"Your piglet looks hungover."
Ranma looked up from her ramen. "Yeah, he kinda does, doesn't he?" she said. "Wonder how that happened."
She couldn't exactly say, "well, he was being a pain about me not taking him with me to go on a ninja mission, so I shoved a bottle of sake down his throat," could she? Well, she could, but it would probably be an idea only slightly less stupid than mentioning to Akane that she wasn't the best built girl around when she was in the middle of her time of the month.
Actually, it would probably be a lot less stupid, Ranma had some painful experiences on that front, but such was life in the Tendo household. It had never been boring, at least.
"I'm not sure that you're supposed to give pigs alcohol," said Aoi, the ramen girl, looking a little bit on the worried side. "And I know you're not supposed to give it to kids."
Ryoga gave her what was quite possibly the saddest excuse for a baleful glare Ranma had ever seen from him. Even for a piglet it was entirely non-intimidating. Which was borne out by Aoi promptly coming over all teenage girl on Ryoga as she found his piggish glare cute for reasons that would forever escape all sensible people in the universe. He looked a lot less happy about having her fuss over him than he had when Akane set to it.
Still, it was good ramen. Ranma could put up with a lot for a decent meal, especially if it was coming with that wonderful price-tag known as 'free'.
"So, what are you actually here for?" asked Aoi after a few minutes of pestering a clearly less than enthused Ryoga. "I can't believe you'd come to a place like this for the fun of it."
"Eh, it's not so bad," said Ranma. "Scenery's nice enough once you get away from the village a bit. Lots of fresh air this far out from cities, as well. You wouldn't believe how nice a change that is after you've spent a while in one of those places."
The look she got in return to that was almost as sceptical as the looks Nabiki would send her way whenever she tried to lie to the heartless, money-grubbing bitch. Which was pretty impressive for someone who wasn't a heartless, money-grubbing bitch, Ranma thought.
"Come on," said Aoi. "Pull the other one. It's got bells on. There are a million places you could go for stuff like that and I bet half of them are a lot closer to home for you than this place. Less idiots full of sake and machismo as well, too, I bet."
"People like that are everywhere. They soon learn to leave me along if they've not killed what little brains they had to start with."
"I can believe after that last pair got into it with you." Aois's expression turned serious. "You should be careful, though. There are a lot of bad people around here. Real bad. And you, on your own, making waves and getting in the way of their fun, you're going to start attracting attention you really don't want."
"What? You think the big scary men will come and take me away? Trust me, it won't be a problem."
It was kinda nice that the girl felt the need to come over all concerned for her, but Ranma wasn't exactly going to change the way she behaved for random villager #57. And it would probably be best not to get any more attached than that to someone she'd met along the way of carrying out ninja skulduggery.
"This isn't a joke, Ryu. You've already got Yasu sniffing around you and that guy is trouble. If even half of what I've heard about him is true, he's death on legs and he'll pick a fight with you just for the fun of it. He's killed a lot of people."
"Sounds like a nice guy," said Ranma. Aoi's expression fell. Ranma felt the need to say more. "You worry too much. Trust me, I can look after myself. He wouldn't even be close to the worst guy to try and take a swing at me."
Aoi shook her head. "I have no idea how you've managed to survive as long as you have."
"I'm just awesome that way."
While winding up the locals and getting free food was kind of entertaining, Ranma really, really wished that she was out there with Mousse and Hitomi. It hardly seemed fair that the action coming from the information she'd went and wheedled out of the locals was going to be going to people who'd done bugger all to get it.
It was almost enough to make her feel sorry for shoving that booze down Ryoga's throat. Not quite, but closer than she usually got to feeling sorry after screwing with Ryoga.
Mousse hardly thought it was fair that he was the one who got stuck with the murderous former bandit. Just because Ranma could play a harmless girly-girl that no-one would look twice at except to ogle and because Ryoga couldn't find his way out of a closet without having to run through a wall didn't mean he had to be left with a scumbag of girl who'd probably skin him and make a coat out of his flesh if she thought she'd make some coin from it.
