This chapter is currently lightly beta'd. Just wanted to get it posted. Enjoy~ (Edit: okay, for some reason the formatting REALLY hates me. Trying to fix everything...)

Chapter 17

Three days after the fight with Del Nusset...

Naruto literally flew through the trees as he headed for Porlyusica's hermit shack. The reclusive woman hated humans with a passion; why she did he had no clue. The aged witch was powerful in her own right, though the only time he had ever seen her use magic was to heal. Just like a medic he knew fairly well from his own reality, Porlyusica could deal out physical and mental abuse like none other. If you were lucky, she might be willing to patch you up afterward.

The reason he was moving at breakneck speed through the trees was because of Makarov. For some inexplicable reason, he felt traces of the man's magic over a large area, which gradually began to shift and condense into a more coherent, stronger form. He doubted anyone who wasn't closely attuned to feeling power levels like he was would have felt it, but there was no doubt who the power he was feeling belonged to.

Then, once it all seemed to arrive at one place, it became muffled... only to finally disappear. He was desperately hoping that wasn't a bad sign, as he had no desire to say goodbye to the old man yet. The worry he initially felt began to fade as the geography he was traveling by became more familiar, however. With no small amount of relief, Naruto understood that this couldn't have simply been a coincidence. Makarov's power had consolidated in the same area where Porlyusica's hut was located. That could only be a good sign.

When the terrain became even more familiar, he quickly adjusted course and followed a stream towards where he knew the older woman's home was located. He'd been here often enough to be familiar with most of the area around her hut. For as much as she grumbled about hating humans, she never really chased him away until he was in perfect health. Naruto suspected that she enjoyed company from time to time, not to mention getting the opportunity to flex her magical skills.

So with a hardened heart in preparation for what he might encounter, Naruto dropped down through the trees to land outside the clearing near Porlyusica's hut.

"Fire Shadow!" He heard a sigh following the exclamation. "Ugh, not you too."

Tossing the scowling woman a grin, he took a quick look around. The most obvious thing was various banners of Phantom Lord scattered about. Seeing Mystogan sitting off to the side meant that the other mage was succesful in his suppression of the guilds other branches.

"Sorry, I'm not interrupting anything am I?"

Porlyusica didn't say anything, but Mystogan slowly rose to his feet as he shook his head negatively. "No. I was just leaving. Thank you for the apples."

"Just scram already."

With a small wave of his hand, Mystogan began to fade from view, before dispersing completely into a cloud of fine mist. Eventually even that disappeared.

"Huh, I'll never tire of seeing that method of travel. I wish I had a cool move like it."

He heard Porlyusica snort. "Naruto, you can run faster than most trains can travel. I doubt you have anything to worry about."

The blond turned to the woman, a frown on his face. "Yeah, but still." He smacked his fist into his other open palm. "I know, maybe I can do something so that when I'm running my footprints leave little flames behind!"

While Naruto grinned and seemed to think it was a good idea, the pink-haired woman merely groaned and grabbed a broom, beginning to sweep her already clean-looking doorstep. "What brings you here, brat? I'm already agitated from having to deal with Mister Personality. I'm not really in the mood to deal with someone like you who is on the complete other side of the personality spectrum."

"Wow, settle down Porlyusica-obaasan. I was heading back to the guild when I felt Makarov's magic power."

The woman stopped sweeping, looking at the blond with a critical gaze. "You could feel his power, even dispersed as it was?"

"Dispersed? Yeah, I guess so." Naruto shrugged. "I felt it start to condense and decided to follow it to see what was going on. As I got closer I recognized the area, and it led me here. But his power became muffled and then I lost track of it a little while ago."

Shaking her head, Porlyusica resumed her sweeping. "You missed him by about an hour. The fool had his magic forcibly removed by one of the members of Phantom Lord. Mystogan somehow gathered it up and brought it here. I stuffed it back in him, and the moment he woke up he headed back for guild headquarters."

"You mean you didn't threaten him and keep him strapped down or something?"

"Why would I do that? It's not like I would care what that fool does!"

Naruto chuckled, moving over to sit on one of the closed crates. "But yet you helped heal him anyway. Or are you going to tell me it's only because you still have the Fairy Tail insignia stamped on your left bicep?"

