Davros's Fanfiction

It's The Shinobi Life For Us

Chapter One

"Ha ha! We're alive," said Ryoga from somewhere to Ranma's left. "Take that, demon! Hibiki one, demon none. Ha ha!"

Ranma would have said something but he really didn't feel the urge. He was rather too busy dealing with the fact that it felt like someone had tried to suck his eyeballs out with a straw and then moved on to tap-dancing on his brain when that didn't work.

"Damn it," said Mousse from somewhere to Ranma's right. "This is all your fault, Saotome."

Ranma craned his neck around so he could face the Amazon, wincing at the way the light played on his eyes as he did so. "What?" he asked. "It's not like I summoned the damn thing."

"I never got caught up in crap like this before I met you," he snapped back at Ranma as he ran his hands over the ground near him, probably looking for his glasses. "So it's all your fault."

"You're an idiot."

"Where the hell are we?"

Ranma turned to face Ryoga, still not getting up. "We're . . . " he looked around. "That's actually a damn good question. Hey, Mousse, you recognise . . . actually, forget it." Asking Mousse, without his glasses, where they were was really just a painfully stupid idea. Ranma blamed it on spending too much time with Ryoga.

He hopped to his feet and took a detailed look at the terrain around him. It sure as hell wasn't the valley they'd been fighting that monster in, that much was for sure. Less barren rock and more trees and wildlife. It would probably have been quite pleasant if he'd not been too busy being baffled over how he'd got there.

"Weren't we in a quarry?" asked Mousse.

"Lost again," said Ryoga with a growl. "And I don't even have my pack with me this time."

Ranma cracked his neck, trying to work the kinks out, before he spoke up. "Well," he said. "We might as well have a look around and see if we can find any landmarks. We can't have gotten far, right?"

"Might want to do something about the demon gunk on your arm first, Ranma," said Ryoga. "It kinda stinks."

"Like I didn't know that."

Famous last words, those. "We can't have gotten far, right?" Ranma really should have remembered that logic had absolutely nothing to do with the world he lived in as a martial artist. They were absolutely nowhere near where they had fought the demon. Not even close. He hadn't spotted a single landmark that even remotely resembled anything he'd seen as they tracked the demon to the site of the battle.

"Are you . . . lost, Ranma?" asked Ryoga.

"Looks like."


"Laugh it up, pig-boy," said Ranma. "But if I'm lost how the hell are you going to find your way home? Moron."

"I have been patient and taken your insults for too long, Ranma! Now you shall die!"

"Will you two please shut up?" snapped Mousse. "We have more important things to worry about."

Ranma looked at him askance. "Since when do you not jump at the chance to chuck pointy, metal things at me?" he asked. "I remember you beating up a little kid because he looked like me."

Course, that kid had been him, just de-aged with those damned magic mushrooms, but whatever.

"Since we got sucked into a demon's . . . whatever the hell that black stuff was," said Mousse. "It seems a little more important."

"Man, you need to lighten up. We've went up against way worse things than this and laughed it off in the end."

"Is that Hokkaido? It looks sorta like Hokkaido."

"What?" asked Ranma. Huh, looked like they'd been following Ryoga while they were arguing. Now, if that didn't have bad idea written all over it . . . "Uh, what? That looks nothing like Hokkaido."

"It looks like Hokkaido," said Ryoga. "At least it looks like one of the Hokkaidos I've been to."

"Ryoga, you think everywhere is Hokkaido," said Ranma.

Ranma wasn't sure what to make of the place to be honest. It looked too big to be a village but the road leading up to it didn't look like anything he'd ever seen in a town or city; it was more of a dirt trail than a road and there wasn't any sign of any cars or trucks or anything. And the place was walled. Nowhere in the modern world bothered with city walls.

"Recognise this place, Mousse?" asked Ranma finally. "Looks sorta like a bigger Joketsuzoku."

"Nowhere I've ever seen before."

"Well, let's check it out then. Ryoga, follow me."

"Well, I can see TV aerials," said Ryoga. "So they've got technology and stuff."

"No cars, though," said Ranma. "Modern places are always full of cars and motorbikes and stuff."

"That doesn't seem a bad thing to me," said Mousse. "I hate those things."

Ranma grunted by way of reply as another guy in some sort of light armour passed them by. He was wearing the same sort of headband-type thing as all the others had worn too. Village militia, maybe?

"Lot of fighters around here," said Ryoga. "Even Nerima doesn't have this many martial artists hanging around."

"Joketsuzoku does," said Mousse. "But everyone knows at least some martial arts in Joketsuzoku. You're not given a choice."

"Man, I hope this place isn't another Joketsuzoku," griped Ranma. "I don't need anymore crazy wives or fiancees or fangirls or stalkers."

A guy walking past Ranma stopped and stared at him for a moment before shaking his head and walking away rapidly muttering to himself about lucky bastards and not knowing he had it made or something, Whatever.

"Don't insult my darling Shampoo!"

A woman walking past them immediately hurried her steps and made a quick getaway.

"Do you have any idea how stupid that sounded?"

"It's hardly my fault that barbarians such as yourself cannot understand my language."


Ranma left Mousse to seethe in a pit of angst as he eyed their surroundings. It was a weird sort of place. Mostly modern in look but without a lot of the trappings you saw in the modern world. No cars was the obvious one but there was a lot less electricity poles and stuff too. It was weird. That wasn't really all that important though.

It was the fighters that concerned him. There were way too many for a place even remotely connected to the modern world of technology. You just didn't see that many martial artists, ones that were actual fighters and not just practitioners of some crazy tea ceremony or whatever, unless you got away from the influence of the modern world. It didn't happen, people were just too obsessed with crap like television and computers to take martial arts seriously. And the ones who did deal with crime and defence and stuff just used guns. That was the way of the modern world. Who needs to be able to fire energy blasts out of their hands when they can just shoot someone? It was obvious which was cooler, but most people couldn't be bothered.

He really didn't want to spend any more time in some crazy Joketsuzoku or Musk wannabe village than he absolutely had to. It never ended well for him.

"So where the hell are we, Ranma?" asked Ryoga.

Ranma tapped his chin thoughtfully and let the moment drag out before replying. "Dunno," he said.

The slap he got across the back of his head from Ryoga as reward for that almost buckled his knees. Damn pig-boy.

"Hey, you two morons, come over here," called Mousse from where he was stood on the other side of the road. "There's something you should see here."

Ranma sauntered over and took a glance over Mousse's shoulder at what he was pointing at down the row of buildings and for just a moment was speechless. Just for a moment of course. "Wow," he said. "And they say I have a big ego."

"What?" asked Ryoga as he joined them and saw the enormous faces carved into the side of a mountain. "Whoa. Is this America?"

"Not unless Americans suddenly turned into Japanese people," drawled Ranma. "Even you can tell the difference, right?"

"Shut up, Ranma."

"Saotome, Hibiki, please, stop arguing for a moment and think," said Mousse. "This is big. We'd have heard of it. Where the hell are we?"

"That's what we're here to find out. Come on, I'm going to find someone to eavesdrop on."

"So," said Ranma. "Konoha. Ring any bells?"

Ryoga and Mousse both shook their heads.

"Well, that's just great," said Ranma. "Real helpful. You guys are about as much use as a plastic sword."

"I don't hear you offering up any suggestions, Ranma," growled Ryoga.

"At least I did something by figuring out the name of the place," fired back Ranma. "All you've done is wander around like some little kid lost."

Ryoga bared his fangs at Ranma but before he could do anything else a woman walked past wearing an outfit that covered everything and concealed nothing made up of bandages which shut the pig-boy up quite handily as his face turned bright red and pinched his nose shut to stop it erupting in a fountain of blood.

"Who the hell wears clothes made out of bandages," muttered Ryoga as he kept his nose from erupting.

"Someone who wants to defeat idiots like you without even having to actually do anything."


"Hibiki, Saotome, this really isn't the time," said Mousse nervously. "I don't like the way those masked guys are looking at us."

"Stop being such a wuss," said Ryoga. "We just kicked a demon's ass."

"Oh, yes, I feel like a great champion right now, what with being lost in the middle of nowhere."

"And when someone from Joketsuzoku calls a place the middle of nowhere you know it really is the middle of nowhere."

"Oh, shut up, Saotome."

The sound of laughter and shouting interrupted them before an orange blur shot past, cackling like a hyena, followed by a crowd of pink-haired men who looked distinctly less than pleased with life.

"Wow, it's just like home," said Mousse. "A bunch of people chasing a loudmouth."

"Laugh it up, Mousse," said Ranma, arms clasped behind his head in a nonchalant pose. "I'm not the one being stalked by pre-teen fangirls here."

"Shut up, Saotome. That's all your fault anyway."

"Yeah, yeah. What isn't?"

The group came charging by again but this time the kid was missing. Huh. Sneaky little brat. Ranma liked him already.

"You have tormented me for the last time, Ranma! Prepare to die!"

"Ryoga, you're a moron."

"Ranma, prepare to die!"

A good fight was just what the doctor ordered as far as Ranma was concerned. All the crap about being utterly lost and not recognising anything could all be left aside when he was fighting. Ryoga swung his umbrella around in an attack but Ranma simply leaned back underneath the swing before popping back up and catching Ryoga with a blast of punches to the chest that staggered P-chan back a couple of steps.

"This really isn't a good idea."

Ranma took to the skies next, leaping over Ryoga's attack, and landing a flying kick to Ryoga's face before pushing off with his other leg and landing in a crouch on top of a nearby fence. Another leap carried him away as Ryoga smashed through the fence with his umbrella trying to get at Ranma.

Before anything else could happen they were surrounded by men and women in animal masks

"Umm, hey," said Ranma, scratching at the base of his pigtail.

"This is all your fault, Saotome."

"You will cease this at once."

Ryoga was seething and for a moment Ranma was seriously worried that Ryoga was going to take that umbrella of his and start knocking masked weirdos about but he eventually settled for a disdainful snort and hefting the umbrella over his shoulder. Probably a good thing. Ranma didn't know how good these guys were but there was an awful lot of martial artists in the village who'd probably take exception to him beating up their cops or whatever these weirdos were.

"You got me arrested."

"Stop whining."

"You got me arrested. Cologne is going to kill me."

"I swear, if it wasn't for these handcuffs," said Ranma. "Ah, the hell with it."

Handcuffs weren't going to stop him from kicking Mousse in the head. Course, the leg shackles they applied after that did the job well enough, but some sacrifices just had to be made.

"Man, you look like you fell face-first into a lawnmower," said Ranma. The man's expression managed, somehow, to become even less friendly. "Uh. Did I say that out loud?"

The tall, scarred man nodded at Ranma.


The man stared down at Ranma. Well, glowered was more like it. Ranma fidgeted. He didn't like being tied down, damn leg shackles and handcuffs, and he didn't like silence much either. He wished the guy would just tell him what he was after but he just kept glowering at him as if he was some piece of dirt he'd found on his shoe.

"What?" blurted Ranma finally. "If you're that pissed about the fence, I'll fix it, man."

"My name is Morino Ibiki," said the man. Ibiki. "I am head of the interrogation and torture division of Konoha ANBU."

Ranma twitched. Torture? Oh hell no. First sign of hot pokers and he was breaking loose. Diplomacy be damned. No-one was inserting anything into any of his orifices.

Ibiki said nothing more after that, just maintaining a steady gaze, and Ranma found himself fidgeting again in short order. Dammit. He hated it when people just sat and stared at him. "What do do you want?" he asked finally.

"Why don't you tell me?" he asked. "I'm sure you have some ideas."

Ranma bit back a remark about plastic surgery. "Me to pay for the broken fence?" he asked. "I dunno. Hey, where are Ryoga and Mousse anyway?"

"Similar accommodations to you," replied Ibiki. "I'll get around to them soon enough. In your position, I would worry about myself."

Ranma squirmed. "Man, I wouldn't want to be someone who'd committed a real crime around here," he said.

"Oh, but you have," said Ibiki. That got Ranma's attention. "You entered the village without permission. Tsk, tsk."

"This is worse than Joketsuzoku."

"You wear no hitai-ate," he continued, ignoring Ranma. "And then you start a brawl in the middle of our territory like a rank amateur. It really doesn't make a great deal of sense unless you have a death wish."

"I really have no idea what you're talking about."

"Really?" he asked. "That's interesting. Are you claiming to not be a ninja, despite your obvious abilities?"

"The only ninja I know is a crazy transvestite," said Ranma. "It's not something I try to emulate."

"You're remarkably flippant for someone in your position," he said. "We'll see how long that lasts when we get down to serious business."

"Serious business? Dude, you so much as touch a hot poker and I'm breaking out."

"This isn't the sort of place you just break out of. Now, who trained you? Who sent you here?"

"Uh, my pop trained me. And a demon sent me here."

That probably wasn't the thing to say, Ranma realised the moment the words left his mouth. Ibiki didn't exactly tense up but Ranma felt the energy in the room shift just that little bit.

"Uh, not voluntarily," added Ranma. "Umm. I killed it and it sent me here or something. I don't know. Magic is stupid like that. It just does stuff for the hell of it."

"You killed it and it sent you here. These events would seem contradictory to me."

"It's the truth."

Ibiki stared at him till he started squirming in his seat. "Now, let's talk about your training," he said. "You say that your father trained you. Where is he from? Who trained him?"

"Uh," said Ranma. "Tokyo, I think. Pop doesn't talk much about when he was a kid."

"Tokyo," said Ibiki. "Where is it? Which nation?"


Ibiki frowned, which wasn't exactly a pretty sight. All that scar tissue. Brr. "And where is that, this Japan you claim your father hails from?" he asked. "Which nations does it border."

"It's an island nation," said Ranma. "I suppose China would be the closest thing to a neighbour. You know, China, big country near Russia and India? One of the oldest civilisations in the world? Man, even I know this stuff and I'm about the worst student ever."

"And your father's trainer?"

"Oh, that's the old letch," said Ranma. Ibiki seemed to perk up for a moment at that. "Yeah. Happosai. Biggest pervert in all the world, bar none. Heard of him?"

"I think I've heard enough."

"You're letting me go?"

Ibiki rose to his feet and left the room. His minions followed. Well, that could have went better.

"They're either completely insane or they're telling the truth," said Ibiki. "Possibly both."

"Not genjutsu then?"

"Not unless it's so good that even a Hyuuga couldn't make it out," replied Ibiki with a deep frown. "It's possible."

"But unlikely," said Sarutobi, turning away from the window he had been looking out of. "Such a thing would be entirely beyond the skill of all but the greatest genjutsu masters and they would not create agents who inserted themselves in such a crude manner."

"Their story is entirely unbelievable. We should perform further tests. Hold them for observation."

"I don't think so. They haven't committed any crime that would warrant such treatment and I think, perhaps, that we could find a place for them here in the village."

"You, sir, you must be joking! You have no idea if they're safe to trust or not. Even in the best case they have no reason to feel any loyalty towards this village."

"Then we shall give them reasons, the same as we do for any ninja who lives here. We shall treat them fairly, as one of us, the same as any other, should they accept the offer, and we shall see how they respond to that."

"And if they betray us?"

"Then they will be treated as any other missing-nin," said Sarutobi. "I won't let fear of betrayal control me, Ibiki.

"As you wish, sir."

"The Hokage wants to see you and your friends," said Ibiki. "Ah, you might want to be a little more polite with him than you were with me."


One of Ibiki's masked minions unlocked his shackles and cuffs but Ranma kept his eyes firmly fixed on the far more dangerous Ibiki all the while. "You know," he said. "The service here is lousy: no tip for you."

"I'll get over it."

"Oh, man, you're a 'wise, old' martial arts master are you?" asked Ranma when he saw the Hokage.

"I'm old," replied the Hokage from behind his desk. "But I think a wise man would have found another successor by now. Why do you ask?"

"Because wise, old martial arts masters are always - always - nuts," said Ranma. "Either that or perverted."

"Cologne isn't nuts or perverted," said Mousse.

"Cologne teaches random strangers the secret techniques of her tribe for personal amusement," said Ranma. "How normal is that?"

"You're remarkably cheerful for people who have been under Ibiki," said the Hokage. "I must admit, I'm impressed."

"Ah, he's a big teddy bear," said Ranma. "Just, uh, don't tell him I said that, yeah?"

"Of course, of course," chuckled the Hokage. "Now, I called you here for a reason. From what Ibiki has told me, you are quite thoroughly lost with no way home, yes?"

"I always get back eventually," said Ryoga. Then he scratched the back of his head and gave them a sheepish grin. "Might take a while, though."

"Ah, perhaps," said the Hokage. "But we have no Japan or Tokyo on our maps, nor do we have a Joketsuzoku or China in any of our records, and they are comprehensive."

Ranma blinked. "Uh," he said. "No China? How the hell could you miss China?"

"We have no record of it."

"But it's just about the biggest country in the world!" said Ranma. "And it should be right next door, more or less."

"And yet we have no record of it," said Sarutobi. "Not even rumours from travellers. You are the first to ever mention it."

The three looked at each other, each looking equally baffled. "So where the hell are we?" asked Ryoga finally.

"The Land of Fire" said the Hokage. "Specifically, the Hidden Village of Konoha."

"Is that near Hokkaido?"

"Ryoga, shut up. Please. Hokkaido is part of Japan."

"Your situation seems rather perilous from my perspective," said the Hokage. "You have no supplies, no friends, no allies, no way home, nothing beyond the clothes on your back and the items in your hands."

"And you've got just the offer for us."

"You appear to be be possessed of some martial skill," said the Hokage. "You may not be a ninja, yet, and we do not normally take on over-aged students of any sort, but I believe we could make an exception in these circumstances. It would be cruel to cut you loose in an alien world so far from home and I endeavour to be cruel only when absolutely necessary."

"And you're doing this out of the goodness of your heart," said Ranma. "Yeah, right. Pull the other one. It has bells on."

"You would of course be expected to serve as all ninja are," said Sarutobi. "With your life. We expect loyalty. But serving here is not without its benefits, young man. We place far fewer strictures upon the private lives of our people than the other villages and do not indulge in the less pleasant rituals that many of our rivals do."

"Who said we're going to sign up with anyone?" asked Ryoga. "I'm no damned sneaky ninja. Now, Ranma . . . "

"Make no mistake, you will not be able to remain unaligned for long once you start attracting attention," said the Hokage. "There are many who would try to use you. Eventually one would succeed. Skilled as you appear to be, you are clearly not wise to the ways of the ninja world."

"And you think that we might as well let you to be the one to use us."

Sarutobi smiled. "Ah, but I won't use you," he said. "No more than I use any of the ninja who serve Konoha. I won't send you to your deaths on a whim or use you to do the unpleasant missions I'd rather my ninja not sully their hands with or any of the other things that could happen to you. You will simply be another team on the roster. No more, no less."

"And what do we get out of it?"

"The closest thing to safety you will find in this world being who you are," replied the Hokage. "And training, of course. You will have access to the same training resources as any of our ninja and we have a rather obvious interest in ensuring that you are as strong as possible."

Now, that tempted Ranma. New techniques. Always a good thing in his eyes. He traded looks with Ryoga and Mousse and then they huddled together.

"I don't think we're in Kansas anymore," said Ranma.


"I dunno," said Ranma with a shrug. "It's from one of those foreign films Kasumi watches sometimes. I think it means we're lost and stuck where we're lost. Pretty much fits. Unless you've got some magic shoes up those sleeves of yours, duck-boy?"

"You're insane, Saotome. Completely insane."

"I don't want to be a damn ninja," said Ryoga. "Sneaky bastards."

"You seemed to get on well enough with Konatsu."

"She's different."

"Yeah, he's that alright."

"Konatsu's a boy?"

Ranma just stared at Ryoga as the fanged boy turned green. "I don't want to know, do I?" he asked.

Ryoga just shook his head.

"I've heard of some magics that could explain this," said Mousse, interrupting before Ranma could say something that would probably have started a fight. "The tribe has encountered several artefacts that transport people between worlds or through time."

"That'd explain a few things. How do we get back?"

"Without the artefacts? We don't, not unless you learned magic while I wasn't looking."

"We have to get back," snapped Ryoga. "I can't leave Akari like this."

"If you've got any ideas, I'm listening," said Ranma. "I wasn't exactly planning on leaving forever when we went after that demon either."

"We always find a way."

"Yeah, well, for now I think this is as good an offer as we're going to get," said Ranma. "We'll have food to eat, a place to sleep, and get some training while we're at it. All for the cost of what? Fighting for them? That's cake. We do that stuff all the time anyway."

"Ninja don't fight like we do. I don't want to be some sort of killer for hire."

Ranma looked at the Hokage, who was happily sat behind his desk puffing away on his pipe, as he waited for their reply. "I reckon we don't have a choice," said Ranma. "I believe the old guy. This ain't a nice place to be. We're going to have to do what it takes to survive till we can find a way home."

"Why the hell do you believe him? He might be another Happosai for all we know."

Ranma shrugged, "He seems okay," he said. "And what's the worst that could happen? If they're messing us about, we can just leave. It's not like they could stop us if we worked together."

Ryoga, reluctantly, after a few moments' thought, nodded. As did Mousse. They separated again.

"Okay, old man," said Ranma. "We'll take you up on that offer."

Chapter Two

Ranma jerked awake as the sound of the front door being kicked off its hinges echoed through the small apartment that the three had been granted. What the hell?

"Come on, brats," yelled a female voice. "Rise and shine. I'm wasting my precious rest and recuperation time on this garbage so the least you can do is get your lazy arses out of bed for it."

"Guh," managed Ranma as he tried to blink the sleep out of his eyes.

"Up, up, up! What sort of ninja brat can't even get out of bed in the morning?"

Several loud thuds, the sound of knives digging into the walls, followed that pronouncement before a loud crash followed. Ranma dragged himself out of bed and set about pulling a pair of trousers on.

"Oh, we've got a live one here," shouted that same damn female voice. "Quick, too, for a brat. Shame he's blind as a bat."

God, she was irritating. And he hadn't even seen her yet.

"Still waiting here."

Ranma strode out of his bedroom to the sight of a woman clad wearing a trenchcoat over an extremely form-fitting bodysuit and mini-skirt standing over a somewhat baffled looking Mousse, who really should have known better than to get into a fight without his glasses on, with a look on her face that could only possibly be described as deranged. Why did he always run into the crazy ones?

"It's too early in the morning for this," decided Ranma, ignoring the woman entirely and heading into the kitchenette to get some breakfast. "Way too damn early."

"Don't you ignore me, brat!"

Ranma saw the thrown knife coming from a mile off and simply batted it away with his free hand as he poured himself a glass of milk. And then he swayed out of the way of another as he set about preparing himself some rice. "Would you cut that out?" he asked. "I'll end up making an Akane meal if you keep distracting me like that."

"I don't know which is worse," grunted Ryoga as he finally made an appearance. "Damned loudmouths."

"Feh," said the woman finally. "We'll see how good you really are soon enough, you cocky bastard. Meet me at training ground fifteen in ten minutes and don't you dare be late."

"Whatever," said Ranma as the woman disappeared in a puff of smoke and leaves. "Huh. That'd be useful."

"Get up, Mousse," said Ryoga. "I can't believe you let yourself be beat like that."

"She caught me by surprise!"

"This ain't a place I'd want to be caught by surprise in," said Ranma, dropping three plates onto the living room table. "Ninja ain't normally big on mercy."

"We should have left when we had the chance," said Ryoga. "I don't want to be like that."

"So don't," said Ranma. "No-one's gonna force you to kill a beaten opponent, man. And if they try, I'll be right there with you telling them to shove it. Now, come on, eat. We gotta be ready to kick her ass."

"Like we need to prepare for that."

"Well, maybe Mousse."

"I am Anko Mitarashi," said the woman when they finally straggled into the training ground. "And for some unfathomable reason the power that be have decided that I will be your jounin-sensei."

"Lucky us."

"It's really, really hard for me to think of something I'd choose training a bunch of over-aged genin over," she continued, ignoring Ranma. "So don't expect me to make this test easy for you."

Ryoga bared his fangs at her in a ferocious grin. That sounded like a challenge. Ryoga was like Ranma when it came to challenges. He didn't back down from them.

"But I suppose we should observe the formalities," said Anko. "So likes, dislikes, dreams. Cough it up to your spectacular sensei, boys."

"I like martial arts and dislike fiancees," said Ranma. "My dream is to be the best. Uh, that's about it."

"Weirdo. Next."

"I like Shampoo and dislike . . . competitors," said Mousse. "My dream is to win Shampoo."

"I'm not even going to touch that one. Next."

"I like martial arts and dislike arrogant bastards," said Ryoga. "My dream is to be the best."

"And people think I'm strange," said Anko. "Okay, now-"

"So what about you then?" asked Ranma. "Come on, cough it up to your sensational students."

"I like dango and dislike the snake bastard," said Anko. "My dream is to kill the snake bastard and stick his head on a pike for all to see. Satisfied?"

Ranma shrugged.

"Right," said Anko. "And now on to the fun part. Normally we'd do this whole thing with bells. I'd wear two on my waist and tell you that whoever took one from me passed. All very well thought out and tested and rational and very boring."

"Damn, and I was so looking forward to kicking your arse."

"Instead, your task is simply to take this one bell from me," said Anko. "Doesn't matter who does it. One takes it, you all pass. But don't look so happy, brats. I've prepared for this. Oh, yes, I've prepared. You're going to have to work to get this little bell away from me. Have fun."

And then she disappeared into thin air.

"Saotome, Hibiki, we have got to kick her arse."

Ranma eyed the training ground. It was a heck of a lot bigger than he'd expected a training ground to be. He'd thought it would be a patch of land somewhere or a forest clearing or something along those lines but instead it was a huge clump of trashed buildings out on the outskirts of town. There were bound to be an awful lot of places for a ninja to hide in that sort of place. Just typical.

"Let's go," growled Ryoga, hefting his umbrella as he spoke. "I'm not being to made to look a fool by some damned ninja."

"You always look a fool, Ryoga," said Ranma absently. Then he realised what he was saying and abruptly stopped. "Uh, forget that. I say we split up. One of us should be enough for this and we should find her a whole lot quicker that way."

Ryoga and Mousse nodded and then they were off.

The place was fucking creepy, and Ranma didn't often swear - not even in the privacy of his own head. It felt like he had ghosts looking over his shoulder everywhere he went and he didn't like it one damn bit. Sent shivers running down his spine, it did. He didn't get the feeling that these were the playful sort of ghosts he'd ran into at times. And he didn't even have a good fight to take his mind off it all.

It was all a bit anti-climatic really. He'd been running around the place for half an hour and he hadn't seen hide nor hair of the damned ninja chick outside of a couple of lame traps he'd had to dodge along the way. God but it was boring. At least Konatsu had given him a proper fight when they'd went at it. Sure, he hadn't exactly wanted to beat someone up when they'd been drugged up and were half out of their mind, but at least it hadn't been boring.

A quiet groan caught his attention, sounded like a wooden beam straining under weight, and Ranma immediately bounded off after it and into a large, crumbling building that looked like it had once been a hotel of some sort before whatever had happened there had came to pass. Blood, old, dried blood, stained the walls of the lobby and all sorts of stuff had been left scattered around the floor from cigarettes to purses. And on top of that the entire side of the room was just gone, totally exposed to the elements, as if it had simply never existed.

But he shook it off. Whatever had done it had done was long gone and he had his own problems to worry about right then so he shook it off and set off down the corridors of the place, carefully making not so much as a single sound as he went, in the direction he'd heard the sound come from.

Eventually he came to a door that was cracked open, just a tiny fraction, from which he could see a shadow moving ever so slightly spilling out from inside. That was it. He lashed out with a kick that smashed the door to splinters and charged in ready for a fight only to see Mousse. Mousse with half a dozen kunai buried in his chest up to the hilt and his white robes stained red. Mousse with a rope around his neck. Mouse with a rope around his neck that was tied to a high ceiling beam, feet well off the ground.

Ranma's reaction came at blinding speed. He threw a kunai of his through the rope to cut Mousse down and then caught him as he fell limply from where he had been hanged. He wasn't breathing.

"Damn it, you stupid Amazon bastard," muttered Ranma. "Why did you have to go and get yourself killed?"

Female laughter from behind him caused him to jerk around on his heel, still holding the body. "I hope you'll be more of a challenge than your little friend," hissed Anko when she had his attention. "He was ever so disappointing."

Ranma gently lowered the body to the ground.

"Aww, is little baby upset that the big, bad ninja killed his friend?"

He said nothing. He simply stared, allowing the rage to work its way through his body.

"Well, aren't you going to do something?" she laughed. "Or will you die as easily as the trash at your feet?"

The laughter died when Ranma lunged forward with all his speed, a blur of violent motion, and slammed his fist through her chest and out the other side, not stopping till it had gone through the wall behind her as well.

"Well, shit."

And then she vanished with a popping sound. The room seemed to shift around Ranma for a moment before the corpse disappeared.


Ryoga was angry. You might say that this was a normal state of affairs for the lost boy, and it was, but he was especially angry as yet another damned trap blew up in his face and left his skin a rosy red. It was even worse than fighting Ranma, dammit! At least Ranma fought, even if it was a wimpy sort of fighting with more dodging than actual fighting, but this girl, gah, she made Ranma seem like a straight, up-front sort of guy.

He didn't care if she was a girl; there was no way he was going easy when he caught up with her. She was just too damned irritating.

A thud in a nearby building caught his attention and he charged through the wall with an inarticulate yell. Then he stopped dead. The ninja, Anko, was standing over Ranma's slumped body. That was bad enough. The fact that the body was missing a head and spewing blood everywhere almost made him stop and vomit.

"Hmm, hmm, that blood I love," said Anko. "Such a wonderful gift he has given me."

"You . . . "

"Mmm, he was disappointing. I hope you'll be a little more fun before I get my blood."

"I see now . . . if you could defeat Ranma so easily, what chance do I have?"

"None at all, little boy."

"Yes, none. I have failed and I will die here, a worthless death to complete a worthless life."

"Uh . . . what are you doing?"


"Oh fu-"

The building was blown to pieces as the gigantic ball of ki made its upwards arc and then smashed to matchwood as the attack descended in an enormous explosion of raw kinetic force.

And there were no bodies around Ryoga, neither Ranma nor the bitch herself. Ryoga was not impressed.

Mousse smiled as his knife slammed into the head of the over-sized rat that had been heading in his direction. He was many things but able to put up with creatures like that sniffing around his hem he wasn't. Gods, what a disgusting thought that was. He absolutely hated the vermin. And killing a few helped distract him from the fact that he was getting nowhere fast in tracking down this ninja woman.

Then a body landed with a loud thump in front of him, followed by a loud cackling sound coming from the roof of the building next to him. He would have looked to see who it was but he was rather focused on the fact that the body was Ryoga and that it looked like he'd got into an argument with a freight train and lost, which was ridiculous considering that he would probably come off best if a train hit him.

It just didn't make sense. Hibiki could take hundreds of punches from Saotome and laugh it off but there he was laid out looking like he'd been literally beaten to a pulp. What the hell was strong enough that it could do that to him? That ninja sure as hell hadn't looked strong enough.

"So you can see well enough to know which of your little friends that I killed," said Anko. "But can you see well enough to stop me from killing you?"

Mousse reacted on instinct to dodge out of the way of the kunai that came his way as Anko dropped down from the roof of the house to the ground in front. The entire situation was just surreal, like something out of a bad dream, and he was more than slightly worried about the prospect of fighting someone who could beat Ryoga to death.

"Aww, is the little brat scared? Maybe I should go after his shampoo and see if he'll actually fight me then."

Mousse saw red. And then he saw steel. Nothing but steel as far as the eye could see as he let loose with everything he had up his sleeves, filling the air with knives and axes and swords and a whole variety of bladed and blunt weapons.

"God dam-"

She was pierced in at least twenty different places across her body and her jaw dropped open in a wordless gasp before she disappeared into thin air with a popping sound. And then Ryoga's body followed.

"If it's okay with you guys," said Ranma, "I think I'll drop the whole idea of splitting up."

"Yeah," said Ryoga. "I can go with that."

"Me too," said Mousse."

Anko gazed down upon them from her seat on top of an extremely large barrel with a half-eaten stick of dango in hand and grinned while kicking her legs back and forth. "Well, you guys just suck," she said. "I've seen better tracking and genjutsu resistance from academy students."

"You're not an illusion now, though, are you?"

"Well, no. I got sick of watching your blundering about."

Ryoga cracked his knuckles. "This is going to hurt you a lot more than it's going to hurt us," he growled.

"You wouldn't be thinking of beating up your sensei now, would you?" asked Anko, faux horror written wide across her features. "How terrible!"

Mousse's reaction was simple. He hurled a kunai at her head, which she knocked out of the air with her own.

"I think it's time for you guys to cool off before you do something I'd regret."

And then her hands started to rapidly flash through a series of precise movements that Ranma knew he should recognise but couldn't quite place.

"Suiton: Suiryuudan no Jutsu!"

The barrel the demon wench was sitting atop exploded outwards in a massive gush of, it was inevitable really, water. What the water did, though, made Ranma's jaw drop. It didn't just explode outwards in a wave. It roared up into the sky, Anko stood atop it cackling in mad glee all the while, and took an actual physical form: a smallish dragon.

"What the hell?!"

And then the dragon came roaring down, smashing into all three of them before they could think to move, and Ranma felt a tingle run through his body in a far too familiar way as he was sent skidding away.

"Well, so much for not having a kunoichi on the team," said Anko, looking distinctly non-plussed. "Where the hell did the other two go?"

Ranma pointed at the woe-begotten piglet and duck that were slipping around in the water as she jumped back to her feet.

"What is this?" asked Anko. "Some sort of messed up technique?"

"A curse," said Ranma before cracking her neck. "Now, I reckon we have some unfinished business to deal with."

"Haven't you had enough yet, brat? I won't be so easy to beat as my clone."

But Ranma was already moving, ducking underneath a half-dozen shuriken that came spinning her way with the ease of someone who was used to a much higher volume of steel being sent her way, before leaping at Anko with a flying kick that would likely have took her head clean off if it hadn't connected with a thick log rather than Anko.

Then steel touched against the skin of his neck. "I w-"

She wasn't the only one who could use the replacement technique and he didn't need any fancy seals to do it. Ranma quickly tapped into his ki and appeared behind Anko with a pop before delivering a kick to the base of her spine that dropped her to the ground like a puppet that'd had its strings cut.

"No, I win," said Ranma as he snatched the bell up from where it was clipped to her skirt.

"You play rough, kid."

"This is coming from you?"

"Did I say it was a bad thing?"

Ranma snorted and turned away. "I guess I'll see you tomorrow he said," he said. "Better be ready with those fancy techniques you got."

"You look stiff, Anko."

"Yeah," she said. "I hear that's what happens when someone tries to kick your spine out through your stomach."

Sarutobi raised an eyebrow. "Oh?" he asked. "I had an idea that they were skilled but I had no idea they were that capable."

"Yeah, yeah," said Anko, dropping down into a chair with a grunt. "Whatever, old man. I know you think this is funny, really."

"You wound me, my dear."

"Whatever. The brats are good. Beasts in hand-to-hand," she said. "Better than me, that's for sure. The blind one must be carrying an army's worth of weapons, too, and he seems to know how to use them. Crap at ninja skills though. Can't track, have no understanding of genjutsu, have the subtlety of a brick to the face, and, oh yeah, two of them transform into animals when I hit them with a water dragon."

"And the other?"

"Turns into a chesty little redhead. You'd like her. Him. Whatever the hell it is."

Sarutobi blinked. "A . . . well, that's . . . interesting," he said. "And they're hardly the only ones with no idea of subtlety in this village, are they, Anko?"

"You mean the brat who thinks it's a great idea to prank ANBU while wearing bright orange clothes and cackling like a lunatic?"

"Of course, of course. Who else?"

"Anyway, they've got some interesting abilities," said Anko. "I didn't see any scrolls or seals for the weapons and they seem to be able to perform jutsu without any hand seals."

Sarutobi raised an eyebrow. "Impressive," he said. "But not entirely unheard of."

"To the point of blowing an entire building to matchwood?"

Anko knew it was wrong to take great satisfaction in watching the Hokage bite through his pipe-stem in shock but she really couldn't help it.

Chapter Three

"So what do you brats know about chakra then?" asked Anko. "Specifically the moulding of it."

The three newly minted genin traded looks of sheer bafflement before turning back to her. "How the hell do you mold a chakra?" asked Ranma. "You meaning pushing more energy into one?"

"I hear the words coming out of your mouth but when I try to force them into sense I fail. Explain."

"Well, the chakras are points in the body," said Ranma. "Our life energy, ki, flows through them. You can mess someone up pretty bad by screwing with their chakras. Make them impotent, make them weak as a kitten, make them stupid. That sort of stuff."

"So that's what the pervert did to you?" asked Ryoga.

"Think so," said Ranma. "Some weird pressure point that managed ki flows through a chakra point or something. Dunno exactly how. The old ghoul ran off with the chart in the end."

"Okay, whatever," said Anko with a dismissive wave of her hand. "Those sound like tenketsu and ki sounds like chakra. Never heard it called life energy before but it fits."

"Go on then, teach," said Ranma. "Hit us with your spectacular knowledge of all things ki."

Anko glared at him, but it didn't stop her kicking off a nice, little speech. "Chakra is a mix of the energy in your spirit, gained through experience and training," she said, "and the energy of your body. It is the source of a ninja's power, what makes us different from other warriors, and can, with sufficient training, be used to do almost anything you can conjure up in those feeble, little minds of yours if you have enough of it."

"Sounds like ki."

"Pretty much," said Anko. "Tenketsu are points in your body through which chakra flows. There are some pretty nasty techniques for attacking them. Block the tenketsu in someone's arm and they can't use it."

"Doesn't sound all that bad to me."

"Block the tenketsu in someone's heart and it stops pumping."

"Okay, maybe it does."

"Anyway," said Anko with a mock-superior sniff. "You use hand seals to mold chakra for use in ninja techniques. Looked to me like you guys didn't bother with that, though."

Ryoga blinked. "Hand seals?" he asked. "Like shrine maidens?"

"When did you visit a shrine, pig-boy?"

Ryoga scratched the back of his head. "When I was trying to get to our duel," he said, with a sheepish look on his face. "She got kinda pissed off at me. Shrine girls can do some weird stuff when they're angry."

"Can't all girls?"

"As entertaining as this crap might be, shut up," said Anko. "So no hand seals. How do you do it then? Sheer force of will?"

"That would be correct," said Mousse. "The Amazons have a vast amount of techniques for training your will to better mould ki."

"And yet you still suck like a vacuum cleaner."

Ranma casually leaned back underneath the chain that Mousse threw his way before lashing out with a side-kick that caught the Amazon boy in just the right spot to drive the air out of his lungs.

"Do you three ever stop fighting?" asked Anko. They looked at her as if she'd grown a second head. "Guess not. Anyway, techniques. I already know you can use kawarimi but what about the other basics: henge and bunshin?"

Blank stares were the only response.

"Wow, so let me great this straight: you can blow up buildings, have the hand to hand skills of a jounin, or conjure up an army's worth of weapons, but you can't use bunshin?" asked Anko, eyes blinking rapidly in surprise as she spoke. "You guys must be idiot savants or something."

Ranma wasn't quite sure if that was supposed to be an insult or a compliment. In the end, he decided to stay quiet.

Anko pulled a scroll out of . . . actually, Ranma really didn't want to think about where the hell she'd been hiding it, not in those clothes. "Here," she said before she lobbed it at Ranma's head, though he plucked it out of the air before it could strike home. "Read that, idiots. It has all the basics you'll need for the three academy techniques. I'm sure Iruka won't miss it too much. Anyway, best be quick. We have a mission this afternoon. Very important, that: our first mission. I'm sure you'll really enjoy it."

Ranma wasn't even listening. New techniques!

"We kinda brought this down on ourselves, didn't we?" asked Ranma.

"That you did," agreed Anko with glee. "And because you broke it you won't even get paid like normal brats do for this crap. In fact, when you start doing real missions, the cost of this will be taken out of your payments. Let this be a lesson to you: don't get caught."

"You know, I don't remember any of my teachers ever teaching me a lesson like that before," said Ryoga, scratching the back of his head in confusion. "It's always been about not doing this sort of stuff instead of not getting caught for it."

"Pfft," said Ranma. "No wonder you're such a moron. It was about the first thing my pop ever taught me."

"Your father isn't someone I would try to emulate," said Mousse.


"Doesn't sound so bad to me," said Anko. "But yapping about fang-boy here being an idiot won't put up fences."

"You know, this really isn't what I had in mind when I signed up to be a ninja," said Mousse. "I expected more blood and guts and less hammers and nails . . . unless said hammer was being used to apply said nails to enemies."

Anko wiped an invisible tear from her eye. "You have no idea how it warms your teacher's heart to hear you talking like that," she said. "Now get to it. Sooner you're done here, the sooner we can get to something a little less tedious. Or at least you brats can."

"What?" asked Ranma. "Aren't you going to help your students?"

Laughter was the only reply he got before she disappeared in a puff of smoke. Damned woman. And he really had to learn that technique.

The fence was as good as new when they finished. Better, even. Ranma was sure that there had never been a finer wooden fence in all the world. He was the best after all. And Ryoga and Mousse weren't too bad either so long as you made sure Ryoga didn't run off in the opposite direction and Mouse had his glasses on.

"Ah, your first mission," said the Hokage, a puff of smoke escaping his mouth as he spoke. "You should celebrate. It may not seem it but this is a watershed moment in any ninja's life."

"Yes," said Ranma. "For there is nothing that is not momentous about fixing a garden fence."

A couple of the officious looking types who were hanging around in the room shot Ranma scandalised sort of looks. He ignored them entirely. Did he care what some office drone thought of him? Yeah, in the same way as he desperately wanted to be dragged off to Joketsuzoku and become Shampoo's husband.

"Ah, such is youth," said the Hokage. "So eager to charge onwards to greater things. You'll have plenty of time for that soon enough, I assure you. Enjoy what you have now while it lasts."

"Yeah, yeah," said Ranma. "Have you got anything more worthwhile for us or are we done here?"

"Come back tomorrow. We should have something else for you then."


"Got some balls to talk to the Hokage that way in public, kid," said Anko as they reached the training ground. "Lot of ninja would have your nuts for a necklace if they'd heard that."

"Feh. Let 'em try."

Anko shook her head. "I doubt anything short of a tailed beast is going to knock it into you that you aren't the biggest fish in the pond," she said. "So whatever. Read the scroll yet, brats?"

"How the hell do you get to go through all those seals without someone ramming your teeth down your throat?" asked Ranma. "Seriously, even pig-boy isn't slow enough to let someone do that in the middle of a fight now he knows what it means."

"That would be training," said Anko with a roll of her eyes. "Get good enough and those seals can go by in no time. Get really good at a jutsu and you can even skip a lot if it and just run it off with one or two quick seals. Did you think that being able to use a technique was the end of it?"

"Hey, I was just asking."

"It was a stupid question. You're ninja, not academy brats, an enemy isn't going to stop so you can ask what's happening. Deal with it. Anyway, come on, show me what you can do. Gimme a bunshin or a henge, my supposed prodigies."

They looked at each other. Or Mousse and Ryoga looked at Ranma, who sighed. Typical. He ran through the seals, though slowly and with a considerable amount of uncertainty, before calling out the technique name to complete the invocation, "bunshin no jutsu."

"Crap," said Anko. "They're supposed to be copies of you, not what you'd look like if you were a ghost. What use is a diversion if it's so obviously fake? Again."

Ranma growled under his breath and tried again. This time he created a massive number, forcing far too much ki into the technique he supposed, but the copies were much more solid looking even if they weren't solid.

"Better," said Anko. "Almost academy brat standard if they allowed the students to take longer to pull the technique off than it takes an old codger to get dressed in the morning."

Ranma was seriously tempted to shove a vacuum blade down her throat to show her just how quickly he could pull a technique off, but he wasn't entirely sure that she would survive the experience. Not that he was sure that he cared all that much about that. Being mocked in front of the idiotic duo was really pissing him off; he could hear them sniggering in the background.

"I don't what you two think is so funny," snapped Anko. "At least your resident kunoichi had the balls to try. I just handed you the cure to your little transformation problem, idiots. Why are you fobbing this crap off on him? At least he can still fight when he turns into a midget."

"I am not a kunoichi or a midget, dammit!"

"Whatever," said Anko with a wave of her hand. "You two, henge is a transformation. Learn it. Learn how to use it like you do your fancy attacks without seals and you won't be damned useless like you are now."

"Who are you calling useless!?"

"The people who will be turned into lunch by any enemy who knows their weakness," said Anko. "What, you think ninja play fair?"

"Mousse can still use his weapons when he turns into a duck," said Ranma. "Damnedest thing you'll ever see but he can do it. Like some sort of miniature martial arts version of a bomber or something."

Ryoga and Mousse weren't listening any further. They had the magic word dancing in front of their eyes, Ranma could see: cure. He'd normally be like that, too, but he had it, he knew he had it, and there were no obstacles to it. It was . . . done. He'd always expected to have to fight some great battle to get a cure and now it was done just like that. It was . . . anti-climatic. Yeah, that was the word. Anti-climatic. Took all the excitement out of getting a cure when it was just dropped in his lap like it was nothing. No anticipation.


Ranma blanched as Ryoga transformed himself into something that only resembled him in the way that a beached whale resembled a dolphin. Holy hell, he didn't think it was possible for a human to get that fat and still move.

"Kai! Kid, that was an affront to all that's good and holy in the world, brat. You can't fight when it takes a crane to lever you out of your bed."

Ryoga growled and did it again. The result . . . well, they weren't much better.

"Some prodigies," taunted Anko. "I've seen seven year olds who can do better than that."

It was going to be a long night, Ranma could tell.

Chapter Four

"Well, let's see," said the Hokage. "I have a house that needs demolishing on the outskirts of the village. How does that sound?"


"That's it," shouted Ryoga. "No more! Give us a decent mission, old man. I didn't sign up for this crap to be some damned salary man!"

You could have heard a pin drop after that little outburst. Well, for a moment anyway. Then Anko cuffed Ryoga over the top of his head. "Don't talk to the Hokage like that," she snapped.

"Gotta say," said Ranma, "I'm not disagreeing here. If I don't get a real fight soon, I'm going to start going soft. This skivvying crap just doesn't cut it."

"My friends are idiots," said Mousse. "But I think they might be right for a change."

The Hokage leaned back in his chair and took a puff from his pipe. "Oh really?" he asked. "You think you're ready for the real thing, hmm? Ready for kill-or-be-killed?"

"Yo, old man," said Ranma, "I was ready for that way before I ever met you guys. I kinda doubt you're gonna find anyone worse 'n Saffron or Herb to put me up against."

"Oh, I think I could find some who would qualify," said the Hokage. "I think your sensei knows of a few herself. But that's hardly the point. You are still new to this environment; I'm not yet convinced that it would be wise to send you into the field."

"You send the slowcoach here into the field, don't ya?" asked Ranma, ducking under the punch aimed at the back of his head by his ever-tolerant sensei. "I can beat her ten times out of ten, so what gives?"

"Defeating someone in a spar is different to defeating them in battle," pointed out the Hokage. "You were able to occasionally defeat your father in a spar from a fairly young age, were you not, and yet do you think you could have been victorious in an actual battle?"

"I could beat him nine times out of ten these days, too, so what's your point, old man?"

"Not short of confidence are you?" asked the Hokage. "And your team-mates? Ah, why do I even ask, I already know what the answer will be now. They would hardly back down after this. Hmm."

"For what it's worth, they're not entirely incompetent," said Anko. "Give them something to break and they'll break it in short order. Just don't ask for subtlety."

"Hmm," said the Hokage, as he rifled through the papers on his desk. "Ah, here. This should do the trick. We have a merchant caravan passing through Konoha at the moment and the master of it has decided to hire on some ninja escorts to join the existing guards. I believe he was impressed by one of the locals. In any case, it's a legitimate mission with a chance of combat."

"You don't mean the Tanaka clan train do you?" asked Anko. "You can't possibly be thinking about sending these brats to escort one of the most famously wealthy merchants in the world."

"That fame is why I send them," said the Hokage. "All but the most brazen of missing-nins would baulk at attracting the of attention that attacking the Tanaka would bring them and that type tend to be eliminated rather quickly. No, I think this is a perfect introduction to the world of ninja missions for the newly capable genin."

"Well, if you say so," said Anko dubiously.

"So we're not even going to get to fight?" whined Ranma.

"Some bandits, possibly," said the Hokage. "You can't expect much more for your first C-class mission. Yes, this is perfect. Have them called in."

One of the glorified salary men that always seemed to be hanging around the office whenever they came by slipped out of the door and then returned a moment later with two newcomers in tow. One was a short, grey-haired man wearing some very expensive looking clothes. The other was a younger girl, Ranma pegged her at being about five or six years old, clutching at the back of the guy's trousers, whose eyes were darting around the room, bright with curiosity. Neither moved like they were martial artists of any sort.

"So these are the ninja I'm hiring?" asked the man. "They look competent enough, I suppose. They're not kids anyway."

"Of course," said the Hokage. "Konoha would never deploy ninja unless they were appropriate for a mission. These are some of our most talented genin and their tutor is an extremely capable ninja in her own right."

"Good to hear," said the man. "I'm not expecting any trouble but you can never be too careful out there. Oh, yes. Introductions. I'm Hikaru Tanaka and this is my daughter and heir Aya."

"Ranma Saotome."

"Mu Tse."

"Ryoga Hibiki."

"Anko Mitarashi. Are we ready to go yet or do we have to another round of bowing and smiling?"

Hikaru eyed her strangely. "I suppose we can go," he said. "I'll introduce you to the guards we've already hired on and then I suppose we can leave. I don't have any more business in Konoha."

"Great," said Anko. "Let's go."

Ranma blinked but then he supposed he shouldn't be all that surprised. Anko probably didn't like being cooped up in the village doing crap make-work missions, even though she didn't actually do anything, anymore than they did. And she was probably used to doing real missions with real action that got the adrenaline pumping. Being stuck in some pseudo-village doing damned near nothing after that would be pretty much the definition of hell, Ranma reckoned. Like why he wanted nothing to do with marrying Shampoo.

"This is Isamu, head of my guards" said Hikaru "He may not be a ninja but he's been in my employ for over twenty years now and he's never let me down. You'll be co-ordinating your activities with him."

"My employer flatters me," said the tall, balding man with a slight nod. "I simply do my duty."

Ranma eyed the man. He didn't get any of the dangerous fighter vibes from the guy that he got from people like Herb or Saffron but he held himself like a guy who knew how to use that katana he had sheathed at his waist. Bonus points for not ranting about the heavens and the foul sorcerer like a certain other swordsman that Ranma'd had the misfortune to know, too. That was a neat new thing for Ranma to encounter: a swordsman who wasn't batshit insane.

So he waved. "Yo," he said. "I'm Ranma Saotome."

"Greetings, Ranma Saotome."

The others exchange greetings and Ranma's attention wandered, as it was wont to do, and he cast a look over the wagon train they were going to be escorting. He had to say that he wasn't entirely sure what different the four of them were going to make with over twenty wagons and twice that number in guards already there. It all seemed a bit superfluous. Yeah, that was the word for it. Superfluous. You'd have to be some sort of psycho to attack a group that large and that well guarded.

Oh well. He was getting paid for it and he'd get to see a bit of the world around him if nothing else. Might even get a clue about getting back to Nerima.

A tug at his trousers took his attention. The girl, Aya, was there, staring up at him intently through wide blue eyes. "You're a ninja?" she asked. Ranma nodded. "Show me a technique!"

"Aya!" called out Hikaru before Ranma could say anything. "Stop pestering the ninja."

"But I want to see a super-cool technique!"


She pouted as she tromped back over to stand by her father but she still did so. Just another kid with a thing for ninja, Ranma supposed. They weren't exactly rare in his world never mind here. Strange for him to be the ninja, though. That was new.

"She's not going to get underfoot, is she?" asked Anko. "Bad things happen to little kids who get between ninja in battle, believe me."

"No, certainly," said Hikaru firmly. "She knows better than that."

"Right, whatever," said Anko. "So we're heading for Kumo? That's quite a hike."

"There would hardly be a point to setting out with a train this size if we were only going around neighbouring villages," pointed out Hikaru. "What you expect?"

"Yeah, yeah. Okay, Ranma, you take the rear-most caravan. Ryoga, Mousse, you set about the middle of the train. I'll ride up front."

"You were supposed to consult with Isamu."

"I'm sure he won't have a problem," said Anko while giving said man a look that said that if he did have a problem he'd best keep it to himself if he knew what was good for him. Was he ever going to get a normal sensei? His pop was an obsessive lunatic, the Old Ghoul was a complete weirdo, Happosai was a horrific pervert, and now Anko was . . . he didn't have words for it. Psycho, maybe. Scary bitch, more like it.

Unsurprisingly, Isamu raised no objections. The fact that Anko could have extracted his intestines through his nostrils without a great deal of effort if she'd felt the need might have had something to do with it.

"So, ninja, huh?" asked the caravan driver as Ranma settled down next to him. "How's that working out?"

"Boring," replied Ranma. "Spent more time running errands like some kid after pocket money than doing anything interesting."

"Ha! Sounds like a real job."

"Yeah, yeah."

"Ah, lighten up, kid," said the caravan driver. "Boredom's a damn sight better 'n death and destruction in my book."

"Death and destruction I'll pass on," said Ranma. "But a little mayhem really wouldn't go amiss."

"You kids don't know when you've got it made."

The conversation lapsed and Ranma took to eyeing the scenery as it passed by. That held his attention for all of,oh, a few seconds or so before he was bored again. Seen one dusty road going through a forest, seen them all. Boring, boring, boring. He really missed Nerima sometimes. Hell, he'd even lost his manga collection because of that stupid demon sending him to ninja-world.

"So, how'd you end up as a ninja then, kid?" asked the driver. "Come on, throw me a bone here. It's a long journey to be done in silence."

"Got lost," said Ranma. "That's about it really. Got lost without a way home. Signed up as a ninja so I'd have somewhere to stay."

"That's a really bad reason to put your neck on the line."

"I've done it for stupider reasons."

And so it went for the rest of the day's travelling till Ranma eventually got bored enough that he curled up in a handy sunbeam and fell asleep.

Ranma was dragged out of his sleep by a kunai heading towards his face at high speed. He simply plucked it out of the air and sent it back along the way it came, straight into the surprised face of his sensei, who promptly disappeared with a quiet pop as the blade made contact.

"Nice shot, kid."

"Ah, it was nothing."

He went back to sleep. No damned psycho sensei was keeping him away from sleep.

"Dammit, don't you ever give up?" shouted Ranma as he knocked the half-dozen kunai that had been aimed his way out of the way. "Damned snake-wench!"

"Uh, kid?" asked the caravan driver, who appeared to be cowering down to hide behind the solid wood of the caravan front. "Not the woman this time."

"Then who . . . Mousse! Dammit, Mousse, quit it with your stupid Amazon mating rituals. Shampoo ain't even in the same world as us."

"Kid, you really need to take this seriously."

Ranma was about to ask why when he was engulfed in a fireball. When the fire dissipated he blew out a stream of smoke and blinked. "Ow," he said, patting ash away from his shoulders. "That hurt."

And then he moved. With a flex of his muscles he leapt into the air and then at the apex of his leap he cupped his hands and with a cry of 'Moko Takabisha' he launched a large ball of flowing blue energy down towards where he thought the fireball had came from. The attack smashed into the ground with its usual force and left a large crater but Ranma could see no sign of any enemy ninja in the vicinity as he landed in a crouch.

"What the hell is going on?" he asked one of the guards in the vicinity, who looked like he was about to wet his pants.

"We're under attack!"

"No shit. Who? Where? How many?"

The guard might have replied but a kunai to his throat put paid to that before he could say a word. Ranma replied to that with three thrown shuriken that thudded into the chest of the enemy ninja before they disappeared in a cloud of smoke leaving behind only a thick log with the shuriken embedded in it. Dammit.

He scanned the terrain but he couldn't make out anything useful; it was just too damn dark for him to see. So he concentrated on his other senses. Hearing, smell, ki. He'd pick up their attacks that way. He could feel enemies moving, their malice, their intent to kill, at the edges of his senses, arrayed around him.

"Get him," a voice ordered.

And then half-a-dozen seedy looking men armed with katanas charged out of the darkness at him. They came quickly and with skill born of using the weapons they carried in actual life-or-death battles, but Ranma was already moving. He flowed underneath the first strike, one aimed to shorten him by a head, and slammed a palm strike into the man's chest that sent him flying back into the trees he had came from with a dull thud.

Two more come in, one from each side, aimed to ventilate his chest with sword thrusts aimed to slide into his side between his ribs. It was but a simple matter for him to lash out with both arms and catch the blades before they could approach his torso and it wasn't much more difficult for him to focus his ki to protect his bare flesh from the impact of the swords' edges.

Everyone just froze around him and stared with wide eyes at what he had done, including the bandits who had launched the attack, until Ranma broke the tableau by yanking the swords out of the hands of the attackers and then slammed the hilts of said weapons back into their faces, sending them pinwheeling backwards before they smashed into some trees and slumped to the ground.

"Is that the best you morons can do?" asked Ranma with a cocky grin plastered across his features. "This is boring."

For a moment Ranma thought the other bandits were going to do the sensible thing and flee for their lives but then their features hardened and they charged him in unison. He actually had to put some minor effort into dodging their blows, just for a change, but they still didn't stand a chance. The first fell to a leg-sweep and then a heel kick to the bridge of the nose before he could scurry back to his feet, the second to an uppercut that lifted him off his feet and hurled him back into the darkness he had emerged from, and the third to a roundhouse kick that had a similar effect.

But what sort of bandits stood and fought when they had no chance of victory? And where had that fireball came from?

"Impressive," said a distinctly female voice. "Your taijutsu skills are highly impressive. And however did you survive my fire attack?"

Ranma was facing the voice in a heartbeat. Yes, definitely female, from what he could see underneath those loose black robes. Built like Shampoo, it looked like to him. Obviously a psycho too. So a lot like Shampoo, except that Shampoo didn't wear a mask. When she decided to play psycho she did it out in the open like a good little Amazon. "That?" asked Ranma. "Ah, that was nothing. Really. Takes way more than a little firecracker like that to take someone from Nerima down."

Ranma couldn't see the girl's face but he got the distinct impression from the set of her body language that she was pissed at him. Ah, she'd be a fiancee in no time at the rate things were going. She'd already tried to kill him. "So you say," she said. And then she slipped into a combat stance. "Now, let's see how your skills match up against something other than a worthless thug."

Ranma shrugged and with a quick flex of his leg muscles leaped forwards to attack. The way she slipped into the stance spoke of experience and she held herself like she knew what she was doing, but he wasn't worried. He was Ranma Saotome, dammit! She was quick, though. He had to twist hard at the waist to avoid the open-handed blow she sent his way to start with and then had to hop away with a cartwheel to avoid the roundhouse kick she followed up with,

And then she was on him. She was an aggressive one, to be sure, and precise too. Ranma couldn't place the style she was using and the constant use of open-handed strikes was certainly distinctive but it wasn't one he knew. Not that it mattered. He went with the old standby approach to unfamiliar styles: 'what doesn't hit me can't hurt me'. In other words, he dodged like a lunatic with speed borne of Amazon training. She was fast, he was way faster.

She obviously realised the same as she leaped away after Ranma parried another attack aside with a quick chop to her wrist that sent the blow well waywards of its target.

"Your speed . . . is impressive," she said, her chest heaving with exertion. "But . . . it is not everything."

Her hands flowed through a series of movements that Ranma immediately recognised as handseals and he tensed his muscles ready to move out of the way of whatever attack she launched. "Katon: Goukakyuu no Jutsu."

Ranma was well clear of the target zone before the fireball impacted, hurtling though the air towards a tree branch he had spied as being sturdy enough, but he had to twist himself in some truly impossible-looking contortions to avoid the hailstorm of kunai that came his way before he settled down onto the branch in a crouch. And he didn't get so much as a moment to take a breather there as the ninja had somehow arrived there before him and opened up with another series of open-handed strikes the moment he landed.

This time, though, Ranma wasn't of a mind to take it easy on her and after weaving between two strikes aimed for his lungs he lashed out with a straight kick that caught her in the chest and sent her plummeting down from the branch before she she twisted in mid-air and planted her feet against the side of the three, stopping dead there. Ranma charged down the side of the tree himself and there they fought.

Well, fought was a generous term for it. The enemy ninja aimed a quick palm strike at Ranma's face as he charged but he simply leaned ever so slightly to the side to let it fly past harmlessly before smashing a straight punch into into her jaw. She wobbled in place for a moment and then she fell. Ranma considered, briefly, jumping down to catch her or something but another ninja in a similar outfit came swooping down from a nearby tree and beat him to it.

Ranma frowned and jumped down after them and landed a few paces in front of where they'd set down. "Oi," he said. "You with these bastards?"

The ninja looked at Ranma. "Oh, yes," he said. "I'm with them. I suppose you have a problem with that?"

Ranma cracked his knuckles. "I reckon so."

"Ah, well. I'm afraid I have no time to fight you now," he replied with a shrug. "Till next time."

And then he vanished in a puff of smoke with the other ninja he'd been fighting. Bastards.

"Wow, Mousse," said Ranma. "I think you missed a spot. You see? There's a piece of the guy there you didn't put something sharp and pointy through."

"Shut up, Saotome."

Touchy, touchy. Ranma shrugged and headed off to find Anko. He found himself grimacing as he went. There were more than a few corpses littering the area and it made his guts churn. Maybe he went too easy on the bastards he'd went up against. While he didn't like killing all that much he sure as hell couldn't find much desire to leave scum that did this alive.

In the end he found Anko at the front of the caravan with Isamu and surrounded by dead bandits. Somehow, he wasn't surprised.

"Yo, sensei," he said. "Got a question for you."

"What is it, brat? We've kinda got things to be doing here."

"Ever seen a style that uses all open-handed strikes?" he asked. "It was weird. No power behind the attacks at all."

Quite suddenly Anko was giving him her full attention. "Show me," she said.

Ranma slid into the same stance that the ninja girl had used: one leg behind the other with its knee bent and with his hands held flat pointing out away from him.

"Ah, shit. You sure?"


"Well, that looks like jyuuken to me. Fuck. There's only one Hyuuga missing-nin I know of and he's out of my league."

"He?" asked Ranma. "It was a girl. Real sure of that, unless you know guys with breasts."

"You'd better not be pulling my leg, brat."

"Would I? Well, okay, I would. I'm not, not this time."

"The responsible thing to do now would be to turn back," said Anko. "Get Kakashi or someone to deal with the situation."

"Boring," said Ranma. "And they'd not show up again if we went for reinforcements. We want to figure this mess out, right? Catch the guy? Can't do that if we turn on our tail and run."

"Yeah. But, I'm only a special jounin and this guy is an A-ranked traitor. He was a jounin nearly twenty years ago. We'll just get ourselves killed against him."

"You're not even persuading yourself. C'mon. Between me and Ryoga we can take down pretty much anyone in hand-to-hand and Mousse is like a one-man artillery unit. And you're not that bad."

Anko shot him a venomous glare. "Brat, you're going to regret saying that," she said.

"Yeah, yeah. So we gonna fight or we gonna run like some scared little girls?"

"Well, we did take the mission."

"And we can take this guy, I promise. No doubt."

"So we go on."

Chapter Five

They managed to make it the rest of the way to their first stop, a moderately small village around a hundred miles away from Konoha, without further incident. Well, no more attacks anyway. Ranma didn't really think he could be blamed because Mousse threw a hissy fit at him, complete with the usual swarms of various bladed weapons, when he found out that what Ranma had said when the attack started. Stupid blind obsessive Amazon twit.

Still, they managed to get to the village without anyone else getting their throat slit and he got to pound on Mousse a bit till he was quietened, so it wasn't all bad. There was nothing quite like beating the tar out of one of the idiot brigade to work off some steam, really. It was soothing. Some people drank sake to relax, some meditated, some perved on pretty girls, he beat up his rivals. It relaxed him and it was practice. Ideal.

"Okay, brats," said Anko as the caravans filled the village centre. "If we're going to be going against missing-nin, it's time for a little supplementary training."

"Going to teach us how to spit fireballs?"

"Pshaw. Genin don't get to learn techniques that cool," she fired back. "Anyway, go earn your pay. Help them tie the horses up or something. Do whatever it is that good little flunkies do on these caravans."

And then their demented sensei bounded off, probably headed for the nearest bar if Ranma knew her at all.

"You know, I'm really starting to dislike that woman," grumbled Mousse.

"She's almost as bad as my pop," said Ranma. "Oh, look, work to be done, time to run off and leave my students to deal with it. Yeah, some things never change."

"Whinge, whinge, whinge, is that all you two ever do?" asked Ryoga. "It was your stupid idea to join up with these weirdos, Ranma. Your fault."

"What isn't?"

"You three, less yapping, more work!"

Ranma sighed. This really wasn't what he'd signed up for. He'd expected big battles and stuff like when he'd fought Herb not being used as cheap labour. It kinda sucked.

A tug at Ranma's trousers interrupted him as he tossed a few crates of something or other in with all the others. When he looked down, he saw Aya staring up at him with a very serious expression on her rounded features.

"I want to be a ninja," she said.

Ranma blinked. "Uh, what?" he asked. "I thought you were scared off all that after the attack?"

She shook her head. "No!" she almost shouted before she calmed down. "I was scared. Now I'm not. I want to be a ninja."

Ranma just stared at her. "Why?" he asked. "Why would anyone want to be a ninja? It's not exactly a job you can be proud of."

"Because they're strong!" she said. "Ninja are important. They don't have to run away from fights like normal people. They don't get pushed around all the time."

"Ninja run away all the time, kid. It's part of the job."

"You're wrong!"

"Who's the ninja here, again? I don't see a hitai-ate on your forehead."

Aya huffed and stamped her heel before shooting Ranma a glare that was positively vicious for such a little kid. How did he get into these situations? "You're wrong!"

"Wouldn't you rather be a martial artist? It's the same sort of thing except without the bad parts. Way better, I promise you."

"No, ninja!"

"What? Martial artist!"


Ranma was about to shout back again before he realised what he was doing and quickly looked around to make sure no-one was there to see him getting into an argument with a five year old about whether martial artists were better than ninja. And what the hell did some girl wanting to be a ninja have to do with him anyway? "Whatever," he said. "Look, I've got work to do. Go bug your pop or something, will ya?"

Ranma could almost feel the girl's pout as he turned away from her and headed for the warehouse door. He'd almost made it a whole half-dozen steps when the girl's voice caught him short. "Show me a super-cool technique!" she said. Then came the whine that only a small child can manage. "Please."

"They're not exactly toys."

Oh God, she was breaking out the big, watery puppy—dog eyes. "Please."

Ranma closed his eyes and thought about it for a moment. Well, it wasn't like he was against showing off how awesome he was, really. Quite for it, even. Fine, he'd show her a little trick. He opened his eyes. "Okay," he said. "I'll show you something, But you've got to promise to keep it yo yourself, yeah? Ninja secret."

Aya nodded enthusiastically in reply, her eyes bright with enthusiasm.

Ranma took a deep breath and then scooped just a little off the top of the wellspring of power at his core and then projected it to his right hand as if he was about to throw a very, very weak single-handed ki attack before holding it in place. It took a surprising amount of concentration on his part. He just wasn't used to summoning up his ki like that without promptly hurling it at someone.

"Wow," she said. For once she was quiet. "What is that? What does it do?"

"This? It, uh, blows things up," said Ranma. Not entirely accurate but it'd do. "Walls and stuff. Hurts like hell if someone hits you with one."

"It blows up walls?"

"Well, yeah. Not this one, because it's a weedy little thing, but the proper attack, yeah."

"And you can take them?"

Ranma blinked. "Of course!" he said. "What sort of wimp goes down after being smashed through a wall? That's amateur stuff."

"You are so cool!"


"Aya! Stop pestering the ninja!"

"But daddy . . . "

"No buts," said Hikaru, wagging his finger at his daughter as he spoke. Then he turned to Ranma "Sorry, kid," he said. "She's just got a thing for ninja. I've told her to leave you alone but you know what kids this age are like."

Ranma scratched the back of his head. "Not really," he said. "But she ain't so bad, really. I don't mind."

"Huh. Well, anyway, she should leave you alone when you've got work to do," he said. "Business before pleasure. Come on, Aya."

"Bye, Ranma!"

"See ya later, kid."

It was really hard to not dislike Anko at times. First she dumped them so she could swan off to a bar and guzzle sake while they slaved away doing something so boring that it went beyond and became utterly mind-numbing and then the moment they stumbled into the titchy little room they'd been allowed in the local inn she dragged them off to the nearest hot springs for 'training'. Ranma was getting to be seriously tempted to deliver a display of his combat skills in a very painful manner to his beloved sensei.

"Aww, look at you three," said Anko. "All grown up and wanting to murder your sensei. It'd bring a tear to a glass eye."

"I ain't seeing any tears."

"I said glass eye, not Anko's eye," said Anko. "Anyway, brats, we're here for training. Time for me to pass on some of my terrific techniques to my unappreciative students, despite my better judgement."

"This better not be as lame as the tree thing."

"Saotome's right, that was a decided waste of time," said Mousse.

"Oh, good for you. You can do something that the average eleven year old is expected to be able to manage. Congratulations. Let's break out the party hats and pretend it's all over and done with and you're not a pack of idiots with more strength than brains. Oh wait, the enemy might just rip your fucking hearts out if you don't learn."

"I'd really like to see them try that," said Ryoga. "I've got an umbrella here that'd teach them a lesson or two."

"If you think that being able to smash things with a stupidly heavy umbrella would help you against an S-class ninja, you're an even bigger fool than I realised. Ah, fuck this."

Then Anko stepped off the paved ground and onto the water next to it. And she didn't sink. Not even a centimetre. Ranma stared at her feet. There was definitely a trick to that, and he had to have it. Just imagine the look on the ghoul's face the next time she took the battle onto the water to use the shark fist if he could simply walk all over it! It made him all warm inside to think of that look of shock on her face before he proceeded to beat her like a drum. Ha! That'd teach her to underestimate Ranma Saotome!

He still wanted to learn how to spit fireballs out of his mouth though. That'd be an awesome way to make his pop quit it with tossing him in the pond at the crack of dawn to start sparring sessions.

"Okay, you can quit it with the maniacal laughter now, brat," said Anko. "Only one crazy person per team allowed and it isn't you."


"And moving swiftly on," said Anko. "The secret to the technique is releasing chakra through your feet. You already know the tree-walking trick so this shouldn't take you too long to learn. Trick is that you need to vary the amount of chakra you release depending on the water conditions. Shit, you think you're so good? That's all you'll need. Go practice."

Ranma was about to join Ryoga and Mousse in heading into the springs proper when what felt like a bucket of ice cold water was poured over his head. "No . . . "

"Come on, brat," said Anko. "Think of it as . . . motivation."

He was being dragged towards the female side of the springs with the strength thet women always seemed to gain when it was time for Ranma to get into trouble.. "They'll kill me!"

"Ah, ah, only if you fall in and give yourself away. Think of it as an exercise in control. Yeah. Control."


"I almost feel sorry for him," he heard Ryoga say as he was dragged through the door to the baths and the idiot duo fell out of sight.

"You are joking, yes?" came the reply.

"Well . . . yeah. Did you even have to ask?"

Ranma shuddered as she looked down at the piping hot water she was stood atop. One slip and she would be almost as doomed as he would be if was she caught being framed for yet another one of Happosai's raids. So close and yet so far. Just one slip in his control of this new technique and he'd be a naked guy in the middle of the female springs: it never ended well.

"Not bad, brat," said Anko. "Don't need to look as if the hounds of hell are nipping at your heels though. Relax . . . enjoy the water. I am."

Evil, evil witch. He was definitely going to get back at her for this 'training'. He didn't let Happosai walk all over him and he wasn't going to let her get away with it.

"Now, brat, the Hyuuga," she said. "You got away with it last time, but try and avoid getting up close with her again."

Ranma twisted around to face Anko and for a horrifying moment she felt her control slip before stabilised herself. And then she had to do it again when she realised she was staring at a nude Anko. "What are you talking about?" asked Ranma finally. "I kicked her arse. She sucked. Weaker than you."

"Kid, their style's lethal in hand to hand," said Anko. "I don't know how much of it she knows, didn't even know there was a female Hyuuga playing the big, bad missing-nin, but it only takes one tap with it to fuck your day up. You see, it isn't about smashing people around like you brats do; it attacks the internals. Nothing you can do about it. Can't train the organs."

Ranma had stars in her eyes. What a style! She had to learn it!

"Don't get any ideas, Ranma. You'd need the bloodline to use it. You see, the Hyuuga are freaks. Real freaks. They have these eyes that can see all around them and deep into your body. Without that the style doesn't work; you wouldn't be able to see the chakra flows to use it."


"So just stay clear. Use your techniques to take her out from range. I bet you have some stuff that'd work for that. If you don't, get one of the other idiots to do it. I'll be talking to them later but they'd probably be better at dealing with this one than you."

That'd be the day. Ryoga and Mousse better than her for a fight? Never would it be! She wouldn't allow it!

"Oh, and a natural redhead? Very nice."

Ranma fell in.

Ranma winced as he walked down the village street. Why was it that even the most normal women in the world turned into raging monsters when they thought a pervert was around? He'd had lighter hits from Ryoga, dammit, and that lunatic of a sensei hadn't helped one bit; hell, she'd thought it was funny. Damned woman. He'd have revenge. Oh yes he would! He'd teach her not to mess with Ranma Saotome! Good thing Akane hadn't been there, though. She'd have absolutely murdered him for being caught in the womans' springs.

Ah, hell, why did he have to think of her? Thinking of Akane made him think of home and how he wasn't ever getting back even worse than normal. Way to kill a mood that was was already pretty crap anyway.

"Why the long face?"

Ranma jerked around to face the force. It was a girl. A girl wearing sunglasses. Pretty, too. Looked to be a little older than he was with long, dark hair. Build wasn't as good as his female form, though, of course. "Wha?" he asked.

"You're a ninja, right?" she asked. "I didn't think ninja were supposed to show their emotions so obviously."

"Eh, who cares?" said Ranma. "Not like I've got anything to worry about."

"You must be quite the ninja to be so confident."

"I'm the best!" proclaimed Ranma. "Well, the crazy woman keeps saying there are loads of crazy guys who could tear me apart but I reckon she's just getting spun up because I beat her so easily."

The girl raised an eyebrow. "You defeated a jounin?" she asked. "I'm impressed."

"Ah, it's nothing. Most ninja are just soft. Bounce a boulder off them and they won't get back up. Wusses."

"A . . . boulder?"

"Yeah," said Ranma. "What, haven't you ever met a real martial artist before? That's baby stuff."

She just stared at him. Least he thought she was staring. It could be hard to tell with someone who was covering their eyes up.

"Uh, you still there?"

The girl nodded hastily. "So, what's your name?" she asked. "I'm Hitomi."

"Ranma Saotome. Uh, why are you talking to me? Not that I mind or anything but people don't normally just come up to me in the street and start talking to me unless they want something. Got a spirit or a demon that needs vanquishing or something?"

"Not at the moment," she said. "But if anything comes up I'll be sure to let you know. Right now, I'm just bored. You looked interesting."

Ranma nodded as if it made perfect sense. "Yeah," he said. "I can understand that."

"So how did you become a ninja then?" she asked. "It's not exactly the sort of thing most people just fall into."

"Well, there was this demon. We did the whole epic battle thing and, don't really know how, ended up in Konoha. Got recruited. Guess they know a good fighter when they see one."

And so it went. The girl was pleasant enough and talkative and seemed interested in Ranma's life. He wasn't exactly going to give away his deepest, darkest secrets but he didn't see a problem with talking about some of the fights he'd had over the years. It was a better way to pass the time than having his mad sensei trying to get him killed, that was for sure.

Chapter Six

Ranma was bored. Deeply, deeply bored. Guard duty sounded like it would be interesting when he was first given the job but when nothing happened again and again and again it quickly lost its shine and joined school on his list of truly monotonous things he just couldn't escape from despite hating them.

"How's your swordsmanship?" asked Isamu.

Ranma jerked in surprise. "Uh, pretty good," he replied. "Why d'you ask?"

"Training," said Isamu. "It's not easy to keep your skills up on journeys like this and I wouldn't mind a sparring partner if you're willing."

"Sure," said Ranma perking up. "I'm always up for training." Then he frowned. "Why'd you even need to ask, though? I'd have thought all ninja'd be good enough for sparring."

"Ah, most ninja I've known have never bothered with anything larger than a kunai," said Isamu. "Swords are large weapons and ninja tend to prefer something a little easier to conceal. And even when they do use swords few specialise in it."

"Most ninja suck. Really, they do."

Ranma's definition of suck was a tad different from the average but, really, most ninja did suck by it. They couldn't even manage a hundred punches a second; what sort of fighter couldn't do that? Even slowpoke Ryoga could do that.

Isamu looked somewhat taken aback by Ranma's words and it took a moment before he opened his mouth to reply. Before he could say anything, a ground-shaking explosion cut him off. Ranma was on his feet in an instant. "Shit!" he said. "That's the inn!"

Isamu was snapping off orders to the guards present in a second. "Eyes open," he barked at them. "Watch out for attack-"

Whatever he was going to say was lost as a kunai sliced across his throat and cut his words off in a spray of blood. "Ah, ah," said a tall man who stepped out from behind his falling corpse. "Less of that now."

More men dropped down from the roofs. Most looked like scummy bandits, the sort of people Ranma could beat without even trying, but there were a few who looked like they had some skill as well. The most dangerous looking of them all were a trio: two men and a woman. They were all tall, with dark, murderous eyes, armed with vicious looking spiked flails and wearing hitai-ates bearing the scratched out insignia of Kumo.

