Though the wind ruffled his clothing and his hair whipped about his face violently, Naruto sighed happily as he spiralled through the sky. If anyone had told him even three months ago he'd be doing this, he'd have laughed in their face.
He'd have most probably then jumped right into training but still, the fact remains he would have mocked them.
Letting his gaze turn towards the trees rushing past him at a rapid pace, the ninja couldn't help but wonder why someone hadn't tried to accomplish this. Granted, there was that weird clan he met ages ago that flew with those weird purple chakra wings, but it just wasn't the same.
Dropping down lower, the blond reached out a hand and let it smack through the fresh leaves growing from the tops of the trees. Chuckling, he then leant back and lifted up into the sky. How had no one ever tried something like this before? He'd never felt so free.
Flipping upside down, the teen watched the inverted world shoot along, hills and valleys passing him in seconds as he neared his goal. What he didn't expect to see though was only the footings of the council building being laid as he finally arrived.
Blinking in surprise, the ninja righted himself and dropped to the ground. Landing with a soft thud just outside the construction zone, Naruto looked around at the various workers. Raising a hand, he tried calling out. "Oi! Can anyone tell me what's going on here?"
The majority of the workers though just cast him a sidelong glance before getting back to work. One teenager wasn't worth wasting time and money over. Trying again, Naruto ended up with the same result. Huffing angrily, the blond looked about. Not seeing much else, he shrugged and dipped under the barricade.
Walking over to what appeared the foreman, he poked his head over his shoulder as the man explained a section of the plans to several builders. "… goes here. I've been informed that when we get to this stage, some mages will be sent in who can defy logic and get this section built for us. For now though, we just need to focus on reinforcing the extremities as it will be supporting a lot of weight over a rather small space."
Blinking in confusion, Naruto reached past the man and pointed at a large crystal that appeared to be floating in the air. "But how is that meant to stay up?"
Sighing irritably, the foreman slapped his hand to his face. "For the thousandth time Deck, the mages are going to…"
Having opened an eye, the foreman frowned in confusion as he looked over the young boy. "Oi, what are you doing in here? This is out of bounds, so play somewhere else. Someone get him out of here?"
Grunting, Naruto held his ground. "So now you pay attention to me. What I wanted to ask was where can I find one of the council members? I have something I really need to speak with them about."
Growling, the annoyed man waved a hand at him. "Seriously kid, I don't have time for this. Get lost."
Frowning, Naruto shook his head. "You don't understand, I really need to talk with them."
Turning to face him fully, the foreman tried to loom over the smaller blond. "And you don't understand, I really don't care! This area is out of bounds for civilians!"
Rolling his eyes, Naruto batted away a set of hands that tried to grab him. "Stop being such a prick for a moment. I'm not your average person." And with a wave at his chest, the foreman's eyes widened in shock as he saw the Wizard of the Ten Saints badge attached to Naruto's jacket.
"What the devil is this? How'd you get your paws on that?"
Naruto wrinkled his nose in annoyance. "Oh, I just stole it off one of the most powerful people in the whole world. What the hell do you think? Now are you gonna tell me where I can find a council member or not?"
Feeling a little bit of his former courage start to slip away, the foreman steeled his face as best he could. "After this place was destroyed they all disappeared, so I don't know and I don't care. Mages and all that type of business doesn't interest me or any of my men here. So long as I get paid I'm happy. Now will you please leave?"
Moaning in frustration, Naruto kicked a clump of dirt at the foreman before spinning around and stomping away with his hands stuffed in his pockets. "Some help you were. Useless old man."
"I heard that!"
"And I don't care!" Grumbling darkly to himself, Naruto nearly made it to the barricade when a voice called out to him. "Excuse me, can you wait a moment?"
Glancing over his shoulder, Naruto watched as a youngish male ran over and skidded to a stop in front of him. "Sorry for eaves dropping but I couldn't help but hear that you're looking for a council member?"
Nodding, Naruto turned around. The man himself wasn't all that remarkable, what with shaggy brown hair, a dirty work uniform on and a pair of muddy boots, but the twinkle in his eye couldn't help but tell Naruto that the man recognised him. "Yeah? Anyone will do, I'm in a hurry."
Smiling, the man nodded. "No problem! Uh, I don't know where they are exactly, but I did hear from a friend that he saw one of the council members getting ready to leave here about now. I'm not sure who, but from what he told me I think he's headed for Hargeon. If you left now you could probably catch him pretty easily."
A grin stretched across Naruto's face and he reached out to pat the man's shoulder. "Gee, thanks! I'm glad not everyone is like that grumpy old fart over there."
Chuckling sheepishly, the worker played with the hem of his shirt. "Awww, he doesn't mean bad. He's just over worked I think. Don't hold it against him."
Looking over flatly as the foreman screamed at someone, Naruto shrugged. "Whatever. Anyway, thanks for the help mister!"
Just as he was about to leave though, the man grabbed his sleeve. "Oh, can I please ask one more thing?"
Blinking, Naruto nodded. The man began twitching embarrassedly and began fiddling with the hem of his shirt again. "Well, me and my family have been a bit of a fan ever since we read about you in the Sorcerer Magazine, so I was wondering if I could perhaps get an autograph?"
Eyes widening in surprise as a broad grin stretched over Naruto's face, the blond nodded. "Yeah, sure! I suppose I could!"
Eyes lighting up in happiness, the man instantly dived into one of his pockets. "Oh thank you, thank you, thank you! My son will be so happy to find out what I got him!"
Chuckling, Naruto took the extended hanky and pen. Dropping down by a randomly discarded steel girder, Naruto held the pen up. "So who am I writing to?"
Swallowing nervously, the man replied, "Deck Crous. Actually no, can you make it Austin Crous? That's my son."
Nodding, Naruto's tongue slipped out of his mouth slightly as he scribbled his name down. Grinning one done, he handed the hanky back. "There ya go!"
Struggling to hold back a gasp, the newly introduced Deck read the message. "To Austin Crous, stay awesome! From U… Uzu… maki Naru… to?"
He looked up in confusion as he tried to sound out the name. Winking, Naruto gave him the thumbs up. "Yup, that's me, Uzumaki Naruto! And don't you forget it!"
Beaming widely, Deck nodded. "Ah, ok I won't forget! Uzumaki 'The Orange Rocket' Naruto!"
Blanching, Naruto had to catch himself before he face planted. It looked like that accursed nickname was still following him around.
