Diplomatic Relations, Part Ten
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Disclaimer: Naruto is the brainchild of Kishimoto-sama, and I am not worthy. I merely borrow the manga's characters and situations, and make no money off of them.
Part Ten: Fear
Lee struggled against the darkness, though without much conviction. It was nice here. It was warm, comforting, only mildly painful as long as he didn't move, and Lee didn’t really want to leave. But the dutiful Shinobi in him was kicking his unconscious ass, and telling him to snap out of it and get with the picture.
There was a chill to the air, the cool of a desert night, but Lee still felt warm, particularly down his left side. And his shoulders. And...
Hey, Gaara was here too. That was nice...
“Are you awake? We have to go soon.”
Gaara’s voice sounded very close.
“Wake up. My arm is getting tired.”
Arm...? Why would Gaara's arm be-
Lee was awake instantly. His eyes shot open; he was staring at the thong of a tunic about two inches from his nose.
He was still- still in the same position as when he’d gone to sleep- still in Gaara’s arms-
Lee gave a convulsive jerk away. He rolled off of Gaara's knee and slithered to the ground with a thump. There was only one word appropriate for the resulting sensation.
Gaara was looking down at him, face unreadable.
Lee glanced around nervously, more to avoid that direct gaze than anything else. They were still in the same rocky hideout. It was night time, one hour after midnight according to Lee’s internal clock; so over thirty hours had passed since they’d been attacked. It also meant he’d been sleeping like that for eight hours at least.
That startling thought was enough to make him forget how every muscle in his body was screaming at him in agony. So did the sudden, eerily tactile memory of Gaara's tongue briefly flicking against his lips...
He looked up at Gaara and swallowed.
“Erm, why didn’t you put me back down?”
Gaara’s face could have been carved from black and white marble. He was massaging his right arm with his left hand.
“Th-thanks for taking care of me. I...I was a bit loopy just before I passed out. Ahhh, I didn’t mean you had to- to-er...to prop me up like that for more than a few minutes.” It was the most neutral way Lee could think of describing the position they'd been in.
Gaara stood up slowly, straightening in a way that spoke of muscles stiffened from sitting in one position for hours. Lee had gotten good at reading Gaara these past months, but he couldn’t begin to guess what his friend was thinking now.
“I didn’t mind,” Gaara finally said, as if the words were well chewed over and this would be the final declaration on the subject he cared to make.
With a massive effort, Lee managed to focus back on the problem at hand. What went through Gaara’s mind was a mystery sometimes, and Lee didn’t have the time to puzzle him out right now. He had to concentrate on the fact that they’d been attacked and weren’t out of danger yet. And he also had to concentrate on the fact that he was hurting like hell.
That at least he could do something about. He didn’t have much chakra at his command, but after a twenty-four hour rest, he had just about enough scraped together to trigger a flow of energy through his chakra points and muscles, assaulting the pain, damage and exhaustion riddling his abused body. It was an old Taijutsu technique Gai-sensei had taught him, specifically designed to help the body recover from using the Renge.
Sakura-san’s medicine had done wonders for the wound on his chest. Lee inspected it quickly, peeking under Gaara's dressings; a long slash through layers of muscle that would have seriously hampered his ability to move his arms and fight if it hadn’t almost healed by now. The nascent scar was large and ugly, the new skin still fragile and cracked after its unnatural growth, but it allowed his body to function.
A canteen appeared in front of Lee's nose.
"The last of the water. Drink it."
Lee looked up past the canteen into a pale face brushed with colour along the nose and cheeks. Under a shred of moonlight reflected off of rock and sand, Lee could see that Gaara's lips were cracked and dry in a way that spoke of sunburn and dehydration. Lee opened his mouth-
Gaara's eyes narrowed. His gaze took on a quality that reminded Lee a bit of the Old Gaara, the one you didn't argue with.
Lee took the canteen morosely. He had the growing suspicion that Gaara was learning to turn that look on and off like a light switch, now that he'd figured out it was a way of getting Lee to follow at least some of his orders.
He was still very thirsty. The water was tepid and tasted flat and leathery from the container, but it went down his parched throat like ambrosia. He could feel the energy flowing through his body increase a bit as a result.