Porlyusica glanced at him sharply, before she sighed and closing her eyes. Her facial expression softened considerably. "I've known Makarov for most of my life, Naruto. He never changes. In the end, I know he'll do what needs to be done."

Her eyes opened and the once passive expression hardened once again. "For a stupid human, anyway."

Naruto clucked his tongue as he watched her sweep the same already clean spot over and over again. "I've never really asked before, but what do you have against humans anyway?"

"I already had this discussion with Mystogan a few minutes ago. I'm not having it again."

Finding himself with a loss of anything else to say, Naruto grunted as he pushed himself to his feet. Between Makarov just up and leaving as soon as he was healed to Mystogan showing up and leaving a mess, it was no wonder that the older woman looked a bit peeved.

Porlyusica froze completely as she was suddenly engulfed in a suprisingly firm hug from the blond who quickly appeared in front of her. She was about to bark out orders for him to let her go before she froze at his voice in her ear.

"I know it's something that you probably don't get often, even though you should. Thank you for healing the old man. Thank you for putting up with the emotionally-stunted Mystogan. Thank you for tending all the bumps I've gotten on my noggin, including the ones you yourself gave me."

Naruto chuckled as he released the woman, who was completely frozen. "I don't think you get enough thanks, Porlyusica-obaasan. So I'll just say it one more time. Thank you."

Before she could say a word, he promptly disappeared in a swirl of leaves. Her eyes could barely track his movement, but he picked up all of the Phantom Lord banners before he vanished completely from her sight.

The old woman found herself smiling a little bit. While Makarov had in fact thanked her, and in fact he was one of the few who always did, Naruto's certainly sounded more heartfelt. Then there was the hug – that was a surprise. She couldn't remember the last time she had received any sort of physical affection from anyone in recent memory. Honestly she had no one to blame but herself for that one though, she tended to keep most people at arm's length. Or, more accurately, at a broom-handle's distance.

Sighing, Porlyusica looked down, only to frown. Dammit.

"Fire Shadow! Get back here and clean up your mess! I just swept this spot clean, brat, and you got your little leaves all over it!"

The following day...

Naruto's arrival at the guild was met with some smiles, some frowns, and a lot of 'Where were you's?'. That all stopped once he finally made it over to Makarov, who was sitting down on a barrel and looking rather weary. Naruto had taken one glance at the condition the guild hall was in and winced. He had to admit at wishing he was around to prevent the whole thing in the first place, but at the same time he had seen what was left of Phantom Lord's guild hall... robot... golem-thing. Fairy Tail definitely got its revenge.

"Welcome back, Naruto. How was your journey?"

"Not as exciting as yours, I believe."

Makarov simply stared at Naruto for a moment before breaking out into a small grin. "Ho ho. Perhaps not. How was Del Nusset?"

Naruto slowly scratched at the back of his neck. "He got me to go further than anyone else, but other than that it wasn't too difficult to handle him. I found it interesting that no one else from his division attempted to even touch me before we came to blows. Not only that, but none of them interfered or attempted to avenge his defeat."

Makarov hummed, scratching at his short beard. "Alistair Del Nusset has always been a complicated individual. He wanted to join Fairy Tail once upon a time, but he didn't exactly see eye-to-eye with our ideals. I'm sure many of the men and women in his division were followers of his anyway – the same ones he tried to bring with him to our guild. When I wouldn't bend our morals enough to accept him, he went to Phantom Lord."

The old man looked away, towards the ruined Phantom Lord building in the sea outside Magnolia Town. "I have a feeling that he will remain an independent mage, now that Phantom Lord has been crushed."

"I got the impression that he didn't really care for Phantom Lord."

"He probably didn't." Makarov chuckled. "I think he was just looking for a place to call home. It's a shame he picked them. Now... he'll probably follow you."

"Eh?" Naruto's surprise was evident in his voice, even if his face was still covered by his mask. "I mean, I told his men that I may have work for them in the future, especially if our plan comes to fruition, but I'm not recruiting followers or anything like that."

The blond fell into silence after his statement, and neither of the two powerful mages said anything further. Naruto looked around at the bustle; there were civilians from the town as well as plenty of Fairy Tail mages helping to rebuild the new guild. He realized with a start that none of the more familiar faces were there. Erza, Gray, Natsu, Happy, Mirajane, Lisanna, Elfman. Lucy... he didn't see any of them.


