A/N: Just wanted to thank everyone for their heartfelt support.

...I slept for a good bit of the last five days after that collapse, and although it did help...

...needless to say it threw off my update schedule. I'm mostly recovered now, although with more appointments -blech- coming up quite soon.

In other news, its finally my birthday~! Huzzah~! Another year older, another year wiser...and now I finally have a PS5 meaning I can FINALLY play Baldur's Gate 3 and Honkai...once I finally get the bloody things downloaded. That might take a bit, seeing as my internet is slow as hell on this old router of mine, but I'll get around to it eventually.

That's one nice thing about being older, I suppose. Lots of friends to celebrate your birthday with. Naturally, I count my readers among them.

In other news, Slifer and Advent really stepped up these last three days; Advent's helping crank out more chapters for "Worthy" and "Dance of the Dread" and soon to be "Foxfire" while Slifer's working on "A Golden Soul" and the like.

I'm aiming to get back to "Apples and Atoms" "Doctor of Demons" then "What Could Have Been" along with my other categories. "Shed No Grace On Me" is also calling my name..

With my sixteenth-year-anniversary on this site rapidly approaching, I find myself reflecting on the little things in life. What was once a lazy pastime meant for me and a few friends really grew and evolved over time. There are days when I look back on the last fifteen years here and I wonder if anyone will remember me; if I made an impact, despite never making a single cent on any of these stories. Some days were happier than others, and some stories I enjoyed writing WAY too much; to the point where I'd stay up all night working on them.

And of course, there are times when I look to the future and wonder what will become of things when I'm gone.

Of course, I try not to dwell on the latter overmuch; I'm still alive and still writing. In an ideal world, I'd like to keep doing so for as long as I can. But old age is catching up to me and these days, the world is filled with so much madness and death. Feels like everyone's lost their minds sometimes. Even before that, so many friends and fellow writers I once knew are gone, now. Will I still be here in twenty years? Ten? Five? Its a chilling thought. But for now, I'm still here, still writing.

So here we go. The fate of this story depends on you, the reader. Your feedback determines the fate of this tale, and many others.

I'm just a humble author trying to make his way in this wild world, one word at a time.

Time and feedback will determine if this remains a story. Simple as that.

In other words...its up to YOU, the reader. Do let me know~!

Delta/Sara is adorable in this chapter. As are others.

SPOILERS FOR SEASON TWO~!

"See, that's the thing about getting reincarnated. You learn a thing or two in your second go around."

Being reborn takes something from you, y'see. Burns away all that...naivete.

The old me? He wouldn't have survived a day in this brave new world.

He was too kind. Too trusting. Sad to say it, but that was the truth.

Kindness is all well and good, but you need to be ruthless, too.

To put it bluntly, I was a sheep in my first life.

No longer. Now I am a wolf.

And I aim to feast."

~Naruto Uzumaki/Nathaniel Griffey/Lord of Light.

Second Deed

"Fight me, cheater!"

Naruto quirked a blond brow down at his challenger. "And how did I cheat today?"

A tiny foot kicked his shin and bounced right off, for all the good it did them. "My big sister is the strongest, yet you beat her every time?"

Such a stubborn child. "Aaaaand?"

"So you must have cheated these last few months!"

His lips quirked in a smile. "That's not a proper argument, ya know..

Him? Cheating? Really now?! Perish the thought! He'd fought Iris Midgar for hours today; patiently pummeling the feisty redhead in the ways of the sword until she finally collapsed from exhaustion; several servants had taken pity on the poor girl and carried her off to bed ages ago. It was always like this whenever he came to visit. She'd passed out with a smile this time, which was hopefully a good thing.

Little Alexia Midgar was not smiling right now.

Quite the opposite. She had a rather fearsome scowl.

Such a stubborn little lass. Really! Who did she think she was fooling?

In truth, Alexia didn't look a thing like her dear sister in the least; she and Iris shared those vivid crimson eyes to be sure -Kurama would be so proud!-but that was where the resemblance ended. With her pale ashen hair and defiant demeanor she was the utter opposite of her talented older sister. Smaller. Louder. Angrier. Nowhere near skilled as Iris, but determined to prove herself or die trying.

Now just who did that remind him of?

