The Truth Decays

By Marz

Chapter 15


Kakashi sat on the railing, watching his students fight. Today's argument wasn't one of the usual ones, about who was cooler (Naruto always lobbied for himself, but Sakura and passersby always voted Sasuke to victory), or who had messed up the mission (where Naruto was the undisputed champion). No, today's argument was about an Alchemist.

Sasuke's face was still red and peeling from his run-in with the Alchemist in question. Kakashi had gotten the details of the encounter from Sakura before the other two had arrived, so he knew Sasuke was the aggressor. Still, he doubted the Uchiha would forgive the not-quite-civilian-not-quite-ninja for beating him with a fire technique.

"-and Ed is so cool! Maybe he can join Team Seven!" Naruto babbled. "If he had been with us on the Wave mission he could've been like CLAP! And the bridge woulda been done and he coulda melted all of Gato's boats!"

"And who would leave?" Sakura asked. "You?"

"Why can't we have a four-man team? ANBU have four-man squads!" Naruto said, excitedly.

"Sorry Naruto, your new crush can't join the team", Kakashi teased.

"He's not my…I don't…Sakura is the only one for me!" Naruto said.

Sakura punched him in the back of the head. "I'm not your anything! Sasuke is my-"

"Can we go to the missions office yet?" Sasuke asked.

"I've already acquired our mission", Kakashi said, holding up a scroll. "And it will make one member of our squad very happy!"

"Which one?" Naruto asked, bouncing over to him. "Is it me? It's me, right? Or Sakura? It's not Sasuke, cause nothing makes him happy."

"Today's mission is crowd control", Kakashi said. "In the event Edward Elric starts razing buildings, we have to make sure no one gets trampled or sucked in or crushed."

"Awesome!" Naruto declared in an earsplitting manner as he jumped up and punched the air. "Do we have to watch his back to make sure more missing nin don't come after him? Or-"

"We are in charge of crowd control, idiot", Sakura said. "We just have to keep the civilians from getting in the way."

"Hey! Do we get to spray them with a hose if they get out of line?" Naruto asked. " Or water jutsu? Are you going to teach us a water jutsu?"

Kakashi sighed. "You won't need anything like that for the mission. You will be politely telling people to step back if they get too close. But-"

Naruto was practically falling over in excitement.

"-But if you do a good job, I might have time to teach you three a water jutsu before I leave for my mission tonight", Kakashi said with a grin.

(At least, they assumed he was grinning. His visible eye was crinkling at the corner.)

"AWESOME!" Naruto shrieked.

Naruto spent the walk over to the Alchemist's current residence talking about how impressed Ed would be with the water jutsu Kakashi was going to teach them. Kakashi normally would have tried to weasel out of a D-rank mission if he had an A-rank mission coming up, but he had to admit he was curious about the boy who had caused so much chaos.

Hyuga Neji and Tenten stood outside Gai's apartment building. Gai was supposed to have left for his mission half an hour before, but they could all hear him, still home, shouting at the top of his lungs about cupcakes covered in maple syrup not being part of a balanced and youthful breakfast. A young male voice shouted back that they were not cupcakes, they were blueberry muffins, and since they contained blueberries, they were in fact, healthy.

Kakashi struggled to contain a laugh and it turned into a snort. All five genin looked at him sharply.

"The pollen is upsetting my allergies," Kakashi said, quickly flipping another page in his book so they wouldn't think he was laughing at something unrelated to porn.

Naruto was the first to lose interest in his outburst.

"HEY ED!" Naruto bellowed. "DO YOU GOT ANY EXTRA MUFFINS!"

"NARUTO!" Sakura shrieked. "First of all, you shouldn't yell like that—it's rude. Second of all, it's 'Do you have', not 'Do you got'."

As she spoke, a muffin was pitched out the window. It had some spin on it, and Kakashi could see little trails of syrup flying off it as it sailed towards Naruto. Neji, Tenten, and Sasuke all stepped back, but Sakura was caught up in her grammar lecture, and did not move to a safe distance. The muffin mostly stopped when it struck Naruto's upstretched hand, but a great deal of syrup was knocked loose on impact, and spattered across Sakura's face and hair.

She looked ready to kill, and her sights were set on her hapless, orange-clad teammate, who was completely enthralled with his muffin, half of which was already in his mouth.

Kakashi wanted to sigh. Blondie and Pinkie really needed to work on their situational awareness.

"Is Lee around?" Kakashi asked.

Sakura started when her sensei spoke and seemed to remember that she was in the company of those who would think less of her for freaking out over a little glucose.

"He left for physical therapy already," Tenten said.

"Granny hasn't fixed him yet?" Naruto asked, licking the last crumbs from his fingers.

"She doesn't know if she can," Tenten said sadly.

"Sure she can," said Naruto. "She's probably just nervous again. She patched me up just fine when Kabuto exploded my heart with that weird chakra scalpel thing."

"Kabuto?" Sakura asked. "That guy from the chunin exams?"

"Yeah", Naruto said. "He's a spy and he works for that snake bastard Orochimaru, but I totally kicked his ass!"

"I thought you said he blew up your heart?" Tenten said.

"Well that happened too," Naruto admitted. "But first I got him with this super-secret new technique I learned. He got me at the same time I got him, but he got thrown back way far and slammed into a rock, and I could see his guts falling out before I passed out. And Granny Tsunade said pretty much nothing interesting happened after that, except she borrowed the Toad Boss's sword and used it to stab Orochimaru's giant snake through the head."