"Yeah, boss?" The young man's attention snapped back to the Guild Master.

"I told you back when you first joined, and you admitted it back when you joined... Fairy Tail will likely be nothing more than a stepping stone for you."

"Yes, but it'-"

"Naruto." Makarov held up a hand, cutting the shinobi off. The blond shut his mouth, but if his body language was any indication, he did so reluctantly. "Things are going to start happening soon. I can feel it in my bones. When the time comes, you'll just have to go and do what we discussed. You're a good person at heart, so I know you can handle the difficult path ahead. If you ever plan to get home again, there is only one person that I can think of with the knowledge to get you there."

Naruto was silent, thinking hard. He'd been here for a few years already, and had been starting to think of Fairy Tail as a sort of home-away-from-home. To leave it now...

Sentimentality was never your strong suit. Then again, being sentimental and being strong never really go together, do they?

No, not really.

What is this? No snippy comeback? No 'Shut up Kyuubi!' or 'You don't know what you're talking about Kyuubi!'. Shame, I expected more.

Maybe later. I honestly do have a lot on my mind right now.

Very well. Boooring.

"I'm not saying the time is upon you at this very moment," Makarov continued, quietly, "You just need to be prepared to face it since I feel the time will be upon you, and us, sooner than we expect. I've already heard rumblings of various goings-on from Era. Now that there is one less of the Saints, I'd expect you to be approached soon."


"They generally always like to have all the positions filled. I don't know why. It's just policy. Anyway, I just thought I'd give you a heads up. Don't be surprised if they approach you."

Naruto wasn't sure what to say about that, so he simply remained silent. While the positions of the Ten Wizard Saints were highly respected, he wasn't really sure if it was something he wanted. If a person like Jose Porla could become a Saint, he wasn't to sure if he wanted to join a list like that. Granted, many of the Saints were probably fine, upstanding wizards and witches – like Makarov – but he knew he wouldn't really have to ask about it unless asked.

"Thanks for the heads up. I don't know if I'd accept, though."

Makarov shrugged. "The choice is ultimately yours. You may not even have to worry about being asked."

Naruto couldn't hold back a snort, thinking about Ultear. If the way she hounded him was any indication... "I doubt that I wouldn't be offered, at this point."

As silence drifted between the two again, Naruto turned his gaze back to what was left of the guild. Most of it had been cleared away by this point and the skeleton of some of a new building was up, but that was about it. Naruto gestured towards it.

"Want some help, old man?"

"Eh, if you want. You just got back though, so I-"

"Master! Master!" The sound of a familiar voice from behind him halted whatever Makarov was going to say as he looked over his shoulder. Naruto looked up as well, to notice Gray, Natsu, Happy, and Erza jogging quickly over to them.

"Master!" Natsu ran up, then leaned forward, taking a heaving breath before standing up straight again. Happy landed on his shoulder.

"What is it?"

"It's Lucy! She's gone!"

Makarov turned around on the barrel, so he was facing Natsu completely. "Gone? Do you mean Phantom Lord...?"

"No, Master." Erza cut in, sending a glance at Naruto, but then looked back to Makarov. "We found this note in her room, on her desk. I think she intended for us to find it eventually."

Erza handed the Guild Master the note she had found, and the aged man nodded slowly. "I see. Do any of you have an idea what may have caused this, other than the obvious?"

The four of them shook their heads simultaneously.

"What is the obvious? Sorry I'm a little behind the goings-on here, I've been out beating up Phantom Lord's subdivisions with Mystogan."

Naruto's comment caught the four by surprise. Natsu and Happy started laughing while Erza and Gray were giving him more critical, appraising looks.

"Phantom Lord attacked us because Lucy's father put out a rather large bounty for her return," Makarov explained as he frowned at Natsu and Happy. "They had always been looking for an excuse to knock Fairy Tail down a peg, so they accepted the job. Unfortunately for them bounties of this kind where they had to attack another guild outright got them the label of a Dark Guild. Therefore everything we did was considered defensive retaliation to an unprovoked attack. We got off lightly, this time.

"Unfortunately Lucy seems to have pinned all the blame for this on herself, both on our behalf and that of Phantom Lord. Now it seems she may have done the most drastic thing yet, and left. I still feel her connection to the guild stamp, though, so it is likely that you four can try to stop her if you hurry."