She stomped a foot. "Fight! ME!"

'Heh.'

He wasn't surprised that the younger girl finally worked up the nerve to face him after he trounced her precious "big sister" so many times. No one had stuck around in the courtyard to watch their impromptu bout, which was probably for the best given their respective age gap; Iris had been a quick learner, but Alexia was tiny. She'd shown the same persistence as her sibling, but the longer he held his tongue, the angrier she became.

Which led them to the present moment, with her gripping a training sword white-knuckled in her hands.

Bloody thing was almost bigger than she was!

"Alright." the ghost of a grin tugged at his face. "Come at me. But don't cry when you lose."

"Raaaaaah!" She rushed him in retaliation for his jest; foolish of her. She'd left herself wide open.

Her sword whistled in at his face; respectable speed; they were fighting at her behest after all so she must have some confidence in her skills. He could respect that-even if he did pity his opponent. There was confidence, and then there was arrogance...

...on second thought, perhaps she could do with a lesson or two herself.

A quick flick of the wrist batted the younger girl's blade aside as though it were no more than a harmless stick, forcing her arms wide and, her eyes wider still with shock, maybe even a little fear. Her face went paler than her hair. Those nearly white tresses really did baffle him.

'Hmm. Her and Iris must have different mothers. I swear I'll never understand this world.'

"Stop holding back!" Alexia lunged at him again, swinging like a girl possessed. "Fight me like you fought my sister!

A smile touched his face as he intercepted each strike with graceful ease. "Temper, temper. You really need to watch that."

That only roused her ire yet further.

It amused him to no end.

She really could glare!

Rather than hold back on the next go round, he swayed around Alexia's blade and parried her followup strike, twisted aside, then swept her legs in a seamless flourish. She went down with a yelp as he sent her sprawling right on her face. Her sword flew free from her grasp, caught the light of the setting sun as it fell in a graceless arc to land at his feet.

His blade stabbed down an inch from it as he placed both hands upon its hilt.

"Pick it up."

Alexia raised her dirty face with a pained gasp. "What?"

"What's wrong?" he kicked the practice blade her way. "Pick. It. Up."

The girl stumbled onto her hands and knees, choking back a whimper. She really was afraid of him.

Small wonder. No one had ever manhandled her in a spar like this before. He'd given her a rude awakening.

"Fear is a weapon, if you know how to use it." he schooled his face into a calm mask, when in truth, he longed to grin. "Are you going to cower like a coward? Or...

He looked down at her dull blade, so tantalizingly close to her.

But she would have to move toward him to reach it.

...will you fight?"

Little Alexia looked to him. Down to her blade. Back to him again. He could see the gears turning in her mind; the realization that he was taking her seriously, despite her age.

An epiphany struck. She didn't think I was cheating at all, did she? She was jealous.

This brave, surly little fighter wanted to train with him and Iris, too.

Something sparked in her eyes.

Naruto didn't quite understand what, but whatever it was, it gave her the strength to move once more.

Alexia snatched her weapon up and lunged at him.

His sword struck hers, but this time, she managed to deflect the blade and divert his attack rather than take it head on.

"Good!" he praised her and parried once more, forcing her on the defensive. "Don't use the standard attacks, try the unorthodox."

Her weapon whipped in at his face, only to change direction at the last instant and stab down at his foot. He parried her again, drawing an annoyed noise from the surly girl as he forced her back a step and went on the offensive. To her credit, she ducked immediately and only lost a few strands of hair before countering.

The follow-through proved as weak as it was clumsy, and her blow didn't have any real strength behind it yet, but it would in time.

He was simply laying the foundation for greatness today.

What Alexia Midgar made of those building blocks...

...well. That depended entirely on her.

"Control my central line!" he barked the words at her like a drill instructor as she went on the attack! "Fight faster! Destroy my focus.

She was nimble and quick to heed his instruction and absolutely ruthless in a fight. Her stance mimicked Iris in some ways, but in other ways it was delightfully simple. No extravagant moves, no flashy flair, she went at you fast and hard and tried to stab you full of holes.

He liked that! Alexia Midgar...she was an honest one! What you saw with her was whatcha got.

Would that more people were like her; the world would be so much more fun.

