Ranma hadn't said a word. She'd led them to the fallback point and then she'd vanished up into a tree leaving him to do all the explaining. Ryoga didn't think that was particularly fair but he'd seen the look on her face and he knew better than to piss off an angry girl even more than she already was. Okay, Ranma wasn't really a girl, but she was close enough when she cursed that it was best to play things at least a little bit safe. The other way led to things he'd rather not spend too much time remembering.
The others had taken it fairly well, Ryoga thought. Hitomi hadn't set him on fire and Mousse hadn't decided to dent some more weapons against his skull and that was pretty much the definition of a good reaction in his experience.
"Why the hell is a Kumo-nin here?" asked Ryoga. "That makes no sense."
Mousse shrugged. "She said she was just escorting some merchants," he said. "It didn't seem worth arguing."
Ryoga paused. Everyone did. That would have been the moment where Ranma put her foot in it and everyone would start getting mad for a bit before they got back to business. But she said nothing. It was about as awkward a moment as Ryoga had seen in a while and he'd seen a few since Anko had died.
"You guys might fight jonin for fun, but some of us prefer to avoid it," said Hitomi eventually. "I'm attached to the whole living thing and those guys tend to be pretty good at taking that away. I won't question it too much if we get to walk away."
She did look a little bit frazzled. Well, Hitomi was a bit on the soft side. Ranma went way too easy on her with that training; he didn't even set her up with any real fights. Ryoga doubted she'd last all that long if she got stuck with something like that on her own. Her dad must have gone soft on her in training because she was a girl or something stupid like that.
"She shouldn't have been able to block my jyuuken like she did," said Hitomi after a moment's thought. "I mean, it's possible, if you know what to do, but you'd have to be really stupidly strong to keep it up like she did."
Well, that explained it. She was spooked because her instant-win taijutsu had met a defence technique that said no right back. People tended to get a bit antsy when that sort of thing happened. Wimps.
"That woman isn't really the issue," said Mousse. "She's interesting and I really want a rematch some time, but she's not. We're here for Orochimaru's men and we're no closer to them than we were when we started."
"It's a bust," said Hitomi. There was no small amount of bitterness in her voice. "We've been sold out and they know we're here. There's no way we're going to pull this off, but it doesn't make sense. Why would they even care about us to lure us in like this?"
"To get us?" asked Ryoga. "We did screw up his big revenge plan when we blew up his barrier and beat the crap out of his stupid guards and helped the old man fight him off."
"Hibiki has a point," said Mousse. "Orochimaru doesn't strike me as the sort of man who'd just let that sort of thing go."
Hitomi snorted. "He's got bigger fish to fry. You guys are a real pain, don't get me wrong, but right now he's got half the ninja world trying to kill him, either because he's been murdering their leaders or because the leaders he hasn't tried to kill don't want him getting ideas. You're not going to be high on his list of things to do for a while."
"You're forgetting the Ranma factor," said Ryoga. "He could turn a saint into a psychopath."
Ryoga really didn't care for the look that got him by way of response. She was looking at him as if he was the stupidest person the world had ever seen and that was hardly fair when there was still a Kuno drawing breath somewhere. And who the hell was she to look down on him? She was a weakling!
"Saotome does tend to have that effect on people," said Mousse with a knowing nod. "I've seen him get into fights with princes and kings and emperors and drive them all frothing mad just the same as he does with normal people."
Hitomi sighed. "Look," she said. "Ranma's annoying and he's the sort of guy who can start a fight in an empty room, sure, but Orochimaru has a list of enemies longer than my arm. There are more people trying to kill that guy than we've met between us and a lot of them are a hell of a lot scarier than any of you."
The lack of Ranma interjections was more than a little disturbing, Ryoga thought. He wasn't exactly backwards coming forward and they'd been setting up bait for him left, right, and centre. But he wasn't biting. Was he that upset?
"Someone brought us here," said Mousse. "Kentaro was being paid to lure you in. It wasn't random."
"He pretty much admitted to working for Orochimaru," said Ryoga before Hitomi could say anything else. "He wanted the money to start up on his own again."