Airborne again, keen eyes swept across the landscape as Naruto searched for the supposed Council mage. There weren't too many paths leading from the relatively secluded area, so the blond bargained that he had a pretty good chance of catching up soon.
Glancing out to the left, Naruto just spotted the back end of a carriage as it disappeared around a rocky outcrop. Grinning and banking in the air, Naruto weaved off towards the buggy and dropped his altitude.
Quickly catching up, Naruto flew over the roof and looked down at the person driving. Eyes widening in recognition, Naruto couldn't have hoped for anyone better.
The usual three bladed hat the small man wore was now replaced with a short chefs toque. His outfit had also changed, the once odd dress code he adhered to replaced now with a baggy shirt and a set of worn overalls. Grinning widely, Naruto cut power to his limbs and fell into place beside the old man with a thump.
Well, if the horrified scream of shock from the council member wasn't enough to raise the dead then nothing was. Ears ringing violently, Naruto stared down at the man vacantly as he apparently screamed his head off at the young ninja. Not that he could hear anything mind you, the ringing was too loud.
As his advanced recovery righted his hearing though, words began floating through and Naruto began to think he shouldn't have done that. "… Dare you… my life… dead… swear, I have never been… in all my years! Shame on you!"
Crossing his arms in a huff, the small man then looked straight ahead and said not a word more. Watching him cautiously, Naruto wondered if he should apologise now or later. With the way he look at the moment though, Naruto doubted he'd even acknowledge his existence if he didn't give some form of apology. "Uh… I'm really sorry about that. I didn't mean to scare you, I was just happy to see you. Call it my bad and I'll buy you a bowl of ramen to make up for it?"
Opening one eye a slit, a fierce pupil glared up at Naruto from under an extremely bushy eyebrow. "Make it two bowls with twelve pieces of pork in each and you have yourself a deal."
Grinning widely, Naruto quickly accepted the terms. Ah ramen, was there anything you couldn't fix? Sweet broth of the gods.
So with that taken care of, Naruto gripped the seat between his legs and began swinging back and forth. "So old man, how have you been? It seems like forever since we spoke last!"
Sighing as the last of the heart arrhythmias subsided; Yajima cracked a small smile and snapped the reigns attached to the beast pulling them along. "Well, aside from you nearly giving me a stroke, not too bad I suppose. I quit being a councillor in favour of taking up a rather long time dream of me being a chef. Having only been out for a few days, I can already feel youthful rejuvenation filling my body."
Pausing in his swinging, Naruto blinked and stared down at the small man. "What? Why did you quit? You seemed like the only one of those uptight members that had any idea what was going on!"
Sighing, the old man rubbed his forehead. "Well… after Ultear and… Zearad was it? I can't remember; after they betrayed us, you have no idea of how much of a failure it was and the level of incompetence that subsequently hung over the council. I had had enough and quit after that, but from what I've heard most everyone's jobs are on the line. There is to be a massive overhaul of the council at the King's request with whole new groundwork being set for an entirely fresh council."
Looking up to the sky in consideration, Naruto mused out loud, "So that's why it was taking so long to rebuild everything. I would have expected it to pretty well been finished by now."
Nodding, Yajima hummed softly in agreement. Changing the subject, the former council member gave his reigns another snap. "So what brings you out this way?"
Naruto frowned and sombrely looked down at his hands. "Well, it was actually something I'd have liked to have discussed with the council. I had something happen with me earlier that could prove quite dangerous if left unchecked. Actually, I'm kinda glad it's only you. The rest of your old work mates didn't seem as understanding as you."
Noting the change in mood, Yajima stared at Naruto for a moment before asking quietly, "What was this thing exactly?"
While still uncomfortable with the topic, Naruto decided to stop being so hesitant and just be out with it. Mostly. "Well, I have something within me, a dangerous and vile power that I keep locked up with my body to prevent it from destroying the world. What happened was that this power started leaking from me. I didn't have any control over its escape and while I managed to hold it back, the fact it was escaping from me without my actual drawing on it is what scares me. The worst part though is I have no idea what could be making it happen."
A deep hum rumbled from Yajima's chest as he processed the information. Taking his time, the man considered the problem before talking. "Well… this certainly is a reason for concern isn't it? Might I ask that you show me a small fraction of this power so I can see if I recognise it?"
Chuckling, Naruto shook his head. "No offence but I highly doubt you've ever felt anything like it ever. Let's just say it's not from here."
Undeterred, the small man stared up at Naruto. "Perhaps, but that isn't to say that it wouldn't help me in the future. I could possibly even direct you in the right direction if I got a clue as to what we are dealing with exactly. I would urge you, but I can see that it is a rather touchy topic for you."
Absently sucking his lip in and chewing on it, the blond considered his options. There wasn't much else he could go on, and this could very well help old man Yajima with working out what was going on. Besides, his guts trusted the small fellow and his instincts were rarely wrong.
Deciding that the risk was probably worth it, Naruto sighed and consented. "Yeah, ok. Let's just stop a moment and go into the trees a little. The… hog wouldn't like it."
Looking at the strange animal pulling the small wagon, Naruto couldn't really think of it as anything else. A really big, purple hog. It gave a bit of a grunt as Yajima pulled up on the reigns and slowed to a stop. Jumping down, the small man wandered over to a tree and then tied the leather straps around a sturdy looking branch. Smiling up at Naruto, he then held a hand out. "Lead the way."
Not really all that excited with what he was about to show, Naruto sucked up his reservations and slipped off his seat. "Ok, I guess we'll just walk that way for a bit then."
Not saying anything, the old man simply crossed his arms behind his back and followed the taller blond. Five minutes into the walk, Naruto looked around. "Yeah, here looks good."
Turning, he then faced the man. "I'll warn you now, I've been told that when I pull this stuff out, it feels like I want to attack you. I won't, it'll just feel like it."
Nodding, Yajima didn't say anything and just stepped back expectantly. Taking one last breath, Naruto closed his eyes and dug into the power source within him.
"Back for more I see?"
Not really wanting to deal with Kyuubi just now, Naruto stuck to short answers. "I'll be gone soon. Just showing Yajima-san a bit of you."
A deep chuckle echoed through Naruto's mind as the caged beast undoubtedly grinned wide. "Be careful then little human. You wouldn't want another accident to occur like before."
Doing his best to ignore the menacing feeling, Naruto frowned and focused on drawing the powerful chakra out. "Don't you worry about that. I have control this time."