"Lady Tsunade was fighting with a sword taller than the Hokage tower?" Tenten asked with sparkling eyes.

"I guess," Naruto said. "I wasn't awake for that part. Plus, I've never seen the sword next to the tower, so I don't know if it's really taller. I guess maybe I could summon the Toad Boss to compare, but he gets pretty mad when you summon him for stupid stuff. And the tower is underground, anyway."

"You can summon toads?" Neji asked.

"Yeah, I was gonna use them when I fought you in the chunin exams, but I never got around to it during our fight. Besides, if I just squished you with a big toad, people would say the toad did all the work", Naruto said.

Neji nodded, looking a little ill. Sakura and Tenten looked skeptical. Sasuke was grinding his teeth. Kakashi supposed he should do something before the Uchiha's head exploded, but he couldn't really think of what. Naruto didn't really seem to be bragging, just explaining.

Tenten and Naruto took up the rest of the wait arguing over who the coolest ninja ever was. Tenten thought it was Lady Tsunade, while Naruto insisted it was either the Fourth Hokage, or the academy instructor Iruka. Kakashi tried not to get upset about not even being in the running.

The mysterious Ed finally emerged from the building, with Gai hovering over him.

"-and please do not encourage my students to eat an entire meal at the Dango Palace again. It will set them back weeks in their conditioning," Gai said as they got to the bottom step.

"Kakashi, my eternal rival," Gai said, almost formally. Apparently Edward was a drain on youthful energy.

"Hmmmmm?" Kakashi replied.

"I have a quick A-rank mission to run, but I'll be back by nightfall. I suppose the Hokage has given you all the pertinent information for this mission?" Gai asked.

Kakashi nodded. "Just make sure you get back before I have to leave for my mission tonight."

"I will!" Gai said. "If I do not make it back in time, I will hop around the entire village 20 times with my ankles tied together!"

"What?" Kakashi asked, flipping another page.

"Gah! So modern!" Gai said. "Good luck, my students and the students of my rival! Stay youthful! Edward! Behave yourself!"

Gai took off in a green blur.

Ed looked at the half-dozen gathered ninja, unimpressed and unrushed.

"So, anybody want to go for breakfast?" he asked.

Ibiki wiped the blood off his hands and threw the soiled towel into the trash can. The Sound ninja strapped in the chair was semiconscious and twitching. He considered the bottles and syringes laid out on the table, but the captured ninja probably would not survive another chemically-assisted wakeup call. He'd have to wait.

He picked up his report, and belatedly realized he still had something on his fingers as it soaked into the page. There was no particularly secure information in it. He would have a chunin rewrite it later.

Wantanabe Hibiki: age 23, born in Water country, recruited by Sound agents five years ago, underwent surgical alterations to install sound-sensing equipment, multiple missions into Fire country, including the invasion a little over a month ago.

Hibiki's account of the fight with Team Eight matched the genins' reports almost exactly, though the Sound ninja did describe Edward Elric as being larger, faster, and much more ninja-like than Ibiki knew him to be. He also attributed a skill with Wood-style jutsu to Elric, which Ibiki really wanted to look into.

He wished the Sound ninja would wake up so he could torture him some more.

Orochimaru had teams scouting routes into Konoha. Wantanabe didn't know how many, but he knew more than just his own group had been sent out. He thought the routes were for extraction, either of Sound spies already in the village, or of Leaf civilians his master wanted to experiment on. He didn't know for certain' though, and he didn't know the next phase of the Snake Sannin's plans.

His thoughts were interrupted as Anko barged in. She was in an annoyingly good mood. Of course, she was usually in a good mood when she was hanging around the torture department, but today she was particularly cheery. She was actually humming as she chomped another lump of dango off a skewer. Ibiki was almost shocked when Anko pulled another skewer of dango from the bag under her arm and offered it to him. He took it, but wary of tricks or poisons, did not start to eat.

"Dango Palace is having a two-for-one special," Anko said around a mouth full of dumpling.

"Wasn't Dango Palace crushed flat by a giant snake?" Ibiki asked.

Anko had been as near to tears as he'd ever seen her when she'd told him of that tragedy the month before.

"It's back. Elric put the building back together yesterday. He patched up pretty much that entire block of restaurants. Most of them are having grand reopening sales!" she said. "Maybe I should drag the brat into a dark alley and thank him," she added as she slurped the last dango off the skewer in a blatantly suggestive manner.

"The Hokage said he wasn't going to be allowed to alter buildings," Ibiki said.

"I don't think the council's going to complain about the free repairs."

"Do you believe this is going to end up free?" Ibiki asked.

Anko shrugged. "The brat wants us to let him go. He might be sucking up. Then again, all the restaurants he fixed up agreed to give him food. Either way, we win."

"Unless the one who put that curse seal on him turns him against us," Ibiki said.

Anko snorted. "I don't think Elric can be turned in any direction he doesn't want to go. If the Hyuga or whoever slapped that seal on him actually makes a demand, he'll do exactly the opposite of what they ask just for the hell of it. They'd be better off using reverse psychology or some shit like that. The brat's stubborn for the sake of stubborn, and obviously doesn't want to be used. He's not a danger to the village."