Gaara took the gourd from Lee's hands, and handed him his flak jacket and a tan shirt in exchange. Lee realized, with some chagrin, that Gaara had cut off the top of Lee's form-fitting suit to get at his wound. The rest of the uniform was kept up by Lee's Leaf belt. Worse yet, Lee knew he was going to have to leave his leg-weights here, to his sorrow; they were a personal gift from Gai-Sensei, with their symbol of Spirit painted on each section. His Jounin vest was bisected by a long, bloodied slice across the front, but at least it was wearable, and he had a clean shirt to go beneath it. A clean shirt he didn't recognize.
“Where did you get this?” Lee asked, hefting the top, then staring at the backpack in which Gaara was putting away the empty canteen. It wasn't Sunagakure issue, Lee suddenly realized.
"From one of the corpses. I took only the one pack that had burst open; the others might have been boobytrapped."
"You mean, you went back?!" Lee's voice cracked and wavered; his throat was still dry.
"Yes, while you were still unconscious, a few hours after we were attacked. We didn't have enough water; we'd both lost our-"
"That was a stupid risk!"
"No, stupid risks are your specialty,” Gaara said, with a hard, pointed look at Lee’s bandaged chest. “I waited until night had fallen. I know the terrain better than they do; I can move faster than they can. This is my country. We needed water, and besides, I wanted to know what happened to my men."
"Oh." Lee bit his lip. "Did you..."
"I couldn’t search long. But I didn't find anybody; only the enemy's dead."
"That means our escort got away!"
"That might mean that some of them got away," Gaara corrected, his voice completely neutral. "Enough of them to remove or dispose of the bodies of those who didn't make it, after they defeated their attackers. Either that, or they are all dead and the enemy took the corpses and left their own fallen for reasons of their own."
"Maybe they all made it," Lee said a bit weakly. He remembered the way that Chuunin had fallen to the ground. Lee had been too far away to tell for sure, but he thought it had been Yoshiro; a twenty-year-old Chuunin who never cracked a smile, but whose eyes were often warm...Maybe he'd only been wounded...?
Gaara didn't look like he was going to bother with pointless optimism. He packed away a second empty canteen, a desert apple and a map, and discarded a few kunai from the bag with neat, measured gestures.
"If they hadn't sealed my powers, I'd have killed them all," he suddenly said. His voice was precise and neutral, but his eyes had a savage glint, colder than the moonlight.
“I know,” Lee whispered in sympathy. “I wish I could have helped our comrades too.” He knew that Gaara’s sole purpose in life was protecting the village and the Shinobi who’d accepted him as their Kazekage. Any deaths were unacceptable to him.
Lee also knew that every one of the Sand Shinobi in their escort would have gladly traded their lives for Gaara’s, and would have approved of Lee’s choice to protect the Kazekage at their expense. But Gaara wouldn’t want to hear that.
He wouldn’t want to hear the rest of that cold logic either: that he should have left the injured Lee behind yesterday and headed to safety immediately. The leader of Suna shouldn’t risk his life for a single Jounin, one who didn’t even belong to his village at that. Even now, common sense dictated that Gaara leave Lee to muddle along as best he could, while the Kazekage made his way back to Sunagakure at full speed. Lee didn’t waste his breath in the defence of that kind of common sense, though. He knew his friend too well by now to think he could persuade Gaara to save only himself. It'd be easier to get the desert to change its mind about being dry.
"Can you carry this? I've lightened it as much as I can." Gaara hefted the backpack. That flicker of emotion was gone, there was only the Shinobi left now, planning their next move. Lee did the same; he put the thought of friends and comrades out of his mind until he and Gaara were safely back in Suna, where they would hopefully meet up with the others.
"Yes, I can manage."
"Good. I need to carry the Sand, and we both need to have our hands free. We won't have far to walk. Six hours, moving cautiously."
"Six- but Suna is two days from here."
"We're not going to Suna." Gaara slipped on his coat, now that it was no longer needed for a tent. "We’re going west."
"We’re staying in the hills? Why? I mean, it’s good cover, but-"
"There’s an old hidden fort on the edge of the hills and the high desert; a base camp for raids against the flank of any army that might try to invade us. It’s not garrisoned, but it has short-range communication equipment and a clear-water well."
"Right! Good idea!" Lee exclaimed. Then he frowned. "Won’t the enemy have learned about it though? They seemed to know a lot about you and your troops."