His lips betrayed him in that instant. "Better! I like your style of fencing!"

Her face went red. "Don't say that, stupid!"

"I can't help it!" patted her head then swayed back from the subsequent stab. "You'll be one tough cookie someday!"

She had potential, so much of it, just beneath the surface. One day she would be a brilliant swordswoman; possibly the strongest in the land. But for all that Alexia was still young, a fledgling yet to take flight, a baby bird still in the nest. It made him wanna pamper her, ya know? Even if she didn't necessarily like him.

Her hands trembled around her sword "...why?"

If there was one thing he'd learned in this world, it was patience where girls were involved.

"Why, what?" he coaxed her, prodding with his words ever so gently. "Do you have something to say, princess?"

"Why are you teaching me all these things?!" she stabbed her sword into the dirt and thrust a finger at him! "I hate you!"

Liar. His head tilted. "Is that how you really feel?"

Little Alexia made sad Alexia noises.

Best not to prod her further.

"Well, think of it like this." he held up a finger. "I'm not beating your sister for nothing, I'm teaching her, helping her grow stronger. Just as I am you. It helps if you think of it as a lesson."

He couldn't take her with him as he had Sara; Alexia was living her life here, with her sister. It would be cruel to take that away from her n a whim. Even so...

'Still...I guess I can give her a little boost.'

He barked a command. "Come at me!"

Alexia did so happily.

When she tried to strike him again, he pivoted peerlessly on one heel, let her sweep past, and drove an open palm squarely into the small of her back. In that brief moment of physical contact, he gave a bit of his mana to the surly girl, unknowingly mimicking the actions of certain Eminence in Shadow leagues away.

It was too much to hope she wouldn't notice that infusion of power; Alexia was far too sharp for that.

"Ow!" She rounded on him, quick smart, eyes gone narrow. "What did you do?"

Clever girl.

"You want to be strong, don't you?" he sheathed his sword with a flourish, ignoring the annoyed noise she made. "I gave you some of my power; its yours now. Use it well."

"Why?" She squinted up at him. "I'm not strong."

"Because I wanted to." he shrugged a shoulder. "And you could this as a chance to catch up with Iris. Its up to you what you do with it; but if you use it for evil, I'll have to take it back, ya know. Remember," a quick flick to her forehead drew a whine from the younger girl, but her eyes never left him, drinking in ever word. "Power's all well and good, but at the end of the day you need more than that. You need a goal."

His peace said, he turned to leave. "Be seeing ya."

"Wait!" She called out after him. "Where are you going?"

"To visit my brother, of course. Someone has to take care of Zenon, the poor dear...


(.0.0.0.)


Yes, let us return to the taboo topic of my poor, poor older brother, Zenon Griffey, for a moment.

As stated, I did not kill him. That would've upset our parents. Instead, I let him linger.

Because as you well know...there are worse things than death.

Take it from me. I've experienced a few of them myself.

Living can be a torment all it own...


(.0.0.0.)


Zenon Griffey could not move.

No matter how hard he tried, how he struggled, how his mind wailed within the confines of its prison, he simply couldn't move a muscle. These days, it was almost all he could do to simply breathe and he was only able to accomplish that because his captor let him. A servant had to moisten his eyes daily and attend to his...other needs because he couldn't do anything else himself.

How long had it been?

How long since he first encountered that thing?

How long since it broke him, since he was confined to this hospital? He could no longer remember.

It was Nathaniel's fault. All his fault. He'd taken them from their family home and brought him here, the middle of nowhere!

His brother wasn't human at all! He was a demon! A monster made manifest, a creature that cause the very Cult to quiver! He had to tell them. Had to warn them. But he couldn't, and that was a torment all its own. He had sought to use his younger sibling as he used all others around him, all for the sake of his ambition, the better become a Knight of the Rounds.

One could use a boy, not a beast.

To think otherwise was folly; but by the time he realized the danger it was already too late; his "brother" betrayed him, bewitched him, broke him. His mind was still his own -if only just- but he scarcely had control of his own faculties anymore. Nathaniel made sure of that; he drugged him daily, had been for years now, and there was nothing he could do to stop him.

In his darker moments Zenon wondered if he deserved this.