"I advise that you surrender," said the man, his lavender eyes gleaming as he spoke. "You are surrounded and outnumbered by a far superior force. You cannot win but there's no need for you to die here. Just . . . lay down your weapons. It's that easy."

"Hiro Hyuuga," said Ranma. "I've heard all about you, blood traitor and bandit king. Why would we believe that a man who would kill his own family would allow us to leave here alive?"

"Ah, a Konoha ninja," he said. "Well, I don't suppose there's much chance of a peaceful end with you. Such a shame. You have great talent, boy. To end it here, well, it seems like such a waste of material."

"I'm not so easy to kill, old man."

Hiro sighed. "As you wish," he said. "Any who wish to surrender, may. You will not be harmed. I swear that to you."

No-one dropped their weapons. Absolutely no-one. "You didn't think anyone would trust the word of someone like you, did you?" asked Ranma. "You're a traitor, man. A blood traitor. No-one's gonna take the word of someone like that."

Hiro shrugged. "Well, it's no loss for me," he said. Then his voice turned cold. "Kill them all. No survivors."

Ranma was the first to move. With absolute lightning speed he drew half a dozen kunai from the holster he had tied to his thigh and scattered the blades through the crowd of bandits, dropping half a dozen of them with painful but non-fatal strikes in the opening salvo. Then the forces of both sides, the normal fighters, caught up with what was happening and charged forwards in a massive clash of blades.

And away from it all Ranma could see Hiro watching with his hands folded behind his back and the veins around his eyes bulging.

Anko was worried. You wouldn't know it from the way she acted but she did have some care in her for her students no matter how much they irritated her and that explosion had came from the direction of the inn that they were staying in. She really didn't know how she'd react if they got took out by some moron with a fetish for explosive tags; it'd be another bout of losing the people she cared about and she really didn't need that.

"What are we going to do?" asked Hikaru. This is . . . "

"Look you've got a ninja team and a small army of guards working for you here," said Anko. "It'll be enough. Just sit tight here with your daughter and don't do anything stupid and we'll be fine."

Yeah, she wasn't the best at being the nurturing, comforting sort. She'd blame the snake bastard but she'd never been any good at that crap and she kinda had more important things on her mind than civilian idiots. It was only a matter of time till the bastards made a move to get the two she was watching over and, shit, if it was the Hyuuga traitor than she was utterly, utterly screwed. She was good, damned good, no doubt, even if she said so herself, but that damn seal kept her from getting strong enough to be a real jounin.

Well, she could prepare at least. A few explosive tags around the door-frame later she was feeling somewhat better. Probably wouldn't catch a Hyuuga but if some stupid bandits came looking for trouble, well, she'd get some interesting gore. Be a bit of a problem if the kids came charging in looking to help her, though. Oh well. She'd just have to hope they used their brains a bit.

"Your skills are indeed as impressive as my daughter claimed them to be," said Hiro as Ranma smashed the last bandit between him and the traitor aside. "I have not seen such taijutsu skill in the hands of a mere genin in a very long time."

"Feh," said Ranma, every line of his body filled with dismissiveness. "I'm the best. That's all there is to it."

"We shall see I suppose," replied Hiro, sliding into the usual jyuuken stance with practices ease. "Come, child. Show me your power."

Ranma didn't need to be told twice. One moment he was stood several metres away from Hiro, the next he was burying his fist in the man's gut and sending him slamming back into the wagon behind him with enough force to smash the wood to splinters. He had just a second to gloat before the man shot him a triumphant grin and disappeared in a puff of smoke. That was all the warning Ranma received before he had to twist out of the way of a trio of shuriken that were aimed at his spinal cord.

But that was hardly the end of it. Hiro was upon Ranma immediately, not giving him a moment to regain his equilibrium, and Ranma found himself in actual trouble. The man had skill and speed, no doubt, and Ranma was off-balance enough that he couldn't quite bring his usual speed into play. Instead he found himself twisting this way and that, contorting in ways that the human body was never meant to, in a frantic attempt to avoid taking a hit.

Strike after strike rained down upon Ranma's defences and the boy was not terribly happy about it. Sure, he was more than fast enough to defend himself, but when even glancing blows left behind a stinging feeling of wrongness it wasn't a good situation. There was a numbness growing in his left forearm that he absolutely did not like and there'd only one slight glancing hit that landed on it.

And so he retook the offensive. A roundhouse kick flew over the top of Hiro's head as he ducked down underneath its path but the follow-up punch, delivered in a blur of motion, caught the mind straight in the centre of his chest and lifted him off his feet. It was a most satisfied Ranma who watched the missing-nin slide back along the ground. The attacks hasn't been up to his usual standards for speed or grace but they'd been enough. And those pristine robes of his were starting to look good and grubby.

"Is that it?" asked Ranma. "For a big-time missing-nin, that's kinda lame. My pop gives me a harder time than that when we spar."

Hiro rose back to his feet and brushed the front of his robes down. "It seems that I will have to take you seriously," he said. "I shall offer you one more chance. Surrender and I will allow you to leave this place unharmed."

"You must be joking," snarled Ranma. "Look around you. People are fighting and dying to stop you. You think I'm going to abandon them to save my own neck? You might be that sort of trash but I am not."

The Hyuuga traitor's expression turned ugly at that. "You have no idea of what you speak, you arrogant little child," he said, his voice frigid. "It seems that I shall have to teach your a lesson in respect."

Ranma slid his hands into his pockets and assumed the sort of casual stance that he knew drove people insane. "Bring it on," he said with a cocky grin.

There was something deeply satisfying about watching a bunch of bandits get reduced to a fine mist of gore as they tried to smash through a door to get at you, decided Anko. Perhaps it was the brief look of horror on their faces or perhaps it was the way their blood sprayed through the room. Either way, it certainly worked for her.

"Could you have made a bigger mess?" asked the female ninja who stepped through the door after the bandits. Damn, no more tags. "Well, I suppose it worked."

Anko noted happily that while the bitch in the ninja gear didn't look too bothered the bandits following her looked distinctly unhappy about the whole situation. "So you're the Hyuuga bitch who get the crap kicked out of her by one of my students?" asked Anko as she twirled a kunai between her fingers. "Can't say I'm impressed."

"You're nowhere near as strong as your student, Anko," said the ninja. "I don't think I have much to fear from you."

One of the bandits fell to the ground with a kunai sticking out of his forehead. "Well, we'll just see about that, won't we?" asked Anko, a demented smile spreading across her features. Beating some humility into a bloodline bitch was always fun.

"Kill her."

The bandits charged.

"You know, I heard these ninja kids were real badass types," said the tall bandit. "But they died just the same as anyone else."

"Well, we did set a few hundred pounds of gunpowder off underneath them," replied the short, rotund bandit stood next to him with a snicker. "Hell of a wake-up call."

"Victory through superior firepower," said the third of the bandits, one who looked to be about ninety percent scar tissue. "It always works."


They would have probably continued gloating but it was at that point that a spherical device with a rapidly burning string rolled out of the flaming ruins of the inn to stop at their feet. "Oh shi-"

Suffice to say, boom. Bandits aren't the only ones who can play with explosives and Mousse is every bit as good at it as any random bandit was ever likely to be and, unlike them, could carry as much of it as he liked around with him.

"Getting kinda testy there, aren't you?" taunted Ranma as he leaned underneath a stiff-fingered jab that would have took his eyes out. "No need to get all worked up about being called a traitor, you know. It's just a statement of fact."

"Fool, you are within the range of my divination!"

And then he came at Ranma with a speed that'd have almost been impressive before he went through the chestnut training. His arms were little more than a blur as they lashed out in a series of pinpoint strikes aimed across Ranma's chest but Ranma responded by upping his own speed to chestnut levels and knocking the attacks aside as quickly as they could come and then some.

"Is that it?" asked Ranma. "Is that the power of the Hyuuga? Man, that's lame. My fat old panda of a pop could kick your ass without even breaking a sweat."

"This isn't over."

"Oh, I think it is," said Ranma. "I ain't got that time to waste playing with you. But I'll at least let you go out with a bang. Behold the technique that scared the piss out of Chinese emperors a hell of a long time ago: splitting c-c-feline hairs!"

It was something Ranma had been working on for a while, ever since he learned bunshin, and now he was using it in anger for the first time. He rapidly divided into sixteen identical copies that circled around the traitorous Hyuuga and then it was just a matter of using kawarimi to swap his real self for his illusionary self whenever he felt like landing a hit from one of his bunshin selves.

Simple, really.

"So, how'd you like that?" asked Ranma as he clouted the Hyuuga across the back of his head. "I reckon this is it, don't you?"

"Oh, I quite agree, young man."

Ranma was so surprised when the Hyuuga lashed out at him with his super-speed attack again that he didn't have time to block. Each and every single attack landed as Hiro's stiffened fingers jabbed into his chest time and time again till the force of the repeated attacks lifted him off his feet and knocked him bouncing back along the ground in a twisted heap of limbs.

It took all of Ranma's willpower to lift himself back up. "What the hell?" he gasped between the rhythmic pulses of pure agony coming from his chest. "How?"

"It's simple, child," said Hiro. "I have byakugan. Your feeble little genjutsu technique is as nothing to these eyes. I'm amazed that you even tried it."

Well, didn't he feel stupid?

"Now," he continued. "I think I'm done here. The Yubari triplets should be more than enough to finish the job now and I have other affairs to attend to. Farewell. We shall not meet again."


Ranma glared at Hiro's back as the tall man leapt away. No way in hell was he letting the bastard get away without a fight. Within the blink of an eye he was reaching into his ki and projecting it to his arms for a ki attack. Bad idea. The burning pain that promptly shot through his entire body dropped him to his knees in an instant and left him gasping for air. What the hell had that bastard done to him?

"Well this is going to be boring," said one of the triplets. "No challenge at all."

"No fun killing someone whose chakra's been blocked," said another. "So easy."

"They bleed just the same," said the girl. "And we can take our time with them. It all balances in the end,"

Well, shit.

A wide spray of arterial blood heralded the fall of the last of the bandit minions who hadn't turned on their heel and fled when Anko set about them. "Ah, there's that blood I love," said Anko, her long tongue darting out to catch some of the spray as it spattered against her face. "Now, princess, your turn. I've always wanted to know what Hyuuga blood tasted like."

"God, you're disgusting," said Hitomi as she slid into a standard jyuuken stance with a look of utter revulsion on her face. "No wonder Orochimaru chose you as his apprentice."

"Oh, you really shouldn't have brought that up. Now I'm going to make it hurt."

And then they joined battle. Anko's hands flew through a set of seals in a heartbeat before, with a yell of 'fuuton: daitoppa' she expelled a mighty gust of wind from her mouth that smashed the Hyuuga girl back through the door as the front of the building was blasted to matchwood in the attack's wake.

"Not so smart-mouthed now, are you?" crowed Anko before the girl's limp body turned to a male body with a distinctly slit throat in a poof of displaced air. "Yeah, there's a surprise."

Anko leaned back out of the way of the palm strike that had been aimed at her temple by the newly appeared Hitomi before slashing her kunai up in a vicious motion that would have cut the girl's wrist clean through if she hadn't jerked her arm out of the way. Anko's follow up strike with the side of her other hand caught the girl in her throat, though she was able to roll with it, and sent her staggering back, gagging on the impact.

Anko's follow up sent four snakes crashing through the wall as they flew forth from her coat sleeve in a strike that would have went straight through Hitomi if she hadn't rolled out of the way sharply. The hail of kunai that landed at her feet would have done a very good job of perforating her if she didn't stop her roll sharply though.

"Come on, princess," taunted Anko. "Is this all the famed Hyuuga clan can do?"

Hitomi lunged up from her crouched position and roared down upon Anko with great vengeance, pushing herself to extremes of speed that she had not achieved before as she launched jyuuken attack after jyuuken attack upon the older woman, who dodged away with a manic grin on her face.

And all this as the little girl, Aya, cried in fear in the background.

"So what now?" asked Ryoga. "Do we go to Anko or Ranma?"

Mousse paused in thought as another bandit fell before his shuriken bombardment. "Good question," he said. "Saotome can take care of himself but he's bound to be wherever the real action is."

A bandit screamed as Ryoga's umbrella caved his ribs in like so much cardboard. "And he'll never let us live it down if he gets to fight the real fight while we do some weakling minions again," he said. "You know what he's like."

"All mouth, no filter," said Mousse. "Yes, I know."

And these bandits are really starting to piss me off," snarled Ryoga as he slammed yet another bandit through a building. Yes, through the building. In one side and out the other. "Why don't they just give up!?"

"I think they're starting to get the message now," said Mousse. "Look they're running."

"About damn time. I was about to get really angry."

"Perish the thought," said Mousse. "So, are we going after Anko or Ranma?"

"I say Ranma," said Ryoga. "Get a real fight."

"Anko's where the mission objective is, though," pointed out Mousse. "Mr. Tanaka and Aya. Protecting them is the mission. The rest is tertiary."


"Whatever hell Saotome has brought down upon himself he can deal with. He's too stupid and stubborn to die."

Ryoga looked conflicted for a brief moment before his features cleared. "You're right," he said. "Ranma can deal with these ninja wimps easy enough. Come on, let's go."

Ranma barely, by the skin of his teeth, managed to jump backwards out of the way as the spiked flail whistled past his face close enough that he could almost feel the spikes slicing into his flesh. This was turning out to be a really, really bad day. He hadn't been so slow since before he'd hit puberty!

"Looks like this one still has some fight in him."

"Just makes it all the more entertaining, don't you think?"


Ranma yanked a kunai out of his thigh holster. It pained him to admit it, but he needed the extra reach if his speed was going to be so badly reduced. Sure, it wasn't much, but he didn't think he could get to one of the fallen swords before they pulped his skull. Too slow. He hadn't been too slow in years. And against ninja . . . he didn't like his chances.

"How amusing," said the girl. "He thinks he can win, I think . . . he thinks this is a fight."

"Boy, kid, this isn't a fight. This is a massacre."

"You talk big," said Ranma. "But I'm still standing here. Where's the massacre? Or do you need your master to hold your hands before you can actually do anything?"

"He's got a wicked tongue. I think I'll cut it out and keep it for a souvenir."

The smart thing to do would have probably been to set himself to defend and hold them off waiting for reinforcements to arrive, but no-one had ever called Ranma smart and he didn't like being treated as if he was some easy victory one bit. It was insulting! He brought his arm around in a blur, or at least as close to a blur as he could manage with his muscles straining for every erg of power, and sent the kunai heading on a straight path towards the taller guy's heart.

Precision, speed, surprise. He had them all with the attack. It wasn't enough. The target knocked the kunai away with his flail without even the vaguest sign of effort, giving Ranma the most arrogant look of superiority all the while.

"Pathetic," said the man. "Even with your chakra blocked, that was pathetic. You are weak."

"Come over here and say that," Ranma snapped back. "I'll show you just how weak I really am."

The man's smirk said it all. "Well, why not?" he said. "I could do with a bit of taijutsu practice."

He dropped his flail. It was all Ranma could do not to break out in a wide smile. He approached, every line of his body screaming arrogance, and when he closed in he threw a quick straight punch at Ranma's head. A punch that Ranma saw coming a mile off even without his ki. It was almost too easy for him to catch the guy's wrist and then jab his other arm up into his elbow and snap it went. Then, ignoring the guy's scream of pain, Ranma slammed an elbow up into the guy's nose with a wet crunch before twisting his legs around and sweeping the guy's leg's out from underneath him in such a way that the base of his spine slammed into Ranma's knee.

All in all, it took Ranma about two seconds to break the ninja. He was down on the ground twitching in a distinctly unhealthy looking way and moaning in a way that was beyond pain and into 'I think I'm dying' territory.

"You'll pay for that," hissed the girl, her pretty features screwing up in a distinctly unpretty way. "You'll pay for that in blood!"

Ranma didn't have so much as a moment to blink before her flail snapped out and slammed into his chest. Down he went, but he rolled with it and came straight back up. Any other way led to death. He managed to slide out of the way of the next attack that came his way but he could feel his breath rattling in a way that was distinctly not good on top of the burning feeling left behind by the bastard with the girly eyes and his stupid attack.

Pain all through your body, breath rattling in your chest, enemies around you, what do you do? You fight. Ranma wasn't going down easy.

"Not so tough now, are you?" taunted Anko. "Come on, princess. Where's the smart mouth now?"

Victory was so close that Anko could almost taste it. The girl was good for her age, no doubt, but she was better. That simple. She'd sliced half a dozen strips out of the girl so far and no-one could take that sort of damage without it catching up with them . . . well, unless they were the snake bastard. It was almost over.

"I'm not done yet," snarled Hitomi, wiping blood out of her eyes before lunging at Anko again. Ah, the futile aggression of the out-classed. It was almost embarrassingly easy for Anko to slide out of the way and draw her kunai across Hitomi's back as the girl passed her.

"Now, now, princess," said Anko. "You go and throw a tantrum and I might just have to spank you."

"I'll kill you."

"Yeah, yeah."

The girl's hands started to move through a series of hand seals but there was just no way it was going to happen. Anko closed the gap between them with three long strides before she'd finished the second seal and smashed her fist into the bridge of the girl's nose before she'd finished the third. And down she went, with a nice new wound pumping out blood steadily.

"I think that's enough," said Anko. "Time to end this."

"I quite agree."

Anko whirled around to try and do something, anything, but the last things she saw before the lights went out were a pair of bulging lavender eyes.

Ranma grimaced as he shielded his ribs with his left arm and listened to the air rattle in his lungs. Things were looking really, really bad. He was beaten to hell and he hadn't so much as landed a hit on the bastards since he'd took that one guy down with some, in his opinion, nifty moves.

"Looks like the fight's been beaten out of him now," said the guy. "Such a shame. We were having such fun."

"I want to see him bleed. I want him broken."

Where the hell were the idiotic duo? The one time he needed them and they didn't show up. Typical.

"Oh, you will. You will."

It was all Ranma could do to scramble out of the way of the swinging flail that would have taken a large chunk out of his side that came as way as the bastard guy finished speaking.

"I'm tired of this," said the girl. "He dodges too much. It's boring."

"So, it's time?"

"Yes," she hissed. Then she bit her thumb and began to move through hand seals. A hell of a lot of hand seals. More than Ranma had ever seen used for a single technique. He had no idea what it was but he knew it was going to suck for him, and there was absolutely nothing he could do about it. "Kuchiyose no jutsu!"

Ranma squinted as an enormous cloud of white smoke blew out from where the psycho chick had slammed her hand into the ground. He . . . he could see something big moving in there, something that made the hairs on the back of his neck stand up straight. What the hell?

The smoke cleared.


"Yes," hissed the girl. "Now you see the futility of it. I can feel your fear."

All the humanity drained out of Ranma's eyes as he dropped onto all fours and hissed at his enemies.

"This, I did not expect."

"Sod this for a game of soldiers," blurted the summon before disappearing into thin air.



"Hitomi, get up!" barked Hiro urgently as he scanned around using his byakugan. "We need to leave. Now."

"What?" she slurred. "We've won. The bitch is down. You must have beaten the brats. We've won. It's over."

"I have no time to explain," said Hiro, his voice rising. "Get up. Act like a ninja! The mission is not yet complete."

"Alright, alright," said Hitomi as she levered herself to her feet. "What do you want me to do?"

"Get the girl."

Hitomi had just grabbed Aya, smacking Mr. Tanaka across the room to quieten his protests, when the other two genin dropped down to the ruined front of the building. Hiro simply moved. One moment he was stood there, where he had been delivering his orders from, and the next her had a blade to the unconscious Anko's throat.

"Not one step closer," he said. "Or your sensei dies."

The fanged one stepped closer, a deep growl rumbling forth as he did so, but the boy with glasses slammed an arm across his chest before he could do anything. Hiro showed nothing but internally he breathed a sigh of relief. The one boy had been enough trouble and Hitomi was in no shape to offer aid to him. Two of them at once with that monstrous chakra he felt rising from where he'd left the first didn't fill him with a desire to fight it out. He hadn't survived as long as he had by playing those odds.

"Damn you."

"You're too late for that," he replied. "Now, it's simple. You let myself and my daughter leave unmolested with our burdens or our hands . . . slip. It doesn't need to get any messier than it already has, boys. No-one else has to die here."

For a moment, he really did think they were going to say the hell with it and attack. He could virtually see the rage pulsing off the pair of them, oh, wait, he could, their auras were visible, but then they sagged. "Fine," said the boy with the glasses, "But we will find you and we will kill you. Make no mistakes."

"Till another day then."

Ranma came around to the smell of blood and death and the sensation of being coated in the blood of his enemies. All round him he saw . . . pieces, pieces of the three ninja he'd been fighting. He rolled over onto his side and emptied his stomach onto the ground.

On the plus side, it felt like his ki had been knocked loose; on the down side, his neko-ken had turned to slaughtering everything around it. Somehow, it didn't balance.

Chapter Seven

"Well, remind me to never be around when you go cat again, Saotome," said Mousse with a grimace. "I really don't want to find out whether it considers me an enemy or not the hard way."

Ranma just couldn't manage the usual smart-alec reply when he was surrounded by lumps of flesh and bone that had once been human beings. Somehow, it just didn't seem like the thing do do anymore.

"We've got a problem," said Mousse. "There's no time for you to get all broody over this. The girl's been kidnapped and they took Anko prisoner at the same time. We need to move quickly."

Ranma blinked. "They took the kid?" he asked, anger flaring up inside him. "And Anko?"

"Yeah," replied Mousse. "So save the moping for later. Frankly, I'm not inclined to care about some of this pack of jackals getting ripped apart, but if that's what makes you tick fine. Just save it till we've got Anko back."

"Mousse, you're a moron," said Ranma. "But you're right about one thing: we need to move quickly. Come on, where are the others?"

Mousse ended up leading Ranma to a hastily erected camp out past the outskirts of the village they'd been staying in. It looked some sort of refugee camp, the sort of thing you see on news reports from Africa, to Ranma. A pair of tired looking guards, one of whom had most of his face covered by bandages and the other had spatters of blood decorating his clothing, glared at the pair of them for a few seconds before waving them through. And so they entered.

It wasn't any prettier a sight from the inside than it had been from out. The guards were twitchy, jumping at even the slightest noise, and the caravan drivers, well, some of them looked fine but the younger ones had a dull sort of look in their eyes that was suggestive of a not terribly healthy mental state. It was the sort of thing that Ranma had seen in the eyes of a few people in the really, truly dirt poor villages that he'd passed through with his pop and they normally didn't last much longer after they got that look.

And that didn't even get into the sight of people carrying corpses, some of them horribly mutilated, into the largest tent and others carrying the wounded to another similarly large tent and the groans of pain that Ranma could make out above the background noise of the camp.

"Why are we even here?" asked Ranma. "We should be in the village with proper doctors and a hospital and stuff."

"The villagers are scared, Ranma. They don't want us there in case we get attacked again."

"But we defended them!"

Mousse shrugged, "Yeah, and?" he asked. "You know people, Ranma. They're scared, they're not thinking, and so they try to get rid of what they see as the source of the problem. We did bring the attack to them."


Mousse shrugged, "Come on," he said. "Ryoga's with Mr. Tanaka. We need to talk to them to figure out what comes next."

"Who's in charge of the guards now?"

"Uh, that would be us. Pretty much anyway. With Isamu and Anko gone we're next most senior, apparently."


They fall into silence then as Mousse lead Ranma to the tent that contained Ryoga and Mr. Tanaka. Ryoga was sat in the corner looking vaguely angry and somewhat singed around the edges, his umbrella laid out on the floor next to him, while Mr. Tanaka paced up and down the length of the tent, his expression alternating between stark fear and boiling rage within the few moments that Ranma spent observing him before his presence was noticed.

"Ranma," said Ryoga. "Never thought I'd be glad to see you."

"Ha. Same to you, lost boy. What's the story?"

"My daughter's been kidnapped by a psychotic mass-murdering bastard of a ninja," shouted Mr. Tanaka. "That's the damn story. Oh, and he took your sensei, too, just to round things off nicely. Can't forget killing half my guards, burning most of my caravans, and getting me banished from one of my favourite trade hubs either. It's been a real swell day all round."

Ranma blinked. "Uh."

"What happened, Saotome?" asked Mousse. "You don't go cat on a whim."

"Well, after that dick with the girly eyes blocked my ki, his little minions summoned up a giant c-c-feline to kill me. That's about where I stop remembering."

"I'm guessing that those little minions are the chunks of meat left where you were fighting."

"That'd be them," said Ranma. "And my ki's unblocked now so I'm good to go. We know where the bad guys have to lick their wounds?"

"This is all very nice," said Mr. Tanaka. "Heart-warming, even, but I want to know when we're going to get around to torturing that bastard we captured. I bet he'll know where the other roaches are hiding."

"Uh, what?"

"We managed to grab one of the bandits before he could run away with the rest of the cowardly, dishonourable bastards," said Ryoga. "He's chained up in the tent next door with a couple of guards making sure he doesn't get too comfortable."

It was just one thing after another. First he got beat by some guy he should have been able to beat with one hand tied behind his back, then he went cat and discovered that his cat side was now completely, utterly not safe to be around, and then they had someone locked up waiting to torture him for information. Nerima had never looked so good as it did right then.

"So that's the plan, then?" asked Ranma. "We beat information out of this guy and then go crack some skulls?"

"Works for me," said Ryoga with a fanged grin. "Some payback sounds real good about now."

"Just let me have five minutes with him . . . he'll tell us what we need to know, I promise you that."

"That's really not a good idea, Mr. Tanaka," Ranma weighed in quickly. "You're not trained for this sort of thing."

"And you are? Oh, of course. You're ninja. Yes. Make the bastard scream."

"I hope you know what you're doing, Saotome," said Mousse as they entered the prison tent. "Because I sure as hell don't."

"Trust me," replied Ranma. "Just follow my lead. I've got it all figured out."

Mousse snorted but said nothing more.

"Hey, you guys," said Ranma to the guards who were standing over the very battered looking prisoner. "You can leave now. We'll take it from here."

"Give the bastard one for us."

And with that they were alone. Ranma took a moment to eye up the prisoner. He really didn't look like much but then that was rather inevitable considering the state of him. The guy looked he'd been fifteen rounds with Herb and then another fifteen with Saffron before having a little dust-up with Happosai for good measure. He was bruised, extensively, all across the visible areas of his body, and given that his shirt had been reduced to a few tatters of cloth that covered basically nothing that was saying something.

"You look like crap," said Mousse bluntly. "Ready to give up, yet?"

"Fuck you, ninja brat," coughed the man, bringing up blood as he did so. "I'm not telling you shit."

"You are aware that ninja are trained in torture, yes?" asked Ranma. "We won't just beat you like some thug who managed to pick up a nice sword and a respectable job along the way. We're ninja. We know to inflict maximum pain for minimum physical damage. And you, my rather unfortunate friend, have information regarding our captured sensei. It's a bad combination."

"Yeah, yeah," said the prisoner. "Pull the other one, it's got bells on. If you were really this big, bad, cold-arsed ninja then you would dump your sensei like so much garbage. She failed, kid. That gets your arse kicked out of ninja villages."

Mousse and Ranma looked at each other then back at the prisoner. "Not Konoha," said Mousse. "Discarding a valuable resource over something that may not even be their responsibility? How very stupid. Anko is a special jounin; ninja of that level don't grow on trees."

"So you're hippy ninja, then. Terrifying. Look, I'm shaking. Oh, wait, that's the muscle trauma from when certain fuckers who I intend to main horrible when I get out of here beat the hell out of me. Never mind."

"You're remarkably confident for someone facing a pair of ninja."

"Yeah, well, I find it hard to be scared of a couple of brats playing the hard man," he snapped back. "Come on, you expect me to believe that you're torturers just because you've got the right secret handshake?"

"No, but you could believe me because I'm going to take this kunai, heat it up till it's glowing red, and then use it to slice into your flesh in such a way that the heat cauterises the wound immediately so that you don't get to bleed out. Just think about that for a moment. There's really nothing to stop me from keeping that up for . . . oh, days, weeks, months even."

The man blinked and his eyes widened ever so slightly suddenly looked somewhat more nervous. "You wouldn't," he said, his voice wavering just enough for Ranma to pick it up "You're just a kid."

"A kid who's been under the hands of Konoha's head torturer," said Ranma with a forced grin of a most predatory sort. "Mousse here has too. We've picked up a few things . . . a few neat little tricks."

"Hmm," said Mousse with a nod. "Moreno Ibiki is an interesting sort of man. Have you ever heard of him? I hear he has quite the reputation."

The prisoner looked like he was about to soil himself. Yeah, he'd heard of Ibiki alright, not that Ranma really understood why people were so scared of ol' scarface. He was a big, old teddy bear. Really. And he'd keep telling himself that till the day he died.

"And we haven't had much of a chance to try these tricks out," continued Mousse. "It's been very disappointing. Then you just . . . fall into our hands. Makes you think that someone up there if looking out for you, doesn't it? Well, not you you, but you get what I'm saying."

"Makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside, it does," said Ranma. "And, hell, if we get bored, we can always call up Ryoga to keep things moving. He's just as eager to get into the fun stuff as we are. Bit too eager, really. Not sure you'd survive his attentions. He ain't good at subtle."

"No, he isn't," agreed Mousse with a nod. "Very much driven by his emotions is our team-mate. It would be a terrible shame if he were to break out friend here prematurely, but that's the risk you take."

"Yeah. It's not like anyone's gonna miss this guy."

"Indeed. Shall I get the kunai ready?"

"No!" barked the prisoner. "Okay, enough. I give, I give. You're a pair of proper little psychos and I give. I've had enough."

"A shame," said Mousse. "I was so looking forward to it."

"Can't have everything," said Ranma. "Now, prisoner, tell me where your base is, the defences, patrol patterns, everything. And tell me quickly. Oh, and don't forget: if you lie, you die."

And he did. He coughed his guts up so quickly that Ranma had to ask him to slow down so he could take it all in properly. It was pathetic really; they hadn't even had to do anything, maybe Ibiki was onto something after all. When it was done, Ranma and Mousse turned on their heels and left the tent without word.

"So, got the info?" asked one of the guards. "I didn't hear any screaming."

"What can I say?" asked Ranma. "I'm just that damn good."

"So can we deal with him properly now?" asked Mr. Tanaka with a most intent expression upon his features. "I want to see him swing."

Ranma shrugged. "Not my problem," he said. "Let him go, hang him, whatever. I'm a martial artist not a judge.

"It's not like you to be so cold-blooded, Saotome," said Mousse as they walked away from the tent. "I'm almost concerned."

"Not really feeling my usual wonderful self, right now," said Ranma. "And it's not like I haven't done the tour of the backwater villages before, Mousse. Bandits never get off light when they get caught. You should know that."

"Whatever then. Just don't go Anko on me."

It wasn't as if he could do anything about it anyway. What did Mousse expect? That he'd fight off every pissed-off guard in the camp to save some rotten bastard who made a living from murder, rape, and plunder? No, ta.

Anko came back too with not a whisper of motion. She could feel the shackles around her ankles and wrists and the presence of others in the room with her. It didn't take a genius to figure out what had happened. She'd either been captured or got really drunk and had a really kinky one-nighter, Somehow, she didn't think she'd be lucky enough for it to be the second of those two. She'd been so close to shedding that damned Hyuuga blood too. Ah, well, there'd be other times for that. She had to worry about getting away first,

"There's not point to that," said Hiro. "You can't fool these eyes by feigning sleep, my dear. It just doesn't work that way,"

"Ah, well, it was worth a try," said Anko, rolling till she was balanced in a crouch, though there was little she could about her arms with their being tied behind her back. Damned uncomfortable too. "Don't suppose you're going to give me a fair shot and untie me? I could really use a safe word right about now."

"Don't be silly," replied Hiro. "And don't even think about trying to use academy techniques to escape. Those cuffs are chakra reinforced and designed to hold even an Akimichi should I feel the need."

"Damn, all that for little, old me?" asked Anko. "You must be really paranoid."

"Or just not keen on the idea of finding out what Orochimaru's apprentice deems fair payback for a defeat."

"Snake-bastard's still fucking up my life ten years after he abandoned me. There's probably a lesson in that."

"Perhaps," said Hiro. "Really, it'd be best for all involved if you just gave up on the idea of escape. It simply isn't possible. Even if you freed yourself, even if you fought through my guards, I would simply defeat you again and then I'm afraid I'd be forced to stop protecting you."

"I knew this was coming."

"Well, you must understand," continued Hiro. "You killed a lot of good men today. That's made you very few friends among my people . . . and while you're worth a lot to me intact you're not worth so much that I'd risk splitting my forces over keeping you that way. I'm sure you understand. It's just business."

"What's next?" asked Anko. "Gonna threaten the brat to keep me in line? Not much further to fall really."

"Do I look foolish to believe that you, the apprentice of a monster far worse than I could ever be, would care one iota for the welfare of a child? No, I don't think so."

"Bastard, I can't wait for my team to catch up with you."

"Your students are impressive but one is already disabled," said Hiro, though Anko caught a flicker of uncertainty pass across his features before they smoothed out again. "I'm certain that we can deal with two genin."

"Yeah, you keep telling yourself that. Me, I'm just waiting for them to show up and kick your sorry arse from one end of the country to the other."

"Are you sure about this, Ranma?" asked Ryoga. "I mean, this guy beat you, and now you're talking about going up against him one on one most likely."

"Since when do you interfere with man-to-man duels?" asked Ranma without moving from his position laid out on the grass staring up at the sky. He just wasn't in the mood to scrap with Ryoga, for a change. It just didn't seem like the thing to do.

"That's not the point!" growled Ryoga. "This isn't a duel; this is a battle. We can't afford you losing."

"Well, if you can learn the umisenken in the next couple hours, feel free to join me," said Ranma. "Otherwise, I have to go alone. I don't need you guys blundering about when I'm trying to sneak around."

For a moment Ryoga looked as if he was going to give caving Ranma's skull in another go before he deflated. "How the hell is it even going to work?" he asked. "These guys have super eyes or something, how the hell can you sneak up on them?"

"It's all in the ki," said Ranma. "All in the ki. Get some rest, Ryoga. You're going to need it to lead the attack."

"Feh. Smashing up those idiot bandits won't be any challenge. You're the one taking the good parts."

"Yeah, yeah. You're about a subtle as an atom bomb, pig-boy, so how the hell do you think you'd sneak in to grab Aya and Anko without starting a war?"

"Shut up, Ranma."

Ryoga left Ranma to his thoughts not long after that, apparently convinced that Ranma knew what he was talking about or that his mind was set. Fine by Ranma. He was quite content to be left to his own devices just then. He needed to be absolutely focused for what he was about to do and that meant meditating and seeing if he could work some of the soreness out of his muscles.

Chapter Eight

He felt nothing, he was nothing. That was the key to the umisenken. Feel nothing, be nothing, erase your presence from the world. It didn't make you invisible, Ranma had only ever seen one technique that could manage that and he didn't have the faintest idea how it worked, but it erased your aura, your ki, from the world and made it impossible for anyone to pick you up with the sixth sense that all martial artists of any decent level had. If he was right, it would screw those irritating eyes up as well. Hell of a bet to make but if it didn't work then he'd just have to slug it out through the abandoned fortress the bandits were hiding out in. Either way, he was getting Aya and Anko out.

Scaling the walls had been easy. It would have been easy before and it was even easier after the training with Anko. Sheer walls hadn't been more than a slight speedbump since he was seven but he could do it so much quicker and quieter now. Dropping back down to the ground on the other side of the walls was even easier. What was a fifty foot drop to a real martial artist? Nothing, that's what. Sneaking past the guards wasn't much more difficult, either. They were just a pack of useless bandits whose only skill was swinging a piece of sharpened metal around well enough not to cut pieces of themselves off (mostly). Sneaking past was them was something he could have down before puberty hit.

The difficulty, such that it was, was finding where he had to go. He could sneak around all day but it was going to help much if he couldn't find the damn prisoners. There were times he really, really wished he'd learn to look before he leaped.

"Holy shit," said one of the guards. "How the hell are we going to get in there?"

Mousse had to admit that the fortress certainly looked impressive. Really, the construction suited the name fortress down to the ground. The walls were impressively high and solid looking with scorch marks adorning them that suggested that they'd weathered more than one invasion in the past before the war that it had been constructed for had reached its end and left the fortress to be abandoned. Were he anyone else he might even have agreed with the guard about the impossibility of the task facing them.

"Not to worry," he replied, pushing his glasses back up to the bridge of his nose. "You'll see soon enough."

"What?" asked another guard. "You got some fancy ninja trick that can make solid walls disappear, kid? No stupid little firecracker is going to take those down."

"Ninja?" asked Mousse, his voice contemptuous. "Hardly. We Amazon were ancient when the ninja were still wondering whether the sparks you could get from rubbing sticks together might be useful. Just wait. You'll see soon enough."

Mousse paid the men no heed as they shifted behind him and muttered about his sanity and the apparent lack of said sanity. It didn't matter. They'd soon fall in line when Ryoga did his thing. Amazon techniques were more than a match for anything this world had to offer, he knew.

And then it happened. A large section, easily wide enough for ten men to enter side by side, of the wall just exploded inwards towards the fortress's keep with no apparent cause. The breaking point had been deployed and not a sound could be heard other than that of chunks of rock that had once been wall slamming to the ground. Not a single peep. Within seconds more pieces of the walls began to explode inwards and then he could hear the sounds of panicked shouting coming from the fortress.. Mousse smiled. Amazon power, even if in the hands of an outsider, was formidable indeed.

"You were saying?" he asked. "Charge!"

The roar that came in response to that was absolutely deafening. Mousse's smile grew predatory. Now he would show those bandit scum what it meant to trifle with a master of hidden weapons. A moment later the mountain pass leading up to the fortress was filled with shrapnel as he covered the advance with a storm of weaponry the likes of which he had never unleashed before.

Anko didn't think she'd ever been more utterly satisfied than she was when the sound of walls collapsing reached her ears. The look of utter shock on the face of the Hyuuga bastard was something she would savour for years to come.

"Ha," she said. "Those eyes didn't see that coming, did they? Looks like that precious Hyuuga blood doesn't for so much after all . . . "

If the look on the bastard's face was satisfying then the look on the princess's face almost curled Anko's toes. Oh, yes. Fear. There it was. Just what she liked to see from her prey before she made her kill. It wouldn't be long now. The children would free her and then she could play.

"Father," she asked. "What do we do?"

"They're only genin," he said, though his brow was furrowed. "And the boy, Saotome, is defeated. Even if he survived the triplets, he cannot possibly be ready to fight yet. No, they shouldn't be too great a threat. Go. Lead the defence. Destroy them. I will stay here and ensure that our captives do not find a way to become troublesome."


"Go! This is no time to question orders, child. You are ninja; act like it."

Hitomi stood ramrod straight and gave the bastard a stiff nod before storming out in an ever so dramatic swish of robes, ruined only by the wince of pain from the wounds Anko had inflicted upon her earlier.

"Teenagers, eh?" asked Anko. "Believe me, I feel your pain, even if you're a dead bastard walking. It's even worse when they can beat you."

Hiro raised an eyebrow. "Dead?" he asked. "I think not. I still hold the trump cards here, Mitarashi. My daughter is more than a match for any normal genin and I have an army of hardened killers to support her. What can you offer? Rookie genin and an army of cheaply hired mercenaries. Dead? No, I don't think so."

Anko laughed loud and hard. "Moron!" she said. "Do you think Ranma's the only weirdo on my team? I'll let you in on a secret, in a few years time? They're going to be the new sannin. Easy. So stick that in your expensive pipe and smoke it, bastard. You're going to die and I'm going to be there to see it."

"And enjoy it no doubt," murmured Hiro. "Who is the real monster here, hmm? Me or you? I do what I have to, all in a greater cause. You? You kill because it brings you pleasure. You may still wear the hitai-ate but you are as much Orochimaru's creature as you ever were, aren't you?"

Anko smiled at him, baring her fangs. "Why don't you let me loose and find out?" she asked. "I promise, it'll be fun."

"I'm in no great hurry to see what the snake teaches his students."

"Shame," said Anko, abruptly dropping the cheer. "And as for me being the monster . . . I'm not the one who just sent his daughter to her death."

"My daughter is far too capable to die here, have no fear. She is strong."

"Can't wait to see your face."

Half a dozen kunai slammed into the bandit's chest to form a half crescent before he gurgled once and fell backwards gasping for air that he would never be able to breath in again.

"Not bad, Mousse," said Ryoga as stepped over the body slammed an upwards arcing strike of his umbrella into the jaw of another bandit with predictably messy results. "Not as good as me, but not bad."

"Leave the arrogance to Saotome," replied Mousse shortly. "He wears it much better than you do."

"How dare you compare me to Ranma!"

"If the shoe fits . . . "

"Why I'll-"

"Are you two here to fight or bicker like an old married couple?" asked one of the bandits, a particularly rough look sort with a vicious scare running down the left side of his face and through where his eye had once been. "Hey, so which one of you is the catcher then, if you catch my drift?"


Mousse would savour the look of shock on the face of that bandit for a very, very long time to come. The way his body was smashed to a pulp and then splattered against the wall behind him before the wall gave way under the sheer weight of the mass of green energy that had been fired at him was much less pleasant to see, admittedly, but he'd certainly brought it upon himself. Angering Ryoga was never a smart thing to do, not unless your name was Saotome.

"Holy shit, run! This ain't worth dying for!"

The group of bandits they'd been facing didn't get far before a female form stood between them and wherever they'd been running to. "Thinking of leaving so soon, boys?" she asked. "Don't be so hasty."

"Lady, whatever you're paying them, it isn't worth dying for."

"Who said they'd be the ones dying?" she shouted back. And then she bit her thumb and started to run through a long series of handseals.

"Get the feeling we should do something to stop her?"

"Kuchiyose no jutsu!"

"Oh, man. Am I ever glad Ranma isn't here to see this."

Whatever she'd done it had summoned quite possibly the largest creature Mousse had ever seen. Nothing he'd ran across in the Jusendo area had prepared him for the sight of a thirty feet tall cat with claws approximately the same size as him staring at him with bloodlust in its eyes.

"Not so confident now are you!"

"Well . . . this is new."

Ranma shivered and almost fell out of the umisenken as he crept past a group of panicking bandits. His c-c-hellspawn radar was twinging worse than it ever had, even worse 'n when Kuno had filled half the damn school with cats and then a damn giant tiger that was bigger 'n he was. The decision to do this instead of getting stuck into the main battle was looking better all the time.

And it had been going so well too. One second they'd been winning with ease and now they'd lost half their forces to some damned giant animal that could breath lightning and crap thunder. Well, the second part was a guess, but it wouldn't surprise him one bit if it was true. Damn it worse than fighting Ranma! At least Ranma's new tricks made sense. What sort of martial arts technique summoned giant animals to fight for you?

"Hibiki, this isn't looking too good."

"No shit," growled Ryoga as his iron cloth bandanna attack slid off the flesh of the beast without leaving any apparent mark. "Right now would be a really good time for one of Ranma's fancy tricks."

Ryoga winced as another lightning blast scythed through half a dozen of the guards they'd brought along for the battle as he easily dodged it with Mousse. It was turning into a massacre and he felt ill, deep in his gut, at the thought that he was at least partially responsible for it. All his life he'd tried to be an honourable martial artist and now he'd helped lead a whole bunch of people to their deaths in a fight that really didn't have much to do with them. Sure, they'd hired on to guard the train, but he was pretty sure that assaulting a fortress wasn't part of that contract.

"Shit, shit, shit. This is no time for you to get all broody, Hibiki. We need to fight."

"Huh? Oh, yeah."

And then with a roar of defiance Ryoga hefted his umbrella and leaped forward to attack the great beast.

"And that would be why my daughter will prevail," said the bastard easily. "They have nothing, no matter their talent, at that age and rank that could see them to victory against my daughter's summons. She is simply too much for them. You've lost, my dear."

"I still hear fighting," said Anko, her expression fierce. "And my brats can't be counted out until you see corpses."

"Your faith in your students is admirable but it is misplaced. They cannot win, no matter their talent."

"Same to you, bastard. Same to you."

The feel of a wall smashing beneath your weight as your slammed into it was never a terribly pleasant thing, really, but the feeling of hopelessness that came with it this time made it a truly bitter pill to swallow. The damned cat was just too strong. Nothing he'd done had even phased it. He'd peppered it with kunai, slashed at it with a storm of swords, blown it up with gunpower, wrapped its legs in chains, battered it with blunt weapons, and even went at it with fists and feet. And after all of that he didn't think he'd done more than scratch it.

To top it all off, there was that damned girl who'd spit fireballs at him every so often to really liven things up. Brilliant.

Mousse groaned and lifted himself back to his feet, bones creaking with strain, ready to resume the fight just as Ryoga slammed his umbrella down on the giant cat's nose with an enormous crunching sound. The wail of feline pain that came forth from that was absolute music to Mousse's ears. The enormous blast of lightning that came forth from the creature's mouth a moment later and caught Ryoga square in the chest . . . not so much.

Okay, Ryoga had slammed through a wall, had the rubble collapse on him, not so unusual, but the fact that he wasn't straight back up roaring defiance at all and sundry . . . that was new. And disturbing. Ryoga didn't stay down easily and something that could him on his back was something Mousse really, really didn't want to be hit with. Ever. That way laid pain.

"What's wrong, glasses boy?" taunted that damned girl. "Scared?"

But he was damned if he was going to let that bitch beat him! He had to get back for Shampoo and no mouthy girl with inhuman eyes and a giant cat for a pet was going to stop him before he could get back to her. He didn't even realise he'd called the weapon from its storage space till his favourite sword, a slightly longer than the usual dao of Amazon design, was resting comfortably in his grip. Well, who was he to argue? If he couldn't beat the monkey, he'd beat the organ grinder.

Another bolt of lightning creased his once-white robes as he passed the creature's mouth on his way to the top of its head but he was moving too quickly for the thing to get another bite at him and then he was on there in front of the girl with the lavender eyes, who suddenly looked ever so much less confident about the situation.

"What's wrong, little girl?" asked Mousse in a mocking tone of voice as he assumed a stance with his weapon held high above his head. "Scared?"

The girl's eyes hardened and then she charged at Mousse, leaning to the sword out of the way of the log-splitting blow he sent down at her head, before lashing out with a left-handed blow at his shoulder that he span out of the way of in a whirl of robes. She continued her advance, throwing a series of finger strikes at Mousse as she went, strikes that Mousse dodged with an agility that he rarely displayed with his usual ranged combat style.

And then Mousse ducked underneath a strike aimed at his throat and replied with an upwards thrust of his sword that would have went straight through the girl's heart if she hadn't leapt away at the last possible moment, though not quite quick enough to avoid the sword penetrating her own battle dirtied robes and opening up a gash in the center of her chest.

The Amazon warrior was never one to let an advantage slide and he immediately went on the offensive, swinging his sword with a speed that left after-images in the air, launching strikes that had the girl dodging in utter desperation, likely tapping reserves of speed that she didn't even realise that she had, and opening up several gashes along her chest and arms as they went even still.

Eventually a swing went a little too wild or the girl dodged too smoothly, Mousse couldn't tell which, and she was able to catch his wrist with a frantically thrown kick that knocked the sword out of his grasp and skittering away across the top of the monster's head before it slid off the edge and fell to the ground with a clearly audible clatter.

"And now my turn," said the girl before she darted forward in a blur. Too fast! Mousse tried to back off but it was too late. Blows started striking across his chest and with each he felt himself grow ever so slightly weaker. "Four palms!" He tried to dodge away but he just couldn't manage it. "Eight palms!" He feel a burning feeling start to build in his chest. "Sixteen palms!" He couldn't help but gasp in pain. "Thirty two palms!" It felt like his chest was on fire and he couldn't even move to try and defend himself. "Sixty four palms!" The last strike , despite striking with minimal force, knocked him off his feet and sent him sliding back off the creature's head.

Well, it hadn't been entirely in vain. The last thing he saw before he slid off entirely and fell to the ground was Ryoga slamming a rising strike into the back of the girl with his umbrella, sending her flying off her pet herself. Victory of a sort. Typical that it would be that damned pig who got the victory while he got pounded into the ground, though. The only way it could be worse would be if it had been Saotome.

"I'm scared," sniffled Aya.

Anko rolled her eyes. "We'll be out of here soon enough, brat," she said. "Help's on its way."

"Still remarkably confident, I see."

The floor shook and for a moment the room was bathed in an unholy green light. "Yeah," said Anko. "And that'd be why. Scratch one summon. Probably one daughter too."

"You . . . " Hiro's voice trailed off for a second before he marched over to where Anko was sprawled out and dragged her to her feet by the scruff of her neck. "What was that, woman? Answer me!"

Anko laughed in his face. "Don't suppose it matter now," she said. "That, my soon to be gutted friend, was the shi shi hokodan. Perfect edition. Great for clearing out those hard to reach spots. And everything around them for a hundred metres or so."

Hiro tossed her away, drawing an ever higher wail from Aya, before he started to pace up and down. "No," he said. "My daughter is no fool. She will have survived; my ambition is not blunted yet."

"Do you think it matters?" Anko laughed from her position sprawled out in a most unladylike position on the ground. "You're about to be finished for good. They're not going to stop with some stupid summon. You lose."

"I am not a jounin by fluke," he snarled in return. "Your students may be strong but I have skill and experience that they cannot match. I will not die here."

Anko hopped back to her feet. "You wish," she said. "Every traitor gets his in the end, bastard. Here's yours, being served up piping hot by a genin team. Enjoy."

"No, no, no. I won't die while the main family still lives. Your children may be strong but my resolve is stronger still. This doesn't end here."

"Oh, look at that. Little Hiro wants to pull an Itachi on his family."

"Don't you dare compare me to that animal," snarled Hiro, hands twitching as they convulsed into fists. "I have reason to want those . . . things dead. They enslave us. They torture us at a whim. And why? Because their blood is purer than ours? I won't have it. They won't have my daughter."

"Yeah, yeah," said Anko dismissively, taking great delight in the way Hiro twitched at the tone of her voice. "Tell it to someone who cares."

Anko really couldn't claim to be surprised when the back of Hiro's hand sent her crashing to the ground.

"I won't be beaten by trash like you, Mitarashi. I won't allow it."

"Too late."


"Behind you," snarled Ranma.

Hiro whirled around, faster than Ranma had seen him move in their fight, but nowhere near fast enough. As Hiro's body came to face him he lashed out with one of the yamasenken moves he'd taught himself based on what Ryu had done, the dokuja tanketsu sho, and the man's body just . . . broke. Ranma's hand smashed through his ribs as if they weren't even there and kept on going straight through and out the other side, taking the man's heart in the process.

Hiro sagged immediately, though his eyes never left Ranma's. "How . . . embarrassing," he choked out around the blood pouring freely from his mouth before his body went completely slack. Didn't take a genius to realise that he was dead.

"Nice one brat," said Anko with a bloody grin. "Don't know how you managed to sneak up on one of those stuck-up bastards but I owe you one."

Ranma said nothing and didn't look up from where he was staring, which was the junction between his arm and Hiro's chest and the blood steadily pumping out from that point of the man's chest.

"Come on, get me out of these cuffs," said Anko. "I've got some favours that need repaying to these bastards."

Ranma still didn't respond.

"Oi!" called out Anko. "Don't tell em you're going to get all weepy over that guy, kid. He was a grade-A bastard of a traitor with more betrayal on his mind. You really don't strike me as the sort of person who'd go along with someone slaughtering their family for shits and giggles."

Ranma shook his head and looked away from the grisly sight. A moment later he yanked his arm free, restraining the grimace that threatened to appear on his face at the feel of that move, and then went over to Anko to let her loose.

Anko promptly stretched in a way that'd have had Ryoga letting loose with the single largest explosive nosebleed in all of history when the cuffs dropped off. "You have no idea how good that feels," she said. "Man, I hate being tied up."


"Cheer up, brat. You just took out an A-class missing-nin as a genin. I think the last team that managed that was the Densetsu no Sannin and you didn't even need help," said Anko. "Anyway, you going to take his head or do you want me to do it?"


"You any idea what those eyes of his are worth?" asked Anko. "Can't let those fall into enemy hands. And we we'll need proof for the bounty."

Before Ranma could reply an anguished cry interrupted them. "Father!" cried Hitomi. "Damn you!"

Anko's launched herself forward at the girl, kunai in hand. Hitomi tried to dodge but was caught flat-footed and got nowhere. Ranma simply moved and appeared between the pair of them to catch Anko's weapon hand at the wrist.

"What the hell are you doing?" snarled Anko.

Ranma lashed out with a quick punch that caught Hitomi on the temple and knocked her flat out. "I reckon we've done enough killing for one day," he said. "We'll take her back with us."

"She's just another missing-nin. Kill her and be done with it."

"She's never had a chance," replied Ranma. "Never been anything but what her bastard of a pop wanted her to be. I reckon the old man'll want to give her that."

"This is ridiculous."

"I'm not letting you kill her and we don't have time to argue about it."

"No respect. That's what I get from my students. We'll be having words about this one, Saotome."

Anko stormed off in a huff at that point, and promptly hacked off Hiro's head in a most violent fashion as Aya whimpered in the background.

Chapter Nine

There were times Anko really wondered if it were fair for the responsibilities that came with running the village to be dumped on the Sandaime. Sure, he was a badass old man, but he was still just that: an old man. Most of the time you wouldn't know it to look at him, well, leaving aside the canyon-sized wrinkles he had on his face, but then there were times when he really did look his age and this was one of them. It was almost enough to make Anko concerned.

"Ah, Hiro," he said quietly. "Another mistake, another wasted life. I hope that his end was at least quick."

Anko shrugged. "Few seconds maybe," she said. "Looked like Ranma crushed his heart and punched his spinal cord out to me. You don't last long or feel much of anything after something like that, I reckon."

"I would think not," said the Sandaime before he blew out a ring of smoke. "No, it would be quick."

"Why do you even care? He was just another scumbag traitor. World's better off without him."

"People aren't born evil, Anko. Even Orochimaru was a simple child with the world at his fingertips once upon a time. You'd do well to remember that."

"Traitor's a traitor. I doubt his family would be so forgiving."

"Probably not," agreed the Sandaime. "But this is rather off the point, I think. You're not here to listen to an old man's regrets and I have no great desire to dwell upon them. Please, continue your report."

Anko nodded. "Right, well, I've really got no idea how he did it," she said. "I've never seen anyone sneak up on a Hyuuga like that before. It'd be one thing to catch a rookie genin napping but this guy was a pro and his brat didn't see it coming either or she'd have tried to do something. It's like he was invisible to them but I don't understand how that's possible."

"And he didn't give any hints about his technique?"

"Said it was a family school," replied Anko with a shrug. "And you know what clans are like about keeping that stuff quiet. Best I get is that it has something to do with becoming an empty vessel."

The Sandaime sighed. "An empty vessel, hmm?" asked the Sandaime, staring off into the distance for a moment. "Fascinating. And the assassination technique?"

"He got right quiet when I asked about that," said Anko. "Which would normally be both novel and a relief but quite irritating when I wanted him to cough up the information. Apparently it's a forbidden technique or something."

The Sandaime frowned. "Forbidden?" he asked. "A simple assassination technique? How . . . strange."

"Strange is normal with these weirdos. I still haven't figured out what glasses-boy was babbling about in his intro."

"Hmm. And how is your student now?"

"Eh, he's fine. Ranma couldn't brood if his life depended on it. Five minutes tops before some shiny thing distracts him."

"Yes, I know a few people like that."

"The Kyuubi brat?"

"Yes, that's exactly who I was thinking of, Anko. Of course."

"Anyway, the other two seem about the same as normal," said Anko. "Mousse doesn't seem bothered and I don't think I'd be able to tell the difference between a Ryoga filled with teenage angst over killing and his normal self anyway."

"It's not normal but at their age it's possible they've already been blooded," replied the Sandaime. "I wouldn't worry about it too much if I were in your shoes."

"Worry? Wasn't planning on it anyway."

"Of course not, of course not."

"So what are you going to do then?" asked Anko. "It's not every day a genin knocks off an A-class traitor. Big news."

The Sandaime leaned back in his chair and took a breath from his pipe before replying. "His stealth technique is clearly S-class," he said finally. "That is not the sort of thing we place in public files. I will make a note on the forbidden scroll and that will be the end of that. Word of it shall not spread beyond us, Anko."

Anko would never, ever admit to anyone just how relieved that made her feel. Ranma really didn't need the Hyuuga starting up with the deniable attempts to knock him off to protect their ever so precious bloodline's superiority. "Yeah, yeah," she said. "Good to hear but what about the berserker thing?"

"For that, I will have to speak to Ranma myself, " he said. "I must hear about this from the horse's mouth. Till then, I can say nothing."

"Doesn't exactly fill me with confidence."

"If he is dangerous then he must be contained till the danger can be defused," said the Sandaime. "It would be my duty. But I rather doubt it will come to that. Ranma is a strong young man and has shown no signs of being a danger to the village as of yet."

Anko didn't have much to say to that. She just hoped Ranma didn't run off at the mouth too badly and screw things up. Brat was irritating but he was still one of hers.

"As for the mission," continued the Sandaime. "A standard C-class ticket for the mission itself, obviously, and . . . yes, an A-class ticket for dealing with Hiro. Quite the impressive notation for a genin's file to have, a successful A-class mission. I suspect it will make the competition in the chuunin exams quite wary of them."

"Ah, yeah, about that . . . there's still one more thing I may have missed out in my report so far."


"Well, we kinda took a prisoner," said Anko. "Uh, it's Hiro's daughter. And, um, yeah. She's locked up in one of the caravans. Not a happy girl but then Ranma did kinda kill her father and I might, possibly, though I'm admitting nothing, have beaten the hell out of her a time or two to shut her up."

"Is she dangerous?"

Anko shrugged. "She's a missing-nin's brat," she said. "Course she's dangerous. I wasn't exactly planning on bringing her back, you know, but Ranma's all kinds of soft-hearted, the stupid kid. He thinks she deserves a chance to rise above her father's actions or something like that."

"The Hyuuga will not accept her."

"I kinda thought you'd pull some strings, grease some palms, scare some girly-men - all the good stuff."

"You know as well as I do that it is not the done thing for the Hokage to interfere in the internal affairs of a clan," he replied with a frown. "The law would be on my side but tradition is against me in this."

"There's gotta be something. Ranma's going to cause trouble if the pricks decide to off the girl he saved. Admittedly, I wouldn't mind seeing him knock a few Hyuuga around, but I reckon you wouldn't be too happy about it."

A few moment of silence followed with the Sandaime puffing away on his pipe with a thoughtful expression on his face. "Ranma has leverage," he said finally. "They owe him a debt and the Hyuuga take that sort of thing seriously. The money they pay him, an S-class bounty, I believe, will not be regarded as sufficient. It may be enough."

"Politics. I hate politics, especially clan politics."

"Tedious as it is, this game is the only path that leads to success."

"Found any more girls to run away from screaming like . . . well, a little girl yet, Ranma?" taunted Ryoga.

"Shut up, Ryoga," snapped Ranma. "She was a demon. Couldn't you see it in her eyes? Oh, wait, you're a moron. Of course you couldn't."

"Looked like a normal enough girl to me," weighed in Mousse. "Maybe you're just going insane, Saotome. More insane."

"Morons," said Ranma. "Didn't you see her eyes? Those were demon eyes, dammit. Demon eyes! The girl was spawned from the deepest pits of hell."


I'm telling you, she was a demon. A real-life bit of hellspawn."

"Demons tend to be a bit uglier than that," said Mousse. "Or don't you remember the thing that got us sent here in the first place, Saotome? It certainly didn't look like that Yugito girl."

"You're only saying that because you thought she was Shampoo, you blind fool."

"Boys, boys, boys," said Anko, dropping in from the roof they'd been arguing below. "You're supposed to be team-mates. Quit the bitchy fighting, will you? It gives me a headache anyway."

"So what'd the old man say then?" asked Ranma, attention immediately diverted. "We got an in for Hitomi?"

"I told you it wasn't going to be that easy, brat," said Anko. "She's a Hyuuga and those guys are total arseholes."

"So what? We break some heads and move on. Easy."

"Did I mention that they're the most powerful clan in the village as well as having the largest stick up their collect arse? Don't pick a fight here, Ranma. It wouldn't end well."

"Well, I gotta do something. I'm not just going leave her to rot. A second chance is no good if everyone's working 'gainst you from day one."

"The Hokage's going to try and help you," said Anko. "But don't get your hopes up. The Hyuuga are bound to fuck things up. Anyway, I got your mission tickets here, kiddies. One for getting the caravans to Kumo and back in one piece and another for knocking off the bastard. Maybe now you can get yourself a place bigger than the average tatami."

They looked down at the notes they'd been handed. They looked back up at Anko's expectant face. "I . . . have no idea how much this is," grumbled Ryoga. "Is it a lot?"

"Idiots. It's enough to live off for a few months," she said. "An A-class bounty brings in a lot of booze and dango."

"Great," said Ranma. "If I ever want to wind up stinking in a gutter somewhere, I'll take your advice right to heart. What's next?"

"You're going to have a little chat with the Hokage. Go on, run along. Be a good little ninja boy and answer the summons quickly now."

Sarutobi watched closely as Ranma bounded into his office. It was hard to see the boy as dangerous even knowing that he'd assassinated an A-class missing-nin with approximately the same amount of difficulty that a cat would have dealing with a mouse. He just seemed so harmless. Childish even. So full of energy, so utterly devoid of any apparent guile, so straight-forward. He'd seen many things in his years but it was hard to imagine this child slamming his arm through someone's chest.

But then he'd thought the same way about Jiraiya once upon a time.

"So what's up, old man?" asked Ranma. "Psycho-sensei said you wanted to talk to me. It about Hitomi?"

"Hitomi . . . ah, the Hyuuga girl," said Sarutobi. "No. Not entirely, Ranma. We'll get to that soon enough but for now I want to have a little talk with you about how you defeated the Yubari triplets."

If he hadn't already know that something was off, Ranma's body language would have given it away in an instant. The boy truly had little talent for deceit. An unfortunate trait for a ninja, to be sure. "What ya talking about, old man?" he asked. "They weren't anything special. Was easy."

"Really?" asked Sarutobi. "Hmm, I was rather under the impression that you'd had to resort to some sort of berserker mode to defeat them. What was it . . . ah, yes, the cat-fist."

Ranma shifted from foot to foot. "Where'd ya hear about that from?" he asked.

"Mission reports are like that," replied Sarutobi with a smile. "They tend to tell me what actually happened."


"Tell me about this cat-fist, Ranma. I'm curious."

"I don't exactly like talking about it."

"I must insist," said Sarutobi, putting some steel behind his words. "Much rests on this."

"Look it isn't anything special," said Ranma, scratching at the base of his pigtail in as obvious a sign of discomfort as Sarutobi had ever seen. "Just a crazy martial arts training technique that doesn't really work all that well. No cats, no problem. Easy."


"It really ain't anything you probably haven't heard of a million times before," said Ranma. "Ultimate technique, yadda yadda yadda, doesn't actually work, drives the trainee insane nine times out of ten. All that good stuff. Doesn't mean anything unless there are c-c-felines around. I really don't like those. Really, really, really don't like."

"The sight of cats places you in a berserker mode then."

"No, no, no . . . well . . . sort of. I don't just flip. It takes a whole lot of cats . . . or really big cats. Anyway, I can control it normally. It's not that big a deal."

"I believe that the Yubaris would beg to differ."

"Yeah, well, don't attack me when I'm like that and I won't attack you. It's real simple. You wouldn't prod a lion with a stick so you don't mess with someone in the cat-fist."

Sarutobi looked at the boy intently and weighed it up in his mind. Ranma clearly couldn't lie to save his life, unless he was going to be truly paranoid about things when he had no reason to be, so there was little reason to doubt the boy's word. And he'd done little to warrant suspicion and a fair amount to give him some small amount of trust as a loyal shinobi of the leaf. It would be incredibly harsh to hold this technique against him, and it would be hard to justify it too. The boy was an asset to the village, potentially a great one, and not something to be discarded lightly.

"Very well," said Sarutobi finally. "I will take you at your word, Ranma."

"So, what about Hitomi?"

"The Hyuuga respect strength," said Sarutobi. "You have that in spades and apparently the girl is not without talent in her own right. I would advise playing upon that and being prepared to make concessions if her fate truly matters to you. Her life may not come cheaply for you."

"I don't go back on my word."

"An admirable trait," said Sarutobi. "But one that people will try to take advantage of. Be careful. Now, Ranma, I'd like to see a demonstration of these techniques you used in your last mission. I believe they were called the Umisenken and Yamasenken, yes? For my files, you understand."

"These are family techniques, old man. I don't want them getting out, you know?"

"Of course, of course. But there's paperwork to be filed for such powerful techniques. Not how to perform them, not for family techniques, but what they do. Things like that. We have a system in place for this sort of thing. It's quite useful if you haven't looked at it. Secure, too. We keep a close eye on the most powerful of the village's techniques."

"I dunno. I don't like showing these things off . . . they're kinda dangerous. Even my fat old panda of a pop didn't mess around with these techniques if he could help it."

"We have established systems in place for these things," said Sarutobi with a smile. "I assure you, it is quite safe."

"Well, if you're sure," said Ranma, looking somewhat dubious.

"Oh, I am. I wouldn't ask if I wasn't."

"That's it?" asked Ranma. "Doesn't look like it'll make for much of a demonstration to me, old man."

It really didn't. What he saw looked like one of those dummies you see in clothes shops but with a layer of padding around it. Not exactly something that'd make for much of a show with the Yamasenken, really. There were a few of them, all neatly set up in a row, but Ranma had a hard time imagining that they'd stand up all that well.

"Oh, they're quite sturdy," said Sarutobi. "They may not look it but they are reinforced with a truly stupendous amount of chakra. Demonstration dummies would hardly be of much use if they fell apart easily, would they?"

"I suppose so," said Ranma before shrugging his shoulders and moving on. "Okay, I'm not all that good at the Yamasenken. It's all about overwhelming force and that's more Ryoga's gig than mine. Don't get me wrong, I can use moves from the school, but they're not as powerful as they could be."


"Oh, yeah, didn't you know? The Yamasenken and Umisenken are schools of techniques based around an idea. The Yamasenken is overwhelming force and the Umisenken is overwhelming guile."

Not exactly true but Ranma wasn't exactly going to admit they were about thieving. That was just embarrassing as all hell, no matter how effective the damned techniques really were.

"Interesting. So I presume that the Yamasenken techniques would all be regarded as assassination moves."

"Don't know about that," said Ranma. "I've survived a few hits from someone using them who really got his jollies from overwhelming force. Hurt worse than the time Akane kicked me in the nuts but I lived."

"You must be quite durable."

"Yeah, but you should see what it's like trying to put Ryoga down. It's easier to knock a demon out."

The old man paused for a moment with his eyebrows raised before he spoke again. "Well, that's interesting," he said. "I don't suppose you can demonstrate an entire school of techniques so just give me the high points, the important moves, the general idea of what the schools can do."

"Okay, old man."

Ranma eyed the first of the dummies. Well, fine. Wasn't like he minded showing off how great he was.

"Dokuja Tanketsu Sho!"

Ranma's hand smashed through the dummy with the same ease it had smashed through Hiro's body and for a moment Ranma had to close his eyes and concentrate to fend off those images before he pulled his arm free and moved on to the next dummy ready for the next attack.

"Moko Kaimon Ha!"

The powerful kick smashed the dummy off its pole with ease and sent it careening away with great force. He moved on to the next dummy.

"Kijin Raishu Dan!"

The vacuum blade sliced through the dummy with the greatest of ease before moving on to cut through a couple of trees behind it as well before finally running out of steam and stopping at a rock it ran into and cut a small gouge out of.

"Well, that's about it," said Ranma. "There are a couple of higher level attacks but they're just that last one with more blades and more destruction. Dunno if it'd be a good idea to pull those out here."

Sarutobi was more than mildly impressed. The melee attacks were powerful enough in their own right, obviously killing or incapacitating blows, without any signs of great chakra drain or noise, but the ranged attack, well, that was something else. He'd seen Suna ninja use something similar in the past but they required a prop, a weapon to generate the attack, and Konoha had few wind masters who could use such attacks in the first place other than his son and himself.

"Very well," he said. "I think it's safe to say that your Yamasenken would warrant an S-class rating."

"That's good, right?"

"The highest."

"Cool," said Ranma. He paused for a moment. "The Umisenken is better."

"Really?" asked Sarutobi. "I know it's a supreme stealth technique, allowing you to approach a Hyuuga undetected, but does it have the combat power of the Yamasenken?"

"If a master of the Umisenken fights a master of the Yamasenken, the master of the Umisenken will win," said Ranma. "Assuming their skills are equivalent."

"And a master of both?"

"Kicks arse," said Ranma. "Watch."

Ranma slipped into a strange stance, his hands held in a sloppy, loose way that would have had Gai screaming at him, and for a moment Sarutobi wondered what he was doing before something happened. It was as if Ranma was there in front of him but not there at the same time. It took him only a moment to realise that the boy had erased his presence from the world around him. His chakra was gone. Completely gone. Unbelievable.

And then he moved. Sarutobi couldn't track it and if he didn't know better he'd think that Ranma had gone invisible, perhaps he had, but he could see the strikes landing against the dummy leaving behind scorch marks with every impact. For a moment he wondered if there was a fire element to the techniques before he came to the realisation that they were scorch marks. Ranma was striking with such speed that he was leaving scorch marks on the dummy.

There were ways to counter such a technique, sensing the vibrations in the air or the ground as Ranma moved into striking position for example, but unless you were prepared with foreknowledge of the technique . . . yes, S-class. Easily.

"Impressive, Ranma," said Sarutobi when the boy was done with pulping the practice dummy. "Very impressive, though I have to wonder why these techniques would be forbidden."

"Oh, that? Pop had an attack of conscience after he taught the techniques to some moron who went off and killed himself by punching out the support columns of his dojo."

Sarutobi just couldn't make sense of that. He understood the words and the sentence structure made sense but the facts just didn't compute. Stupidity on that level . . . how did such a person last into adulthood? Ranma certainly had some interesting stories in him.

Hiashi Hyuuga set Ranma's fiancee alarm off the moment he set eyes upon the man. He just looked way too much like Mr. Tendo for comfort - give him a moustache and normal eyes and they could have been long lost twins - and he even had a couple of daughters with him to use in some insane marriage contract, which really didn't help Ranma's comfort levels one bit. And he really wouldn't put it past his pop to have found a way to marry him off to people in another world.

But then a closer look . . . well, Mr. Tendo could never in a million years have looked as stern as this Hyuuga guy. He'd pretty much been good for shogi, pulling off a demon head, and crying when things didn't go his way; anything beyond that was entirely beyond his powers. This guy looked like he still kept himself in fighting trim and his facial expression and body language gave the definite impression that he'd be quite happy to put his skills to use.

The daughters were too young for marriage weirdness, though. Thankfully. One looked to be about eleven or twelve and the other a few years younger than that. Too young to be married off to him. The older one was wearing a hitai-ate, which was more than slightly disturbing. Wasn't she a little young to be a ninja?

"Ranma Saotome," said Hiashi, with a slight nod of his head. "These are my daughters, Hinata and Hanabi. I am told that you have something important for me to see.

Anko handed Ranma the bag in silence, which Ranma than ever so gently pulled open to reveal Hiro's head. He didn't much like it, especially in front of a couple of little kids, but this was what Anko told him was the expected course of action and had to be done. To their credit, neither of the kids gave any blatant reaction. The older one looked a little greener around the gills than she had previously and the younger one had a glassy sort of look in her eyes but there was no vomit or tears or exclamations of horror.

Hiashi remained expressionless as he took the bag from Ranma. He took a moment to inspect the head before looking back at Ranma. "And the body?" he asked.

"Burned at the scene," replied Ranma. "As per standard hunter-nin procedures."

"And with this, the honour of the Hyuuga is cleansed," said Hiashi. "The clan owes you a debt, Ranma Saotome."

Ranma didn't get time to say anything stupid. Another Hyuuga appeared from the shadows and handed him a piece of paper with an awful lot of zeroes on it. He might, possibly, have gawped a little. He had no idea of local money, but when you had to count the zeroes it was always a lot.

"I believe this brings an end to our meeting."

"There's one more thing, Mr. Hyuuga," said Ranma quickly. "The guy had a teenage daughter."

Hiashi went very still. The oldest of the two daughters was looking at anything but the people speaking as she pushed her fingers together. "Has she been dealt with?" asked Hiashi finally. "I see no head."

"She's innocent," said Ranma. "The betrayal was her father's."

"Her father's blood is diseased and rotten. The entire branch must be pruned to save the tree."

Ranma was somewhat taken aback. Wasn't that just a little harsh? "She's talented," he said. "That talent could be an asset to the clan."

"So was her father," replied Hiashi. "I have no intention of taking another Hiro into the clan."

"She aint' her pop," said Ranma. "She just needs a chance to be something that ain't what he wanted her to be."

Hiashi's implacable gaze did not soften one bit. "I can see no reason to give her this chance," he said. "The girl is born of the traitor's blood and has learned at the traitor's knee. Can there be any greater reason not to allow her the chance to become a danger?"

"She's not a bad person, not really. Please, I'm asking you, as a favour to me, to give her a chance."

"That's quite the request."

"I know."

"There would be conditions and I would ask for a favour in return," warned Hiashi. "This is not something that can be granted without a price."

"I'm willing to pay it."

Anko did not look happy.

"The conditions are simple: she will be sealed, as are all branch family members, and will be expected to comport herself in a manner befitting a Hyuuga," said Hiashi. "Any signs of treasonous thought will result in her immediate execution."

"As long as she's dealt with fairly."

Hiashi inclined his head ever so slightly in a brief nod. "The favour is simple," he said. "I find myself lacking in time and my daughters require extensive training if they are to ever reach the standards expected of a main family Hyuuga. What I would ask of you is simple: train my daughters in your taijutsu. Your skills in the field have already attracted considerably attention, Ranma Saotome, and I would have you pass on your knowledge to my children."

"I can't teach them Jyuuken," said Ranma as Hinata's eyes went very, very wide. "My eyes aren't good enough for that."

"No matter. There are many Hyuuga who could teach them Jyuuken. I want you to teach them what you know, not what we know. Anything else would defeat the point of the exercise."

Ranma pondered it for a moment. Anything Goes was supposed to be a family school but then it wasn't like he had to teach them everything there was to it, no way was he teaching them his pop's forbidden techniques, and it wasn't like non-family hadn't been taught before. "Okay," he said. "I'll do it."

"Excellent!" said Hiashi, with an actual facial expression for the first time in the meeting: a smile. "Now, where is the girl?"

Anko leapt away and returned a few minutes later with Ryoga, who had Hitomi slung across his shoulder in a most undignified sort of way. Judging by the words Ranma could make out from her screeching as they hopped from roof to roof she was pretty unhappy about it. Seriously, who'd taught her to talk like that? Even his pop would have washed his mouth out with soap if he'd started talking like that.

She went quiet right quick when they dropped her in front of Hiashi though. Quiet and pale, even by her normal standards.

"Come along, girl," said Hiashi. "The boy has saved your life. The least you can do is accept it gracefully."

That seemed to be the trigger. "No, no, no," she whispered, shaking her head frantically. "You can't do this to me!"

Ranma grabbed her by her elbow and pulled her in close so that he could whisper into her ear without anyone overhearing. "It's this or they kill you," he said. "You know how valuable those eyes of yours are. I can't do any better than this, Hitomi."

Hitomi's reaction would baffle Ranma for years to come. She turned to face him with fire in her eyes, fear long gone, and yanked herself free of his grasp. "I don't help from the likes of you," she sneered. And then she marched off without a hint of her previous fear in her body language.

Ranma would never, ever understand girls even with the curse.

Chapter Ten

"Nice dojo," said Ranma with a nod.

And it was: spacious and well kitted out with everything made from the finest materials money was likely to be able to buy them in the backwater world he'd ended up being sent to. Not that it was all that surprising. The Hyuuga were seriously loaded, had to be to own a compound as large as they did, so they were hardly going to skimp on the training facilities, not when they were supposed to be some big, bad ninja clan that was all about strength and fighting skill.

Not that Ranma had seen much of that from Hiro. He hadn't been bad, really, but for someone who was supposed to take their martial arts as seriously as an Anything Goes student he was kinda underwhelming. The guy'd had a neat speed attack and his hits were pretty damaging even with almost no power behind them, but would he have even been able to land a hit if he hadn't been given a gilt-edged opening? Ranma didn't think so.

Anyway, as places went to train, it wasn't too shabby. It wasn't ideal, ideal was out on the road learning as you went from whatever masters you ran across while you got your core skills from someone like his pop, but it was good enough, he supposed. Wasn't like he was going to be taking the brats out on the road for a training trip anytime soon anyway, not unless their pop suddenly decided he didn't actually want his kids around all that much, and even his pop wouldn't do that.

"So you two are my students, huh?" asked Ranma, eyeing the two girls. "You don't look like much."

The older one was looking everywhere but at him, which was more than slightly irritating, as she pushed her fingers together. The younger one was trying to match her father's normal expressionless expression but it was never going to work for a kid that young. There was just no way a little kid was going to be able to managed it and she just looked kinda silly trying to look so serious.

"I'll have you know that I'm the most talented of my age group," said the little one. What was her name again? Himeko? Hisana? Hasumi? Ah, it wasn't important.

"Must be a real small pond then," said Ranma, "because you ain't all that big."

The girl gaped. The other made a sort of umming sound that might have been an attempt to speak but Ranma wasn't all that sure.