He'd even take sneaking around a village full of scumbag mercenaries and their masters over the job he'd been left with and that was saying something. But no. Ranma would have an easier time staying in a disguise without giving off signs of fakery and he could carry Ryoga around for backup without it raising too much attention, so off he went leaving Mousse with the witch.
So, it was another thing to dislike Saotome for. Even if he hadn't really done anything but exist with a less irritating curse. Especially if he hadn't really done anything but exist with a less irritating curse, the bastard.
Oh, she was looking at him again. How nice. The psycho witch who could make people cough up their lungs with a touch was giving him an irritated look. How could this possibly be a bad thing?
"Are you even paying attention?"
"Nothing's happening," said Mousse. "And you'll see anything coming a mile off with those eyes."
Not that he had any intention of deferring to her because she was such an unpleasant sort. He knew he could handle her. Outside of her bizarre and highly unfair style of close combat, her complete immunity to anything that even looked like an illusion, and her ability to summon enormous monster cats, she wasn't anything special. He'd be able stick her with a thousand blades before she had the chance to get a hit off if she started anything, he was sure.
Why Saotome had adopted such a dangerous animal as his pet lunatic was beyond Mousse. It really was.
"That doesn't mean you get to slack off and daydream while I'm doing all the work."
"It pretty much does. What else am I supposed to do? Polish up my glasses and hope they turn into binoculars?"
There were times when Mousse could almost understand why Saotome seemed to go out of his way to annoy the ever-living hell out of everyone around him. Seeing the vein in Hitomi's forehead bulge out in time with the beat of her heart was definitely one of them.
Well, there wasn't much to say in response to that was there? He'd won and she had gone to sulk and stare into the distance with her magic 360 degree vision. That was, in every respect, a thoroughly satisfying result and it left him in peace. It could not have gone any better.
But that was all a sideshow. They weren't there so that he could score points over someone he found annoying no matter how deliciously satisfying it was to do so. They were there to go beat some information out of someone of Orochimaru's less important minions so that could go about their business and be done with this place.
Saotome had, apparently, came good with his part of the mission and now they had a trade caravan that was apparently being ran by someone who'd had personal contact with the Oto-nin running the local base and had even served as a supply line for them to knock over for more information.
Raiding a caravan train didn't really sit all that well with him - it was rather too close to banditry for his tastes - but if it was what he had to do to start sticking it to Orochimaru then he'd swallow that and get on with things. Some things were just too important to get squeamish over.
"They're on their way. Can't be more than a few minutes before they get here at that speed."
Hitomi took off, bouncing from tree to tree as she crossed over to the other side of the dirt path they were waiting by. He caught only a small glimpse of her as she climbed to the top of the largest tree to be found before she was gone from sight. Some ninja technique or other, he was sure. Something that Saotome would probably go for.
Despite his inclination to trust her as far as he could throw a mountain Mousse had decided to largely defer to the local expert in the art of banditry. She had to be good for something, after all, even if it wasn't something that any sensible person would want anything to do with. After all, that sort of thing was how they'd had the fortune to find her in the first place.
And she'd selected an ambush point that looked rather uncomfortably similar to where she'd decided to ambush the train that he'd been guarding with his idiot team. They'd been travelling along a dirt road through a forest when the fireballs and such had started. And that was pretty much where they'd settled for this ambush.
If nothing else, hopefully it would go a little bit better than her attempt against his team. That had been a failure so abject that it would even make a Kuno flinch in horror. But then she'd not had the help of someone like him to make up for her manifest inadequacies that time.
The caravan could be heard several moments before he could see it. They weren't exactly trying to pass through with minimum disturbance and Mousse could clearly pick out the sounds of its travels and those of the local animals getting the hell out of the way long before they entered sight. They couldn't be expecting trouble at all travelling like that.