After all, had he not planned to do the very same unto his brother? Was not turnabout fair play?

Now all he could do was stare at the grey ceiling of this room as he felt his mind slowly slip away, day by bitter day.

"Oh?" a smooth voice crooned at him. "It seems you've recovered some small semblance of your wits. That's good, I suppose."

Speak of the devil and he shall appear!

Nathaniel leaned into his field of vision, looking older than he remembered. He looked what...twelve, now? Possibly thirteen?

Oh gods how long has he been confined to this bed?! How long-no! He knew that smell!

A sweet-smelling vial was forced to his lips and his head tipped back.

Zenon tried to choke. His brother forced him to swallow.

Within moments, he lost the war for his body.

"This really is an effective tonic." his sibling hummed, patting his cheek. "Don't worry, you're the only one I'll ever use this on. Scouts honor."

As if he had any such thing.

But then again, neither did he, didn't he?

Was it possible to be proud of someone and hate them so much?

"It would be a shame if you relapsed again, don't you think?" a calculating gleam flashed through his brother's icy eyes. "Not that your body has much in the way of strength at the moment." those baleful bright orbs gazed down at his shriveled body without remorse. "I doubt you can even swing a sword anymore." he sat at his bedside, still wearing that smile of his. "You'll be pleased to know that Mother has finally passed on the last of your rights and titles to me, by the way.

Zenon grit his teeth.

"I sold of most of your belongings off, naturally," his right hand waved oh so flippantly as he said that last bit. "I didn't have any real need for them, and they netted me a tidy sum. Thanks for that. I was able to outfit Sara properly thank to your generous donation. She likes wearing black, ya know?"

Zenon seethed. His left hand twitched, fingers longing to lock around his brother's throat and squeeze.

"Hmmm?" Nathaniel saw it and leaned back with a pleased noise. "Still some fight left in you, eh?"

"You...!"

"So you can force the odd word out when you try." a finger tapped his sunken cheek. "If by some chance you do shake this off and recover, you're welcome to try and kill me again. But next time I won't be so merciful." that finger sharpened into a claw, biting down until blood bubbled up under his finger. "It would be a shame in an accident ended your life altogether...

He picked up pillow and held it over his head.

Damn brat of a brother!

"Kill...me...

"Here?" the boy blinked, then set the cushion aside. "Now? Today. No, you're not going to die for a very long time, Zenon. Y'see, I've made a few more friends since we saw one another last...

Nathaniel always did this; always told he told him of his misadventures whenever he visited.

Because you see, he knew. This was his torture. His torment.

"Where to start...well you should know I'm good friends with princess Iris now. Not so her sister, Alexia. She's feisty, that one." whiskered cheeks dimpled in a wry smile as Zenon foamed at the mouth. "I don't think she likes me taking up any of her dear sister's time. Still, she's fun to train, ya know? Always keeps me on my toes. Oh!" he brought his hands together in a delighted clap. I made other friends as well. Once I'm done here, I plan to scout out a few Theriaonthrope clans. Sara could use a friend, ya know...

Zenon made a strangled noise, more like a reedy whisper than a groan.

"Now, now, don't make a fuss. We're just getting to the good part...

Nathaniel sounded so happy about his life. So smug.

That itself made him despair like nothing else.

No more of this! End me! Please!

Someone! Anyone!

Let me die!


(.0.0.0.)


Was this the moment of her death?

Yukime could feel her life slipping away from as surely as her blood seeped into the snow below. Every breath was agony; each drumbeat of heart grew weaker as time ground on. She was dying a devastating death of a dozen cuts; bleeding out moment by moment. Her black was a bloody mess; carved open by frenzied blades. She could barely move anymore. But worse than the pain of her body was the pain of her heart; the agony heartbreak, the pain of loss.

Her clan, gone. Her home in ruins. Her mother dead.

Everything burned around her.

Her fiance...

.

..

...Gettan, that traitor!

He loomed over her now with his bloody blade, leaving her sprawled over Mother's corpse as he rambled on. Their blood mingled together further staining the snow a sinister scarlet.

"It didn't have to be this way, Yukime." Her belove'ds voice, once so lovely, invoked only madness in her now. "If only you'd listened to me. If only that woman listened...

