Disclaimer: … sigh… You all know the drill, I don't really think I have to repeat myself…
Through Crimson Eyes
Chapter 15: Tempest
"No, stop! I'm not a youkai, I'm not a demon."
'He's the one. He's the one who nearly destroyed our village. He's the one who killed all those people…'
"NO! I didn't! I didn't kill anyone! I've never killed anybody! Never!"
'That vile creature. Why does the Hokage even tolerate him!'
'He'll kill us all. When he grows up, he'll try to finish what he started!'
"NO! I would never! Konoha is my home too! IT'S MY HOME TOO!"
His eyes opened.
He found himself standing in a familiar place, bombarded by rain that he could not feel. He knew this place all too well, though he desperately wished otherwise.
His old orphanage.
"No, I don't want to be back here again!" He shouted, grasping his head, as though he could somehow block out the memories that were suddenly beginning to flood back to him. He stopped in mid-shout when he heard his own voice, higher pitched than he remembered. Looking down at his hands, he noticed that they were considerably smaller. The hands of a child.
The last thing he remembered was confronting those two girls in the middle of that forest after slaughtering all those bandits. If that were the case, then what the hell was he doing back here?
"Wh-what the hell is going on..." He was cut off by a sharp pain in the back of his head. Rubbing his throbbing skull, he whirled around to face his attackers. Nearly fifteen children, all his age, stood there before him, gathered together into a large group. They were pointing, laughing and jeering. But what really sent ice through his blood was not them, but rather the wielder of the stick who had just struck him. An older woman stood above him, looking down on him with a mixture of loathing and disgust, tapping the stick threateningly in her hands.
Just as he was about to say something, shout out against them, he felt another crack from the stick, this time full in the face. It was followed by another, and then another. Then, more seemed to join in, and Naruto knew, without having to look, that the children were beginning to join in the fun as well.
The torment lasted only a few moments, though it had felt like an eternity. He could feel all his pent up anger and hate, buried inside of him for so long, begin to boil inside of him, coiling within his heart and ready to be set loose. He heard them leave, their laughter feeling colder than the rain that was beating down upon him. His back was unpleasantly warm. The burning ache began to subside as well, leaving a horrible chill in it's wake.
He remembered this. It had been when he was five. He had gotten into a simple quarrel with another kid in the orphanage when that kid had attempted to steal his ball. And yet, it had somehow escalated into this. Not only that, but this had been the start of his own personal nightmare. The other kids, seeing that he would be blamed for any situation he was involved in, all began to take advantage. He learned quickly not to get involved with any of the children, as that would only get him in trouble.
He suddenly felt another presence in the rain. Looking up slightly from his prone position, he saw a small hand reaching down towards him, offering help.
When had this happened? He didn't remember this part.
"Are you going to lie there all day?" The voice asked, oddly comforting. It was distinctly feminine, though the actual age was hard to place. Looking up a little further, he was able to make out a slight silhouette of a small girl, no older than himself, her facial features hidden by the rain and gloom.
"Who are you?" He asked, his voice still carrying the high pitched squeak of a child, though hoarse with pain. The question was followed by laughter, not cold or condescending, but comforting and soothing.
"That's not really important right now. I'm just here to help. So come on, let's get out of the rain."
Not knowing what else to do, he reached out to her, and as their fingers touched, the world itself seemed explode about him in a burst of blue flame…
"Waste time killing us huh?" Jiraiya quipped with a sneer, standing in a loose fighting stance while facing the strange akatsuki ninja. Neji and Lee both moved on either side of him, each experienced enough in common tactics to know to flank the opponent. Sasori didn't seem the least bit intimidated. He continued to stand there, his tail moving lazily back and forth, his eyes idly tracking each of his opponents one by one. Rain continued to fall from above.
"It would seem that I am at a bit of a disadvantage here, hmmm…" He said, almost as if he were talking to himself. His three opponents readied themselves.
"Well then, I suppose that it would only be right to even the odds…"
With that, there was an explosion of fire and smoke. Caught off guard, the three shinobi shielded their eyes as the smoke expanded to encompass them briefly before dissipating. They then looked back towards their opponent.
Where there had been a single opponent, there were now 3, two of which seemed to float in the air. They looked almost completely human, save for their strangely constructed mouths and completely dead eyes. They each wore what looked to be a shinobi headband with the emblem of the hidden sand village, a familiar slash running across each of them.
