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Drabbles, Extras, and Side Stories

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CHAPTER 2: The Pillow Fort

     Acnologia lets the kids start to renovate the cave while he runs an errand, and they make a pillow fort.

          [Takes place between ODAF chapters 5 and 6]

     Characters: Gajeel, Wendy, and Rogue

 

CHAPTER 3: Wendy Drabble: X778

     Wendy contemplates the meaning of family.

          [As of ODAF 8]

     Characters: Wendy

          Minor Characters: Acnologia, Gajeel, Rogue, Charle, Natsu, Grandeeny, Roubaul

 

CHAPTER 4: Laxus Drabble: X778

     Laxus from age eleven to seventeen.

          [From ODAF 1 to ODAF 8]

     Characters: Laxus

          Minor Characters: Porlyusica, Makarov, Bickslow, Natsu, Lisanna, Acnologia, Ivan

 

CHAPTER 5: Laxus Learns Dragons Are Real

     After their first training session, Laxus gets invited to the "dragon's den" for dinner—and answers to secrets he wasn't even aware of.

          [during ODAF 11]

     Characters: Laxus, Acnologia, Gajeel, Natsu, Wendy, Rogue, Charle, Happy

 

CHAPTER 6: Acnologia and Gildarts Level a Mountain

     Acnologia and Gildarts attempt at engaging in a friendly spar—that doesn't destroy the environment.

          [between ODAF 11 and 12]

     Characters: Gildarts, Acnologia

 

CHAPTER 7: Dragons' First Christmas

     The Christmas of the year X778 in the house of the dragons.

          [between ODAF 11 and 12]

     Characters: Acnologia, Natsu, Wendy, Gajeel, Rogue, Happy, Charle

 

CHAPTER 8: Meeting Mystogan

     Acnologia meets Mystogan, and Wendy finds him again.

          [between ODAF 12 and 13]

     Characters: Mystogan, Acnologia, Wendy

 

CHAPTER 9: Natsu's Secret

     Natsu was never very good at keeping secrets. Not from his closest friends.

          [between ODAF 8 and 9]

     Characters: Natsu, Lisanna, Happy

 

CHAPTER 10: Plight of a Guildmaster

     Makarov isn't sure what to make of Acnologia. 

          [ODAF 11- 13]

     Characters: Makarov, Porlyusica, Acnologia

          Minor Characters: Gildarts, Wendy, Rogue

 

CHAPTER 11: Rising Thunder: Part I

     Laxus encounters Bickslow for the first time.

          [X775, pre-series]

     Characters: Laxus, Bickslow, Bickslow's Babies

 

CHAPTER 12: Dragon and Child

     The dragons observe Acnologia. 

          [ODAF 2 - post-TET]

      Characters: Grandeeny, Metallicana, Weisslogia, Skiadrum, Igneel

          Minor Characters: Acnologia, Wendy, Gajeel, Sting, Rogue, Natsu, Laxus

 

CHAPTER 13: Birthday Bash

      Cana's 14th birthday.

          [August 16, X779; between ODAF 12 and 13]

      Characters: Cana, Natsu, Gajeel, Gray, Wendy, Lisanna, Sting, Rogue, Erza

 

CHAPTER 14: Rising Thunder: Part II

      Laxus and Evergreen go on a job.

          [February 27, X778; early ODAF]

      Characters: Laxus, Evergreen

          Minor Characters: Bickslow

 

CHAPTER 15: Anna

      Anna continues her search for the children and finds more than she expected.

          [June 3, X780; post-TET]

      Characters: Anna, Gajeel, Wendy, Rogue, Acnologia

          Minor Characters: Erik, miscellaneous townspeople

 

CHAPTER 16: Rising Thunder: Part III

      Laxus encounters Freed.

          [July 18, X778; between ODAF 9 and 10]

      Characters: Laxus, Bickslow, Freed, Evergreen

 

CHAPTER 17: Rising Thunder: Part IV

      They finally become a team.

          [April 8, X779; between ODAF 12 and 13]

      Characters: Laxus, Bickslow, Evergreen, Freed

 

CHAPTER 18: Death in the Family

      The Strauss siblings go on a job.

          [June 4 - 5, X782; post-TET]

      Characters: Lisanna, Natsu, Mirajane, Elfman

 

CHAPTER 19: Loke

      Loke wasn't expecting there to be other people besides him pretending to be human in Fairy Tail, much less a dragon.

          [early to mid X782; post-TET]

      Characters: Loke, Acnologia

 

CHAPTER 20: Sting Drabble: X779

      Sting after coming to Magnolia. 

          [between ODAF 12 and 13]

      Characters: Sting

 

CHAPTER 21: To Join a Guild

      Jellal joins Fairy Tail.

          [immediately following TET]

      Characters: Jellal, Erza, Mystogan

          Minor Characters: Gray, Erik, Natsu, Wendy, Lisanna, Makarov, various guildmates

 

CHAPTER 22: Natsu Drabble: X781

      Natsu finds his family.

          [past - December 26, X781]

      Characters: Natsu, the rest of the dragonlings, Natsu's mom, Zeref (sorta)

 

CHAPTER 23: Virgo's Key

      Virgo delivers her key.

          [between TLS 3 and 4]

      Characters: Virgo, Erik, Gajeel, Happy

 

CHAPTER 24: Twinkle Little Star: Aftermath (Natsu)

      Natsu needs some comfort.

          [immediately post-TLS]

      Characters: Acnologia, Natsu, Happy

 

CHAPTER 25 & 26: Twenty-Four Hours

      The end of the twenty-four hour endurance race doesn't go well.

          [post-TET]

      Characters: Erik, Jellal, Acnologia, Levy, Wendy, Natsu, Gajeel, Sting, Rogue, Happy, Charle, Cubellios, Porlyusica, Erza, Evergreen, Freed, Bickslow, Jet, Droy, Makarov

 

CHAPTER 27: Laxus and Makarov Finally Talk

      Now that Makarov knows that Laxus is a dragon slayer, it's time to actually address.

          [post-TET]

      Characters: Laxus, Makarov; Bickslow, Acnologia

 

CHAPTER 28: A Few Times Rogue Found Something in the Woods

      Rogue finds things in the woods, and then the one time he found a friend.

          [ODAF 10 to post-TET]

      Characters: Rogue, Acnologia, Sting, Gajeel, Erik, Natsu, Wendy, Frosch, Charle

 

CHAPTER 29: Before the S-Class Trial of '82

      Jellal and Erik talk.

          [post-TET]

      Characters: Jellal, Erik

 

CHAPTER 30: Lucy Meets the Guild

      Lucy gets acclimated to Fairy Tail.

          [post TLS 3 to post-TLS]

      Characters: Lucy

          Minor Characters: Natsu, Gajeel, Erik, Cana, Laxus, Evergreen, Freed, Bickslow, Levy, Sting, Rogue, Wendy, Charle, Frosch

 

CHAPTER 31: Mudball

      Somebody else finds something in the woods.

          [post-TET]

      Characters: Acnologia, Natsu, Sting, Happy

 

CHAPTER 32: Lacrima-Born

      Laxus meets Erik.

          [post-TET]

      Characters: Laxus, Acnologia, Erik

          Minor Characters: Bickslow, Wendy

 

CHAPTER 33: Acnologia and the Svit: Part I

      Two hundred years ago, Acnologia had a life-altering discovery. The transition from beast to man was not an easy one.

          [between ODAF prologue and ODAF 1]

      Characters: Acnologia, minor OCs

 

CHAPTER 34: Mystogan and Jellal

      Mystogan tries to figure out what to do about Earthland’s Jellal.

          [post-TET]

      Characters: Mystogan, Jellal

          Minor Characters: Acnologia, Rogue


 

TIMELINE

 

X588

  • Acnologia finds out about dragon tamer magic; stops being a murder-hobo (ODAF 1)

 

X595

  • Acnologia is nursed back to health by the Svit. (Ch.33)

 

X597

  October:

  • Acnologia attends the Svit's Moon Dance Festival. (DT Prologue)

 

X772

  • Ivan plants the lacrima into Laxus (ODAF 1)
    • Acnologia encounters the scene

 

X775

  October:

  • Bickslow joins Fairy Tail (Ch.11)

 

X778

  February:

  • Acnologia adopts Wendy (ODAF 2)
  • 27th—"Rising Thunder: Part II" (Ch.14)

  April:

  • Gajeel and Rogue adopted (ODAF 4)
  • "The Pillow Fort" (Ch.2)

  May:

  • Natsu found by Acnologia (ODAF 5 – 8)
  • "Natsu's Secret" (Ch.9)

  June:

  • Acnologia and kids move to Magnolia. Start building house. (ODAF 9 – 10)

  July

  • 18th—"Rising Thunder: Part III" (Ch.16)

  September:

  • (Early) House is finished. (ODAF 10)
  • Wendy, Rogue, and Gajeel join Fairy Tail. (ODAF 10)

  October:

  • Acnologia joins Fairy Tail. (ODAF 11)
  • 25th—"Laxus Learns Dragons Are Real" (Ch.4)

  December:

  • Laxus passes S-Class trial (ODAF 11)
  • 17th—"Acnologia and Gildarts Level a Mountain" (Ch.6)
  • 25th—"Dragons' First Christmas" (Ch.7)

 

X779

  January

  • 8th—"Acnologia and Gildarts Level a Mountain" (Ch.6)
  • Sting found and adopted; joins Fairy Tail (ODAF 12)

  April

  • 3rd—"Meeting Mystogan" (Ch.8)
  • 8th—Thunder Storm officially becomes a team (Ch.17)

  August

  • 16th—"Birthday Bash" (Ch.13)

  December

  • Acnologia becomes S-Class (ODAF 13)

 

X780

  March

  • 22nd—Acnologia brings Erik home. (TET 1)

  April 

  • 2nd—The Tower of Heaven is destroyed (TET 8 - 12)
  • Erik joins Fairy Tail
  • Jellal joins Fairy Tail (Ch.21)
  • 12th—"Lacrima-Born" (Ch.32)

  June

  • 3rd—Anna discovers the whereabouts of all five children (Ch.15)

  July

  • Jellal properly meets Mystogan (Ch.34)

  December:

  • Erza becomes S-Class.

 

X781

  December:

  • Mirajane and Mystogan tie in the S-Class trials. Both ascend to the rank.

 

X782

  February

  • 7th—Loke joins Fairy Tail (Ch.19)

  June

  • 5th—Elfman dies; Lisanna 'dies' (Ch.18)

  November

  • "Twenty-Four Hours" (Ch.25-26)

  December

  • Jellal becomes S-Class. (Ch.29)

 

X783

  December:

  • Gajeel becomes S-Class.

 

X784

  April

  • Frosch joins the fam. (Ch.28)

  May

  • Mudball adopted. (Ch.31)

  July

  • 2nd—Lucy meets Natsu, Gajeel, and Happy. Bora is arrested. [TLS 1 - 3]
  • 3rd—Lucy joins Fairy Tail
  • 8th—"Virgo's Key" (Ch.23)
  • 9th—Erza initiates a mission with Gray and Natsu. [TLS 4]
  • 22nd—Erza leaves with Jellal, Lucy, and Gray to Galuna Island. [DT 1]

Chapter Text

Late April, X778

 

 

“Here’s a little Jewel. It should be enough to get comfortable,” Acno said, handing Gajeel a small bag. “I’m going to get some more seeds and then medicine for Rogue. I’ll be back by early morning at the latest.”

Judging by the weight, Gajeel would have called it more than a little Jewel, but the geezer was right in that it wouldn’t get furniture or anything. How much money did a guy earn doing nothing but brood, anyway? Well, Gajeel did notice that there was a lot of random junk in the side corridor, and some of it looked expensive. He supposed that if Acno was as old as he claimed (which Gajeel still couldn’t believe, but he would be patient for information for now) then it made sense that he would have picked up a thing or two.

Acno left, flying off to who-knows-where into the night sky. This time, he paid more attention to the transformation from man to dragon. The geezer wasn’t joking; it wasn’t just illusion magic. Gajeel hadn’t seen much transformation magic at play himself, but he didn’t imagine that it was supposed to be that gnarly looking.

He gave the pouch a few experimental tosses into the air. It was evening now, so he wouldn’t have much time to buy stuff—whatever the hell it was he was supposed to get. It crossed his mind that it would be easy to take the money and run. It would be enough for train fare and a few nights somewhere as well as food: long enough to get his bearings again. It was something Mash would’ve done, however, and it left a bad taste in his mouth thinking of doing the same thing.

Maybe he should stick with the dragon and the kids for a while. At least long enough to figure out what he was doing with his life. It was also kinda nice not to have to worry about everything for once. Acno kicking his ass the other day was proof enough that they wouldn’t be messed with easily. Sure, it hurt his pride at the time, but Acno was a motherfuckin’ dragon and not even Gajeel was stupid enough to believe he had a chance. If it was another human, Gajeel could’ve won a fight, no problem.

Yeah. That was it. Gajeel was an amazing badass capable of doing whatever he set his mind to, but even he needed a break sometime. Besides, Acno saw that he was the obvious choice to be in charge of purchasing shit, so that made in second-in-command in this operation. Second-in-command to a dragon wasn’t a bad place to be.

Gajeel walked to the edge of cave. “Blue-hair! Watch over Rogue while I’m gone.” They should be fine, but it felt like the thing to say.

He stopped short at the opening. He had expected something normal, like stairs, but there was nothing but rock and mountain.

“Um.” Blue-hair—Wendy—scampered up to his side. He remembered her always being the quiet type. Maybe not as much as Rogue, but still. Even when Anna-sensei would give her lessons, the girl practically whispered everything. Glad to know she was at least a little louder now. “Ac-nii always flies.”

“No shit.” And why wouldn’t he? But how the hell was Gajeel supposed to get down?!

He gauged the distance. He could probably make that jump.

“I can help,” she continued.

The landing would probably hurt like hell, but his body could take it, along with a roar or somethin’ to cushion the fall. He could probably also find some rock-ledges to break up the descent.

“Huh?” Wendy’s statement finally registered. “Wha’dya say?”

“I can help,” she repeated, a little more confident now. “I’m, uh…I’m a sky mage?”

“Riiight.” He thought he remembered now. “That’s like, wind and crap, right?” That actually would be useful.

Blue-hair nodded.

“Okay,” he agreed. Oh wait, that would leave Rogue alone. He was sure the kid could handle it, but he was sick and all. “Rogue?” he called. “You good to stay?”

Even to his sharp eyes, Rogue was just a fuzzy blob moving beneath the blankets deeper in the cave. “Yeah.” The reply was faint, but he sounded fully awake.

“I’ll watch him,” another voice squeaked. Gajeel looked to see that white cat that followed Wendy around. She was small, but she sounded confident in herself, so he would accept it.

“Alright, let’s go!”

Gajeel grabbed the tiny dragon slayer by the wrist and jumped out of the cave mouth with a shout of excitement. Wendy’s yelp was less excited, but she got the spirit when she gathered the air by her feet and swung her leg at the rapidly approaching ground. “Sky Dragon Claw!”

The wind did wonders to cushion their fall, but they still tumbled rather roughly across the rocky ground. Gajeel grabbed the kid and took the brunt of the impact, his iron scales handling it with only a little protest. While not as smoothly as he envisioned this stunt, he would still mark it as successful. He stood and dusted his sleeves with a grin. “Time to go to town.”

—o0o—

Shopping was stupid and too complicated. People might have mocked him for liking to sleep on the ground and just buy food, but it was far superior than dealing with price variations that made no sense and illogical packaging.

“I don’t want the whole damn floor; I just want the mats!”

The dumb shop-keep just nodded, though Gajeel could tell by the twitch of his eyebrow that he was breaking the man. Good. He deserved it, trying to lie to them like this.

If this general store wasn’t the only one still open in this stupid little town, Gajeel would have grabbed Wendy and left, but as it was, they were out of options. Maybe things would have been different if his usual intimidation technique wasn’t completely offset by Wendy’s big doe eyes, but at this point, Gajeel was just grateful that he had all the money, because Wendy would have bought anything this swindler suggested. As it were, her fascination with everything was making it hard to dissuade the man from trying to bullshit them all the time.

“Of course, of course, my dear little customers,” the shop-keep blabbered. “You needn’t refurbish your entire floor, but for those bed mats to be properly comfortable, the flooring pads would be irreplaceable! Isn’t that right, my dear?”

Wendy poked the mat for the umpteenth time. “It’s soft!” she giggled.

“And how much softer it would be with the pads!”

Gajeel grabbed a fistful full of the shop-keep’s coat, yanking the puny man forward. He was only as tall as he was, and Gajeel hadn’t even stopped growing yet; how pathetic. “Just shut up and let us buy whatever the hell we want, ‘kay?!” he growled.

The shop-keep nodded quickly, and finally backed off. Gajeel couldn’t help but to feel pride at his successful power play, with the squirt watching. Now that they were together again, he might as well teach her how to be a proper badass.

Anyway. Shopping.

Now that the distraction was gone for the time being, Gajeel turned back to the shelves. He was still confused about the mats, to be honest, because it wasn’t as simple as, ‘here, buy this’—it had to be in parts, and shit. Complicated for no good reason. Maybe he just needed to guess how many sections of a bed mat he needed? His head hurt.

“Whad’ya think, squirt?” he asked Wendy. “You good with the just the mats, or—whad’ya got there?”

Wendy had tottered over to another section, filled with the other parts of bedding—the blankets and shit. Gajeel only bothered with stuff like that when it was really cold, because he was used to going without: his steel body could handle it. However, Wendy had already buried her arms in anything she could touch, her previous wide-eyed excitement nothing compared to giddiness she had now. “They’re so soft!” she squealed. “Can we get this? Please?”

Damn. Gajeel was starting to realize why a grump like Acno kept her around. She was impossible to say no to. Too damn cute and pure.

“Lemme see,” he grumbled. He walked over to where she was and grabbed the blanket experimentally, if only to see the price. Huh. They did feel pretty soft. And they were as thick as the mats, with less cost and more surface area.

“You be fine with just these?”

Wendy nodded enthusiastically.

Not a bad idea, actually. Shit, Rogue seemed to be comfortable in all them furs back at the cave, so he probably wouldn’t mind something as simple as this, either. Well, why the hell not, then?

Gajeel grabbed an armful of blankets and a couple of pillows, and Wendy did the same. If the shop-keep questioned them, he learned to keep his damn mouth shut, because he only asked for the appropriate amount of Jewel. (And Gajeel had checked the tags, so he knew he wasn’t getting scammed or anything.

Mission success.

—o0o—

The mission had one last kick in the face, unfortunately. Gajeel scowled at the mountain, angry at the fact that he never considered how the hell they were supposed to get back up to the cave.

Damn reclusive dragon geezer. Why did he have to choose somewhere so high up and hard to access? It was annoying.

The shop-keep gave them bags for all the stuff, which was helpful, but it was still cumbersome. How the hell was he supposed to get up there by himself, let alone carry all this shit? Wendy seemed just as stuck, staring up at the mountain with owlish eyes. “Ac-nii normally flies.”

“You think I don’t know that?!”

Gajeel growled to himself. Damnit. If he couldn’t figure this out, how the hell was he supposed to be able to do anything else? It was just climbing. Any dragon should be able to do something this simple.

Just climbing. No problem.

He started by scaling the rocks, walking uphill and hauling himself over particularly large boulders. It was with those, and even some of the smaller ones, that he had to pull Wendy up too, because her tiny hands didn’t have the same grip strength. It was slower than he would have liked, but the ascent worked—until the rocks got taller and became more sheer. He could dig his fingers into the stone to make footholds, but not even he could do that and pull up another person and a bunch of stuff at the same time.

“I wish there were stairs,” Wendy sighed suddenly. “There were stairs at Cait Shelter, up to the top room. It was pretty up there.”

Gajeel blinked. Stairs. Yeah, stairs up the fucking mountain, what a novel idea? Stairs. What was he supposed to do? Carve them into the mountain? Summon them from nowhere? He wasn’t a make-mage, he was a damn iron—

Wait.

“Oi, squirt, hold these fer’ a sec.”

There were on a large enough cliff to stand, so he handed Wendy the bags he was holding, which were most all of them except for the one pillow she wanted to carry to be helpful. Little Blue-Hair looked like she could topple over, but she was sturdy enough not to, even with the added weight.

He cracked his knuckles and rolled his shoulder back. Even though his magic was more suited to coating and transforming his body, the iron was a summoned substance. He could shoot it out in small chunks, but it should be enough. Gajeel punched forward and a rung of iron slammed into the wall. It was no set of stairs, but the ladder was a pretty damn fine idea if you asked him.

It was solidly dark by the time they made it up. Not too dark for people with a dragon’s senses, but he was glad for the dim fire of the cave when they came back.

“Gajeel! Wendy!” Rogue called excitedly. He was awake, which was good, but he still looked tired. Damn. Squirt must have waited for them.

“About time,” the cat snorted.

“Yeah, yeah.” It would have been sooner if not for the irritating shop-keep, he was sure. Mountain had nothing to do with it. “We got blankets and pillows and shit for everyone’s beds.”

“That’s not the whole bed,” Charle accused.

“It is now, kitty.”

They dumped the goods into a pile beside the pile of furs that Rogue was already nestled in. He figured that Rogue would get first pick ‘cause he was sick and all, and then they could divvy up the rest. Rogue snatched a bright green blanket and held to his chest. “It’s so soft,” he breathed.

Wendy bounced beside him. “Aren’t they?!” she squealed. “We got a lot, too!”

Rogue stared at the pile like it was a god. “Is…is this how you make…pillow forts?” he asked, first to the pile and then to Gajeel.

“Pillow fort?” Wendy repeated, confused but equally fascinated. “What’s that?”

“Um…” Rogue looked down for some reason. “I’m not too sure. Some of the other kids talked about it, once, and it sounded fun, but…”

Not for the first time, Gajeel kicked himself for how he handled Rogue, though in his defense, he hadn’t remembered the kid at the time. It wasn’t long after he joined Phantom Lord that he crossed paths with the boy. He was tiny and awestruck, and Gajeel had been annoyed by his presence. Perhaps it was residual memory, or maybe it was just because Rogue recognized his awesome power, but Rogue—Ryos, he had been called at the time, maybe ‘cause that hag at the orphanage didn’t like his name—had latched onto him like he was some sort of savior. Gajeel hadn’t wanted to help anyone at that time. Every time he had tried helping folks back at Denish, it ultimately amounted to nothing but trouble for himself. And the one time that maybe Gajeel needed help, it was Mash who struck off on his own and got his ass arrested and left Gajeel in the dirt.

At that time, it didn’t matter to Gajeel that Rogue looked pathetic and thin, his wonder-filled eyes hurting. It didn’t matter that he wreaked of dirt and his pale skin spoke of bruising, and that it didn’t take a genius to know that the orphanage in Oak Town was shit. No one there gave a crap about it, however, so neither did Gajeel. He didn’t want to be bothered.

He ignored Rogue then—scorned him, even. Is that why Gajeel’s insides twisted up when he watched Rogue now, quiet and unsure yet still so damn hopeful, when he at least hadn’t been afraid to speak up back when they were kids with their dragons? Is that why Gajeel felt like, despite not being involved, that this was his fault?

Gajeel’s childhood wasn’t the model kid’s either, but he at least knew what a pillow fort was, if only because Mash had been a talker and also a toddler at heart, so even if the other street rat had a ‘messed-up childhood’ as well, Gajeel at least learned a lot of things from the guy.

He may not be an expert, but in comparison to Wendy and Rogue, he was, and that was all the mattered now. “Hell yeah we can make a pillow fort. I’ll make you a whole pillow city. Grab as much soft shit as you can carry and follow me.”

—o0o—

It took longer than Gajeel anticipated, considering his penchant for building, but in his defense, it wasn’t as if there was much the short pipsqueaks could do in the way of helping besides handing him stuff. But that didn’t matter now, because if he said so himself, the pillow fort was fucking epic.

It was more blankets than pillows, but that just meant that their walls were high, and their floor was swaddled. You could forget the ground was stone in this thing. Wendy and Rogue were having the time of their lives, burrowing into the structure like chipmunks.

Seeing them happy was a gratifying feeling. After Denish, there was a part of Gajeel that thought that that feeling was just a scam he sold himself, that looking out for others was just a waste of time if he couldn’t even handle himself, but the empty nagging was gone now. Maybe it left when his memories returned, or maybe it left when he wasn’t paying attention. It could still be there, but for now, Gajeel felt good.

Rogue fell asleep first, but that tea that Acno would have him drink always made him sleepy, so it was to be expected. Wendy was soon behind, which wasn’t surprising because it was late and she did a lot of running around for a pipsqueak.

Gajeel stayed awake, because someone had to. However, he was pretty tired, and thanks to his amazing skills, the pillow fort was really comfortable, even to a guy who grew up sleeping against an iron-hard dragon. They were high up in an impossible to reach cave anyway. What could happen?

He didn’t know when he dropped his guard, but Gajeel was fast asleep before the night ended.

Chapter Text

Wendy read about families in her storybooks. Families were often in the storybooks that Grandeeny would read to her at bedtime, and in the ones that Ms. Anna would read when she was teaching them. Wendy continued to learn how to read, because she wanted to get better at it, at Cait Shelter, and the books she would find would have mommies and daddies and maybe sisters and brothers. Sometimes, she would even see these people in real life at the marketplace when she got to go to town.

It was only through these books that Wendy knew that she wasn’t normal.

Children always looked like their parents, and there were always two. Wendy just had Grandeeny, and even though Grandeeny raised her like a mommy and cared for her like one, she was a dragon. Wendy never saw that in a book—not yet, at least. Grandeeny would say and do the same things though: feed her, take her places, whisper “I love you” as she sung Wendy to sleep.

She had a mommy, and that mommy was Grandeeny and Wendy loved her. But she didn’t have a daddy, or brothers and sisters or aunts and uncles. She didn’t think she did, anyway, and Wendy was always curious what it would be like.

Wendy hoped she would find out at Cait Shelter. Master Roubaul was really nice, and he took care of her and told really long stories. Did that make him a grandpa? Wendy knew that…he wasn’t really there, but he was in spirit, and it was nice when it lasted.

But it was okay that Master Roubaul wasn’t there anymore, because grandpas normally just visited. It was parents and siblings that stayed all the time.

Ac-nii was there all the time, and he was big and strong and he let her color and watch over his shoulder when he gardened, and even though he would act grumpy sometimes, he was always nice. That was family, right? Was that what older brothers did? Or uncles? He wasn’t a parent because he wasn’t there when she was a baby, he came later, but this counted as something, right? Wendy wanted it too, because family was supposed to always be there, and she didn’t want anyone else to go away. And Ac-nii was easy to say, and he never corrected her, so that meant he really was family.

And then Ac-nii told her about the other kids and called them her cousins! She had cousins! Cousins were family! Although now Gajeel and Rogue were living with them all the time, so did that make them siblings? Whatever they were, Wendy really enjoyed having them around. Gajeel also acted grumpy like older brothers do, but he did cool things like build pillow forts and swings from the ceiling with his cool metal magic. He and Natsu also argued, which was something that some siblings did, too. Rogue was her age, or maybe younger, and he was quiet but he liked flowers and animals just like she did, and they would explore the garden and the cave together and watch the bats that lived in the far corner for hours.

If they were her brothers, or maybe cousins, then Charle had to be her little sister because Wendy was there when Charle hatched and they’ve been together ever since. Sometimes Charle pretended she was the older one, but Wendy knew how age worked! Wendy was there first, but since she was too young to be a mommy, that made her a sister!

“What’cha reading, squirt?” Gajeel asked from above, ruffling her hair just like Ac-nii did and leaning over her shoulder.

“A storybook!” Wendy giggled. “About a princess!”

“Sound boring. Have fun.”

“I’m sure it’s not boring,” Rogue argued, walking over. He peaked at the book shyly, so Wendy held it wider. “Can I read too?”

“Yeah!” Wendy flipped back to the beginning. It was one of the books Master Roubaul gave her, about a princess that finds her family after getting lost in the woods. The princess had a mommy and a daddy and a big brother, and there was a happy ending where they all got reunited in the end. Wendy smiled at the thought. It was nice, but not everything needed to be like the storybooks.

Because hers was bigger.

Chapter Text

Laxus lost his father when he was eleven years old; he lost his mother even younger—so young he barely remembered her at all. It was supposed to be traumatic, but all he felt was numb.

It wasn’t that Laxus didn’t love his father—he really did. His dad was a Fairy Tail mage, and so was Laxus, and so was Laxus’ grandfather, who was the guild master himself. His entire family was Fairy Tail, and since his dad was a powerful mage, he was often gone. Laxus often asked if he could come with his dad on jobs, but he would usually get brushed off. “When you’re older,” Ivan would say, or, “if you get stronger.”

He understood. As a little kid, he always understood, even if he didn’t like it. His dad was an amazing, powerful mage, always on dangerous and awesome missions, and Laxus was tiny and scrawny and weak. He would only hold his dad back. So he happily stayed at the guild with Gramps and watched the other mages and dreamed of getting stronger.

It was true: he was weak. Even when he tried and tried and tried, Laxus could not produce magic. His dad said that it was because he was sick, which must be true, because his family was full of powerful magic, but Laxus was not. His dad told him he would find a cure, though, so Laxus always had hope that one day, he could be a real Fairy Tail mage.

The day came, but it was nothing like Laxus imagined.

His father summoned him and said he had a solution—a cure. It was his dream come true. All Laxus had to do was go somewhere private for the operation, because his dad didn’t want other people’s magic to affect the lacrima in a bad way. It made sense. The place his dad found was definitely out of the way, but it was lonely and a little creepy. Laxus wondered if it was abandoned.

“Hold still.”

That was the last concrete thing Laxus remembered—the last words he ever remembered his father saying, although Laxus doubted those were the last he said. Everything went white. It hurt so badly and Laxus could barely breathe. He tasted lightning and it wriggled up his throat and into his chest like fire, and that was the first time Laxus was scared of magic.

In hindsight, everything was a fever dream. His brain shut most of it out—but he does remember the doctor. The doctor and his stormy, Not-Human eyes.

The same eyes Laxus saw in the mirror some days, but not every-day. It happened rarely enough that Laxus wasn’t sure if he was imagining it or not—but then he would have a hard workout, or a tough mission, or just a random flare of magic, and his tongue would bleed and his mouth felt sharp and the colors changed somehow, and Laxus knew that if he could see himself it would be different.

He didn’t know how he should feel about it. Gramps didn’t want to talk about it—what happened—so Laxus never asked.

He asked Porlyusica instead, when he was thirteen.

When the Incident first happened, it was her that told him his dad was dead. She didn’t bother skirting around the subject like Gramps did, but then, his dad was Gramps’ kid, so it was natural that he would be sad too. Laxus was grateful for all the care that his grandfather gave him, but he was resigned to the fact that he was busy, and even if he wasn’t, he didn’t want to talk about it. Yeah, it was frustrating, but Laxus barely wanted to talk about it either.

Because Laxus had his theories.

He couldn’t control the surge of magic that awakened in him that day all that well, especially soon after—especially the moment it happened. He vaguely recalled the doctor telling him it was a miracle he survived, and when Laxus saw the scar over his eye and on his chest, he was inclined to believe him, even if the scars didn’t hurt him now. Enough of the pain still laced his memory.

His dad had been right next to him when the lightning came.

His dad was strong, but he wasn’t a light or a lightning mage, and lightning hurt.

Killed.

Laxus had always wondered. Feared.

Finally, he couldn’t take it anymore, and the young teen made his way to the grumpy medic’s cabin alone. There was a large possibility his questions would go unanswered, but it was either her or the doctor that buried his dad—hid the body from him. He knew where the grave was; if he cared about his sanity more than his dad’s resting peace, Laxus might have been tempted to dig it up, just to see, but the thought never even occurred to him two years ago.

Laxus spent a few days with her recovering, and then every time his magic lost control, he would go see her again. It had been a while, but he had spent enough time in her presence to know that she was straightforward.

She only just opened her door before the question blurted out. “Did I kill Dad?”

Laxus took pride in how well he kept things together, deep in his chest—like his dad, like Gramps. His eyes stung then, though.

Porlyusica stared at him, then ushered him inside with a long but relieving sigh. “No.”

“How can you be so sure?” he accused. She wasn’t the lying type, but she could be secretive.

He was so fucking tired of secrets.

“The man who tended to you that night—it was him that killed Ivan. He told me when he brought you here.”

The fight left him, but confusion remained. The doctor? He was a healer, though, and his dad was a powerful mage. But… Laxus wasn’t sure if it was true, or if his memory betrayed him, but there was something strange about the doctor, with his sharp eyes and sharper teeth. His strong hands and wild hair, even if his touch had been gentle at the time. A dragon slayer, the doctor called himself. If he succeeded in killing his dad, he had to have been powerful, and he said that Laxus was a ‘dragon slayer’ too. Laxus didn’t know what the meant, but it could mean that he would be strong as well. He felt guilty at the flash of excitement that thought gave him.

“Does Gramps know?”

“No, but I’m sure he suspects it. Makarov still sees his son the way he wants to, so who am I to ruin that?”

Laxus bristled. “But…if that man murdered Dad, shouldn’t we do something about it?!”

Porlyusica pinched the bridge of her nose. “He wasn’t malicious when he killed Ivan, I’m sure. He thought Ivan was hurting you, and he acted impulsively. One can argue that he was right or wrong, but what is done is done.”

“But…Dad wouldn’t hurt me…”

As the words left his mouth, his conviction wavered. Illegal dragon lacrima, that doctor had said. And weren’t dragons dangerous? Evil? Extinct, purportedly. There was also the fact that his dad had gotten that lacrima in the first place. If it was to protect Laxus, he didn’t doubt that his dad would do whatever he had to, legal or not, but the insertion caused Laxus more pain than not, even if he was stronger.

It was enough to create that glimmer of doubt.

Porlyusica left abruptly, somewhere in his brief retrospection, and she came back with a piece of paper she pressed into his hand. On it was directions scribbled in terrible handwriting that Laxus didn’t recognize to be Porlyusica’s, and with it, a description of the building Laxus remembered.

“If you want to know so badly, go back there,” she said. “You probably won’t like what you find though, so don’t come crying back to me.”

 

 

Laxus went. He was thirteen and desperate and curious, so he used the sloppy directions to find the impossible to find hideout. He found the hidden rooms. The dusty office.

 

Laxus was thirteen when every perception he ever had about his father shattered.

 

 

 

He learned to embrace his magic. Lightning felt natural to him now, regardless of the scars that reminded him of how unnatural the awakening of that magic was. When he was fourteen, he got a tattoo to cover the wicked scar on his chest; Gramps was mad he did it without permission, but Laxus did it with his own money, so it didn’t matter. The matter got dropped, and they moved on. He left the scar on his eye though. It was shaped like a lightning bolt, and Laxus liked the way kids in Magnolia or towns he went to for jobs squealed in delight at how it matched his magic. It did look pretty awesome.

Laxus barely knew anything about his magic, though. He had to look it up in damn libraries, and even then, the information was unhelpful. Dragon slayer magic did in fact exist, but sources only ever talked about how it was used to kill dragons—apparently the beasts were nigh untouchable without it. They didn’t talk about how sometimes Laxus grew sharp teeth or craved crackling foods with an intensity he could never satisfy, or how he could see and smell and hear things better than he could before.

Bickslow helped him research, but most of what they learned was by trial and error. It was fine. That’s how most people learned their magic, though most people didn’t have the crazy side effects. Bickslow was a good help to keep him relatively sane.

He came across the other teen when he was fourteen and on a job. Bickslow was just a year younger, but even without asking, Laxus knew that Bickslow was no stranger to possessing odd magic. How they met was evidence enough—although both Laxus and Bickslow were more than happy enough to never speak of that again.

So yes, Laxus was a capable Fairy Tail mage and he could handle the uncertainty, because magic was full of it. But he did really, really want to figure out why he got those weird cravings.

 

 

New members of Fairy Tail came all the time, though there did seem to be an influx of younger ones lately. Laxus didn’t mind. Some of them were rowdy, but some really did seem to be good mages, and that’s all that really mattered.

When he was sixteen, however, the newest member of Fairy Tail threw him in for a loop, because Natsu claimed that he, too, was a dragon slayer.

The eleven-year-old was confident about it, too. He was a fire mage, though, so his magic was different from Laxus’ own, and it was hard to tell what made him a dragon slayer just like Laxus could barely tell about himself. But Natsu also had sharp canines that were there all the time, and he heard the same far-off noises Laxus did.

Laxus didn’t approach Natsu immediately. Truthfully, he was a little scared—scared of the answer, or of being disappointed, Laxus didn’t know, because Natsu also said ridiculous things like being raised by a dragon, so he wasn’t ready to put his faith in him just yet.

 

 

He did get a big clue a few months after, although Laxus scarcely knew what to make of the information.

Natsu was slumped over one of the tables, looking generally irritable. “I’m hungry,” he grumbled.

Lisanna was perched next to him, still the ever cheerful one. She was the quickest to warm up to the guild of the siblings, and she and Natsu also hit it off pretty quickly, and the otherwise aggressive fire mage lightened up some himself. “We could order something from the menu,” she suggested.

“No, not that.” Then he looked up at Laxus, noticing him enter the guild for the first time. “Hey! Laxus! Can you make some lightning?”

While Laxus was still trying to process the bizarre request, Lisanna smacked him lightly on the head. “Lightning is not fire,” she chastised, apparently aware of Natsu’s reasoning. Laxus wasn’t the only one clueless, however; several guild members looked on with befuddlement.

“Yeah, but it’s close, right?”

Lisanna frowned. “I don’t think so… Oh! Look, how about that torch. I know how to start a fire!”

The seventeen-year-old watched, bemused, as the two kids made the effort to make a fire without Natsu’s magic.

And then he ate it.

Straight through the mouth, Natsu inhaled fire like it was air. “Oh yeah! I’m all fired up now!”

“You…” Laxus watched for any signs of injury, but there was none. “You ate fire.”

Natsu titled his head like he was the crazy one. “Yeah, ‘cause I’m a dragon slayer.”

“What?”

“Igneel said that’s what dragon slayers do—eat fire.”

That…couldn’t be right. Laxus wasn’t fireproof, he was very sure. “Why though? Did…Igneel say?”

Natsu furrowed his brow like he was having trouble remembering. Which wasn’t a surprise, because if food wasn’t involved, Natsu didn’t remember a lot of things. “I dunno.” He shrugged. “But it gives me magic, and it tastes great.”

 

 

Gramps would have lost his mind, so Laxus made the calculated decision not to inform him of his theory just yet. He would have only stressed, or worse, disregarded the theory entirely. It was fine, though, because Laxus was used to doing things on his own.

So he told Bickslow instead.

Bickslow watched as Laxus choked on his own lightning and coughed for ten minutes. At least he stopped laughing five minutes after. It was embarrassing.

“Wait.” Laxus remembered a glaring detail, and he felt dumb for not realizing it sooner. “Natsu didn’t make the fire.”

Bickslow tilted his head, ever expressionistic even with a helmet covering half his face. “What’s that got to do with— oh, you think the source matters?”

“He said it gave him magic. He can’t create more magic for himself by making it.”

“Oh, that’s a good point.” Bickslow grinned. “Do you need to stand on a weathervane and wait for a storm next? That’d be fun.”

“You’re right, that sounds stupid,” Laxus sighed. “It was worth a try though.”

 

 

It was one of the bigger solo jobs he took when he discovered how it worked. He didn’t think it would be so big when he accepted it, but the challenge was fine—preferred, even. Things did get dicey though. When Laxus got ambushed by a bunch of mercenaries, he even wished he had brought someone else along, like Bickslow, or even Cana.

That didn’t matter though, because Laxus was alone, but Laxus would prevail. He liked to think that he remembered the theories about dragon slayer magic when he faced that opposing mage’s lightning attack dead on, but truth was, he didn’t. He acted only out of lack of defense and some primal instinct.

He ate lightning for the first time that day, and it was invigorating. Laxus wiped the floor with the rest of the mercenaries, and he was left wondering how he had ever felt alive beforehand.

 

 

Laxus was seventeen when he saw the doctor again, against all odds. The man was there, in the guild hall, with Natsu beside him and a new scent to his person as the proud fire mage almost tried to hide behind the intimidating doctor.

The doctor—Acnologia, he said his name was—did indeed have a dangerous aura, more so than Laxus remembered as a child, despite the fact that Laxus couldn’t seem to sense or measure the extent of his magic. Regardless, Laxus intrinsically knew he was dangerous.

And yet, Laxus wanted nothing more than to demand answers. Beg, even, if he had to. He was inextricably drawn to the man as much as he would have been content never seeing him again. However, the fact that this Acnologia was his only source of information won, and one faltered confrontation later, Laxus was running out of the guild despite Gramps’ confused yelp and chasing after the incredibly fast man.

Eventually, Acnologia allowed him to catch up.

He was surprisingly patient, even as Laxus vacillated between wanting to hate him and wanting to put his hope in him. Though the truth was, Laxus had already come to terms with the fact that his father didn’t love him—at least, not as much as a father should. His death wasn’t a tragedy anymore, just a fact. Still, Laxus was uncomfortable with the fact that he was murdered by a stranger who also saved his life. It didn’t make sense.

Laxus just wanted to know why. He wanted to know why fate chose him to toy with, but he was content knowing what he could get his hands on. Anything would help fill this hole in his chest.

 

 

He never imagined, after that encounter, even after the promise of training, that he would gain solidarity.

Chapter Text

October 25th, X778

 

Laxus hovered outside the cabin in the woods, equal parts curious and anxious.

The training session he had that afternoon with Acnologia was by far the most bizarre he had ever had in his life. It was informative, certainly; the man knew more about the finer aspects of dragon slayer magic—magic in general—than Laxus had ever imagined, but the nonchalance threw him off. Nothing fazed him. Attacks that Laxus used to bring grown men to their knees barely scratched him. Hell, he ate some of it—and then commentated like it was an experimental recipe.

It all looped around to Laxus’ sub-par understanding of what a dragon slayer really was. He was beginning to suspect that it was far more complicated than just a type of magic, although with the senses and the cravings for lightning, he should have already guessed that.

Acnologia offered him explanation. Laxus had long since resigned himself to the fact that he rarely ever got straightforward and complete answers about anything, so he stopped hoping for them; however, Acnologia was forthright when it came to magic, so Laxus dared to hope this would be informative.

He went back to the dorms and showered, working quickly to avoid Freed. He would deal with him later, or maybe just plead with Bickslow to convince Freed to let up instead. Laxus didn’t mind the younger mage—he was talented and sincere—but damn, he needed a better hobby than following Laxus. He couldn’t take it. He had no idea how to live up to…whatever it was that Freed thought of him.

That was a later problem. Now, he was in front of the infamous and mysterious ‘dragon den’ (as guild rumor called it) with no idea what to expect. Except for noise, which he heard lots of from the other side of the door.

The door that finally opened, with an annoyed looking Gajeel on the other side. “You coulda’ come in, ya know. Or at least knocked, and not stood out here like a creep.”

“Uh…”

The younger teen rolled his eyes with a laugh, leaving the doorway and beckoning for Laxus to follow.

If implications hadn’t been enough, then now Laxus knew that all of the self-proclaimed dragon slayers did, in fact, live in the same cabin in the woods. New cabin, at that. Including Natsu, whom Laxus knew slept elsewhere formerly. Because Wendy, Rogue, Happy, and Wendy’s cat were at the table eating fruit, Gajeel had come to the door, and Natsu was hovering over Acnologia at the stove.

“Skies, I hate ovens,” Acnologia growled, pulling out a turkey out and sniffing it. “No fucking clue what’s happening in there.”

Natsu poked it. “I think it’s done now. I can give it a breath just in case—”

“Hands off my meat before you annihilate it again.”

“Hey, it wasn’t that bad—”

Gajeel snorted. “It was ash, flame-head.”

“Aye!” Happy agreed.

Laxus half expected Natsu to start a fight right then and there, like he often did with Gray and sometimes even Gajeel, but this time he just scratched his head sheepish. “Heh, you’re right.”

Acnologia spotted him—or at least, made eye contact. Laxus firmly believed that he already knew Laxus was there. “Grab food and sit.”

“Yes, sir,” came the immediate, reflexive reply.

“Cut the sir bullshit. Please.”

“Uh, right.”

When Acnologia said ‘sit’ he meant anywhere, judging by the habits of the kids—which made sense because the table only fit four comfortably, with five chairs fit underneath. Wendy and Rogue had claimed two of those seats, Happy sat on the table, Gajeel and Natsu sat on various spots on the countertop, and Charle and Acnologia both sat on barstools. Laxus didn’t expect anything, but it was odd to see how equally chaotic and…familial the group was. Laxus grabbed one of the kitchen chairs and sat at the table.

As Laxus tried to figure out how to start the conversation, because his questions had questions and wording them was hard (the turkey was good, though, and it was a little distracting), Acnologia decided to start abruptly.

Very abruptly.

“I’m a dragon.”

Laxus’ fork hovered mid-air. “Wha— I know you’re a dragon slayer, though.”

“No. Well, yes, I am a dragon slayer, but I’m also just a dragon.” Acnologia flexed his fingers, and briefly, they appeared as claws—blue, thick, and curved. “So my physical abilities are greater than a human’s. I know you must have been wondering.”

“Well, yeah, but I just figured you were… I don’t know, like Gildarts are something. But you’re a…dragon?” There wasn’t even conclusive evidence dragons were real—or at least, not anymore. With the existence of this magic, Laxus had begun to wonder. “You’re shitting me, right?”

Wendy shook her head. “No, Ac-nii is a dragon.”

At this, Laxus surveyed the kids and found that none of them were surprised or amused, like they would be if they were in on the joke. They honestly believed he was a dragon.

What the hell?

“It’s true.” Acnologia shrugged. “It’s not something I advertise, especially to humans, but you’re going to find out eventually. Not to mention, when your magic gets stronger, it will affect me differently than it would others.”

At this, Natsu interrupted. “Wait, is dragon slayer magic weaker against humans? Aw man…”

“No, it’s still effective—but it’s designed to disrupt a dragon’s magic. As I’m also a slayer, I can’t say I know if it’ll be the same as regular dragons.”

Gajeel furrowed his brow. “Hey Acno—you’ve actually fought dragons, haven’t you?”

“Yes.”

The black-haired teen flicked a piece of lettuce at Natsu. “Told ya’ so.”

“Hey! I never said he didn’t!”

“Didn’t say he did, either.”

Laxus could only stare, hardly paying attention to whatever side conversation Natsu and Gajeel were having now. Dragons. He wasn’t sure what was harder to grasp—that dragons were real, dragons still existed, or that this human-looking mage was a dragon. Did he use transformation magic to turn into a dragon? Is that what he meant? Or…he was using it to turn into a human.

It was true that Acnologia was…strange. His physical abilities were far beyond normal mages, but Laxus also knew Gildarts, so he knew it was possible. But even Gildarts used magic as both defense and offense; there were times in that training session that Laxus couldn’t detect hardly anything from the blue-haired man. He was built like a rock.

But a dragon?

“Wait, let me get this straight. You’re a…dragon, and… And what, dragons exist? Where the hell are they then?”

For a moment, Acnologia’s face warped into a grimace, and Laxus wasn’t sure he was going to answer at all. “Most dragons are dead,” he finally admitted. The others looked uncomfortable too, now. “I haven’t personally seen another one for… about two hundred years. But I haven’t sought one out either.”

Laxus nearly choked when the sentence registered. “Two hundred—?! How old are you supposed to be?”

If it was a joke, then Acnologia was good at looking serious. He had to stop and think about it, too. “Um. I’ll be honest, I lost track, but well over four hundred.”

Laxus must have been gaping, because Acnologia huffed a laugh at his expense. “Dragons do live a long time, you know. Oldest I knew back in the day said he was nearly a thousand.”

“Wait.” He needed to slow down and think and actually absorb this. The longer this went, the less unsure Laxus was that this was just some joke. “Natsu—you said you were raised by a dragon, and you’re like twelve. So are dragons just hiding or something? Do they all turn into humans like you?”

Acnologia paused to consider this. “I didn’t know many dragons with transformation magic, but it’s not impossible… But I don’t think Igneel ever did that.”

There was a look shared between Acnologia, Gajeel, and Natsu that gave Laxus the distinct impression they were still hiding something. “What? Is there more I don’t know?”

Gajeel shrugged and Natsu nodded, but before Laxus could get frustration at the blatant show of secrecy, it proved to be a signal to spill the beans. Acnologia sighed. “There is another thing.”

“But don’t go blabbin’ it to the guild,” Gajeel added.

“Well, don’t share the part about me being a dragon, either,” Acnologia sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose. “I don’t want unnecessary attention to get drawn to us or the guild.”

“Yeah, sure,” Laxus agreed easily. He didn’t think anyone else would believe him anyway. It might be hard to keep it from Bickslow if he ever got curious, but Bickslow also knew how to mind his own business. It was one of the things Laxus liked about him.

“The kids are from four hundred years in the past. It’s one of the reasons we don’t know where their dragons are.”

“…the hell?” Of all the things Acnologia could have said, he didn’t think anything would be more ridiculous than ‘I’m a dragon.’

“Don’t ask too many questions, because truthfully, I have very little clue. Magic is a mystery even to those who know it. As for why—likely only their foster parents truly know.”

Wendy and Rogue seemed unbothered, but granted, they were too young to be vexed by complicated things. Gajeel shrugged at him, and Natsu studied his food intently. If he was more belligerent, Laxus would know to bother the fire dragon slayer on the topic, but if this was true, it might be…messy.

He decided to wait.

“Okay. Let me see if I got this right. You—” he pointed at Acno “are a dragon. You four are from the past, and you were all raised by dragons?”

He got a chorus of nods.

“Damn.”

“Five, actually,” Rogue said softly. “Sting is still missing.”

Acnologia filled in. “Due to whatever magic slung them in the future, their memories got jumbled. They didn’t remember each other nor their original time, though most were in the care of their dragons far from civilization anyway.”

“That’s… Wow.” Laxus would probably process all of this better later, but now… That just sucked. He understood why they were so reclusive—even Natsu, now, when he had practically lived at the guild before. Of course, Natsu had been angry at first, prone to lashing out, and now he was just as fiery, but also…quieter? It depended on the crowd and on the occasion. Laxus knew the feeling.

Even if he didn’t know what to make of it, a part of Laxus was touched that the information was offered to him at all. Laxus had long since gotten used to having to either fight for answers by himself or resign himself to knowing that they will never come. He had learned to function without the big picture, and he even learned to appreciate the art of privacy—but to be trusted was still nice.

He did hope this wasn’t an elaborate prank, because damn was it strange. Not that Fairy Tail was a stranger to that.

Acnologia sighed, but there was a slight smile on his face. “You want to see it, don’t you?”

Well, he was offering…

 

 

 

Laxus didn’t know whether to be awed or terrified—though the little kid in him was winning.