Every moment he drew breath was an insult to her clan.

His very existence wronged her like nothing else.

She hated him!

Hate.

Hate, hate.

HatehatehatehateHATE!

She'd never forgive him so long as she lived!

Because you see, she'd loved him. A small part of her still did even now, despite all he'd done. He had been hers. And she had been his. They were to be wed next year. They should've spent the rest of their days together in gentle bliss, far from the horrors of the world, with many children together. It would have been -should have been! - a good life.

But fate was so cruel.

Just as the first cut was always the deepest, so too was one's first heartbreak the most painful. She didn't understand that manner of madness made him murder her mother and everyone else; in truth she didn't want to understand. It was easier to hate. Her hatred helped her, let her cling to life when she should've been long dead.

Why did she have to die when that monster got to live? Because he didn't want anyone else to take from him?! Screw that nonsense!

She would never forgive him! She'd hunt him down wherever he went! She...she...she was going to die here, wasn't she?

The thought filled her very spirit with despair, choking her.

Yukime clawed at snow and grit her teeth.

"Gettan...! Gettan...! GETTAN...!

His bloody blade swept down.

Yukime closed her eyes.

Someone whistled.

"Who's there?!"

No, Yukime realized with a start, not just a whistle; it was both a childish lullaby, a joyous hello and a mournful farewell rising and falling with the snow. Her ears twitched. She heard footsteps. Gettan growled and rounded on the sound. The whistling grew louder. Yukime tried to follow, but she didn't have the strength to raise her head. The footsteps grew louder And they...they...

They.

Kept.

Whistling.

Gettan howled. "Show yourself, coward!"

With neither word nor warning, the whistling ceased.

The silence that followed was haunting, stifling, terrifying. Could they go back to the whistling please?!

"Take, take, take." a boy's rough-yet-strangely-pleasant voice crooned right behind her. "Gettan, was it?" she couldn't see her savior, but by his tone, she could imagine him tilting his head. "For someone so afraid of losing things, it seems to me you're the one taking here." Yukime felt the weight of his gaze settle on her a moment later and shivered despite herself. "From one fox to another, or rather, someone who used to house one a long time ago, I don't think you're being very fair."

Gettan's voice growled. "Who aaaaaaaaaaarrrrrrghhh?!"

The brutal bark of steel striking steel sang over her head, warping his words into a wail.

"What's wrong?" that same soft, menacing hum rumbled somewhere above her. "I thought you weren't going to let anyone take from you anymore."

"My eyes!" her former fiance gibbered madly, all the strength gone from his voice. "What did you do?! Why can't I see?!"

"If you can't figure that out, there's no hope for you."

His shadow fell over Yukime.

And with that shadow came fear.

She curled inward on herself, tail tucking between her legs.

'Don't let him see me. Please don't let him see me. I don't want to die!'

A hand touched her mangled back. She gasped outright, unable to hold back a cry.

"Hmm. He really got you good, didn't he?" the sudden softness in his voice made her uncurl, if only slightly. "Don't worry. I've healed worse than this.I'll even share some of my power with you."

Numbness settled through shoulders, easing the pain. She heard rather than felt the wound close; with it came strength. Her heart wavered, trembled, leaped into her throat now as strong hands took her shoulders and eased her upright from her mother's broken body. A tiny tremor rattled her quivering frame as a calloused hand brushed snow from her hair.

"Mother...

"No need to cry." she still couldn't see her savior properly, given that she was sprawled against his back, but she didn't miss the faint rumble of amusement that trickled through his chest. "She's alive."

Yukime's heart just about stopped.

"She is?!"

"Just barely." a tan hand made a pinching gesture just shy of her right eye. "Her heart's barely beating. Here just let me close that wound and-

Gettan garbled pitifully in the background. "No...!"

Why hadn't he attacked...?

Yukime tried to turn her head, but that same hand steered her back. "Don't say her name. You've lost that right."

Curiosity got the better of her last and pivoting, she looked the other way.

She finally saw her savior.

She didn't even have the strength to look away.

She could only stare in awe the snow fell around them.