"This should even things out quite nicely."
Jiraiya took a step back to get some distance, a grimace of disgust on his face "A puppet master, huh?"
Sasori regarded him with what seemed to be a bit of amusement in his eyes "Exactly. So glad you appreciate it. In this way I would have to say that I subscribe to a considerably different artistic philosophy than my collegue and counterpart Deidara. This is my form of art, and like all of my work, I do believe you will find that effects of their attacks tend to linger for a good long time."
With that, the two puppets each opened their mouths, spewing forth a storm of small needles at the two gennin. Reacting quickly, both Lee and Neji dodged nimbly to the side.
Mulling over Sasori's statement quickly, Jiraiya quickly came to the logical conclusion "Poison."
"Very good." Sasori drawled, "I have to say it's so wasteful for things to be over so quickly. The poison in my puppets is of my own design, and I am certainly very proud of the results. It will greatly slow you down, not to mention the agonizing death that will undoubtedly result after an hour from contact. And I am eagerly looking forward to adding you to my collection." He finished, giving a pointed look at Jiraiya.
"Oi, Lee, Neji." Jiraiya stated, giving a quick look at each of them. They nodded back at him, prepaired to take any order when given.
"I don't think I need to tell you to not get hit. If any of us gets hit even once were pretty much screwed."
"Yosh, I got it!" Lee shouted. Neji nodded his assent as well. Smirking, Jiraiya turned his attention back to Sasori "Both of you take care of those puppets. The puppeteer is mine! Now GO!"
They each then lunged towards their respective opponents.
They had been running through the rain for only a few minutes when they spotted the battle between their fellow group members and the strange cowled creature facing them. Given how intent they were on each other, it was unlikely that they would be noticed.
Giving a silent signal to the girl behind her, Sakura continued to make her way through the rain soaked trees, applying extra chakra to her feet to help keep her steady on the slick branches.
A series of explosions was a clear indication that they were heading in the right direction.
Looking back over her shoulder, Sakura called out "Hey, Hinata, I think they're just ahead."
Hinata nodded, an unusually focused expression on her face.
Drawing a kunai, Sakura upped her pace a little more.
Another explosion ripped through the rain soaked forest, followed by another and another.
Gaara, now looking considerably worse for wear, tiredly dodged yet another explosive bird, looking up balefully at the giggling akatasuki flying up well out of reach. His sand was still useless however, and even his shield of sand, though sluggishly attempting to shield him, was of little use. He clenched a bloody hand.
Above, Deidara looked down at the Sand ninja, an irritated expression on his face.
"Come on, come on, how inconsiderate can you be, yeah. Can't you just throw in the towel and keel over already. My hat is already beginning to leak, my cloak is completely drenched, and it's getting really, REALLY fucking cold out here. So just drop already so that I can go home and dry off." He gripped, making a show of ringing out his cloak for good measure.
Gaara simply growled at him.
"Oh my, aren't you looking determined." Deidara said, smiling wickedly at him "But you should know that my goal is to capture you alive. If I wanted you dead, you would be dead. Just like that…" He snaps his fingers to emphasize his point.
He then let out a long drawn out sigh.
"Unfortunately, capturing you alive with explosives is a very delicate procedure, and with you doing all that irritating dodging, I might end up killing you by mistake. So be a good boy and STAND THE FUCK STILL!" He finished with a shout, launching a large flock of explosive birds at him.
Gaara attempted to dodge again. His body however, worn out by the rain, repeated movement and the shock from the many close explosions simply was not able to dodge fast enough. Hit with nearly half a dozen explosions at close range, the world began to blur, then his vision tunneled into darkness.
Riding down leisurely, Deidara hoped off of his bird to inspect the body.
"Shit, I hope that wasn't too much. It's so damned hard to take people alive like this." He mumbled as he bent to check on his victim.
There was still a pulse.
"Good, that's a load off my mind then." He chirped cheerfully.
As he bent down to pick him up, he barely caught a brief flash of movement from his right. Leaping back nimbly, he was able to dodge the small kunai as it sailed past his nose. Turning towards the direction of the attack, Deidara switched on the small device that was situated over his eye.
"Hmmm, there are two small chakra signatures coming from the woods, yeah. Seems like Sasori slipped up a little bit."