For all that she was a cold-hearted, bad-tempered bandit that seemed to get to her just a little. She looked away and there was a moment of severely awkward silence before she turned back to them with a neutral look on her face. "That doesn't mean much," she said. "Nothing specific anyway. It's an obvious way to lure in a bunch of Konoha-nin and spring a trap."
Ryoga shook his head. "Where's the trap? Those guys weren't nothing, couldn't take a single hit between them, and I'm not seeing anyone here to spring it now. We could just walk away and I bet no-one would be any the wiser."
"Well, that's not quite true," came a voice from behind Ryoga. "I'd know."
He just about jumped out of his skin and he certainly catapulted himself across the clearing away from the voice that had just spoken directly into his ear. He'd felt the breath of whoever had said that on his earlobe! It was more than a little bit creepy.
The others didn't look all that much happier about it. Hitomi had a serious look of consternation on her face. Served her right. What use were super-eyes if you didn't use them? About as much use as Nabiki's conscience.
Ryoga turned to see who'd just creeped him the hell out of him. It was that guy from the village who'd talked some rubbish after Ranma had knocked those thugs around. What was his name? Oh, yeah. Yasu. He looked about as girly as Ryoga remembered.
Seriously, the guy looked like the sort who'd have trails of schoolgirls following him around if he showed up on Tokyo. He was tall, slender, and he had the sort of delicate, mostly feminine face that girls seemed to go nuts for. Ryoga hated him already.
"Aww, didn't you see me coming?" asked Yasu, his arm resting between the hilt of the sword sheathed at his belt and his hip. "You should be more careful. There are all sorts of dangerous people roaming these parts."
There was no point in beating around the bush. "What do you want?" asked Ryoga.
"Me?" asked Yasu. He flashed Ryoga a grin. "I was just hoping to have a chat with the little dragon. See about having a friendly sparring session."
Hitomi shifted her footing. She was moving position where she would be able to strike quickly, Ryoga realised, and with that he did so himself. "Like you did with my father?" she asked.
Yasu smiled. "Oh, yes," he said. "That was exactly the sort of fun I was looking for. How is your father these days?"
If Ryoga had ever heard a single word spoken with more venom, he couldn't remember it. There were whole layers of contempt and pissed-off in there.
"Oh. Shame. I was hoping for a rematch when he'd grown a little stronger." Yasu looked from side to side, scanning over the clearing they were all stood in. "So where is she? I know she has to be around here somewhere."
And that was Ranma's cue to drop in behind Yasu because that was just the way Ranma did things. "Behind you."
Unfortunately, it didn't have quite the same effect on Yasu as it'd had on Ryoga. That probably had an awful lot to do with the fact that Ranma was head and shoulders and a bit more shorter than Yasu and probably wouldn't be able to reach his ear without standing on his shoulders or something like that.
But still. Ryoga thought it would have been nice to see Yasu jump just a little bit - just a teensy bit - after the way the bastard had crept up on him earlier. It didn't seem too much to ask.
Yasu's response, however, was nothing more or less than a grin as he turned to face a decidedly not happy looking Ranma. "Ah, there you are," he said. "However did I miss you?
"Beats me. You must be going blind." Ranma took a step past Yasu towards Ryoga. "I can't believe you let this guy get away with sneaking up on you, P-chan. Since when did you do that?"
Ryoga twitched and he was about to snap off his usual sort of reply, but he stopped before it came out. Something wasn't right. There wasn't the usual flippancy in what Ranma was saying. She looked wrong. He couldn't quite put his finger on it, but she didn't seem her usual annoying self. Like she was going through the motions of it.
"Blind? Such harsh words," said Yasu as Ranma walked past him. "They're like arrows in my heart."
Ranma stopped in front of Ryoga. "I'm really not in the mood for this," she said. "Go away."
"After I've worked so hard to track you down?" asked Yasu. "Have a heart. It's not easy to follow shinobi for miles on end, you know."
"No-one asked you to follow us," said Mousse. "That's your problem."
Yasu turned his head slightly to keep Mousse in the corner of his eye. "Ah, but maybe I know something useful. You shouldn't be so quick to turn people away."
