The Truth Decays

Chapter 16

By Marz

Sasuke was feeling stupid and seeing red. He'd fallen for what was probably the most obvious ploy ever invented. He really wanted to break down the wall and wring that arrogant idiot's neck. Sasuke gave the wall one last kick and headed for the stairs. Returning to the training ground would be the smart thing to do. He could work off some of his anger before he did something stupid.

He changed his mind almost immediately, and instead went up to the roof. Edward did not think like a ninja, and probably had not sealed off the windows of Gai's apartment. Sasuke could use chakra to walk down the walls and get in. The door to the roof was unlocked, but something heavy was leaning on it from the outside. He focused his chakra and shoved, sending the heavy thing tumbling. He expected the obstruction to clatter, but it flopped over with a dull thump.

He recognized the sound.

Sasuke drew a kunai and slipped out through the door. His eyes adjusted quickly. An ANBU lay dead on the tiles, his head twisted completely around. He saw someone else, crouched on a building across the street, but as he focused on the figure, he realized it was another ANBU, also dead. The corpse had been propped upright, tied to the side of a chimney with almost invisible thread.

He heard Edward's shrill voice, cutting through a light musical whistle that Sasuke would not even have noticed if it hadn't suddenly stopped. He strained his ears. Clothing flapped on lines and a cat's yowl made the hair on his arms stand up. He heard the scuff of shoes against tiles by one of the air conditioners.

Sasuke slunk toward that side of the roof, but jumped back just in time. A ninja landed on the tiles he'd just vacated. The moon was full, giving Sasuke ample light to observe his opponent. He was a Sound ninja with over-long light blue hair and a huge lumpy growth on the back of his neck. The ninja had a large scroll on his back, but his hands were empty. That didn't make him any less dangerous. His hands were free to weave jutsu.

Sasuke sensed the presence of another person moving behind him, but he kept himself from reacting. He didn't want to give too much away.

"Did your little friend lock you out?" the Sound ninja in front of him asked.

Sasuke gritted his teeth and didn't answer. He heard Edward yelling again about the music, which Sasuke realized was an auditory genjutsu.

"Not a friend, actually," Sasuke said. "What do you want?"

"You think I'd just tell you?"

"You might," Sasuke said. "You seem to like hearing yourself talk."

"So much arrogance," the Sound ninja chided, "From such a little crybaby."

The Sound ninja ducked the half dozen shuriken Sasuke threw at him, but he didn't move to attack. Instead, the one behind him did. Sasuke leapt up, intending to flip over his charging attacker, but he had underestimated the other Sound ninja's height. He adapted right away, using his opponent's shoulder as another jumping-off point and kicking him in the side of the head for good measure.

The large ninja stumbled but regained his balance right away, turning to face Sasuke before he even landed. Sasuke tried to spring further back, but when his feet touched the roof, his legs gave out and he sprawled at the large ninja's feet. The ninja stomped down on Sasuke's chest.

The large ninja leaned forward, crushing the air out of Sasuke's lungs. Sasuke pushed at the ninja's leg with one hand and tried to fish a knife out of his holster with the other, but neither of his limbs obeyed him. His arms flopped and his hands wouldn't close.

"That's it? Really?" the blue-haired ninja asked with a smirk as he joined his oversized teammate. "I just can't see what our Master wanted from you. You're pretty, sure, but you've got no substance. Jirobo's barely draining any of your chakra and you've turned into pudding."

Sasuke couldn't even gather the energy to curse at his tormenters. He felt the curse mark on his neck pounding against the seals that bound it. Its pulsing was louder than his heartbeat. He needed more power and it was right there. Kakashi had warned him that if he didn't keep the mark sealed, it would eat away at him.

"You know," the blue-haired ninja said. "I don't think it's worth the effort to haul your ass back to Orochimaru. Edward Elric is the real prize, anyway."

Jirobo yelped and leapt back as Sasuke spat fire in his face. Sasuke's fingers had formed the seals so quickly they felt dislocated. His entire body was buzzing with energy. His teeth chattered as he rolled to his feet. His eyes scanned the roof, picking up lines and whorls of chakra and tiny twitches of motion. He could see the chakra inside the curse mark as it crawled across and under his skin. His Sharingan seemed to have a mind of its own. He knew this level of activity was draining, but he couldn't make himself care.

The blue-haired Sound ninja was watching him, smirking at him. Sasuke rushed him, but a second before they closed, Sasuke skipped aside. The tiny voice in the back of his mind, the instinct for self-preservation, made itself heard. These ninja had killed at least two ANBU. Taijutsu wasn't going to solve this.

Chidori would.

He wove the seals. Needles of light sprung from his hand, crackling and chirping.