"They shouldn’t. Its location is hidden from Suna’s civilians and anyone under Jounin level. You’ll be the first foreigner to have even heard about it. It should be safe. We'll take the risk.”
Gaara ignored Lee’s spluttered attempts to thank him for his trust and assure him that he’d never say anything to anybody ever, even if tortured with red-hot pokers.
“It’s a good spot for us to hole up in; when Suna realizes there’s a problem, that will be one place they’ll check for me.”
“Does Captain Sanada know about it?” Lee suddenly asked.
“Maybe we’ll meet him there then! He’s an old desert fox,” Lee said, the Suna term coming easily to his tongue. “He’ll lead the others there to hole up too.”
Gaara was silent and oddly still, staring out at the moonlit landscape beyond their hiding place.
"That might be,” he finally said, voice impassive. “But I imagine Sanada will instead decide to head directly back to Suna to warn them, and to draw the enemy along his tracks and away from my potential location.”
That, unfortunately, sounded like something Sanada would do. Lee fished around for some optimistic comment and realized he couldn’t think of any.
Gaara hauled the gourd onto his back in a way that indicated he didn't want to speculate about it. The gesture reminded Lee of something that hadn't penetrated the fog of chemical cheer Sakura-san’s medication had plunged him in earlier.
He absently slipped the backpack on, ignoring the stinging, pulling pain from his muscles and the rip in his chest. In the light of the moon, Lee could make out strips of sunburnt skin on Gaara's neck and shoulders. Gaara had also stuck two kunai in his belt earlier, a prosaic gesture whose implications chilled Lee.
"The seal's still active," Lee said quietly, his eyes straying to Gaara’s chest.
"You can't hold the Sand Armour?"
“But you still have the, erm, that." Lee pointed a finger at the gourd on Gaara's back. For all it was a hulking big container full of sand that Gaara hauled around with him everywhere, this was another one of those things that was Not Talked About in Suna.
“It wasn't affected. I can’t mould chakra voluntarily, but I still have my automatic defence. I can do a little Sand Jutsu as well. I'd probably not be able to use it at all, but sparring with you has helped me fine-tune my ability to spend chakra. I owe you a debt for that.”
He looked back at Lee, intense dark-ringed eyes hovering in the pale face. “I also owe you for the way you saved my life,” he added quietly.
“Oh! Oh, don't worry about it. That’s what friends do!” Lee said, before remembering that the word 'friends' was still a bit of a hot button topic for Gaara sometimes.
Gaara looked at him for a few long seconds, then he nodded gravely.
Lee was remembering some of the, ah, completely inappropriate thoughts that had been going through his mind a few hours ago, in Gaara's arms. Fortunately, he'd been all but anaesthetized, or his body would have gotten in on the act too, and that would have been embarrassing. Time-for-that-ritual-suicide-ceremony, that kind of embarrassing.
He would have fought like that to defend a friend, that was true - certainly, it was true. Right? Yet somehow, what he'd felt when he'd been curled up against Gaara's chest seemed to turn his words into a lie. Lee felt as guilty as a thief. His only consolation was that what he had stolen had no significance to Gaara, and wouldn't be missed. After all, what had Lee taken? An illusion of intimacy? The imitation of a kiss? An unintentional embrace...? I'm pathetic, Lee thought, but his thoughts were resigned rather than self-flagellating. Because however illusory, the memory left him contented and peaceful even now, and he couldn't bring himself to regret it.
Gaara led the way out of their shelter, then motioned Lee to walk in front of him. Lee moved as quickly as he could; their enemy could be combing the desert looking for their missing prey at this very moment.
The utter exhaustion was ebbing somewhat. His muscles still ached, tears in the fibres stinging and pulsing with every step, but Lee was used to that. He’d be paying the price later, for using this energizing technique when he was this worn out, but that would be later, hopefully when Gaara was safely back in Suna. For now, he had enough reserves left to move at a good pace and keep it up for hours.
He would also have enough stamina to open the First Gate and fight again, though the price would be more than steep this time. He might well need to pay it, though. Gaara still had his Sand Barrier, but against a determined attack by several high-level Shinobi, it wasn’t impenetrable.
Lee had marched ahead when he noticed an odd sound behind him. Or rather, a lack of one sound he expected - no footsteps from Gaara - and a strange hiss, almost inaudible.
