The Disorderly Princess and the Fiery Steed

A Naruto / Ranma ½ crossover
© 2009–10 by gsteemso

Chapter Three

Not my characters. Naruto belongs to Kishimoto Masashi, a man who appears to really hate his own characters, and Ranma ½ belongs to Takahashi Rumiko.


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Joketsuzoku village, northwestern China:

Ranma and Ryoga — rested up a bit and, for a wonder, both still in human male form — walked out of the guest hut they were staying in and headed over to the training grounds they'd been shown earlier. Ranma was eagerly looking for the few warriors he'd previously gotten acquainted with while sparring. Oddly, most of them were female. He supposed it only made sense when the villagers called themselves members of the "Hero Women Tribe," but it was still very different than what the boys had encountered in the rest of China — whatever the Communists' official line about equality between the sexes, girls were still often subtly discouraged from studying the most advanced levels of the martial arts.

Fortunately for Ranma's sanity, none of the boys he'd met as a girl had worked up the nerve to officially challenge her for her hand in marriage before she'd returned to the guesthouse, though several had seriously considered it until they saw her skill level. As he approached the training field once again, this time with Ryoga following under his own power rather than riding in Ranma's shirt, the Japanese boys were still blissfully unaware of that particular aspect of the Outsider Laws.

One of the aspiring warriors, watching from the other side of the spar currently in progress, caught sight of the boys past the two girls locked in combat and pointed them out to the others near her. Just then, the taller of the two combatants won the sparring match, and all the teens turned to face the two Japanese travellers. The tall girl, moderately annoyed at not being the focus of attention in her moment of victory, disdainfully asked, "Who the heck are you boys?" in the local dialect.

"I Ryoga. That Ranma, was red hair girl before. Curse," answered the Lost Boy nervously in his pidgin Mandarin, pointing as he spoke. About a quarter of the faces lit up in recognition, and the group subtly relaxed a bit as the boys finished walking up to them. Almost everyone was giving them evaluating looks, whether to establish their likely skill levels or to gauge their attractiveness — Outsiders seldom came to Joketsuzoku at all, let alone highly skilled fighters from a land beyond the other end of China, which might as well have been further than the Moon for all the local youths knew of it. Everyone wanted to know more about this handsome and exotic duo.

One of the girls rattled something off too quickly for either boy to catch. Seeing their confused expressions, a tall boy with white robes and astonishingly thick glasses sighed and spoke up in, unexpectedly, Japanese. "I'm Mousse, I will translate. She wants to know where you were when Ranma-san was here sparring in her natural form, earlier," he explained. "The three girls hiding behind her want to know if you're a fighter too. They think you're cute… feh, go figure girls."

Ryoga glared at Mousse for that last crack, before the preceding phrase sank in and he blushed bright red, growing a goofy smile. "R-really?" he asked nervously. "Well, yeah, I've been training with Ranma for about three months now, as we travelled here on foot from Tokyo. We're about evenly matched."

Even before Mousse could relay that, the three girls at the back of the group got all giggly and started whispering excitedly to one another at his reaction. Ryoga was the Joketsuzoku equivalent of a demure, blushing maiden, and more girls than just those who'd asked about him were eagerly anticipating relieving him of some of that pesky innocence. The fact the Outsider girl with the boy curse hadn't done it as they travelled made it unlikely she would object on the basis of a prior claim, and if she swung that way… Well, her boy form would make a passable second husband, right? And she'd been friendly enough to be tolerable as a mere adopted sister if she got really fussy about things. Outsiders were said to be odd that way.

Ranma snorted. "In your dreams, rabbit boy!" He faced the girl who'd originally spoken up. "He was the little bunny I had that kid there—" here he pointed at a short, runny-nosed, seven or eight year old boy, who had been watching the training with no small amount of hero worship — "hold on to while I sparred." Unnoticed, Ryoga winced at the memory of the little boy's distressingly sticky hands.

There was a pause while Mousse translated. Several of the gathered teens developed disappointed or thoughtful expressions, and one of them hesitantly queried through Mousse, "Um, didn't you pull him out of your cleavage? Is he your…?" Mousse made a gesture with two fingers twisted together as he relayed the question.

Ranma blanched. "It's NOT LIKE THAT!" he shouted indignantly, glaring at what he considered offensively peculiar expressions all around himself. "I ain't got anyplace else to carry him where he's gonna stay dry and not get squished! You saw how tiny he is when he's like that!" He shot a dirty look sideways at Ryoga, whose nervous body language was unsettlingly like that of a twelve-year-old boy with a massive crush on a hot 16-year-old. "Dammit, Rabbit Boy, quit that! You know damn well I ain't really—"

"And I'm not a rabbit! Stop calling me that!" Ryoga cut him off. His blush faded and he unconsciously began to move more easily, as hormone-soaked, ear-burning embarrassment swiftly transmuted into foul-humoured irritation. "We never did finish that spar your dad interrupted! Damn curse…" He forced himself back on topic. "You, me, that circle, now! Loser has to do the winner's laundry for the next week!"

"You're on, bunny-pervert!" Ranma cracked his neck, limbering up as he walked, and leapt out of the crowd into the practice ring marked on the grass. A cheer went up at this, even before Mousse finished translating; that the two Japanese curse victims were about to work out some annoyance in an all-out spar was pretty clear to everyone, though most of the gathered teens were a bit puzzled at Ranma's vehemence in rejecting the love of her travelling companion. Surely she felt something for him, to carry his cursed form where she did…

Unless…?

About a quarter of the gathered teenagers, mainly those furthest from the practice circle, looked at one another with horror or astonishment, even as the rest dropped everything in favour of watching the grudge match. Surely she wasn't into bestiality? Ick!

Then another hypothesis was proposed, to general relief. Obviously the helpless bunny form of her, apparently, vassal — for why else would she be so upset at the idea of bedding him? — had hyperstimulated the redheaded girl's already strong maternal instincts, which everyone knew could be hard to indulge while on a lonely training journey, away from society. A strong, healthy girl and her highly attractive retainer, all alone on the trail for three months? The temptation must have been horrendous! This explanation was so obviously the right one that their collective respect for her went up several notches.