Natsu, Happy, and Gray immediately nodded and turned to start running off. Erza, however, remained behind.

"Uhm... Master, can Naruto come with us?"

Makarov looked over his shoulder at the masked blond, before turning back to the redhead. "Do you really think you need another S-Ranked Mage for such a simple assignment?

Erza cringed slightly, and looked away. "No, it's not that. It's just that-"

"Erza, are you coming? Hurry hurry!"

"Erza's the rotten egg! Too bad!"

Hearing Natsu and Happy's voices, the young woman sighed as she looked over her shoulder and frowned. Glancing at Naruto for a moment, she gave both him and Makarov a brief nod of her head before turning to follow the other three.

Once she was out of sight, Makarov turned back to Naruto. "Did you want to go with them?"

The blond only thought about it for a moment. "Yes and no. I miss Erza a lot, we've both been so busy and out on assignments lately. Something tells me that you have another job for me, though, and that's why you didn't let me go."

"Very astute. Follow me."

Makarov hopped off the barrel and began walking through town, towards the sea. Naruto followed directly behind the older man, wondering what in the world he could want now. Looking around as they walked, he spotted many people who were bustling about just like this was a normal day – or about as normal as it could get if you ignored destroyed bits of property here and there.

When they finally reached the edge of the pier, Makarov looked out over the water, eyeing the ruins of Phantom Lord's construct. It was slowly falling apart as it was battered by the waves.

"The job I'm going to ask you to do is normally something that I do myself once a year. You remember me talking about Tenrou Island, correct?"

"I remember you mentioning it once or twice."

Makarov nodded. "It's the island where Fairy Tail was first formed. It's home to many things, some obvious, others not so much. Let's just say that it has its fair share of secrets. The main thing that I can share with you is that it is where the first leader of Fairy Tail, Mavis Vermilion, is buried."

Naruto was putting his full attention on Makarov. While he'd heard mention of the Island before, there were never any additional details.

"The secret to casting Fairy Tail's three main magics is stored there as well. Fairy Law, Fairy Glitter, and Fairy Sphere. I would teach them to you, as you're certainly powerful enough to cast them..." Makarov turned sad eyes to look at Naruto, "... but you know why I can't."

The blond nodded slowly. It probably required some kind of bond that he didn't have.

No matter. Could you imagine shouting out the name of techniques like that? Shouting anything with the word Fairy in it makes you sound like a wuss.

Matter of opinion, Kyuubi.

Yes, and by now mine should be the only opinion that matters. How long have we been together now?

I think too long, sometimes.

Well look at that, we agree about something. Miracles never cease.

"Tenrou Island has some decent protections... nothing extreme, but enough to keep casual searchers away from it. The more intense wards are linked to magical-ley lines that exist at various places on the continent – the type that keeps away those who are actively trying to find it. Right now is about when I'd go on a trip to check them all, but unfortunately between rebuilding the guild and needing to visit Era to give a full accounting of what happened... I just don't have the time. I mean, I could put everything else off, but I'd rather not.

"Since you're here and available, I was hoping you would be willing to go check them for me. I would have sent one of the others, but they all have obligations as well. I was about to send Erza before this little episode with Lucy."

Naruto was feeling a bit uncomfortable. "Are you sure you want to trust me with something that sounds rather important? I get the feeling there is more to this Island than what you stated."

Makarov chuckled. "Oh, there is more. Much more. We'll likely have our next S-Rank trial there, like we usually do. We only haven't gone there in recent years because there have been more than enough opportunities for members to prove themselves on missions. Much like what happened for you."

Pulling a list out from his pocket, he handed it to Naruto. The blond accepted the list, looking it over quickly. There was a list of towns, followed by another list of coordinates next to each town name. It was likely the location where the ley lines were.

"At each of those locations you'll find a set of runic scripts that send power to the wards surrounding Tenrou Island. Just make sure they all look like they are in good order... replace any that seem to be fading because of weather or other means."

"That's it?"

Makarov nodded. "That's it. Simple enough?"

"It almost sounds too simple," Naruto replied.

"Not too many people know scripting. At least, not any that I'd trust with a task like this."