He glanced back. Gaara was walking two steps behind him, moving as silently as a ghost over the uneven terrain. And at his back, their tracks were quietly erasing themselves, sand sweeping into their footsteps and leaving no trace of their passage.
Lee grinned at his friend and got that faint smirk in return. Lee’s body was a wreck and the worst of Shukaku's powers were sealed. But together, they were far from helpless, as their enemy was about to find out.
"Here," Gaara said, as they crested a small dune and walked down the gentle slope of a shallow canyon.
Lee squinted at their surroundings, but all he could see was a jumble of rocks and sand at the foot of one of many outcroppings of shale and granite in the wasteland, and no signs of fortifications or of any human presence. His eyes were burning with the new morning sun, which was already starting to heat up the desert. He was tired and very thirsty.
"You sure?" he asked, bravely shouldering the pack (which had been getting heavier and heavier these past few hours). "I can't see anything."
Gaara flashed him a brief look that said, as clearly as if he'd spoken aloud: 'That would be the point of a hidden fortress.'
Then he stepped around a small outcropping of rock and disappeared. Lee actually had to look several seconds before he found the small crawlspace carefully hidden by a sand-sprinkled tarp.
Gaara led them to the deep well first. He gave Lee that fixed, basilisk stare until Lee had drunk enough to satisfy the Kazekage that he wasn't about to keel over from exhaustion and dehydration. Gaara drank as well, and filled up the empty gourds with the automatic care for water that ran in his blood. Then he led Lee up a long flight of crude stone stairs, barely lit by phosphorescent strips to help their night vision in the darkness.
The fort turned out to be very small, a few rooms connected by a single long hallway hewn from rock. A tiny pantry with long-lasting provisions, a dorm stuffed with six camp beds and a small armoury no bigger than a walk-in cupboard. Each room was closed by double doors of thick steel, barred further with dangerous seals. Gaara passed his hand slowly over the marks on the metal in a certain pattern, disabling the traps on the doors. He checked each room quickly, but the fort was empty. No sign of Sanada or the others.
The last room Gaara opened was the communication room. Gaara walked in with purpose in his stride. Lee felt a rush of relief as he glimpsed the equipment, looking intact and well protected against the sand that had crept into the small refuge of bare rock and steel. He didn't follow Gaara in, though, politely avoiding a room which would normally require the highest level of clearance in Suna to enter.
There was a trace of natural light just beyond the communication room and Lee went to investigate. He found an observation post, with a thin rectangle cut out from the rock, and surveillance equipment on a table nearby.
Lee cautiously looked out of the thin break in the rocks, camouflaged by a steep overhang, at the desert outside. They were higher up than he'd thought, with a good view of the canyons around them.
This was a good place to hole up, especially if Gaara could raise someone on the short-range communicator. He wouldn’t be able to reach Suna with that, but if there were any Sand Shinobi with receptors around, they’d be able to help. If only Sanada and the others had come here too; Lee hated to think of them striking out towards Suna, carrying the wounded and the dead, drawing the enemy away from Gaara and Lee, and maybe dying somewhere out in the desert. If only they'd show up here, Gaara would be so relieved, even if he never showed an ounce of it in facial expressions-
For an instant, Lee thought his wishes had been answered.
Then he realized that the figure he'd spotted through the observation window wasn't from Sand. The man was dressed the same as the ones who'd attacked them two days ago; no Shinobi insignia or flak jacket, just white and tan camouflage that didn't quite blend in with the desert. He had a dog at his side.
Lee's fists had clenched on the rocky sill, but otherwise he stayed silent and motionless, keeping his presence hidden. The man was sixty yards away and visibly looking for something. The dog must be following their scent, or else Lee and Gaara had been spotted on their approach to the fort. Either way, this was it.
Noise behind him made Lee spin around. Gaara had just stepped out of the communication room.
"Good news," Gaara said without the slightest smile or change to his usual voice pattern. "We only have to wait an hour or two at the most-" he glanced away, eyes narrowing. "Did you hear anything?"
An hour or two?
Then there was hope. But not if the enemy found this place. A small force could defend the fort, but not two people, one of whom had nothing but an automatic sand defence as the one ace up his sleeve. And if Gaara died-
The thought expanded in Lee's mind until it occupied every crevice.
If Gaara died...