It wasn't the largest of caravan trains at a grand length of four with a few guards following by the sides on foot so it would probably be pretty poor pickings for a proper bandit. That'd probably make things easier. A small, poor caravan would have a small guard and that would hopefully mean he would be able to deal with them quickly and easily. No fuss, no mess. Just done.
He just had to wait for the sign to start and then he could go get the job over with. Though, now he thought about it, he didn't actually know what the sign was supposed to be. She'd just said that he'd know it when he saw it, which covered a multitude of sins with someone like Hitomi Hyuuga.
An enormous fireball exploded in front of the lead caravan, causing it to spill over on its side as the horses pulling it panicked. Yeah . . . that figured.
Well, there was no point quibbling over methods by that point. Mousse waited a moment for the guards to fan out towards the side Hitomi had attacked from and then jumped down from his perch to begin his own assault.
Mousse didn't particularly want to massacre a bunch of stupid caravan guards who almost certainly had no idea of what they were involved with, so instead of summoning up his usual arsenal of bladed weapons he instead called something a little less lethal into his hands: a pair of oversized wooden mallets. Might as well stick with the traditional favourites.
The guards fell before him with almost pathetic ease. They were utterly unprepared to deal with an attack from his side of road and he barely even had to clip them with his mallets to make them fall. And what he didn't dispose of fell quickly to the Hyuuga girl's strikes as she moved in from her own perch.
It was, he had to admit to himself, almost comical to see the look on their faces as they realised that the quick tap they'd taken was enough to stop them dead, but that was something he'd keep to himself. There was no need to give her a swelled head after all.
"You just can't hire the help these days," said Hitomi as the last guard fell. "It used to be a lot harder than this to take a caravan out."
Mousse felt that he deserved some serious credit for not throwing some barbs her way there. It would have been stupid - they had more important things to do, to say the least - but still. It was very, very tempting.
"The guy we're after is just over there-"
Hitomi jumped away from where she was stood just in time to avoid the blast of lightning that ripped up from underneath where her feet had been. Judging by the expression on her face she hadn't seen that one coming until it was almost too late.
The lightning was soon followed by a woman who rose from the earth in a cloud of displaced soil. The expression on her face did not speak of being overly impressed of what was in front of her. "Did you really miss that I was a ninja because I wasn't wearing a hitai-ate openly?" she asked. "I expected better from Hiro's daughter."
Oh, she was twitching again. That probably wasn't a good sign for this ending in something other than ridiculous levels of violence.
"But you did show some good reflexes to escape my attack," continued the dark-skinned woman. "So, he clearly taught you some taijutsu if nothing else."
The fireball that Hitomi spat at the woman seemed like an excellent rebuttal to Mousse. Truly it was an incisive argument. He hadn't seen the like since Shampoo had decided that it would be a fantastic idea to challenge the random foreign girl who'd annoyed her to a duel. None could fault it.
Well, except for the woman Hitomi had just tried to turn into a human torch. That tended to be something people didn't appreciate all that much as a rule.
When the fire had spent itself it dissipated to reveal what looked distinctly like a rock statue of the woman Hitomi had attacked. Mousse had just enough time to blink in surprise before the rock cracked and then fell off to reveal an entirely unharmed woman underneath.
"Your release time for that technique is excellent," she said. "But the power is hardly enough for you to leave your attack at that."
Well, if Hitomi wasn't going to be able to do the job that meant it was his turn. Mousse launched himself forward to attack with all his speed. He crossed the turf between himself and his target in a heartbeat but the dao he'd summoned in place of his comedy mallets connected only with the bracers the woman was wearing on her forearms.
"Oh, now this is interesting," she said. "You summoned those so quickly I barely saw the change. Konoha must be training its sealing students well these days."
