Author's warning note of Warningness!: I have decided to leave the story in the T-rating category, as the majority of people who responded to my previous end-of-chapter question said it wasn't gory or smutty enough to warrant an M rating. That being said, this chapter has a few scenes that might be a bit off-putting to people with delicate sensibilities: swearing, ouches, etc. It's no worse than what you see in the Fullmetal or Naruto manga, but considering those are both full of bloody murder…
The Truth Decays
Edward Elric woke up strapped to a chair, immediately aware that his clothes and automail were missing. There was no light, and the sound of his own breathing was oddly muffled in his ears. His bare foot did not reach the floor, and he could not turn his arm enough to bring his hand in contact with anything.
Rather than trying any complicated atmospheric alchemy, he tried to gather his thoughts. He expected to have a splitting headache or nausea or something to explain how he'd ended up there. Other than tingling in his bound limbs, he felt like he was in pretty good shape.
Was I in a fight? When am I not in a fight? I was in Gai's apartment…and then that shrieking, pink-haired harpy and the spider kid attacked. So is this Sound village? No…the fake blind girl was there…
Her own people had attacked her, and probably killed her…which meant he was likely still in Leaf village somewhere. Ed shifted again, trying to find enough leverage to twist one of his arrays into contact with something. He felt watched.
He heard a thump and then a sizzle somewhere in the dark. Ed flinched, still blind, but this time from a floodlight coming on a few yards from his face. He heard feet scuffing across the floor, and the slow tap of a cane.
"You have threatened our village at a very tumultuous time," a gravelly voice said. "The Fifth Hokage believes you are ungovernable. We will prove that is not true."
"Up yours, you fxxking creeper," Ed snapped.
The slap came out of nowhere, and somehow failed to shade any of the light pouring into Ed's eyes. His head bounced off part of the chair frame.
"You will speak with respect," ordered a new, monotone voice from somewhere to the right.
"Obviously I won't, asshole," Ed replied.
"Obstinacy will not help you," the gravelly voice said. "You will address me as 'Leader' and you will not employ vulgarities in my presence."
Ed's head swam, even though the slap hadn't seemed that hard. He knew it was stupid to antagonize the people who were holding him captive. Things would probably turn out better if he held back his feelings and acted in a civil manner.
"Whatever," Ed growled.
"I am very interested in this alchemy you have been using to repair buildings in my village. Explain the principles of it," the gravelly voice commanded.
Ed frowned. He tried to think of a reason not to agree with them. They wanted to protect their village, and he could understand wanting to protect your loved ones. These were the kind of dedicated people who he could trust to use alchemy for the good of everyone…
Ed shook himself. "Sure, I'll explain. By whatever, I mean 'fxxk you!'"
The spotlight switched off, and Ed blinked away spots until he saw his latest prison. He was in a wide, low-ceilinged room without windows. Recessed lighting at the base of the walls left the tops of his two new captors' heads oddly shadowed.
Neither of the two men wore Leaf Ninja headbands. One was dark-haired, grizzled, and old, with bandages covering his right eye and an x-shaped scar on his chin. The old man's right arm was tucked into a lopsided gray robe that bunched on the floor, hiding his feet. The other man was younger, probably in his early 20's. He had shoulder-length auburn hair and wore a brown tunic and gray pants, with a sword strapped to his back. Based on the backwards logic of this universe, Ed decided the old man with the cane was the more dangerous of the pair.
The younger man stared hard at Ed, and said something to his boss in a voice so low Ed could only pick out a few words. "Did not use chakra" was emphasized enough to cross the distance. Ed guessed they had used one of their weird mind-control spells a moment before the old man spoke and confirmed it.
"You truly are immune to genjutsu," the old man said. "Even Kotoamatsukami fails to sway you. I had doubts when they claimed you escaped the Tsukuyomi, but I cannot deny first-hand proof. In the long run though, that resistance won't save you. We will just have to resort to more damaging methods."
"Been there. Done that," Ed drawled. "At least that bastard Ibiki had a better sense of drama."
"He was bound by the Fifth's orders," the old man said. "When it comes to the security of the village, I am not."
Well that sort of confirms I am still in Leaf village. Someday, I'll go somewhere without an evil secret shadow government pulling conspiracy crap all over the place, Ed thought. And since this guy is apparently proud of flaunting Queen-boob's authority…
"I guess that makes you the bastard that stuck this goddamn seal on me," Ed said.
"My agents did," the old man said. "And I will use it as many times as necessary to get the information I want."
"Bite me, you decrepit troglodyte."