The blue-haired ninja laughed. "That's a pretty little sound, but it doesn't resonate. It's all jingle and no chords. Real music has counterpoints."

"Shove it, choir boy," Sasuke hissed.

"Come here and I will."

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Ed barely had time to process the thought "I'm falling" when he landed on a giving surface. It stretched and sprang back under his weight. He expected to tumble off whatever it was, but it stuck to his clothes, skin, and hair. He struggled to pull free. The goop that had sprayed him in the face was covering his eyes, nose, and all but one corner of his mouth. The surface tilted suddenly and Ed felt it rolling up around him, pinning his arms to his sides. He finally hit the pavement.

"That was so easy it wasn't even worth playing," a male voice complained. "I don't know why Lord Orochimaru wanted us to bring him with us."

"Don't get cocky, you fxxking moron," the flute girl hissed. "We're only half done."

The male ninja wasn't listening.

"Hey, Kid!" he called. "Aren't you going to come out and play? We've got your little friend, but he isn't much fun."

Ed saw red. He struggled inside the gooey cocoon, but his captor just laughed as he thrashed and cursed. He realized Lee must've been looking out of the apartment, but the poor kid was trapped because Ed hadn't put the door back after he'd closed Sasuke out. He hoped Lee didn't try to jump out the window.

"Hear that? He misses you!" called the ninja.

A hand clamped down on his ankle, picked him up, and shook him. He was tossed over a shoulder that felt very wrong. He wondered what kind of weapons this guy had strapped to his back.

"If you don't want him back, we're keeping him!" his captor mocked.

Ed wasn't sure what the goo was made of, but it seemed organic. He focused on the array carved into his automail hand, and split up everything with carbon in it. He hit the ground again. The goo wrapped around his head did almost nothing to muffle his would-be captor's screaming.

The goo didn't evaporate or anything that convenient, but it got brittle and he was able to kick and flop around, breaking free. He clawed at his face. He could feel a lot of it still stuck there, but he could open his eyes, at least.

Ed wasn't much happier now that he could see them. The closest ninja was probably responsible for the spider webs, since he had six arms. The uppermost on the right side looked badly mangled, probably caught by the carbon deconstruction. The flute girl was close enough to be seen clearly now. She had pink hair and what looked like a colander on her head. They both had music notes on their headbands.

"You fxxkers again?" Ed demanded.

Ed checked his pocket and found his most recently acquired lighter. The flute girl and the spider boy tensed as he raised the small object. As he flipped it open, they attacked.

They were much faster than he expected, but not fast enough. He dodged under a stream of goo that shot from the spider boy's mouth and leapt back as the girl tried to bash his head in with her flute. He blocked her second swing with his automail arm. It bounced off with a clang that rattled his spine. She grabbed at him with her free hand, but he slapped the array on his left hand against her arm, and she leapt away. She lost a sleeve to the carbon-breakup but kept all her skin.

The spider-boy spat another net of goo at him. Ed leapt over it this time and it hit the ground. He landed splay-legged on his toes, carefully avoiding the sticky threads. Ed flicked the steel on the lighter, and the spider-boy dodged back.

He needn't have bothered. A column of flame shot straight up in the air, lighting up the entire neighborhood, bright as day, drawing the attention of every ninja and his grandmother.

"You little shit!" the flute girl hissed, rushing Ed again.

He brushed his hands together and then punched at her face. She took the bait, grabbing his wrist. She started to swing the flute at his head again, but he lifted both feet off the ground, hanging from her and swinging out of the way. He'd hoped to pull her off-balance but she had no problem supporting his entire weight with one hand. Not put out, Ed kicked both feet into her sternum.

She gasped and her grip on his arm loosened enough for him to pull free. He didn't manage even one step away before she jabbed him in the gut with the flute and he folded over it. She followed up with a kick at his face. He managed to put his arms up in a weak X-block but he was knocked backward off his feet. He hit the ground and another web of goo hit him before he could get up.

He tried to sit up, but the goo seemed to shrink, pinning him more tightly to the ground. A strand of webs across his chin kept him from lifting his head. The flute girl's feet appeared, upside down, in front of his face. He couldn't feel any of the goo against his palms, but he tried the carbon-breakdown reaction again, anyway. The flute girl's foot drew back and slammed into the side of his head.

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It was agony to watch. Ed tried to fight, but the Sound ninja were too fast. Lee had moved with that speed once, but now he could barely turn his head fast enough to keep track of them.

Lee dragged himself away to grab a satchel of kunai from the closet. An orange flash of light nearly blinded him and hot air blew the curtains and sent papers flying everywhere. By the time he got back to the window, the fire was gone. Ed lay pinned to the ground under a layer of webbing. He was silent and still.