"If you have something to say, say it," said Ranma. "We have better things to do than stand around talking to you."
"Is she always this grouchy?" asked Yasu. "Or is it just that special time of the month?"
Okay, that was new. It wasn't normally Ranma who cracked her knuckles out of sheer anger. That was normally his trick.
"You know, all I want is a friendly spar," said Yasu. "I don't think that's too much to ask for in exchange for information. Just a little bit of fun to test our strength."
Hitomi snorted. "Your idea is most people's idea of a death match."
"And from what I hear these fellows will fit in real nice with that."
"I . . . can't argue with that."
There was a distinctly frosty look to the grass underneath and around Ranma's feet. As good signs went that wasn't one and Ryoga had a really bad feeling about the whole thing. It wasn't his normal routine to actually try and help Ranma but that stuff back at the mayor's place had been really rough. And it didn't hurt that he kind of fancied taking up the fight.
"I'll deal with this loudmouthed idiot," said Ryoga. "He annoys me and I need some practice."
Ranma looked to Ryoga for a moment - and she looked about as happy as the average Kuno stalking target - before she shook her head and walked past him. Not a word was said.
"What am I?" asked Yasu. "Some sort of burden to be passed around to whoever's least bored?"
Ryoga shucked his pack and allowed it to crash to the ground below, which it did with a fairly loud thud. While he was extracting his umbrella from the straps holding it to the top of the thing Ranma pitched in with his usual helpful style. "If the shoe fits."
The response was a shark's grin aimed at Ryoga. "Ah, well. If you turn out to be boring, I still have the others here to pitch in. I'm sure one of you will be entertaining."
And that was when Yasu let loose a howling fury of killing intent. It didn't have the absolute malice of Orochimaru's and it didn't inspire the same feeling of immediate impending doom, but what it lacked in that it made up for in sheer howling bloodlust. The best comparison he could think of was a starving animal that had just seen a meal walking by. That was what Yasu's intent reminded him of.
"You're strong," muttered Ryoga as he hefted his umbrella up to rest against his shoulder. "How depressing."
That was the cue for him to reply with his own 'killing intent'. He couldn't feel the impact it had on Yasu but he could sure feel the ground cracking underneath his feet as he let it out. That seemed like a pretty good indicator that it was working to him.
If anything that seemed to make Yasu happy. His grin widened, showing even more teeth, and there was a distinctly maniacal look to the bastard's expression as he pulled his sword free from the sheath at his waist. "Oh, you're a live one," he said. "A real live one. You have no idea how long I've been waiting to find someone who could give me a decent run."
With that he attacked in a whirl of steel and flapping cloth. Ryoga met the incoming blade with his umbrella and battle was joined.
Ryoga was forced on to the defensive immediately as the blows came in thick and fast one after the other. They were quick and a lot, lot stronger than he'd expected from one of the locals. He could feel the impact of each strike that thudded against his umbrella right through his body as he blocked them. There was a hell of a lot more power behind this guy's arms than he was used to seeing.
And so Ryoga was, in a twist he really wasn't used to, forced to actually take a step back under the weight of the assault being aimed his way. And another. And another. If he wasn't careful, he was actually going to be doing something that looked almost like a retreat. And he'd never live that down!
So, Ryoga dug his feet in and aimed his own strike back after catching one on the tip of his umbrella and pushing it aside to create some room. The swing was aimed to crush the guy's chest and would have done a nice job of it, he was sure, but it connected with nothing but thin air.
He had a moment to blink in surprise before instinct made him jump away just in time to avoid a slash that would have opened him up from hip to shoulder. As it was it managed to slash his shirt open to the point where he would have probably been better off not bothering with it at all.
Yasu looked far too pleased with himself for Ryoga's tastes. "You're not going to be able to beat me with an umbrella," he said. "I don't know what it's made of to hold up like this but it's still not going to work."
Ryoga twisted the handle of his umbrella just so and shot Yasu a fanged grin as the umbrella fell away to reveal the sword he'd been keeping within it. "I wasn't planning on it."