Shrugging to himself, he secretly began preparing several more clumps of explosive clay in each of his hands as he watched Sakura and Hinata leap from the trees into the clearing.
Taking up position in front of him, the two girls stared down their opponent. Sweat beaded on their foreheads, only to be quickly washed away by the rain water running down their faces.
"Oohh, looks like I've got a couple of cuties here, yeah." Deidara exclaimed, still keeping his hands hidden beneath his cloak.
Stepping back, Sakura and Hinata both readied another kunai, holding it forward in preparation. The veins around Hinata's eyes were pronounced and throbbing, indicating the activation of her Byakugan.
"Step away from Gaara now!" Sakura said, her normally warm fiery green eyes gazed at him coldly.
Deidara simply stood there "My, oh my, how chilly it seems to have gotten all of a sudden, and just when I thought it couldn't get any colder."
"Back off NOW!" Sakura shouted again, quickly throwing her kunai at the akatsuki's head. Not even flinching, Deidara simply caught the blade between two fingers a few inches away from his face. At the same moment, two clay birds flew from the folds of his cloak, each of them heading to one of the two girls.
Dodging quickly to the side, Sakura and Hinata were still thrown off balance by the resulting explosion. Rolling with the impact, Sakura let loose with another kunai, Hinata quickly doing the same. Deidara dodged them lazily.
"Oops, so close." He taunted.
Giving a small angry grunt, Sakura quickly looked over at Hinata "Hey, Hinata?" She whispered under her breath, just loud enough for the other girl to hear it.
Hinata looked back at her questioningly.
"Think you can keep his attention for just a minute. I have something that might work, but I need to catch him off guard." She then began carefully whispering the rest of her plan to her.
"You ready?" She finished.
Obviously distraught at the sudden responsibility placed upon her, Hinata gulped audibly. Then, gritting her teeth, she nodded her affirmative.
"Good, then let's take this stupid bastard down!"
The scent of leaves. The scent of a forest after rain.
These sensations bombarded him all at once, forcing him from the void of senselessness that he had been wallowing just a moment before.
Opening his eyes once again, Naruto found himself in a sun dappled glade in the midst of trees he did not recognize. They towered over him, large even than the famous trees that populated the forests of Konoha. There was a sense of peace flowing from this place. It all felt so very right.
Which may be why it all felt so very wrong.
Looking back at his hands, he was surprised to find that they were, once again, the correct size and age.
"Where the hell am I?" He asked aloud. The last thing he remembered was a young girl intruding upon one of his most terrible memories, offering her hand to him. And when he had taken it…
Still mulling over this, Naruto began to walk, not really knowing or caring what direction he was heading. Despite himself, he began to feel the tension in his body dissipate. There really was something soothing about this place, it felt… safe, somehow. Like a place he had been before.
He shook his head. What the hell was he thinking, he'd never been here before.
A warm breeze blew by, ruffling his hair and sending a light burst of green leaves blowing past him. With the breeze he also sensed a sudden presence. He could smell a scent that blended perfectly with the forest about him. Like flowers and fresh earth.
Lee barely managed to regain his footing in time to dodge another hail of needles as they sprayed into the ground where he stood just half a second ago. Even with his speed it was all he could do to keep dodging the puppets attacks. He still had yet to find an opening significant enough for him to mount an attack without risking a decidedly deadly counterattack in return.
Chancing a glance at his two partners, He noticed that they were not faring much better than he was. Though Neji had a definite advantage with his Byakugan activated, even he was hard pressed to dodge the seemingly endless barrage of needles, made all though more harrowing by the knowledge that a single slip or mistake would be all it took.
Jiraiya had at least managed to close in with the main enemy, though the Akatsuki assassin was proving to be quite a difficult opponent. He kept the Sanin busy enough that he could not find the time to perform any complex jutsus, which left the older man relying primarily on his Taijutsu, something that he obviously did not excel at.
Another barrage forced him to return to the matter at hand. How was he going to get through?
Still, he had one option available: The Extreme Lotus.
Gai-sensei would be most upset if he ever learned that he had utilized the Extreme Lotus without his express consent. And even though the Extreme Lotus was not a guarantee of death, the possibility was high enough that it was not a risk that should be taken lightly.
Both Neji and Jiraiya were being hard pressed, and at the rate they were going, it would only be a matter of time before they were worn out enough to the point that they couldn't dodge anymore.