Lee could throw with his uninjured arm, but his crippled leg came close to destroying his balance. The first kunai actually hit Ed, but it bounced off his metal arm. The Sound girl moved slightly, but she didn't look particularly concerned. Lee threw again and again, but each time she sidestepped with a snort.

"Kidomaru, aren't you done yet?" she asked.

Glass broke in Lee's bedroom.

"One minute," Kidomaru called.

Lee moved towards the kitchen, and just made it past the counter when the Sound ninja came out of the hall. Lee pitched a kunai. The sound-ninja spat out a blob of goo that knocked the knife out of the air. The next three knives met the same fate, and then the satchel was empty.

Lee knew he didn't have a chance, but he knew the patrols must've seen the flash of fire. He couldn't win, but he could stall. He moved his creaking limbs into one of the few gokan stances that his crippled body could support. He tried to make his braced and damaged limbs look functional and threatening.

Kidomaru laughed at him.

"You're not even worth one point," the older boy mocked. "You're the one who can't use ninjutsu, aren't you?"

"I do not know how points are assigned, but the second part of your statement is at least somewhat accurate," Lee said. "You are one of the ninja involved in the assassination of the Third Lord Hokage. You will not escape again."

"Ha! How are you gonna stop me?"

"I do not have to," Lee said, grinning and looking at something over the Sound ninja's shoulder.

The Sound ninja snorted. "You think I'd fall for the oldest trick in the book?" He charged.

He moved so fast, Lee's eyes could not track him, but Lee was used to even faster attacks. His punch snapped the Sound ninja's head around, and though it felt like he was grinding broken glass in his joints, he kicked out with his crippled leg, sending Kidomaru stumbling backwards. The Sound ninja even tripped over one of Master Gai's weight sets and sprawled on the floor.

Unfortunately, Lee could not press his momentary advantage. Something in his hip had shifted when his kick landed, and his leg was now just agonizing dead weight.

Lee was still close enough to the table to pick up one of Ed's pry bars, and he held it tightly in his uninjured hand. The Sound ninja probably wouldn't be stupid enough to charge into Lee's reach again, but he could hope, and if all else failed, he could throw it.

"QUIT SCREWING AROUND!" The female Sound ninja shrieked from outside.

The six-armed boy stood up. Despite the blood on his face, he smirked.

"That was all you had, eh? And I walked right into it. Penalty to me then," he said. "I know a way to make this fun, though."

He spat out a web of netting and stretched it out with one pair of hands while another pair wove seals. Lee recognized them as a summoning even as the ninja splattered blood across the web. He wasn't exactly shocked when the smoke faded and a dozen pit bull-sized spiders appeared in Gai's living room. The closest spider exploded into ichor and smoke, shrieking, as the pry bar punched through its body.

"WE'RE GOING NOW, YOU MOTHERFXXKER!" the female Sound nin shrieked, her voice even louder than before.

"Eleven chances now," the spider ninja said. "But I bet you won't get more than three before they get you."

He moved to the window as the spiders inched towards Lee.

"NOW, DIPSHIT!" she roared.

"KEEP YOUR SHIRT ON, TRAMP!" the spider ninja yelled back.

He waved at Lee and hopped out.

Lee glared at his remaining opponents. He never thought of spiders as pack animals before. He supposed they weren't, really. Maybe being surrounded just led him to assume collusion. Most of them scuttled forward cautiously, but a pair of them leapt.

Lee caught the legs of one and used it to bat the other aside. The necessary twisting overbalanced him and he nearly toppled. The spider in his hand thrashed, and he dropped it. He planned to stomp it with his good leg, but it hopped back too fast.

There was no shortage of alternate targets. He caught the power cord and yanked the blender off the counter, swinging it at the nearest spiders. It bounced off a spider's body and the glass canister shattered on the floor. He swung again, and the jagged edges sliced into another spider's head. It shrieked and dispelled in a cloud of greenish mist. The cord snapped on the third swing and rest of the blender flew away and crashed uselessly in the living room.

His searching fingers found the handle of a skillet in the dish rack. He swung it overhand and it crushed the nearest spider into a paste. His teeth were already pulled back in a grimace, but for a second it became a smile. He swung the skillet out in an arc and sent the nearest spiders tumbling back. They weren't injured enough to dispel, but they backed up a little, wary of the cookware, if not its wielder. He thought he had a moment to catch his breath.
Lightning pain shot up his crippled arm. Lee spun, swinging around to crush the spider that had somehow managed to climb the wall behind him. Its body shattered, spraying the wall with green slime that effervesced away seconds later, but the poison the summoned creature had injected into him remained. The burning sensation crawled up past his elbow.