"You're making that judgment with very little evidence," Ibiki said.

"Little evidence? That moron went back to rescue the ninja who had captured him! Not to mention all the children and small animals he rescues. If it wasn't for all the cursing and temper tantrums, he'd practically be a saint. He's not a ninja. He's barely a threat."

"We know too little to make those kinds of assumptions."

"You're sure pissy today," Anko said. "Are you still mad he escaped?"

"I am not mad. I am concerned that he has been given so much freedom within the village without being properly processed. We still don't know where he's from or what he's capable of."

"I've got a good feeling about him," Anko said.

"You've been wrong before," Ibiki said.

There were 100,000 incidents he could've been referring to, but she knew the one he meant. She raged to cover her shame.

"Oh yeah!" she growled through clenched teeth. "I'd forgotten about the time you and everyone in the Village knew Orochimaru would betray us, and I refused to believe you."

"Sarcasm doesn't prove me wrong. Didn't Elric tell you he had killed more people than you'll ever meet when you interviewed him?"

Ibiki had studied the video of Anko's interview a dozen times after Elric had escaped. He had every word they exchanged memorized.

"So all his other bullshit you ignore, but that you believe," she said.

"If he admits to being dangerous, we should treat him as if he is dangerous," Ibiki said.

"He says he's dangerous, and then he goes and rescues pathetic Hyuga girls and puppies. Actions are truer than words," Anko said.

"Why are you bothering to argue with me?" Ibiki asked. "I won't change my mind and the situation is out of my hands. He's Lord Jiraiya and Maito Gai's problem now."

"I think I could get more out of him under the right circumstances," she said.

"So you intend to follow him around and subject him to your presence when you aren't on duty?" Ibiki asked.

"Yup," Anko said. "And maybe during my lunch break, too."

Ibiki thought for a moment. She wasn't asking for any kind of official sanction, and there wasn't much point in trying to stop her. Inflicting Anko on Edward wasn't quite as good as personally pulling out all the brat's teeth with pliers, but-

He took a bite of the dango she'd given him. "Is it lunch time yet?"

The Alchemist wasn't exactly what Kakashi was expecting. He was barely taller than Naruto and had a round, childish face. He certainly didn't look the 18 years he claimed. Kakashi noticed the tightness around the boy's eyes and the slight hitch in his gait. Given that he was a double amputee, that wasn't terribly surprising. He was probably in a lot of pain, but was good at hiding it. Hayate had been the same way.

Edward had just resurrected an apartment building and now he and Naruto were discussing some terrible movie they'd both seen. Every once in a while Tenten would throw in a comment about special effects, but the other genin did not join in. Neji calmly ignored the discussion, eyes moving in random patterns, scanning for threats. Sasuke glared at the back of Ed's head, to no effect, and Sakura watched Sasuke.

Kakashi tried to cast a few genjutsu on Ed, but even the powerful ones didn't cause the teenager to break his stride. Once he rubbed at his face after Kakashi cast Burning Death in Darkness, but that could've been unrelated. Kakashi tried an area genjutsu, but again, Edward was immune. He walked right through the false wall Kakashi had created, apparently not even noticing it. Naruto walked through with him, and Tenten dispersed it before following. Neji gave Kakashi a questioning glance, but the Jonin just winked and flipped another page in his book. Sasuke, if anything, seemed more upset after a show of Ed's oblivious power.

Despite being his most competent student, Sasuke had a lot of flaws. Kakashi knew the boy usually learned faster than others his age, but he became frustrated and irrationally jealous when his teammates did something better or faster. He was already obviously having trouble keeping his temper around Naruto, who had been sent on a secret mission at the Toad Sannin's request. Dealing with a near-civilian who was better at something was driving the boy up the wall.

Every few minutes Sasuke would growl a question at Edward, demanding to know how he had escaped Itachi's genjutsu. The older boy would respond in ways so aggravating, Kakashi was almost proud of him.

"What's genjutsu?"

"I must've blinked."

"I don't remember that happening."

"Was Itachi the pale guy or the fish guy?"

It was rather obvious that Sasuke was about to snap. Kakashi was thinking about separating them when he saw someone on the roof of a building across the street--someone who would provide a much better distraction.

Sasuke was coming very close to striking their client. If such an outburst weren't so Naruto-like, he probably would have done it already. The Alchemist was mocking him. Nobody just blinked their way out of genjutsu.

"Why did you blink?" Sasuke demanded, attempting to steer the conversation.

"My eyes were drying out," Ed said.

Sasuke started forward. He was only going to grab Ed's arm, but Neji slipped between them in a defensive stance.

"Your behavior is disruptive to the mission," Neji said.

Sasuke glared. People his own age rarely dared speak to him as an equal, much less reprimand him. The Hyuga boy was the top rookie of his own year, but Sasuke figured that year's competition must have been pretty weak. After all, the boy lost to Naruto in the chunin exam finals.

"Making faces behind my back is not disruptive, but neither is it professional," Neji added.

"I'm not!" Naruto said.

"Not you," Tenten said. "Sasuke."

"Sasuke's not making faces. He always looks like that," Naruto said.

"Shut up, fool," Sasuke said.

"Shutting up is disruptive to the mission," Naruto said, in a fairly accurate imitation of Neji's tone.

"Sasuke, why don't you scout ahead for trouble," Tenten suggested.