"I don't suppose either of you know anything other than that tippy-tappy style your family uses?" asked Ranma. Both shook their heads. "Ah, I suppose it would be too much to ask to have students that didn't suck. One style? Ah, man."

"And how many did you know when you were my age?"

"Well, uh," said Ranma before he started to count them off on his fingers. "Kempo, Jujitsu, Shotokan, some Muay Thai, Taekwondo, couple variants of Kung Fu, bit of Tai Chi when pop palmed me off on some old dude in Hokkaido, and, of course, Anything Goes."

The little kid resumed gaping.

"And I was only a couple years into my real training by then," continued Ranma. "So only knowing one style at your age really, really doesn't impress me. Feh, you'd better be real good at the style you do know or this is gonna be some real dull training. For me anyway."

"Ah, ah, my sister really is quite skilled," said the older one.

"Could you say that with any less confidence?" asked Ranma. "I hope you put a bit more spirit into your fights 'n that."

"I . . .uh . . . "

Ranma shook his head. Whatever. "I won't be teaching you Jyuuken," he said. "That's your pop's job or whoever else he ropes in from your clan. I'm going to teach you Anything Goes, if you can handle it. You're probably going to hate me for the crap I put you through but it'll make you strong, and that's what counts."

The little one was glaring at him as if she was daring him to follow through on his words. Ha, she'd regret that.

"I need to see what you can do before we start," he said. "I need to see your level before I can decide what sort of training to hit you with. You, older one, prepare yourself. Runty one, go sit at the side or something and don't get in the way."

The little one's sniff of indignation as she trotted off out of the way really did make it all worthwhile. He was going to have to jab at her ego more often if she was going to react in such an amusing way to it. The older one, well, not so amusing. She averted her eyes for a moment and then slid into the same bent-kneed stance that all Jyuuken fighters seemed to use. Way too lacking in confidence, that one. He almost felt bad about fighting her, even if he wasn't going to hurt the girl, but eh. She was a student of Anything Goes; he couldn't go easy on her.

Ranma slid his hands into his back pockets and grinned at her. "Well, come on then," he said. "Let's see it."

After a moment's dithering, she came at him directly with finger strikes aimed at the sides of his lungs. Neither strike came even close to hitting home. Ranma simply leaned to the right and then, in the milliseconds before the next strike, back to the left in a flash of motion that allowed him to twist between the two without even moving his feet. He then stepped forwards inside the girl's range and tapped her on the nose with his left thumb.

"That'd be a broken nose," said Ranma. "Watch the counter."

Before the girl could react to that he hopped backwards a couple of feet to allow her a moment to regain her composure and the space to launch anything else she had up her sleeves at him. Man, he hoped it would be better than that first go. He'd had more difficulty with Akane when they sparred and she had all the grace and speed of a donkey. A donkey with arthritis. Arthritis and a dislocated hip. A dislocated hip and a pair of concrete boots on her feet.

And for some reason Akane had never appreciated it when he pointed this out to her. Sheesh. Women.

It took a few moments for the girl to attack again but when she did she came in a little quicker and little more precise than she had before. It still wasn't enough for Ranma to have to do more than twist his body to and fro to let the strikes whistle on past but it was a little better.

"You know, restricting yourself like this doesn't help," he said, as he twisted sideways to avoid a strike aimed at his gut. "If you don't use any kicks, it eliminates a whole lot of ways you could attack me. Makes it real easy to dodge."

She stepped back and took a deep breath. "Jyuuken strikes c-can't be performed with k-kicks, sensei," she said. "It's im-impossible to focus chakra that precisely through your feet."

"So don't use Jyuuken then. Didn't you learn anything useful at ninja school?"

The idea of that still blew his mind, to be honest. A school for ninja. What the hell? He supposed he shouldn't have been too surprised by it in a place where the ninja were a military force that operated out in the open but it still came as a bit of a shock to hear that ninja learned how to be a ninja at an actual school. Ranma wasn't sure whether to be horrified by the idea that even the martial arts had been turned into a school class or intrigued by a school that sounded way more like his idea of a good time than Furinkan.

She did at least try to throw a kick or two in when she came at him again, Ranma doubted that she had it in her to ignore a sensei with what he'd seen of her, but it didn't change anything. Ranma was beginning to get slightly irritated by it. He could live with her being crap but he could see the hesitation in her movements, that desperately needed split-second extra in speed she wasn't using because . . . hell, if he knew. In the end, he caught her by the wrist and tossed her across the dojo.

"You know, holding back ain't going to help you any," said Ranma. "If you're worried about hurting me or something stupid like that then don't. Whatever you can hand out, I can take."

The girl's reaction, he really had to try and remember her name, was baffling. She looked as if he'd punched her between the eyes. She stepped back, she stammered, she blushed, and he was damned if he could get an sort of sense out of it all. He'd said it before and he'd say it again, he'd never understand girls.

Eventually she collected herself and managed to mount another attack but it was even more pathetic than before. What little grace she had been possessed of previously certainly wasn't evident in the jerky, self-conscious movements that made up her attempts to land a hit on Ranma. It was almost embarrassingly simple for him to slide around her and tap her on the top of her head.

"That'd be a killing blow," he said. "Shape up or this is just going to be embarrassing. I wouldn't be able to look my pop in the eye with a student who fought like this to my credit."

Her next attempts were even worse, if that were possible. Grace? It wasn't even in the same building. She made Akane look like Bruce Lee. Hell, she made Akane look like the Old Ghoul. It was pitiful. Ranma put even less effort into dodging the attacks than he put into his school work and she still didn't come even remotely close to landing anything remotely resembling a hit on him. Eventually he just tired of it and jumped backwards away from her.

"That's enough," he said. "You've got the fighting spirit of a cardboard box. I don't need to see any more of that."

The girl hung her head and muttered apologies as she stepped backwards to stand by her sister, who was giving Ranma the evil eye. And that evil eye was somewhat more impressive than the usual for her age evil eye what with her having super-eyes. Still a hundred years too young to bother him, though. He'd been given the evil eye by people who were way scarier. And uglier.

"That's the problem," said Ranma. "You started off bad and just got worse when I started doing stuff to knock your confidence. If you don't keep your head up, you've got no chance. What, you think enemies won't talk trash at you? Trading insults is half the fun of it."

"I . . . sorry."

Ranma sighed. "What are you apologising for?" he asked. "Not being a great fighter? That ain't something you say sorry for. It's something you fix. We'll deal with that."

The runty one was still glaring at him.

"What, runt?" asked Ranma with a cocky grin. "You think you can do better? You're welcome to try."

She didn't need any further encouragement. The runt came at him with speed that almost impressive for someone that young, he'd been faster, of course, and she was swinging with some serious intent. Ranma couldn't resist temptation though. He simply planted his hand on her forehead and let her flail away uselessly well outside the range of her stubby little kiddy arms.

"Yeah, you'd best keep working on that," he said. "Still a hundred years too young to beat me."

The scowl that appeared on the girl's features at that was truly epic and he had to react sharply to catch the strike that she aimed at the elbow of the arm he was using to hold her at bay. "Trying to break my elbow, Hanabi?" he asked. "Tsk, tsk. What would your father say?"

Yes, that was it! Hanabi and Hinata. He knew he'd remember their names eventually.

"He'd encourage me to prove my strength!"

Ranma flipped her away to land on her back with a thud next to her sister. "Like I said, you're a hundred years too young to beat me," he said. "But we'll work on that."

"Yo, Mr. Hyuuga," said Ranma. "I'm done with 'em for the day. Got to go meet my team."

"So I see," he replied, looking up from the scroll he was writing on and turning to face Ranma. "You were quite harsh with them"

"How did you . . . oh yeah, the whole super eyes thing."


"Anyway, you don't learn martial arts by being mollycoddled," replied Ranma. "Just doesn't work that way. It takes hardship to breed strength."

"Indeed," said Hiashi with an approving nod. "You are entirely correct on this. Few are the people your age who appreciate the necessity and I am glad to see that someone employed as my daughters' instructor understands."

"Right," said Ranma. "They ain't much right now, to be honest. Hinata's not entirely without skill but has the fighting spirit of a paper bag and even less in the way of confidence. Her head goes down too easy."

"I have noticed similar in the past. And what of Hanabi?"

"She's better," said Ranma. "Real easy to toy with, though, but that's just because she's so little. Give her a few years to grow up and get some decent-length arms, a dose of skill, and some more speed and she'll be decent enough. She's got the right mindset at least and she isn't entirely awful for an eight year old."

"High praise indeed," said Hiashi, his voice and expression neutral.

"Well, not everyone can be as good as me," said Ranma. "So how's it going with Hitomi? She hasn't ran off or anything has she?"

"She is, as you would expect, not entirely pleased with the situation. There is much that happens within the Hyuuga that we do not speak of to outsiders and she has taken it poorly. Only time will tell if she can adapt."

Ranma frowned. "She's going to be okay, right?" he asked.

"Only time will tell," repeated Hiashi. "She is not entirely without skill in battle and you have bought her entry into the clan register. We will not dispose of her lightly, I assure you."

Ranma didn't much like the way Hiashi was talking but it didn't sound like he was going to be chucking Hitomi off a roof or anything any time soon so it wasn't like it was time to break out the epic duel and daring escape routine. Damn but it was easier to deal with things when it was some super-powered villain type causing trouble.

Hiashi turned back to his scroll with a sigh of irritation as the boy left. He was absolutely insufferable in his arrogance and had the manners of an untamed monkey, but he was certainly a capable warrior and that made him useful. Hinata was weak and he rather doubted that any sort of training would ever fix that, but Hanabi . . . Hanabi had potential, and if she could take the boy's skills and use that knowledge to strengthen Jyuuken, well, it would make putting up with a thousand irritating, full of themselves children more than worth the trouble.

Now if only he wasn't so tempted to wipe that arrogant smirk off the brat's face.


Mousse turned away from the tree he was busily turning into a pin-cushion with his store of weaponry to face Ranma. He had to admit that he was surprised: he'd been half-expecting Ranma to piss off the Hyuuga and have to fight his way to freedom, so it was a surprise to see him come bounding in none the worse for wear. Disappointing too. It would have been entertaining to see Ranma being pursued by an entire clan of pissed off ninja who could take him out with one hit.

"Where's Anko?" asked Ranma. "She was supposed to be meeting us here, right?"

Ryoga looked up from the scroll he was reading underneath the shade of his lead umbrella. "Shut up, Ranma," he said. "Do you think we're waiting here for the good of our health?"

"You've done stupider things, P-chan."

"Now, now, kiddies," said Anko, appearing out of thin air. "No need to squabble. Your superb sensei is here."

Ranma eyed her askance. "You didn't look too superb when that Hyuuga guy did a snatch and grab on you," he said.

Mousse was never going to understand why Ranma was such an easy target for angry women or why he continually pissed them off, but he wasn't going to complain either. Seeing Ranma getting the crap kicked out of him always brightened his day.

"Now," said Anko, brushing her hands together in satisfaction as Ranma mumbled something that was probably insulting (Mousse came to this conclusion as she promptly stood on his head). "We need to talk about what's next in your newly-born ninja career."

"More missions?" asked Mousse. "Hopefully ones with a bit less massed slaughter."

"Ah, no, no," said Anko with a grin. "No more missions for a while. We've got something extra special lined up now: the chuunin exams."

"Is that supposed be exciting?" asked Ranma

Mousse was somewhat disappointed when Ranma dodged the kick that Anko aimed at his head.

"Listen up," said Anko. "I know you guys don't have the same interest in making it to chuunin or jounin that people who grew up here do, but you want to learn fancy new techniques, right? Well, you get more access to that sort of thing as you move up the ranks."

Ranma popped up. " Well, let's get started then!" he said. A moment's silence. "Uh, so what do we have to do?"

"Brat, you're so stupid it hurts at times." said Anko. "And you don't have to do anything yet. The exams don't start for a month. Friendly hint: you don't need to polish your ability to win fights, you're already way beyond genin in that; you need to work on other ninja skills, like tracking."

"You're not going to be training us?" asked Mousse with a frown. He wasn't entirely sure how he was supposed to bring himself up to par in subjects he had no knowledge of if she didn't train them.

"Eh, no. I'm one of the examiners so that'd probably be frowned upon by the other villages. So no training from me, but your ever so thoughtful sensei has arranged, just for you, my cute little genin, a substitute."

A tall male ninja with very tan skin dropped down from the trees. "Yo," he said with a sheepish wave. "Just as a friendly hint, never let this woman get you drunk."

"You weren't complaining at the time."

"I didn't realise you were going to blackmail me into teaching a bunch of brats how to not trample through the forest like a pack of elephants at the time."

"Whine, whine, whine, that's all I hear."

"So who're you to teach us?" asked Ryoga, quite rudely in Mousse's opinion. "How do we know he's worth listening to?"

"Fudo here is the best tracker in the village," said Anko. "And he does a mean line in pyrotechnics too. They don't hand out jounin promotions in cereal packets, you know."

"Wouldn't know it from how some of you guys fight."

Yes, it was most satisfying to watch Saotome shove his foot in his mouth and then get his leg forced down after it by an irritated female. It was one of his more endearing habits, as far as Mousse was concerned.

Chapter Eleven

Ranma yawned as he came to a halt at the assigned meeting spot. He honestly had no idea what they were going to be doing that day but he hoped it was going to be something interesting. He was getting bored of the usual training. Chakra control this, chakra control that, teamwork this, teamwork that - boring. Even Ryoga could control this power well enough and there was nothing wrong with their teamwork. Sure, they argued and fought a lot, but that just kept things interesting. Where would the fun be in a team that didn't have the occasional scrap?

The whole 'mean line in pyrotechnics' thing sounds promising enough. Maybe the guy'd even teach him how to spit fireballs at people. That move wasn't all that powerful, sure, but it looked awesome and it was a nice little offensive technique he could use without going into a screwed-up emotional state or slicing and dicing people into itty, bitty pieces like vacuum blades tended to. More flexibility was always good and spitting fireballs could never be anything less than great. Oh, how he wished he could demonstrate that technique to his pop. Wake him at the crack of dawn for a spar, would he? It'd be fresh-cooked panda meat for all!

"Ranma, quit it with the evil laughter," said Ryoga. "I think Mousse is going to wet himself."

Mousse's reply came in the form of a barrage of spiked chains that would have probably sliced Ryoga up pretty good if he hadn't batted them aside with a swipe of his ever-present umbrella. The blind idiot seriously needed to learn some new tricks because chucking weapons at people by the ton was just getting predictable. It'd been a bit of a nasty surprise at first but now it was barely even enough to make Ranma move his feet and even Ryoga could move quickly enough to knock them away.

And the thought of training put him in mind of his ever so wonderful and yet pathetically weak students. What should he put them through next? Making them fight for their food would be a good speed exercise but he doubted he could get away with it - their family was incredibly snobby, even worse than Kuno except without the insanity, mostly - so maybe he should tie them to a wagon or something and then whip the horses pulling it into motion? They'd soon learn to move quick if they didn't want to get their skin rubbed raw along the ground.

Then again, that'd be like trying to make them run before they could walk. Hanabi was a little midgety thing with stubby little legs that'd never be able to manage it and Hinata was just a wimp of epic proportions. He didn't want to break them just yet; Hiashi was bound to get real pissy if he did and he didn't need a whole family of ninja with super-eyes trying to knock him off. It'd be good practice but the old man running the village would probably get a bit tetchy. Anko'd probably think it was hilarious, though.


Ranma stirred from his thoughts. Fudo had arrived, looking just as lanky as he did when Anko'd introduced him. He didn't look like much, really. In fact, he looked kinda awkward, almost as if he didn't quite belong. Ranma wouldn't have pegged him as a fighter if it wasn't for the combat vest and the battered, old hitai-ate he wore. Without those two items Ranma would have just thought he was a gamekeeper or a hunter or something else that had him spending a lot of time outdoors to get that tan.

"So, Anko tells me that you three are freakishly good for your age," he said with a small grin. "Taijutsu obsessives, yeah? That should be helpful for what I have in mind. Plenty of stamina."

"So what's the training about?" asked Ranma.

"Tracking and information gathering," said Fudo. "You kids might be able to fight like demons but can you track down a foe? From what I hear, the answer's no unless they've got a nice, big sign saying 'villain here' at their hideout."

"We found the guys who'd grabbed Anko well enough."

"Torture isn't always appropriate or even possible and you three aren't exactly specialists in the field. It'll be a real bitch when you run into guys who'll say whatever you want to make the pain stop or when you can't grab a guy to torture."

"We didn't torture anyone," said Ryoga. "That would be dishonourable! We just scared him a little."

Fudo eyed Ryoga strangely. "Well, that's even worse," he said. "Only trash gives in that easily and if you're half as good as Anko says then you won't be sweeping up trash for long. No, you need to learn how to do things properly."

"And you can teach us that?" asked Ranma.

"Of course. Tracking and information gathering are my specialities. Why else would Anko ask me to prepare you for the chuunin exams? Your combat skills are already jounin level, or so she says, but you need more than the ability to break heads to make it as a ninja."

"So much for the mean line in pyrotechnics."

"Yeah, well, that's just my way to avoid having to actually fight. Blow someone to pieces with a nice little jutsu and they don't show up my taijutsu skills. I'm not going to give that advantage away."

Ranma sulked. He really wanted to be able to spit fireballs at people.

"Anyway, today's exercise will specifically focus on tracking," said Fudo. "You see the forest behind me? I'm going to run off into it and then, after me a few minutes worth of a head start, you're going to try and find me."

"Doesn't sound too hard."

"Ah, well, we'll see, won't we? I'll be leaving traps here and there to keep things interesting so you'd best keep on your toes."

Ryoga grunted and Ranma could almost hear 'damned sneaky ninja bastards' or something similar running through his head.

"Well, no point in delaying. There'll be a signal when it's time for you to go. And don't even think of cheating."

And then he flickered away. That was another technique Ranma fancied learning. He was getting sick of people disappearing on him and not knowing the hows or whys of it. It offended him. Only people like Happosai or Cologne should be able to make him look slow like that.

"This really isn't what I expected," said Ryoga. "I thought we were going to learn special techniques or something but they haven't taught us shit like that."

"I don't suppose they're going to trust us with the family silver just yet," said Ranma with a shrug. "Wish they'd start teaching us some good stuff though because it's getting boring."

A fireball blew up into the sky from the centre of the forest.

"Guess that's our signal."

And they were off.

Fudo kept up a slovenly pace as he hopped around the forest. There was no point in rushing. It would defeat the point of the exercise if they couldn't keep up with him, after all, and there was no-one faster than he in the wild. No, he needed to take it easy to start with. That way he could see how much these kids had between their ears when they had to deal with his tricks. Also, he was kinda looking forward to wiping the smirk off their faces and that would be nowhere near as satisfying if he wasn't there to see it. Not even close.

It was a nice day as well. Never hurt to spend some time taking in the scenery and enjoying life. He had to spend way too much time outside of the forests he loved so he was going to enjoy the time he got to spend here. It was like coming home to see an old friend after a long journey. Something to savour.

Ranma was the first one to catch up with him. Not a great surprise, all told. The kid was inhumanly quick by all accounts and according to Anko he did have a brain when he decided to use it, so it was no great surprise that he was the first to make it. He was making an awful lot of noise, though, and he really needed to think more about the wildlife he was disturbing on his way. It wasn't good to scare the animals. Hardly their fault that some violent humans were passing through, was it?

So he dropped his pace a little and circled around his planned position at a nice, easy lope that let the boy catch up to him in no time flat, just in time for Fudo to land just where he'd been planning to land. A moment later the boy dropped down from a tree and onto the end of the branch Fudo was balanced on.

"So what now?" asked the boy with a smirk.

Fudo gave no reply but a smirk of his own till he heard the expected crack as the branch snapped in two and sent Ranma into the abyss. "That," he said.

"That it?" came a voice from behind him.

Fudo twisted around at speed to see . . . Ranma. " Ah, a replacement," he said. "Nice. Very quick execution. Not very clever use, though."


And then the explosive seal on the tree ripped loose with a deafening roar and sufficient force to send Ranma spiralling away into the distance. Fudo just shook his head. Smart kid, devious even, but he needed seasoning. It'd do him no good to beat the first trap and then fall for the backup. Second gets you just as dead as the first.

Next up was Ryoga. And if he'd thought Ranma was noisy then Ryoga was a natural disaster on legs. It was the difference between someone who didn't know the tricks of the trade and a guy who just didn't care. If something got in his way, he smashed it. If animals were in his path, he scattered them. It was pretty revolting, in all honesty. No respect for the world around him. Che. What was Anko teaching the brat? Oh, wait, being Anko, most likely.

Well, there was no point in delaying things. Sooner he dealt with this the sooner the boy would stop ravaging the poor forest and he could get one step closer to being done with the brats for the day.

And so he stopped in a clearing. Well, calling it a clearing was a bit of an exaggeration. It was a part of the forest that had been logged for timber back when the village had first had been founded and had yet to recover from said logging. Lots of stumps and half-grown saplings to go around. Several of those saplings ceased to exist a moment later as Ryoga smashed through them.

"Ha!" he said, levelling his umbrella at Fudo with a fang-baring grin. "Found you!"

"So you have," said Fudo. "So what now then? Going to beat me?"

Ryoga paused and then scratched the back of his head with his off-hand. "Uh."

Fudo had to shake his head. How could he go from raging berserker to befuddled kid so quickly? Bizarre. "Gotta do something, kid," he said. "Because I'm not going to stand around here waiting all day."

Ryoga stared at him dumbly for a moment before doing the deeply predictable and charging. First mistake. He didn't wonder why someone who admitted to being rubbish at taijutsu wasn't worried. Second mistake. He didn't pay attention to where he was putting his feet. Third mistake.

The explosive seal exploding beneath the boy's feet was truly a thing of beauty. The forest might have been his first love but explosives ran a close second. And when the smoke cleared and the flames had died down, there stood a Ryoga who looked as pissed off as he did singed. Okay, that was interesting, but not entirely unexpected, so he triggered the secondary tags and watched as the clearing erupted.

Ah, explosions, glorious, fiery explosions. He could watch the flames dance all day long quite happily. The way the flames licked up into the air and danced from side to side . . . just glorious. And there was no way the kid could still be standing

"I am going to break you!"

Fudo gaped at the sight in front of him. He'd seen jounin taken down by far less than that nice, little conflagration. Jounin! What the hell was this kid made of to be stood there glaring at him with nothing worse than a few singe marks on his clothes? He sure as hell wasn't human. Couldn't be.

Well, he could deal with that. A twist of his chakra and the tertiary tags exploded with a deafening roar. Man, he might like explosions and all but setting that many explosive tags off at such a range wasn't easy on the ears. That was just unpleasant, though probably not as unpleasant as it was for the guy in the middle of the fun.

No sign of movement amidst the smoke. Hmm, had he maybe gone a little too far? Anko wouldn't be too happy if he killed one of her brats and the last thing he needed was Anko delivering stabbity death to him.

Still no signs.

He was starting to get nervous. An angry Anko was an Anko he didn't want to be dealing with.

The smoke cleared.

"You didn't think that would stop me did you?"

Well . . . he wasn't dead at least. Hmm. Looked like it was time for plan B. He quickly moved through the necessary hand seals and then, "Suiton: honryuu no jutsu!"

The nearby stream erupted upwards out of its bed and rocketed towards Ryoga in a torrent of freezing cold water. Fudo didn't much like his trap going belly up but he was fully prepared to exploit any and all weaknesses that he could think of to avoid having that overpowered man-child smash his skull with that oversized umbrella of his. The water obscured his vision but he could see the boy's form flickering beneath the attack as he swung his . . . umbrella. Shit. Fudo poured all the chakra he had into the water to get as much moving as possible.

And as luck would have it, it worked. He supposed between the explosions slowing the kid down and the somewhat shredded umbrella. Thank the gods for small mercies. Getting into a brawl with someone who carried around an umbrella that weighed more than he did was more Gai's territory than Fudo's. And seeing the big, bad berserker reduced to a cute, little piglet was more than mildly amusing. In fact, he couldn't quite restrain the snicker that was building up inside him.

What a minute, since when did piglets glow?

Fudo avoided the energy blast that the piglet spat at him by the skin of his teeth. Really, since when could piglets do that? Just wasn't natural. Time to move on, he decided. Those stubby little piglet legs wouldn't let Ryoga follow him or form hand seals and there wasn't any hot water to be found for miles. Safe.

Mousse was the last of the three to catch up with him, waiting till he had stopped to take a breather and quick swig from his canteen before he bounded up from below to stand on the same branch as Fudo.

"Nice try, but a basic bunshin doesn't produce shadow or physical effect."

The kunai that came hurtling down at the back his skull was certainly a rude surprise. If the boy'd been possessed of normal outdoorsman skills, he'd have been filleted. Not a nice thought. Still, seeing the look of disgruntlement on his face as his weapon sank into a wooden log he'd quickly left in his place with a quick kawarimi almost made up for the attempted murder. Almost.

"Did you think that would catch me out?"

A quick shunshin carried him behind the boy - and he really hated using that technique, always left him feeling a little queasy - and it would have been childishly simple to slap that knockout gas tag onto the back of the kid if it wasn't for him being inhumanly fast. He still managed to slap it on to the kid's chest but damn he nearly missed totally. Damn that Anko; she hadn't warned him about the guy in glasses being that quick. Probably thought it would be funny.

Still, he'd got the kid, and he didn't look like he was getting up anytime soon. Score one for Fudo.

"You didn't think we were done, did you?"

Fudo blinked and turned around. "You're pretty damned durable, kid," he said. And he had to admit he was impressed. "Not many'd be up for more after getting an explosive tag in the face." Well, except for that other kid, who didn't even seem to notice the damn things going off.

Ranma cracked his knuckles. "Time for payback," he said.

"Catch me if you can!"

And with that Fudo was off, bounding from tree to tree as if he was born to do such. He'd give the kid a runaround and then he'd ditch him and see how he did tracking when there wasn't a trail laid out. Either way, this kid was going to grow up to be a real beast of a ninja.

And so things went for the next few hours. Even Ryoga came back for another go, somehow finding a way to switch back, which was a bit of a shock.

"You kids are stronger and faster than anyone your age has any right to be," said Fudo. "Got some nice techniques too. Not too bright though."

Ranma scowled. "Tagged ya a couple of times, didn't I?"

"Yeah, and that has more to do with you being inhumanly quick and more stubborn than an army of mules than brains or what I'm actually trying to teach you here."

"Seems to work to me."

"You won't be able to brute force your way past everyone, kid. Learn the tricks of the trade and you'll be much better off."

"Yeah, yeah. Whatever you got to teach, I'll learn."

Ryoga oinked, back in his piglet form, where he couldn't try to kill Fudo, or at least not as easily.

Chapter Twelve

An alarm clock blared. An alarm clock was smashed to teeny, tiny pieces by a fist moving at near the speed of sound. Never let it be said that Ranma Saotome was ever a morning person. Oh, he'd spent years being dragged out of his pit at the crack of dawn, or even before, by his idiotic panda of a pop, but it was never something he'd ever grown accustomed to and most certainly not something he'd ever enjoy. As far as Ranma was concerned, morning people always had been and always would be weirdos of the highest calibre.

Which really made the fact that he lived with a pair of early birds really bite. He'd always known they weren't quite normal - how else do you explain the inability to walk in a straight line? Or the stalkerish tendencies? - but he'd never expected them to be anything so vile as a morning person. That was just beyond the pale. Even Happosai wasn't a morning person! Though that might have had something to do with the heavy drinking.

And so that was why the morning found Ranma bleary eyed and somewhat less tolerant than his usual cheerful self as he prepared himself for the day ahead in his sparsely furnished room. Just why did he agree to hold a training session with the brats so early in the morning?

Oh, yeah, he had his own training to do and needed to get the brats out of the way so he would be able to get there in time for yet as well as dealing with the whole 'train my daughters or bad things happen to Hitomi' deal. Humbug. This was what he got being such a great guy that he even saved someone who'd tried to make Ranma barbecue out of him.

Well, at least she wasn't a fiancee. That really would be the cherry on the top.

He made it as far as the living room before he trod on a shirt that really should have been elsewhere and almost fell flat on his face, almost by Ranma's standards anyway, and a wave of utter irritation struck him. "What the hell?" he snapped. "Can't you morons at least tidy up after yourselves?"

"Well, you know, Ranma," said Ryoga, looking up from the weights he was adding to his umbrella. More weights? Wonderful. Ranma was really looking forward to their next fight. Nothing like getting smashed by a ten-ton umbrella to make your day. "It's normally the girl's job to keep the house tidy."


"Ow . . . "

Wham! Wham! Wham!

A moment's silence.


Ranma brushed some imaginary dust off his hands with great satisfaction. He was damned if he was going to let that idiot lost boy get away with saying something like that to him. That and it always made the morning seem that little bit brighter when it was started off with kicking around one of the resident idiots.

"What the hell's up with you?" asked Mousse, toothbrush hanging out of his mouth. "That time of the month?"

It would be several hours before Mousse could get his legs to point in the right direction once more.

Ranma frowned as Hinata lost her balance and slowly, ever so slowly, tilted to the left before finally sliding off the pole and crashing to the ground with a rather loud thud and a hiss of expelled air.

"Is that the best you can do?" asked Ranma after waiting for a moment to see if Hinata would show some drive and get back to it on her own; as usual, he found himself being disappointed. "Get back up there and start again."

"Yes, sensei," mumbled Hinata as she hopped back up and resumed her place balancing on top of the bamboo pole.

What was with that girl? Sometimes she'd almost - almost - seem as if she was competent, even that she might have some small amount of useful skill, but then, inevitably, she'd go back to being useless and slow and weak and it rarely took all that long. He just didn't understand it. She was supposed to be a ninja, right? From some big, bad clan of uber ninja with super-eyes? Then why was she so damned meek and weak? Didn't make a lick of sense to Ranma.

"You need to master this, Hinata," said Ranma. "You too, Hanabi. Without balance a martial artist is nothing. If you can't be sure of your footing, what can you be sure of? It's essential."

That, combined with the rubber ball he bounced off the back of her head, was apparently enough to break Hanabi's concentration and she promptly fell off her pole and landed face-first with a rather nasty crack. Ranma didn't need to tell her to get back up and get back on with things, though. She bounced back up off her own merits without encouragement and was back up on the pole with a look of intense concentration on her face immediately. Sure, there was a little blood leaking from her nostrils, but it wasn't stopping her.

Stuff like that was why Ranma kinda liked Hanabi, not that he'd ever let her in on that little fact. She had the right attitude. She fought back, didn't give up, and didn't let a few lumps stop her. That was how a martial artist should be. You didn't get anywhere by letting a few insults or a hard hit stop you in your tracks. That crap was for losers, not someone being trained in Anything Goes.

Still, those flashes of competence and the agreement were enough to keep Ranma training Hinata even if he'd normally give it up as a bad job. He'd get her to start acting like a real martial artist if it was the last thing he ever did. Heh, probably would be.

"Hey, Hinata," he said a moment later. "You're going to be in the chuunin exams, right?"

She almost fell off her pole but to her credit she steadied herself and managed to stay atop it after a moment's struggle. Better. "Y-yes, sensei," she said. "My team will be there."

"Well, remember what I've taught you," said Ranma. "Do that and you'll be fine. You might not be the best student that Anything Goes has ever seen but most ninja have truly pathetic taijutsu skills."

"Yes, sensei."

"Anyway, I suppose I'll see you there."

"You're going to be one of the examiners?"

"Nah, I'll be taking the exam."

"You're a genin?" blurted out Hanabi, sliding alarmingly to her left in surprise before managing to right herself.

"I know, I know. How can someone as awesome as me be a genin? Shocking isn't it."

Ranma wasn't entirely sure but he thought Hanabi might have rolled her eyes at that, but she didn't say anything. Tsk. She should have known better than to antagonise her sensei by then. He was mildly pleased that she managed to keep her balance when he bounced a rubber ball off the back of her head but he was just amused by the look on her face when a second ball caught her beneath the ribs and sent her crashing down. That'd teach her.

As Ranma was heading out of the Hyuuga compound, and being given the gimlet eye by all and sundry as he did so, snobby bastards, he caught sight of Hitomi. She looked angry. No great surprise there, really. She was always angry. Not a good loser, that one, really.

"You know, cute girls shouldn't scowl all the time," he said. "Your face'll get stuck that way eventually and that'd be a real shame."

"Piss off, bastard."

"Hey, I'll have you know that I know exactly who my parents are," said Ranma. "They might be lunatics but I know who they are."

"Do I look like I care? Just go away. Find someone else to torment."

"Torment? Me?" asked Ranma. "You wound me. I just wanted to see how you were doing."

"Oh, I'm great," said Hitomi, her expression somewhat incredulous. "Just great. There's nothing quite like having everything you and your family fought for smashed to pieces to brighten up a life. It's just magnificent. I think next I'll see if I can marry into the main house just to really round things off."

"Uh, aren't all the main house guys like a million years old?"

"Shut up, Saotome."

Ranma held up his hands defensively. "Just saying, just saying," he said. "And it could be a lot worse, you know. They wanted to kill you."

"Because being a slave is so much better," she hissed. "Just go away. You have no idea what it's like."

"What the hell are you talking 'bout? Slave?"

"What, you didn't know about the seal?" asked Hitomi with a contemptuous snort. "About how any main family member can torture or kill me at a whim? Give me a break. Are you some sort of mental sub-normal?"

"I had no idea."

"Sub-normal it is, then."

"Really, I didn't," said Ranma. "I'd have cut you loose and let you run for it or something if I did."

"You think that makes any difference?" asked Hitomi, her features twisted into a serious scowl. "You killed my father, you bastard."

"He tried to kill me first, you know. It's not like I go out looking for people to kill."

"Do you really think that matters?"

Ranma thought about what he'd do if someone killed his pop. "Suppose not," he said finally. "I'll see you around, I guess."

"Not if I can help it."

Ranma's head was in a whirl as he made his way out. The idea of people sticking seals on their family that did stuff like that was just . . . it was wrong on levels he'd never before even contemplated. He'd known some crazy, crazy people back in Nerima, just look at the Kunos, but that was beyond even them. Even the real bastards, like Taro or Happosai, wouldn't do stuff like that to their own family . . . well, maybe Happosai, if he thought it would be funny.

Anyway, it was wrong. They probably had some stupid excuse for it, like that stupid family he'd ran into that'd had a monkey fighting in tea ceremony style to determine an arranged marriage, but it was still wrong. Totally wrong. But what could he do about it? Somehow, he didn't think his usual way of solving problems would work. Sure, he could beat the snot out of them, but so what? Wouldn't make them change and the village'd probably be on their side. He didn't think he could take on everyone in the village at once; there was an awful lot of them.

There was nothing he could do. For now. Some day, maybe, he'd figure something out, of course he would, but for now it'd have to wait. He'd train Hinata and Hanabi and he'd watch and see how things worked.

"Well, that's it," said Fudo. "We're done for the day and I suppose that means we're done completely."

"No more forests?" asked Mousse. "Or is that too much to hope for?"

Fudo shrugged. "How am I supposed to know?" he asked. "They come up with all sorts of weird and wacky tests for the chuunin exams. Keeps things from getting stale, they say. I think they just get bored with babysitting duty and try to liven it up by making the brats' lives hell."

Silence followed. Ryoga really wasn't impressed. No stupid exam was going to scare him. He'd spent half his life getting lost in places that were full of idiots who took violent exception to his being there, so what was an exam? Nothing.

"Anyway, even if Ranma's performed like a drunken elephant today," said Fudo a moment later, "you're ready. Really, how many genin have skills like yours? Unless you do something stupid you're set."

"Easier said 'n done with these two," said Ranma.

It really didn't break Ryoga's heart to give Ranma a swat with his umbrella. Just payback for that morning. Honest.

"What sort of thing will we face in the exam?" asked Mousse, pushing his jam-jar glasses back up the bridge of his nose. "Duels?"

"Ah, sometimes," he said. "They normally have three tests: one for information gathering, one for teamwork, and one for leadership. Least that's they're supposed to be. Sometimes they kinda stretch the definitions so they can have fun watching what goes on during the exam."

"Duels don't really fit those tests."

"You wouldn't think so," said Fudo with a shrug. "But you guys have nothing to worry about there anyway. It's the stuff that needs a slightly more delicate touch that could undo you. You have to keep in mind the essence of a ninja and that isn't spectacular combat skills. Do that and you'll be fine."

Chapter Thirteen

The chuunin exams. From what Ranma could gather, they were supposed to be a defining moment in a ninja's career, the time when he was given the opportunity to set up and become a real ninja instead of a child playing at it, and something they would look back upon as a crucial, defining moment in their lives if not with fondness. He supposed it was was sort of like what graduating was supposed to be like for normal people in that way: when they were meant to leave childhood and move into the adult world as men.

Ranma just wished they'd not decided to hold the damned things so early. Was it really necessary to test his ability to get out of bed in the morning as well as his ability to break heads and take names?

Of course, he probably would have taken it a little more seriously if he hadn't already been able to beat his jounin-sensei like a drum. It really took some of the urge to advance out of things when you scored a straight-up combat win over said sensei in your genin test. Becoming a mid-level minion of the village instead of a low-level minion lost its lustre when you could already knock the elite around.

"Well, I think this is the place," said Mousse, squinting at the large, office-y looking building they were standing in front of. "Doesn't look like the sort of place where ninja get promoted, really."

"Mousse, they have a school here that teaches kids how to be ninja," said Ranma. "It's even crazier than Nerima. Don't try to make sense of it."

"Feh," said Ryoga, hefting his umbrella up onto his shoulder. "What sort of test can they have a in a place like this? It wouldn't last two minutes if we went at it."

Ranma shrugged. "Ninja suck," he said. "Let's face it. They do. I've already beaten one of their big, bad guys and he wasn't a patch on Herb or Saffron. Hell, wasn't even a patch on that idiot Ryu."

"Then why are we wasting our time here?" asked Mousse. "I want to get home, I want to see my beloved Shampoo again, and we're not doing anything to get back."

"They got some nice techniques. Remember psycho-sensei's water dragon? I want to learn that."

"Won't get us back home."

"Their summoning stuff might, though," said Ryoga. "Remember the cat-girl? She conjured up a monster from nowhere. Maybe if we can learn that-"

"Wow, Ryoga," said Ranma. "That was almost intelligent."

"Shut up, Saotome," said Mousse. "Now isn't the time. We're about to have a bunch of lunatic kids try to kill us so they can advance over our corpses; we should at least concentrate a little on that, don't you think?"

"You've been spending way too much time listening to Anko. I bet they're nowhere near that bad."

"I hope they are," said Ryoga with a fanged grin. "I could use a good fight. None of this sneaking around crap; just someone who wants to try and prove they're stronger then me."

It would have been too easy to point out that the chances of an ankle-biter ninja trying to take Ryoga in a fair fight were about the same as his chances of ever managing to find his way between two towns without someone having him on a leash.

And so, with that, they trailed into the building one by one to find their destiny. Well, that was the plan at least, but what ever goes to plan when Team Nerima is involved? Mousse and Ryoga managed to enter the building before the skies opened up and a sudden outpouring of rain fell upon the head of Ranma, who, caught by surprise, promptly became a rather fetching red-head.

Ryoga laughed. "You know, for someone who was the first to learn the technique, you really suck at it," he said. "You'd never get me that easily."

"I must concur," said Mousse with a sagely nod. "It is rather weak."

Ranma sniffed in disdain. "That's because you two morons have totally useless cursed forms," she said. "You turn into stupid, weak animals. I turn into a hottie that can still kick the arse of whoever needs it. That's the difference between us."

"Pure luck."

Again, Ranma sniffed in disdain and gave Mousse a superior sort of look. "You make your own luck," she said. "S'why I'm the best."

"Prove it," said Mousse, his eyes alight with a sadistic sort of gleam. "Beat this exam as a girl."

Ranma really should have known she was being baited. "Not even close to a challenge," she said.

"Then take the challenge."

And so the deal was sealed. Ranma wouldn't, couldn't, back down from a challenge no matter how stupid.

Upon entering the building they were directed by a bored-looking woman to make their way to room 301 on the third floor. Ranma was never going to get used to seeing ninja working with people that wouldn't be out of place in the normal world. It was almost like seeing Gosunkungi beating Cologne in a martial arts duel or something. Just didn't make sense in any sort of rational world.

Not that Ranma minded really. Rational was boring. Way of the salary-man. Not for people like her who could smash boulders to bit with a chop of a single hand.

When they reached the third floor, though it didn't feel like they'd went up enough flights of stairs to do so to Ranma, they found a small mob of young-looking types wearing hitai-ates clustered around a door marked as 301 by the sign atop it but not moving any closer to it as two older looking ninja stood in a sort of guard position.

Before Ranma could open her mouth to make a sarcastic comment and insult a few idiots, a guy in green spandex, may the kami cleanse her eyes of the abomination, lunged forwards at one of the two guarding ninja and was sent crashing to the ground with an almost casual backhand.

"Wow," said Ranma. "That was kinda pathetic. Could you have been any slower? Even my lame students would have done better 'n that."

Well, you gotta get your jabs in where you can. Where would the fun in life be if you kept your mouth shut and didn't start fights? Ranma couldn't even imagine living such a life. It'd be like taking away his martial arts or something.

"Look at that, kid," said one of the guards, the one with particularly spiky hair and two swords strapped to his back. "Even one of the other snots recognises how useless you are. Think you can take the exam like that? Don't make me laugh."

"Who are you calling a snot, toilet-brush head?" said Ranma, her facial expression showing exactly how very underwhelmed she was. "Just come over here and say that."

"Kid, you're not worth the energy it'd take for me to set one foot in front of the other," said the guard. "Go back to the crèche and play with the other brats, yeah? Find someone more your level."

Ranma could tell that the guy wasn't at her level, or even duck-boy's level, just by looking at him so she didn't exactly push the limit when she darted forward and levelled a straight punch at his head. Still, it came as a bit of a shock when the green meanie caught her fist in a bandage-wrapped hand.

"More than you look, huh," said Ranma with a grin. "Suppose you'd have to be."

"So much for not standing out," said a Hyuuga guy in a really stupid looking shirt and shorts combination outfit. Made him look like one of those American cub scouts or something. Not exactly the sort of thing Ranma normally saw back home in the land of vaguely normal ninja . . . and that was even taking Konatsu into account.

The girl stood next to him with a frown on her face was a lot more sensible, though. Why else would she be wearing the same style of clothing as Ranma was? Clearly a smart cookie in Ranma's eyes.

"You are strong," said the boy. "I am Rock Lee."

"Ranma Saotome," replied Ranma, backing off a step. "So, we gonna fight?"

The boy frowned, a move which brought his colossal eyebrows down to almost cover his eyes, before he replied. "Perhaps later," he said, giving her a thumbs up gesture. "You are strong but I have other opponents now."

Ranma shrugged. "Whatever," she said.

Another boy stepped forward, wearing a similarly cripplingly stupid-looking shorts and shirt outfit, but before he could say anything Ryoga swung his umbrella round and levelled both of the guards with a single swipe. "This is boring," he said. "Come on."

The sign above the door had started to ripple the moment Ryoga's attack struck home and changed to 201 as the bodies hit the floor. Tch. She could really get to hate that genjutsu crap. So cheap.

"Didn't you realise it was a genjutsu?" asked the boy. Twit. "Sakura, you must have noticed with your analytical skills and genjutsu know-how?"

The pink-haired - Ranma wondered if it was natural, like Shampoo's purple hair - girl blinked and looked a little surprised for a moment before her expression turned to confidence. "Of course," she said. "I noticed a while ago."

Ranma debated drilling a fist-sized hole in their faces for a moment before shrugging it off. So they could spot a cheap illusion a little better than her. Big deal. She hadn't even known that crap was possible till very recently. Soon enough she'd be better at it than either of those two would ever be. She was Ranma Saotome and she didn't lose to stupid-looking ankle-biters.

And that went double for the one in orange.

Room 301 turned out to be some sort of waiting room filled with ninja of all shapes and sizes. Shockingly, they weren't all little kids as she'd been expecting. Ranma didn't even want to contemplate how bad the average ninja was if they couldn't make chuunin by the time they started sprouting facial hair. It just didn't bear thinking about, and she kinda doubted they were all late to the game like she was.

The way they all glared at her and the others as they entered the room was pretty amusing, though. Were they trying to intimidate her? Without so much as a scrap of proper killing intent? Tch. She was almost tempted to go over, pinch their cheeks, and call them cute just to see how they'd react. Such a thing really couldn't fail to amuse, but it was a little too far into playing the girly role for her tastes just then.

So she pulled her eyelid down and wagged her tongue out at them in the classic childish taunt that had always got a good rise out of Akane. It worked a charm. Even got some pitiful killing intent out of the mob of wannabes.

"Was there really any need for that, Saotome?" asked Mousse. "Now they're all going to be as focused on us as all the people you pissed off in the last ten years were on you when you settled down in Nerima."

"What are they going to do? Cry on us?"

"That's what I'm talking about," said Mousse. "Needless antagonism. You don't have to make an enemy of everyone you meet."

Ranma shrugged. "Keeps life interesting," she said.

Her attention was already wandering, sweeping over the crowds and searching out anyone she actually knew. She managed to pick out a couple. There was Hinata, looking as nervous as always, with the team-mates that Ranma had never actually met but knew enough about to recognise. They sounded like an interesting pair from what she'd gathered. The whole bug-thing Shino had was more than a little creepy, but the idea of having a dog companion to fight alongside you, as the Inuzuka did, was more than a little intriguing even if it was more up Ryoga's street than hers. Other than Hinata, there were only a few she'd ran into in the village, but they weren't people she actually knew beyond recognising their faces.

Oh, and there were the trio of irritants. Pinky, her stupid-looking black-haired teammate, and the one who was so bright that it almost hurt to look at him. Looked as if someone had roughed the two guys up a little before they'd managed to get from A to B to Ranma, which didn't exactly break her heart.

They didn't get far before some blonde girl wearing an outfit that looked like it was mostly made of bandages jumped on scout-boy's back. The look on his face almost made up for his comment earlier. Yeah, Ranma could sympathise. Being glomped on had never exactly made her day either. Didn't look like pinky was going to smash him through the ceiling, though, so he was still a step behind her on the suck-o-meter for glomping.

"Another playboy," said Ryoga, his voice laced with disgust. "Isn't Ranma enough?"

"I quite agree," said Mousse.

"Laugh it up, morons," said Ranma. "Doesn't look like he's asking for this any more than I did. Not my fault you're jealous idiots."

Oh, killer glares. Those morons were still holding grudges because Akane and Shampoo weren't interested in them? Tch. Would they never learn?

"Ah, come on," said Ranma. "Let's go see what the brats are up to. They're supposed to be our competition or something, right?"

The idiotic duo shrugged but they followed when Ranma wandered on over to where the local rookies had gathered around pinky's team. There was something ever so slightly wrong about seeing a bunch of stupid little kids banding together in a room preparing to go out and take part in an exam that was basically kill-or-be-killed for most of the entrants. Ranma'd been through some pretty harsh training when she was young but she'd not had to do anything like that. Even her pop would have baulked at it. Well, she hoped so.

"Hey, you guys," said a taller, older-looking blond guy wearing glasses to the rookies as Ranma made her way over. "You should be more quiet. Jeez, screaming like little girls. You guys are rookies right out of the academy, right? This isn't a picnic."

"Who do you think you are?" snapped the blond girl who'd been doing the glomping.

"I'm Kabuto," said the boy. "But instead of that that look behind you."

Okay, Ranma had to admit there was some comedy value in seeing the kids' faces when they realised half the hardened killers in the room were glaring at them for having the nerve to act like human beings.

"Eh, don't pay attention to it," said Ranma. "They're just jealous because you don't suck as much as they do and got to take the exam earlier 'n them."

Kabuto pushed his glasses back up his nose. "Now, I wouldn't say that, Ranma," he said. "No village sends anything but their very best available genin to an exam in a foreign village."

"They don't look like much," said Ryoga dubiously. "You sure they're the elite?"

"Well, not everyone can be a taijutsu genius with access to a family school of assassination techniques like your team-mate."

Ranma frowned and shot an askance look Kabuto's way. "How do you know all this stuff about me?" she asked.

"How else would an ordinary genin survive but by keeping an eye on the competition?" asked Kabuto. "That's why I keep these information cards."

"Wow," said pinky. "So you know a lot about the exam, right?"

"As much as you would expect someone on their seventh attempt to."

The looks of dismay on the faces of the kids amused Ranma to no end. "Seventh attempt?" asked Ranma. "And you guys are going to listen to him? He's only an expert in losing."

"As loathe as I am to admit it," said Mousse, "I think Saotome might have the right of this one. Taking exam advice from someone who cannot pass it seems like a bad idea."

"And when even this idiot recognises something as a bad idea, you know it is," said Ranma.

Pinky looked scandalised. "You shouldn't say such things," she said. "I'm sure the problem is with the difficulty of the exam and not Kabuto's skills."

Ranma shrugged. It worked out pretty much the same in her mind. Either way it ended up with him not being good enough to pass.

"Do you have cards with information on individuals?" asked scout-boy.

"Ah, you've met some guys you're worried about," said Kabuto, his glasses gleaming as the light reflected off them. "It's quite difficult to acquire accurate information about foreign ninja, but I have at least something on everyone. Who are you interested in?"

"Rock Lee, Gaara of the Desert, and Ranma."

"No, Sasuke," wailed blondie. "What does she have that I don't!?"

"Talent, good looks, a fantastic body," said Ranma, ticking each item off on her hands. "You know, little things like that." She looked down. "Or not so little things."

If looks could kill . . .

"Ranma, you perv-"

Ryoga found himself embedded in the wall behind him before he could finish that statement.

"Don't even think it, pig-boy."

"It's a good thing we weren't planning on doing anything intelligent like pretending to be weaker than we really are," said Mousse. "Hibiki, don't even think about doing what I know you want to. Now isn't the time to try and smash him as much as I can sympathise with the feeling."

"Ah, if you're finished," said Kabuto. "Yes, let's start with Rock Lee. He'll be the easiest of the three."

Watching Kabuto shuffle through the cards and then apply a burst of ki to one of them to get the information to show was enlightening. For someone who couldn't even pass a stupid exam that looked like a pretty decent technique he had going.

"Rock Lee," said Kabuto, placing the card on the floor to allow all to read it as he spoke. "Ah, a year older than you guys, excepting you and your team-mates, Ranma, obviously. Mission history: twenty completed D-class and twelve completed C-class. His taijutsu is noted as having improved greatly but his other skills are nothing to write home about. He's on a team with Neiji Hyuuga and TenTen under Maito Gai."

Another shuffle. "Ah, Gaara of the Desert," he said. "A newcomer from a foreign village, so I don't have much. I don't have much information, but . . . eight C-class and one B-class mission. Wow, a B-rank mission as a genin. And it seems that he returned from all of his missions without even a scratch."

Looking at all the kiddies sweating over that was kinda amusing. "Sounds like there's at least one guy here worth fighting then," said Ranma.

"Hmm, we shall see," said Kabuto. "Now, Ranma Saotome. Ah, now this is interesting. His file marks him as, well, a he. I wonder what happened there."

"Must be a typing error."

"As you say," said Kabuto. "Interesting that even the picture in the file is different, though. Hmm, new to the village apparently: only arrived in Konoha two months before the current class of graduates was assigned to teams and was promptly assigned to a team under Anko Mitarashi with two others who arrived with her. Skills wise, the information I have indicates that she is possessed of very high level skills in all areas except genjutsu and is also trained in a family school of taijutsu and ninjutsu techniques. Mission history, hmm: five D-class missions, one C-class, and, oh my, an A-class mission."

Ranma shrugged. "It wasn't meant to be an A-class mission," she said. "Just turned out that when a loony missing-nin turned up causing trouble. Things got quiet again after I kicked his arse."

"Hey, hey," said the eye-wateringly bright brat. "That sounds like what happened with us and Zabuza. Do we have an A-class mission on our file?"

"The Demon of the Mist, Naruto?" asked Kabuto. "That's an impressive opponent to survive at your age. Let's see." He pulled out another card and fired it up with a burst of ki. "Yes, you do. An A-class mission. I'm impressed."

The kid virtually glowed under the praise. You'd think no-one had ever said anything nice about him before or something. Pinky and scout-boy seemed to get a little more relaxed as well.

"So these guys," said blondie, "they're all like Gaara and Rock Lee and Ranma?"

"The elite of their village?" asked Kabuto. "Oh, yes. They'd send nothing less to an occasion such as this. How else could they demonstrate their strength? Leaf, Sand, Rain, Waterfall, Sound . . . many outstanding genin from the hidden villages are here to take the exam. Well, the Hidden Sound is a new village and there isn't much info, but the rest of the villages are filled with talented youngsters."


"M-makes you lose your confidence," said Hinata.

Everyone looked nervous again. Heh, was Kabuto playing with them? Get 'em nervous, let 'em down, and then back again for double the effect - not the nicest thing to do to a bunch of nervy little kids. Even the loud one in orange, Naruto, was trembling. Tch, if they were that scared then they had no place-

"MY NAME IS NARUTO UZUMAKI," he shouted, finger pointed at the crowd. "AND I WON'T LOSE TO ANY OF YOU BASTARDS!"

Ranma rubbed her ear. Yeah, he was terrified alright. "You tell 'em kid," she said. "But a little less loudly, please?"


"Hey," said blondie. Ranma really needed to learn their names. "What is he?"

"He's too stupid to get down," said pinkie.

"Ah, that feels great," said Naruto, arms folded behind his head and a satisfied grin on his face.

The dark-haired glomp-target, scout-boy-smirked.

"What a moron," said another boy, who was immediately dubbed pineapple boy in Ranma's head. "He's just made everyone his enemy."

"Lose to those bastards? Big words," said Kiba, before following that up with a stage-whisper to his dog. "Show-off."

An amusing sideshow followed with pinky grabbing Naruto in a sleeper hold and trying to persuade the crowd that Naruto was some sort of mental deficient that didn't really mean to insult them all, but Ranma was more interested in the attempt at rapid movement he could make out from within the crowd. Looked like someone was looking to get in a pre-emptive beating . . .

A guy jumped from out of the crowd and launched a pair of kunai at Kabuto's head, but the bespectacled ninja was able to easily slide back out of the way of the attack before Mousse knocked the two kunai out of the air with a pair of his own.

Another ninja, his face covered in bandages and his upper body clad in an over-sized coat, came rocketing out of the crowd straight towards Kabuto. At least, that was the plan. A well-placed foot from Ranma sent the guy crashing down face-first before he could get into range to do a damn thing.

"Clumsy, ain't ya?" asked Ranma.

It was amazing how the tension would just flow out of a room as everyone joined in the age-old tradition of laughing at the guy who just got humiliated. Heart-warming, really.

An explosion of smoke interrupted the mockery. "Quiet down you worthless bastards!" yelled a deep, male voice from within the cloud. And when the smoke cleared . . .

"Oh, hey, it's scarface! And he's got minions!"

Chapter Fourteen

The wail of feminine despair that followed the announcement of a written test warmed Mousse's heart. Ah, but it was always good to see Saotome brought down a peg or a hundred. Truly, it was the sort of thing that made getting out of bed in the morning worthwhile. For a moment, it made all those humiliations that had been heaped upon him by the arrogant bastard fade away to be replaced by the warm glow of watching someone get exactly what they deserved. Glorious.

The other wail he heard mixed in with Saotome's was a bit of a surprise though. Could it be that there was another Ranma-level idiot in Konoha? It scarcely seemed possible - when you looked up idiot in the dictionary you'd see an image of that arrogant womaniser next to it - but his ears rarely failed him.

Ah, it was the orange brat. He certainly looked dopey enough to be as stupid as Saotome, and a ninja wearing a bright orange jumpsuit. . . it was up there with that Kuno moron and his incessant attempts to seduce Ranma. Well, okay, almost up there. It would take a great deal of idiocy to match Kuno.

"Settle down,"said Ibiki. He was actually quite imposing what with his large size and scarred face and Mousse could see many of the young hopefuls gulping and looking otherwise fearful of the elite ninja. "You are supposed to be ninja. Act like it."

The room was quiet and even Ranma was quiet for a change. It was quite a novel experience for Mousse to see Ranma rendered silent. The only other time Mousse had ever seen Ranma so quiet was when he had believed his fiancee was dead. Extremely novel.

Of course it might have just been the prospect of having to face an actual written exam that had stunned him rather than the intimidation that rendered the rest of the crowd silent. It was questionable whether the examiner would even be able to read the awful chicken-scratch Saotome had the temerity to call handwriting, never mind determine, inevitably, that his answers were totally wrong.

"You have your seat numbers, don't you?" he barked out. "So sit down. Do I have to give you instructions for that as well?"

General chaos followed as every brat in the room starting bumbling around looking for their assigned seat. Mousse ended up seated between a couple of people he'd never met before. One was an odd looking guy wearing an all-black outfit and makeup - what sort of a guy wore make-up? - and the other was a lanky-looking fellow with a pair of clip-on sunglasses covering his eyes and a piece of cloth covering the lower half of his face. Neither looking terribly strong to Mousse.

"Do not turn your tests over," said Ibiki. "Listen closely to what I am about to say. There are many important rules to this first test." He picked up a piece of chalk and started to scratch away at the board as he spoke. Without turning his head away from the children in front of him. "I'll write it on the board while I explain, but questions will not be allowed so listen carefully."

Mousse grunted in annoyance. This whole intimidation schtick was starting to get a little old.

"The first rule," he said. "You guys all start off with ten points. The test is made up of ten questions and each one is worth a point, but this test uses a subtraction system. Basically, if you answer all the questions correctly, you keep your ten points. But, say, if you miss three questions you lose three points and will have seven.

"The second rule," he continued. "This is a team test. Whether you pass or not will be determined by the combined score of your teammates."

Well . . . shit. Mousse heard someone slamming their head against their table and he was tempted to emulate them. Ranma was an idiot, and Ryoga had probably missed every single class he hadn't had someone to guide him to.

"Wait a second," cried a female voice. Mousse craned his neck to see . . . ah, it was the pink-haired girl. Sakura. "I don't understand this initial points system, either, but why is it a team test?"

"Shut up," said Ibiki, shooting the girl an absolutely poisonous look. "You don't have the right to question me. There is a reason for this. Be quiet and listen.

"The third rule is that, during the exam, anyone caught cheating," he continued, "will have two points deducted for every offence."

Oh, it just got better. So if Saotome didn't restrain himself, which he never, ever did, they'd get screwed on that front as well. Mousse was beginning to suspect that the exam was designed to mess with his team.

"So there will be some who will lose all their points during the exam and be asked to leave," continued Ibiki. "We'll have our eyes on you guys."

And lo and behold two of the ninja in the room just happened to be two of the guys that Ryoga had flattened. Hells.

"Realise that the pathetic ones who get caught cheating will be destroying themselves," said Ibiki. "As shinobi attempting to reach the level of chuunin, be proud ninja."

In other words, cheat like a maniac, but don't get caught. He just had to hope that Ranma could manage that.

Yeah, he was doomed.

"And the final rule," said Ibiki. "Those that lose all their initial points during the test and those that don't answer any questions correctly will be failed along with their team-mates."

The gods hated him. It was the only explanation.

"The exam will last one hour," said Ibiki. He let silence fall, drawing it out for a few seconds, and Mousse could see some of the genin twitching. "Begin."

Mousse sighed and turned the paper over. Time to see if the hell his mother had put him through in the name of education was going to be actually useful.

Ranma stared at the paper in front of her. What god had she pissed off this time? The questions were outrageous. She'd signed up to a ninja, not a science nerd that could calculate the exact path of a shuriken when thrown by a ninja from a certain height. Hell, she had no idea where to even begin. Give her the shuriken and put her in place to throw them and she'd so just fine, but doing it with numbers? Not likely.

Argh. And the others were all the same. Cryptograms? What? That was what you had computers for!

Ranma really had to wonder just what the hell she was doing there. It seemed quite pointless to her. Nobody would even half a brain would expect her to solve this sort of problem. Her speciality was combat not mathematics and she had absolutely no intention of changing that. Frankly the very idea brought her out in hives. Having to spend her life solving inane problems like this would be a special sort of hell in her opinion. And they sure as hell hadn't hired her for her sparkling mathematical skills.

Really, she was a martial artist not a science geek. She hadn't spent 10 years training so she could solve stupid maths puzzles and it was a little hard to believe that they would promote ninja based on this sort of crap. Sure she could believe that such skills were useful but they weren't exactly the sort of thing that were essential to someone who made their living fighting for their life on a regular basis. These brats needed skills that were a little more essential to the survival of a fighter than the ability to solve cryptograms without help.

Honestly, from what she had seen most ninja in the village where a bit lacking in things a little more important than that, like not getting the crap kicked out of them by a six year old girl who was throwing a tantrum.

Maybe she was missing the point. Maybe there was a trick. She was going to have to think of something, because there was no way she was failing an exam taken by brats like these. That would just be humiliating. Even more humiliating when the time Ryoga had actually managed to beat her somehow, and retaking an exam didn't have quite the same effect as winning a rematch, did it?

It was all Ranma's fault. Ryoga wasn't quite sure how it was Ranma's fault, but he knew it was. It always was. Who else would come up this sort of fiendish plan to humiliate him so abjectly? This exam was out of the same playbook as kicking him into Jusenkyo, posing as his fiancee, posing his sister, and a thousand, smaller schemes that had all been aimed at making him look a fool. What other point could there be to sticking him with the same nonsense questions that you saw in school exams?

Oh, he pretended to be all sorts of upset about having to take a written exam, but Ryoga knew the truth. Ranma was a high-school student; he could deal with this sort of crap, or he wouldn't have been let in there. It was all part of the scheme. He'd pretend to be all worried and crap, to lure him into a sense of false security, and then wham! He'd pull out his success when it was all over and rub it into his face.

It was typical Ranma.

He didn't really understand how Ranma'd persuaded all these people to go along with his little scheme, but then he didn't really get a lot of the stuff Ranma did because it didn't make a lick of sense to anyone who was even half-normal.

Look, even the uniformed guys holding the exam were glaring at him! Clear evidence that they were all in on it! Why else would they be giving him looks like that? It had to be because Ranma had lured them into some stupid scheme with some outrageous story he'd spun out of whole cloth.

Well, he'd show them! He was Ryoga Hibiki and he wouldn't be beaten by some stupid exam! No way, no how!

Okay, couldn't answer that one.

Or that one.

And certainly not that one.

For the love of the gods, he couldn't even understand what that question was asking him!

And so it went as Ryoga scanned through the questions looking for one he could actually answer, becoming just that little bit more frantic with each brain-twistingly impossible question he ran across. By the end he was ready to slam his head through the table and go get lost far away from the stupid test, somewhere Ranma and Mousse wouldn't be to make sure he stayed in the right direction.

How the hell were these little ninja brats supposed to be able to answer these questions anyway? He could see the old dude in the front row being able to - what the hell was someone like that doing as a ninja anyway? - but twelve year olds? They hadn't even been to junior high - did they even learn crap like physics? - so how the bloody hell were they supposed to be able to manage stuff like this?

Ryoga groaned and lightly smacked his head off the desk. Well, lightly for him. It still left a large dent and attracted the attention of everyone in the room with the thud of flesh on steel-reinforced wood.

Well, Ryoga was freaking. No great surprise there. P-chan was about as good at thinking on his feet as he was at finding his way around Tokyo, so, yeah, Ranma wasn't surprised to see him tenderising his forehead against a table that was starting to bulge alarmingly beneath the blows. It was kinda amusing, Ranma thought, seeing the big, bad lost boy getting so worked up over some stupid test. He was a one-man siege engine, but he couldn't handle maths.

Well, okay, it wasn't like he was much better at this crap than Ryoga was, but he could manage one thing that Ryoga seemingly couldn't: he could cheat like he was his pop dealing with Ukyo's pop. Ninja? Ha! Ninja didn't have anything compared to a Saotome when it came to cheating.

Really it was easy. He'd panicked a little at first, but he'd listened when Fudo and Anko had been speaking, so he'd snuck a few little tools in underneath the leather bracers he wore on his forearms on and off, and now he was just getting along nicely with them. A little mirror sticking out of the bracer and into his palm ever so slightly let him see what the guy behind him was doodling and between that and being able to see the way the guy in front of him was moving his arm it was pretty easy to put together answers that looked like they made some sense.

Now, he just had to see what this question ten was. Revealed 45 minutes after the test has begun? They were either trying to intimidate the rookies or they were winding up for a real bastard of a question.

Watching some random genin get pounded into a wall by an examiner for cheating and refusing to accept he'd been caught at it was enlightening. This strength is our proof? Well, they'd have an interesting time trying that with Hibiki. They sure as hell wouldn't be able to bounce him around the room one-handed, though they were welcome to try it. He was sure it would be entertaining. Same went for Saotome, as well, though he'd probably concentrate more on humiliating the examiner rather than pounding his skull in.

Well, whatever. Hibiki could get up and dance the polka in front of the class for all Mousse cared so long as he didn't ruin the team's chances. It really didn't matter, so long as he didn't get a zero.

Though judging by the look on his face that was a possibility. Wonderful.

Okay, okay, so he couldn't answer the questions. It wasn't the end of the world. Stupid exam questions didn't prove that you could be a good ninja. He just had to find another way, right?

He just had to find one.

That weird boy in the make-up who was stood in front of him put his hand up. "Excuse me," he said as he stood up.

"What is it?"


Ryoga watched as the boy was cuffed and walked out of the room by one of the examiner guys. That gave him an idea. The examiners would have a copy of the exam answers, right? It was a test of ninja stuff so they'd have answers for people to steal?

Well, it was worth a try.

He waited till make-up boy came back, still with that smug grin on his face that he'd had whenever Ryoga had looked at him, and then he raised his own hand. "Bathroom," he said, standing up.

The examiner, the one with toilet-brush hair, rolled his eyes and came over to Ryoga with a pair of shackles that he'd pulled out from underneath the chair he was sitting on. "Like little kids," he said. "You sure you're a ninja and not a nursery school baby."

Ryoga clenched his teeth as the urge to smash rose. No, no, it wasn't time yet. He had to get him away from the rest before he pounded him flat. Unclench those fists, drop the scowl, untense those muscles - he had to be like one of those sneaky bastard ninja and not give himself away before he smashed the bastard flat. Yeah, that was it. Look nice and relaxed and not violently angry.

"Come on then, kiddy," he said. "Time to go potty."

Ryoga said nothing and the weight everyone around him felt pressing them down into the ground was entirely coincidental and, of course, nothing to do with him.

Watching the spiky-haired idiot slump to the ground in a shower of dust and chunks of wall was ridiculously satisfying. Not as good as the times he'd managed to smack Ranma round, but good enough. Between the look on the bastard's face when he'd snapped his shackles like they were twigs and the thud of skull on concrete, Ryoga was certainly feeling a lot less stressed. Nothing quite like beating the hell out of an annoying idiot to brighten a day up.

Now, to go through those pockets and see about getting some answers. It would be kinda disappointing. He'd have to find someone else to beat for answers . . . it would just be terrible.

And there they were! Ah-ha! He was a genius! Take that Ranma! Now . . . uh, he just had to get back into the exam hall without them realising he'd cheated.


"He fell down the stairs?"

Ranma stuffed her fist into her mouth as she desperately tried to restrain the giggles that welled up within her. Oh, man. Only Ryoga would try to pass a test of cheating skills by beating an examiner senseless.

Ryoga let loose a nervous chuckle and scratched the book of his head. "Uh, yeah?"

Ibiki did not look impressed. "Right," he said with a deep, deep frown marring his face. "Sit down and get on with it then."

Ranma felt like she was about to explode. It was just so very Ryoga to try something like that. When in doubt, Ryoga smashed. Ah, man. It was stuff like that which made having to put up being on a team with bacon-breath and the amazing stalker-boy almost worthwhile.

Still, it was a good thing it was only two points of per cheating attempt, because even the blind examiner would have caught Ryoga on this one, and Ranma really didn't peg Ibiki as the sort of guy who'd miss something like that. It would have been a whole lot less funny if he'd got them kicked out of the exam.

Ryoga'd barely had time to scribble down whatever he'd stolen from the examiner he'd battered into submission before Ibiki spoke again. "Okay," he said. "We will now begin the tenth question."

The atmosphere was so thick you could have cut it with a vacuum blade. Ranma leaned back in her chair and put her feet up on the table. No way was she letting scar-face think he scared her. No way in hell.

"Now, before we get to it," he continued, casting an icy gaze over the room as he spoke. "I'd like to go over the added rules for the tenth question."

Oh, yeah, that got the kiddies jumping. Ranma could almost smell the sweat. Oh, wait, she could smell the sweat. How . . . nice.

"There are the rules of desperation," continued Ibiki. "First, for this tenth question, you must decide whether you will take it or not."

Ranma blinked. What? "Choose?!" shouted a blonde girl. "What happens if we choose not to!?"

"If you choose not to, your points will be reduced to zero," said Ibiki as if nothing had been said. "You fail! Along with your team-mates."

There was a general chorus of disbelief and a couple of guys let their emotions get the better of them as they shouted their denials. Eh, she'd have probably been the same, but she wasn't worried. She'd got the first nine, so what was another?

Ibiki paused and allowed just enough time for people to start squirming before he continued. ""And now the other rule," he said. "If you choose to take it . . . and answer incorrectly, that person will never again be allowed to take the chuunin selection exam."

Ranma dropped her legs down to the ground and sat up straight. What the hell? No-one had ever warned her about anything like this. Was he even allowed to do that? Keep away from all those precious new techniques forever?

"What kind of stupid rule is that!?" bellowed Kiba, Akamaru barking in agreement from his perch atop the boy's head. "There are guys here who have taken the exam before!"

Ibiki showed his teeth in a shark-like grin. "You guys were unlucky," he said. "This year it's my rules. But I am giving you a way out. Those that aren't confident can choose not to take It and try again next year."

Ranma leaned back in her seat and plopped her feet back on top on the table. Challenge her, would he? She'd show him. Ranma Saotome didn't lose, especially not to people who couldn't lay a hand on her in a fight even if she didn't bother to go back to being a guy!

"Those that do not wish to take the question raise your hands," said Ibiki. "Once your number is confirmed, leave."

It took all of about thirty seconds before the numbers started being read out as kiddies caved and got tossed out of the hall no further forward than when they'd started. Tch. It was kinda pathetic, really, watching all the wannabe ninja folding like cheap cardboard underneath the first bit of real pressure they ran into. They sure didn't breed 'em tough in those parts. Konatsu could take way more 'n that without even blinking, and he was a complete weirdo. Anyone who folded like that, well, Ranma wouldn't want to have them watching his back . . . not that he'd ever need it, of course.

And she swore, if Mousse or Ryoga gave up there, she'd pound 'em till they were as stupid as Kuno.

Huh, that brat in orange looked like he was putting his hand up. So much for not letting anyone beat him. Kinda disappointing really. He'd had the right attitude before. No fear. Don't let 'em see you sweat. Get in their faces and make them sweat. That was the way to be.

His hand slammed down onto the table-top with a resounding, fleshy thud. "DON'T UNDERESTIMATE ME!" he bellowed. "I WILL NOT RUN! I'LL TAKE IT! EVEN IF I'M A GENIN FOREVER, I'LL STILL BECOME HOKAGE, SO I DON'T CARE! I AM NOT AFRAID!"

Ranma nodded. That was more like it. Brave. Stupid, but brave. Better 'n just stupid any day.

"I'll ask you again," said Ibiki. "Your life is riding on this decision. This is your last chance to walk away."

"I follow my unbending words," replied Naruto. "That's my ninja way."

Ibiki's eyes swept across the room as he looked away from the blond brat. No-one shrank before his gaze this time. It was as if he was looking at a completely different group to the brats that had been about ready to wet themselves earlier. Kinda pathetic really, how they needed some loud-mouthed kid with more balls than brains to shore up their confidence, but whatever worked, Ranma supposed. Just meant more people she'd get to fight through, she reckoned.

And then Ibiki smiled, which was more gruesome than his glare as far as Ranma was concerned. "Good decisions," he said. "Now, to everyone still remaining, I congratulate you on passing the first test."

Absolute pandemonium followed as the brats went more than slightly mental at having passed the test without understanding why. It was like feeding time at the zoo. Hmm, food. She was starting to feel a little peckish. Must be the mental strain of dealing with all these weirdos.

"HEY!" screeched a blonde girl. "Then what were the first nine questions for!? They were pointless then!"

"They were not pointless," replied Ibiki. "They've already served their intended purpose."

The blonde girl looked as clueless as Ranma felt.

"To test your information gathering skills," said Ibiki. "That purpose. First, as the rules explained, success in this test is based on the whole team doing well. This puts pressure on each member not to mess things up for their team-mates."

"I had a feeling this test was like that," said Naruto with a nod and a laughably serious expression on his face. Hinata, sat next to him, started to giggle into her hand.

"But the questions on this test were not the sort that a mere genin could answer," he continued. "Because of that I'm sure most of you came to the same conclusion: you'd have to cheat to win."

Well, yeah, that's what happens when you give a science and maths exam to ninja.

"Basically, the premise of the exam is to cheat," continued Ibiki. "And to that end we planted some Chuunin amongst you to provide the correct answers."

Naruto laughed loudly. "I saw right through that!" he said. "You've have to be a moron not to notice." The next came out much more quietly. "Right, Hinata?"

"But those who cheat poorly fail of course," said Ibiki, before unstrapping his hitai-ate and taking it off along with the rest of his head-covering. Whoa, he was even uglier underneath that. Looked like the surface of the moon. "Because in times of war information is more important than life, and on missions and the battlefield people risk their lives to get their hands on it."

He started to wrap the head covering back on, after seeing that it had the effect he was aiming for, Ranma assumed. "If the enemy notices you, there is no guarantee the information will be accurate," he continued. "I want you to remember this. Information is a powerful weapon for your comrades and for the village."

"Right," said Mousse. "I understand that. But . . . I don't understand the final question."

"What use is a ninja that cannot stand up to pressure?" asked Ibiki. "Think about it. Say you make chuunin and you're given a mission to steal a secret document. The opposition you will face is unknown and of course there could be traps all around. Now, do you accept or not accept? Because you don't want to die, because you don't want your comrades hurt, can you avoid the dangerous mission?

"The answer is no!" he said. "No matter what the danger, there are missions you cannot avoid. The ability to be courageous and survive any hardship: that is the ability required to become a chuunin. Those who can't put their destinies on the line, who cling to the uncertain future of 'there's always next year' and then walk away from their chance . . . those pieces of trash do not have the right to become chuunin.

"Those who choose to take it, who answered the tenth question correctly," he continued. "You will be able to survive any troubles you face in the future. You have made it through the entrance, the first test of the chuunin selection is now finished. I wish you guys luck."

Wow, she almost felt like wiping an imaginary tear away. That was positively inspirational in its total lack of self-preservation instinct. Still, Ibiki had to be one tough old coot to be willing to go on like that after getting beaten up like that. Took some balls to still act the hard-nut after someone'd used your head as an ash-tray.

"Hell yeah!" bellowed Naruto, pumping his fist. "Wish us luck!"

It was at that point that Anko came smashing in through the window to start the next leg of the exam. And people called her flashy! Ranma knew for a fact that she wasn't a patch on her sensei when it came to that sort of thing

Chapter Fifteen

It was, Ranma reflected as she was smashed back through the tree, a really lousy way to find out that not all ninja were as weak as they'd seemed at first. Or at least a really painful way, she reflected, as she slammed to a halt against the large boulder that had been being the tree.

Mocking laughter followed in her wake. "Come, come, Ranma," said the enemy ninja. "I came here to see your potential. Surely you have more to offer than this?"

Ranma bounced back onto her feet. "Bring it on," she said. "I've been just waiting for a decent fight to come along."

And to think, it had all started because Ryoga had got lost.

"Where the hell has that idiot got to?" asked Mousse suddenly, disturbing Ranma from her attempt to locate any convenient brats in the area. "I can't see him anywhere."

"You can't see anything anywhere."

Ranma quickly danced out of the way of the spiked chains sent her way - and looking at the way they pulverised the tree they did get a hit on, it was a damn good thing she did - while she scanned the area herself. "Huh," she said with a thoughtful frown on her face. "Looks like you're right about something for a change. The lost boy's living up to his name."

"Saotome, you are quite possibly the most infuriating human being to ever draw breath," said Mousse. "How you survived long enough to learn any martial arts is absolutely beyond me."

"Aww, I love you, too, Mousse."

The inarticulate snarl of pure, frothing rage that Ranma got in response to that drew a grin from her. There was nothing that wasn't pure entertainment about winding these pillocks up and watching them dance.

But there were more important things to be doing that trying to inspire Mousse to have a stroke or something in a fit of rage. "I'll go see if I can find the idiot," said Ranma. "You hold the fort, yeah?"

"What are you talking about? Hold the fort?"

"You'll only slow me down, duck-boy," said Ranma, sticking her tongue at Mousse for extra infuriation. "And we can't both go running off or we'll all end up as lost as ol' bacon-breath is. Hey, it's not like anyone here can actually threaten me."

Ranma didn't hang around to see Mousse's response to that, but she was sure it was truly hilarious in its sheer magnitude of rage. Mousse always did throw good tantrums, though not in the same league as Ryoga's. No-one could throw a temper tantrum like P-chan could. They were seriously something to behold, and she always got a good fight out of them.

Ryoga was lost. Really, really lost. Nothing new, really, but he'd been sticking with Ranma and Mousse so well since he wound up in ninja-world that he'd gotten used to knowing where he was and where he was going, so it came as a bit of a nasty surprise to find himself in the middle of a random chunk of forest with not a soul in sight and no idea where he was or how to get back to his irritating team-mates.