"Very well." Naruto sighed, folding the paper and placing it in one of his pockets. At top speed, he might be able to hit up all the target sites in about a week. Two at the most. "When do I leave?"

"As soon as you want. The sooner the better, for you, I'd think. When you get back I'll see if I can convince Erza to take some time off. I think both of you could use it."

Nine days later...

Naruto yawned behind his mask as he walked through New Masthead. It was a decently sized town on the northeastern edge of Fiore's border with the country Seven. The town itself was fairly large, likely due to the amount of trade traffic it got – it was the last stop before crossing the border into a different country.

He had just finished visiting the sixth location for the ley-line runes about an hour ago. Of all the sites, this one had been in the best condition by far. Most of the others had shown some signs of weather damage, but this particular line had been fairly well protected by a grove of trees and was glowing with power.

For some reason it looked a lot more fresh, as if someone had been there recently and cleaned it up. Why someone would do that, he had no idea. He'd check with Makarov, but according to the old man he was the only other one who knew what their locations were.

Glancing around, Naruto's eyes fell on a young girl who was standing outside of a shop near the inn where he was staying for the night before his return to Magnolia Town. Slowing his walk, he examined others near her to see if maybe the girl had someone she was with. What really threw him was the somewhat dead look the girl had, it was pretty much void of expression, and it just looked wrongon someone so young.

When it didn't look like anyone was going to help her out or ask what she was doing, Naruto figured that perhaps he should live up to his public image and see if she needed help. Perhaps she was just waiting for someone inside of the shop.

Looking up, he noticed that it was a magic store, specifically one that claimed to deal in ancient objects. In his experience, most of them were rubbish, nothing more than trinkets... but there were those who had claimed to find artifacts of ancient power in some of these shops. He'd personally never seen anything himself, and until he did, he'd never buy anything from a shop like it.

As he approached the girl, she must have noticed him, because her eyes nearly bulged out of her head for a moment before she once again adopted the dead look. Naruto wasn't quite sure to make of that, perhaps she was just surprised to see someone who was considered powerful by the public's standard in a place like this. He slowed his approach, however, when he spotted some subtle shifts in her stance. She was pretty good at hiding it for one so young, but the posture change from casual to defensive was easy to spot for one with plenty of combat experience.

Stopping a fair distance from the girl, he tried to get a better look at her. She was short, but he had no idea what her age was. He was going to guess somewhere between eight and twelve, if her height was any indication. Her hair was a sort of dull reddish-pink, which was rather unique. There were two gold protuberances near her ears that looked like golden fins; perhaps a strange headband of some sort? A red cape was draped about her shoulders, and she was wearing what looked to be a one-piece purple and black swimsuit coupled with thigh-high black stockings.

All in all, it painted a very, very unique picture. Was she trying to stand out on purpose?

Crouching down, he tried to get himself to about eye-level with her so that he wouldn't seem as threatening. Naruto really didn't feel like fighting someone her age.

"Hey there. Do you need help?"

The girl's stance immediately relaxed a bit, and her face adopted a brief confused expression before the dead look replaced it. She quickly shook her head, but said nothing more, and didn't move at all otherwise.

"Uhm, are you sure? You look pretty lonely, standing out here by yourself."

Once again she adopted a brief confused look. This time, instead of switching back to being dead, it morphed into something that more closely resembled wariness... or annoyance.

"You're number two." The girls voice was surprisingly soft, and if he hadn't been watching her lips move to know that she was talking, he might not have heard anything. Now it was his turn to be confused, though, as he stared at her.

"Number two what? In my guild? Perhaps, but I still think there are those stronger than me."

The girl shook her head. "No. You're number two."

The blond chuckled, and scratched at the back of his head. "Uh... thanks, I think." He waited a few seconds to see if the girl would say anything else, but when her expression once again became the dead look he was used to seeing, he realized that she was probably just going to ignore him if he didn't keep talking.

It was strange, the way she was acting. Perhaps she wasn't from around Fiore? He didn't want to take it as a sting to his pride, as he wasn't really even prideful to begin with (that priveledge belonged to Kyuubi) but he had to admit a little part of him stung that he was being ignored by one so young.

"Just to make sure... you're going to be alright? You don't need me to help you find your parents or anything?"

That got a response out of her, but it was nothing like what he was expecting. Her expression shifted to one of anger, bordering rage, but a very familiar voice from near the shop entrance stopped anything she was going to say.