The "boys" having gotten the staredown phase over with during this discussion, the battle was joined, and everyone forgot their fascinating speculations on the Outsiders' true relationship in face of the impressive display of martial expertise before them. The Joketsuzoku training regime produced fighters with extreme physical strength, regardless of inherent skill; but an over-reliance by the Elders on special attacks, the lack of many other fighters of any skill in the area for the average tribespeople to test themselves against, and the village's extreme isolation had tended to act against the Joketsuzoku acquiring that many advancements in pure, basic fighting technique unless they developed them independently. Very roughly a fifth of the gathered youths could match or exceed Ranma or even Ryoga in raw strength, but none of them had mastered and integrated anywhere near as many base styles as Ranma.

Unnoticed, in the background, a pair of shrivelled old women looked at one another and nodded decisively. The Council of Elders' preliminary assessment had just been decisively confirmed; these two would make fine additions to the tribe. "Go, please, and alert the Lore Mistress that we will indeed be going ahead with the Rite of Alliance," the elder Elder said to the younger one.

Unfortunately, neither of them had noticed the teens' mistaken assumption as to which of Ranma's forms was the result of his curse.


Uzumaki Naruto's apartment, Konoha:

Naruto staggered into his kitchen through his front door, absently pointing Hinata towards the toilet off of the short hallway to their right. His mind was a whirl of confusion, which hadn't appreciably cleared since the pair of them had escaped the Ninja Academy infirmary. He kept remembering that he needed to go see Old Man Hokage to get a bigger food allowance, only to have the thought driven from his head by the traumatic memory of his best friend suddenly doing something even more bizarre and upsetting than sprouting fangs and threatening to cook him as dinner. She seemed to think he'd asked her to marry him, and she kept going on about having his kids and being the perfect wife for him!

Even to a normal twelve-year-old boy, the concept of unexpectedly finding himself affianced, with the spectre of fathering children looming in the middle distance, would have been a bit horrifying. To a child like Naruto, who — while quite independent — was only that way due to necessity, it was nearly inconceivable. When Naruto, in the lonely pit of the night, gave in and fantasized about having a real family, he still thought in terms of having actual parents; or at least a sibling or two, so he'd have somebody to play with who couldn't be told to stay away from him for no obvious reason. It had never yet occurred to him that he might some day want a girlfriend, and now he was somehow supposed to marry his best buddy?

He shuddered. No matter how many times the concept rattled around in his head it didn't get any more tractable.

He was quite relieved when Hinata came back into the kitchen and started chattering effusively.

"Oh, Naru-chan, it's wonderful! Thank you so much for giving me a new life after…" She trailed off abruptly, her new eyes going unfocussed as she was abruptly grounded again by the reality of her family's betrayal. She seemed to shrink into herself a bit.

Naruto didn't know what he was supposed to do with this whole "marriage" thing, but he knew what to do when a friend was hurting.

Precisely what he knew about it would have come as a shock to anyone who didn't know how socially isolated he was, but no one could fault him for effort. "Hey, hey, Hinata-chan, you still got me! And tomorrow we'll go prank those stuck-up bastards, you betcha! They'll be sorry for kicking out someone as awesome as you! We'll be all, 'Nyah, nyah, you guys are losers!' and stuff, bleeeeah!" — at which point, he stuck out his tongue and blew a raspberry with his eyes crossed.

Hinata looked flabbergasted, and found the corners of her mouth twitching upwards despite her despair. After a moment she pulled herself together a bit, and managed to say, "Uh, I guess…" She paused, then pushed ahead: "Naru-chan? Is there a sink with a mirror? I, I've been crying a lot today…"

Naruto looked nervous. Crying girls were something largely beyond his experience, beyond the unhappy certainty left over from his childhood that he would most likely be blamed for it. Her request showed him the way forward, though. "Tell you what, Hinata-chan, I bet a hot bath would make you feel loads better! I got a real furo in the bathroom, and there's enough oil in the heater for you to have a good long soak!"

Hinata blinked. That did sound tempting. "Thank you, Naru-chan. I'd like that. Can you show me?"


The village of the Hero Women Tribe was abustle with activity and excitement. Joketsuzoku was so remote and seldom-visited that the Rite of Alliance — specifically, the full version for initiating a new pact, rather than the almost perfunctory form for renewing an old one — had not been called for in almost sixty years, and only three of the current Elders even knew how it was supposed to go with any degree of certainty. An improvised class on the subject was being taught in the council hall, with as many of the regular tribeswomen watching the Elders review the ritual as could fit in the room; this was an important part of their heritage, after all.

Two other reasons for the undercurrent of excitement included the exotic pair of Outsiders currently at the practice grounds, who had dazzled everyone present with their extensive martial skills; and the greedy panda-Outsider who'd arrived at the same time, who was about to be sentenced for twin crimes — namely, insulting the tribe, and carelessly inflicting a potentially lethal Jusenkyo curse on one of the two younger Outsiders.

Given that there were only fourteen Elders in the whole village, all of this meant they were stretched rather thin. A minimal tribunal of three, including one of those who already knew the Rite of Alliance, had been assigned to Genma's hearing. The remaining eleven Elders, needing to focus on learning the relevant ceremony, had deputized a respected mother of three warriors to keep an eye on the training area and prevent Ranma and Ryoga from running afoul of the Outsider Laws.

She had already had to prevent seven formal marriage challenges, to widespread confusion — after the first one, almost everyone except the boys themselves knew they were to be inducted as tribal allies and therefore had diplomatic immunity from the Marriage Laws, so why did so many foolish young warriors keep trying to formally challenge them? She didn't even want to know why those three boys had wanted to try their luck challenging Ranma's girl form. Surely they knew it was only a curse-imposed shapeshift? Ancestors save us all from horny teenagers! she thought with a groan, massaging her forehead tiredly, and made a mental note to check with the Lore Mistress' apprentices that Jusenkyo was still being covered in the children's lessons.