Another spider leapt at him and Lee barely raised the skillet in time. The spider's weight bore him to the floor, but its fangs couldn't get through the iron. Its feet scrabbled at Lee, scraping his chest and face, trying to push his makeshift shield out of the way.

The burning reached his shoulder and spread rapidly through his chest. His lungs felt like they were shriveling and the spider seemed to gain a ton in an instant. Another one landed on his legs and he kicked wildly, knocking it off. He rolled over and pushed the spider away. He swung the skillet around, intending to crush it, but the skillet slipped from his suddenly shaking hand and clattered across the floor.

Two more spiders charged him and Lee retreated. His back hit the refrigerator and there was nowhere left to go. His vision started to tunnel and he gagged as the burning sensation swept through his stomach.

He reached up behind him, scattering magnets and shopping lists before his hand found the handle. He tried to pull himself to his feet, but the refrigerator door came open, dumping him back on the floor. Edward's leftovers tumbled out all around him. Lee grabbed takeout bags and whipped them at the spiders. They hissed and clacked as assorted dumplings and noodles splattered across them, but they didn't back off.

Suddenly inspired, Lee yanked the racks out and threw those, too. He dragged himself inside, and yanked the door closed.

It was pitch black and the air reeked of vinegar. A jar of pickles had shattered inside, but it took Lee a minute to realize he was sitting in broken glass. His throat was closing up, and he was pretty sure his vision would have been going dark, if everything wasn't dark already.

He shivered and leaned his head against the wall. There was something slimy there, but he didn't care. He could hear the spiders' legs tapping the outside of the fridge, but he had a hard time caring about that, either.

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A thousand-foot-tall pillar of fire is a pretty good way to draw attention. Maybe not as good as a sign that says "free" or "naked", but still very effective.

Mitarashi Anko was already headed in that direction, with a shopping bag of liquor bottles hanging from one hand, when the sky lit up. She narrowed her senses and realized there was a lot of chakra coming from the base of that burning column, chakra that was making her curse mark writhe and sting.

She wanted to deny it, but it had to be him, and she had a good idea about what he was after. Chakra surged through her legs as she threw herself forward. Her peripheral vision picked out a half-dozen other ninja rushing toward the fire, which winked out a moment later, leaving a bright streak across her retinas.

She tapped her radio with her free hand. The emergency channel was already buzzing, but her words silenced them all.

"The Sound is back," she said.

The muscles in her legs twitched and nearly cramped as chakra surged through them. She cleared the next building in a single bound, sending out a few clones in case the enemy was looking in her direction. At the top of her arc she could see two Sound ninja were fighting with the Uchiha brat on the roof of Gai's apartment. Both of the enemy ninja looked like teenagers, but she could sense they both bore the curse seal. The larger one looked almost normal, but the smaller one had a grotesque lump on the back of his neck that had to be one of Orochimaru's "improvements". Anko landed and the ninja were out of sight again. She didn't go for a high leap this time, instead dropping below the roofline and running along the side of an apartment complex, then through a twisting alley that opened up onto Gai's street.

Anko saw a six-armed freak hopping out the window of Gai's apartment. She made him her first target. He sensed her coming and leapt away, avoiding a half-dozen poisoned senbon needles. He leapt to the roof of a building on her side of the street, and paused to get a good look at her. He cursed and black whorls crawled out of under his clothes and across his skin.

The curse mark on her own shoulder twitched in sympathy. She gritted her teeth and forced it back under control. She heard the Uchiha brat howl in pain and saw most of the ANBU rush toward the rooftop to help him. The spider-boy spat an expanding net of webs in her direction and she had to focus, and trust the ANBU to get their job done.

"So you're Master Orochimaru's failed first try?" the spider boy called, bits of web stuck to his chin and lower lip. "I guess that means you're at least worth playing, though I didn't expect you to be an old lady."

"Me and 'lady' in the same sentence?" Anko called back. "You're dumber than you look!"

A spear made of hardened web shot through her belly just below the ribs, and she burst apart in a cloud of smoke. Anko frowned. The shot hadn't come from where she thought it would. The spider freak had some clones in play as well.

She wove a half dozen seals and bit her thumb, splattering blood across the roof. A seething ball of serpents appeared.

"Your target is the boy with six arms. He's pretty hard to miss."

The snakes nodded and separated. These ones were too young to argue about her lack of strategy, but smart enough not to haggle over payment before they'd accomplished anything.

She sprinted down the side of the building, planning to circle behind her target, but apparently he'd had a similar idea. She turned the corner into a swarming mass of spiders. The smallest of them were the size of dogs. She grinned and pulled her kunai.