They exited the house and went to that clearing. Acnologia simply cracked his neck and then his body started…unfolding. The magic covered most of it, but soon he grew and a giant, massive dragon stood in his place, though his scent didn’t change at all. Laxus always imagined that they were big, but his imagination hadn’t done it justice.

Acnologia didn’t have much in terms of facial expression in this form, but Laxus could hear the rumbling of a chuckle. “Feel tiny yet?”

Laxus had another, more hilariously pressing thought, however:

“So this is how you never take the train.”

Chapter Text

December 17th X778

 

“Hey!”

When Gildarts saw the mysterious scruffy looking dude again, he dropped everything he was doing (okay, he was just drinking) to go talk to him.

He might have been plastered at the time—a tradition after returning to the guild from his long escapades—but he remembered that encounter with the strange mage. No human, mage or no, had ever blocked one of his punches so effortlessly before. Even when Gildarts was holding back, which was often, they would still get sent flying back for their trouble.

Gildarts Clive had always had a predisposition for magic. It was hard to say whether it was ‘natural talent’ or the fact that he had always been drawn to it. Gildarts was a man easily bored with plenty of time on his hands, so when he began to practice the magic he stumbled upon, it grew and grew until he was destroying monuments and nature alike with single touches.

He loved to fight. It was one of the few things that Gildarts could get his blood pumping by; it was so hard to find good challenges, however. Even SS-class monsters that could get a sweat out of him didn’t last too long.

His guildmates were an even more finicky affair—and even mages he has had to fight over the years. For some reason, they rarely could take more than two hits from Gildarts, if that. Yeah, Gildarts would still participate in the famous bar fights, and he would never say no to a challenge, but Gildarts could never go all out. He knew he was powerful, and he knew he was dangerous. While Gildarts didn’t want to insult his fellow mage by holding back, he knew deep down he had to.

It was why the very idea of this random guy who could take his punch excited him—and he was a guildmate no less! He realized that he had long since given up on the idea of a good friendly brawl until the possibility cropped up after all this time. It was a Christmas miracle! He was glad that he decided to come back to the guild instead of dawdling in Iceburg. Or some other country, because damn it had been cold there.

The man in question—Acnilogic or something, he honestly forgot—was outside of the guild, listening to one of the new kids and Natsu talk excitedly about some quest. He looked up at Gildarts at the call, raising a brow (wait, was that an eyebrow?) inquisitively. “Oh. It’s you.”

Natsu spotted him as well. “Gildarts! You are back!” The spunky kid launched himself at Gildarts, and he caught the kid with ease mid-air and held him in a gridlock, ruffling his hair.

“Heya, scamp.” Natsu was a good kid, full of fire and fight. He also wasn’t the most sociable type, so Gildarts wondered if he knew the mysterious man. “You met the new guy?”

“Oh, that’s Acno!” Natsu replied easily. “Wait, Acno, have you and Gildarts met?”

“Briefly.” The man, Acno, peered at Gildarts with focused eyes. Were his pupils slitted? Huh, it was kind of like Natsu’s—except somehow more intense.

There must have been something unspoken there, because Natsu turned to Acno as he was turning to leave. “Gildarts’ is cool,” he said reassuringly. “Anyway, Happy! Rogue! Let’s go!”

The kids scampered off, leaving Gildarts alone with Acno. He cleared his throat, unsure how to go about this. “I’m Gildarts,” he introduced, holding out his hand. “Sorry the first meeting was a little, heh, unorthodox.”

He took his hand, and Gildarts was positively giddy at how solid the grip was—because Gildarts actually put some strength into this one. “I’m starting to get the feeling that’s how most things in the guild are,” the man commented wryly. “It’s Acnologia, by the way.”

Acno was easier to remember. “Hey, that’s the Fairy Tail spirit!”

“So…what is it that you want?”

Straight to the point! Gildarts was liking this guy more and more already. “Say, Acno—that thing you did in the guild the other day… Think you can do it again?”

He blinked. “I didn’t do anything.”

“You know, when I punched you.”

“You mean block it?” Acno gave a slight laugh, revealing a flash of sharp teeth. “Sure I can do it again. Can you punch any harder?”

Gildarts grinned widely. “Hell yeah I can.”

—o0o—

As tempting as it was to try it then and there, both men knew better than to start a fight in the middle of the town in front of the guildhall. It would decimate something and Gildarts didn’t want Master getting onto him for more property damage. (It was all well and good when it was somewhere else, but they all tried to keep Magnolia somewhat in one piece.)

They went out to the middle of the woods, each meeting the other speedily, even when they were a couple miles out. Christmas had come early for Gildarts, and he was the kid on the Christmas morning. The guy not only agreed to fight him, but the fight looked promising. He was itching with anticipation.

There was one thing he wondered about that he wanted to know before-hand, though.

“So, what’s up with your magic signature? It’s super tiny I can hardly feel anything, but I know you must be packing.”

Acno huffed. “Right, that.” He pulled aside his cloak, revealing a golden band inscribed with runes that Gildarts might have been able to read if he ever bothered to learn runes. “I suppress it so I don’t broadcast my arrival all the time.”

“Ohhh that’s nifty.” It was true. Other mages in other towns tended to get weirded out by him by his presence alone. But Gildarts also never did stealth jobs, so it never mattered. And when he came home to Magnolia, they knew he was coming so they could implement the town-shift. “Can I see?”

He stared at him incredulously and then sighed. “Fine.”

He clipped it off.

“Holy shit.” It was like being hit in the face with a boulder—something Gildarts definitely had experience in. The dude wasn’t kidding when he said it was problematic, but it was also awesome. If there was any doubt that this guy was actually strong, it was gone now; hell, Gildarts was now wondering if he was stronger than he was. That much magic, in one dude? It felt like Acno was supposed to be five times his size or something—this was the magic of a beast, not a man.

Acnologia returned the arm bracer, and the magic signature slowly fizzled out—or condensed itself, rather. “Happy?”

“Definitely.”

There was a moment of silence. A smarter man would have considered the next step or even the inevitable consequences of resulting actions, but Gildarts was not a smart man: he was a Fairy Tail mage.

So he shrugged and threw a punch.

Acno had fast reflexes, bringing a palm up to block the punch without needing the warning. Unlike last time, he grabbed his fist and twisted. The force was enough to send Gildarts hurdling towards the ground, but with a grin, he used it to kick the guy in the chest instead.

Even with the inevitable addition of his magic, the kick did nothing but elicit a small grunt from Acno, who followed with a grin and a kick of his own.

They only traded a few blows—not even with magic yet—when Acno stopped the fight. “What, tired already?” Gildarts pouted. He thought that was going well! Acno seemed fine, too…but Gildarts supposed crush magic could accidentally do some harm to the organs.

Instead, the blue haired mage gestured to the destroyed trees around them. “We’ll knock down the whole forest if we keep this up. I like this forest.”

“Oh shit, you’re right.” Sure, Gildarts wasn’t the type to pay too much attention to the collateral he caused, but was the rebound really that much? Huh. Wild.

Acno tilted his head and peered at Gildarts curiously. “You are human, right?”

“Yeah, what else would I be. Heh, you’re one too, right bud?”

Acno laughed.

“You’re an interesting guy, Gildarts. Can’t say I’ve ever seen magic like yours.”

Gildarts could only shrug. “Same to you. Did you even use magic during that?”

“…no.”

Man, he really was outclassed, wasn’t he? It was hilarious. “Come on, man, you gotta give me more than that.”

The other mage only shrugged. “You didn’t use much either, aside from what you leaked. The forest wouldn’t have been able to handle it otherwise.”

“Screw the forest.”

“Hey, I live here.” He paused. “And so does Porlyusica for that matter.”

At that, Gildarts shuddered. “Oh you’re right, that’s scary.” Porlyusica had the countenance of a grumpy hawk, and even without magic, Gildarts had the feeling the hag could do very creative and painful things with that broom. “Okay, but—round two sometime? Somewhere with less breakable stuff?”

Not only was Gildarts interested in what this guy could do, for magic-studying purposes, but it was so rare that he was able to spar and build his own skills. It had been fun back when he was young and learning and able to approach challenges, but now things were just dull. Besides, if this guy was going to stick around Fairy Tail, it was nice to know that they were in good hands—especially with all of those kids now joining. He could make an argument that this wasn’t selfish, but for the guild. Yeah, that was it.

Acnologia huffed, but the corner of lips turned upward nonetheless. “Sure.”

 

—o0o—

 

January 8th X779

 

Acnologia sensed Gildarts approaching long before he arrived. He wasn’t particularly in the mood to be bothered by extra humans today—like most days, honestly—but at least Gildarts was simple: he just wanted to fight.

It was a sentiment Acnologia understood. He himself had that side of him, though he had learned only after many years that it was dangerous when left to its own devices, like it had been. Didn’t mean he still didn’t enjoy the tussle from time to time, though he had long since stopped hunting dragons.

“Heeey, Acno~”

Acnologia set down the cup of black coffee (a discovery he wished he made sooner) and regarded the man at the stairs, looking more like a puppy as he did his best pleading face. Gildarts might have been the most powerful being that Acnologia had encountered this era, but damn, he was an idiot. It was convenient though because he didn’t ask any questions beyond the inevitable—

“You wanna fight?”

He was a little ashamed of himself that the answer was ‘yes,’ but the promise of a decent workout was too alluring. He was also curious about crush magic, because Acnologia actually knew nothing about it. Hell, it might be a newly discovered magic that this buffoon was sitting on. It was of no consequence though—it was dangerous, but Gildarts seemed to use it well.

Besides, he needed the warm-up—literally and figuratively. It was too busy to sleep this time of year, and he needed the stimulation not to. If Igneel could apparently fight off the desire for hibernation, then so could he. At least until things with the kids were settled and Sting was found.

“You got a place in mind?”

Gildarts waved a job flyer in the air. “I picked this 10-year quest up about some flower. It looked boring, so I never did it before, but it’s in these middle-of-nowhere mountains so I figured you could come along and we duke it out, then I’ll find this bad boy on the way back.”

“Which mountains?”

He squinted at the print. “Um, the Hako range—north side. It’s not near a train, though.”

“That’s not a problem,” he said quickly. Truthfully, he had never ridden on a train before, but they looked like a death trap. Carts were bad. Ships were bad. Trains looked like hell.

He didn’t recognize the Hako range by name, but he could find it on a map.

“So, uh… meet you there in what, a couple days?”

“Does it take you that long to walk there?”

Gildarts laughed. “Not really, not if I use magic. It depends on what I’m crossing through, really.”

“Same. Tomorrow, then?”

“You’re on.”

—o0o—

It turned out that that ‘middle-of-nowhere’ mountain range was his middle-of-nowhere mountain range. Acnologia couldn’t keep up with all the changing of names of regions over the centuries, so who could blame him for not noticing until later?

It was true though—the Nirvit (Hako, whatever) mountains were sparse. Aside from his cave, not many other lifeforms resided there, save for animals and a few werewolves who mostly stuck to the bottom. If they stuck to the northwest, it should be fine.

He tracked Gildarts to some place in the middle. Only to startle him like a stray cat.

“Shit, dude where’d ya’ come from?!”

“From above.” He thought it was obvious when he jumped down for the mountain peak. “We should probably move westward—there’s a pack near here somewhere.”

Gildarts pouted. “Aw man, but I’ll need to be on the other side for my quest.”

The other side was where his cave was. Acnologia wouldn’t have cared or pried otherwise, but— “What do you even need for that quest anyway?”

“Uh, some rare snow flower. Apparently, experts are sure it still exists on some mountain peak, but everyone who tried a few years ago encountered some mysterious windstorm or shit and gave up. Or got knocked down the mountain and hospitalized. It looked pretty boring to me, so I ignored it until now, but the location seemed good for a fight.”

Snow flower… Oh shit. He knew what Gildarts was talking about—the Nirvitian Qingxin. It was used by the tribe long ago for medicinal purposes, and being an extremely picky flower, it required techniques the tribe only knew. When they were wiped out, the flower began to die out as well.

Acnologia encountered them by chance. Back when the Montes Secreta traded when them, he had worked with the flower before, so he recognized the few who survived. He transplanted them near where he was staying and tended to them on the peak. His only output of them, so far, were the ones he gave to Porlyusica in her medicines, because while he wasn’t trying to hoard them, they only just recovered as a species, and he had no other human associations.

There had been people who came near his mountain in the past; he always did his very best to discourage them from approaching. Was he too violent at times? Perhaps, but it was his mountain, and whatever weirdos kept going when he kicked up the wind were liable for more injuries.

This was going to be awkward. Acnologia had absolutely zero intention on sharing the whereabouts of the cave with anyone from the guild, but Gildarts was going to set out for that flower and Acnologia wasn’t going to be there to knock bystanders away. Sure, he could pretend to leave and then circle back and stop Gildarts anonymously—it would be tougher than normal, but not impossible—but knowing this was a job offer? That was problematic. Acnologia would rather a guildmate from Fairy Tail stumble across his garden rather than some random wastrel. Besides, Gildarts could be dense enough not to question too intensely why his previous dwelling was a cave.

“Actually,” Acnologia interjected, trying to bite back the groan. “I know where those flowers are.”

“That’s neat,” Gildarts said, “you can point me in the right direction, and I can finish this job in a jiffy.”

“No.” How did he word this without being incriminating? Never mind, fuck that, he was keeping his stuff safe. “They’re my flowers. That’s my garden. I can give you some, but those little shits are hard to grow, so don’t mess them up.”

Gildarts blinked at him. “But you live in Magnolia.”

“I do now. I used to live in these mountains.”

“Oh, like a cabin or something?” he asked in lieu of questioning why he had the garden.

“Something like that.”

Thank the skies Gildarts was an idiot.

With much reluctance, Acnologia led the man to the garden. It needed the snowy climate and high altitude, so it was on top of his mountain, gratefully, and not inside the cave. Though even if it was, he somehow doubted Gildarts would have thought much of it. At this point, it was mostly empty not because that was how it was for decades, but because most everything was at the house now, save for the firepit and a few pieces of cooking ware. (Because it was still his cave, and he had every intention of using it in case he needed to lay low or avoid people for a while, and the kids were free to use it the same way.)

He carefully cut one from a bush and handed it to Gildarts. “Tell them it was on private property; I don’t want people tramping through my gardens. Please.”

“Yeah, sure.” Gildarts was pouting, though, looking around the mountain. “There was no snowstorm or monster though.”

Definitely an idiot. “The snowstorm was me. To keep out intruders.”

“Ohhhhh you have snow magic?”

“No, air.”

Gildarts laughed. “Never met an air mage built like a tank like you.”

Heh, that was strange, wasn’t it? He never met a dragon before, that was for sure. “First time for everything.”

“So, can we fight now?”

“As long as it’s nowhere near my garden.”

—o0o—

The fight was…something else, to be sure. A little exhilarating, to be honest, and that was a feeling Acnologia didn’t know he could experience fighting anything other than a dragon, or perhaps a god.

Without being imbued with dragon slayer magic, there was little Gildarts could do to his physical form, but crush magic was the art of destroying magic, and as an ether dragon, it was a wild encounter. Blow for blow, spell for spell, they could collide and cancel each other out. The spar was more testing than an actual fight, but that was how spars should be.

It was clear that Gildarts was also cursed with the reality that he could never give his all without eminent death, though Acnologia would most likely be the exception. It was something he knew well, a dragon walking among humans. Everything was fragile, and fragile things died quickly. It took them a while to amp up blows, even with the intention of doing so from the beginning.

Finally, Gildarts held up an arm, panting. Even Acnologia was feeling the strain of his lungs and the flow of his blood. “I think I’m good for now. It’s cold up here.”

“Yeah.” The cold did make for more difficult movement.

Acnologia rolled his shoulder, feeling it crack in satisfaction. That empyrean spell had been a doozy, even causing Acnologia to give some ground and be thrown backwards. “It was a good workout though.”

Gildarts grinned. “You bet!”

The sun was already going down. How long had they been at this?

“Um.” Gildarts scratched the back of his neck. “So, uh, I think I need another flower.”

He sighed. That was annoying, but it figured. They hadn’t paid much mind to collateral out here in the forlorn mountains. Speaking of which— “Huh.”

“What?”

Acnologia knew these mountains well. Very well, for them to be his hunting grounds. Even this far out, he knew the landscape—so he noticed the vast changes now made. He doubted anyone else was as familiar, not here, but it was still something to be considered. “Think anyone would notice a missing mountain?”

Chapter Text

December 13, X778

 

 

“What the hell are they doing?”

Acnologia had been hearing all that…noise…all day, so the first kid who returned from town and stepped half a foot in the house got the ire of all his questioning. It was Wendy, Natsu, and Happy so he felt a little bad at the wide-eyed look the six-year-old gave him, but both of them surely knew his irritation wasn’t with them.

“Who…?” Wendy asked.

Right, clarification. “I don’t know, Magnolia? I’ve been hearing their crash fest all day.” Frankly, he’s been scared to get closer.

“Oh! They’re decorating!”

…what?

“Magnolia decorates for Christmas every year,” Natsu explained. “Fairy Tail always helps.”

“Fairy Tail. That explains it.”

“Aye! Wait…what’s Christmas again?” Happy blinked owlishly from Natsu to Acnologia and back.

“Oh right, this is your first one,” Natsu remembered. “It’s, uh, it’s a festival of cooking and racing and family and stuff. Wait, do they cook anymore…?”

“Um,” Wendy started. “Mr. Roubaul said it was about family and full of singing and hot chocolate.”

Right. Christmas. It was a long-lasting holiday, but it changed and evolved just like anything else did. “Natsu, I think you’re thinking of the Festival of Marathons. Wait, Natsu, are you from Desierto?”

It occurred to Acnologia that while Natsu sometimes mentioned his family before Igneel, he never placed where it was. Desierto made sense, actually. Small population, hot and dry climate…nearly completely wiped out by dragons during the war. He believed they have recovered, but it was still quite the blow.

“Oh, yeah, that’s what it was called!”

Happy raised his paw sheepishly. “We don’t have to run a marathon, do we?” For a kitten who flew ninety percent of the time, he seemed very distraught at the idea.

“No,” Acnologia responded, not missing how Natsu was starting to get that far-off homesick look again. He imagined the holiday season was stirring it up again. “That’s an old tradition from another country, celebrating how their soldiers once ran home for the feasts. Fiore doesn’t celebrate that, but they do cook and sing and…whatever. I’ll be honest, I’ve ignored it most years.”

At this, Wendy looked disappointed. Acnologia briefly considered finding an excuse to leave now lest he be wrapped into whatever Wendy asked for, but he was already looking at her when she began to speak. “Um, is it still okay if we want to celebrate Christmas? I really want to see what it’s like with a real family…”

Damnit. Consider his heart impaled. “Yeah, that’s okay.”

Her face lit up, and she crashed into his leg. “Thank you!”

“Yeah, yeah.”

 

 

 

 

 

December 24, X778

 

 

“Ac-nii, are you coming to the guild party?”

“Ha, no.”

Before Wendy had the chance to get too sad about it, Gajeel placed a hand on her head and ruffled her hair. “You know loud things isn’t his style, squirt. Besides, the real fun happens tomorrow, right?”

It was amazing how quickly the moods of children changed, and Wendy was smiling again. “Right!”

Natsu bounced at the door. “Anyways, byeeee!”

“Bye!” Happy echoed.

“See ya,” Gajeel saluted, halfway gone.

Rogue just waved.

“We’ll be back tonight,” Wendy assured while hugging him, as if he was worried.

“I’ll make sure of it,” Charle added.

“Yeah, whatever, go have fun.”

He watched them go with bewilderment and fondness. A part of him still couldn’t believe they had gotten to this point. As soon as they were out of sight and out of hearing range, Acnologia left the house himself. The kids were putting effort into this, he knew, so he would too. Time to get to work.

 

 

 

 

 

 

December 25, X778

 

Christmas was an adaptive and diverse holiday throughout history and across cultures, so it made sense that the holiday was spent in split traditions in the house of the time-forsaken dragon slayers. It was more-so muddled by the fact that none in the house were experienced on the matter.

Dragons did not celebrate Christmas. They were not without holidays, but unless they were with humans, the holiday in the bleak mid-winter went unnoticed in light of hibernation and the solitude of non-mating season.

When the kids were young and in the care of their dragons, the season was not a priority, or even something that was on the forefront of anyone’s mind. Anna would bake cookies if she was nearby at the time, but it wasn’t a constant thing. Natsu was the only one with prior experience, but time sensitivity was something he lacked. Holidays are only truly made meaningful by solidarity, anyway. Then to the younger ones, it was a precept unknown to them entirely.

But now, in the eighth recorded century of Earthland, it was time to begin tradition anew.

Like with any new endeavor that required some level of cooperation and foresight, this was preformed with much chaos.

 

 

“Wake uuuuuppppppp!”

“…no.”

“Come on, you said you wouullllld!”

“Natsu.”

“Huh?”

“It’s four a.m.”

The twelve-year-old blinked owlishly. “But you gotta’ start early for the race.”

Acnologia, in tired resignation, sat up. The eldest dragon slayer had fallen asleep in human form the previous night, so the younger slayer could surely see his clueless expression, despite the darkness. “What?”

“We each pick a tradition, right? I wanna do the homecoming lunch.”

Acnologia followed him into the common area, flicking on the lighting lacrima, because for some forsaken reason, everyone was awake.

In their first attempt to celebrate a holiday together, it was decided that everyone would bring an idea to the table. It was the best they could do, and in the safety of their secrets, it was closest the beset dragon slayers could cope with their upbringings and histories and find comfort in them.

As such, Acnologia would not begrudge Natsu his request.

But he had concerns about leaving him in the kitchen unsupervised.

“Alright,” he yawned. “What am I supposed to do?” He had heard of Desierto’s old traditions in passing, but he was no expert.

“Uh, you’re the leader of the house, so you run the marathon, and then we have lunch when you get back.”

“A marathon?”

“Twenty-six miles,” Rogue clarified. He had no idea how he knew that information, but Rogue was a sponge of many odd things.

Natsu scratched his neck. “I think they did less back home, but I’m not sure.”

“That’s really far, right?” Happy asked.

“Yeah,” Rogue replied.

“Twenty-six miles is fine,” Acnologia said. “But it will be a ‘homecoming breakfast’ if you want me to do it now.” Earlier, truly, but he could dally if the kids needed it.

“But, it takes like all morning— ohhhh right, you’re super fast.” For all the planning Natsu put into this, he missed a few details, but Acnologia was glad he was thinking at all. “Breakfast is fine, then.”

“Okay. Don’t burn down the kitchen.” Though he was talking to Natsu, he snuck a look at Gajeel and Charle to ensure that this would be enforced. He got a thumb’s up and a curt nod in turn.

Twenty-six miles and a very casual and slow stroll through the woods later, it was eight in the morning and Acnologia determined that if they weren’t ready now, then the kitchen really had burned down.

Fortunately, the only thing that was burnt was the food. Natsu was the happiest he’s been all month, however, so that was what truly mattered.

 

 

Gajeel spoke nothing of the old Minstrel traditions, but that was to be expected. Acnologia had forgotten them, too, though neither had ever truly anticipated. Instead, it was what he observed in Denish that he wanted to try.

Acnologia would emphasize try, but at least he had enthusiasm.

“Yeah, I learned how to play from this ol’ street musician,” Gajeel insisted, some old guitar he had in his hands. “I think I know some Christmas songs, so why not?”

There were plenty of reasons, but no one voiced them as Gajeel sang, listening in mixtures of awe and horror. Acnologia was sorely tempted to cast dead air, at least around himself, but Gajeel didn’t know but half of the lyrics to “Jingle Bells” so it wasn’t a terribly long experience.

“That was…” Wendy began.

“Awful,” Natsu finished.

“Hey! You don’t know good music if it slapped you in the face!”

“Yeah, well I don’t think it’s supposed to sound like—”

“Gajeel,” Acnologia interrupted, in order to forego any brawl. “I say this as delicately as I can—your… singing needs work.”

“Heh, I thought it was pretty good, but I guess I couldn’t tighten it up—add some scrat—”

“Let me re-phrase: it’s a crime against nature, just like Natsu’s bacon. But, guitar was good.”

After a brief moment of silence, laughter erupted, and Gajeel declared that playing the guitar took more talent anyway.

 

 

Rogue was simple: he wanted to roast marshmallows.

They made a fire outside, and the boy had already procured a bag of the stuff, and it didn’t take too long to find sticks. “I heard someone talk about it,” Rogue explained. “And marshmallows are already amazing, and this is supposed to be even better.”

Truthfully, Acnologia had had neither, but he deferred to Rogue’s wish.

“Um,” Wendy said. “I, uh, know Natsu likes it like that, but Rogue your…”

Gajeel stared incredulously. “Your marshmallow is all black.”

Rogue froze mid-bite, completely unphased. “Yeah?”

“You like that?”

The small boy smiled. “It tastes like shadows.”

 

 

Wendy, for being the one to kick-start this entire event, was shy about sharing hers.

“Can we, um… Can we read a story…?”

She had a book and everything. It was a short one, too, which was nice. “Sure.”

Wendy handed the book to him. “Um, some of the words are hard…”

“Yeah, I got it.”

Acnologia sat down with the book, and Wendy sat at his side, looking at the pictures eagerly. Rogue was perched on the back of the couch, eyes on the pages as well, and Natsu and Gajeel sat cross-legged on the floor, Happy on Natsu’s head and Charle beside them.

Skimming the words, he had no idea what the story was about, but it was what Wendy wanted. “Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house…”

 

 

Happy was the most predicable.

“Fish!” He raised his paw. “I want lots of fish!”

“We can have fish for dinner.” Acnologia had suspected as much and caught some the previous day and put them on ice.

“Yay!”

 

 

Charle was not one for frivolous things, but even she seemed to have a desire, though they had to pull it out of her.

“It’s nothing, really.”

“Come on, Charle,” Wendy pleaded. “Everyone should get to do something fun on Christmas!”

Finally, the white cat spoke, twisting a tuft of fur around her claw. “Candles are nice…”

“Candles it is.”

They turned off all the lacrimas and lined the counters with candles. It was surprisingly peaceful.

 

 

“Ac-nii?” Wendy tugged his sleeve. “You didn’t do anything.”

All eyes were on him with interest. “Yeah, that’s right,” Natsu said.

Acnologia had a feeling it would come to this, and it was sweet that the kids worried over him. Truthfully, he was prepared, not only because he feared hurting their feelings by not participating to the fullest, but also because the ordeal had made him nostalgic. In the past ten months of being a caretaker to young ones, he had remembered memories and feelings he thought were impossible to return.

“It’s more fun at night,” he explained. “Come on, I’ll show you.”

They gathered outside, and Acnologia pulled some pieces of intricately cut paper. They resembled stylized stars, though they were poorly made in his rustiness and his haste. It was good enough, however; he was amazed he remembered at all.

“There was a legend,” he began, “back in my home before I was a dragon slayer.”

The kids listened in rapt attention. He was aware that, while he shared some bits of information when relevant, this was the first story he gave to them of his past. “It went that long ago, before the recording of time, there were no stars. The world was dark, and the beings of earth labored blindly, unable take the heat of the sun yet unable to navigate in the night. A celestial—one of the gods, as they would be called later—took pity on the humans. Her name was Polaris. She tried to light up the sky, but she could only reach one land at a time, and she grew weary as well.

“One day, her heart breaking at the struggles of creatures, she sacrificed her body. It split apart into millions of particles of lights, and those became the stars.

“Montes Secreta was a mountainous island, and fishing and farming was their livelihood. We relied on the stars for much, so once a year, when the stars were brightest, we honored the sacrifice of Polaris by sending paper and lanterns into the sky. Those skilled in magic would cast theirs first, and the dragons would light the rest.”

Acnologia lit the first with magic. It was the first spark to carry the history of his old homeland in hundreds of years, and it was the spark that represented the new home he never thought he would have again. The paper star glowed a brilliant white, and it floated into the night sky.

“Woah…”

The awe in the eyes of his kids was far brighter.

 


 

“Home’s with you this year, so hear us say: make a memory. This holiday, we’ll be family.”

—Broadway cast of Fun Home, “Home’s with You”

Chapter Text

April 3, X779

 

Acnologia had grown to know many members of the guild, though most of them was only in passing, knowing their magic and maybe their name. It was only the people the kids associated with and the homebodies of the guild house he ended up becoming familiar with. Not that he was at the guild house often, or for long stretches of time. He could tolerate fifteen to thirty minute increments to get a job and to listen to whatever the kids wanted to show him. If it was not crowded, it wasn’t that bad, but usually, if someone needed him for something, they could find him elsewhere—and truly, only the people he tolerated got to know where they lived.

People came and went, and Acnologia didn’t pay them much mind. As long as he was not led to believe they would pose a threat, he wasn’t nosy.

However, when the cloaked kid snuck in through the side door, making a beeline to the job board with an adequate but not perfect invisibility spell, Acnologia did notice. Aside from the attempt at secrecy—which, while suspicious, Acnologia understood—there were two things that stood out to him: one, his magic did not originate from him, though it ran through him, and two, he was bleeding.

Fairy Tail, Acnologia learned, was full of reckless people. They were allowed their recklessness, however, because Acnologia would not mother them. Much. The kids (his and the others) were just as bad, if not worse, but he wouldn’t let them sit with wounds they could not handle. He had even tended to Gray before, crass as that kid was, because Acnologia wouldn’t see anyone get an infection on his watch.

(It should be noted that every guildmate was infinitely happier if Wendy was the one who noticed first, because she was gentle and kind and sky magic even eased the pain; Acnologia, however, came with grunts and lectures.)

If this kid was taking a job, then Acnologia doubted he had any intention of tending to his wound. Although, as he sniffed it further, it didn’t seem fresh—poorly dressed and reopened was a better description of the aged smell the blood had. Acnologia respected people’s privacy, but he was a medic with standards, and Fairy Tail was too reckless to be sensible half the time. With a sigh, Acnologia stood and intercepted the kid as soon as he tried to slip out of the building.

“I know you’re wounded. Let me see it.”

The boy startled, eyes widening behind his invisibility spell. “You can see me?”

“Yeah, but it’s not a half-bad spell. You have two choices: let me see the wound now, or let me see it somewhere else.” Too bad for him, invisibility meant nothing to the other senses, and dragon eyes were keener than most anyway. If the kid wanted privacy, fine, but Acnologia wasn’t going to sit there and let him get an infection out of neglect.

“Oh.” The invisibility spell faded away, leaving only a scraggly teen with long sleeves, a cloak, and a mask that covered his nose and mouth and a cloth around his head. A few strands of blue hair peaked out underneath, and more curiously, a twist of red was just visible on his cheek.

He took in Acnologia with the same keen brevity a lost cat took in a stranger. His dark eyes rested quickly on the spot below his arm, where Acnologia’s guild mark was visible above the sleeveless shirt was wearing. That seemed to calm him. “You’re a Fairy Tail medic?”

“I’m a Fairy Tail mage who happens to be a healer.” Stars forbid he took Porlyusica’s job, because she would make him have it. “Now, you don’t need to tell me what you were doing, but I would like to close that for you if you’re planning on running off and making it worse.”

“Right…” He cradled his arm, which now that Acnologia was close, was the clear location of the wound. “Thank you. Can we…” His eyes flicked toward the guild house. “Go somewhere else?”

Acnologia wondered if this kid was a Fairy Tail mage at all, with how secretive he was, but then again, a Fairy Tail mage would be this odd. Regardless, it wasn’t his problem; it was a kid about Natsu’s or Gajeel’s age that was hurt, and that was that.

“Sure,” he replied with a shrug. It was one of his options anyway. “Lead the way.”

The kid only moved behind the building, closer to the woods. It was quiet back there, though, with little to no foot traffic. It was close enough to the guild hall to be lacking in any ill intent, so chances were, he really was a Fairy Tail mage. This was confirmed when the boy hesitantly removed his shirt, revealing both a dirty bandage around his upper arm and shoulder, and a black fairy resting on his pectoral.

He said nothing, only held his arm out shakily and averted his gaze.

Acnologia quickly supported the arm by holding his forearm, lest he strain his wounded shoulder even more, before slowly unwrapping the bandages. It wasn’t terrible, but the gash extended from mid-tricep to the tip of his shoulder. It also was beginning to sour, the blood thick and lethargic as it sat stagnant. It already needed cleaning before he could close it.

“Purify,” Acnologia cast, causing the air to remove the impurities. He knew it stung from experience, but the kid took it with only a slight flinch, nearly imperceptible to someone who wasn’t watching for response. It was one of the drawbacks of pure air-based healing magic, since it involved more physical remedies than the strengthening enchantments of sky healing magic. It did its job, however.

Satisfied with that stage, Acnologia held out his palm and closed the gash. It was small enough that his magic could mend the tissue without scarring, but some had already begun to occur beforehand, leaving a small trace behind. He noticed the scar was not without company; despite his age, he already gained an impressive collection across his arms and torso. Most did not look overly serious, but some were many years old. Acnologia knew better than to pry, but a flash of pity and understanding flashed through him on behalf of the strange boy nonetheless.

“Remember to clean or replace your bandages daily, if you can,” he told him, nose wrinkling as he disposed of the old ones. “And don’t do stupid stunts if you’re injured.” It was a wonder how some of these kids maintained their limbs.

“Thank you,” the boy said quietly. “I’ll do my best.”

The job was done, but Acnologia hovered still. There was something else about the teen that bothered him, but it was more of an issue of curiosity. It was the way he used magic. He noticed it again when the kid grabbed his stave and strapped it back to his back. It wasn’t merely the fact that he only used magic items—thousands of civilians used magic items without magic of their own every day. Rather, it was how the magic interacted with his body.

He had seen it once before. So that’s what he was. It was still peculiar though, but Acnologia would not say anything without cause.

Acnologia was prepared to part ways with the mysterious injury prone boy when the reason he had come to the guild today came running towards them. He was proud that Wendy had managed to sniff him out from here, though the kid stiffened as she approached.

However, when Wendy got closer, she ignored Acnologia almost entirely, her wide brown eyes fixed on the teen. Before he could comprehend it, the seven-year-old threw herself at him with a joyous squeal. “Jellal!”

 

—o0o—

 

Once, he was Jellal Edolas, then he was just Jellal, and then he was Mystogan, but he didn’t mind. Being Mystogan was easier. More comfortable. Yes, the shadows of his past still haunted him, and he had to be more careful than most, lest he be confused with his Earthland counterpart, but it was simpler keeping to himself.

Fairy Tail had been a lucky find, and it helped him survive and he was forever grateful, but Mystogan was not on Earthland to make friends. He couldn’t. He had a duty to clean up after his father and his land to save this one; it was a traitorous duty, but it was his. Mystogan wouldn’t pretend he deserved to be loved in a world that was in danger because of his homeland.

But it was tempting. Fairy Tail was so welcoming and so unquestioning, it made him want to be around, even if he was just watching. He knew it was dangerous, and they were the last people he wanted involved in his problems, and he knew that the sight of him could likely send Erza to a bad place, if the Master’s words were any indication, that day he joined the guild.

Mystogan did not dislike people, especially the quiet ones with calming presences, but he valued their safety above his own and his happiness.

It was the biggest reason that he left Wendy, the lonely girl without a family he met when he was just a lonely boy without a home, in the care of that kind old man’s guild. He would not have her hurt by his mission. It had been a sudden and rough goodbye, but it was necessary, and everyday he hoped she forgave him even if he didn’t deserve it.

That was why, when Wendy had run to him, “Jellal” on her lips and a fairy emblem on her arm, he had been shocked to inaction. Never had he considered such a thing possible, and it was terrifying and so, so wonderful at the same time. She was as affectionate now as she was when she was five, and nearly as small but they had both grown, and he caught her mid-air with ease, especially now with his arm not threatening to tear itself with each movement.

“Hey Wendy,” he smiled, and it felt genuine even beneath the mask.

“Where’d you go?” Wendy asked after pulling back, and the worry in her eyes hurt his heart. “You never came back, and…and…”

Oh no, he had hurt her, just like he swore he wouldn’t do. He had been an idiot. Wendy was alone because she had been abandoned, and then he abandoned her again. “I’m so sorry,” he whispered. “I thought you would be better off in a guild than with me.”

Wendy grabbed him tighter. Her grip strength had certainly increased. “I—I do like being in a guild, but… Why couldn’t you come too?”

He really messed up, didn’t he? “I’m sorry,” he repeated, feeling useless while he did so.

Still holding him onto him, unwilling to let him go, she peeked upward at him. “You could join Fairy Tail?” she suggested shyly.

Mystogan couldn’t help but to laugh once. “I’m actually…already in Fairy Tail.”

The discovery made Wendy squeal with joy. “We’re in the same guild! We can go on jobs together, and eat lunch and—you’re not leaving again, right?”

He would always need to leave. Whenever the Anima activated, he would be called away, and he didn’t belong there anyway. But…Fairy Tail was easy to come back to. So was Wendy, the first friend and sister he ever had. “No, I won’t.”

It was then, Wendy still buried in his torso, Mystogan looked up and realized that the other mage was still there. His eyes were as intense as they were steady, watching them with scrutiny. Mystogan wanted to hide from the gaze, aware now that his secrets were slipping, but the mage had been able to see through his magic items, so it was useless. He also wouldn’t leave Wendy.

That mage had been helpful, though, gruff as he was. He reminded Mystogan of Pantherlily, which eased him, but he was also a stranger. It was a hard line to find.

“So you’re Jellal, huh?”

Whatever peaceable relation Mystogan had—or would have had—with the healing mage was vanishing into the air. How did he explain? He probably thought Mystogan was a terrible person, and that he hurt Erza, but how did he fix it without making it worse? Mystogan…wanted to stay in this guild. It was playing with fire, and it was selfish, but it was the first place he enjoyed coming back to and he didn’t want to give that up, but he didn’t know how to fix this

“The one Wendy talked so much about?”

Mystogan stopped. He released a shaky breath. “I—yes?”

The mage’s gaze had softened some, and it was more like Lily’s, and it was easier to hold. The mage wasn’t mistaking him for the Earthland Jellal. It was okay…but he still looked upset.

He raised a steady eyebrow—if that was an eyebrow—at him. “You left a five-year-old alone with a stranger.”

That…that was bad, when he put it that way. “You’re right. That was foolish of me.”

“He wasn’t even alive.”

Mystogan snapped his head upward, whiplashed. “What?”

“The Nirvit—he was a ghost. A good ghost, I’ll hand it to you, but he was a fucking ghost.”

He ducked his head again, keeping his gaze trained to the ground. A ghost? Was that possible on Earthland? He hadn’t considered the possibility. How could one tell those things? He probably hadn’t been paying close attention. It was all his fault. What if Wendy had suffered there? Had been unhappy? Is that why she was here, now? At least someone had found her, and she was safe now, no thanks to him.

“Hey, breathe,” the mage commanded.

Mystogan found the breath he didn’t realize he missed. “I’m sorry. I should… I should have done better.”

Wendy hadn’t left, but she did twist her head back at the healing mage. “It’s okay, Acno,” she said. “Jellal was just trying to help me, and Master Roubaul was still really nice.”

The mage—Acno—made a noise of some sort in the back of his throat. He still didn’t sound pleased, and when Mystogan snuck another glance at him, he was frowning.

“How old are you, anyway?” Acno asked, completely unrelated to the current topic.

Or, maybe, this was just him confirming that Mystogan should have done better. It was hard to tell. “Thirteen.” Wait, when was it? It was April, now, wasn’t it? “Uh, f-fourteen.”

“You were just a kid, too.”

Mystogan looked back at the man, who closed his drilling eyes with a pinch of his nose. What did he mean, though? Just a kid? There was no such thing for a prince, but then, maybe he was given slack now because nobody on Earthland knew what he was—had been, rather.

Acno sighed, opening his eyes again. “Just…always remember to be cautious, okay? Both of you.”

“We will, Acno,” Wendy promised easily.

Mystogan’s head was still spinning. That had gone better than he expected, but it was hard to remove himself from the edge. Wendy being there helped, somehow, and the fact that he was beginning to grow sure that Acno didn’t hate him.

“Wait.”

Acno stopped mid-step as he was leaving.

“Uh, Jellal isn’t my name. Or, it was, but I go by Mystogan now.”

Wendy was giving him the confused look he expected, but Acno just nodded. It was strange, but it was something Fairy Tail did so easily.

“Okay…” Wendy said slowly. “Is there something wrong with Jellal?”

Mystogan was preparing a way to explain when Acno beat him to it. “It’s because he’s from Edolas, and there’s another Jellal here. Correct?”

That he wasn’t expecting. Only the Master knew… “Wha—? How…?”

Acno huffed a laugh. “Don’t worry about it, your secret is safe with us. I know someone else from Edolas, that’s all.”

Someone else?

“Edolas…?” Wendy questioned. “Is that another country?”

“It’s…another world. With people who look like people here, except they’re different,” Mystogan said, using the explanation he had tried to prepare for moments like this, though it was easier when it was just Wendy. “I’m the Jellal from Edolas, but there’s a Jellal in Earthland that looks just like me, but he’s…not a good person.” Mystogan wasn’t sure he was either, but at least he never meant to hurt people. Not directly.

“Master told me,” he continued, feeling the need to explain to the two people who now knew both his names. “The other Jellal hurt Erza, and I don’t want her to think I’m him. But it’s okay, because I like Mystogan better anyway.” Less bad memories attached to the name.

Wendy nodded slowly.

Acno furrowed his brow. “And the other Jellal is…what, just out there somewhere?”

Mystogan shrugged, aware his information wasn’t helpful. It wasn’t his story to tell, though. “I don’t know much, but I don’t think it’s likely for him to come here, from the sound of it. Still, I don’t want to get mixed up with him.”

“Hm.” Acno accepted the answer with a grunt. “Very well then, Mystogan.”

“Don’t worry, Mystogan,” Wendy smiled. “Nobody will think you’re the bad Jellal.”

Just like when she was five, her smile was infectious. “Thank you.”

Yes, it was dangerous, but Fairy Tail really did feel like a home.

Chapter Text

Natsu was not a complicated person. He loved his friends, he loved his dad, and he knew that it was important to grow stronger and always do the right thing. That’s just the way things were. Because he knew those things, he knew that Igneel was out there somewhere, because Igneel was his dad and he loved him, and Igneel was strong—too strong to die without a fight.

That was why Natsu had been confused when, once when he was asking people in the guild about Igneel, that slanty-eyed annoying ice mage shook his head. “Ignorance is bliss,” Gray had said. “Don’t go looking for disappointment.”

Natsu didn’t know what Gray had meant, so he assumed Snowflake had just been stupid at the time.

Natsu didn’t know what he meant, until that night days ago, when Natsu remembered everything. He had been happy just knowing that he was a fire dragon slayer, and that Igneel was his dad, and that he was a Fairy Tail mage—and all of those things were still true. But now, he remembered Mama and Papa, and he remembered that they were dead; he remembered his big brother, and that Zeref raised him from the dead to be a demon just to leave him.

His simple outlook on life was getting muddled very quickly.

He didn’t think he needed much to have his footing in life until it was crumbling beneath him, and everything he didn’t know he built crumbling with it.

“Hey Master, there’s a library here, right?”

Master Makarov opened one eye out of his previous meditative watching-the-guild state. “Yes? But it’s for reading and research, Natsu.”

“Yeah I know.”

There was a moment of surprised silence. “Well then.” Master cleared his throat. “The library is around the corner and down the stairs. Do pay mind to keep things in the same place, okay?”

“Okay.”

Natsu wasn’t sure why Gramps was acting so weird about it. Yeah, it was Natsu’s first time going there, but it wasn’t like he didn’t know what it was for. Still, he heard a soft “he really did hit his head pretty hard” underneath the master’s breath, so Natsu ducked his head and headed for the library faster.

Since he first got separated from Igneel—since he came to this…this time—Natsu had not paid attention to much that didn’t pertain to his search for Igneel, but he wasn’t completely dumb. He knew some things. Like how demons were evil and scary, and one of the jobs of mages and mage guilds was to go beat them up.

At the time, it had been a fun fact; now, it was a confusing and a frightening problem, because Natsu was a guild mage and a demon, and he really, really wanted to stay in Fairy Tail.

There’s a new, floating memory of his brother, always saying “research is the key to success” (something Natsu remembered him saying to get out of doing things and go read more books) but he might as well try it now. That dragon that saved him in the forest would probably have more answers to Natsu’s new questions, but he wasn’t here right now, and Natsu wasn’t actually sure he knew how to find him. All he remembered was it being a mountain, which wasn’t as helpful in Fiore as he thought it would be.

(It would have been helpful information back where he grew up the first time, among the deserts and the plains, but it wasn’t here.)

Checking to make sure he was alone (he made sure Happy was asleep just for this), and keeping Igneel’s training in careful mind of always keeping an eye, ear, and nose out for trouble, Natsu got to work in the library, picking up anything he could find on demons…and on Zeref.

By the end of the day, Natsu had a good idea of why Acno had told him to keep his demon-ness a secret, and why he shouldn’t look for his brother.

He had research, but no idea what to do with any of it; despite this Natsu didn’t feel successful or blissful.

—o0o—

Another few days passed, and Natsu still didn’t know what to do. He tried to ignore it—to just forget he was a demon, or that his big brother was a bad guy—but something would come up, a phrase of conversation or a random memory, and Natsu was still tied up in knots about it.

He wished Igneel was here. Igneel knew about this, he was positive, and Igneel still loved Natsu…right? That other dragon, Acno, didn’t seem bothered by it either. Maybe dragons had a better history with demons than humans did. Or maybe, it was a ‘now’ thing. He was fuzzy on the details, but maybe…there were demons in the place he grew up? He wasn’t sure how valid the memory was, because some things were clearer from that time than others. They might have just been another species, or just funny-looking humans, and he was just getting his hopes up for nothing.

Nobody liked demons anymore—if they did at all—because demons did nasty things. Natsu would have been convinced he was just as bad if it weren’t for the fact that Igneel taught to always strike the bad things down, and Natsu was still alive. That meant something…right?

The guilt still lingered. Maybe he should leave Fairy Tail, which was awful, because he really loved Fairy Tail, despite everything he said when he first came and he was still thinking Igneel would come right back, but Igneel was last seen four hundred years ago, and there was…too much that could have happened to him.

He could try to go find Zeref. Every book said that Zeref was dead now, or at least mostly dead, but somehow Natsu was convinced he wasn’t. He had mentioned that curse anyway, and something about immortality, back when Zeref had tried to explain things to Natsu and Natsu screamed at him instead. (Maybe it was his fault Zeref left him; maybe it was his fault that Zeref went insane and turned evil, without Natsu there to make him stop.)

“Natsu…”

He realized he was just doing nothing but thinking again—even in the cozy spot in the woods that was supposed to be a good place—and looked up. Happy was staring at him funny.

“You’re crying again…”

Natsu jolted, feeling his face with his hand and furiously scrubbing everything away. Damnit! “I wasn’t crying!”

Happy frowned, sidling up closer to him and pressing his fuzzy kitten side against him. “You were. Are you sad?”

Was he? Of course, not; he couldn’t be…right? There was nothing to be sad over. He was just confused. So why did he feel so bad? “I…don’t know.”

“Don’t be sad, Natsu! I’m here!”

That was true. Happy was Happy, so it was hard to be sad with his best cat friend around. (Would Happy leave if he knew what Natsu was? But then, Happy was a cat, so maybe he wouldn’t care?)

“Natsu?” a new voice called. Lisanna approached them from the path. “Are you okay?”

Great, now everyone knew he was being a baby, and being stupid. At least it was just Happy and Lisanna—but they were also his closest friends, and the people he was the most scared of never seeing again.

The pressure was building, and it was too much.

“If I was a demon,” he blurted. “Would you hate me?”

Lisanna sat down next to him with a big plop. “You’re not a demon, silly.”

“But I am!” Every insecurity exploded out of him, and even though he knew why he shouldn’t, he didn’t know what to do but to say it. “I forgot before, but I remember now, my brother turned me into a demon, but I don’t wanna be a bad demon and I don’t want to leave Fairy Tail.”

“H-hey slow down.” Lisanna was looking right at him with that concerned motherly look she got often. “What are you talking about?”

“I—” Natsu stopped himself. He did promise Acno to keep all these secrets, but they were hard. But maybe… If he told Lisanna and Happy, and even they hated him, then he would leave. He just needed to tell someone, because he couldn’t figure it out by himself. “Pinky promise not to tell anyone?”

Lisanna nodded once resolutely. Happy thrust his paw in the air with an “Aye!” Lisanna wrapped her tiny pinky around his, and Happy touched his pinky to theirs, and the deal was made.

Natsu breathed a sigh of relief, but now he actually had to talk. He drew his knees up to his chest without thinking. “I forgot my memories of before I met Igneel until I met a dragon in the woods who helped me remember—uh, he doesn’t want people to know he’s a dragon though.”

“That doctor that brought you home last week?”

“Yeah, him. He, uh, knew I was missing memories and helped me get them back. Before…before Igneel took me in, I had a brother. Well, I think I still have him, but he’s… Uh, he’s…” What was he? Alive? Evil? Cursed? Natsu didn’t want to think about it. “H-he saved my life by turning me into a demon.”

Lisanna was quiet, but she wasn’t yelling. He was pretty sure this was a good sign, but it still made him nervous. “So… you’re like my sister. Mira-nee is part demon now, but she’s still my sister, and she’s still herself.”

That was a good point. But Mirajane was still mostly just human. “Is it still the same if I’m an etherious demon?”

“A…a what?”

What did the books call it? “A…demon of the book of Zeref?”

At this, Lisanna’s eyes widened, though Happy still looked confused. “Those legends?” she whispered. “How did your brother do that?”

“Um…” Natsu looked down instead of at her and Happy. “My brother…is Zeref.”

“…huh?”

Natsu dared to look at his two best friends, just to be met with more confusion than anger. “Isn’t…Zeref dead?” Lisanna asked shyly. “And some scary mythical dark mage? Natsu, are you sure you’re remembering correctly? Maybe it’s something else…”

“No!” He might have forgotten before, but he wasn’t crazy now! “I’m from four hundred years ago but Igneel sent me through some portal my brother made and I ended up in this time instead. My brother used to be normal. I don’t know why he made other demons, just that he made me one to save my life. He… I don’t know why he did all those awful things later, or if people thought he did those things because he was cursed and it’s not his fault—!”

“Shh, Natsu, it’s okay.” Lisanna held his hand, even though in the midst of his outburst, it turned rocky and red again. “You’re still you, right? You’ve been like this the whole time?”

He nodded slowly.

“Then you’re the same ‘you’ you were when I met you,” she declared easily. “Just because you remember doesn’t mean anything changes. Just now you know that you can do this.” Lisanna held his demon hand up in the air.

“You’re…You’re not scared of me?”

“No, silly.” Lisanna moved closer. “I…I used to be scared of demons, back when I was a little kid, but Mira-nee isn’t any different, and you’re not any different either. I still love both of you, and I know you won’t do anything bad.”

“Aye!” Happy agreed.

“I don’t…know much about Zeref,” she continued. “But you’re not him. You didn’t have anything to do with stuff he did, right?”