Whiskered cheeks dimpled down at her in a small smile framed by by bright eyes and blond hair. His eyes were hidden beneath those blond bangs but even as she looked on, revealing them. They were...blue. Bright like the heavens above, utterly beyond her and Gettan entirely. She could see why. He'd made a comment about Foxes earlier. And those marks on his face! Did he have some beastblood in him perhaps? He didn't appear to possess the features of a therianthrope like herself and yet she felt compelled to ask-

"Who are...?"

"Shhh." He pressed a finger to her lips, stifling the words on her tongue. "I'm really not supposed to be way out here. So pretend you didn't see me, eh?"

Yukime managed a trembling nod as she acquiesced to him, still in shock.

And then he handed her a knife. "Do you want revenge?"

Her eyes locked onto the sharpened blade.

Swept back to Gettan now, in the snow.

Her former fiance was a quivering mess amidst the drifts, clutching his ruined face with one hand, blindly using the other to drag himself in the direction of their voices. Small wonder he hadn't tried to attack. He could not, not with wounds like those. He would never open his eyes again. There he lay, unable to defend himself in any meaningful fashion. The object of her hatred was weak. Vulnerable, just as she had been only moments before. He'd tried to kill her. She'd loved him, had been willing to give him her everything, and he'd tried to kill her. Didn't he deserve the same?

Yukime took the knife from her baffling blond, grasping it in both hands, closed her yes and...

.

..

...she hesitated.

"He should suffer for what he's done."

Her nameless savior considered her for a moment. "Perhaps he should."

Gettan went terribly still where he lay.

Yukime strode over to him.

She couldn't help herself. Anger gave her limbs wings. Her knife flashed out in a clumsy swing, carving into his face and taking an ear. Gettan recoiled with a yowl. She didn't let him; the second he jerked back she stepped behind him, grabbed him by the hair and set the knife to his throat. He froze.

...had she always been this strong?

How was she able to restrain him so easily?

She looked back to her blond savior. He flashed her a thumb's up.

...thoughts for later, she supposed. Recovering herself, she glared down at Gettan once more.

"I want you to remember this moment." she hissed in him remaining ear. "Live, knowing I could have killed you."

He babbled something she couldn't comprehend and then, "I only wanted-

She dragged the knife closer, creating a shallow slice against his skin.

"I don't care what you wanted!" she snarled at him, fangs flashing. "You ruined everything! I wanted to be with you, once. I wanted you more than anything in the world" It hurt to say that, more than he'd ever know. "Now, I only want to see you crawl on his belly for the rest of his days, knowing you failed to kill me and my mother.

He garbled out what might've been an apology. It only hardened her heart. The flames in her heart fanned further.

"I want you to exist in constant fear, life knowing that I could have killed you today, and that someday, I will." her knife traced his jugular slowly, with delicate care. "You will know neither the time nor the hour or the place of your death. Try to make something of your life, if you will, but know this. Someday I'll take everything from you, the way you tried to do to me."

Gettan quivered in her grasp, right until she cast him down into the snow.

"Run." she spat at his back. "Crawl for all I care. The next time you hear my voice it will the last thing you ever hear."

Gettan stumbled forward on his hands and knees, fumbling blindly for an escape. In a matter of moments he was lost between the trees. His footsteps soon followed and silence fell upon the world once more.

Her blond ally heaved a sigh. "You sure about that? It might come back to bite you. Its not too late to chase that guy down."

No, it wasn't, but she wasn't in her right mind at the moment. She wanted Gettan to suffer; wanted to make him hurt.

Let him be the powerless one for once.

A quick death was too good for the likes of that worm.

When next they met she would relish bringing him as low as he'd brought her.

"...I'm sure." She tried to continue, only for her vision to grow dim. She swayed backward.

The Blond caught her before she could tumble into a snowdrift.

"Oh, jeez." through ringing ears she heard his voice. "Seems like ya lost a lotta blood. You're really on death's door aren't you?" those same marked cheeks of his dimpled in a thoughtful frown. "Rest up."

Yukime tried to keep her eyes open as she sagged against him. Really, she did. She simply wasn't quite strong enough to do so. "My mother...?"

...will be fine." he soothed her. "Sleep now. When you wake up this'll be nothing more than a bad memory."

His name! Her mind flailed, fighting against the fetters of sleep. If she woke up and he was gone...!