Hinata's terrified scream ripped through the apartment as she stepped into the soaker tub and her body unexpectedly changed. Not again! she gibbered to herself, before registering her body's new appearance.

It looked unexpectedly familiar. Can this be…? she thought in stunned disbelief.

Just then, the door banged open, as a highly motivated Naruto — in full-on "protecting his precious people" mode and inexpertly brandishing a kunai in each hand — came skidding to a halt in the middle of the bathroom floor. His eyes roved frantically around the room, seeking the attacker that had made his friend scream, before he suddenly registered the details of her gloriously blue-haired head and startling White Eyes as she stood, looking at herself with shock, in the bath. "H-hinata-chan—! You're YOU again!" he burst out joyously, dropping the two kunai and taking a further step towards her, starting to reach out to hug her before his brain caught up with his location and he realized she wasn't wearing anything.

Naruto wasn't terribly well socialized, but he knew a situation like this couldn't possibly end well — boy plus naked girl? Oh crap. She's gonna hit me. He figured this was especially likely since the room was so small that he was now standing right next to her, separated only by the relatively thin thigh-high lip of the tub, and well within her personal space. He stared into her newly restored featureless eyes like a deer caught in the high beams of a fully laden logging truck plummeting at 80 km/h down a precipitous mountain road, his smile becoming fixed and rather strained.

Hinata, on the other hand, had had so many emotional shocks in the past two hours that she hadn't quite caught that far up with events yet. "Naru-chan! I'm back again! Oh, what a relief!" Grinning from ear to ear, she leaned the rest of the short distance towards her wonderful fiancé and hugged him joyously.

Squish.

Naruto's eyes bugged as he felt Hinata's barely developing but inescapably present female assets pressing against his chest, and for the first time in his young life knew what having lascivious thoughts felt like.

Strangely, it wasn't at all bad.

Hinata had clued in to the nudity problem when she felt his body against her own in rather more detail than she was expecting from her hug, and let go with a startled "Eep!" She dropped to a seated position in the tub, blessing the hot water for what little concealment it offered, and looked with horror to Naruto. What must he think of me? I'm not that kind of girl! She blinked. "Uuhh… Naruto-kun—?" Where'd he go?

"Whoa…" came a faint but unmistakably awed voice from somewhere below the lip of the tub.

Hinata cautiously leaned forward, compelled by a morbid need to know, and peered warily over the wall of the tub.

Naruto was slumped bonelessly on his back in the middle of the tiny room's floor, a silly grin on his face, and was staring vacantly at the ceiling. "Soft…" he mumbled dazedly.

Hinata stared. He did that because I hugged him? Wow. She felt… proud, for some reason, though she would never have admitted it if asked.

After a moment the absurdity of the situation struck her, and although she covered her mouth to try and hold it in, she couldn't keep from giggling at him, at herself, and at the whole ludicrous day. Naruto soon roused enough to notice the sound, and realized she was watching him. After a moment of conflicted emotions flowing across his face, he broke out into a sheepish grin and joined her in chuckling.

The tension dispelled, they smiled at each other and Hinata leaned back to a regular sitting position, modestly folding her arms over her chest below the waterline, as Naruto clambered to his feet.

"Er, I'm glad you're better now, Hinata-chan," he said with a shy smile, scratching the back of his neck with one hand.

"I'm glad you were here for me, even if that hug was really embarrassing," she said, equally shyly, feeling a complicated stew of emotions and not really sure what to think.

"Eh, I guess it was kinda embarrassing, but it was really nice, too," Naruto confessed in a low voice, staring down at the wall of the tub so he wouldn't have to see her be offended by his perviness.

The two sat and stood, respectively, in red-faced silence for a time. Neither was willing to disturb the moment by moving or speaking. Finally, Hinata dispelled the tension by coughing theatrically and saying, "Well, I really ought to finish my bath before the water gets cold. Do you have a housecoat I can borrow? The one I used at my—" she choked up for a moment, the fresh emotional wound reopening — "old family's compound wasn't mine, it was part of the bath set, like the towels."

"Sure sure sure! I'll get it Hinata-chan!" If Naruto were honest with himself — on this occasion, he wasn't — he was actually a bit relieved to escape the unfamiliar kind of tension he felt in the close atmosphere of the tiny washroom. He bounced out the door, closing it carefully behind himself.

As he dug haphazardly through the layer of clothes he didn't use very often in the bottom of the bins under his bed, Naruto was trying very hard not to think of the glorious sight of his Hina-chan — and wasn't that a bizarre way to think of your best friend? — standing there nude, and then hugging him nude—! He kept bursting out into dirty-minded giggling, then looking around in horror, hoping no one had noticed. Fortunately, the apartment remained free of jeering crowds.

"Aha! Got you!" He held up an extremely rumpled, orange and purple striped bathrobe that was about three sizes too small for either himself or Hinata, and frowned. "Well nuts."


Saotome Genma shook his head groggily, and looked around in alarm. How had he come to be asleep? The last thing he remembered, he was sitting alone in the heavy iron cage those evil old women were holding him in.

He was greatly dismayed to find himself manacled hand and foot to a stone seat in a windowless stone room, two hulking female guards with polearms and swords standing watchfully behind him… just out of reach, even if he'd had his hands free. Damn. In front of him were three more of the horrifically shrivelled old women — he wasn't sure, but he didn't think he'd dealt with any of these three yet — and off to his left was a small table with a huge, ancient, leather-bound record book on it, with a mousy young girl in glasses poised ready to write in it. Presumably a court recorder or some such, then. The claustrophobic room was relatively well-lit by a few oil lamps spaced strategically around the walls. It smelled like they were burning some sort of animal byproduct.

"The prisoner is now aware of the proceedings," one of the three sour-faced old crones said in the village dialect, interrupting his frantic inspection of possible escape routes. "Clerk Hairbrush, please read the relevant facts from the Book of Records."

Genma was annoyed to realize that they weren't even going to translate what was going on for him. That wasn't a good sign.