It wasn't that he was scared or anything - hell no - but it wasn't exactly something he appreciated. He always felt a fool when he got lost like that, it was just incredibly humiliating to not even to find your own way around like a normal person, and it was even worse when Ranma was involved. That bastard couldn't help but prod and mock till he felt like he was going to explode if he didn't crush Saotome skull.

And it wouldn't help much with the exam. He'd never live it down if it was his fault they failed the damn thing when these stupid little ninja kiddies went on and passed it. Never. Ranma'd make sure of that. It'd be as bad as losing to Mousse or, even worse, losing to that Kuno moron. Either of them.

What a minute, what was that? There was . . . a flash of movement at the very edge of his vision. Oh, yeah. Ryoga cracked his knuckles and rolled his neck. A fight sounded about right to him. Good way to work off some frustration, and a good way to send up a 'Ryoga's here' signal to Ranma.

"You might as well come out," said Ryoga, hefting his umbrella up into a guard position. "I know you're there."

Laughter rang out. "Oh, very impressive," said a female voice from the trees behind Ryoga. He was facing it in a heartbeat. "Very, very impressive."

Ryoga frowned. Okay, he knew ninja got a bit freaky, but he'd never seen one with half the skin on their face hanging off before. She didn't even seem to be in pain . . . and there was another face beneath. "What the hell are you?" barked Ryoga, settling into a ready posture. This one was giving him the creeps.

"I am Orochimaru," said the woman, slithering her inhumanly long tongue out to flick through the air in front of her face. "Have you not heard of me, Ryoga? I was under the impression that I was rather the infamous criminal in these parts."

"Never heard of you."

"Ah, my old student is keeping secrets then," said the woman with an air of sadness about that rang about as true as Ranma's conscience. "Such a terrible thing for a student to show her master such disrespect, don't you think?"

"Not if they're an infamous criminal."

"Ah, you wound me."

"Not yet."

A wide grin spread over the woman's face. "Oh, please do," she said. "I wish to see your potential, Ryoga. All of it. Don't hold back, or you'll die."

A bare heartbeat later, Ryoga was slamming his umbrella down onto the spot where the freaky woman had been stood with all the strength he could muster. She wasn't there. Before he could move to react a fist crashed into his left temple with enough force to shatter a good-sized boulder. It was enough to snap his head back a centimetre or two and draw a grunt of surprise from him. The follow up strikes, seeming to come from all sides at once, actually managed to drive him back a step or two.

Ryoga growled. There was no way he was letting some two-faced weirdo beat him like that! What would Ranma say?

And so he attacked, pressing forward with another mighty swing of his umbrella. It connected with nothing but air as the woman jumped back out of range with a mocking smile on her face. It was just like Ranma. Just like. She spat poisonous words at him, she danced around his attacks, and then she mocked him with every inch of her body language.

Ryoga roared, and hurled himself forward with as much speed and power as he could manage. He saw the girl's eyes widen fractionally and then he saw a smile spread across her face. And then she moved. One second she was in font of him, the next . . . he almost fell as stumbled in his effort to turn on his heel mid-movement.

"Strength," said Orochimaru. "Yes, plenty of strength. If I didn't know better, I'd wonder if you were of Tsunade's line. Perhaps a bastard?"

Okay, that was it. Even Ranma didn't insult his mother! Ryoga let loose a wild war-cry and charged. The woman leaned back out of the way of his wild umbrella swing but his other fist slammed into her chest and catapulted her back into a tree. Ryoga followed up immediately landed another punch, a left hook, that twisted her head around before slamming his umbrella down onto the top of her skull.

And then she exploded in a shower of mud.

Ryoga just stared at the brown puddle that had been left behind. What the hell? Since when did people turn to mud when you crushed their skull? Was it some sort of freaky ninja thing? Even those Musk weirdos didn't pull anything like that.

"Fuuton: daitoppa."

Ryoga couldn't even begin to hold firm in the face of the wind that took hold of him after he heard those words being spat out. He was in the air, chest ablaze with pain from the initial impact of the attack, and slamming through tree after tree with no control over his flight beyond trying to protect his head as best he could from the blows he was taking. There was not a damned thing he could do about, and he hated every second of it.

Eventually he came to a crashing halt as the winds dissipated, slamming into the unyielding ground and then skidding along till he slammed into the base of a particularly large tree, which listed alarmingly at the impact. It felt like he'd been kicked in the ribs by a mecha, and a damned big one. Everything hurt, even through the breaking point conditioning, and he hadn't even managed to land a hit on his opponent.

He got up anyway. He wasn't done yet.

"Considerable damage tolerance, too," said Orochimaru with a nod. "I must admit I am impressed. Most are reduced to little more than a smear on the ground when I use that technique."

"I'm not done yet, you bastard."

"Of course not," said Orochimaru. "You would be unworthy if you were."

"Shi shi hokodan!"

The ball of green energy flew true from Ryoga's cupped hands and blasted forth with great speed. For a moment Ryoga thought he'd done it - who could dodge one of those? - but Orochimaru simply leaned back and watched as it flew past to blow a tree to splinters. Damn it.

"An interesting technique. No hand seals, considerable power, and it appears to be of a useful range. Very interesting."

Ryoga snarled. "Shi shi hokodan!"

But this this time he followed it up. He flipped his umbrella open and sent it spinning through the air towards Orochimaru. Sure, having an umbrella spin at you wouldn't normally be all that impressive, but Ryoga's umbrella weighed several tons and had razor-tipped spokes. And he didn't stop at that. The bastard was quick - maybe not Ranma or Cologne quick, but quick - so he charged in, fists blazing with green energy. He was going to get this woman even if it killed him.

The energy blast passed harmlessly by to destroy a tree once again, and the umbrella was dodged handily, but that left her wide open for Ryoga's fists. A left hook twisted her head around, a right hook twisted it right back, and he kept on going, pressing forward with punch after punch as he battered Orochimaru backwards. He almost felt like cheering himself on as he landed the strikes; it was about time he managed to get some decent hits in.

Eventually he pressed Orochimaru back up against a tree and then with one mighty swing he smashed the woman through it and catapulted her back into the forest. There, that should do it. If she was a Ranma-type fighter, then hits like that should put her down.

And then a giant snake exploded forth from where he'd sent the woman flying. A snake with the woman stood atop its head, arms folded over her chest and a smirk on her face. The only mark from his attacks was the fact that the skin which had been hanging off one side of her face was now gone entirely, revealing a face that was not feminine in the slightest. Hell, nothing about her looked feminine now. It was a man. He really didn't understand how that worked. Another Jusenkyo victim?

The snake lunged down at Ryoga, mouth opened wide to swallow him whole, but he leaped away to safety atop a branch of a nearby tree. The snake lunged upwards again but he didn't dodge this time - that was Ranma's style, not his - he simply pushed his arms upwards and stopped the beast in its tracks with a grunt of exertion as his muscles strained under the impact.

But this left him wide open for Orochimaru who promptly smashed him off his perch with a lunging punch that sent Ryoga spinning through the air before he slammed face-first into the ground. Before he could back to his feet a boot caught his ribs, right where that wind attack had hit, and sent him skidding back along the ground.

It felt like his side was on fire, and the attack didn't stop there. Orochimaru struck again and again at the same weakened spot till Ryoga could barely breathe, never mind stand to fight.

"You have strength," said Orochimaru. "Such strength! But you lack subtlety. They say only death can cure a fool, but if you wish to grow strong enough to reach my level you must prove that wrong. But now, now I have other affairs to attend to. Shunmin."

Immediately, it felt as if someone had attached ten ton anvils to Ryoga's eyelids. He knew it was a genjutsu, knew it, but he didn't have the strength to fight if off and soon his eyes closed and he was asleep.

"Where is that moron?"

Irritation was the order of the day as Ranma searched for Ryoga. Her first thought had been to follow the sounds of fighting, but there was fighting everywhere and she would never find Ryoga if she checked each and every single scrap she picked up on along the way. So, with the easy way out, she was stuck with the old-fashioned outwards spiral search pattern. Joy.

It was a pain in the neck, and the moron was going to get some serious stick when she found him.

Mousse was angry. This really wasn't anything new. He always ended up angry when he had to deal with Saotome. It was just tiresome. Why did he always let that little shit get under his skin? He knew the insults were going to fly whenever he spent more than about two minutes, so why did he always, without fail, let it get to him? How long would it take for him to learn to ignore the insults?

Oh, yeah, about as long as it took for Saotome to learn to keep his hands off Shampoo.

So enthralled with his internal dialogue was Mousse that he didn't even realise there was someone approaching him till a swarm of snakes came flying towards his back with their fangs bared. If it wasn't for the hissing as they moved towards him, he'd have been done for. As it was the spiked chains he launched from his sleeves tore the damned things to bloody pieces before they wrapped around the man who had tried to attack him.

A man who promptly dissolved into a puddle of mud as the spikes made contact with his flesh. A replacement! Mousse moved quickly and managed to dodge the foot that would have just about taken his head off by the skin of his teeth as he leaped away to perch atop a nearby tree-stump.

From there, he was able to take a good luck at the man who had attacked him . . . and he didn't look all that human. The skin was just too pale, the eyes too snake-like, and, gods, the tongue. No, he looked like a Musk. Very much so, except with snake heritage instead of a wolf or a tiger.

And then he spat a sword at Mousse. Bit of a surprise. Mousse had thought he was a master of hidden weapons but he'd sure as hell never kept a sword in his mouth before, that was for sure. It came as even more of a surprise when the sword sheared right through the chains he fired off to block it. His dodge was frantic and only just carried him clear of the attack in time. As it was, he ended up with a wide gash carved in the left shoulder of his robes.

Before Mousse could react, the man was inside his personal space staring down at the sleeves of his robes. "Fascinating seal-work," he said. "Fascinating. No-one mentioned a seal-master on my old student's team."

The half-dozen shuriken Mousse launched at the man hit only air as he simply vanished to re-appear back where he'd started. His eyes narrowed in thought. That wasn't physical movement.

"Ah, but I haven't introduced myself, have I?" asked the man. "Forgive my poor manners. I am Orochimaru."

"That's nice," said Mousse, and then he filled the air with steel, all heading towards where the man was stood.

The weapons didn't even come near him, he summoned an earthen wall seemingly out of nowhere in a flash, but that was hardly the only avenue of attack Mousse was making use of. He was already leaping down at the man from a tree behind him, steel talons firmly attached to his feet, as the wall sprang into existence.

And he made contact too. The talons dug deep into the body of the target, sinking into flesh and muscle in a most satisfying way. Mousse had won. Then the body simply dissolved into a puddle of mud, which Mousse promptly fell into face-first. When he looked up, he saw the man perched atop the wall he had summoned.

"You didn't think you could defeat me so easily, did you, child?" he asked. "I would expect more intelligence than that from a seal-master."

"The arrogant army will lose the battle for sure," fired back Mousse, leaping back to his feet and shrugging off the grogginess of his face-first impact.

"Arrogance is believing that you, a mere genin, can defeat one such as I."

Mousse's reply was to stab a kunai into the wall. A kunai with a particularly large explosive tag attached to it. And then he leaped backwards out of the way just before the wall was blown to rubble in a roar and a flash of light. As Orochimaru fell to the ground, Mousse launched a vast number of explosive-tagged kunai his way before backing off into the trees to observe.

Orochimaru opened his mouth wide and with a disgusting hacking sound a snake came flying out of his mouth. And then another, and another, and another. They just kept multiplying till he was entirely concealed by the snakes flooding out his of his mouth, all of which heading immediately for the kunai Mousse had launched and began swallowing them. Each kunai promptly exploded, but for every snake that was killed another two would takes it place.

Mousse knew when he was out of his league and turned to make a hasty exit.

"Going somewhere, Mousse? But we were just starting!"

And received a punch in his face that smashed him back into the clearing for his trouble. Well, he thought, this was just turning out to be a truly brilliant day. He'd gone from laughing at the little kiddy ninja to being beat up the Musk-reject from hell. Wonderful Brilliant.

There was no more time for thought after that. Just fighting instinct, dodging and blocking as the snake-man fell upon him in a fury of blows. Mousse was thrown on the defensive immediately and just couldn't get back off it. The man was quick, strong, skilled, and he just didn't move right. The tells, the body language that even the most skilled of martial artists had, they just weren't there or not in a way he could recognise. The man really wasn't human.

And then the snakes started to come out again.

"Oh, shit."

Ryoga was sprawled out unconscious in the middle of a patch of utter devastation. It looked like someone had fired off a hiryu shoten ha with Ryoga as the target and the forest was basically destroyed for a good hundred metres around where he had fallen. Hell, hell, hell.

Wait a minute . . . was he snoring? That stupid, bacon-breathed, dim-witted Kuno! What sort of brain-dead fool fell asleep in the middle of a fight?

Answer: one who was weak against genjutsu. Brilliant, and she didn't know how to dispel a genjutsu that had been put on someone else yet either. Well, not the way you're supposed to do it either. She'd just have to it the old-fashioned way: with violence.

Ryoga grunted and turned over away from Ranma as her foot made high-speed contact with his ribs. "Dammit, Ryoga," growled Ranma. Another kick, this time to his left kidney, and this time he sort of shuffled away from her. "Wake up, moron." Another kick, another move away. Okay, that wasn't working. Time for a new approach. "Happosai is stealing Akane's panties and groping her."

Ryoga promptly leaped to his feet with a roar and an explosion of ultra-heavy ki before wildly charging off into the forest without so much as a by your leave or even a glance to Ranma.

"Moron," said Ranma "You are the single greatest moron who has ever lived, Ryoga."

There was no point in trying to track him down if he was rampaging around the forest in a blind rage. Time to get back to Mousse and see if he'd managed to get beaten up, too. Ryoga'd find 'em himself sooner or later. Probably later.

Ranma arrived just in time to see the over-sized snake coiled around Mousse's body bite down into the Amazon's neck. He wavered for a moment, as the snake uncoiled and slid away into the forest, and then Mousse fell. Shit. Ranma found that her mouth was dry. Was he - no, his chest was still moving. It was shallow, but still moving. So she just had to get rid of this guy and then try to . . . hell, suck the poison out of the wound, or something. She didn't know what, but she'd do something.

But first she had to get rid of the freaky, snake guy.

Ranma didn't hold back one bit. She launched herself at the back of the guy with every bit of speed she could muster, every bit of what the katchuu tenshin amaguriken training had given her, and attacked with devastating speed, throwing hundreds of punches so quickly that that they would have blurred into a single strike to any onlooker, the strikes repeatedly landing with the crunching thud of breaking and splintering bones, and smashed the man away and into the forest.

Ranma wasn't taking any chances though. Before the man could bounce back to his feet, Ranma crossed the clearing in a bound and slammed a powerful leaping kick into the face of the bastard. From there it was a simple matter for Ranma to land and spin on his heel to land another sweeping roundhouse kick into the exposed throat of the foreign ninja in what had to be a killing strike.

Hey, it wasn't nice, but if he was going to have giant snakes biting chunks out of Mousse, then what did he expect?

Ranma left the still body behind and quickly hopped over to Mousse. He didn't look too good at all. His skin had gone real pale and he was covered in sweat. Hells, hells, hells. The wound was coming up nasty-looking, too. Lots of pus. She was just leaning over to try and suck the poison out when she was interrupted by a noise behind her.


Ranma twisted around to see the man rising to his feet in a way that could be regarded as totally unnatural. He moved, pulled himself up, without any apparent physical movement on his part . . . as if he was a puppet being pulled back to its feet. "My, my," he said. "I was under the impression that you were a naïve child, not a killer."

"You did try and kill one one of my team-mates."

"Tch, if he is too weak to survive on his own, then he is trash," said Orochimaru. "That is the ninja way."

"Only trash I'm seeing here is you."

"Oh, such a sharp tongue. You wound me, Ranma Saotome."

"Not yet."

And with that remark hanging in the air between them Ranma darted forward once more, determined to inflict even more damage to end this encounter quickly, and she made contact once more with a rapid-fire series of crushing strikes that smashed the foreign ninja's body and slammed him back into a large tree.

But before she could even think of triumph, the body dissolved into a puddle of mud. Ranma whirled around, but was only quick enough to see the fist heading for her face just in time to receive it.

And that was how Ranma found herself in the position she did: facing some sort of weirdo who was no more genin than she was a whale in human form.

"So, before I kick your arse," said Ranma, "what's your name? You know, something to remember you by.

He laughed. "I am Orochimaru," he said. "I wonder, will your confidence be as misplaced as that of your team-mates?"

"They're side-shows," said Ranma. "I'm the main event."

Ranma crossed the space between herself and Orochimaru in a flash and unleashed another rapid-fire series of right-handed punches at Orochimaru's head. None of them connected as Orochimaru leaned to the side and allowed them to pass by, but the roundhouse kick Ranma whipped around in follow-up caught him flush on the jaw and hurled him into the air.

She leaped into the air after him, looking to take advantage of her aerial prowess and strike a finishing blow, but instead of the look of worry or anger or fear she expected to see on his face she saw amusement. His jaw sagged open and then out came his tongue and out and out. It whipped out at tremendous speed and wrapped itself around her chest, binding her arms to the side of her body, before she could think never mind react and do something to block the attack.

And then, before she could bring her strength to bear and break the hold, she found herself whipping through the air at an alarming speed. She just had time to wonder what the hell sort of training gave you a tongue like that before she slammed face-first through an especially large tree and found herself flying free, and groggy, as the tongue receded back towards its owner.

Ranma twisted desperately in mid-air and managed to land in a crouch, one hand slamming into the ground to support herself, but she had not so much as a moment to regroup before she had to leap away again out of the way of a trio of kunai that were slicing their way through the air towards her.

"Such speed," said Orochimaru. "You are a most interesting sort of genin . . . but I wonder is your mind as strong as your body?"

"Hey, I-"

Ranma wasn't given the time to fire her insult of choice back as Orochimaru's gaze trapped hers and she found herself in a world of trouble. She saw it as clearly as she saw the world before her: tooth and steel tearing through her body, blood pouring from too many wounds to count, as life drained out of her. She felt the pain and the fear and the futile rage as Orochimaru stood over her, watching her die, still with that arrogant smirk on his face.

She saw it all. She saw it dozens of times, in dozens of different ways. Kunai slitting her throat, snakes crushing her chest and leaving her to drown in her own blood, techniques beyond her imagination tearing her to shreds before she even had time to realise she was in danger. More ways to die than she could count ran through her mind in full technicolour, each more gruesome than the last.

And she shrugged it off. "You'll have to do better 'n that," she said with a forced but still cocky smirk. "You sure as hell ain't scarier 'n Saffron blowing mountains up to try and get me."

"Well, we'll just have to see about that," said Orochimaru, his smirk matching Ranma's for arrogance. "Won't we?"

Ranma's response was immediate and blindingly quick. No time to hold back with Mousse dying of poison just over there. "Kijin raishū dan."

Orochimaru reacted quickly, shifting his body to the side in a dodge, but it wasn't quite enough and the blade sheared through his right arm at the shoulder. Ranma followed in with a leaping quick that caught him in the chest and knocked him down onto his back before lashing out with another rising kick that caught him on the point of his jaw and slammed him back to land on the ground.

Seeing the arrogant look wiped off his face made Ranma grin as she drove her fist down in a powerful strike aimed at his heart. She connected with nothing but dirt as Orochimaru, and his amputated arm sank into the ground.

With a hiss of frustration, Ranma whirled around to try and find the man before he could attack or counter or whatever the hell he did, but not quick enough. And somehow his arm was re-attached. Great, another one like Saffron. This was going to take extreme measures to win.

But before she could act he complete a jutsu. "Kisei haji."

Hands erupted from the soil beneath Ranma's feet and latched on to her legs. Immediately, she tensed her leg muscles and pulled away, or at least tried to, but she was unable to break the grip. "What the hell is this?"

"A lot of people have died in this place . . . a lot of ninja . . . their spirits do not rest easy," said Orochimaru. "This is my way of . . . honouring them."

Ranma tensed her muscles and pulled with all the strength she could muster. Several of the hands fell away or simply broke, but she could see Orochimaru forming hand-seals at a rapid pace. It wasn't going to be enough.


It was like being hit with a wrecking ball. A wrecking ball being thrown by a dozen Ryogas, all of them hopped up on righteous anger. The force of the attack simply blew her away, along with a large chunk of the forest around her, in the sort of colossal maelstrom of destruction that Ranma would struggle to match with a hiryu shoten ha. And she was too battered to defend herself from the debris that was hurtling through the air with her,

By the time she landed, crashing to the ground in an ungainly heap, she felt as if she'd been sliced to ribbons.

"Ah, I seem to have tapped the limits of your abilities. Such a shame . . . I was expecting more."

Ranma gritted her teeth and manage to struggle to her feet, assuming a wavering stance. "I'm not done yet."

Orochimaru's smirk grew. "Ah, you have drive," he said. "Perhaps I should give you a seal, so I can see how that far that drive takes you-"

A kunai slammed down into the ground between the two.

"Stay the hell away from him, you bastard."

Ranma'd never been so happy to see Anko in, well, ever. She just needed a couple of minutes to catch her breath and then she'd shove this guy's tricks down his throat with a helping of kunai.

Chapter Sixteen

"Anko, such harsh words!" said Orochimaru. "You break your master's heart with your cruel ways."

Anko ground her teeth and yanked another trio of kunai free from the leather pouch tied to her thigh. This was her chance, her chance to make things right, and all she had to do was kill one bastard snake-fetishist. Small price to pay.

"Oh my," said Orochimaru. "Are you going to kill me, Anko? You're so horrible to your master."

"Shut up, you bastard," spat Anko. "You lost the right to call yourself my master a long time ago."

And with that she launched the three kunai she held in her right hand at Orochimaru's face. He swatted them aside with contemptuous ease but her snakes were already curving through the air towards his throat in a follow-up. For a moment she saw a look of disturbed surprise on his face before snakes erupted from his own mouth, larger snakes that gobbled up hers whole like some sort of demented cannibals.

She wasn't finished yet, though. She pulled another kunai free and launched herself forwards to close into melee range. Well, that was the plan anyway. Ranma drop-kicking Orochimaru in the side of the head and sending him crashing into and through a small tree put a slight kink in that idea.

There were times when Ranma reminded her way too much of Gai for comfort. If he started in on the spandex, there were going to be words exchanged. And possibly kunai and shuriken too.

"Ha! Take that!" she shouted, face flushed. "Not so confident now, are you, your freaky Musk-wannabe?"

Ranma's words were confident but her body - and why was she female anyway? - gave lie to that. Anko could see the slight trembling in her limbs that spoke of over-exertion, the stains on her tattered shirt where blood had started to seep through from her wounds, and the slightly unequal pupils that spoke of a concussion. Even like that, she was probably more than a match for anything short of a jounin, but Orochimaru?

"Ranma, stand down," said Anko. "This isn't your fight."

"Like hell it isn't!"

Typical. Anko should have known better than to expect Ranma to willingly back down from a fight. "And what about Mousse?" she snapped back. "Are you going to let him die while you go off to play the hero?"


Anko fished a vial of anti-venom out of her jacket pocket. The snake summons all had very similar poisons and the village had long ago created chemicals to counter all the possibilities. "Here," she said, tossing the vial Ranma's way. "That should keep him going."

Ranma looked between her and Orochimaru, and just for a moment Anko thought he might just tell her to get screwed, but then he shook his head violently and darted off towards Mousse.

"What did I teach you about wasting energy on the weak, Anko?"

"I've taken great delight in doing exactly the opposite of what you taught me for a long time now. Why change the habit of a decade?"

"Ah, still a disappointment. Your students gave me hope that you had grown past that weakness, but it seems not. Such a shame . . . I thought you had such potential once . . . but even I make mistakes, it seems."

"Dosei haji no jutsu!"

As Anko finished her hand seals an enormous rock fist burst up from beneath Orochimaru's feet in a shower of mud, flexing its massive fingers as it reached for its target, but he was too quick. Just too quick. Anko let fly a shower of shuriken as he leaped for safety but they flew harmlessly by and embedded themselves into the trees behind as he flashed by her.

Then it was Anko's turn to dodge as a rapidly elongating sword cut through the air that had been occupied by her throat a moment earlier. Not that it saved her for long as the freakishly long blade quickly came around and gouged a deep furrow into the soil she had been standing upon as she made a prodigious bound upwards to take the fight into the forest canopy.

After all, it was still just a sword, right? Could only be extended so far?

She barely had time to leap away as the blade sliced through the trunk of the tree she'd been balanced atop like a hot knife through butter. Dammit, it just wasn't fair. He was already stupidly strong; why'd he have to get a magic sword, too?

"You've grown quicker, Anko. If only you had the will to match your speed, then you might be something worthwhile, like your students."

Anko knew she shouldn't let it get to her - she hated the man, wanted him dead, had no respect for him or his views - but his disdain hit her in her childhood and it really did sting even years after she'd grown to hate him like the malevolent, inhuman monster he really was. With a growl and a wide, sweeping gesture of her arms she unleashed a veritable storm of shuriken and kunai the way of her former master, who actually looked surprised for a change.

Not that it was likely to be enough, but it gratified Anko to see that moment of surprise before the attached explosive tags - because what was a bombardment without explosions? - went off and obscured him from sight in a blaze of glorious fire. She really wanted to watch and see what happened but it was just too bright; she had to cover her eyes.

"Now, that's what I expect of you Anko," said that damned hissing voice from directly behind her. "Vicious, and utterly lacking in anything remotely resembling mercy. If only you had a mind and some talent to match that, then you might be worth something."

Anko whirled around with her kunai aimed to slash across Orochimaru's eyes and blind him, but he caught her by the forearm long before the blade made contact. And then, with a grin on his face, he twisted his arm and snapped the bones beneath his grasp like so many twigs.

"Anko, Anko, Anko. You should know better than to think you can beat me by now."

The pain was great, blinding even, but she'd had far worse she knew better than to show weakness to Orochimaru. That, and she wasn't quite done just yet. Snakes hurtled out from her free arm and curved around to bind Orochimaru before he could react.

"Fuck you."

Bound as he was there was absolutely nothing he could do when she grabbed hold of one of his hands and formed a single hand-seal, one of the ones that Orochimaru had taught her, with their joined limbs. Ah, yes. There it was: the dawning look of realisation in his eyes. That was what she wanted: to see the sure knowledge of his impending death right there, death coming at her hands. She was going to savour that sight right down to her grave.

It was a suicide technique. When the chakra built to the appropriate level the two snakes would come forth from her coat sleeve: one for her, one for him, their venom entirely fatal with barely an instant between bite and death, even for someone as inhuman as Orochimaru.

"So eager to die, Anko?"

Oh, no. No, no, no. He couldn't be. He couldn't be!

Orochimaru dissolved and the snakes she'd had binding him promptly fell harmlessly to the ground and slithered away as she stared at the puddle of mud left behind as a cold horror spread through her. She'd had him. She'd had him!

And then agony lanced through her, emanating from that cursed mark on her neck, and dropping her to her knees in a helpless heap. It was all she could do to cancel the suicide technique before she lost control of her body entirely.

"Do you see the difference yet?" he whispered into her ear. "The difference between you and I? No matter how much you train, how powerful your techniques grow, how clever your traps, you will always be weaker than I. Do you know why this is, Anko? Why you will always be weak?"

Anko said nothing. She just glared.

"Because you are weak," said Orochimaru. "Because you refuse to be strong. Look at you, fighting to protect some foolish students. Weakness! Pathetic weakness! You lack the proper will."

Anko spat at his feet. "Hell with you and your shit," she said. "I decided a long time ago who I was going to follow and it isn't you and it sure as hell isn't your bullshit about caring making you weak."

"You'll never learn, will you? Ah, it hardly matters. I long since ceased attempting to teach you anything but the futility of standing against me."

"And yet you still talk a damn lot. In love with the sound of your own voice or something?"

"Anko, Anko, Anko," he said. "I know I taught you how to be a civilised human being at some point. You should act like it. Perhaps then the village you love so much will treat you as something other than a dangerous animal that's barely leashed."

The rage that Anko felt at that burned right through the pain from that damned seal like it was so much dry undergrowth. She lunged forth at Orochimaru, hand flexing as if it were around his neck already, but before she managed more than a couple of steps towards her old teacher the pain surged and she found herself back on the ground gasping.

"Temper, temper."

"Go fuck yourself with one of Manda's fangs."

"Such charming imagery. You truly do justice to the time I wasted trying to force some semblance of intelligence into you."

Anko snarled but it was an impotent gesture. There was nothing she could do to him and they both knew it. She was still too weak. "Why are you here?" she spat. "Going to assassinate the Hokage?"

"No," he replied. "No, I don't have enough men for that yet. So I thought I'd recruit some of the outstanding ones from this village. Your students are interesting, perhaps I should go now and give them a little seal to join the Uchiha?"

"Thought you said they were weak."

"If they die. Such is the fate of the weak. I do not cosset even the interesting, Anko. You of all people should know that . . . did I not abandon you to your miserable fate when you failed me?"

"You mean when I wasn't rotten enough to give in to this damned seal."

Orochimaru crouched down to look her in the eye. "Ah, the weakness that kept you from unlocking what potential you have," he said. "How pathetic that you would try to make a strength of it." He smiled. "Thankfully, I believe the Uchiha will not be inclined so. He knows the true value of power, no matter its source, and has the drive to claim it. An altogether more worthy student for one of my stature."

As the adrenaline borne of her rage receded, Anko found herself doubled up and sweating as the waves of pain racking her body as a result of Orochimaru's seal made themselves fully known.

"He may die," continued Orochimaru, paying no visible attention to Anko's pain. "You know the chances he takes. One in ten. But if he does, if he dies, that just means he was unworthy of my attentions. It would be unworthy of his talent, but I have no time for weaklings."

He smirked at Anko. "But, I don't see it happening," he said. "He has far more talent than you could ever dream of having. My beautiful new servant will not fail me as you did, my dear Anko."

"Time for you to get the hell away from her."

It was Ranma. And Mousse. Oh, God, they were going to get themselves killed. Anko tried to force herself back to her feet but a wave of agony forced her back down before she could get much past kneeling.

"I only I had the time," said Orochimaru, moving out of his crouched position. "But no, I'm sure Anko has summoned the ANBU, and so I have no more time to spend playing with you unless I wish to fight a war."

Ranma launched herself towards Orochimaru in a leaping kick that would have took a normal man's head clean off, but he was already gone. Time-space techniques weren't exactly the bastard's speciality but when you were one of the legendary three that was a relative thing.

"I can't say I'm sorry we're not going to get to fight him," said Mousse. "I've had enough of a beating for one day."

Ranma kicked the tree in frustration. Judging by the hole she left, it was a hell of a lot of frustration. Anko could sympathise.

The humiliation of being dismissed and left to die like some sort of worthless trash burned deep in Mousse's gut as he dressed Ranma's wounds. It was one thing to lose to Saotome in battle - it had grown almost predictable - but being tossed aside like that . . . it rankled. It left behind a feeling that normally only came when his beloved Shampoo, seduced by Saotome's disgusting tricks, cast him aside to run to her 'airen'.

So strong was this feeling that he didn't so much as let loose the slightest blush at the fact that he was handling the nude upper body of someone who had an extremely attractive female body. Even if it was Saotome, even if he knew that he hated the bastard's guts with an undying passion really, that took some doing, because he'd been blessed with one hell of a chest in that cursed form.

"This sucks," said Ranma. "I thought this was supposed to be a genin exam."

"That was the idea," said Anko. "Where's Ryoga?"

"Eh, rampaging around the forest like a loon, probably," said Ranma with a shrug. "That's what he was doing the last time I saw him, the idiot."

Mousse stopped. "What did you do, Saotome?"

"Well, he was under a genjutsu, snoring away like a moron in the middle of the forest. Anyone could have come along and slit his idiot throat."

"What - did - you - do - Saotome."

"Uh, well, I might have told him that Happosai was about to molest Akane. Might."

"I have no idea what you two brats are talking about, but I can feel it killing braincells anyway. Like sake, but really annoying."

You know you love us anyway, sensei."

Mousse rolled his eyes at Ranma as he finished applying the last of the bandages. "So who was the wierdo?" he asked Anko. "I mean, I know his name, Orochimaru, and that he has a thing for snakes, but that's it. Who is he? What does he want?"

"That's a really long story."

"Doesn't look like we're going anywhere," said Ranma with an expansive wave of her arm. "And I don't exactly see anyone rushing along to interrupt."

Anko twitched.

Mousse rolled his eyes at Ranma. "Saotome might be a moron," he said. "But it'd be nice to know who the over-powered Musk-wannabe trying to kill us actually was."

"He wasn't trying to kill you," said Anko, who abruptly moved away from the tree she had been leaning against. "He was testing you."

Mousse's hand went to his neck. "Felt like he was trying to kill us to me."

"Yeah, well, he's always been big on the strong survive and the rest can get fucked. Not like this should be any great surprise to you; there are plenty of ninja like that."

"Yeah," said Ranma. "The Hyuuga, I know."

"The Hyuuga are pansies compared to Orochimaru. He could take out that entire damned clan on his own. Orochimaru, people like him, it's a whole different level to what you're used to."

"Someone's coming," said Mousse. "More than one, I think."

"Probably some brats."

And yet she still had a kunai in hand. The fact that she was twiddling it between her fingers in mock-nonchalance didn't change the fact she'd armed herself, and Mousse followed suit, summoning a katana to hand.

"Hey, Hinata," said Ranma with a jaunty wave. "Shouldn't you be off hunting down ankle-biters or something?"

Typical. It would be Saotome that spotted them first.

"Ah-ah, do I know you?"

"What, didn't I tell you about the curse?"


"Hinata, we need to-gurk."

Mousse sniggered. Judging by the thin stream of blood dripping down from his nose and the glazed look in Kiba's eyes it looked like Ranma had picked up another admirer. Well, what did she expect, parading around with no top on?

And Ranma didn't look terribly happy about it. "You ask me out and I'll beat you like a drum," she said. "Beat you like a drum that's about to go pop like a zit."


"I wasn't aware that you would be taking an active part in the examination, examiner" said Shino as he stepped out from the trees. He wasn't even looking at Ranma. "It seems somewhat irregular."

"There's a missing-nin loose in the forest."

Hinata gasped and covered her mouth with her hands. Kiba started eyeing the area eagerly, attention torn away from Ranma momentarily, as Akamaru barked. Shino raised an eyebrow. "Hinata," he said.


That really was disgusting, the way the veins around her eyes bulged when she used that technique. It made Mousse feel vaguely queasy; the way the blood vessels stood out just wasn't natural.

"There's no-one."

"Those eyes only go so far, girly," said Anko. "You won't catch Orochimaru if he doesn't want to be caught."

"Even the sannin aren't invisible."

Ranma coughed. It must have been hell for her not to brag. Mousse couldn't say he felt much sympathy.

"You don't have to be invisible to beat a bloodline, kid. Just smart enough to figure out the weaknesses and take advantage."

Three masked men dropped out of the threes. Mousse thought he showed great restraint in not filleting them on the spot. Honestly, what sort of idiot snuck up on someone carrying a sword? Well, other than Ranma, and Cologne, and Happosai, and-ah, forget it.

"Anko, the Hokage wants to see you," said the one in the centre. "Immediately."

"You're not going after him?" asked Ranma.

"He's gone and if he doesn't want to be found we won't find him."

"And if he does want to be found, we won't need to go looking."

"Tch. So much for the big, bad ANBU."

They ignored Ranma. Mousse felt a tiny, little bit of glee at that. Well, maybe not so tiny.

"That's me then," said Anko. "Have fun looking for your scrolls, brats."

"Huh?" asked Ranma. "Oh, yeah. These." And she pulled out two scrolls from her trouser pocket. Everyone stared. "Well, these two bunches of kids were fighting over them, so I thought, well, they probably won't even notice me walking off with their stuff. And they didn't. I got a pouch of kunai and a box of rations, too . . . but those are gone now. Anyway, it'll teach them a lesson, right?"

"You keep telling yourself that."

Chapter Seventeen

Ranma grumbled underneath her breath and shifted as the surviving genin were lead into a large room. Really, had there been any need for Ryoga to get so pissy just because she'd maybe given him the impression that he needed to go fight an evil old Dragonball reject to save Akane's honour? It wasn't her fault that he was stupid enough to believe something like that!

Strangely enough, he hadn't got any less angry when she'd pointed that out. Sheesh, some people just didn't know how to take a joke.

The bruises were seriously uncomfortable. They reminded Ranma of why her normal approach to taking on Ryoga was to dodge like a lunatic till he wore himself out and then give him a pounding: he just hit too damned hard to let him land his punches. It was all that snake-freak's fault; if he hadn't hit her with that wind attack, she'd never have been sluggish enough for ol' clay-feet to land a hit on her. Just another thing to kick the guy's arse for the next time she ran into him.

Anyway, she wasn't the only one looking a bit roughed up. Most of the ankle-biters looked like they'd been dragged through a hedge backwards and then put between a horde of amorous Amazons and their airen. Not that Ranma had any experience of such situations, of course. No, sir, no tormenting of Amazons in his past. None at all.

It was a bit irritating to see three of the older-looking ones - Suna ninja by the look of their hitai-ates - look totally unmarked, though. She'd have to see about roughing those guys up nicely if she got the chance.

"First off, for the second test," said Anko, "congratulations on passing."

She was lined in front of the podium at the front of the chamber with all the other examiners. Behind them was old man Hokage - and, man, was he old; not Old Ghoul or Old Letch old, but still old - and behind him, stood in front of an enormous sculpture of a pair of arms forming a rat seal were stood what looked like the various team-leaders associated with the genin who'd passed. Ranma could see Fudo amongst those, stood with the other Konoha jounin, looking mildly bored with proceedings.

"Listen carefully," continued Anko. "The Hokage will now explain the third test,"

The Hokage didn't use a headset as Anko did. He simply spoke around his pipe. He wasn't even particularly loud, but no-one missed a word. "For the coming third test . . . but before I explain that, there is something I would like you all to know," he said. "It concerns the true reason for this exam."

Ranma blinked. What was this then? It wasn't just about packs of ankle-biters beating each other up to try and steal things from each other? Because that was kinda amusing, like feeding time at the zoo or something.

"Why do we have all the allied countries taking the exam together?" said the Hokage, "To promote friendship among the countries to raise the level of shinobi. That is the official reason, but I don't want you to be confused about the true meaning. This exam is-" he stopped to take a puff from his pipe, the old drama queen- "a replacement for war among the allied nations."

Well, wasn't that nice? Instead of fighting a war they had their kids kill each other over a promotion instead. There were times when Ranma really wished she was back in Nerima and nowhere near the land of the ninja.

"If you look back in time, these allied nations were enemies who fought each other over who would rule," continued the old man. "In order to end these wasteful conflicts, a stage was chosen by these countries for battle. That is the origin of this exam."

"Why the hell do we have to do that crap?" shouted Naruto. "Isn't this thing for deciding who's a chuunin?"

"This exam does indeed decide which shinobi have what it takes to become a chuunin," said the old man calmly. "But on the on the other hand, this exam has another side where each country's shinobi risk their lives to protect their land's prestige. Leaders and influential people from countries who make up the clients of the shinobi will be watching this third exam."

Well, Ranma could go along with that. The whole war bit kinda sucked, but she was always up to show off how awesome she was. There wasn't a better way to make sure you had some decent rivals to keep your skills sharp.

"And this will signal to potential enemies that our village has this much power, so it will send a political message to outsiders."

"Yeah but why!?" barked Kiba. "Why do we have to risk our lives in battle!?"

"The strength of the country is the strength of the village. The strength of the village is their shinobi. And a shinobi's true strength is found only in life-or-death battle. This exam is a place to see each country's strength, and to show off your own strength. It only has meaning because lives are at risk. That is why those that have come before you have fought in this exam, for this is a dream that has meaning."

TenTen looked outraged. "But then why do you talk about it being for friendship?" she asked. Loudly.

"As I said in the beginning, I don't want you to be confused about the purpose of this," said Sarutobi. "The taking and losing of life and the establish of balance, this is the shape of friendship within the shinobi world."

Ranma couldn't even think of a smart-alec comment to go with that. It just sucked. Everyone else seemed to be of similar mind, too, as they all went very quiet.

"Before we begin the third test, I will tell you one more thing," continued the old man. "This is not just an exam. This is a life-or-death battle with your dreams and the prestige of your village on the line."

"I don't care," said one the Suna-nin, the red-headed guy who looked like someone had blacked his eyes good and proper but hadn't bothered to hit anywhere else. And he looked ridiculously eager for someone who was going to get beaten like a drum even if he made it far enough to take her on "Just tell me what the life-or-death battle entails."

"Yes, I'd like to explain the third exam, but-"

A ninja appeared in a crouch near the Hokage and the examiners, his arrival heralded only be a whirl of leaves and smoke. Well, that was the aim anyway. Ranma had got to be able to see through that technique the second time Anko had tried to catch her out with it - it was pretty nifty, but anyone who knew what to look for would have no trouble spotting that flare of ki and the setup.

"I apologise, sir," said the ninja, not looking up from his crouched position. "From here on, as referee, will you please allow me-"

"By all means."

The man rose to his feet and turned to face the assembled ninja. Man, he looked like a stiff breeze would knock him over. This was a jounin? One of the elite? She didn't exactly have high expectations - out of the ninja she'd ran into so far, only the snake-freak was at all impressive - but this one really was a joke. The sunken eyes, the sallow complexion, the constant, irritating cough that seemed to interrupt every other word that came out of the guy's mouth - it didn't exactly add up to someone who was going to be a great fighter in Ranma's mind.

Then again, weren't ninjas supposed to be all about misdirection? Konatsu didn't seem like much, either, but he could fight alright.

"Hello everyone," said Mr. Diseased. "I'm Hayate."

Or he could just really be that hopeless.

"Umm, before the third test there's something I'd like you to do," he continued. "Umm, it's a preliminary for the third test, To decide who gets to take part in the main event."

There was a general outcry at that. Even the pineapple-headed kid who looked as if breathing was too much like hard work for his tastes got all worked up about is and started shouting. Ranma wasn't too happy herself. She wanted to get the stupid exam over with so she could start looking at new techniques to get strong enough to beat that snake-freak and get some revenge.

"Sensei," said pinky. "I don't understand this preliminary, but why aren't all the people allowed to take part in the next test?"

"Umm, because the first and second test may have been too easy this year. We have a few too many people left."

Judging by the look Anko gave him, there'd probably be one less left over soon enough,

"So what do you want from us then?" said Ranma. "Another stupid exam paper? A treasure hunt? What?"

"Umm before I explain that, anyone who doesn't feel up to another test right now step forward to quit," said Hayate. "The preliminary will be commencing immediately and there won't be any time given for recovery."

Oh, the tension.

"Umm," said Kaubuto, raising his hand. He was even smiling. "I'm going to quit."

Everyone turned and stared at the older boy.

Hayate coughed. Umm, you're Kabuto Yakushi of Konoha, right? You may leave now. Umm, does anyone else want to go? Oh, umm, I forgot to tell you: from now it'll be individual battling. You may raise your hand based on your own judgement."

There was a bit of drama to go with Kabuto quitting. A whole spiel with Naruto asking him why he was quitting - loudly, oh so loudly - and Kabuto saying he was too beaten up, couldn't hear out of one of his ears, and yadda yadda yadda.

"Well, what do you expect?" said Ranma. "He's a loser. Why do you think he's failed the exam so many times?"

"He's not a loser!"

"He's quitting because he's a little banged up. What else would you call it, brat?

Naruto's glare could have melted steel. "You're wrong!"


There was a bit of fuss with the loudmouth, pinky, and the kid with the stalkers before the examiner guy spoke again, but Ranma didn't care enough to pay attention. Something about a mark on the stalked one's neck. She doubted it was all that important. Just some kiddy drama or something.

"Umm, now, let's begin the preliminary," said Hayate. "It's going to consist of one-on-one battles and you will basically fight as if it were a real-life confrontation."

Ranma grinned. Perfect. Just what the doctor ordered to work off some stress.

"Since we have twenty-three entrants, we'll have eleven matches and, umm, the winners will advance to the third test. One of you will get a bye. There are no real rules. The fights will continue until death, submission, or one of the participants being rendered unconscious. Umm, if you don't want do die, submit quickly."

There was a general hum of anticipation amongst the ninja. Ranma could see the anticipation, even tempered by nerves and fear, wrote large across their faces as they stood there. She was hardly an exception - she wanted to fight, and she wanted to fight now.

"Right, first fight, let's see," said the examiner. "Umm, Sasuke Uchiha and Yoroi Akado come to the front. The rest of you go to the balconies by the side till you're called down."

"I've heard of this Uchiha guy," said Mousse as the three of them headed away. "He's supposed to be a prodigy. Should be an interesting fight to watch."

"What is this?" complained Ranma loudly. "Amateur hour? I've seen better fights in school play-yards!"

Oh, behold the fierce glare of the pink-haired team-mate. Ranma: make friends and influencing people wherever he/she/it went. Mousse thought it was most controlled of him not to snigger.

"They are kinda weak," said Ryoga. "The little one's fighting like someone's tied weights to his ankles and the big one with the glasses is so bad he looks like he'd get his arse kicked by Kodachi in a fair fight."

"Now there's something I'd pay to see."

"What? Kodachi kicking his arse?"

"No, Kodachi having a fair fight."

Mousse hadn't had much to do with Kodachi but even the thought of hearing that horrible laughter again made him shiver. How it was possible for something that was supposed to be a joyful sound to sound like cats being tortured to death was beyond him.

"Be kind now, boys and girls," said Fudo, from behind them. "Not everyone can be as freakish as you three."

"Meh. He's supposed to be a prodigy," said Ranma in that annoying dismissive tone only he could manage. It was even, if such a thing were possible, worse in his female form. "I've seen cheerleaders that were more impressive in a fight."

"Looks like something's about to happen," said Mousse. "I think this is it."

Mousse had to admit the final attack of the bout was much more impressive than what had came before. He hadn't expected to see a genin - other than himself or Ranma - who could kick someone up into the air and then move quickly enough and with great enough flexibility to land a combination of blows such as that before the target had hit the ground again. Well, maybe Ryoga, but it wasn't his style anyway. And the final kick had been quite vicious. It looked as if the veiled boy the Uchiha had been fighting was bleeding from the mouth - never a good sign.

"Winner: Sasuke Uchiha."

The masked ninja, the Copycat if Mousse weren't mistaken, quickly moved to Sasuke's side and took him out of the arena. Hmm, that mark on his neck must have been quite serious after all.

"Umm, next fight," said Hayate. "TenTen and Mu Tse. Come on down."

"Ha, Mousse, if you lose here I'm never going to let you live it down," said Ranma. "Never. I'll even find a way to get a message back to Nerima to tell Shampoo that you lost to a little kid."

"Shut up, Saotome."

"I hear this one's a weapons nut," said Fudo. "Should be right up your street, Mousse. Just don't do anything stupid."

Mousse grinned. A weapons user? Against him? This was going to be a piece of cake. He vaulted over the edge of the balcony and took his place on the arena floor with nothing but confidence in his heart. No amount of beating from Orochimaru would change the fact that he was the master of hidden weapons, and not some crummy genin.

The opponent that faced him was a girl. A small, smiling girl - twelve or thirteen years old if he had to guess - with her hair up in buns. Ah, wonderful, he'd have to hold back because Ranma and Ryoga would get all uptight if he hurt a girl that age.

"Umm, remember the rules," said Hayate. "Stop when I say stop and submit quickly if it comes to it."

Both nodded.

"Please begin."

TenTen immediately hopped back, presumably to put some distance between them, and Mousse wasn't really inclined to do anything about it. He was curious; he wanted to see what these Konoha ninja could do with weapons. It couldn't be anything like proper hidden weapons - they just lacked the technique, and Orochimaru had looked more than a little surprised at his techniques - but, still, he was curious.

Her first attack was unimpressive. Half-a-dozen kunai thrown in a vertical brace that would have peppered his chest with steel if he hadn't blocked it with a chain summoned from within his left sleeve. Well, if that was it, he had no time for her. A twitch of his ki sent a similar chain forth from his right sleeve to wrap around her ankles and topple her, but she was ever so slightly too fast and managed to roll back out of the way before impact was made.

Mousse quickly brought his arms up and unleashed another pair of chains in her direction but this time she pulled a staff free from a scroll he briefly spotted inside her sleeve before batting the chains aside with a single, twirling manoeuvre and leaping forward to engage Mousse in melee.

He quickly ducked underneath the high swing aimed at the side of his head and lashed out with a quick kick in her ankles that knocked her to the ground, but she was deft enough to roll with it and come back to her feet in a flash and then it was he who had to move quickly to avoid the thrust of the staff that would have made a nasty dent in his sternum if he hadn't leaned aside to let it pass by harmlessly.

From that position, it was easy for him to reach out and use his superior speed and strength to wrest the staff from her hands before swinging his newly acquired weapon around in a sharp blow aimed at the back of her neck. But she caught the staff in her hands before it could strike home. Judging the look on her face and the way her arms trembled, she must have wished she hadn't done that.

Mousse pulled the staff back from her and then lunged forward with a thrusting attack but she'd already jumped back outside of his reach and launched another brace of kunai his way. It was an almost casual thing for Mousse to slap those blades out of the air before they could strike home, but when he was done he found TenTen kneeling on the ground forming handseals with a thick scroll set on the ground each side of her.


For a moment the scrolls actually did look like dragons as they unravelled and surged up into the air. Some sort of chakra-based illusion no doubt, but it was certainly an impressive sight. And then TenTen was in the air hovering between the two intertwined scrolls. Mousse didn't have so much as a second to wonder what she was going to do before she was plucking weapons from the scrolls and the air filled with steel.

Mousse's response was simple. He thrust his arms out and unleashed his own storm of sharp, pointy objects in retaliation. Hundreds of kunai and shuriken and kama and every other sort of one-handed weapon you could possibly imagine met in a thunderous clash of metal-on-metal. Nothing could be heard beyond the clashing of the weapons as the chamber turned utterly silent.

But there could only be one winner. The storm ended with Mousse untouched and TenTen pinned to the wall by a dozen kunai that had pierced her clothing and left her attached to the wall several feet off the ground. And she did not look happy about it, though he supposed that was hardly shocking considering the chain wrapped around her throat.

"Not bad for a rookie."

Oh, yeah, that was a glare. It was almost like being back in the village seeing a female warrior glaring at him after he beat them.

Hayate coughed. "Winner, Mu Tse."

Ryoga was getting itchy-feet. Watching these kids fight wasn't even good to whet the appetite. Seeing Mousse and the girl fight had been about the closest thing to a decent fight and that hadn't been much either. Watching some wimp get beaten by an over-sized action figure or some idiot blow up his own arms didn't really do much for him, and the less said about the fight between Sakura and Ino the better because that had been like going to a concert with a band that had never touched a musical instrument before.

Still, it was kinda funny the way Ranma was carefully keeping him or Mousse between her and Shino. The great Ranma Saotome scared of bugs! Ha!

"Shut it, bacon-breath."

"Aww, is the widdle-Ranma scared of a few bugs?" said Mousse, eyes sparkling with glee.

"Now, now, boys," said Fudo. "It's not uncommon for girls to be scared of bugs. You should be more sympathetic."

"I swear, I'm going to kill you all in your sleep."

Hayate coughed. "Next fight," he announced. "Temari versus Ryoga Hibiki. Come on down."

Ryoga didn't need telling twice. Without so much as a second glance at his team-mates, he hefted his umbrella up to rest on his shoulder and hopped on down to face his opponent. It was a girl. She might have even been a cute girl if it wasn't for the look on her face. He got the feeling that she didn't have the cause to smile often.

"Sensei told me about you," she said, slowly unfolding her fan till three circles could be seen on it. "I won't be holding back."

Ryoga grimaced. He really didn't want to have to beat a girl up. Ranma would probably do it but such a thing just wasn't honourable and he'd feel all sorts of guilty if he actually hurt her. "You know, you could just quit now," he said. "I don't want to hurt you."

"Hurt. Me."

"Uh, yeah. Why?"

Ryoga had a moment to reflect on the fact that maybe it hadn't been the best idea he'd ever had to say that as he hurtled across the arena floor in the midst of an immensely powerful gust of wind. And then he smacked head-first into the concrete wall and everything went dark.

Well, it's hard to see when your heads embedded in concrete, isn't it? Really, had there been any need for that?

"Umm, start, I suppose. And end?"

Ryoga sighed. Could the fight be any more embarrassing? He could hear Ranma's laughter from the other side of the chamber and through however much concrete was between him and the little bastard.

With one mighty wrench he pulled himself free and then shook his head violently from side-to-side to clear off the dust that had clung to him on the way out. "You know," he said with a grin. "I almost felt that."

Temari growled - actually growled! - at him and swept her fan around again, but there was no element of surprise this time. Ryoga saw it coming and planted his feet firmly against the ground with his umbrella flipped open in front of him. This time, he was ready, and the wind didn't even come close to blasting him off his feet. He was forced back a few short steps but then he dug in and stopped dead.

Ryoga flipped his umbrella closed again and lowered it to rest by his side. Temari looked gob-smacked. And then her expression turned ugly. Well, uglier. This time when she swept the fan around it came around with the edge vertical and Ryoga's feeling that this probably meant something bad turned out to be fairly accurate when the thud of air against his hastily opened umbrella actually made his arms tremble. His arms! Trembling!

And then a small fist slammed into his jaw with enough force to twist his head around. He shook it off in an instant and returned fire with a swipe of his umbrella that sent the girl hopping back out of range. Before he could bring the umbrella up into a defensive position another blast of win slammed into his gut and sent him smashing back into the wall, creating a nice Ryoga-shaped crater.

"Ryoga, you moron, stop messing about," shouted Ranma. "You're making us look bad here. Or are you really that weak?"

Ryoga growled. "Shut up, Ranma."

Temari brought the fan around and down in a crushing blow aimed at the top of Ryoga's skull, but he caught it with his index finger. "Bakusai tenketsu."

For a heartbeat they froze like that, Temari staring at Ryoga in confusion as what he'd said filtered through her mind. Then there was horror. Then the fan exploded and blasted Temari back across the chamber till she skidded to a halt at the far wall. She didn't get back up. Damn. Now he felt all guilty.

"Winner, Ryoga Hibiki."

"She gonna be okay?"

"Bastard . . . I'll get you for this . . . just wait a minute."

"Umm, she'll be fine. Now shoo. We still have more matches to get out of the way."

Ryoga frowned but he obeyed. She didn't sound like she'd exactly welcome having him around anyway.

"That was lame, Ryoga. I can't believe you let her land a hit on you. Even old four-eyes here did better than that."

"Shut up, Saotome."

"Shut up, Ranma."

"Hinata Hyuuga versus Neji Hyuuga."

Ranma frowned. She wasn't good with names, but wasn't that the branch house prodigy kid? She vaguely remembered something along those lines. Something about some Well, it didn't matter. He was only a Hyuuga and Hinata was a Hyuuga with a bit of Anything Goes in her. She'd do fine. "Go, Hinata," said Ranma. "Just remember what I taught you and you'll be fine."

It didn't seem to help. She looked as if she were marching to the gallows as she slowly walked down the stairs that led to the chamber's floor. That girl, she really needed to pick up the Anything Goes attitude. The look on the boy's face as he marched past her didn't do much for Ranma's faith in her student, either. His face was absolutely rigid, the look of someone who was about two inches from doing really, really bad to someone.

"Don't think you student's going to enjoy this one," commented Fudo. "I've heard of Neji and the kid's supposed to be as talented a Hyuuga as they've seen in a good few generations. He's strong, and from what I hear Hinata . . . well, she isn't."

"She's stronger than she looks," said Ranma. "She just needs an injection of spine."

"I never thought I'd be facing you, Hinata," said Neji when he reached a position opposite Hinata on the arena floor.

"Brother Neji."

"Okay, I didn't see that one coming," admitted Ranma amidst the general fuss. "Is she trying to mess with his head? Didn't think she'd picked up on that lesson."

"She's a real good actor if she is," said Mouse. "More likely she's got some idea in her head that's going to get her creamed."

Ranma said nothing. Eventually the crowd quietened down and he could hear the ninja below again.

"Before we begin to fight, I'd like to say something, Hinata," said Neji. "You don't make a good shinobi. Forfeit now."

Hinata stared at him, eyes wide.

"You are too kind," continued Neji. "You wish for harmony and avoid conflict. You agree with others, never resisting. Even with the new sensei that your father has recruited for you and your sister you still have not gained any confidence or alleviated your sense of Inferiority."

Hinata looked away. Ranma could see the trembling in her arms, the lack of confidence in her posture. What was it going to take to make that girl stand up for herself and fight?

"It would be best for you to remain genin, but this exam can only be taken in a team of three. You couldn't turn away your team-mates and thus you entered this ugly reality against your will. Am I wrong?"

Hinata looked back at him. "N-no," she said. "I-I-I just wanted, wanted to change myself . . . do it myself."

As I thought Hinata," said Neji. "You are a spoiled brat of the main house. People cannot change themselves. Losers are losers. Their personality and strength will not change. Because people cannot change, differences are born, expressions like elite and loser are created."

Hinata was starting to look seriously distressed. Ranma decided there and then to step up the taunts in training. She had to learn to shrug it off.

"Looks, brain, size, personality, all people judge and are judged on these values," continued Neji. "Based on these unchangeable facets, people discriminate and are discriminated against. And they suffer within their own means."

"Is it just me are all rich people crazy?" asked Ryoga.

I have seen through many things with this byakugan, so I know your strength os just an act. Deep down you just want to run away."

Hinata started. "N-no!" she said, though there was little conviction to it. "Really, I-"

A burst of killing intent from Neji quietened Hinata entirely, leaving her quivering and silent in the centre of the chamber.

"You can't fool my eyes," he said. Really, you needed super-eyes to see that Hinata wasn't exactly a goddess of war? Ranma had to beg to differ. "I can see from the movements of your eye that you are remembering your painful past, that you are imagining physical and mental pain. You are using your past to contemplate the inevitable defeat you face and the pain that will accompany it."

"Aren't you going to do something, Ranma?"

"Like what? I can't make the bad man go away, Ryoga. She's got to do it for herself or she'll never learn."

"And now your body betrays you," continued Neji. "Raising your arms in front of you is a classic way to try and raise a barrier between yourself and something painful. You cannot escape the truth, Hinata. Haven't you realised yet that you cannot change your-"

"YOU CAN!" bellowed Naruto. Ah, man, that kid was loud. Ranma was clear on the other side of the balcony and he still set her ears ringing. Everyone stared. "STOP DECIDING THINGS ABOUT PEOPLE, IDIOT! KICK THAT BASTARD'S ARSE, HINATA!"

"Naruto . . . "

"Stand up for yourself, Hinata! This is hard to watch!"

The look Neji shot Naruto did not speak of fuzzy feelings. "So you will not forfeit," he said when he looked at Hinata again. And she did actually look ready to fight. Man, if she'd known all it would take was a pep-talk from Naruto she'd have done it ages ago. "I am not responsible for what will happen."

The veins around Hinata's eyes bulged as she assumed a typical jyuuken stance. "Brother Neji," she said. "We will fight."

And look at that. She had the look of a fighter in her eyes. Just like that she'd suddenly found a spine.

Neji mirrored her stance. "As you wish."

And they moved. Neji closed the gap between the pair of them quickly and opened with a palm strike aimed at Hinata's left shoulder but the younger girl moved quickly to duck underneath the strike. Then it was Neji's turn to dodge. A sidestep carried him out of the way of a strike aimed at his stomach before he had to lean sharply backwards to avoid the follow-up uppercut that Hinata sent his way. The look of surprise on his face almost made Ranma's day. Hadn't been expecting that, had he?

They continued in that vein and Ranma found herself surprised by Hinata's abilities. She was moving with a grace and fluidity that she rarely managed for more than few moments in training and on top of that there was a determination, a fighting spirit, in those movements that had never been there. It had been easy to write her off as a lost cause at times, but there she was showing that she had some potential.

As surprises went, Hinata having a spine and ability as a fighter wasn't a bad one, but it still stuck in Ranma's craw that she hadn't really spotted it before. She'd always figured that Hinata couldn't possibly be as weak as she seemed, but she'd had no idea that was real talent underneath that meekness. It didn't say much for her a sensei that she'd been so quick to assume Hanabi was the talented one of the family.

"It seems I was wrong about this girl," said Fudo. "I heard that she was soft, but she sure as hell doesn't look it now."

"No student of mine is ever going to be weak."

It still wouldn't do to admit anything resembling weakness though. Better to pretend she'd been expecting it.

"So I see."

It wasn't going to be enough, though. Hinata could bounce off walls and throw rebound punches straight out of sensei's playbook all she wanted - Neji was peppering her arms with jyuuken strikes even if she wasn't feeling them. He had some serious hand speed, as these little ankle-biter ninja went, and Hinata just wasn't dealing with it. How well would a jyuuken user be able to fight once they couldn't focus their ki down their arms? Not very well, Ranma was betting.

And there it was. Hinata had darted in for a strike at Neji's chest and had instead received a strike to her own chest in turn as Neji once again struck her attacking arm with his other arm. Both fighters stopped dead for a moment and Ranma could hear the other rookies wondering if Hinata had done it. Then Hinata spat up blood.

"What the hell?" complained Naruto. "She hit Neji too!"

"No, she didn't," said Ranma. "Look."

Neji had rolled back the sleeve on Hinata's striking arm and chakra burns were dotted along it all the way up. "So, from the beginning-"

"Yes," said Neji. "My eyes can see the tenketsu."

Ranma couldn't help but stare a little. He could see the pressure points? It took decades of study to learn all of the pressure points on the human body and this kid could just see them as if they were nothing more than some blemish or birthmark. Damn. If she'd known this guy back in Nerima, she could have fobbed him off onto the Amazons and been free. That just wasn't fair.

And then Neji slammed his palm into Hinata's chest, throwing her to the ground and sending her skidding back along the chamber's floor.

"This is the unchangeable difference in talent between us," said Neji. "The difference that divides the elite from the failure. You've been setting yourself up for bitter regrets since the moment you decided to fight. Right now, you should be desperate. Forfeit."

Something twisted deep within Ranma as she watched Hinata push herself back to her feet. The girl was bruised and bloodied, never a good sign when you bleed from the mouth, but she was going to fight. "I don't go back on my word," said Hinata with a bloody smile on her lips. "That is my ninja way."

Neji glared. "Come," he said, sliding back into his stance.

Hinata tried to do the same, but she was soon racked by an uncontrollable cough that had her spitting up yet more blood onto the ground in front of her.

"This match is over," Ranma heard Kakashi say.


Hinata, again, seemed to draw strength from Naruto's words and was able to pull herself back together and get back into her stance. Naruto was a loudmouth, but he was right. It wasn't over yet. "Anything goes, Hinata," Ranma shouted. "Remember that. Anything goes."

Hinata, this time, didn't simply charge with jyuuken. A pair of shuriken appeared in each of her small hands and she quickly dispatched them to each side of Neji. With his freedom of movement denied, then she attacked. But her lunging punch slammed into a large log that appeared in his place with puff of smoke. The follow-up kick she lashed out with at the space behind her, though, that caught Neji square beneath the ribs as he came out of his kawarimi and blasted him back off his feet.

But Neji rolled with it and skidded into a crouched position that allowed him to charge back to the fray before anyone even had time to wonder at Hinata landing a solid blow on him. And a moment later Hinata was down. He'd closed in and slammed her with a jyuuken strike to the chest so quickly that Hinata hadn't had the time to even try and defend herself.

"You still do not understand," said Neji. "No matter how many of your sensei's techniques you use to supplement your meagre jyuuken skills you cannot win."

Neji turned and walked away from her as a general air of disappointment rippled across the watchers. It was hard not to root for the underdog at the best of times, but when they're fighting against a total arse? Impossible.

"A decisive blow to the heart," said Gai. "I feel sorry for her but she will not get up again."

"She cannot continue and thus-"


Pinky lit into Naruto for being an idiot but everyone else was staring at what was happening in the chamber beneath. Hinata was moving. Slowly, shakily, but she was moving, clawing her way to her feet and dripping blood from her mouth every step of the way, And eventually she made it to her feet. Ranma's gut twisted again and she found herself twisting the steel bar of the balcony in front of her.

"Why do you stand?" asked Neji. "You will die if you continue."

"It's not over."

"Acting tough is useless. You can barely stand. I can see that. From the time of your birth the responsibility of the main house has been forced upon you and you have suffered. You have always hated yourself for your weakness. But people cannot change. That is destiny. There is no need to suffer further. Let it go."

Hinata smiled. "That's not true, Brother Neji," she said. "Because I can see it - it's not me at all. The person lost and suffering within the destiny of the main the branch houses . . . is you."

Neji's killing intent flared up and his eyes bulged as he charged towards Hinata. Ranma knew, instinctively, what he was about to do, and, with a speed that she hadn't matched since the battle with Saffron, she vaulted over the balcony edge and hurtled across to place herself between Hinata and Neji. Once there she caught Neji's arm by the wrist and with a twist she turned his momentum against him and hurled him away to bounce off the wall.

And then the jounin were surrounding them. Hayate, Gai, Kurenai, and Kakashi had gone to restrain Neji while Fudo stood awkwardly in front of Ranma with a 'why me' look on his face.

"Neji, give it a rest," said Gai. "You made a youthful promise not to lose your head over this main family stuff."

"Why do even the other jounin jump in . . . oh, more special treatment for the main family."

"Yeah," said Ranma. "That must be it. Nothing about you deciding to up and kill someone after the fight's done with. Dick."

Neji glared at her but before he could let fly with whatever he was going to say Hinata let out a groan of pain and collapsed. That kinda distracted from whatever crap the brat was going to spew as everyone headed over to Hinata, including the genin who'd dropped down from the balcony.

"Hinata, you alright?" shouted Naruto. "Hey!"

"Her colour is bad," said Sakura.

Hinata's eyes closed. "Dammit," said Ranma. "Where are the medics? They should be here by now."

"Hey, the loser over there," said Neji. Naruto turned and glared at him. "I'd like to tell you two things. If you're a shinobi, then cut out the pathetic cheering of others. And one more, in the end a loser is a loser. They cannot change."

Naruto rose to his feet with a glare on his face and turned to face Neji. "You wanna try me?" he said.

The cocky snort that Neji gave in response and the loudmouth charged. He didn't get far before the kid in the green spandex, Lee, was in his way, though. Kid was pretty quick.

"Naruto, I understand your feelings so much it hurts," he said. "But the fighting should occur in the matches. Whether a loser can defeat an elite through the power of hard work, that's something to look forward to in the main test, though his opponent might be. But even if it's you, Naruto, there will be no hard feelings."

There was a moment where Ranma thought Naruto was going to tell the kid to go to hell, but then, "damn," he said. "Alright."

Lee and his older clone of a sensei traded blindingly bright grins and thumbs ups. Then Hinata spewed up a whole load of blood. Ranma stared down at the girl. She just didn't know to do. Give her something to smash, something to beat, and it was easy. She could do that. But this . . . this was beyond her. It wasn't something she could just stick a splint or a bandage on and call it a day.

"If you have time to glare at me," said Neji, "then take care of her."

"Medical team! What are you doing? Hurry!"

A trio of medics swept the rest of them aside and quickly lifted Hinata onto a stretcher as they fussed over her with techniques that Ranma didn't recognise. As they worked, Ranma heard one of them say something that made her blood run cold. "At this rate she won't last ten minutes," he said. "Take her to the emergency room! Hurry! Move!"

Ranma just stared after Hinata as the medics rushed her out. There was nothing she could do and she hated it. Being helpless was not what she'd spent her entire life training for.

"You are going down."

Ranma turning around to see Naruto glaring fiercely at Neji with blood dripping from the first he had pointed at the older boy. What had she missed?

Neji looked totally unbothered. "Bah."

Ranma fixed him with a fierce glare. "You'd better hope Hinata doesn't die."

"Are you threatening me?"

"Hiashi might not exactly be the textbook loving father," said Ranma, "but a branch brat killing one of the main house? That's going to go down about as well as a cholera epidemic. Seems to me you have an interest in seeing Hinata stay among the living, bastard."

That took the smug confidence straight off his face. Ranma felt a little better, but it was cold comfort.

Hayate coughed. "If you interfere again," he said, "I'll have to disqualify you."


"So, how long before you kick that little shit's arse all the way to Kumo and back?" asked Ryoga. "Because if you're not going to call it, then I'm going to crush him like he was a Saotome who couldn't dodge."

Neji glared at Ryoga. Ryoga glared back. "Lay off, Ryoga," said Ranma. "We'll get him in the exam sooner or later."

Ryoga growled and looked away.

"It's about time for your turn," said Gai. Loudly. Then again, did those two do anything quietly? "Let's go Lee!"

Lee closed his eyes and looked away. "No!" he said. "I've come this far so I might as well go last."


"Gaara versus Rock Lee."

"You fell for it!" shouted Lee, kicking at the air in front of him. "If you say you wanna be last, it won't happen! It's the rule that if you try and throw a stone at a pole you'll miss but if you throw it to miss you'll hit! I never wanted to go last!"

Lee . . . wasn't exactly the most serene soul around.

"Lee, I've come across some great advice that everyone else would have missed," said Gai.


"That gourd is suspicious."

"I see."

"Stop the memo. There's no way you'll have time to look at it during battle."

Ranma couldn't help but gape. Did she look as weird as that when she was going over something with her pop? She didn't think so, but she sure as hell hoped not. She was pretty damned sure she didn't take her pop's idiot advice that seriously anyway.



Lee vaulted over the edge of the balcony to face Gaara, who'd used some sort of sand-based sunshin to get there before him. "To face you this early," he said to the stoic-looking redhead. "I couldn't be happier."

Gaara said nothing. Kid was real creepy looking, what with his tattoo, permanently blacked eyes, and his general 'I'm a psycho horror-movie kid that wants to drink your blood and eat your organs' attitude. He was about a friendly as Herb and not half as pretty.

Lee snatched the cork that had popped out of Gaara's gourd from the air in front of him. "No need to get antsy."


Lee rocketed forward as sand began to pour forth from the gourd. He was actually pretty quick for a kid, and Gaara made absolutely no movement to avoid or block the leaping roundhouse kick that was coming at him. Ranma was sure it was going to end right there, but instead it impacted upon a barrier of sand that leaped forth from the ground at Gaara's feet. Lee reacted sharply and launched a trio of punches at Gaara's head that met equally sandy fates before he was forced into a bounding retreat by a tidal wave of sand that exploded up from the floor between him and his foe.

"Sand?" said Ranma. "That's one weird technique."

"The Sandaime Kazekage had a similar technique," said Fudo. "This doesn't seem quite as refined as the history books make that sound, though."

Ranma watched as Lee was forced into a full-scale retreat, bouncing around the arena to avoid the sand that was slashing at his limbs. "Seems pretty effective anyway."

Lee came whipping around at high speed to launch a series of strikes at Gaara's blindside, but they met the same fate as his other attacks, intercepted by walls of sand that seemed to appear out of nowhere as soon as the punches or kicks came within a few inches of Gaara's body. The sand-brat wasn't even moving. He just stood there, arms folded across his chest, with an expression of disinterest on his face.

"Why is Lee only using taijutsu?" asked Sakura. "This close-range combat isn't working. He should try from a distance with ninjutsu."

"It's not that Lee doesn't use ninjutsu," said Gai. "He can't use them. Lee has almost no skill for ninjutsu or genjutsu."

"No Way! Then how did he get this far?"

"When I first met Lee he had nothing. No talent at all. So the only skills left for Lee as a ninja are taijutsu," said Gai. "There aren't many ninja who can't use ninjutsu or genjutsu."

Lee leaped high into the air away from a particularly wide wave of sand to land atop the hand seal statue in a crouch.

"That's why he can win!" said Gai. "Lee! Take them off!"

"But, sensei, that's only for a time when I must protect many precious people, isn't it?" Lee shouted back from his perch.

"It's alright!" said Gai with a blinding grin and a thumbs up. "I'll allow it!"

Lee started laughing as he pulled off his blindingly bright orange leg-warmers and exposed a whole bunch of weights strapped to his lower legs beneath them. "What an old-fashioned training method, Gai" said Kakashi

Lee dropped the weights down to the ground. Judging by the crash and the massive cloud of smoke they kicked up, the kid had been carrying an elephant's worth of weight on each leg or something in that area. "This should be good," said Ryoga. "Kid looks like he actually does proper training."

"Lee! GO!"


To say that Lee's speed had increased dramatically would be like saying Cologne was a little old or Happosai was a little perverted. He was off the statue and behind Gaara before the boy had time to blink and then he was attacking. His first punch was blocked solidly a few inches away from Gaara's skull but then he was elsewhere to Gaara's side and his blow came within an inch of Gaara's cheek. And he just kept going, zipping around Gaara and throwing punch after punch with each coming that hair closer to Gaara as the sand struggled to keep up.

And then Lee landed a hit. A leaping heel kick that drove Gaara's head down and opened up a cut on the redhead's cheek.

"This kid's almost as quick as you Ranma," said Fudo. "You might have some competition."

"He's a hundred years too young to match me."

"He is pretty quick," said Ryoga. "Worried?"

"Don't be stupid, Ryoga," said Ranma. "I know that's difficult for you, but give it a try. He's got talent but his hand-speed is way too low to hit me and he's as predictable as you."

"Lee has more strength that he has yet to show," said Gai. "Do not underestimate his power."

"Yeah, yeah."

Lee followed up his attack, speeding around the wall of sand and throwing blow after blow to wear it down again. Ranma had to admit that she was impressed. He was probably as quick as Hiro, certainly a little quicker in movement, and he was only a genin. And then he landed another hit, a heavy haymaker that smashed Gaara off his feet and sent him rolling back along the chamber floor.

"This is bad," said the puppet-boy, he of the terminal lack of common sense. Who the hell wore all-covering black in the desert?

"It sure is!" said Naruto with a wide, teeth-baring grin. "That black-eyed bastard took a pretty heavy one."

"That's not the bad I mean."

Gaara rose to his feet, and what the hell was with his face? His eyes were wide-open, staring and bloodshot, and his mouth was opened in a maniacal approximation of a grin as sand fell from a crumbling layer around his face and body. All in all, it was fucking creepy, and Ranma did not hand that label out lightly.

"A defence," said Ranma. "Armour of some sort. It won't protect him entirely, though. No armour does."

"That is Gaara's absolute defence."

"There's nothing you can do against it then," said Naruto. "There's no weakness!"

"There's always a weakness," said Ranma. "Always. You just gotta find it before the other guy beats you. This guy, I'd just pound him till his brains started to dribble out of ears. Armour doesn't do much to stop that."

Lee looked at Gai and then started to unwrap the bandages he had wrapped around his forearms. Now, Ranma was curious. What use did bandages have for techniques? Once the bandages were dangling he raced forward and started to circle around Gaara, kicking up a cloud of smoke from the sheer speed of it as he went. Words were exchanged but Ranma couldn't hear them.

Then Lee connected with a powerful kick to Gaara's jaw that lifted his opponent up into the air. And he followed that up, leaping after the boy and connecting with kick after kick after kick, each one lifting Gaara a little bit higher into the air till they were near the roof. It was an impressive display, but a futile one.

Ah, that was what the bandages were for. Binding. He used them to virtually mummify Gaara - some sort of technique like Ryoga's endless bandannas behind the amount of bandaging, Ranma figured - and then took a firm grip around Gaara's waist from behind before starting to spin him like some sort of top as they came down.

And then they impacted with an enormous booming sound as the floor virtually exploded around the point of impact. Lee had leaped away at the last moment but he had driven Gaara down head-first.

"It's over," said Ranma. "Lee's got nothing left. Look at him."

"Does it matter?" asked Mousse. "Gaara's been well and truly beaten."

He certainly wasn't moving and the wide, staring eyes that saw nothing certainly didn't look like those of someone who was going to be able to fight on.

Kankuro looked like he'd moved beyond shock and was well and truly on the way to hysteria. "No Way!"

"Is he dead?" asked Naruto, sounding more curious than anything.

"Lee won!" shouted pinky with a clenched fist salute.

Gai's response was simple and loud. It seemed appropriate for him. "YES!"

Cracks started to appear all along Gaara's head and body, even his clothes, and Naruto saw Lee's eyes widen dramatically as the boy's ear simply fell off and crumbled to so much sand. Then the whole face caved in to reveal a totally hollow space.

"Replacement," said Ranma. "Told you. Have to get up earlier than that to fool Ranma Saotome." Unless your name was Orochimaru. Ranma really, really hated that guy.

"When did he leave the sand?" shouted Gai. "There's no way Lee could miss that!"

"It was when you closed your eyes to pray, Gai," said Kakashi. "Lee stopped for a moment because of the pain. It was then."

A huge pile of sand erupted from the floor behind Lee and dispersed to reveal a maniacal looking Gaara who actually laughed at Lee, though there was little humour in it. And then with a wave of his hand Gaara summoned forth a huge wave of sand to attack Lee. Lee tried to dodge but his movement was too slow and he took the full brunt of the attack, slamming him back against the chamber wall.

Then, before Lee could move, a second wave came force and pounded Lee with the wall with enough force to crater the solid concrete deeply, leaving the boy crouched on the ground amidst a pile of rubble.

"Why didn't he dodge it?" asked Sakura.

"The lotus is a double-edged sword," said Gai.

"It is normally forbidden due to the stress it places upon the user's body," said Kakashi. "Right now he's feeling so much pain that he can barely move, right, Gai?"

Gai said nothing as wave after wave of sand battered Lee around the Arena till he was left crouched in the centre of it, one eye swollen shut, panting for air that would never be enough to fill his battered lungs. Ranma knew that feeling. Another strike came and Lee was pushed back further.

"Lee, no!" shouted Sakura. "Anymore and you'll die!"