It's always nice to be appreciated but Mousse had other things than flattery in mind when it came to someone working for Orochimaru. He quickly took a step back and then, the dao replaced with a single spear, he thrust his weapon at the head of the ninja in front of him.
But she dodged, taking a step aside so that the spear passed through the air beside her instead of her forehead. He quickly turned the blade and slashed it to the side in a follow-up attack but, again, she was already moving and leapt backwards well clear of his strike.
Mousse narrowed his eyes as Hitomi followed up, moving into taijutsu range to use her Jyuuken skills. This woman was good. Very, very good. She was nothing like masked minions that he'd ran through during the invasion or the stupid kids with seal-based powers they'd thrashed to get at Orochimaru. She was the real deal. An actual threat with genuine taijutsu skills and, it seemed, multiple elemental affinities that she could use almost unconsciously and with great speed.
And there she was deftly defending herself against attacks that could disable or kill with a single touch using her armoured forearms to completely nullify the strikes. Hitomi wasn't as quick as Saotome but that still wouldn't be an easy feat to pull off. Ah, well. Time for less subtle means.
Hitomi darted aside just in time to avoid the hail of bladed weapons that passed through where she'd been stood a moment ago. The woman was pierced in a hundred different places and staggered back with brown fluid dripping from her mouth before she . . . dissolved. Oh.
The woman rose from the ground several feet away from where her clone had been destroyed but Hitomi was on her again in an instant. Not that it did any real good. Her attacks were again nullified by the woman's own taijutsu skills before a pair of quick punches slammed into her gut and sent her skidding back to stand beside Mousse.
"Not bad, not bad," said the woman. "Hiro did teach you some decent skills, but you've got a long way to go yet. It's a shame he was killed before he could complete your training."
Hitomi snarled. "Who the hell are you? And how did you know my father?"
"Ah, did I not tell you my name? How impolite. I am Asoko, jounin of Kumogakure," she said. "And I knew your father for most of his life. We met when he was a young shinobi starting out in his career. He was such a serious boy, so full of anger, but a good man in the end. It's a shame it all ended as it did. I hoped for better, but he never would let his dreams go."
This was getting strange. A Kumo-nin? Where they working with Orochimaru? That would be big news, and bad news, but if they weren't then something had gone seriously wrong with their mission and they'd just picked a fight with an uninvolved foreign power. That . . . probably wouldn't end well.
Hitomi looked slightly lost. "He never mentioned you," she said. "Not that I remember."
"Of course not. He was a traitor to his village with hunters after him at all times. He wasn't the sort of man who would expose his friends to that if he could help it."
Mousse butted in there. "I assume from the fact that you're not trying to kill us that you're not working with Orochimaru," he said. "But I don't understand what's happening here. We weren't expecting to find Kumo-nin here."
Man, she could manage one hell of a probing look. It felt like the times his mother had been weighing up what he'd been doing and deciding whether to yell at him or not. "I assume there's been some mistake," she said. "I was just here to ensure that our trade route remained open. Anything beyond that isn't our business, though I can't say I'm sorry to have the chance to meet Hiro's child."
Well, they were screwed. The Hokage wasn't going to be happy that they'd accidentally hijacked a Kumo trade caravan and picked a fight with one of their jounin. And it probably wasn't going to mean anything good for their chances of pulling the mission off.
"I don't know who told you to attack us," said Asoko. "But I think you've been misled quite badly. Ah, these things happen. It doesn't look like anyone's dead so I'm sure we can let bygones be bygones and go about our business without unpleasantness."
Well, he'd take that. It was a bit strange given how keen she'd been to fight it out earlier but, then, not all that strange. If she was anything like the Amazons then fighting was pretty much the default way to meet new people. He nodded.
"Ah, that's good. But you might want to think about letting your informant know that you don't appreciate being lied to in this way. It's bad for business."
Hitomi and Mousse looked at each other. They needed to let Ranma know, fast, or this could get real bad. If they'd been tricked like this, the whole mission could be compromised.