No help for it.
He just wished that Sakura-chan were here to see this.
Startled by the sudden voice, Naruto looked up towards the canopy above. There up on one of the branches sat the figure that had intruded before, though she also appeared to be older. She was dressed in what looked to be a formal yukata, the bottom ending just above the knees, leaving the rest of her bare legs exposed. The bangs of her short cut platinum hair fell loosely over one eye, leaving the other, a dark amber eye, revealed. She looked down at him with a warm, yet at the same time, bemused smile on her face.
"Who are you! And what the hell do you mean by home!" He shouted up at her, trying to keep his blush down. His voice carried no venom, but was thick with his obvious confusion. If this was a dream, it was a damn realistic one.
The girl kicked her legs idly, tapping a finger to the side of her nose. The message of course was quite clear.
"You don't need to know that. Not yet at least…"
Grimacing, Naruto crossed his arms "Umm, yeah I do."
She shook her head, grinning widely at him "Nope"
Huffing, Naruto opened his mouth to shout another demand up at her.
Only to find that she was not where he was shouting.
"Still…" She started, her breath rushing into his right ear. A lithe arm slid around his shoulder, her small hand splaying over his chest.
To give him credit, Naruto's reaction was quite spectacular. With a cry of shock, Naruto was now left occupying the branch that his mysterious assailant had been occupying just a second ago. Down below, the girl giggled.
"A little jumpy aren't you." She stated. There certainly was no question intended. She then gracefully leapt up to join him on the branch, causing Naruto to scoot down further.
"But like I was about to say, you'll come to know everything in due time. So just be patient, enjoy your surroundings a little. Take the time to just relax."
"In due time? What's that supposed to mean? Do you know what's happening to me right now?"
She nodded, smiling cutely.
Naruto looked at her for a second "…You're not going to tell me… are you." He deadpanned. She shook her head.
"Ok… is there anything that you can tell me?"
"Well…" she tapped her chin in thought. Then her face brightened again "Nope, not really. It's not time yet."
"Not time yet? What the hell does that mean?"
She just shook her head, pursing her lips together. Her shoulders were shaking though, obviously in an attempt to hold back her growing mirth.
He honestly never thought that he would be on the receiving end of such teasing.
He let out a deep, aggravated sigh. This whole situation was incredibly bizarre. Still…
He looked at her from the corner of his eye.
She was kind of cute. Actually, adorable would probably be closer to the mark.
He glanced at her again.
Only to find himself looking into a pair of deep amber eyes.
"Oopps." She giggled down at him.
From his rather artful landing position, Naruto growled.
Adorable or not, she was being a real pain in the ass.
Still looking down at him, she blew him a quick raspberry, then leapt gracefully into the forest.
Glaring at her retreating form, Naruto immediately shot to his feet and gave pursuit. There was no way in hell he was letting her get away without any answers.
Deidara looked on with mild boredom as his two little playmates apparently formulated a plan of attack. While they had been amusing at first, he really was beginning to get very wet and cold.
And it felt like he might actually be coming down with something. Just perfect. Not only did that damn demon vessel behind him keep him out in the rain, but now these two little bitches were going to keep him out here even longer.
The two girls then leapt to each side.
Rubbing his nose with the sleave of his cloak, he turned towards the dark haired girl coming at him from his right. This whole setup was a diversionary tactic if ever he saw one. Still, he couldn't afford to be careless. Considering her eyes, she could be none other than a Hyuuga, and that was one clan that actually seemed to excel at straight forward combat, where their unique Gentle Fist style could do the most damage.
Still aware of the pink haired one, who was currently attempting to flank him to his left, Deidara prepared himself for Hinata's attack.
In just a few seconds, Hinata crossed the distance between the two of them, striking out several times at various points of his body. Casually blocking each of the attacks, he also managed to dodge several kunai which were thrown at him from the other opponent.
As the assault pressed on, Deidara continued to observe his opponents abilities while still casually engaging them.
'Is this really the extent of a Hyuuga's abilities? Her strikes are uncertain and sloppy. And the other girl seems too timid to even try and engage me in hand to hand as well.'