And then Lee dodged. The next attack struck nothing but air as Lee darted aside and re-assumed his usual fighting stance looking little the worse for wear.

"Lee is smiling even though he's getting pushed around."

"No, now the tables will turn," said Gai. "The lotus of the leaf blooms twice!"

"Now there's a technique I wouldn't mind learning," said Ranma.

"Gai, you-"

"It is as you suspect"

"Then that genin kid has the ability to open the eight celestial gates and use primary lotus."

"Yeah, he will open them. He had the ability"

"Even if he had the ability, the primary lotus is one technique that shouldn't be taught!" snapped Kakashi. "I have no interest in making you tell me what the kid means to you and your reasoning but there are limits. I've lost respect for you, Gai."

Gai snapped back. "What would you know about that boy?" he said "He has a goal that he would give up his life to prove, so I wanted to turn him into a man that could accomplish it. That is all."

"Gai, how many?"


"What are these gates?" asked Sakura. "What is this?"

"The gates are a method of removing limits in preparation for the primary lotus," said Gai.

"Remove limits?"

That is correct," said Kakashi as he pulled his hitai-ate up to reveal another frigging super-eye. Sharingan if Ranma wasn't mistaken. "Chakra flows through eight spots in the human body. These are known as the eight gates. Initial, heal, life, harm, limit, view, wonder and death. They regulate the flow of chakra to safe levels, but the lotus forcibly releases those restraints and allows a much more powerful flow of chakra at the cost of destroying the user's body."

"Yeah, forget that," said Ranma. "I'll pass. I like my body, thanks."

"For example, the secondary lotus opens only the first gate."

"Then the primary lotus-"

"You release the brain's restraint with the initial gate. Then with the heal gate you forcibly raise your stamina. Then from opening the third, the life gate, you enter into the primary lotus."

"But even the secondary lotus-"

"Yes, the technique is truly a double-edged sword. To open the eight gates would temporarily give you the power of a kage but in exchange you sacrifice your life."

Lee finally finished whatever he had to do to unlock the technique as Kakashi finished his explanation and his aura promptly exploded outwards in a monstrous display of utter excess that even Ryoga would be ashamed of. The blue energy blazed around the boy in an inferno of wasted power and Ranma could see the ground distorting beneath his feet, Well, distorting further. They'd already done a pretty good job smashing the place up.

It wasn't just the ki, though. Ranma could see the effect it was having on the boy physically. Every bit of exposed flesh, which wasn't much other than his face, was marred by bulging veins and his skin had turned a deep, deep red as his blood flow was forced up to some ridiculous level.

Then with a yell the power increased again. Lee sounded like someone was ripping his lungs out via his throat but the sheer power that he was exuding was beyond ridiculous. Ranma'd thought Ryoga had hit the height of excessiveness when he'd decided that the way to beat the Musk guy he was fighting was to smother him with his chakra - that had given Herb the willies from clear a mile away. The ground was being crushed beneath the weight of his ki - something Ranma had only ever seen when Ryoga was reaching the heights of depression, and never at that scale.

It was ridiculous.

And then he moved. The barely controlled energy that Lee had released tore the floor beneath him to shreds and warped the air around him as he charged towards his target, who didn't have enough time to even consider dodging before Lee was upon him.

This time it took Lee only a single blow to hurl Gaara into the air. The sand-brat didn't see it coming, even with the wave of pure ki that followed in Lee's wake, it was just a case of one moment stood, the next moment floating. And it did actually look like he was floating with the way Lee was bouncing off walls and ceiling at a ridiculous pace to land hit after hit after hit on his prone opponent.

"This is absolutely nuts," said Ryoga as another wave of errant ki washed over them.

"As nuts as a Kuno."

"Nothing's that nuts."

They joked, but it was pretty impressive. Not quite at 'holy shit, that bird-man's spitting lava at me' or 'did he just blow the top off a mountain?' impressive but that guy wasn't even human so he didn't really count.

It was working, too. The armour of sand was being torn off piece by piece as each blow landed and Ranma could see the dawning look of fear on Gaara's face in between the blurred attacks that obscured her vision. Couldn't exactly say she was feeling much sympathy for him, either, given that he was the creepiest kid in the history of all creepy kids.

But there was a price. Ranma could see the strain it was putting on Lee just by looking at him. They didn't call it a suicide technique for nothing; it was tearing his body apart from the inside out and anyone whose eyes could keep up with the speed would have been to see it. The strain was obvious, face twisted into a grimace, the muscles in his arms bulging, it was impossible to miss.

And so it came as no surprise to Ranma when, at the apex of another leap, Lee threw the throttle even wider. He was shooting for a finishing strike. A single punch with all of the power that his suicide technique granted him. It smashed Gaara back down towards the ground but his gourd had already started disintegrating into yet more sand. The impact kicked up a could of dust and debris which obscure the whole arena and had Ranma squinting her eyes in protection.

When the dust cleared both fights were down. Lee was on all fours, struggling to move but getting nowhere fast, while Gaara was laid on his back in the centre of a massive, sand-filled crater.

"Did he do it?" asked Ryoga.

The sand started moving.

"Doesn't look like it."

Lee struggled and fought to try and get to his feet and dodge the incoming attack but he'd barely made it a step before the sand wrapped around his arm and leg.

"Sabaku Kyū."

Lee screamed. His limbs were pretty clearly crushed by the impact of the move and he was was already out cold as he hit the ground. That wasn't the end of it though. A tidal wave of sand roared forth from Gaara's position to attack the defenceless Lee.

But it never reached him. His sensei was between the two and the sand was smashed away before it could so much as touch Lee.

"I'm never going to be able to look at a beach the same way again. What? Why are you people looking at me like that?"

"And with that, this preliminary exam is over."

The last fight had been monumentally unimpressive. Useful in that it had allowed him to see the techniques of a possible opponent, but still unimpressive. He'd seen some bad fighters in his day but Mousse had never seen anyone with such a potentially useful talent waste it so. If you had the ability to alter the size and shape of your body at will, then why the bloody hell would you turn yourself into a giant fleshy cannonball?

"What, what?" yelped Ranma. "I haven't had a fight yet!"

"Saotome, you moron," groaned Mousse. "There's no-one left to fight. Those two were the last."

"But I wanted to fight!"

The pout might have been adorable on a different face, but Mousse was wise to Ranma and his ways. He knew better than to feel anything but loathing for that person who would entice and entrap his beloved Shampoo with his arrogant wiles. No, he was no Kuno, he knew better.

"Please, approach the stage."

And so they did, Ranma grumbling all the while, till they were lined up atop a floor that had been even once upon a time but now looked like the surface of the moon in front of the Hokage, the examiners, and the team leaders who hadn't run off to be by the side of badly wounded underlings.

"Congratulations on passing this preliminary exam," said the Hokage. "With this you are now permitted to pass through to the third and final round of this chuunin exam."


"Not it is time to explain what you will face in this final round," continued the old man in the fancy hat. "As I have told you before, in the main event your performance will be seen by all. Each of you will fight to display the power of your village and I wish for you to fight without reservation and demonstrate your true strength, which is why the final will be held one month from now."

Mousse shrugged. It just delayed his triumph.

"This time shall be one of preparation," continued the Hokage. "The leaders of our world shall be summoned to the event, the necessary preparations shall be made for their arrival and the holding of such an occasion, and you shall prepare yourselves for the challenges you shall face. This will be a time for you to gather intelligence on your foes, to analyse what you have seen, and to formulate strategies in order to triumph. No longer shall you be fighting total unknowns but those who you have seen in battle."

Unless they were Ranma. Ha. His pout had deepened if anything.

"I would dismiss you now, but there is one last task to be completed before that can come to pass."

"What the hell is!?" roared Naruto. "I've got to train now!"

"Now, don't get so excited," said the Hokage with what might have been a very carefully concealed smile. "Just take a piece of paper from the box Anko is holding and all shall become clear in short order."

"I'll come around so wait your turn," said Anko, sounding ridiculously normal for someone wearing glorified fishnet. "Only one now."

Mousse reckoned it had to be killing her to act so normal.

"Now, read your numbers out in order starting from the left. "

They did so and Ibiki scratched away on a clipboard as they spoke, till all eleven had reeled off their number.

"And now I will reveal to you the final tournament."

Ibiki turned the clipboard so they could all read what was on it. A tournament draw with four rounds, the first of which had only three fights in order to eliminate enough people to even the numbers out. Mousse almost laughed. The gods had favoured him with that draw. He had a bye to the second round and would be facing the winner of a grudge match - Neji against Naruto - which would certainly leave the winner, Neji, the worse for wear. Excellent.

And on top of that, Ranma and Ryoga would meet each in the first round. By the time they were done beating each other half to death they would be easy prey for him to defeat on his way to victory. And that was assuming they didn't beat each other out of the tournament entirely. Perfect.

"I won't lose to you, Ranma."

"In your dreams, bacon breath. I'm gonna beat you so bad your grandkids feel it."

"If this is a tournament, does that mean that only the winner will become a chuunin," asked Shikamaru. The goblin-looking kid with the pineapple hairdo.

"No. The judges, myself, the Kazekage, and the daimyo, shall select those to be promoted based on their demonstrated skills. Anyone could be promoted, even if they were to lose in the first round."

Ah, shame. "So we could all become chuunin?" he asked.

"Or none. You may leave now. Prepare yourselves for this will be the most important day of your lives so far."

Mousse was more than slightly disturbed to see Ranma sidle up to Naruto and hand the boy a scroll as they left. He didn't need an opponent equipped with one of Ranma's more insane techniques. He really didn't.

Chapter Eighteen

She was so small. Ranma'd always known that Hinata was still a kid but seeing her laid out in a hospital bed with wires sticking out of her really drove that home. She was tiny, even more so than his cursed form, and it made him feel all sorts of wrong seeing her laid up, looking like she'd been ran over by a truck, after a fight that was pretty much on the whim of selfish bastard who thought that having a bunch of kids fight and die in a neat little tournament was better than fighting it out properly.

He'd made a promise when he'd took the hitai-ate, and he took that kind of thing pretty seriously, but these guys were some serious arseholes to send out a bunch of kids to do the fighting and the dying so they didn't have to. He sure wasn't going to shed a tear if snakey happened to slaughter the old guys who ran things. No, that didn't sound too bad at all, especially if he happened to, oh, slip over and choke on his own tongue while cackling over his greatness afterwards. That'd be just about perfect.

But it didn't do much for Hinata him getting all mopey and angry. Nah, that was Ryoga's idea of how to deal with things. He preferred to get even. Neji was going to get taught a lesson, alright. If he got past Naruto and Mousse, well, that just gave the brat a chance to go up against him and he knew very well how to deal with Hyuuga. If he could beat an ever-so-powerful missing-nin Hyuuga who'd been on the run for a zillion years and not been caught, then he could beat some murderous brat of a kid who thought that the best way to deal with his teenage angst was to kill someone who'd never hurt anyone in her life.

Well, okay, he wasn't really planning on pulling Neji's heart out, as much as it would be no real loss to the world, and it probably wouldn't be a good idea to show off that he could just walk on past a byakugan if he felt like it, but the kid didn't have anything that made Ranma think he'd be a challenge to him. If Neji lasted long enough to face him, then he'd teach the kid a lesson he'd never forget.

Him beating the tar out of Neji probably wouldn't make Hinata feel any better, though. No, that was why he'd slipped Naruto a scroll. Having the dead-last no-hoper who'd needed a fluke of bodily processes to get past her team-mate beat Neiji, well, that'd probably make her feel a whole bunch better. That'd prove that people could change and that her getting herself beaten to a pulp wasn't totally pointless. It wasn't much, just a single offensive technique, but the kid was stubborn as hell and had energy to burn. It'd let him blast Neji around a little if nothing else.

"Ah, I was wondering when I'd run into you here."

"Don't you have a student to train?"

"Shino practices clan techniques. There's little I can do to help him in those."

Hinata's sensei was one seriously pretty lady. Not as hot as his cursed body, of course, but still way up there. If his fiancees had looked like that, he'd have had a way tougher time dodging the bullet. Wouldn't have been able to get away with calling Kurenai an uncute tomboy, that was for sure, even if Akane wasn't really that uncute.

No, he didn't want to think about that. He wasn't getting back home anytime soon and there was no point dwelling on it.

"That cursed technique is truly remarkable," she said. "I couldn't pick up so much as a hint that your female appearance wasn't true."

"Not a technique," said Ranma. "Just a curse."

Kurenai cocked her head and gave him a querying look. "It's my experience that such things are nothing more than the stuff of myth and legend," she said. "I've seen some strange things, but a true curse - never."

Ranma shrugged. "Neither'd I till I paid a visit to Jusenkyo with my pop. Whatever made that place the way it is must have been weird as all hell. Probably something to do with those stupid Amazons."

Silence fell. Kurenai didn't look like she quite knew how to reply to that one. Ranma didn't really care. He was just there to see Hinata before he went off on his training trip to get ready to beat the hell out of Ryoga.

"She will recover," said Kurenai finally. "You needn't worry about that. The medics can cure almost anything short of death or amputation and Hinata's wounds are not so severe by those standards."

"Shouldn't be hurt like that in the first place. What sort of a psycho does that to family? Wasn't any cause for it."

"Relations amongst the Hyuuga are complicated, Ranma. They're not a normal family."

"Tell me something I don't know. But this is Hinata. She's never hurt anyone. I'd understand if he'd took a poke at someone like Hiashi, but Hinata? No way. She's about as close to an innocent as you're ever gonna get in a ninja clan."

Kurenai frowned and looked away from Ranma to Hinata, who was still dead to the world as the machines beeped around her. "I know," she said. "Hinata isn't a cruel person and would never take advantage of the branch families."

"But that doesn't stop psychos like Neji taking their hissy fits out on her."

"I wouldn't phrase it like that, but no."

Ranma said nothing.

"And I wouldn't have expected you to be so surprised by this," she said. "You did teach her to fight Hyuuga, did you not?"

Ranma let out a humourless chuckle. "You noticed, huh? Yeah, I knew some of the Hyuuga were a little off, my first real mission proved that, so I passed on a few helpful little hints. They're pretty predictable so it wasn't all that difficult. Didn't help much, though, did it?"

"You're not only one whose teaching has failed. Mine, yours, her clan. She has no belief in herself and so her combat abilities have always been weak. That is changing, and your teachings are some part of that, so don't be too down on your work."

"Ha! Like I would be! Anything Goes is the strongest school of martial arts there is. Just didn't know if Hinata was going to be suited for it. Anyway, I got to go. Anko gets all sorts of nasty when you blow off meetings with her."

Kurenai's smile spoke of prior knowledge.

"Oh, hey, make sure Hinata knows we'll be picking up training again when I get back, yeah? No way I'm letting her run off to do whatever is kiddy ninja do when they're not training properly around here now."

"Of course."


Anko looked up from the scroll she was doodling on. "About time you got here, brat," she said. "I was about to start setting up traps."


Ranma hopped aside as the ground beneath his feet exploded upwards in a shower of dirt and grass. "Then again, sometimes I just can't help myself," said Anko. "Terrible, isn't it?"

"One trap? That's just tame by your standards."

"Who said it just one?"

Mousse couldn't help but take some pleasure from seeing the paranoid expression appear upon Ranma's face at that. He was twisting around, eyes darting from place to place, and Mousse was sure that he was using his sixth sense to try and pick out any traps that had been planted in the vicinity, and it was all quite hilarious to see the great and arrogant Ranma Saotome suddenly so worried because of someone he didn't really consider to be a threat in a fight. Ah, it was balm to the soul.

"Well, you made it," said Anko, leaving Ranma to his examinations. "Well done and all that. You managed to get past a bunch of kids. Real achievement. Now comes the hard part."

"Beating those kids won't be difficult," said Ryoga. "One I fought was even weedier than Ranma."

"Winning the fights isn't the hard part. Convincing the old shits watching that you're worthy is that. Don't expect them to be fair or anything like that. They're politicians. That means they're a bunch of bastards who'd sell their senile, old granny to slavers for a few extra pieces of gold and silver. The only one worth trusting is the Sandaime and he's only one of the votes."

Ranma was hanging upside-down from a nearby tree. The resemblance to a hairless monkey had never been stronger. "Someone sounds bitter," he said.

The branch exploded. Mousse may have gloated. Just a little. Watching Ranma hop around trying to put the fire burning at the seat of his trousers out was far too entertaining not to, really.

"Dammit, you set my trousers on fire!" hollered Ranma finally.

Anko didn't look too bothered. "And?"

"How would you like it if I set your coat on fire?"

"How would you like it if I set your face on fire?"

"I'll be quiet."

Yes, there were times when having Anko as their team leader was a very, very good thing indeed. She just had a way about her that Mousse liked, and the fact that said way happened to occasionally involve making Ranma look like a fool had nothing to do with it, of course.

"Now, as I saying before I was rudely interrupted," said Anko, shooting a glare the way of Ranma, who was still trying to put the fire out, "this exam isn't about who happens to be the strongest or the most skilled. It's about who can win the audience over. Being strong and skilled helps, but you need to play to the preferences of the old guys. I can't tell you too much, still an examiner here, but you might want to look into who they've roped in for this and what they like to see. Play to the crowd."

Mousse could almost see the thoughts passing through Ranma's head. "I'm so awesome that I don't need to worry about that crap - they'll promote me anyway." It was as predictable as the rise and fall of the sun. He could no more switch off his arrogance than he could stop breathing, as pleasant as that idea was. Oh, did Mousse look forward to seeing him fall flat on his face. The look on Ranma's face if he failed while Mousse made chuunin would make a century.

"Anyway," said Anko. "I can't give you training for this. I'd get in a whole bunch of trouble, even more than normal, and you're going to be fighting each other anyway, which is whole other can of worms."

"Ah, come on. You know I'm going to win anyway, so what's the fuss?"

The grinding of Ryoga's teeth would have probably started a forest fire if there'd been any trees nearby.

"Shut up, Saotome."

Anko looked up the sky. "What did I do to deserve this?" she asked. "I mean, there was that time with the nuns . . . and that time with the monks . . . heh, heh . . . ah, forget it."

"And back on planet sane?"

"Ah, shut it, brat. If you had memories half as awesome as mine, you'd understand."

"Are we done here?" asked Mousse. "I have training to get to."

"Hold your horse. I've got something here," she said. And then she plucked three rolled-up scrolls from one of the larger pockets of her jacket. "Just a trick apiece to give you all something new to show off if you can master it."

Ranma was like a dog shown a particularly tasty looking bone. She had all of his attention.

"Now, these aren't simple techniques," she continued, waving the scrolls as she spoke. "No, these aren't just a list of hand seals and an effect you get from them. That's easy and boring. These babies are the beginnings to a whole school of techniques, letting you create your own style from basic principles. And I've picked one for each of you based on how I've seen you fight."

Mousse perked up. Now that sounded interesting. What would she pick to go alongside Hidden Weapons?

"For Ranma, who dodges like a monkey on crack and spends more time in the air than the average bird, I have a scroll on elemental manipulation," she said, presenting the scroll with a flourish. "Wind manipulation. Try not to do more damage than I would to whatever's around you when you start learning this."

"Ha, that doesn't exactly stop me from doing much."

"Yeah, yeah," she said. Ranma snatched the scroll out of the air before it could bounce off his forehead. "Ryoga, I have the same thing for you. Earth instead of wind, but the same idea."

Ryoga caught the scroll. Ah, Mousse really hoped that wasn't going to give him any more damage resistance. It was going to be hard enough to stop the fool as it was.

"I could have set up the same for you, Mousse," said Anko. "But it just didn't seem to fit. You're not the straight up fighter these two are, so you need to play to different strengths to win. So for you I have a scroll on genjutsu. They can't hit you if they can't figure out where you are."

Mousse took the scroll. It seemed fitting. He had, once, worked as a circus illusionist, entertaining the crowds with sleight of hand and some simple martial tricks, and now he would be able to execute real illusions. Yes, it appealed.

"Try not to kill each other, kiddies. It'd be inconvenient if I had to try and find someone to fill out the team."

They started to disperse.

"Ranma, a word of warning," called out Anko. "Don't get mixed up with Hyuuga family squabbles. It won't end well. Trust me."

Ranma didn't reply. He just bounded away. Ah, that was probably going to end badly if even Anko thought it was trouble. And knowing Ranma it would be trouble for them all. Wonderful.

"Hey, Mr. Hyuuga, you there?" shouted Ranma. "It's Ranma."

A moment of silence passed and then Mr. Hyuuga came strolling out of the one of the doors leading out of the entry hallway with his arms folded within the deep sleeves of his white robes. "Who else?" he asked. "I presume you have some reason for this loud visit."

Ranma scratched the back of his head. "Just came by to tell you I'm going on a training trip," he said. "Won't be around to train the squirts any till after the exam's done with. Doubt Hinata will be up to much for a good while anyway."

Ranma almost winced when he realised what he'd said. Even he knew it was probably a bad idea to bring up the whole thing about Hinata being beaten half to death with her father. Father of the year Mr Hyuuga probably wasn't, but it couldn't sit well with him.

And that might have even been an actual facial expression being cracked by the guy right there. Ranma was never going to get used to seeing someone who looked so much like Mr. Tendo but was about as likely to burst out into tears as Mr. Tendo was to defeat Happosai. "No," he said. "She's unlikely to be fit for training for a very long time given her injuries."

"Uh, yeah," said Ranma, shifting from foot to foot. "But she did pretty well out there, really. I've never seen her fight like that before."

Having someone with no pupils stare at you was seriously freaky, Ranma decided.

"I'm not kidding. She didn't win, sure, but she went up a level. She showed real fighting spirit. It's something to build on."

Ranma really couldn't get a read on Mr. Hyuuga, but he thought the guy might have been happy to hear that. It was hard to tell. "That is good to hear," he said in a very quiet voice. "Very good to hear indeed. We must take what we can from these occasions."

"Umm, yeah, right."

"Indeed. And a training trip? Do you have anything in particular planned?"

"Just going to head off to somewhere isolated and work on some new techniques," said Ranma with a shrug. "The usual sort of thing."

"So nothing specific then. Excellent. You shall have plenty of time to continue my daughter's training in that case."

"Well, y-wait, what?"

Mr. Hyuuga eyed him with disapproval. "You are her sensei, are you not?" he asked. "You can hardly abandon her training for a month when you have so few other responsibilities and still call yourself that."

Ranma scowled. And if he couldn't call himself Hanabi's sensei anymore then Hitomi's not being dead went out of the window. "Yeah," he said between gritted teeth. "Right. Hanabi's at a real important stage of her training. Gotta take her with me and keep things going."

"I'm glad we see eye-to-eye on this matter."

So many insults, so little time, and so little a good idea. Ranma hadn't wanted to hurl a few insults so badly since Orochimaru . .. well, okay, that wasn't so long ago, really, but it was the principle. The guy pissed him off almost as badly as Nabiki did, and he had way more pull to back it up, and he couldn't smack the old geezer around to work it off even if he was a fighter.

"I believe that concludes your business here."

"Yeah. See you around."

Ranma left quickly before the temptation to ram a fist down Mr. Hyuuga's throat grew too great. Forget Mr. Tendo - this guy was way more annoying. At least the Tendos hadn't held a death threat over his head. Jeez, Anko was right. This was one seriously busted in the head family.

Ranma was nearly out of the district when Hitomi dropped down from a low roof to land in front of him. She still wasn't wearing a Konoha hitai-ate - instead, there was a plain, white bandanna wrapped around her forehead to cover the seal that had been burned into it by her ever-loving family. Otherwise, she looked pretty much like any other Hyuuga he'd sen that day, except, you know, with an actual facial expression.

"Hey, you."

"Aren't you supposed to be a noble or something these days?"

"Pfft, forget that," she said. "They don't want me here and I don't want to be here. Anyway, I'm only a branch member. We don't count."

"Yeah, yeah. What do you want?"

"Testy today, aren't you?" she said. "Eh, I suppose the old bastard has that effect on everyone. My dad wanted to kill him more than anyone."

"Not exactly going to make many friends round here by talking like that."

"Who cares? I sure as hell don't. And I'm not here to talk about that sort of crap anyway, Saotome. You're training the main house brats, right?"


"Tch. Well, I heard that Neji beat the crap out of one of them, but I don't reckon that was because of you. She must have just been weak. Anyway, I want training-"


"Come on, if you can train those squirts, you can train me."

"What, so you can run off and do what your pop did? Follow in his footsteps and knock off a few main house guys before running off to play bandit king? No. That's not what Anything Goes is for."

Ranma didn't think it was a good idea to mention that Anything Goes was really for perving on girls. Would kinda spoil the noble bit.

"Oh, come on. I'm all sealed up now. What the hell can I do? I'm one hand seal away from getting my brain fried. Might as well try and fight the Kyuubi for all I could do against those main house bastards now."

"Then why?"

"Because I want to be strong," she said, her voice ringing with conviction. "My pop always wanted me to be strong, but these bastards aren't letting me learn a damned thing. It's all family secret this and family secret that. They don't trust me, they'll never trust me, and I'm getting all sorts of rusty here. They don't even spar with me! I'd think I was going to be a brood mare if they didn't think my blood was tainted."

Ranma looked away and frowned. He didn't know. She sounded sincere enough but she was a kunoichi. They could lie like nothing else, and if Nabiki could fool him then sure as hell a kunoichi could.

"I dunno."

"Come on, what do you want? I give you my word I won't go all Itachi on my family and I'll even be respectful if I have to. Just give me a chance."

"AH, what the hell. Fine. Anyone else want to come along? What's a training trip without a crowd? Oh, yeah, an effective one."

"Oh, stop complaining. I'll meet you at the village gate at dawn tomorrow. That sound okay?"

Ranma shook his head. "Noon will be fine. Bring Hanabi."

"Oh, come on, you can't expect me to-"

"Just do it. I'm your sensei now, remember? You still want training, yes?"

She grumbled, but she agreed.

Chapter Nineteen

Ranma leaned aside and watched as Hitomi's hand whistled past his face before he stuck a light punch into her gut. Then he frowned at seeing the way that light punch knocked the air out of her lungs. Didn't these ninja do any proper endurance training? He'd have to find some props to train that. There was no way he could let someone training under him get away with being that soft. His pop would hunt him down and use that damned cradle of hell technique on him, even if he was on the other side of a demon's curse.

She didn't let that stop her, though. A deep breath out of the way and she was back on the offensive. Ranma twisted sharply at the waist to allow the first strike to pass by and then again in the opposite direction for the next. Her hand-speed wasn't bad, really. Nowhere near his, of course, but she was pretty swift and her movements were nice and precise with real intent to strike and do damage behind them. She wasn't entirely hopeless. Just soft.

His thoughts were interrupted by a knee heading towards his crotch at high speed. He quickly put his thigh in the way, rendering the attack useless, but he appreciated the thought. An attack like that proved she wasn't stuck in the routine of the forms she'd been taught and could adapt and fight dirty. She really needed to hit harder, though. He'd barely even felt that. Yeah, he was definitely going to put her through some serious conditioning.

With a growl, she jumped backwards, her hands flashing through a series of hand seals in quick sequence as her chest inflated. A moment later the space where Ranma had been stood was filled with fire.

"Ha, that'll teach you to underestimate me."

Ranma prodded her in the back of the head.

"Gods damn you, how did you get so fast?"

Ranma shrugged. "I'm just awesome," he said with a cocksure grin. "No getting around it."

Hitomi opened her mouth, probably to throw some bile his way as most did when he proved how much stronger he was than them, but she was cut short by Hanabi. "She is clearly deficient," she said. "Why are you wasting your time on this traitor?"

Hitomi was behind Hanabi before the younger girl had time to realise she was moving. Ah, to see a student picking up your tricks, it made Ranma so proud. "Do you think that you can get away with insulting me because you're main house?" she snarled into her cousin's ear. "Daddy isn't here to save you now, brat. You don't even know how the seal works."

"Of-of course I do."

"Of course you don't. Or did you think I wouldn't know that the secret to the seal is only taught to the declared clan heir?" Hitomi looked positively gleeful. Hanabi didn't. Probably thinking of what Hitomi's father was famous for. "Tut, tut. Not so confident now, are you?"

"That's enough," said Ranma. "You've made your point, Hitomi. And, Hanabi, you might want to not insult her if you can't hold your own."

The glare Hanabi shot him would have probably been fearsome if she wasn't such a half-pint. That sort of thing just didn't work when it looked more cute than intimidating. Didn't stop her from trying, though.

Ranma switched his attention to Hitomi. "You're not entirely useless," he said. "You need to toughen up and work on your strength, though. Dunno what your pop taught you but you're kinda soft and you don't hit hard enough for anything but the jyuuken to work for you and I can't teach you that."


"Yeah, and there's something missing in your jyuuken. Don't know the style well enough to tell you what it is but it's definitely not right. Can't teach you that, though. Have to work on some proper martial arts."

"You are the most annoying person in the Land of Fire."

"Yeah, yeah, I hear that a lot. Hmm, don't suppose you know where I could find a pack of wolves?"

Hitomi went very pale. Hanabi looked between them with a quizzical look on her face. "Wolves?"

"I don't want to know."

"Oh, there's nothing like having a pack of wolves on your heel to work on your toughness. Speed, too, but definitely toughness till they can't catch you."

"You're mad. Completely insane."

Ranma frowned and folded his arms over his chest, "It's good training! Tch, a martial artist's life is fraught with peril. You don't expect to get stronger from slapping away at each other in a dojo, do you?"

If he'd realised just how much he looked and sounded like Genma at that point, Ranma would have probably went looking for a tanto.


"Feh. If you don't like it, go back to the Hyuuga and take what they're offering. No skin off my nose."

She shut up.

"Bakusai tenketsu!"

The boulder exploded in a spectacularly large shower of rubble the moment Ryoga's finger made contact with its surface, but Ryoga frowned. He hadn't felt a damned thing but the tap of rock on flesh from the impacts. Might as well have been trying to beat Ranma in a race or trying to beat Kasumi in a cooking competition for all he'd got out of that. It was just a total void.

According to that scroll he was supposed to be feeling the earth or something gobbledegook sounding like that. Didn't make much sense to him, but he hadn't thought much of having boulders bounced off his face, either, and that had worked out pretty well in the end, so he went along with it; wandered on down to a training ground, and starting to smash things with the breaking point to see if he could make it all work.

He prodded another boulder and concreted as he watched it explode. Nothing. Got about as much of that as Mousse got out of his eyes without a pair of jam jar lenses over his eyes. Frustration rose up in his gut, and Ryoga had never been one to deny himself a release for that. He clenched his fist and with a roar he slammed it down to the ground, blasting up a massive cloud of dust that swept over and obscured the entire training ground.

When the smoke cleared he found himself waist-deep in a wide crater that was testament to just how frustrated he felt, but he didn't feel any better.

"Whoa there, you might want to watch the property damage, Ryoga. They charge you if you do too much, you know. Cheap bastards."

Ryoga whirled around, fists clenched, but stopped when he saw who it was. "What do you want, Fudo?"

"Hey, now, is that any way to talk to your honoured sensei?"

"Who said you were honoured?"

"Yeah, you're one of Anko's alright. Wouldn't know how to show respect to your seniors if the Kyuubi itself forced the idea into your skull. Bet you can drink your own weight in sake and just walk away too."

Ryoga scowled. "Do you want something?"

"Not exactly big on the patience, are you?" asked Fudo as he scooped up the scroll Ryoga had dropped nearby. "Huh, elemental training. Bit young for that, aren't you? Don't normally see teenagers with these scrolls."

Ryoga gritted his teeth and started to count down from ten. The bastard would just use some crazy technique to get away if he tried to smash him anyway.

"Well, you're doing it all wrong. You can't just run around smashing things with some crazy technique if you want to make this work. Well, you can, but it won't do much. I suppose if you like smashing things-"

Ryoga grabbed Fudo by his armoured vest and hoisted him into the air. "Do you have something useful to say?"

"Oh, my, Ryoga, are you going to hurt little ol' me? It's not very nice to attack someone who's offering help, you know. Doesn't make friends or influence people . . . not in a good way, at least."

Ryoga dropped him. "If you've got training that'll help me beat Ranma, I'm all ears."

"Ah, no. Really, Ryoga, you need to learn how to put a bit more heart into asking people for help. Threatening to brain them doesn't help, you know."

Ryoga ground his teeth. "Please."

"Right, well, then. Wasn't so hard, was it? As one earth-type to another, I don't see any reason why I can't pass on the trick to getting started. I'm not big on the whole bit with people thinking it only really counts if you teach it all to yourself."

Ryoga listened attentively. Anything to beat Ranma. Anything.

"Put your hand on the ground and close your eyes. Just don't say anything, don't move, don't get angry or frustrated. Let it all go. It's not important."

Ryoga felt Fudo kneel down next to him.

"Now, you know how to meditate, right? Of course you do, big bad martial artist that you are. It's like that. Just concentrate on my voice and let the world slip away. Focus on my voice."

Ryoga did so. It took a while but he did so. The words were mostly nonsense, some sort of ninja bedtime story about a guy who could create forests and created the modern world, but it was just background drivel as he cleared his mind.

"Yes, that's it," said Fudo, almost jarring Ryoga out of his trance. "You've got the right state. Now, the soil beneath your fingers. The grass brushing against your skin. Focus on that, on the energy within it, the energy running through it, the chakra of the earth. It's there, just waiting, all you have to do is touch it."

Ryoga breathed deeply and tried to reach out. To the slow rhythm of his breathing he pulled a small trickle of ki out from the core at the centre of his being and threaded it through his body till it was nestling in the tips of his fingers, and then he allowed it to quietly dribble out into the ground he was resting atop.

For a moment, frustration almost set in again. He couldn't feel a nything. But then, there it was, at the edge of his senses: a small flicker of . . . something, of ki. He grasped onto that flicker greedily and put all of his power into drawing this flicker to him and making it his.

Then the world exploded into stark relief. The lines of energy that were woven through the soil and everything on up were clearly visible to him. It almost took his breath away, seeing the energy that made the world up.

But then it faded away. He saw the world as it was through human eyes. He'd opened his eyes at some point and he saw the world in the colour it normally was. But he could still feel it, the ki of the earth, and where it ran beneath Fudo's feet.

He couldn't help himself. He just had to try and put what he'd just discovered to good use and test it out. He pulled his ki free and blasted it into the lines beneath. A second later the ground underneath Fudo exploded upwards in a rapidly growing miniature mountain full of jagged edges.

"Man, that would have hurt," said Fudo from behind Ryoga. "Not very nice, kid."

Ryoga's grin was fierce.

"So you want to play? Come on, show me what you got."

Ryoga laughed as he ran through the hand seals and the earth around him erupted. He loved it.

"So what are you going to do about Neiji?" Hanabi pronounced that last word as if it were some sort of foul curse.

"Me?" asked Ranma as he slid around Hanabi's lunging strike and snagged her ankle to send her crashing to the ground in a heap. "She's your sister. Shouldn't you be doing something?"

Hanabi glared up at him. "Like what?" she snapped. "He'd just beat me bloody, too, and he'd get away with it because he's strong."

Ranma doubted that. It was one thing to let your ninja daughter getting beaten half to death slide, it was another to let your seven year old daughter getting beaten half to death slide. And there was no way in hell Ranma would let that little brat of a supposed prodigy get away with it, either. "Don't have to go at him in a fight to get revenge," he said. "There are all sorts of things you could do."

"Like what? Dye all his clothes pinks?" snarled Hanabi. "He's a genius ninja. I'm not going to be able to get him with anything."

"Tch, you're supposed to be a student of Anything Goes. Have some imagination. You don't think those precious eyes are invulnerable, do you?"

Ranma figured he'd hit a sore spot with that one; the kunai that came flying at his face was kind of a giveaway. Sheesh, some people just didn't have any self control. Hanabi came flying at him, all fists and feet as she tried to land a hit on him. Ranma used it as training. Even with a little kid there was some challenge to be had from avoiding all their attacks without moving your feet. Not much, but some.

"You know, taking out your temper on me isn't going to work, right?" said Ranma. "I'm not going to let you hit me unless you earn it."

Hanabi snarled and would have probably went at him some more if they hadn't been interrupted by a horrible, wailing scream. A scream that was approaching them. "What?" said Hanabi, looking stunned.

"Tch, what a wimp."

Hitomi burst into the clearing, eyes wild, with chunks of meat so raw it was dripping blood tied to her robes. The once-white robes were stained red and more than one of the lumps of meat strapped to her looked as if something had taken a chunk of them. She stopped and stared at Ranma for a moment, eyes not even remotely friendly, but the sound of barking soon set her to running again and she passed the pair of Ranma and Hanabi in a blur as a pack of baying wolves barrelled into the clearing.

"Are you going to make me do that?" asked Hanabi in a very small voice as the wolves hurtled past her, tongues lolling.

"Eh? Well, yes. Of course. It's good training."

Hanabi's eyes went very, very large and she made a sort of dismayed little squeaking sound in the back of her throat as she stared at Ranma.

"Not for a couple of years, though," he said with a thoughtful expression on his face. "Need to toughen you up a little first. Maybe start with something smaller. Say, how do you like foxes?"

Hanabi just stared.

"Feh, not the time anyway. Come on, try to hit me some more. It's endurance training at least."

She didn't move.

Ranma sighed and quickly knocked Hanabi on her backside with a kick to the chest. "Pay attention," he said. "Or I'll just leave you and go do my own training."

He quickly snatched the shuriken that was thrown his way out of the air and hurled it back to deflect the follow-up kunai away to the side. Now that was what he was talking about. If she wanted to get revenge on Neji, she'd need to get strong and she'd need to learn to keep fighting no matter what.

Form the image you wish to force onto your target in your mind, crystallise every last detail of your illusion, and then attach it to your target's chakra coils. It all sounded so simple in the basic steps. Mousse had thought he'd be up and genjutsuing within a few hours when he'd first skimmed the scroll, but then he'd started reading the scroll in detail and practising on the monkey he'd acquired and it had all fallen apart.

Form the image in your mind? Crystallise it? It sounded so easy, but he'd quickly discovered that it really wasn't. It was difficult enough to create the image in the first place, even more difficult to maintain it, and damned near impossible to keep it up while actually executing the technique. How do you keep a mental image crisp and clear right down to the smallest smell when you're also performing a complicated technique with umpteen handseals?

He knew it had to be possible, there were plenty of people who could actually use these techniques, but he just wasn't getting it. Maybe it was just practice? He pulled out another banana and quickly pealed and deposited it ready. The damned monkey sniffed the air in curiosity and turned away from the peel it was playing with to stare at the newly revealed fruit with a look of desire in its eyes.

Mousse ignored the monkey and closed his eyes to form the image in his mind. No, that isn't a piece of delicious fruit. It's an inedible lump of plastic, you stupid monkey, he pressed into his mind. Don't eat it. It's not food. He brought that mental image into stark focus with every detail he could manage and then, with half a dozen hand seals, he forced it upon the monkey.

And then he opened his eyes to see the results. The monkey was staring at him with a quizzical look on its face, the banana half eaten in its hands. Had it worked? It looked like it had! It had stopped eating!

The monkey went back to its meal.

"Damn you."

Mousse closed his eyes and took a deep breath as frustration surged within him. He'd mastered Hidden Weapons, a school that virtually no other could manage more than the bare basics in, so why couldn't he master this? It was ridiculous! He was better than some flunky struggling to master some bare basics, he knew that, so why couldn't he manage it?

Something soft and wet slapped against his face and stuck. He was almost afraid to open his eyes, but when he did so he found a . . a banana peel sliding its way down across his glasses. And the damned monkey was laughing at him.

"I always wondered what Saotome would be like with an animal curse," said Mousse, plucking a kunai from his sleeve as he spoke. "Now I know. Die!"

"You're not really going to do this, are you?" asked Hitomi. "I know you're a lunatic and like your freakish training techniques, but this is insane even by your standards."

Ranma eyed the girl. "Well, I wouldn't expect someone so weak to understand real training," he said. "Look at you. You look like you've been in a fight with a grandmaster and you've only been chased by a pack of wolves."

The glare might have been entertaining if her face wasn't all puffy and turning alarming shades of yellow and purple from when she'd ran face-first into a tree when trying to escape the wolves. "Oh, I understand plenty," she said. "You're a mad sadist who plays at being a stupid little boy. What else is there?"

"Feh, you wouldn't have lasted five minutes with my pop training you. He had me doing this when I was five."

"You're lying . . . right? That's a line of bullshit?"

Ranma said nothing in reply. He waved his arms up and down, making sure the bamboo wings he'd attached to them were firmly in place. Wouldn't do to try and fly off the edge of a cliff with wings that just fell off. That'd be a real embarrassing way to get your face planted in the mud at the bottom.

"Just so you know, when you go splat, I'm not scraping what's left of you off the ground," said Hitomi. "I'll just leave you there."

"Eh, it's only a few hundred feet. I knocked Ryoga off a cliff higher 'n this when we had that duel after he learned the breaking point. Heh, good times. Should 'a seen the look on his face when I used all that momentum to punch him into the dirt."

"So where's the brat gone?"

"Said she wasn't going to watch me commit suicide. No faith, you people."

"Hey, if the shoe fits."

Ranma shook his head. He'd show them. There was no way he was going to fail like he was some Ryoga-type idiot. A quick few steps back set him up for the run-up and then he hurtled forward and launched himself into oblivion.

For a few moments he thought he'd done it. He was gliding through the air, wind beneath his wings, and it felt good. But the euphoria barely had time to set in before he started to slip downwards. Immediately, he began to flap his arms to try and get some lift, and he tried to feel the ki of the wind like the scroll said, but there wasn't even a flicker.

"Oh . . . shit."

No matter how frantically he flapped his arms, no matter how much of his strength and speed he put into it, it didn't buy him anything and the ground grew closer and closer with every passing moment. The wind didn't feel quite so good whistling past him going down as it did going up, that was for sure.

And coming to a halt as he slammed into the ground face-first really didn't feel good. Was like taking a direct hit from Ryoga and his damned umbrella of doom. Ranma decided to stop and take a moment to stop seeing stars.

"Hey, you dead?"

Ranma pulled his head out of the ground. "Ha, like something so weak could kill me!"

He quickly ran up the cliff and set up for another attempt. He wasn't giving up that easily, no way.

Split focus. That was the key. Split your focus so you can maintain the mental image and execute the actual technique upon the victim. He'd had a hard time managing that with two unfamiliar pieces of work, but doing it with Hidden Weapons and the mental image part had been a fruitful sort of training.

Now, the battered looking monkey, shooting him foul looks as it was, was going to suffer his illusionary wrath! Yes, it was! That damned Saotome wannabe was going to suffer its rightful fate and be defeated by the power of his Amazon self. He peeled the banana and deposited it ready. The monkey wasn't so quick to move this time, probably rightfully wary of pissing off the person who had taught it a righteous lesson in not pissing off the guy with an infinite supply of weaponry up his sleeves.

The mental image came to him quickly this time. The banana was a lie, it was not fruit, it was not edible, it would not taste good, it did not smell good - that was the image he built within his mind as he performed his technique, slowly sinking it into the monkey's undeveloped chakra coils as it sniffed the air.

And it didn't move to take it. The infernal creature stopped sniffing and turned its back on the fruit with a quiet ook. Mousse couldn't, and didn't care to, restrain the whoop of joy that welled up within him. Success! Finally!

"You really don't have to do this, you know."

"I've got it this time," said Ranma, around the considerable swelling marring his speech. "I felt something that last time."

He needed to be stronger. Orochimaru had shown him that. He couldn't give up just because the training was hurting a little. That was the way of the coward, of the weak, and he couldn't afford to be either. He was Ranma Saotome and he had to be strong if was going to win the rematch.

And so he leaped into oblivion once more, because there was no other option worth considering.

The attempt started out much the same as the previous ones. He took a powerful leap, reaching a high apex, and then started to drop as he flapped his arms to try and stall his fall while trying to feel the energy of the wind.

But this time there was a difference. The small spark he fancied that he'd felt at the end of his last attempt showed up again and he latched onto it greedily, feeding his own ki into linking to it. And the world became his oyster. It was but a simple matter to feed the wind beneath his wings and enter a controlled flight.

And the sound of his delighted laughter filled the area. He loved it. Anything Goes was an aerial school and to learn this, to actually fly, or glide at least, was absolutely the best thing he'd ever learned.

Chapter Twenty

A tournament. That was how they were going to decide who was going to be promoted to chuunin. Okay, Ranma had known that from the end of the preliminaries, but what he hadn't expected was it to be in some gigantic stadium with thousands of people from all corners of the globe watching. It wasn't exactly the way to keep your ninja skills from becoming the stuff of public knowledge. But then nobody seemed all that worried about the whole bingo book thing, so maybe they didn't care all that much. It was weird but they weren't exactly normal ninja to start with.

Ranma grinned. She thought it was brilliant. A chance to show off just how great she was to a few thousand people at once. The whole thing was perfect. They wouldn't be able to keep her on these crappy D-rank missions after she'd showed the whole world had great she was.

"Hey, stop looking around," said the ninja guy who was in charge. "Face the customers. You guys are the stars here."

Ranma looked up at the baying crowd. It was pretty funny to see all those brats shifting around and looking all nervous and stuff, as they realised how many people were watching. That was all kinds of hilarious, the kiddy soldiers getting all nervous because they were going to be watched.

"We will now start the main tournament matches," announced the old man, his voice echoing throughout the arena and drowning out the crowd. "Please stay and watch till the end as these eleven young warriors battle to prove their strength."

The crowd roared in response. Man, it was like a baseball game or something. Except better because it was fighting and it had her in it. Only problem was the 'her' part of that. Damned stupid challenge.

"There's something I'd like to tell you before the matches," said the ninja guy around the senbon he had in his mouth. What was his name again? Oh, yeah, Genma. Small world. He had a tournament rankings sheet in his hand "Look at this. There have been some small changes. Check to see who you're fighting."

Still Ryoga. Good. She wanted someone who could give her a decent workout before she got her win. It'd be boring otherwise. These kids just didn't have enough to make her work up a sweat.

"Hey! Hey!" said Naruto, thrusting his arm up in the air to get attention.


"Sasuke's not here yet. What happens if he doesn't get here in time?"

"He forfeits."

Silence fell over the competitors briefly. The crowd more than made up for it. One missing fighter wasn't going to stop them having their fun, she supposed.

"Alright, guys, this is the final test," said Genma. "The arena's difference but the rules are the same as the prelims. No rules. Fight till one of you's dead or submits. But if I say the fight's over, it's over. I'll step in and stop it. Get me?"

Oh, the serious looks. "Did you say something?"

How nostalgic, someone called Genma glaring at her. It was almost like being back home, except this one wasn't a panda-man and didn't talk about the path of the martial artist or, well, anything like her pop. "If you're finished being a smart-arse, maybe we can get on with this?" he said.

"Hey, I can go on all day."

"Shut up," said Genma, senbon standing out from between gritted teeth. Ah, she still had it. "Dammit, you're annoying."

Ranma opened her mouth but Ryoga clamped a hand over it before she could say anything. "Just ignore her," he said. "We all do."

"Right," Genma looked away as Ranma slammed an elbow back into Ryoga's ribs with all the strength she could muster. The bastard didn't even bother to pretend that she'd knocked the air out of him. "First fight. Naruto Uzumaki, Neji Hyuuga, you two stay down here. The rest of you go wait your turn in the room we've got set up."

"Beat him like a drum, Naruto," said Ranma with a jaunty wave. She wasn't worried. The kid had been pretty useless against Kiba, but he had the look of someone who meant business around him this time and, hey, he had one of her techniques to use, so how could he fail?

By the time everyone had trundled on up, scaling half a dozen flights of stairs inside the stadium walls before coming out onto a balcony that overlooked the stadium floor, Naruto and Neiji were stood facing each square on, maybe twenty feet apart, with Genma stood between them.

"Is he shaking?" asked Mousse. "He can't be scared already."

Ranma pursed her lips. "Looks like he's eager to me," she said. "He'd better be or I'm gonna pound that technique right outta his skull when this is over."

"What did you teach him?"

"Ha, wait and see, bacon breath. Wait and see. I'm not gonna spoil the surprise."

"Looks like you have something to say," Ranma heard Neji say over the sounds of the crowd.

Naruto levelled his fist at Neji. "I already told you," he said. "I'm going to beat you."

There was not a shred of doubt in Naruto's posture. Not a bit. Every line of his body radiated confidence. Perfect. That was just what she had been hoping for when she gave him the scroll.

"First fight, begin!" announced Genma. He quickly disappeared, leaving the two fighters alone.

"I'm going to enjoy seeing you face reality," said Neji, not even bothering to assume a fighting stance.

"Less talking, more fighting. Kage bunshin no jutsu!"

Four clones popped into existence around with Naruto, each of them utterly identical to the boy who'd created them, right down to the hand seal they were forming and the look of intent concentration on their faces. It was an impressive technique, Ranma had to admit. There was no way she would have been able to tell which one was the real Naruto if she hadn't been watching as they'd sprang into existence.

And, briefly, so very briefly, Ranma saw a look of surprise flicker over Neji's features before they smoothed back out into the usual arrogant disdain. Then he assumed a classic jyuuken stance.

"Smart move," said Shikamaru. "He can't close the tenketsu if he can't get at the real Naruto."

And then the four Naruto clones yelled at the top of their lungs, yanked a kunai free from the pouch hanging from their belt, and charged forth as one. It wasn't a bad plan really. Half a dozen attackers, coming in from all different angles, with plenty of aggression - you'd think that if he was going to be able to land a hit all that would do the trick. Neji didn't look worried even in the slightest, though.

The first two to reach Neji barely had time to raise their arm for a slash of the blades they were carrying before he'd taken to the air, using their heads as launchpads to extend the leap as he flipped over their heads and allowing the combined momentum to send the pair sprawling. The two Naruto clones coming in from further behind those didn't time to blink before Neji was in the air between them and neither reacted before Neji caught them with a kick to the chest that sent the two sprawling back.

But the copies that Neji had flipped by were not done yet. They came charging in from behind him, blades flashing in the sun, but coming in from behind would be little help against a Hyuuga. He caught both of their blade arms at the wrist, stopping them dead, before quickly releasing and snapping their heads back with palm strikes. As they staggered from that he landed lethal jyuuken strikes to their hearts.

All four clones vanished with a small, woe-begotten popping sound.

"Become Hokage?" sneered Neji. "Fate will not allow such weak power to claim the position."

Naruto growled. "Don't underestimate me!" he bellowed. "I don't give up! Kage bunshin no jutsu!"

Ranma may have been surprised, just a little, by the number of clones that sprang into existence around Naruto. Dozens. Perhaps even fifty. How much ki did the kid have to do something like that?

Neji looked unimpressed. "Your attacks are transparent."

"I told you not to underestimate me!"

It wasn't so much an attack as a swarm that followed, and the sound of it was loud enough to almost drown out the crowd with each Naruto bellowing a war-cry as they charged towards their target in one great mass of horribly blinding orange and yellow. There were no free angles for Neji, all were covered by at least one of the clones, but still the boy dodged between the attacks and took clone after clone out with precise, disabling jyuuken strikes.

"Your student doesn't look like he's going to last long enough to use whatever you taught him," said Mousse. He sounded way too happy about it.

"Tch. You think I'd waste time on some weakling that wouldn't be able to stand up and fight?"

Then, saying that, she hadn't exactly spent a lot of time on slipping Naruto a scroll and hoping for the best. Eh. Technicalities.

Neji flowed through the clones as they mobbed him, pivoting this way and that to allow attacks to pass on by, and sending a steady stream of the conjured fighters back to whence they came with precise jyuuken strikes aimed at spots that would cripple or kill a normal person. It looked like he was just picking off the attackers, thinning the crowd, but there was a pattern to his movements, a purpose. He was working his way towards something.

And there it was. Neji's head snapped up and his focus turned entirely on to the Naruto that was stood slightly away from the crowd. The clones around him attacked as one to try and stop him but he was far, far too quick for them to arrest his charge. Clone after clone fell as they tried to get between him and his target, annihilated with quick strikes that caught them before they could so much as blink, and Ranma was sure she would have been able to see fear in the eyes of the Naruto he was heading towards if that one had been facing them.

Then it was done. A quick palm strike to the chest left that Naruto sagging against Neji's arm and a mass of clones that had got between Neji and his target vanished in a series of pops and small clouds of smoke.

"Did you think I would not see your pattern?" he said. "The one holding back, the one with the fear of being disabled, that is the real enemy."

Naruto disappeared in a puff of smoke. The look of shock on Neji's face was absolutely comical

"What did I tell you about underestimating me?" bellowed Naruto as he charged at the flat-footed Neji. "I'm coming at you with everything I have and prepared to die!"

They had him. They absolutely had him. The real Naruto came in from one side, a clone from the other, more from the front and back, and there was nowhere for Neji to run; he was totally off-balance, caught between the oncoming foes. Ranma couldn't quite restrain the grin that came at that sight. He'd done it and he hadn't even needed any new techniques!

But Neji didn't look too worried. In fact, he almost looked smug as he folded his arms across his chest and hopped into the air. The Narutos didn't so much as slow down, they just kept on coming, ignoring the way that Neji was beginning to spin and the energy that was leaking out from him.

The Narutos' fists stopped dead on a shimmering barrier no more than an inch away from Neji's head. They had a heartbeat to look surprised before Neji's slow spin turned rapid and the energy leaking from him turned into a colossal wave that blasted Naruto and his clones away.

"Did you think you had won?" sneered Neji from the crater his defence had carved out of the ground. "You are no match for the ultimate defence of the Hyuuga."

Ranma's mind worked furiously as Naruto clambered back to his feet. Now that was a technique she wouldn't mind borrowing - it'd be a very nice way to get people like Ryoga out of her face. But how did it work? The spin had to be part of the key - he wouldn't have bothered with it otherwise - but how did he make his ki spiral out like that? The tenketsu? She'd have to see the technique again.

"I told you not to underestimate me," growled Naruto. The air around him started to glow a brilliant blue as ki flooded out of him. "I'm not done yet."

Neji assumed a wide stance. "Come," he said. "Let me show me the futility of your attempt to defeat destiny."

Naruto roared with the exertion of it as he summoned an absolutely stupendous amount of ki to surround him in a near opaque sphere of raw energy. It was as impressive a battle aura as Ranma had ever seen.

"What the hell did you teach him?"

"Not this."

The energy was colossal, enough so that it almost hurt Ranma's eyes to look at it such was the brightness of the aura, but much of it was leaking harmlessly away into the surroundings. Ranma could see the ground around Naruto, metres around, cracking and burning as the energy ran into it and the air was shimmering in a way that spoke of immense heat.

Then it vanished. No, that was her eyes compensating, it drew down into a point in front of his outstretched arms where it formed a sphere of energy so bright that Ranma couldn't bring herself to look directly at it.

Neji's stance had grown a great deal more narrow and Ranma could see the ki gathering as he prepared his defence.



Energy blew forth from Naruto's cupped forms to form a massive column of blue light. The column soon lost its shape, however, and spread to become a solid wall of ki speeding forth towards its target. Its spinning, glowing target.

And then the energies met in a fierce explosion. The mixed energies swept forth and billowed across the arena, filling it with an unearthly light, before they died away. What was left was an enormous crater where Neji had been stood, a Naruto dropped to his knees panting for air, and a massive wave of torn up soil, ruined trees, and finally a smashed arena wall.

It really wasn't fair when some brat you'd slipped a scroll to could cause more destruction with your technique than you could, Ranma thought.

Genma was stood off to the side, gaping, senbon dropped to the ground from his mouth and the arena had gone utterly silent.

"Ha, told you not to underestimate me!" crowed Naruto from his kneeling position, looking thoroughly impressed with himself. "Uh, where are you, Neji? Umm, are you dead?"

"Hey, Ryoga," said Ranma. "Looks like someone just matched your perfect attack. Someone I taught. How'd you like that?"

She might not like it but that wasn't going to stop her from rubbing ol' bacon breath's nose in it.

"Shut up, Ranma. It isn't over yet."

Naruto was on his feet and breathing easily already. Some stamina that kid had. Almost Ryoga-like, and he was only twelve. "Hey! Neji! Come out and fight, you bastard!"

Genma shook his head. "Kid, he's not-"

The debris at the arena wall shifted and finally a chunk of it was tossed aside. A distinctly battered and woozy looking Neji stepped out. But his arrogance looked barely shaken.

"How?" gasped someone near them. "He should be dead!"

"Most of the energy in Naruto's attack looked like it was wasted," said Shikamaru. "Damn. I had no idea he was that strong, but his control's still as bad as ever."

"So someone has given you a taste of power," said Neji. "But it is no match for the Hyuuga legacy of hatred. You will still be defeated. Fate demands it."

"Blah, blah, blah," said Naruto. "Just because your dad got killed to save the clan head and because you've got that stupid seal on your forehead you think you know everything. You're full of shit."


"Heard all about it when I was training. So your family sucks. At least you have one. It's no excuse to beat Hinata like you did."

"Tch, there's no hope for you," said Neji. "I'll show you the truth. Your place in the world is already set. There is only pain and suffering in fighting it as you do."

"It'll take more than pain and suffering to stop me! Kage bunshin no jutsu!"

Neji slid into a wide stance with one arm held so low that it was almost scraping the floor as a dozen clones appeared in a line in front of Naruto. Ranma shook her head in disbelief - the kid was absolutely, ridiculously full of energy. Then the clones all started to glow as one and Ranma couldn't quite keep her jaw from dropping. Full of energy? His energy was endless.

But Neji wasn't just standing still and watching. He wasn't going to wait to be hit again; he was already moving, from that familiar stance he rocketed forth, hands flashing as he twisted through the clones, launching dozens of rapid strikes as he went, till he came to a halt half a dozen paces short of a lightly glowing Naruto. Every single one of the clones promptly vanished in a puff of smoke.

"No matter what power you have been granted, you cannot defeat fate."

"You can cram fate up your arse!"

The shimmer of energy around Naruto vanished almost entirely before his fist began to glow brightly. He changed immediately and Neji quickly threw up a kaiten again.

When the light cleared this time, a deep furrow had been carved into the ground in both directions away from where they had met. Both fighters were flat on their backs and looking the worse for wear, but then Naruto disappeared with a pop and a much less battered looking one stepped out from behind one of the trees.

Neji still wasn't doing much more than twitching by the time Naruto reached his side. "Tch, to lose like this," he said, "to forget your favourite technique. How careless."

"I failed my genin exam because I couldn't go a bunshin to save my life," said Naruto. "Fate doesn't mean shit."

Neji said nothing.

"When I become Hokage, I'll change Hyuuga for you and Hinata."

"Winner: Naruto Uzumaki!"

The stadium exploded. Not literally, although that wasn't entirely unlikely in a ninja village, but in cheers. Naruto wasn't exactly slow to start lapping it up. As he bounded around the stadium soaking it all up, Genma moved over to Neji and said a few quiet words before walking away.

A bird flew overhead and Ranma could almost believe that Neji smiled.

"You know the rules," said Genma. "Stop when I say stop, otherwise it goes on till someone dies or submits. Simple."

Ryoga rolled his neck. "This is a man to man fight," he said. "Don't interfere."

Genma looked at Ryoga. He looked at Ranma, who looked and shrugged with a 'hey, nothing to with me' sort of expression on her face. He looked back at Ryoga. "You might want to invest in a pair of glasses, kid," he said. "Just do what I say, yeah? Easier on us both that way."

Ryoga shot him a quick glare but soon returned his attention to Ranma. And didn't she just feel flattered. "Come on, man," she said. "Quit talking and let us start fighting. I'm gonna start growing roots if I stand around much longer."

"Well, it's your funeral. Second fight, begin!"

Genma promptly disappeared in a puff of smoke, leaving Ryoga and Ranma alone on the battered stadium floor. They immediately started circling around, never taking their eyes off each other as they looked for an opening to begin the offensive.

"I won't lose to you, Ranma," said Ryoga with a fanged grin. "I've got all sorts of new techniques to show you."

Ranma smirked. "Heard that before," she said. "Never seems to work out all that well for you."

"I'm going to wipe that damned smirk off your face once and for all!"

And with that Ryoga charged. He came with a fierce battle cry, moving as quickly as Ranma had ever seen him move, with his umbrella held high above his head to deliver a crushing blow. She did nothing, moving not a muscle, till he was virtually on her and then in a flicker she was behind him and his strike slammed harmlessly into the ground.

"You know, that would have really hurt," said Ranma, looking at the crater Ryoga had created from her position just off his left shoulder as the dust settled. "Good thing you're such a slug, eh?"

Ryoga roared and swung around, bringing umbrella with him in a vertical swipe that cut through the air with a fierce slicing sound. Ranma, again, didn't move till it was virtually on her and then she was atop the umbrella as it came to a halt where she had been stood. And from there, before Ryoga could react, she came around in a graceful twirl and slammed the hell of her foot into Ryoga's temple before using the momentum to flip away from him.

"Fast as the wind, Ryoga," said Ranma as her opponent halted the skid she'd sent him into. "That have any meaning to you? It's what I am now."

"If you're as fast as the wind, then I'm as enduring as the mountain range."

Ranma coughed. "Horaisan."

Ryoga's expression took an alarming turn for the wrathful.

Ranma coughed again. "Jusendo."

Ryoga lost it there and charged, but an attack in anger was an attack easily dodged by Ranma. And then she was on him. She came in low to his left first, slamming a combination of punches into his diaphragm before he could react, and then she was high to his right, delivering a roundhouse kick that twisted him around and forced him to lower his head, before she delivered an axe kick to the now exposed back of his skull that dropped him to his knees through sheer force.

"Give it up, bacon breath," she said. "You're just too slow. I have more of a challenge hitting a punching bag."

Ryoga looked up at her and grinned. "Your blows are as a baby's tap to me, Ranma!" he shouted. Yeah, because that's so original, Ryoga. She didn't have time to say that, though, before he prodded his finger down into the ground. "Bakusai Tenketsu!"

The ground where she had been stood exploded upwards in a shower of dirt and rock fragments but she was already well away. "That won't work," she said. "I've seen it all before."

He stabbed his finger down again. What was the point? He couldn't affect the ground she was on from all the over-

Ranma barely got away in time as a massive, jagged rock spike burst up from the ground beneath her feet. She had only a moment to wonder just what the hell what was going on before she had to squirt a mass of ki from her feet to change direction mid-air to avoid another spike that ripped up to skewer her on the path she was on.

"You won't get away from me that easily, Ranma!"

More spikes ripped up from the ground and Ranma found herself dodging frantically, using the sides of the spikes as launchpads to bounce from place to place to keep from being gutted. It wasn't a position she enjoyed being in. Forced on the defensive by Ryoga! It was just embarrassing, and it wasn't the way to win. He had control; she couldn't let it stay that way or she might, gods forbid, lose!

She twisted in mid-air as another spike tore through the air by her. That one she felt brush against her, so close to actually hitting that it actually tore the sleeve of her shirt. Almost enough to dent her confidence.

Time to fight back. She twisted in mid-air to face Ryoga and took a deep, deep breath, inflating her lungs to the maximum, as she raced through the hand-seals. "Tajuu kaze dangan no jutsu!"

And with those words she vomited forth a series of blasts of solidified air that rocketed outwards at anything and everything that looked like it needing smashing to bits. Ryoga was able to dodge the one aimed at him but the spikes weren't going anywhere. Explosion after explosion followed and vast amounts of shattered rock rained down on the stadium floor as Ranma finished her technique.

She wasn't finished there, though. As Ryoga rolled to his feet she tapped into her new affinity for the wind and blurred down to the ground and met him with a full-blooded, full-speed series of punches from both hands. The thuds made by fist impacting on face quickly blurred into one long sound till the sheer force of the impacts threw Ryoga back into the stadium wall. Ranma followed that up with a leaping kick that smashed Ryoga's head back into and through the wall.

He kinda squirmed and struggled a little as he tried to pull himself free of the wall, but he was far too well embedded. Made it nice and easy for Ranma to throw another combination of punches into his gut. Opportunistic but it took an awful lot of tenderising before Ryoga was hurt enough for it to count.

She heard a growl come from where his head was located and then he jabbed his finger into the wall. No way. Even he wouldn't-

"Bakusai Tenketsu!"

Of course he would. It was Ryoga. The wall exploded outwards - Ranma used her speed to bat the rock fragments aside before they could hit her - and Ryoga stood tall and free with a fierce look on his face. Skin wasn't even broken where he'd blown a wall to pieces around him.

And then they met. Ryoga led with a straight punch that she easily dodged but then followed it up with a left hook that she had to bend in half at the waist to avoid. From that position she snapped out a kick that caught Ryoga beneath the ribs before straightening up and letting loose another barrage of punches straight into Ryoga's face with a yell of exertion.

Ryoga staggered back a step under the assault but he quickly recovered. Ranma leaned aside to let his retaliatory punch pass by her head and then with a quick grab and twist she tossed him back over her head to land in the centre of the arena. It would never do for her to get into a slugging match with Ryoga, and that was what would happen if she didn't get it back away from the walls and into the open.

"Shi shi hokodan!"

Ranma reacted in a blur "Moko takabisha!"

The two beams of ki impacted in the centre ground between the two and exploded in a blinding flash of blue and green light. The next thing Ranma saw was Ryoga charging out of the light, a growl on his lips and fist cocked to deliver a devastating blow. She quickly side-stepped her way out of that attack but Ryoga wasn't one to give up at the first attempt.

Ranma leaned back to allow an incoming uppercut to connect with nothing but air before catching a high-kick on her left bracer. Her return punch rocked Ryoga's head back but that was barely even noticed. He just barrelled on through with a combination of straight punches that she had to move frantically to avoid.

But even Ranma couldn't dodge forever against Ryoga. Eventually she slapped one punch aside with a palm strike, but the next after that came just that little bit too quickly and connected straight on with the centre of her chest. The force of that blow slammed her back off her feet and sent her bouncing back across the arena floor before she managed to twist around to land in a skid.

Ryoga came charging after her to follow up the attack but she wasn't going to stand around waiting to be pounded. In a blur of motion she was away, clear over at the other side of the arena, stood next to a fair-sized boulder that was just begging to be used as a weapon. Really, she could hear it calling to her.

And so she plucked the boulder from the ground and, with a quick twist for extra speed, she launched it at Ryoga's head with as much force as she could manage.

"You think that will work?" he shouted. "Bakusai tenketsu!"

The boulder exploded the instant his finger touched it, utterly harmless to someone with skin like his, but it gave Ranma the time she needed. "Kaze bunshin no jutsu!" she called out. Three copies of Ranma appeared behind her, as if something was colouring in the air itself. She pointed at Ryoga. "Get him!"

The three clones immediately blurred past her to attack Ryoga. She wasn't holding out much hope for them to accomplish much on their own; three clones at a fraction of her power wouldn't be able to hold Ryoga for all that long, but it was enough time to get through the hand-seals needed.

The first clone fell quickly, unable to manage quite the same level of speed as Ranma it misjudged a dodge and took a right hook directly which dispelled it. But the others dropped back and came in from opposite angles to ensure that they were able to drive Ryoga back away from Ranma as she worked through seal after seal. Times like that, she really wished she'd had the time to perfect the technique so that it didn't take so many damned seals. It was pure brute force nonsense as it was.

One of the clones managed to slip through Ryoga's defences and slam him back with a powerful kick to the sternum. The other got behind, looking to follow-up the attack and keep him stunned, but Ryoga quickly twisted and took her down with a quick down to the side of the head the dispelled her.

The last clone, sensing that it was out-gunned, quickly clasped its hands together. "Moka takabisha," it cried, letting lose a beam of blue energy.


The blue energy released by the Ranma clone was met halfway by a massive beam of green that surged forth from Ryoga's palms. A moment later the blue energy was smashed aside and the green slammed forth to obliterate the last Ranma clone.

But it didn't matter. Ranma had been given as much time as she'd needed. With a deep, deep breath she called forth the last of her new techniques. "Ryuujin no kamikaze."

The beast that flowed forth from Ranma's mouth as she finished her technique was vastly larger than she was. A monstrous, semi-solid creature of air and wind it was as large as any dragon of legend and as fierce looking. It was the sort of thing designed as much to strike fear into the hearts of enemies as to fight them. And it was heading straight towards the stunned looking Ryoga at speed.

Belatedly, Ryoga moved to dodge, but it was far too late. The beast was upon him and in one swoop it seized the lost boy within its gaping maw. Ranma winced. Ah, man, even Ryoga wasn't going to be getting back up from that anytime soon. The idiot was supposed to dodge so he didn't get the full hit. Look, he was even bleeding, and to get Ryoga bleeding it took enough force to cut a normal martial artist in two.

Wait, the blood. It was way too solid. And way too brown. Oh, shi-

Light exploded before Ranma's eyes as a crushing weight slammed into the base of her spine and catapulted her up into the sky. The pain surged up and down her body as the power of the blow registered with her, and dark spots crept into her vision as she felt the world turn fuzzy around her. It was real hard to keep her eyes open.

But seeing Ryoga swooping down towards her, snarl on his face and umbrella cocked above his head to deliver a finishing blow, was plenty of motivation to snap to. Nothing like having someone trying to crush your skull to wake you up. Ryuujin swept around as its victim disintegrated and hurtled up towards Ryoga with murder in its translucent eyes but this time Ryoga was prepared and quickly swept his umbrella around in a strike that smashed the dragon aside and sent it falling back to the Earth. It promptly disintegrated.

With a quick gesture she unsealed the fan she was carrying and quickly slapped it upwards in a parrying motion. For a moment Ryoga's strike stopped dead against her fan and he looked at her in utter shock. Then the technique really kicked in and the energy he tried to attack her with was applied to him, and away he went soaring into the wide blue yonder.

Ranma gasped in pain as the impact of landing on the ground jarred her. Dark spots danced in front of her eyes and she couldn't feel a damned thing in the arm she'd used to parry Ryoga's attack. Not good, not good at all. She was slowing down, she could feel it, and that would be fatal against Ryoga; he was too strong to get into a slugging match with, that was his game.

And there he was, coming down from the height she'd blasted him to. Feh. At least she'd bought herself a few seconds recovery time with that one. Enough time to summon up her energies, at least. "MOKA TAKABISHA!"

The blast of ki rocketed forth from her good arm and cut through the air between her and Ryoga in a blink. It was met by a swing of the umbrella that sent the energy careening off to the side into the lip of the stadium's roof, blasting a good few chunks of concrete loose to fall to the stadium floor.

"What?" she yelped. "Oh, come on! You can't do that!"

There was no more time to do anything else. In a flicker she moved away from the impact zone to the other side of the arena. Then Ryoga made impact and the cloud of dust that kicked up obscured the whole arena.

When the dust cleared, Ryoga was stood in the centre of a massive crater stretching out a dozen meters all around from where he'd impact. He hadn't moved a step, still stood with his back to her and with his umbrella held at his side.

"What?" said Ranma. "You done already? I've still got plenty left."

"I want to take my time," he said. "I want to enjoy this. Ranma Saotome, limping and injured, running out of power, on the run from Ryoga Hibiki. Do you have any idea how long I've waited?"

"Since when did you stand around gloating when you could be fighting?"

"Since I tricked you."

Ranma didn't have a moment to reply before Ryoga came bursting up from the ground beneath her feet and caught her flush on the jaw with an uppercut that sent her back into the sky.

Then she disappeared, strands of colour floating away on the breeze.

Ryoga didn't get a second to wonder what had just happened before Ranma flickered into view in front of him and slammed a full-bore series of punches into his face with all the speed and power she could muster. Ryoga, for all his strength and endurance, was still no heavier than a normal man and was blasted off his feet and smashed through the stadium wall by the power of the attack.

The Ryoga in the crater turned to move at her but she sliced it in two with a vacuum blade before it could so much as take a step. It promptly dissolved into a puddle of mud.

"Trying to get me with the same trick twice, Ryoga?" she asked. "You must be going soft in the head. Softer."

She sounded an awful lot more confident that she felt. Pain was ever-present, her back felt as if it were on fire, and she would almost rather that the feeling wasn't coming back to her arm given what it was telling her right then. It really was turning out to be one of those days. Damn them for goading her into doing this in her weaker body.

The wall exploded and Ryoga burst forth, veins in his forehead bulging with rage. He looked almost intimidating. "Kaze dangan no jutsu.."

Shame he made real easy target, really. Wasted the whole mad, intimidating berserker thing a bit when you just got blasted back to oblivion when you showed up looking all ready to tear someone's arms off and beat them to death with them. But that was Ryoga for you. Too stupid to even do brainless aggression right.


Ranma quickly rolled to the side to allow the green blast to pass on by and impact harmlessly, well mostly harmlessly, against the opposite wall. "Kaze dangan no jutsu." Ranma fired another blast from the diagonal, crushing more of the wall on top of Ryoga as she did so. She really had to wonder just how many more of these hits he could take. Or how many more she could deliver.

This time when Ryoga came bursting out of the rubble he did so with sufficient speed to carry him clear of Ranma's firing zone before she could blast him back. And then he was on the offensive, using his umbrella like a sword to drive at Ranma. But she was ready with her speed technique and flickered around the strikes like a river flowing around a blockage.

The look of sheer annoyance on Ryoga's face was almost enough to make Ranma stop and burst out laughing. He just looked so damned angry because he couldn't hit her. Wasn't he used to it? He always had trouble landing hits on her, even when she didn't have a swanky new technique to make dodging around easier.

Then in a flash it stopped being so funny. One moment she was dodging easily, as always, and then a terrible weight was pressing down on her and she could barely breath never mind dodge around. And there stood Ryoga, glowing a motley combination of green and red as his ridiculously heavy ki swept out around him and drowned the whole arena in its force.

Ranma tried to summon up her own power to break the hold as Ryoga slowly walked towards her, slowed by his own power, but the sputter of energy that came to her call was far from enough to break the weight of the energy Ryoga had unleashed.

And then she was being held aloft by the throat. Ryoga laughed. "I've done it!" he shouted. "I've beaten Ranma!"

"Before you get all happy," Ranma croaked around the grip, "I've got something to say."



The winds tore them apart. Ryoga, even with all his strength devoted to anchoring himself, could not resist the force of his power being turned against him in one great blast. Ranma herself was buffeted by the force of the hurricane she had created from Ryoga's powers and she was anchored to the ground by the contrast of the powers used in its creation.

As she'd suspected, the contrast didn't have to be hot and cold. It was ki, not real weather, so confidence and a combination of rage and depression worked just as well as temperature. Simple really.

Ryoga had some serious power behind him, though. She hadn't seen a bigger result outside of the fights with Herb and Saffron and neither of those were even human. If he wasn't such a moron, he could actually pose a real threat. But how likely was that? He was a straight-forward thinker. Charge and smash. Those were his tactics. Always. Okay, so he'd managed to pull a couple of clones out of the hat, but he'd been around ninja a while now so a few things were bound to rub off. It didn't mean anything.

So why was she getting a chill down her spine? Even Ryoga wasn't just going to shrug off something like the attack she'd just hit him with. There was no way he could be behind her ready to smash. Just wasn't possible, not with the force of this attack. No. She was just turning around because it seemed like something she could do, not because she was worried or anything. Not at all.

And she absolutely did not shriek when she saw a twenty foot tall Ryoga made of solid stone leering down at her. Shrieking was for girls, not for men amongst men who happened to have a pair of boobs half the time - a stunningly nice pair, if she did say so herself - and there was no way he, Ranma Saotome, would shriek like a little girl being caught in the nude by Happosai.

Well, maybe a little shriek. But a very manly one.


Vacuum blades poured forth from Ranma, hurtling outwards in all directions to slice their way through whatever they came into contact with. It was with great satisfaction that Ranma watched as the monstrous Ryoga thing slowly slide apart and fall to the ground with a series of almighty crashes. Then she realised what she'd just done. "Oh, shi-"

Ranma was promptly whipped into the air as she lost control of her own technique. There was no time to wonder what she could do to regain control; it was gone, and there was no way she could concentrate well enough to actually do anything while she was being thrown around the arena by a towering hurricane that felt like it was doing its level best to tear her body apart.

The first chunk of golem that smashed into her was barely even noticed. Once you've had the right sort of training and the right sort of fights, a few measly tons of rock doesn't hold much power over you. But then came the second and the third and the fourth and it just doesn't stop. Getting hit enough times by even a lightweight and it starts to ache; get smashed in the face enough times with a few tons of unyielding rock and you start to lose your memory of what day it is.

It was all Ryu's fault, giving her all those tempting techniques to copy.

But even a hurricane of that power had to die down eventually and so it did slamming Ranma down into the ground with enough force to drive what little air she still had in her lungs right out and leave her gasping. She managed to force herself to her hands and knees but could manage no further as her body gave up on her and sheer agony lanced through her mind.

Ryoga came down a few metres in front of her. He at least had the grace to look like he was hurt, too. Bacon bits landed on his back and Ranma could see his chest heaving as he tried to fill his lungs. But then he rolled over to his front and started to life himself to his feet, and he seemed to be having more success than she was. She could see the muscles in his arms trembling as he lifted himself up, but he was still moving, and she wasn't.

Damn it, damn it, damn it. She had to move. She had to. Ryoga was up to one knee and she couldn't even get off her hands and knees. Dammit. She was going to lose. She was going to lose to Ryoga! And with that thought a great wave of disgust welled up within her and with that came a little burst of strength. She raised one arm from the ground. "Shi shi hokodan."

The attack was nowhere near as large or as bright as her typical but it still flew true and Ryoga didn't see it coming. The blast caught him behind the ear and sent him skidding across the arena floor to land propped up against the far wall. Didn't looked like he was moving anymore, either.

Now she just had to get up. Just had to will her muscles into one last effort. Then it'd be over and she'd be the winner. She could could it. She could. She'd done it before, when she'd been too hurt to stay standing more than a few seconds after the end of the fight, like after the shi shi hokodan duel. Just one last effort.