Not all the spiders charged her. Some skittered down to the street, leaping at shocked civilians. She saw the ANBU splitting up to defend the villagers from the creatures, leaving her to take down their master.

It was all of a minute's work to slice, pummel and stab her way through, but the summoned spiders warned their master that she was coming. She leapt out onto the rooftops again, right into the path of an oncoming cloud of webs. Her hands blurred. She just cleared the cloud and it struck the building behind her. It stuck to the brick and mortar and then started to shrink, ripping the side off the building as it constricted back in on itself. A few startled civilians got up from beds and couches and ran-like beetles away from a flipped log.

A spike of hardened web resin caught an elderly woman through the lower back and spilled her guts across the floor of her living room.

"Ooops!" called the spider boy. "I thought that was you."

She zeroed in on him. All her senses and her instincts told her she was looking at the real thing and not a clone. She charged. Two pairs of his hands started weaving seals. She used replacement technique and appeared behind him, starting a new jutsu of her own.

She finished her seals just as he turned. A stream of webbing shot out of his mouth. A stream of flame shot out of hers. The web caught fire and the heat carried it up in the air. For a moment she was relieved that it had worked, but it just kept coming. She counted down the seconds in her mind. The longest she'd ever held this jutsu was three minutes, and that wasn't in the midst of battle. That was in a secure training ground where she could pass out afterward. She couldn't afford to waste her chakra on this all night.

A second stream of flame came up from her left and she let hers go out, falling back a bit as a second ANBU squad arrived on the field.

The spider boy made a gagging sound, but whatever was wrong with him didn't stop him from blocking two dozen kunai. The few that he didn't deflect with the weapons in his hands bounced off him with a dull rattling sound. Anko saw that more of the hardened webbing had oozed out of his skin to form armor. She thought it might reduce his mobility, but an ANBU in a parrot mask tried to rush him and got a punctured lung for his trouble. The spider boy gagged again, and spat up a long stream of goopy fluid that hardened in the shape of a bow.

She charged him before he could string it. As her feet hit the wall in front of him, her fingers finished the seals and snakes sprang from her sleeves, wrapping around his arms and neck. They tried to bite, but couldn't get through his armored skin. He twisted and she tried to glue herself to the wall with chakra, but he flung her around and she slammed into the side of the building. Her snakes hung on, keeping him tangled even as more webbing oozed out of him, covering them over wherever they touched him. They were being smothered, and they'd dispel in the next minute if they managed to survive this thrashing. He twisted, flinging her again, but an ANBU broke her fall and another jabbed the spider ninja through the lower back with a spear that glowed as if it had come straight out of the forge.

A third Leaf ninja arrived-some chunin whose name she couldn't recall-and flung a bolo at the speared Sound ninja. Anko could feel chakra crackling in the bolo's weights and the spear-wielder did, too, leaping back as the spinning weapon connected. The snakes fell from Anko's sleeves as the ANBU holding her teleported her away. She felt the blast even as they landed. The ANBU dropped her right away and it took a second to get herself facing in the right direction. Half the building had come down in the street. She leapt down to poke at the rubble. Her sense stretched out, but the spider boy's chakra just wasn't there. She saw a hand coated in hardened webbing sticking out of the bricks. She grabbed it and gave a sharp tug. The limb stopped just at the elbow.

"I've got the head over here," the bolo-throwing chunin said.

Anko grunted. She was almost disappointed that the fight had been so short, but with so many ninja in the neighborhood and so few targets, the little freak didn't have much of a chance. As she turned leapt towards Gai's building, a green blur whizzed by. She kept going, though she doubted there would be much left by the time she arrived.

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Sasuke never quit because of pain. It was frustration that unmade him. He trained and he focused and he let everything else go, and his efforts were not rewarded. That was not how it should be. He claimed to be faithless, a nihilist. Though he was barely a teenager, he told himself there were no gods or fate. He tried to believe only in revenge. He ignored for the most part the fact that his goals were not based on reality. You could give all and get nothing back. Edward Elric could have told him this if they had done anything besides bait each other. Jirobo's foot was doing a pretty good job of stomping that entrenched paradox out of Sasuke's head.

The last blow was only glancing and Sasuke stumbled gracelessly away from the following punch. He tripped over a crack in the half collapsed roof and fell. He saw the Sound ninja with the lumpy neck coming at him, but he could not move fast enough to dodge. He raised his arm to block. Instead of striking him, the Sound ninja grabbed his arm and yanked him to his feet.

"You still think you're going to learn anything useful here? They don't trust you with real power," the enemy ninja said, as he grabbed a handful of Sasuke's hair and pulled his head up. "You want that, don't you? I had a speech to convince you, but to be honest, I like the hands-on approach better. Aren't you tired of being everyone's bitch?"