Sasuke glared at her. It was bad enough the Hyuga was trying to boss him around. He wasn't going to take orders from a nobody. He opened his mouth to tell her off, but Kakashi interrupted.

"You all realize your client has vanished?" the Jonin said, turning another page in his book.

They all turned towards the center of the group, but Ed wasn't there.

"Where'd he go?" Naruto shouted frantically.

Neji's eyes bulged as he searched the surrounding area. He spotted something and took off, Tenten and Team Seven close behind. Kakashi followed calmly after flipping to another page.

"You didn't miss me even a little bit? "Anko asked.

"I'll miss you as soon as you leave," Ed growled, struggling to free his wrists from her grasp. "Go the hell away," he added.

It wasn't much of a challenge to snatch the Alchemist from his genin guards. Kakashi was the only real threat, but he politely ignored her after she signaled him with her security code. The Uchiha brat's tantrum drew all the other brats' attention, and she snatched Edward before he had a chance to shout a warning. Borrowing the Alchemist wasn't all that hard, but she wasn't sure what to do with him now that she had him. She had a few hundred ideas of course, but no good way to choose among them.

An ANBU squad was circling, but they wouldn't move in unless she did something threatening--well, more threatening than dragging Edward behind a furniture store and pinning him against a wall. She supposed they'd rush over if there was too much blood and screaming.

"Where are you in such a hurry to get to anyway?" she asked. "You don't even have time to chat?"

"We've got nothing to talk about," he said.

"Of course we do," she said. "Our lunch date was cut short, and you didn't call to apologize. If we don't talk this out, our relationship can't move forward."

"Lunch date!? " he demanded, his face flushing and the veins in his forehead standing out. " Are you referring to the incident last week in which you barged into the prison where I was being held without cause, slapped me around, and dumped that obscene substance all over me, before knocking me unconscious?" he bellowed.

She grinned at him. "Yeah. And you didn't even send me flowers after."

"Gahhhhhhh!" he shouted in frustration. "Get away from me, you crazy, skeevy psycho!"

"You know, you're awfully cute when you're all worked up like this," she said. "You were rude before, but I'm gonna give you another chance."

"I don't want another chance!" he yelled in her face. His breath reeked of maple syrup. "I hereby forfeit all present and future chances with you, you mental train wreck! Now go away!"

Anko could hear the genin running around the building. The Hyuga boy and his teammates split up, with the girl leaping up onto to a wall to get the height advantage. The Hyuga came right at her, his hands glowing slightly. Team Seven's approach was less coordinated. The Uchiha circled wide, apparently content to let the Hyuga boy test Anko before approaching himself. The pink-haired girl just followed the Uchiha, more like a groupie than a ninja. And the Uzumaki boy was all over the place, not just disorganized, but also filling most of the available space with bright orange shadow clones.

"Let him go, you jerk!" dozens of Narutos demanded in unison.

"Maybe he doesn't want to be let go," Anko said in her most sultry voice.

The army of clones paused in confusion, looking between Anko and her prisoner.

"Yes he does," Ed growled.

Anko sighed, let go, and stepped back. Ed's fist shot toward her face, but she stepped calmly out of the way.

"So, are we still going out for drinks, Friday?" Anko asked.

"No!" Ed said.

"Alright! Tonight, then!" she said, teleporting away.

She landed on the roof, out of his line of sight. She could hear Edward shouting that he was not going drinking with her, and the Uzumaki brat telling him he needed a less-crazy girlfriend.

"Not that it's any of my business," Kakashi said, appearing in a swirl of leaves beside her, "But didn't the Hokage order your department to stay away from Elric?"

"Officially, I can't interrogate him, but she didn't ban personal contact," Anko said. "And if something interesting should slip out in a moment of passion…"

"I think there might be a flaw in your plan," Kakashi said.


"He hates you."

She grinned at him, showing off all her teeth. "That just makes it more fun. By the way, is your genin team getting dumber?"

Kakashi tapped his book against his chin in a thoughtful manner. "You know, it's possible. They had to go without me for a whole month while I caught up on my sleep."

Anko snorted. Kakashi's month-long coma had scared the shit out of every ninja in the village. Uchiha Itachi was still at large, and if he could do that to Kakashi and just wander off, what chance did the rest of them have? Of course, that made figuring out what gave Edward immunity even more important.

"What's your read on the brat?" Anko asked.

"Which brat?" Kakashi asked, playing dumb.

"The one with the metal limbs," she said.

"He's trouble," he replied. "We're probably all doomed."

"But in a good way, right?"

"Sure," Kakashi said, and flipped another page.

Anko snorted and teleported away. She wasn't even sure if she could count it as a mission accomplished, but at least she had reminded Edward that she existed. Her lunch break was almost over, and she was headed back to the interrogation department when her curse mark twitched.

She froze, poised on the ledge of an apartment complex balcony, eyes scanning the roofs around her. She stretched out her senses, searching for traces of the person who could have set it off. The mark had stilled, apparently dormant again, though the pain, like the jab of a dull needle, took longer to fade.

But it did fade and she was left alone on the roof, sweating despite the bright sunny weather.

Convulsions and spasms were never pretty, but when they struck Edward, they were at least bizarre. It was obvious he was no longer truly conscious, but his body was still trying to fold itself around the seal burned into the center of his back, resulting in the boy's heels meeting the back of his head as his hands clawed at the mark. He looked rather like a dying spider.