"Disappointing, yeah." He stated, dodging yet another strike from Hinata. Drawing one hand back, a small clump of clay was spit out from the small mouth in his palm. Then, swinging forward, he pressed the clump of clay directly into her face, which then promptly detonated with a miniature explosion, sending the former Hyuuga heiresses now limp body to the ground several meters away. He then turned towards the remaining enemy.
"Where the hell did she go?"
"BASTARD!" Sakura screamed. Bolting forward, Sakura charged towards the Akatsuki's unprotected back, delivering a punch aimed directly towards his chest.
Turning with the motion from his previous attack, Deidara deftly dodged the enraged kunoichi's attack, immediately sending another swarm of clay birds towards his targets now unprotected back, each of them flying to positions which would cut off any escape points.
The explosion sent a shockwave of mud and rain in all directions. When it cleared, Sakura's body lay burnt and broken on the ground.
Nodding with satisfaction, Deidara turned and once again began heading over to retrieve Gaara. He chuckled under his breath.
"Game over girls."
All of the ninja involved in the showdown came to a halt as a tremendous surge of chakra rippled accros the rainy landscape. Jiraiya, Neji, and even Sasori turned to watch in awe as Lee once again began activating his Eight Inner Body Gates.
"I-initial Gate, RELEASE!" Lee shouted, veins already beginning to pop out across his forhead as his skin began to darken into red. A small trickle of blood began macking its way from his nose.
"What the hell is he thinking!" Jiraiya shouted, watching as Lee continued to power up. Neji stood by silently, knowing full well what Lee's intention was.
'He knows that he might not survive it this time. Lee…'
"What is this jutsu?" Sasori mused. His eyes were wide with shock.
Still, he didn't become an S-Rank ninja by being so easily distracted. Swinging his massive tail above his head, he then struck downwards towards the distracted Senin.
It was at that point, that Lee made his move.
"FIFTH GATE: OPEN!"
Launching himself forward at speeds beyond even Neji's ability to see, Lee planted his fist directly into one of the puppets torso, causing the whole construct to explode as the tremendous chakra fueled punch shattered the fragile doll's body.
In nearly the same instant, Lee crossed the battlefield to the other doll attacking Neji, shattering this one with a powerful spinning kick almost before the first doll even began to shatter.
Both Jiraiya's and Sasori's eyes widened further as Sasori's tail was stopped in mid-thrust mere inches from Jiraiya's head by the now red skinned boy. Blood was now beginning to leak copiously from his nose, and even a little from the eyes as well as the boys body destroyed itself.
Then, with a loud cry, Lee crushed the tail in his hands, and instantly followed it up with a tremendous punch directly into the shocked Akatsuki's face.
The body broke apart in a cloud of debris as Lee's fist made contact.
"A puppet?" Neji shouted, shocked.
'So… all three of them were puppets…' Jiraiya thought, looking down at the broken body of Sasori. There was no sign of the actual puppet master anywhere, nor could he sense any presence.
"Damn, looks like he got away."
A sound to their left caught their attention as Lee, completely spent, dropped bonelessly to the rain soaked ground.
Bending down to pick up Gaara, Deidara was caught completely off guard as a kunai embedded itself directly into his left arm. The wounded arm then dropped uselessly to his side.
"DAMN BITCH! You're still… alive…" Deidara trailed off as his gaze rested on the two burnt logs lying in the rain.
"Kawarimi no jutsu!" He shouted. How could he have actually been fooled by such a basic jutsu? There was no way.
A loud popping sound behind him drew his attention back to Gaara.
Or what had been Gaara.
"Surprise!" Sakura yelled, grinning, her fist drawn back. Deidara's eyes widened as her fist approached.
She had been studying Tsunade's scroll ever since they had left on their journey. While the vast majority of the techniques described were medical in nature, there was one particular technique that was blatantly offensive in nature.
Still, she wasn't sure if she could ever get used to the title "SMASHY-SMASHY no jutsu"
Having been studying the technique, it had become apparent that it relied on complete and total control of the users chakra. That was something that she could do, it was her one saving grace really.
But she hadn't counted on it requiring so much chakra just to pull off a single punch. Which was precisely why she knew that she would only get one shot at it.
She had to make that shot count.
A massive shockwave expanded outward from the point of contact as Sakura's fist met Deidara's face. The Akatsuki's body seemed almost frozen in time before it was launched backwards at tremendous speed, smashing through several trees nearly a hundred feet behind him.
Sakura then landed in the mud.