Sasuke punched him in the sternum, or at least tried to. A hand caught his fist; a hand that sprouted right out of his opponent's chest.

"My brother Ukon is getting a little impatient," the lumpy-necked ninja said.

Sasuke tried to pull away as another arm sprouted from Sound ninja's left side and the lump on his neck expanded and turned, revealing another face.

"Sakon, this ridiculous," the new face said. "Let Jirobo knock him out and Orochimaru can deal with him."

"Ah-hem!" interrupted a creaky voice.

Sasuke and his two-headed opponent turned to see a large tortoise standing beside them.

"Look up," the tortoise said.

Sasuke blamed his recent head injuries for obeying. Sakon did not have that excuse. As they looked up, a green hurricane swept into them from the side.

Sakon tumbled clear off the building, but an arm caught Sasuke around the chest. He looked down and saw it was bright green.

"Fear not, student of my great rival! Maito Gai, the handsome green beast of Konoha has arrived!" the Jonin bellowed.

The world tilted as Gai spun and kicked Jirobo in the face. Sasuke saw the large ninja's head snap back, but he managed to keep his feet.

"He drains chakra," Sasuke gasped, as Gai charged the Sound ninja without bothering to put him down.

"I noticed, student of my rival!" Gai said, "But it will take more than that to reduce my youthful vitality!"

Gai's next kick slammed Jirobo through an air-conditioner and off the side of the building as well. Gai finally set Sasuke down, and the teenager was embarrassed to find his own legs were too weak to support him. He looked around, wondering where Sakon and his sort-of-conjoined twin had disappeared to.

Something blurred at the corner of his eye. His hand went to his kunai pouch, but Gai grabbed him and dragged him to a different roof, moving so fast Sasuke wasn't sure if they had teleported or not. He looked back and saw Sakon and Ukon were now two separate people and their faces were both covered in the pulsing, crawling curse seal. An ANBU team swarmed onto the roof and surrounded them, but the two enemy ninjas launched some sort of compression wave attack that blasted them all off the building.

"Please wait here, student of my rival," Gai said.

The Jonin vanished again, appearing in front of the pair of Sound ninja and sweeping them both off their feet with a single kick. Jirobo crawled back onto the roof and charged, but Gai vanished, appearing behind him and slamming a foot into the base of his spine. Sasuke heard something crack, but the Sound ninja got up again. The lines of the curse mark swarmed across his exposed skin like ants. He lunged at Gai and Gai leapt back. Sakon fired a blast of sound at him, but Gai vanished in blur. He appeared next to Sakon, but Sakon used a replacement technique. A billboard advertising eye shadow was pulverized in his place.

A pair of ANBU darted across the roof, and Sakon leapt back into view, flushed from a temporary hiding place behind a vent. Jirobo charged Gai again. He either didn't cotton onto, or didn't care that Gai was too fast for him to catch. He just kept running at him and getting crushing kicks for his trouble. Sasuke wondered how anyone could be that stupid, to charge a stronger, faster opponent instead of coming up with a strategy…

Sasuke's mind wandered back to his pathetic attempt to injure Itachi. He must have looked just as dumb charging in over and over again.

Jirobo tried to trap Gai with some sort of earth Jutsu. The roof broke apart and tried to flow around Gai in a dome but the Jonin shattered the makeshift prison in a single punch. Jirobo's curse seal now covered his skin completely and knobby growths erupted along his shoulders and across his forehead.

The large Sound ninja tried to punch Gai again, missing by an entire blink. His fist connected with the rooftop, and half the building shattered and collapsed into the street. Sasuke heard civilians' panicked screaming. Gai vanished again and Jirobo looked around, waiting for the next strike. Sasuke spotted Gai first. The Jonin was down on the ground, lifting a huge piece of rubble so a man could drag his wife from underneath it. The woman's lower body was a mess of blood. Her husband scooped her up and ran.

The air stirred around Sasuke and he threw himself backwards, barely dodging Jirobo, who had taken advantage of the distraction. The Sound ninja stalked towards him as if there were no reason to hurry.

"I'm gonna crush you, loser," Jirobo growled.

Sasuke retreated to the edge of the roof. His curse mark had retreated behind its seal, leaving Sasuke feeling burned out and exhausted. He wondered if he even had the energy to stick himself to the side of the building. He was sure he was too weak in that moment to leap to the next one.

A puff of smoke appeared between them. When it cleared, a tiny tortoise stood glaring at the Sound ninja.

"Distraction!" it chirped.

The roof exploded upwards, flinging the Sound ninja high in the air. Sasuke lost his balance and fell backwards, but he managed to catch the edge of the bricks with his fingertips. His feet scrabbled against the wall, but he managed to climb back over the edge.