Hyuga Neji was stabbing at the boy with chakra-charged fingers, probably trying to close off the seal. He did not appear to be having any luck. Kakashi stepped in, scooping up the Alchemist and teleporting to the hospital. As soon as Kakashi's feet hit solid ground, the seal had shut down. Nurses rushed forward to take the limp body from him.

It seemed like things were going so well, too. Naruto had convinced the Alchemist to fix the holes he'd melted in the village wall by arguing that people's dogs might wander out through the wall into the forest, and subsequently be eaten by tigers. It was a very flimsy excuse, but Ed had agreed to do it.

Kakashi was somewhat concerned that as soon as they got near the wall, Edward would try to make a run for it, but they were still a hundred meters away when the seal on Edward's back had activated. Konoha would have to fix its walls the old-fashioned way, he supposed.

Team Seven and Team Gai arrived at the hospital a few minutes later, Naruto in the lead, demanding to know what happened to Ed, and if Ed was alright, and if Ed still wanted to go to lunch.

"His caged-bird seal was activated," Neji said.

"Ed has one of those, too?" Naruto asked.

"Someone put it on him after Team Eight returned him to the hospital," Neji said. "Apparently they did not want him to leave again."

"Who-" Naruto's confused look morphed into one of anger. "Who would do that to him?"

"The leaders of my clan claimed to have no part in it, but our seal was used. At this time, I am not sure what set it off. It could have been proximity to the village wall or distance from the anchoring seal. We could take him towards the wall again, some distance away, and use triangulation to figure out where the anchor is," Neji said.

"If the anchor is mobile, they could be moving it after every activation to throw off that type of tracking," Sakura said, thoughtfully.

"Someone put a curse seal on him?" Sasuke asked.

"Yes. While he was unconscious at the hospital," Kakashi said, while looking at Sasuke. "It's a pretty good way to keep someone under control, wouldn't you say?"

Sasuke glared, but then he started to look thoughtful. Unfortunately, Naruto chose that moment to butt in.

"You mean Ed's had that thing on him all day? Why didn't he say anything?"

"He's had it for a few days," Tenten said. "And he's been trying to burn it off since he found it. Maybe he's embarrassed that he hasn't figured out how to get rid of it."

"Why would he be embarrassed?" Naruto asked. "It's not like he got drunk and got a really bad tattoo or something, unless the seal looks like a really bad tattoo. Does it? Have you seen it? Does it look like something girly?"

"It's the same as Neji's," Tenten said.

"Oh. Well that sucks," Naruto said. "But Ed will probably figure out how to get it off pretty soon. He is way awesome. Maybe Pervy Sage can help him."

"Lord Jiraiya has already been assigned to help him," Kakashi said.

Naruto nodded. "Well, then he should be seal-free in no time.

Tenten started to contradict him, but Kakashi signed for her to keep quiet, and unlike his own students, she actually obeyed. Kakashi wondered what it would be like to have a student like that.

"Since Ed's not fixing things anymore, does that mean the mission is over?" Naruto asked. "Are you going to teach us that jutsu now?"

Kakashi looked up and down the hospital corridor and sighed. He'd probably never know.

The room was fuzzy and white and lacked things to write on. Ed was having trouble accounting for a resonant feedback loop and he couldn't quite keep the layout of the array straight in his head. He wondered if it was because of the drugs, or yet another near-death-experience. Those were getting very old, very fast. He traced the lines out in the air with his fingers. He was partially satisfied with the answer.

He was pretty sure he could take the caged bird seal off of someone else. He hadn't wanted to admit it to himself, but he'd hit a road block with the seal they'd stuck on him. He did need another alchemist to get it off. Either that, or he'd have to risk going through the Gate, putting his body on hold while he altered it. He was not even sure how well that would work, and he certainly didn't want to pay the toll.

Ed wondered if he should tell Neji about his breakthrough. The kid wanted that damn seal off as badly as Ed did, probably much worse, since he'd had it so much longer. Neji didn't just want his seal off, though. He wanted the seals off of all his relatives, too. He'd given Ed the ballpark estimate of 20 people who would both want their curse seals removed, and be willing to sneak off and have it done without the permission of the main branch family. There were at least 35 others who'd want theirs off, too, if the main branch allowed it, which was as likely as snow in Hell.

Neji would want Ed to start peeling off those seals right away, since as soon as the main branch noticed some of their subordinates were seal-less, they'd cling tighter to those still bound. And Ed would be one of those bound. Ed could help them, but he'd be at the top of the main branch shit-list if he did, and if the main branch were the ones who'd branded him, they could kill him with a thought.

Of course, if they weren't the ones who'd put the seal on him, he'd probably still be pretty screwed.

Ed sighed and looked around the room. The Death God was standing in the corner, his horns touching the soundproof ceiling tiles. Ed wondered if the entity was really there or if he was hallucinating.

Death was looking at him funny.

Ed gave him the finger.

Death appeared unconcerned.

"What are you doing here?" Ed finally asked.

"We are very close at the moment," Death said. "If you aren't careful you'll end up food instead of family."

"Won't that be cannibalism?" Ed asked.

"What's wrong with cannibalism?" Death asked.

Ed gave him the finger with his other hand this time. Raising his arm made his back hurt.

"If you took a few souls, you could rid yourself of that defiled flesh," Death said.