Natsu shook his head.

She smiled, and it was bright even if a little sad. “Mira-nee says and does some mean things sometimes, now, but I know she still loves me because she’s my sister. If your brother and your dad sent you to the future, I’m sure they were just looking out for you.”

Acno had said something similar. “Y-yeah, I guess so…”

“Oh, your hand is back to normal.”

Natsu looked down, and sure enough, the demon claws were gone.

“Can you control it?”

“Uh, not really. I’ve only done the hand by accident twice now. That’s all that I know I have, although…there might be more. Like with your sister.”

“Maybe Mira-nee can help you with it.”

The thought of more people knowing scared him in that moment. “N-no that’s okay. If…if I don’t go crazy, I really don’t want other people to know.”

Lisanna nodded. “A pinky promise is a solid agreement. Nobody will hear a peep from me if you don’t want it.”

“Aye!”

Natsu relaxed. This went better than he thought, but then again, he was stupid for not believing in his friends. “So…you don’t think I’m going to turn into a monster?”

“Of course not! You’re a Fairy Tail mage!”

It was easy to believe Lisanna when she spoke like that, full of bright smiles and confidence. That afternoon, Natsu felt free of his burden, that secret that spoke of eerie realities.

So why did it never leave?

Chapter Text

Master Precht used to always talk about the principle of redemption. “A guild isn’t about first chances, but about the second.” It was something Makarov took to heart when he became the third master of Fairy Tail.

Makarov did not care about one’s background, only their willingness to devote themselves to the guild and to their own future. Perhaps it meant that he took in his share of orphans and mages of the weaker variety, but children had the most future to look forward to. He might have a rambunctious guild on his hands, but it was one full of life that he hoped would make the founder and first master proud.

However, like in all things, Makarov learned there had to be a balance. Second chances came in plenty, but the third and the fourth could be thin ice. There were people out there that meant ill, who wanted nothing but selfish gain or destruction, and as a master, it was his duty to protect the guild members from danger within their walls. He would not grant a shot at redemption at the cost of damning those trusting him to protect them.

It was for this reason that he did not trust Acnologia.

At first, it was all in the scope of a guildmaster protecting his charges from preying outsiders. The mysterious doctor—whether in truth or cover alone—had already associated himself with Natsu and Laxus. Natsu’s case, with disappearing in the woods only to be returned the next morning, was suspicious but not unreasonable, but followed by Natsu’s variable mood, and the fact that Laxus recognized the man with some level of emotion that superseded any normal encounter, made the ordeal concerning.

Aside from mood, Natsu seemed fine after the encounter, and even then, the kid began to return back to normal after long. He said nothing to the contrary, and Natsu was an honest kid, if not overly so. Laxus, on the other hand, was tightlipped about the man, though he defended him if Makarov showed his hand in being suspicious.

Laxus was not the talkative type he had been as a child, so he was aloof on many things, but not the type to deny information altogether—unless it pertained to that day, many years ago. What little Makarov had known, back when it had been fresh and Laxus managed to tell him some things between the trauma, was that there had been a man who called himself a doctor that helped him. Nothing more than that.

The pieces were sliding together quite ominously.

It was a shame. Laxus had been young—too young—at the time of the incident that resulted in his father’s death. It was not surprising that being so young, his grandson could not see the obvious implications of the stranger’s involvement in correlation with the death of Ivan. Makarov had hoped, now that he was older, that Laxus would put two and two together, and that he would see the merit in sharing that information with his grandfather, especially since it was quickly becoming guild business. Alas, the boy was stuck in his own ways, and unwilling to let Makarov in. It was no matter to Makarov—Laxus could do what he wished—but it was disappointing all the same.

For a while, the issue seemed moot anyway. As much as Ivan was a troublesome kid, his murder still brought Makarov sorrow, but he could not waste effort in investigation without neglecting his charges. Though Acnologia had briefly crossed paths with Fairy Tail again, he was gone just as quickly. It was enough to be vigilant should he ever return, but not enough to make a case against him.

Then he did come back. Looking to join Fairy Tail, no less. Makarov had no qualms about strangers looking to join the guild, but Acnologia’s brushing history with his kids made things more complicated.

More complicated, still, was when Makarov entered the guild hall that day, it wasn’t just the fact that the prospective guild member was the one elusive man that was becoming his bane—it was also the fact that two of the new kids were situated next to him at complete ease.

Wendy, Rogue, and Gajeel were a trio of newcomers that were either siblings, or merely behaved as them. They were good kids, if also the usual brand of chaotic, but they got along with the guild well, especially with Natsu and Lisanna. They weren’t the most sociable, but lonely kids either were or they weren’t. So, it was surprising that the two younger ones, who were more reserved, were so comfortable with the strange man. Rogue was even in his lap like it was a natural thing.

They must have met previously, which meant that Acnologia had been in Magnolia for a while without him noticing. It was disconcerting.

Still, Makarov was a fair man, and he needed to be smart about this. Unless something explicitly came up, he couldn’t act upon it, so it was best for him not to give himself away so early. He smiled and began the process as he normally would, but perhaps with more pointed questions. The man would never know, however.

“So, you’re looking to join Fairy Tail, eh? You’re a mage?” he asked. He couldn’t pick up any magic signature from the man, a fact that was suspicious in this setting. If there was something Makarov couldn’t detect, then he wanted to know.

“I am.” Acnologia raised his hand and a swirl of air floated around it innocuously. “Air magic, mostly.”

Air magic? It was rare, nowadays, because it lacked the flashiness that most youngsters sought in magic. Allegedly, there were more uses for it back in the day, but it was something lost to time, for the most part. Having Wendy now was rare enough, though the child called it something different, like sky magic. (The new children also aligned themselves, off-handedly, with the same so-called “dragon slayer magic” as Natsu claimed; Makarov still wasn’t sure if it was a legitimate yet esoteric magic, or merely a child’s fantasy of such.)

Makarov took the precepts of air magic and decided to ask further. “Air magic, eh? Oh, and you’re a…doctor? Know healing magic, do you?”

The last part was a joke, his attempt at misdirection. There were many magical remedies, but healing magic as a caster type was virtually unheard of. So, it was shocking when, with a completely straight face, Acnologia responded, “Yes.”

Was the man trying to pull something, or was he serious when he claimed to practice a lost art? Was that why both his magic and his countenance was so hard to place? Acnologia was by far a bizarre looking man, with tattoos up his arms and on his face, even in lieu of eyebrows, and slitted eyes that were perpetually sharp. He looked more like a vagabond warrior than a doctor.

Makarov had nearly forgotten that the two children were still there until Rogue spoke up, still nestled into Acnologia’s cloak. “He knows medicine, too,” he brought up shyly. “And it didn’t taste terrible.”

“Ah, does he now?” he responded to Rogue kindly. The insight was interesting. It confirmed that the man had prior experience with some of his guild members, and it also gave credence to the claim Makarov still found absurd, but now increasingly possible. “Did Acnologia help you out too, lad?”

The child nodded. “Yeah. When I was sick.”

Rogue had never been sick for as long as he was in the guild. Makarov had not considered that the three children had experience with the doctor beforehand until now, but it was making sense. Factors he hadn’t considered were now sliding together into full view.

“Ac-nii makes really good stew, too,” Wendy brought up. “Bone broth is also good medicine, but it’s yummy.”

Random though it was, what Wendy said confirmed his suspicions: Acnologia wasn’t just involved with these kids, but actively so. Makarov had guessed the three were siblings of sorts, mostly due to mannerisms, but Rogue and Gajeel looked largely similar. Wendy was the odd one out, but at calling Acnologia her brother, Makarov could believe the resemblance, though distantly.

Perhaps Makarov had been overly paranoid. Gajeel had mentioned, once, that it was not he who looked after the younger ones. Anyone who would care for children with this level of comfort was not typically the wild sort.

“Are you Wendy’s and Rogue’s caretaker I’ve been hearing about?” he asked, wanting confirmation.

“Yes.” Acnologia seemed to loosen at this turn of conversation, a small yet genuine smile easing into his otherwise harsh features. “Gajeel and Natsu too. And Happy and Charle for that matter.”

He thought he was finally on top of things, but there were more surprises to be had. “Natsu and Happy?” Makarov knew the two were intent on making their own house out somewhere. Based on the fact that they were still well, fed, and hygienic, Makarov had assumed they were successful. He had considered the possibility that they abandoned their project altogether.

Acnologia remained impassive at this, despite Natsu and Happy not previously being his charges. “They have a room upstairs, so it counts.”

“He snores as loud as Gajeel does,” Rogue supplied.

“It’s true,” the older man added easily to the child’s input.

It was all bizarre, and Makarov still wasn’t sure what the implications were, but it was becoming increasingly apparent that this strange man cared deeply for these children. That, he could respect.

So, Makarov laughed, feeling the tension begin to ebb away. “Sounds like them, alright.” There was one more test, however, just to be sure. “Anyway, Acnologia, was it? Why do you want to join Fairy Tail?”

Acnologia only paused a brief moment. It was a candid moment of thought, not previously considered, but it was quick enough to be an easy answer. “The kids like it here.”

He was a still a lurking question, but if what he said was true, then he was looking towards the future. “Welcome to Fairy Tail!”

Makarov hoped he wouldn’t regret it.

—o0o—

There were no major incidents upon allowing Acnologia to join the guild. In fact, the man was only at the guild to take a job or to speak to the kids. Or, more curiously, to inquire people about the location of a fifth—another dragon slayer.

Makarov was beginning to wonder if there truly was something about this designation of magic that he needed to know. It was something that was climbing to the top of his list of things to investigate, but Acnologia managed to once again top the list come December—for two reasons.

One, upon Gildarts’ return, he and Acnologia got into something of a brawl. This wouldn’t have been anything special, for Gildarts would fight anything, except for the fact that Acnologia, according to Enno, won. Which is to say, he took a hit from Gildarts like it was from an untrained child.

Two, Laxus disappeared for an entire week before the S-Class trials. It wasn’t abnormal, really, but he wasn’t at the dorms and he wasn’t on a job. He just vanished, until the day of the trial came. Makarov wouldn’t have been any wiser on the matter had it not been for passing comments made between Laxus and the dragon slayer children upon his return, indicating a familiarity with the training he apparently made beforehand. The conclusion was mildly perturbing: Laxus, his aloof grandchild, had spent the week with Acnologia. He might have even trained with him.

It was all baffling, and it urged Makarov to once and for all settle the matter of Ivan’s death. He doubted Laxus knew, else he might have never associated himself with the air mage. Makarov couldn’t help but to fear, now, that if Laxus were to find out, he would never forgive him for letting Acnologia into the guild. Makarov knew his relationship with Laxus wasn’t the best, but he didn’t wish for any animosity between them; he had merely never wanted to replace Ivan as his father. No child needed that confusion in their life. A motherless child himself, Makarov knew that much well.

Makarov did not want to be overly mistrustful of any member of his guild, but matters needed to be sorted, and there was only one person he knew to start with.

As usual, Porlyusica was neither thrilled nor distraught to see him. “Don’t just stand there,” she chastised. “Come in.”

He had known Porlyusica for many years, so he knew how to address her: quickly, and to the point. It didn’t make mustering the topic of conversation any easier, however. Makarov lamented, now, how he had shunned this subject entirely when it had first happened, but he had thought it would be better to not dwell on matters he couldn’t control.

Porlyusica had already poured tea by the time he found his voice. “Ivan’s death… You found Laxus that night, didn’t you?”

She eyed him warily, likely aware of how much he had hoped to avoid this conversation. “What is this about?” she asked, ever the shrewd one.

He sighed. He was much too old for this. “This mysterious doctor, by the name of Acnologia, came to Fairy Tail recently. I have reason to believe he was involved in Ivan’s death—his murderer, even.”

It tasted so foul to say it aloud. Ivan might have been a troublesome kid, but he didn’t deserve that.

Porlyusica gave him a long, hard look—something she excelled at. She set her tea down with a heavy sigh. “You only just now figured that out? I was beginning to think you’ve successfully ignored this matter.”

Makarov knew he could find answers with Porlyusica, but he didn’t think they would be so blatant. “You mean he was killed?”

There was a moment of silence. Porlyusica was not the secretive type—more so the type to avoid a subject altogether—but she now the air of a woman with a secret she was contemplating. She finally looked back to him with another characteristic sigh.

“Acnologia did kill Ivan,” she confirmed, as if it was only an unpleasant matter and not a severe one. “It was a chance encounter, and dare I say, for the best.”

For the best? Before Makarov could contemplate her arid words, she continued.

“Ivan was never a good man. You know this, Makarov. But he finally went and hurt his boy. For better or for worse, it was Acnologia who happened to notice. Whatever scene he encountered, it was bad enough for that brute to involve himself. Ivan never stood a chance, if he angered Acnologia to that extent, I’m afraid.”

“What are you saying? How do you know this?” There were many allegations being thrown about, all with certainty. He couldn’t trust any of this without merit, even from Porlyusica.

“He told me. Makarov, it was Acnologia who brought Laxus to me. It was also he who buried Ivan, if you ever bothered to go see it—and the monstrosity Ivan had created.”

He…had gone to see the grave. He had assumed—mistakenly, apparently—that Porlyusica was responsible. Makarov couldn’t bring himself to look through Ivan’s belongings, however. The day it happened, Porlyusica had been abrupt on the matter, but it was shocking to all involved. However, there had been an accusatory tone the woman held for the deceased son that Makarov had ignored—wanted to ignore—and it was only all the more obvious now.

There was a part of him that knew just how troublesome Ivan was. How close to the edge. Maybe…beyond the edge. He didn’t want to believe it until he had to. Death had merely given Makarov the excuse to ignore it forever.

Though perhaps it didn’t.

Still, the matter of Acnologia was surprisingly straightforward. Though the man had been nothing but calm and efficient since joining the guild, knowing he brought in his son’s killer left a cold pit in his stomach.

Would this be the straw that broke his relationship with Laxus?

“Does…Laxus know any of this?”

Porlyusica snorted. “Of course he does. Unlike you, he asks questions. He knew this since he was a boy, as well as every deed he dared to observe in that wretched ruin of Ivan’s.”

Laxus trusted Acnologia despite knowing this? Makarov wasn’t sure if that spoke more to Acnologia’s trustworthiness, or to the extent of Ivan’s crimes.

It also begged the question of what exactly happened to Laxus that night. It had been the effects of shock that were most apparent, and that had been what Makarov assumed had been the worst of it. The shock had awakened his magic—in a rather ugly manner, unfortunately—resulting in Laxus taking damage from his own lightning.

Or had there been something else?

“I don’t suppose you’ll tell me what happened to Laxus, will you?”

“Patient-doctor confidentiality, Mack.”

Why did he bother asking? “Of course. Fine, answer me this, then—is Acnologia dangerous?”

Makarov wasn’t one to renege on his word. Acnologia was a member of Fairy Tail, and that was that. However, if he had cause for concern, he would continue to watch Acnologia closer than most—and he would do what had to be done, should it come to that.

Porlyusica only laughed. “Dangerous? Of course he’s dangerous.” She looked at him with half an amused smile, the other half of her expression austere as ever. “Makarov, I tell you this as Fairy Tail’s guildmaster: I’ve known Acnologia for decades. He’s always been dangerous, but he hasn’t been a threat in a long time. The only thing he is a threat to, is whoever or whatever hurts those kids of his. I’ve seen only a fraction myself of the length he is going to for them, but I know that he is living for them now.

“So, no, Makarov—so long as you treat those kids with any shred of decency, he’s not a threat to you or the guild. In fact, you’ve might have gained a more powerful ally in him than you realize.”

—o0o—

“Yo, Master!”

Makarov had sensed Gildarts’ rather massive presence long before he reached his office, but he chose until the man had entered to raise his head in greeting. “Gildarts. What brings you here? Headed off again already?”

“Nah, not quite yet. I wanna’ handle a few more stuff locally before I pack up again. I was just wonderin’ who you were considering for the S-Class trials.”

Right. It was only October now, but the trials were coming up, and Gildarts could likely be gone by then. The trials were a private matter, but current S-Class mages—especially one of Gildarts’ seniority and caliber—were privy to the preparations, if not directly involved. “It’s still early to tell,” Makarov began, “but I think Cana is still a promising and versatile mage. Erza and Mirajane are moving up quickly as well. Mest has potential, too, I believe.”

Gildarts raised a brow at him. “What? Not Acno?”

He knew about Gildarts’ first drunken encounter with Acnologia nearly a year ago, but nothing past that. Not anything to warrant this interest and recommendation. “What about him?”

“Not gonna lie, Master, but Acno is probably more powerful than me. We’ve sparred a few times, in between my jobs, and he gives me a run for my money.”

Acnologia could handle Gildarts in a full spar? Porlyusica’s words came back to him, and the picture was intriguing to say the least.

Still. “Power is hardly the only requirement for S-Class. You know this well, Gildarts.”

Gildarts shrugged. “Yeah, yeah, I know. He might be a grouch, but he looks out for guildmates—especially the kids.”

“Well, the ones he personally cares for are a given, I hope.”

“All of ‘em, really. I heard from Macao that he tossed those Twilight Ogre grunts that were messin’ with Levy, Jet, and Droy, and he scared them off real good. That was just the other day.”

Makarov frowned. He hadn’t heard about this. If another guild was pushing their luck, he should have been notified. He wasn’t sure if he should be relieved or offended that Acnologia had been brought in instead.

Gildarts did raise a point, however. He had been willing to let Acnologia be, but Makarov had not associated himself overly with the man. However, even from passing glances, it was clear he was a high-class mage, and he had a protective streak, despite his “grouchiness,” as Gildarts would say.

Perhaps, Makarov was being too stingy with second chances.

—o0o—

The S-Class trials of X779 came, and as always, Makarov enjoyed watching the candidates struggle, for struggling was the true mark of a challenge.

He released them into the mountains above Magnolia late in the evening, well aware that they would have to camp in the harsh conditions for a night before moving towards the harbor. Makarov himself slipped away on the scant mountain path he had scouted beforehand, taking but a quick nap on the train to the harbor, being prepared to beat the candidates to Tenrou so he could properly welcome them there.

All of the candidates were monitored, of course, through lacrimas he had connected to the partners’ wristbands. This may be a challenge, but he had the means to step in should anything get dicey, and Gildarts had agreed to hover around the mountains in case of emergency as well.

It would be a difficult week for them, but that was the entire point of the trial.

Yet, Makarov woke up from his short night of sleep only to blink in shock at the location of Acnologia and Gajeel.

Acnologia had already made it Tenrou.

Before him.

Either some level of trickery had happened, or Makarov had been underestimating Acnologia more than he previously thought.

—o0o—

Acnologia passed the trial. He completed all the objectives, and he even did so with flourish. Yes, he had faced a good deal of threats—some naturally and some at Makarov’s own intervention—but he handled them with efficiency, and his partner never received even a scratch.

Against all of Makarov’s initial concern, he would make a fine S-Class mage.

“Hey, Master?”

The ceremony atop the Tenrou tree had already been completed, but Acnologia approached Makarov once more.

“Yes?”

“There’s something you should know. Just…going forward.”

“Oh?” There were many enigmas about the man, but the largest issue between the two of them had already been set out on the table, albeit indirectly. Both knew of the others’ knowledge, however.

“I’m a dragon.”

Makarov stared at the man, looking all parts sheepish yet serious at the statement. “Come again?”

“I’m not human. Or, not entirely human—I once was. I’m a dragon. For instance, I found the island so fast because I flew out from the mountains.”

“So, you know transformation magic?” Still, all night was a long time to hold a transformation, especially one that granted flight.

“No. I am a dragon. Have been, for four hundred years.”

“F-four hundred…?”

Never mind that he claimed to be a dragon—a creature that was only in fairy tales (how fitting)—but the man with a body in its prime was older than he was?

Acnologia had the audacity to merely shrug at that bombshell. “It’s odd, but I figured you should know. The kids know, too. Or, my kids—the dragon slayers—at least. And Laxus, Lisanna, and Levy, but I’d rather not grow that number unless I have to. It’s awkward.”

For a while, Makarov was dumbfounded to silence. The claim was absurd, but so much so that it had to be true. It made sense, strangely enough. His power, his speed—the fact that there have been several instances when he had allegedly slept for days on end.

At the end, he could only laugh.

Fairy Tail surely was a home to the strangest, most wonderful creatures.

Chapter Text

October 20, X775

 

Now that Laxus was fourteen, he was accustomed to going on jobs by himself. It was nice to have the time alone, none of the older guild members hovering, or worse, getting in his way. They meant well, sure, but Laxus was quickly learning how to handle lightning magic, and he was well aware of how wide-spread and dangerous it could be. It was easier for him if there was no one around that he had to look out for, no matter how helpful the scrub thought they were being.

It was one of the reasons Laxus preferred fighting jobs, like monster hunting. There were always plenty of those out there, but sometimes, Laxus had to branch out if he wanted to be able to leave on a job to somewhere.

The job posting was weird, but they often were. Cecilia Town Haunted. Mage wanted to remove evil spirits. It was likely something else entirely, because just because magic was common, it didn’t mean that the majority of people understood it. It was a newer commission, but relatively low in pay, so Laxus doubted the issue was as serious as they made it sound. They were probably extra spooked because of the upcoming Pumpkin Dance Festival and jumped at the first weird magic in the area.

Whatever the reason, Laxus didn’t care. His only purpose here was to complete the job, no matter what caused the problem in the first place. It was just unfortunate that, having no real information on where to start, he had to talk to the townspeople anyway.

“It was terrible,” the woman repeated for what must have been the fourth time. She was the master of the textile guild the town was built around, and the one who posted the job. “The—the looms they… Oh my, it’s just too terrible to relive.”

Laxus just sighed as the woman had to compose herself yet again. At this rate, he was either going to have to grab an inn and start in the morning or start once the sun was already down. Which, depending on what the hell was happening, either might be a viable option.

“Sorry, dear,” she continued, fanning her face with her hand. “I’m better now.” She took a deep breath. “It was late the other night. I was coming in to close things up, and the loom— why, no one was there. Th-the loom was just… moving all on its own! In these…slow, choppy movements, and there was fabric floating through it. And—and a knife! A knife came floating towards me, so I— I did the sensible thing and ran. Locked myself in the closet.” Another deep, stuttering breath. “Th-the worst part, when I finally mustered the nerve to return… Oh! It’s just so terrible!”

“What happened?” he prompted tiredly.

“The loom was destroyed! Oh, my great grand-mama’s loom, reduced to such a poor state. The room was in shambles too. I’m—I’m afraid those dreaded demon spirits have finally done it, and they’ve become set on ruining this town for the Pumpkin Dance Festival!”

Great. He was right: senseless superstition. Even he knew all that stuff was just legend and folktale. “How do you know it wasn’t telekinetic magic?”

“But…what about the voices then?”

“The voices?” She rambled a lot, but Laxus didn’t remember that.

“Oh, dear, it was terrible! While those objects were possessed, they were laughing this— this deranged little giggle, and oh! I can’t think about it anymore! Please, please help us expel these demons!”

“Yeah, yeah, whatever.”

—o0o—

Ultimately, he decided to start right away. The guildmaster already arranged for a place for him to sleep, but the whole ordeal left Laxus with the need to fight something to release his pent-up energy.

This was probably just some punk with cheap magic trying to scare the town into giving them money, or something equally as dumb as that. Whatever. Laxus was better than most mages, even if solely for the fact that lightning magic was really useful in a fight, so he wasn’t worried. If—on the very small chance—this job got more difficult to handle, he could either come back with someone else, or simply leave the job to another mage entirely. Not that that had to happen, because Laxus was building a good track record for himself.

He busied himself with poking around the town now that most of the people were settled indoors for the night. It was usually nighttime that shenanigans happened anyway, because these kinds of people were cowardly by default, being the types to avoid joining guilds and doing legal, honest work. For what? Money? Power? It didn’t make sense to Laxus, because he could get those same things without excommunicating himself from society. (He still didn’t understand why his dad did all those…things… just to end up worse than how he started.)

Anyway. He had a job to do.

Hours passed, but nothing happened. He was considering giving up for the night when he heard it—giggling.

It was faint and distant, and Laxus was starting to think he imagined it when there was nothing nearby, but he finally tracked it down to the other side of the town.

Laxus blamed his tiredness, and the fact that the woman got it in his head, but the laughing was creepy. It echoed off the surfaces in a hollow way, seemingly floating but without any substance. It was hard to place where it was coming from, because he swore, it moved as he did. Finally, when Laxus swerved into an alley, he saw a glimpse of a floating object.

“Hide! Hide!” said the same voice that giggled. No—voices. They were close to each other but coming from multiple sources.

It could have been indicative of it really being spirits, or, someone was definitely screwing with them. Laxus chose not to think too hard of the consequences of either possibility so he dove blindly for the source of one of the voices from around the corner.

He grabbed onto a wiggling broken shovel.

“Uh oh!” the shovel squeaked.

What the actual hell?

As Laxus stared at the squirming inanimate object, mind blank, something thin and blunt rammed into the back of his head. Only because it caught him off guard, it startled him enough to lose his grip on the shovel. Both of the broken halves of the shovel flew away, darting around the corner and into the sky.

“Damnit!” Laxus scrambled to catch up. He wasn’t about to be bested by some stupid shovel. It didn’t matter whether it was a cowardly mage or real demons at this point, Laxus was invested, and he would beat that thing.

The pieces’ ability of flight made things difficult, but Laxus was agile. He jumped up the walls and vaulted over the roofs, using electricity to boost his movements when he needed the boost. He almost lost them a few times, but even in the dark, he could see their movement against the sky.

However, just when one piece was almost in his reach again, a bucket slammed over his face. “Gah!” The sudden intrusion made him lose his footing, but Laxus was launching the offending object off with a burst of magic a second later—just for a fucking chair to come flying out of no where and trip him.

Laxus pushed himself off the ground, intent on kicking the chair, and then the shovel came diving back. He dodged the metal end and nearly crashed into the chair again. It didn’t help that the whole time, the objects were giggling again.

“Screw it!” Laxus summoned lightning around him and knocked the objects back, splintering the wood and causing half of the shovel and the chair to fall.

Then the knife came.

He had thought the woman was exaggerating, but holy damn that was a big knife. It was metal and unhindered by his electricity, too, so Laxus had no choice but to run for it and get better cover. The knife took two stabs at him—literally—before it lost interest and flew off with the other items.

It was tempting to shoot them out of the sky, eradicating the rest of the possessed or magic-controlled objects altogether. However, now that he was focused on tracking them and not catching them, he noticed that they were leaving the premise of the town. Being a mage was part magic power, part heart, and part plain intelligence—that was one thing Laxus learned himself through simple observation. The first two aspects were something Fairy Tail excelled at; the last? Not so much. But Laxus wouldn’t he held down by any standard, even of his own people.

So Laxus switched gears and followed the floating objects, keeping just enough distance to ensure that he wouldn’t lose them. Hopefully, the little bastards would lead him to either the main bastard controlling them, or to their goal. Maybe both.

The lady had been convinced it was evil spirits or demons, out to destroy whatever legacy they had in their town’s Pumpkin Dance Festival, or whatever. It was mostly just superstition, anyway. However, it was odd enough that Laxus didn’t discount it. He knew demons were real, though they were usually much more of a problem than floating pieces of junk that liked to mock people. Still, Laxus kept the guildmaster’s theory in mind as he followed the remaining objects to the fields.

They didn’t enter them, though. They approached the ripe pumpkins and then veered left, past the edge of the farmland. For a moment, he was afraid the little bastards knew he was tailing him and were trying to lose him in the woods, but before they got deep, they approached some shed.

It looked like it could have been an old storage bin, abandoned due to age and lack of size. It was already rotting, and it couldn’t have been big enough to hold more than one person.

“Help!” one of the voices squeaked.

“Sorry,” whispered another.

The third grunted, sounding displeased even in its ethereal voice. He bet it was the knife.

A new voice joined them. “What happened? Oh, poor babies. Here, uh, have the blanket, and you…can have the doorknob? Sorry, I know it’s not cool.”

It was a real voice, and not a strange disembodied one. A guy, but he couldn’t have been any older than Laxus, and it sounded shaky and weak.

There was something else going on here. Laxus approached with caution, unsure if it was going to be a fight or something different. In hindsight, maybe he should have been more cautious—or gentler—because he scared the occupant of the old shed more than the other way around.

All Laxus saw was a flash of green eyes shining in the dark, and then nothing.

—o0o—

Laxus was standing next to the field again.

He had no idea how he got here, or how much time had passed. There was the faint feeling that for a moment, his limbs weren’t his own.

Had…had he been possessed? The hunch was strong, and he wished it wasn’t. The thought alone made Laxus uncomfortable, and the lingering fuzziness of his body and mind made him nauseous. However, if his body had been hijacked, then whoever did it—the owner of the green eyes, most likely—was either terrible at it, or he hadn’t meant to hurt him, because he was only a few dozen feet away and he was intact. It was still the same shade of dark outside, so he doubted he was out long.

Laxus turned back towards the site of the incident and ran. This time, he was ready for anything, wary of repeating whatever the hell just happened, but unwilling to let the culprit get away.

He got a head start, but Laxus was faster. The other boy wasn’t quiet as he stumbled through the woods, so finding him wasn’t a problem either. It also wouldn’t have been a problem to strike him down from behind, stopping him in his tracks while also making the first move. As it was, however, Laxus had good night vision. Whether it was just due to some natural prowess, or the way his eyes sometimes shifted and changed, was moot—all that mattered then was that Laxus could make out the kid’s shape, and the way he stumbled, floating objects in tow.

“Wait!” he called instead. “I won’t hurt you!”

Laxus’ job was to handle the mystery of the supposedly haunted town, and while his specialty was fighting, even Laxus knew that it wasn’t the answer to every problem and every job. He may not be good at the alternative, but Laxus was willing to try.

The boy paused, turning halfway to him but freezing before he turned around completely. He had close-shaven dark hair and was as tall as Laxus was yet half the size, easily noticeable by the fact that he was only wearing some oversized shirt or nightgown. There was enough moonlight to make out marks on his legs and arms, though it was hard to tell if they were scrapes or streaks of dirt. Maybe both.

The shovel head and knife were there, pointed at Laxus with what could only be described as ready to strike. A rusty doorknob, a badly knit blanket, and a tin can floated around the boy protectively.

Laxus took a tentative step forward, stopping again when the boy tensed, and the knife hovered closer. Now that he has gotten this far, he wasn’t sure what to do, so he stumbled through an awkward apology. “I didn’t mean to scare you. Sorry.”

He had meant to apprehend whoever was responsible for the so-called haunting, but that wasn’t actually part of his job. Besides, that lady had been an idiot, and it was possible that the “haunting” was benign. The creepy objects were bastards and rude, but they didn’t actually hurt anybody. (The knife tried though.)

Laxus could leave. He could say his job was done, collect the reward, and let the boy run to wherever. But he was rooted to the spot on the forest floor, unwilling to leave. He didn’t know how, and he didn’t know why, but this random boy obviously needed help.

“What do you want from me then?” the boy asked. His voice was even but hesitant.

He blurted out the main thing on the forefront of his mind. “You look like shit.”

The boy laughed. It almost sounded deranged, but it also could have been a genuine attempt thwarted by exhaustion. “Yeah no kidding. I feel like it too, thanks for asking.” He tilted his head, but still didn’t look at Laxus. “Any other observations, Captain Obvious, or should I head off now before the pitchforks come out?”

“Pitchforks?” Laxus repeated, before shaking his head. “What? No.” Ugh! What the hell was he supposed to do? This wasn’t something he was used to, and every time his gramps took someone in, it was generally at the guild and with very little words—and they weren’t half-starved.

Whatever. He might as well get to the point, because Laxus didn’t want the boy to die. What kind of mage would he be if he didn’t try and help? “If you’re not planning on stabbing me or anyone else, you could come back to the town instead of freezing your ass off out here. Your floating blanket won’t do any good if it starts raining.”

“Raining?” the objects echoed, though the knife echoed “stabbing” instead.

“Shush, you,” the boy said with a wave of his hand. “And you, are you nuts? They’ll definitely try to stab me if I go into town. I’m surprised you’re not tryna’ zap me right now, Lightning Fingers.”

“And why would I do that?”

The boy was incredulous enough to almost turn to Laxus fully, but another flash of green and he was snapping his head back in another direction. “Um, because I’m a freak of nature? I took over your body? I stole stuff? Oh, the souls in the objects? Those freak people out. I can keep going.”

Frankly, Laxus was unimpressed. “That’s it? You just sound like a normal homeless kid to me.”

“Uh, what part of ‘I can control human souls’ didn’t you get?” the boy pressed. “Honestly, normal people get mad over that one.”

“You didn’t hurt me though. And no one in the town got hurt either, even if your knife scared the shit out of the boss-lady.”

“Poppo,” the boy chastised. “We talked about this.”

The knife sagged in the air.

Huh. He had them named…

“But dude, seriously, are you nuts? Or are you messing with me? You got, like, a really bright soul so I doubt you’re trying to murder me, but still. Probably crazy.”

“You’re one to talk,” Laxus couldn’t help but to reply. His soul was really bright? What the hell?

The boy only laughed. “We’re not talking about me.”

“Yeah, we are. Now, are you going to come with me or not? I have a room at the inn, and food that isn’t raw pumpkins, unless you’re happy out here. I’m not going to turn you in, or anything.”

The boy continued to stare at him from the corner of his eye, body stiff and unsure. “You—” he started. “Why?”

It was a good question, one Laxus wasn’t sure he knew the answer to. The world was a suck-ish place, and people tended to look out for themselves. It was easier to sometimes, lest you be disappointed when others can’t or won’t help you. However, people also did shitty things, especially to each other—even to the people they were supposed to care for. It was a lesson Laxus learned nearly a year ago when he looked through his dad’s stuff, and a lesson he kept learning the more he observed the world. Even his guild, who tried to help others in their own way, while doing their own jobs, sometimes caused more problems than they solved them.

Personally, Laxus was grateful for the people who could help random strangers without rhyme or reason, and without any need for recompense. It proved that they were strong enough to carry themselves and others. Besides, Laxus always knew that he wouldn’t even be alive if it weren’t for that doctor-guy who decided to intervene for a kid he didn’t know. If he hadn’t died that night, then his dad might have come for him later.

He shrugged. Laxus didn’t have any complicated reason: he just wanted to be the best person he could.

“Why not?”

—o0o—

Laxus watched the boy eat the apple he had packed for himself with grateful fervor. He had his jerky too, because he needed it, though either it was too hard on his stomach or it tasted weird, because it had been with more resignation than excitement. He still thanked him for it, though.

The majority of the town was asleep and tucked away when they returned, so there was no trouble, even with a half-dressed kid and his floating minions. Still, it was a shame it was so late, because Laxus would have gotten more food otherwise.

“What’s your name, anyway?” the boy asked, glancing at him for a second before looking down at the apple core.

Oh shit, that was something people opened with, wasn’t it? Oh well. “Laxus,” he replied. “Laxus Dreyar.”

“I’m Bickslow,” he responded with a grin. “And that’s Pappa, Peppe, Pippi, Puppu, and Poppo,” he continued, pointing to the blanket, the can, the shovel head, the doorknob, and the knife in sequence. “At least those are the names I gave them, but they like them, so it counts.”

Bickslow was perched on the side of one of the chairs like it was the normal way to sit in one. The balance was impressive, though it might have helped that he was barefoot—a fact Laxus only noticed later. Actually, how he stood on those things with how beat up they looked was the real question. The boy still wouldn't look at him directly, but he could see the makings of some black mark on his face, and curly marks on the corner of his eyes, when he would glance over at Laxus quickly before turning away again. It was odd, but it wasn't his first time around somebody who was self-conscious. Bickslow as a whole looked awful. He was right about the cuts and bruises and stains, but there were scars all over too, ranging from cuts and tears to what Laxus could only guess were burns. Bad ones, too. Laxus tried not to focus on it, but the fact that all he had was a tattered light blue oversized shirt made it too easy.

Laxus was figuring out how to voice his concern over the matter when Bickslow continued. “So you use magic, right? But you look all normal—well, aside from the bright soul, but is that a side effect? I’ll get back to you on that one. Where’re from?”

There was something else underlying the question, something beyond curiosity, that Laxus couldn’t quite place. It was like he was surprised by Laxus’ very existence. “I’m a Fairy Tail mage, from Magnolia. It’s a mage guild.”

“Riiight, those do exist,” he responded, like they were some esoteric thing. “With normal magic and stuff.”

“Nobody in Fairy Tail is normal,” Laxus scoffed. “But we’re legal, if that’s what you mean.”

Bickslow nodded, but said nothing, which Laxus could already tell by the hour max he’s spent with the kid that it was out of character. Laxus could already tell that he could use magic of some sort, based on the weird stint that happened on their first encounter, but he wasn’t bringing it up, so Laxus wouldn’t either.

“There’s a shower in here too,” he said instead, unsure what else to do to be helpful. “They might be too big, but you can have my change of clothes. I can wear this. Unless you have some stash somewhere else.”

“If I had anything but this, I wouldn’t be wearing it,” Bickslow quipped back, pinching the offending article with a frown. “Seriously, they had no style.”

The implications of his comment felt uncomfortable, but it wasn’t something Laxus could easily place. He watched as Bickslow slipped into the bathroom after dismounting the chair in a back somersault, his floating objects following him in—except for the blanket, which wouldn't fair well inside. The blanket—Pappa, he believed Bickslow called it—draped itself miserably across the bed.

Laxus couldn’t help but feel out of his depth here, but that was a feeling he was used to, and muscling past it always worked before. He’d cross each bridge when he got there. For now, he would get the strange and talkative in a stable place. Then, he would make sure there were no immediate threats; the suggestion that people have hunted Bickslow before left a bad feeling in the pit of his stomach.

The circumstance surrounding him was unsettling by itself. He was obviously running from something, though Laxus had no clue as to how long nor why. Bickslow didn’t seem like a bad guy, though. Sure, those floating things of his messed with him, but they didn’t hurt him, and neither did Bickslow when given the chance. And, disregarding magic, Bickslow looked like he would lose to anyone in a fist fight, considering his condition.

He didn’t make it far into his musings before Bickslow was inching out of the bathroom, objects in tow. Laxus was right in assuming that his clothes would be too baggy for him, despite them being the same height. Which was worrying, because Laxus really wasn’t that big.

Now that his hair was clean, Laxus could see that his hair was black, but with blue tufts starting to grow in uneven places. He could also see the scars on his arms more clearly.

The blanket tackled him as soon as he emerged, to which he laughed and accepted the head rub.

“It moped the entire time you were in there,” Laxus commented lightly. “They all seem pretty attached to you.”

“Yeah,” Bickslow laughed, though perhaps a little nervously this time. “The babies do like to hang around. They can’t go too far anyway though, otherwise my magic won’t reach. I don’t know what’ll happen if that happens, but I don’t want to know.”

So, it was his magic, then. They had a lot of personality to be a simply telekinetic thing though, and they were always active. “What are they, anyway?”

It he wasn’t nervous before, he definitely was now. “Um, well, they’re kinda’… souls? But they’re totally cool with me doing this. Isn’t that right, babies?”

“Right!” they echoed.

Huh. So that’s why they talked. Laxus knew that Chico chick did something with ghosts, and she could talk to them, but he never saw if anyone could or not. Maybe it was the way Bickslow’s magic worked. He could see why it would freak out people, but it wasn’t like dealing with ghosts was anything new—just rare.

Wait, then what was that thing he did to Laxus, then? “Is it a ghost thing, or something else? I think you totally got me earlier, but I’m not dead.”

“O-oh, right. Sorry about that. You startled me and I accidentally hijacked you by instinct, but it was useful to get away, so I kept it. The babies are kind of like ghosts, I think, but I can kinda control anything with eye contact. Human, th-that is. Well, obviously I don’t need eye contact for the people that are just souls, and they lose that stuff anyway, and I just move them from thing to thing, and I can get them to follow me if they’re being difficult, like Poppo usually is, but they normally do that stuff natural even without me saying anything, though they might have impressed on me more than I know, so uh, I don’t know.”

Bickslow’s rambling wasn’t precisely helpful, but it did ring familiar enough. “Is it a type of seith magic?” he asked.

Laxus didn’t know much about it, but he knew Nab used seith magic, though he only saw it with animals.

“Yeah, that’s what they called it,” he replied with a note of surprise. Another mention of the elusive ‘they’ had Laxus once again wondering if there was someone out there to beat up, but he was distracted by another revelation.

“Is that why you won’t look at me? Because you accidentally took control of my body?”

Bickslow’s shoulders slumped. “Yeah. I do that through my eyes, but they’re kinda tricky to control. Being able to see all the time is weird enough, but I don’t know how to make eye contact and not mind-zap people. Sorry.”

“Hey, I’m no stranger to not being able to control my magic all the time. I get that.” It was especially bad right after the lacrima got put in his body, and lightning would discharge from him randomly. The main thing now was the weird side effects it would play on his eyes and teeth and other body parts when he wasn’t paying attention.

“Really?” Bickslow asked, sneaking a look upward at him.

“Yeah. I got a bunch of magic shoved in me at once when I was a kid, so I was oozing lightning everywhere. I fried a lot of utility lacrimas and lights, and even shocked people.” It was the fast version of what happened, but still more than he usually told people—which was to say, Laxus brought up what happened as little as humanly possible. Most people didn’t get it when he had tried anyway, his gramps included. But Bickslow looked like he had it rougher than he did, and after being privy to this kid in his low state, it was only fair that he should have a glimpse at Laxus’.

Bickslow winced sympathetically. “That sucks.”

Laxus nodded.

They sat in a beat of silence. Laxus made himself comfortable in the chair, leaving the bed to Bickslow. Laxus usually slept somewhat curled up anyway, at least once he hit his growth spurt. He would be fine. However, there was enough on his mind that made it difficult to sleep at all.

There was one, or maybe two, more things he wanted to settle with Bickslow first.

“Is anyone after you?” he asked, knowing the topic serious.

Bickslow had to think about it. “I’m not sure, but I don’t think so. Not now, anyway.”

It didn’t sound great, but it was doable. “Got a place to go?”

“Ha, no.” That answer was immediate.

“Fairy Tail accepts all mages, you know. Even kids. There’s dorms there that a lot of us stay in.”

“I thought we established that my magic was weird, though. What would a guild want with me?”

Laxus shrugged. “Magic shouldn’t be an issue. If it was, I’d fist-fight the guildmaster myself. It only matters if you wanna be in there and do good jobs.”

“Huh.”

 

 

It was left at that, that night. Come morning, after Laxus had to spend an irritating amount of time convincing the guildmaster lady that the town wasn’t haunted anymore, he left Cecilia Town.

Bickslow kept tagging along, unsure of where to go in the meantime. So, he ended up going all the way to Fairy Tail.

He was a member before that day ended.

Chapter Text

There was nothing more terrifying than letting your child go.

Grandeeny had done so before, but it was always hard. She was a mother. She had nurtured several young over her life, and even though hers had been a lifetime mate, and she didn’t raise nearly as many children as other dragonesses, it was a mantle she knew well.

When she lost her dear mate to the war, she didn’t think she would ever raise a child again, and it was both a comforting and a heartbreaking notion.

When Igneel had brought up the possibility of raising young dragon slayers, she had been fiercely against the idea. As a mother, she never liked the idea of sending a child into a situation she knew was dangerous; as a dragon, however, she understood. Children grew up, and they had lives, and those lives could be dangerous. It just felt wrong to send a child, especially a frail human child, into a situation which such little hope.

However, the first few moments she laid eyes on that little infant, so sickly and left at the foot of the woods to die, the instinct washed over her and Grandeeny knew she would do anything for the child.

Igneel’s plan be damned, Grandeeny did not want the human child she acquired to be drafted into a losing war. However… It was clear that the girl would not survive for long without help. Grandeeny used her magic to strengthen the girl and cure her ailments, but her lungs were shriveled and weak. The humans must have known this—perhaps they had a healer of their own, or they were simply observant—when they left her to die alone, not even old enough to speak, but Grandeeny did not want to see her die.

The sky dragoness could very well keep the child alive with her magic, but the problem was severe, and she would not live long without the help. Grandeeny knew she was dying. She knew she wouldn’t last long, whether it was her injured soul that did her in, or the rogue dragon slayer finding her and finishing the job. Grandeeny did not fear death. She would accept the failure with grace when it came, and she would join her mate and her fallen children in the Beyond, but she couldn’t stand to think that Wendy, this little baby that fell into her heart, would perish with her.

There was a way, however. The imbuement of dragon slayer magic would transform the body itself, not merely restore things to its natural state like healing magic. It would strengthen her lungs. It would let her live…but only if Grandeeny followed Igneel’s plan to use the dragon soul technique on her.

The babe would never know how much Grandeeny cried the day she started the imbuement process. She hated that Igneel had managed to talk her into this scheme after all, and she hated the fact that there were now other human babies and children being collected for this, but she would not lose Wendy to something she could stop.

The day came, far too soon, when it was the optimum window to begin the ritual and send away the children. She wasn’t ready to say goodbye, but she wanted to see her little one live, so Grandeeny prayed for forgiveness and slipped her soul next to her child’s.

It was hard to watch as Wendy lost her memories of the other children and as she got separated from them, though at least she didn’t know all that she lost. It was hard to watch as she wandered by herself, then how Wendy had to say goodbye to the kind boy that helped her little baby girl.

It was downright petrifying to watch as Acnologia, the very being they wanted to stop, that they wanted to protect their kids from in the far-off future, approached.

If Grandeeny hadn’t been certain that launching herself from Wendy’s body to fight the rogue dragon off would kill her baby, whether in deed or in consequence, then Grandeeny would have done it the moment she saw him through Wendy’s oblivious eyes, her own life be damned. But she couldn’t. All she could do was watch and pray and prepare to apologize to Wendy in the Beyond because there was nothing she could do.

Yet, Acnologia did not kill her.

Wendy—the sweet, innocent child—even told him about her, by name no less, and asked so many questions. Grandeeny braced herself for the rage that would soon settle into the slayer at the mention of her name and of dragons, for she knew that the soldier was so dedicated to the idea of slaying dragons that he lost all sense of distinction, but instead, there was a deep pain in his eyes. Fear, even.

Grandeeny forced herself to be calm as she watched. Soon, even as it became clear that Wendy was staying alone with the very dangerous man, her fear lessened in favor of confusion. Acnologia was crude and grumpy but he never laid a hand on her. Maybe he was fishing for information; even though he never bothered with such tactics four hundred years ago, it was possible he changed methods. It was…also possible that he simply…changed.

It was obvious to her that he was uncomfortable. Massively so, and just as confused as she was regarding this. Through Wendy’s eyes, Grandeeny could make her own observations, and she noted how cautiously he moved around her, and how he would still himself whenever she touched him or when he touched her; how he reworded things when she was confused or how he made an effort to make sure she was fed and comfortable.

It reminded her of the way her four comrades had been when they were first raising their human charges, unfamiliar with parenthood and worried of their own strength around such fragile beings. How honestly fascinated he was whenever she drew a picture or asked him a question or just wanted to be with him.

He was…trying.

Still, Grandeeny couldn’t deny that she feared ulterior motives, even if he had no intentions of harming the children. When Gajeel and Rogue came into the fold, and by extension Metallicana and Skiadrum, they discussed the possibilities at length. Metallicana was sure it was just a ploy to make sure that the five of them were dead. It was possible, but why go through the lengths he did to make sure they remembered everything about them?

They could only know so much through the eyes of their children, however. Therefore, Grandeeny devised a plan. She may not have much left to her, but her magic had been great. It was only a matter of carefully allocating her internal magic reserves to keep her soul anchored to Wendy but allow her to enchant herself temporarily to Acnologia to follow him when he left. There was a chance she would be discovered, of course, but she was counting on him being distracted, as he appeared to be. She was also hoping he wouldn’t be hostile. But if he was lying to the children, if he acted differently outside of their presence…she had to know.

Acnologia lingered over Gajeel, Rogue, and Wendy, and gave them both permission to go into town and money to buy things, while ensuring that Rogue would not push himself. He promised to be back soon.

He left the cave and flew in a straight line. She was not privy to his thoughts, but rather like a ghost following him. She could see him and sense him from above and beside him, so all she had to work with was where he went and his mannerisms.

It was clear that he had a destination in mind as he landed in a forest and kept walking. Eventually, he came up to a cabin in those woods and he knocked on the door. Grandeeny did not expect Acnologia to have associations; she certainly did not expect Acnologia to know her otherworld counterpart, much less on a friendly basis.

“What do you want—?! Oh, Acnologia.” Porlyusica opened the door and faced the slayer with confusion but recognition. “Please don’t tell me it’s another—”

“No, nothing like last time,” he interrupted quietly, and Grandeeny was left to wonder what they spoke of. “I need help with something else. Could you imbue an acetaminophen tonic? Just about…ten teaspoons total. I have most of the ingredients, but…”

“But you hardly have a full lab in that cave of yours, I know.” Porlyusica gestured him inside and Acnologia found her table and chair with ease.

Grandeeny knew of her counterpart—spoke with her, even. As soon as they came into this time, she felt the connection between the versions of herself. It had been an opportunity Grandeeny never hoped for, and she was able to speak with the woman through sleep cycles, and on the off chance that Wendy met her, and that Porlyusica could find Wendy when she was older, she asked the other dragoness to transcribe a book of spells that Grandeeny was never able to teach the young child before the time came. She had gotten to know her counterpart well over that escapade, and while Porlyusica seemed to have a harsher way with words, she was honest, and clearly cautious and slow to trust.

She trusted Acnologia, however. It was clear from their ease around each other, and the way they spoke openly and familiarly about private topics. Porlyusica turned her back to him and Acnologia trusted her with the herbs he had brought, which Grandeeny recognized as being legitimate for medicinal purposes.

Grandeeny watched as they conversed. She watched as Porlyusica literally beat him over the head with a broom, and he let her, and she watched as he portrayed genuine doubt and nervousness over his role with the children and Porlyusica consoled him to the best of her ability—which brutal honestly and acceptance. She watched as he left in the direction he came, carefully sending the medicine back. She watched as something startled him, and she saw through her own senses as Igneel’s child approached.

She watched as Acnologia was caught up in his own mind; she watched him panic and struggle not to. She watched him try to help Igneel’s child despite how he was clearly not okay with his own memories, and she watched as checked the boy as he fell to the clearing amnesia and healed his self-inflicted wound. She watched as he put aside his own feelings to care for a child he just met.

Grandeeny’s consciousness retreated. She need not intrude on him any longer. He may have a dark past, but he was clearly trying to move past it.

He was trying, and he was trying his best.

She was glad for it.

—o0o—

Metallicana did not have high hopes for the situation.

Hell, he thought that Igneel’s plan was dumb in the first place, but it was all they had, so why not? That said, it bothered him when it became obvious that Acnologia found the kids anyway, and it was likely all of their death sentences. He was fond of that menace, and Metallicana would have liked to see him live a little longer, at least.