"Oh, a chakra blade," said Yasu. "Lovely. You don't see many of those around the place."
That wasn't quite the reaction Ryoga had been hoping for.
"Don't disappoint me now. You can't have a weapon like that and not know how to use it."
Ryoga had just enough time to wonder why Yasu's sword seemed to be glowing faintly before he was back in the thick of it defending for all his life was worth from an endless series of attacks. They seemed to be coming from every direction at once and it took all the speed he could muster to keep putting his own sword in the way before he got an up close and personal look at what happened when someone got slashed open by a really long sword.
Worse, it felt like Yasu was actually pushing harder. It was his blade that was pushed back when they clashed. Every time it took a real effort just to hold the strike back from his flesh even though he had a defence in the way. This was new. He wasn't used to fighting people who could match strength with him and he didn't much like it.
Being forced back by someone else made him feel like he was a kid again getting easily beaten by Ranma and made to look like a fool in front of everyone and it made him really, really angry. But the attacks were still coming and he couldn't think about it to come up with a plan. He couldn't even get good and pissed off to work up a charge. He had to concentrate everything on just not dying.
He stepped back, moving away from an attack rather than blocking it, and had a moment to gawk as a trench opened up in the ground where he'd been standing before he was back in the fray again with his muscles shuddering under the impact of the blows being sent his way. What the hell sort of technique was this guy using?
Another attack. Ryoga quickly raised his weapon above his head to block an overhand strike aimed to split his head in two and grunted as his knees almost buckled beneath the force of it. But this time they paused for a moment for Yasu grinning madly down at him over their locked blades. Enough time for him to take a moment's respite and reinforce himself.
So, he poured more energy into his arms and shoulders, and he pushed right back with everything he could manage. The look on Yasu's face as he was suddenly overpowered and shoved back ignited a fierce joy in Ryoga's heart. That was it. That was the look he wanted to see on an opponent's face.
His blade sang as it cut through the air towards his opponent and it felt so, so good to be the one doing the pushing. Being on the backfoot, going backwards, defending, avoiding, that was Ranma's game. He hated it. This was how it should always be. On the attack. Charging forward. Making his opponent do the worrying. That was how a Hibiki fought.
Yasu was holding him off though. Every attack he launched was met and parried aside before it reached his enemy and, worse, the bastard actually seemed to be enjoying it. That damned smile had to be just about the most infuriating thing Ryoga had ever seen on an opponent and he was going to knock it the hell off Yasu's face if it was the last thing he did.
And there was only one solution for someone being annoying as far as he was concerned. More power. More aggression. He'd batter them into the ground if it was the last thing he did.
He strained every muscle and sinew in his body to their absolute maximum as he threw everything he could at Yasu. And having Yasu retreat quicker and quicker just made him pour more into it as he could almost taste victory on his lips. Or that might have just been the salt from all the sweating he was doing. Either way.
And in a moment it all went wrong. Ryoga brought his sword arcing around in a diagonal cut aimed at Yasu's shoulder and it was like he just lost control. Yasu's sword come up to meet his and then he was just falling to the side with not much in the middle he could figure out to understand what had happened.
Rygoa wound up resting on a sword embedded halfway into the ground beneath with a distinct feeling of dislocation.
"Boring," said Yasu. "All muscle and no real strength. I thought you had something for a moment, but no." He looked away towards Ranma. "Next."
The bastard wasn't even looking at him. It was total dismissal and it made Ryoga's blood boil in a way that normally only Ranma could inspire in him. He wrenched his sword free, sending a cloud of dirt into the air as he did so, and clenched the hilt so tightly that he could almost feel it creaking underneath his grip.
"I'm not done with you yet," he bellowed, and then he charged with his blade held high and his muscles tensed to deliver a blow of fantastic power.
It accomplished nothing. Yasu caught the strike high on his own blade and shrugged it aside in like it was a baby's tap. Before Ryoga could react, Yasu reversed his grip and smashed the hilt of his weapon into Ryoga's nose with a sharp crack. Ryoga tasted blood as he staggered back with his eyes swimming.