Maybe Lee wouldn't have felt what he felt next if he hadn't slept in Gaara's arms last night. Or maybe he would have anyway. It took him a couple of seconds to recognize the single emotion that was crushing his heart as he stared at Gaara. It wasn't a feeling that Lee was very familiar with.
He was afraid. Like he'd never been before in his life.
Lee stepped away from the window and walked towards Gaara; his body felt like it was floating again, but his mind was clear and racing, churning over at speed, orbiting that single thought.
If Gaara died-
"I thought I heard a dog bark," Gaara said slowly, eyes narrowed to slits as he glanced past Lee at the observation window.
Lee reached out and put his hand on Gaara's shoulder.
His friend looked away from the window and glanced at him. The green eyes widened in their black rings. Lee didn't know what Gaara saw in his face to make him stare like that, and it didn't matter anymore.
"I'm sorry," Lee said, and hurled Gaara straight back into the communication room.
He grabbed and heaved the double doors shut, then ripped out the top of the heavy steel handles and, with the strength he'd cultivated most of his life, abetted by a good dose of desperation, he twisted them and did his best to knot the rods together across the doors' opening, stopping them from swinging outwards.
He stepped away just as Gaara hurled himself against the metal on the other side.
"I'm sorry," Lee repeated, already running down the hallway towards the exit. He could hear the crash of sand hitting steel as Gaara used whatever jutsu he was capable of to get at the two bent handles blocking the door. If Gaara's powers hadn't been sealed, he'd have gotten rid of them easily. He'd have blown the doors off their hinges, reduced the wall to rubble and gone to town on the fortress itself without breaking a sweat. But at this point, Lee's measures should keep Gaara out of danger for at least a little while.
He'd go after the Shinobi with the dog, first. But if there were others, and there would be, they'd figure out that they'd found their prey when their friend went missing. Lee was going to have to take them all out, or at least lead them away from here, before a concerted search of the area found the fortress and Gaara, vulnerable with only his Sand Barrier to protect him.
- if Gaara died -
No, not going to happen.
Not going to happen.
The dog smelled him coming. The animal and its master were ready for him and put up a good fight. But Lee had practiced against Kiba, he knew the strengths and weaknesses of that kind of pairing. Lee couldn't go any higher than the Initial Lotus, but it was enough. It had to be. He couldn't lose.
He wiped the blood from his fist and straightened up. Flares of hostile intent were circling him through the rocks and canyons. The dog handler hadn't been as hard to get rid of as Lee had feared; the guy hadn't been the same calibre of Shinobi as the shock troops that had tried to take down Gaara during the first attack. If the others were also just Jounin-level and lower, getting rid of them all should be feasible. But Lee was outnumbered, wounded and already exhausted, despite the deadly energy pouring through his First Gate and slowly destroying his body. This wasn't going to be easy.
Lee tried to lead them away from the fort, but the enemy was smarter than that. They knew Lee was alone, and that he wasn’t the man they were looking for. A few Shinobi followed Lee, but half their forces stayed behind to ferret around the area where Lee had first attacked them, in case Gaara was there. Lee couldn't afford to have them look around the canyons and rocks too closely. He doubled back, using the inhuman speed of the Renge to get around those who'd followed him, and attacked the rear guard. That would virtually broadcast to the enemy that he was defending something, and now they were not going to leave it alone until he killed them all.
What followed was a deadly game of cat and mouse. Most of the time, Lee could do no more than stay ahead of them and keep them distracted; but when he caught one of them isolated, then the game changed and the hunted became the hunter for a brief, violent moment.
Lee could feel his life flickering like a candle burnt down to a stub. His heart was a solid mass in his chest. He could sense them, circling closer, like a pack of wolves that could feel the prey weakening.
He dropped into a loose crouch against a small rock, and tightened the dressings on his upper left arm. Fortunately the kunai hadn't been poisoned. Damn, he was thirsty as well; stupid not to have taken some water with him, but he'd left the backpack behind in the fort. He hadn't been thinking like a Sand Shinobi there. Good thing Gaara had made him drink so much from the well previously.
Gaara...he was probably still in that room and hopping mad, inasmuch as the Kazekage ever lost his temper these days...but as long as he was safe-
Lee blinked and tensed. He'd faded out for a second, and the enemy had taken advantage of his lapse.