"I'm not going to do that," Ed said. "I've almost got it figured out, anyway. I don't really need that much energy to get rid of the seal, but it's like breaking the circuit that I'm using to power the breaking of the circuit. Stupid cyclical paradox. I think I can get it off someone else, but I'd need another Alchemist to get it off of me."

"Then perhaps someone else in the family can help you," Death said.

Ed froze, hope and fear running through him. It could be Al! It could be Al! It could be Al! He struggled to get control of himself.

"Who else did you bring out of the void into this world?" Ed asked, trying to sound as if he didn't care.

"Share a meal with me," Death said. "We will discuss it."

Death always grinned, but Ed was pretty sure in this case it was a mocking grin. The thing in the Gate grinned the same way, though its teeth weren't nearly as pointy.

"Have the others shared a meal with you?" he asked.

"Yes," Death said.

"Then I don't need to know anymore," Ed said. "I know it's not one of my friends."

"Are you so sure?" Death asked.

"I am," Ed said.

Death didn't contradict him, but instead shrugged and faded away.

It couldn't be Al then. Al would never steal another person's soul. But would any of his other allies do such a thing? The other human sacrifices, Mustang, Izumi, Marcoh, and Hohenheim, which of them would do it? All had sworn never to make more Philosopher's stones, and all had good reason not to. But they were all pragmatists.

Maybe it wasn't one of them at all. Maybe it was Kimblee or another State Alchemist who just got sucked in. But if that were the case, why make the little dolls that looked like Al? That was a message directed at him. That would also mean they knew he might be here. Maybe Death had told the others a lot more than he had told Ed.

And this stupid seal means I'm a sitting duck, he thought. Word would get out because of all the buildings he'd put back up. No matter how much the ninja tried to suppress it, Ed had done it all out in the open and rumor was going to get around. He hadn't cared if other ninja knew of him or thought him a threat, but if someone like Kimblee, or worse, one of the Homunculi had made it into this world, he'd be in real trouble.

He wished Death had kept his big mouth shut.

"Edward?" Gai asked, poking his head in through the door. He was oddly quiet. Ed wondered if the Jonin could feel some kind of echo from the Death God in the room.

"Totally wasn't my fault this time," Ed said.

"Yes, I heard," Gai said. "Do you feel well enough to return to my most youthful residence?"

"Sure," Ed said.

Lee had been dreading Master Gai's return, not only because he would be bringing Edward with him, but also because Lee had once again missed his appointment with the medics. They wanted him to make a decision about his surgery, since the Hokage was very busy and couldn't keep shuffling her village duties around to see to him. Lady Tsunade hadn't actually said she was too busy, but the med-nin at physical therapy had let him know that performing the operation would take up a lot of their leader's precious time.

He heard Gai and Edward on the landing, and considered running for his room, but he wouldn't make it before they saw him, and he didn't want to be caught doing something so obviously rude. The door swung open.

"My most amazing student, Lee! How did your appointment go?" Gai asked.

"As well as can be expected," Lee said. "They want me to make my decision soon."

"I understand," Gai said. "I must finish up the report from my last mission, and then we shall discuss it, yes?"

Lee nodded. Gai smiled and struck a pose, then headed for his room. Lee thought his teacher looked very tired. He had a suspicion Edward was responsible. He looked over at the other teenager, who was poking through a plastic bag that Lee hadn't noticed him bringing in.

"We stopped at the hardware store on the way back from the hospital," Ed said.

Lee did not know what to say to that, so he nodded. He watched as their surly houseguest went to the table and set out a variety of painful-looking implements, as well as assorted polishes and oils.

"What are you doing?" Lee asked.

"I'm baking a cake," Edward muttered as he inspected a wrench.

"You are lying," Lee said.

"Obviously," Ed said. He looked back at Lee and sighed. "I'm going to do some maintenance on my automail."

"I thought you didn't know how to fix it."

"I can't make new automail, but I can do some basic stuff to keep it working. I've had it half my life. I've learned that much."

Lee peered at him. "How did you come to need it?"

Ed unscrewed a half-dozen jars and the room filled with the reek of machine oil and solvents.

"I didn't tell that bastard Ibiki," Ed said. "Why would I tell you?"

Lee got up and hobbled to the window, and then leaned against the wall so he could open it with his good hand. I do not plan to pass the information on. I simply want to know.

Ed grunted in response.

"Were you in a fight?" Lee persisted.

"Not the kind you're thinking of," he said.

Ed took a strange, hooked bit of metal and pushed it into his metal wrist. He turned it and his forearm popped open. Lee could see the hydraulics and gears as Ed moved his fingers. Ed took a set of tweezers in his flesh-and-blood hand and began picking at things in the metal one.

"Do you regret losing it?" Lee asked.

"Couldn't ask a more asinine question?" Ed asked in return.

Lee flinched a little bit, but after gathering his thoughts, he said, "Yes."

Ed looked up at him. "What?"

"Yes, I could've asked a more asinine question. I could've asked 'Did it hurt?'"

The comeback was slow, which Ed suspected had to do with Lee's normal conversations not extending much beyond the power of youth. Maybe Lee just didn't have it in him to be a sarcastic cripple. Some people just weren't cut out for the job.