"Oh, right." as if sensing that very thought, he smiled down at her. "I'm Nathaniel, by the way."

Did he have any idea how much hearing his name relieved her? Had he the faintest clue?

...Yukime."

"I figured." he smiled ever so sadly. "Now sleep."

It was the last thing Yukime heard before his light wrapped around her.

Nathaniel held her and seeking succor, she nuzzled closer.

His mana was oh-so-very-warm.

Like gentle sunlight.

Sleep was sweet.


(.0.0.0.)


"I'm home~!"

Naruto shrugged one shoulder, dropped his bag at the door and...

"BOSS~!"

Ack!

...as if! He was well prepared for Sara's explosive tackle-hugs by now! Pivoting with all the grace of a shinobi, he caught the excitable girl by the hips, swung her around to bleed off all that excess momentum, then set her down with ease. The moment he did she started nuzzling his neck, sniffing him as one might a juicy cut of steak.

Sarah, as he'd learned, was very affectionate. Maybe it had something to do with being a therianthrope. Maybe it was just who she was.

These days, she always welcomed him like this without fail.

Clingy, perhaps, but she respected strength.

Said sniffing ceased as she caught a familiar scent. Her violet eyes met his, framed by a frown. "You smell like foxes!"

"Because I found a fox." He smiled indulgently down at her. "Well, two of them, really."

Her face lit up and fell in the same instant; a most curious expression. "You were hunting foxes?! Without me?!

Best head that one off at the pass. "Not hunting, rescuing." he held up a finger to forestall an argument. "They're resting in the guest room."

She recoiled. "Why?!"

"Oi, it wasn't like I asked to run into them, ya know?" he held up a hand to fend off her tantrum. "I got the guy that hurt 'em and gave them each some basic medical attention, but I couldn't just leave them behind in that state." She made an annoyed noise at that and a thought occurred to him as he thumbed his chin, considering. "Although I didn't bother to wear my mask this time, so there's a chance she got a good look at my face...

The change of topic was all it took to set her tail wagging again. "Sara wants a mask, too!"

He arched an eyebrow. "What kinda mask?"

She barked once at him.

Shoulda known.

"Wolf it is."

She latched onto his arm. "Sara also wants go hunting with Boss! Right now!"

"Eh?" he fought down a yawn. "Do we have to? I only just got back-

Her eyes met his, wide and pleading. "Pleeeeaaaaaase!"

"I'd rather sleep right about now, m'tired ya know...

And then she unwittingly twisted the knife.

"All you do is train those two sword users." her eyes welled up with tears as she hiccuped. "...do you not like Sara anymore?

Naruto damn near staggered at the little whimper in her voice.

Urk. He'd just taken critical damage there.

His bed was very much calling his name...

...but Sara just kept staring.

Naruto sighed internally. 'Well, I did accidentally neglect her today, didn't I?'

And it would be awhile before their Yukime and her mother stirred, too...

.

..

...screw it!

What could possibly go wrong?

He'd tempted fate before, this would be no different.

"Alright." he caressed her ears ever so gently. "Lets hunt."

It was like flicking a switch in the little therianthrope. Sara perked up instantly, practically vibrating in place, such was her glee. "Really?!"

"I already said yes. Don't make me repeat myself." a quick tweak of her left ear calmed her down. "Whaddya wanna hunt?

She wriggled happily under his hand and grinned at him, tail swaying a mile a minute. "Bandits on the mountain!"

Ahhh, yes. Her favorite prey. How could he possibly forget about that tidbit? "Bandits it be, then."

"Yay~! I love you!" She pecked his cheek then jumped back, face red. "Best boss ever!"

His mind fizzled out. "Now wait just a second, I coulda sworn you just kissed-

She fled from him as much as the question. "Sara will race you there~!"

Naruto immediately gave chase. "Hey! Get back here!"

"You'll have to catch Sara first!"

He aimed to do just that.

What a lovely day.

A/N: Aaaand scene.

Names suggestion for Yukime's mother? She was unnamed in the story. Might just go with "Yoko".

Weeeeeeell~? How was it? Are you not entertained? Should this remain a story? Would you like weekly updates?