Another deep laugh filled the teen's mind as he succeeded in pulling the power forth. Cutting off the sound, Naruto opened his eyes and looked down at his hands. His fingers had only clawed slightly and he imagined he wasn't looking too feral, but the sensation was still slightly unpleasant. Looking to Yajima, Naruto was happy to see the man hadn't run away. He did look a touch on edge, but other than that perfectly normal. "Well now, that certainly is something."
Nodding, Naruto flexed his hands. "Yeah. Pretty intense."
Humming, the old man nodded. "Very well, you can let it go now. I have a good feeling for it."
Letting out a calming breath, the blond felt his hair smoothen out somewhat and his fingernails awkwardly retract back into his fingers. Wriggling them to dispel the sensation, Naruto looked at the old man expectantly. "Well, as you said I have never felt anything quite like that before. And you say this was pulled forcibly from you?"
The blond nodded. "Yeah, just a day or two ago. It hasn't happened since, but I don't want to take any chances."
Yajima rubbed his chin in thought. "Well now, that makes it tricky when you have no leads."
Sighing despondently as he heard that, Naruto began to wonder about other available options when the old cook continued. "However, I do believe you could possibly look into something darker. This power of yours is rather sinister and as such I'd imagine unsavoury folk would love to get their hands on it."
Thinking about his run-ins with the Akatsuki, Naruto nodded and chuckled humourlessly. "You couldn't be more right."
The man grunted in agreement. "So with that in mind, perhaps you could investigate some of the dark guilds then. We have problems with them from time to time and it wouldn't surprise me if something like that was connected to them."
Ok, now the old man was talking. Raising a keen eyebrow, the blond started fidgeting. "Alright, alright! Where can I find one of these things?"
Frowning in thought, Yajima mused, "Well, I haven't heard about much activity lately. I have heard rumours though that something might be happening far north."
Grinning widely, Naruto balled his fists. "Great! That's as good a place to start as any! Thanks heaps Old Man!"
"Hear me out though Naruto." Pausing in his excitement, the blond looked down as the elder's voice grew deeper. "These dark guilds, they usually stay off the magic council's radar because we have so much influence and support. For a dark guild to be venturing into something dangerous like this, they either have to be absurdly stupid, or extremely dangerous. Even someone of your strength should watch their back if going into something like this alone."
Taking the warning to heart, the ninja smiled resolutely and gave the man a thumbs up. "Don't you worry about that. I'll take care of myself for sure!"
Nodding in satisfaction, Yajima crossed his arms behind his back. "In that case, I wish you all the luck in working this out. You take care of yourself, and maybe stop past my new restaurant at some stage? I'm heading down to Hargeon so don't be a stranger."
Naruto grinned as the first ripples of wind began leaking from his body. "Of course! Thanks so much for the information!"
As he lifted off though, a final question entered Naruto's mind. "Oh, and before I go, do you know where Ultear would be? I promised her I'd come say hello!"
Lifting a hand to his mouth, Yajima called out, "I believe her to still be in hospital. There is a small makeshift camp just outside of the old council building. If you fly high enough I'm sure you could spot it."
Saluting, Naruto shouted a "Thank you!" and then whooshed into the sky.
Hovering what he estimated to be about three hundred feet above the ground, Naruto looked over the rolling landscape as he tried to spot the small estate. "Alright, where are you… ah-ha."
Spotting a slowly curling beacon of smoke not too far from his location, the blond arced in and dropped to the ground just outside the area. Walking in, he curiously looked around.
There were several people milling about, a few looking like they were on break while others were crisply walking from one wooden cabin to another. The four or so cabins themselves were relatively well made, looking like they were able to house up to twenty people in each if they had bunk beds. Another building stood separate to them, looking a little more flashy than the houses, signifying that was probably the reception. In the middle of it all though was a small fire with three men seated around it, casually conversing with one another.
Deciding the little office was probably the best place to go, Naruto wandered past the group and waved at them when they noticed him. They waved back hesitantly, unsure what to make of him but anything else they did was missed as the blond pulled the office door open and strolled inside.
Looking around, the first thing Naruto took note of was all the white. The ceiling, walls, flooring, dividers, desks; everything was white, even the windows seemingly tinted. Not eye glaringly so, but enough to make it monotonous.
Sitting at the front desk was a professional looking woman in her mid thirties. Her hair was pulled back in a bun and she was currently engaged with what looked like a worker from the council building. Looking behind him, there was a chair he hadn't noticed before, so he slipped into it and waited as patiently as he could for them to finish.
Thankfully it didn't take too long and with a final goodbye, the man left but not before shooting a curious glance at the orange clad teen. Giving the man a wave as the door closed, Naruto pushed himself to his feet and walked up to the desk with a smile. "Hey there! I was wondering if you could help me?"
Looking up in disinterest, the woman replied, "I'm sorry, but I can't help those who are not a part of the council restoration. The plans are to be kept secret until the building is finished."
Shaking his head, Naruto corrected her. "No, I'm not interested in that. I just wanna know where the hospital is. There's someone there I want to see."
Raising an eyebrow, the woman let out a breath. "And who would be asking?"
The blond poked a thumb at his chest. "Uzumaki Naruto!"
Looking down, the lady quickly flicked through a small pile of neatly kept papers before looking back up. "I'm sorry, you don't appear to even live here. I didn't think I had seen you before and you aren't on any list to be coming in. This area is out of bounds for civilians so may I ask how you found this place?"
Looking over his shoulder, Naruto pointed in roughly the direction of the old man. "Yajima. He told me I could find my friend here."
Raising her eyebrow further, the woman countered, "Well, that's a bit of a surprise. It still doesn't give you any reason to be here though, unless you have some authority I don't know about."
Naruto began to wonder what the point was of wearing the Saints badge when the people who needed to see it never bothered looking. "I'd say this is authority enough."
Both eyebrows rose this time and the woman bowed her head slightly. "I'm sorry, I didn't realise."
Spying her name badge, Naruto shrugged and waved it off. "No problem Marria. So, recon you could tell me where the hospital is?"
Nodding, the surprisingly tall woman stood and walked to one of the windows. Pointing down past the cabins, the lady explained, "Just walk straight past cabins one and two. You'll find a small path that leads down from there for about one hundred meters or so. You'll find the hospital there."
Finally getting a straight answer, Naruto beamed at the lady. "Thanks heaps! I'll catch ya later!"