"I lost the leg in an accident, so if you mean, do I regret being arrogant and ignorant and doing the stupid thing that cost me my leg, then yes. But everything else, the arm and all the other pieces after that, no, Ed said. And I can't honestly say I wish I'd never done it at all. If I hadn't blundered into that first catastrophe, I'd probably have been killed along with everyone else, staring up at the sky and wondering why the world was coming to an end.

Lee wondered about the other suddenly becoming so forthright. He supposed it could have something to do with all the volatile chemicals in the air. Even standing by the window, Lee was feeling lightheaded. Of course, Ed could just be making things up.

"What happened to you?" Ed asked.

"A ninja from Suna crushed my limbs during the chunin exam," Lee said.

"Did it hurt?" Ed asked.

"No," Lee said. "Not at all."

"You're lying," Ed said, smiling a little.

Lee nodded.

"Do you need any help with that?" Lee asked.

"Sure," Ed said. "Pull up a wrench."

They ghosted along roofs, slipping past oblivious Leaf Ninja. It was as easy as it had been during the invasion. Their enemy had learned nothing.

Uchiha Sasuke walked through the streets as oblivious as the rest. He was scowling and grinding his teeth, steaming mad about something, probably his brother. Orochimaru said the boy's life revolved around some fantasy about getting revenge on the S-class ninja. They were ordered to promise him that. Their master seemed to think it would take little more than that and a show of force to convince the boy to abandon his people.

"I can't believe we're being wasted on him," Kidomaru said. They had paused while Sasuke beat the living daylights out of a random tree. "He's a melodramatic little brat."

"So were you and you've gotten a little better," Sakon said.

"Not much," Tayuya said. "Should we take him now? Looks like he's headed for the Jonin's neighborhood."

"Scared?" Sakon said.

She snorted. "We're supposed to get this done fast. He needs a new body soon. We don't have all night to kill every nosy ninja that comes running. A sour note will ruin the whole piece."

"Don't you two start that damn music crap again. Life's a game, not a song," Kidomaru said.

"Suck it, you tone-deaf little shit," Tayuya replied.

Jirobo started to correct her, but she cut him off with an obscene gesture.

Sasuke gave up his assault on the tree and took off full speed down the street. He wasn't being particularly stealthy, but they had to hurry to keep up. He ran into a neighborhood where neither his teammates nor his sensei lived, and then rushed into an apartment building.

"What do you think he's doing there?" Kidomaru asked.

"Doesn't matter," Sakon said. "We'll take him when he comes out."

"There're a lot of ANBU lurking around," Jirobo said.

"There could be fewer," Sakon said with a smile.

Ed wasn't quite sure how it happened, but they ended up bonding over his disassembled arm. He supposed he understood why the kid didn't want to hang around him at first. Ed didn't find himself longing for the company of other cripples exactly, though he didn't shy away from them either.

Gai had been so thrilled when he saw them speaking civilly, he promised to bring back dinner after he turned in his paperwork. The ANBU were supposed to be available if anything went really wrong in the half hour it would take Gai to complete the task. Ed considered using Alchemy to turn the ninja's apartment orange while he was gone, but decided he'd caused the man enough grief, at least for the week. Apparently, Lee was supposed to get some big, risky surgery, which they hadn't mentioned to Ed, so as not to worry him.

"So she gave you fifty-fifty odds?" Ed asked.

Lee nodded.

"Based on what?"

"I do not know," Lee said.

Ed picked up another torturous-looking implement and slid it into the elbow of his right arm. "No idea at all; shock or blood loss, rejection of grafts, risky anesthesia, secondary infection?"

"I suppose it could be any of those. The mednin are going to remove bone fragments from my spinal column as well as rebuilding my leg and arm. I do not know exactly how they will go about it," Lee admitted.

"How long will it take?" Ed asked.

"A few hours," Lee said.

"At a time?"

"No, total," Lee said.

"So in a few hours you could be back on your feet and getting on with your life?" Ed asked.

Lee nodded. Ed watched the kid, who looked scared and beaten down. He wanted to say something helpful, but in situations like this, most of what came out of his mouth could be paraphrased 'Get up off your ass'. Nonetheless, Ed gave it a whirl.

"Automail surgeons usually have a 70 percent chance of success. That's average, though. Granny Pinako, my surgeon, she was closer to 90 percent. She kept her knives clean, knew her anatomy and engineering, watched her drug mixes, all that stuff. Still, she'd get people whose hearts couldn't take the shock, whose bones couldn't take the stress. We lived right by her, so when things went wrong, you could hear the screams.

"There was screaming when things went right, too. Your body can never be entirely convinced that all that metal is supposed to be in it. I sat in a wheelchair for too long, looking at my stumps, before I got the push I needed to go for it," Ed paused.

"A grade-A bastard pointed out to me that if I didn't get up, didn't try to move on, that's all I'd ever be, a lump in a chair, useless to those who depended on me. You aren't that badly off. You can still move. You can function. You can get a job that isn't too stressful and live to be a hundred. Or you could do this, have this operation and be a ninja again, go off to fight and get killed in some crazy battle before you hit twenty. Dying in surgery," Ed said, pausing again. "That's not something to think about. Pick one life or the other. Death is at the end of all of them. Don't piss yourself over dying on the operating table. If you die there, it won't bother you, because you'll never wake up."

Lee looked at Ed, who shrugged and went back to poking at his automail after his little speech. He wasn't sure if he'd made the kid feel better or worse, but he looked kind of dazed.