"Outsider Saotome Genma stands convicted of one count of second-degree Mortal Insult to the Tribe and one count of Criminal Negligence Causing a Category Four Cursing," read out the mousy clerk. With some effort, she turned a few hundred pages back to a bookmarked section on the Laws. "Standard punishment for the first crime is death or enslavement, and for the second is an equal cursing. However, even if the capital sentence is commuted, the prisoner already has at least one curse. There is also a very moving petition for lenience by Tribal Ally Candidate Saotome Ranma, a junior warrior in good standing, on the basis that the offender is her only known family." She looked up from the enormous ledger and nodded at the senior Elder in the room.

"Thank you. The last two items are the only ones that impact our decision, I think. Setting aside the clemency petition for the moment, it seems to me that the existing curse or curses could be of great concern in this case."

"Agreed," spoke up a second Elder. "There are two issues posed by said curse or curses. One, people bearing curses make poor neighbours due to metaphysical contamination of their surroundings, arguing against commutation of the capital penalty. Two, the fact the miscreant is already under a Jusenkyo curse implies that the gods are already punishing him for some other flaw in his character. If we replace that curse with the one he carelessly inflicted on another, we risk the displeasure of the gods." The other five Joketsuzoku present all nodded solemnly. Living near a place like Jusenkyo tended to disabuse one of skepticism in higher powers. "Hairbrush, could you refresh our memories of the precedent?"

The clerk turned laboriously to a still different part of the Book and began skimming the collected legal precedents there.

Several minutes later, during which the uncomprehending Genma grew increasingly nervous, she found the example in question. "Here it is. A warrior with poor self-control fell in the Spring of Drowned Asura, and was re-cursed with the Spring of Drowned Mouse in the interest of public safety. Within a week, almost all of the local game animals migrated away. There was also a 'plague of ill luck,' whatever that means. The plague of ill luck ended, and the wild game returned, only when the asura curse was restored. The subject of the curse was sent into exile until she learnt better control of herself and when she did, the curse spontaneously dissipated." Hairbrush flipped the page. "Says here she was named matriarch of her family within a year of returning and made Elder within twenty."

After a contemplative moment, the third Elder mused, "Wouldn't killing him before he suffers the full effect of his existing curse also risk the disfavour of Heaven? I seem to recall some precedent, oh, about seven hundred years ago…" The three Elders swivelled to look inquiringly at Hairbrush again. There was a pause while she riffled through the ancient list of precedents, searching for the right time period.

"Found it. Case of the Outsider Hiānqùŋ, convicted in absentia of raping a woman who was a serf on his lands and killing her husband when he objected. She somehow escaped his fiefdom and came to us seeking justice. He fled our hunters through Jusenkyo, and was only caught because he fell in the Spring of Drowned Girl and had to evade his own soldiers. The sentencing panel ordered his death, over the protests of the victim, who wanted him handed over in girl form to his soldiers. All five panel members, plus nine uninvolved bystanders, were killed the next day, when a meteor struck the council hall less than an hour after the execution."

There was a thoughtful pause.

"I don't think that last one actually applies in this case," pointed out the second Elder. "In that case, the villain received his curse after the crime rather than before, and considering which curse he got, it looks like a clear-cut example of divine retribution. I believe the gods' objection was more to the sentencing panel thinking they knew better than Heaven than to the idea of executing cursed criminals in general."

"We'd still do well to heed that part about not overstepping our authority," observed the first Elder drily. "As to that first precedent, I'm not sure it applies either. The warrior in that case needed to learn the lesson of the Springs to become a greater asset to the tribe, but I cannot see that this Outsider is likely to ever be a net benefit to the Hero Women Tribe in any way at all, even if he does miraculously reform his character."

"Let's just ask him," suggested the third Elder. "Nothing ventured, nothing gained." Seeing her sister Elders' nods, she switched to Japanese. "Saotome Genma. Due solely to the heartfelt request of your honourable child, we are trying to find a legal means to spare your worthless life — and make no mistake, it is not going well for you thus far. What can you do or teach that could potentially benefit our people? Bear in mind that whatever you suggest will need to outweigh the substantial cost of feeding your greedy stomach while you remain among us, in addition to making reparation for your crimes."

Genma looked stunned. If they were having trouble finding a reason not to kill him, things were more severe than he'd thought. He had dismissed their previous indications of favouring capital punishment as exaggeration designed to—

He paused. Designed to do what, exactly? He'd already been found guilty.

They didn't need anything from him.

He eyed the three Elders nervously. Except, apparently, a reason to let me live. Bless that boy! Despite Ranma's sudden explosion of angst-ridden teenage rebelliousness, the boy didn't want him dead. Maybe I haven't screwed things up beyond redemption between us after all. He'd had a lot of time over the last three months to ponder where things had gone wrong. Maybe if they let him live he could somehow fix things with his son. "Well, I wasn't exaggerating when I said I'd been training the boy in the Art for thirteen years. I am an accredited master of my school. I could help train your warriors, perhaps?"

The two guards bristled angrily at the suggestion that such a disreputable lowlife should have anything to do with teaching the village's impressionable young minds, but were quieted by a stern look from the Elders. The first Elder replied, "That has possibilities. From the gossip I heard on the way over here, your school focuses more on flexibility of skill than on raw strength and toughness, correct?"

"I suppose you could look at it that way, though we do quite a bit of body conditioning too. The key is adaptability, so one must be strong and tough enough to use whatever techniques are called for." Genma unconsciously sat straighter, entering what he considered his "wise teacher" mode.

The three Elders, each old enough to be his grandmother, were utterly unimpressed, but nodded in agreement with his point. They turned to one another and began a high-speed debate in the village dialect.

All Genma could do was wait.


Eventually, Hinata finished soaking. She'd managed to dry her tears at her family's betrayal, being determined not to be a burden on her fiancé. She was standing in front of Naruto's cracked mirror, examining herself critically. She had started with her hair and eyes, so familiar and yet so refreshing to see back again, and had moved on to her overall body shape. You don't know what you've got until you lose it, she mused, cupping her chest and looking at the reflection of its modest profile thoughtfully. Sure, as an eleven-year-old, she didn't have much in the way of feminine curves, but she was enormously relieved not to be completely prepubescent any more. Few things are as annoying as reluctantly making all the mental adjustments needed to cope with puberty, only to suddenly and implausibly have the condition withdrawn.