And pulling the door open, Naruto excitedly slammed it closed behind him as he ran past the still confused men at the fire.
Reaching the end of the path, Naruto looked up at the largish building. It looked more like a medical center than a hospital, but that didn't matter as it still served its purpose.
Running up to the front door, Naruto stopped for a moment as the doors smoothly opened automatically for him. Spotting the reception desk, Naruto ran up to find a male sitting behind it looking pretty bored. Trying to calm his twitching legs, Naruto grinned as he made eye contact. "Hey! I'm looking for Ultear?"
Shaking his head, the man sighed as he spoke. "I'm sorry sir, but you cannot see her. You should already have known she is under guard."
Rolling his eyes, Naruto pointed at the missed badge. "Um, hello Wizard of the Ten Saints here? Pretty sure I can see her if I want."
That earned him a raised eyebrow. Looking the teen over in relative disinterest, the man sighed again and reached for his walky-talky. "I got a kid here who says he's a Wizard of the Ten Saints and wants to meet Ultear. Better come check."
As soon as he hung up, a pretty little nurse came out crisply from a room down the hallway. She eyed the man distastefully for a moment before turning to Naruto and smiling. "Hello! I assume you're the Wizard Saint?"
Nodding happily, Naruto pointed at his badge. "Yup! Uzumaki Naruto, at your service."
Her smile faltered slightly as she didn't recognise the name, but the badge proved his status and that was enough for the slender nurse. Bowing slightly, she motioned for him to follow her as she started walking. "Well, I thank you for giving us the privilege of your presence. My name is Annikah. Don't mind Diest, he's like that all the time."
Chuckling as they turned a corner, Naruto rubbed the back of his head. "Nice to meet ya. And that's ok, he reminds me of one of my friends."
Turning another corner, the blond silently noted the lack of any doors in this corridor. It seemed fairly well built too, the walls very thick if his senses were anything to go by. After a brief walk, they turned a full one hundred and eighty degree corner and came to a stop in front of a door.
Two tall Rune Knights stood either side of the entrance, their imposing figures complimented by the massive staffs they each held across it. Looking down at the two intruders, the one on the left asked, "What brings you down here nurse?"
Bowing slightly, she motioned to Naruto who was curiously trying to see through their full faced helmets. "I have here Uzumaki Naruto, a Wizard of the Ten Saints. He wishes to speak with Ultear."
Both turned their invisible eyes to the orange clad youth. Naruto stared back resolutely, still trying to peek through the thin slips that they were meant to see from. "What business does a man of your status have with the prisoner?"
Tilting his head slightly, Naruto squinted as he thought he caught sight of something. "I just promised her earlier I'd come and say hi. How do you see out of those?"
Ignoring the question, the guard shook his head. "I'm sorry, but that is not a valid enough reason. You'd have to have been sent here by a member of council to have enough clearance."
Dropping an eyebrow in irritation, Naruto waved at a wall. "Well, old man Yajima told me she'd be here so that should be enough clearance!"
That seemed to resonate between the two guards and they looked at each other for a moment. The one on the right inclined his head slightly and the other returned the gesture. "Very well, a man of your position wouldn't lie about this for risk of being instantly stripped of your title. Very well, you may enter."
Not realising that a simple lie carried so much weight, the blond swallowed and silently thanked the men that they hadn't pushed him to the point of snapping. Nodding slightly as they allowed him entrance, Naruto quickly turned and waved goodbye to Annikah as the door closed behind him.
Turning forward, the teen then had to stop abruptly as another guarded door rose before him. Grunting agitatedly, he looked up at the seeming twins of the men outside. "Oi, you gonna let me through?"
Nodding slightly, the man pulled his lance back. "We just had to make sure you were indeed telling the truth. Our sensor said you were nervous, but that was it."
Raising his eyebrows in surprise, Naruto whipped his head around. "What? Where is he?"
The other guard pulled his lance back as he answered. "It's a machine. It takes note of certain body motions and accurately works out if the person in question is truthful. That is all you need to know."
"Ah." So that's why he couldn't sense anything weird. The whole building was filled with machinery and stuff. Still, the blond made sure to be particularly alert as he slipped into the room.
As the door closed shut behind him, Naruto had to blink his eyes as the light became rather artificial. While the rest of the hospital was extremely open, in here it felt more like a closed box. A softly glowing blue light behind a curtain caught his attention so pulling it aside, he was surprised to find a large, translucent cube wrapped around a bed, the very girl he'd been searching for sitting inside it.
Keen brown eyes trained themselves on the surprise guest, the smirk pulling at her plump lips indicating she had known he'd been coming for at least a few moments. A book lay face down, pausing the imaginary journey for a moment. Slender hands crossed themselves over one another as they rested on the bed sheets that were pulled up to Ultear's waist. Sitting upright, a thin but covering night gown rested upon the lady's shoulders, comfortably covering her modesty, but not at all fitting in with her usual elegance.
Seeing Naruto beginning to well up in excitement, Ultear nodded slightly in his direction and smiled. "Hello there Naruto. I wasn't expecting to see you."
Grinning widely, Naruto jumped at the girl. "Ultear-chan! Long time no see!"
A vibrant explosion of sparks lit up the room as Naruto connected with the barrier and was thrown backwards. Landing heavily on his back, Naruto caught his breath as Ultear's amused voice reached his ears. "Only you, Uzumaki. Only you would jump head first into a top Rune Knight barrier."
Moaning, the blond pulled himself up and poked the barrier again. Sparks shot out from the point of contact but that was it. Frowning unhappily, Naruto looked at his friend. "Well this sucks. I can't even say hi properly!"
Shrugging, Ultear motioned to a seat just outside the barrier. "I'm sorry for that, but the Rune Knights seem rather adamant that I am to have no outside contact with the world until after the new council works out what to do with me. Please, take a seat."
Dropping into the seat, Naruto crossed his arms and glanced at the woman. "Well, you can't really blame them after what you did you know? I mean, seriously, that's probably the dumbest thing you could have done. Coming from me, that means you really screwed up."
The raven haired beauty's eyebrow twitched in slight annoyance but it passed quickly enough. "Forgive me for not explaining the full reason of my actions. I'd rather not talk about such things while being watched by unsavoury people."
Looking around, Naruto's eyes thinned as he tried to sense anyone around. The walls must have been made with some form of suppressant because outside the room felt really muffled. Senjutsu (Sage Techniques) could have probably seen through it easily enough, but that wasn't why he was here.
