than a flimsy little cleavage-baring dress between him and whatever sharp things people decided to send in his way wasn't exactly a comfortable position. He'd had a rather sharp meeting with impending death and he'd no intention of getting any closer to that again than he absolutely had to.
Maybe if he'd been wearing something more solid than his usual silk shirt Anko wouldn't have felt the need to jump in and take it for him-
No, he wasn't going to even think about that. Nothing good would come from it. If there was one thing his pop has ever managed to get right, it was to not sit around dwelling on the stuff he'd got wrong. There'd been plenty of it but his pop'd never let it stop him from moving on. Ranma had to admit that had gone down less than well with him at times but it was better than wallowing any day.
Not that his pop was exactly the best example to follow as a human being but it'd do until he came up with something better. That and sticking a thumb in Orochimaru's eye as often as possible would do the job until then.
And that was what he was there to do. Find one of Orochimaru's minions and give them a gentle prod or ten with his fist and foot to get them to do the right thing and turn on the bastard. So that was what he'd keep his mind on.
He came to a stop atop a particularly tall tree that gave him a good line of sight on the building that he was led to believe was the mayor's home. It wasn't the largest or fanciest of buildings but it wasn't exactly tiny, either. From where he was perched it looked to be probably about the same size as the Tendo house with a bit less land enclosed around it and no dojo in the grounds.
The grounds were lacking in much of anything to use as cover. Whoever was running the security must have realised how risky that would be because there wasn't anything taller or wider than a blade of grass between the short walls marking the boundaries and the home itself. There wasn't even a lawnmower or a shed to be seen.
That could have been really quite inconvenient for your average ninja, but Ranma had never claimed to be anything as remotely as boring as average. Little things like the visual spectrum were problems for other people as far as he was concerned. Now that there was no real reason to not use the forbidden techniques it wasn't much of a problem at all. Not unless someone with real skills knew he was coming and knew to watch out for things they couldn't quite focus on.
Still, he'd have to watch out for traps. It would be just like some sneaky little ninja to leave some fun little bits triggered by touch or pressure around to catch anyone who went unseen. A bomb or two attached to tripwires would really spoil his night if he wasn't careful. But, hey, it was him. When wasn't he careful?
All he had to do was make his way across the grounds and then crawl in through a window. This was a warm part of the world so the windows wouldn't be locked shut unless the mayor was some sort of weirdo or utterly paranoid. It'd be a problem if they were trapped but how likely was that? Trapping something that you'd want to use was a great way to end up blowing yourself to smithereens. It was the sort of thing a Kuno would do.
And with those thoughts in mind he slipped into the umisenken and dropped from the tree to get a move on towards the prize. Well, the guy probably wouldn't be much of a prize, but it was the thought that counted, though that had never seemed to much help with Akane when things went wrong.
As it turned out there really weren't any problems for him getting across the grounds and into the place. No pressure traps, no tripwires, no alarms, nothing. It was almost disappointingly easy. Well, it didn't look or sound like he'd tripped anything like that, and the lack of alarms, explosions, or guards swarming everywhere howling for blood went along with the idea he'd made it in easy.
So, almost disappointing. It beat getting blown up or electrocuted but he'd been expecting more from one of Orochimaru's little minions. Not that he was going to tempt fate by complaining about something going right for him for once. He wasn't stupid enough to tempt fate that badly. Well, most of the time anyway.
But being inside raised a question: where were the guards? There hadn't been any in the forest. There hadn't been any watching the entrance to the house. There had to be at least one somewhere. It wouldn't make sense for there to not be at least one guard somewhere to make sure that Orochimaru's local minion of choice wasn't at least pretending to be a good little puppet.
Well, he'd find out soon enough. First he'd do a round of the whole house to check who was in and who wasn't - from what he understood the target lived with his wife and there would be no-one else around, but best to check - and then he'd decide what to do.
It was quite a nice house as things went. Maybe he was just biased but he'd always preferred the more traditional Japanese architecture, like the Tendos' home, to the more modern stuff and this place was built along the old lines. And it was quite a good example of it, at that, though there was no sign of anything remotely resembling modernity, so it was a little bit more traditional than his usual tastes. There were no electricity outlets anywhere in the house, like most places in the world he'd ended up on.