"Don't waste my time, kid," said Yasu. "You're still paddling in the shallow end of the pool with those skills."
There are red rags to a bull and then there's telling Ryoga that he's not good enough for a fight. There was only ever going to be one response to a remark like that. He attacked.
Ryoga charged. He managed maybe five steps before a blast of wind so strong that it felt like slamming into a steel wall, a normal person slamming into a steel wall at that, took him off his feet and sent him rolling backwards till he managed to dig his feet into the dirt and bring himself to a stop.
"Look at you. No idea what you're doing. Not even an amateur. You're lucky I haven't smashed that empty blade and left you to try and put it back together."
He swallowed a snarl of frustration and stopped for a moment to think about it. That wasn't the usual Ranma-style taunt that just served to piss people off. There was useful information in there. Empty blade. Empty. Blade.
It was like his iron cloth technique. He had to put ki into the weapon. Obvious, really. He should have thought of it before. Ki made everything stronger and faster. Why not do the same for a weapon?
Ryoga closed his eyes and focused. Forcing his will into a weapon with a set form was probably going to be a lot harder than using it to stiffen a bit of cloth but he was damned if he was going to let this bastard look down on him and treat him like some sort of stupid kid. He was going to win if it was the last thing he did.
Focus. Breath. He had to draw the energy out of his core and move it out to his limbs before he could even start. That step was easy. He'd done it a million times before and could do it without even thinking; it was the core of his strength. The next step was where he expected it to get tricky, moving the energy from his limbs to his sword, but it was anything but. The sword sucked up the energy greedily and he was more than happy to feed it as much as it could handle and then some.
When he opened his eyes the first thing he saw was the fierce green glow of the sword he held in his hands. That was it. That was what he needed. The fanged grin he gave in response was every bit as fierce as the glow of the energy he'd fed into his weapon.
As was the grin that Yasu gave him in return. "Now that's more like it," he said. "That's what a sword like that deserves."
Well, there was only one thing left to do. Ryoga charged and their blades clashed in a flash of green and transparent energies. Seeing the swords lock together amidst that and not feeling like he was the one being pushed back at all brought back all of the confidence that had been sapped when he'd suddenly been knocked aside just a minute or two ago.
But he had more to come. With a grunt he forced more into his muscles and broke the lock by shoving Yasu off before going on the attack. It was different this time. Yasu wasn't just blocking or parrying or dancing away. He was really on the defensive and Ryoga was doing damage even if not much.
It wasn't much but every so often Ryoga's blade would slip by Yasu's and slice a little bit out. Most often it just cut some of the black cloth that was covering the bastard - showing bright white bandages underneath - but every so often he'd see that little stain of red that showed he was doing real damage, slicing into the flesh beneath, and hurting his opponent.
And Yasu was laughing as he was pushed back. He was laughing. Ryoga had fought some real nutcases before - Ranma for example - but this guy was easily as mad as any of them. Who the hell laughed as they got beat up? It was crazy. The guy was one slow dodge away from getting carved up like a side of beef and he was laughing along like it was all some giant joke.
One particularly fierce blow drove Yasu away, skidding along the dirt until he dug his heels in tightly enough, and the fight paused there for a moment with a bloodied but unbowed Yasu staring at Ryoga across the few feet that separated them with a most intense look in his eyes.
"Brilliant! Brilliant! This is what I've been looking for."
The air around Yasu's sword shimmered for a moment before a slash of his sword sent a wave of translucent energy the way of a slightly wide-eyed Ryoga. That didn't look like anything he wanted to be hit with if he could help and he quickly channelled energy into his sword to block whatever was being sent his way.
The idea of simply dodging never even entered his head. That just wasn't the way he worked.
The attack met Ryoga's defence and for a moment it was stopped there before, in a flash of green energy, it broke through and sent Ryoga staggering backwards with blood dropping down his now sliced open chest. It was a surface wound. It didn't go past the first few layers of skin. But it was still bleeding like the clappers and it did sting a little bit.