So turning back to the girl, Naruto grinned widely and started swinging his legs. "So, how have you been anyway? I mean, after you woke up."
A disgruntled smile pulled at Ultear's lips as her eyebrow twitched again. "You really… roughed me up a considerable amount. Several cracked ribs, internal bruising and a couple of chipped teeth."
Chuckling sheepishly, Naruto ran a hand through his hair. "Well I did say I would."
Inclining her head slightly, the woman continued. "The first few days were fairly blurry, between the treatment and painkillers. Once I healed though, it has been one big party in here by myself."
Pursing his lips, Naruto looked around the tiny room. Outside of her bed, Ultear had a small desk with a lamp, a sink with a single plastic cup and a raised wall that partially hid a toilet. Not much privacy by anyone's measure. "Wow… so you've been stuck in here for… how long?"
A shrug met his question. "Without windows I lost track of time. All I know is it's felt like an eternity." Her features then smoothed over and she gave Naruto a smile. "So, what's been happening in the outside world then? Care to inform a helpless prisoner?"
'More than you could imagine.' Externally though, Naruto simply smiled in return and scratched his head in thought; carefully picking out choice events from his memory. "Well, after I got out of hospital, I ended up staying at Akane Resort for a few nights."
An honest look of envy crossed the girls face when she heard this. "Ohhh… Uzumaki, should I ever make it out of here that will definitely be one of my holiday destinations. I have always wanted to go!"
Chuckling happily, Naruto pointed a thumb at himself. "Yeah, I'll come with you! If you're good, I'll even pay for your room. I got a bit of money saved up."
Licking her lips, Ultear wasn't shy about letting her eyes drift for a moment. "Oh, I'll have to make sure I'm on my best behaviour then won't I?"
Missing the blatant stare because of his closed eye smile, Naruto nodded. "Yup! What then, oh, met some of Erza's old friends, had a couple of good fights in the guild worth remembering, watched a bikini contest…"
Trailing off, a light blush dusted the teen's cheeks for a moment as he relived a shining moment in his life. Ultear's soft giggle brought him back with a start, the girl holding her hand up to her mouth. "It must have been a wonderful time then!"
Nodding, Naruto couldn't help but add, "You'd have looked amazing up there too! Assuming you came and joined the guild of course."
Casting her a sidelong glance, his face fell when she gave him a flat look. "While I'd have no problem entering something like that, my allegiances lie elsewhere so unfortunately for you, that won't be happening any time soon."
Grumbling for a moment, Naruto then continued. "What else… nothing too much I can think of really. I ran into that prick who labelled me the 'Orange Rocket' though. I told him what's up."
Smiling slyly, Ultear leant back while looking at the boy out of the corner of her eye. "Oh, you didn't like it? I thought it was actually really cute!"
Bristling, Naruto jumped to his feet. "IT IS NOT! It is the number one lamest, most useless, horrible… stupid…"
Trailing off as he realised he'd been baited, the blond dropped back into the chair with a huff, crossing his arms over his chest. "It still sucks."
Having giggled the whole time, Ultear wiped away a small tear of mirth and leant forward. "Oh Naruto, thank you so much for this. You have no idea how bored I've been within these walls! You and your jokes are exactly what I've needed."
Glancing at the girl, Naruto's frustrated face relaxed and he gave her a smile. "Well, I'm happy I could help brighten your day too! It sucks you're all cooped up like this. Do they really mean to keep you in here all this time without a drop of exercise?"
Sighing, the raven haired girl smiled and placed her cheek on one raised knee. "You know what I did. Why would they let someone like me out?"
Naruto shrugged. "I dunno, because you need fresh air like normal humans? Even if you're under guard, surly they could at least let you out for a few minutes. You wouldn't run away would you?"
Looking at the glowing prison she was in, the girl stretched out a hand and let her fingers spark against the barrier. "I couldn't, even if I wanted to."
Frowning as he watched Ultear detachedly drag her fingers across the blue wall, Naruto then suddenly jumped to his feet and yelled out, startling Ultear. "Oi! What is wrong with you, keeping her constricted like this? She's back and I bet she's sorry! She wouldn't run away because if you went with her, she couldn't! So you can't even let her outside to do a little exercise at all?"
Wide eyes studied the teen as he shouted at the walls, Ultear's mouth hanging open ever so slightly. Once Naruto realised that he wasn't going to get an answer, he turned to face the girl and dropped an eyebrow when he saw her expression. "What?"
Blinking, the girl composed herself a bit. Her eyes didn't lose that questioning look though as she asked, "Why did you do that?"
Not expecting that, Naruto blinked in surprise. "Do what?"
A hand motioned at the walls. "Call out for me. Tell them I should go outside. Claim I have apologised for my actions?"
Scratching his cheek, Naruto looked at the woman. "Well… because you have, haven't you?"
Considering it for a moment, Ultear shook her head. "Not yet I haven't."
"Oh." Dropping back into his seat, Naruto scratched his head. "Well that must be why they haven't let you out yet."
Ignoring the statement, Ultear frowned. "But why would you do it for me at all?"
Rolling his eyes, Naruto grinned. "Dur, because we're friends!"
"Even after I tried to kill you?"
The slightly rushed question made Naruto pause. While her face gave away nothing, something about the tone in the question was almost… needy? Considering the deceptive woman, Naruto nodded slowly. "Yes… I don't care about that. You were going down the wrong path and I had to stop you. So what if we fought? Friends fight. It's water under the bridge for all I care, so long as you realised you were wrong." A cheeky grin then crossed his face as he added, "Otherwise I'm gonna have to kick your ass again."
Her breath hitched as Naruto spoke. His flippant disregard for such a massive fight really hadn't crossed Ultear's mind. A small voice in the back of her head whispered that he must have had some serious disagreements with other friends before.
Looking down at her hands, the intelligent female mulled over his words. She couldn't detect any deceit within his voice, so she had to assume he was completely serious. Looking back, Ultear couldn't think of any words to say to the expectant blond. Swallowing, the girl looked back down at her hands as she said two words that hadn't been truly meant in a long time. "Thank you."
Smiling softly as the words reached his ears, Naruto let out a slow breath through his nose. "Don't mention it. We're friends right? And I'd do anything for my friends. Anything."