It didn't take that long for him to find them. There was a single guard sat outside a sliding door. He looked bored and half-asleep and, judging by the sounds and the feel of the place, on the other side he'd find the mayor and his wife in their bed. Even better, judging by the way the guard didn't respond to his presence and wasn't wearing a hitai-ate he wasn't a shinobi never mind an elite one, so he wouldn't be that difficult to remove from events. Perfect.
Five minutes later Ranma was in the bedroom shaking the mayor awake. The look on the man's face when he came round was an absolute picture of absolute terror. Ranma felt a small twinge of guilt when he saw that but it quickly went away. It was real hard to feel sorry for someone that was taking Orochimaru's shilling.
The man gibbered something that sounded vaguely like he was trying to call for his guard. It was kind of hard to tell with all the stuttering and such but Ranma was pretty sure that was what he was trying to do.
"No-one's going to come and help you," said Ranma, twirling a kunai around the fingers of his left hand as he spoke. "I already took care of that. It's just you and me and the birds. Your guard was kinda lame, by the way."
Ah, and there was a look of utter defeat to join the terror. But that seemed to steady the guy. He closed his eyes and when he opened them again he was much the calmer for it. "Just let my wife go," he said. "She hasn't done anything."
"Eh, she can stay where she is," said Ranma. "Only thing she'll know is that she had a real good night's sleep."
"If you've hurt her-"
"You'll what?" asked Ranma. "Cry on me? You and your village couldn't hurt me even if I fought with my legs tied together. Anyway, I've only dosed her with sleeping powder. This'll be the best night's sleep she's ever had."
The mayor didn't say anything. He just sat up straight and gave Ranma a very questioning sort of look. Ranma guessed he wasn't expecting his assassin to pull that sort of trick.
"I'm not here to kill you," said Ranma. "I'm not here for you or anyone in your village. Frankly, you're not important enough. I'm here for the ninja."
"I don't know who you think you are," said the mayor. "But you're insane to think I'll help you."
Ranma stopped twirling the kunai and, without so much as a word of warning, launched it forward past the mayor's head to tear through the wooden wall behind him. "Wrong answer," he said as a thin trail of blood blossomed along the mayor's cheek. "Think again."
Hey, he'd learned from the best. Anko had really grabbed that orange kid's attention when she nicked him back at the beginning of the forest thing. If it worked on a ninja, even a stupid kid ninja wearing stupid clothes, it was bound to work on a civilian.
But the guy, well, he looked scared, terrified even, but it wasn't the sort of scared Ranma was hoping for. It was the sort of scared that said he was still thinking no.
"Kid, you can do what you want," he said. "But whatever you come up with, it won't be half as bad as what Orochimaru's people would do to me. We've all heard the stories. You have right? Well, I was there when a mercenary got a bit too uppity and an example was made."
The look that passed over the guy's face as he said that said all Ranma needed to know about the example. He looked like he was about to vomit and that went right along with what Ranma knew of Orochimaru. The sort of guy sick enough to murder and torture kids for power didn't really have any lows he wouldn't stoop to.
"But I'm here right now," said Ranma. "They aren't. You should think about that. If you run far enough and fast enough, you can escape them, they're all busy with us and you're just small-fry, but me? I'm right here and you couldn't outrun me if I cut my feet off first."
Ranma thought that was a fairly compelling point. He could rend the guy limb from limb in a second. Less. And there wasn't a damned thing the mayor could do about it. That seemed like the sort of thing that would sway a guy's viewpoint to Ranma.
"Do I look stupid?" the mayor asked. "He runs everything in this country. Every ninja, every samurai, every militiaman: they answer to him. I have less chance of making it out before they catch me than I do of being struck by lightning six times in a row. You're asking me to choose between being hunted down like an animal and then killed slowly over being killed."
Ranma opened his mouth but the guy beat him to the punch.
"And they won't give my wife a good night's sleep," he said. "They'll take her and they'll make her scream first."
It was kind of hard to argue against that really. From what Ranma had seen of Orochimaru's people they reflected their master and he would go right after anything that would hurt someone he wanted to punish. He couldn't care less about anything like morals, ethics, or honour unless he could use them to trap someone else for his use.
Could he get a man to go and do something that'd get them killed? Along with their family? That was going to be a hard sell and Ranma didn't really want to send people off to the butchers, but Orochimaru had to be stopped. He just had to be. This guy knew things that would help that and Ranma needed those little nuggets of information.