The old man let his cane rest against his leg, and made a gesture with his left hand. The muscles in Ed's back locked up and his body rattled in the chair as his nervous system burned, but he managed not to scream. It ended before Ed could pass out. Ed heard the old man's cane tapping the floor as he paced, apparently waiting for Ed to recover his wits.
"I suppose the reports of your tolerance for pain were not exaggerated, either," the old man said. "This will be inefficient."
"Please allow me to retrieve the information," the younger man said.
Ed thought the lackey sounded eager to please, despite speaking in a monotone.
"Be cautious," the old man warned.
The younger man bowed to his boss, and approached. He pulled a bunch of little rectangles of paper out of his pockets and started sticking them to Ed's head and chest. Ed squirmed and tried to bite the bastard's hands, but he just wasn't quick enough. The man stepped back a few paces from Ed, and made a weird symbol with his fingers, as if he were deciding how to frame a painting.
He knocked the room away.
Ed reeled, trying to figure out what the hell was happening. He felt like he was floating and his memories bubbled up in the dark space around him.
He and Al climbed a tree in Resembool while Winry shouted at them for going too high. Scar grabbed his arm. Sgt. Fuery handed him a cup of tea as he struggled through paperwork. Dozens of hands dragged Al away, his body breaking apart as the Gate opened. Al's fingers slipped through his…
The low-ceilinged room returned. Ed shuddered and then hissed as he realized the little papers stuck all over him were smoldering. One slip had actually caught fire.
The auburn-haired man lay flat on his back on the floor. Blood dripped from the man's eyes, nose, and ears. Ed hadn't felt the Gate open, but his head ached like it had after his first trip through. He wondered if that meant the guy lying on the floor was some kind of mind reader. He supposed that was no less impossible than all the other crazy things he'd seen ninja do.
Ed looked for the old man and saw him disappointingly intact in the corner. His gray robe had been cast aside to expose his right arm, braced in gold-colored metal cuffs bound by three ridiculously oversized bolts.
"That seemed to work out really well," Ed said to his remaining captor. "Why don't you give it a try?"
Tayuya lay strapped to a table, listening to the dull scrape of a blade across a whetstone. The situation was painful and humiliating, but not so unusual in her life, so those feelings did not occupy her mind. Hating a mousy, white-eyed, spoiled little clan princess did. She could not believe she had lost, had been taken alive, because that trash had tripped her up and slowed her down. Of course it was her own stupid fault for not taking Root into account when her team-may they rot in hell-planned their retrieval mission.
Orochimaru had given them a dossier on Root, the secret group working for Shimura Danzo, the want-to-be Hokage. Based on that information, she had assumed Danzo would not interfere with their taking Uchiha Sasuke, since Orochimaru thought Danzo had some sort of vendetta against the Uchiha Clan. Then again, it wasn't the Uchiha brat they fought to take back from her. Danzo wanted the loud-mouthed little blond cripple.
She paused in her seething to listen, but then assumed she had imagined the word "bitch" echoing through the hall beyond her cell door.
Tayuya wasn't sure if being caught by Root was better or worse than being captured by the rank-and-file Leaf Ninja. She didn't expect either party to cut her any slack during interrogation, but Danzo might sell or trade her back to Orochimaru. According to Kabuto, that boot-licking little toady, Danzo was less of a do-gooder wimp than most other Leaf Ninja, and shared Orochimaru's fondness for seals and experimental surgery. According to the rumor mill, the two of them even traded techniques and tissue samples, though Tayuya had never been tasked with such courier duty.
She decided her best course of action would be to keep her mouth shut and look for a chance to escape. She did not look forward to returning to Hidden Sound as a failure, since it meant she'd likely be executed anyway, or subjected to further experiments, but it would be worse if she had to be rescued or ransomed and they found out she had given something away.
She took stock of her current condition. While she was unconscious, her captors had patched up her gut wound and probably a skull fracture and hematoma, from the way her head was aching. Her neck burned and pulsed, not from an injury, but from whatever seal they had slapped over her cursed heaven seal to keep her from using it to escape.
She hadn't come up with anything by the time her guard finished sharpening his knives.
Tsunade squatted down next to the not-quite-dead body, and examined it with a diagnostic jutsu. She found that the bloated, gasping thing should already be dead. Its nervous system had self-destructed, while the circulatory system had grown out of control. A half-dozen pseudo-hearts had sprouted from random arteries and veins. This explained why the body pulsed and bulged inside its too-loose skin, but not how the hearts were alive enough to beat in the first place.