She could do it.

She could-

Anko cackled. "What did I tell you?" she said. Well, shouted. There may have been a little sake in her system. Just a little. "You can keep your prissy Hyuuga princesses, your lazy Nara, and your uptight Uchiha. My students are brilliant."

The sound of the crowd echoing in her ears, her blood pumping from the performance the brats had put on - it was all brilliant. She'd known they were strong, oh she'd known, but that had been something else. It was one thing to see Ranma stick his hand through a missing-nin's chest or dodge through a hail of kunai without taking a scratch, but this had been something else. She'd given them a couple of basic scrolls, things that any chuunin ended up getting eventually, and they'd gone from naught to near S-class techniques in a few weeks flat.

Asuma blew out a ring of smoke and flicked a seizable chunk of ash from the end of his cigarette to the ground in front of him. The civilian sat in front didn't look too happy, but he said nothing. "Anko, your students are even crazier than you," he said with a frown. "What the hell?"

"Pfft, you just don't appreciate genius when you see it."

"Genius, madness, what's the difference?"

"What's that? I can't hear you over the sound of my students proving they're more awesome than your brats could ever be."

Asuma grunted and went back to his cigarettes.

"What have you been teaching them, Anko?" asked Kurenai, who looked like she'd probably have been working up a good head of steam about responsibility or some such boring shit if she wasn't so shocked. "I've seen jounin who wouldn't be able to take a fight like that."

"Brilliant isn't it? I told you Ranma had beaten an A-class missing-nin, but did you believe me? No. Ha! Smell that? It's the scent of victory. My students. Chuunin, all. That'll show 'em."

Kurenai didn't look like she knew quite what to say and turned to watch the assorted chuunin who were trying to get the stadium back into some sort of order so that the exam could continue. It was kinda entertaining, Anko had to admit. Seeing the plebs running around trying to deal with the fact that Ryoga had turned half of the rock in the ground into a twenty foot golem and that Ranma had torn up the place but good with that crazy tornado technique was seriously, seriously funny. And, hey, there was Fudo looking like he regretted helping Ryoga. Maybe she'd buy him a drink to make up for it . . . ah, who was she kidding.

"I hope you know what you're doing, Anko," said Asuma, flicking yet more cigarette ash away as he spoke. "Don't want to see you end up getting burnt by a student who got too strong too quick."

There was an undercurrent of anger to Anko's voice as she replied to that. "I'm not some rookie, Asuma."

"Yeah. Suppose so."

Silence fell for a moment. "Looks like your other student is up next," said Kurenai. "Against Naruto."

Asuma grunted "Kid's annoying as hell," he said, "but I kinda feel sorry for him if this one's like the other two."

Anko's grin was not altogether sympathetic.

Ranma groaned as an ice-pick slid into her brain. At least that's what it felt like when she woke up and was stupid enough to actually open her eyes. Dammit but Ryoga hit like a freight train that someone had wired a jet engine to for kicks, and she'd . . . she'd . . . "I lost."

Someone snorted off to the side but she wasn't paying much attention. She'd been beaten. What else could you call it when you were knocked flat on your back and couldn't get back up? Defeat. That's what it was. Abject defeat. There was no other word for it. She'd been defeated.

A great hollow pit of despair opened up within her at that thought. Losing to Ryoga, could it be any worse? Well, she could could have lost to the blind twit. That would have been worse. But still. Ryoga. Of all the people.

"Oh, you're awake," said an altogether too cheerful sounding female voice. Ranma cracked an eye open ready to throw an insult but quickly decided that she was far better off with her eyes shut. "You recover almost as quickly as your friend here."

Ranma did open her eyes at that. "Oi, what do you mean almost?" she said. "I recover way quicker than that idiot."

"But he's been awake for a few minutes now."

"Not that it matters," said Ranma quickly. "You don't need a head like a concrete block if you don't get knocked out all the time."

"Hmm," said the nurse. Her hand was glowing a weird sort of soft green and she was staring at it. Must have been some sort of fancy technique. Maybe more than some nurse, then. "You seem remarkably well recovered for someone who was beaten unconscious . If you'd try and not get your head beaten in for the rest of the day, you might even be fit for active duty in a few days."

Ranma shrugged. The burst of semi-outraged energy had passed and she just wanted to be left alone. Losing sucked. Losing with an audience sucked worse. Losing with an audience and having to talk to people afterwards was just the cherry on the top.

"Oh, don't be so glum," she said. "In my day girls were more interested in attracting boys like that than beating them to a bloody pulp."

Ranma's glare would have stripped paint off walls if she'd been aiming it at them. If she hadn't been so tired, her battle aura would have probably given her a suitable demonic look to scare the woman off. As it was, she barely got a flicker. And so occupied was she with glaring at the doctor that she almost didn't notice the choking sound coming from the other side of the room.

"Well, if you're determined to be a downer, I'll leave you to it," said the doctor. She then pressed a vial of some horrible-looking purple fluid into Ranma's hands. "Take that and get some sleep. It'll help you rebuild your chakra." She turned and pointed across the room. Ranma followed the woman's arm and saw Ryoga. "You, too," she said. "Rest and recover. No more fighting."

And then she left. Ranma stared at the vial for a moment, and then she poured it into the potted plant on the table next to the bed she was in. It could have been her imagination but the plant didn't look terribly pleased about it. Better it than her. Then she closed her eyes and laid back in the bed, not in the mood for actually, you know, interacting with people or anything like that.

The door to the room slammed open. "You're teaching me how to do that."

So much for that idea. Ranma cracked open an eyelid and stared at Hitomi. "You couldn't handle it," she said. "Too soft. Come back when you don't scream like a baby during training, you big wuss."

"I am not a wuss. You're just a lunatic who throws wild animals at people and calls it training."

Ryoga's laughter made Ranma feel as if someone was digging an ice-pick into her ears. "Going to get a panda curse next, Ranma?"

"Shut up, P-chan. Just wait till the rematch."

"I'm looking forward to it. Next time, I'll beat you for sure."

"How the hell can you two want another fight?" blurted out Hitomi. "You've just beaten other unconscious and you want to do it again?"

Ranma perked up. Did that mean she hadn't lost? She hadn't thought Ryoga was getting back up anytime soon, but she didn't get back up at all, so she'd thought it was game, set, match to the pig. Maybe not.

"Uh, yeah," said Ryoga. He was staring at Hitomi as if she was some sort of interesting alien that had popped up. "Why wouldn't I? I want to beat him!"

Yeah, he hadn't beat her. A great sense of elation swept through her, blasting aside the previous melancholy as if it had never been there. She hadn't been beaten! Okay, a draw was still rubbish against Ryoga, but she'd win the rematch when she didn't have to fight as a girl!

Ranma nodded. "I can't let him think he can beat me," she chirped. "That's just embarrassing. Next thing you know Kuno will be showing up thinking he's got a chance. Again."

"Madmen. That's what you are," said Hitomi. She actually looked surprised. "I'm going, before I get infected with insanity."

"And you call yourself a ninja!"

Hmm, not a nice hand gesture, that, what she sent Ranma's way as she left. Students. Couldn't live with them, couldn't throw them in a pit of c-c-hellspawn.

"I will beat you, Ranma. Just you wait."

"Ah, shut up. I'm going to get something to eat." Now she thought of it, she was horrifically hungry. "Suppose you can come along if you want. Or feel free to stay here and drink that poison. I wouldn't mind."

Saotome really was an annoying bastard. Okay, that wasn't exactly the greatest of revelations, Mousse knew, but even in defeat he'd found a way to make Mousse's life more difficult than it would be otherwise. That took some talent, to lose and still find a way to screw up someone else's attempt to win the prize. It was exactly the sort of thing made Mousse want to grind Saotome's face into something sharp and pointy: that effortless way he set about pissing people off.

Honestly, teaching the kid how do ki attacks? That was almost cheating, teaching some random kid something like that and letting them loose in a kiddy tournament. Saotome probably thought it was funny.

Not that it mattered. So he couldn't do a ki attack of his own. It made no difference. With Ranma and Ryoga gone - the gods certainly did smile upon him to give him enemies so stupid - he had a clear run at success. They were the only ones strong enough to give him a run for his money, and they were gone, so all was well. He'd go on through, win the tournament, and laugh as the idiots he was teamed with fumed in a corner at being defeated by him.

It was such a wonderful mental image.

But there was an obstacle to get past, still: the kid Saotome had decided to pass his technique onto. It wasn't much of an obstacle, really. He was so young, so small, and he moved like an ape. What challenge could the fool possibly be? He only had to look at the brat, standing there, grinning like an idiot, to know that it was going to be a nice, easy victory. What sort of brain-damaged fool thought it would be a matter to smile about to fight someone several years older and vastly more skilled than them in a tournament?

"You know the rules," said Genma, pushing the senbon around his mouth as he spoke. "Fight till submission or I say stop. When I say stop, you stop, or I'll make you stop. Understand?"

Mousse didn't even bother to acknowledge that. Had the fool been replaced with some sort of robot that could do nothing but spout variations of the same line? He'd seen stranger in Nerima and it would explain a lot.


Naruto flew at Mousse immediately, hurtling through the fluttering leaves left by Genma's exit, aiming a punch that could have been seen coming a mile off by a blind man who'd never practised martial arts in his life. It was a pathetically simple matter for Mousse to sidestep out of the way of the attack and then spin around to slap a palm strike against the base of Naruto's skull as he ploughed on by.

It was almost comical the way Naruto was sent crashing to the ground. Did he have no skill at all? It was almost as if he didn't know the most basic elements of how to roll with a blow and spread the impact. How could-

Mousse ducked and twisted as a pair of Narutos flew over his head, kunai flashing as they tried to score a blow against him. It was a narrow thing, narrower than he'd care to admit, but he did it without so much as a slash in his robes. And then, before the clones could land, Mousse launched a pair of shuriken forth with a flick of his left wrist that sliced into the pair and sent them back to wherever such things came from.

And then Mousse jerked backwards out of the way of a haymaker sent his way by the real Naruto. A quick one-two retaliation to the jaw sent the irritating brat sprawling back to the ground, but he was back on his feet and advancing almost as quickly as Mousse could leap backwards to open up some room between them. Mousse launched forth a short barrage of chains to try and dissuade the boy but he slammed right through the things, smacking them aside as they came close.

Okay, maybe he wasn't as pathetic as he seemed, and he did have that damned ki attack to watch out for as well. Mousse leaned aside out of the way of Naruto's punch and quickly rammed a knee into his gut before smashing a backhanded strike into the side of his head that sent him sprawling away to the side. Naruto rolled with it, this time, and would have been back on his feet in a flash if Mousse hadn't nailed him to the ground with half a dozen kunai through that baggy orange jacket.

"Just give in," said Mousse. "It'll be a lot easier on you. I'm not going to let you score some heroic, underdog win off me."

Naruto glared, and, with a shout of exertion, tore himself free of the knives that were holding him down with a mighty ripping sound. His jacket didn't make it with him, he was left in a mesh undershirt of the type Anko wore - except she wore that and that alone, and that was it. Mousse just rolled his eyes and belted the kid back with a punch to the cheek that twisted his head around and sent him skidding through the dirt.

He was quick to bounce back up, but Mousse wasn't one to leave his opponents breathing room. The chain he sent forth was wrapped around Naruto's throat in a heartbeat and the brat's attempts to pull it free were nothing if not ineffective. He pulled and he tore at the metal links but you were never going to pull a steel chain free like that and his complexion turned a deeper and deeper red.

Then he stopped. His arms dropped to his sides and his head lowered. Was he beaten? No, it wouldn't be that easy. The boy was stubborn if nothing else, Mousse had seen that much from the last fight.

A blue glow lit the arena. Oh, wonderful. Well, he was having nothing of that. That technique was annoying enough when Ranma was using it, he wasn't letting some little kid use it on him. He raised his other arm, allowing the sleeve to drop down, and launched forth another chain to slam into Naruto's head. When the boy jerked his head up to look at Mousse, he got another chain, this time to the bridge of his nose. And again and again and again till Naruto looked quite dazed and had long since stopped glowing in favour of lolling back and forth. It really was nice to fight someone who didn't think that having a hundred pound chain bounced off their face was a weak attack.

Well, that looked like that was that. Underwhelming, to be sure, but it was only to be expected. He was a highly-trained, powerful Amazon warrior and Naruto was a young idiot who moved like an ape and had about the same intellect as one to boot. The result had been inevitable from the start; he'd had no more chance than that of an antelope trying to defeat a lion.

Then Naruto's head snapped up and he stared Mousse in the eye. For a moment, looking into those crimson orbs, Mousse almost felt like the antelope himself. There was just something terrifying on a primal level about those eyes, and the weight of malice that filled the air around him. They weren't human eyes, slitted and crimson as they were, and that wasn't human malice. Mousse could feel that much. But he shrugged it off. He'd seen, and been up against, far worse than Naruto.

The chain shattered like so much glass underneath Naruto's hands. Mousse raised an eyebrow. Okay, he was definitely going to have to start taking this one a little more seriously. He flicked his wrist and shot forth a barrage of chains at his opponent. Naruto smashed through them with ease, but it was more than enough time for Mousse to take to the air and land at the opposite side of the arena from Naruto.

"I don't know what this is," said Mousse as Naruto growled. "But it won't help you."

Naruto roared and charged, fist held above his head to deliver a crushing blow. The sheer speed of the attack caught Mousse by surprise - he'd not seen a ninja move so quickly before - and he was actually pressed to get out of the way. But he still did so, sliding a step to the side and leaning away, leaving Naruto to go whistling by before he slammed fist first into the arena wall, kicking up a thick cloud of dust and pulverised concrete.

He didn't have even a second to catch his breath before Naruto came back out of the cloud swinging and he found himself on the defensive. The attacks were almost transparent, there was little skill or thought behind them, but they came in a fury, with speed Mousse hadn't seen from many ninja, and he found himself actually having difficulty dodging. Difficulty dodging attacks from this fool! He had to hope Saotome was still unconscious somewhere, or he'd never live it down.

They rattled around the arena, Naruto relentlessly throwing punches while Mousse twisted to and fro to avoid the attacks, till they came to be near an arena wall. Mousse leaned his head aside to dodge a punch from Naruto and before the boy could pull his arm free of the wall Mousse lashed out and stuck a thumb in his eye. Ha, that'd show him. He'd like to see how intimidating those demon eyes would be when they were bloodshot and streaming with tears.


Mousse wondered distantly how an idiot of a child could hit that hard as he crashed through the arena wall. It just didn't seem fair; he hadn't been able to hit anywhere near that hard till he was much older. Oh, it hurt. It hurt like the Three Year Smile of Death. Well, not really, but it did hurt. He hadn't expected to be hit hard enough he'd actually feel it, not going up against this kid.

And there was Naruto coming in, screaming at the top of his lungs, looking to deliver a knock-out punch to finish things up, his ki manifesting physically in a red coating around his body and fist as he lunged.

But he hit nothing but air as his fist passed clean through Mousse, whose from promptly wavered and disappeared. Naruto twisted around, growling in frustration, and charged at Mousse, who was stood in the centre of the arena forming hand seals.

Naruto got about halfway across that distance before Mousse completed his seals and a veritable forest of weapons arose from beneath the arena floor. The sight of them, the vast swarm of steel shining in the sunlight, was enough to give Naruto pause and that was enough time for the weapons to swing through the air, seemingly moving under their own power, to form a sphere of steel around the fighters.

"Welcome to my circle of death, Naruto," said Mousse. "Are you sure you want to continue this?"

Naruto did look uncertain for a moment, but then his expression hardened. "I won't give in," he said. "That's my ninja way."

He charged. It was impressive, really, just how stubborn the fool could to continue the attack even when surrounded by evidence of his own demise. Mousse knew that he certainly wouldn't have kept up the fight under such circumstances. Such an act was just insanity by another name.

Well, there was nothing for it. Mousse triggered the next stage of his technique and the weapons came down in an endless rain of death. Even Naruto couldn't quite avoid the instinctive cower and cover-up reaction that came from seeing that heading his way, and he stopped half a dozen paces short of Mousse as he the bombardment started to reach his flesh.

And then the weapons disappeared. Every last one of them simply blinked out of existence as if they had simply never been there. Naruto looked up from between his arms and blinked in surprise. That was the last act he was able to take before Mousse's fist crashed into the base of his skull with boulder-shattering force. No amount of stubbornness was going to work around that.

Well, maybe Saotome's stubbornness. There was something inhuman about that, Mousse was sure. And Ryoga's skull was thick enough that he probably wouldn't even notice the blow. But never mind that.

"Winner: Mousse."

"Snacks! Get your snacks here! Pork buns, curry bread, rice balls! We've got it all, and you won't find 'em cheaper anywhere else! Get your snacks here!"

Ranma was in front of the seller so quickly that she might as well have teleported there. Well, what could she say? She was hungry. That explained everything as far as she was concerned. "Oh, it all looks so good," she said, staring at the tray hung around the seller's neck. "What shall I have?"


Ranma looked up at the seller, a teenage boy, with big, sparkly eyes. "What do you think?" she asked.

The boy gaped.

A few minutes later Ranma walked away with a somewhat lighter money-bag and a tray of food hanging from her neck. And the food was disappearing rapidly. Oh, but it was good. She hadn't just been saying that to befuddle the seller - though she had definitely done it at least partially for that - but because she was starving. Sleep? Pfft. It was food she needed. Lots and lots of food with as much energy contest as she could get. Enough to make a panda feel bloated, if she could get it.

Ranma stopping shoving food down her gullet for a moment to stick her tongue out at Ryoga. "Quit glaring at me, P-chan," she said. "Get your own high-calorie goodness. This is mine."

Ryoga looked about as happy as he ever did when she opened her mouth. "Ranma!"

Ranma lazily dodged out of the way of Ryoga's half-hearted swipe and set about weaving her way through the crowd to where she could see some people she recognised. Of course she continued stuffing her face all the while. No mere crowd was going to get between her and her food. No way.

"Yo, blondie," said Ranma when she reached them. "Shouldn't you be getting ready for your next fight or something?"

Naruto's expression darkened for a moment before he looked away.

"He's just moody because he lost," said the pink-haired girl sat near him. "Your team-mate beat him."

Ranma blinked. "But Ryoga . . . you lost to Mousse?" she said. "Wow . . . you really do suck."

Judging by Ryoga's laughter, he agreed.

"Oi! I'll beat him next time!"

"Yeah, yeah," said Ranma. "You couldn't even beat the blind idiot with the moka takabisha and I know for a fact he doesn't have a technique like that. Oh, the shame of my teachings being so poorly used. However will I ever live it down?"

Naruto looked like he was about to explode. "I'll show you!" he shouted. "I'll be ten times as strong as him!"

Ranma shot Naruto an askance look before swallowing a rice ball hall. "Might want to get to work then," she said. "Because you've got a long way to go."

If looks could kill, Ranma would have been a greasy spot on the floor. Now, there was a thought. Looks that could kill. That'd be a nice technique to show the old snake bastard next time they met. Would sure as hell make the bastard take her seriously. Well, not so much, because he'd be dead, but the principle was there.

"Ah, the flames of youth!" Ranma turned to face the voice. Oh, it was the guy with the really bad haircut, and the other one: the tall guy whose haircut made him look like a giant toilet brush, the Cyclops. "You have done your sensei proud!"

Did he polish those teeth? Seriously? There was something really unnatural about that gleam.

"Yes!" And there was his half-grown clone kicking at the air, despite his being half-crippled or something. "If I cannot become as strong as you, I will run around the Fire Country a hundred times!"

Uh, wasn't this the kid who'd let rip with enough ki to make Saffron jealous against the sand psycho? Okay, it was a suicide technique, but it was still pretty powerful as things went.



"Spare me."

"Looks like the fight's about to start," said Ryoga. "I don't much like the chances of that black-haired one."

Ranma looked down at the arena. "Yeah," she said. "He didn't look like much at the preliminaries and that other one's a total psycho."

"Don't worry so much," said Cyclops. "He's ready."

Ino was on her feet. "YEAH! YOU BEAT HIM, SASUKE!"

"You think you could do that again?" asked Ranma. "I've still got some hearing in one of my ears."


"I hate you."

Ino's response was to simply stick her tongue out at Ranma and then turn back to the fight.


Genma flickered away and Sasuke immediately bounded back to put some room between himself and his opponent. Sand began to pour forth from the gourd on Gaara's back, moving through the air in a way that real sand never could, but then it stopped and Gaara clutched at his forehead. Ranma couldn't hear a word that he was saying to the confused looking Sasuke, but judging by the look on the red-head's face it was probably something like 'I'll eat your soul and wash it down with a pint of your blood'. You know, the usual psycho stuff.

Gaara straightened up and more sand poured forth. There sure was a lot of it for a gourd that could be carried by a little guy like Gaara, Ranma thought. He was a weedy, little thing, didn't look like he'd done any strength training in his entire life, so how could he manage it?

And then Sasuke opened the actual fight by launching a pair of shuriken Gaara's way. The sand reacted immediately, erupting upwards to form a defensive wall in front of Gaara, trapping the shuriken within its mass. It didn't stop at that, though; the sand twisted and writhed and a shape emerged as it did so. Eventually a copy of Gaara, a sand clone, stood there with the shuriken held in its left hand.

But Sasuke had not been standing idle waiting for this. He was in mid-air, hurtling down towards Gaara, fist held cocked above his head. The clone tossed the shuriken up at Sasuke, but he was quick to pluck forth two more from his pouch and knock them out of the air with his own as he came down.

The clone caught Sasuke's arm as he landed, but Sasuke was quick to twist free and quickly lashed out with a pair of punches that pulverised the clone's head. And then, before the sand could fully reform, he quickly spun on his heel and destroyed the clone entirely with a roundhouse kick that scattered it to the four winds.

Then he moved on to Gaara himself. Sasuke moved quickly, much more so than Ranma would have expected after the preliminaries, and launched a fast head-on attack that was blocked in a shower of sand. And then again, but then he moved, and this was quick, around to launch a punch at the back of the stationary Gaara's head. Gaara moved, finally, but all that accomplished was to have him take the punch on the cheek instead of the back of the head,

Sand fell away from Gaara's cheek as he picked himself up from the floor where he'd landed after taking the blow. Words were exchanged and then Sasuke took a familiar stance, one hand folded behind his back and the other held out in a taunting sort of gesture. She'd only seen Lee fight once, but that was his stance, and the way Sasuke was moving.

"So, this is the famous sharingan," said Ranma. "I'll have to watch out for this one."

"He's copied the entire fighting style?" asked Ryoga. "Ranma, we've finally found someone even more annoying than you."

Sasuke was upon Gaara now. He was moving too quickly, striking too strongly, for the sand to keep up with the attacks, and was basically having a free run of it as he belted Gaara around the arena floor. But Ranma could see the slight hitch in his chest as he breathed in, the slight tremor in his legs as he pumped more and more energy into the technique that allowed him the speed he was using. It was far from over.

Gaara planted his feet as Sasuke came at him again and quickly formed a handseal that had the sand gathering around him in a sphere. It was quick and within a heartbeat Gaara could not be seen as the sphere enveloped him.

That didn't stop Sasuke, though. He was committed to his attack, his charge, and he didn't stop. His fist struck true against the sphere, between the spikes that surged forth against Sasuke as he entered range, and they stopped like that for a moment- Sasuke's fist planted against the sphere - before the boy hopped back. Oh, yes, there it was. Blood. Sasuke was bleeding from his knuckles, from his cheek, from his left arm, and from his right leg.


"Just watch, Naruto," said Kakashi. "We weren't late for nothing."

Sasuke went in for a few more strikes, coming in fast and hard from multiple angles with kicks and punches, but they had no more effect than the last and each left him with more of those superficial wounds. It wasn't long before he gave up and backed away. Far away. So far away that he was halfway up the very tall arena walls when he stopped backing away.

"The reason I trained Sasuke is because he is the same type as me," said Kakashi.

Ranma wasn't paying any attention. She was watching Sasuke, who was shouting in exertion as he performed his technique. What was it? He was holding his right wrist with his left hand, bracing it, as he summoned up a large mass of crackling energy in his right hand. Lightning? Yes. Lightning. It was glowing, crackling, and Ranma could see the concrete around Sasuke splintering as the energy grew.

Gai turned to Kakashi. "So this is why you trained his speed."


Sasuke charged. The energy he had summoned left a trail of cracked concrete and a trench in the dirt as he went and the sound - the sound was loud, and high, like the sound of birds chirping.

"What is this sound?" asked Sakura. "And this technique?"

"A simple stab," said Gai. "But it is Konoha's number one technician, Copycat Kakashi's, sole original technique. It is a technique for assassination. The speed of the stab and the amount of chakra behind it allow the technique to penetrate almost any defence. Because of the concentration of chakra and the speed of the movement, it produces a sound like a thousand birds are running towards you."

Ranma snorted. "So you guys assassinate a lot of blind people, huh?"


"Well, look at it," said Ranma. "You'd have to be blind, deaf, and dumb to not see it coming a mile off. Hey, it might be effective, but assassination? Come on."

Kakashi didn't look too happy but he didn't have time to say anything before Sasuke struck home. And this time he penetrated. It was hard to make out around the flash of energy but once that had cleared there was Sasuke with his arm buried to the elbow in Gaara's cocoon.

"Has he done it?"

Sasuke looked confident enough. Cocky even. She had to admit, it looked like a pretty effective technique he'd used. Assassination it really wasn't, even she knew that much and she wasn't exactly a sneaky little ninja who slit throats in the night, but it looked like it had some decent power behind it. She'd stick with the yamasenken, no need for a run-up, but it wasn't entirely awful.

Then Sasuke's expression changed. Confusion flitted across his features before quickly turning to fear, and he started to pull at his arm, trying to work himself free. What on Earth had put that fear into him? Whatever it was, he was frantic; he looked like he was about to tear his arm off if that was what it took to work himself free of the sand. But it wasn't giving him up easily, despite his efforts.

"What's happening?" asked Sakura.

Sand exploded out as Sasuke pulled himself free, but that wasn't the only thing that came out of the cocoon. A monstrous, mottled arm followed grasping blindly at the air as Sasuke leaped backwards beyond its reach. It was a hideous, misshapen thing, obviously not human, and seeing it made Ranma's hair stand up on end. There was just something intrinsically wrong about it and looking at Sasuke he felt about the same because he was back-pedalling like a good one.

But it didn't get all that far before it withdrew back inside the cocoon, grasping at the air all the while. For a moment the arena was silent and still, no-one knowing quite what to say, but then then the cocoon collapsed, revealing Gaara, clutching at his bleeding shoulder, breathing hard, barely able to stand.

The arena roared. Konoha wasn't slow to voice its approval of Sasuke's success, but Sasuke himself didn't look quite so happy. He looked uneasy, wary, and he was tensed to fight on.


Ranma rubbed her ear and was about to say something sarcastic but before she could a weight fell upon her eyes and a mass of feathers slowly drifting through the air took her attention. So tired . . .


"Yeah, genjutsu."

Hearing Gai and Kakashi snapped her out of it. "Oh no you don't," she groused. "Kai!"

The feathers disappeared as if they'd never existed and Ranma felt as energetic as she ever did. Ryoga, stood next to her, shook his head, grunted, and did the same. She looked around the arena, at the people laid out all around it, snoring, and couldn't quite wrap her head around it. Were they under attack?

The towering part of the stadium that the Hokage was seated in erupted in a thick, billowing cloud of smoke. Masked ninja rocketed forth from where they'd been situated around the stadium towards that part of the arena, ANBU, and for a moment Ranma thought the situation was in hand. After all, they were the ANBU, they were supposed to be the elite of the elite, hand-picked to be absolutely incorruptible.

When the smoke cleared the first thing Ranma saw was the bloodied corpse of the Hokage's aide held up by the knives that had been stabbed through him and into the wall. Her eyes tracked up, and there was the Hokage on the roof, with the Kazekage holding a kunai to his throat. And at each corner of the roof stood an Oto-nin with a discarded ANBU uniform around their ankles.


Chapter Twenty-One

Seeing that the elite ANBU had been pretty much useless didn't come as the shock it probably should have to Ranma. It had been the same with the elite Phoenix-people soldiers: they'd been elite right up to the point where they'd actually had to fight people who were capable of fighting back. They'd been able to smash through those morons like they weren't even there and she guessed the ANBU weren't any different.

"This is bad," said Kakashi. "I never thought they'd infiltrate the ANBU."

There weren't many people still standing. The genjutsu had taken out most of the people in the stadium and left the ninja of the population stood amidst a horde of snoozing civilians and rookies. Then again, many was relative. There'd been tens of thousands of people in the stadium before and now there was maybe a hundred ninja or so moving around looking to be spoiling for a fight around those tens of thousands who were now comatose.

It looked like they were going to be fighting the Suna guys. At least that was what she was getting from the way Genma and the guy with the half-veil were staring each other down in the arena. The psycho kid didn't look like he was going to be doing much, at least. Didn't even look like he could stand without his siblings holding him up. So much for the big, bad blood-lusting lunatic.

There was quite a few of them, though, ninja with the Suna hitai-ate. Oto, too. No-one was attacking, yet, but it was bound to come.

"Are you fit to fight?" asked Gai.

"Against these losers?" asked Ryoga. "Always."


She looked down at the tray she had hanging around her neck and quickly shoved the last pork bun down her throat. "Might as well ask a fish if it's ready to swim," she said. "Not like this idiot could hit me hard enough to keep me down for longer 'n it takes to catch my breath."

Well, she wasn't exactly going to tell him that she was about three steps away from total exhaustion, was she? There were enough enemy ninja stalking around the place to make Joketsuzoku, with all their super-powered old biddies, nervous and the village leader was being held with a knife to his throat. It wasn't exactly the sort of thing you could beg off with a sick note. And she'd still only ran into one ninja that would be more than a vaguely annoying nuisance in a fight if she pulled out the stops.

Damn that freak.

Huh, it wasn't just the jounin, her, and Ryoga still standing where they'd been watching the fight from. Pinky was still there. Cowering behind her seat, but still awake. Ranma hadn't been expecting that; maybe she wasn't as totally useless as she'd looked when she was trading girly slaps with Ino. Maybe. Ah, no. Then again, no, she wasn't. She chose that moment to stick her head above the parapet and with a head of hair that bright what came next was about as far from a shock as Saffron throwing a strop and spitting fire at someone.

The ninja that came swooping down to slice a few chunks off her didn't get very far though. Before he'd even come into stabbing range a pair of spiked chains wrapped around his body and, well, it turned out that the human body really did have a lot of blood in it.

"About time you showed up, Mousse," said Ranma. "I was beginning to think you'd stood us up."

And that was the mark. Whatever the ninja had been waiting for before they made their move on seeing pink hair and one of their guys get cut down. Ranma turned her eye to the pair that dropped down from the stadium roof towards her. Two of them, masked and wearing the symbol of Oto, coming in fast. Well, fast for them, she supposed.

Ranma waited till they were almost on top of her, for the triumph to rise in their eyes, before she moved. In one motion she yanked the tray free from around her neck and smashed it into the face of the one coming to her left while twisting around to hammer a roundhouse kick into the jaw of the other. Both fell to the ground as if they'd had their strings cut.

She looked up from the pair just in time to see Ryoga flick his umbrella away from him and send blood cascading away with a look of disgust on his face. "These guys are soft," he said. "One hit and they fold."

"That's probably because you have their brains on your umbrella," said Mousse. "Idiot."

"Kakashi, look! The central tower!"

Kakashi turned to look up. Ranma followed his gaze. "Barrier technique. Looks like a good one."

"No, look inside the barrier."


Ranma, Mousse, and Ryoga looked at each other. She could see the same thing on their faces that she knew was on hers. They all wanted to be up there, they all wanted to get their hands on Orochimaru, they all wanted to get their own back for being humiliated by the bastard. "Let's go."


Kakashi's call came far too late to have any effect. They were already gone. Honestly, who did he think they were? The sort of people who stopped to think before picking a fight with a ridiculously powerful opponent? Where would the fun be in that? There'd be at least two mountain ranges left standing if they were that sort. Boring.

Ranma was first to land on the tower roof with the other two not far behind. "Wow," she said. "That barrier's a lot bigger than it looked from down below."

"You're wasting your time," said Faceless Masked Ninja One. "It's impenetrable."

Ranma turned to watch the battle inside the barrier for a moment. Neither Orochimaru nor the Hokage were moving. They were just stood there staring at each other. Well, staring at each other and ripping the ground up with their auras. That was fairly impressive, she supposed, but if you've seen one guy burning the place up with raw ki then you've seen them all and then some. No-one was going to top Saffron's aura of flaming, apocalyptic doom, anyway.

And she'd still beaten the overgrown firebird. She was just that damned awesome. Ranma Saotome didn't lose to anyone, not in the rematch.

"Such awesome chakras."

"And they even have masked cheerleaders," said Ranma. "Cute."

She got the impression that if it weren't for the masks she'd be getting some truly fearsome glares from the ANBU. Meh. She'd felt better killing intent aimed at her before. Lots of times. Lots and lots of times.

"This is boring," said Ryoga. "Bakusai tenketsu! Bakusai tenketsu! Bakusai tenketsu!"

Ranma barely had the time to channel the ki to her feet to stick to the shuddering roof and glare at Ryoga before the whole building promptly collapsed around them and made the whole sticking to the roof part pretty pointless.

"I swear, there are times I really wish the old mummy hadn't taught you secret Amazon techniques," spat Mousse as he shoved his way free of the parts of the roof that had fallen on him.

"Stop whining," said Ryoga. "It's not my fault you're too stupid to dodge."

"The barrier's gone!" shouted one of the ANBU. "Get him! Get Orochimaru!"

Who was she to argue?

They didn't get more than a few steps forward before a massive blast of wind smashed them all back the way they'd came and scattered the debris of the tower far and wide across the arena. Ranma managed to stay on her feet - wind was wind, even if it was a blast aimed at her - and came skidding to a halt against what had been a support pillar with a slightly painful crunch.

Orochimaru was stood in the centre of it all with a look of utter disdain on his face. "I have no time for prey who would interfere in the affairs of predators," he said. "Kill them, my servants. Kill them all."

"Prey?" shouted Mousse. "I'll show you prey, you bastard!"

None of the weapons Mousse launched at Orochimaru even came close to him. That wasn't really a surprise, but seeing them getting knocked out of the air by a flurry of arrows was. Ah, minions. In a flash there were four minions stood between the Konoha-nins and Orochimaru: the guys who'd been pretending to be ANBU. Wonderful.

There was a really fat, tall guy with a mohawk, a little redhead who was, of course, nowhere near as hot as she was, a guy wearing lipstick who just so happened to have an extra head sticking out his back, and another guy with four arms. Not exactly your regular weekend crowd, that was for sure. Two heads? That was even weirder than the Musk. And those guys were part animal. Well, she supposed it matched. A freak having freaks as his lackeys,

The guy wearing lipstick brushed the hair back from his front head and smiled. "Oh, man," he said. "ANBU. This is gonna be quite a fight."

"Those three aren't normal genin, either," said the guy with four arms. "Did you see their fight? They're pretty high level for genin."

"Who cares?" asked the redhead. "Just more shitty rat Konoha bastards to kill."

"You shouldn't talk like that, Tayuya," said the fat guy. "It's not ladylike."

"Piss off you, Jirobu, you fat bastard."

"You three take care of these jokers," said one of the ANBU. "Keep them from getting in the way."

Ranma gave him an askance look. "What did we do to deserve having to waste our time on these idiots?" she asked. "They're not worth. Hey! Stop running off to the good fight and listen! Dammit, I don't want to be sat at the kids table."

The ANBU were gone, headed off to the fight that actually mattered, leaving Ranma stuck with the freaks and weirdos that Orochimaru had recruited to be his meat-shields along with Ryoga and Mousse.

"The four-armed one with the bow is mine," said Mousse, whose expression didn't exactly speak of a good end for the four-arms. "You two can have the rest."

"You sure?" asked Ranma. "I've got more practice with fighting crazy weapons freaks than you."

"Shut up, Saotome. This one's mine."

"No-one's even pretending to listen," said Ranma as Mousse went haring off, launching away a nice, little storm of kunai at his target as he went. She shrugged. "Don't suppose there's anything new there."

"Kuchiyose no jutsu!"

A large cloud of smoke billowed over the area and when it passed there was a trio of massive monsters stood behind Tayuya, who had a flute held to her mouth. They were pretty big, Ranma had to admit. At about fifteen feet tall and half that across each, they certainly were a sight. Weird looking things, too. The one to the left that was wrapped in bandages to the point where it was basically mummified, even if its arms bound away, was just bizarre. How was it supposed to hit her? The other two at least looked like fighters and had visible weapons to give them a bit of intimidation factor for the rubes.

"The bitch is mine," said Tayuya as black marks began to run over her face. "You two can go beat up the retard."

"I never thought I'd be saying this," said Ranma, cracking her knuckles. "But I'm going to have to teach you a lesson in manners."

The bandaged monster didn't so much as have time to blink, behind its bandages, before Ranma had covered the ground between her and it and smashed it away with a flying roundhouse kick. The centre beast barely had time to lift its club from its shoulder before Ranma's fist crashed into its midsection and catapulted it back into the third monster, sending both crashing to the ground in a heap.

All in all, it took less than a second, and Tayuya looked utterly gob-smacked as Ranma turned to face her. "Come on, girly," said Ranma. "You're going to need something better than that to beat me."

And there was the more. Chakra, a horrible, vile chakra, erupted from Tayuya and the black marks on her face thickened and congealed into one solid mass before lightening to a light brown. More startling were the horns that forced their way out of the girl's forehead and the eyes that went from a dark brown to a distinctly inhuman, slitted yellow.

"You're pretty strong, rat-bitch," said Tayuya. "But I've got plenty more techniques left to make you scream."

Ranma blinked and squinted her eyes as the brightness of the sun seemed to go up ten notches all at once. What the hell? What - genjutsu! Ranma went to put her hands together to form the hand seal that would dispel the technique but found that her arms simply didn't move. That got a frown. No-one had warned her about that particular trick, that was for sure.

If there'd been any question about it being a genjutsu before then it was quickly answered when the sky turned red and Ranma found herself kneeling on a muddy field strewn with human skulls and her arms held out wide at her sides by some sort of strings.

"I suppose I could wait for your to slit my throat or something," said Ranma. "But that'd be boring."

With that she flared her aura as high as she could. It was almost disappointing how weak it came up, damn Ryoga, but the blue light that flooded out of her still shattered the illusion like so much glass.

And she came out of the illusion just in time to be knocked off her feet by a unidentified flying fat guy. The pair of them hit the ground hard and skidded, Ranma getting crushed beneath the sheer bulk of the guy, before the came to a halt by smashing through a concrete block that had once been part of a wall. Jirobu didn't look like he was getting to be getting up anytime soon, the blood dripping from his mouth and the glassy look on his eyes being a fair hint, so Ranma tucked her legs in between his gut and her and launched him away into the wide blue yonder.

"Watch where you're throwing your opponent, bacon breath!"

"It's not my fault you're too stupid to dodge, Ranma!"

Ranma growled. "When this is over, I'm going to beat you like you're an Amazon," she shouted. Oh, that got her a dirty, dirty look from Mousse. Meh. Wasn't her fault he had the sense of humour of a brick. She turned back to Tayuya. "Okay, I've had enough of you."

Tayuya raised her flute to her mouth. Ranma moved. The only sound that came out of the instrument was a sort of garbled squeak.

"Told you," said Ranma. "Time to end this."

"You broke my fucking flute!" screeched Tayuya. She looked almost as demonic as you'd expect someone with horns to look. Which is to say less so than Happosai. "I'll kill you."

"Yeah, yeah. Heard it all before."

Ranma was mildly surprised at the speed of the girl's attack. Why, it was almost fast enough that she'd have had trouble dodging it when she was twelve. And there was the follow-up with the other arm - that almost rated a thirteen! The crater that was left by the wayward punch wasn't bad, either. Good few metres around and not too bad on the depth to boot.

She was just leaning back to somersault away from a high kick aimed at her jaw when a wave of cold ki that seemed to slither up and down her spine blew over her. The distraction of that lasted just long enough for the blow to strike home and knock Ranma off her feet and into the air with a nice cracking sound of boot on flesh and bone.

Well, as ways to get jarred into paying attention, there were more pleasant ones. She still managed to land on her feet, though, and smacking Tayuya away as she charged in to follow up her attack wasn't exactly a great strain. No, she was far more interested in what was going on with Orochimaru, Sarutobi, and the ANBU who seemed to have disappeared off the face of the earth . . . unless that blood on the ground was all that was left of them.

Coffins were rising out of the ground between the snake bastard and the old man. They weren't particularly flashy as coffins went, just plain wood with a number written on the front, but they still caught the one. One rose, two rose. The old man looked seriously worried. That wasn't something Ranma was used to. She didn't exactly know him like the back of her hand but he hadn't struck her as someone who got scared easy. And he looked like his eyes were about to pop out of his head when a third coffin, with the number four on it, started to rise.

Ranma quickly turned and intercepted Tayuya's charge with a fist to the temple. She went down like a ton of bricks. "It's been fun," said Ranma. "But I've no more time to play with you."

Tayuya didn't so much as twitch. Meh. She needed to toughen up if she was going to play with the big boys. What sort of self-respecting wannabe demon got knocked flat out by a single punch like that? Weak.

The third coffin wasn't there when Ranma landed next to the old man. The doors on the first two were open, though, and an armoured ninja stepped out from each. From the first coffin stepped a tall, long-haired man wearing armour of a dull red. From the second stepped a man of similar height wearing blue armour with fur around the neck and shoulders. Both were unnaturally pale and had a grubby, unkempt air about them as they staggered out of the coffins.

"You should leave, Ranma," said the old man. He looked and sounded like Ranma had never seen him. Like someone who really was the strongest fighter a village of super-powered killers. It was a little unnerving. "This is not a battle for children."

Ryoga and Mousse dropped down to join them. "And leave you to fight three-on-one?" asked Ryoga. "Where's the honour in that?"

"It's been a long, eh, monkey?" said the second corpse.

"Oh, it's you," said the first. "You sure got old, Sarutobi. I didn't recognise you."

"I did not expect to meet you again in this world," said the Hokage. "It is most regrettable. Please prepare to be defeated, Shodai, Nidaime."

"Shodai?" asked Ryoga. "Nidaime? As in the first two Hokages?"

"None other, pup," said the Nidaime. He turned to look at Orochimaru, who promptly threw the now empty coffins aside to step closer to the zombies. "So this guy summoned us from the dead? You don't see something like that every day."

"If that's so, Sarutobi," said the Shodai, "I guess that means we would have to fight against you."

Orochimaru smirked. "How about you stop the tedious old folks chatter and get to the interesting part, hmm?" he said. "I didn't come here to listen to the decrepit reminisce over their glory days."

"You're enjoying this, aren't you?" asked Sarutobi. "Using the dead as your tools. Nothing good will come of playing with time."

"Oh, I disagree," said Orochimaru. "You have an entire village of fools who will eagerly throw their bodies between you and my attacks and my servants have already proven too weak to stop them. It's a poor ninja who doesn't adapt to such circumstances."

There wasn't much to say really. She was normally all for throwing insults at her opponents to throw them off, but this guy was absolutely not going to be affected by any of that. He wasn't like Ryoga, Saffron, or Happosai - opponents who'd lose their grip and do stupid things if you annoyed. He was more like Cologne, the one who Ranma'd never been able to rattle, except, you know, evil and zombie-summoning.

Orochimaru formed a hand-seal and the Hokages' skin flushed and started to take a more lifelike look. They straightened up, stopped staggering, and suddenly they looked kinda dangerous. "Shall we begin?" he asked. A pair of kunai, seals attached to their hilts, appeared in his hands and he plunged them into the heads of his summons. The pair of them straightened as if they'd been given an electric shock. He laughed. "Complete."

"Old man, how tough are these guys?" asked Ranma. "They on his level? Weaker stronger?"

"The Shodai and the Nidaime are worth ten of scum like him," said Sarutobi. He sighed. "I do not know how strong they will be. It depends on the power of my foolish former student's technique. In life, at their peak, they were more powerful than I have seen him to be."

Oh, now there was some good news. She wanted to kick the hell out of Orochimaru and then she was faced with a couple of zombies that were as strong as he was? Brilliant. All she needed was for Saffron to show up looking for round three and everything really would be just hunky-dory. Oh, hey, how about Herb and his retarded minions, too? Make it a real party.

"You wound me, sensei," said Orochimaru. "I summon these old fools so that you may experience the pure joy that comes only from hurting those who were once your masters and you insult me in such a way. Such ingratitude."

"Enough words, Orochimaru. This shall be settled only with blood."

Well, that was enough for Ranma. She'd never been one for hanging around when there was a fight to be getting on with and she closed the distance between herself and Orochimaru in a blur of motion. All that only to meet a fist that smashed into her jaw with enough force to make her see stars.

"Pathetically predictable," said Orochimaru. "I had higher hopes than this for you."

Ranma rubbed her jaw and hopped to her feet just in time to get a face-full of boiling water as Sarutobi's fireball met the Nidaime's water shield in an explosive clash. Behind that had been a charging Sarutobi but now he was sent scurrying back in the face of the oncoming torrent.

This time when Ranma got up he felt a whole lot happier. The aches and pains had faded away and he felt almost as if he hadn't gone fifteen rounds with Ryoga. That and he was in his real body with his real strength and that always - always - felt like he was waking up after spending the last few hours or days in a body that was half-asleep and didn't quite fit properly.

No time to stand around wondering at how great it was to be himself again, though. There was enemies to be defeated. Hmm, charging in fist first didn't seem to work all that well against these guys. Something else was needed. He looked at Ryoga and tried to communicate his attentions; Ryoga nodded.



The two ki attacks roared forth and mixed together in a glow of blue and green as they raced towards their targets. The targets didn't even move to dodge. They just stood there, waiting, as a tidal wave of energy rushed towards them. It was more than a little odd and Ranma understood why when the floor in front of them split open and a wooden wall sprouted up and around them from that gap.

When the light of the attack striking that barrier passed the barrier still stood. Scorched and dented, but it stood. Okay, that was impressive. But since when could wood of any sort stand up to attacks that smashed through concrete like it was made of bamboo? Madness.

"Mokuton!" shouted Sarutobi. "Watch yourselves."

Ranma had heard of mokuton, but he didn't know much about it other than that it was a bit legendary. He didn't need to after seeing it shrug off an attack like that so easily. It was bad news. Well, it would be good news if he was the one using it, but it was always the bad guy that got the insane new techniques. Well, the brainwashed dead guy. Anyway, it was annoying.

The wooden barrier split in the centre and the halves peeled apart in a way that reminded Ranma of the way Hiro's flesh had parted beneath his fist. He had a moment to wonder what was coming next and to jump backwards to put a little breathing room between him and the enemy before a massive water-dragon came roaring out of the gap. Ranma got a good look at it as it roared past where Orochimaru had knocked him and it looked like it'd bite the heads of the Orochi and go looking for more.

Ryoga's reaction was sharp. He quickly ran through a series of hand-seals and slammed his hand down on to the ground in front of him; immediately a thick wall of mud and rock rose out of the ground in front of him with a shuddering roar.

And then they met. Dragon met barrier in a deafening clash that kicked up a dust cloud that billowed over the whole arena and irritated Ranma's eyes something fierce. Not enough to stop him from slapping the bits of rock that came hurtling her way out of the air, of course, but it wasn't much fun.

"Ranma," came the whisper into his ear from just to his left. "I need you to be ready with your wind bullet attack. Remember, wind fans the flames."

Ranma whipped around just in time to see an image of the old man fade away into the air as if it had never been there. What sort of technique was that? Some sort of bunshin, maybe, but the normal one, the one that just disappeared, couldn't speak - it didn't have any vocal cords to do so with. And the solid ones, like his wind clone, didn't just fade away like that.

A loud roar and a terrific heat off to the side drew Ranma from his wondering. He turned to see a dragon of pure fire race past him, blistering the air as it went. No time to think, he just formed the hand-seals. "Kaze dangan no jutsu!"

He had to turn away when his wind bullet met the dragon. Staring into that inferno was like staring into the sun. Just too much. And he could feel his clothes heating up and starting to smoulder slightly just from being with a few metres of the blaze. It was ridiculous and even with his head turned away and his eyes closed the explosion set spots dancing in his vision.

When he opened his eyes again the place looked like the surface of the moon. Most of the debris had been blown away or melted and what little grass there had been on the dirt before had simply been scorched away to leave beyond a distinctly barren looking terrain where the fire had struck.

But beyond that stood three ninja. And one of them, the Nidaime, had his arm held out straight in front of him and a thick wall of water beyond that. He'd shielded the damned attack. What sort of freakish water power did it take to do that? Water beats fire, but that sort of fire? It should have boiled the whole lot away like it wasn't even there no matter how much water he could summon. But there it was. A wall of water. Still standing.

The Shodai formed a seal. "Mokuton Hijutsu: Jukai Kōtan."

Ranma had a moment to wonder what the zombie was trying to do when a tree came tearing out of the ground beneath his feet and catapulted him into the air. He rolled with that and was able to twist aside and dodge as another tree tore up through the space where his head had been a moment ago. When the next tree came he was ready for it and as it hurtled past him and upwards into the sky he kicked off it to launch himself towards the Shodai.

The Shodai reacted quickly to this move and broke his seal to throw a straight, right-handed punch at Ranma's head the moment the boy landed. Ranma leaned aside and the blow whistled by harmlessly. Then Ranma launched his strike. Armour cracked and splintered and finally smashed entirely as Ranma threw his full strength behind a rapid series of punches from both hands that eventually threw the Shodai back and through one of the trees he'd summoned in the newly grown forest.

As the Shodai crashed back Ranma moved to attack the Nidaime. He managed only a few steps towards that man before he had to dodge in the face of a torrent of water that had been spat forth by his target. That leap carried him to a few metres short of Orochimaru and seeing that bastard's smirk filled Ranma with the desire to smash his teeth. Remarkable, because even Saffron hadn't inspired that feeling.

But before he could attack Orochimaru the man launched forth a pair of massive, thick snakes from his sleeve that crossed the distance between them and coiled around Ranma before he react to dodge. Both snakes stayed, fangs bared, at his neck for a moment before they struck down.

Their bite connected with nothing but the lump of debris that Ranma had replaced himself with. He had just enough time to sigh in relief before he looked up and the Shodai's fist met his neatly exposed jaw. Ranma saw stars as the blow catapulted him back the way he'd came. Since when did ninja hit that hard?

"Didn't I take that guy out?" asked Ranma as he landed next to Sarutobi. "I'm pretty sure I did. The whole part where I smashed his armour and his ribs gave me that impression."

"A Hokage is not so easily defeated."

Ranma sprang to his feet and set about brushing all the bits of wood that were left on his shirt from the all the trees he'd smashed through. "I guess so," he said. "Oh, and the zombies don't seem all that quick. The trees aren't as strong as that barrier either."

Orochimaru's voice drifted through the trees. "Sensei, you're boring me," he said. "If you don't do something interesting, then I will."

The old man's frown made his wrinkles look deep enough to double for the Grand Canyon and then some. Ranma could almost see the thoughts running through the Hokage's head as he thought about what to do. Probably a lot of options as old as he was; the letch and the ghoul had always had a dozen tricks for every situation. Okay, most of Happosai's tricks were forgotten at the first sign of a woman, but he still had them.

"Kuchiyose no jutsu!"

A large monkey appeared in a cloud of smoke. An extremely large monkey. Wearing clothes. "Whoa," said Ranma. "It's just like that martial arts tea ceremony fight all over again. Uh, you're not into tea ceremony, right, monkey-man? You don't look like you are-"

The monkey didn't look too impressed as he turned to look at the Hokage. The old man was giving Ranma the strangest look he'd ever received as well. Tch, you'd think they'd never heard of martial arts tea ceremony or something. "Children, Sarutobi?" he asked. "What sort of a battle would you summon me for and have use for children?"

""Who are you calling a kid?" shouted Ryoga. Mousse quacked from where he was perched atop Ryoga's head - stupid duck-boy. Then his expression turned to confusion, "And since when did monkeys talk?"

The monkey ignored him and cast its eyes over the battlefield. "Orochimaru," he said finally, making the name sound like some sort of foul curse. He looked back to the Hokage. "I told you to kill him when you had the chance."

"That's what I'm trying to do!"

"It's too late now, Sarutobi."

Ranma felt a flicker of killing intent at the edge of his senses and turned just in time to see the two zombie-kages came bursting out of the foliage towards the summoned talking monkey. It barely seemed to move as it slid out of the way of the Shodai's punch but the overhand strike it landed on the top of the Shodai's head was plenty solid enough to knock the tall man back down through the trees. The Nidaime met a similar fate: his punch blocked by a forearm and then a roundhouse punch smashing him back the way he came.

Monkey was good. Ranma didn't think he could do much better. A little better, of course, because he had style, but not much.

"Enma, transform," said Sarutobi. "Please. It's time to end this."

"One last time. Just remember that even I can be cut by the Kusanagi."

Enma took to he air with a leap towards the old man and, with a puff of smoke, he transformed into a long, thick staff that Sarutobi snatched out of the air promptly took control of as if he was born to wield it. But Ranma was more interested in what the monkey had said. "That bastard has the Kusanagi?" asked Ranma, looking and feeling faintly offended. "The Kusanagi?"

"You've heard of it elsewhere?" asked Sarutobi. "No, there's no time. Tell me later. For now, I have a plan, but you must do what I say. There's no time for questions. You just have to trust me."

Ranma listened. He couldn't find any fault in Sarutobi's plan, not on the fly, and so he followed. He took a deep breath, slipped into the umisenken, and then ghosted away into the foliage as Ryoga formed the hand seals to summon or conjure or whatever the hell he did to create that damned golem he'd spooked the hell out of him with back in their exam match.

And seeing it in the daylight without a hurricane blasting around him was something else entirely. That thing was huge. Watching a thirty foot tall version of Ryoga made out of solid rock come rumbling up out of the ground was the sort of thing that had been confined to Ranma's nightmares before. It looked like it'd be able to pick him up between two fingers and swallow him whole in one bite. Well, at least it wasn't Kuno. That really would be straight out of a nightmare.

The golem was under attack almost the minute it came out of the ground. Water bullets came hurtling up from where the Nidaime was perched with Orochimaru and the Shodai, and they scored good hits. The golem was too massive and too solid for the bullets to blast it apart like the dragon had the barrier, but each hit still gouged large chunks out of it and soon the air was thick with dust and debris as the golem staggered on towards its targets despite the beating it was taking.

One particularly large bullet sheared right through the left arm of the golem and sent the rest of the arm crashing down to the ground with an almighty clatter, but through the debris of that blast the golem reached its target. Its remaining arm, hand curled into a fist, slammed down into the ground with a force that shook the earth and blasted up a cloud of dust that obscured everything. The last thing Ranma saw before it billowed over him and he was reduced to relying on his sixth sense was Sarutobi and Ryoga leaping off the head of the now ruined golem with weapons held ready to attack.

It didn't matter, though. Picking out Orochimaru's presence was like picking out the giant in a village of dwarves. His presence was simply vile now that he'd stopped concealing it; it was a horrid taint at the edge of Ranma's senses, something vile and disgusting yet omnipresent, that reeked of death and decay and malice. It was impossible to miss for anyone who could actually feel auras.

Ranma picked his way through the foliage, moving carefully in order to make no sound, as Sarutobi attacked Orochimaru with his monkey-staff. It was an impressive sight, the old guy moved well, but the signs of strain were already present and Orochimaru's expression, in the instants that it was visible to Ranma, never changed from the ever-present smirk.

There it was! An opening! Ranma darted forward, a blur of motion, towards the exposed back of Orochimaru. "Dokuja tanketsu shō!"

The strike connected cleanly and with full force. Ranma felt the body of his enemy twist and break beneath his hand, but it didn't tear through his flesh like it had Hiro's and as Orochimaru was thrown away from him he could see no blood on either the man or on his own arm.

Orochimaru landed in a heap, his back twisted at a totally unnatural angle, and for a moment Ranma thought that was enough and they'd beat him. But then, before Ranma's eyes, the body twisted. With a series of cracks the spine moved back into place till it looked as if the strike had never landed at all.

And the snake rose back to his feet in a movement that was entirely unnatural. "Do you not understand?" he asked, evil sneer firmly in place. "I am eternity made flesh. I cannot be-"

Sarutobi's staff caught Orochimaru in the temple and catapulted him away. "Back to the academy for you, student," he said. "There is no place for villain's exposition in a ninja battle."

"So be it. Daitoppa!"

Ranma flickered his way through a series of seals that allowed the wind to simply flow around him but Sarutobi was not so fleet of hand and was blown away with the others caught in the blast.

"Impressive," said Orochimaru. "Your wind affinity is impressive. But I have no more time to play with children."

Ranma didn't see it coming. One moment Orochimaru was crouched a few dozen feet away from him speaking and the next there was a sword hurtling forth from the bastard's mouth towards him, extending like that crazy girl Mariko's baton had, but much, much faster. It was pure instinct that had him catch the blade between his palms before it skewered him..

Catching the blade didn't save him. The force behind the strike was incredible and a moment later Ranma found himself airborne with only his palm grip between him and a messy, painful death. He could feel it slipping, too, as the force of the strike wore through his grip. The tip of the blade was pressing at his sternum already and he could feel it slowly penetrating his flesh as it wore through his defences. In that moment he appreciated the fear of death in a way he'd never had cause to before; his survival was entirely dependant on a monster not being determined to kill him.

And then, after a long, terrifying moment, he landed, crashing to the ground with enough force to expel the air from his lungs and the sword withdrew back the way it had came. Ranma almost laughed in relief. He'd made it. He'd survived being attacked with the Kusanagi.

Pain pricked his relief and he looked down at his hands. There was no way he could restrain the wince that came when he saw the state of them. A long slash marred the centre of each palm and the moment he noticed that the pain of it burned through him. But he forced that down, pain was nothing, and looked further. There was another wound, in the centre of his sternum, much narrower, but deeper. He really had been a heartbeat away from death.

"My, my, you are a mess."

Ranma looked up to see Kabuto picking his way through the trees toward him with a small smile on his face. "What are you doing here?" he asked. "Orochimaru-"

Kabuto pushed his glasses up onto the bridge of his nose and Ranma could have sworn that they gleamed. "Oh, I know," he said. "I know. But it's the duty of any good Konoha-nin to assist their Hokage, yes?"

"I suppose, but-"

"You worry too much, Ranma," said Kabuto. His grin grew slightly. "You look like you need a medic. Lucky for you, there's one stood here in front of you."

Ranma rose to his feet. "You can heal me?"

"Oh, yes," said Kabuto. His hand took on a green glow and a light humming sound filled the air. "Just stand still and it'll be over in an instant."

Ranma wasn't one to look a gift horse in the mouth. He needed healing and there was a healer. Perfect. Always take an opportunity, that was what he'd been taught, and he didn't see any reason to change that.

Agony. Agony flooded through Ranma as Kabuto's hand touched his chest and he gasped with it as he felt his lung simply deflate and burn. He wavered on his feet for a moment before falling to his knees. "What-"

Kabuto's foot caught him underneath the jaw and sent him crashing to his back. Dark spots danced in front of his eyes as the pain threatened to swallow him whole. "Oh my," said Kabuto. "This loser seems to have punctured your lung. How could that have happened?"

Ranma couldn't believe it and rage quickly filled him. Kabuto was a traitor - he was working for Orochimaru! "Bastard-"

Kabuto's foot smashed into Ranma's mouth, and Ranma felt the blood spill from his busted lip. "Now, now," said Kabuto. "There's no need to swear. Surely a genius would have better ways to express their self than profanity?"

Ranma's response was to spit the blood from his mouth into Kabuto's face. Probably not the smartest thing he'd ever done, but he'd be damned if he'd show any sort of submission to anyone. He had just enough time to ponder that before Kabuto's heel cracked down onto his nose and a whole lot of blood joined the dark spots in front of his eyes with a real, nice crunching sound.

"Prepare to die, Kabuto!"

He'd never thought he'd be glad to see Ryoga, but there it was. Ryoga looked as angry as Ranma had ever seen him and with the blood already spattered across his umbrella and clothes he looked damn intimidating. Kabuto looked slightly surprised for an instant before the grin returned and he pushed his glasses up. That was all he had time to do before Ryoga charged, umbrella cocked.

It came as an unpleasant surprise to Ranma when Kabuto actually managed to duck beneath Ryoga's attack and let the larger boy charge on past him. Even more of an unpleasant surprise when Kabuto's hand, glowing with energy once more, slashed into Ryoga's back. The lost boy had just enough time to look shocked before his eyes turned glassy and he toppled onto his side like a colossus that'd had its base smashed out from underneath it.

"This will of fire nonsense is so very annoying. Why won't you just-"

Kabuto was interrupted again, this time by a hailstorm of kunai that he only just managed to leap out of the way of in time to avoid being made into a pin cushion. A duck swooped overhead before banking to the side and coming around for another run. Saved by Mousse? Oh, man. They'd never live that one down.

On second thoughts maybe not. Kabuto flicked his wrist and with that a line of glowing ki was launched forth to wrap around Mousse's neck. The duck quacked loudly, and then Kabuto twisted his wrist to swing it around and slam it into a nearby tree with enough force to almost knock it out of its roots. Mousse gave one more quiet quack and then went silent.

"Now, where was I? Oh, yes. Killing you, Ranma."

There were times in his life when Ranma had serious cause to regret all the trouble he managed to find. Seeing Kabuto charging towards him, both hands glowing, was one of those. He was going to die and he was never going to get to see Akane, his mother, or his pop ever again. There was nothing he could do to stop it and he couldn't bring himself to take his eyes away from the incoming killer.

A pair of snakes cut through the air and wound their way around Kabuto, who looked surprised for a moment before he disappeared in a puff of smoke to be replaced by a thick log.

Anko appeared between Ranma and Kabuto in a flurry of leaves. Ranma almost felt like fainting in relief, but he quickly suppressed that. It'd be a manly sort of faint but still. "You stay the hell away from them," she said. "Or I'll make you bleed like you've never bled before."

Kabuto smiled and pushed his glasses back up. "You don't really think you can stop me, do you?" he said. "You're far too weak."

"Kakashi warned me about you," said Anko. "There'll be no more free victories from here on out."

"You're nothing more than a failed experiment, Anko. Why don't you just run away and preserve your worthless existence for another day? It wouldn't be the first time, would it?"

Anko's lips peeled back as her expression settled into a predatory smile. "Why don't you come over here so I can show you how worthless I really am?" she asked. "Or is the little boy too scared to take on his master's former apprentice?"

Kabuto's expression was similarly predatory. "It's been far too long since I had a good battle," he said. "Don't disappoint me."

And then they moved. It was almost eerie the similarity in how they moved. Both fighters opened by pulling a trio of kunai from the holster they kept at the back of their waist and launching those weapons the way of the other. Those weapons met mid-air in a clash of steel that left both attacks nullified, and then the two fighters were on each other in an exchange of fist and feet.

As they exchanged blows, Ranma tried to pull himself to his feet. Bad idea. He got to his knees and then the world tilted around him, went dark, and then he was back on the ground gasping for breath that just wouldn't come and with what felt like a fire burning in his left lung. Kabuto hadn't been kidding when he said he'd punctured the lung. Damn, damn, damn.

He looked up just in time to see Anko reel away from Kabuto with blood spurting from a thin cut that had been slashed down her cheek. Before she could retake her guard Kabuto darted forward and slashed a glowing hand down across her sternum. A terrible cold swept through Ranma's gut for the instant that he thought Kabuto had killed her but before he could react in any way Anko turned a muddy brown and the body began to dissolve.

Kabuto whipped around just in time to see Anko complete rising out of the ground, hands flashing through a series of handseals. "Katon: Goukakyuu No Jutsu." A good-sized fireball rocketed forth from Anko's mouth towards Kabuto, but Anko wasn't finished there. Her hands had already moved seamlessly to the seals for a second, follow-up technique. "Fuuton: Daitoppa."

Ranma had to shield his eyes from the monstrous fireball created by the combined wind and fire techniques. He'd had no idea, none at all, that Anko could do something like that on her own. The fire ripped through the forest and set everything in front of the direction Anko was facing ablaze in a massive conflagration that quickly began to spread around the arena. As ways to take out one guy went, it was damned excessive . . . and fit Anko down to the ground.

"Failed experiment, my perfectly formed arse," said Anko, her chest heaving slightly from the exertion of her attack. Ranma realised that he couldn't feel Kabuto's ki. She'd got him. "Ranma, what's your status?"

"I've had better days."

"Don't move around too much," said Anko. "Medic-nins know just where to hit to really mess you up."

For once in his life Ranma really didn't feel like making a smart alec reply. He was just too busy coughing up blood to acknowledge that, yes, Kabuto really did have a way of making it hurt. If Kabuto wasn't dead, he was going to make sure that the traitor wished he was next time they met.

Anko leaned over Ryoga with a pensive expression on her face. "Doesn't look too bad," she said. "Wait a-"

She reacted smartly to leap back out of the way as Ryoga threw a hard uppercut at her jaw. Ryoga? No. The moment Ryoga reached his feet he grabbed hold of some loose skin by his temple and tore his face away like a mask. Kabuto. "You're stronger than I expected," he said. "But then that's not saying a great deal."

With that expression on her face and the inferno that she'd created raging around her Anko looked positively demonic. "Where is he?" she ground out. "Where is Ryoga?"

"Oh, he's around," said Kabuto. "Somewhere, in this pleasant little bonfire you've created for us to enjoy. You might want to move quickly. Strong as he is, I don't think he'll last too long if he gets caught in this."

"I am going to gut you like a fish."

"Now, now, there's no time for posturing, Anko," said Kabuto. He looked far too happy with himself for Ranma's tastes. "Your student could be burning as we speak, and if you don't drag him out then who will? Oh, but if you run off to save him, then who keeps me from finishing the job with your other students. Quite the dilemma, don't you think?"

If Ranma had thought Anko looked demonic before, that was nothing compared to how she looked after that pronouncement. She wasn't so much radiating killing intent as personifying it. It came as a bit of a surprise to him that Anko was actually kinda scary, even if he did call her psycho.

Kabuto sighed theatrically. "It seems that you're going to lose another team," he said. "Such a shame. People might think it's becoming a habit-"

He barely had time to dodge as Anko flew at him, launching kunai forth like a knife-throwing machine gun all the way before she entered hand-to-hand range. Blows were exchanged at lightning speed and Ranma was left wondering when Anko, who he'd always thought was a bit weak like most ninja, had got so fast.

But it wasn't enough. Again Anko was the one forced to retreat as a glowing hand cut through the air she had been inhabiting a moment beforehand.

"How disappointing," said Kabuto with an exaggerated sigh. "I'd hoped for a more interesting battle than this. Well, it shouldn't be long now . . . you're just not strong enough to go through me."

The look in Anko's eyes was absolutely wild. "Strong?" she snarled. "I'll show you strong, you little bastard."

And then she moved, blazing enough killing intent to drop a child at twenty paces as she went, arm cocked, kunai in hand, to deliver a murderous blow. Her aura was blowing off enough energy that it would have been heading into the visible spectrum if she'd been trained that way.

But it was for nothing. Ranma was too tired, too hurt, to follow it as he normally would but one second Anko was charging and the next she was still as a statue with blood dripping from a deep wound on her chest. Kabuto was by her side, half a pace distant, grinning, as if he were playing a particularly amusing game.

That didn't stop her of course. With a snarl she twisted around and slashed her kunai through the air towards Kabuto's face, but he simply leaned back and allowed it to whistle harmlessly through the air in front of them. And, then, still smiling he smashed the palm of his hand into Anko's nose with a sickening crunch.

Anko reeled back and Kabuto stepped in with a pair of hard punches that rocked her head to and fro before he snapped off a crisp uppercut that caught her flush on the point of her chin and dropped her to the ground.

Ranma's heart filled with dread as he watched Kabuto grab Anko by the lapels of her now blood-spattered trenchcoat and pull her to her feet in front of him. Kabuto tutted. "Look at you," he said. "To fall into such an obvious trap . . . and you were Orochimaru's apprentice, his chosen student from a team of supposedly elite genin? Pitiful, really."

Ranma pulled himself to his feet but there he stopped, a terrible wave of nausea rolling through him and freezing him in his tracks, wavering to and fro as black spots danced in front his eyes.

"I had hoped for something more interesting," continued Kabuto. "Something to stretch my skills a little. But," and he paused to sigh theatrically, "you have disappointed and it's now time to conclude our business. Any last words?"

Anko coughed and spat up a mouthful of blood. "Yeah," she said. "I have some last words: you're an idiot."

Kabuto's expression turned to confusion. "What?"

Ranma couldn't see what exactly happened for Anko's body, but Kabuto's eyes went very, very wide and his complexion went very, very pale and he saw what looked like a snake writhing around Anko's midsection before it withdrew back into the folds of her coat. Whatever it was it looked as if it had been effective, though - Kabuto wasn't so much as twitching, and it looked like he was doing his best not to scream.

Then Anko stepped away. Ranma couldn't help but wince when he saw the hilt of a kunai sticking out of Kabuto's crotch. It was just instinctive. But it had nothing on the sympathy pain he got when Anko twisted around and slammed a roundhouse kick right into the hilt of the kunai. Kabuto kinda screeched and dropped to the ground. There were definite tears of pain.

"Something to remember me by when you're singing soprano," said Anko by way of explanation before zipping off in a flurry of leaves. She returned a moment later with a singed looking Ryoga over one shoulder and a comatose duck perched on the other. "Make sure these two idiots don't get themselves killed."

Anko was covered in blood. Between the blood dripping from the long wound that had been slashed down the left side of her face, the deep, deep cut that had been carved out of her chest just below her breasts, and the spatter pattern on her coat from where she'd stabbed Kabuto, she looked like she'd been bathing in the stuff. And she looked absolutely in her element.

But what was coming up behind her was a little more eye-catching. There really weren't words for it or anything he could actually do about it so Ranma just pointed. Anko whirled around just in time to see the tsunami heading their way and summed up all their thoughts quite well. "Fucking Senju."

And then the wave crashed over them. Pain, a twisting, burning agonising pain, burned inside Ranma as his curse triggered and he couldn't even work up the breath to scream with it as the world went dark around him.

When he came to again he was a she and she was hanging from a tree branch by her now rather battered shirt with a duck on top of her head. She'd found herself in worse positions in the past, she was sure, but she was having trouble remembering them. At least she could breath. Sort of.

"You are truly inhuman," said Sarutobi. That got Ranma's attention. The old man looked like he'd been through the wars but he was still standing. "How many bodies have you stolen?"

Orochimaru was laughing. But it didn't sound like his laughter. The voice was just too high-pitched, too girlish, and when Ranma tracked across to actually look at him . . . he was a she. Which wasn't all that remarkable - boys turning into girls was kinda ho-hum for Ranma - but her eyes . . . there was nothing human in there. They had all the features that people talked about when they were looking at cute girls, though the snake thing was weird, but there was nothing there - no emotion, no warmth, no nothing. The eyes were the windows to the soul and Orochimaru's showed a vast, all-consuming emptiness that honestly gave Ranma a case of the creeping horrors.

"This is my third," said Orochimaru once she'd quieted her laughter. "But soon I will have another, one stronger and even more beautiful."


Orochimaru's features settled into a predatory grin. "Yes," she said. "He will come to me for power soon, but before then we have business to settle." Orochimaru's drew his hand down across her face and when it had passed she was the familiar man. "But for that I think you would prefer this form, no? It seems right that the trash of Konoha should recognise its destroyer as they curse his name."

"Konoha will not fall," said Sarutobi. "Not to the likes of you, Orochimaru."

"You will be dead soon, along with your foolish subordinates, and then you will have no more influence on what is to come."

"There will always be another to take up my mantle. Always. Never will the people of Konoha bend their knee to the likes of you. This is the will of fire. Your lack of understanding is why you could never have been the Yondaime."

Orochimaru's smile evaporated. "Meaningless words," he snarled. "I shall show you how very little your feeble ideology is worth, sensei. Watch as I make your subordinates pay for your weakness."

Sarutobi hefted his staff and hurled himself towards Orochimaru but the Shodai and Nidaime were between him and his target in a flash and Orochimaru was free. He had his sword in hand, extended in a lunge, and he was hurtling towards Ranma with hair trailing behind him in a long, dark streak.

Ranma had been on the brink of death so many times that day that he barely even blinked at seeing Orochimaru come at him. She'd already had her life flash before her eyes and felt her regrets and there was no way she was going to let that barely human bastard see any fear in her eyes. Even if she died, Ryoga would avenge her eventually. She'd take that.

Then Anko was between them. Anko with the sword piercing through her chest and out her back as she stood between Ranma and Orochimaru. Ranma had no breath for dramatic shouts or screams but she felt the bottom drop out of her stomach as she watched the blood drip from the point of the blade poking out of her sensei's back.

Orochimaru tsked. "Even in death you remain such a disappointing student," he said. "You have learned nothing."

Anko looked up to meet Orochimaru's eye. "Not nothing," she said. Even from her position Ranma could see the blood fall from Anko's mouth as she spoke. "I learned plenty."

"What? This will not save the child. She will die, and now you will die with her. It is meaningless."

"You always were an arrogant bastard, weren't you?" gasped Anko. "Well now you pay for it. If this is the last thing I ever do, I'm going to make it count."

Orochimaru's expression lost some of its arrogance as he tried to yank his sword out and pull away, but Anko's grip was firm. A snake slithered out from underneath the back of Anko's coat with a kunai in its mouth and whipped around to pierce the blade through the hands of Anko and Orochimaru, binding them together quite effectively.

"Let's die together," said Anko. "Master and student. It'll be beautiful."

"I will not be defeated by a pathetic mongrel such as you."

Anko began to form seals with the hand she'd bound to Orochimaru with a kunai. "I've been waiting for this for a long time," she said. "Don't spoil it."

Ranma thrashed against the tree. Her breath drew short and dark spots danced in front of her eyes, but she tore her shirt free - damn the strength of the material - and fell to the ground. But there she stopped, panting to try and gain the energy to move, but failing.

"Why do you struggle so much, sensei? Don't you like my Sōjasōsai no Jutsu. It's such a wonderful technique."

Orochimaru stilled. "You waste your time," he said. "If you have not even constructed a new technique, you will fail."

A pair of snakes poked their heads out from Anko's coat sleeve. "We'll see," she said. "Won't we?"

Ranma struggled to her feet but could no more than watch as the snakes bit down, one on Anko's wrist, one on Orochimaru's. Anko wilted almost immediately, the colour draining from her skin in an instant before she slumped forward onto Orochimaru, but Orochimaru was different. He snarled in concentration and, with a mighty burst of ki and a horrible tearing sound, he yanked himself free of Anko, almost tearing his hand in two in the process.

From there Ranma could see the effect of the poison on Orochimaru. His torn hand had gone from being ridiculously pale to being a horrid shade of grey, a grey that was slowly creeping its way up his arm. "Impossible," he said. "This is-"

"It seems that another of my wayward pupils has defied my expectations," said Sarutobi. "But Tsunade's gambit comes as a much more pleasant surprise."

"This isn't over yet, old man," snarled Orochimaru as his arm flopped uselessly to his side. "Tsunade's poisons were always keyed to Senju blood. This is not the end."

"You are no more a Senju than I am, student," said Sarutobi. "Or do you need to be reminded of basic genetics as well as everything else? Even that body you have stolen cannot be Senju - they are a dead clan, destroyed in the wars, and Tsunade is the last."

"But I have resurrected them!"

"No! I won't allow-"

The Shodai and Nidaime exploded, sending clouds of dust up into the air, leaving behind a pair of child corpses Ranma recognised from the exams and two large. swirling masses of colourless energy.

"Look upon my works and weep, old man. I am not without my resources."

Orochimaru shouted in exertion and doubled over as the energy crashed through the air and began to seep into him. The old man raised his hand and Ranma felt a surge of energy from him trying to pull the zombie-ki away from Orochimaru and for a moment it looked as if it might work as the energy began to pull away. But then he faltered and the energy resumed its original flow.

But Ranma wasn't paying much of any attention to what was going on. It was background noise. She was staring at Anko. Anko who wasn't moving or breathing or making even the slightest sound. She couldn't be dead. She just couldn't. Anko was going to teach them crazy ninja techniques and they were going to teach her crazy martial arts and it was going to be great. She couldn't be dead.

But she still wasn't moving.

Ranma looked away.

"It's over, Orochimaru," said Sarutobi. "You cannot win. Not now."

"My left arm may be useless, sensei, but I am hardly defeated," replied Orochimaru. "You can barely lift that ape. What makes you think you can defeat me in such a state?"

"That'd be where we come in."

Kakashi and Gai dropped down from the trees to stand by Sarutobi.

"Sorry we're late, Hokage, sir," said Gai. "We had to deal with an unpleasant infestation on the way."

"You should leave the excuses to Kakashi, Gai. He's better at them."

Ranma reached out and started to pull herself forward towards Anko. The effort, minimal as it was, left her breathless and retching but she still kept going. Right then it was the most important thing in the world to her.

"My servants! To me! Now!"

The Sound Four, minus one, appeared next to Orochimaru. The fat one had Kabuto tossed over his shoulder and they all looked as if they'd been beaten within an inch of their lives and back again. But it wasn't important.

"Your worshipful minions may have saved you from your fate this time, sensei, but we will meet again."

Tayuya and the one wearing lipstick slammed their hands down to the ground in front of them. A purple barrier promptly shimmered into existence to separate Orochimaru and his minions from Sarutobi and his.

"There will be no safe place in the world for you, Orochimaru. This I swear by the memory of those you have desecrated. I will hunt you down like the animal you are."