Jirobo was still up in the air. Whenever he started to fall, a green blur would strike him, keeping him well off the ground. Sasuke thought this might be part of Gai's strategy, but to him it seemed more like a cat playing with a mouse, or perhaps a cat with a soccer ball. He shook his head, trying to clear out the Naruto-like similes that were creeping in.

Hands clamped down on Sasuke's shoulders and he tried to pull away. The world blurred around him as his captor teleported them to yet another rooftop. He was released as soon as his feet touched down. He spun toward his opponent.

"Calm yourself, Uchiha," an ANBU in a Lynx mask said as Sasuke struggled to get oriented.

He looked up and saw Jirobo still bouncing around in the air. He saw either Ukon or Sakon on the roof he'd just been snatched from while he'd been gawping at the spectacle like a civilian.

His eyes were drawn upward again as Gai shouted something about a westward gale. The green blur hit Jirobo one last time. The ground shook and a wave of dust and chips of concrete rained over the neighborhood.

"Two confirmed dead, two still at large," the Lynx ANBU muttered into his radio.

It seemed the impossibly strong ninja Orochimaru had sent were not so great after all. Was that all the curse seal was good for, a brief burst of power and a specious feeling of superiority? It had helped him in the chunin exams, but perhaps any drug that made overtaxing your body painless would have done the same. He had tried to look up information on Orochimaru when he was first infected with the seal, but all he knew was that the former Leaf ninja was exiled for experimenting on unwilling ninja and civilians. Kakashi had even warned him that as the last Uchiha he would likely be a target of other villages trying to copy his blood limit, or even trying to simply steal the eyes right out of his head.

He wondered why the much more powerful ninja hadn't simply kidnapped him from the chunin exams instead of marking him with the seal and offering him power. Why had he sent these Sound ninja to lure him away from the village when they were also likely strong enough to take him by force? It made no sense…

Sasuke wished he had someone to talk to, someone who could help him work all this out, without turning him in as a traitor to the village if he did decide to leave. He ground his teeth together as his mind brought up images of family members long dead. The curse seal twitched as he thought of Itachi. He pictured him dead on the ground, his eyes plucked out. He looked at the crater down the street. The dust had cleared and he could see splattered blood, but it was too deep to see the Sound ninja lying dead at the bottom. The curse seal would not be enough to beat Itachi.

Sasuke looked over at the ANBU in the lynx mask. "There were two others," he said. "I couldn't see them, but I heard them fighting with Elric. There was a boy, and a girl using a flute to cast genjutsu."

The ANBU nodded and tapped his radio to alert the others. Gai appeared again, charging Sakon. The Sound ninja turned and fled.

Sasuke decided one thing. I won't be joining Orochimaru tonight.

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Hinata Hyuga startled awake, shrieking and flinging her arms about in a very un-ninja-like fashion. The little dog that had been licking her face easily avoided her flapping limbs.

"Are you hurt?" the dog asked.

Hinata recognized it from Kiba's family's compound but couldn't recall its name. "No, ma'am. But I don't know how I got here. I was going…somewhere?"

"This area was hit by a genjutsu. Most ninja below chunin level were knocked out by it, but the sounds of battle woke most of the others. I've been assigned to help evacuate, since civilians are running around in the way. If you are fit for duty, get to work."

Hinata was more than a little horrified. She could hear the fighting now and feel chakra bursting all over the neighborhood. She had been very tired lately, but there was no excuse for this.

"Yes, ma'am," Hinata said, bowing.

The dog had hurried away before Hinata realized she had been addressing a puppy as if it had higher rank. If her father had seen that, he'd have disowned her on the spot. She gulped and activated her Byakugan.

She saw dozens of people running and stumbling past her towards the emergency shelters. She started scanning the buildings for people who might have been trapped. She saw Gai's building half-collapsed and remembered why she had slipped out of her family compound that night.

She had written her apology this time, in case she lost her nerve. It seemed unlikely she would find Edward Elric at Gai's apartment now. She scanned the fleeing crowd, even if he was not the type to run from trouble. For a moment she thought she saw his automail arm, but there were so many people and so much chakra washing over the area that she wasn't sure. The arm disappeared around a building. She looked towards the fighting for moment and then took off running after Edward. As soon as she was sure he was alright, she would do what the dog told her.

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Tayuya sensed the chakra of the oncoming ninja, dozens of them, drawn by the pillar of fire. If Kidomaru wanted to stay and die playing stupid games, that wasn't her problem.