"You've seen the results of Elric's alchemy on a human," Tsunade said. "Did it look anything like this?"
When there was no immediate response she looked over her shoulder. Inuzuka Kiba stood in the corner facing the wall, his dog clutched to his chest. The dog had been whining since they entered the blood-spattered hospital room, through the hole ANBU had blown in the wall. She knew this was a horrible burden to put on a lone genin, but his Jonin sensei and his surviving teammate were out of the village at the moment.
"No, nothing like that," Kiba said, sounding like he was trying not to breathe. "He just touched the Sound bastard and the guy fell apart. Blood sprayed everywhere, but dead right away."
"And you don't detect Elric's scent?"
An ANBU tracker had already inspected the room, but he was not personally acquainted with both victim and suspect, as Kiba was, nor did he have the raw talent that even the youngest members of Inuzuka Clan had. The ANBU had suspected countermeasures were used, since a mix of chakra signatures had contaminated the room.
"No. There's Hinata…her blood's all over and…I think she was burned somehow," Kiba said, pointing without really looking. "There's that thing on the floor. There are nurses or doctors; they all smell like antiseptic and soap, and they come and go often…there's six, no, seven ninja besides the ANBU with you now... Hyuga Neji, Naruto, I don't know the others. There's something else weird."
"Weird how? Does the smell remind you of someone?"
"Everyone," Kiba said, clutching the dog like a small child would a stuffed animal. "He says it smells like everyone was in here. He's better with chakra signatures than I am. It's…I can't tell what it is. It's a mess, but the chakra doesn't have normal body scent mixed in with it. It's like their chakra was here without them."
That lent credence to the countermeasures theory. If someone was good enough with seals, they could trap and then release other people's chakra, though she did not know why someone would bother with many, instead of just framing a single ninja. To generate more confusion, she supposed.
Tsunade stood up. "Alright, you're dismissed."
He didn't bolt from the room like she thought he would.
"I want…I request permission to join the search," Kiba said.
"Granted, until your next mission comes up."
Kiba hurried through the hole in the wall, dropping his dog. They both sniffed the air, searching for hints of their missing teammate. Tsunade frowned after him, hating the drama of the situation, and wishing she were sitting at a slot machine with a bottle of sake in her hand.
It looked like Edward Elric was responsible. He had reasons to hold a grudge against the Hyuga girl, and he was the only person Tsunade could name who could remove doors and windows and leave seamless blank walls behind.
She reissued the village-wide alerts on Elric, ordering his arrest if he was found. The order made logical sense, but Elric was not a logical person, he was short-tempered, soft-hearted, and rude. Even if she was willing to believe he had taken the Hyuga girl, she could not believe he would cut her up and burn her, especially when the girl was unlikely to be conscious enough to appreciate her torturer's efforts.
Tsunade signaled for her guard to meet her back at the Tower, which was still under the god-damned ground. She felt their chakra as they moved away, but before she could step through the hole, another ANBU appeared before her in a swirl of leaves, and knelt. This one was not from her personal guard. She waved them away when they moved to intercept him.
The interloper wore a badger mask. It took her a moment to place it with a name. She frowned. Maki Mamoru was a new recruit to black ops, but he knew he was not supposed to be seen. The masked, kneeling figure held out a clipboard, the chart that should have been hanging at the foot of Hyuga Hinata's bed. She had noticed it was missing, but hadn't really focused on the fact before. Tsunade took the chart and saw a shaky hand had written six very damning words.
Hinata did not know how long she had been in the tunnels. She had passed out several times, and every waking filled her with dread. Often she would come to lying on a random slab of stone floor, or packed earth, with only the sound of her own struggling lungs for company. Other times she would hear it moving towards her, a sound somewhere between running water and rustling leaves. The rats and insects could hear it, too. They scurried right over her useless legs when they fled from it.
In the rare moments when strength and coherence intersected, she would activate her byakugan. She had detected chakra at the far reaches of her range: signatures large enough for ninja. She did not try to call for help. The creature could kill her the instant she acted up, and if this was some sort of secret system patrolled by Danzo's men, she would be in just as much danger from them.
She did not know how it intended to find where Danzo was keeping Ed. It had not asked her any more questions, and she was too afraid to try to initiate communication with it. When the creature was not in its solid form, it would just wash over her, and she would wake up somewhere else. Sometimes it came back in the form of the dark-haired man. Then it would grab an arm or a leg and just drag her along behind it, adding dozens of scrapes and bruises to her already significant injuries. It had not purposefully added to them since the hospital, until now.