Orochimaru smirked. "I shall look forward to it."

And with that they were gone.

Ranma had reached Anko by then, though. She stopped for a second to catch what little breath she could and then she reached out to Anko's arm. "Anko?" she asked as she shook her arm.

There was no resistance to her shaking. The body simply flopped. That was the only response.

Anko was really dead.

Darkness fell. And this time Ranma didn't come to again a moment later.

Chapter Twenty-Two

"It will come as no surprise to those who knew her that the life of Anko Mitarashi came to an end in battle with Orochimaru," said Sarutobi. "Her life was dominated by his depravities and so, in the end, was her death. But it was not in vain. Anko Mitarashi died a hero of Konoha. She gave her life to defeat the gravest threat this village has faced in over decade and she shall be remembered for this great sacrifice."

They were nice words. Nice, flowery, complimentary words. And they might as well have been white noise playing in the background for all that Ranma made of them. The tight ball of rage in his gut, that senses-blinding whine of hate in his ears, the wheezing pain of each breath, they didn't lend themselves to soaking in the speech.

He'd never really wanted to kill anyone before, not even Saffron, but he could almost taste his desire to kill Orochimaru. It was like a live thing, this hate boiling inside him, and he wasn't sure he liked it. He felt out of control, driven by forces he couldn't put under lock and key, and he'd seen what happened with martial artists that went down that particular path. It wasn't pretty.

But he couldn't help it. Every time he tried to wrestle it down he'd see Anko's body sagging and the blade slicing through her and it'd be back just as strong as before. There just didn't seem to be an end to it. Whatever he did, whatever meditations he performed, he just couldn't get away from it.

Ranma closed his eyes and took a deep breath. If he didn't watch it, he'd start leaking killing intent again, and the last time he'd done that a little kid had wet their trousers and ran for their life. He really didn't want to get a reputation as a kid-terroriser. Anko would have probably found it amusing but then she wasn't there to enjoy it, was she?

He opened his eyes again. It was a pretty good funeral, really. Anko was front and centre, hero of heroes, as the one who'd given up her life to actually defeat the guy leading the invasion. Her picture was right there at the front, first one you saw, and most prominent of them. She'd probably have liked that, he supposed; it was always nice to have people acknowledge that you're awesome.

But she was dead. Kinda hard to appreciate that sort of thing when you were filling an urn in the local mausoleum.

And he could see Kurenai eyeing him. Ah, man. He really didn't like that. Dealing with sad girls was bad enough at the best of times, but when they were coming over all concerned at the same time? He had no idea how to deal with that. It was utterly beyond him - a problem he couldn't solve by hitting or insulting it.

"Her path was a difficult one," continued Sarutobi. "Torn between her loyalty to her sensei and to her village, she made some regrettable decisions in her youth, decisions that she has suffered for ever since, before she returned to the Konoha fold. But she endured and overcame. In the end she acted in the finest traditions of this village and that is what she shall be remembered for in the years to come: her heroism, her willingness to sacrifice it all to defend her people.

"She became the very embodiment of the Will of Fire," he finished. "And that ensures her place in the pantheon of Konoha heroes."

It didn't seem like much of a comfort to Ranma. All the praise in the world couldn't bring back the dead once they'd really passed on. Anko was dead and Orochimaru still tainted the world with his presence. He could have understood if they'd been burying Orochimaru's ashes in some tomb never to be seen again as well, but this wasn't a victory to celebrate. . . it wasn't even a tie. It was a time-out bought with blood and it left a foul taste in his mouth.

"Remember what we fight for," said the Hokage. "Remember what we have sacrificed and bled for. This is our village, our treasure in a world of blood and horror, and so long as we remember that, so long as we can emulate the spirit of Anko Mitarashi and maintain our Will of Fire, then Konoha shall never fall."

Oh, yippee. An uplifting speech to boost the morale of the locals. Just what everyone wanted to have at their sensei's funeral. All they needed now was for some psycho to burst in yelling about getting revenge for something his pop had done back in the day and it'd be just perfect.

The crowd started to break up and move away. Condolences were muttered by those who passed by him and the slowly but surely the masses drifted away till only those who had lost directly remained. It was an awful lot of people and scant few of them looked like they were eager to leave any time soon.

"Ah, Ranma," said the Hokage. "My condolences. I am aware that you certainly don't wish to deal with these things now, but time presses us all. My office, noon tomorrow - bring your team."

Ranma nodded. He really didn't feel like talking.

"Again, my condolences. The first time is always difficult."

And with that he left. First time? Ranma really didn't want to think about that. Having one person die right in front of him was quite bad enough as far as he was concerned, thank you very much. He didn't need any more of it.

"If there's nothing else."

Ranma looked to his left. Mousse looked grey. The stupid duck hadn't complained, not even winced, but Ranma could tell by looking at the idiot that he was having trouble. Ranma supposed that the Amazon just didn't heal as quickly as himself or Ryoga. Not many did. And he promptly wandered off in that rigid, precise way that came to people who were all kinds of banged up but didn't want to show it. Oh, well. He was a big boy; he could look after himself.

"I'm going too."

Ryoga, well, Ryoga was Ryoga. His aura was a little heavier than normal and he looked slightly more depressed than his norm, but you'd be hard pressed to tell the difference if you hadn't known him a few years. He'd gone from 'woe is me for I cannot find the toilet' to 'I'm so depressed I can't even be bothered to slit my wrists'. Easy enough to tell from the level of weight in his aura but there weren't many who could read it.

And he was leaving. Okay, the flowers wilting in his wake were new. Ranma hadn't seen that happen before. It was new and also excessive, even by Ryoga's standards. The lost boy really needed to find something to hit . . . so long as it wasn't him, for a change.

That left Ranma alone. He really didn't like that one bit. It really wasn't the sort of place he fancied hanging around on his own. Just didn't feel right. Uncomfortable. That was the word: uncomfortable. Like he was intruding.

But he didn't feel like going back to the flat. A night cooped up in those little rooms staring at a ceiling held about as much appeal as being repeatedly punched in the face by Lime while Herb set him up for life as a girl. He was already feeling claustrophobic just considering it. No, it was a night under the stars for him. There was plenty of room for it in Konoha.

He gave the picture of a smiling Anko they'd dug up from somewhere for the shrine one last, long look before trudging away.

Ryoga swivelled around and stared. Hadn't he been next to the hospital a second ago? He was pretty sure the hospital wasn't in a forest . . . Yeah, there were houses around it. Electricity pylons. Stuff like that. You know, civilisation.

"ARGH!" he shouted at the top of his lungs. "I'm lost again!"

A whole flock of birds took wing and fled at the volume of his shouting, but it barely registered with Ryoga. His mind was spinning off elsewhere. On coming to from being taken down by a sneaky ninja trick to see Anko and Ranma laid out next to each not moving. For one horrible moment he'd thought Kabuto had killed the pair of them while he'd been out cold and he'd felt like his whole world had been tilted on its axis and kicked out to twin up with Pluto. Then Ranma had twitched.

A thunderous crack filled the clearing as Ryoga smashed his fist through the nearest tree with a roar of anger. The tree promptly collapsed to the ground in a shower of wood and leaves. Then the only sound was that of Ryoga's ragged breathing.

Dammit, it wasn't right. He wanted to tear something to pieces. He wanted to hunt Orochimaru down and beat him till he was a greasy spot on the floor. He wanted to pull Kabuto's arms off and beat the bastard to death with them. He wanted to find those transforming weirdos and smash them to bits. He wanted to find those masked ninja that had been working for Orochimaru and decorate the world with their guts. He wanted to do many things and it was all pointless.

He wasn't strong enough to defeat Orochimaru. He probably wasn't even strong enough to defeat Kabuto. All the reasons, all the excuses, in the world wouldn't change the way he'd been swatted down like some Kuno when he'd tried to take on that bastard. It had been pathetic. Absolutely pathetic.

Another tree was smashed to bits.

Years of training. Years of wandering through the wilderness never knowing if he'd see his home again. All worthless. All pointless. He'd been crushed like a bug the moment it had really mattered, when lives were on the line, and Anko was dead because of that weakness. If he'd just been that little bit stronger . . .

Well, it wouldn't happen again. He wouldn't be weak again. Oh, no. All those fancy techniques, all those powers, he'd take them and make them his own. He'd learn and match everything they could do, learn the most powerful ninja techniques in existence and then top them with ones of his own creation, and then . . . then he'd smash Orochimaru to paste. Anko's death wouldn't go unavenged.

A low, rumbling growl from behind him broke Ryoga from his thoughts. He turned to see a massive sabre-toothed tiger - almost tall enough to reach his shoulder - growling at him with its enormous teeth bared and shoulder muscles held tense ready to pounce at a moment's notice.

Ryoga was in no mood for it. The last thing he needed was some stupid animal trying to push him around. He had enough trouble with snakes without adding tigers to the list of troublesome beasts. And so he bared his fangs and growled right on back at it.

It turned on its tail and fled. Smarter than it looked.

Neither of the idiots had returned to the flat. Mousse couldn't exactly claim to be heartbroken as he collapsed into the nearest chair and allowed himself to drop the act of being perfectly fine. He didn't even know why he was doing it, why he'd bother to hide that he was hurt, when Saotome and Hibiki were lucky if they could manage more than half a dozen steps before they had nurses fluttering around them. It was pointless, and yet he kept on doing it.

Well, it didn't matter. They weren't there and he could relax just a little. Ryoga had probably ran face first into a mountain or something equally stupid and Saotome was probably off trying to provoke someone into picking a fight so he could work off his angst on their face. Either that or he was sulking in a corner and scheming over what ridiculous technique he'd learn to beat Orochimaru.

Mousse closed his eyes and sighed. He didn't want to think about it. He didn't want to think about it at all. Thinking about Orochimaru made him remember what it was like to be trapped as a small animal and helpless at the hands of someone who would have happily killed him. Oh, it wasn't as if Kabuto had bothered with grandiose threats or putting up a 'look how scary I am' aura or anything like that, but he'd know all the same that he was a second away from death with that chakra wire wrapped around his throat. And, needless to say, he hadn't much liked it.

And then, when he'd been sensate again, Anko had been dead. Just like that. No epic showdown, no spectacular duel, just dead. It was everything he'd had nightmares about when he was a child after some particularly harsh training sessions. Dead and gone in thirty seconds flat and set to be forgotten just as quickly after the eulogies were all done and dusted.

Yes, it was something out of a nightmare. For someone with as much life in her as Anko to be just snuffed out and sent on to the next like that just seemed wrong. He'd never even considered the idea that Anko could really die, not even when Hiro had taken her, and he still half expected her to come bounding in through the flat door and start ranting at them about being so pathetically mopey.

A loud crack startled Mousse out of his contemplation and he looked down to see that he'd snapped the arm off the chair he was sat on. He frowned. Had he slipped so much that he couldn't even control his own strength? No, that was Hibiki's style, not his, and he wouldn't, couldn't, allow himself to be that person. He had to remain in control. Anything else was idiocy.

Idiocy or not, he needed to get himself under control. He needed every erg of strength he could lay his hands on if he was going to avoid being back in that position, his life in the hands of an enemy, again and he wouldn't have if he let himself get soft in the head. No, he needed a cool head and new techniques. The only question was where to get them from.

"Ah, good. You've arrived," said the Hokage. "Again, before we begin, my condolences for your loss. I well remember the pain of losing my sensei to war. All I can tell you is that time heals most wounds and will distance you from the rest."

Ranma said nothing. He simply didn't trust himself to reply. The last few days had brought enough platitudes to last him a life-time and he was in no mood to nod and smile as more were heaped upon him. If the old man understood, then he'd stop at that.

"But we didn't come here to talk about such things," he continued. "I have items to discuss with you. For a start, I have some good news for all three of you. You are to be promoted, effective immediately. Congratulations. I know it may not seem like much consolation now, but this is what you were working for and Anko would be very, very proud of you."

Ranma shifted but Mousse spoke first. "So we're chuunin then," he said flatly. "Yippee."

Sarutobi smiled slightly. "Chuunin?" he asked. "Oh, no. The time for half measures is past. While you lack the complete skills of a fully-fledged jounin each of you is far too strong to stand as a mere chuunin. I must congratulate you all on reaching the rank of special jounin. Few ninja reach such heights and I expect you to reach higher yet given time.

"Of course," he continued. With a wave of his hand three of the armoured vests that Konoha-nins tended to wear appeared in front of him on his desk. "This will be almost meaningless till you have recovered from your injuries. Till then you will be confined to having earned the right to wear a tactical vest and access to the Konoha technique library Use them well."

The conversation paused for a moment as they donned their new armour. Ranma had little enthusiasm for it, but even he knew better than to not take it up when someone made a big fuss over something like that. Well, not when he was still too hurt to get away cleanly anyway.

"Ah, you do your sensei proud," said Sarutobi. "But now we must move to less pleasant matters. Anko has died intestate. She left behind neither family nor documentation as to how to dispose of her belongings in case of her death. In such a case we are left only with Konoha tradition to guide us. At this point, I hand proceedings over to Anko's family in all but blood, Kurenai."

Ranma turned his head just in time to see Kurenai walk into the office. She was back out of her funeral kimono and in her usual outfit of bandages that didn't really cover all that much at all. Some would have probably called it inappropriate for such an occasion but Ranma knew better - this was Anko's send-off, and Anko had never been one for standing on ceremony, or for modest clothing for that matter.

She didn't look much happier to be there than they did. Oh, she hid it well, behind a carefully schooled facial expression, but if there was anything Ranma could do it was read body language and hers wasn't speaking of happiness at all. Rather the opposite, in fact, and Ranma could sympathise.

"Anko had no children and no students but you three," said Kurenai. "In the absence of other claims and documentation to any other effect, you are her heirs to all but that tithed to the village."

"We don't-"

"Want it?" asked Kurenai. "Of course not. You want Anko, not her few belongings, but we can't have that. Don't disrespect her memory now, please."

Ranma subsided. What could he say? It probably didn't matter anyway; if Konoha was anything like Japan it'd all go into inheritance taxes anyway, so it didn't really matter all that much no matter how utterly small it made him feel to be taking stuff that belonged to someone who'd got killed saving him.

There isn't much to distribute," said Kurenai. "The flat she lived in, her ninja tools, scrolls, and her wardrobe. Her scroll library is extensive, especially for one of her rank, but I'm sure you can split that between you in your own time and in privacy. But there is one item that we must cover here and now."

Kurenai placed a long, brown bag on the table. It didn't take a genius to recognise it for what it was.

"This is her sword," said Kurenai as she pulled the bag clear to reveal the weapon within, a spectacularly lethal looking katana. "Passed down from her sensei many years ago. Anko rarely used it due to the associations it held in her memory, but it is still her blade, a piece of her, and an extremely potent weapon."

Ryoga was the one to speak. "Orochimaru gave her that?"

"Orochimaru always believed that a shinobi should be well-rounded," said Sarutobi, "and that swordsmanship was part of that rounding. This weapon is modelled on his own Kusanagi, though considerably less powerful and single-edged. It would be wise not to allow its origins to taint such a fine blade."

"There are two options in handling the blade," continued Kurenai. "It will be buried with Anko or handed down to one of you with the consent of the others. Whoever takes the blade will, essentially, be marking himself as her successor."

Ranma absolutely didn't want it. He couldn't even look at the weapon without seeing Anko being ran through by Orochimaru and it made him want to retch. Anko's blade or not, he just couldn't bring himself to it. Who wants to remember their sensei being killed right in front of them every time they come to mind? No, some things were just too much, even for him.

Anyway, Mousse was the weapons freak of the group. He'd be the one who'd get the most out of some magic sword. Ranma just had to hope that the Amazon wouldn't throw a fit at some point in the future over Shampoo and pull the sword. That'd be messy. But Mousse wasn't that stupid.

"I'll do it," said Ryoga. "I'll take up the sword."

Huh? Ranma jerked around to face the others with a look of utter shock on his face. Since when did Ryoga use swords? Or even care for them? Ranma'd always seen him as more of a blunt force trauma sort of guy, with a bit of razor-cloth throw in to keep things interesting. Swordsmanship required finesse and Ryoga had about as much of that as he had a sense of direction.

"Does anyone disagree with this?"

Ranma really expected Mousse to say something, he was the weapon guy after all, but he looked unbothered. "I have no objections to Hibiki taking up the sword."


Ranma shook his head. "If he wants it, he can have it," he said. "No objections from me, either."

It felt like he'd tumbled into another alternate universe, one where Ryoga didn't just smash his way through things and used precision weapons instead. Such a thing was almost strange enough to make him want to check the number of suns, the colour of the sky, and whether things had started falling up. But there wasn't a whole lot he could do about that just then.

"Use it well, Ryoga Hibiki," said Kurenai as she passed the blade to him hilt-first. "This is no small thing, taking on this blade."

Ryoga took the blade. "I will," he said. "You have my word."

Ranma hadn't had a lot of experience with that sort of moment in his life, the closest he'd been to a family blade had been when his mother had nearly skewered him with theirs by accident, but he knew something serious when he saw it. This was something a bit important, something that Ryoga was going to have to live up to, and he had to admit that he wasn't sorry it was Ryoga and not him.

"There is nothing left to be disposed," said Kurenai. "Anko's property remains open with a chuunin honour guard but it is expected that you shall take possession and dispose of it promptly."

With that Kurenai let out a deep breath and a whole load of tension just seemed to drain out of her body. Looked like she hadn't been looking forward to that business anymore than they had.

"I suggest you take advantage of the time left to you," said Sarutobi. "Time to process and move past your grief will be at a premium once your health has returned and you join the other jounin on the mission roster."

Ryoga wouldn't have been able to explain to anyone why he took the sword if they'd been there to ask. It had been a spontaneous decision, something he'd just felt that he had to do in that moment of asking, and now, there he was, with a sword. Anko's sword. And he had no idea where the hell he was supposed to go from there.

Oh, it was a nice enough weapon, and putting the pointy end into the bad guy wasn't a difficult idea to master. But . . . it was more than that. He had to be worthy. He couldn't just run around stabbing people with it when they annoyed him. Well, he could, and Anko would probably find it funny, but it probably hadn't been what Kurenai'd had in mind when she said to use It well.

He had to live up to it. It was a really, really nice sword, even if it had came from a bastard, and it had been Anko's. That meant something. That meant he had to be a good Konoha-nin with all that went with that. And it meant he had to avenge her. Well, he'd been planning on doing that anyway, but now it was formalised. He'd taken up her sword so he had to help kill Orochimaru. That simple.

She hadn't deserved to die. Anko had been . . . Anko. Always loud, always in your face, always there. Having her just go . . . just be quiet. It was wrong. He'd felt like he'd had his guts ripped out when he'd came to and seen Anko and Ranma just laid there not moving with all the blood around them. For one horrible moment he'd thought he'd really failed and Kabuto had killed the pair of them. Then Ranma had twitched. Just a little, almost unnoticeable, but a twitch, enough to so he'd known he was alive, and . . . well, it wasn't a whole lot better, but it was something.

But he'd been weak. His defeat, his one-shot defeat, at the hands of Kabuto had left the field open for all of that to happen. Ranma hadn't been in the mood for talking about it too much but it didn't take a genius to figure it out: Anko had been left to defend them against Orochimaru, alone, and hadn't been able to come up with anything better than a suicide technique to do it with.

It wouldn't happen again. He'd take her sword, her memory, and he'd make sure it was known to all. He wouldn't be so weak as to lose a second time and Anko wouldn't be forgotten. He'd make sure of that.

Ranma could still feel it boiling inside him, that rage, but it was a controlled thing now, simmering beneath the surface. He knew what he had to do and that he was going to do it. Now, now it was just a matter of time and finding the exact path to walk that would lead him to his goal: the death of Orochimaru.

And so long as Anko's coat still hung in his wardrobe he would never be able to forget his choice. It would always be a reminder of what had happened and what was going to happen, a little spur to keep him moving towards his goal. So long as he had that he wouldn't be able to get distracted.

When the time came, he'd wear that coat, but not before. It was for the final showdown, the end of Orochimaru. No more, no less. The snake had to know why he was being killed and the coat would accomplish that. And it just seemed so right that something so distinctively Anko's be there for the moment.

Looking down at the scroll he'd retrieved from Anko's library . . . their library . . . was almost enough to give Mousse second thoughts. There would be no going back once he'd signed. You couldn't take back a signature made in blood, he knew that much. There were all sorts of powers involved in that sort of thing and he'd known that since long before he'd ended up in this crazy world.

But there was no going back now. He'd made his choice. Taking up this contract was why he hadn't offered up any objection to Ryoga taking the sword: he didn't want to leave himself open to comparisons with Orochimaru. And the scroll was ready, his thumb was bleeding, and he needed that strength. He couldn't be vulnerable like that again. He just couldn't.

There was no flash of light, no fanfare, no great burst of chakra, when he pressed his thumb to the contract and made his mark. It was just done. He'd expected . . . more, somehow, from something like this. It wasn't every day you signed a contract with inhuman creatures in blood.

He put that aside and worked his way through the five seals he'd seen Hitomi use when she'd summoned that giant cat before he slammed his bloodied hand down to the ground to complete the technique. "Kuchiyose no jutsu."

Mousse sagged and almost fell onto his back as smoke billowed out to fill the valley around him. It was absolutely the most draining thing he'd done in his entire life, using that technique, and it made him wonder if maybe it had been a good idea for a moment.

"Orochimaru! What have I told you about summoning me without good reason?"

And Mousse knew it hadn't been a good idea when the smoke cleared to reveal the most hideously over-sized snake he had ever seen. It made that enormous cat Hitomi had summoned to attack him look like a runty kitten. The damned thing barely even fit in the valley, never mind anything else.

"You! Boy! Where is Orochimaru? Is he not brave enough to face me?"

Mousse straightened his posture and rose to his feet as some strength returned. "Orochimaru is not here," he said. "I don't know where he is, but I'd assume nowhere near here with the number of people after his head."

The snake let loose a distinctly displeased sounding hiss, loud enough to dislodge several rocks. "Are you claiming that an insect like you could summon me?" it hissed. "Summon Manda? I will swallow you whole, whelp!"

For a moment Mousse knew true terror, again. There he was, small, insignificant, wounded, and drained from his already weakened state, with a damned kaiju threatening to swallow him whole. It was just like being under Kabuto's whip, he was just as tiny, just as utterly defeated, and in that he knew terror.

No. No, he wouldn't let it end there. He grabbed hold of that terror and he forced it down just as he forced himself to stare Manda in the eye. He had summoned this creature to gain the strength he needed and he wouldn't let it end like this. "Look at the contract," he shouted back, loud as he could manage around his wounds. "My signature. My summoning. I don't need that bastard to summon."

Manda reared up, blotting out the moonlight with his sheer bulk as he did so. "You would dare speak to me in such a tone? I will not abide it!"

"I summoned you to gain the strength I need to defeat Orochimaru. If you won't give me that, what does it matter?"

The noise Manda made in response to that honestly left Mousse thinking he was a dead man walking for a moment. That loud, staccato hissing, he thought it was some sort of animalistic bellow of rage, but he quickly realised it was, in fact, laughter. "You? Kill Orochimaru? You have ambition if nothing else, but I see no reason to humour you."

"I summoned you, didn't I?"

The laughter stopped. Manda seemed to be giving him a more contemplative look, but it was hard to tell with something that big and that inhuman. "Snakes don't grant power without exacting a price."

Mousse's reply came without hesitation. "Then I'll pay it."

"We'll see. You won't summon me again if you value your life."

"Then how-" Manda disappeared in a cloud of smoke that quickly had Mousse coughing his lungs up. "Dammit."

That . . . hadn't gone quite as planned. He'd thought the snakes would be more than happy to find someone they could try and make into one of them. Summoning a kaiju that seemed like it wanted nothing more than to squash whoever summoned it and then be left alone had not been in the plan, not at all, and now he had no idea what the hell he was supposed to do. He didn't really fancy the idea of summoning that thing again; he wasn't sure he'd live to tell the tale of it.

He sat down and pondered the situation for a few minutes, turning it over in his mind, as he tried to find a solution. He didn't want to face Manda again if he could help it but he wasn't going to just give up either - that wasn't his style. But getting himself killed wouldn't help too much.

Wait. He'd said 'snakes don't grant power' now 'I don't grant power', and he'd seen plenty of summoned snakes that weren't anywhere near that size. All he had to do was throw a little bit less ki into the technique and he'd have something he could work with.

"Kuchiyose no jutsu."

"Took you long enough, moron. Whatever it is the boss saw in you that made him not turn you into a snack is beyond me."

"It only took a minute!"

"That's a minute too long." The snake slithered up Mousse's arm to wrap around his shoulders. It was all he could do not to throw the damned thing off. "This isn't going to be fun, you realise."

"I'll do whatever it takes."

"Oh, I do like to hear that. All that enthusiasm and innocence that comes with youth just waiting to be broken. It never gets old."

Mousse didn't feel particularly enthusiastic or innocent. But he wasn't going to say anything that would affect his chances of getting training.

Chapter Twenty-Three

There was no-one else there at the memorial stone when Ranma arrived and that suited him just fine. For this, he preferred to be alone. When other people were around he tended to shoot his mouth off, he knew it, they knew it, everyone knew it, and this just wasn't the place for that sort of thing. It'd be all kinds of disrespectful and while he didn't normally care much about being that it wouldn't be right when he was at the memorial for everyone ever killed serving Konoha.

Picking out Anko's name wasn't difficult. She was still the last one listed with no-one else being killed since the invasion. That wouldn't last long, he expected, but she was still there for now. The latest and greatest of Konoha's dead servants. The latest on a list of thousands.

Not that he'd have much difficulty picking her out even when that changed. He knew exactly where her name was on the stone and he'd not be forgetting any time soon. The very idea made him feel cold inside. She'd given her life for him and the least he could do was remember where she rested on the memorial.

"I'm still training them," said Ranma. "It's probably a waste of time and I'm still not sure if helping Hitomi get stronger is a good idea, but they're coming along pretty well now. Even Hinata's improving. I think that fight with Neji taught her a lesson and put a little steel in her spine.

"I thought she was hopeless, you know," he continued. "Just another wimp playing around at being a fighter, but she's changed. There's some actual determination there now and she doesn't give up so easy. Still too timid for my tastes but there's time yet to fix that. She's just a kid."

Ranma paused for a moment. He felt a bit stupid talking to a stone, to be honest, but still. This was all that was left of Anko. "Hanabi's the same as ever," he continued. "She tries to be the big, old emotionless Hyuuga that's too good to crack an expression, but she's about as good at is I would be. It's pretty funny to poke till she cracks and comes over all righteous feminine anger on me, though, and it gets her nice and motivated for training when I do so I won't complain too much.

"Hitomi's still a lunatic," he continued. "I don't know if she's going to be all friendly or try to kill me when she gets strong enough. Don't suppose it matters much, there's no way I won't be able to take her if it comes down to it, but I'd rather not have to, you know. I kinda like her even if she is a nutcase who probably hates me for killing her dad and this place isn't so forgiving when it comes to people who go a bit crazy like that.

"Anyway, I don't suppose you're too bothered about those," he continued. "You didn't much like Hitomi or care about the Hyuuga when you were still alive never mind now that you never have to see any of them again."

He paused again. What was the point? He was talking to a rock. It wasn't going to answer back and Anko, wherever she was, wasn't there. It was a waste of time and energy. "This is kinda stupid, isn't it?" he said. "We didn't even talk like this when you were still around. Too busy running around training and fighting and arguing and just . . . stuff."

Had he even known Anko? She'd been his sensei for a while and she'd taught him a few neat tricks, like walking on water, and he'd liked her, but he didn't know her. Not really. And now she was dead and she'd died to save him and he'd never have a chance to because of Orochimaru.

Gods, he'd never wanted to hurt anyone like he wanted to hurt Orochimaru. Even Saffron had just been an obstacle he needed to get past to save Akane's life in the end. But Orochimaru . . . it was different. The man, the thing, was a complete monster. He didn't have a shred of humanity in him. Ranma'd run into some bad people over the years, it was inevitable with the life he lived, but none of them were a patch on Orochimaru. That one was just . . . vile.

Nothing was right in the world. Anko hadn't deserved to die like that. She really hadn't. And Orochimaru was still walking around free as a bird and with nothing to stop him from cooking up another scheme to attack the village and kill a few hundred more people so he could prove how strong he was and get one over on his teacher. There was no justice in any of it.

"Just you wait," he said. "I'll get him. It might take a while, but I'll get Orochimaru and I'll make sure he never hurts anyone ever again. That much I can promise you."

It wasn't much, really, and it wouldn't bring her back anymore than it would have the last time he'd made the promise, but it was something. He needed that much and he reckoned Anko would too. She'd lived to see Orochimaru brought down for years. He had every intention of picking that torch up and running with it to the very end.

A presence flicked into being at the edge of his senses. Ranma turned to find a ninja, one of the chuunin administrators, dropping out of the trees. "What is it?"

"The Hokage wishes to speak to you."

Ryoga grunted with exertion as his sword stopped dead against the umbrella his clone was wielding. Before he could withdraw for a second slash he was forced to roll away as another umbrella cut through the space where he had been standing. When he came back to his feet he was facing both of the clones he'd summoned for his practice session. Both of them looked eager to continue.

Well, where else was he supposed to get a practice partner? Ranma was for finished techniques, not for learning, and Mousse would just make it too tempting to give it up and start smashing. Not that he was the sort to hold grudges because the Amazon had beaten him up when he'd been turned into a six year old or anything. Not at all.

He brandished his sword, Anko's sword, and charged forth with a battle cry on his lips and his sword held above his head. The clone he'd aimed for quickly leapt aside, away from the blade that sliced through the air its head had occupied, and then the blade stopped dead with an almighty clang as it struck home against the umbrella which had taken the first clone's place.

The fight stopped immediately as the two clones backed away to give Ryoga time and space to check they hadn't broken the sword. He knew, intellectually, that it was pretty stupid to worry about it, this wasn't the sort of blade that would break as soon as it ran into resistance, but the idea of breaking Anko's sword made him feel like someone had kicked the guts right out of him and he just had to check and see with his own eyes that it was okay.

It wasn't even nicked. He turned the sword over and around in his hands, examining every centimetre of steel. Not so much as scratch. Hell, he couldn't even see a breaking point and there weren't too many things he could say that about. Now that he stopped to think about it, he couldn't think of anything else he could say that about. Huh. Anko's sword was kinda awesome.

"Are you done admiring the shiny sword or are we going to get on with it?" asked one of the clones. "I always through getting distracted by whatever shiny thing was passing by was a Ranma thing."

Ryoga's head snapped up to glare at the clone. He bared his fangs. "If you're so eager to die," he said, "come on."

The clones both bared their own fangs and charged. Ryoga met them in the middle, blocking both of their umbrellas with his sword at the same time. They had just enough to look surprised before Ryoga hurled them both back the way they'd came with a single heave. Ha. That'd show them to try and mock the real thing.

They recovered quickly, though. Of course they did: they were him. Being slapped around a little didn't stop him for long. The pair of them rushed in again and this time they came in at wide angles so he couldn't get them both with one swing. Annoying. He quickly stepped back to let the attack from the right-most close swing by harmlessly while snapping his sword up into position to block the attack from the clone to his left.

That held for a moment before Ryoga lashed out with a right-handed punch that caught the clone to his right across the temple and sent it sprawling. The second was quick enough to withdraw its umbrella and come in again with the weapon raised high above its head for an overhand strike. But Ryoga was quicker, and his blade pierced the clone's chest before it strike.

Both promptly dissolved back into the mud he'd formed them from.

He'd won, but that wasn't exactly a great surprise when he was sparring with a couple of weaker copies of himself. It'd be time to head for the retirement home if he couldn't manage that much. There was more, he knew it, and he just had to figure it out.

"Ryoga Hibiki?"

Ryoga turned to see a little guy wearing a hitai-ate. Probably a genin he'd never ran into before. "Yeah?"

"The Hokage wants to speak to you immediately, sir," said the kid.

Mousse arrived at the Hokage's office to find Saotome and Hibiki already present and standing around waiting for him. That wasn't particularly remarkable, beyond the fact that Saotome was actually wearing the tactical vest he'd been issued on promotion, but what was new was the Hyuuga bandit being there with them in the office. He hadn't been expecting that and he didn't really like it too much. That one was dangerous, even if she wasn't as skilled as they were, and she was not to be trusted.

Not that Saotome seemed to agree with him. He was even training her, the lunatic. The last thing Mousse wanted was someone who had spat fireballs at him so she could steal from a merchant hanging around, but no-one else seemed to agree. The fact that she could summon giant monster cats just made it worse. They didn't even dare mention that around Saotome. There was no possible way it could end well.

But what did he know? Well, he knew that the moment she conjured up that monster cat around Saotome he was heading off to somewhere a safe distance away. Like Siberia.

"Ah, good," said the Hokage. "That's everyone I was waiting for. Please, close the door behind you. We have much to discuss."

Mousse closed the door and moved further into the office to stand with his wonderful team-mates.

"To start with, I'm sure you'll all be happy to hear that the medics have agreed that you are all fit for duty," said the Hokage. "Your medical leave is at an end and you are now back on the field duty roster."

Oh. That really was good news. Training was all well and good but it got boring after a while. He wanted to put a few of his new tricks to some use and see how well they worked along with his usual techniques.

Well, that and he was getting more than a little sick of dealing with a bored Saotome. That fool was bad enough under normal circumstances. When he was kept from doing things he considered fun, like picking fights with all and sundry? It was beyond maddening. And then there were the times he'd caught Saotome actually moping. He'd not thought that was even possible, before, and he had no idea how to deal with it beyond pretending it hadn't happened.

The idea that his rival had the emotional depth to actually grieve for their lost sensei was just more than he could handle.

"I guess you have a job for us then," said Ranma. "What is it?"

"Orochimaru has proven to be an elusive target," said the Hokage. "That's no surprise, but we must flush him out into the open. If we don't, we lose face in front of the other villages. They would seek to take advantage, I guarantee it."

"That was what he wanted," said Ranma. "He wanted to start a war using us as the bait."

"Correct," said Sarutobi. "Our destruction was to be the spark, but survival alone will not save us. We must destroy him utterly to maintain our image of strength."

"And our friend here has happened across some information that may help us in this," he continued. "Mercenaries and other undesirables are gathering in a small town in Oto. This offers us an ideal target to strike a blow against Orochimaru and his forces."

"You want us to destroy it?" asked Ryoga.

"No," said Sarutobi. "There will always be more mercenaries to recruit. That scum are nothing if not endless in numbers. I'm interested in the base that must be nearby. Orochimaru and his men make for difficult targets but they must have a real presence somewhere in that region for so many to gather there for work. You are to find that presence and crush it.

"The mercenary gathering is a secondary objective," he continued. "Destroying them would deny Orochimaru some of his low-level manpower and send a message to others of that ilk that Konoha will not idly stand by and allow them to consort with our enemies, but Orochimaru's own men and facilities are the priority."

This was a mission that Mousse could get behind. A chance to strike back at Orochimaru and get a little bit of payback for Anko? Sold. He looked at Ranma and Ryoga. They both had expressions that said much the same story. Getting back at that bastard even in a small way as exactly what they all wanted. But there were still some questions to be answered.

"How does she know of this?" asked Mousse. "Where did she get the information? And why is she here?"

He had a feeling that he wasn't going to like the answer to that last question but he had to ask it anyway.

"You destroyed one of the bases my father used and killed a lot of his men, but most of his contacts are still around," said Hitomi. "I know a lot of interesting people who know a lot more interesting people. Stories get back to me."

"Such information is useful," said the Hokage. "And her skills are sufficient to justify a place within our ranks. She will be assisting you on your mission. A Hyuuga's eyes will come in quite useful for this task."

Wonderful. Mousse could barely contain his joy at that pronouncement. "She's going to be joining the ranks?"

"If this mission is a success, yes. She will join the ranks of the Konoha shinobi as a teamless genin. Anything beyond that will have to be earned in the usual manner."

Which sounded an awful lot like a polite way of saying 'never' to Mousse. She couldn't exactly run off to join a chuunin exam without a team or jounin-sensei to back her. She was doomed to be an eternal foot-soldier limited to learning scraps of low-level techniques that she could scrounge from libraries. That was an end Mousse could live with her achieving.

"I do not believe you will need any further resources for this mission," continued the Hokage. "But if you do then the administrators have orders to provide whatever you require. I wish you luck, though I rather doubt you will need it."

Chapter Twenty-Four

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.

Stupid P-chan.

"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."

"Yeah, yeah."

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.

Chapter Twenty-Five

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."

"Not really."

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."

Chapter Twenty-Six

"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.

"You're annoying."

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, now!"

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.

Chapter Twenty-Seven

Ranma was propped up against the wall of his dingy rented room making notes on a technique scroll when she felt the communications technique go pop. From what Hitomi had told her that meant that either she'd been killed, which really wouldn't be good, or she'd been forced into a battle with another ninja strong enough that she hadn't been able to concentrate to maintain the link.

She didn't much care for either of those options to say the least. Hitomi was an annoying nag with a foul temper and a terrible attitude towards pretty much everything, but Ranma didn't want her dead. Well, not normally. And if she'd ran into some hard-case that could really run her hard then that meant things had got out of hand and the mission could be all kinds of buggered.

So, it was bad either way. Either Hitomi had shuffled off the mortal coil, possibly along with Mousse, or she was fighting for her life against someone pretty strong who shouldn't be there. And those were bad options.

There wasn't supposed to be a ninja guarding that caravan. It was supposed to be a bog-standard train with a few merchants looking to trade and some hired swords of dubious competence to guard. Nothing special. Nothing that could threaten even an idiot like Mousse of a harridan like Hitomi.

It was supposed to be a straight in and out job. They just had to grab the guy leading it and spirit him off somewhere for a spot of persuasion. Worst case, they might had had to call back to Konoha for a specialist in making people talk about things they didn't want to talk about, but that was it.

So, what the hell had happened? Was it a setup? The guy had been a hell of a lot more worried about that bastard Orochimaru than her, so it could be. He could have led her up the garden path and blown the whole thing for them.

Why the hell had she trusted his word? Just because he'd looked like he might, maybe, not like the whole wretched gratuitous evil bit that Orochimaru went in for? She wasn't going to be able to look herself in the mirror if she got someone else killed by Orochimaru because she'd made the wrong choice.

She put down the scroll and stood up. She was going to have to go and save them. If you wanted something done right, you had to do it yourself. There was no two ways about it. She couldn't just sit there and wait and wonder while Mousse and Hitomi went off and got themselves killed or something.

But there was a 'but'. If she went stomping off to beat the bad guys and save his team, who'd be in the village to make sure things didn't get blown to bits? She wasn't hanging around bored out of his skull doing nothing without reason and that reason could go up in smoke very quickly if he she off to play the hero.

Well . . . there was Ryoga. He could maybe cover things, if he could get there in time. Or at all. Okay, that wasn't even worth considering. If Ryoga ran off on his own he'd probably end up on Mars. And Ranma wasn't sure that even Ryoga would survive that.

Damn it, damn it, damn it. She hated it. She hated not knowing what to do and know there was a problem and not being able to do anything about it. And she really, really hated the way Ryoga was looking at her as if he was the biggest idiot on Earth with those piggy little eyes.

So, in an act of great maturity and wisdom, Ranma kicked the wall. Hard. And put her foot through it. Given that the wall was concrete and that she wasn't wearing any shoes or, you know, using proper 'breaking things time' technique that kinda hurt. A lot.

"Stop laughing, bacon bits. We've got a problem."

Yeah, pull the other one, said Ryoga's look. It's got bells on. Amazing how much a look on a piggy little moron's face could say when their normal expression was slack-jawed idiocy. Well, okay, that was a little bit uncharitable. Just idiocy. Not slack-jawed idiocy.

"Hitomi's link just went away. She's in trouble."

That got Ryoga's attention. He blinked and rolled onto his feet with the sort of non-grace that he could only ever manage when in his cursed form.

"I suppose she can take care of herself, though. And Mousse would never, ever let us live it down if we screwed this up by running off to save him. Can you imagine it?"

Judging by Ryoga's shudder he could indeed imagine it and it held about as much appeal for him as it did for Ranma, which was to say only slightly more than Akane's cooking held.

But that didn't mean they couldn't do anything. They were staying back to keep the mayor honest and, well, that looked like a bit of a lost cause if Hitomi had been ambushed. A lot of a lost cause, in fact. Perhaps they should do something about that.

"What do you think, P-chan? Should we go visit out friend, the mayor, and see what he has to say for himself? I think we've got some unfinished business to tidy up there. A few things to discuss."

Ryoga wasn't hard to read and he sure as hell wasn't unpredictable. He was more than happy to go along with that plan. Of course he was. Ryoga was always ready to go smash something up and this promised to bring plenty of that.

So, she grabbed him up, deposited him on her shoulder, and hopped out the window into the ceiling of the building across and set about her way. It was only a couple of miles to the mayor's place so it wouldn't take her more than a couple of minutes to get there at a sensible pace.

Not that Ranma was really planning on sticking to a sensible place as she tapped into enough wind ki to move like the, well, wind. It was kinda fun but she wasn't sure Ryoga appreciated it judging by the way he was clinging on to her dress by the skin of his teeth. Ah, well. Any sensible person would enjoy the speed of it. And, quicker she was moving, the more she had to think about that and not about the whole thing with Hitomi and Mousse.

More than being fun it might have been necessary. She had no idea what was going on with the mayor and she had given her word that she'd get him out of town in one piece. If he hadn't tried to screw them over for Orochimaru, then she had to go help. If he had, well, she was going to have to chastise him anyway. Might as well get it over with.

It was, possibly, not wise to blaze off at such speeds but it wasn't like she hadn't already shown off a few moves that weren't exactly normal for your random wanderer. She just had to bet that would cover the ludicrous speed bit enough to not give the game away too badly. With the way the town was full of fighters looking to make a bit of cash by taking part in a war against super-powered ninja she kinda figured it probably wouldn't stand out that badly.

The buildings of the village flashed by in no time at all, their passing marked only by the very, very few people who managed to spot her well enough to give her a strange look as she passed, and she was soon into the forest that separated the village from the mayor's house. From there it was a matter of bouncing from tree to tree to eat up the yards as she moved towards her target.

And the target came into view soon enough. The mayor's house looked much as it had the other night, except for one little thing. The front door. It wasn't there. Someone had smashed the thing off its rails and left it hanging off the frame.

Ranma supposed that meant the mayor hadn't done the dirty on them after all. That came as a relief. He hadn't seemed like such a bad guy for someone who was working for Orochimaru and it would have left a real bad taste in Ranma's mouth if he'd turned out to be just another wretched minion.

But, he was in trouble. And Ranma had promised to get him and his wife out of the place safely. There was no time to stand around thinking about things like some sort of idiot.

Almost immediately after entering the house Ranma found the first signs of struggle: long slashes along the walls, as if someone had cut them with a very sharp sword, lined with blood and, at the end of the entrance hall, an armoured man slumped against the far wall with blood pooling beneath him. It was the guard she'd seen during her infiltration and he was quite dead.

But he hadn't gone down without a fight. To each side of him there was a corpse. She didn't recognise them but they looked like the sort that could have been plucked out of one of the local watering holes ready to do just about anything for a few coins in their pocket.

She leaned down next to the body and closed his eyes. "Sorry I didn't get here sooner, man," she said very quietly. "I'll try and make sure they don't get away with this."

There wasn't anything else she could do for him and there was the mayor to think about still. She had to go. Still, it took her a moment to look away and do so. What a crappy way to go: rushed, beaten, and killed by a bunch of stupid thugs. She wouldn't wish that on anyone.

The sound of movement reached her ears. Movement and muffled laughter. It wasn't far away by the sound of it. Down the corridor and in the room that had looked like it was the main living area to her when she was sneaking around playing ninja the other night. Well, that made things easier. If she knew where they were, she knew where to make her entrance.

A wooden internal wall was never going to pose much of a challenge for her. She picked out where the various bodies in the room where with a little listening through the thin wall and then she took a deep breath and smashed through it with a punch.

On the other side she found Kentaro and a gang of thugs frozen in the middle of whatever they'd been doing when she made her entrance staring at her with generally blank looks of utter shock on their faces. Well, the gang was looking at her like that. Kentaro was just leering at her through his scars.

But what really got her attention were the bloodied bodies lying on the ground at the other side of the room where she had made her entrance. They were a mess but she still recognised them straight away. The mayor and his wife. Her blood ran cold as she realised that she was entirely too late.

The thug standing immediately over them was blown away in instant as Ranma leapt across the room and slammed him through the wall with a roundhouse kick to the chest. That seemed to act as a trigger for another of the bastards who was stood behind where she'd landed who promptly came charging at her with some sort of weapon in hand. She didn't even bother to look behind to him as she lashed out with a kick that caved in his chest.

That seemed to make the rest of them think twice about rushing her as she knelt down and checked the two battered bodies. There was nothing to find in the wife. No breathing. No pulse. She was dead and gone. Ranma sighed and moved over. It took a moment to find it, but the mayor still had a pulse. It was weak and thready but it was there and while there was life there was hope.

A very quiet groan drew Ranma's attention. Alive and still conscious. "Just wait a second," she said. "I'll get you out of here."

With a rattling groan he reached out to her. Under the circumstances she could hardly pull away, even if she was surrounded by murdering bastards who'd love to see her leave an opening, so she took his hand. His grip was terribly weak, barely there at all, and she had to lean in close to hear what he had to say.

"My wife?"

Ranma looked away to the side. To the mayor's obviously dead wife. Oh, man. "She's fine," she said finally. "I'll get you both out. Just you see. All you have to do is hold on for a few moments and I'll get you to help."

The reply was quiet and came between pained gasps but it didn't lose any power for that. "Not stupid."

Ranma hung her head. She'd never felt so low in all her life.

The mayor's grip tightened but it was still painfully weak. "Get them. For her. For me."

"Hey, man. You're going to be fine. You just hold on for a little longer."

He coughed up some blood in a way that might have been a laugh if he wasn't so messed up. "Get them."

"I'm not joking. You'll be-"

He'd stopped breathing. There was nothing she could do. Nothing at all. A bit of mouth to mouth wasn't going to cover what had been done to him by those bastards. Even if she got him breathing again, his body would just stop without proper doctors to fix him up and he looked way too delicate for that to work in the first place.

Damn it. Damn it, damn it, damn it. She'd promised. She'd promised.

"Aw, look," said one of the bandits. "The little girl is crying. Do you think we should give her a hug?"

If there'd ever been a sound that grated on Ranma more than the laughter that followed that, she couldn't think of it. That stupid sniggering was insulting her and the dead man and woman she was crouched between. A dead couple that she'd sworn to protect.

It felt like she was going to burn up from the sheer anger pumping through her. The bastards were talking, still, but she couldn't hear them over the sound of her own heart thumping in her chest. Just looking at them standing there smiling and laughing and acting like they'd accomplished something made her want to crush them.

It would be so easy to get up and just rip them limb from limb and be done with them. Just a few quick movements, a little tip and tear, and it'd all be over and done with. What could they do about it? Absolutely nothing. They were insects. Weaklings. There was barely a trace of strength in any of them.

No. No, she would have control. Berserker rages were not the Saotome way. There were questions that needed to be answered and corpses were no use to anyone. It took a lot longer than it normally would for her to calm her racing heart but within a few moments she'd slipped into the soul of ice and it was suddenly a whole lot easier to think.

"So, you betrayed us," said Ranma as she uncoiled and came back to a standing position. "Why? You were supposed to be Hitomi's friend."

The mocking laughter of the thugs washed over her like the irrelevant nonsense it was. "More of a business partner," said Kentaro. "And I got a better offer. She'd understand."

"You're working for Orochimaru."

Kentaro shrugged. "Money's money," he said. "I was offered enough to be able to strike out on my own again. I'd be a fool to turn it down and you were easy."

Ranma looked at the bodies of the mayor and his wife. "That was a mistake."

"Yeah, it was, wasn't it? You should have known what would happen."

"That, too," said Ranma. "But the real mistake was you sticking around so I could catch you. That was the last mistake any of you will ever make."

"I count eleven of us and only one of you," said a thug with a particularly ripe set of teeth. "You think you can take all of us?"

"I know I can," I said Ranma. "And there are two, not one."

"I only see you and a piglet."


If there was one thing Ryoga could be relied on for, it was knowing when his cue to start wrecking things was up. The look on the face of the mouthy thug as Ryoga spat a ball of green energy at him made for quite the picture. The impact of the attack was considerably less pretty but no less satisfying.

And that was Ranma's own cue to swing into action. She crossed the room with a couple of quick steps and, before Kentaro could even think about reacting, she slammed him through the wall of the room and the external wall behind that with a kick.

"Ryoga, you take care of these morons. I'll deal with ugly there."

The last thing she saw as she stepped through the Kentaro-shaped hole in the wall was one if the thugs slamming his sword down onto Ryoga's back with a triumphant roar. That triumph turned to horror quite quickly when the sword shattered against Ryoga's less than yielding flesh. What a piece of crap. He must have bought it from a local scrapyard.

Kentaro was back on his feet by the time Ranma had exited the building to meet him. He was tougher than he looked, she guessed, because she'd figured on him being floored by that one. And boy did that frown make those scars even uglier.

He charged at her with his cleaver held high over his head ready to bring down in a crushing stroke. To a normal person it would have been quite the intimidating sight what with the size and appearance of Kentaro. Ranma simply stepped inside his reach and slammed her fist into his liver. He went down like a puppet that'd had its strings cut.

Ranma stepped back and watched as Kentaro writhed and wretched and swore when he managed to stop doing the others for a moment. Being hit in the liver was never much fun and she hadn't held anything back for this guy. Not for a betrayer and a murderer. He deserved everything he got as far as she was concerned.

She had to give him some credit, though. He got back up. It took him a minute to get himself back together but he did it. Most people who weren't like her or Ryoga wouldn't. There was a fear there in his eyes that hadn't been there before, even when she'd been kicking his minions about, but he still got up and still lifted his weapon back into a ready position.

"Bitch," he forced out between pained breaths. "I'll kill you."

"No. No, you won't."

He came charging at her again, the moron, but this time Ranma let it all go. No more soul of ice. She channelled all of her anger, all of her frustration, all of her grief, into a single punch that met his blade in a coruscating blur of colour.

And the blow tore right through the sword and into the man behind the weapon. Kentaro howled as Ranma's fist pulverised his ribcage and crushed his lung but that was cut off quickly as his lung collapsed underneath the strike.

Ranma didn't pay him a second look as she returned to the house to find Ryoga. He was dead. His body just needed a few moments to catch up. There were more important things to worry about than that trash now that he was dead. There was no way that Ryoga blasting holes in the building with his shi shi hokodans hadn't been noticed by someone and they had to figure out what to do next.

Chapter Twenty-Eight

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.

Of course.

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.


Nothing happened.

"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."

Chapter Twenty-Nine

Ranma didn't really know what to make of Yasu. She, definitely a she, didn't seem even slightly bothered by the fact that she was out there for all to see, though all was a pretty small number. Every girl Ranma had ever known would be going postal about there - well, except Shampoo, if she thought Ranma was looking - but Yasu seemed entirely unbothered. That was a little bit on the unusual side.

But then so was running around picking fights with people for no particular reason so hey. Well, unless they were from Nerima, and then it was pretty much par for the course for anyone who could fight at all or who had delusions of being able to fight or happened to be called Gosunkugi. As someone who was throwing stones Ranma was very much stood in a glass house and she knew it. Eh, she'd never let that stop her yet.

She couldn't figure out what Yasu was after though. A fight, sure. But what else? Ranma wasn't in the mood for being screwed over and stabbed in the back by another random psycho. She needed the information but she needed to not have another pile of dead bodies sitting on her conscience, too. That was bad enough happening just the once. She wasn't keen on a repeat. Sure as hell not so soon.

Ranma closed her eyes for a moment as the memories kicked in. She'd really screwed up with the mayor and his family and they were dead because of it. But that was over. She had to go on. Soul of ice. Soul of ice and she opened her eyes ready to continue.

But Mousse beat her to speaking. "Just give us whatever information you have," he said. "You've had your fun. We've lived up to the deal."

Yasu leered at him. "You sure?" she asked. "I think the fun's only just starting. I've got this guy right where I want him. Well, I need him awake, but that'll come quick enough."

It was probably a good thing that Ryoga was already out. Death by blood loss was a distinct possibility if he was awake to hear that.

"Put some clothes on, will you?" asked Hitomi. "It's distracting."

"And here I thought you Hyuuga types would be seeing this all the time anyway."

"We see chakra coils, not tits, you pervert."

"My fantasies are shattered," said Yasu in a perfect deadpan. She stabbed her sword into the turf and executed a couple of quick seals. And in a puff of smoke her clothes returned to as they'd been. You could barely tell she was a girl at all like that. Ranma almost felt sympathy pains - it couldn't be fun to crush 'em in like that. "There, happy now?"

Hitomi looked like she was somewhere between blowing a fuse and gibbering in terror with fuse blowing rapidly overtaking any form of terror. Probably best if she stepped in, thought Ranma. Not that she was one for getting in the way of a good scrap, as a rule, but Hitomi would get gubbed by anyone who could go toe to toe with Ryoga. It didn't matter if they were already worn down. She wouldn't stand a chance.

And if Ranma was going to be honest, her own patience was wearing a little bit thin. She needed to do something, to get back at Orochimaru and his shower of utter scum, and make sure that it wasn't all for nothing. Yasu said she had a way to let them do that. If she wouldn't cough that up the easy way, then that would mean the hard way coming right up.

"Yasu," said Ranma. That got her attention. "You gave your word. Information in exchange for fun. Ryoga gave you what you were after. We lived up to our end."

Yasu sighed. "You people really are no fun at all," she said. "All work and no play. That really isn't living up to my deal at all."

Ranma just looked at her.

Yasu sighed again. "Fine, fine," she said. "You need to think about things a bit more, that's all. You came to the village to talk to Kentaro and that was all well and good, but what about what happened next?"

All of a sudden Ranma had a bad feeling.

"Why did you end up at that ramen shop? Why did you talk to its owner like you'd known them for years? She was a stranger, right? No-one to you. Free food doesn't make someone a big old friend no matter how easily please you are."

And the bad feeling was realised. The whole damned thing had been a sham right from the start. Why would a ramen shop ran by some defenceless girl on her own be in a part of town like that? It didn't make sense. You'd get up and move no matter how attached you were to it. There's no money in selling to people who just take what they want when they want it and no-one normal was going to go there with the neighbours she was keeping.

The ramen girl must have done something to make sure she ended up there when she left the meeting, but that was easy enough. A little genjutsu, nothing big or noticeable, just enough to make her take the right turn when she could go left or right, and arranging for the right thugs to pay a visit and make her take a sympathetic look at things. That would do the trick of making someone come over soft. That had done the trick.

There was going to be blood for this one.

"Ah, you get it," said Yasu. "Maybe you're not as stupid as you look. Man, even I knew you were being set up and I couldn't care less about this sneaking around crap you ninja types go in for."

"Who is she?" asked Mousse. "This girl."

Yasu shrugged. "Local boss of some description," she said. "One of Orochimaru's. The mayor jumped exactly as high as she told him to and that was about it for him. I think she's some sort of ninja, but she doesn't seem all that strong."

Ranma closed her eyes and counted to three before she did something she'd regret later. She'd never been so close to absolutely losing it. There was a distinct red tinge at the edges of her vision, even with her eyes closed, and she could almost hear her knuckles creaking under the tightness of her clenching.She'd trusted that girl. She'd trusted her. And the bitch had been working for Orochimaru.

For a few moments she'd been able to forget seeing the people she'd promised to protect laying there dead in a pool of their own blood, but those moments were gone. Now it was just sitting there. And it was driving her mad.

Soul of ice. Soul of ice.

Ranma opened her eyes. That was better. She felt calm again. Able to think without the red haze dropping. Much better. She just had to keep that up for a while and they'd be able to get through this without her going completely insane and just tearing a whole bunch of the local thugs limb from limb. As much as they richly deserved it that wouldn't really accomplish much of anything.

Mousse was the one to break the silence and jerk Ranma out of her thoughts and back to reality. "I'll kill her," he said. "And the rest of those bastards in the village. All of them."

It was real hard for Ranma to come up with any sort of good reason not to do just that. Just march on back and smash the hell out of all those mercenaries and the people who were hiring them. It wouldn't even be difficult, they were all weak, and it would be oh so satisfying . . . but not what they were there for. They'd been sent to track down the real threat in the area and take that out, not turn a bunch of low-life thugs into vaguely human-shaped stress relief tools.

But did that matter? They weren't exactly moving unnoticed, were they? They'd been spotted and kept under a close eye from the second they'd showed up at the damned village. Before, even.

"Wait a second," said Ranma. "If they know who we are and why we're here, why aren't they doing something about it? We should be up to our ears in assassins? It's not like that fight was quiet."

"I doubt they have anyone who can deal with us," said Hitomi. "You survived Orochimaru. That makes people think twice. They're probably setting up somewhere else right now."

What a cheerful thought. Not only had they failed, but their fame would get the people they were after to just vanish into thin air rather than consider trying to fight it out. Wasn't that just peachy.

"Wimps will be wimps," said Yasu. "They're not worth worrying about. If they run, they run. You can catch them later. But the girl running the place will probably still be there if you move quickly enough to catch her. She's going to have a whole bunch of boring crap to do before she can run."

And it occurred to Ranma that it was actually worse than that. "I've eaten food from her," she said. "So's Ryoga."

And on cue. "RANMA!"

Talk of the devil and all that. Ranma felt Ryoga's aura pulse from comatose to rage and had to make a sidestep at her best speed to avoid the pulverising blow that would have connected with the top of her skull if she hadn't. As it was the strike smashed a wide crater into the ground where she'd been standing and, well, even she would have been looking at lights out if she'd been caught napping with a punch like that.

Ranma didn't give Ryoga time to reset for another attack. She pivoted on her heel and slammed an axe kick down into the base of his neck before he could move from the crouched position he'd ended up in and he went down like a sack of potatoes. She just didn't feel like playing around with Ryoga with everything that was going on.

"Now really isn't the time, Ryoga," she said. "We have to work out how we're going to fix things. Fight later."

He didn't look overly happy, but being belted in the back of the neck when you're not braced for it isn't exactly the sort of thing you could just shrug off. He'd calm down by the time he could do something.

Yasu was looking at Ryoga with an expression that reminded Ranma way too much of Shampoo. "Ready to fight again just like that?" she said. "Now that's the sort of man I'm interested in. Lots of energy."

Ryoga's ears turned red. Which was all Ranma could see of him with his face being embedded in the ground. Oh, well. He was still twitching so he was still conscious.

"Your bizarre preferences are of no interest," said Mousse. "What you do or don't want to do with Hibiki is your business. We have more important things to worry about." He turned to Ranma, completely ignoring the thunderous expression on Yasu's face. "Saotome, you've probably been poisoned. We need to get whatever we're going to do done quickly so we can get you and Hibiki to the medics."

From bad to worse to just plain awful. Failed, failed, and poisoned. Probably, but that was bad enough. You can't exactly argue with the idea that an enemy might have slipped something into a meal that they gave you when you didn't know what was going on and didn't do anything to check it. Saying that, Ranma didn't feel anything, so maybe she wasn't. It wouldn't be the first time someone missed an opportunity or ten.

No, that didn't seem all too likely. There were too many chances. A ninja would take one of them. If there were no ill effects, that meant he just wasn't noticing them or there was more to it than just a quick poisoning and that's your goose cooked.

There was a plan forming.

"I have a plan," said Ranma. "I reckon we can make this work for us."

There was a time for subtlety and then there was a time for kicking doors in and making as much noise as possible. This was the second. And there was something deeply satisfying in watching the door bounce off the back wall after she'd applied her boot to it. It made an almighty clatter as it bounced off and then collapsed to the ground amidst a cloud of splinters and that was exactly what Ranma had been looking for.

Aoi didn't so much as flinch. If Ranma'd had any doubts about the whole thing, they disappeared right there. No normal girl would react like that to someone smashing their door in. And that was a normal smashing in, not belting it a dozen feet across a room and smashing it against the back wall. That was way outside 'calm reaction' territory for anyone even remotely normal. It was the sort of thing that would send your average person scrambling for the bomb shelter because it just didn't happen in their world unless there was a war on.

"Ah," she said. "I suppose that means you've figured things out."

She sounded bored, if anything. Which was pretty much the very opposite of what Ranma was feeling seeing her stood there, eyes half closed, admitting to the whole thing. Someone Ranma had considered a friend was standing there, every line of their body screaming contempt, casually admitting to being one of Orochimaru's. There wasn't even a hint of regret there. Not even an iota of second thoughts. It was pure, undiluted contempt.

The soul of ice had its limits and Ranma was fast approaching hers. She was about half an inch from boiling over and she could feel that tight knot of rage in her gut growing with every moment she spent in the company of this bitch. Orochimaru was the first person to ever inspire an honest desire in Ranma to just go out and murder someone, but Aoi was well on her way to finding a place on that list.

Ryoga seemed to be of a similar mind ad he oinked loudly from his position atop Ranma's shoulder. It was far more threatening than any sound a piglet should have ever been able to make but then most piglets can't blast building to matchwood when someone annoys them too much.

"You could say that," said Ranma between gritted teeth. "A friend clued me in."

That got a reaction, at least. A raised eyebrow and a look of mild confusion wasn't much, but it was something. "A friend?" asked Aoi. "I wasn't aware that you had any."

That was it. Ranma saw red and the ki blast that she let loose in the general direction of Aoi was just as red as her vision. The back wall of the store was smashed to splinters by the impact of the attack, but that was all it accomplished. When the debris cleared, Aoi was stood off to the side away from the destruction with nothing worse than slightly mussed hair and a hint of a flush to her checks to show for Ranma's troubles.

"Now that was just poor," she said with a shake of her head. "Where's your pride as a professional? You can't just go around throwing tantrums like a child. You're supposed to be a shinobi."

Ranma ground her teeth, but managed to hold off from tearing Aoi limb from limb just for a few more moments. "Why?" she asked. "What was the point of all this? You could have just dropped some cyanide in my ramen and been done with this days ago. What was the point of stringing me along?"

Aoi looked at her as if she were a child. "Why do you think?" she asked with an expression that set Ranma's teeth even further on edge. "I thought you might know something useful." She shrugged. "You didn't, but the effort cost me nothing and allowed me to eliminate a disloyal servant."

Ranma clenched her fists. She really, seriously wanted to kill this woman. It was a new thing for her, wanting to just outright murder someone, but she couldn't come up with ay particular reason not to. Forget Orochimaru. This one was right there in front of her and just begging for it.

"Ah, killing intent," said Aoi. "You seem to have strength, but I know the truth. You're weak. I can see everything you feel written on your face and in your body language. It's pathetic. Whoever trained you should be ashamed. No shinobi should dare leave their village with such a pathetic lack of self control."

That was enough. Ranma had heard about as much of this one's rubbish as she could take. She wasn't going to take crap from one of Orochimaru's pet killers if she could help it. There wasn't more than a couple of metres separating them and she crossed that in the blink of an eye with her fist cocked to deliver a strike that would have taken Aoi's head clean off if it had landed.

But it didn't. As Ranma reached Aoi a crippling, burning pain erupted across her body and dropped her to the ground gasping as he body just cut out on her and forced her down. Ryoga landed next to her, grunting and sweating in his piglet form.

"Now, now. Did you think that I hadn't arranged an insurance policy in case of something like this? Not all poisons kill immediately, you know."

It felt like her insides were on fire. Ranma had never felt anything like it, not even when the ghoul had hit her with the cat's tongue pressure point. She tried to force herself to get up but the pain of that almost knocked her out entirely as what felt like every muscle in her body promptly spasmed wildly and left her thrashing around on the ground like a landed fish.

"There's nothing you or your team mate here can do," said Aoi. "You can struggle, if you want, but my compound attacks your chakra coils. For a shinobi, when activated, there is no defence. Struggling will only make it worse."

Not the best news Ranma had ever heard. Okay, chakra coils. So it was going to make her hurt if she tried to use her ki. Which she did unconsciously. Wonderful. All of her strength was being turned against her and she couldn't think of much she could do about it. You can't just switch off being a martial artist and go back to being normal.

"It's sad in a way. My master thought you had some talent, but he was clearly mistaken. There's more to being a shinobi than punching things and spitting fireballs and you just don't have it."

Between gasps, Ranma tried to focus. She was better than this. There had to be something she could do. Some trick to turn the poison away and let her get back up and fight on. Being laid out, totally defenceless, vulnerable, in the face of one of Orochimaru's ninja was about as bad a position as she could imagine being in. It turned her stomach to show weakness to one of them.

Aoi knelt down next to Ranma. "You haven't learned the most important lesson for any shinobi," she said. "Emotions are weapons. Do you have any idea how many you've handed me? A shinobi cannot allow themselves to even feel these things and you wear them openly as if they were something to be proud of. Like a child. What use is grief to people like us? It's nothing but a weakness."

Ranma growled at her and managed to force out a few gasping words. "You don't know what the hell you're talking about."

"Oh? And you think that charging in with nothing but righteous vengeance as a plan was a good idea?"

Aoi stood up and turned away.

"My master may have further use for you. I advise that you consider your options before you arrive in his presence."

Three, two, one.

And on cue a dozen kunai smashed through the shop front window and hurtled towards Aoi. She was quick to roll away from the impact zone and the weapons either embedded themselves into the back wall or passed into the back street behind the store, but that just allowed Mousse to step into the store through the gaping hole where the door had been without anything to resist his entrance and keep him out.

Ranma had to admit that she'd never been so glad to see Mousse. Oh, she'd planned for this, sort of, but being stuck down and out with her guts burning away like she'd swallowed a litre of acid wasn't exactly pleasant. Knowing that her plan was probably going to be less than fun for her was one thing; being totally at the mercy of one of Orochimaru's was something else entirely. Mousse showing his face meant that it would all be over soon. Hopefully. Either way, at least she wasn't utterly at the mercy of one of Orochimaru's pet murderers any more. That was no small thing.

Aoi was quick to come out of her roll and she crossed the store in a heartbeat with kunai in hand to attack Mousse. He met her slash with a block from the sabre that just seemed to appear in his hand before forcing her back with a slash from the sabre that appeared in his other hand. Ranma would have shook her head if it didn't feel like it would fall off if she did so. Going after Mousse with weapons? Seriously? Not the most clever of approaches to go after someone who carried more weapons than the average army. And that was just in his sleeves.

Mousse offered Aoi no respite and stepped in with his blades whirling in a high-speed assault. With attacks coming from all directions and angles, Aoi offered little defence other than to retreat and retreat and retreat until was backed against the store wall with crossed sabres at her throat. It was rather anti-climactic, all told. Ranma had expected more excitement from the whole thing.

"You're beaten," said Mousse. "Give up peacefully and I won't cut your head off."

It seemed eminently reasonable to Ranma. Aoi, however, seemed to disagree with that and spat a cloud of something brown and ugly looking into Mousse's face that must have hurt like the dickens because he recoiled back and away from her clutching at his face without even a twitch towards the decapitation he'd been talking about. Mousse was no wimp so that must have been some bad stuff.

The time bought by that allowed Aoi to take a step away from the wall with kunai in hand again. But she didn't get far as a sword stabbed through the wall behind her and through her shoulder. A moment later the wall caved in and Yasu walked through with a grin on her face.

"Well, look what we have here," said Yasu. "Should I throw this one back or keep it, kids?"

Aoi yanked herself free from Yasu, pulling herself from the blade with simple force, and staggered away with her arm hanging limply by her side and blood gushing freely from the wound. The look on her face was wild. All her plans were coming crashing down around her and she didn't much like it. Ranma really couldn't help but find that a little bit satisfying. Not so much smarter and better at the whole ninja gig, now, was she?

That was where Hitomi came in, jumping through the hole Yasu had just smashed in the wall, and there was absolutely nothing Aoi could do as the Hyuuga entered combat range and slammed in those 64 palm strikes at machine gun speed. Aoi collapsed to the ground with a sigh and, just like that, the pain vanished. Victory. The poison must have been dependant on Aoi's chakra.

Ranma bounced back to her feet with a wince. Well, maybe that had been a little premature. Her insides weren't burning any more but she was still pretty sore. Whatever that stuff had been it sure as hell wasn't something she'd want to be getting anywhere near again.

"So, what are we going to do with her?" asked Yasu. "Tossing her head into the local bar could be interesting. See how all those thugs react."

"We're going to take her back to Konoha, alive, and hand her over to Ibiki," said Ranma. "She'll get what she deserves from him."

Mousse looked down at Aoi without even the slightest hint of pity on his face. "That'll make up for losing the rest of them," he said. "At least a little."

"Ibiki?" asked Yasu. "The torturer, right? I've heard of him. Supposed to be a right bastard. Guess I won't be seeing her again."

Ranma rolled her shoulders to try and work out some of the knots. "No," she said. She picked up Ryoga and put him back on her shoulder. He didn't look overly enthused to be there but he didn't try to bite her fingers off, either, so he couldn't have been too annoyed. "Mousse, Hitomi, can you guys get her out of town and see if you can get her to tell us where the rest are? I dunno if it'll work but it's worth a try."

That got her a nod from Mousse. "I'll see what I can do," he said. "I've picked up a few tricks."

It was probably best not to ask. Ranma didn't much care for that sort of trick, really. She turned to Yasu. "How would you feel about joining me in turning over the local bar?" she asked. "I don't plan on leaving any mercenary thugs behind to mess the place up even worse when we go back."

That got her a shark-like grin in return. "I thought you'd never ask," said Yasu. "Sounds like my idea of a good time."

Mousse and Hitomi cleared off with Aoi while Ranma went and got some hot water to change Ryoga back to his usual self. She'd never seen anyone get into their clothes as quickly as Ryoga did when he transformed back into his usual bit quite naked self and saw Yasu leering at him. If not for everything else that was going on, she would have found that utterly hilarious.

It was a relatively short trip from the thoroughly wrecked ramen restaurant to the bar favoured by the local thugs and scum. A couple of them were lounging outside with glasses of something or other foul looking in hand, but they took one look at who was walking down the street towards them, the expressions on the faces of the people walking towards them, and decided that discretion was the better part of valour. Smarter than your average drunken thug.

They stopped in front of the entrance for a moment.

"Bet I can make at least six of them piss their pants," said Yasu.

Ranma shook her head. She really wasn't interested in seeing that even if they were a bunch of bastards.

"Your loss."

Yasu booted the door open and stepped through. Ranma followed. The bar was one of the worst dives Ranma had ever had the misfortune to see. Cleaning clearly wasn't a priority for these people.She didn't even want to think about the stickiness that was tugging at her feet with every step. There were some things no-one needed to know.

Everyone was staring at them. Some had their hands near weapons. Most had looks of frozen terror on their face. Ranma doubted it was for her or for Ryoga, they weren't that well known, so it had to be Yasu. She must have had a serious reputation in the area to get that sort of reaction.

That scene held for a moment before Yasu let her killing intent loose. Ranma only caught the edge of it, not really being aimed at her and all, but it was pretty fierce. The local scum seemed to have a more, uh, drastic reaction to it.

"Told you," said Yasu. "I count a dozen."

"That's kinda pathetic. What sort of sword for hire pisses their pants like that?"

The dead sort, was the answer. There'd be a lot less mercenaries for Orochimaru to call upon in this neighbourhood when they were finished. As second prizes went it didn't seem such a bad one to Ranma.

Was there anything that rankled more than failure? Mousse couldn't think of it if there was. Their mission? Failed. Abjectly. They hadn't found the base of operations. They hadn't eliminated its staff. They hadn't destroyed it. They hadn't even came close to pulling the mission off, really. Their first attempt at getting some payback on Orochimaru for killing Anko had ended in failure and they hadn't even been going up against Orochimaru himself, but some minions that had still managed to make them look like complete idiots all the time.

Perhaps the right question was more like was there anything more humiliating than going up against glorified minions and still losing It didn't sit well with him. If you couldn't beat the cannon fodder, what chance did you have against the guy running the show? They were a long, long way off where they needed to be to beat Orochimaru.

Oh, they'd managed to do a snatch and grab on that stupid kunoichi running the café, but that was a consolation prize at best. She was just one of what was probably many and they had no idea where the others were hiding. It was barely even a start.

Which brought him to where he was. Aoi was chained to a particularly sturdy looking tree looking at him with little more than disdain and contempt on her face and he was thinking about how he was going to get her to dish up the information he wanted.

Her chakra was still blocked, courtesy of Ranma's pet psychopath, so that simplified matters somewhat. It would be much harder for her to resist any special techniques he used without the ability to use any defensive techniques that she may have picked up as a kunoichi. That would help. It was almost painful to admit it, and he had no intention of doing it out loud, but Hitomi had actually been useful and not a total liability.

But that wasn't exactly a cure-all. He'd only had a few months to work on his genjutsu and he'd never used it for anything like an interrogation. It had always been a few tricks to throw people off in a fight so that he could get in to use his preferred weapons techniques. He knew a few tricks but he really wasn't sure that he would be able to manage what was being asked of him.

That wasn't going to stop him trying, of course. He could hardly turn around to Ranma and say, "I can't do this." That would be weakness. How could he even dream of looking his beloved Shampoo in the eye when they got back to Nerima after something like that? It would be a disgrace. No Amazon could allow themselves to admit weakness to a rival and ever go back to who they had been.

So, he was going to do it. He would succeed, because he had to.

"There will be no escape or rescue," said Mousse. Mostly because he had Hitomi playing spy in the sky with her eyes. "You might as well just save us all some trouble and tell me what I want to know."

"You're trash," said Aoi. "You must be if you think that would ever work on a shinobi. We're not some common street thugs that would give up whatever little they know at the drop of a hat to save their disgusting hide. We're professionals."

Mousse felt his eyelid twitch. God, this woman was annoying. How could she be so utterly contemptuous in the position she was in? "You're awfully mouthy for someone whose life is in my hands," he said. "There's nothing to stop me from doing whatever I please to you."

She snorted. "Do your worst," she said. "It could never be as bad as what will happen to me if I betray my master."

"Orochimaru isn't here. He isn't in Konoha, either."

Aoi actually laughed at him. "My master just strolled into Konoha and came within an inch of assassinating your kage and destroying the village," she said. "Your security is a joke. Your entire village is a joke."

Well, that was the end of the peaceful persuasion. If she was that convinced that Orochimaru could just walk in and take her our for punishment, she wasn't going to play along. He didn't have any better cards to play to make her think about doing the smart thing. She'd seen the 'save yourself' option and rejected it. What else was there? Nothing that he could actually use.

Without a word he starting working the jutsu needed to dampen any sound needed in the area. It wasn't a quick technique to perform and he had to carry it out several times to create a dampening field for each angle. Enough to give someone who knew what he was doing and why time to think about things and to change their mind if they had even the slightest bit of common sense to their name.

Predictably, or so Mousse thought, Aoi said nothing and looked as defiant as ever when he completed raising the last barrier and turned to face her again in their newly cut-off little bubble.

"Are you quite finished?"

It'd had absolutely no effect on her. She was as defiant as she'd been before and he was going to have to go through with it. He was going to have to torture her. And he really didn't want to do it. She was a horrible, wretched person who deserved to die, but he didn't want to torture her. Where was the old mummy when he needed her? This was exactly the sort of thing she'd take care of with some obscure technique no-one under the age of about two hundred had ever heard of.

"One last chance," he said. His voice didn't waver, which he was somewhat proud of. "Tell me what I want to know. You must realise this is hopeless by now. Help isn't coming."

Aoi didn't answer. But her facial expression said it all. No. She wasn't telling him a thing. It was time for him to use his 'tricks' to try and make her talk.

The sound of his breathing was loud in his ears as he considered where to start with the task. He could physically beat her, but that was crude and unlikely to be effective. A body could only take so much damage before it shut down and he didn't really know how much an average shinobi could take before they reached that point. It wasn't like Nerima where ever martial artist could be thrown through buildings and be back on their feet to fight back a moment later. Ninja came in all sorts of fragile shapes as well as the not so fragile.

So, that led him to using techniques that wouldn't break her before he could get the information. Well, he had those. He hadn't been training with the snakes for nothing. They knew how to make people hurt and how to make them surrender to it. It was just another weapon to them. Another technique to pull out of the bag in battle.

"Kuchiyose no jutsu."

For the first time Aoi's expression turned to alarm as a snake shot forth from his sleeve and attached itself to her neck. It wasn't much of a surprise really. Having her master's summons used against her by a Konoha-nin must have came as quite a shock to her system. There she'd been thinking that she was escaping having Orochimaru's monstrous ways worked against her by standing firm and now she was facing snakes.

Her shock turned to a glassy eyed, dazed sort of expression within a few seconds as the snake's venom made its way through her system. It was nothing particularly dangerous, nothing fatal, but that particular snake delivered a venom which had an interesting effect on humans. It was a hallucinogen. It would damage her resolve and leave her vulnerable in the face of his other techniques as her mind weakened.

As the snake returned to wherever it had came from, Mousse quickly formed his chakra to perform a genjutsu. Aoi's chakra coils put up little resistance as his will infiltrated them, her mind already affected by the venom, and he quickly began his attack.

It was a simple technique that he'd chosen. If he were being honest, this was largely because he wasn't sure he could manage anything more sophisticated with his current skills and with a target he knew nothing of. And so he made her think that she was being set on fire. He had the flames start small, at her feet, around her feet, and watched as she flinched away from them with a sheen of sweat on her face.

"Just tell me what I want to know, and it stops here," said Mousse. "That's all I ask. Tell me where the other Oto-nin are and this can stop. There's no need for it to go on."