Ryoga took a step forward to try and get inside and keep Yasu from throwing another one of those off, but it was no good. Yasu saw it coming and Ryoga had to think smartly to get a defence in to smash the next one aside before it did a hell of a lot more than just give him a little surface wound. And as he was firing that one off Yasu was stepping back to maintain his range.
That went on for a few more exchanges but it was pretty obvious that it wasn't going to work for Ryoga. It was no good being stuck at long range where he was only one slow block away from painting the turf red. He needed to get in where he could do some damage of his own or he was going to get picked off.
Well, there was one thing he could do. The next energy attack that came in was battered away but that time, instead of trying to bull forward, Ryoga stabbed his sword down into the ground to free his hands. A quick series of handseals was all it took for him to bring his plan into play as he was replaced by a twenty-five feet tall version of him carved from the rock and dirt they were fighting atop.
"That is the single most ridiculous and over the top replacement technique I have ever seen," said Yasu as the golem loomed over him. "I love it!"
And then he cut the thing in half at the waist.
"Not very durable, though. That was disappointing."
His rock giants never seemed to last very long but that was fine. The noise of it, all the rock falling around them, was exactly the distraction that Ryoga needed. Yasu's guard was down or at least not as up as it should have been and Ryoga charged in to take full advantage of it. His first attack parried aside but not convincingly. Not with enough strength. And the follow-up pierced Yasu's guard with a downwards slash that cut down across his chest in flash of red and green light.
Yasu quickly leapt away past the piles of rock left over from the destroyed golem and away out of range from any more sword strikes. All of a sudden he looked a whole lot less like a kid who'd found a new toy and a lot more serious. The blood staining his clothes and the bandages that the attack had revealed underneath was probably a pretty good indication as to why he'd be getting a little testy. Ryoga couldn't help but feel a little bit proud of that. Bastard had looked down on him.
But then maybe not. That look in his eyes wasn't so much serious as wild. Eh. It didn't matter. Ryoga charged in with his blade held high and managed a couple of parried strikes before Yasu's foot caught him in the gut and knocked him back enough that he couldn't steady himself before Yasu had pulled back to range again.
And he was laughing. "Oh, that's it," he said. "That's what I've been looking for. You're testing me. You're making me have to pull out my stops and work for it. That's great. Time to cut loose and have some real fun."
Yasu's blade began to hum. It was the damnedest thing but Ryoga could swear that he could hear the thing humming as Yasu channelled his energy into it. Not that the humming was quite so important as the visible distortions playing out around Yasu as his aura grew or the increasingly evil expression on his face.
The whole thing didn't look too good to Ryoga. It looked like Yasu was firing up the perfect version of his attack and unless he was wrong it wasn't far off being ready to fire his way. If it was anything like his perfect shi shi hokodan, it wasn't going to be the sort of thing anyone would want to get hit with. He needed a plan-
Too late. The attack struck him square on the chest and blew him off his feet along with half the forest before he could do anything about it. In an instant all the air was blasted out of his lungs and dark spots danced in front his vision as he tried to breath and just couldn't for the maelstrom around him sucking the air away.
It felt like it took forever for the storm to fade and for him to strike the ground but it probably only took a few second really. Either way it took a serious effort not to spew his guts up when he did finally hit the ground. But he managed it. No way was he going to let that bastard Yasu know that whatever the hell he'd just hit him with had actually hurt him. No way.
"Still feisty, huh?" Yasu grinned down at the kneeling Ryoga. "You're a tough one. Maybe I should throw you back and give you a few more years to grow before I reel you in again."
Ryoga growled and dragged himself out of his crouched position and back onto his feet. He wasn't done yet and, if he was going to go down, he was going to do down swinging. Going out like a coward would be an utter disgrace.
But Yasu was already radiating energy again, charging up another one of those attacks, and this time it came much, much quicker. Ryoga barely managed two steps forward before another one of the things was ripping through the air towards him.
The second time round he managed to flare up his battle aura and arrange himself into a defensive position to try and hold the strike off as best he could. It worked, sort of. At least he managed to stay on his feet even if he couldn't keep his footing and ended up skidding back across the turf like it was some sort of ice rink.