She was interrupted by a timid knock at the washroom door. "Uh, Hinata-chan?" said Naruto diffidently, through the thin wooden panel. "I found the robe, but, well, I think it's kinda too small… I haven't worn it for ages."

Hinata blushed fiercely at being interrupted while examining herself, but managed to stammer, "Er, ah, thanks anyway, Naru-chan. I'm just, ah, drying off. Be out in a minute."

"Are you okay, Hina-chan? You sound kinda shaky."

Hinata was overcome with bliss for a moment. He called me Hina-chan… She felt even more warmly towards him than she usually did. "Yes, Naru-chan, I'm doing wonderfully," she said happily, meaning every word.

"Oh good! There's a spare towel under the heater you can wrap up in, just come on through to the bedroom when you're done and we'll find you something to sleep in, okay?" Naruto was audibly relieved, which made Hinata's heart swell further. She wasn't sure she would need a ninja technique to walk on the ceiling just now.


Genma stood confidently in the middle of the Elders' private sparring circle, grimly eyeing the three purportedly dangerous old biddies arrayed around him. The example of the dreaded Master, whom he dared not actually name even in the privacy of his own thoughts, showed that shrivelled-up senior citizens could be extremely threatening sometimes, so he wasn't going to be complacent about this even if they were a bunch of old women.

"Saotome Genma, your performance in this challenge match will determine whether you live long enough to see the sun set in an hour," said one of them. "To pass the test, you must stay alive until we say you have succeeded, and you must also remain within the sparring circle at all times. Hold nothing back, for your life depends on it, even if you manage to avoid being killed in the course of the fight."

His face an expressionless mask, Genma stared confidently at the Elder who'd spoken, making sure to show no weakness… while simultaneously keeping his senses sharp where the two off to the sides behind him were concerned. Sure enough, a few seconds later, the Elder he was looking at subtly relaxed, just enough to mislead a less experienced fighter into thinking they weren't going to start quite yet… and he barely managed to dodge the leaping kick coming silently from behind his left flank.

So fast! he gibbered, mentally winding his operating level up several notches even as he narrowly evaded the third Elder's equally stealthy strike. These old hags were individually faster than he was, and while he couldn't accurately judge their actual skills yet, it looked like even the horrible Master — may his tormented shade be molested by sweaty incubi for all eternity — would have had trouble fighting all three at once like this. "So! You leave me no alternative…" he intoned ominously, the evening sunlight glinting off his glasses, all of which was calculated to put the three old women on the defensive. He made some theatrical arm-limbering motions, and adopted a very odd stance—

The Elders' faces briefly registered shock as he either disappeared from or became insignificant to all their senses, and even the fact they could still technically see him wasn't much help with the speed he was suddenly moving — the Elders may have been faster, but like most high-level fighters, were unused to tracking a high-speed opponent who didn't register at all to their chi sense. However, you don't live to be that old in a place as intensely competitive and political as a small village of warrior women without learning to hide your thoughts, and the telltale expressions were gone almost before Genma even saw them. Quickly, one of the ancient fighters kicked the ground, releasing a precisely shaped surge of chi.

Genma barely kept silent as the ground erupted beneath him, the entire sparring circle suddenly being transformed into a hellish landscape of jagged, earthen spikes. Not missing a beat, he gathered an irregular subset of the freshly loosened dirt and rock into his unnoticed blanket — much to the Elders' bewilderment, as the spikes disappeared across a seemingly random patchwork of the sparring circle even as they heaved out of the ground.

The old women were catching flickers of movement all over the circle, but weren't quite able to stay focussed on him. They were unfazed, and unsheathed a variety of nasty-looking bladed weapons. In deference to the fact that they hoped to get something out of Genma if he passed their test, the blades were not poisoned, though they were happily aware that he didn't know that.

Recognizing the near certainty of their managing to tag him at any moment, probably with lethal results, Genma wasted no time and employed a trick loosely based on the finishing move of the Umi-sen-ken on the closest Elder. Such a manœuvre would normally have been doomed to failure, as wind resistance places firm limits on how fast a person can jump through the air — meaning that he should have been slowed enough for the three crones to get a better fix on his position and decisively counter his efforts. However, he stayed at ground level for added traction and switched from the Umi-sen-ken to the Yama-sen-ken as he launched himself, sacrificing stealth to blast the air out of his way with a full-body modification of the vacuum blade technique. Himself and everything in his blanket shot like a meteor across the short distance to his chosen target. For the briefest of moments, he and the jumble of earth he'd just whipped out of his ragged cloth were moving twice as fast as she was.

Naturally enough, she registered the supersonic approach of the blob of dirt and rocks as soon as it was launched, and with nanoseconds to spare, managed to make a startled evasion to the right. She wasn't expecting the sonic boom that accompanied it, though, and was just barely nudged out of the circle by the shockwave. It came as little consolation that the pile of debris was now out of play as well. Narrowing her eyes, she sheathed her sword with a sniff of disgust and stood back to observe the remainder of the fight, expecting it to be over pretty quickly now that the Outsider had revealed his trump card. Indeed, her two sister Elders had immediately whirled in a concerted dance of vicious weapon strikes through the annoying male's apparent position, expecting to get in a telling blow before he had time to recover from his all-or-nothing leap. Really, it seemed a foolish move for him to commit to when it only had any chance of taking a single Elder out of the fight.

The key word there was 'apparent' position. What none of the three realized was that he had, at the last moment, switched back to the Umi-sen-ken for stealth and launched himself straight back as the mass of earth had plunged forwards, adding to the momentum of its travel and distancing himself from the evidence of his passing in one simple manœuvre. The rapidly-collapsing modified vacuum blade at the leading edge of the debris ball acted as an excellent decoy to their chi senses, as well.