"You don't sound like you're exactly in love with the people you're working for."
"That doesn't matter. I was running this town before they showed up and I'll be running it when they're gone or I'll be dead."
He didn't look all that happy about it. He looked about as happy as someone who'd just smelled something really, really bad and knew he couldn't get away from it.
"I can cut you a deal," said Ranma. "If you help me, if the information you give me turns out to be good and useful, I can get you and your wife out into the Land of Fire. You could start over somewhere Orochimaru doesn't have people everywhere."
"Oh, yeah. That's a tempting deal. I'm sure the fine ninja of Konoha would be able to protect me, just like they protected their own village so well during the last exams."
"We're at war now. We're ready for him," said Ranma. "This isn't going to stop with a treaty when we get bored or he cries uncle. He's going to die. And I'm going to be the one to kill him if I have any say in it."
The mayor snorted. "You?" he asked. "I think you're looking a little out of your league, kid. I'm sure you're some kind of ninja prodigy with incredible bloodlines or something, but he's been doing this since before you were a gleam in your father's eye."
"Well, I've already went up against him twice and walked away both times. I don't lose to anyone a third time." Ranma smirked. "Oh, didn't I mention my name? I'm Ranma Saotome."
He wasn't exactly a world famous genius just yet but fighting Orochimaru with the idiots and the old man wasn't the sort of thing that went without notice and a genin going all the way up to special jounin was pretty abnormal, too.
"Ranma Saotome is a woman."
Ranma twitched. "What idiot told you that?" he demanded. "There's only one Ranma Saotome and it's me! A guy! A man amongst men, damn it!"
"I heard she was a little red-headed she-devil that could conjure tornadoes with her fists or something"
Ranma twitched again. The vein on his forehead pulsed fiercely in time with the beat of his heart and having Hitomi's laughter ringing in his ears over that damned communication technique wasn't helping. "I'll conjure a tornado right here," he said with a wave of his right fist. "How's that for proof?"
The mayor looked like he was about to try and crawl through the kunai-sized hole in the wall behind him. "No, no," he said with a wave of his hands. "I'll take your word for it just . . . just stop glowing and maybe a bit less of the hellfire, please?"
Ranma blinked. Oh, right. He'd spent way too much time around Mr. Tendo if he'd started to conjure up the demon head technique without even meaning to. Even his half-hearted version of it normally took a little effort to call up. Also, not the best way to avoid getting caught by any passing person who had eyes to see the glow and such.
And moving swiftly on. "I can get you and your wife to safety," said Ranma. "Just give me what I need and it'll be done. There's no chance Orochimaru has enough men here to stop my team from doing whatever the hell we want once we've got the information we need."
"I don't understand you. How the hell can you be so confident? There's a small army of hired killers in the village and a troop of ninja just waiting in case someone like you shows up to cause trouble."
Ranma shrugged. "Hey, I'm just that good."
"You're either insane or insanely strong. Maybe both. Neither of those are good for normal people to get involved with."
Biting back the impulse to make a smart-arse remark was quite possibly the most difficult thing Ranma had ever done. Beating Saffron had nothing on not running his mouth off on such an easy opening.
The mayor sighed. "I guess you're not exactly planning on taking no for an answer."
And that was the truth. If Ranma needed to beat what he needed out of the guy, he would. Knocking a weak guy like that around would make him feel all kinds of bad - and it didn't really go with the whole martial artist thing - but he'd do it. The guy had made his choices and Ranma was his enemy unless he changed that. Working for Orochimaru was a hell of a lot worse than knocking seven bells out of a weakling.
He guessed the guy realised that because the sweat beading on his forehead didn't exactly speak of a whole lot of comfort with the situation.
"I hope you know what you're doing, Ranma," said Hitomi. "Getting him and his wife to safety could make this difficult."
Ranma couldn't really say anything back without looking like he'd completely cracked up and started talking to people only he could see which was a bit unfortunate. Hitomi was probably starting on a decent head of steam knowing her and he didn't much fancy having her after his guts the next time he took her out for training.
Not that she could actually get him, of course, that was just a silly idea, but it made getting her to realise her technique was crap a bit difficult when she was fighting angry and spitting fire at him. People spitting fire was never good in his experience.
"Fine," said the mayor finally. "I'll do it. You leaf guys are supposed to be good for your word and I really don't like the way things have been going in this country."