He was honestly surprised when the death wasn’t immediate. However, it looked like this was going to be one of those long-term sneaky charades, which was ten-times more annoying, especially since Metallicana was going to have to wait.

Grandeeny was the first to advocate that it wasn’t a trick, and he was sure that Skiadrum also had theories to the contrary but listening to them ramble on about observations and behavior was tiring and it went over his head, so he didn’t bother with it.

He did take peeks every now and then, just to see if Gajeel was noticing anything, but Metallicana couldn’t be bothered to do it often. He was fairly bad at that magic anywhere, so it took a lot of mental gymnastics on his part. It was best to wait until something was actually happening.

His resting consciousness prickled at the sensation of Gajeel using magic—a lot of it, which he hasn’t done that often. Was he in a real fight? That didn’t happen often, which was probably a good thing because he was still a squirt, but he had to learn somehow. Metallicana was bored anyway, not quite as asleep as he would have liked, so he figured out how to link himself to Gajeel just to see what was going on.

It wasn’t a fight. Unfortunately.

Instead, the brat was making a bunch of iron beams and rigging, that he was shaping into…something. Oh, and Acnologia was there. Still.

“Wow, it actually looks like a house,” the overly conniving slayer remarked, looking at Gajeel’s work. Metallicana gave it another appraisal, and now that he had human habitations in mind, he could see the resemblance.

“Hey! Don’t act so surprised!” Gajeel retorted, and Acnologia just laughed. Metallicana could imagine his brat’s stupid pout well.

“Should I not be impressed that you actually understand that shit?” Acnologia continued with a shrug. “I had to read the manual twice before I figured out what the hell a ‘section’ was. You have a real knack for it.”

Acnologia had the audacity to flaunt that stupid strength of his by coming over and holding up the interconnected beams, taking the weight off of Gajeel, who totally could have handled it. His bum of a kid didn’t even try to take it back, he just stepped out of the way and started making new beams.

How boring. If Acnologia was going to kill them and their kids, or brainwash them, he should hurry up and do it so Igneel would stop panicking every other day.

“I, uh… Did this before. Building, that is. So I’m not a noob like you,” his brat said randomly, eyeing the older dragon slayer. What the hell was he being so dodgy about? That kid was a perpetual mystery.

The other guy raised a not-eyebrow in silent question. “In Denish. I did some stuff on some sites. They paid pretty well, and it wasn’t…terrible.”

“I would question why anyone would let a ten-year-old in a construction site, but from what I know of Denish, I don’t doubt it.”

Acnologia hefted the wall frame upwards and Gajeel drove iron into the ground, leaving the wall to stand on its own. Metallicana never thought about iron magic in this application before, though it made sense. It was practically make-magic, except better because it was pure elemental magic and not some imitation, and it didn’t need to be in a pretty shape to be effective. He would admit that the building work was impressive—just not as cool as impaling enemies with blades.

They continued doing whatever the hell they were doing in silence for a while longer. It was boring. Although, Metallicana could tell that Gajeel was being dodgy about something, because he kept glancing at Acnologia, and he was making those stupid little grunting noises he makes when he’s thinking too hard. Maybe he was finally suspicious of the older dragon slayer and he was planning on fighting him. He hoped so, at least.

“Come on, spit it out,” Acnologia said instead, calling Gajeel out for whatever it was that he was doing. Damn, boy really wasn’t subtle at all. Although Skiadrum would say the same thing about Metallicana, so whatever.

“What? I’m just working, like you!” Gajeel replied angrily, and yeah, he was definitely upset about something.

Acnologia hit him with a hard stare, and his twerp turned away with a heavy sigh. “Is it…weird, that I like doing this?”

As Metallicana was trying to figure out what the hell Gajeel was getting at, Acnologia questioned it aloud. “I’m not following…”

Gajeel stared a hole into the dirt. “It’s what I was supposed to do. Before I ran away. So I just…” He grumbled a sigh. “I just can’t help but wonder if they really did mess me up in the head.”

There was weight on the kid’s shoulder, and Acnologia’s hand was there. Being attached to Gajeel’s senses were weird, because they were nothing quite like his. The range was smaller, and the touch was…greater. Metallicana had a metal hide—he didn’t feel nuances like temperature of things touching him and soft contact. Acnologia’s hand felt…warm. Comfortable, in a strange way. Metallicana frowned to himself, because not only was the sensation bizarre, but it was nothing like he knew the slayer was capable of. He was being gentle.

“Kid, there’s nothing wrong with you,” he said, “and if there is, then there is definitely something wrong with me.”

Gajeel looked back at Acnologia and saw the man smiling lightly through a grimace. “I was in the fields for…what, fifteen years? Twenty? I can’t even remember, but it was a long time. I fucking hated it.”

Metallicana had no idea what they were talking about, but based on Gajeel’s silence, he was probably confused too. “But you have an entire garden. It’s like, frickin’ huge and extra as hell,” his kid said finally.

“My point exactly,” Acnologia laughed dryly. The two of them continued doing whatever the hell they were doing with the building frame thingies. “Granted, I was more of a tiller, but still. It was awful. I’m honestly amazed I didn’t die out there. Almost did, probably. They thought I could ‘handle the sun’ but I was a twig they handed a pickaxe to, so I don’t know what they expected.”

Gajeel watched as Acnologia hefted up iron beams like it was nothing. “You were a twig?” he asked incredulously, and Metallicana couldn’t help but share the sentiment. Acnologia had always been a capable warrior and dragon slayer, from the moment he first met the freak in the war. It was a shame he turned out to be such a madman.

“Yeah, seriously. A strong wind could have blown me over—probably would have if the doc hadn’t have bought me. She was the one who taught me about herbs and medicinal plants. After she died and I left, I started a garden in Montes Secreta, just because they had nothing and planting and healing were all I knew how to do. I didn’t really think much of it, but… It was strangely enjoyable. I think because it was my choice and my garden. Didn’t feel wasted, and nobody was telling me I had to.”

Metallicana finally grasped the context of their conversation. Human traditions had never made much sense to him, but he did know that where Gajeel came from was not the…free-spirited type. It wasn’t about ability or power; it was about birth. It was bizarre, and Metallicana never understood it, though he did understand that Gajeel was kind of messed up because of it. He never judged the kid for it, though, because that shit had to be awful.

He still remembered how awed the kid was when he named him Gajeel. It was the first dumb name Metallicana came up with, because he had to call him something, but it amazed him beyond comprehension that he could do that. Names meant something else to Mistrel, apparently—like titles to dragons, maybe. He never understood that completely either.

He realized now that that first fight Gajeel and Acnologia had, when they first met and Metallicana first realized that the bastard was there and that Gajeel didn’t stand a chance… That was it. That was what Acnologia meant when he got Gajeel to stop fighting.

They were from the same place. The same situation.

Damn. Metallicana knew firsthand how agitated it made Gajeel. No wonder Acnologia went crazy, if he was in that mess even longer.

“Huh. It’s true, getting paid to do this shit, or doing it for myself is nice,” Gajeel remarked. “Still feels kinda sad though.”

Acnologia snorted. “Tell me about it.”

The two continued to work in a state of ease. Metallicana was not the sort to get squeamish, but he couldn’t help but feel out of place. Well, he was out of place, because he wasn’t supposed to be there. He was watching because he was sure something would happen, but…

He was no longer certain of that.

—o0o—

This was utter foolishness.

This plan of theirs had precisely one end goal, and that was the eradication of Acnologia and the threat he possessed towards the living world, and that goal was already ruined. Their attempt to bide time by sending themselves to a magic rich future failed after months, and their children were in no way capable of taking on the deranged slayer.

In this situation, a sense of hopelessness was understandable. However, Weisslogia did not understand why the other dragons seemed certain that Acnologia was no longer a threat.

Igneel was the only one with any sense, still, though the Fire King spoke little of the evidence that the other three presented. It was true that it seemed that the rogue slayer had no intention of harming the children, but they also weren’t dragons. Acnologia had been clear in his desires at the Dragon King Festival, and that was to eliminate dragons, and the slayer seemed to be either waiting until the children turned into dragons or waiting to see if they would at all. Killing them would certainly be easier now that there was an emotional connection.

Sting especially let that element stop him many times before. It was cheap, yes, to make the boy believe that he succeeded in that matter before by killing him, but it had been effective as a confidence boost. Until the haze the Eclipse Gate created left his mind, of course, and he remembered how the actions truly played out. Weisslogia didn’t know whether to be disappointed at Sting’s relief, or to be proud that he retained much of his confidence anyway.

Although, even Weisslogia would admit that perhaps his confidence was…troublesome, in this situation.

“I’m telling you, we don’t need babysitting!” Sting argued for what must have been the twelfth time.

“Uh huh.” Acnologia looked down at the child dryly, arms crossed.

“Rogue and I can handle this just fine! Hell, either one of us could do it by ourselves!”

“Totally,” the slayer dithered, unimpressed.

“So you can leave and we will finish the quest and turn it in by ourselves and be awesome mages!” Sting finished with a triumphant shout. Weisslogia would be pleased that his boy stood his ground and told the other dragon slayer off, however… He had been watching the entire time, ever since it was clear that Sting and Skiadrum’s boy were going to be alone with the dragon killer.

“So, you want to wait for the next wyvern to come? Because we can. I’ll let you fight it this time. Since you can handle anything.”

He could feel Sting nod resolutely. “Stars-damn I can!”

Acnologia’s lip curled into a small, nearly mocking smile—though not quite. “Then get ready.”

It took a moment to sense through Sting’s admittedly unrefined senses, and Weisslogia had to use some of his own magic sense to detect it, but another two wyverns were headed their way. Those pests did like to travel in mass, after all; it was one of the things he taught Sting, though Weisslogia was unsure if he remembered. After they ran into the one on their way to catch some…groundhog (he wasn’t sure what job his son was even going on), it was a certainty that more would come in the wake of their dead hive-mate.

Weisslogia knew that the only way for Sting to improve was to practice. He also loathed the idea that Sting would need to relay on the wayward slayer to fight his battles, especially when Acnologia was clearly making the slayers build a dependence upon him. However… Wyverns, especially in groups, were troublesome. Sting was not as powerful as Weisslogia would have liked. He was still so tiny.

Skiadrum’s child moved closer to Acnologia. “I didn’t agree to that,” he said quickly. Skiadrum should be disappointed.

“Come on, Rogue, we got this!” Sting pressed excitedly.

His boy summoned forth his magic and turned toward the incoming, screaming wyverns. He did well to engage first and aim for the wings, using holy rays and preparing a wing attack. Skiadrum’s boy did join him, his shadow magic mixing with Sting’s white magic and weakening the creatures’ fortitudes from the start. However, they were dense creatures, and while one slowed from the hole in its wings, pain did not deter them.

An enraged and open beak came down on top of Sting, and he did not move away or block with magic in time. However, in a rush of concentrated ether, Acnologia swept in and took the kill instead. Skiadrum’s boy dived into the ground as a shadow and Acnologia finished his off too.

How disappointing. At least they lasted for a while (and survived, though that might only be thanks to Acnologia).

Sting sighed, and he looked down as he rubbed in arm. “I’m never going to be a real dragon slayer…” he mumbled in defeat.

“And why the hell would you say that?” Acnologia countered.

“Because I can’t even take down a wyvern and they’re just the tiny version of dragons!” he yelled back, waving his arms.

Acnologia looked unimpressed. “Sting, you’re eight. Your body isn’t even done growing, much less your magic. Besides, being able to kill a dragon isn’t the mark of what makes a dragon slayer.”

“Yeah, I know,” Sting grumbled, glancing away again. “I know I’m probably not going to have to fight dragons, but dragons are super powerful, so I need to fight something close enough to live up to the name.”

“Let me ask you something then: does a human have to kill another human to be considered a powerful mage?”

Sting went quiet. Weisslogia, too, was stunned by the words. Humans killed humans all of the time. They didn’t even need magic to do it, the little creatures. Dragons also killed dragons. It was just the way of life. Dragon slayers were created with killing dragons in mind, but was that their purpose? They were equally human and dragon, and neither action was a trait of definition to either species.

Acnologia’s implication was…startingly profound: dragon slayers were not defined by slaying dragons. It was a result, not a purpose—a notion that did not match Acnologia’s own declarations hundreds of years ago. Yet, nothing in Acnologia’s mannerisms or scent portrayed deception.

It was such a simple statement, but now, Weisslogia couldn’t help but to notice that Acnologia’s ideology had changed. Maybe more had changed as well, and Weisslogia had truly been too obstinate to notice.

“No,” Sting finally replied, thoughtful. “I guess not.”

Weisslogia retreated back into his own mind-space to reconsider some things.

—o0o—

“Could you eat me?”

Skiadrum did not make a habit of watching Rogue’s every move, but he did pay attention. It was his nature as a shadow dragon—a natural observer—and a habit he quickly hyper-developed in caring for such an inquisitive mind as Rogue.

Although, since the children had crossed paths with Acnologia, his vigilance had been increased tenfold. It would slow his soul’s healing, perhaps, but he used the reserves of his power to look and listen through Rogue whenever he could. Skiadrum knew that the other dragons did the same, with varying levels of panic, but watching always calmed him. It was his domain, even if it would be unnerving to know that his charge was in a situation he was ill prepared for. It was out of his claws, however; all Skiadrum could do was watch.

After nearly a year of observation, the only thing that would still give him fright from time to time was Rogue himself. If any of the other dragons complained about the woes of raising a human child, then they were wrong, because Skiadrum was positive that no one was as equally curious and reckless as Rogue. Not that Rogue was the type to act without thinking—because Skiadrum did raise that boy to have a brain, unlike some dragons he knew—but rather, Rogue had a large capacity for curiosity, and he would have his curiosity satiated. One way or another.

He had always been like that, ever since he was a babe. Those red eyes of his, the same red eyes Skiadrum was certain he was thrown out of his village for, for fear that the lad was cursed, were always intent on something, full of mysteriously contained wonder. It was anyone’s guess what he was thinking or when he would act on it, but both occurrences were certainties.

So, it wasn’t any true fear that Acnologia would hurt Rogue that woke him from his slumber—that had subsided after a few months of watching the dragon slayer’s mannerisms—but it was a core-deep instinct that Rogue was about to do Something.

He slipped into Rogue’s senses just in time to see the end of Acnologia’s wide-eyed expression, frozen mid bite of eggs. However, Acnologia was clearly also observant, because his surprise ended, and he shifted to a tired sigh as he put his eggs down; he knew Rogue well enough to know that a conversation would follow. “Rogue… what the hell?”

His young dragon slayer was undeterred. Skiadrum knew he could observe the boy’s thoughts to determine his bizarre line of thinking before he could fully vocalize it, but it was easier to just listen to Rogue in these situations. (Truthfully, since performing the dragon soul technique, Skiadrum had indulged in observing Rogue in his line of thought once or twice, but it was more chaotic than even Skiadrum had imagined, and frankly, it frightened him.)

“I know you could physically eat me,” Rogue started with that matter-of-fact tone of his. “Technically, anything could, but could you with your magic?”

In an emotion that Skiadrum never, over a year ago, thought he would ever come across, he found himself instantly empathizing with Acnologia as the slayer visibly tried to process Rogue’s query.

“Because you eat magic,” Rogue elaborated, because he was getting better at doing that, “and I turn into magic.”

Acnologia took a long drink of the black liquid Skiadrum learned was ‘coffee’ and sighed deeply once more.

There had been other reasons that led to Skiadrum conceding that Acnologia was no longer the mindless slayer he had become in the war, and that he was honestly caring for the children, but the selling point for him had been his patience with Rogue. He did not pretend to care, but rather, would genuinely become exasperated with the boy—because anyone would after long enough, Skiadrum was certain—but in his exasperation, he would not grow angry or upset. There was absolutely no reason to put up with Rogue’s random and prodding questions unless he truly cared for him.

“You too?” Acnologia asked, eyes shifting to an object beyond Rogue.

Rogue turned around, and Skiadrum could see that the other occupant of the room, back on the soft sitting apparatus they called a ‘couch,’ was listening intently. That was another logical reason to deduce that Acnologia was genuine in his quest to care for the young dragon slayers, and not merely use them to get to the dragons, as Igneel often feared: he cared for the lacrima-born slayer as well.

The lacrima-born slayer—Laxus, his name was—did not live in the same place, but he was there often enough to be a common sight. The blond boy’s eyes sparked with a casual curiosity, and he shrugged at Acnologia’s call-out. “What? It’s an interesting question.”

Rogue turned back to Acnologia to see him rubbing his eyes as he thought. “I have no idea,” the slayer admitted, “but probably not. When you shadow travel, or when you lightning travel, you cloak yourself in ether, but you don’t necessarily convert yourselves. I’m pretty sure you’ll just fall out of the spell and revert to normal.”

Skiadrum could not see Rogue through his eyes, and while he could choose to tap into his emotive response, he did not need to see him or know was he was thinking to know that he was moving forward with the line of thought, because Rogue always wanted a definitive answer. If habit was not enough, then Skiadrum knew because Acnologia pointed at Rogue with a look of warning. “But we are not testing that. End of discussion.”

Rogue would be just fine.

—o0o—

Igneel still wasn’t convinced.

One by one, the rest of his comrades all caved to the idea that Acnologia had changed for the better, but Igneel would not gamble with his son’s life.

He still needed to quell the dragon seed. They all did. It would take time, but the more power he poured into counteracting it, the better off it would be. Igneel would hate to leave it able to sprout, but the moment Acnologia reverted to old ways, he would come out and kill him, and he would be ready to at a moment’s notice.

It wasn’t feasible to watch all of the time, especially not with the seed to consider, but Igneel would jump in whenever Natsu’s emotions or body reacted negatively and Acnologia was nearby. He tried not to coddle the boy, but Acnologia was always a different matter; there was simply no hope that Natsu could beat him, the way he was now.

Such a time as now. There was no stress on the body, but his anxiety was spiking enough that Igneel could feel it from where he was. He was clearly distressed, and Natsu did not give into distress easily. Never for this long.

Igneel jumped into the sensory window and gauged the situation.

Natsu was at the door that led to Acnologia’s nest, hand on the knob. He gripped it with a shaking hand and entered the room quickly, immediately spotting Acnologia in the corner, on top of a large, cushioned mat with a few pillows propped around him, a book in hand.

He must have noticed the emotional state Natsu was in, because his face immediately morphed to concern, and he put away the book. “What’s wrong?”

“You knew where he was, didn’t you?! Where is he?!” Natsu cried in some mix of anger and anguish, fists clenching and unclenching. His cheeks were getting wet and there was a rock in his throat.

“Oh Natsu,” Acnologia whispered, and Igneel realized the topic of the conversation quickly. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you. But I don’t know where he is—I just happened to find him twice.”

Natsu tried to stare a hole into the floor to quell his sadness, but based on the tightness in his chest, it wasn’t working. Igneel should have known. Aside from a new betrayal, the only thing that could upset Natsu to this degree was his brother.

When Zeref first approached him about his support in devising a plan to stop Acnologia, a plan that eventually led to raising the children as dragon slayers, he asked a single favor in return: to care for his little brother. Igneel had been reluctant to do so, because he did not know how to care for children, much less the human kind, but Zeref was unprecedently powerful and his support was invaluable.

“Do you not want to be with your brother yourself?” Igneel asked, confused as to why Zeref needed him, unless it was merely a gesture towards the dragon slayer plan. Though there was no reason to pose it as a favor.

“I do,” Zeref whispered quietly, “but I can’t. He wouldn’t want that anyway, after what I did to him.”

Igneel understood shortly after meeting Natsu. He was hardly human at all, and the stench of death still clung to him. He was confused, he was scared, and he had barely looked at Zeref when he dropped him off. It had been slow going at first, and it required Igneel to brush up on his Midian, which wasn’t even the language Natsu defaulted to when he was out of it, but it was the only language they shared at first. However, when Natsu figured out how to be comfortable, he did so quickly. The boy’s heart was large. Even when his brother would come, whether to their meetings or just in conversation, Natsu clearly missed him, even when he had been scared of him right after Zeref revived him. He forgave so easily, but Zeref didn’t—not to himself.

From what Igneel gathered of this present time, Zeref had yet to see him. Never mind the fact that his etherious nature provided some resistance to the death magic, or the fact that the scarf Igneel had gifted Natsu was specifically made with protection in mind, enchanted by Grandeeny and Anna to withstand even a god’s curse—Zeref still would not come, even after all these years. Perhaps especially because of all these years. Igneel hardly knew what four hundred years did to that boy.

“He was the one who helped that Jellal guy, right?” Natsu asked, voice terribly small. “Did you see him then?”

Acnologia shook his head sadly. “No, not when he did it, but I did run into him beforehand. Just briefly. Did Jellal tell people what happened?”

“No,” Natsu sniffled. “Not exactly. I smelled it and I asked, then he told me.”

The dragon slayer watched his son for a moment, eyes much softer than he remembered—though it could merely be a trick. Still, Acnologia seemed gentle when he patted the spot next to him. “Come here.”

Natsu obliged, and Acnologia wrapped an arm around his shoulders. Natsu buried himself into Acnologia’s side. Seeing him so close to Acnologia made Igneel nervous, but… Well, Natsu had always been an affectionate child, and the touch was already doing wonders to calm him down—and to break open the lump inside of him.

“H-he’s a-avoiding m-me isn’t— isn’t h-he?” Natsu cried into Acnologia’s side.

Acnologia’s embrace tightened, though it was by no means harmful. Natsu cried harder. Once it started, it was hard to stop.

Igneel felt his heart crack. His son was hurting and there was nothing he could do about it but watch a potentially deadly individual comfort him in his place.

“And that’s on Zeref,” Acnologia rebutted softly. He paused for a moment, then added, “but he was worried about you, the first time I saw him. Attacked me when he thought I hurt you.”

“…really?” Natsu sniffled hopefully.

“Yeah, really.”

They stayed in that position for a little while longer, though Natsu was well on his way to calming down. He was quick when it came to emotions, but they ran deep. Igneel knew it wasn’t over, not truly, but it was for now until Natsu unleashed the negative again.

This time, it was Natsu’s turn to hug tighter. “Thanks, Acno,” he whispered.

“What for?”

Even Igneel was certain that the response was genuine surprise.

“For not leaving.”

Igneel cut the connection abruptly and left. He didn’t need to intrude any longer, and he didn’t think his heart could take it either. Here Igneel was, ready to kill a being who has shown no true signs of aggression for nearly two years, and he was comforting Natsu where he could not.

He was ready to dish out retribution should he ever hurt Natsu, but Igneel knew, deep down, that he himself hurt Natsu. He left. He left without telling Natsu anything, about the plan or where he was in case Natsu—or any of the kids—only be hurt worse by it. True, he was still close to Natsu, but he left in all the ways that mattered.

Igneel wrapped himself back around the seed, squeezing his eyes dry.

At least Natsu wasn’t alone.

Chapter Text

August 16, X779

 

Today was a good day.

It was Cana’s birthday, so of course it was a good day. She was fourteen now, and even though she was technically still under the drinking age—by only a measly year—she was still grown up and ready. That, and her guildmates were total saps, and nobody could tell her no on her birthday.

It certainly stopped her from being bored. It would be no fun to go on a job alone today, and besides… Gildarts was still in town, maybe, and if he told her ‘happy birthday,’ then she might find the courage to tell him on the spot.

Ah, but enough about that. Today was about letting loose and not stressing out about stuff, and Cana was determined to enjoy it. With her life the way it was, she had to find her own way to live to the fullest—and if that included milking her benefits when she could, who could blame her? Unfortunately, she was almost to the bottom of the mug she heckled Macao into buying for her, and it was disappointing.

Cana spotted Natsu getting food in the corner of her eye, and with a spin in her stool, she waved him down. “Hey! Natsu!”

The pink-headed boy looked up in surprise, blinking owlishly with a chicken leg halfway to his mouth. “Oh, hey Cana!” he replied, waving at her with the hand holding the food.

“You should buy me something,” Cana grinned brightly, because this was the only day that she got to bully people into doing stuff for her guilt-free. “I’m huuungry.”

Natsu clutched the food closer to his chest, twisting it to shield it from view. Living with siblings must really be something. “Get your own food then!” he retorted. “Gajeel already ate my sandwich!”

“That was my sandwich you thieving flame-head!” Gajeel shouted from across the guild hall, standing to shake a fist angrily.

Knowing those two, it was anyone’s guess whose sandwich it really was. It could have neither’s, even. Not that Cana cared; she simply found it hilarious.

“Noooo, buy me new food, because it’s my birrrrthdaaaay,” Cana whined playfully, poking the younger boy with her foot. Wait, was he younger? Cana was pretty sure he was still thirteen, but she couldn’t say for sure.

“Oh, happy birthday, Cana!” Natsu chirped, before turning back and heading towards the table. He completely forgot, didn’t he! He forgot her totally called-for request for free stuff. That squirt.

Giving up on her current attempt, Cana followed Natsu anyway, because now she was curious about other things. As she guessed, he plopped himself next to Sting and across from Wendy, where all of the dragonlings were seated. It was not a rare sight to see them all in one place, but with the frequency they went on jobs or hid in their super-secret dragon’s lair, it wasn’t common either. Lisanna was there too, watching Wendy meticulously color something with an array of crayons around her.

“Shouldn’t the bird be red?” Charle questioned, hovering over Wendy’s shoulder.

Wendy frowned sullenly. “I only have a pink crayon though…”

“I think the pink is pretty,” Lisanna countered.

Cana slid in next to Natsu, propping her elbows up on the table to see what Wendy was drawing. It was a bunch of different flowers with some birds flying around on top. It was a little messy, but Wendy was also what, seven? eight?—so it was good for her age.

“Wow, that looks great!” Cana cooed, stealing one of Natsu’s fries out from underneath him.

“Thank you!” the girl smiled, while Natsu shouted angrily behind her when he noticed what she did.

“Hey, that was mine!” Natsu pouted.

“She already ate it,” Happy remarked.

She grinned at him, resisting the urge to ruffle his messy hair. “Happy birthday to me!”

Natsu grumbled some more, completely missing a shadowy little hand taking one of his chicken strips from underneath the table.

Now that she was thinking about it, she realized that she really didn’t know when any of the other kids’ birthdays were. If Cana was going to make a big deal of out hers, then she had to be ready to reciprocate. (Or to conveniently be on a job, depending on how she was feeling.) Besides, she was just curious. “Say, Natsu,” Cana asked, “when’s your birthday? I wanna make sure I’m older than you.”

“Uhhhh…” Natsu stopped to think, frowning in concentration.

Aw, she didn’t mean to make him do the math; she knew that wasn’t his strong suit. “Just tell me the date and I can add it up, silly.”

“The…first day of the last week of the second season?” he replied finally, but not confidently.

The… “What?” Cana was used to Natsu saying some odd stuff, but she didn’t know where to begin with that one.

“The hell?” Gray inserted from behind, finishing her thought.

Cana looked back and Gray and Erza were now hovering nearby, brows drawn up in confusion. They probably heard her ask the question and were curious too.

“What kind of date is that?” Gray continued.

“Hey! It’s a normal date, it’s just long!” Natsu retorted, jumping up out of his seat to face the ice-make mage.

“Then just say the short version!”

“I haven’t figured out the short version yet!”

That made even Gray pause. Cana watched, bemused, as Natsu counted under his breath, before declaring, “I think it’s in December.”

Gray was the first to respond. “But that’s not even the second season. Hell, that’s the middle of winter, Fire-face!”

“But winter has two parts! So it’s two seasons!”

“Does it?” Erza asked, suddenly contemplative.

Lisanna cleared her throat. “Natsu, you’re thirteen, right?” she asked, bringing them back to the real question. Cana noticed it for the change of conversation, but she didn’t mind. Sometimes Gray and Natsu got really intense when they fought, and if they busted the counter again and made Chico give up and close down the food bar on her birthday, that would just be sad.

“Yeah, think so,” Natsu confirmed—if that could be considered a confirmation.

“You ‘think’ so?” Gray crossed his arms. “You can’t be that bad at math.”

“Oh yeah?” Gajeel stood up, slamming his palms on the table. “Well, do ya’ know what happened to your clothes, ya’ stripper?”

Gray looked down at his shirtless chest with a yelp.

“That’s what I thought.”

“Hey now boys, no fighting on my birthday unless it’s for my amusement,” Cana laughed, somewhat nervous. Natsu and Gray fought the most frequently, over practically anything, but things got ugly if Gray and Gajeel started fighting. Sure, they never actually hurt each other, but they got close enough to make people wonder. “Please.”

The two glowered at each other a little while longer, though gratefully, neither started vaulting over the furniture to beat their faces in. Boys.

“Hey, how old are you two anyway?” Cana asked. She just knew they were around the same age, but if she was older, then she could totally make a habit of bossing them around, but if they were older, than maybe she could bully them into buying her alcohol. It was a win-win.

Gray looked to the side, grumpy as ever. “…thirteen.”

“Aw, how cute! Are you older or younger than Natsu, then?”

Gray said absolutely nothing—he just scowled harder—and that was all the answer she needed.

“Uh…” Gajeel rubbed the back of his neck. “I just know I’m probably older than Natsu.”

Cana stopped. There was something about the way he said it, matter of fact yet detached, that bothered her. This wasn’t just Natsu being bad with dates—Gajeel didn’t know.

She knew that most of the kids here at Fairy Tail were orphans, one way or another. She was too, so she didn’t think much of it. But Cana knew who her parents were, she knew her and her mother’s family records, and she had access to all of it even after her mom died. Cana still missed her terribly, but the old cabin a town away was hers and Cana could go anytime she wanted and read every scrap of writing and record her mother ever had. As tragic as it was… Cana was lucky.

Sure, Fairy Tail was living proof that people could survive without parents or without hometowns, because family and home were where you made it, but nobody should have to live without a birthday.

“Here,” Cana commanded decisively. “Give me your hand.”

“What?” Gajeel startled. “Why?”

Cana rolled her eyes. “I’m not going to do anything weird, believe me.” She wasn’t going to summon Levy’s wrath. “I just need you to hold this card.”

The iron mage continued to be suspicious. “Sounds weird to me.”

“It’s a status check,” Cana explained, cracking her knuckles. It was an easy magic, one of the first she learned. Though often it wasn’t useful—not unless the person was not present, in which case, a status check became much harder. If they were there, it tended to be obvious. “And with my awesome accuracy, I can get it to tell me how many days old you are, and then we count.”

Gajeel stared. She could feel the others staring, too. Cana kicked herself for never thinking about this sooner, because it was so simple, but based on the wide eyes of half of the group, she was willing to bet that Gajeel wasn’t the only one who didn’t know.

“It…counts what, how many days old my body is?” he asked, still clinging on to that rocky skepticism, but she could tell he was very much interested.

“Yep!” Cana confirmed. “We do some math, count backwards from today, and voila! Your birthday. Everyone should have a birthday.”

“And it’ll also tell us exactly how old we are?” Sting asked, proving her suspicions correct.

“That’s what I said.” She ruffled the little blond squirt’s hair with a grin, taking pleasure in the way he tried to fix it immediately after. Cana knew that he was invested in this, however, because Sting didn’t whine about it.

“Now, who all wants one?”

 

 

 

Cana knew that Gajeel wasn’t the only one, and she suspected that the other dragonlings didn’t know either—being raised by someone else, ‘dragon’ or no, put some things into questions—but she was surprised by Erza too. Of course… Nobody knew exactly where Erza came from, because she never talked about it, but she was in a rough state when she joined the guild; Cana always assumed it was never a happy situation, so she never prodded.

Gajeel was absolutely delighted to find that he was, in fact, older than Natsu. By a whole nine months, even. Unfortunately, he wasn’t fifteen yet so Cana couldn’t ask for special payment, but he would be so soon, so that was fine.

All of the baby dragonlings were eight, except for tiny little Rogue who was apparently only seven, but would turn eight in one month. Sting was bummed that he was not the oldest of the three of them, but he was equally excited that he wasn’t the youngest; good ol’ Rogue didn’t seem to mind though. Cana was glad that Wendy got to be older, at least by a month—she deserved the chance to lord it over the boys, even though she was probably too nice to do so.

Erza was the oldest, though Cana had always assumed that from the beginning. She was already fourteen, and she was about to turn fifteen in December. Erza took the knowledge with a quiet smile and whisper of “so I was older” but she never elaborated. She did hug Cana and thank her enthusiastically, which was great, but Erza wore armor all the time and her hugs were literally crushing, and now Cana was left to wonder if asking Wendy to heal her bruises would earn Erza’s ire or not.

Eh, what were a few bruises and a sore back anyway? Cana thought that the excited smiles of her guildmates were more important; they made for a pretty great birthday present.

Chapter Text

February 27, X778

 

Laxus appraised the job board with a frown. It was the end of the week and a new batch hadn’t been put up yet, so the options were scarce. Which was a shame, because it was hot, and he was restless just sitting around—though not as restless as Bickslow. If he didn’t find something for them to do, Bickslow was going to start drawing faces on all of his belongings. He might have already. Who knew?

They all looked pretty boring though. Sure, he was bored, but was he bored enough to find a lost cat? No. He wasn’t good at that kind of stuff anyway, so it would be more trouble than it was worth.

There was a town with a wild boar infestation. That sounded lame in comparison to the quests the sixteen-year-old would rather go on, but at least he could fight something.

As he reached to pull it down, however, another hand went to grab it at the same time.

Laxus held the paper up in the air, out of reach of the tiny hand. A girl an entire head shorter than him scowled from behind her glasses. “That was going to be mine,” she pouted.

“Too bad.”

The girl cried out indignantly as he made to leave. “I needed that one!”

He stopped, inclining his head towards her to listen to whatever reason she came up with. If it was someone else, he would leave it at ‘too bad,’ but the girl was new, and she was also younger than him. Fairy Tail had a habit of attracting kids, and they tended to be in the guild at such a young age because of circumstance. The tiny honey-haired girl hadn’t come with any fanfare or event that he knew of, but she was also too young to be here if she had a better option.

She took his pause as invitation. “It has the highest reward,” she remarked, trying to hold her head up higher. “I need it.”

Oh, it was the end of the month, wasn’t it? “For the dorm rent?” he asked.

“Wha— How did you know?!”

“Kid, what else does a squirt like you need?”

“I am not a kid!” she squeaked. “I am just a young lady.”

“…you gotta’ be like, twelve.”

The girl grew red in the face. She tried to turn her head away, but her awkwardness could practically smell at this point. “Thirteen… And teenagers are just young adults.”

“Yeah, no.”

Everyone knew that the difference between a thirteen-year-old and an eighteen-year-old was like night and day. She can deny it all she wanted, but she was numbered among the squirts of Fairy Tail now.

Laxus knew that Gramps would never kick a kid out of the dorms for not paying; the debt would just be counted for later. However, he would just feel like a jerk for taking it from her now. “Here.” He threw the flyer at her, and she scrambled to catch it with a squawk. “Take it.”

Maybe he should just take the few days to train. Or go shopping for a possession-proof lock so Bickslow doesn’t keep doodling on his lampshades—though that might be a futile effort.

“H-hey, wait!” the girl cried suddenly, reaching for his wrist as he was exiting the guild hall. “I mean, there’s no reason not to work together on this, right? I don’t know much about you, but we are guild mates, after all, and I think I can pull enough weight for the both of us.”

“…you can’t do it, can you?”

“What? Of— Of course I can do it, I was just… just returning your gesture of benevolence. After all, rent is due soon.”

Laxus stared. And sighed. “I’m good. You take it.” He turned around without a moment’s hesitation and kept walking. It wasn’t as if he didn’t go on jobs with people—he went on jobs with Bickslow all the time—but he didn’t go on jobs with new people, or people he didn’t trust to not get in his way. Needless to say, it was a small list.

He didn’t make it far before he heard the clamoring behind him. Wow, that girl was persistent. Maybe he could pretend he didn’t hear her and outpace her—no, she was already there. “What?” Laxus asked, irritated. He thought ignoring her and moving on would be enough to end the conversation, but apparently not. Where was Bix to takeover talking to people when he needed him? Drinking all of his milk, probably.

The girl straightened her jacket with a huff. “It’s rude to walk away, you know.”

Like Laxus cared about that. She was the one being freaky and following him. “Yeah, well I got places to be,” he retorted, continuing on his way. Granted that place was just ‘away from here,’ but it was a valid place, in his opinion.

Still, the girl hurried after him. “Hey, wai—ACK!”

In failing to keep up with his fast walking pace, she tripped over a stone and landed flat on her face. He had half a mind to let that be his head start, but there was no reason not to help her, so Laxus turned around to at least make sure she hadn’t busted anything open.

He pulled her up from the ground, checking her face first to see if her nose was bleeding—

—and then everything went black.

The next moment, she was standing, glasses in place, and apologizing profusely. “Sorry, sorry, that happens without my glasses, I didn’t mean to don’tkickmeoutoftheguild.”

Laxus felt like he had déjà vu. “What did you do?” he asked, not upset—just curious.

She messed with the hem of her coat. “Oh, I just turn people to stone with my eyes, but it’s no big deal because I can totally reverse it and it’s a useful magic for mage work, I swear,” she rambled in one breath.

He couldn’t help it: he laughed. He really had some luck, huh? Inborn eye magic was incredibly rare, and he has been a victim of it twice—by guildmates, no less!

“Stop laughing!” she squeaked indignantly, and Laxus knew he had to hurry to ease her before she just turned him to stone again.

“Sorry,” he started, waving a hand placatingly, “this was just the second time this happened to me. I’m not mad.”

“I— You—” The girl blinked rapidly, trying to formulate her words. “You’ve met someone with stone eyes before?”

“No, but it was similar.”

“Huh.”

Laxus could tell that the girl was surprised, vague as it was. He was never going to tell people the specifics of Bickslow’s magic, but Bickslow didn’t make a secret of what he could or could not do, and she was a guildmate; besides, she needed the assurance. People typically didn’t like being affected by wayward magic, but this was Fairy Tail: if you weren’t hit with a random spell at least once a week, you weren’t doing your job right.

He realized that they were standing there awkwardly now, and his resolve to exit as soon as possible was waning. “I’m Laxus. By the way.”

“I know…” she laughed awkwardly. “People talk about you.”

He tried not to be too annoyed at that. Sure, word traveled, but word about him typically was attached to his grandfather. She didn’t say it outright, though, so that was something.

“I’m Evergreen,” she continued, straightening. “Um, nice to meet you.”

“Sure.”

Well. This was uncomfortable.

“Why were you wanting me to come so badly?” he asked, finally giving way to his curiosity. People were weird, and girls were even more so.

“Oh, heheh.” Evergreen fanned herself with her hand. “That? That was no big deal. I just… I’ve never been to that town before and you have to walk through the woods and—” She shivered, finishing in a quiet voice. “And I didn’t want to go alone.”

Huh. For a moment, he was worried that it was just because she wanted to kiss up to him somehow, but she just didn’t want to be alone? “It’s not far, though.”

“Yeah, but it’s the woods!” she hissed. “Full of dark creepy animals and men that would rob a girl blind! Or worse.

“…you can turn people to stone.”

Evergreen faltered. “W-well, yes, but I can’t turn animals to stone!”

“You’re a mage, aren’t you?”

“O-of course, but—”

“Then you can handle it.”

Laxus left it at that. It was probably a terrible pep talk, but it was true: she was a Fairy Tail mage, so he had confidence that she should be able to handle some measly boars. She could figure it out.

However, something about her still screamed nervous, even though she was no longer clamoring. She would probably do it. Fairy Tail mages were either reckless, a little crazy, or they belonged to another guild. She would be fine.

Yet Laxus found himself turning back around with another heavy sigh. He couldn’t leave the kid alone; he couldn’t call himself one of the senior mages, at least among the newest generation, if he left her hanging like that. Besides, this was just a one-time thing.

“Fine, let’s go.”

—o0o—

“Laxus!”

This was such a bad idea.

“Laxus!!!”

He should have just left it alone and not jump into anything he wasn’t mentally prepared for.

LAXUS!!!!”

Laxus shifted his gaze to the side of him slowly, already tired of the conversation before it began, and yep—she was mad.

“I thought you’ve been to Rosario before!” Evergreen hissed. The tiny girl’s anger was somewhat mitigated by the fact that there were sticks stuck in her hair and half of her was covered in mud. He knew he probably didn’t look that much better, but she was the one who slipped into the pond, even after he noticed the loose ground.

“I have,” he replied agitatedly.

“Then. Why. Are. We. LOST?!?!”

He…didn’t have a good answer for that one.

“In my defense, the reroute because of the water damage was new.”

Evergreen groaned loudly into the air, making clawing motions with her fingers like she could strangle the woods itself. Or maybe him. It was hard to tell.

Rosario was a small town nearby Magnolia, but it had no train access, and it was a day’s walk without incident. They have since had…a few ‘incidents’ so unless both of them learned how to fly, they were going to have to camp out. He remembered it being a straight shot from the northern trail, but some storm damages caused them to have to go around, and it should have been simple to get back on the main path, but apparently not. He thought they did, but the pond and the creek had been new. Unless that was caused by the rain. Weather was weird.

Admittedly, he understood why Evergreen hadn’t wanted to make this walk alone, but now he was stuck with an angry tween who blamed him for getting them lost. They couldn’t be that lost though. Rosario wasn’t far, so they would have to find the town eventually, right? Although, it was at times like this he wished he could travel faster than a simple run. (Besides, he really needed to figure out how to keep up with Bickslow when he cheated and rode his babies up to who-knows-where.)

“I didn’t even bring my tent,” Evergreen mumbled miserably.

“Even when the job was going to mostly be in the woods anyway?”

“Yeah, well, there was still a town involved! A town! With inns and beds and roofs!”

Laxus sighed to himself and wondered if it would be worth it to just turn on his music and drown her out. That may not be possible though, considering how loud she was. He settled for shoving his hands into his pockets and trudging forward.

They would find the town eventually.

—o0o—

“OH MY GODS THEY’RE HUGE!”

“Shut up and shoot it.

“I’m trying! Oh! Oh! I got one! NEVERMIND there are more of them!”

“Get behind me and duck.”

“Okay—AAAEEIIII!”

The boars went down in a storm of lightning. Evergreen managed to shoot down the one coming for his backside since he couldn’t use his magic in a full area burst since she was in the crossfire.

Both mages sighed in relief when the giant boars fell over, dead. Who knew they would be so violent and unyielding?

Maybe it was a good thing he accompanied her after all.

—o0o—

“There you are,” Bickslow said, sliding in next to Laxus at the counter. If Laxus hadn’t learned how to listen out for his stupidly silent movements, he would still be scaring the shit out of Laxus for no reason. “You’re out of milk.”

“I’m sure you had time to replace it, right?” Laxus shot back without looking, downing the rest of his water. The taste of bacon was still in his mouth, and he couldn’t decide if that was a good or a bad thing. It was starting to get annoying though.

“Sure, totally,” Bix replied, and Laxus knew that he hadn’t. Eh, he was good at picking tabs up elsewhere.

“Got roped into going on a job with that new girl,” he explained, knowing that he just disappeared for a few days when they were thinking about taking a job together. He might need a quiet solo job now, though, because man, was he exhausted. Unless he needed Bickslow to do all of the talking for him. It was a toss-up.

“Evergreen?” Bickslow clarified, because of course he would have already known.

“Yeah. She didn’t want to go to Rosario alone.”

“I take it that it turned out to be a longer job than you thought?”

Laxus shrugged. “Not really.” The boars were more of an issue than he initially anticipated, but they still weren’t that difficult.

“Oh, so you got lost.”

“…shut up.”

Bickslow was still laughing even after he shoved him off of the stool, but that was just how he was.

“Hey!”

Laxus looked up to see Evergreen running towards him again for some reason, waving the Jewel in his face. “What’s this?”

He was really glad that Erza started coming out of her shell and fulfilling the babysitter position for these gremlins, because he really didn’t have the patience for all these dumb questions. “That’s your cut,” he intoned. “For the job.”

She rolled her eyes. “I know that. I’m not stupid. Which is why I know this is more than half.”

He had no idea why that was so upsetting. “Yeah, so?”

So,” she pressed, hands on her hips like she was the inconvenienced one, “you counted wrong.” Evergreen peeled off an amount and thrust it back in his face. “As always, I must do everything.”

“I did that on purpose, dumbass,” Laxus shot back, shoving her hand away. “You’re the one with rent to pay.”

She blinked owlishly behind her glasses. “What?”

He stood to leave, walking around her half-bent arm. “It was your job anyway. I just helped. Keep it.”

Laxus did what he set out to do, and he wasn’t going to take her reward money after she went through so much effort to go on that job in the first place. He didn’t need it anyway, so that was just a favor from a guildmate.

He pulled his headphones back up to his ears as he left, ready to spend the next few hours in peace, but he still heard her final remark, whispered to herself in a not-mean way.

“Weirdo.”

Heh. It wasn’t the worst thing to be.

Chapter Text

June 3, X780

 

She never imagined that things could get this complicated.

Anna Heartfilia had been prepared for hardship, for patience, and for flexibility, but the moment she saw those holes through the roof, she knew that the next phase of the plan was off to a rocky start. The kids flew far, too. They would have been unconscious, and their physiologies made them sturdy, so Anna could only pray that each of them survived the fall, but there were so many other factors to consider. She couldn’t properly thank her descendant, Layla, for opening the gate or subsequently stay to discuss future matters of the Heartfilia clan and the Zodiac keys, because Anna feared that the kids would not survive the immediate aftermath, much less long enough to ensure that their parents could quell the seed and kill Acnologia.

Time was of the essence, but it was hard to gain footing. The world was completely unrecognizable four hundred years in the future, and she had no clues as to where to start. The king gave her some funds to begin her journey, but it was still a monumental task.

It took her seven months to find the first child. Anna had nearly given into despair by that time, unable to find a single trace of them, and hardly able to navigate the world in order to find resources to aid her search. She was looking for proverbial needles in a mountain.

To make matters worse, there had been no indication of lost children looking for her, or for each other. She may not have been with them as much as their parents, but they were an affectionate bunch; at the very least, they would seek each other out, perhaps to find their parents, because she knew that there was no way they could know what happened. They were never supposed to know about the dragon soul technique—it would just worry them, and weigh them down. Anna had a carefully planned story prepared, but it crumbled the moment they were launched into the sky.

She was desperate enough to turn to these ‘guilds’ that existed in the future to aid her search. Giving the public too much information about this operation, even simple information like their identities, was dangerous, but she was out of options. Still, Anna made sure to find a small guild, one that wasn’t on the magazines everywhere, but who was in the registry and had a clean record. She wasn’t looking for perfection, or great magical power: she just needed a connection.

Cait Shelter was as good of a start as she could find. Anna walked in, and she was able to discuss the start of her plight with the guildmaster without arousing his suspicions.

And then Wendy came.

“Master Roubaul, is that a— a cli-ent?”

“Yes, Wendy dear, she’s a client. Do you want to listen?” The elderly master turned to Anna. “If you don’t mind, miss. She’s learning.”

Anna gaped. She knew those big brown eyes from anywhere. “Wendy?” she whispered, hardly able to believe her luck.

The girl just waved shyly, inching next to Roubaul. “H-hi, miss.”

There wasn’t a shred of recognition in her eyes.

They had forgotten. All of the kids had forgotten. Anna should have known that the temporal displacement could have side effects, especially on the cusp of such strange magic as the dragon soul technique. It had been made known that it could affect their memories, too! Weisslogia had presented the option of tampering with their memories to better acclimate them to the future, but it was agreed that it was too risky and could accidentally change something vital to their psyches. Yet, their malleable states were affected by the time magic anyway.

Anna was able to observe Wendy while placing a fake job. She pulled back on her initial honesty and put out a half-hearted search for an object belonging to a child she didn’t have, just so she could watch Wendy from a safe distance. She seemed stable, and the child made it no secret that she was looking for her mother, Grandeeny, even if the guildmaster thought her search was futile. She had her magic. She remembered the dragons. Just not Anna. Perhaps not the others too. She was in a safe and stable environment, her partial memories preserved, and… Anna decided it was best left that way.

Her involvement had been planned because it was necessary. They were too young to be on their own, and of the individuals included in on the plan, she was the only option. However, if the young dragon slayers were not perturbed by their temporal displacement, and they settled in seamlessly with their new environment, then she was no longer needed. In fact, this scenario, undesirable in theory, was actually preferred: the children would have a chance at normal lives.

To rob children and generations of this was always Anna’s biggest regret. She knew she doomed so many descendants of hers to years of waiting and watching, and she knew that the dragon slayer children would always run the risk of being different. If they did not dragonize, then there should be no fear of them, especially so far removed from the war, but it stood that—however necessary for the world’s survival—it was not ideal to subject children to these conditions.

Yet, if they were unaware of the extent of these conditions, then the burden would continue to rest solely on the adults of this operation, where it belonged.

Since then, she had found the locations of Sting and of Natsu. Sting was in the care of an orphanage, but it doubled as a school and it was a calm and open environment. Natsu was also in a guild—a larger one—and while it was clear that he was still searching for Igneel, nobody associated him with Zeref, so there was no need to worry. (Anna knew that Zeref had done questionable things, but his reputation had superseded that of dragons in four hundred years; it was peculiar, and concerning, but not surprising.)

It had been nearly three years, now, and she had yet to find Rogue or Gajeel. However, Anna had gotten better at utilizing this era’s means of information gathering, which was not entirely unlike her era’s, but different all the same; through word on the streets, there had been talk of the ‘dragons of Fairy Tail.’ She knew Natsu was a part of that guild, but it was now insinuated that there were multiple dragon affiliated members. The term was not spoken with a sense of literalness, but rather, in reference to a themed group of individuals. The guild had an aesthetic of fairies—many guilds had such aesthetics, often referring to animals, mythical creatures, or species long since gone—so it was assumed that the ‘dragons’ were a similar aesthetic.

It was largely possible that some other children emulated Natsu and the mannerisms attached to his magic, but Anna wanted to be sure. If the children were seeking their foster parents, even with no chance of success (she hoped they would give up before long), it was possible that they became reacquainted with each other. She had little other leads at the moment, so it did not hurt to double back. Since acquiring a homestead at the edge of Fiore, and a subsequent alchemical practice to earn funds and to gain entry into the lesser advertised corners of the world, travel was as not much of a hassle as it had been. Trains still fascinated her, however.

That was how Anna came to be seated at a little café in Magnolia. She had no intention of staying long, but she wanted to lay eyes on the children and gather some information about how they were faring—not necessarily in that order. If there was one thing that she learned in her three years here, it was that townspeople had plenty of gossip about their local guild. It was the best way she could learn about the well-being of the children without interfering with them directly. Following the affairs of guilds was normal practice, too, so it wasn’t considered odd to ask about it; there were apparently even scrolls—er, “magazines”—on the subject matter.

“Thank you,” she said as the lady poured her more tea. Trade has come such a long way, for these drinks to be so easily available. “I’m sure you get a lot of business with such a large guild in town. The quality really shows.”