"Okay, Meredy, I'm finished checking here. We can go-"

Naruto looked up at the entrance, only to see Ultear exiting the shop. She was dressed in an odd looking outfit that he had never seen her in before, one that looked more like a battle outfit than anything else. The outfit itself resembled the other girl's – Meredy? - in a few respects. The colors and patterns were different, but Ultear's outfit was white and black with white stockings.

Wow, someone has curves in all the right places.

Oh ho ho! Go Naruto! It's about time!

W-Wait, what? No! I didn't just think that! Okay, maybe I did... but... d-dammit!

Trying to ignore Kyuubi's howling laughter, Naruto slowly rose to his feet, while Ultear was simply staring at him, her eyes wide and her mouth stuck in an 'Oh!' position. It was likely that she definitely didn't expect him to be here.

"Ultear. We really should stop meeting like this. People might start talking."

The woman finally blinked and her face went slack before she broke out in mild chuckles. The young girl looked shocked for a change. More at Ultear and the fact that she was laughing, rather than the idea of him knowing who Ultear was.

"Fire Shadow... I must say, this certainly is a surprise. Can I ask what brings you out here to New Masthead?"

Naruto shrugged his shoulders. Part of the Council or not, he was on private business, not a mission. She didn't need to know. "I'm just running a few errands for a friend of mine that needed help. I finished about an hour ago, actually. I only came into town to get some sleep before returning to Magnolia Town tomorrow."

He was expecting one of her more calculating gazes, but this time her face remained rather impassive. To his surprise, she began to tell him what she was doing without him even having to ask.

"I'm here on Council business, as you're probably figuring. We have to do routine checks on shops like this one to make sure they aren't selling dark or demonic items. We had reports of a few particularly nasty items recently, so I'm being sent around for the second time this year."

"Sounds rough. Are there many of these shops?"

"Yes." Ultear nodded, running a hand through her hair. "Most larger towns like this one have at least three or four. Magnolia Town itself has seven. That's only registered shops, to boot. You'd be surprised how many we find that aren't registered with the Council."

Naruto shook his head. "I feel sorry for you, having to go through all that. I couldn't even begin to imagine."

"It's not all bad. I usually have plenty of help. I definitely wouldn't be able to check them all by myself."

Nodding his acceptance, he watched as Ultear eyed Meredy for a moment before gesturing for the younger girl to follow. Once the younger girl fell into step beside her, the raven-haired beauty looked at Naruto again.

"Even though they haven't told me to ask you yet, what's your opinion on the Ten Wizard Saints?" She gestured for him to follow as well as she started walking away. He moved to walk next to her on the opposite side from Meredy.

"You can tell them thanks, but I'm not interested." Naruto had plenty of time to think about it during his travels, and his answer was full of conviction. He was honestly surprised by Ultear's reaction though... she didn't seem surprised at all. If nothing else, she appeared... pleased.

"Should I ask why?" There was a humorous tone to her voice. He really didn't understand this woman.

"I don't need them monitoring me. I've seen what Makarov puts up with, what the expectations are. I've got too much stuff to do, and I don't need the Council dumping jobs on me as well."

"Perfectly sound reasons. Wouldn't you agree, Meredy?"

He didn't hear any response from the other girl, but he wasn't really surprised by that either. She hadn't struck him as the talkative type so far.

"Who is she, if you don't mind me asking?" He wondered what kind of response he'd get.

Ultear tossed him a glance, but gave him a faint smile. "Meredy is my ward. I was examining some ruins of a village left in the wake of a rampage by a Dark Guild, and found her. Being fairly new to the Council at the time I had no idea what to do with an orphan. I also felt a bit of connection to her, having been an orphan myself. So I took her in to raise as my own."

"Noble of you," Naruto mused. The look Ultear sent him didn't look like a happy, or even a proud one, but one composed more of sadness for some reason. Trying to think of something, he shrugged and commented, "I wish I had someone like you when I was a young orphan too."

Ultear looked at him, obviously not expecting this, if her raised eyebrows were any indication. Even Meredy, the stoic one, had leaned around Ultear to look at him in surprise.

"You? Really?"

"Yeah. I never even knew who my parents were until I was sixteen. No one in my home village would tell me. I only found out by accident."