He took full advantage of the churned-up terrain to rebound towards a position in the circle that most people would have thought impossible relative to his starting point, kicking off from the spiky ground in such a way as to make a real mess of the dirt and distort the evidence of his movements. Seeing that they'd only been fooled for a moment and were now quartering the circle between them, a search manœuvre that was guaranteed to end in his decapitation at the speed they were bouncing around with those blades, he desperately lashed out with a modified Strike of the Spitting White Snake to catch an Elder by the non-knife-bearing arm as she flickered past.

Unfortunately for Genma, she detected him when he got in close. Suddenly there were seven of her, swirling dizzyingly around his position. His hand went uselessly through a Splitting Cat Hairs afterimage, even as his unobtrusive but all too visible body suddenly started to take inaccurate but still debilitatingly painful knife wounds and unarmed blows from, it seemed, every direction at once. She was too fast for him to land any return blows, though purely by good luck, he managed to shatter her knife blade as it flashed past his fingers. It had come frighteningly close to them. Unfortunately, he was already bleeding from several shallow cuts by then.

Losing her weapon didn't slow the elder down at all; she simply shifted styles and continued to pummel him with abandon.

He swore inwardly and, unable to escape the Elder's punishing assault as she shifted around the circle whenever he did, gambled on a sneaky move with the blanket. Alas, he caught only air, and with the second remaining Elder and her sword having joined in the attack by this point, the new evidence of his exact position was nearly his undoing. Only a desperate burst of vacuum blades cleared a way out for him, though they didn't hit anything more substantial than the hem of a robe. Worse, he had lost both his concentration on the Umi-sen-ken and his blanket by the time of his escape, returning to full visibility with large bruises and obvious but non–life-threatening cuts all over himself. His gi had been reduced to a slashed-up collection of rags, and was barely staying on him.

Rolling and flipping, he managed to propel himself into the air just in time to avoid a return salvo of much smaller vacuum blades from the two Elders, who had abandoned the Splitting Cat Hairs for the moment. "You already know that one? Shit."

The damned old baggages smirked at him! Genma had a moment's concern that Ranma's cursed form might smirk like that as the boy grew older, and shuddered. Bad thoughts. Mind on the fight! With renewed determination, he crouched low and began firing small stones at his opponents with powerful flicks of his fingers, finding plenty of ammunition as he scuttled crablike across the spiky surface of the devastated sparring ring. In a way it was convenient that one of the two ancient terrors had flipped his blanket out of the ring, denying it to him, as he now had one hand free to flick rocks at each of them.

Unfortunately, even with a dense stream of unpredictably aimed rocks of varying sizes being launched at them at nearly crossbow bolt speeds, the Elders were still faster than him, especially as beat up and sore as he was. He was just glad they hadn't quite managed to tag his hands. With blades being used and as hard as they'd been hitting even empty-handed, he would have suffered multiple broken fingers, or worse. Even so, his left wrist was one of the loudest of the many, many body parts screaming at him.

Being faster, they'd soon managed to close with him again, and Genma knew the end was near. He grimaced, and prepared a desperation strike using the full power of the Yama-sen-ken. "HALT!" he shouted authoratively in Mandarin, having learned this single word of the language from all the shopkeepers, restauranteurs and policemen who'd shouted it after him as he crossed China. His chi-charged voice hit the rapidly approaching Elders with the force of a runaway freight train. He grimly pivoted and tried to perform one of the Yama-sen-ken's signature power strikes on each of the momentarily stunned old women at the same time; but their auras were at least as strong as his own, they were substantially more experienced and battle-hardened, there were two of them, and they had both more or less recovered from the chi-borne paralysis before he could actually strike them. As Genma frantically evaded their return blows by retreating under cover of a hail of rapidly-flicked pebbles, he realized he was about out of tricks. They hadn't even had to work to dodge the pebbles this time.

The two Elders, having his full measure now, closed in again. A knife-hand strike blurred in towards his neck from each side, and he realized he wasn't going to get out of the way in time! Only one option le—

Blackness.


Naruto turned to the towel-wrapped Hinata with a grin, holding up one of the few lightweight items of clothing he owned that was not even slightly orange. "I bet this'd work, Hina-chan, see? It goes with your hair!" He'd covertly observed enough people out shopping to know that coördinated colours were apparently important to girls. Precisely why was a bit of a mystery, but considering how cool orange was, he guessed there must be something to it.

Exhibit A was a traditional, full-length garment, which to the Western eyes of Ranma's world would have resembled a cross between a housecoat and a set of pyjamas, coloured a vivid cobalt blue with a crimson sash around the waist. The only other adornments were two thin, nine-armed spirals, one each on front and back, picked out in the same scarlet hue. Now that he came to look at it again, he felt guilty for not wearing it, even though he'd never been large enough to before. It had been a good-luck present from Sarutobi when Naruto was accepted into the Academy; the old man had told him that it should fit just right when he became a real ninja.

"It looks perfect, Naru-chan. I wonder if it will fit?" She accepted it from him and held it up against herself. "Looks like it does…" She looked meaningfully at him, trying to signal that she wanted a bit of privacy.

It went right over his head. "Great! Get dressed and we can go have some ramen for supper!" He waited expectantly.

"Um, you're supposed to leave the room when a girl changes, Naru-chan," she said tentatively.

He was astonished. "Really? Why?" It had never come up before. The last time Naruto had changed clothes in the presence of other people, back in his orphanage days, they'd all been small enough he couldn't remember anything much about the others. Had they all been other boys? Belatedly, he began shuffling towards the door in embarrassment.

Hinata blinked. One side of her forehead creased slightly. "…You know, I'm not sure," she admitted. That particular social norm had always been rather laxly adhered to in the Hyūga compound — the White Eyes were so useful, there were usually a fair number of clan members with them active at any given time; and since everyone using their White Eyes saw right through clothing anyway, whether a person was dressed only made much difference if there were non-Hyūga around or it was a cold day.

"Really? Huh. Go figure." Naruto shrugged and went to go start some water boiling for the ramen.