The woman smiled, waving away the compliment with a laugh. “Oh no, not really. My daughter, Chico, is part of that guild. They have their own drink counter, and she brews the coffee. She was always the best at those drinks, but she can’t beat her old mother when it comes to tea, I believe.”

“Ms. Rosa is right,” another customer piped up. “This café has the best brewed tea this side of Crocus! Even the fairies’ll come here for her drinks!”

The woman, Rosa, waved him off as well. “Oh, most of them don’t drink tea,” she commented, “but it’s true, there are a few guild members that frequent my place.” She leaned down to Anna, speaking in a faux whisper as if what she was about to say was a secret, but it was clearly done in a playful manner. “The ones that do come are the polite ones.”

“Even the politest Fairy Tail mages can be a handful,” yet another customer laughed. “Rosa, didn’t they break a table last week?”

Rosa smiled fondly. “It’s true. Some of those kids were over, and two of the boys got into a scuffle. Wendy, the little darling—she’s such a sweet child, and she gives my pastries far more credit than they deserve—made them fix it, though I’m sure they would have anyway.”

At this bit, Anna paid extra attention. It was entirely possible that the name was a coincidence, but it was not something she would take for granted. “Are there many kids in the guild?” she asked.

“Oh heavens, that guild is nothing but children—including the adults!” Rosa laughed heartily. “It is true, many of those darlings are too young for mage work, but you can’t deny that they are happy in that guild. I fear no other establishment would be able to contain them, anyway.”

“There are so many,” the first customer, a composed by disgruntled man, bemoaned. “They doubled in the last two years, too, what with all of those so-called ‘dragon’ gremlins.”

“Oh come now,” the second customer, an older lady, hushed, “odd as they may be, those siblings are very sweet. Not to mention they eat enough to keep me in business for years!”

“Dragon gremlins?” Anna echoed, doing well to keep her neutrality. Perfect. This was exactly the conversation she needed. “I thought the guild members were referred to as ‘fairies’?”

The first customer delivered. “Ah, it’s this group of kids that joined the guild. They get referred to that because they’re rambunctious and they like to talk about dragons, so I hear. Besides, they got these…sharp teeth. And eyes. It’s quite bizarre—nothing like the image of a fairy, though they fit in with the guild well.”

“Many mages have ‘bizarre’ body effects from their magic,” Rosa interjected gently. “It’s nothing against them. My daughter gets these white eyes sometimes—it happens. And those darlings may be rambunctious, but they’re just kids. Quite talented with magic, too. See that table down there? With the metal leg? That’s the one that was broken last week. The child molded a new one for me, and it matches the others almost perfectly.”

Anna looked down at the table in question, and the leg indeed looked to be made of iron. First the name Wendy, then iron magic, and also the speculation concerning sharp teeth and odd eyes—the clues all pointed to the missing children. Including Natsu, who she confirmed to be here prior to, her count raised to three, but that also meant that Wendy had since moved locations. She already had more clues than she expected, but she would push for more.

“Oh my, that does sound like a lot,” Anna commented lightly. “Fairy Tail sounds like it is more dragon than fairy at this point. Just how many of these darlings are there, anyway? Perhaps they should rename the guild.”

“At least five,” the first customer responded, full of exasperation. Five. That was all of them, if the information was to be believed.

“No, no, there are six now,” the second customer corrected. “That new boy, the quiet one with the snake, is certainly showing the same signs. Not to mention he is constantly around them.”

“Most of those kids hang around each other, so that’s hardly evidence,” the first dismissed.

“No, she’s right,” Rosa interjected. “At the very least, he is certainly living with them, based on how they travel. Though if you ask me, the real number is seven.” The woman winked. “That new S-Class mage is definitely one of them.”

The first customer snorted. “I’m not entirely convinced that guy exists. It might just be the new townfolk mistaking Gildarts for somebody else.”

“He exists,” Rosa said. “He’s come around the café more than once. Mostly if the children are here.”

The second customer nodded enthusiastically. “Oh yes, the mage with the tattoos! I know him. He’s quite the chef—always perusing through the produce at my stall. It’s certainly not Gildarts. For one, he hasn’t destroyed my stand not even once!” She laughed. “He’s quite shy, but I believe his name was Acnologia.”

Anna nearly dropped her mug of tea at her lips. Her limbs went cold with dread. No, no, that was merely a coincidence. It wasn’t possible. It was a rare name, but they were also referring to a man, not a dragon. She quickly went through the gleaned information in her head, hoping to rationalize it out.

Five to six dragon slayers in the guild, though none confirmed to be dragon slayers by conversation. There was a high chance that at least three of them were legitimate, though the presence of a six did imply mimicry. There was technically a chance that all six were legitimate, but it was astronomically low without any more dragons.

Those dragon affiliated children were close to the point that it was assumed they lived together. It was noted to not be a guild trait, necessarily. The man they referred to as Acnologia was said to be at this establishment if the dragon affiliated children were. There was a connection, but not necessarily a social one. Furthermore, he was labeled as an “S-Class mage,” which appeared from her prior research to be powerful mages made distinct above others. He was also described as being aloof, and with tattoos.

“M-mage with tattoos?” she asked, struggling to maintain her neutrality, but failing to formulate the question in a less suspicious manner.

Fortunately, the townsfolk thought nothing of it. “Oh, he looks quite scary, if you ask me. Nearly had a heart attack the first time I saw him—wild hair, dark skin, and blue tattoos all over his arms and face. Oh, and those eyes!” The woman shook her head, though the gesture was without malice or fear. “He’s a little rough around the edges, but he’s never caused trouble. In fact, I’ve seen him stop property damage more times than not! He’s just what Fairy Tail needed, if you ask me.”

She likely said more after she described him, but Anna could not hear it. She could not focus on it. Yes, they spoke of a man, but his description was eerily similar to how the dragon slayer appeared before he was dragonized.

Anna had looked into the matter of Acnologia soon after she came to this era. Surprisingly—and gratefully—the existence of dragons was chalked up to mythos by the majority, though legends of a black dragon, known mostly as the “Black Dragon of the Apocalypse” were recorded, though mostly witnessed by third parties, as towns were known to be eradicated after a visit, so there were few survivors to tell the tale. Some, even to this day, claimed to see the black dragon flying over the mountains, but they were considered rumors at best. The frequency of claims diminished through history.

From what she gathered, Anna had surmised that he was likely still around, but in a hibernation of sorts, due to the lack of dragons. She was grateful that he hadn’t turned to eradicate all of civilization, yet, but he was still a wild card. No one had counted on him finding the dragon slayers so soon, their youth and lack of dragonizing contributing to a minimal signature.

However, it had been hundreds of years. If his abilities grew, and his tactics changed… The possibility that he had found the children and were staking them out was too great to ignore. She had made a mistake, leaving them alone. Society was not enough to protect them from lurking chaos, she should have known that.

“I-I’m sorry, but I must leave. Forgot about my meeting,” she stumbled out, slamming the Jewel for a tip on the table before hurrying off.

She had to find them—get them away from here. Anna had little hope that she could fight off Acnologia if a confrontation happened, but if she could slip them away unnoticed—under the guise of a job, perhaps—then she could find a way to change their scents and lose the trail. Buy them some time, before the beast decided that they were in fact dragon slayers, or worse, find that there were dragons inside of them. The fact that it seemed that Acnologia was playing by the rules of social decorum was promising for a head start, but she couldn’t rely on him not dropping the guise and leveling a city if provoked. She needed to act smartly, and swiftly.

It was sheer providence that she found them outside of the guild hall, relatively isolated. It was Gajeel, Wendy, and blessed be the sun, Rogue. It was so fast that she had hardly formulated a decent excuse to whisk them away to safety.

“Excuse me, are you—”

The words died in her throat when the three turned around with wide eyes.

“Ms. Anna?!” Wendy squeaked, hope and surprise in her gaze.

“Holy shit,” muttered Gajeel, just as awestruck.

They remembered.

For better or for worse, somehow, they remembered.

“I am, so, so, so sorry that I left you,” Anna started, tears welling up as the ramifications of her mistakes compounded upon her mind. “It was never my intention for it to be this way. I can explain more, I promise, but we have to leave right now. It’s not safe here for you.”

“In Magnolia? Even with Fairy Tail?” Rogue asked, looking around like a monster was going to leap from the ground.

“I don’t know where you been, but we ain’t running from a fight,” Gajeel declared. “If there’s trouble coming, we’ll face it.”

“You don’t understand,” she hissed, desperate. “It’s already here, and I promise you, not even an entire guild can face it.”

The children were still unconvinced, she could tell. Concerned, perhaps, but unconvinced. The more she said aloud, the more dangerous it could be, but… “There’s a dragon slayer, here, from the war—he will stop at nothing to eradicate all dragons and dragon slayers from existence. I don’t know how much he is onto you, but if we hurry—”

“Oh, you mean Acno?”

For the second time that hour alone, her thoughts stilled to nothing. “What?”

Rogue continued to be unfazed. “Yeah, that sounds like Acno. He’s okay.”

They…already met him? That in itself wasn’t entirely surprising, as she guessed that some contact might have been made under false assumptions, but they immediately guessed who she was referring to based on her description.

“Acno is a good guy,” Wendy declared, absolutely stalwart in her claim. “He’s not doing those bad things anymore.”

Anna felt like she was underwater. It was all right there, but everything was too hard to grasp onto. “What…what do you mean? You’re talking about…Acnologia?”

“Yeah,” Gajeel replied. “That’s him. We know about the war and genocide stuff, but as these two said, he’s cool now.”

None of this made sense. They knew about the war, and the slaughtering; they didn’t condone it, either, or bring forth some justification. Yet, all three of them were confident that Acnologia was not a threat to them.

The townspeople called him mysterious, but none spoke of him with any trepidation. Rosa had even mentioned that he was one of her regulars, though Anna had been too focused on the children to consider the less damning implications. He was accepted into the guild and even promoted.

Had Acnologia…really changed?

“Are you okay, Ms. Anna?” Wendy asked, inching closer. “Are you feeling unwell?”

“I’m—I’m fine,” she managed, past her confusion. “I’m fine, I promise.” All three of them looked unharmed… And there was nothing in their countenance that denoted pressure. Wait! “Do you know where Natsu and Sting are? Are they here too?”

“Yeah,” Gajeel answered. “They’re on a job.”

“How did you get here, Ms. Anna?” Rogue asked bluntly.

She had been so focused on them and then the presence of Acnologia, she hadn’t stopped and considered what they might think of her existence in this time, now that it was clear that at least most of their memories had returned. (Was it because of the gate’s and soul technique’s effects wearing off? Their proximity to one another? How intriguing.)

She also realized that even though they were outside of the guild hall and relatively alone, this was a public place.

“Is there somewhere private we can talk?”

“Sure,” Gajeel responded. “I’m curious about how you’re here too. Besides, you wanna make sure Acno is legit right? Well, he’s home.”

—o0o—

As they trekked through the forest, she listened to Wendy and Rogue chatter about their life in the guild with a distracted mind. This was it, wasn’t it? She was going to have to face one of the most powerful creatures alive, wasn’t she? What if her presence upset him? What if he decided that the ruse was over? What if the only reason he was calm was because the dragons were supposedly all gone? What if he convinced the children that dragons were evil?

What if he really had changed, and they imbued these children with dragon magic and sent them to the future for nothing?

Anna felt nauseous, but she shoved it down in favor of appearing composed.

It really didn’t help that the first thing she saw wasn’t the house, or the garden, or even any of the other kids—it was the fight.

Red arced through the air and glimpses of blue met it. There was an ominous and powerful pressure all around, and the feel of the magic made her skin itch. It—

“Yo guys! Quit it for two seconds!”

It stopped. Anna breathed, and she forced herself to stay calm.

Two people emerged from a clearing behind the house, one a teenager, and the other a man—dark skin, blue markings, and wild blue hair. Acnologia.

She had never seen him as a human. The dragon war raged when she was a child, and she had been fortunate enough to live far from the battlegrounds. She only knew him as the black dragon that flew overhead, burning the lands and leveling rebuilding villages, but she also knew the accounts given by the peaceful dragons, of how he was a quiet warrior before he started changing—emotionally and physically.

Anna had been under the impression that once dragonized, there was no way to return to original form. It could be a form of shapeshifting, but for a dragon to shape shift required a level of soul compression that did not come easily, and the very nature of dragonizing promised a bloating of magical ability. Perhaps he had found a way after four hundred years; it would be interesting to know how, because Anna had never been able to consider a solution, hence one of the important factors in suppressing the children’s seeds before they bloomed.

Of course, there was no evidence to suggest that this was the same dragon, or a dragon at all, but Anna felt the familiarity and unease deep in her gut.

“Who’s this?” he asked, voice even and mistrustful, but…calm. It was nothing like how she imagined, whenever she thought that she might have this encounter.

“This is Ms. Anna, our old teacher,” Wendy introduced before she could form words in her throat.

The man who was Acnologia shot his brows up in surprise. Meanwhile, Gajeel was the one who eyed her with scrutiny. “You are Ms. Anna, right?”

“I am,” she replied, finding her voice, though she was sure that she had to start explaining soon.

The teenager beside Acnologia nodded. “She’s telling the truth.”

It was Anna’s turn to be surprised. She didn’t know who the teenager was, though he had the symbol of a Fairy Tail mage on his neck, so he was obviously a guild member. She remembered talk of more than five people being attributed to being a ‘dragon of Fairy Tail’ but she hadn’t been sure about the demarcation between the public title and the dragon slayers at the time. If all five were present, then there was one unaccounted for, and she was willing to bet it was the boy with the truth detection magic.

It was smart of them to verify her identity, but the confrontation made her all the more aware that she was outmatched and likely outnumbered.

Then again, maybe she deserved to be in this position. She had a lifetime of meddling into affairs that weren’t hers under her belt, and it figured that it would all catch up to her one day.

She forced herself to ignore the man that could be a dragon. Before whatever happened happened, she owed the children an explanation. If they were more comfortable having this in the presence of the other two…then so be it.

“I am guessing that you are aware that this is not the era you were born into, correct?” Anna began, facing the three that should have been her charges.

They nodded, faces different shades of expectant.

She took a deep breath. “I came with you. That was the plan. To bring you here for…safety. But when you five crossed through the gate, you were propelled forward by some force, and scattered all over the country while I was left at the gate. By… By the time I started finding you, I realized that you had selective amnesia. I found Wendy first, then Natsu, and both of you were content in your guilds, and I… I didn’t want to make you realize everything that you had lost. Had to lose. Because of us.”

“So…” Gajeel crossed his arms, face down in thought. “What’cha you’re saying is, we were never supposed to be split up or lose our memories, but you rolled with it?”

Anna grimaced. That was one way to put it, blunt as it was. “I am very sorry, for leaving you. I know it wasn’t right, but if there was any way for you to be able to live a normal life in all of this, I wanted you to have that.”

She braced herself for what was sure to come next—the questions. The whys. If the man behind her was truly Acnologia, then she risked awakening his ire against dragons.

It was Wendy who finally spoke. It was a simpler question than she feared, but it was heavy all the same.

“Ms. Anna… Where are our parents?”

Her heart clenched. Their gazes burned into her. How should she respond? She knew exactly where they were, but it was a dangerous answer. Present company aside, she knew the children might not take it well either.

“It’s okay.” As if on cue, the man spoke. She turned to meet his slitted gaze with trepidation. “I know you’re scared of me.”

Here it was: the confrontation. There was nothing she could do but face it. “You are Acnologia. The dragon. Correct?”

“I am.” He wasted no breath in denying it. “And I know that you, Igneel, and the others sent the children here because of me.”

Anna stared. As she imagined how badly this could go, she didn’t suspect that he already knew. She also realized how quick she was to discount the children’s assurances, but hearing him now, the man that was Acnologia was clearly morose. Discomfited, and maybe even ashamed.

He must have seen the question in her eyes, because he chuckled dryly. “Zeref told me. He didn’t tell me much before he left, but he made that much clear. And I’ll tell you what I told him: I am not going to hurt the kids. I don’t seek out dragons and needless bloodshed anymore. Four hundred years ago, I was unhinged, and I was wrong. Simple as that.”

At those words, spoken plainly and heavily, Wendy moved to his side and hugged him. He rested a hand on her head, gentle despite his strength, and Anna knew, deep down, that his words were an understatement: he wasn’t just ‘not going to hurt them’—he cared for them. She didn’t know how, and she didn’t know when, but... Well, Anna had been a mother once, too. She knew.

There were so many things to say, and so many things to feel, at this discovery, that she could manage to do none of it. The weakness in her legs that had been growing with the unease and uncertainty this day had brought finally won, and she collapsed to her knees. Tears pulled at her throat, and in a single gasp, they started to slide down her cheeks, but all she felt was numb.

She had been such a fool. It was all pointless. She put her family through generations of strife to ensure that they could make it to a time where the dragons could recover enough post-soul technique to finally kill Acnologia. Not to mention the strain on the children. Did they even need to become dragon slayers in the first place?

Wendy was next to her, now, hugging her hunched shoulders. “Don’t cry, please, it’s okay,” she pleaded, brown eyes shimmering with tears themselves.

“I’m sorry. I’m just… so sorry.”

She was so pathetic. She was supposed to be the adult! Anna swallowed thickly and forced herself to become composed once more.

It was only partially successful, because they had ushered her inside before she could finish.

The inside was surprisingly cozy. It was everything she had hoped for the children, and she never imagined that Acnologia would be the one to provide that. It made her feel all the more inept when she realized that Anna never could have managed this for them. It took her so long to acclimate to this era, and she wasn’t sure she could have established anything while caring for them. Maybe that was why she had been so quick to let them go.

Anna stared down at the tea placed in front of her and gathered her thoughts. This wasn’t about her. Not right now. She could sort out her feelings later. Right now, there were questions that she needed to answer, whether she wanted to or not. They wanted to know, and she was no longer in a position to tell what was right or wrong for them, so she might as well tell them. If they all died, so be it. If they all hated her, so be it. It was out of her hands.

“Your parents were…weak, when they raised you,” she began, starting gently despite her conviction. They didn’t need to know that their very ‘souls,’ so to speak, were half shredded by Acnologia, resulting in a loss of part of their magic capabilities. She wasn’t sure she wanted to tell him, either. “Because of the war. They didn’t have the strength to…to face Acnologia again, even though they felt they should, so they hid themselves away. That’s when they came across you, one way or another.

“We all feared the threat that…Acnologia posed.” He grimaced at the statement, she could see out of the corner of her eye, but he seemed to be calm about it, so she continued. “None of us could do much, however, the way that we were. Not even Zeref. So a plan was devised, to create dragon slayers and allow the dragons to use the dragon soul technique while we sent the slayers to the future, where there was enough ether to utilize the technique, and in hopes that there would be ample time for the dragons to gain enough strength to fight him. You. And if a fight never came to pass, then the hope was simply to let the children live in peace. Something hard to achieve in the year X377.”

“The dragon soul technique,” Acnologia noted, on a part completely unrelated to matters concerning fighting him. “Zeref mentioned that, but even though I’m a dragon, I don’t know what that is. There’s not a plethora of…sources, either.”

Anna nodded. “It seems it is an innate but secret dragon spell. Only a few dragons know of it and how to teach it, Grandeeny being one of them. To my understanding, it reshapes their soul. It can be used as more substantial form of shape shifting, or, as a way to condense themselves—shrink their soul into a different container entirely.” She wasn’t sure of the specifics herself, but she knew that such powerful magic was not without consequence.

“So why’d they do that?” Gajeel asked. She felt everyone’s stares on her.

“So that they could hide away and…use their souls to quell your dragon seeds—so that you will not turn into a dragon, but rather, remain human.”

It took a moment, but it began to dawn on the occupants of the room around the same time.

“Yes. Your parents are…inside of you.”

The air was heavy with the knowledge. It was Gajeel that finally broke it. “What the hell?”

“Before you ask, I don’t know how long it would be, or exactly how aware they are inside of you. But I do know that they were confident that they could stop the dragonizing process, and…” Here was the next part she was loathed to tell, but he was equally loathed to give them false hope. “And that it would not be sustainable for them, with their…conditions, the way they were. Should they ever come out, they won’t have long to live.”

They gasped, and she can see the horror sinking into their too young faces. Wendy especially was stricken by it, tears beginning to slide down her face, while Rogue and Gajeel were shocked to inaction.

“Just know… Know that they loved you very much, okay. They still do. They knew that they were going to die soon anyway, so they wanted you to live fulfilling lives without them. Please, please don’t be cross with them for doing it, and don’t blame yourselves. They didn’t tell you, because they hoped that you wouldn’t have to be burdened by their choices.”

With that, Anna stood. “For what it is worth, I am very sorry you had to find out like this. Or that it happened in the first place.” She bowed her head, and left the room swiftly without another word, exiting the house and taking a shuddering breath outside.

The plan may be without further action, but the children were safe now, and that was all that mattered. It was achieved without any assistance from her. If they weren’t, then there was nothing she could do about it. She was sure that Igneel, and Grandeeny, and all of them would be disappointed with her, but if not even they could contend with Acnologia, how could she?

Anna had been a fool, believing that she could care for the five of them. They were inside, heartbroken, and she hadn’t the slightest idea how to comfort them. She doubted it was her place to, anyway.

She knew she had been the only choice to go in with the kids, considering Zeref’s curse, but she had mistakenly convinced herself that her experience as a mother would give her the ability to handle this. However, in hindsight, she had never been a great mother. She lost her parents to the collateral Acnologia’s rampage when she was a teenage girl, and when she married the village’s heir as per plan, and she then became a mother, she was never entirely sure what to do. Anna was a mage—a scientist. She explored and she discovered, but people were a different matter entirely. The only times she felt a connection with her daughter was when they were practicing magic, but she wasn’t sure that was substantial. Her husband had always been closer to her. Maybe that was how Anna found the strength to leave them behind with her burdens—she never cared as much as she should have.

The children seemed happy in the guild. With Acnologia. She may have been kidding herself the first time, but now, they really didn’t need her.

“Wait.”

Anna stopped. She did not expect anyone to come after her after what she just told them, and she expected even less for it to be Acnologia.

“I know what you must be thinking, but you don’t have to leave,” he said, catching up to her quickly.

She didn’t know what surprised her more: his words, or how earnest they were. And here she was expecting him to finish her off. “They don’t need me, though.”

His lips twitched downward in a half-frown. If she didn’t know any better, she would say that he was disappointed. “Maybe not, but leaving them, especially without a word, will only hurt them. They’re good kids, and they keep a lot of people in their hearts. They talked about you, you know.”

Anna wasn’t sure that there were many people that they could talk about. Their circle was so small, she hardly considered herself relevant simply by being the only true human among them. “There’s nothing else I can do,” she argued. “I know it wasn’t much, but that’s everything I have to tell them, and I’m not… I can’t take care of them, like I was supposed to. It would be better if I let them be.”

“You don’t have to do anything,” Acnologia countered simply. “You don’t even have to stay in Magnolia. You just need to be there, where they can reach you, and just promise them that you’ll come back. That’s all they ever wanted. From any of you. It’ll be enough.”

Her shame constricted her chest. She hadn’t considered it like that, before.

Maybe… Acnologia was right. Maybe she didn’t need to be anything she wasn’t. She could play to her strengths. They were all mages, after all. Maybe, it wouldn’t be so bad, if she dropped by every now and then and practiced magic with them. Or just…visited.

Maybe she could manage that.

“I will,” she promised. “And…”

It was hard to imagine that the man next to her was the dragon that killed so many, including her kinsman. It would be a lie to say that she wasn’t still uncomfortable—that she hadn’t forgotten her vow to remove the threat he posed to her world. But she couldn’t deny that he was different; at the very least, he was satisfied enough with the world that he no longer wanted to watch it burn. Ironically, he might be the lesser of threats when compared to Zeref. She only spoke to him once, since returning, but even considering the nature of his curse, it seemed his care for this world had withered dangerously.

Anna was in no position to make demands, especially to a being she held no leverage or ability over, if he was truly human now, in some sense of the word, then she would test it.

“And promise me that you’ll take care of the kids.”

Acnologia smiled. It was surprisingly gentle, and for once, his eyes looked soft. “Always.”

Nothing had been according to plan, but that was okay. Things would work out.

Anna set off. She was no longer a wanderer, and she was no longer searching for the impossible. She had a chance to live her life anew, and maybe she should take it. But she wouldn’t forget the burdens she held, nor the ones she created. She would still take responsibility, even if that responsibility was knowing that she was no longer the person for the job. She would do what she had to do.

And she would come back. Even if it took a while, even if it was hard, she would find a way. Anna knew she needed to sort through her feelings on the matter first, in private, but even if she could not disconnect her emotions entirely, she would find a way to function. At the very least, this was an opportunity to study Acnologia and his magic, and to analyze how ‘changed’ he really was. It was almost exciting. This time… This time, she would come back.

She promised.

Chapter Text

July 18, X778

 

“Just admit it, Laxus—you took a wrong turn. Again.”

“And what if I meant to come to this town?”

“Nah, he’s totally lost.”

“That’s what you boys get for never taking the train like civilized people.”

“Wandering around is pretty fun, though. Right Lux?”

“…both of you are insufferable.”

Laxus dragged his face against his hands, wondering what he did to deserve this. This was supposed to be a quiet job. Just him, the countryside of Fiore, and a group of shitty thieves he was going to beat the snot out of. A normal day.

Bickslow was a normal tag-a-long on these things, but Evergreen was new. Ever since he helped the girl with that job in the beginning of the year, she kept trying go on more jobs with him, even though she judged him for half of the things he did. It didn’t help that Bickslow found her nagging (at his expense) amusing and encouraged it. Laxus was glad that she got along with Bickslow, but his own sanity seemed to be the price.

Evergreen huffed. She had this amazing ability to act inconvenienced, when, in fact, she was the inconveniencer. “Fine. But if you insist on taking the long way back to Magnolia, then I’m taking a rest stop here.”

Well, that was one way to get her off of his back. “Don’t take too long,” he called after her. She made a shooing motion at him from behind her back, which might have just been her equivalent of flipping him off. He wasn’t sure.

“Food’s not a bad idea, since we listened to you for some reason and came this direction,” Bickslow piped up. “I think I’mma grab me something too.”

“Yeah, well, you guys can stop listening to me anytime you want,” Laxus grumbled. It was an honest mistake. It wasn’t his fault that Fiore had road signs at least a hundred years old and they changed road names all the time. He thought ‘Arbor Road’ was just the old name for ‘Harbor Road’ but apparently not.

“It’s more fun this way,” Bickslow informed him, cheeky as ever. He didn’t know what else he expected.

“Then stop complaining—wait.” Laxus cut himself off, suddenly wanting to focus on the noise that cut in through the usual ambience of a town. It was hard to tell, but there might have been yelling. And definitely a scream, which was unsettling in itself. “Do you hear that? It sounds like a fight.”

Bickslow quieted and looked around, before shaking his head. “I don’t have your weird dragon ears, dude, but I can check it out,” he replied. “Babies?”

At his command, the souls flew outwards in all different directions. Laxus knew that Bickslow’s babies would be better at tracking down the source of the noise than he would without physically going there. It was probably nothing, but Evergreen was somewhere, and he would feel bad if the kid got into trouble on his watch. (Even if she hadn’t really been invited in the first place.)

The loud sounds died down soon after he picked up on them. He was probably worrying over nothing. Things happened in towns. It could be innocuous. Those stupid, shitty invisible thieves must have just set him on edge.

Unfortunately, it looked like his paranoia was founded when Bickslow inhaled sharply and grimaced.

“What is it?” he asked, fearing the answer. He couldn’t hear anything anymore—not from here—so he was relying on the sight of the babies.

“East district, in a pub—there’s some sort of guild or gang there, that just had a fight.” Bickslow paused, looking over to him even though Laxus knew he was seeing through one of his babies’ eyes. “They have one of our guildmates.”

“What?! Is Evergreen—?!”

“It’s not her,” Bickslow said quickly. “It’s that new teen dude.” He paused, tilting his head. “I think they’re just gloating right now, so we have time.”

Well shit. Maybe it was a good thing he got lost and ended up here. “Send someone to go get Evergreen,” Laxus decided, “and let’s go.”

“Peppe is on it.”

They hurried to the east district. Normally, Laxus wasn’t one to get involved in other people’s quests or affairs, but he made an exception if they were obviously out of their depth. No one should be babied unnecessarily, but everyone should live to see tomorrow. Why be a guild at all if people didn’t lend a hand every once in a while? It was all about circumstance, and right now, it seemed that circumstance was dictating that his guildmate needed help. It was simple as that.

With Bickslow knowing the way, and Laxus listening out for further signs of incident, it didn’t take long to get there. He knew the place was full of hostiles, and he knew that they hurt his guild mate. That was enough for him.

Laxus kicked down the door, lightning gathering at his ankle. The door slammed across the room, into the bar, and all eyes were on him. Good. They looked like a bunch of thugs to him, though maybe a few of them had magic. He saw a green haired kid on the ground, and a blue-gray haired man standing above him; something about the man registered as a threat to Laxus, as if his very scent carried something odd and dark about it, and the way he was dressed made him stand out among the others. The leader, probably.

Every last one of them were distracted by his entrance like the doofuses they were, however, and that gave him all the time he needed to show these punks what a mage could really do.

“Bix!”

“On it!”

As four of his babies flew towards the kid on the floor, Laxus summoned his magic. Lightning was fast, and it traveled easily; with Bickslow working to shield their guildmate, Laxus indiscriminately filled the entire pub with lightning, seizing every thug before they had the chance to make the first move.

Half of them passed out without any further moves made against them. How pathetic. The other half weren’t faring much better. When Laxus stopped electrocuting the floor and moved in, many of the lunging thugs were slow and uncoordinated, leading Laxus to be able to strike each person before they could get a shot at him. Laxus was fast, and lightning made his punches strong; they never stood a chance.

He was sure that between their surprise entry, his combat-oriented magic and Bickslow’s support, and the thugs’ tired stupidity, he could have finished the fight within thirty seconds. However, it turned that there was at least one competent fighter among them.

“Pain!”

Laxus barely registered the word before his muscles tightened and his nerves were set on fire. He didn’t the feel the impact of any spell, but his entire body—head to toe—seized and ached like he had been shot by his own lightning.

He turned towards where the voice had come from to see the grayish-haired man with two fingers outstretched, his eyes black and pupils glowing purple.

Bickslow had moved the kid to the side, and now he had his babies circling in front of the guy and charging up an attack.

The man swiveled his outstretched arm in his direction, and swiftly used his fingers to write in the air. “Blind.” The words flew through the air and slapped Bickslow in the face, causing him to stagger back and croak in surprise.

The man smiled smugly. “There’s always a reason when a mage protects their eyes.”

Damn script magic! Laxus gritted his teeth and pushed through. He had never seen this kind of script magic at work before, but he knew a little bit about it because of Levy, so he knew it was literal. This was just pain, not injury, and it would not stop him—it wasn’t as bad as being fried by a lacrima anyway.

He dug his heel into the floorboard and filled his calf with lightning magic. The man may be clever with his magic, but now that Laxus knew what he was doing, he wasn’t going to give him the time to write. Laxus propelled himself forward, strengthening his forearm in turn with lightning magic and allowing the excess to crackle around him; he socked the man in the jaw, hard enough to send him flying backwards into the wall.

“Wha—?!” the man choked, weird purple eyes wide and fading to a black and yellow. (Which was still weird, but okay.) He braced himself against the wall like he was about to try something, but Laxus jumped out of the way just in time for the soul strike from Bickslow’s babies to finish charging and fire. The energy from the beam slammed the man deeper in the wall. Just because he was blinded, it didn’t mean his souls were.

Laxus was hoping that the script mage was squishy and would go down after the back-to-back heavy attacks, but suddenly, a gray arm was reaching out of Bickslow’s attack. Bastard was tankier than he thought. His vision was started to get spotty from the constant barrage on his nervous system, but Laxus readied his magic for another attack anyways, hoping to finally take him down.

Bickslow’s attack was barely over before Laxus chucked a halberd into the mage’s midsection, taking him from the wall to straight through the bar. Frustrated with his resilience, he sent another arc of lightning crashing after for good measure.

The dust hadn’t settled yet, but the tension in his muscles and nerves vanished, so he must finally be down. He breathed a sigh of relief now that his chest was constricting, and he saw Bickslow raise his head and look around, so his sight was probably back too.

“Figured you two would find a mess as soon as I left you,” Evergreen said from the doorway, announcing her presence as she stepped cautiously over the debris and bodies. Peppe was floating by her head, but once she made it to them, the doll joined the others with a chirp.

“Hey, this wasn’t our fault,” Bickslow retorted. “It just happened.”

She made a noise of doubt in the back of her throat. However, before she could say something sassy at their expense, a soft groan from the floor elicited their attention.

The green-haired kid from Fairy Tail rose abruptly, eyes wide in the expectation of a fight, only to stare dumbly when he made eye contact with the three of them. Oh shit, the kid; Laxus had almost forgotten him when the fight got intense. It was hard enough to function with the pain spell, much less pay attention to his surroundings properly. At least he was okay now. He looked a little roughed up but not overly so, so Laxus would guess that he was affected by the asshat with the script magic.

The dude was one of the newer members, though Laxus couldn’t remember when he joined. It might have been before Evergreen, even, but Laxus never had much of a reason to talk to him, though he recognized him from the guild hall, though the kid wasn’t there often. He was a teenager, though Laxus had no clue how old he actually was. He had long green hair and a slender face, but he was short. It was hard to tell if he was a pipsqueak like Evergreen, or just not done growing.

“You okay?” Laxus asked. “We were in town and noticed you getting beat up.”

At that, the kid bowed his head. “It was my shortcoming. I truly apologize,” he said tightly and miserably.

Laxus was taken back by the formality. Sure, he got hit by the script mage and was incapacitated, but the group as a whole was worthless enough that he was sure to handle it when he recovered. He did get his ass handed to him, but this wasn’t the type of job someone should take solo unless they were sure of themselves. He was alive now, though, so this was just a point moving forward. Though he didn’t need to act so pathetic right now; it was just uncomfortable, and it’s not like Laxus was going to beat him over the head for it. (He had enough of that, it would seem.)

Luckily, Bickslow was better at this kind of stuff than he was, so he was able to jump in faster. “Easy dude, don’t sweat it that much. It was just lucky you got guildmates around, yeah?” Bickslow placated with his signature smile. “It’s Freed, right?”

Of course Bix knew his name. He knew everybody, somehow, even if he had never spoken to them a day in their lives. Laxus wasn’t unconvinced that these things weren’t written on their souls or something, even though Bickslow swore it wasn’t.

“Yes, it is,” Freed replied, looking startled to be known. Guess he was one of the ones Bickslow just noticed. “And you’re all from Fairy Tail, too, correct?”

“You know it,” Evergreen chirped with a wink.

Now that the awkward introduction was out of the way, Laxus moved on to the next item. “Are you hurt?” he asked. Laxus couldn’t smell any blood or burns, but that didn’t mean that there wasn’t something else.

But Freed shook his head. “No, I am alright. I was just hit with an unconscious rune.” He grimaced, blue eye shifting over to where the man lay in the broken counter.

Evergreen winced. “That sounds powerful,” she sympathized.

It did. He didn’t use the same trick on them, so either he expelled too much power on the first, or he couldn’t use the same script—or rune, as Freed called it. Laxus didn’t know that much about that kind of magic, so how was he to know?

Laxus followed Freed’s gaze to the incapacitated rune mage. Huh. His arms were half morphed into some furry gray form and there were claws on his hands. The transformation didn’t look complete, and normally that kind of magic was negated when a mage was knocked out. Laxus would question whether or not he was truly unconscious if it weren’t for the fact that the scripts stopped. Oh well. It wasn’t his job anyway.

“What happened?” Laxus asked next. This, he was somewhat curious about.

Slowly, Freed pulled his gaze from the mage. There seemed to be some connection between the two that Laxus couldn’t quite place. Unless the kid was just that bothered by being beat, but that didn’t explain the weird…familiarity.

“It was a job,” Freed explained to no one’s surprise. “This pub acts as a hideout of sorts for a group of thieves. The job was to retrieve from them the client’s stolen heirloom. However, when I was scoping out the place…” He grimaced, gaze flitting to the fallen mage briefly. “I was thrown off guard and taken down as a result. I suppose I failed.”

Wow, he was really beating himself up, huh? He seemed shaken up over the matter, so it made sense, but the kid was dramatic. “No,” Laxus countered. “You said the job was to retrieve the heirloom, right? You can still do that, can’t you?”

Freed stared dumbly. “But you were the one who defeated the thieves. You deserve the credit.”

“That has nothing to do with your job,” he pressed, shaking his head. Damn, kid was dense. “So go finish your job. We were just looking out for you, that’s all. It’s what guildmates do.”

Laxus was beginning to suspect that Freed was younger than he originally guessed by the way he was looking at Laxus like the world finally made sense. It’s not like Laxus did much of anything, though—just beat up some thugs.

He cleared his throat. “Well, uh, we’ll get going and leave you to it, unless you need anything else?” Laxus eyed the mage. “We can send for someone to handle that one, if you think it’s necessary.” He may just be a thief, but as a mage, the Rune Knights would handle him, and he obviously did something to freak Freed out.

To his surprise, Freed shook his head quickly. “No, that’s not necessarily. He’s a useless vagabond, but not that dangerous.”

“If you say so,” Evergreen remarked with a shrug. “Anyways, I left as soon as I ordered thanks to you, so I’m going to go back and get my food.”

“Ooh, is the food any good? I’m starving,” Bickslow added. Before he knew it, the two of them had scurried off, and Laxus numbly realized that he had no idea where they were going.

Oh well.

Despite his statement on the matter, Freed was still eyeing the script mage as he proceeded to pick around the debris, observing the counter. Laxus knocked him pretty hard, so he probably wasn’t getting up anytime soon, but he understood the concern. It was one of the reasons he was hovering still despite what he said.

It was also the weird…smell. Laxus couldn’t place it, and he had a feeling it was part of the “dragon slayer” thing that no one else was bothered by, so he was left to figure it out on his own. The man just seemed familiar, somehow, though Laxus didn’t remember ever fighting someone like him before. It was weird.

It wasn’t until he noticed Freed writing a purple rune on a back wall that it clicked. The smell was all right here. They looked different, but it was same smell—the same way that the Strauss siblings kinda smelled the same. Coupled with the way Freed seemed equally nervous and apathetic.

Yeah, Laxus could recognize that anywhere; he knew what it was like to have a shitty family member. Even though it was their fault, the proximity to them couldn’t help but make you feel either responsible or victimized. Maybe both, depending. It sucked.

He didn’t want to leave Freed alone, even if it wasn’t likely that the guy would wake up, but he didn’t want to intrude either, so he just hung by the door until Freed found the thing he was looking for.

Satisfied that nothing else happened, Laxus shoved his hands in his pockets and began to leave, knowing he was going to have to figure out where the other two went. However, he couldn’t help but to stop and look over his shoulder at Freed again, who was still acting skittish. Yes, it sucked having to deal with family when they were making a fool of themselves, but it must suck worse when they were still alive.

“He’s not your problem either, you know,” he said finally. “He makes his choices, and you make yours.”

It was a terrible pep talk, but it was something. It bothered Laxus to think that his guildmate was having to go through something like that.

He would leave him to go finish his job, though. Laxus had hovered enough. He needed to go find Evergreen and Bickslow now.

…somehow.

Chapter Text

April 8, X779

 

He honestly did not know how this always happened.

Laxus would decide to go on a job by himself, and sometimes he succeeded, and sometimes Bickslow tagged along, and sometimes Evergreen would show up too, and sometimes, it was Bickslow, Evergreen, and Freed, and suddenly, they were an entire group. With a few exceptions, they were never invited; they just came, and Laxus accepted it. The experiences were never terrible, though, so Laxus never said anything to the contrary either.

Maybe this was what Acnologia meant when he called them his ‘puppies.’ They were energetic and sometimes noisy, but sincere enough that Laxus didn’t mind. He still found it weird, though. With the exception of maybe some of the S-Class jobs or particularly specific jobs, Laxus didn’t need their help, and in turn, Laxus knew their abilities well enough to know that they didn’t always need his help either.

Bickslow made sense. Even though Bickslow was great with people—much better at conversation than Laxus was—he didn’t like going on jobs by himself. The only exceptions were jobs with clients that he knew decently. Laxus didn’t blame him in the slightest, because even though some people didn’t ask questions, and some people didn’t assume the worst, there were just as many who would treat a user of black magic as badly as they would a demon or a follower of Zeref, as if those were supposed to be congruous. That aside, Laxus also knew that Bickslow hated to be alone. Even though Laxus was perfectly fine with solitude, it did no favors to Bickslow, even with his five soul companions keeping him company. Bickslow was good at companionable silence though, so they worked well together despite their differences.

Evergreen, on the other hand, was a complete mystery to him, especially for the first year or so since he met her. She would act like she was completely independent and didn’t need the help, but she was hiding behind him or Bickslow as soon as things got intense. Not that she couldn’t handle herself. For someone on the younger side, Evergreen had some impressive firepower when she had confidence. Laxus knew that she took some jobs on her own, too, but she seemed to jump at the opportunity to come with him whenever she could, generally making excuses along the way like feigning boredom or acting like she was doing them a favor. Laxus thought that she might be lonely, but he didn’t see her worm her away into going on jobs with other people. As talkative as she was, maybe she was just as bad at socializing as he was. She was weird, but she could be insightful at times. Besides, the kid had good taste in music, so she could be fun to have around.

Freed, however, baffled him the most. He was as young as Evergreen, but he vacillated between wide-eyed kid that looked like he was seeing magic for the first time and an uncannily responsible and competent mage. Laxus had no idea why, because sure, kids were kids, but everyone else was somewhat consistent. If he had to compare Freed to anyone it would be Erza—mature beyond their years but still new to the world—and that always bothered him, because he remembered when Erza joined the guild and looked like death walking. Nothing about Freed was quite so severe, though, and Laxus would never ask unless he thought it was necessary, so he let it be. Freed was probably the worst at being clingy, and that was counting the fact that the kid sometimes disappeared for what seemed like weeks on end. There were times that Laxus actually grew worried that Freed wasn’t shyly asking to tag along or getting invited along by Laxus’ bolder uninvited travel mates. Even though his unique rune magic was quickly becoming more and more refined, and the fifteen-year-old could be very focused and observant when there was a task at hand, it seemed to Laxus that he had poor self-esteem. He was finding ways to give credit to somebody else, especially to Laxus, at every turn. It worried Laxus, though it was also exhausting to handle. He hoped that Freed could learn a thing or two from Evergreen in that regard.

Maybe Laxus didn’t mind having the three of them around because otherwise he would just worry about them. Laxus in no way wanted to diminish their abilities, and he trusted his guildmates, but he also knew that they were all outcasts of sorts, and people could be cruel, and their skin wasn’t as tough as they made it out to be. Freed’s right eye turned black with his magic, and Laxus didn’t miss the way he grew his hair over it. Evergreen let it slip that she’s been kicked out of somewhere before, maybe her home before Fairy Tail, and Laxus knew that people were discomfited by the idea of being turned to stone with a glance. Bickslow went without saying, and Laxus had already beaten off idiots from his friend before.

Laxus himself wasn’t normal by any means, even for a mage, especially since his teeth were always sharp now and his eyes dilated differently. It wasn’t something many people noticed at a glance, and he was lucky that most of his guildmates were still oblivious, but Laxus was familiar with being on the receiving end of strange looks. However, he knew that people backed off whenever he was around, no matter what they thought. The distinction of being an S-Class mage helped greatly, and he was glad that nobody questioned them while he was around.

If the younger ones stuck to him because they trusted him to protect them, then Laxus wouldn’t let them down. He wouldn’t let any of them down. In turn, Laxus knew he could trust them with his own secret. It was hard enough to hide the fact that he was a dragon slayer just by existing, much less in a fight, and Evergreen and Freed were smart. But they understood that he didn’t have the same choice in the matter as the ‘first generation’ dragon slayers, and that Laxus might literally rather die than have to explain to his gramps what his dad actually did to him. Not that he was sure he could keep it up for much longer. He knew he shouldn’t, but it was still easier than addressing it.

Wow. They really were a strange group, weren’t they? Maybe Evergreen’s suggestion wasn’t a terrible idea.

“I’m serious,” she pressed, repeating herself, “we should just officially be a team already. I know it’s a big sacrifice on my part, but I’m willing to do it. It would only be fitting at this point.”

The four of them had been seated around a table at a tavern in this middle of no-where town they took a job in when Evergreen dropped the idea mid-meal. He had been too tired to process it the first time around, but the implications were starting to dawn on him.

“It is an interesting idea,” Bickslow agreed. “It could be fun, and we already got the rep for it.” His friend waved a hand in front of his face. “I think you killed Laxus and his poor introvert brain though. He’s been staring at the wall for like thirty minutes. He didn’t even finish his roll.”

“Dead, dead!” some of his babies echoed.

Laxus blinked out of his thoughts groggily. “I’m not dead.”

“Thank goodness, because that would be a really sad obituary. Like, really pathetic.”

“Shut up, I was just thinking,” he grumbled, hiding his amused smile behind his food. Bickslow was going to be the real death of him, that was for sure.

Freed looked thoughtful as well, steepling his fingers in front of his nose. “Wouldn’t the three of us forming a team with an S-Class mage diminish Laxus’ ability to go on jobs?” he wondered. “Since the team status would link our records.”

Leave it to Freed to somehow worry about him. Laxus shook his head. “Maybe? But that really doesn’t matter. The only jobs that get picky about the tier of S-Class mages are the SS-ranked and higher, and I wouldn’t be cleared to go on those for a few more years anyway.”

Gildarts—and Gramps, of course—were the only “senior” S-Class ranks in Fairy Tail. The second distinction of class wasn’t widespread knowledge, and admittedly, Laxus had been irked when he first heard about it…until Gildarts told him all about what SS-ranked and 10-year-ranked jobs entailed, and Laxus was reminded that Gildarts was on a different level of skill entirely. Few guilds had mages of his caliber, and Fairy Tail received jobs that other guilds didn’t even get to look at for that reason. Of course, Laxus knew that as soon as Gramps went through the formalities with Acnologia, he could jump straight to the level that Gildarts was at, but he was definitely an exception in every sense of the word.

It was fine. Laxus didn’t mind, because the regular S-Class missions were enough as it was. And they typically only required at least one S-Class mage to be present, so having a team didn’t matter so long as they were at least halfway competent, and Laxus would certainly say that these three were, even the younger ones. “Actually, it would probably help,” Laxus decided. “It promises diversity of skills to the client, and it would raise your reputation too.”

Freed was still frowning. “Still, it would be presumptuous of us to exploit Laxus’ position for our own gain,” he argued, completely overthinking the matter.

“If you don’t want to be a team, you can just say so,” Laxus told him gently. “It’s okay.” Freed may be clingy, but he had a sense of independence, and Laxus understood completely. Although strangely enough, Laxus himself didn’t feel as burdened by the idea of officially becoming a team than he thought.

“No!” Freed squeaked, his fifteen-year-old-ness bleeding out finally. “No, I mean, yes! I do want to be in a team, but we couldn’t— We shouldn’t be rude about it to—”

“Freed, calm down, it’s fine,” Evergreen shushed, patting his shoulder. “If Laxus says it’s fine with him, then it’s fine. You know how brutally honest he is.” The youngest then looked over at him with those big doe eyes. “I-I mean, if it is fine with you, of course.”

That was as much of a direct question as he was going to get, so what was his answer? Laxus never imagined himself as a member of a team. He always thought they were either for the gimmick, or because people were just that attached to each other. But Shadow Gear was a team, and he knew that they sometimes went on jobs separately, or with other people, so it was probably more of a statement than an absolute. Besides, Laxus expected to go on jobs with these three fairly often anyway, and if anything, making it official would ease the constant wondering in his mind. He supposed that team names were no different than guild marks—it was a symbol of unity, just more tight-knit. Laxus already knew that he would go to the ends of the earth for these guys if they asked, and he trusted them more than most. Honestly, the idea of sucking it up and making a team sounded pretty nice. It was a way to say something without having to find the right words.

“It’s fine. I think it would be nice.”

At his reply, Evergreen squealed and hugged his arm. “Thank you thank you thankyou!” she gushed, completely giving herself away after her usual ‘cool’ act beforehand. He couldn’t help but to roll his eyes with a smile at the display.

“Ooo now we just need a cool team name, right?” Bickslow continued, bouncing in his chair.

“We need something fitting for our esteem, of course,” Evergreen stated. “I was thinking something along the lines of ‘the Royal Fairies’ or ‘the Fae Elite.’”

Bickslow poked his tongue out like the words themselves were bitter. “Just ‘cuz you got the fairy gig going doesn’t mean we all do,” he argued. “I don’t wanna sound like snobs.”

“We’re all Fairy Tail mages though,” Evergreen rebutted. “So just because I’m the most fairy-like doesn’t mean it can’t imply.”

“Sorry Ever, I’m with Bickslow on this one,” Laxus cut in. “I don’t think that really fits us.”

“Yeah, I was thinking more along the lines of ‘Scary Eye Weirdos’ or ‘the Flying Freaks of Fairy Tail’ or maybe just ‘the Totally Awesome Quartet.’ I’m leaning towards the alliteration if you ask me.”

“Okay, so Bix isn’t allowed to name anything—”

“Hey!” Bickslow pouted.

Laxus leveled a deadpan at him. “All of those were terrible.”

“You never even gave them a chance.”

“…because they were terrible.”

“And you had the audacity to shoot mine down immediately,” Evergreen huffed. “At least they weren’t offensive.”

Freed cleared his throat. “Perhaps a better theme than our guild or our oddness is in order?” he suggested, and Laxus could tell that he already had ideas. “The eye theme is…mostly true, but Laxus doesn’t have eye magic.”

“He’s got lizard eyes, so that counts, right?” Bickslow retorted.

“Yeah, but having ‘lizard eyes’ isn’t the same as active magic,” Laxus said, agreeing with Freed. Besides, he doubted that calling attention to that aspect was wise.

“Precisely,” Freed continued. “I was thinking something along the lines of the ‘Thunder Legion.’”

“Thunder Legion?” Bickslow echoed, tilting his head. “That sounds like a lot more people than just the four of us.”

Evergreen nodded. “It has a ring to it, but if Laxus is lightning, doesn’t that leave him out?” she teased playfully.

“Yeah, even if we just throw him at things first.”

“Throw! Throw!”

Freed tapped his chin. “No, you’re right. Then how about… ‘The Thunder God and his Tribe’? Since Laxus is the S-Class mage among us.”

Okay, hell no. “Please don’t,” Laxus managed, dumping his face in his hands. If Bickslow didn’t kill him with his shenanigans, then Freed was going to embarrass him to death.

“That’s just as long as Bickslow’s!” Evergreen squeaked.

Bickslow slapped a hand over his chest in mock hurt. “Am I the benchmark for bad ideas now?”

“Yes,” she replied without skipping a beat.

“Woooooow.”