Abruptly, the blue barrier that separated the two flickered for a moment before fading gently. Instantly suspicious, Ultear jumped out of her bed, senses alert as she tried to work out what just happened. In all her time here, not once had the barrier dropped. Even the doctor that came to check on her had a rune attached to his clothes that allowed him and a guard to pass through the barrier.
Naruto however took the disappearance in a completely different way. Grinning widely, he looked up at the walls and waved at them encouragingly. "Thank you! You'll see, she's changed for sure!"
Walking in confidently, he held his hands out to the still prone Ultear. "Come on, they even heard it! They must have known you would turn out ok after all!"
Looking at the teen, Ultear considered her options.
Attack him while he was unready, knock him out and flee. She'd probably make it if she acted fast enough. Risky though, considering his reflexes.
Let him lead her out the door before locking him within the room. The walls were thick so it should be able to hold him in for at least enough time for her to escape. More probable since he currently trusted her.
Wait until he gets close enough and pinch the nerves in his neck. Fast, effective and easily concealed as a hug until the movement was complete.
When Naruto did reach her though, the treacherous thoughts began to fade. His wide, trusting grin and bright blue eyes seemed to hold her in such high regard that the longer Ultear looked at him, the more guilty she felt.
The image of Naruto sealed within ice suddenly flashed through her mind and brought with it a painful stab of guilt. Unable to meet his gaze any longer, the former council mage looked away. 'I tried to kill him, and yet here he is standing up for me. This… no, come on Ultear, this doesn't matter… this present doesn't matter. Next time you can get to know him properly, the proper way. None of this attempted killing… now, pinch those nerves and escape.'
Yet as Naruto pulled her into a warm hug, her hands seemed to grow a mind of their own and instead of sliding up towards the base of his neck, simply wrapped themselves around his middle and allowed herself to be pulled in close.
"It's so good to see you again! I missed you!"
Almost hiccupping, the girl had to bite down on her lip as unwanted emotions began to boil within her chest.
Now didn't matter. This time did not matter. Nothing currently mattered, since soon, everything will be fixed. Not even Naruto mattered, no one did. Not at the moment.
But for some reason, it did.
Suddenly, a ridiculously powerful explosion ripped through the room as fragments of Lacrima and wall went everywhere. The embracing couple were sent flying, Naruto only just managing to manipulate his body under the Ultear's as the two of them smashed into the back wall. Grunting in pain, Naruto slipped to the floor as Ultear looked about in shock. Coughing, Naruto opened an eye a fraction and looked around. "What is going on?"
Unable to answer, Ultear just shook her head. "I really don't know…"
Looking through the dust that filled the air, both of them tightened their muscles as silence washed over them. There wasn't any shouting, no alarm, nothing.
As the white cloud drifted towards them, Naruto's keen eyesight caught something move in the background. Training his vision on that, he was caught completely unaware as a flash of pink blindsided him from the other direction, a powerfully charged punch connecting solidly with his cheek before sending him flying through the wall and out into the main area of the hospital.
Vision swimming, the ninja moaned as he sat up while rubbing his swelling jaw. Whatever just hit him hit him hard. Ultear's startled voice rounded him quickly though and he pulled himself to his feet. "Ultear? What was that, are you ok?"
The girl replied but the still falling fragments of wall and Lacrima muffled her voice out. Shaking away the last of the pain, the blond waved clear some dust as he peered in through the hole he made. "I'll be there in a second!"
He made it one step in when his senses kicked in and the blond bent back flat, his knees straining to hold him up in the awkward position as that same flash of pink just barely missed taking his head off.
Stretching out his arms, the ninja completed a back handspring and landed crouched, ready for whatever it was. "Who are you? Why do you keep trying to kill me?"
In answer, a soft voice floated in from somewhere within the hospital, surprising the teen as it was distinctly female. "Orange Rocket, Wizard Saint of the Fairy Tail guild. You are Number Two. Prepare yourself."
Growling, Naruto raised an indignant fist. "IT'S NOT ORANGE ROCKET FOR THE LAST DAMN TIME! How many people am I going to have to tell before everyone realises? It's Uzumaki Naruto!"
Still growling through clenched teeth, Naruto twirled around to watch as a young girl stepped out through the fog of dust. "Your name is irrelevant. Prepare yourself."
As he got a proper look at her though, the blonds' fist relaxed and an eyebrow rose in confusion.
Emotionless gray-green eyes calculated his movements as he stood up, her smooth features showing nothing of what was going on in her thoughts. Shoulder length hair covered her head; the strands kicking out at the tips save for two lengths of her fringe that curved protectively around her jaw line.
Nestled within her locks was a peculiar ornament, something Naruto had yet to see anywhere else. A band around her head supported a strange form of headgear, the defining point of it being the face length wings that stuck out a good foot proudly, covering her ears and the sides of her skull.
From her shoulders hung a long red, knee length cape that was hemmed with a fabric that was a bright yellow, bordering gold. A strange symbol seemed to have been sewn onto the left side of it too, the actual marking being no bigger than the shoulder it sat on.
Beneath that was a strange uniform that Naruto had trouble seeing due to the cape. A bicep length vest covered her torso, finishing just as it touched her thighs and tied off at her waist with a thin brown belt. Under that though, it looked like she was ready for a dip at the beach with a simple gray, one piece swimsuit covering her modesty.
Her legs were completely covered with brown, mid thigh length boots that hugged her skin tightly, the material looking extremely tough. As she flicked her cape back to ready her arms, the blond noted that all she really had as protection for her upper limbs were a simple set of brown elbow pads and matching gloves.
All in all, it was a rather peculiar dress code that Naruto was having trouble taking seriously. If anything, she looked like she was ready for a dress-up party rather than a battle. Her youthfulness was also a bit strange, but the blond had long since learnt that it didn't matter how old they were, they could still kill.
Wondering if there was a way to avoid the fight, Naruto held his hands up disarmingly and tried to smile at the stony girl. "O- oi! What's going on huh? I can tell you're super angry for some reason, so let's try fix that. What's got you all worked up?"
Frowning ever so slightly, the strange preteen crouched and held her arm out. "That you are not dead. Here I come."
Twenty or so glowing swords then materialised around her as her magical power spiked. Looking at the strange weapons, Naruto raised an eyebrow. "You can requip too? And what was that about me not being dead? I haven't even done anything to you!"
"Enough." And with a swipe of her hand, the girl sent them all shooting in towards her opponent.