It was a man at the moment. He held her hand and stabbed away at her palm, using a needle to drive ink into the wounds. He had done the same to her feet. She risked a glimpse with her byakugan and realized she recognized the symbols he was tattooing into her flesh; Edward Elric and this creature bore the same ones.
She fought down a cough, not because it made her captor angry, though it did, but because it made the aching, pulsing pain in her mouth and throat a hundred times worse. She knew she needed medical attention, and was equally aware she wasn't going to get it. Her wounds were infected. If the pain and swelling weren't enough of a hint, her fever was so high she was shivering and felt cold. She lost her battle and the tunnel echoed with rattling choking sounds.
The needle stopped, though the creature hadn't finished making even one complete circle on that hand.
The creature muttered something in a language she did not know, and then paused as if listening for an answer. She heard nothing. The creature dropped her hand and moved away.
Something glowed with the same gold and blue flashes as Edward's alchemy. She could not seem to muster the energy to turn and look at it. A moment later the lights faded and she heard the crackling of a small fire. The light hurt her eyes, but everything hurt anyway. She didn't bother to groan. She thought she heard water running, though she hadn't seen any pipes during her brief look around.
The creature's face had changed, as it had for a moment in her room when it had cauterized her injuries. Its face was a practiced blank, instead of a genuinely apathetic one. She saw poorly concealed pity in his eyes now.
He brought the bowl to her lips and poured lukewarm water in. She strangled and coughed again. It took her fevered brain a moment to realize that without her tongue she could not swallow. He figured that out, too. He clapped his hands together and pressed them to the bowl. It glowed and reformed into a long funnel. She managed not to gag but couldn't entirely suppress a whine as it scraped her raw throat.
"I am sorry," he said.
He sounded like he meant it.
He touched his hands together and one of them started to glow. He held that hand over the mouth of the funnel and water poured in. Hinata had heard of an E-rank ninjutsu that condensed water from the air, but she had never learned it. She used her byakugan for a moment, and saw no chakra. This was more alchemy, like Edward's.
The water poured in until her stomach ached. She tapped the man's leg. He caught on and slid the funnel out. Water poured over her body, and she shivered.
He peeled off the remains of her hospital gown and gave her a quick scrub down with it. He clapped his hands together as he wrung out the gown. The filth just fell out of the garment. With a second clap and another flash of light the rips and tears healed, and steam rose. The light faded and he redressed her in the cleaned and repaired gown. After a moment he took off his blue shirt and helped her sit up and slide her still-clumsy arms into the sleeves.
"I am sorry. No eat," he said.
His shoulders slumped and the flickering from the fire accented the shadows under his eyes. She watched him, more certain every minute that the changes in behavior were not just a split personality or a mind game.
Her head was still foggy with fever, exhaustion, and pain, but she thought she had figured out at least some of what was going on. She was no expert on the subject of possession. Her academy classmate Yamanaka Ino could take over someone else's body using her clan's techniques, but that was only for a short time. She had to go back to her own body at some point. Hinata thought this creature was something stronger and more permanent.
"You are…stone," he said, taking her hands and pressing them together.
Hinata shook her head, pulling away to draw the Leaf symbol on the ground with her finger.
"No, you are stone…for alchemy," he said. His mouth opened to say something else but then he flinched.
"None of that!" he said, his tone completely altered.
The creature was back in control. Hinata held up her hands in surrender. The creature rolled its eyes.
"Roy has pointed out that being the weak little sack of meat that you are, you won't survive very long without a bit of upkeep," it said. "But he also knows you wouldn't be hard to replace. You understand that, right?"
Hinata nodded. It reached forward and tugged on the collar of the blue shirt, causing her to overbalance and fall on her side.
"It's got your germs all over it now, I suppose," it said.
With another put-upon sigh, its posture changed and Roy was back. He pressed his hands together and then pressed them to her palm. A pattern of light matching the one on his palm appeared on hers, and then ink flowed into it. It stung, but not as badly as the needle had. He repeated the process with her other hand, back, the top of her head, and her chest over her heart. She watched as the body changed pilots again. The creature inspected her hands in the firelight.
"It looks like he didn't screw up," the creature said. "Though if he had, I'd have just ripped off your hands, and started again a little higher up."
She flinched and tried to pull her hands back. It held them for a moment, grinning, and then let go.
She mouthed "Roy", pointing away, and then mouthed "you" and pointed at him.
"You've figured out I'm not Roy and you want my name?" it asked, grinning.