It still knocked the air out of him but he could grit his teeth and tough that out easily enough. He'd had worse over the years. A lot worse. And he had bigger things to worry about than the soreness in his chest and the slight feeling of light headedness that was starting to set in. Thinking in battle was overrated anyway.
Yasu looked like he was just about ready to fire another one when Ryoga found steady footing again and so it turned out. Ryoga took a crouched stance to try and make himself small to minimise the impact area. That reduced the impact a bit as much of the force washed away past him but it still cracked him a good one.
He needed to do something. If he didn't, he was going to be bludgeoned into defeat without even managing to land something decent in return. He'd managed to get a few hits in before Yasu had decided to uncork the big ones, but after that it had been one way. He was going to go down like a punk if he didn't turn things around.
"Still not giving in, huh? You're going to die if you don't stop. What's the point of that? Dead people don't get stronger, you know. They're just dead. It must be really boring."
Ryoga growled, deep in his chest, and steadied himself in a ready position with his sword pointed at Yasu's chest. The last thing he wanted was pity from this bastard. He would fight and he would win if it was the last thing he did.
"Stubborn. Well, I can respect that."
The idea of losing there and falling at the first hurdle to avenging Anko, before he'd even started. Before he'd even went up against one of Orochimaru's real people. It was depressing as hell, but depression wasn't going to cut it. He'd been working off that the whole fight, channelling his shi shi hokodan into his sword, and it just wasn't the ticket.
Depression just wasn't the right ticket for him. It had worked great before but his life was, really, better than it had ever been. He had people around, keeping him from getting lost, not making fun of him because he was a bit strange and couldn't find his way, and he was even respected for his strength. The village treated him like he was something really worth having around. The Hokage treated him like he was valuable and not just some idiot who couldn't walk from one end of a corridor to another without getting stuck in a closet. Compared to some of the guys in the village he was downright normal.
Even with Anko being dead and his not having been able to do a damned thing about it, he wasn't really depressed. Angry, sure. He was eleven thousand kinds of pissed off about that. But that wasn't the same as being depressed. And losing. That was kind of a depressing idea but still not quite it.
Thinking wasn't his style but with an enemy charging up to blow him away in maybe a second or two he really, really needed some inspiration. Some way to win.
Maybe that was it. He needed fuel. His will to win. Would that do the trick? If you could fire off bolts of depression and confidence, why not just the will to win? He wanted to win. That was the strongest desire he had, the strongest feeling, so why not use it?
Ryoga closed his eyes and focused all his thoughts onto that one simple thing. His will to win. The reasons why. He dredged up Anko, the way he'd felt when she'd been killed, how utterly pathetic he'd felt at not being able to do a thing about it, his desire to avenge her, and every other little thing that fed into that one singular goal: victory. Every slight, every knock, he'd taken along the way through his life, everything that fed into his ultimate need to win.
He could feel it burning through his veins, that need, and he welcomed every bit of it. It was exactly what he needed, that need to win, that need to prove himself and his strength, against anyone who would stand against him.
His eyes opened and for a moment the golden haze in front of them obscured his vision as his sight adjusted to the unfamiliar aura blazing around him. It felt good. It felt right. It felt strong.
Yasu was still there, standing opposite him, with an absolutely massive, tooth-baring grin on his face. He said something, probably infuriating, but Ryoga could only tell that he was talking from the movement of his lips. The sound of Ryoga's heartbeat thundering in his ears and his aura roaring around him did a damned good job of obscuring everything else.
But just summoning it up for a light show wasn't going to do the job for him. He had to turn it into an attack. Funnelling the energy into his sword for that burned but it was a good burn. It was the feeling of a well exercised muscle, of getting stronger, and that was what he needed.
Ryoga's sword glowed with blinding golden light for a moment before he released it in a wordless attack as Yasu did the same with his own attack technique. His attack tore through the air in a torrent of sheer power before meeting Yasu's counter-attack in the middle. There the energies clashed in a maelstrom of battle aura that sent a shiver up and down Ryoga's spine.