“The thunder vibe isn’t bad though,” she continued, more thoughtful. “It’s a little gritty, but elegant. We are pretty badass, too, if I say so myself.”

“Okay, okay.” Laxus held out his hands placatingly, stalling for thought. “The thunder theme does have merit, but no singling me out. It’s a team name. One that people need to be able to take seriously.”

“If I say I like the thunder thing too, will it stop being considered?” Bickslow asked. “Because I think it’s cool. We got the lightning, and thunder is all mysterious and weird and boomy, and we blow things up all the time, but there’s also rain and clouds and stuff and that’s neat.”

Freed took all suggestions in stride and nodded along. “I see, so we want to take the whole system into account. ‘Cumulonimbus,’ perhaps?”

Even though his helmet shielded his eyes from view, Laxus could imagine that Bickslow was blinking dumbly based on his expression. Evergreen and Laxus himself was the same way, and they had an education. “The what?”

“The cloud type that produces thunderstorms,” Freed explained.

“Wait, you mean clouds have official names and not just the ones I make up in my head?”

 “Yes. Actually, weather systems can be quite interesting, given that—”

“Okaaaay,” Evergreen interrupted, “back to naming. Sorry Freed, but cumuleo— whatever it was is just to long. People have to be able to pronounce it.”

“Not to mention if we ask Chico to write that down on the form, she might cry,” Laxus added.

Evergreen nodded. “Exactly. Maybe something a little simpler—and more elegant. Like ‘Thunder’s Rain’ or ‘Weathervane.’”

“Oh yeah, Laxus loves weathervanes, right buddy?” Bickslow teased despite Laxus’ fierce scowling. He was never going to let him live that one down, was he? Never mind the fact that the topic of him being a lightning rod unfortunately came up more times than he would like.

“How about ‘Thunder Spear’ or ‘Thunder Strike’?” Laxus suggested instead.

He thought that they were pretty good suggestions, all things considered, but Evergreen laid a hand on his shoulder and shook her head. “The only things you name are your magic attacks, and it shows.”

Laxus let his head drop to the table. Ouch. That hurt. It was true, but still.

“Why don’t we just stick with ‘Thunderstorm’ then?”

All three of them looked in Bickslow’s direction with astonishment.

“That’s…actually not bad,” Evergreen admitted.

‘Actually’?!”

“Bix, you used a collective six letters to name these little darlings of yours,” she argued, stroking Peppe. “It's sad. Isn’t that right, Perseus?”

The soul rubbed itself against Evergreen’s cheek with a happy croon. Bickslow looked utterly betrayed, but Evergreen had a point about the name thing. He knew that nobody knew the souls’ real names, or even much about them save for their…situation, but at least they seemed happy with whatever they got. Evergreen was going to spoil them for sure though.

“It’s true though,” Laxus said. “The name’s not bad. It’s simple, but I think that works in this context.”

Freed nodded, eyes sparking in interest. “Laxus is right. The simplicity of the common word gives context to all the implications in this setting, and it’s easy to remember for traveling purposes.”

“Guuuuys. I can’t tell if you think it’s dumb or not.”

“No, I like it,” Laxus replied, and the sentiment was echoed by Evergreen and Freed.

Thunderstorms were complicated, with many different parts, and they could bring destruction or sometimes they just brought rain. Laxus always liked them for that reason, because they did so many things, and so did their team. Not to mention that thunderstorms were intimidating and not to be trifled with; there was something to be said about forces of nature that not even magic could replicate.

They were an unlikely group, but they worked well together, and Laxus believed that they could be a force of nature for good. He still didn’t know how they came to be, except maybe by the winds of chance, but Laxus was okay with that. He was just glad that it happened.

Chapter Text

June 4, X782

 

“Come on, Lisanna, we’re going on a job.”

Natsu couldn’t help but to deflate a little at the words. It was a nice day out, and even though they weren’t doing anything but fish on the lake, he was enjoying the time with his two friends.

Especially since Mirajane had been trying to go on more jobs with her siblings since she became S-Class. Maybe she realized that it was better to spend time with her little siblings than constantly trying to achieve more power? Although Lisanna didn’t seem thrilled to go on jobs with her all the time, so maybe not. Natsu tried to stay out of it though, because he hated to think that he would get in the way of their family just because he was a demon.

“But guys,” Lisanna rebutted with a frown, “it’s our day off. And the fish are biting!”

“An S-Class job is more exciting than fishing,” Mirajane laughed, hands on her hips.

She was right, of course, but he could smell Happy’s disappointment already. He had been looking forward to fishing for a while, and Erik was finally out on a job when the three of them weren’t, so they could go to the house and cook them to their heart’s content. Even Happy was curious about what Lisanna meant about trying to bake it in stuff instead of just eating it, and Happy was weird and ate things raw. Oh well, there would be another time.

But Lisanna was still frowning. “You didn’t ask me earlier. I made plans.”

“It’ll be a manly job though!” Elfman interjected, holding the job flyer up. “An emergency monster-hunt to take down the ‘Beast.’ With all of us, it’ll be over before the next fish bites.”

“It’s good experience for the both of you to be able to utilize your magic,” Mirajane continued. “I know you can do it, and with me around, it’ll be a cinch.”

An S-Class monster fight did sound fun. If it weren’t Lisanna’s siblings, Natsu would be tempted to want to tag along, because there was something exciting about taking on giant beasts. However, Natsu didn’t want to be in range of Mirajane when she was seriously using magic, and it would only be awkward. He wouldn’t put Lisanna in that position. Maybe when Acnologia got back, he could convince him to take him on a job like that. Sometimes Acno would bring them with him so they could punch things too, and then he would swoop in if anything ever got serious. 

“No.”

Natsu snapped his head back to the conversation, surprised by what he heard. Mirajane and Elfman looked shocked too. Lisanna was upset. Her arms were crossed, and she had that smell about her, and Natsu knew she was serious. Because Lisanna was patient—amazingly, baffling patient in ways Natsu couldn’t begin to understand—and now she was mad. It was a little scary, even though Lisanna hadn’t moved from her position and her lips were only in a tight line.

Mirajane blinked rapidly, and for a moment she didn’t even look scary. “I’m sorry, you…”

“I said no,” Lisanna repeated, just as firm. “You can’t expect me to pick up everything and go on jobs with you. You two can handle it just fine without me, I’m sure.”

“But—” Elfman started.

No. I’ll go on a job with you when you can ask nicely and ahead of time. I went anyways the last time, and the time before that, but I’m tired. If you need a third, ask somebody else.”

The siblings stared at each other silently for a moment. Natsu couldn’t help but to watch, awed by the transaction, and a little confused all the same. Had something happened? Were they in a fight? Natsu couldn’t tell because they weren’t saying anything, and they weren’t literally fighting, but the worst fights between family tended to be silent. It was one of the things that made it so terrible to deal with.

Eventually, Mirajane and Elfman turned and left with an awkward “goodbye.” Lisanna didn’t move until they were gone and Natsu could only barely hear them shuffling along the forest path. She slumped her shoulders forward and breathed out.

Natsu and Happy shared a glance, and he could tell that Happy was as oblivious as he was. So Natsu asked, “Are you okay?”

Lisanna smiled, but it didn’t look quite right. “I’m fine, Natsu. I’m sorry you had to see that.”

Something was definitely happening, but Natsu didn’t know what. He doubted that there was anything he could do about it except cheer Lisanna up, but there was one thing he had to make sure about.

“You can go on a job with your siblings if you want. You don’t have to stay because of me.” Natsu really didn’t want to be the reason other people weren’t spending time with their families. That just felt wrong. He didn’t think Lisanna would do that, but the exchange had been odd. There had many tense encounters between them in the past, but Natsu assumed that they were uncomfortable because of him, not because of anything else, but now he wasn’t sure.

“No, no, Natsu it’s not because of that,” Lisanna explained, waving her hands in front of her. She sighed. “You go on jobs with your siblings all the time, but they never force you to go, right? O-or expect that you’re always going to drop everything last minute.”

Natsu blinked at the question. Did they? “I think Sting and Rogue made me be their body shield a few times, does that count?”

“But they ask you. Ahead of time. And your older brothers never just decide that you’re going on a job,” she continued, and Natsu finally understood where she was going with her line of questioning.

Oh. He never thought about it that way. It was true. With the exception of whenever Acno decided it was ‘training day’ (which nobody was exempt from), which they did get a warning for, it was always phrased as a question. Normally Natsu always went, because why not, but now that he thought about it, he did pass on some of those boring quests Wendy and Rogue wanted to do, mostly because he knew that they could easily convince Erik or Acno if they really didn’t want to be alone, because those quests just involved reading things and waiting around, and that wasn’t Natsu’s strong suit. Gajeel and Erik rarely asked, because they mostly did those sneaky quests and Natsu was better at direct combat. Sometimes they would do something more fun and invite him along, and sometimes Natsu was the one that wanted the company, and he would ask whoever was home at the time.

Even though they were his family, and they did stuff together a lot, they weren’t a team like Shadow Gear or Thunderstorm. They still did their own stuff and went on jobs with friends or by themselves, depending on the mood. Now that Lisanna mentioned it, it was true that it was rare that he ever got to go on a job with her, because she was often on one with her older siblings. He never thought much of it, because they were family so of course they were spending time together, but if Natsu had to go on those sit-at-a-bar-for-six-hours-and-find-a-thief quests all the time, he would rather be fishing too.

It was still sad that Lisanna wasn’t enjoying jobs with her siblings, and that they didn’t notice that she wasn’t wanting to go, but he understood, because Mirajane could be scary. He knew Lisanna still loved her, and Elfman, because of course she would. Natsu knew that nothing could ever really make family abandon each other, even if things got…complicated.

“Whoa! I got something!” Happy squeaked excitedly, and both he and Lisanna turned their attention toward him.

“It sounds big,” Natsu informed him with a grin, because it was flopping a ton underneath the water.

He stole one more glance to Lisanna, making sure she was doing better. She was starting to relax again, which was good, so Natsu took her by the arm with a smile. “Come on, we can’t let Happy do better than us!”

At his great relief, her resulting smile was brighter this time. “Right!”

—o0o—

The past day was one of the nicest Lisanna had in a while, and she felt guilty for it.

She continued to spend with the day with Natsu and Happy, and it was great. They fished, they cooked, and Natsu didn’t even set anything on fire. (Not that anyone let him do anything but ignite the stove, but still.) They watched one of those cheesy comedy lacrima-films and fell asleep on the couch, and even when she noticed in the middle of the night, she stayed because the couch was just as comfortable as the spare bed, and Happy was using her leg as a pillow so there was no need to move. It was nice. Relaxing. And best of all, she was with her two best friends.

It’s not that Lisanna didn’t want to spend time with Elf and Mira. She did, really, but she was just…tired. Tired of getting dragged along, tired of fruitlessly trying to convince her older siblings that not everything needed to end in a fight, and ultimately, tired of having to keep her mouth shut because she knew she couldn’t convince them. Not without jeopardizing the secrets of others, perhaps, but Lisanna hated to think that she would have to slap them with the truth in order for them to see. Even then, there was a part of her that was afraid that they still wouldn’t understand, and Lisanna didn’t know what she would do if she was ever in that kind of confrontation.

Because Mira and Elf wanted to become stronger. Lisanna didn’t fault them for that: every mage wanted to improve themselves, and that was a good thing. However, it seemed like it was their one goal, and everything they did was for that goal, and Lisanna couldn’t keep up.

No. That was a lie. She could keep up, but she didn’t want to. Lisanna knew that they meant well, that they were good people, but no gentle prodding could really persuade them that taking over the souls of demons and beasts wasn’t for the best. It was hard when they were right in the fact that most jobs that they went on involving those kinds of people meant that they were hurting somebody but… Lisanna couldn’t say that she was comfortable with it.

She couldn’t say much, though, because she had once thought like that as well. She thought that it was no different than the circle of life, and simply taking their magic so they couldn’t use it to hurt anybody. All three of them were predisposed toward the magic, and that wasn’t a bad thing. Perhaps Lisanna had been naïve to think that absorbing animals was the same as what her siblings did, but knowing that Natsu was demon, and remembering that time she got to go on a job with Acnologia and Natsu and they came across a family of weretigers and they had the nicest kids, made the difference clear.

Even then, Lisanna knew that there were boundaries. Acno had been the first one to ask her, when he was helping her along with some of the dragonlings with identifying smells, if animal souls stayed intact when she absorbed them and if she had their memory of scents, and Lisanna hadn’t known how to answer. She had to ask him more, and though the dragon admittedly didn’t know much about take-over magic, what he did know troubled her. Souls lingered. Souls were the essence of what a person was, and even if it was stripped to nothing but magic, there was personality in souls that ether did not have. Discussing the topic over with Bickslow solidified their understanding of their magic, and Lisanna was left with the realization that that was why take-over magic sometimes backfired: either the user’s soul subdued the absorbed soul, or it was the other way around.

Everything died eventually, but it was such a sad way to die.

Since then, every time Lisanna took over a new animal, she did so carefully, and she did so sparingly, like a hunter would in a forest he wanted to keep thriving. If the soul kicked back, she let it go. It only happened once, with a crow that burned in her chest until she released it to the sky, but she wanted to be a good resting spot for the creatures she made a part of her. It was so hard to tell if the animals were still inside of her, or if they faded long ago, and she didn’t know if Mira and Elf experienced similar sensations. Lisanna believed that the cat was still whole, because she felt something stir inside her whenever she called upon it. When she tried to release the cat, however, nothing happened, so Lisanna also held onto hope that take-overs could be mutual without the soul losing itself completely. Better yet, if Lisanna could spend enough time with the creature, such as benign animals, to simply take in its essence instead of its soul, she would. Lisanna wasn’t sure she could say the same for Mira and Elf. Elfman used to just imbibe upon creatures for his beast arm, but he was getting more restless about full take-overs because they were ‘stronger,’ although he hadn’t successfully accomplished one yet. She was secretly glad for it.

Her siblings seemed fine, for the most part, but after the realizations and theories made by her and Bickslow, both trying to glean from Acnologia in order to learn about the magic they happened to be born with, Lisanna noticed the changes. Mirajane obtained a cruel edge, and she wasn’t ashamed of her actions no matter what they were, and Elfman became obsessed with a concept he never could quite describe other than being ‘manly.’ They were subtle changes, and perhaps they really were a resulting of how they were growing up and seeing the world, but Lisanna couldn’t help but to wonder if those souls in them were still intact, or if they squirmed until they faded, or if they left more than magic behind.

Once, and only once, did Lisanna ask. She asked Mira if a demon ever fought being absorbed, and she replied, with complete nonchalance, “all the time.”

Lisanna was afraid to ask again. She didn’t want to know more about Mirajane if it was bad. It was the reason why she knew Natsu hated hearing about tales of Zeref; it was hurtful if it was false or misconstrued, but it was worse if it was true.

Maybe she should be better about explaining it to them. She didn’t have to sell out Natsu, or Bickslow, or Acnologia, or anybody—she could just present it as things she learned, or maybe just things she worried about. Lisanna knew that her siblings were good people, but they were so stubborn about protecting her, or getting stronger, that it was hard to get through to them, but maybe if she was more straightforward, she could. She hated confrontation, but she hated not doing anything when she knew better more.

All of those thoughts and feelings were mitigated, however, by her worry. It was almost noon, and they weren’t back yet. Nobody in the guild had seen them come in, and she hadn’t seen them herself. Elfman was so sure it was going to be a fast mission, and it really was nearby, too. Mira wasn’t the type to sight-see while on a job, or even stick around, and the only reasons she could think of for those two not completing a monster-hunt job quickly were all bad.

They wanted her to come with them. Maybe they really did think all three of them were necessary to beat it. Did they go in underpowered? Underprepared? Did they overestimate something? She was always the one making them be careful, to think twice, because they were always so focused on protecting her, their little sister, that they didn’t look out for themselves. She thought that maybe they would if she wasn’t there to coddle, but maybe she was the one overestimating them and their self-preservation.

Maybe she should go. Even if nothing was wrong, she could apologize, because she knew she acted coldly without them knowing the entirety of it. She was upset that they dragged her around, especially when she knew that the dragonlings functioned just as well and they weren’t clingy and they were honest, but there was so much more to it, and it was her fault too.

That could come later, though. Now she just needed to lay eyes on them, because something just felt…wrong.

“I’m going to check on them,” she declared, startling Natsu.

“On who?”

“My siblings. They’ve been gone too long now, and… And I just need to make sure they’re doing okay. The quest did seem hard, and it was a new one, so nobody had probably attempted it yet.” Now that she was speaking, the worry started to spill out of her. “What if they got hurt? Or if they’re in over their head? They’re too stubborn to turn back but they could need back-up, and—”

“Hey, if you’re worried, we can go,” Natsu replied, interrupting the stream of consciousness that was about to vomit from her mouth.

She looked over at Natsu and saw his dark eyes were somber, which was a rare and almost intimidating look on him, and he was standing too. Oh no, she hadn’t— she hadn’t meant to involve Natsu in this. It was her problem and her fault for not going with them in the first place, and she knew that Natsu was scared of Mirajane, and she never wanted to put her best friend in a bad spot like that.

“You don’t have to,” she insisted. “Besides, it could be nothing, but—”

She wasn’t surprised when he shook his head. “Family is important,” he said, and somehow everything held more weight when Natsu was the one being serious, and it wasn’t just her worrying. “Besides, they’re my guildmates too. Let’s go.”

Happy, too, nodded with a straight face. “Aye.”

Lisanna couldn’t help but to smile, even though the paranoia and negative feelings were still writhing in her chest. Family was important, but what would she do without her friends?

“Thank you.” She wrapped both of them in a hug and she meant it. “I know where it is. It’ll be faster if we fly.”

—o0o—

Natsu’s wings were as large as Mirajane’s, if not larger. Lisanna always loved seeing them, all red and leathery, even though there were so few opportunities for Natsu to use them outside of isolated practice and traveling. He was getting better at it, too, even if he wasn’t as fast as Lisanna’s kite wings.

Even still, it didn’t take them long to fly over the western forest and to the foot of the mountains.

There was no need to guess where to go, because they could see it from above the trees.

The Beast.

Without a word, they dived. Natsu undid the partial transformation mid-air and Happy caught him seamlessly. Lisanna summoned her kite eyes as well, looking for movement just like Acnologia suggested. She spotted a blur of white and angled her body towards it without thought.

“There’s Mirajane!” Natsu shouted with a point, directing Happy and making her focus in on what she saw.

It was Mirajane, and she was alone. The unease that Lisanna had been battling rose exponentially, especially when she saw the state that Mira was in when they got closer. She can’t remember the last time she saw her at anything but her best, and now it looked like she could barely stand.

“Mira!”

Her sister whipped her head in their direction when she called, eyes wide and growing wider. “Lisanna?! Natsu? What the hell are you doing here?!”

“We came to help,” Lisanna replied quickly, instantly perturbed by her sister’s panic. Mirajane never panicked. Never so openly. Something was really wrong. “Where’s Elf?”

And that’s when Lisanna knew. Mira’s face was enough, and her heart simultaneously dropped to her stomach and lodged itself in her throat.

Mirajane feebly pointed to the screaming beast rampaging through the trees. “H-he tried a full take-over, but he— it didn’t—” Mira gasped for breath. “I-it was too much, and now it’s—it’s been so long, and I-I don’t know if he’s still…”

“That’s Elfman?” Natsu asked, eyes wide and voice sharp. “I can’t— I can’t smell him.”

Mira sucked in a sob.

Lisanna focused. Her gut was a raging pool of fear and anxiety, but she had to be strong. Someone had to be the calm and rational one, and that was a position Lisanna was used to. She didn’t know how long Elfman had been taken over, or how volatile and desperate the soul he took was, but she had to have faith that her brother was strong too.

She took a slow step forward, tilting her head to make eye contact with the blank and raging eyes of the beast. “Hey Elf,” Lisanna started, keeping her voice calm. She hoped that the beast fighting for her brother’s body did not smell her fear, because she knew she reeked of it, just as Mirajane smelled of desperation.

She ignored Mira’s cry and Natsu’s yelp behind her. “It’s your little sister, Lisanna. What’s the matter, Elf? Did you forget Mira, too?”

The beast growled, moving his head downward. He didn’t attack, so Lisanna latched onto hope and continued. At this point, she just needed to draw out Elfman’s soul before it was lost or irrevocably changed. She tried not to think about the what ifs. There was no way of knowing how long it had been, or how long Elf had been struggling against the take-over he attempted. She wasn’t Bickslow, who could see souls, or Erik, who could hear them; there was no way of knowing if it was too late or not. All she had was hope.

“There’s no way you would forget us, right big brother? Because we love you very much.”

Her heart clenched and her voice cracked at the last line, especially as the beast before her continued to look at her without recognition. She needed Elfman to hear that, because otherwise… Otherwise the last thing she ever said to him was telling him no and cutting him off. Telling him to leave her alone.

The beast roared, only an echo of her brother’s voice in, and he raised himself to full height. Lisanna stood her ground in front of her sister and braced herself. “Let’s go home, okay?”

For a brief, agonizing moment, the beast paused, his arm in the air. Lisanna could hope, and she could pray, but in the end, a part of her was already expecting the swing.

A force knocked into her and they went tumbling underneath the legs of the beast that was not Elfman. Natsu half grunted and half gasped, and Lisanna didn’t need to have his sense of smell to know that he was hit.

She rolled over him and braced her arms against the ground as she transformed her back into a tortoise’s shell as the beast’s clawed foot raked over them. Lisanna bit back a scream as she could feel the shell crack; defense was never her strong suit, but she would try to maintain it to protect her family.

The beast screamed again, sounding less and less like her brother and more like a scared and enraged animal. His clawed hand swung down, but Natsu thrust his fist out from around her and blasted fire in a concentrated stream. It hit the beast’s hand and he pulled it back with a hiss.

She dropped the shell and switched to the wings and feet of a kite as Natsu pulled himself to his feet. Her back hurt, but it would be fine; she was better at dodging and attacking from behind, and Natsu was better at pulling attention to himself and hitting harder.

But this was still her brother. At the very least, it was his body, and she pulled up instead of digging her talons into his neck because that was her brother.

He was also the creature that was trying to rampage toward the town and who was gunning for her older sister, who looked like she could hardly move, much less use magic. The creature that hurt Natsu—had hurt her—and who was still trying to do both of those things. Who charged through Natsu’s flames and towards them despite Mirajane’s pleas. The creature that was— That used to be her brother.

Lisanna screamed. Tears blurred her eyesight as the dam within her cracked and spilled, as she twisted her body and landed an attack on the creature’s face, tearing into his eye and knocking him back away from Natsu and Mirajane. She screamed as she hurt her brother to protect her sister and best friend.

She screamed as the beast’s reflexes were as fast as her own and a clawed hand swiped her out of the air.

The air was knocked from her lungs and her magic fell away from her body, leaving her limp and struggling to correct herself mid-air. But she couldn’t. Lisanna hit the ground and her sight sputtered. Everything hurt, but she could fix this. She could get up, if only she could move. She had to. Natsu had been hurt, and Mirajane was out of magic, and they both were still fighting. She could still fight. She had to. This was her fault. If she had warned them better, if she had been there, if she had been a better sister, maybe this wouldn’t have happened at all.

Lisanna tried to suck in a breath but she couldn’t. The pain froze her chest and spotted her vision. For a moment, Lisanna thought she was going to black out.

But everything faded to white instead.

—o0o—

“LISANNA!”

Mirajane knew what it was like to feel helpless. She hated it. She hated it so much, having felt it every second of her life since their parents died and she couldn’t do enough to care for her little siblings. When she was stuck as a demon and they were despised for it and she couldn’t do a single thing but run.

Mirajane had vowed never to feel helpless again. She got stronger, she held her head up high, and she never looked back.

But she would take it all back, and she would feel every second of her past uselessness again if she could take back the clock thirty seconds and never have to see her sister die in front of her eyes.

But she couldn’t. She couldn’t, and the sight burned into her like a brand of her own futility: the sight of the beast that took over Elfman hitting Lisanna so hard that her very body started to dissolve into the air as she was flung, blood and magic spilling out of her. And Mirajane knew, even though every bone in her body pleaded for it not to be, that it was fatal.

Natsu screamed too. She knew he saw it, and he wasn’t able to take the subsequent hit tearing in their direction with the same readiness he should have had. The hit that was clearly meant for her batted Natsu into the ground, and when the monster raised his claw again, Natsu didn’t move.

Mirajane couldn’t move either. It was like she was trapped in a nightmare, and the world itself was suffocating her. Her dwindling magic, lack of sleep, and sheer stupidity were chains that held her down and she was too weak to break them, and her family was paying the price.

No. They paid it.

She was the worst older sister anyone could ever have.

She killed them. She killed her little siblings with her own ineptitude.

The damn beast that started it all marched toward her, living off of her little brother, and Mirajane would have let it kill her. She deserved it.

However, she made eye contact with Happy, and her heart stuttered back to life. The cat was fruitlessly hovering over Natsu’s body, too small to protect him and unable to wake him up, and when he looked at her, he looked every bit like the five-year-old he was. Lisanna loved that cat. Just as she loved Natsu, and everybody in the guild, and everybody and everything in the world because she was a good person. Mirajane saw Happy trying, saw him pleading with her to be the S-Class mage she was supposed to be, and she saw Natsu breathing.

There were still people alive, and a town behind her, but there wouldn’t be if she let this thing run free.

Mirajane might not have been a good person, but she would take responsibility.

Her exhaustion didn’t matter. She reached into the depths of her magic reserves, scraping every last drop, even if it came from her blood, and she grabbed it.

Soul extinctor ripped from her hands and into the beast. It screamed, and so did she. Mirajane dropped to her knees as the monster fell on its back, and she stared at it through her tears, numbly hoping to see the beastly body dissolve back into her brother.

It didn’t.

Mirajane collapsed, the last of her strength dedicated to her sobs. She had hoped—foolishly hoped—that if she embraced the monster inside of her then it wouldn’t hurt anybody. Then she could control it. But all she did was drag her brother into a battle they weren’t prepared for and push her sister away in ways that Mirajane didn’t know, day after day. Mirajane was never able to apologize to her. Lisanna probably died thinking that she didn’t care, while Lisanna cared too much. She never should have come after them, even though Mirajane knew that Lisanna was right, because she wouldn’t have been able to stop the beast in the state she was in, just like Mirajane couldn’t stop it from taking over her baby brother.

And she couldn’t stop her baby sister from getting killed by it.

“All things die someday,” Lisanna once said, with wisdom beyond her years. Mirajane knew it was how Lisanna coped with the loss of their parents, and how she viewed life as precious even when they were just monsters and demons.

All things died, but her little siblings shouldn’t have died before she did. It should have been her.

Lisanna often asked about what happened if a soul died. Mirajane never knew the answer, so she always brushed it off, but now, she wished that she had listened to Lisanna more. Because something inside of Mirajane died that day too, even though she was still breathing.

 

 

 

 

Lisanna Strauss
Beloved sister, dear friend

October 21, X767 – June 5, X782

 

Elfman Strauss
Beloved brother, courageous

March 16, X766 – June 5, X782

Chapter Text

February 7, X782

 

He messed up.

No, perhaps it wasn’t that simple, but regardless of reason or result, he was in this mess because of his own choices—his own misdeeds. He dishonored his contract and Karen died for it. Now, it was his turn to die for it.

Eventually.

Although, in a way, Leo already died. Leo died as soon as he broke his contract and broke the law of the Spirit Realm. He was no longer the lion, a Zodiac, a gold key, a weapon, or anything, really; he was just himself: a sad being with no purpose to be alive. Not that it mattered, with death around the corner. Finally.

But he had been alive this long, so he wasn’t going to squander the last bit he had left. He deserved this, because he had agreed to the terms that he broke, but he was going to enjoy being alive while he could. It was freeing, actually, to finally, after so long, be able to act purely of his own will. He shouldn’t have been excited about it, but he was. Most celestial spirits only knew the life of a summon, and really, it wasn’t that bad, but sometimes it made it painful to remember. 

Maybe that was why when the master of Fairy Tail asked for his name, he was feeling nostalgic. Leo was a decently common name, so nobody would have thought anything of it, but Leo was dead. He didn’t…have to be Leo, anymore. So, he remembered a name that he hadn’t thought about in centuries, and one he hadn’t heard in longer—not since before the Rebirth, and before the Catastrophe.

“I’m Loke,” he said, giving his best smile to the guildmaster. And he meant every bit of it.

Even if he was to die, he could at least die as he was born: free, with the name his mother gave him.

Makarov smiled back. “Welcome to Fairy Tail, Loke.”

—o0o—

March 3, X782

 

Loke was well acquainted with guilds, but actually being in one was bizarre. Especially when Fairy Tail was drastically different from Blue Pegasus—although that’s exactly why he sought them out.

If he was going to get a scrap of life in before he died, then he needed to conserve energy, and being around magic was the best way to do that. With his composition and knowledge, Loke could prove adept with magic items alone, and better yet, those magic items could also sustain him. He had better access to those in a guild, because—for good reason—not many places were comfortable selling powerful containers to random nobodies. And Loke really wanted a light ring, because not only would he be good at it, but it would help synergize his body with the ether of this plane better than he could by himself. He also had exactly zero Jewel before getting a job, so there was that. He had to use his magic to change his clothes into something more normal, and that wasn’t something he could afford to do.

He cut his hair, too. He doubted he would stop anyone from recognizing him, but it was a start. He also found a pair of tinted glasses. He rather liked them, actually, because it helped him acclimate to constantly seeing the colors of the physical realm—and they just looked cool.

Even with his attempt to look, well, more human, there was no way in the cosmos that he could go to Blue Pegasus, and even Lamia Scale was too close, but Fairy Tail was a top player and they also required next to no background checks, or anything, really. Just promise. That was all he had—no money or clout to his name, just history that didn’t matter—so he could roll with it. Fairy Tail was every bit as weird as he had heard, however, although it was hard to tell how much of it was because of Fairy Tail, or because Loke hadn’t been in a group environment this casually chaotic in long time. Much less around humans.

It wasn’t bad though. He was starting to get the feel for it.

However, there was something just…familiar.

Loke didn’t know how, though. Admittedly, he had seen a lot of things, and he was too old to remember everything, or even care to. But he never went out of his way to forget, even when it was tempting. Still, he didn’t know what made the two teenagers fist-fighting on top of a table, a little girl trying to stop them while two boys cheered on (different) teenagers, with different levels of vigor, give him the feeling that he had seen them before. It was possible that their paths crossed with…Karen…but that would have been recent, and he was sure he would remember that better. No, it was something else. They had a weird sense about them, too. Not to mention that he caught them giving him weird stares as well, like they were equally confused.

He didn’t want to pry, though. In fact, the less he thought about his past and people he knew, the better. Even free of his key, he couldn’t necessarily afford to make long lasting relationships anyway, because who knew how long he had left.

So Loke ignored it. It was probably nothing. The fact that one wasn’t human wasn’t important, because he wasn’t human either, and he wasn’t going to begrudge anyone else pretending. If it became an issue, then Loke might get involved, but where he knew them from—or thought he knew them from—wasn’t coming up, so Loke thought no further.

He had long since learned that dwelling in the past brought little but pain. There were so many regrets and so many people he lost, whether to short human life spans or crushing tragedies, that it did no favors to remember. Sometimes, old memories and feeling would slip into his heart unbidden, but Loke made it a point to stay strong in the present, where people needed him to be the warrior and leader they perceived him to be. He was much, much too old to be reminiscing.

Not that anyone expected anything of him now. Because of it, Loke allowed himself a little reflection, just so he wouldn’t lose himself entirely and he could live and die as himself and not some sad echo, but that didn’t mean that Loke wanted to spend this time of his being depressed. So, Loke moved on and lived in the present, the only time he had.

He would have dropped the line of thought entirely…if it weren’t for the man who walked into the guild hall and straight towards them.

“Quit it,” the adult commanded half-heartedly, and the two teens stopped mid-motion.

“Acno!” the girl cheered, running over to the man with strange markings. Those… Those could have been tattoos, sure, but the pattern was familiar: they were either arcane marks or made to look like them.

That wouldn’t have been a problem, however. It just would have been weird. But the exchange continued, and he couldn’t help but hear what the dark-haired teen teasingly said. “Acnologia? Awake early March? Who even are you?”

That…that was a name he remembered. It was impossible to forget. The dragon war was hard on everyone, and Loke had to fight a war on two fronts. If he had the ability to die in battle, he would have. Hell, he remembered the events of that awful, awful century so much because in a way, he did die.

 

He felt his body get pulled away, and it was the worst possible time for it. Leo fell through the gate backwards, barely landing on his feet, and he was ready to tell his owner that please, it really wasn’t the best time, but Leo was met with tears and fury before he even opened his mouth.

Which was really off-putting, because General Jorg was a level-headed man, if not coldly so, and this was more emotion than Leo had ever seen from him.

“That damned Acnologia has gone crazy and betrayed the alliance!” he shouted. “He needs to be taken down before he destroys my entire armada!”

Leo in no way had time to deal with it, but he knew he had to. Jorg had summoned him in the midst of the dragon’s and human’s war before, and it wasn’t like Leo could do much against a dragon except distract it, but it had been viable at the time. However, this was a slayer he was referring to, he believed, so maybe Leo could stun him long enough for others to swoop in, because he really needed to get back to the Spirit Realm, but Jorg was powerful in his own right and the gate was firmly closed, and even though Leo tried to make it clear he wasn’t a soldier in somebody else’s war when he made the contract, it was common knowledge that the will of the summoner was the deciding factor whenever a contract was made.

He was exhausted, and even though time moved faster in the physical realm, he was terrified that time wasted in the battle here meant ill for the battle waging in his home.

Still, Leo knew his place.

He turned to the battle to be faced with a dragon. A dragon without sense or without words, with the swirling and curving marks of ether on his scales. Humans and even dragons were dead or struggling in his wake, and human mages that he recognized to be other dragon slayers were throwing themselves at the black and blue beast without success.

Leo was so damn sick of wars.

Summoning the light of Regulus, Leo leapt behind the dragon’s head and striked. The light did little but make the dragon aware of his presence, but Leo wasn’t in the mood to play nice and everyone here was as good as dead anyway, so he gripped his claws into the crevice of his neck and turned up the heat with his own power. The divine light of the sun was hard, if not impossible, for mortals to bear, and the dragon screeched in agony and rage. At least Acnologia was large, so he took the brunt of Leo’s magic instead of it catching the entire battlefield in its wake.

The ether condensed around him and Leo was subsequently blown back away from the dragon. The blow was as strong as it was pure, and Leo’s entire body thrummed with instability after taking the hit, but the gate was still firmly shut and Leo didn’t have the time to rip it open with the dragon coming down on him.

The light of Regulus hurt him, but it wasn’t enough to stop him. Perhaps Leo would have a more successful battle if he pulled more of his own power, but not only was Jorg’s power holding him back—every summoner always held him back—but Leo knew that he had to use it sparingly. So, he dodged the clawed hand instead, simply propelling himself around the dragon and using his nimbleness to his advantage.

Then Acnologia roared.

The ether cut through his body and ripped him apart. Unable to support himself any longer, he was forcibly sucked back into the Spirit Realm, where his body would reform and heal—

If he didn’t return just in time to be speared by one of the battle gods.

 

The only reason he wasn’t as dead as a mortal was the fact that his star and his key remained intact. Still, the ordeal left him without form for months. Luckily, the king had been able to fend off the invading gods from their realm, sealing them behind a different gate and away from the celestial spirits, but there had been no spare power in their sub-space home to reconstruct Loke, so he floated in his star and slept.

Jorg, if he even survived, threw away his key. There was no way of knowing what really happened to it, because if anyone tried to use it, Leo would not have been able to come, but Loke does remember the blonde teenager that was the first to summon him since his death, and she said she found the key in a river.

That wasn’t the important part, however. What was important right now was that Loke was suddenly very sure that the same man turned wild animal dragon from centuries ago was the Acnologia in the guild hall of Fairy Tail. There was little to no evidence but the name, because Loke couldn’t get a good read on his magic, but the arcane marks were uncannily the same, and the voice could have been similar.

Maybe he was just going crazy, though, because there was no way somebody like that would join a guild, even if he did settle down after the war. If he was a dragon, then the life-span matched, but… It was just weird. And unnerving. Loke was no stranger to switching alliances, or growing complacent with time, but that was the man that broke history, who achieved impossible feats of power, who because of Anna helped devise an entire system in the hopes of evading him, who was feared as legend for centuries after, and he was in the middle of a guild of human mages getting laughed at by some kids for being half-asleep.

Just as Loke was caught in his own panicked realization and confusion, Acnologia turned and looked at him. The eyes were sharp and certainly not human, and it was clear he was suspicious.

Yeah, he should leave now.

Loke abruptly pretended like he did not make eye contact with the metamorphosed dragon slayer and walked out the front door like nothing was wrong. Nope. No, he did not sign up for this. Maybe the dragon man was comfortable in this environment, and maybe he was laying low before causing trouble again. Who knew?! It was true that he personally hadn’t heard anything regarding the Black Dragon of the Apocalypse in a while, and he was fairly sure humans didn’t believe dragons were real anymore—which was a wild thought—but Loke also hadn’t paid that much attention. Either way, he didn’t want to encroach upon a dragon’s space.

He could switch guilds, maybe, but that would be annoying. People would ask questions. It was also possible that Loke could convince the dragon that he wasn’t a snitch, and he could just stay. Loke didn’t even have that much time left to live, so he wasn’t going to use that time to pick fights he couldn’t win.

Wait, Anna’s plan involved him, didn’t it? And… And they opened the gate. Centuries of Heartfilia guardianship came to end because… a Heartfilia named Layla opened the gate. She used too much of herself to do it, too, and Loke wished that she hadn’t. Not that Loke was aware of much at the time. Old man Xerxes had lent Leo’s key to her for that event, but he was promptly returned so it wasn’t like he had time to process. However, Aquarius had been beside herself in agitation when they met up in the spirit realm, and it didn’t take a genius to put two and two together from there.

What was the plan again? He knew it had to do with Acnologia, some dragons, and something funky and frankly heretical that Zeref built, but it wasn’t like he was privy to details. The most he knew was when Anna showed him the plans and asked him if the twelve Zodiacs would be enough to open it. They were, and that was really all Anna needed to know, so Loke didn’t know much. But it had something to do with Acnologia. Yet there he was.

Damn, his head hurt. He really needed something to keep his pressure steady, because he couldn’t even think when it got like this. Maybe he should lay down and think about this later.

Not that Loke had time to ponder that line of thought further, because the dragon in question approached him.

Loke wasn’t the type to think things through at all, but he wished he did better than turning around and blurting “you’re Acnologia.”

Smooth. Really smooth. Maybe he can play it off as knowing from the guild, or something. He was new, after all, so that was probably a normal exchange.

However, Acnologia blinked and responded with a cool “and you’re a celestial spirit.”

They stared at each other in a beat of silence, stretching past the window where it would have been reasonable to make denials. It was incredibly awkward, and Loke scrambled to make his final peace with life because he was probably about to die right now.

Not that he wanted to die. Sure, it was inevitable, but he had a date tomorrow and he was actually looking forward to that.

“I don’t want to fight you,” Loke managed after a moment. “Never did. If you would believe me.”

Acnologia’s brow lowered, and his grimace deepened. “Is somebody asking you to?” he asked, and Loke mentally kicked himself.

“No, no, not right now. Not in a long time, actually. I just didn’t know if you…remembered.” Maybe he had forgotten and now he was going to remember that Loke did, in fact, make a valiant attempt to blow his brains out. It wasn’t one of Loke’s best moments, but it was a rare time when every race, celestial spirits included, were at war, and he was understandably stressed.

But the dragon-man didn’t seem angry. Just confused. “The kids say you joined the guild about a month ago,” he started, completely off the topic of potential fighting, and Loke didn’t know whether to be relieved or worried. “I was under the impression that celestial spirits… couldn’t be in this plane long.” He narrowed his eyes once more, and for the first time, Loke was picking up potential anger. “Who summoned you here?”

At least there was nobody he would have to attempt to protect. “Nobody summoned me,” he answered truthfully, and that truth twisted oddly inside of his chest. “It’s just…me.”

Loke waited for the backlash—for the other shoe to drop, so to speak, though he didn’t know what that ‘shoe’ would be. If anyone thought he was free real estate, then they were in for disappointment, because he knew his key was recalled to the spirit realm so that there was no way he could leave. He also would immediately die if Acnologia decided he was a pest and shot him, so it was a bittersweet thing.

“And you’ve been here for a month… and you’re not dead?”

“Four months, actually.”

The awkward silence resumed. Loke wondered if he could leave and get away with it.

He knew he was being scrutinized, however, so Loke tried to focus on a random spot to the side and pretend not to notice.

“Why are you here, then?” he asked finally. The question wasn’t particularly pointed, but it could have been. Loke’s head hurt too much to tell.

Loke shrugged and did his best to be as nonthreatening as possible. “Because I want to be. Being in a guild seems fun.”

It was ironic, because even though Loke was much, much older than anyone else here, Acnologia included, the dragon somehow managed to give him that look that Loke could only describe as disappointed parent.

“You’re dying.”

Wow, he didn’t play around. “So? Doesn’t everyone?”

Aaand the look got worse. That was a bad route to go, then. “It’s fine,” Loke tried again. “I know. It’s fine.”

It…was. It was fine. The death of Karen Lillica was his fault, so he would bear the sin. He had been alive long enough, anyway, and he didn’t need to keep going. Somebody else could take the light of Regulus. It would be fine.

—o0o—

March 19, X782

 

“You don’t look like you’re trying to die to me.”

Loke startled at the sound of Acnologia’s voice. Damn, how did he sneak up on him like that? Although maybe that was Loke’s fault for stopping at a bench instead of going to his dorm to try and figure out his earring.

After their first encounter, the celestial spirit and the dragon did not interfere with each other. It was clear that they were both trying to pass as human in the guild—which was a hilarious trend in Fairy Tail, really—and Loke meant it when he determined not to snitch. Besides, it was clear that Acnologia wasn’t doing anything weird. He was just living. With kids, no doubt.

Kids that Loke only belatedly realized were the ones that were sent through the Eclipse Gate. The world was truly an odd place. There was a story there, he was sure, but Loke didn’t need to know. Loke had his business, and Acnologia had his.

It caught him by surprise when the dragon approached him out of nowhere—when he was struggling, too.

Who knew piercing your own ear was hard? However, the vitality earring was too good to pass up, and it was supposed to be good for headaches, and that was the worst part about this ordeal.

“I—I don’t know what you mean,” Loke stammered, and honestly, he didn’t.

 Acnologia made that stupid little ‘I’m disappointed in you’ grunt again. “Being here is killing you, but you seem fine with that. So why are you trying so hard to prolong that with magic trinkets and runes, when five minutes in your realm would do the same thing.”

Damnit, the dragon was onto him. “Oh these? These are part of my gig as a human mage. They’re no big deal.”

“You’re holding a vitality earring right now. Those are used for the ailed and the elderly.”

Damnnniiiiitttt he was good. He heard someone mention that Acnologia was ‘as scary of a doctor as Porlyusica,’ but he failed to connect the dots that Acnologia was indeed a doctor. Of course he would recognize it. Loke had been banking on the bland and esoteric nature of the items not to tip people off.

He was grappling with how to respond when Acnologia suddenly was right next to him, hand on his ear. Loke froze. Logically, he knew that it wasn’t likely that anything would happen—the dragon was technically his guildmate and proved benign so far—but instinct demanded reaction, and all he had was fear. It was hard not to at the still familiar sensation of ether ripping through his skin. But, Loke blinked and it was gone, and Acnologia was only clipping the earring through his earlobe. The magic item activated and he felt the relief from it, but his chest hadn’t quite caught up.

Acnologia stepped away back to a comfortable distance. “There,” he said, albeit a bit awkwardly. “So you don’t tear up your ear even more.”

He had a point, but Loke would have loved never to feel that again. For as many times as Loke had been struck down in human battle, nothing quite compared to getting vaporized by pure ether. Those memories stuck around no matter how hard he tried to ditch them.

“And you really should get the other half of the pair,” Acnologia continued. “Otherwise, the imbalance might affect the vision in your other eye.”

“R-right.” He didn’t think about that. He was just hoping to make it as inconspicuous as possible.

Loke could tell that Acnologia was still watching him—studying, waiting. He couldn’t help but to feel annoyed. He had been hoping that he could avoid all suspicion of his identity until his time was up, just so no one would try to get involved unnecessarily, but he wasn’t counting on a dragon to be here and onto him. A doctor, no less. Acnologia really was a weird being; no wonder he, too, found it easier to pretend to be a human.

“You’re trapped here, aren’t you?”

He startled, but quickly tried to school his surprise. “What? O-of course not,” Loke tried. “I’m just…trying something different.”

The response felt weak as soon as it left his lips, and it felt even weaker when Acnologia continued to look unimpressed by it.

“If somebody is keeping you here, I can help you,” Acnologia continued. “It doesn’t matter if you can’t say. Give me any indication you can, and I’ll find them. I don’t know why you came to Fairy Tail, but as your guildmate, I will help you.”

Loke could only stare. Acnologia was wrong about the cause, of course, but the sincerity in his voice was surprising. He meant it. A powerful dragon and dragon slayer was willing to hunt for a nonexistent summoner if it meant that he could live, and he was willing to do it, for what? On account that they were guildmates? Loke understood bonds, and commitment—or at least, he thought he did. Loke went to the ends of the earth for his summoners because that was his job, his duty and his existence, but it was weird to think that those bonds existed outside of contracts—between species, no less. He could understand the bonds that guilds, full of common people with a common occupation, could share, but he didn’t realize that that was enough for a dragon to reach out to a celestial spirit.

He had his share of good owners, of course. People who treated him kindly, and engaged in conversation and asked his opinion, but Loke can’t remember the last time that happened outside of the context that he was their celestial spirit. There was an unspoken return to every relationship, and those of a spirit’s were always clear: protect the summoner.

Maybe it was his surprise at the dragon’s earnest offer, or even just being offered help without anything in return, or maybe it was the fact that Loke was tired and he was running out of reasons to keep lying to the one person who knew what he was, but Loke shook his head with a sigh. “There’s no summoner. I don’t have one, and I never will again. My gate is closed because I broke my contract with my last summoner. I broke the rules of my realm, and this is the price to be paid. It’s fine. This is all on me.”

It was the truth. Loke knew what he did. He didn’t…regret it, necessarily, but he never wanted Karen to die. He never wanted to kill her. If the price he had to pay was to die in turn, it was only fair.

Acnologia was somber, but he nodded. “I don’t pretend to understand the rules of your realm, but if you’ve come to peace with this, then so be it. My offer for aid still stands, however, even if it is just helping you prolong your time here.”

Who would have thought that the guy who came to the closest to ever killing him was now the one dedicated to him being alive? The irony was enough to pull a chuckle out of the old spirit’s mouth. “Thank you. It’s too kind, actually.”

The dragon gave in a wry smile in return. “Out of everyone, I know the merits of second chances pretty well, I think. The funny thing is, is that you have to be alive for it to work. At the very least, everyone deserves to be free. It’s up to you to determine if there’s more of it in life or death.”

—o0o—

April 14, X782

 

When Acnologia said ‘come find me if you need anything,’ he failed to mention that he would hunt Loke down if he ever found out he was struggling again. Or thought he was. He used his dumb blood-hound-like dragon senses to sniff out even the smallest scratch, and no one could hide from him. At least Loke knew that this was treatment the rest of the guild received, as well. It was one of the reasons people gave the guild’s sickbay a wide berth, because they knew that assistance came with lectures, unless they were lucky enough to be found by Wendy first.

Loke was not lucky. He wasn’t even injured (much). Loke didn’t take combat-oriented jobs for this reason, but he could still take a few blows to the head by random wannabes and be fine. That was his schtick, once upon a time. Acnologia forcibly dragging him into the back rooms of the sickbay was completely unreasonable. Definitely.

“I’m fine,” Loke argued. “They didn’t even scratch me.” He gestured to his still totally intact body. “See? Good as rain.”

“The more you say ‘I’m fine,’ the less I believe you,” Acnologia grumbled, turning around and slapping a band on his forearm.

Something shifted around his chest when the band touched his skin, but he couldn’t place it. “What’s that?”

“A rune band. It took a while to get the script right, but luckily for you, Freed and Levy both get too excited to ask questions if given a script related problem. It’ll keep your internal magic from leaking.”

“What?” Leaking? Sure, he wasn’t going to be using his own magic, but it wasn’t like he was losing it. Just…everything. Unless Acnologia meant…

“You sustain yourself on magic, not sustenance. However, you can’t seem to intake ether from here, only your home realm, so the natural flow out of your body is one of the things that is killing you. That band won’t stop your degeneration completely, but it will slow it,” Acnologia explained. He gestured to a similar band underneath his cloak, though the style was different. “I use something similar to contain my magic signature, so I don’t scare people, but it also limits my outtake. Helps with small things like not crushing items or just being able to taste properly. Yours is better suited to suppression, however. Unfortunately, that rune language is best against regular ether, so I’m not sure how well it will work for you.”

That did explain why Acnologia didn’t radiate energy. Dragons were powerful, but they lacked subtlety because of the way they impacted the environment around them. However, Loke never considered that he could slow his body’s decay in this manner; he just assumed he would have to compensate by finding ways to build his body back up as it went.

As old as he was, not even Loke could claim to be an expert at magic. He did know, however, that despite using the same magic, celestial spirits had a different relationship with magic. Ether flowed in the opposite direction in the spirit realm, and with their manifest bodies being made of magic and not flesh and blood, it required that special ether flow to sustain them. For celestial spirits may not decay with time, as life tended to, but rather, with space. And it was to a pocket of space they were relegated to, unable to exist without a tether to the physical world, and unable to live without proximity to their stars. It was a sad existence, perhaps, but it worked. They lived, for whatever it was worth.

“Thank you,” Loke breathed, still awed, and he meant it. Something like that could easily add a few years to his life here. He wasn’t sure he deserved it, but it made him happy all the same.

—o0o—

April 27, X782

 

Loke flexed his fingers with a hiss. That was harder than he thought it would be, and he definitely strained his light ring to oblivion. Was that the height of what the people who made this called light magic? It was just sad.

Sadder still, he cracked the ring, so he would need to get a new one. Even though Loke knew that he should really stay away from combat, he wanted it to at least be suitable. There were only so many seeking jobs he could do, and while escort jobs were more common, they needed a degree of readiness that he only used to have.

“Where did you get your magic items?” he asked Acnologia on a whim, sliding into the chair across from him at that tea shop on the edge of town. If he wasn’t in the back rooms or upstairs in the guild hall, or at home or on a job, he was there.

“Mostly from the Svit or Nevado traders,” he answered.