"And why would I denigrate myself by exchanging introductions with an insignificant worm like you?" it asked, grin gone. "Do you think you and I are forming some kind of bond? Do you think you deserve to know?"
Hinata shook her head, mouthing "sorry" over and over again. The creature snorted, and when she risked looking up, the smirk was back.
"I am the sin of Pride," it said. "I think we have nothing at all in common."
Orochimaru couldn't have done better in Tayuya's honest, personal, and very studied opinion. Danzo's expressionless drones were even more frightening than the sadistic psychopaths her boss kept around. They reacted to nothing; not to taunts or screams or curses. Of course, their lack of reaction did not stop her from laying into them verbally.
It didn't stop Elric either, apparently.
"-grandmother and a goat!"
Elric's voice was faint, but clearly audible. She had a lot of experience with acoustics from her jutsu, and figured he was not more than fifty feet away. A thick, seal-reinforced stone wall separated their respective cells, but the linked ventilation system transmitted sound easily. She thought Danzo had moved them close together so they could feed off each other's fear.
"THAT'S A REPEAT, SHORTY!" she shouted.
"Is not!" he shouted back.
"IS TOO!" she shouted, and then fought down a scream as her interrogator touched a red hot iron to the sole of her foot again. She took a few gulping breaths to ensure her voice didn't waiver. "YOU SAID THAT YESTER- ehhrrrrrrrrrrrrrrg!"
The interrogator moved the iron to her belly in the middle of her sentence. It actually hurt slightly less than burning her feet, but she hadn't been ready for it, thinking he would heat it again before applying it to a new patch of skin.
"You wall-eyed, ass-licking moron!" she hissed at him. The blank-faced man did not respond.
"Yester-when?" Ed called back mockingly.
"YESTERDAY, YOU LOPSIDED, INCONTINENT LITTLE PUSTULE!"
"No! Yesterday I said the slack-faced degenerate who was pulling out my fingernails was the product of a threesome between his father, grandmother and a goat! Today I have a new slack-faced degenerate, whom I am convinced participates in threesomes with his grandmother and a goat! It's different."
"IT'S WEAK, IS WHAT IT IS!"
She waited for a reply, and instead heard splashing. She knew they were using less physically damaging torture on the alchemist, since they wanted a lot from him. She found herself counting seconds, listening for the gasping and coughs when they let him up.
She hated Elric. Of course she hated him. It was his fault she was trapped in this shit hole. Everyday though, she found herself hating him a little less than everyone else. She even thought she'd miss him a little when he died, if only because their cursing contest would end. She had always been competitive, and it would just ruin her whole fxxking day if he died without acknowledging she'd won.
The body found in Hinata's room had stopped breathing and bubbling, and now lay autopsied and frozen in the hazard unit in the hospital morgue. They found no evidence the warped human had ingested or otherwise absorbed the girl. The only clue left was the most problematic to pursue.
She looked at the clipboard again.
She couldn't tell if it was the Hyuga girl's handwriting. She would have bet good money that the girl had lost too much brain function to write at all. The note could have been planted to throw off their investigation. If Danzo did arrange the girl's kidnapping or death, he would not have let her leave a note, and as much as she detested her political rival, he wasn't sloppy enough to miss something like that. It could be a frame up, but was it Danzo framing Elric, or Elric framing Danzo, whom he'd never have met as far as she knew, or the third party that took Hinata and left the corpse? There was also the off chance the bloated thing on the floor had somehow done it, before partially self-destructing.
Calling Danzo in for questioning about the message would get her nowhere. He had lied to her face about putting a seal on Edward to keep him in the village. She expected he would not admit to kidnapping Edward and crippling the Hyuga girl, either. Since she had not confronted Danzo and was refusing meetings, she hoped he would think she was backing down, or perhaps pouting, since he apparently still thought her childish. She wanted as much time as possible to prepare.
After the seal incident, Tsunade had drafted a couple of Naras to go through the Third Lord's secure files on Root, but the personnel had not overlapped with the guards who had failed to protect Edward. The files she had only went back five years, to when the Third Lord ordered Root disbanded. She'd sent the Naras to the accounting department next, since Danzo wasn't rich enough to personally fund the entire organization. If he was still running Root, he was taking money for missions that were completely off the books. She did not know how big the organization had grown, and it was clear nothing left in her files would elucidate that. She needed to dig more directly.