For a brief moment it remained like that. The two attacks clashed, radiating light and searing the soil beneath, and then one broke through. An almighty golden flash filled Ryoga's vision for a moment before the intensity of the light obscured his sight.
When the spots stopped dancing in front of his eyes Ryoga took in the scene in front of him and his jaw promptly dropped. Yasu was crouched in a shallow crater, panting for breath with blood dripping from a cut on his forehead, and his sword was quivering where it had come to rest embedded halfway into a tree. But that stuff was sideshow.
It was what was moving with Yasu's panting that had Ryoga's undivided attention. Those weren't supposed to be on a guy's chest. They really weren't. Moving up and down with every breath. Jiggling all the way. He knew he should look away but he couldn't quite bring himself to do it.
And then Yasu hurled himself, herself, forward out of the crater towards Ryoga. He went down with a huff as the air was knocked out of him by a forceful tackle and then he found himself laid out on the ground with Yasu straddling his chest. His line of sight was more than a bit distracting.
His head was smashed to the side as Yasu slammed a right hook into his jaw. He turned back to face her again but a left hook smashed his head the other way. Dark spots danced in front of his eyes for a moment before he shook them clear. Yasu's expression was wild and her fist was drawn back for another punch, but it never came.
"Hey, this is a really nice sword," said Ranma. "Where'd someone like you get something like this?"
Yasu jumped off him like she'd been scalded. Ryoga craned his neck and saw Ranma with Yasu's sword in her hands rotating it as she looked at it intensely.
"This is some really fancy metalwork here," said Ranma. Yasu had got so close and then just stopped, tense but looking like she didn't know quite what to do. "It must have cost a small fortune."
There wasn't even an inch of give in Yasu's voice as she replied to that. "Give me that. Now."
Ranma looked away from the sword to Yasu. "What? So you can attack us again?" she asked. "I'm bored of watching you play with Ryoga and you're too beaten up to fight me or Mousse."
Mousse and Hitomi stepped into view. They must have been hiding in the trees or something. Hitomi's eyes were wide and there was a slightly slack touch to her expression that made her look kinda stupid. Mousse just looked bored and slightly contemptuous, the prick.
"You're a girl?"
Yeah, Hitomi was a little bit surprised. There was more than a little bit of squeak in there. If Ryoga actually talked to her, at all, he'd have marked that down as something to have some fun with later. But he didn't so he didn't.
"I believe you said something about having information," said Mousse. "Let's trade."
Ryoga clambered to his feet. Yasu looked about ready to murder someone despite looking like she'd been put through a wood chipper and Ranma, well, Ryoga still didn't think that she was quite right over there.
"Just giver her it back," said Ryoga. "Fight's over."
Ranma looked at him and shrugged her shoulders. She tossed the sword over to Yasu who deftly snatched it out of the air and hoisted it to rest on her shoulder. Still topless. He looked very determinedly away from that. Well, mostly. Partially. It felt like his face was on fire. How could anyone be that comfortable standing around like that?
"You might want to put some clothes on before Hibiki explodes," said Mousse. "He's looking dangerously close over there."
"You know, I bet it's an illusion," said Ranma. Where the hell had he come from? "Something to throw you off your game. Ninja like doing that sort of thing."
Yasu gave Ranma an absolutely withering look but since when had that sort of thing ever affected Ranma? Ryoga had certainly never seen it work.
"Trust me," said Ranma. "I know how these things work. I bet a good kai would dispel those breasts."
The idea of someone pretending to be a girl to throw him, for about the millionth time, really pissed Ryoga off. It was the first resort of pretty much everyone who wanted to take a jab at him without a proper fight and it pissed him off. Always the same and always annoying. He didn't even need to think about it as he thrust his arm forward.
"Oh, I guess I was wrong," said Ranma. "Shame."
Ryoga filed away a note to kill her later in a corner of his mind that wasn't pre-occupied with what he was now touching. Or holding. Or groping. Or-
"Well, I did always say that I wouldn't consider a man unless he was strong enough to beat me."
The world went red and Ryoga went down.
The last thing Ryoga heard as the world went dark was Ranma sniggering. "Man, I needed that."