The entirety of Joketsuzoku's population, apart from the unlucky few on patrol duty, had gathered in the town square by the council hall. They waited eagerly as dusk approached, conversing quietly but with great excitement. On a roughly foot-high stone platform in front of the building, the Elders' assistants bustled back and forth, arranging elaborate torch sconces and other decorations to add to the festiveness and import of the upcoming ceremony.

Even Ranma's father was present, though he was kept fettered hand and foot, and made to stand at the very back of the crowd. He had, by the narrowest of margins, been permitted to remain among the living — but only on the condition that he teach all of the Art he could to those warriors, male and female, who were judged mature enough not to absorb socially disruptive prejudices from him. The Elders had almost been moved to reverse his stay of execution when he broke out the appallingly pathetic Crouch of the Wild Tiger in gratitude. Fortunately, if uncharacteristically, he'd realized when to shut up.

Just inside the door of the council hall, Ranma and Ryoga stood nervously to one side, trying not to fidget and mess up the fancy clothes they'd been lent. Well, Ryoga was, Ranma was just trying to avoid thinking at all of what he was wearing. He never would have gone along with this if he'd had a choice, but somehow the scarily enthusiastic woman who'd brought it over had gotten her way without ever actually arguing with him. It wasn't as if she'd been demanding or anything, more that she'd just sort of somehow not even noticed his increasingly frantic protests. "Stupid dress. Feh."

Ryoga, who had his own reasons for avoiding thinking of Ranma's appearance, carefully studied the wall next to him. He sought for something neutral to say, and almost succeeded. "Why do you suppose they insisted you be a girl for this, anyway?"

"Hell if I know. Maybe it's like a character test or something, see how well I stand being humiliated in public?"

"It could just be 'cause it makes 'em feel better. This is the Hero Women Tribe, after all."

"Could be. Still sucks. Stupid dress."

Absently, Ryoga turned to address her directly, and was immediately reminded why he was trying not to. If he was dressed to kill, she was dressed to slaughter, pillage and sow the ground with salt. His cheeks flaming, he whipped his head around to stare at the wall again, grateful in the extreme that Joketsuzoku formal wear for males was designed to conceal signs of arousal.

Ranma noticed the motion, drawing her momentarily out of her funk, and was immediately blasted back into it even deeper when she realized just what motion he'd actually made. Gah, I look so stupid in this girly thing that Ryoga can't even look at me. Probably trying not to laugh, the bastard.

They stood and sulked, respectively, in silence a bit longer. Eventually a gap-toothed little girl bearing a sparkly toy sword over one shoulder, tremendously proud of herself for helping the grownups with such an important ceremony, came up and led them out onto the dais. Apparently things were as ready as they were going to be.

The two Japanese teens just wished she had let them go out without making them hold hands in a line behind her.

Ranma, who'd urgently needed to find a way to look at this that would allow her to stay halfway sane, had decided that they were challenging "him" to go through the ceremony while looking silly. Being Ranma, to wit, unable to turn down any challenge no matter how inane, she'd responded by standing as tall as the damn curse would allow, and striding proudly out to where they were apparently supposed to stand. Hah! Takes more than a clown suit to take down a Saotome! She adamantly refused to contemplate what being forced to hold hands like a kindergartener with Ryoga and a little girl would do to her public image.

Ryoga followed stolidly along, focussing on not getting lost… no matter how badly he wanted to at the sight of Ranma's magnificent girl-backside, swaying enticingly along before him with every confident stride. He wanted to smack himself with his free hand, but didn't dare with so many people watching.

The crowd murmured approvingly. Now that was how a fine pair of allied warriors looked! Fearless and confident without being arrogant, and good with children, too.

An incredibly decrepit Elder in a litter was carried respectfully out to conduct the ceremony. She had previously been introduced to the two Japanese youths as the tribe's Lore Mistress, and they had been awed to learn she was over a hundred and forty years old. Mere age was the least of the reasons she was so revered, though — it had been quite obvious, even in their short meeting, that she still possessed a razor-sharp mind despite her advanced years, and the extent of her knowledge was simply staggering. In some respects, she'd known more even about a far-off place like Japan than either of the boys did! The conversation had been a very humbling experience, in more ways than one, and they could well understand why few people felt worthy to ask the old woman's actual name rather than simply addressing her by her title.

At an exaggerated ceremonial gesture from Eau-de-Toilette — the Elder in the fancy headdress, who was apparently head of the council, and would ex officio be acting as the tribe's voice in the Rite of Alliance — everyone fell respectfully silent. The Lore Mistress began to chant in a thin and wavery, yet surprisingly carrying voice, ritually asking the blessings of the gods and the ancestors on this new alliance between the Hero Women Tribe and the two worthy young Outsiders. Their paths had been woven together by the strange powers of Jusenkyo, and they would take this new truth into their lives as had been done since time immemorial…


Naruto lay, ramrod-straight, at the extreme edge of his bed, and stared rigidly at the ceiling. One arm extended reluctantly off towards the rest of the bed, where it was held in a gentle but unbreakable grip by Hinata's slender hand as she slept peacefully, curled around it. For what felt like the thousandth time, Naruto reviewed the events of the evening, trying to figure out how he'd gotten into this mess. Okay, so I gave Hinata-chan the bed and tried to sleep on the floor, but she kept waking up with horrible nightmares of being abandoned. She managed to sleep OK when I sat up with her, so we tried having her hold my hand as I reached up from the floor. When I fell asleep my arm would fall down and wake her up… so if we had to sleep at the same level, it'd be kinda silly to have a bed and both of us on the floor, so we're both in the bed… sleeping together. Why does that sound logical and really, really wrong at the same time?

Naruto had never encountered the adult connotations of the phrase "sleeping together." That wasn't the problem. The thing was, Naruto had simply never felt secure sleeping around other people. The various ninja who'd been assigned to protect him from crazies when he was younger had always left him his space, and few other people had benevolent reasons for getting close to him as he slept. He might ordinarily have viewed Hinata as a safe exception, but he still had some degree of heebie-jeebies from her suddenly deciding they were engaged. Scary!