Whether Danzo was guilty of attacking Hinata or not, Tsunade intended for him to take the blame. Root agents taking Elric from a Sound Ninja and getting rid of a Leaf Ninja witness fit the situation better than a Sound Ninja escaping without a trace and returning to kill a witness later. She wasn't discounting the existence and potential threat of a new alchemist, but if she could resolve the Danzo issue before moving on to the new threat, so much the better.
The hard part now was gathering enough support to stop him. She doubted he would submit to arrest. If confronted, he would either attack her with his own ninja or flee the village with his supporters, as Orochimaru had done more than a decade before. She didn't intend to die, or risk losing more of their already depleted forces to fighting and defection.
The group she'd called to her office was not a happy one. Homura and Koharu had not been invited, since she doubted the elders' loyalty and their judgment. Many of the clan heads were on missions, and she couldn't call in more than a few of the villages' elite Jonin without causing a panic.
Hiashi Hyuga, Morino Ibiki, Maito Gai, Nara Shikaku, Yamanaka Inoichi, and Akimichi Choza stood before her desk. She had requested they arrive as surreptitiously as possible, but famous ninja traveling through a village full of ninja to a building full of ninja were bound to be noticed by someone. The privacy seals she and Shizune had set up around the room didn't appear to make any of them more comfortable with the situation.
"Do any of you have anything to add about the Elric situation?" she asked.
Various members of their clans had been called upon in the search. Sometimes information went to the clan heads, instead of into the written report, though she doubted they would hide anything relevant. No one but Gai volunteered anything.
"I do not believe Edward would sneak back into the hospital to attack Hyuga Hinata," Gai said. "Not only is it inconsistent with all his previous behavior, it does not explain the stranger's corpse found in her room."
"Unless he left it there." Ibiki said.
"The trackers found no evidence that he was there," Gai said, unusually curt. "Or anywhere else in the village."
"If it was not Elric, that means we are dealing with a second alchemist, or even a group of them," Tsunade said.
Ibiki scowled. You didn't need to be a Yamanaka to know what he was thinking. The man was still pouting that he hadn't been able to run a full interrogation Elric when he had him in custody.
"We have another problem," Tsunade said, tossing Hinata's medical chart onto her desk.
The gathered ninja leaned forward to inspect it. All but Shikaku exchanged wary looks. The head of the Nara Clan seemed to drop into an upright coma after his eyes skimmed over the chart.
"Hiashi," Tsunade asked. "Did your daughter write this?"
The man inspected it, activating his byakugan. "I cannot confirm that she did. The medic reported she would have nerve damage and partial paralysis if she ever woke. The writer does appear unsteady enough to bear that out, but the sample is too small for the basis of a definite conclusion. I can confirm that these are her left hand index, middle, and ring fingerprints," he concluded, through clenched teeth, pointing to three places on the wrinkled page that appeared blank to Tsunade.
Hiashi might think his eldest child was an embarrassing screwup, but Tsunade thought he would not want to let an assault on her by a fellow villager, no matter their rank, go unpunished. Ten years ago, the Third Lord had forced the Hyuga Clan to put to death Hiashi's brother to maintain peace with Hidden Cloud, after the Cloud ambassador was killed trying to kidnap Hinata. Edward Elric had been bound with a Hyuga seal, casting doubt on the Hyugas' loyalty. Taking out Danzo should satisfy Hiashi's honor, and show the clan head that she was a Hokage who supported his righteous retribution, instead of forcing him to sacrifice doubly to keep the peace.
"Hinata's Inuzuka teammate and the hospital's lab confirmed it is her blood on the paper," Tsunade added, twisting the knife with a sorrowful face.
"You think Danzo did this?" Inoichi asked. "He can't use alchemy."
"Unless he was the one who took Elric, and he's already extracted the necessary techniques," Ibiki said.
"Edward was missing for three days when Hinata was attacked," Gai said. "Even if Danzo were employing someone of Ibiki's skill, I do not think he would break that quickly."
"I don't know who else is involved, but I do know Danzo is," Tsunade said.
Shikaku opened his eyes long enough to give her a hard look, but did not speak up.
Tsunade continued. "I have the official and unofficial maps of the tunnels the ANBU use to move through and out of the village unseen, but I am sure that Danzo has this same information. Hiashi, under the guise of looking for Elric and your daughter, I want your clan to confirm that what I have on paper is accurate, and to map any new construction. Anything Danzo put in is likely to be hidden with seals and extensively trapped. If you do find your daughter during the search, all ninja under my authority will aid you in retrieving her."
"Shikaku," she said. "I'm sure you already know a few members of your clan are looking for the source of Danzo's finances. I'm going to need you to go over the rosters and pick out the ninja most likely to be members of Root. I need to know which of them are closest to me, especially if they are in my guard detail."