It took Loke a moment to register. He has definitely come into contact with the Nevado before, their wealth of resources making them a popular pilgrimage for mages to seek, and he knows that his key has ended up in their pools a few times. The Svit, however… Ah. He had an owner, some centuries ago, that lived near their mountains and hated their lands on principle, but the most he knew was from one of the Lyras, who had a few generations of summoners from the Svit. She liked it there, but he can’t remember how she changed hands. Whatever happened, the formerly cheerful spirit had been rendered quiet for a while. As for the Nevado, he was with another owner when he heard about the war that Pergrande waged—yet again—in that region, but not the result.

“Do either of those groups even exist anymore?”

Acnologia sighed heavily, staring a hole into his mug. “No.”

Well damn. It seemed like just yesterday, when he heard about some of that stuff. This realm really did change so quickly. Although, he supposed that was a given, since the spirit realm was disconnected from time. At least, the normal flow of time. Weird things happened there, and sometimes it felt like blinks, and sometimes it felt like eons. It made him appreciate the steadiness of these past few months all the more. There was nothing quite like returning to normalcy after so long. Not that Loke could ever pretend that there was anything ‘normal’ about his life: far removed from the creatures of earth and different among spirits. He just got used to things.

Loke nodded solemnly. “I see.”

—o0o—

May 26, X782

 

“I think I remember you,” Acnologia said out of nowhere one day.

Loke looked up, startled. It had become a habit for him to wander off to the back rooms, behind the sickbay, to preform the breathing exercises Loke needed to keep himself moderately rested. He could easily take the time to do it in his apartment, but it was easier to slip back there in the middle of the day if he needed it, because there were a lot of distractions between the guildhall and his apartment, and they were distractions that Loke wanted to enjoy, not blow off because the air was getting thin. Besides, Acnologia was often back here to handle the supplies, so not many other people beside him or his kids—who knew that Loke wasn’t human but didn’t ask beyond that—were ever there to intrude.

Often, Acnologia continued his work in silence, but occasionally the two would find conversation. It was nice having someone around older than the average resident, who understood the pains of bygone eras. Even though Loke knew he would never find someone with the same experiences as he, the dragon made for good company, quiet though he was. He had started to forget the initial unease, though the statement brought an inkling of it back. “Oh y-yeah?”

“I didn’t remember your scent, and it was hard to place your magic in this condition, but I remember now,” he continued solemnly, hand on his neck. “You were the one that managed to hurt me. Though I imagine I…did far worse to you.”

Loke snorted softly. “It happens. I knew going into that fight that I wasn’t in a position to win as I was. I really shouldn’t have used that attack at all, I was just…frustrated.”

“Who made you fight me?” he asked, quiet.

“General Jorg.”

“Of course that bastard would.” Acnologia closed his eyes with a heavy sigh. “For what it’s worth, I’m sorry. It was nothing personal to you. I was unhinged back then, and everything was in the line of fire. I hope it wasn’t too damaging.”

It was, but that wasn’t really Acnologia’s fault. “No, it wasn’t.”

Briefly, the dragon looked doubtful, but he accepted Loke’s answer. It was a good thing that Loke had no heartbeat to gauge, and even then, Loke was an excellent liar when it came to these things.

“If it’s any consolation, you were the only non-dragon that managed to lay a scratch on me. Though I’m surprised you did that with Jorg’s magic supply.”

“It wasn’t his. That was my own. I make it a point never to use it, because it doesn’t filter in this realm well, but I was a little pissed to have to fight you. No offense.”

“None taken. Anyone in your position should have been pissed to have to fight me. I was not the reasonable type.”

It felt better to clear the air regarding that moment, even if it was still a sore spot for Loke. Less so for getting vaporized, and more for the circumstances surrounding it. He still can’t believe that he dug into the true power of Regulus, but it wasn’t like anyone in his realm would have noticed with the invasion happening. It was a shame how good it felt to use, but Loke knew that as soon as he revealed himself, the spirit realm would be thrown into turmoil, and he didn’t want that. He was fine in the position he was in. Really. In fact, Loke preferred having to go from person to person and fight to fight then the idea of having to stay in the spirit realm forever.

However, at least they both survived to have this conversation, centuries later. Sometimes that was the benefit of immortality and long life.

—o0o—

June 9, X782

 

For as many supposed benefits long life gave, there were many more consequences. Loke never understood why humans were obsessed with immortality, because it was certainly a curse. Perhaps that is only why the greedy and heartless ever sought it out. Otherwise, there was only pain that came with the reality that those with longer life lived to see everyone else die.

Loke was used to it. It’s not that it didn’t hurt, but he came to expect it.

The whole guild was mourning, and Loke didn’t want to be in their way. They deserved the space. He didn’t know the two well, admittedly, but they were young. Those deaths were always the worst, because it couldn’t even be said that death was preferable if they never got the chance to truly live.

He wouldn’t be at the guildhall at all, honestly, if Loke didn’t know better. It was still raw, now, but humans moved on. It was what they did best. They knew the frailty of their own time, and they couldn’t afford to move too slow. They were good at ‘living for the ones they lost.’ Something Loke already proved very bad at doing, so he didn’t pretend like he could.

However, Fairy Tail was not solely comprised of humans.

“I thought I would find you back here.”

Acnologia didn’t turn around, and he didn’t say anything. Loke didn’t expect him to. He knew the S-Class mage only recently returned to Magnolia, which was probably why he was here and not off in the woods or the mountains.

He was not a comforter in any stretch of the word, but that didn’t mean he was never concerned, or that Loke didn’t know a thing or two.

“Go. Take your time to mourn and don’t pretend it doesn’t bother you. Just remember to come back to the land of the living.”

To those who had time in great supply, it was all too tempting to get stuck forever. If it hadn’t been for the summonings, Loke was sure he would have slipped away a long, long time ago.

With that, Loke turned to leave the backroom. He wouldn’t intrude any longer.

However, Acnologia spoke before he left completely, voice low and shaky to those with exceptional hearing. “I don’t suppose it ever gets easier?” It was clear from his tone that he knew it was a fruitless question, but it was the closest to requesting comfort as the dragon was likely to get.

It was amazing how he could sound so old and so…young, at the same time.

Loke had really been around for too long.

“No. Not unless you stop feeling altogether.”

With that, he left, slipping out of the guildhall from the back. He threw up his hood and shoved his hands in his pockets, for once intent on heading back to his apartment without interference.

Loke enjoyed this—being alive. Alive and left to his own devices. However, it was times like these that reminded him that it wasn’t so bad that he was dying.

It was fitting. Not only had his feelings been slipping—numbing—and Loke committed the sin he swore he wouldn’t do, but he would finally end an era, of sorts. The celestials would finally, truly be gone.

Maybe that’s why Loke hadn’t offed himself yet, opting instead to live and pretend for these past few years. With him gone, there would be nobody to remember what once was.

Maybe he had been living for somebody after all.

But that was enough of that. There was nothing he could do about it but keep moving until his body dissolved completely. For the time being, however, Loke closed his eyes, remembered, and he felt.

Chapter Text

Fairy Tail was much, much bigger than the guild back in Freesia. It was equally awesome and intimidating. Awesome, because ever since he discovered that guilds existed, Sting knew that’s what he wanted to do, and intimidating, because only then did Sting feel young and inexperienced.

They never let him join Sabertooth, before. Ms. Hannah said he was too young, and he should look for a chance to have a “normal childhood” and a loving family before he tried to get a job. The town of Freesia would support him until he was older, so he didn’t need to worry about it. Which sucked, because Sting didn’t want those things. He saw what was considered a “normal childhood” and he knew that he was far past that. It really didn’t help that nobody believed him when he tried to talk about Weisslogia.

Though that was over now that he remembered, and now that he was with the others. He can’t believe he ever forgot, just like he can’t believe that he ever thought that…that he killed Weisslogia. Although, he wasn’t sure if being sent to the future was any better—if Sting had to guess, Weisslogia and the dragons were as good as dead if they didn’t show up by now—but at least it wasn’t his fault. He just had to believe that Weisslogia knew what he was doing, like he always did.

But it was okay. He missed him, of course, but it was okay because Sting was capable of handling himself, just like his dad taught him.

Sting remembered fighting to be seen as good enough—because he knew he was—to join a guild before, so he was a little worried this time around, too, especially with Fairy Tail being much more esteemed.

However, at least Rogue and Wendy were part of the guild too, so they didn’t have some dumb age requirement. Because even though Acnologia assured him it wasn’t necessary, he was going to join. What else would he do? Sting had all of this magic and training, so he was going to prove himself. He was going to be the best dragon slayer there ever was!

—o0o—

Sting got his guild mark on his right shoulder, just like Natsu. He remembered always looking up to Natsu, because his magic was cool and offensive, and he was always really good with it. He still was. He watched Natsu and Gajeel spar—because apparently they liked to do that a lot—and his fire power was much more impressive. (There was a wide area behind the house with a bunch of trees cut down for training, because apparently Natsu caught them on fire before.) Sure, Gajeel’s magic was cool too, being able to take the fire, but it was much cooler to be able to fight than to defend. Sting wanted to be like that too.

He needed to get better, though. Every time he challenged Natsu, or even Gajeel, they wiped the floor with him. Even Wendy and Rogue were really tough to beat! (He hasn’t even beaten Wendy yet… And he only won against Rogue once.) Granted, they’ve been in the guild actually using their magic, and training with Acno, who was a dragon and a dragon slayer and obviously way stronger than all of them combined.

He was so behind.

The thought was overwhelming, and a little upsetting. Everyone was more powerful than he was, and they were also comfortable with the guild and how things worked, and each other, and Sting was always clueless. It was frustrating.

But Weisslogia didn’t teach Sting to be helpless, so he would make it. He would catch up.

—o0o—

The other dragon slayers really were amazing, and as awkward as it was to be so far behind them, he really was glad that they found him, because the orphanage sucked.

At first Sting thought that he hated being with other kids in cramped places, but it was kinda the same at the house in Magnolia, but Sting didn’t hate them. Maybe it was because they didn’t think he was crazy? That definitely helped, and they also talked about cooler things like magic and food.

Even if everyone taller than him wanted to mess up his hair for whatever reason.

He was glad that they were all willing to put up with him. After what he would overhear people telling Ms. Hannah, he didn’t think it was possible.

—o0o—

The people of Fairy Tail were awesome too. There was a lot of different magic that Sting had never even heard of before, but it was amazing to see. Ice, cards, smoke, animals… It was too much to understand, but it looked cool.

The one that fascinated him the most was probably Erza’s, because Sting never thought that someone’s magic could be swords before. She had a lot of swords, and the swords were magic too, so it was doubly magic.

“It’s not really that much different, right?” Gajeel laughed, a little awkwardly. “I mean, my skin is like armor and I can make my arm into a sword.”

“Yeah, but you only have one and Erza has like a gajillion of each!” Sting explained excitedly. “She doesn’t even need to touch it!”

Erza’s face slowly split into a grin, her armor clinking against itself as she folded her arms beside him. “He’s right, I do have more.”

Sting laughed as Gajeel’s forehead hit the table in defeat.

—o0o—

Some people were still jerks though. Sting supposed that never changed. At least nobody yelled at him (too much) when he punched them.

But the old man deserved it.

All Sting heard was “man, the new kid is another toddler” and Sting didn’t think: he just punched him. It was something he wasn’t supposed to do back at the orphanage, but those kids weren’t strong—these guys were. And so was he! He wasn’t a toddler—he was a dragon slayer!

So he jumped up in a ball of white magic and punched Wakaba in the face.

Somebody came and separated him soon after, but it was still worth it.

—o0o—

There was a lot of really awesome magic out there, but dragon slayer magic was still the best. It was powerful and offensive (and pretty defensive too) and it could fight and make life easier and even support. Though it was true that different types of dragon slayer magic did different things and had different strengths and weaknesses.

Sting, of course, was partial to white dragon magic because it was a fighting magic and it purified things and it was super cool. He still had a lot of stigmas to learn, because those were pretty complicated, but even just his beams had long range and good power. Not to mention amazing accuracy. Admittedly, he still wasn’t as great of an aim as Weisslogia was, but Acno was helping him practice, and Sting would figure it out anyway.

Acno was definitely the strongest among them. Even Sting could admit to that, because he was a dragon and he had a lot of experience, even if Acno didn’t think that was a good thing. Although, from what Sting had seen, it wasn’t as if his magic could do much. It was similar to Wendy’s in that it had to do with air and stuff, but it was also just regular magic—or ether, or whatever it was called—and it mostly just got swished around and made to hit things. The air stuff he could do was cool, but not a lot of those were offensive either, just like Wendy was an enchanter that helped other people be stronger, which was also really cool, but Sting was glad that he didn’t have to deal with magic like that. His brain hurt enough figuring out the status effects of white magic—he couldn’t imagine keeping up with types of enchantments! Also, Sting just wanted to actually fight things, so the more he could focus on that, the better.

Not that Sting didn’t appreciate the awesome effects of magic for what they were. Especially when people’s magic could make them go even faster or be even stronger.

That’s why Laxus was definitely the coolest and most awesome dragon slayer. (Even if Acno could kick all of their butts combined, but he was already a dragon, so he didn’t count.) But Acno couldn’t turn into lightning.

The first few times Sting met Laxus, he didn’t know much. He was told that the teen was a dragon slayer too, even though Sting didn’t remember him being around when they were with his dragons.

Well, there was too much going on the first few times for Sting to really think about it.

However, later, Sting saw Laxus use his magic for the first time, and it was amazing. There was lightning everywhere and he could still control it! It was strong and accurate, hitting everything all at once and really well.

Sting always thought that magic was either suitable for wide areas or for concentrated areas, but Laxus could do both and he was a dragon slayer too! Plus lightning was just really cool. Not like white magic, but close. Fire and stuff was still cool too, and Sting supposed that the others had a variety of attacks, and Rogue could turn into shadows, but turning into lightning was way cooler.

He didn’t really know how the lacrima thing worked, but Sting did know that he didn’t have a dragon dad to teach him anything, just Acno later, so he was that strong and he figured it out by himself!

And apparently he was an S-Class mage, which meant he got to go fight the biggest monsters!

Sting really hoped that Laxus would take him on one of the Big Jobs, but he kept saying no.

But he would be ready soon enough!

—o0o—

Sting would not be wavered in his goal to be the best dragon slayer—the best mage—that there ever was. However, it was true, that he hadn’t been thinking about some things.

He always thought that he would have to slay dragons one day. Weisslogia had said as much, really. It made sense. There were bad people, and there were bad dragons. It was what a slayer would do. But the way Acno described it…was not exactly how Sting imagined it. It was certainly more intimidating and not…very heroic. He didn’t understand why slaying dragons was a bad thing, but he did get that Acno didn’t like it, or the other stuff he did. Which made sense, but Sting still figured that it was normal, especially if there was that much fighting anyway.

The others seemed to think differently, even if everyone agreed that Acno was still Acno. Stuff that happened so long ago didn’t matter to Sting anyway. Sure, he lived that long ago, but all he knew was Weisslogia and the others, so nothing changed. Not for him.

But…well, Sting was starting to figure out some of the problems. One, there weren’t even dragons anymore, so his idea of a test was impossible to get to. Second, everyone kept saying that he wasn’t supposed to slay dragons anymore, even though he was still a dragon slayer. Acno especially told him that mages and slayers alike didn’t need to slay things to be strong, just that they had to sometimes, because it was their job to protect things.

Though Sting didn’t understand how things weren’t about fighting all the time, if that was still a way to be strong, even if beating the bad guys up to get arrested was how things worked now. Sting could adapt. It sounded easier, sure, but he was positive that he could figure out how to be strong and nice at the same time. Besides, there were still animals and monsters that were mindless that caused problems, and Sting would take those on instead!

He knew that some of the others didn’t want to fight that much. Like Wendy and Rogue. They liked helping people out with tasks and supporting others and doing some of those other boring jobs. Even Gajeel liked that boring stuff. Probably because it made him feel smart. Hell, even Natsu did less exciting jobs sometimes, like clearing out fields or whatever, because he said it was nice to kick back and do something more relaxing and “normal” for once.

Maybe Sting just didn’t know what “normal” was.

But maybe that didn’t matter, because he had a home and a family, and he still got to do magic and go kick butt and get stronger, so Sting was happy with how it was now.

Chapter Text

April 3, X780

 

“Are you sure about this?” Jellal whispered, honestly terrified. Sure, there was what the others told the Rune Knights to get them to let him go, but actually joining a guild like Fairy Tail? There was no way they would want someone like him. He appreciated Erza’s encouragement, but he knew that Erza was the exception to most things concerning him. Her forgiveness was truly too good.

“Of course,” she replied with a smile. “You’ll love it here; I just know it.”

That didn’t make it any less intimidating. He stared up at the guild hall and the symbol of the fairy standing proudly over it. He knew it well, etched onto the back of a man that didn’t deserve his fate.

“Is this really Grandpa Rob’s guild?” he asked quietly.

Erza nodded, the upturned corner of her lips wry and sad. “Grandpa Rob was friends with the Master, too, back in their prime.”

“Really?”

She nodded again.

Jellal swallowed. He wasn’t sure if that made things better or worse. It was…pressure. But he wasn’t sure what the pressure was for.

It was hard to sort out his feelings. Everything was so much clearer, logically, after the effect of that…spell…wore off, but it was all jumbled. He had memories that didn’t match, and his heart and his mind were exhausted. The only thing he was sure of was that he didn’t deserve Erza’s trust, but Erza was safe. He trusted her judgement far more than his right now anyway.

“O-okay.” He didn’t know how, but he was going to do this.

Erza smiled encouragingly, taking his hand and pulling him inside. He was still nervous, but it did help.

Jellal knew that Erza had joined Fairy Tail shortly after he kicked her from the island. Honestly, he’s still amazed she survived; they had been far off into the ocean. So, it was highly likely that everyone knew how awful he was, at least by name. It was fair. He would never deny someone the truth, especially when he deserved scrutiny. However, earlier in the morning, after they arrived, Acnologia had met up with them—having somehow arrived in Magnolia before he and Erza did—and said that he was going to speak to the Master about the Tower and explain things, so they wouldn’t have to. He also said that destroying the Tower hadn’t been official, so the guild didn’t know. Something about the way he said it implied that only the Master was privy to all details, excluding the people who were there.

Jellal was honestly grateful, because he had no idea how to recount it all. He lived through most of it again when Mest helped him remember, but he was already exhausted. What he had was technically sleep, but it hardly counted. However, Jellal knew that the moment he tried to sleep, the nightmares would start, so even though he might have waited before seeing the guild, it was also a good distraction. Even if it was terrifying.

The guild hall was huge. It was filled with tables and seats, and packed with people, too. There was so much. Some people turned to them, calling out Erza’s name and giving greetings, and a few might have asked regarding him, but not everyone gave them their attention. There were still the questioning gazes that he expected though. They weren’t as harsh as he imagined, but Jellal also didn’t want to look too into it, lest he find it anyway.

She led him around and started pointing out things. The job board, the bar, the upstairs, the kitchen and rooms in the back, the pillar she hated the most, the part of the wall that was broken the most, her favorite table, and more things. People too. There was Chico behind the bar, who made drinks and sorted the job flyers, Nab, who haunts the job board, Wakaba and Macao, Macao’s kid Romeo, Vijeeter, who is always doing that weird dance, Mirajane, her archrival who was the worst (Erza’s words), her little siblings who were much nicer, though only her brother Elfman was present at the time, and more.

People kept coming and going, and she would make mention of it or she would continue to talk about other aspects of the guild, whether it be about what people did or jobs she did. It was hard to keep up with, but Jellal tried his best. Erza was excited, and it was great to see, so he didn’t want to impede that with his own inability.

It was amazing, some of the things she talked about. What they did in the guild. Jellal had been so far removed from the world, so it was all new. What he did know from the dark guild people that had tried to take advantage of his weak mental fortitude seemed obsolete, or at least not truthful. They certainly undersold the capabilities of these guilds, and the wideness of their network. Erza namedropped other guilds that were apparently just as large as Fairy Tail—though Erza maintained the opinion that Fairy Tail was the best.

He was watching a very intense…card game? taking place over at one of the tables, fascinated by the floating cards and flickering lights, when Erza suddenly pulled him in a new direction. They were still linked, but that was fine, because Jellal had the feeling that he could get lost in a single building if separated from her. There was a lot here.

“Erik!” she called whilst waving. “You joined!”

Erik turned to them with a slight smile, appraising Jellal briefly before focusing on Erza. There was indeed a new mark that Jellal didn’t remember from the previous day: a purple fairy on the left side of his neck. He rubbed it subconsciously. “Yeah, when we came here this morning, I figured I might as well,” he replied. “Besides, it was only a matter of time before Natsu and Wendy figured out how to stamp me in my slee— Wha—?!”

He was cut short when Erza used her free hand to swipe the other teen into a tight side hug that resounded in a clanging sound. “Welcome to the guild!”

“Heh, um, thanks.” Erik pulled away with a brief rub of his head. Wow, Erza’s armor was really tough, wasn’t it? It was good to know that she was still enthusiastic. “Anyway, you two continue your tour. I’m going to go back to bed before everyone comes back and wants me to do things.”

With that, Erik left. If he left because Jellal was there—which was likely—then he did a good job at hiding it. Honestly, Jellal was surprised. Aside from Erza, Erik was the one here with ample reason to hate him. Though he didn’t act on it at the Tower, nor the ship, nor here, so it was odd. Maybe it was Erza’s influence. That was certainly possible. It was still baffling, though, but Jellal was more than willing to give Erik the space he was sure he needed. Jellal could make himself scarce.

“And you must be Jellal,” a new voice said.

He startled a bit, not expecting to be called out after it hadn’t happened before, but he faced the speaker anyway.

It was a short old man in some sort of two-pronged hat and a robe. Even Jellal could tell that he had some impressive magical power.

“Master!” Erza greeted.

Ah. That made sense.

Jellal remained quiet, allowing the guildmaster to scrutinize him in peace. He likely already knew everything, between Erza from years prior and Acnologia this morning. He was grateful for that; last night when he tried to explain things, it didn’t go well for anyone, even though Jellal really was trying to tell the truth. Things were just…complicated.

“I was just showing him around the guild,” Erza said, tightening her grip around his hand and pulling him closer, ever so slightly.

At this, the guildmaster smiled and gave a short laugh. “Don’t let me stop you then! Oh, and welcome to Fairy Tail!”

That…wasn’t what Jellal expected. Not that he had been sure of anything, but that was just…easy. Too easy. He felt like something was missing. Maybe he wasn’t as informed as he thought? “Are you sure?” he blurted.

The master looked thoughtful, but not cold. “You are allowed to leave your past behind,” he started, shocking Jellal. “It’s not always easy to walk away, but it is possible, and Fairy Tail will never drag you back to it. That is not how we are. I know your past is…complicated. But that discussion is over, from what it seems, so there is no use in dwelling on it now. As long as you work to a brighter future, you are always welcome in our ranks. Nobody is forcing you, of course, but we’ll be glad to have you, if that’s what you want.”

Jellal hadn’t thought about it like that before. He figured that the past could not be changed, so it would always be there. Maybe…not there there, but existing—in memory and in truth. He wasn’t sure if it really was as simple as how the guildmaster said it, but…it was nice. “Th-thank you, sir,” he managed, still trying to keep up with his thoughts.

He meant it, though. Jellal finally found himself starting to relax without the promise of impending judgement. Maybe these people…really didn’t know. Or care. Most of them probably didn’t know.

“Oh my gosh,” Erza suddenly exclaimed. “You’re starving, aren’t you? You haven’t eaten all day. Come on! I’ll get us something.”

Oh. Right. Food. Jellal had always been good at ignoring that. Even during the past four years, he knew that he hyper-focused past mealtimes then, too. Now that Erza brought it up—and was currently ordering food from the counter—he realized that it really had been a day since he has eaten. At least. That might have contributed to the uneasy feeling he’s had all morning.

It took him a moment of picking at the food to make it go down, but it was relieving when he finally ate. Erza told him more stories of her time at Fairy Tail and jobs she went on. He noticed that she only mentioned stuff that sounded recent, not from the beginning, but he didn’t blame her. Still, she sounded happy. Genuinely so, and it was obvious how much she loved the place. It really brought out the best in her. She was more confident, and more vocal. Not that that was anything that anyone excelled at back then…

Regardless, Fairy Tail truly did good for Erza. He wondered, selfishly perhaps, if it would have the same effect on him.

 

 

 

April 4, X780

 

Jellal stared at the inside of his right arm, awed. It was still there, the morning after, standing as proof that it hadn’t all been a dream—proof he honestly needed after the awful night he had.

By the end of the day, Erza had thoroughly convinced him to join. She had been convincing the whole time, but it took Jellal a while to believe that everyone meant it. Besides, if it didn’t work out, or people became too uncomfortable with him, then he would leave. However, they had been encouraging. Erza aside, many of the other guild members showed no qualms about it when mentioned, and even Acnologia tried to ensure him that it was fine if he wanted to. (He also mumbled something along the lines of it being inevitable if he stuck around, which Jellal got the gist of from Erza being as enthusiastic as she was, and even comments Erik made.)

It was nice, he would admit: belonging somewhere but being able to come and go places as he wished. No one would look up to him unnecessarily, and the only decisions he had to make were regarding himself; he wouldn’t drag anyone else down with him, but…he wouldn’t be alone. In a strange way, the scarlet fairy a few inches underneath his wrist seemed to protect him. To watch him. It was comforting. Not to mention that it drew eyes to it instead of the scars left behind by shackles.

And, as much trouble as magic had brought him, he wouldn’t deny that it was a part of him. This was a way to use it for something good, to make up for what he used it for beforehand. Maybe even one day, Jellal would have the strength to be able to find the remaining cult members, and the dark guild forces that tried to take advantage of him, and deal with them in a proper and just manner. Though who knew when he would be able to do that—if at all. At least he could start easy, before he trusted himself to handle bigger threats. Not to mention that Erza would be there, and he knew that she could handle what he couldn’t, if it came to that.

Erza was thrilled, though. She was already talking about how they could go on jobs together, but first, she was showing him around Magnolia. It was bigger than it looked, although, Jellal didn’t have that much experience with towns. Even before…the Tower…he and his father lived in the countryside.

The people seemed nice there, too. Most of them recognized Erza as a part of Fairy Tail, and didn’t think twice about Jellal being there as well. Apparently, kids and teenagers joining the guild was common? Although he’s pretty sure at least one man was cursing loudly with the sentiment of “there’s another one” but he wasn’t sure what that was about.

They were at a bakery now. Erza swore up and down that their strawberry cake was the best thing in existence, and that he had to try it. He was observing the display case, full of too-beautiful-to-eat pastries when the door chimed, and more people entered. That would have been inconsequential, probably, if the little girl didn’t immediately look at him and blurt, “Mystogan?”

They blinked at each other. Jellal had never been mistaken for anyone before; there had never been the opportunity to, and even then, he was aware that he was…distinctive. However, before he could refute it, the blue-haired girl seemed to realize the same thing. “O-oh, I’m sorry. Um, my bad,” she squeaked.

“That’s fine,” he replied, bemused.

It was an honest mistake, he was sure. A pink-haired boy, followed by a white-haired girl, entered the store behind the little girl and almost made the same mistake. “Wait, Mysto—?! Heeey, er, Erza,” the boy cried, stopping short of his first question when the little girl slapped his arm.

“Hello Natsu. Wendy. Lisanna,” Erza greeted, confusion evident in her features, though it seemed that she knew the three. Now that Jellal focused, he could see the fairy guild mark on their arms and shoulder. “Did you just…call Jellal ‘Mystogan’?”

“No,” the little girl replied quickly with a fervent shake of her head.

The boy—Natsu, probably—shook his head just as rapidly. “What? Of course not. We just thought we saw ‘im. Maybe he’s back? Anyway, we just got back too and uhhhh—”

“We forgot our money at the house,” the white-haired girl interjected, pulling the two out of the doorway. “Oh darn, we’ll have to go back for it. Anyway, see you later!”

They ran off as quickly as they came. Already, Jellal had witnessed some unique characters among the guild, so he didn’t think much of it. It was strange that they would lie though, but maybe they were just embarrassed. He probably just looked like somebody they knew from the back.

However, Erza still looked puzzled, so he asked, “What’s wrong?”

“They called you Mystogan,” she mused.

“Is…that a bad thing?” The name meant nothing to him, but he was also almost completely cut off from society for years; he didn’t claim to know much.

She shook her head slowly. “No. Not…really, I don’t think. Mystogan is another member of the guild,” she explained, “but he’s shy. He doesn’t come around too often, and he doesn’t show his face. Nobody knows what he looks like—at least, I didn’t think anybody knew, except for the Master and maybe Acnologia or Porlyusica.”

He saw why it was confusing now. “Maybe they thought I could have looked like him?” he suggested, though the argument did sound weak. They were confused, yes, but they were quick to name him until the girl resolutely decided that he wasn’t him.

Erza shook her head again. “That’s just the thing, though—Wendy and Natsu are dragonlings. They’re normally really good at spotting people.”

“They’re…what?” The term was new to him. He did learn quite a bit about magic in the past four years, but nothing about dragons. In fact, very little of what he learned was useful until he got books from the dark guild, and now, he questioned their validity—or at least their legality. Jellal had no interest in learning that level of dark magic now, especially knowing and understanding what the cost really meant.

“Oh, that’s just what we call Acnologia’s kids,” Erza replied. “They all use different magic, but they all have some sort of ‘dragon magic,’ as they call it, hence the nickname—it just lets them eat elements and their senses are really good. Like, really good. I once saw Natsu sniff out a bird in the middle of a corn field. I’ve seen them recognize people by scent too, so it’s a bit confusing that they would do that…”

It was, when Erza put it that way. It was also possible that they had similar scents. Obviously, it was different enough that Wendy caught it a moment after. He imagined that there were only so many different combinations and variations of scent to ascertain—although, maybe with their enhanced “dragon magic” there were more nuances to be considered than what was perceptible otherwise? It would be interesting to look into. However, something entirely different caught his attention.

“Acnologia has children?” he asked. Not that it wasn’t possible, of course, but Jellal also hadn’t considered it. He knew that Acnologia was an S-Class mage and counted by Erza as one of the most powerful in the guild, so maybe Jellal just hadn’t pegged him as the type. Acnologia seemed to possess this “dragon magic”—was it hereditary? Was that why it was poorly classified and named seemingly arbitrarily? Though Natsu and Wendy looked nothing like him, really, so maybe it wasn’t biological at all.

“Well, they all live together and he’s pretty much raising them,” Erza said thoughtfully, “but it’s true that they call him more of a brother than anything else. I think they grouped together because of similar magic, though I know Natsu, Gajeel, Wendy, Rogue, and Sting knew each other beforehand, because they were all looking for Sting for a while. Oh, though I’m pretty sure Acnologia adopted Erik too. He’s been with them ever since Acno and Wendy came across him and Cubellios on a job somewhere.”

“So that’s how he left,” he mused aloud, surprised but not entirely. “That’s good.” This seemed to be a reoccurring theme among Fairy Tail. Jellal had wondered how and why Erik left, especially since none of the others seemed to be with him, but Erik had always been a loner. He was glad that he had a group to call his own now too though.

Erza stared off through the door, in the direction the others went, for a moment longer, but when the baker came back with her order, her attention immediately returned back to the cake. Jellal was confused as to the situation, but he didn’t think much of it.

It was good cake.

—o0o—

Later, after Erza took him around Magnolia, she showed him the guild dorms. While the members of the guild could live anywhere, many chose to live in either of the dorm buildings for convenience’s sake, or because they were too young to rent an apartment elsewhere. There was Fairy Hills for the girls, and on the other side of the hill, Fairy Valley for the guys. They were apparently owned by separate people, but they were largely similar, so Erza claimed. It did look like a nice building. The dorms were practically apartments in themselves, except the guild dorms understood that the use of magic inside the building was going to happen, so the building was more uniquely reinforced.

She wanted to help him set up his room, but the man—Tulio—was hesitant. “Well, girls technically aren’t allowed past the entrance…” he said slowly, earning a deeper frown from her.

“Why not? It’s a dumb rule anyway.”

The man laughed a little, holding his hands out in a placating manner. “I realize, but it’s what Hilda wanted. I’m not going to be the one to disrespect her wishes.”

“That’s…” Erza exhaled. “That’s true… She would be angry.”

Both of them shuddered at the thought.

Jellal didn’t know who they were talking about, and while he was curious, he was a little scared to ask.

“Erza? What are you doing here?”

Both of them turned to see a boy with dark blue hair, looking nearly black, and his hands shoved into his pockets.

“Hello Gray,” Erza greeted. “I was just going to set Jellal up in his new dorm, but I can’t without angering Ms. Hilda’s ghost.”

The boy, Gray, paused for a long moment, nearly expressionless. “Okay.” His attention switched to Jellal, and while his face didn’t change, he felt his cold gaze was almost assessing. It was understandable, though.

When Gray spoke again, though, he addressed Erza. “So this is the new kid you’ve been showing around, huh?” he asked. Jellal realized when his gaze slowly went from one to the other, that he was probably talking to both of them. “What did you do to earn her hawk eyes? She think you’re gonna blow something up?”

Did she? It made sense that Erza would want to keep an eye on him, after everything; he wouldn’t trust himself unsupervised either.

However, Erza scoffed, pulling Jellal closer. “Of course not!” she rebutted. “I was just showing him around. Jellal’s my friend, after all.”

Friend? Present tense? Erza made it sound so simple. Yes, they were friends, of course. Jellal would still do anything for Erza. But… He didn’t think it would still be that way, or that she would still see him as such, after everything. It awed him, because if he hadn’t been convinced that her forgiveness was too good before, then he was now.

Gray seemed surprised by this, but not overly so. However, his gaze focused on where she was gripping his hand for a moment longer than normal, before he shook his head. “You’re so weird, just grabbing people like that. Anyway, I was heading to my room. I can show him how to get to his.”

Erza seemed hesitant, but glancing back at Tulio, she nodded with a sigh. “Thank you. But first, put your clothes on!”

“Huh? What?!” Gray looked down at his bare chest, marked only by a dark blue fairy on his pectoral and a silver cross necklace. “How’d that happen?!”

Jellal blinked as well. He really didn’t see the other boy remove his clothes at all. Maybe Jellal really was more tired than he thought, though it was strange that Gray didn’t know either. Erza was just shaking her head in disappointment.

Fairy Tail really was full of interesting people.

“Be careful,” Erza ordered, still hovering, though Jellal had no idea why. Were stray magic blasts common in the dorms too? Or did she mean that he should be careful not to lose control again? Either way, Jellal was sure to be vigilant.

“I will,” he promised.

Gray slipped his clothes back on again and watched Erza go with a note of confusion. Jellal felt bad that he got roped into this when he had just been trying to pass through, so he voiced as much. “I can figure it at on my own, if you’re busy,” he assured. “Thanks for offering though.”

“Nah, it’s fine,” Gray said with a wave. “This place can be confusing sometimes, because of all the renovations. What’s your number?”

“Room 3-8B.”

“That’s the wing next to mine. It’s on the other side of the building. Pretty quiet, too—hope you weren’t hoping for chatty neighbors.”

“No, no, that’s good.” Jellal really hoped that his habit of…active nightmares that he couldn’t remember were a side effect of the magic that had been affecting him, but it was hard to be sure. He didn’t want to accidentally disturb people. “I’m guessing it’s on the third floor?”

Gray laughed. “That would mean that these numbers make sense.”

The boy led him through twisting and sometimes trashed hallways until, as promised, things quieted, and they approached the corner where his room was. Gray was probably around his and Erza’s age, though maybe younger—that or he was just short. He was straightforward and mostly silent, unless giving a vague but apt warning about how some event (like the floor collapsing) were occasionally liable to happen, but that was fine. It was helpful. As he insinuated, the floorplan didn’t make sense, but Jellal also understood that magic construction was hard. Not that he was proud of his knowledge, or anything. In fact, it was all useless now, and that was a good thing.

“Erza can be pretty intense sometimes,” Gray said as they approached. “Hope she didn’t freak you out or anything.”

“Oh no,” Jellal responded quickly. “Really, it was fine. Nice, even. It was good to see her get so excited.” And it really was. Jellal was beyond grateful that she was able to recover at least that much after everything that had happened—including what he did.

However, he must have said something odd, because Gray turned to him with a bemused expression. “You met her before this, didn’t you? Like out on a job or something?”

“Um, yes we knew each other before. But…when we were…kids.”

It was clear that Erza hadn’t told anyone but the Master and Acnologia about the Tower. It made sense, when Jellal remembered what he said to her. He hadn’t remembered at all, before, but it came back to him the last night when what Mest started continued its work. Words couldn’t describe how awful he felt for having instilled that fear in her. At least she managed to tell somebody. However, he wasn’t going to be the one to spill the secret, but to tell the truth, it wasn’t something he was comfortable divulging either. It wasn’t just about him; Erik and Erza didn’t seem keen on what the cultists did to them being widespread either. He understood. There was something deeply embarrassing and weak about admitting that they had been bested and dragged around like dogs for so long. Now that Jellal could breathe and think again, he found the prospect of leaving that all behind very alluring. He wouldn’t ignore his own fault in the matter, but the Tower was gone, finally, so he didn’t want to be the one to bring it back up.

That said, he wouldn’t lie, either. He could be honest with himself and with other again, and he wanted to keep that. However, Gray showed more surprise at this than anything before. “Wait, you mean before she joined Fairy Tail?”

“…yeah?”

Gray grew silent. Thoughtful. Jellal bore through it with a growing sense of trepidation.

“Out of all the kids,” he started finally, quietly, “me and Cana were the only two that came before Erza. I saw how she was when she first got here.”

Jellal didn’t need Gray to say it aloud to know it was bad. He knew what condition she was in when the rebellion started. He knew what he did to her. He had a pretty good imagination for the rest.

“That’s why I’m glad she made it here,” he whispered back.

Gray didn’t respond to that, though he might have wanted to. He was likely content to judge Jellal silently, no doubt connecting the dots that at the very least, he had abandoned her, though the truth was worse. Jellal was glad that he didn’t pry though, because he wasn’t sure how he would have handled that. However, before they parted, Gray did give his own warning. “You better not do anything to bring that back to her.”

He really hoped he didn’t.

 

 

 

April 12, X780

 

The exhaustion almost worked at putting him to sleep. Almost. He got a few hours of quiet sleep before the restless memories returned. Again.

Jellal washed the sweat off of his face in the sink as he wondered if he should muscle through it and go back to bed or give up. Not that there was much to do if he tried the second option. He remembered that little book shop Erza mentioned in passing; it would be nice to go in there sometime—after he had enough Jewel from jobs and could pay his rent—and see what kind of books they had. Those would be nice for nights like these.

He should push through it, whether to try and get his body some rest or to finish letting his mind remind him of past events, but he was too worked up. Maybe if he went outside to cool down, he could manage to get somewhat comfortable underneath the covers again.

There was a balcony at the far end of his wing, so Jellal headed there, hoping he wasn’t going to accidentally disturb anyone with his movement, though Gray had been right when he said that not many people were over near him. (Still, he had the feeling that Alzack was a light sleeper, so he was always careful.) The night air was still cold in the spring, and it was much colder than the Tower. It certainly did the job. He wrapped his arms around his knees and took the moment to breathe.

The dorms were located on the backside of Magnolia, closer to the guild and the lake than the majority of the town, though not completely in the woods. However, the woods on the other side were still close enough and large enough that Jellal could clearly hear all the nocturnal animals and insects thrumming in the night. He had nearly forgotten how loud it was. How…soothing.

He missed it. It was nice to remember that there were noises beside crashing waves, grinding metal, and empty winds. In the week since he came to Fairy Tail, he found himself out here often just to listen and let the cicadas take his mind off of everything else that came in the nighttime, when he was alone. Jellal was so focused on it that he nearly missed the figure approaching the balcony until it landed.

The figure was fully cloaked, but around his height. He hadn’t seen them before, and instinctively, Jellal found himself scrambling up to his feet to meet them. At least the small lamp Jellal lit illuminated the area well enough to see the figure; otherwise, they might blend into the shadows entirely.

“What are you doing here?” the figure—a male—hissed sharply, shifting into a ready position.

Jellal found himself doing the same thing. It was possible that the person was an intruder of sorts, though then it didn’t make sense why he didn’t attack immediately. He wasn’t going to be the one to start anything in case it was benign, but he would be ready all the same. Just in case. “I couldn’t sleep,” he answered honestly. He held up his hand placatingly, though in a world of magic, it meant little in terms of readiness. Jellal was fairly quick when he wanted to be. “I’m—”

“Jellal,” the stranger finished, matter of fact and still tense. “I know who you are.”

He knew. Jellal was certain of it. Erza had been selective about who she told, but if he was one of them, then he was both a guild member and somebody she trusted. Otherwise, he was affiliated with the cult of Zeref or a dark guild, and Jellal would have to be ready to fight for his life. The uncertainty ground at his nerves. He needed a way to know for certain.

“Can… Can I help you?” he asked, hating how awkward it was. But hopefully it would reveal intentions, so Jellal could ascertain who he was dealing with.

“You joined the guild.”

It was a statement. An accusation, perhaps, judging by the tone. Jellal realized that his guild mark was visible to the stranger, and honestly, Jellal was grateful for it. “Yes. A week ago. I’m new here.”

“Does Erza know?” If the previous line wasn’t accusatory, then this one definitely was. The other person was certainly tense. Jellal understood why. If he was still out for blood, then getting close to Erza in her home environment would be a nasty thing to do. An easy ambush.

“Yes,” he responded, and that admission was easy. “She was the one who brought me here after… after Fairy Tail saved me.”

And that, simply, was the truth. They saved him. They saved Simon and Wally and Shou and Millianna from Jellal, and they saved Jellal from Ultear and from himself. He has spent many hours laying awake at night wondering what would have happened if Erza, Erik, Acnologia, and Mest hadn’t come to the Tower that day—or at all. How far would he have gone? Would he have hurt the others too? Would they have been convinced in the same manner he was? Would Ultear have done anything else? Would they have completed the Tower?

Would he have killed anybody over it?

There were so many ways it could have gotten worse, but Jellal was beyond grateful that it didn’t.

The other boy didn’t respond. He didn’t look as tense, though, but it was hard to tell in the dark of the night. Jellal tried being more direct. “And you are?” he asked. He was really hoping it was a guildmate, but it was hard to be sure. He knew there were still many people he hasn’t met yet, but that didn’t discount more sinister possibilities.

“Mystogan, a Fairy Tail mage,” he responded quickly enough, and Jellal relaxed.

It was a name he recognized. More than that, now that Jellal thought about it, the figure before him matched the description that Jellal had received. Since they were the same height and probably the same build, Jellal understood the confusion.

“Nice to meet you,” he tried, though in hindsight he doubted the other boy thought the same. Not that he blamed him. “Oddly enough, Wendy and Natsu first mistook me for you when they met me.”

Mystogan made a small noise in his throat—maybe interest, maybe disgust—and Jellal let out a nervous laugh for his attempt at easing the atmosphere. “Erza thought it was weird, but it was an honest mistake. They know now, though, so it’s not like anybody thinks I’m you. Most people know me, now. Erza probably introduced me to everyone she saw, which was a lot because Fairy Tail is big.”

And he totally rambled and made it worse. Jellal mentally kicked himself. He was running on too little sleep, even for his standards—and he never needed much. Maybe he should just leave. Or would that make Mystogan think of him as a bigger threat? He didn’t mind if the other boy was skeptical of him, but Jellal didn’t want there to be any misunderstandings or conflict over the matter.

“No, that makes sense,” Mystogan said finally, though his reply was followed by another small stretch of silence. He seemed calmer now, but he was still studying him.

However, as suddenly as he had arrived, he started moving again, past Jellal and to the door. “Welcome to Fairy Tail,” he said, as one would say “good night,” and then he was inside.

Jellal stared for a moment, his heartrate finally slowing down. That was…odd, but then again, it wasn’t his strangest encounter with another Fairy Tail mage. Also, did Mystogan use this back balcony as an entrance? Jellal didn’t know whether to be impressed or bemused; he was a little bit of both.

In the end, he found himself chuckling over the matter as he headed back to his room. He needed to stop being so jumpy and simply accept the fact that Fairy Tail was full of eccentrics. Not that he minded. In fact, he found their honesty and their vivacity refreshing.

The guild would certainly keep him sincere, and for that, he was glad.

Chapter Text

“Did you know,” his mama said to him one night, as she held him in her arms and rocked him by the fire, “that families can get bigger?”

The seven-year-old twisted around to see her better. “What? Really?” He knew that their village was like a family, and it got bigger all the time, but Mama and Papa had told him that already, so she must have been talking about something else.

She nodded with a hum, her eyes sparkling in the light of the fire. “It sure can. When two parents love each other very much, sometimes, their family gets bigger.” She guided his hand toward her stomach. Natsu repositioned himself to see it better, but it looked normal to him. Maybe a little bigger, but they just had dinner. Besides, what did that have to do with what she was saying? Of course, his mama was super smart—smarter than Zeref, even, and he was away at school all the time—so she would know.

“And since your papa and I love each other, and you and your brother, very much, we have plenty of room for another,” she continued with a smile. “Do you want a bigger family, Natsu?”

Natsu loved his family very much, whether it was his parents and brother, or the tribe-family that was his village. They always loved him and looked out for him, and showed him things and talked to him and other stuff. So more family? That sounded great! But… “What do you mean by room?” he asked her with a tilt of his head. She said something about ‘having room’ and Natsu didn’t think he had much. His room was really small. At least compared to his parents, and to the outside. “Is somebody moving into my room?”

“No, my silly little firefly,” Mama laughed, tapping a long finger to his chest. “I meant in here. In your heart. That’s where family really lives.”

“In my heart? I thought we lived here.”

She laughed again, wrapping him tighter until she was tickling him and making him laugh too. “Cheeky, aren’t you?” she teased, and he giggled again.

“Think about it this way. When your papa or I are off working, we’re still your parents, right? And when your brother is off at school, he’s still your brother.” He nodded. “This is our home, but that’s not what makes us family.” She pointed again to his heart, laying a hand over it. “If you love a person in your heart, that’s what makes them family. And your heart can be as big as you want it to be.”

“Really?” he asked brightly, but Natsu knew it must be true if his mama said it.

Mama nodded again, still smiling. She bent over him, leaning near his ear. “And do you want to know a secret?”

Natsu listened intently.

“Families can only get bigger. Never smaller. Even when someone moves away, or leaves forever, they’ll still live in your heart. That way, you’ll never truly be alone.”

 

 

 

 

She was right. Of course she was, because his mom was always right.

But sometimes, family got really far away.

Sometimes, for moments, the heart forgets and they die all over again.

 

 

//—o0o—//

 

 

Natsu woke up in a cold sweat, clamping his jaw shut so he wouldn’t accidentally wake anyone else up again. It was just the same nightmare.

It was…

He sucked in a breath, eyes burning.

They were still in his heart, but sometimes, it was hard when he couldn’t remember the faces of his parents as well as he could remember the giant shard of ice protruding through his mother’s stomach.

 

 

//—o0o—//

 

 

When Natsu first met Igneel, it didn’t take him long to start to see the dragon as family. How could he not? Igneel taught him and fed him and would take the time to understand him when he was tripping over new Ishgaran words that were different and hard to say and harder to read, and Igneel took care of him when Natsu didn’t have anyone else, because— because his parents were gone, and so was his brother. Just in different ways.

It didn’t matter that he was a dragon, because he was nice and he was a fire dragon, and that was completely different from the one that— From the bad dragon. It was an easy distinction, especially when Igneel was very dad-like. He gave lessons and kept talking about things he was ready for or wasn’t ready for, and sometimes made stupid jokes that were really funny, and Igneel was big and strong and he knew everything.

He wasn’t his father, because that was Papa, but Igneel was still Dad. He was still family, and Natsu latched onto him as hard as he could, because he was the only family Natsu still knew how to find.

—o0o—

Natsu couldn’t find Igneel.

His head was fuzzy and his heart hurt and he couldn’t find his dad and he didn’t know where he was. Everything felt wrong, and the only thing he could focus on was that Igneel wasn’t there, and he forgot the rest of his family and he didn’t even know it.

He was alone.

—o0o—

Master Makarov said that guilds were like families. Natsu thought the sentiment was familiar, but it shouldn’t have been, because Natsu had never been in large groups before. It was loud and busy, and Natsu thought that if he wasn’t loud enough, it would just drown in the busyness. It was hard to imagine that a guild would be family, because they were all strangers and Igneel wasn’t even here. How could he have a family without his dad?

—o0o—

Fairy Tail was pretty nice, actually. At least, it wasn’t terrible. Fire magic was still the coolest, but seeing other types of magic was neat, too. It was a good place to be while he searched for Igneel.

He wished that they would let him go look more though. They kept saying all this stuff about him being too young and inexperienced, but he would be fine! He was trained by Igneel, so he couldn’t lose! Not to anything!

—o0o—

He found a dragon’s egg, and it was the first thing that truly distracted him from his search for Igneel. Actually, it was the first sign of real dragons he found at all. He knew that he and Igneel stayed in the woods, but who know that dragons were so good at hiding? Natsu hoped that the dragon egg would be some sort of clue to Igneel, but after he brought it back to the guild, he realized that the egg was only a baby and would know nothing.

Not that Natsu could leave it. The egg didn’t have anybody or any dragon to watch over it, which meant that it was alone.

Natsu knew a little bit about what it was like to be alone…

It was decided, then! Natsu would help the little dragon, and then maybe, they could go find Igneel together.

—o0o—

“If we’re both hatching an egg, then that makes you the dad and me the mom,” Lisanna declared. “Because the egg is a baby.”

Natsu frowned. They were sitting inside the hut they made in the forest to protect the egg. It was Lisanna’s idea, and while Natsu was pretty sure dragon eggs were super tough, he would admit that it was better to be careful about things that couldn’t fight back yet. Igneel wouldn’t let him go just anywhere either, citing similar reasons, even though Natsu was totally getting better at using his magic too!

Not that that was relevant now. Lisanna made everything sound so simple, but he was too young to be a dad! “Igneel said that only adults could be parents though.” Natsu had asked him about something of the sort, hadn’t he? Not that he was sure why. Igneel was obviously an adult, and Natsu never tried to take care of anything before, so why…?

Ugh, his head hurt.

“Hmm.” Lisanna rubbed her chin. “I guess you’re right, but you don’t have to be an adult to take care of someone. Mira took care of Elf and I, after all, and she’s only a couple of years older.”

“Well, yeah, she’s your older sister.” There was a difference wasn’t there? Besides the fact that siblings had the same parents, so they weren’t the parents. This was just confusing, at this point.

“So, would that make us the egg’s older brother and sister then?” Lisanna mused. “Though… I still think I like the idea of us being the mom and dad.”

Natsu wasn’t sure why all of these family terms were getting thrown around, but… He didn’t necessarily hate it. Having a big family didn’t sound like a terrible idea—he just wanted Igneel to be there too. Or else Natsu would be leaving him behind.

Wouldn’t he?

Maybe he should just focus on the egg for now and figure out that stuff later.