Ranma and Hinata dreamed. Almost as soon as they were both asleep, their minds synchronized, and where there were two there was now only one, albeit one with two perspectives.

Thank goodness. I'm finally the whole me again.

Yeah. What a crazy day it's been, too. Memories unfolded in the space-that-wasn't around him/her. See? If it hadn't happened to me, I'd never have believed it.

It was like that on the other side, as well. More memories swirled around him/her, at once fast as an eyeblink and slow as an unmotivated elephant.

I see the connection is stronger than I'd ever have guessed. One side of me gets a curse, and the other gets it too! Creepy. An icy sensation jittered up his/her spine.

I guess in a way what happened to Hinata-me was a side effect of the Great Spirit Reinforcing, even though the actual cause was the other side of me falling in an honest-to-gods cursed pool. Heh. Go figure. Amusement rapidly faded to sorrow. How could any family treat one another like that?

Images flickered around him/her. Some were unpleasant memories from the Ranma side's training trip, of hellish, poverty-stricken places encountered along the way, which Genma had gotten them out of as quickly as possible. Others were even more unpleasant memories from the Hinata side's early life, of the contrast between what that family had been when his/her mother was still part of it and what it had rapidly become after the woman's untimely passing.

S/he wanted to think of happier things instead.

Fortunately, there was one handy. Isn't it wonderful? Naru-chan asked Hinata-me to marry him today! I'm so happy! Joy washed through him/her. It made him/her feel like singing. Shame neither of my singing voices are any good. I wonder if either of my cursed forms can sing?

The concept that s/he was some day probably going to have relationships with both males and females at the same time, albeit in different universes, had taken quite a while to assimilate in all its young-mind-scarring totality, but both sides of him/her were now quite capable of separating mere whims of bodily preference from the core of what made him/her who s/he was. Naruto may have been a bit runty and more than a bit poorly socialized, but his heart was in the right place and he made the Hinata side almost deliriously happy. S/he didn't think s/he'd ever felt like that before, in either life. Really, what else could one — or two — ask for?

Heh. Kinda funny that my younger half is going to get married before the older one.

Quiet laughter. Not necessarily. Pops sure seemed set on Ranma-me marrying some girl back in Japan.

Right… Still figure she's probably really a male crossdresser, or some other kind of pervert. The thought was laden with cynicism.


In Japan, an itinerant okonomiyaki vendor passing through Yokohama and a largely self-taught dojo heir in the Tokyo suburbs both awoke suddenly with terrible fits of sneezing.


Gods, I hope not. Having other halves of the opposite gender was confusing enough even before I got cursed. I don't even want to think about how bad having a perverted fiancée could make things.

True. Odd that Pops never mentioned this 'Tendo daughter' thing except by accident. Did he honestly expect me to just blindly go along with it if he dropped it on me at the last minute? s/he marvelled with perplexed disdain.

A painful memory, of the absurdly self-important Hyūga Elders in full cry as they expelled him/her from the clan, wandered across the fringes of his/her mind. Sometimes I wonder if there's something about leading a family that makes people go weird in the head.

Nah. I think it only happens when there's no second parent around to balance out the silly parts. Both halves of him/her could remember wistfully watching happy, normal families on public outings, from a sometimes dishearteningly short but always unbridgeable distance.

That makes sense. A vague memory of the Hinata side's mother, smiling, floated past. It'd be nice if I could remember Ranma-me's mom, too. You'd think Pops would keep a picture, or that we'd have at least stopped by her grave a time or two.

No point worrying about it now, I suppose. Resignedly, s/he returned to more urgent matters. The important thing is, what am I going to do about the Hyūga situation? They were wrong about me losing the White Eyes, but do I really want to go crawling back to people who'd treat me like that for something I had no power over?

Never mind that, what would they do if they found out about the curse? They'd probably slap the Caged Bird on Hinata-me before I could blink. Remember how pissed off they were when they found out it wouldn't have any effect on that side's cursed form.

Damn, that's true. Maybe I should just stay with Naru-chan. I'm happier there than I have been in years. If I only go out in public in cursed form, no one would even need to know.

What about the chakra problem? Can't graduate the Academy without using the standard E-ranked techniques, and can't be a ninja without graduating the Academy. I still don't get that. Why would the curse take away Hinata-me's chakra coils? Frustrated bewilderment.

I've been thinking about that. I think it's got something to do with the link between my selves. It's pretty clear by now that no one in Ranma-me's world has any chakra, right? So not having chakra coils is probably normal there. And it turns out that side's cursed form mysteriously has white pupils no one can explain — just like Hinata-me's White Eyes. What if the curse got confused by the link, and made each of my cursed forms partly based on my other real body?

Hm. When Ranma-me wakes up I need to check if that girl form can do anything with chakra. Possibilities opened up before him/her. Heh, Bunny Boy would shit a brick if I pulled that out in a spar! Evil cackling.

I shouldn't get ahead of myself. Still need to figure a way to be a ninja when I can't let anyone find out I can still use chakra.

True. Hmm… Wait a minute, didn't cousin Neji say something last year about the other boy on his genin team? Stunted chakra coils, or something. Rock Lī, that was his name. How'd he graduate the Academy if he can't use chakra?

Dunno. Guess both of me have something to work on when I wake up tomorrow.

Oh, right, this is a dream. That does explain the panda with the scratched-out headband. S/he watched bemusedly as the panda-nin bounced away into the vague recesses of the dreamscape, gleefully chowing down on the stolen bamboo in its paws.

Funny, I can't see Pops putting in enough effort to be a missing-nin, but it suits him somehow.

I think his headband having the kanji for 'hungry' instead of a leaf is a bit over the top, though.


.


END PART THREE

Latest revision as of Sun. 2010/07/18

Thanks are due to all of my prereaders, including among many others the disparate groups of suspicious characters at the Temple of Ranma's Senshi Seifuku and The Fanfiction Forum. If anyone else wants to be a prereader, and can promise a turnaround time of less than a day per thousand words, I'd be very grateful — just drop me a line at «gsteemso(at)ficfan(dot)org». Thanks for reading!