Crying out, Naruto started up an odd dance as he desperately stepped around the gleaming swords. Rolling out of the way, a sudden burning sensation rushed through his leg as it was hit. Hissing in pain, the blond vaulted over the last sword and landed on his good leg while cradling his injured one.
Looking down at the limb, he got a shock though when he realised there wasn't any blood despite the sharp pain. Patting it, Naruto still flinched but determined nothing was actually wrong. Looking up at his adversary, the teen tenderly put his leg back to the floor. "So what's the deal with that? Why aren't I bleeding?"
Deciding that was a worthy question for a change, the girl explained as she formed another dozen more. "These are my Blades of Sensation. They attack your sense of pain directly."
Flinging the next batch at Naruto, the strange girl frowned as the teen suddenly began dancing around the weapons again, seemingly without tenderness. Once he had dodged them all again, she pointed at the blond. "Why aren't you favouring the injury? There is no way that doesn't hurt."
Wincing slightly, Naruto chuckled and shrugged. "Well, you just told me this things weakness. It attacks my nerves, so physically I'm fine. It hurts like an absolute bitch, but with the knowledge that nothing is actually wrong, it isn't too hard to block out the pain."
That seemed to strike a chord within the girl and she tisked irritably. "You are just trash. Let the pain possess you like it should."
Wrinkling an unamused nose as he heard that, Naruto held his hands out to the sides and copied her stiff talking style, complete with monotone. "You-are-trash. Blah-blah-blah-I-am-robot."
Finally gaining a reaction, the girl's cheeks lit up in a pink much the same shade as her hair as more swords began appearing above her. "Q-quit copying me!"
Rolling his eyes, Naruto sighed as the next wave of weapons was shot at him. "You're a bit of a one trick pony aren't you? Fine, let's get this over with."
Avoiding the first three easily enough, the blond then attacked, weaving his way through the swords and aiming right for the girl. Rearing back an arm, Naruto made sure to tone down the attack a bit so he wouldn't punch a hole clean through her stomach.
Lashing out, Naruto noticed the girls arm flash a moment before his fist met her stomach and blew her back through the wall. What happened next though surprised the teen immensely. A sudden force lodged itself within his own stomach, curling around as whatever it was pushed deep into his abdomen before he himself was blown backwards through several walls and a door.
Coughing slightly, Naruto groaned and held his sore abs as he pulled himself upright. "What the hell just happened?"
Looking around from his spot, he noticed several nurses all lying on the ground, either asleep or unconscious. "Huh, so that explains that then."
Standing up, the teen then dusted himself down, but froze when he noticed something on his arm. Something very pink on his arm. Looking at it closer, he realised it was in the form of a bracelet with a band going around his wrist. The worst part though was the three circles on top of his arm, interlinked with a single line and a bright, throbbing, pink love heart right smack dab in the middle circle.
"Yuck! Pink? What is this, get it off me!"
Swiping at his skin, Naruto desperately tried to remove the unwanted symbol but the stubborn mark would not move. Next, he gripped his wrist and started trying to pull it off, the idea that if enough pressure was applied, he could force it off.
Hopping about in frustration as he desperately tried to get it off, Naruto heard a crash and turned his gaze over to the wall as the girl walked out. Growling, he pointed at his wrist and then at the identical one he noticed on her own arm. "Oi, what did you do to me?"
While her shoulders still seemed to be heaving slightly from the after affects of Naruto's attack, she still spoke evenly and plainly. "This would be my magic, Sensory Link. Now we are connected and share each other's pain. Anything you do to me will automatically happen to you."
Moaning, Naruto looked down at his wrist. "Yeah that's cool and all, but can you make it orange? Pink is… just no."
Momentarily taken aback, the girl looked down at her wrist. "What's wrong with it?"
Frowning, Naruto crossed his arms. "It's not manly. Orange is manly, pink is girly. It looks fine on you, but on me it just looks gay."
Shaking her head, the girl calmed herself and looked down her nose at Naruto. "What colour it is or isn't is none of your concern. It still means your death."
Raising an eyebrow, the blond boy looked at her sceptically. "Oh? And how do you plan to do that when you're linked with me?"
A smug grin slowly crept across the girls face. "I have my ways. Now, die."
Unsure of what was to come next, Naruto readied himself for an attack when a loud voice from within the hospital sounded out. "Meredy! Stop this at once!"
Finally identified, Meredy's eyes widened in surprise and she turned to face the call. "Ultear! What do you mean?"
Stepping from the ruins, a dusty Ultear walked over with her hands on her hips to look down at the smaller girl. "I mean this. I couldn't care for what happens to this place, but what business do you have with Naruto?"
Eyes narrowing, the girl cast an angry glare over at the confused blond. "He was the one who captured you and prevented you from returning to the guild. He caused you pain and even had you locked up by those council scum for over a week until we could organise a rescue. His punishment should be nothing less than death."
The raven haired beauty's gaze darkened and Meredy instantly cowed beneath it. "I don't remember asking for assistance. Did it not pass though your minds that perhaps I was waiting for the right opportunity to escape?"
Looking away, the younger girl bit her lip as she was reprimanded. "But… but we wanted you out and I was worried… I volunteered."
Gaze softening somewhat, Ultear sighed and rubbed her brow. "Well, fine, what's been done has been done." Looking into the distance, the former council member frowned. "In any case, we should escape. I'm surprised no one has come to find out what the explosion was."
Looking up hopefully, Meredy explained. "Well, I made sure to knock out everyone within the area. No one should come to check until the workers return to their cabins."
Nodding, Ultear turned and began walking away. "Very well. Let us return to the guild now before anyone else comes."
"Wait!" Pausing, the pale woman looked over her shoulder. "Yes?"
Naruto had straightened up by this point and was looking at them calmly. "You are trying to escape again?"
Looking up at her superior, Meredy held out her hand to display her active connection. "Ultear, if you so wish you can incapacitate me for the journey home so he is unable to follow."
Ignoring Meredy, she looked over at Naruto, placing a hand on her hip and raising her chin. "Maybe? I don't remember apologising and I never promised you anything. While our talk was very nice, I'm sorry but this is where we must part."
The blond growled and clenched his fists. "When I said I'd kick your ass again, I really meant it. Though if I do have to do it again, it'll be twice as bad as what you first got. I promise you that."
Tilting her head acknowledgingly, the woman smirked. "Oh, I don't doubt it." Suddenly snatching up Meredy, the woman clamped her hands over the girl's mouth and nose, effectively cutting off her airways. "However, I do wonder how well you can fight without oxygen."