"You think he's planning a coup?" Inoichi asked.
"I don't know what he is planning," Tsunade said. "He probably could have seized power after Hiruzen's death, if that was all he wanted. I do know he is acting against my orders, and he must know better than to bluff."
Shimura Danzo sat at his desk, trying to ignore the aches that plagued his body. He shifted in his chair, looking away from his work for a few moments to take a sip of now-cold tea. He did not keep a timepiece with him, but he knew it was just after five in the morning. He imagined the sun's first rays were stirring the village to wakefulness, a few hundred feet above his head. The civilians probably thought themselves industrious for rising so early, but the village's real work was done in the dark of night. He put down his cup and turned his attention to a pile of mission reports.
Root operatives in Lightning Country had destroyed several bridges in order to disrupt trade. They had created a trail that should lead any investigators to local group of political dissidents: traces of explosives, maps, and the corpse of a local magistrate who had questioned the motives of the dissidents. The next report was on the attempted assassination of the Daimyo of Hot Water Country. It was a feint to drive up business, but unfortunately the Daimyo had hired Mist Ninja for protection. He was contemplating following up with a real assassination when he detected a flare of chakra outside his office.
"Enter," he ordered.
"We have collected the requested personnel," Operative 128 said.
"Bring the first ten to room 45," Danzo ordered.
128 vanished. Danzo rose slowly from his desk. He activated a series of seals that would cause every document in the room to burn if anyone else set foot inside. He stepped into the lightless tunnel outside his office. He did not rush. It was unlikely 128 would arrive first, and if he did, it would only give Elric more time to worry.
He had expected more progress in the interrogation, and he allowed himself to consider, in the privacy of his own mind, that Tsunade may have been right in her plans to keep the alchemist on a long leash. A slow seduction might have brought better results, but it was too late to change his methodology now. The presence of another alchemist made the interrogation of the one they had all the more pressing.
He knew Elric had not murdered the as-yet-unidentified man at the hospital nor taken the Hyuga heir. Elric had been under observation by multiple guards every second of the day since his capture. At first Danzo suspected Tsunade was only pretending to search for Elric and the Hyuga girl as a cover for some other operation, but his own agents had inspected the hospital room. Though the Fifth had the corpse moved out of his reach and under guard, his spies confirmed the damage to the walls, or the lack thereof, matched the alterations Elric made to the interrogation department.
Danzo had considered having Orochimaru's agent killed in front of Elric, as they seemed to have bonded through shared animosity. But the interrogators reported the sounds of her screaming didn't weaken Elric's resolve, and instead seemed to build it up, so watching her die was hardly likely to break him. Danzo had ordered the Sound kunoichi moved to a more distant cell for the coming operation.
A strangled yelp and a faint sizzle echoed through the tunnel. Low-level electric shocks were being used to motivate cooperation, but had yet to prove effective; neither had beatings, burnings, cutting, or stress positions. They thought they were making progress with drowning, but found that Elric had been faking a breakdown as part of an escape, or possibly a suicide attempt.
Operative 110 noticed that the water in the barrel they employed was vanishing more quickly than splashing and evaporation could account for. 110 had suspected the subject had been swallowing it in an attempt to induce water intoxication, but then noticed Elric trying to strike a spark with the exposed metal plug in his shoulder and a metal buckle on his restraints. Danzo was not sure if the hydrogen and oxygen that had built up in the room would have caused an explosion, but he decided not to risk it. So far Elric had not shown any skill in redirecting electricity.
"Who taught you alchemy?" Operative 114 asked.
"Your mom," Elric replied, his voice raspy.
"Son of a bitch!" Elric wheezed.
"Would the person who taught you alchemy attempt to retrieve you from our custody?"
"What makes you think a person taught me?" Elric asked.
"You will answer the question," 114 ordered.
"Ok. My answer is… pi over R squared," Elric said.
"nnnnnh…bastard," Elric said.
"How does alchemy work?" 114 asked.
"I could tell you, but your head would explode," Elric mocked.
Danzo stepped into the room, raising a hand to withhold the next shock. Though his operatives both turned and bowed their heads immediately, it took Elric a few moments to unclench his body and notice him,
"You're back, huh? Your friend with the paper fetish didn't come along?" Elric asked, teeth bared in a false smile.
Danzo had trouble keeping his own expression blank as he stared at his prisoner. Yamanaka Fu was still catatonic after attempting to access the Alchemist's mind. Root's medics could not determine if the damage was caused by some mental defense Elric possessed, or the information itself, as Elric now implied.