Yay or nay! Gotta let me know for the update schedule, ya know. As ever, the Embers Rule Persists; if folks don't like this tale, then... I'll not continue it. I can't bear to write something folks don't like, and working two jobs on a near back-to-back basis leaves my energy at an all time low. So by all means, speak up! Raise your voice! Make yourself heard!

Reviews are the fuel that sustain me and my team in these darkened times.

So in the Immortal Words of Atlas...Review, Would You Kindly?

(PREVIEWS!)

And as ever:

WARNING! WARNING! WARNING!

SPOILERS AWAIT THEE~!

YE BE WARNED~!

(Previews)

Rose Oriana could barely breathe.

She tried, she really did but her lungs just wouldn't work properly; Her heart hammered in her chest as she hid in this rickety shed , watching her captors creep close. Closer. Closest, now. She could see them through the crack in the door, hear them coming closer, their boots crunching down over fallen leaves. She tried not to move, tried to cry out, but she couldn't help herself. She was but a child after all.

If only she was strong.

If only she knew how to use a sword.

If only she wasn't so wretchedly weak...!

"Now, now, princess, we just want to plaaaay~!"

Stop messing around and grab the damn brat already!

"What's it matter? She'll just be another blood-sack for the cult-

A spear of light lanced down from the heavens and skewered him where he stood.

Rose recoiled with a yelp, muffling her gasp behind both hands.

"Huh, so it does work." a young blond boy stood atop the fallen spear, grinning from ear to ear. "Its no flying thunder god, but its a start~!

"Flying thunder god...?"

"Well," he thumbed his chin, "I suppose Hiraishin would be another word for it, but the former just sounds better, ya know? Anyway. That wouldn't happen to be the Cult of Diablos you were talking about would it?

They clammed up.

I thought so~! I' ve been looking for more information on them, but my bastard brother burned all the notes he had before my little...surprise. And you were gonna kidnap an innocent girl, hmm? Which mean I don't need to feel bad about this...

Who the hell are you?!

Well, none of you are going to survive the next five minutes, so it doesn't matter. Would you mind being my guinea pigs? I need to test out a few jutsu, not to mention THAT spell...

What followed was a beautiful massacre.

Rose saw it all.


"We owe you a debt we cannot possibly repay.


...you're like me, aren't you?"


Sara and Yukime butted heads, sparks sizzling between their narrowed eyes. A fox and a wolf. Instant enemies they were.

The latter's mother tutted softly in the background, three tails swaying lazily. "My, my, such fast friends they are."

Yukime rounded on her, calm demeanor shattering. "Mother, no!

Sara spluttered her agreement.

"WE ARE NOT FRIENDS!"


Years passed...


A sword tickled his throat, drawing a bead of blood. "...is there a reason you're doing this?"

Alexias smiled at him. It was not a nice smile. Yikes, she's pissed.

"Sorry, but I need you to be my boyfriend for a bit."


"BOSS~!"

His right ear twitched. "Waitaminute-

That was his first mistake. She waited for no one.

"Gah, Sara!" he grunted as she landed on his back, all but sitting on his shoulders. "Why are you even here?!"

"Sara was hunting!" her tail wagged, betraying the excitement in her eager voice. "Wanna go hunting with me, boss?"

...what were you hunting?"

"Strong people!"

"Oh, Sara...


"Hello, dear Cultist-San. Would you mind dying for me?"

"Ha?"

He looked up just in time to see a giant golden fox looming over him.

It bit down.

CRUNCH.


'I see, so that's how it is! He's like me! This feeling...for the first time in forever, I can actually...!'

Cid threw his head back and started to laugh.

"I have an adversary! An antagonist!"

EDIT: Hey, you made it!

As ever, the Embers rule remains: If people don't like this story? If they don't enjoy it? Well...I' won't be able to continue it. That's no joke, folks. I'm so busy these days with two jobs; holidays are HERE and basically, I don't have time off. Not anymore.

My free time is limited and as such, I can't afford to focus on something folks don't like. Reviews keep me writing in these times, and keep the daily updates flowing. Silence...silence only hurts. I hate having to beg for feedback, but without it...well, it feels like I'm not making an impact...

Looking forward to chatting with you all when I get back from work~!

Warm regards,

~Nz.

R&R~!