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?"
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.
I dislike author's notes and so, one day, I will delete this section. It's here purely because it's the only way I can be sure you'll all get the information.
Well, I'm at the end of my chapter buffer. It'll be a while before you get more but hopefully not three years this time. For those of you who haven't realised I write batches of story, discrete units of plot, and post them en-masse at a chapter-a-day rate. That's why it took so long for the new material to arrive. That and an aborted arc which drained a great deal of time as I wrote several chapters, realised I'd written myself into a corner, and lost motivation as I started over again to get something I could work with.
I may abandon this practice now. Taking years to update in unhealthy for the story, I feel, as people will lose the thread of it. I'm undecided. We'll see. It'll likely depend on how quickly I can get through material for the next arc.
To answer some questions that I've seen arise in reviews:
The mayor recognised Ranma because, female or male form, it's still Ranma. Their facial features look much the same. Ranma-chan's are, of course, somewhat softer and smaller, but they're still fundamentally the same person and a man busily choking on his own blood isn't cognisant enough to realise the difference. They really do look very similar beyond the height and anime-born hair colour discrepancies.
I'm not going to be using a fair chunk of the PTS stuff. Sorry, but I started this story a long time before a lot of that came in - and I don't like it anyway - and changing where it's going is just not a good idea. I have no intention of forever chasing a much more quickly updating canon storyline. I will, however, pick and choose. Some things slide into place quite neatly for where I'm going and I'll use that. Some don't. You'll see. This isn't the canon Naruto world and never was. Do you think a Hyuuga branch family member got to escape in canon? I don't think so.
No comment on Orochimaru. I have a plan (tm) and the events in chapter 31 are absolutely plot critical. They will dominate the rest of the story even if it won't be obvious how. You should already realise that most of what happens after this point in canon can't really happen, though, as I've diverged fairly widely from manga events. I do like the ideas some of you are coming up with though. If I didn't already have mine, some of them would make fine follow-ups.
The Chidori is a lightning quick thrust and Orochimaru was both distracted and not able to see the light of it because of the positioning. I don't think him copping it was out of bounds, but then I wouldn't, would I?