Danzo could not imagine anything the irritating, loud-mouthed boy knew would be so hard to process. He doubted alchemy could be much more difficult than sealing. There had to be some simple intuitive leap, some route shinobi simply had not thought of, that would put this new art in their grasp.
Instead of responding, Danzo only stood and stared. Elric tried to sneer back at him, but grew bored quickly, letting his head flop back against the rack he was restrained on. Danzo again struggled to keep his face blank as Elric started to snore.
They had included sleep deprivation in the interrogation regime, only to find that Elric could sleep anywhere, in any position, and in spite of any noise. It was as if he was completely acclimated to laying on cold metal surfaces and constant jostling. Aside from muttering "Alsitourstop?" he barely responded to whistles sounding right next to his ears.
128 arrived a few minutes later, and Danzo waved for 114 to wake Elric with another shock. The boy spat curses blearily as 128 walked in, dragging the first man with him. The man's hands were bound together and his head was covered in a black hood. He stumbled forward, the chains that bound his left ankle to that of the man behind him clanked loudly against the stone floor. Nine more men, similarly bound, shuffled and stumbled in after him.
"Remove their hoods," Danzo ordered.
128 walked down the line, pulling away the black cloths, leaving the prisoners to blink stupidly. Their expressions ranged from befuddled to completely terrified. None of them had current employment, or skills that would be particularly useful in rebuilding the village. It was easy enough to create paperwork stating they had left the village to seek work. Dozens like them were abandoning their homes each day.
"Elder Danzo!" the third man in the line called. "Please, whatever it is we did not do it!"
128 backhanded the speaker across the face.
"You will honestly answer our questions about your techniques," Danzo said. "Or these people will die."
"I don't even know them!" Elric shouted.
"Are you refusing?" Danzo asked.
"If you had alchemy, a lot more than ten people would end up dead," Elric said.
Danzo thought the boy was trying to convince himself of the statement. It was the truth. Danzo envisioned the destruction of entire cities with alchemy. He doubted Elric could really play the numbers game, though. Danzo signaled for 128 to begin.
The Root operative grabbed the first prisoner's shoulder with one hand, and drove his standard issue tanto through his back with the other. It was neatly done, the bleeding mostly internal, instead of all over the floor. The prisoner collapsed and keened for several minutes before going still. Elric looked extremely shocked.
"That man just died because you are stubborn," Danzo said.
"He died because that fxxker stabbed him!" Elric growled hoarsely.
Operative 128 walked to the next man in the line. The sword plunged through his back. There was a brief pause between victims. Danzo wanted to make certain each death had time to sink in.
"They're your own people!" Elric shouted.
"And they are serving me to the best of their ability," Danzo said.
As the fourth man fell, Elric started screaming for them to stop, his worn voice lost in screams and begging from the men still in line. Eventually it was Elric's voice alone.
"Bring in the next group," Danzo said.
128 bowed and sheathed his tanto before vanishing in swirl of leaves.
Elric did not take a nap during this interval. Instead, his attention was split between the bodies on the floor and the dark tunnel through which they had entered. Elric's eyes seemed to be tracking something in the darkness, and he muttered in the strange language that was apparently his native one. Danzo wondered if the boy would have an inconvenient dissociative episode, instead of a more general break in resolve.
The next group was bound and hooded similarly to the first, though the prisoner leading this line was much shorter than the leader of the previous group. There were a couple of women in this group as well, though Danzo only expected the child to hold Elric's attention. Operative 128 removed their hoods at Danzo's signal. The child lunged towards Elric, falling flat on his face as the chains pulled taut.
"Rabbit!" the child shouted. "Rabbit help! Help us!"
It was a small risk taking a family directly associated with the alchemist, but Ibiki had cancelled the secure watch on the family after Tsunade released Elric into Maito Gai's custody. Kaemon Ayano and his family were not likely to be missed. Elric looked to the new group of prisoners, and the bodies of the old. His eyes went back to the tunnel. His teeth gritted and he looked ready to scream.
"You will honestly answer our questions about your techniques, or these people will die," Danzo said.
"You win," Elric said, still looking into the tunnel. "You bastard, you win."
Author's Note: So a year between chapters isn't that bad right? (Author ducks barrage of rotten produce.) Anyway this was hard to write, and still ended up darker than I wanted it, but it moved the plot along, so there! Thanks of the spell checking hobbitfoot. I did sort of suspect Damyamamio was not a word.