The only reply he received from Aoi was a wild shake of her head. He let her sit and think about it for a few moments, to no further result, before he kicked the flames up a notch and had them start to lick up her legs. Part of him enjoyed the technical challenge of fooling her sense into believing that her legs were on fire, the combination of pain and scent weren't easy, but mostly he felt a little bit ill. It was one thing to kill someone in battle. Another to do this.

Watching her thrash as she tried to escape the flames left Mousse feeling like he was going to be sick. But he couldn't stop. He couldn't start on something like that and just give in the second it turned rough. The woman was one of Orochimaru's. She almost certainly had an ocean of blood on her hands and had probably played some role in invading Konoha and hence in Anko's death. He had to remember that.

"I ask you again," said Mousse. "Tell me what I know and this can end right now. This doesn't have to continue."

Aoi said nothing. Her face was screwed up in an expression of agony such that Mousse was honestly surprised that she wasn't screaming, but she still didn't say a word. Not so much as a single syllable passed her lips and he didn't understand. Why would anyone ever put their self through so much pain in Orochimaru's name? He was hardly worthy loyalty. He was a monster. Even the people who served him were terrified of what he would do to them if they didn't do what he wanted. Fear could only get you so far. It didn't make any sense to him.

He turned up the flames. To Aoi's mind they would have been crawling up her chest and back towards her neck, her skin blackening and sloughing off underneath the heat, her nerves roasting and dying, the only smell in her nose that of her burning flesh. That finally made her scream. It wasn't a sound that made Mousse feel any better about what he was doing.

And then it stopped. Mousse flinched, ever so slightly, as the energy he was pumping into maintaining the technique lashed back at him unexpectedly and it was over. The genjutsu was broken.

"Not bad, brat," panted Aoi. "I didn't think you'd go that far."

She was bleeding from the mouth. Bleeding profusely. That was how she'd broken the genjutsu. Physical pain was an anchor. Experiencing some that wasn't part of the illusion would disrupt the illusion and she'd bitten down, broken her own flesh, and broken his illusion with that. Elementary stuff. The very basics of the trade.

He didn't really want to do that again. It had been bad enough just doing it once. Adjusting his technique to make it harder to escape and then selecting a new scenario to torture her with would be . . . not fun. Maybe he was going soft but he just didn't want to do it.

"Why won't you just tell me what I want to know and put an end to this?" asked Mousse. "It's pointless."

Aoi didn't look up from where she was sagging against the tree. "I would be nothing without my master," she said. "I was nothing. I will never betray him."

Not just fear. Loyalty. She had a real reason not to give in. Things made more sense to Mousse all of a sudden, but not in a way that made him think that it was actually going to work. If she was trained to resist, and she probably was, and she had real reason to not give, which she did, then what could he do? He was hardly an expert in torture. He didn't want to be, either.

"They're on their way back," said Hitomi from her perch. "Looks like they've finished taking their bad mood out on the local swords for hire. If you've got anything up your sleeve, now would be the time. We're going to have to keep her out cold till we get them back to Konoha and flush the crap out of them."

Mousse stared at Aoi for a moment and then shrugged. "I'm out of ideas."

Aoi shook her head but said nothing. Mousse couldn't claim to be sorry that she didn't. It was easier that way. Didn't make him feel that he was making a mistake in stopping. It turned out that there was something that rankled more than failure and that was what he'd been doing.

Chapter Thirty

It wouldn't be long before they reached Konoha and their missions over. It had been a long journey back from Oto no Kuni, but it was just about over. The monument was within sight and they could be back within minutes if they put their feet down and made haste. But they weren't. They were trudging along with all the speed of people who'd much rather be going in the opposite direction but realise that they really can't do that.

Ranma knew why he felt that way. They'd failed and they'd failed pretty badly. Their mission was massively incomplete. The ninja who'd been working the area? Free to go about their business. Whatever rock they'd been hiding under? Totally undisturbed. So, those were their two goals for the mission going by completely unaccomplished. Not the best first time out for a trio of newly minted special jounin looking to avenge their dead sensei.

They did have a couple of consolation prizes, decent consolation prizes at that, in Aoi and the now very greatly reduced number of living mercenaries in the area who'd be even slightly willing to take Orochimaru's shilling and go up against Konoha in his name. The ones who'd made it out of the bar intact sure as hell wouldn't be keen on trying that sort of job again if they had any sense at all and word would, hopefully, spread about what had happened which would dissuade any other morons who might happen to be thinking of that sort of career.

But those were just that: consolation prizes. They weren't the prize they'd had their eye on at the mission. They weren't the assigned objectives. No matter how handy they were, they were secondary targets and the primary goal had been left untouched. It was a failure. And it was a failure that had left people Ranma had promised to protect dead.

That part stung. He'd promised that he'd get them out safely in exchange for their help and Ranma Saotome always lived up to his word. But he hadn't, had he? They were dead. They'd given him the information just as they'd said they would and he hadn't been able to protect them. He hadn't lived up to his word and people who hadn't deserved to die had been killed and killed painfully by a bunch of sadistic thugs.

So, Ranma was moving with very little enthusiasm. Reporting in with failure wasn't on his top ten list of things he wanted to do before he died and went off to be awesome in the afterlife. He'd never really failed before, at least not in a way where he couldn't pull off a comeback victory, and he really, really didn't enjoy the new experience. It was as bitter a thing as he could imagine.

Worse, it had been his first attempt at getting some revenge on Orochimaru for Anko. His big promise to avenge her and take down Orochimaru looked a long, long way from being pulled off. He knew that beating that monster was going to take more than being pissed off and promising to kill him and it would take a while to train up to a level where he could manage the job, but falling at the first hurdle left him feeling sick to his stomach.

Those were the thoughts that filled his mind as he trudged his way back to the village alongside a group of similarly miserable looking companions and the thoroughly bored looking Yasu. It wasn't the most sociable group you'd ever see and the unconscious Aoi being carried on Mousse's shoulder didn't add anything to goings on.

But no matter how slowly you trudge along you eventually reach your destination whether you like it or not. It was with mixed feelings that Ranma saw the freshly repaired walls of Konoha and realised that he would be reporting to the Hokage in very short order. At least they were repaired and it looked like the village was getting back to the state it'd been in before Orochimaru had wrecked the place. That was something.

They did get some strange looks as they entered the village and as they made their way to the tower. Ranma supposed that even in a ninja village people didn't typically walk around with an unconscious woman draped over their shoulder. Or maybe most ninja stuck to the shadows when they carried that sort of package. It amounted to the same thing. And it certainly made for a short visit to the reception area of the tower because the slightly chubby ninja manning the front desk took one look and waved them right on through to see the Hokage.

It was with no small amount of trepidation that Ranma stepped through that door to see the old man. He really had no idea what to expect on reporting a failure. The old guy was a reasonable sort, or at least he seemed that way, but Ranma didn't really know him and he hadn't been in Konoha all that long really. He didn't know how they handled failure. He'd never admit it, but he was nervous.

The Sandaime was facing away from them as they entered, staring out of the window with a steady flow of smoke coming from the pipe he was smoking. Judging by the body language he was all kinds of tense. Something was going on. Probably more trouble. The guy was running a village of super-powered fighters at war with another. There was no shortage of trouble to be had.

"We're, uh, back," said Ranma. "It didn't go all that well, but we've brought you a present."

The Sandaime turned around to face them. His brow furrowed slightly for a moment as his gaze passed over Yasu, but it was gone almost enough that Ranma almost doubted that he'd seen it. Then his gaze settled on Mousse and his package. "Who is she?" he asked around his pipe.

"She's a jounin from Oto," said Yasu. "Boring girl, talks a lot of crap and doesn't fight all that well, but she was running the place."

"Very well," said the Sandaime. "She will be useful. But the mission debriefing can wait. We have more important things to deal with at the moment."

Ranma blinked. "Huh?"

"Sasuke Uchiha has left the village to join Orochimaru. I do not believe this decision was entirely voluntary, but he must be stopped either way. You will reinforce the team I have already dispatched and bring him back. Judging from the information we have, they're heading towards the Valley of the End."

"Opposition?" asked Mousse.

"We have no information on that," said the Sandaime. "But I know Orochimaru. He wouldn't allow something like this to happen without being close by. It's too important to him and his goals. You can expect to see his latest collection of young fools interfering."

The guys from the exam invasion. Ranma wasn't really bothered about fighting them again - they weren't much of a factor for him; just some dumb kids with some power ups that made them last a little longer in a real right - but if they were going to get in the way, well, he was in just the mood for making some of Orochimaru's minions regret taking up with him.

"Sasuke is your primary objective, but I would appreciate it if you could ensure the survival of the previous team. They are young and I would prefer to see them serve the village for many more years before they reach their end."

Ranma nodded and turned to leave with the others.

"Hitomi, Yasu, please stay. We have things to discuss. And leave your package here, Mousse. I'll see that it reaches Ibiki for proper disposal."

The tone of the old man's voice didn't exactly leave a lot of hope that Aoi would be coming out of the other end of the T&I department in one piece. To be honest, Ranma was fine with that. She wouldn't be any loss to the world. None of the trash who would work for Orochimaru going along with and even agreeing with the things he did would be. Let them rot.

It didn't take long to find the fast signs of battle. In a clearing not too far from the village, a clearing that might not have been a clearing before the battle judging by the amount of damage that had been done, there was laid out the chubby kid from the exams next to the minion Ryoga had knocked around before they'd moved on to fighting Orochimaru himself. Both looked very much the worse for wear as the three of them pulled up to check.

"This one's dead," said Mousse. "No pulse."

Ranma couldn't say he felt much of a loss there. If you take up with someone like Orochimaru, it catches up with you eventually. He knelt down next to the exam kid, he couldn't remember the name, and tried to find a pulse. It took a while, but he find it. Weak but definitely there. "This one's alive," he said. "Looks like he took a beating though."

"I'll send up a signal for the medics," said Mousse. "They'll take him back for treatment."

There was no talk of anyone turning back with the kid. There would have been no point. The medics would see the signal and arrive to treat him as quickly as they could have dragged him to the hospital. And if they didn't, that meant there were none there to treat him and he was in trouble either way. It wasn't something Ranma relished doing, but they left him there. He wasn't bleeding out. He wasn't worsening. He was just beaten up and knocked out cold.

From then on there were signs of battle everywhere from scorched and smashed trees to discarded weapons. The kids had clearly been fighting a running battle with Orochimaru's guys all the way. Pretty impressive considering how they'd seemed pretty useless for the most part at the exams. Naruto had been kinda strong but clumsy and not too clever and he'd lost to Mousse which was never a good sign. Other than that, the others were either complete dicks, pretty useless, or in hospital with most of ther bones broken as far as Ranma knew. So he was kinda surprised they'd been able to hold their own with Orochimaru's pet kiddies and a bit impressed. Tougher than they looked, he guessed.

It didn't take too much longer before Ryoga spotted the next member of the group at work.

"There's the kid with the dog," he said from where he'd stopped atop a tree. "Looks like he's getting beaten up."

And he was. He was fighting a guy with two heads - even by Nerima standards that was a little bit crazy - and he wasn't coming off the best in that exchange. Ranma wasn't quite sure how that worked. Two heads meant twice the target for delivering concussions, surely? He didn't see how that would help someone in a fight.

"I'll take care of this one," said Ryoga. "I'll catch you up when I'm done."

Ranma opened his mouth, but Ryoga was already away. And in the right direction, for a change. "Well, great," he said. "Who needs to worry about sticking together anyway? I'm sure you'll find your way back to use with no problems whatsoever. Moron."

There was no point chasing after Ryoga. They'd just wind up fighting and wasting even more time than the moron inevitably getting lost would. It'd be about as useful as trying to persuade a Kuno that the world really didn't work in the two and two makes twenty-two way that they thought it did.

And so they went on, Mousse and Ranma, bouncing from tree to tree as they moved in the direction the old man had pointed them. They didn't get too much further before they reached another distraction. This time it was another one of the kids from the exams fighting the chick Ranma had taken down before they reached Orochimaru, the genjutsu user, and it was Mousse who headed down to take care of things. Ranma didn't bother to complain. Mousse had looked like he meant business and time was wasting. He moved on alone.

It was with no small amount of irritation that Ranma finally met his own obstacle. He didn't recognise who they were fighting, but it was the guy in green who'd wrecked himself and the brat who'd put Hinata in the hospital. The second made it tempting to just walk on by and leave them to it, just for a moment, and leave him to enjoy being beaten to a pulp by someone much, much stronger but it was just a moment.

The guy they were fighting was obviously older than the two kids, probably about Ranma's own age, and while he didn't wear a hitai-ate it was obvious that he was an Oto-nin from that ridiculous purple bow all of Orochimaru's personal minions seemed to wear around their waist. He was a bit of a pretty boy, too, with the white hair and his facial features. He'd go down a treat at a Tokyo high school.

He was a pretty good fighter, too. Ranma could see that immediately. There was no wasted motion, no telegraphing in his attacks, and he seemed to be anticipating every attack that Neji and Lee sent his way with the way they were landing absolutely nothing at all on him. Lee wasn't moving as quickly or as cleanly as he had at the exams, he probably wasn't fully recovered, but he was still pretty damned quick on his feet and Neji was far from a slouch despite being a total arse, but they weren't scoring with anything and they looked more than a little battered themselves. Particularly impressive given that Neji was a Hyuuga and it didn't take more than a glancing hit for them to start racking up damage.

But it wasn't to be. Lee went in quick and hard, with a loud shout of exertion, aiming a straight punch at the Oto-nin's head. That attack missed by a fraction of an inch as the Oto-nin leaned away just so and then Lee was catapulted back by a short punch to his ribs that lifted him off his feet and sent him flying. Neji moved to cover but a roundhouse kick quickly smashed him away from the action as well.

The Oto-nin . . . well, Ranma wasn't entirely sure. It looked like he made his forearm bone break and bulge out of the skin to use it as a sword or something, but who would be crazy enough to do that? Either way he was holding it like a sword, it looked sharp like a sword, and the downed Lee wasn't going to be able to get out of the way in time before he got filleted.

Time to make his move. Ranma kicked off from the tree he'd been perched atop and got the Oto-nin neatly with a drop-kick to the temple that sent him crashing off to the side. That allowed him to drop into position just so between the Oto-nin and the kids he'd been fighting.

"Hey, kids," said Ranma. "How's it going?"

Ranma tried to play it casual but being so close to one of Orochimaru's scumbags set his teeth on edge. He was just itching to do some damage and it took a serious effort of will to not just charge in and start hitting until the guy fell over and stopped moving. But that wasn't his way. That wasn't how he fought. So he clung on to what was left of his soul of ice and waited for the bastard to make the first move.

"More trash," said the Oto-nin. "Don't you people ever get tired of this?"

Ranma saw red. Literally red as his grip on his fury slipped and his battle aura exploded outwards around him. One of Orochimaru's thugs calling him trash? He'd had enough of the guy already. He crossed the gap between them with a single bound and lashed out with a rapid-fire series of punches to the bastard's torso that connected again and again and again as he attacked with his full speed.

As the Oto-nin reeled backwards from that assault, his baggy shirt torn and charred from the impact of the strikes, Ranma stepped in and smashed a leaping uppercut into his jaw that sent him flying into the air. That took the battle into mid-air combat where the Oto-nin's attempt to recover was slapped aside with contemptuous ease before Ranma smashed a roundhouse kick into his chest to send him slamming back to the ground.

So much for waiting for him to make the first move.

"Perhaps you are not the same grade of trash as the rest of these fools," said the Oto-nin from a crouched position. He rose to his feet. "I am Kimimaro."

That was when Kimimaro sprouted a bone from his forearm. And pulled it free to use as a weapon. Which was quite possibly the weirdest thing Ranma had ever seen, but he didn't have the time or the interest to talk about it. Orochimaru's pets were only good for one thing.

He attacked in a blur of arms and legs that forced Kimimaro to back off and give ground to avoid being pulverised, but the Oto-nin quickly recovered to counter attack with a series of rapid-fire slashes of his bone blade that sent Ranma into a temporary retreat that separated them again.

Okay, Ranma had a pretty good idea of where they stood after that exchange and with what he'd seen earlier. Kimimaro was good, better than most of the ninja Ranma had come across, but he was beatable.

"I thought ol' snakey would have have trained you better than this," said Ranma. "I can see you coming from a mile off. Guess he's got plenty more where you came from, though, eh?"

It never hurt to try and unsettle an opponent and that seemed to strike a mark as Kimimaro's brow furrowed and his eyes sparked ever so slightly. It wasn't much but it was about the most feeling he'd seen from the guy. It was a start.

Ranma got all the proof he needed of it working a moment later when Kimimaro flew across the turf towards him with his bone blade ready. Ranma saw the stab aimed at his face coming a mile away and quickly leaned just so to allow it to pass by harmlessly. But it was a feint. The Oto-nin's other hand sprouted another blade from the palm which was headed straight at Ranma's heart.

A feint within a feint. Ranma twisted around in a way that would have made most double-jointed people feel faintly jealous and went from being flat on in front of it to watching it pass by side-on. Kimimaro tried to jerk back but not quickly enough, not from that over-extended position. Ranma's elbow slammed into the bridge of the Oto-nin's face with a loud thud.

The force of that impact staggered the bastard and that was all the time Ranma needed. He snapped around, a blur of motion, and struck the Oto-nin square to the left of his sternum.

"Dokuja Tanketsu Sho."

Ranma knew exactly how powerful a blow that was and how much damage it did to be hit with it. He'd been as good as finished with a single strike when Ryu Kumon had used it against him and it had taken hours for him to be able to walk properly again without pain. It was enough to rip a less durable man apart. It had taken Hiro Hyuuga's heart in a single blow and that man had not been a weakling.

And it stopped dead against Kimimaro's rib-cage. Ranma's wrist gave way and his fist fell open against his opponent's chest as pain lanced up his arm. If it had any effect on Kimimaro, Ranma couldn't see it. Well, there was a glimmer of pain in his eyes, but no break. The thud of the impact echoed, loudly, but the ribs did not break.

His feet moved. He tried to pull back out of range, but not quickly enough. His scrabbling took him back but Kimimaro's forward motion was quicker and his bone blade found its target.

But not fully. Ranma's footing was sound enough to roll with it and pull back away. His armour was sliced through. His skin broke, he felt the warmth of blood on his chest, but it was a shallow wound. Not enough to even slow him down never mind really damage him.

More attacks came as Kimimaro tried to press his advantage. Ranma's footing wasn't sound. He couldn't stay away. More strikes landed, his armour held off some, split under others, and a number of shallow cuts were opened in Ranma's flesh as more and more struck home.

It took a few moments but Ranma found steady footing and with a single bound he was away. He leapt back a good thirty feet, opening clear room between him and his enemy,and in the moment that bought him he took stock of things. He was hurt, his chest and arms burned from the shallow cuts that had been gouged out of him, and his right arm ached from the failed yamasenken strike, but the damage was superficial.

But he was angry. He could feel it boiling inside of him and the soul of ice just wouldn't come. His first chance at one of Orochimaru's real minions and look how it was going. Look at how good a job he was going of making up for getting Anko killed.

Kimimaro charged. A column of burning red ki rocketed forth from Ranma's hands and met him midway with the force of a speeding freight train. He was smashed off his feet and carried away by the blast as it carved across the clearing and into the copse of trees on the side before being obscured in the cloud of dust and splinters kicked up the attack as it pulverised the trees that had been behind the idiot.

The guy was proving to be annoyingly durable. A ki attack like that really took it out of Ranma. Firing off emotions as a weapon wasn't exactly kiddy play and it always left him feeling slightly emptied afterwards. That last one left him feeling like a wrung-out dishcloth. He'd put everything behind it.

His danger sense flared, but he was already moving. A bone - a spinal cord - tore through the ground he'd been standing on just as he leapt aside from there. Kimimaro was still alive. Still standing. His shirt had been completely destroyed, leaving the skin darkened by his cursed seal quite visible, and several patches of skin had been burned away to reveal a layer of gleaming white bone underneath, but he was still standing. And he was wielding his spinal cord like a whip.

Ranma took a moment to appreciate the sheer weirdness it took to use your own spinal core as a weapon. "You are one persistent scumbag," he said finally. "Why the hell won't you just die?"

"I will not fail my master."

The whip came down.

"Kijin Raishu Dan."

Ranma smirked as the vacuum blade ripped forth from and sliced through the air to collide with Kimimaro's bone-whip as it came down. That'd show him: a vacuum blade could cut through steel, never mind bone. His attack would be smashed to bits.

That smirk vanished very quickly as the vacuum blade struck. The bone-whip chipped and fractured at the point of impact, but it didn't break and it was still coming. Ranma was flat-footed from firing the vacuum blade. He wouldn't be able to dodge in time and he knew it. The best he could do was raise his arms into a defensive position and hope that his bracers, reinforced with his will, would be able to take it.

The attack struck and Ranma winced as he felt the bracer on his left arm give way and the bone dig into his flesh. It didn't get too deep, the bracer stopped that, but it still hurt like hell. And it hurt even more when Kimimaro yanked the whip back out, dripping with Ranma's blood, ready to attack again. It took a serious effort for him to not give away how much that had hurt. He didn't think it would hinder him too much, but it stung like hell.

But it wasn't the sting of the blow that hurt. It was the fact that he wasn't getting anywhere. Why wouldn't this bastard just die? He was just another one of Orochimaru's collection of thugs and scum, so why wouldn't he just die like he deserved.

Kimimaro brought the whip around again but Ranma had no intention of sitting around and waiting for another attack. No chance. One free hit was all this bastard was getting from him. Ranma catapulted himself forward to close the gap between them in a heartbeat and attacked. First he unleashed a rapid-fire series of body punches. That staggered the Oto-nin and left him open. Ranma then followed up with a low sweep kick that connected with Kimimaro's ankles and sent the already off-balance Oto-nin crashing to the ground.

From there Ranma jumped back to a ready position on his feet and, before Kimimaro could move out of the way, slammed the heel of his foot down onto the Oto-nin's whip hand with a loud crack. He dropped the whip and Ranma then pivoted and kicked it away with all his might, sending it flying off into the distance. The far distance. It went well out of sight.

Ranma had to dodge quickly to avoid the uppercut that Kimimaro sent his way as retaliation. He mostly made it with a chunk gouged out of his armour vest being the only damage taken. Kimimaro followed up with a lunging stab, murder in his eyes, but Ranma simply leapt backwards and cleared a space several metres wide between them.

"Fail your master?" Ranma taunted, the last word being spat out like it was the most foul curse he could imagine. "You call me trash, and you call Orochimaru master. You must be insane. He's a monster."

Kimimaro crossed the distance between them with a long bound and Ranma had to react sharply to block the strike by getting his forearm inside Kimimaro's swing. "You know nothing," said Kimimaro. "You understand less. You're nothing more than a child playing a game."

"And that's coming from a guy following around a murdering traitor like some sort of little lapdog begging for approval. You couldn't be any more pathetic if you tried. Orochimaru's scum. You're just trash waiting to be swept away."

That got a reaction. Kimimaro's yellowed eyes darkened further as his lips twisted into a snarl of pure, bestial rage. That was the ticket. Now the bastard got to feel just like Ranma felt about this whole damned thing. Ranma took no small amount of satisfaction from that. If he had to be off-kilter and full of anger, then so should his opponent. Let them have the same damn thing; it was all their fault anyway.

They clashed, again, in a blur of arms and legs. Kimimaro's fury leant his blows an extra dose of speed, more power behind them, too, but they were predictable. Telegraphed. He'd let himself get wound up to the point of getting stupid which was just what Ranma had been hoping for. It was almost no challenge at all to handle someone who'd let themselves be put into that sort of state no matter how strong, quick, and skilled they were.

Of course, Kimimaro was devilishly quick. Ranma had to give him that. He had to be very, very precise in his movement or he'd be skewered anyway even when he could read the attacks being sent his way. And he wasn't exactly mounting a stiff counter-attack between dodges as the attacks came in. This guy was no Kuno to be easily smacked around and left in the dust.

Eventually, though, Ranma was a little imprecise in a movement, a little slow, and the bone sword skewered him through his armour to impale him through the heart.

Kimimaro looked utterly satisfied with himself for a moment as he looked down, chest heaving with exertion, at his impaled enemy, frozen with an expression of shock on their face, as he stcod victorious. Then Ranma winked at him and vanished into the wind.

Ranma had to give Kimimaro credit. He wasn't stupid. He knew what had happened and tried to move before the trap could be sprung, but it was too late. The wind dragon was already summoned and Kimimaro managed no more than a couple of steps before it slammed into his back and carried him into the air, impaled upon its translucent teeth, blood and viscera dripping from its maw as it rose up and into the sky.

The dragon rose a to a height of a few hundred feet, wind blowing in a gale around it and smashing away at the trees to widen the clearing they'd been fighting in through simple destruction, before it reached the apex of its climb, glinting as the sun shone through its translucent body. It hung there for a moment in an image that would have been quite striking if not for the struggling, bleeding man trapped in it jaw.

And then it changed course and catapulted itself downwards with a tremendous thud to slam the trapped Oto-nin down into the ground with earth-shaking force. Ranma had to widen his stance and dig in to keep his footing as that impact rumbled shook the ground and had to protect his eyes and turn away slightly to keep the cloud of dust it kicked up out.

He turned back a few moments later as the dust cleared and squinted to try and see through what was left of the billowing wreckage kicked up by his attack. Not exactly the easiest thing in the world to do unless you had, say, some magic eyes that could see for miles and through walls and all the rest of it, but Ranma couldn't see Neji to kick him into doing something and he supposed that getting crap in your eyes would be even worse if they were ninety percent pupils and a thousand times more sensitive than normal.

Moments passed. The smoke cleared further. And that revealed Kimimaro slumped on his side, surrounded by splatters of his own blood that spread out for a good ten feet around him, not moving. His back was to Ranma, but it didn't look like he was moving. Not breathing. Ranma didn't get any sense of the guy being alive never mind able to fight on. He was too still and Ranma didn't get the sense of him being the tricky sort who'd play dead to try and get an advantage.

But, still, Ranma'd thought he'd won once already and been wrong. This guy wasn't exactly laying down and paying dead on demand. Bastard and scum he might have been, working for Orochimaru, but he was strong and stubborn and he hadn't gone down easily. He'd been a decent opponent. Taken some serious hits and given some damage in return before being beaten. Ranma had to give him that little bit of token respect, even if being a decent fighter was all the guy had going for him.

Kimimaro still wasn't moving. Ranma sighed and relaxed. It was over. No-one could survive that, he guessed. It had been a hell of a hit. That technique drained the hell out of him and took way too long to pull off, but it had a punch worse than anything Akane had ever cooked up.

With the fight over all the aches and pains of it that had been neatly covered up by the adrenaline started to make themselves felt. He was sore all over and the places along his chest and arm where those bone swords had managed to dig into him were hurting like hell. And he was tired. Very, very tired. Those big techniques didn't come cheap and he'd let himself fight angry which was even worse.

He sighed and stepped back. Okay, fight over. Mission still to finish. He had to get moving. He'd have time to be tired later when it was all over and done with and he was back home with something to eat and a bed waiting and a kiddy ninja returned home safe and sound to explain exactly why he'd wandered off with some of Orochimaru's pet monsters. That'd probably be a fun little conversation but Ranma doubted he'd be in on it.

Ranma turned and walked away, towards Neji and Lee. "Hey, you two," he said as got near them. "You hurt?"

They didn't look it. They were banged up, bruised and tender looking where Kimimaro had whacked them, some shallow cuts here and there where he'd managed to slash them with his bones, but nothing that looked particularly dangerous. They'd got off lightly. Kimimaro clearly hadn't been taking them all that seriously. Even when he got up close to them he couldn't see any particularly serious injuries on them. The worst damage was probably to their pride. It was never a whole lot of fun to get knocked around by someone who was out of your league.

Neji opened his mouth to say something, but then his eyes widened and he sprinted past Ranma. An instant later Ranma's danger sense flared right up to 'you're about to die - messily' levels and Ranma twisted around just in time to see Neji spin up a storm with a quickly executed kaiten that - just - deflected away the enormous bone spear that Kimimaro - alive! - had been driving towards his back.

For a moment Ranma was flat-footed. He couldn't believe what he was seeing. How could Kimimaro be alive after all that? Even Ryoga would be in no state to press the attack after taking a hit from the technique Kimimaro had just been on the receiving end of. And yet there he was up and about, alive, intact, and attacking with his cursed seal thrumming away all over his body.

That only lasted a moment, but a moment was long enough for Rock Lee to catapult himself past Ranma towards Kimimaro with a shout that he was facing more than one opponent. His flying kick was quick and true and it accomplished absolutely nothing as Kimimaro promptly lashed out with his free arm and smacked Lee away without him ever coming close to landing a strike.

Lee landed several feet away from where Kimimaro was standing and didn't get back up. Ranma couldn't take his eyes off his opponent long enough to take a good look, but he'd seen a splash of blood as Lee had been slapped away and there was another one of those bone swords in Kimimaro's hand and it was glistening with blood.

"Neji, go take care of Lee," said Ranma. Something of a pointless instruction as Neji was already moving to stand between Kimimaro and Lee, but he wanted to make it nice and clear. "Get him out of here. Take him to the doctors. I'll take care of this."

Ranma could never get much of a read on Neji unless he was going into his insane 'time to murder my cousin' mode, so he didn't really have a clue how he felt about being told to get lost, but he nodded and went with the battered Lee tossed over his shoulder.

"So, that's just us now," said Ranma. "Ready to get this over with? I've about had enough of wasting my time on some brainwashed little pet thug. You realise that he doesn't give a damn, right?"

Kimimaro's face twisted into an impressive look of pure rage, which wasn't really a big leap from where it had been before, that looked quite impressively demonic on his seal-twisted body. "You don't understand," he spat at Ranma. "Orochimaru saved me. He made my life worth something. He understands me and I understand him. I will always live on in his heart."

Ranma's lip curled into his most derogatory sneer. "You're delusional."

Kimimaro lunged forward, what had been his right arm raised to deliver an attack with the massive bone spear he'd sprouted, but he was almost sluggish compared to before.

Sluggish or not, he'd do someone serious damage if he landed a hit with that thing. Ranma was going to have to bring out the big guns and he had just the thing. Something he'd been saving for just such a moment. He summoned the wind to his call and began to spin it around, spinning with it himself. Faster and faster and faster until the wind was almost whipping his clothes off.


Because the only thing better than seeing a cool technique is figuring out how to use it for yourself. Ranma couldn't figure out exactly how the real version worked, but he had his own version based on wind manipulation and that'd do him just fine,

Kimimaro's spear met Ranma's new technique with a shriek as he tried to force it through with simple, brute force. Ranma winced and redoubled his effort, seeking to throw the attacker away as the technique was designed to, but Kimimaro kept coming. Kept forcing.

It had to give. One of them had to have their strength give. Ranma bit down hard and forced his ki to its maximum, flaring his strength and funnelling it into his defence, and Kimimaro did the same. Nothing could be heard over the shrieking of the wind and the spear trying to force its way through that wind.

And then it gave. Kimimaro couldn't hold. He was blasted back. Ranma stopped his technique and took a deep breath as Kimimaro struggled back to his feet using that spear, what was left of it, for leverage. He was staggering but he was upright.

That was when Ranma realised his feet were burning. At least that's what it felt like. He hopped from foot foot for an instant before kicking the sandals off, sending them flying across the space that seperated him from his opponent where they slapped off his face and slid to the ground.

But Kimimaro didn't move. Didn't follow. Didn't do . . . anything. He was just stood there, staring blankly forward, learning on the bone spear that he had used to lever himself up. Ranma frowned. It didn't look like Kimimaro was breathing, but he knew he hadn't done that much damage with the last attack. Another trick? Maybe, but it didn't look like it. And someone could only hold their breath and remain perfectly motionless for so long.

Ranma closed in, cautiously, constantly listening to his danger sense as closely as he could until he was right in front of Kimimaro with not a twinge of danger to be felt. He was still motionless. Still not breathing. There was blood around his lips, too, a very brightly coloured and slightly foamy blood. Kimimaro had been bleeding internally and bringing it up.

It was impossible to know why Kimimaro'd been bleeding internally - though Ranma thought the damage he'd done to him probably hadn't helped - but he'd been bleeding internally, in his lungs, and that was never a good sign no matter what sort of weird cursed powers you had. Whatever the reason for it was, the bastard was good and dead. No breathing. No pulse. It was pretty conclusive.

He was tired and sore and a little bit satisfied at taking that first real step towards getting some payback on Orochimaru, but it was time to get on with the mission. Sasuke was the objective, not this guy.

And so he went.

Chapter Thirty-One

The scene Ranma took in when he arrived at the Valley of the End brought him to a quick stop. Orochimaru. He was there. For a moment Ranma's mind came to a grinding halt as the simple feelings that monster inspired washed over him. Hate was there - rage, too - and a certain sense of anticipation and excitement at finally getting there, but so was a tiny little bit of fear underneath it all. He wasn't ready to fight Orochimaru personally. He wasn't stupid enough to not see that. Certainly not when he was already banged up from taking on one of the minion crowd. This guy was serious business, as strong as anyone Ranma had ever fought, and not so one dimensional as a Saffron who could be beaten with a bit of quick thinking and luck.

The valley was smashed to bits. The statues at the end of the valley, the Shodai and some Uchiha, were pitted and holed where techniques had smashed chunks out of them and the rest was no better. The sides of the valley cratered to a ridiculous degree and the whole place was flooded, water everywhere, and Ranma knew it hadn't been like that the last time he'd passed through the place. There'd been a serious battle. Massive ki attacks and all the rest of it thrown everywhere.

But, there was more. Sasuke, the mission target he had to remind himself forcibly, was slumped against the side of the valley with cursed seal marks running all over his face. Had he joined Orochimaru? Either way, he looked like someone had beaten the hell out of him. Those cursed seal marks were blending in with the blood that was dripping down his face from the long cut that had been drawn across his forehead through his hitai-ate. And his clothes bore the sort of charring that Ranma was very familiar with: the kid had been beaten to a pulp with ki attacks.

That, again, paled next to the other sight in the scene. Naruto, trapped in Orochimaru's grasp, held aloft by his throat, atop one of the statues, his previously orange jacket largely stained red and his blond hair matted with his own blood. Ranma couldn't see all of it, Naruto's back was turned to him, but he looked in bad shape. The poor kid must have tried to keep Orochimaru from taking Sasuke and taken a hell of a pounding in the process.

Seeing that jarred Ranma back into life as rage spilled all over what nerves he'd been feeling and wiped them away. Naruto was a annoying and loud and not very clever, but he didn't even come close to deserving that sort of treatment. He was a decent kid as they went. He'd tried to do the right thing and he'd stood up for Hinata when he had no great reason to be all that bothered about her. Ranma wouldn't forget that any time soon.

"Ah, Ranma," said Orochimaru. "I didn't expect to see you here. I thought you were off playing games with my shinobi. It's good to see you again."

And there was Orochimaru talking calmly like he was some old acquaintance that he was surprised and pleased to see again. Ranma could feel his blood boiling as tinges of red crept in at the corners of his vision. How could this bastard talk to him so casually? He didn't even seem bothered by the fact that one of his arms was hanging limp and broken at his side, as if Anko's last move had been pointless.

But he didn't have many options to attack with Orochimaru holding Naruto like that. Anything he did would be easily turned away simply by moving Naruto into the way and hurting the kid even worse than he already was. Ranma wanted to get Orochimaru, he really, really did, but he didn't want to make himself as bad as the bastard doing it.

"Let him go, you bastard," he said. "He's only a kid."

What little of an eyebrow Orochimaru had rose. "Such sickening weakness," he said. "I had hoped my student would have taught you better than that."

Ranma's lip curled into a snarl. "She taught me better than to be like you."

"An unfortunate mistake on her part," replied Orochimaru. "Perhaps she would still be alive if she had taught you strength."

Deep breath. Soul of ice. He had to pick his moment. He had to find the right spot at the right time. He couldn't just go charging in against this guy, not with the strain of his last battle still echoing through his body. Not while he still had Naruto as a human shield.

"If you care so much about this stupid child, you may have him."

Orochimaru hurled Naruto down to Ranma. The kid was heavier than he looked, midget that he was, but Ranma caught him still. He looked even worse up close than he had at a distance. Orochimaru had beaten him till he looked more like raw meat than a teenage boy. Every bit of flesh Ranma could see was bruised or bleeding and only the kid's still breathing made him think that he was even alive.

"You want revenge," said Orochimaru with a smirk. "You want to destroy me. I can see it in your face and feel it in the air, but do you want it enough to leave the boy to his fate? He won't last long without medical attention now. I've seen to that. Make your choice."

For a moment Ranma truly had no idea what to do. The kid needed help. Orochimaru needed stopping. Sasuke needed taking back to Konoha. He couldn't do all of those. He had to choose. Again, he really wished he knew some damned medical techniques so he could make the kid not look like a vaguely ambulatory corpse.

And then there was clarity. Naruto stirred, weakly, and with a gasp he spoke from where he was nestled in Ranma's arms. "Hey, hey," he said. "I'll be fine. Beat this bastard and bring Sasuke back."

He still wasn't entirely sure - the kid looked bad - but Naruto had a look in his eye that Ranma didn't really want to argue with. Who was he to argue with someone who wanted to push themselves beyond their limit in a fight? He'd done it enough times, picking fights with people no-one thought he could possibly beat, and he'd made it through fine. Mostly. Okay, this quite wasn't the same thing, or at all really, but the kid was making his choice. Hopefully he knew what he was doing.

Orochimaru broke Ranma from those thoughts. "Such heroic nonsense," he said in a voice that dripped with disdain. "You would be better advised to withdraw and prepare for more favourable circumstances."

Ranma executed a quick shunshin to carry him a reasonable distance from Orochimaru and Sasuke and the rest, to a spot away from the wrecked part of the valley and towards where some trees were still left standing. He gently lowered Naruto, trying to put him down without jostling him, and left him in the shade of one of the trees.

"Excellent shunshin," said Orochimaru from behind Ranma who froze at feeling the bastard's presence no more than a few inches behind him at his unguarded back. "Good distance. Excellent speed. Little wasted energy. Your technique is acceptable."

"Glad you approve."

A moment passed. Ranma took a breath. And then he attacked. Orochimaru's smirk never wavered as he parried the chop Ranma aimed at his neck with his good arm, but it did drop, Ranma thought in the moment where he could still see it, when he followed that by shifting his footing and lashing out with a roundhouse kick that connected with the side of Orochimaru's head that he would have defended with his helpfully crippled arm.

That blow sent Orochimaru cartwheeling through the air back the way he came and Ranma followed, happy to direct the fight away from the mauled Naruto, back into the valley proper. Orochimaru quickly managed to pull himself out of the uncontrolled flight and came skidding to a halt atop the lake that had begun to form in the valley, but Ranma followed and didn't give him so much as a second to recover.

There was something deeply therapeutic about punching Orochimaru in the face and watching his smirk waver underneath the impact. Ranma could seriously endorse it as a way to work off some tension. So he did it again and again and again. Orochimaru was a good fighter but up-close with only one arm there was only ever going to be one winner.

It didn't seem that the attacks were doing over much damage as Ranma pressed Orochimaru back with a blurring series of punches to the head and body of his enemy, but a fight where the opponent was on the backfoot and he was on the initiative was a fight where victory would come sooner or later regardless. You can't lose to someone who's taking all the blows and not offering much in return.

Eventually Orochimaru was backed up from the water onto what was left of the solid ground, high enough that the water hadn't completely covered it, and Ranma shifted his ki as he stepped on to that ground to follow. Standing on soil didn't require the same manipulations as standing on water.

And he blinked in dull surprise as his foot plunged straight through the soil and into water below. Genjutsu! He had just enough time to realise that before he became a she and Orochimaru's fist send her slamming back across the valley to bounce off the stone barrier with a meaty thud.

Dark spots danced in front of Ranma's vision as her head bounced back amidst a cloud of chipped stone and dust. But she was still with it enough to duck out of the way before Orochimaru's kusanagi stabbed through the space her head had been occupying a heartbeat earlier. The valley gave way like it was made of sand rather than stone and the sword carved a long line through it before the blade shrank back to its normal length in Orochimaru's mouth before he swallowed it back down.

She had to admit that was a neat trick. A sword that could extend and shrink to whatever length you needed? Very, very handy. The swallowing part was still creepy as hell though.

Ranma shook her head to clear the cobwebs. He hadn't hit her hard enough to leave her punchy. She had to keep her mind on the fight and on winning. There was no room for second-best efforts against an opponent like Orochimaru. She had to wipe that smirk off his face for good.

Said smirk held firm as she kicked off away from the wall and towards her opponent. Two steps forward and she aimed a vacuum blade at his throat. Another two steps and she'd aimed more to each side of him to cut off the easy escape routes. That got Orochimaru's attention alright. With left and right cut off and forward or back just changing when the attack would hit him his only options were up or down.

Orochimaru chose up, leaping over the attack, which was exactly what Ranma had been hoping for. She immediately kicked off from the water she'd been sprinting across and met him in mid-air.

"Moko Kaimon Ha."

When Ryu Kumon had hit her with that technique - a powerful kick designed to tear through a guard and defeat an opponent through sheer brute force - it had knocked her out cold and left her that way for several minutes. If she was lucky, it'd have the same effect on his bastard. Orochimaru's eyes bulged in surprise as his attempt to parry the strike aside was, hopefully painfully, smashed aside and the heel of Ranma's foot slammed into his jaw and snapped his head back with a loud crack.

The impact of that strike separated them as Orochimaru was catapulted back down towards the dirt and Ranma kicked off to climb higher into the air. Watching him crash down and flop limply on to the soil was satisfying, but Ranma wasn't done. She whipped her arms through the air and with a shout she fired off one of her most powerful offensive techniques.

"Saidaikyu Kijin Raishu Dan."

The air around Ranma rippled and distorted as numerous vacuum blades poured forth from her unleashing of the final technique of the yamsenken school upon Orochimaru. It was as good a 'you die now' technique as she knew of. She'd survived the hit, herself, when it had been used against her, but if he was already hurt then it'd leave him vulnerable for a real finisher.

Dirt and water were churned up in massive quantities as the blades tore into the ground around her target, but they didn't hit it. A moment before the vacuum blades started to rain down on him, Orochimaru sank into the dirt and vanished out of the target zone.

That really pissed Ranma off. Not only had her trap just been neutered in a single trick, but now she had no idea where her enemy had disappeared to and that left him with the initiative. He would dictate the terms of the next exchange unless she rumbled him.

Well, there was one thing she could do. Ranma closed her eyes and concentrated, focusing her danger sense as best she could, to try and anticipate the attack that would be coming her way. It was more passive than she liked being in a fight but it was a skill like any other and she'd had it drilled into her by her pop well enough to use.

It saved her. Focusing on her danger sense brought that warning twinge on just that moment earlier than it would have appeared otherwise. Enough for her to leap away before Orochimaru's kusanagi burst up from the beneath the water she'd been standing atop and through the space she'd been occupying. She would have been impaled if she'd been even fractionally slower to react.

But she didn't get far into her leap to safety before she was intercepted. A tongue, ridiculously, snapped through the air and caught her around the midsection. Before she could react to do something about the ridiculous attack that was being aimed her way she was being hurled around in a slingshot manoeuvre that sent her hurtling, fast, too fast, through the air back downwards.

She bounced off the valley wall again. Harder. Much harder. It felt like half the wall was smashed free with her impact and rained down on her as she stumbled and fell to her knees in front of the impact zone. The dark spots were a hell of a lot bigger the second time around and they were starting to join together before she gave her head a shake to clear the cobwebs.

Many more hits like that and she'd lose, she knew it. She was already hurt and worn down from fighting Kimimaro and Orochimaru was a much worse opponent than that guy even an arm down. Getting slammed around was just going to lead to her day ending really, really badly. And she couldn't allow herself to fail in this one. How could she look herself in the eye again if she failed after all those promises to avenge Anko?

There were a whole range of techniques she could use to attack Orochimaru and try to turn things back around and she ran through them, umisenken through hiryu shoten ha and on to the wind techniques she'd learned from Anko's scroll, but she had to quickly drop those ideas in favour of a quick game of 'dodge the sword that's being wielded by a giant tongue'.

If there'd been any doubt that Orochimaru was the biggest weirdo of them all, that was very much killed off by his using his tongue as a replacement for his useless arm. Even by Nerima standards that was truly bizarre. But a quick ki blast fired over her shoulder bought her time to run up the valley wall and put some distance between her and her opponent so that she could consider her options.

When you needed to kill someone quick the yamasenken was a pretty good choice of tools, but you needed to set the scene before you could use it. She needed to get Orochimaru into position or get into a position where he'd not see it coming and, well, she had a neat little trick for pulling that one off. Should have brought it our earlier really.

A quickly executed kaze bunshin no jutsu created half a dozen copies of Ranma who were promptly sent off to act as a fairly ineffectual but very distracting opening move. Orochimaru made predictably short work of them, but that was enough time bought for Ranma to slip into the umisenken and initiate stage two of the plan.

The umisenken doesn't make you invisible. It blends you into your surroundings and nullifies the danger sense all martial artists have. The closest it comes to actual invisibility is making it difficult to focus on someone using it if you don't know the tricks of the technique. Combined with very high speed movement it could make it very difficult for an opponent to realise they were under attack before it was too late. But Ranma didn't want to risk the high speed part of the technique as, from the range, she didn't think she'd reach Orochimaru before she became rather more detectable.

That was why she deployed another technique she'd been working on to go with the umisenken. A simple variant of the basic ninja techniques that Anko had showed them to start with that took the principles of the bunshin and the henge techniques, combined with the inversion of the umisenken, and, hopefully, made her really invisible.

Orochimaru had a curious look on his face as he leapt back away from where he'd been standing atop the water that had filled much of the valley and on to one of the few bodies of land that hadn't been completed covered by the after-effects of whatever Naruto and Sasuke had done. Ranma edged in slowly, ever so slowly, to avoid leaving even a single ripple as she crossed the water between him and her. She couldn't make a single sound or leave behind even a single trace of her presence. She had to be truly invisible. She was nothing. You can't see nothing.

And it worked. It was slow and nerve-wracking, but she made it to the same body of land that Orochimaru had perched himself atop without him looking any the wiser as to what was going on. She could barely even believe it herself, if she was being honest, but it might just have worked as she crept up on Orochimaru's bad side.

But then he lashed out and caught her a side kick that landed just below her ribs and knocked the air out of her in a great gasp. She moved to dodge away but he twisted around and caught her across the temple with his fist and that blow took her balance away complete for a moment. Long enough for him to crash a palm strike into her chest and that sent her staggering back until her back collided with a half-destroyed tree.

"An excellent technique," said Orochimaru. "My compliments, but you failed to account for the elements. You still disturbed the air and sent vibrations thought the ground with your footsteps. It was quite easily defeated and will be until you deal with those flaws."

Ranma shook her head and tried to get her bearings back as Orochimaru hawked up his sword, but it didn't work. Her chest was burning. Her vision blurred. Her legs felt rubbery. He'd done something to her with that last hit. She didn't know what it was but it felt like she was disconnected from her body aside from the dull sensations of exertion and the pain of her wounds.

"It's almost a shame to kill you now, before you reach your potential, but I have no time for young heroes questing for vengeance. You're such a troublesome lot."

He had his sword in hand. It would only be a moment before Orochimaru ran her through and she needed to move. But she couldn't. Her legs didn't respond beyond a spastic twitch in her thigh muscles. She was going to die before she could even make a real start on avenging Anko and she was going to die at the hands of the same bastard who'd killed Anko. That was despair, right there, but she couldn't even throw off a shi shi hokodan to get something useful out of because her body just wouldn't respond.

It wouldn't be long. Orochimaru had his sword levelled at her. Just a twitch from him to make it extend and that would be the end. Everything was moving nice and slow, the adrenaline at work, so she could take in all the details of how screwed she was, but because of whatever Orochimaru had done to her she couldn't do anything about it. It was maddening.

Orochimaru made a flicking sort of gesture with his good arm. Ranma closed her eyes as the sword began to extend. But there was no impact. Not on flesh. The sound of steel colliding with steel filled her ears.

Ranma opened her eyes. It was Ryoga. She'd recognise him anywhere even from behind. He'd blocked the attack with his own sword.

"Stop being so weak, Ranma," he growled. "This is embarrassing."

She blinked. And then she growled. "Shut up, P-chan," she said. "Some of us had to fight a real opponent before he even got here."

"Stop whining."

Anger welled up in Ranma and she'd have sent some bile Ryoga's way, but she was interrupted by a brace of kunai slapping down into the ground where Orochimaru had been stood a moment before.

"I must agree with Hibiki," said Mousse from his perch atop a tree. "You're embarrassing us with this weak performance."

"Ah, the entertainment has arrived," said Orochimaru. "I was wondering when you would find your way here."

Ryoga charged in with his usual level of subtlety, going for the 'I'll just smash right through' school of swordsmanship, and it did force Orochimaru into a retreat. Ranma supposed that having only one working arm didn't make it any easier to deal with Ryoga on a rampage and it wasn't like Ryoga was going to stop going for the beating the crap out of things approach any time soon.

Then Mousse joined the battle with a pair of scimitars in hand and that turned it into a two-on-one scrap which really sent Orochimaru into retreat. Ranma was left on her own as her ever annoying team mates drove the battle off elsewhere and that left her with not a lot to do except contemplate the joys of failure and try to figure out how she was going to get around whatever Orochimaru had done to her with that last hit.

And that was when the bruised and battered face of Naruto appeared in front of her. Very, very close in front of her. Uncomfortably close. "Hey, hey," he said. Close enough that Ranma could feel his breath on her face as he spoke. At least he brushed his teeth. "You okay."

How the hell was he up and about? He'd looked like he'd been hit by a truck, repeatedly, and then chucked out of a aeroplane all of about ten minutes ago. People didn't heal that quickly unless they had some sort of superpower and Ranma really, really doubted that Naruto, of all people, had picked up something as delicate as even a basic medical techniques never mind one good enough to regenerate himself from a beating like that.

Naruto poked her on the forehead. "He only hit you a few times," he said. "Come on. We gotta do something."

Ranma grit her teeth and forced herself to get up. The world swayed around her for a moment as she reached her feet, but it eventually righted itself. It still burned, a little, after that, but it was receding. And there was no way in hell she was going to let Naruto be up and about and fighting when she was down. She'd never, ever, ever live it down.

She reached her feet just in time to see Ryoga go from taking a swing at Orochimaru to hurtling away from him and into one of the valley walls without anything obvious happening in between. Orochimaru hadn't done anything, but there was a glint of steel in the air. Ninja wire. Kabuto.

The bastard traitor wasn't hard to spot. He wasn't trying to hide himself, at all, just stood there on top of one of the statues with that smug little smile on his face. Well, she would wipe that off quickly enough.

The hand seals took no time to execute at all. "Kaze dangan no jutsu."

Ranma spat forth a triplet of wind bullets, each expanding to roughly the side of her head as they left her mouth, that screamed towards Kabuto at great speed. He didn't so much as twitch a muscle in the direction of dodging, but it didn't make a lot of difference as the bullets sliced through Kabuto without any actual impact.

A bunshin, then. Ranma ducked immediately, instinctively, just in time to see Kabuto's hand, glowing with tightly controlled ki pass through the space her upper body had been occupying. She then slammed her elbow up in a carefully placed strike that caught Kabuto square in the crotch and sent him reeling backwards, wheezing, in pain.

Any further move was cut off as Naruto hurtled past her towards Kabuto with a hand full of swirling blue energy and an expression of deepest loathing on his face. Kabuto's attempt to dodge was clumsy, to be generous, and the attack slammed into the side of his ribs and blasted him clear. Rasengan. Sounded like a nice move. Looked like a nice move. Kabuto sure as hell didn't look like he'd be back in the fight any time soon as he sank into the earth to make a quick getaway.

"He can heal," said Naruto. "Watch out."

Was there anyone in the whole stupid world who didn't have a trick to shrug off everything she did to them? It was getting tiresome. Ranma was beginning to think that the only way to win a fight with a ninja was to tear pieces off them so that they couldn't just hit the magic 'I'm not hurt, really' button to make it all pointless. Very, very irritating.

But he couldn't see Kabuto and there was an Orochimaru just over there having his way with Mousse that really needed to be dealt with. Ranma quickly shifted her attention and launched a ball of red and black ki Orochimaru's way: enough to keep him from slicing Mousse's head in two at the nose level as it forced him to shift his footing away to avoid the attack.

She would have done more but her attention was rather grabbed by the dirt shifting and then erupting upwards as a body exploded up from beneath the ground and into view. Tall and pale wearing clothes that were tattered and stained with blood, it was Kimimaro. And behind him others were appearing. The rest of the Sound Four who'd made it out of the invasion pulled their way free of the dirt behind him.

"You guys again?" asked Ranma. "Don't you ever get bored?"

Flippant as she tried to be, it was a little bit on the worrying side to see Kimimaro again. The others weren't a great concern to her, but that guy had been hard enough to beat the first time. If he pulled out that cursed seal again and all those weird techniques, she was going to be in bad shape to take on Orochimaru and Kabuto.

"Hey, hey," said Naruto. He was squinting at the new arrivals. "They don't look right."

Naruto wasn't wrong. There was no intelligence in those eyes. They were completely dull and lifeless. Kimimaro's body language wasn't right, either. He didn't hold himself as he had. There'd been confidence, arrogance, in Kimimaro but Ranma couldn't see any of that in him there. His body language was, well, it was nothing. There was no life in him. Nothing to be read.

Something was wrong, but she'd have to figure it out as she went. They wouldn't stand around waiting for long. Naruto wouldn't stand a chance against Kimimaro, Ranma was sure of that much, so she'd have to take him. But would he do any better against the others? She didn't know. It didn't matter, though, in the end. He'd just have to do his best and hopefully his healing would carry him through.

"The one with white hair is mine," said Ranma. "You take the others."

Naruto gulped, slightly, and then he nodded and pulled at his hitai-ate in a nervous sort of gesture. "Sure," he said. "I can do that."

Ranma hadn't waited to hear that response. She flew across the turf to close the distance between herself and Kimimaro and attacked. He'd barely even raised his arms to defend himself as she slammed a two-handed series of punches into his ribs that folded him over. From there it was easy to snap his head back up with a right-handed uppercut that left him stunned and defenceless.

"Dokuja Tanketsu Sho."

The yamasenken strike tore into Kimimaro's chest. Ranma had hoped that, weakened by being killed once, he wouldn't be able to shrug if off as he had before. Some hope. Her fist crunched to a halt against his sternum and ribs just as it had before. No fatal damage, though the force of the strike smashed the Oto-nin from his feet and send him skidding backwards several feet off the turf and onto the water where he kicked up a small wave as he skimmed the surface before coming to a halt in a crouch atop the surface.

"Why won't you just die?"

This bastard had seriously pissed her off the last time. Having him show up again when she was sure - sure - that she'd left him dead was enough to set her lip curling in a way that would have made most people who knew her head for the hills. Or, given how well the hills stood up some times, several miles past them and away.

Hundreds of Narutos popped into existence around them as Ranma attacked Kimimaro again. The old swarm attack. Good luck to the kid. Ranma slammed into Kimimaro and opened up with a series pf high-speed punches that had the Oto-nin's head bouncing around like a balloon on a windy day. She doubted it would accomplish much, but it made her feel better and would keep the guy off balance while she came up with a better plan.

He'd been dead. She was sure of that - she'd checked - so how the hell could he be up and about and annoying her again? How do you kill someone who doesn't stay dead? She could rip him in two and he'd probably not be a threat without legs to move on, but that'd be a trick with someone who could grow new bones and make them hard enough to shrug off the yamsenken at will.

But he was slow. His reflexes weren't so fast any more. Ranma was moving in and out and striking him at will. It was, well, it was easy. Fantastic as she was, she hadn't improved that much between leaving him behind as a corpse and him showing up again. Something really wasn't right.

Blue energy streaked through the air around them as Naruto and his clones opened up on their opponents with ki blasts. They probably wouldn't last too long under that bombardment unless they were a lot stronger than they'd been the last time Ranma saw them in action. Time to step her game up if she didn't want to be the last one finished.

That was when she noticed that Kimimaro's skin wasn't growing back. As she was delivering her damage and knocking patches clear, it was staying cleared. It had grown back before. Now the patches of white bone revealed by her attacks were staying revealed.

Ranma quickly ducked underneath a wide punch and grabbed on to Kimimaro's arm to force him to ground. Grappling wasn't her speciality, but she knew enough and could work a joint lock well enough to force a man down. It didn't work. He didn't comply. She forced him to his knees through simple force but he kept struggling even when his shoulder snapped out of its socket.

The attempt had failed, but she'd got enough. She released him and hopped back slightly out of range. No pulse. He wasn't somehow alive at all.

"Zombies," said Ranma. "Wonderful."

How do you fight zombies? Well, she didn't really know. Decapitation? That normally worked on monsters. On everything really. His bones would make that a bit difficult but it seemed like the best idea. She couldn't afford to waste any more time on this. It was an obvious distraction. Divide and conquer. Basic tactics.

It was time for a new trick. His bones probably wouldn't be as strong now that he was dead and couldn't do anything to fix damage done and hold off attacks, so she could use things that wouldn't have had a chance of working before.

Her chance came when the walking corpse that had been Kimimaro attempted to punch her on the jaw. She saw it coming from a mile away - whoever was controlling him wasn't doing a great job of it - and was able to easily shift to the side and let his momentum carry him by.

Ranma hadn't used the technique before, not in actual combat, and it took her a moment longer to pull it off than it should have. Forcing the wind into a coherent shape in her hand, sharpening it, and setting it to vibrate as it needed to took more effort than she expected it to. But she was able to form the wind blade. And her target was still in range.

The flesh on Kimimaro's neck parted easily under the blade and some blood spurted out from there up Ranma's arm. Bone chips sprayed from the impact zone as the blade whirred away.

Kimimaro jerked away and leapt back before she could cut through. Still, it worked. She could see the chunk she'd gouged out from the right side of his neck. Some of the frustration just drifted away. She just needed to hit him harder next time. More force behind the blade, more ki in it, and it'd work.

But she needed to do it quickly. There was no time for being distracted by this decoy.

So, she charged. Kimimaro raised a hand and fired the bones of his finger-tips at her. She leapt high into the air, easily passing over those, and landed directly front of him. He tried to stop her with a straight punch, bone blade in hand, but she parried that aside. That took him off-balance and she easily evaded his attempt at a follow-up by simply ducking underneath it, which left his already gouged neck open.

Sawing through his neck wasn't exactly pleasant, but, as she put the full weight of her ki behind the attack, it was at least quick. Mostly. Kimimaro's body fell, in two pieces, and Ranma stepped away, quickly wiping the blood off her face as best she could, before turning back to other things.

And she had to move quickly straight away. Ryoga overreached with a swing at Orochimaru and that left him wide open for Orochimaru to smack his sword out of his hand. And that left Ryoga wide open for, well, it was a good thing that Ranma landed that drop-kick to Orochimaru's chest when she did.

Orochimaru bounced back to his feet atop the water and came to a halt beneath the waterfall that rested between the two now very battered looking statues. He didn't even have so much as a bruise on him. Nothing beyond then ruined left arm that Anko had left him with at the end of the last battle. It made Ranma want to kill something.

She looked around. The same couldn't be said of them. Mousse's white robes were stained red with blood - his own, judging by how pale he was, though he was on his feet and ready to fight - and Ryoga had a collection of slashes in his shirt that would have been bleeding if his skin didn't have the consistency of Akane's last attempt at a pudding. Naruto still looked like he'd been on the wrong end of a traffic accident, too.

And there was Kabuto stood atop one of the statues again smirking and unmarked. It was damned unfair. Anko had stabbed him where the sun doesn't shine before it had all gone wrong. How could he be looking so cocky? More importantly, Sasuke was with him. By choice, maybe. Kabuto was propping him up but he wasn't really in shape to argue either way.

"Such a disappointment," said Orochimaru. "Your vengeance is nothing but a damp squib. Whatever will your sensei think of you?"

Ranma stifled a snarl and held her ground. As much as Orochimaru's mocking tone grated on her it was obvious bait. So obvious that even Ryoga didn't take it. Who would-


Naruto charged past with a shout, but he didn't get more than a step past Ranma before she snapped him by the back of his ridiculously bright coat and dragged him back.

"Don't take the madman's bait, Naruto," she said. "It won't end well if you do."

He growled but held his ground. A little bit of a relief. She didn't really want to see the kid, obnoxious as he could be, charge off and get sliced and diced. Again.

Orochimaru smiled at her. "My, my", he said. "How interesting. Do you think you can protect him from me?"

For a moment the only sounds were those of distant birds chirping. No-one moved but Ranma could feel it coming. She tensed, concentrated her ki, focused her danger sense. Whatever he was going to do, she'd be ready for it.

And then he moved. In a flicker he crossed the space separating them, heading for the gap, towards Naruto, but Ranma saw it. She saw it. And her reflexes were equal. As he came into range she lashed out with the most powerful side kick she could manage. Straight into his chest. He went careening back the way he'd came and she felt more than a little bit better.

The birds were closer. The birds were right there. Kakashi leapt out from the waterfall - where had he come from? - with electricity arcing around his arm in a blinding light show. Orochimaru twisted round to face him, but it was too late. Far too late.

That was how Orochimaru died. Too slow. Too surprised. Unable to defend himself. He died with Kakashi's hand shoved through his chest and with his eyes on Kabuto, his minion, who did nothing to help him.

It was a hell of an anti-climax. Ranma'd thought it would end with some titanic battle and some quick thinking to unlock his opponent's weakness and turn their strength against them, like Herb, like Saffron, but instead he'd played distraction while someone else sneaked in and played assassin.

Kabuto vanished in a flicker, leaves falling to the ground where he'd been standing, before Naruto could reach. Sasuke vanished with him, still not moving.


Naruto slammed his hand down in frustration and the head of the statue he was stood atop exploded into bitty pieces. Probably not the smartest thing he'd ever done.

Ranma wasn't paying overly much attention to the details of Naruto's angst, though. She was quite focused on Orochimaru. He'd reverted, with his death, and the body had shrivelled in size as it returned to being a small, round-faced girl. He was dead.

Orochimaru was dead. All the time, months, she'd spent obsessing over avenging Anko and making up for the whole mess during the invasion and he'd just up and died just like that. She'd expected to be happy or at least relieved when he went, but instead she just felt numb. The bastard still managed to ruin everyone's day in death.

Chapter Thirty-Two

The ramen wasn't too bad. Ranma thought the Old Ghoul's had been a little bit better, but it'd been long enough since he'd had it that it was getting difficult to compare. Either way, it was as good as anything Ranma'd had in a long time, and, bonus, it wasn't poisoned. That was always a plus in Ranma's book. Being poisoned just wasn't any fun at all. He'd have taken up with Kodachi if he were into that sort of thing.

"Hey, hey. It's great, isn't it?"

The company, on the other hand, was a little bit irritating. Ranma had expected Naruto to be a little bit less hyperactive after everything, but apparently a good night's sleep was all it took to get him back up to speed. Which would be great, Ranma supposed, if he wasn't so Naruto.

And the way the kid was staring up at him with those big, expectant eyes was just plain creepy. It was only ramen. Who got that worked up over ramen?

Ranma scratched at the base of his pigtail "It's pretty good," he said. "I've had a lot worse."

Recently, too. Aoi's ramen had tasted good, at first, but look how that had turned out. Definitely worse. A fierce burning sensation was not, in Ranma's eyes, part of a good meal

Not that Naruto seemed to agree. He looked fit to burst. Why had Ranma agreed to eat with him again? Oh, yeah. Because he'd felt a little bit guilty about the kid's friend getting dragged off by the local evil ninja minion for purposes unknown but probably unpleasant when he'd been supposed to stop that. Silly thing, that conscience of his. It chose the strangest of times to play up.

"Hey, I didn't say it was bad," said Ranma quickly. "I like it. Really, I do. It's good. It's just not a religious experience."

Naruto narrowed his eyes at him for a moment, till they were little more than blue and white slits, before he turned back to his own ramen with a nod. What a strange kid.

They ate in silence for a few moments, Naruto slurping away at the ramen and getting through it a pace that would make Ranma's pop blush, with only the sound of the waitress bustling away at the back of the stall and the people passing by behind them to add some background noise. Which was actually quite a lot of background noise really - it was a shopping distract, so not exactly a quiet area.

"So, you're going on a training trip?" asked Ranma eventually.

"Yeah, yeah," replied Naruto. "The old pervert's taking me away to learn how to be an awesome ninja."

It took a real effort of will for Ranma to not jump up and start looking for Happosai when he heard the words 'old pervert' put together with a question about a training trip. He still flinched, just a little, but a very understated, manly sort of flinch. Which was why the waitress didn't give him a strange look. Not at all.

But Naruto didn't seem to notice. "I'm going to get strong," he continued without missing a beat. "And then I'm going to find Sasuke and I'm going to bring him back."

It made sense to Ranma. Get strong. Beat the challenge. Get what you want. But there were a few things in the way.

"Kabuto might object."

Naruto thumped his fist into his palm. "Let him try," he said. "That's why I'm gonna get strong, so I can beat him and everyone he has working with him. I'm going to win, bring Sasuke back, and live up to my promise."

Ranma nodded. "Man's gotta live up to his promises."

"Right! I can't let Sakura down."

He seemed happy enough. Enough so that Ranma felt a little bit better about the whole failure routine. Orochimaru was dead, hard as that was to believe, and Kabuto wasn't so big a deal. Naruto could go off and meet that challenge and all would be well. It wasn't so bad at all, really. Anko was avenged even if it wasn't by his hand and the rest would be dealt with sooner or later.

"What are you going to do?"

Ranma looked across to Naruto who was looking at him with very earnest eyes. It was hard to believe that a kid like that could be a ninja no matter what sort of symbol he had strapped to his forehead. "I'm going to some training session for medic," said Ranma. "I'm going to learn all the medical techniques."

He was sick of not being able to do anything. Kabuto had shown him how effective medical techniques could be in a fight, but it was the times he'd been stuck watching someone be hurt, dying, without being able to do anything about it, feeling like dirt, that really made want to learn the tricks of the medical trade. He never wanted to be stuck watching that sort of thing ever again. He wanted to be able to do something about it.

The fact that the techniques would work well in a fight didn't hurt at all, he had to admit. Mousse had the snakes. Ryoga had the whole swordsman routine and he was training with Yasu, learning how to fight instead of just slamming away like some sort of demented jackhammer, or at least becoming an even more demented jackhammer. He would take the medical side of things. That'd work out nicely.

Naruto looked up at him with what passed for a thoughtful expression for a moment before he grinned and gave him a thumbs up. "Cool," he said. "Medical ninja are awesome, too. Granny's the strongest person I've ever seen."

That quickly segued into a long and incredibly exaggerated story of how Naruto and his 'pervert sensei' had brought 'granny' back to the village to take over the medical corps despite Orochimaru's interference. The kid was either making it up or he was a lot more talented than he looked. Either way, he was a likeable enough kid despite being kinda thick.

But then Ranma was on a team with Ryoga and Mousse. Naruto was nowhere near as thick as those two could be.

Ryoga growled as his arms trembled under the weight of another blow and the ground split around him. Training with Yasu was nothing like training with anyone else he'd ever trained with. It was just fighting. Constant, endless fighting. And it was hard as all hell.

He'd thought that beating her meant he was stronger and he just had to learn some tricks to polish up his technique. He'd been wrong. She had more tricks up her sleeve than Mousse and the strength to use them in ways that always had him in trouble.

That last one was a wind technique. She could fire it off from a distance and if he didn't block it right it was like being hit with a very large, very sharp sword. Which wasn't a lot of fun. If he did block it, the ground got cut instead and he lost his footing. And that was why she was able to smash him off his feet with her next attack even though he blocked it. Which was also not a lot of fun.

"Better," said Yasu with the flat of her sword resting against her shoulder. "You're getting closer." She shot him a predatory grin. "Now get up and do it again."

Ryoga returned her grin in kind and leapt to his feet. He'd get it right if it killed him. Or her. He wasn't going to back down.

The room was full of ninja. Mostly young ones, but some were older, even adults, in there. Ranma counted a good thirty-five as he scanned the room looking for a seat to claim before his eyes settled on the empty seats either side of Hinata, who looked like she was about ready to sink into the floor out of sheer embarrassment for some reason.

Ranma quickly made his way over and sat himself down in the seat to Hinata's right. "Hey, Hinata," he said. "I didn't know you were coming here."

Hinata pressed her fingers together and sank lower into her seat. "I, ah, thought I might be good at it, sensei," she said. "Maybe better than I am at fighting."

"You just need to stop being scared and timid all the time and you'll be fine," said Ranma. "But learning a few new tricks won't hurt you."

Hinata wasn't all that talkative at the best of times and a room full of people didn't help. By the time she looked like she might say something the room went quiet as the woman who was, presumably, going to be teaching them entered and took her place at the front of the classroom as Pinky entered and took a seat near the front.

She wasn't exactly a ferocious looking ninja, that was for sure. Dark eyed and dark haired wearing a loose kimono with long, baggy sleeves that completely covered her hands, she cut a fairly unimposing figure. She was the sort of woman that Ranma would walk by in the street and think 'hey, she's kind of cute' before forgetting about her a minute later. Which was probably ideal for a ninja really or at least for a real ninja and not the martial arts superheroes of Konoha.

"I'm Shizune," she said. Soft-spoken, too. "Jounin of Konoha and lieutenant of the medical corps. I'll be teaching you today."

You could have heard a pin drop. She sure had everyone's attention. A jounin, huh? Full jounin. There weren't that many of them and Ranma didn't have anyone in the class, except himself, pegged as anything more than a chuunin. That was instant respect from the kiddies right there.

"My master believes that all active shinobi teams should have a medic in case of emergencies," continued Shizune. Her voice was quiet but very easily heard. "That's why we're here today. You will form the basis of this effort to expand the medical corps."

He knew that much. It was all he could do to sit still and not tell her to get to the good stuff.

"Today we start with the very basics. All medical techniques are based on the fine control and manifestation of chakra. Some of you," she looked at Hinata for a moment but Ranma didn't think many would have picked up on it so brief a look it was, "will already have fine control but medical techniques require an external manifestation of that which tends to be difficult to achieve for even experienced shinobi."

"Like Gokakyu no Jutsu?" asked one of the chuunin near the front.

Shizune smiled. "No," she said. "Nothing so gross. Few medical techniques require more than a small amount of chakra to perform. The challenge is manifesting the exact amount in the exact shape required and keeping it that way for the duration of the operation. Your patient will not thank you if you accidentally make their liver explode with an excessive injection of your energy, believe me."

Yeah . . . Ranma supposed that would really spoil your day.

"For today I want you to try and form a sphere of chakra in your hand and maintain it there," continued Shizune. "Not elemental chakra as some of you may be familiar with. Plain chakra. And then I want you to maintain it for as long as you can without the sphere growing or shrinking. You'll find it a challenge, believe me."

And then Shizune demonstrated it. Ranma watched very, very closely as she did so. There were no physical movements. No hand-seals. None of that sort of thing. It was all done in the ki, through force of will, and a small ball of slightly blue-tinged energy floating above the palm of her hand was the result.

The demonstration very much held the attention of the class. Ranma's mind was already racing. He'd seen something very similar, but much more advanced before and not in such a friendly sort of setting. Herb had fashioned a sword of his ki and would have killed him if not for other events getting in the way. Ranma'd never quite been able to figure that move out, but this put him in mind of it.

While others set about trying and failing Ranma gave it some thought. It wasn't that dissimilar to some of his other tricks. He could manifest his ki on a non-elemental basis with the moko takabisha, so this probably wasn't a million miles off that. Nothing so complicated as forming a sword. But not so explosive or, you know, likely to form a solid column of destructive energy. It was an interesting problem.

But it wasn't that hard a problem. If he could manifest elemental ki to form a wind blade and he could manifest emotional ki to form an attack, he just had to pick the bits out of the two and join them together to kitbash a solution to the problem.

One of the girls sitting towards the front of the class grunted as a marble-sized sphere popped into existence above her palm. She didn't have any time to celebrate it though as the sphere immediately shattered in a shower of blue sparks. But it was a start and she went back to work immediately.

Time for Ranma to do his bit before he got shown up, he thought. He closed his eyes and slowly, ever so slowly, drew out that little fraction of his ki needed to form the sphere towards his hand. Behind his eyelids he could still see the bright blue glow of the ki slowly coalescing in space above his outstretched hand and then the intensifying glow as he applied his will to shaping it into the sphere.

He opened his eyes. And there it was. One tennis ball sized sphere of glowing blue energy hovering over the palm of his hand. Victory.

Of course, Ranma being Ranma, there was only one thing to do. He extended his other hand and, more quickly the second time, formed another sphere. Because there's no point being the best if you can't show off a little. He was pondering a spot of juggling or trying to create some more using his feet or multiple spheres per hand when Shizune appeared next to him.

"Have you done this before?" she asked.

Ranma shrugged. "Not really," he said. "My techniques normally have more things getting broken than this."

Shizune paused there for a moment with a thoughtful look on her face. "Come with me," she said eventually.

And he did.

"No. Wrong. Start again."

Mousse hissed in frustration as what felt like his millionth attempt at the seal was rejected. It was a childish response, and he knew it would just annoy that damned snake and make things worse, but he couldn't help but scrumple the paper he'd been drawing on into a ball and hurl it away in a fit of frustration at the whole thing. He'd been working for hours and he'd accomplished nothing.

But still he pulled out another strip of paper and re-inked his brush to continue.

"Are you still sulking over that girl?" asked the snake. "Pitiful. You did what had to be done. Put it out of your mind. Get on with your training."

That brought to mind a whole host of images that Mousse that had been trying to forget about. He shuddered with the memory of Aoi, evil witch that she was, screaming underneath his illusion. There just wasn't any forgetting it and that was what he'd signed up for when he'd signed that contract.

The paper was thoroughly blotted and quite useless. It would probably just catch fire if he tried to channel any ki through it in that state. Time to discard and start over again.

"There is no room for weakness in this world," said the snake. "You are shinobi. You must be able to do what must be done when others are too weak to do it."

Orochimaru was dead. Kakashi had killed him stone dead. What was he putting himself through this for? There was no revenge to be had, no goal to work towards beyond survival and maybe, someday, the hope of getting home and seeing Shampoo again. And that was a dim and distant hope at best.

Dim and distant, it was still a hope. This sealing work could do incredible things in the hands of a master, and it was enough like his hidden weapons that he really thought he could get there. And maybe one day he would be able to puzzle out the way back to Nyucheizu.

A new strip of paper and more ink. He would get it.

Ranma was more than a little bit curious as to what was going on by the time Shizune reached their destination: an office door on the top floor of the hospital building. But Shizune had proved remarkably untalkative and had hushed him at every attempt. It was a little bit annoying, but what can you do? He wanted to learn their tricks so he had to play along at least a little bit.

Shizune knocked at the door and entered immediately. Ranma followed and was greeted with the sight of a blonde-haired woman sleeping at her desk with a very large pile of paperwork in a tray not too far from her folded arms.


Shizune scurried across the office and shook the blonde woman awake. She didn't look overly happy about it, but Ranma's attention was largely occupied by things other than her facial expression. Those were some seriously huge breasts. Big enough to make someone the size of his female form feel seriously inadequate. Not that she ever would feel that way, of course.

"Who's the brat?"

Shizune looked to Ranma. "That's one of the students from my class," she said. "Ranma Saotome. Show her, Ranma."

So, he did. One ball of glowing blue ki hovering above each of his out-stretched hands. Nice work if he said so himself.

"So?" asked the woman. "He's an adequate student? Shizune, get to the point, please. This stupid job isn't doing anything for my patience."

Adequate? He'd show her adequate. Two more spheres popped into life, giving him two in each hand, and then he set about juggling them. Which was trickier than he expected. He almost lost them the first couple of times before he figured out how much energy he needed to put in to have them keep their shape as they flew through the air.

"And he's an idiot. Brilliant."

Ranma glared at the woman.

"He's never done this before," said Shizune. "And he picked it up straight away."

That have the woman pause. "Huh," she said. "Well, I'm sure he'll make a grand student for you in those classes."

Shizune opened her mouth to say something, but she was cut off before she could get it out.

"One apprentice at a time, Shizune."

It clicked. "Hey," said Ranma. "You're that granny chick that Naruto was talking about earlier."

The woman's eyebrow twitched. Shizune dropped her forehead into her palm.

"My name is Tsunade," said the woman. "And you are really not helping your case here."

Ranma bit back an immediate comment about how he bet she was a master of slug magic, too. This world he'd found himself in was seriously weird. He'd bet his life savings that 'pervert sensei' was called Jiraiya, too, just to complete the set.

"Wait, Ranma Saotome," said Tsunade. She rubbed at her temples. "You're the kid from Anko's team. The one who distracted Orochimaru so Kakashi could skewer him, aren't you?"

"That's me."

Being used as a diversion kind of smarted. Ranma preferred being the one who actually did the fighting, not the distraction. But it had worked, so he couldn't really complain. Even if it didn't really feel like it was over.

Tsunade slumped back into her chair. "Huh," she said. "I guess I do owe Anko one and the world's a better place for not having him in it any more." She rubbed her temples again. "I should really know better than this at my age, but I guess you can be my student."

It felt like he'd missed about two thirds of that conversation and he'd never actually asked to be anyone's apprentice, but signing on with someone who was probably not far off Orochimaru's level to learn their tricks was definitely not something to sneeze at.

"Shizune, you can teach him the basics while you're working with Sakura," said Tsunade. "Try not to get into trouble."

Ranma caught a glimpse of red on Shizune's cheeks as he was pushed out of the door. He had a feeling he'd missed something again there.