She used her toe to roll the web-covered prisoner through the dirt to make sure it wasn't sticky anymore. She didn't want her hair getting caught in any of the spider freak's vomit. She scooped Elric up and cast a new genjutsu to avoid notice, changing them into an old man and a sack that rattled like tin cans.

Jirobo and Sakon were making enough racket to wake the neighborhood from her sleeping spell and civilians had begun stumbling into the streets, providing her with cover. She passed a few ninja, probably not more than genin rank. It would have been so easy to break their necks, but it would not have been quiet. Unlike her idiot teammates, she was very aware of the value of stealth. She considered using her radio to let them know she would meet them at the first fall back point, but decided against it.

She knew Orochimaru would not be pleased if they returned without the Uchiha brat, but she at least would not be empty handed. She might be the only one to return alive anyway, given the shear number of Leaf ninja rushing into the neighborhood. She was sure she could have taken any of them one-on-one, but even Kimimaro would have trouble with this many.

Her curse seal twitched as Kidomaru activated his. The idiot must have backed himself into a corner already. She heard rumbling and an explosion that drowned out the other sounds of combat behind her. Around her civilians whimpered and wailed. She fought down the urge to rush ahead of the herd, but when she saw the entrance to an underground emergency shelter, she knew she had to break away. Even if no one there noticed anything odd about her, she couldn't just wait it out. The Leaf ninja had plenty of tracking specialists at their disposal, and she did not want to be stuck underground when the dogs, or bugs, or whatever other disgusting animal they summoned located her. She stepped out of the stream of people. Someone actually tried to grab her arm and drag her along. She shook herself free, shouting something vague about an elderly mother. She hurried down a side alley and no one followed.

It was a matter of minutes before the village wall was in sight. She knew the Leaf ninja wouldn't leave the boarders undefended, even with the huge battle going on in the center of town. She paused for a moment, considering strategy. Her summon creatures would draw attention even if they would make jumping the wall easier. She did not know if she could lose the leaf ninja in their own forest. Stealth would still be-

A white-hot pain shot through her shoulder. Her arm went numb. She turned and a petite foot slammed into her face. She started to lose her balance and a follow up kick to the stomach robbed her of it completely. She hit the ground and rolled, trying to open up some space between her and her attacker. She failed and a kunai slashed across the top of her other shoulder, slicing the strands that held her web-wrapped captive. Her prisoner went bouncing across the cobble street.

"SHIT!" she hissed, scrambling to pick him up again.

A small Hyuga girl beat her to him. The girl could barely lift Elric, but she managed to haul him a few yards away. They both knew she couldn't just flee with him, not without being cut down from behind.

"Well, you little bitch? What are you going to do?" Tayuya said, fighting back a smirk as the little girl flinched from her harsh language.

The girl tapped at a radio, but it seemed pretty obvious no one was answering. Tayuya brought her flute to her lips and cast a larger area genjutsu. If she could keep this quiet enough it wouldn't ruin her plan, and the girl didn't strike her as a noisy fighter. She didn't seem like a fighter at all actually.

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Things were not going well.

Sakon decided Tayuya and Kidomaru were at fault. That's how he'd tell it when they reported back, at least. They were the ones who let the Elric brat set off that fiery signal, after all.

He leapt sideways, barely dodging another kick from the green-spandex-clad maniac who pursued him. Even in his second state, he could not match the crazy jonin's strength. He tried to find Ukon so they could use their summons to slow him down, but his brother was well out of sight.

"You, villain!" Gai called, pointing at Sakon. "You will not escape again."

Sakon rolled his eyes. "What are you going to do about it, old man?"

In response, Gai pulled an I-beam out of a crumbling wall and used it to swat Sakon through the side of the building next door.

"YOU QUESTION THE POWERS OF MY YOUTH?"

Sakon shook his ringing head. He should have kept his mouth shut. He stumbled to his feet and teleported. He found some cover in the rubble of the building Jirobo had brought down in his fight. His shaking fingers found the scroll and he dragged it from his belt. He knew this was as likely to get him killed as to save him, but at least the Leaf ninja would suffer with him. He bit his thumb and smeared blood across the seal. Smoke exploded up from the chakra-infused paper.

When it cleared, a thin pale teenager stood looking down at him. His eyes were rimmed with red, and he reeked. Disinfectant warred with sour body odor. It seemed they'd dumped him straight from his hospital bed into the transport seal.

"I should kill you for your incompetents," the pale one said.

"Why don't you kill the Leaf ninja first, and we can discuss my death later," Sakon said, unable to hold the other's gaze.

When he looked up Kimimaro had vanished.

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Author's Note: So I'm not dead. How about that? This chapter has been driving me nuts for years, but it just isn't getting any better. How about if it is super terrible, we just pretend we never saw it, and move on to the next one?