Instantly realising what was happening, Meredy relaxed into Ultear's grip. Naruto meanwhile was staring down in confusion as his hands rose to his throat. He could still breathe, he could feel his lungs filling with air and then emptying as per the usual process, but his nose felt like it was blocked up behind his eyes and his throat felt like it had permanently closed over. Gagging, he dropped to his knees and took a massive lungful of air. That changed absolutely nothing though as his vision began to swim and his body began to scream for air. Looking up at Ultear, the blond knew he had to do something or else it was over.
Pulling himself to his feet, Naruto desperately tried to attack but the rapid fatigue upon his muscles drained his strength. Easily sidestepping his attack, Ultear lashed out and kicked the blond powerfully right in the stomach. Flying back, his body connected solidly with a tree before he slumped to the floor. Eyes flickering through oxygen deprivation and pain, he managed to make out Meredy clutching her stomach in pain as her eyes finally fluttered closed.
Fading eyes slowly turned to Ultear and just before he passed out he saw her mouth, "Goodnight."
And then, his world went black.
A massive gasp sounded out through the clearing and Naruto sat bolt upright, hand clutching his aching chest and sweat running in streams down his face. Pained eyes surveyed the area as his foggy mind tried to remember what happened.
There had been Ultear… old man Yajima… that weird, pink haired girl, some explosions… the hospital…
Scrutinising the rubble, Naruto's eyes widened as he remembered the underhanded trick they had used. "Damn it…"
Pulling himself to his feet, Naruto wiped his brow and looked up to the sun. Not too much time had passed, but it was enough for two powerful mages like them to make good distance. Frowning as his breath finally returned, Naruto walked over to where they stood and looked at the ground. Their tracks had gone as he suspected.
It was then the thought crossed his mind, why didn't they kill him? Meredy clearly had a grudge against him and Ultear didn't seem like the type of person to leave loose ends. To only knock him out when they knew he'd come after them… Shaking his head clear of the questions for the moment, the ninja turned his eyes to the bushes.
Nothing… nothing… nothing… there. Walking over, Naruto bent down to look at the knee height snapped branch. The end piece was gone, but the bark had stripped on the back side of the branch indicating someone had had to have forcibly snapped it in a sideways direction.
Looking up, Naruto spied several other discrete clues indicating the direction of the females. Pushing off his knee, the blond took a breath and stilled, letting the natural energy of the earth fill him as Senjutsu quickly activated. Senses magnifying, Naruto pushed his abilities to their maximum as he tried to spot them.
Unconsciously frowning, the blond began nibbling on his lip as he searched. How far could a pair of mages actually get? Eventually, Naruto picked up on their trail. They were moving at speed and he couldn't help but whistle in surprise at their pace.
Opening his eyes, Naruto began gathering chakra within his palms when his stomach flipped. Sticking his tongue out at the odd sensation, he blanched when it happened again. Eyes widening as it happened again, he looked down. "No, no, no, not now… please not now…"
Disregarding his quiet pleas though, before his very eyes the blond watched as red chakra began bubbling out from his stomach, growing outward as it slowly grew to cloak his form. Taking a shaky breath as his features distorted, Naruto did his best to calm himself. 'Come on, what has everyone been telling you? You can control this, you are the master of this power. It doesn't matter if it's coming out, you can still dominate it. Now, breathe.'
Inhaling through his nose and exhaling through his mouth, Naruto felt a calm form of control begin to enter his mind. 'That's it, accept what's happening and now manage it.'
Taking another breath, the blond sighed peacefully until a sharp voice completely ruined his meditation. "Oi! You, over there! What happened here, did you do this?"
Instantly stiffening, Naruto peeked over his shoulder. Of all the times for the Rune Knights to turn up. "I'm not waiting! What happened? Answer me!"
Taking one last breath, Naruto turned around. Flinching as blood red eyes stared them down, the knights dropped their staves defensively as pressure suddenly started bearing down on them. The head knight snapped into a well memorised stance as the demon-like human gazed down at him. Swallowing his nerves, he spoke again. "Answer me I say!"
Holding his hands up disarmingly, Naruto shook his head. "No, it wasn't me! You see, I just came past for a visit when this girl, Meredy, suddenly attacked me. Ultear helped her knock me out and I was just about to go get them!"
Trained as they were, the guards couldn't help the small amount of bias the fear generated within their minds. "L-lies! You were trying to escape the scene of the crime!"
Snapping his gaze over to the knight down the back, Naruto growled in anger and focused on the poor man. "If I say I was here visiting, I was here visiting! Don't go calling me a liar when you don't even know me!"
Shaking his head, the man pulled a slip of papers from his vest. "I have the proof here! The only person to visit this place recently was the Temporary Wizard of the Ten Saints, Uzumaki Naruto!"
Blinking in surprise, it finally dawned on the blond. 'They don't recognise me!'
Realising this was probably a very good thing, Naruto shook his head. "Whatever. I don't have time for this."
All the knights then jumped into battle formation, surrounding the agitated blond and effectively cutting off his escape routes. "You are to come quietly with us, else we shall use force."
Grunting, Naruto looked at the one escape route they hadn't planned on. "Catch me if you can then."
Welling up a mass of chakra in his palms and feet, rocks and dust kicked away from the teen before he shot into the sky in a blaze of red.
*EDIT* - I didn't realise Naruto passing out so quickly would cause such problems with everyone. Here's the reason for it.
Yes, Naruto was beaten easily. Normally yes, he could last aaaages without air, but the main focus of this fight was the Sensory Link Meredy had with him. SHE was being suffocated, not him. She was also wanting to be choked, so with that in mind she was going to pass out faster, and in turn Naruto, affected by the Link, also passed out faster than normal.
So while not epic, it was more a battle of tactics.
A/N – There, chapter all done. I'm pretty happy with the development I've got going on here too, it's setting the stage nicely for what I have planned.
In saying that, I'd like to ask maybe one or two of my regular readers if they wouldn't mind a little spoiler and if I could quickly bounce an idea off them? Just wanna make sure everything's headed in the right direction.
Other than that, I don't think there's too much more to add. Till then I suppose.
P.S. Actually, there is one thing. I had a couple of people ask me questions lately that haven't signed into their accounts, assuming they have them. If you do have one, please sign in and ask me so I can reply. I don't do Q&A in the Author's Note, so the only way you'll get a reply to that valid question is by signing in. Thanks!