Only three. Maybe Lee had killed all the others. He hoped so. He was on his last legs. But Lee believed he could take down three more. It wasn't in him to give up, even a little. Besides, Gaara would be bloody cross with him if Lee died.
"Will you tell us where he is?" one of the men asked. It sounded like a formality.
Lee just shook his head. They were in the centre of a large shallow canyon peppered with boulders, barely a hiccup of rock in the sand. There was a man on either side of Lee, ready to attack his flank if he charged their companion. Lee didn't need to consult his little notebook on Gai-Sensei Secret Tactics and Tricks to know that this position wasn't strategically judicious.
"You're from Leaf," the man said, nodding at Lee's insignia on his belt. "You owe nothing to Sand."
Lee's mouth was too dry to answer, but he gave a good glare. Just how- how cheap, dishonourable and- and cowardly did this- this son of a bitch think Lee was?!
"I see," the Shinobi said with a slight nod. "You will be telling us soon when we get our hands on you though; you know that."
These guys had no idea. Lee might be wounded and exhausted, but his attackers would be lucky to survive their assault on him, let alone capture him alive.
The Shinobi looked like he was going to add something, but then his gaze flickered off to the right, and suddenly he was gone.
Huh?! Lee twisted to follow the man's movements, and caught a flash of red and black out of the corner of his eye. Lee focused on it in a surge of panic.
Gaara had just stepped around a jumble of rocks into the canyon.
All three Shinobi were running towards their prey, ignoring Lee. A long knife caught the raw morning sunshine.
Lee staggered out of his crouch, reaching deep within to wrench from his body the last ounces of energy, even if it killed him-
Somebody behind him grabbed Lee by the shoulders before he could bully open his Second Gate. He was hauled back hard. Lee fell to the ground, struggling to rise.
A flare of chakra ahead made him look up wildly. One of the attackers had put on a burst of speed and flickered out of sight, to reappear right in front of the Kazekage. Gaara jerked back a step in alarm- the dagger slammed into Gaara's heart, then ripped up and sideways, severing the arteries in the chest.
Lee didn’t think of revenge; he didn’t wonder why the Sand hadn’t reacted, or worry about his own safety, caught as he was. He’d died inside.
The enemy jerked the dagger out of Gaara's body, angling it upward to slash his victim's throat and guarantee the kill-
It was hard to say what alarmed the Shinobi first; the lack of blood flow, or Gaara suddenly reaching up and grabbing him. The attacker tried to jump back, but the Kazekage's arms had become abnormally long and had knotted around him. The dagger dropped from his fingers as he was ruthlessly squeezed.
"Good job, Kankuro. Can I have my coat back now?"
It was Gaara's neutral tone, right next to Lee's ears. He was on one knee behind the Jounin, with his arms around Lee’s chest, holding him back.
"In a minute, bro, in just a lil' minute," came Kankuro's voice from off to the right.
Lee looked around wildly. The puppeteer was a bit further away, a hard, vindictive half-smile on his painted features; he was making small motions in the air, and the enemy gave a cry as the Black Ant puppet - still dressed in Gaara's coat - squeezed harder. The Ant’s face was emerging from the sandy mask that Gaara must have slapped onto it. It had been a convincing simulacrum. Very convincing; Lee's heart was still squirming abysmally in his chest.
The last two attackers had tried to run, but men from Suna had appeared around the edges of the canyon and were tackling them to the ground.
"Don't kill them," Gaara ordered, voice indifferent. "We need to know who they are and who sent them."
"Gaara," Lee said weakly, craning his neck to make sure he wasn't hallucinating. Gaara was in his linen tunic and wearing a veiled helm to hide his distinctive red hair; probably a precaution Kankuro had insisted upon before letting Gaara come with them. But it was Gaara. He was alive.
"You overdid it again," Gaara told him, inspecting the crude bandage on Lee's upper arm.
"Are-...are we..." Lee tried to get his mouth moving, but it wasn't cooperating.
"Sanada nearly killed himself getting back to one of Suna's outlying patrols in less than a day. They called for help. Kankuro and Units A and B have been combing the hills and desert for us for the last few hours. We have enough men to withstand an attack," Gaara added, as if he knew what Lee needed to hear. "We're as safe as we can be. You can pass out now."
End Part Ten
Next chapter out next weekend.