"Damn…" she mumbled, her eyes beginning to droop "didn't… think… it would use… that much… cha…kra…"
She then passed out.
"S-sakura-san!" Hinata squeaked. She sat in the trees a good few hundred feet away, an unconscious Gaara hefted over her shoulders.
The plan certainly seemed to have worked. Each of them had had the presence of mind to invoke a Kawarimi just before the Akatsuki had connected with what certainly would have been fatal attacks.
Using his distraction, Hinata took Gaara's body and made her way to the woods while Sakura stayed behind as Gaara's replacement. Then, as he had been about to pick Sakura up, she had launched one last kunai, using her Byakuugan to pinpoint a major nerve in the arm.
But she hadn't counted on Sakura going unconscious as well, and she was uncertain as to whether or not the enemy Shinobi was conscious or not.
He swam to consciousness slowly, though he quickly wished that he hadn't. He was being bounced and jostled, the movement causing his head to explode in pain.
"PPHHFFUCKIN OWWW!" Deidara shouted, his voice partially muffled by the massive swelling of his right cheek.
"Just shut up."
Deidara's one good eye widened as he recognized the voice. Looking down he found himself being carried by a small boy dressed in the typical Akatsuki robe.
"Yes." The young boy replied.
"Tho, thaths wha ou really wook wike."
Sasori remained silent.
"Whait, where we goin'?"
"Were withdrawing for now."
"There will be other opportunities. But for now it would be best if we regrouped and came up with a better strategy.
"Phine, ah… ah ah… ACHOO!" Deidara sneezed.
Sasori grumbled has his free hand reached up to wipe off his now damp neck.
He'd been chasing the mystery girl for nearly half an hour now. This forest, wherever it was, seemed endless without any exit in sight.
Her giggling could be heard from the trees in front of him, pushing him to move faster. This was irritating, stupid, and a complete waste of time.
Still, he had to admit that he was actually having a bit of fun. He never really had the opportunity to interact with anybody with such carefree abandon, and he found that he liked simply letting go like this for once in his life.
He shook his head.
What the hell was he thinking? Here he was, probably caught up in some crazy genjutsu by all appearances, and he was actually considering this whole situation fun.
Plus he was hungry. That only added to his irritation.
The girls shadowy figure darted across the branches in front of him. He grinned, his crimson eyes narrowing.
He had her now.
Putting a little extra strength into his legs, he leapt forward, tackling her as she crossed in front of him. This, of course, sent them both tumbling down to the forest bed below.
Recovering quickly, Naruto pinned the giggling female down, reveling for a moment the thrill of a successful chase.
… Where had that thought come from…?
"Ok, game's over. Now tell me what the hell is going on here." He growled.
She simply looked up at him with a look that, quite frankly, made him feel queasy in a decidedly pleasant way, before she looked away again, whispering something he couldn't quite hear.
"Hmm, what was that?" He leaned down, tilting his head to hear better.
Taking this opportunity, she blew a soft puff of air right into his ear.
Naruto, now blushing a deep red, leapt off of her, holding a hand up to his now highly sensitive ear. She continued giggling.
"Sorry." She said between giggles "But I have to go now. I'll see you again, real soon. Bye." With that, she leapt into the air, her body vanishing in a burst of blue fire.
"What the… HEY WAIT…." Before he could finish, the very world itself seemed to be dissolving, burning away at the edges like paper in a fire. Everything went black.
AN: Long time no write huh? Sorry about the delay between updates, but I got swamped by work during the holiday season. Not only was business up, but a bunch of people quite as well, so naturally everybody else had to pick up the slack. As such, I have had almost no time to commit to any serious writing until about a week ago when we finally hired some new people. I should hopefully have more time available again, which I intend to devote to writing once more.
This story has taken twists that even I had not originally been planning on. But all things considered I think this is turning out to be a rather interesting adventure, one that I hope to keep expanding on. The main point that I personally have enjoyed is the creation of my own characters and my attempt at keeping them from appearing too shallow or Mary Sue. I think I have succeeded, at least thus far, but any constructive criticism would be greatly appreciated.
I won't make any solid promises for my next update except to say that I will endeavor to make it considerably sooner than this one was.
My heartfelt thanks to everybody who has remained patient thus far, and just know that I still have every intention of continuing this story to its conclusion, what ever it might be.