Someone knocked on the door.

"I got it," Ed said, getting out of his chair.

He looked through the peephole, and got a fisheye view of Uchiha Sasuke's scowling face. He considered just not answering, but theoretically the overly angst-y teenager could be there to speak to Lee or Gai. Ed unlocked the door and opened it about three inches, with his metal foot bracing the bottom so the other boy couldn't just push his way in.

"What?" Ed asked.

"Tell me how you did it," Sasuke demanded.

"Did what?" Ed asked.

"You know what!" he growled.

"Do I?" Ed asked, being as aggravating as humanly possible.

"Who is it?" Lee called.

"Just some goofball selling magazine subscriptions," Ed said.

"What magazine?" Lee asked.

Ed sighed and stepped back, letting the door swing open, so Lee could see their visitor.

"Sasuke? You are selling magazines?" the green-clad boy asked.

"I am not!" Sasuke said in a huff.

Lee looked at Ed, but the other just shrugged.

"Would you like to come in?" Lee asked.

Sasuke stepped through the door, but didn't seem to know what to do from there. He turned to glare at Ed.

"How did you get away from Itachi?" Sasuke demanded again.

"Blinked," said Ed.

"There has to be more to it! You're immune to all other genjutsu, and the worst one ever created, you just shake off. How do you do it?"

Ed slouched down into a chair. "I've got no clue how genjutsu does or does not work. Where I come from, there's no such thing. Nobody does jutsu at all."

"I think you're lying," Sasuke said.

"I don't care what you think," Ed said.

"Why are you doing this? Why won't you tell me?" Sasuke demanded.

"Because you're mentally unbalanced? Because you tried to cut my throat? Because I hate your guts? Take your pick!" Ed said.

"Itachi tried to kill you! Don't you want him dead? If you teach me how to block genjutsu, I can kill him!" Sasuke said.

"With what? Kindness?" Ed said with a snort. "I kicked your ass and I can't do any genjutsu at all.'

"You didn't kick my ass!"

"Oh, that's right, I charbroiled it. Thank you for correcting me," Ed said.

Sasuke grabbed the back of Ed's chair and yanked it away from the table, scraping four lines into Gai's kitchen floor. Lee got up from his own seat, hands clenched. Ed looked over his shoulder at Sasuke. Ed didn't want to avoid a fight, exactly, but now that he knew how bad off Lee was, he didn't want the younger boy involved. He also didn't want to wreck up Gai's apartment, even though it wouldn't be too hard to fix it afterward.

"Why don't we take this outside?" Ed asked.

Sasuke, glaring, nodded and headed for the door. Ed got up and walked behind him, a bit slower. As soon as Sasuke stepped out into the hall, Ed slammed the door closed. He clapped his hands together and touched the walls. They glowed for a moment and then closed over the place where the door had been.

The second he realized he'd been had, Sasuke started pounding on the blank wall. Ed grinned at Lee. Lee smiled back rather nervously.

"He can break through the wall, if he really wants," Lee said.

Ed shrugged. The banging went on for another five minutes. When the noise stopped, Ed grinned triumphantly and went back to his seat. The peace and quiet was interrupted a moment later as a high whistling sound came drifting in the window.

"What's he doing now?" Ed demanded.

"I don't think that's Sasuke," Lee said. "He doesn't play the flute."

Ed went to the window and shouted. "Knock it off!"

"Who's playing?" Lee asked.

"I don't see anyone," Ed said, scanning the street. He definitely didn't see Sasuke out there. The whistling continued. It was like nails on a chalkboard.

"It's the middle of the night! CUT IT OUT WITH THE FxxKING FLUTE!" Ed bellowed.

It was a quarter till nine, but Ed wasn't above exaggeration. The music paused for a moment, but as soon as Ed walked away from the window, it started up again.

"I don't see what the problem is," Lee said. "The sound is barely noticeable and not unpleasant."

He watched as Ed went through Gai's cabinets, muttering to himself, before returning to the window with a few overripe tomatoes.

"I see her now," Ed said. "She's just standing there across the street."

Lee yawned. "It's really kind of nice. He put his head down on the table, but Ed's next words pried his eyes open and his head up again."

"WILL. YOU. PLEASE. SHUT. THE. FxxK. UP!" Ed shouted, throwing a tomato between each word.

There was a shriek, and a barrage of cursing came echoing up to them.



Ed came back from the window and sat down. Lee opened his mouth to say something, but a yawn cut him off. The music started up again. Ed slammed his hands on the table. Something about that song just bugged the hell out of him. He supposed he could just seal up the window so he wouldn't hear it, but he decided for the good of the neighborhood he wouldn't let it go. He didn't think there was any more bad food to throw. He'd just have to be extra loud. He leaned out the window, taking a deep breath.

A net of white sticky threads shot up from the street below, splattering across Ed's face and upper body. One of his arms was pinned to his chest. The other he could move from the elbow down. He grabbed at the sill with his free hand, but he couldn't see.

A sudden yank pulled him out the window.

Authors note: Ack! Forever long on the update, I know. I was having transition issues and problems writing Sasuke. And then there was all this dialogue that had to get said for stuff that was going to happen later and everything got all unbalanced. Gack! If you're still reading this, let me know what you think. The next chapter will be mostly fighting; ninety percent fighting, ten percent puppies.