Neither of the girls seemed to know what to say to that, so they walked in silence for a bit. Naruto wasn't sure where they were going, but he hadn't been paying too much attention to his surroundings. So far it looked like they were just walking a random path through the town.

A permanent silence fell over their group for a while after that. Naruto occasionally snuck glances at Ultear, and even Meredy... but the former seemed lost in thought while the latter continued staring ahead, looking bored. He was about to excuse himself to head back to his own inn and room, but Ultear came to a stop in front of another building. Looking up, he noticed it was an inn as well. This must be where she was staying, as it was getting darker out.

"I'm afraid I must part with you here. It's getting late and Meredy is going to need to get some sleep. I have one more shop to check before I call it a night as well." She had turned and was giving him a soft smile. Admittedly it looked a lot better on her than one of the predatory ones she typically graced him with.

He figured it would be polite for him to return the smile, so grabbing his mask, he pulled it to the side. He found grinning was rather easy when the two in front of him were staring in complete shock.

"I should go get some sleep as well. Good night Ultear, Meredy. Sleep well." With a wink, he placed the mask back over his face, gave them both a small wave, and headed back towards his own rented room at another inn.

Closing the door to their room, Ultear let out a long sigh before turning around to look at her charge. "That was close. Too close."

Meredy looked down a little, her hands fumbling with her cloak. "I'm sorry. I didn't see him until it was too late."

"It's fine dear. I'm not blaming you for anything." She gave Meredy a little pat on the head before moving over to the window, looking outside. "I know you were probably rearranging your list in your head again. You seem to do that a lot."

"Yes. I was."

Nodding more to herself than to Meredy, Ultear closed her eyes. Naruto... he never took his mask off in public...

"I don't want Fire Shadow to be number two anymore."

Startled, Ultear opened her eyes and turned around, looking at the younger girl. "Not number two anymore? What do you mean?" It was unusual for the girl to willingly drop anyone on her hit list. They typically only dropped if someone else she disliked more came along to push them down.

Meredy looked away, then back at Ultear. "Number forty-two."



Shaking her head, the raven-haired woman moved over towards the bed, sitting down on it. "Can I ask why?"

Meredy glanced at her, then turned to stare out the window. After a moment, she looked back at her pseudo-mother again with a light blush dusting her cheeks.


Ultear blinked. Then blinked again. "You're changing it... because you think he's cute?"

Meredy nodded, rubbing her cheeks. "Cute. Nice. Different. I don't know. I feel strange."

Ultear had to bite her lip hard to keep from letting out a giggle that would be very much unlike what Meredy would expect from her. "Okay, okay. I can see why you want to change where he is on the list. You should get some sleep... maybe you'll even want to take him off the list tomorrow?"

The young girl nodded again, saying nothing further. It only took a moment for her to get ready to sleep, and when she was finally in bed, Ultear let out another sigh and left, heading for where the runes were located that she was copying for her Guild Master. She didn't know why he wanted them, but there was no need for her to question it.

Of course as she was working to copy the runic scripts she couldn't help but to think back to their earlier encounter with Fire Shadow. Why was he really out here? He was obviously up to something, but he believed what she said about her Council work. Not that it was a lie... but it wasn't exactly what she was doing now. She was checking the shops, but it was for pieces of a broken, rare item. Not quite the policing work she claimed.

Eventually her thoughts turned to Meredy... and she found herself suddenly struck with several bouts of giggles. Part of her was tempted to relay the information to Fire Shadow the next time she saw him, just to see his reaction. She'd have to save it for a time when his mask was off.

Ultear leaned back against one of the nearby trees of the grove as she directed her magic to form stones that copied the shape of the script. She had so many plans within plans.

Where could Naruto possibly fit within them?

A/N: Ohmygoshhi. Remember me? I know a lot of you probably hate me now for taking so long. My muse does what it wants, unfortunately. Needless to say canon has changed a couple things I had planned on writing, but it actually works more in my favor rather than against. So that's good for you all.

I can't really think of much else to say without being too full of blah, so I'll stop here. This is a lead-in chapter to the next arc, so most people will probably only need to read back one chapter, maybe two, to remember where this story is.

Oh, and in case you do read back... yes, I know diamond is strong but brittle. Suspension of disbelief, people. Just a little bit. C'mon.