—o0o—

Natsu was starting to get comfortable in Fairy Tail. They might have been loud and dense (he knew they didn’t believe that Igneel was still out there), not to mention that everything was new and confusing, from toasters to Ishgaran words to how Jewel worked, but they helped him anyway, and they never left. Not for long, anyway. They let him stay.

Not to mention that there were people that didn’t make fun of him or talk about him behind his back, like Lisanna. Lisanna was nice, and she even would help him look for Igneel, which nobody else did. Not to mention that her magic let her do a lot of cool things. Exploring the woods with her wasn’t stressful, like figuring out everything else; it was fun.

More fun now with Happy. He was tiny and not a dragon, but he was enthusiastic and impossibly optimistic, and even Natsu found it contagious. Everything was more enjoyable when Happy was there too.

They were his friends. Somehow, he made friends.

And Fairy Tail was starting to feel like a home.

Maybe… Maybe Master was right when he said that guilds were like a family. Natsu found, in time, that he didn’t mind the idea, as long as Igneel was still his Dad.

Though the longer it took to find him, the more Natsu couldn’t help but worry that he wouldn’t come back.

Ha. Not that anything could possibly take Igneel down. He was worrying for nothing. For now, Natsu just hoped that Igneel would be proud of the friends he made, because Natsu couldn’t imagine losing them either.

—o0o—

The man in the woods knew Igneel.

Nobody had ever recognized the name before, and more than that, the man seemed familiar. Not familiar like Natsu had ever met him before, because he hadn’t, but he carried the scent of dragons. It was the way his eyes were shaped, reflecting the light of the moon, and the way he smelled like scales and the sky.

He wasn’t telling Natsu where Igneel was though, which was annoying. If he knew Igneel, surely he would know! (Of course, Natsu didn’t know either, so maybe that was bad logic.) Though the guy was also suggesting that Natsu forgot things about Igneel, which was impossible. Natsu would never forget his dad! Never, not in one thousand years.

Even… Even if something had happened to Igneel (which it didn’t), Natsu would always hold him dear in his heart. He could never leave that way.

But what if he had forgotten? There were other things Natsu somehow knew that he didn’t remember, or didn’t know, that he was supposed to. Like trains and landmarks and country names, and other things that people looked at him funny when he didn’t know, even though Natsu knew Igneel taught him about geography. Or words and letters that looked familiar but were still foreign; Natsu knew he could read—he wasn’t a baby—but he couldn’t read those. And then, his last memory of Igneel in a forest, and his next memory of being in a different forest, without Igneel.

He had to know. If he forgot something, he had to remember. For Igneel. For himself, even.

Nothing the guy said clicked though. He talked about other dragon slayers and other dragons, but where was the part about Igneel? That’s what Natsu wanted to know! Why did it always take so long for people to get to the point? This was the biggest clue he had ever come across, and he didn’t want to waste it.

“Just try focusing on the other people involved,” the man said, which was exactly the problem. “Wendy, Gajeel, Rogue, Sting—hell, Zeref. And, uh, what was that lady’s name? Something like—”

Other people? He didn’t know who they were! Natsu only knew Igneel, because there was no way he would forget entire people, right?

And Zeref? Wait, Natsu has heard that name before. That’s the really scary dark mage guy from…four hundred years ago… Like what the blue-haired man said when he talked about Natsu being from… four hundred years ago… But to insinuate that Natsu knew the dark mage too? A name and a face that he had heard of but never…

Natsu remembered his face.

Young, round. Then older than he remembered. Paler skin than his, black hair like— Like somebody’s. Black eyes. Bright and soft.

Cold and distant.

He was cold. So cold. What had happened again? Where was Mama? Or Papa? He felt funny, and if he felt funny that meant he was sick, and everything was so cold and so hot at the same time—

“Natsu.”

Natsu could barely pry his eyes open. He knew that voice though, but it sounded different. He managed to blink into the dark space, eyelids still heavy and… Who was that?

Instinctively, Natsu knew that was Zeref, but why was Zeref so tall? Was this some sort of magic?

Why did he look so upset?

“Zee…?” he managed. His voice felt dry. So dry, like he ate half of the desert. He felt flushed, too. Maybe he had been outside too long. Was it too close to noon? Past noon? If he had been outside, then why was he cold? “What…?”

He tried to reach out—to get closer to Zeref—but the hand in front of him wasn’t his. It was red and scaly and dry, but he felt it even if it was numb.

“You died.”

Natsu froze. His skin itched with the feeling.

Zeref didn’t look like he was joking. He didn’t look like anything. He just took another step away from Natsu after he managed to get a step closer.

“Mama and Papa are dead too. They can’t come back, like you did.”

Natsu stumbled at the words. His back hit against something, but it hurt more than it should have, the pain spreading to places that didn’t exist.

Shouldn’t exist.

Zeref still wasn’t helping. He just stared. Without feeling. And with the way he was too tall and too different and too tall, he almost looked… Scary.

Maybe he was.

“W-what are you talking about?” he choked out. His eyes were the only thing that was hot now.

“Everything I did, was to bring you back to life.”

Natsu was cold. Why was he cold? He was never cold, except—

His skin was freezing over. It was spreading and cracking and he couldn’t breathe. His neck was burning at the same time, and not even the cold numbed it. He couldn’t move.

Mama was in front of him but she wasn’t moving. Just pinned in place in the air, and everything was blue and red.

Natsu wanted to scream, but he couldn’t. He couldn’t breathe, he couldn’t move. He couldn’t even cry.

He could only watch the ice encompass everything as he suffocated.

 

 

//—o0o—//

 

 

Natsu remembered.

He woke up with a gasp, filling his lungs with air even though he was breathing just fine.

Natsu remembered everything.

Though there were some things… He wished he remembered less vividly.

 

 

//—o0o—//

 

 

December 26, X781

 

Natsu scrubbed his eyes with the heel of his palm, and even though he turned over and buried his face into the hammock, he couldn’t go back to sleep.

Fine. If that’s how it was, then so be it, though Natsu hated that the nightmare-memory had to come now, of all times, but he…wasn’t surprised. The company and the distracting festivities given by the events of his birthday and Christmas were enough to keep his mind clear, and usually, it was enough to stave off the more unpleasant memories for a while. It was generally only at random times when they crept up on him, and those were fewer and farther between recently.

But now, he was sixteen.

When a Desian turned sixteen, they were an adult. There were things that only the adults in the village could do, because it was safer that way—like fighting or maybe hunting—and there was something that Papa promised Natsu that they would do together as soon as he turned sixteen, but… He couldn’t remember. Whatever it was, Natsu had looked forward to it, but it apparently wasn’t so important that he could remember what it was now.

The magic that clouded his memory was gone, but time still existed. Acno said it was normal for details to fade, especially from a young age, but Natsu didn’t want them to. Besides, it wasn’t fair that the small things—the good things—left when Natsu could remember the bad things perfectly well. Maybe it was because he was trying to remember that thing that he got the nightmare instead.

Which sucked.

Natsu crept out into the hallway, making sure to be quiet. Happy slept like a rock, and so did Gajeel most of the time, so he was confident that they weren’t awake, and probably wouldn’t wake up. Everyone else was more of a challenge. Especially Erik. He eyed the room across from Gajeel warily, listening for signs of wakefulness or unrest. There was just the usual calm breathing. That’s good. Sometimes, Erik’s hearing was so good that he could hear dreams in his sleep. It wouldn’t have been the first time Erik got one of their nightmares—he’s even gotten Natsu’s before. His magic was cool and useful, but even Natsu knew that the empathy part of it hurt sometimes.

It was a good thing he was tired, then.

Rogue was the other one to look at for, being a naturally light sleeper. And sometimes the stairs creaked, and even if nothing was wrong, Rogue was curious enough to see who was awake and why. Natsu didn’t really want to talk about what happened, because honestly, it wasn’t that important. It’s happened before. He’s talked it out. It’ll be fine. All he needed was a breather, and then he could go back to sleep, and it would be over for the time being.

He made it downstairs without trouble. It wasn’t like there was anything he needed down there. He wasn’t hungry—although a drink was always nice after these things. Which tea did Acno say was good for going back to sleep again? It started with a ‘C,’ or maybe a ‘K’… Whatever, he could remember by smelling it.

Natsu could always do something to tire himself out again, but he didn’t feel like being alone for long, even though he didn’t want to worry anybody else. The only thing he could do without being noisy was to go outside and fly… But it was December, and it was snowing and cold, and even though Natsu’s fire core kept him from feeling the temperature, and snow was soft and fluffy, he really didn’t want to be out in the cold at all right now. It definitely wouldn’t help him go back to sleep.

Winter sucked on principle, for all of those reasons. He loved the holiday season, but why did it have to be cold in Fiore during it? Not to mention that Acno would be asleep for most of it. If Natsu could, he probably would hibernate too. Sure, Acnologia was awake yesterday—he always tried to muscle through December for the sake of helping with the S-Class trials and then the holiday—but immediately after he would go to the cave and sleep through the rest of the snowy season. Otherwise, Natsu would be tempted to go find him, but he probably just fell asleep by now, and it wasn’t that big of a deal so as to warrant waking him up.

It took him a moment, but Natsu sniffed one of the teas, and it smelled right. He turned the label over: chamomile. Yeah, that sounded right, too. He probably made it all wrong, but it was good enough, so he took it to the couch, wrapped his legs in one of the downstairs-blankets, and drank it slowly, waiting for the drowsiness to kick back in.

The nightmare always shook him up, but at least it wasn’t as bad as it used to be, back when he was experiencing it all again like it was the first time. That didn’t mean that he liked it though. The feeling of death was just as unpleasant as everyone imagined—though the feeling of dying slowly was much, much worse. Especially in those fuzzy moments at the end, when he was as good as dead and aware of it.

The image of his parents dead and torn apart in front of him was worse. Natsu preferred to remember them happy and smiling and alive, but his stupid traitor mind liked to remember that last moment more.

That ice dragon attacked their village so quickly. Nobody had any time to prepare—to run or to fight. Natsu had no idea why the dragon came in the first place. There were some dragons in the area, but they were the friendly type that kept to themselves, and Natsu doubted that any of the local ones were of the ice element.

Not that that mattered. Especially not now. That dragon was probably dead now anyway…

At least he remembered them. He loved Igneel as his dad too, but it was weird to think he ever forgot Mama’s hugs or the way Papa would hoist him on his shoulders. They were in his heart now, and this time they would be safe there. Just like Igneel was safe there. Literally.

Not for the first time, Natsu wondered if Igneel would be able to hear him if he tried to talk to him, whether out loud or in his head. One time he had a dream where Igneel was flying with him; he liked to think that that was Igneel’s way of saying ‘I’m here.’

He missed them all, but Natsu wasn’t without family that was still with him, and for that, he was extremely grateful. He didn’t know what he would do without them. Fairy Tail was his tribe-family, and Lisanna was his best friend (which was like family but it was also a position of honor and favorites that she and Happy still held), but the other dragon slayers were his brothers and sisters, and Natsu didn’t know how he ever went even an entire year without somebody to constantly fall back on or be with without special occasion, who knew everything without needing to be asked. In a way, it was hard to describe, but his heart knew the difference.

Thinking about all the moments he had with his newfound siblings eased him, but it also made him think about Zeref.

Zeref was not quite the same Zeref that was his older brother back when they were small—not after being cursed—but he was still his brother. Natsu was positive that the kind and smart Zeref was still in there somewhere, because even in his memories of him after Natsu woke up as a demon, or when he would catch glimpses of him when he was meeting Igneel and the other dragons, sometimes, his smile would be familiar. Even if that stupid careful blank and unfeeling face was there most of the time.

He wished that he could at least see him now. He was out there, somewhere, and it sucked that Acno got to see but Natsu hadn’t, though Acno did fly farther and travel more. Still, between that, and… the book that Zeref still had… Zeref surely knew where Natsu was.

So why hadn’t he talked to Natsu yet?

Sure, there was the curse thing. Natsu knew that Zeref couldn’t be in public, or around people. Not to mention that people hated him, because of all of those terrible things he did—or at least, the terrible things that people thought he did, or things that other etherious did and blamed him for. It was weird. Natsu wanted to believe that Zeref would never do any of those things, but honestly, he wasn’t sure. The curse made him act differently sometimes.

Still. Natsu just wanted Zeref to know that he wasn’t mad. Okay, maybe he was a little mad, but mostly because Zeref was being difficult and ignoring him, but then again, that was familiar because Zeref always would get caught up in work and studies and school and forget about everything else. That was probably what happened.

But Natsu forgave him for the stuff that happened when Natsu woke up. It had been scary, and intimidating, but Zeref probably did the best he could considering the curse. He tried, at least, and even if Natsu wasn’t sure if it should have happened, he believed that his intentions were good, and that counted for something. Being angry about it wouldn’t help, and Zeref was his brother, so Natsu couldn’t be angry forever. He didn’t want to be.

He just wished he could actually tell Zeref that.

Natsu looked down into his mug and decided that he should finish the other half of the tea quicker; the longer he was up drinking it, the more time he had to think. And Natsu would rather be sleeping.

Whelp. That was done, so he should be able to sleep now. It was tempting to burrow himself right where he was in the couch though. Sure, his hammock was floaty, like the beds he grew up on, but the couch smelled like, well, everyone, and it was comforting. Yeah, he’ll do that.

It wasn’t hard to find a position he was comfortable in—all he had to do was set the empty mug on the end table, with the others. All it took was shoving his nose in the pillow, and he already felt calm enough to sleep. It was perfect. The lumpy but soft couch, the fuzzy blanket that held the scent of his family, the lingering taste of tea—

Wait.

Natsu shot upwards, the scent sudden and powerful and overwhelming. The impact of it only lasted an instant, but the scent lingered. It would have been disconcerting, the dark and heavy magic—and it was—but he knew that scent. Even if it had been years ago, it was written into his memory. Hell, because of the book, it probably was.

Zeref.

Zeref’s scent was overwhelming enough that it took a moment to pinpoint where it came from—not coming, because as soon as it appeared, it lessened, and Natsu knew better than to hope that he was still here—but he scrambled towards it anyway. It was upstairs.

Natsu only just made it into the hallway when the others stirred as well.

“What the hell was that?” a sleepy Sting mumbled.

Rogue stood in his doorway, still swaddled in his blankets. “Magic?”

“Hella powerful stuff,” Gajeel grumbled. “It’s coming from—”

“Natsu?” Wendy asked, beside him. “Is that your room?”

“You weren’t in there, right?” Erik asked.

Natsu shook his head. “But Happy—”

“Is still sleeping,” Erik confirmed.

They all either sighed or rolled their eyes. Happy really could sleep through anything.

“He’s so dense,” Charle muttered, but she seemed kinda worried despite her tone. Everyone was on edge. It made sense, though. Zeref was the epitome of what people considered dark magic—all life and death. The bending of space itself. It was scary stuff.

“I think that was—” It was a simple answer, but his throat still caught on something. It ended up coming out quieter than he expected. “I think that was Zeref.”

He was met with wide stares, but after a heartbeat, Erik nodded. “That…sounds right, actually.”

What? Oh right. Natsu had smelled Zeref on Jellal when he first came to the guild, and Erik was there too, so he knew. That made sense.

There was a moment of tense quiet as everyone tried to figure out what to do, still waking up, but Natsu couldn’t take waiting any longer. He pushed past to the end of the hallway and threw his door open.

Zeref wasn’t there. Of course he wasn’t. Gajeel mumbled something about checking upstairs, and Rogue poked his head into the work room, but Natsu didn’t hear anybody else besides them, and Erik hadn’t said anything, so surely, they really were alone now.

Zeref never stayed.

“What did he do?” Sting asked, fists lighting up with magic. Wendy elbowed him in the shoulder though, and the magic dropped.

Natsu raked his eyes across the room. Happy was fine and just starting to wake up. “What…?” he mumbled sleepily.

Charle flew over and plucked him out of the hammock, pulling him back to the group in the hallway, earning a squawk from the surprised cat. He heard her and Wendy telling him what happened, and Natsu should have done that too, but he was too focused on Zeref. Or at least, why he was here. It was possible it was just Zeref teleporting in to check something, as he could do, but Zeref never got this close before—never close enough for Natsu to notice him, at least, if he ever got close at all. (Which he probably didn’t.)

His room was full of his stuff, of course, but he knew what was his and where things belonged, as much as the others insisted otherwise.

He spotted something in his bed. Natsu walked over to find…a piece of paper. It was about the size of a job flyer, and Zeref’s scent—lingering in the air from his magic—was on it too. With a hand that definitely wasn’t shaking, he turned it over.

It was a picture. A painting, to be exact, or maybe a copy of a painting.

Of his birth family.

Even though their faces were fuzzy in his mind, he knew it was them. His dad with his squared jaw, sharp eyes, and pink hair; his mom with wavy black hair, dark eyes like Zeref’s and his own, that were twinkling in a familiar way, even in painting. Zeref and Natsu were there, too, both young. It looked just like the way other people’s family portraits looked like, except that it was his. Part of his.

Did Zeref know he had forgotten?

Tears ran down his cheeks, to the point that his eyes were too blurry to see the picture, but it was okay, because he remembered now. He could always remember. He could remember how they looked happy

They would always be in his heart, because it would be impossible to forget.

A hand was on his shoulder, and Natsu leaned into Erik so he wouldn’t get tears on the painting. It’s not that he was sad—he was overjoyed—but it was just so… much. In a good way. A laugh bubbled up in his throat, though it came out more of a hiccup.

“There’s something else, too,” Erik said softly.

Natsu wiped the excess tears away with his arm so he could see. There was a folded slip of paper in his hand, and Natsu picked it up with care, suddenly aware at how fragile paper was.

He unfolded it and blinked. It was written in Desian. It had been so long since he’s seen it, but it was his first language; he couldn’t forget that easily.

I’m sorry I couldn’t do be better for you.

He thought he had been crying before, but compared to now, that hadn’t been the case. The floodgates opened and there was no stopping it. He blamed the culmination of everything—the nightmare, the lack of sleep, Zeref, of the photo and the message—but what mattered was that he was glad. Maybe a little upset, because his stupid older brother beat him to the apology and didn’t let Natsu say anything back, but he had been here, and that… That was enough.

Strong arms wrapped around him, and Natsu didn’t need to look to instinctively bury his face and his stupid messy tears into Acno’s chest. He didn’t know how or when Acno got here, or how he woke up—it was either Gajeel, or Acno had been serious when he talked about putting magic sensors around the house and linking it to the cave portal—but Natsu was glad he was here regardless. It felt right.

His family was here.

Chapter Text

July 8, X784

 

Virgo was content with who she was and what she did. She didn’t think anything of it, really. She simply was.

However, things were odd whenever she wasn’t—wasn’t employed, that is. She could amuse herself in the spirit realm for intervals, but it got boring after a while. The celestial spirit realm was her home, but strangely enough, it was not where she was happiest. She liked the physical realm far better; it was solid, like the earth. It had earth. Virgo had a high tolerance for that realm, and because of it, she liked it better. Or did she like it and thus had a high tolerance for it? It didn’t matter.

She grew bored without stimulation. Virgo disliked the periods of time between masters, because she was stuck at home without any tasks to do. Sometimes that time was short and bearable; sometimes, it lasted forever. (Or what felt like forever, at least.) Other spirits had different opinions on this subject, but Virgo wasn’t bothered by that. Her own opinion was that any master was better than none; she was not picky like the others.

Okay, maybe she preferred some types to others. Any master that required things of her was better than a master that didn’t want much of anything. Collectors were her bane—those who wanted to keep a key on a shelf and wait. The last time, maybe some hundred years ago, Virgo figured out how to remove herself from the dusty shelf as soon as the collector’s contract expired, lest her key rust there. Moving around one’s own key was very difficult, but with enough resolve, anything was possible.

She watched idly as the army collected her master Everlue—previous master, now. Semi-permanent incapacitation was just as inconvenient as death for a spirit’s summoner, and thus, it became one of the common stipulations in a contract. Virgo rarely bothered with contracts, so she generally just left it at the base recommendation.

Everlue was taken away, and her key appeared at her feet. She could feel Everlue’s magic leave, resulting in a pressure that dragged her back towards the spirit realm. Her gate closed, and she was back home with the tell-tale feeling of missing a tether back. Well, a normal tether. The key itself was technically a tether, though it was much more difficult to follow—unless one knew the intricacies of the earth, and travel through.

Virgo was anxious to move her key, but she decided to wait and see if the army did anything with it—or if anybody did, for that matter. She was accustomed to handling it now to save her bores of the interim, but Virgo also appreciated the randomness of fate.

Nobody touched her key. After long enough, she figured nobody would; so, Virgo reached through the gate that should have existed, and she forced her way through.

Celestials could not summon themselves. Technically speaking. However, they had their own power, and it was simple to use that power to open the gate on their side. Perhaps the sensation of doing so was not “pleasant” but it was negligible. It was more difficult when there wasn’t another side to the gate at all, unfortunately. While a spirit’s key existed as the gate itself, without a summoner, it was less like a door, and more like a narrow tunnel.

Virgo was good with tunnels.

She forced her way through, despite the great pressure that resumed the moment she entered the physical realm. She ignored it. The pressure increased. She imagined the sensation was like not being able to breathe—should she ever have needed to breathe in the first place. She understood why other spirits did not like it, but to her, pain was just another form of stimulation.

Virgo picked up the key; this was the hard part. It burned in her palm and rejected her handling, accelerating the process started by her being in the physical realm of her own volition. Normally, in these situations, Virgo would simply take her key to a populated place—like the middle of a city or a magic shop. Anywhere that would increase her chance of getting a new master. This was the first time she already had a person in mind.

The girl who fought against her previous master was also a celestial spirit mage. More than that, she was a mage who already had several Zodiac keys. It had been a long time since they were all held by the same summoner, and even then, it was usually only briefly. Typically, it meant that the summoner was powerful, and more magic meant more time being summoned, on Earthland. She also knew, from what little interaction she had with them, that her fellow Zodiacs enjoyed this girl—even Aquarius, sour though she was about it, and that was rarer than being in the same place at the same time. Virgo didn’t care much about their opinions, but it did make her curious.

It was a shame that the girl left. Often celestial spirit mages would take the keys off of opponents they defeated, but the girl didn’t, for whatever reason. It was annoying, but Virgo supposed it meant she wasn’t the greedy sort. Virgo also had no idea where she was. She did know that she was with a dragon slayer, however; those were rare enough that Virgo was more confident tracking him than the girl. It was like looking for a dragon, except smaller. It helped that the earth absorbed residual magic and that she could sort through it from her tunnels. Not to mention that the purer the elemental magic, the more it resonated with the earth—and no elemental magic was purer than that of a dragon. It also helped that the dragon slayer had been silly enough to come with her as she hopped through the celestial spirit realm, so his magic was easily noticeable to her.

Virgo took the key, dived into the earth, and she moved.

—o0o—

She followed the trail of dragon slayer magic, and eventually, it led her to a forest. The ground was so soaked with elemental dragon magic, that she wouldn’t have been surprised if an entire dragon lived here. Virgo found a house, which was the only thing around, so she figured that was her best lead.

Virgo knocked on the door twice. She thought about just leaving the key, but if it was the wrong place, then her key could be lost for ages. Maybe she should just go inside and check.

The door opened, but it was a different dragon slayer on the other side. She couldn’t immediately place the element, but he had that dense aura of terrestrial magic about him that labeled him as a dragon slayer; that, and he had those funny eyes.

“Umm… Can I help you?” he asked. His slitted violet eyes scanned her body, lingering briefly at her hands. “Are…you okay?”

‘Okay?’ What a funny question. She wasn’t sure how to answer it, because strictly speaking, her body was being pulled apart, which was not ‘normal,’ but she expected that. “I’m looking for a fire dragon slayer. Does he live here?”

The dragon slayer in the doorway gave her an odd look. “…he does,” he replied warily. “Who are you?”

“Yo! Erik!” a new voice called. “Who’s that?”

The voice’s head popped around the corner of the stairs at the back of the room behind the doorway. He had wild black hair and metal piercings on his face. It was another dragon slayer, and one with an element that resonated closely with hers.

“I’m Virgo,” she introduced with a small bow. “I’m a celestial spirit.”

The dragon slayers’ eyebrows rose in sync.

Virgo wasn’t sure if they were more wary or concerned—whatever the difference was. She wasn’t surprised about their caution though, because dragons and dragon slayers alike practically went extinct some few hundred years ago. The last slayers she had seen was… What was it again? Oh! The gate-thing they opened a while back—those kids that came through were dragon slayers, right? How long ago had that been? Virgo wasn’t sure, but it might have been recent. That would be a funny coincidence, if they were the same ones, wouldn’t it?

Oh well. That was a pointless train of thought. The burning sensation in her chest and in her hand was getting worse—she might be going delirious now. Delirium was less acceptable than pain, because she couldn’t pay attention to anything.

Virgo would have preferred to make sure her key would definitely go to a holder—in this case, that girl—but even she had to admit she was running out of time. Besides, they did say the fire dragon slayer lived here, and this was where she had tracked him. How many fire dragon slayers could there possibly be?

“I wanted him to give this to the celestial spirit mage that was with him,” she explained, reaching out and pressing the key into the first one’s hands. “I would like to make a contract with her.”

The burning sensation lessened greatly when she released the key. It didn’t go away entirely, for she was still in the physical realm without a completed gate, but it was manageable now. However, the numb feeling in her hands and legs told her that if she stayed any longer, the punishment would be too great, even for her.

“Thank you,” she said with another quick bow. “I must be going now.”

She finally stopped fighting back against the natural flow, and Virgo let herself be sucked back into the celestial spirit realm.

Virgo hoped that they could get her key to the girl quickly—and that the girl would want to make a contract with her. If neither of those things happened, she wasn’t sure what else she would do. There was nothing for her in her home realm.

Unfortunately, she couldn’t force her way back through this quickly. Virgo had to simply wait.

It was a shame that she hated waiting.

—o0o—

Gajeel and Erik watched the girl literally vanish into the air in a puff of magic in bewildered silence. It didn’t seem like standard teleportation magic… She just dissolved.

“What…” Erik started.

“…the fuck?” Gajeel finished for him.

Gajeel was hella’ confused about everything that just happened, only noticing that there was some stranger at their door after Erik did, but Erik looked just as confused as he felt—which was strange, because Erik didn’t get confused easily with these things.

For one thing, they lived in the middle of an uninhabited forest, so they didn’t get visitors regularly. Aside from people who came over often, it was only a handful of guildmates and a really persistent girl scout that somehow made her way out here a few times. So, for a random non-human to show up was a little disconcerting.

What did she say she was? A celestial spirit? And she was asking for Natsu because… “Wait, celestial spirits are the people that Lucy works with. She summons them from another world or something. Assuming she was telling the truth.”

Erik took his eyes off of the key he was turning over in his hand and looked at Gajeel. “She was. I think. And Lucy… that’s the new girl Natsu went on a job with, right? She’s a celestial spirit mage?”

“Yeah, that’s what she called it. She used keys, too—had a ring of ‘em.” Gajeel didn’t know much about how her magic worked, but he did see the fish lady that she summoned to drown everybody, so he supposed that was the ‘celestial spirit.’ The whole concept was weird to him, because instead of regular magic, it was making friends with some race of magic people (Gajeel was too busy drowning to pay attention to exactly what the fish lady was besides a fish lady) and asking them for help. It seemed overly complicated. Maybe it was just a popularity contest, and people like that Virgo chick would seek out mages to work with because they wanted to, but this one messed up and found Natsu instead.

Oh well. If nothing suspicious was going on, then it wasn’t his problem.

“Wait, what do ya’ mean ‘you think’ she was telling the truth?” The words had registered a bit late, but that was probably an important detail.

“Everything she said was honest,” Erik replied, “and she didn’t seem to have any malicious intent. But she was…in pain. Except she didn’t really consider it pain. It was hard to tell, because she wasn’t really thinking about it. I did gather that this—” He held up the key. “—was hurting her, somehow. They key doesn’t do anything to me though…”

Gajeel shrugged. “Maybe because her biology was different?” he guessed. He really had no idea. It sucked that the process was painful for them, but surely the celestial spirits had a good reason to go from mage to mage like they were looking for a job, so Gajeel wouldn’t question it too much.

Besides, Erik would question it enough for the both of them if something was going on.

He leaned back and glanced at the clock above the door. They should probably get going soon if they were going to make it to Rosario before nightfall. Levy said that the job requester wanted them there at the crack of dawn, and Shorty wasn’t good at being up in the middle of the night if it wasn’t for reading.

Gajeel would have found Blondie himself to give her the key, but he wasn’t sure if there was time. Well, technically, it was Natsu’s and Happy’s problem anyway.

“Come on, we should get going,” he said, knocking Erik in the shoulder to knock him out of his overthinking mode.

As for the key… “YO! HAPPY!”

Erik jumped like a startled cat. “Dude!” he chastised, rubbing his ear. He was just being dramatic though; Gajeel wasn’t that loud. Besides, yelling was more efficient.

Natsu wasn’t in the house, but Happy was. He popped his head around the corner of the steps, hovering. “What?”

Gajeel took the key from Erik and threw it to Happy, who caught it between both paws. “Some celestial spirit named Virgo came by saying something about wanting a contract with Blondie. Could you give that to her? We’re heading out now. We’ll be back in a day or two!”

“Wait, what—?”

Satisfied that Happy was informed, Gajeel grabbed Erik by the back of his coat and started guiding him through the door.

“Wait, you dumbass! Our bags.”

Chapter Text

Acnologia headed home after a long day of being not-home. They finally got back to Magnolia that morning after spending way too much time scouring a single lake for a specific breed of salamander that had moved unbeknownst to everyone to a different water source entirely. (Why was it that Wendy had the amazing habit of always accepting quests from kindly elderly people who had specific goals and no idea what was happening?) He’s come to expect stuff of that nature when Wendy—or Rogue for that matter—asks him to accompany them on a job. (If Sting was the one who found the job, then it was likely a monster hunt for something questionably too difficult for him to handle, but those cases have gotten better since Mirajane figured out how to talk-up smaller requests.)

After that, he arrived at the guild hall only to find that Bisca was nursing some burns from a gun that exploded in her hands (she was far more upset over the loss of that gun than the burns) and since it was summer, he was the physician on duty.

Gratefully, there was nothing else that needed to be done, so Acnologia took the opportunity to go home, though the kids were being social and wanted to stay at the guild hall. He was torn between making food and faceplanting for a twenty-hour nap, but his decision was made for him, in a way, when he arrived to find that Natsu and Happy were home too.

More specifically, Natsu was home, and he was asleep—which would have been normal, if he wasn’t asleep in Acnologia’s room. Meanwhile, Happy was sitting on the counter with a half-finished bunch of grapes. He didn’t need to see Happy’s obvious relief at seeing him to know that something happened.

“Acno! You’re home!” Happy exclaimed, pushing aside his food in favor of flying towards Acnologia.

He patted the back of Happy’s head as the cat buried his face in his shoulder. “What happened?” Acnologia asked, because something definitely happened and that something was either distressing or made the boys remember something distressing. Otherwise, there was no way that Natsu and Happy wouldn’t be eating lunch together. It was true that sleep was probably the one thing that could distract the kids from food, but in his experience, Natsu only went out of his way to sleep on Acnologia’s human bed if he was…upset.

Happy removed himself from Acnologia’s shoulders, but dismissed his wings, leaving Acnologia catch him in his arm.

Happy absently poked a tuft of Acnologia’s hair while he took a deep breath and began. “Erza came back from her jobs and she made Natsu and Gray go on a job with her because they got into a fight again—me and Lucy came too, even though Erza was being scary again at first—because Master wasn’t there because of the meeting and Erza said that there was a problem that she wanted to handle so she wanted us to help her. We fought this shadow mage guy who stole a flute that really was Zeref’s flute and Natsu took the flute from him and we scared him away and we were going to take the flute back here to deactivate it, but then that Shinigami guy attacked us in the woods because he wanted Lullaby back, and then we had to fight him too. Erza wanted me and her to take him back to Onibus to arrest him and get our stuff back, and we met back up with Natsu, Lucy, and Gray on the road, but they didn’t have the flute anymore because Lullaby ended up being a demon, but Lullaby attacked them when they were camping so they had to beat them.” Happy took a pause to breathe, sparing a worried glance back towards Acnologia’s bedroom door. “He’s been really quiet and sad.”

Understanding and interpreting Happy’s stories was an art form, but Acnologia didn’t need to have all of the details to gather that they somehow managed to come across an etherious—an older one from the sound of it, if they managed to mistake it for an object like a flute.

“I see,” he managed, which might as well as translated to oh shit. He could see the issue alright. Natsu’s first time meeting another etherious, and it definitely ended badly. Acnologia knew the day would come eventually, and he dreaded it, because there was always a large chance it would end like this—or worse. In an awful way, Acnologia was grateful it only seemed to end in violence. It could have been much worse. “I’ll go check on him.”

The subject of other etherious was always a tricky one. As the resident four-hundred-plus-year-old, Acnologia was technically the expert, but it wasn’t as if he actually knew much. Most of his experience came through hearsay he heard when he still lived in the mountains, and then from fighting some himself. The details of their nature he had only truly learnt recently, for Natsu’s sake.

Natsu was willing to brush off the fact that most of Acnologia’s contact was through fighting, because everyone knew that he wasn’t of the best judgement all those years ago, but the fact remained that Acnologia faced some in the last two hundred or so years as well, after his dragon hunt ended. The only etherious encounter that didn’t end in a fight was one with a horned boy who attempted to run away from him on the spot, only to quickly reach a dead end; their conversation was short and terse, but it served as a basis for Acnologia realizing that Zeref was no longer involved in hardly any etherious’ life anymore. Unfortunately, he never saw the kid around that area again, so he might not have survived the mage-purge-raids that still existed in those early days. Most other encounters either started with the etherious assuming (with reason) that he was a threat and attacking, or Acnologia stumbling across them causing trouble and attacking them in turn. Zeref made them an aggressive bunch, and Acnologia supposed that it would take a lot of effort on their part to break that habit. He could relate.

Unfortunately—or rather, fortunately—Natsu was much more emotionally developed than the majority of the solely crafted etherious, still having a childhood and a social life, so it stood to reason that he would be different. Hopefully he could convince Natsu that that wasn’t a bad thing.

Happy floated back to the counter, watching him hopefully as Acnologia crossed the kitchen to enter his room. Sure enough, Natsu was curled on top of Acnologia’s mattress, lightly asleep. He stirred when Acnologia entered, waking up with a sniffle and a blink, so he went ahead and slid on top of the mattress with him, grabbing Natsu around the midsection and letting him settle on top of him.

“Hey bud,” he started softly, unsure how up-to-talking Natsu was presently. The kid could talk up a storm unless it was about his feelings; then, it was a toss-up between Natsu ignoring it and pretending everything was normal or struggling to verbalize it and blaming himself for it. Judging by the way Natsu accepted his touch and immediately went to bury his head in his arms on top of Acnologia’s lap, he was willing to bet it was going to be the latter case today. “Happy told me what happened. Do you want to talk about it?”

Natsu made a muffled, strangled sound in lieu of reply.

So, a ‘I don’t know,’ then. Well, it was what Acnologia expected, but Natsu never did well sitting on these things alone. Unfortunately, it meant that Acnologia had to be the one to start it, and that didn’t come easy to him either. Stars knew that in these last six years, Acnologia was learning, but there was always more to learn.

“Were you able to talk to them?”

This was either the right or the wrong thing to say, because Natsu flipped over with a shaky inhale pressed his palms into his eyes before gesturing. “Yes. I-I mean, I tried. I tried really hard Acno, but they just wanted to— to eat souls or whatever, and definitely kill us, a-and they even wanted to kill Zeref, but I couldn’t figure out why because they were attacking us, and Gray and Lucy were there, and—”

“H-hey, slow down, it’s okay.” Gratefully, Natsu listened to him and breathed. Acnologia scrambled to gather his thoughts. “You did your best. What happened wasn’t your fault. If this Lullaby person was intent on killing people, then you did the right thing. It doesn’t matter what they were.”

“I know,” Natsu lamented, sounding miserable. “It’s just…”

“The first etherious you’ve met?” Acnologia guessed.

Natsu didn’t say anything, but the slump of his shoulders confirmed it.

He hated that Natsu had to be so alone in this, but it was true that he was simply a rare case. Even among the etherious, Acnologia doubted that there was another one that was organic and etherious simultaneously. That didn’t seem to be what Zeref was going for when he made the majority of them; Natsu was simply the exception.

Being the exception was not a bad thing, necessarily, but it was lonely.

“I just…” Natsu huffed. “I don’t know. I know I’m just being dumb.”

“No, you’re not. Emotions aren’t dumb.”

Natsu repositioned himself to lean against the wall next to him and buried his face into Acnologia’s side, burrowing underneath his arm. It was somewhat ironic that Natsu was doing his best to melt into the scar that Igneel left behind, though Acnologia knew that Natsu wasn’t doing it consciously. “Do you think…the rest are like that?”

Acnologia sighed. There was really no easy way to answer this, because from what little he knew, the prospects didn’t look great. “I don’t know. It does sound like this Lullaby was an earlier creation if they were based on a flute. I think he got more complex as time went on, but less etherious appeared as time went on—that I know of, at least—so it’s hard to say. But that’s their choice. What they do isn’t your responsibility.”

Natsu pulled himself away again in a jerky movement. “But I’m their uncle!”

Where in the stars did that come from? “…what?”

Natsu went a little red at the ears. “I-I mean, if Zeref made them, then they’re his kids, so that makes me their uncle.”

It was…sound logic…but that didn’t make it any weirder. Acnologia wondered how long Natsu was sitting on that contextualization; knowing Natsu, it was a while, so it was no wonder he was so distraught over this.

“Natsu, I’m…not exactly sure that’s how that works… I don’t think the etherious consider Zeref family.” Nor the other way around. Granted, if Zeref did care about them somewhere in his convoluted heart, then he did a terrible job at showing it.

“But why else would he make them?!” Natsu asked, frustration clear in his voice and tense shoulders.

Sometimes, Natsu was surprising pure-hearted; it almost pained him. Acnologia could think of a few ideas of why Zeref would make etherious. The obvious one was to assemble an army, but it was obvious that he had no intention of that. It could also be simply because he could make them. Though, from what Acnologia gathered in what little (sane-minded) contact he had with etherious, there was a goal of sorts that they were made with. Zeref did not seem to be the type to have goals—that, or he was as inconsistent with them as he was his emotions. Acnologia used to think it was power, but now he knew that Zeref was cursed to immortality and near limitless power because of it.

The only things left were to break the curse, or to die.

“I don’t think Zeref was thinking clearly at that time anymore than he is now,” Acnologia responded instead. All Acnologia had were theories, so there was no point in upsetting Natsu with them if they weren’t even true. Zeref’s unreliability was at least a certainty. “But no matter why he did make them, you know that that doesn’t have to do anything with you. If you can reason with other etherious, then great, but if you can’t—just like it is with any other person—then that’s not your problem. It’s their choice. You just do what you think is right, okay?”

Natsu exhaled deeply through the nose. It was steadier now, so he was starting to relax. “Yeah, I guess you’re right. It just sucks, sometimes.”

“I know it does.”

It was a fact that Acnologia accepted long ago that the world was an unfair place. Yet when one of the kids made the same discovery, he was always met with the urge to change that. Acnologia didn’t have high hopes that Natsu could befriend another etherious, but he would love to be proved wrong. Though he at least hoped that Natsu wouldn’t let it bother him.

“Have you eaten yet?”

Natsu shook his head. “Not really. Haven’t slept much either. We only just got back, and I…”

“It’s okay. Come on. Happy’s gonna stress eat everything we have left.”

“Wait! I had a sandwich left!” Natsu realized, jumping up off the mattress and onto his feet. “Happy!”

With a laugh to himself, Acnologia got up and followed him. Natsu was resilient; as long as he worked things through, he’ll be just fine.

Chapter Text

November X782

 

The twenty-four-hour endurance race was only the second-most annoying event (and third-least, by that same logic) that Fairy Tail hosted, in Erik’s opinion, but he still wished he had been paying better attention to the date, or else he would have made sure to be better prepared. Acnologia remained the best at avoiding guild events and Erik envied him. His only solace on the matter was that Laxus slipped up this time and got involved as well, instead of conveniently being somewhere else, but Laxus was also stupidly good at zooming around in a straight line, so screw him anyway. (If only the track was more complicated, then he could suffer with the rest of them when he inevitably got lost.)

The race itself really wasn’t that bad. It was kind of fun, actually, when they were all spread out. Quiet. Almost peaceful. However, he was in a guild full of insanely competitive people, so it was hit or miss whether he was involved in an incident or not.

He’s so glad that Cubellios sprouted wings, because it made getting in front of the crowd so much easier. Not that she could fly the whole time, but it helped. Completing the race wasn’t the problem. Would he ever win? Hell no, but that wasn’t the problem either. The only name of the game was not getting last. That also wasn’t the problem with this event, because unfortunately, his family was the most competitive and they started an internal competition about four years ago that the loser among the dragons had to clean the septic tank, and he was left to suffer the consequences of that.

Gajeel might have gotten him last year by bolting his foot to the ground, but never again, asshole! He made sure not to be in the proximity or reach of anything from them, because no one was to be trusted. Those were just the rules.

The race was over now, though. He squeezed in the middle, after Natsu but before Gajeel. (He sprinted the last stretch just to beat him, because yes spite was a viable reason.) Rogue and Laxus creamed them all with their cheating element travel, but everyone expected that at this point. Laxus was just lucky that the path was clearly marked. Happy and Charle could fly for longer periods of time, so they always fared well. Wendy had gotten better at using wind to propel herself, so she came sometime after he did. Poor Sting was the loser of the group this time, even if he beat over a third of guild. Erik would feel bad for him, but he was too tired for that. He would rather stay faceplanted into the couch.

“Move,” Gajeel groaned, nudging his shoulder with a foot.

“No.”

Gajeel contemplated removing Erik physically but opted against it because it was ‘too much effort,’ and the seventeen-year-old collapsed face-first on a bean bag instead. Good. Erik definitely would have kicked him if he tried anything.

Walking home was a better alternative than sticking around for the Sorcerer’s Weekly nubs to hound them, but Erik was confident that he, Gajeel, and Sting all regretted the extra distance. (Besides, it wasn’t like there was…anything else… to do afterwards this year, so it was better to go ahead and just rest.) Damn Master and his sadistic games. Erik hoped he was putting all of those super delicate, rare leaves to good use, because they were annoying to bring back and they smelled awful.

Erik didn’t have anything else to do, so he stayed on the couch and took a nap. It would be too much effort to move Cubellios from on top of him anyway, and she was already asleep. She might have been asleep on Gajeel too, because Cubellios was rude and liked to take up as much space as possible for a species that usually slept in a coil. And for a magic snake that could change size. At least she was warm, because the November air was starting to make itself known again.

It wasn’t long before he woke back up, though, because the light was still the same. Cubellios had moved off of him, however, and he was surprised he didn’t notice when she did it. He must have really been tired. He was also hungry, so there was that too.

Erik pushed himself up to a sitting position, only to see Sting on the floor half-heartedly trying to push Cubellios’ probing face away from him. “Stoooop,” he whined. “You’re too warm.”

What the hell? It was pretty cold in here. Also, Sting was doing a terrible job keeping Cubellios away, and on that note, Cubellios was only that persistent whenever she either wanted something, or something was wrong. Erik stopped and listened, but there was nothing out of the normal around the house, although Sting’s and Gajeel’s heartrates were still higher than normal, even though it had been at least an hour since they got back, and they hadn’t moved. That wasn’t right. As dragon slayers, their heartrates fluctuated fairly quickly to changing conditions, and it’s not like it was hot outside or anything.

“Come on Cubellios, let up,” Erik grunted, grabbing at her midsection. Sometimes, the snake forgot how huge and heavy she was, spoiled by the fact that Acno could still pick her up, so it was possible she was accidentally crushing Sting just a tad. “He’s gotta’ breathe.”

Erik successfully pulled her off, though she resisted. He wished that he could understand what she was thinking somehow, even without conscious thought, because it was clear something worried her.

“…than’s,” Sting mumbled, slurring the word.

Erik bent down in Cubellios’ stead. Now that he was closer—and more awake—he could tell that something was wrong. Sting smelled…off. Not to mention he really did feel hot, though he wasn’t sweating. Coupled with the still too-fast heartbeat, it wasn’t looking good. “Sting, how are you feeling?” he asked.

Sting didn’t immediately respond. He just grimaced. His thoughts were likewise jumbled, but Erik gathered the gist of it, and the answer was like shit. Unfortunately, it was what Erik expected. Somehow, Sting was sick.

Dragon slayers didn’t get sick easily. A stronger immune system was one of the things that dragons had going for them, and it was also—to a degree—something that dragon slayers benefitted from. Erik had heard that Rogue was sick when Acno first brought him home, but that was because he was six and living in crappy conditions. None of them had ever gotten sick since then. The closest was Erik himself when being a dragon slayer was still a fresh thing for him, but that wasn’t being sick so much as it was his body making an attempt to regret the poison magic.

Needless to say, Erik was a little concerned. “When did this start?” he asked. If it was before the race, then the race was certainly the catalyst. “Before the race?” he added, aware that Sting wouldn’t give him a straight answer otherwise.

“No…” Sting inhaled roughly. “…’m jus’ tired…”

Sure you are, buddy.” Stubborn as ever, that kid was. Erik simply bypassed Sting and his pride by scooping him up off the ground without warning, earning a half-hearted groaned protest from his brother. Yeah, Sting was definitely feeling unwell, because he hated being picked up ‘like a baby.’

Erik didn’t know what exactly was wrong with him, but he knew the floor would do him no favors. He contemplated taking him upstairs to his room, but he should probably stay near the bathroom just in case, so Erik laid him on the couch.

He was trying to focus on one thing at a time for his sanity’s sake, but now that he was closer it was impossible to ignore that Gajeel was still sleeping—fitfully, with a too-fast heartrate and raspy breathing. Cubellios had moved on from Sting to hover over Gajeel, facedown across the bean bags. She pushed against him until he turned on his side, and Erik could smell the same type of weird scent on him as he did Sting.

“Gajeel?” he probed.

“…five mor’ minu’ts…”

Cubellios looked up at Erik with wide green eyes, almost as if she was asking him to do something.

Damnit.

Erik was at a loss. He liked to think that he was prepared for most situations, and if he wasn’t, then he could improvise. However, he didn’t know what to do now.

It wasn’t that he didn’t know how to care for sick people. People got sick all of the time back at…the Tower, but they were even less equipped to deal with it. All you had was to give them some extra water, what little warmth one could afford, and then the rest was up to strength of will and fate. It happened some during the second takeover too, and they were better prepared to handle ailments, but it wasn’t like they had any medicine. Okay, so Erik didn’t have the best point of reference from personal experience, but he wasn’t clueless. However, he also knew that he wasn’t the best person suited to deal with this.

Not to mention that the circumstance was strange enough. Both Gajeel and Sting, two dragon slayers, somehow got sick at the same time. It was true that the endurance race was strenuous, but it certainly wasn’t the most strenuous thing they ever experienced—aside from jobs, nothing compared to Acno’s summer dragon boot camp—so it didn’t make sense that that would be the cause. Was Erik right in assuming that it existed beforehand, and that the race was just the catalyst to their bodies realizing it?

He had half of a mind to go upstairs, go to the cave, and wake Acnologia up. If anyone would know what to do, it would be Acnologia…or Porlyusica. Well, technically speaking, Porlyusica was better with medicine—which would likely be needed if they really were down with something—while Acnologia was better at diagnosing things, even if he didn’t like to admit it. Aside from the fact that Acnologia was in the middle of hibernation, it was Porlyusica’s time to be Fairy Tail’s on-duty physician. Acno might be pissed if he wasn’t informed immediately but waking him up in this stage of sleep was a feat anyways, and Erik didn’t know if it was a necessary one. Besides, something about this felt… Off. He could hear a voice that sounded suspiciously like Gajeel telling him he was ‘paranoid’ and another one that sounded like Erza that he was ‘worrying too much,’ but he couldn’t shake how weird it was for them to be this sick at all. What if they managed to catch something that dragons were weak to? Acnologia probably had the strongest immune system out of everyone, but if there existed something that acted inversely on dragons—the more dragon, the more susceptible—then that might put even Acnologia at risk.

Though Erik existed as contrary evidence to his own theory, being that he felt perfectly normal (now), but he had also been a dragon slayer for the least amount of time out of all of them. He was still developing (evident by the fact that he didn’t get motion sick as bad as some of the others yet). There was also the matter of his status as a poison dragon slayer. He had no idea if germs were considered ‘poison’ on an elemental standard, but it could act as extra resistance. So, he couldn’t rule out the potential of a dragon sickness just yet because he himself wasn’t affected.

Him standing around and thinking about it wasn’t going to help anyone, however. Erik made sure they had water nearby, and he brought the extra blankets within their reach in case they wanted it. Gajeel, still sleeping, had goosebumps so Erik went ahead and threw one over him.

“Cubellios, watch them for me, okay?” he asked, like she hadn’t already been doing so. She may not be able to do much, but she understood things enough to fetch items, and she could continue to make sure Gajeel didn’t smother himself.

Meanwhile, Erik grabbed his coat and left, hurrying in the direction of the guild. He was going to go get Porlyusica, who lived on the other side of the forest, but first, he wanted to check on the others—and at least inform them of what happened. Besides, Wendy was the best suited for relieving internal ailments, assuming she wasn’t already wiped. And… Well, Erik hoped he was wrong, but he couldn’t help but want to check on them as well. If it was something more contagious to dragons and dragon slayers, then it stood to reason that at least someone else might be starting to feel symptoms… The guild was on the way to Porlyusica’s anyways.

He didn’t think he would be rushing around so soon after the race, but in this circumstance, it hardly registered.

—o0o—

Wendy was proud of herself. Sure, she still technically came second-to-last in their personal race, but it was by a larger margin. She was getting better at propelling herself with wind. One day, she wanted to figure out how to element-travel like Laxus, Rogue, or Mystogan. Mystogan was trying to teach her, but he did it in such a different way due to not having a normal magic container, so it was hard to translate even though he used air, which was the closest to Wendy. She didn’t succeed in attempting that during the race, but she did ride a wind current long enough to fly over Droy and Levy, so that was fun.

She was exhausted though. Wendy went back to the guild hall with Rogue and Natsu, and as soon as she sat down, her legs felt like they were going to fall off entirely. The achiness didn’t go away anytime soon either, no matter how little she moved. She absentmindedly re-cast a small physical ability boost on herself in hopes it would make her body recover faster (she cast it on herself at the start of the race), but it didn’t seem to be doing much.

Well, it wasn’t as if there was anything to do afterwards. Before, they would have a cookout and eat together after the race but… But that had been Lisanna’s idea. They…couldn’t do it without her…

Tears pricked at her eyes with the thought. No wonder Natsu slipped out soon after they got back. It had been months now, since Lisanna and Elfman died, but all of these events were so strange without them.

Feeling tired and sad, her appetite left her entirely. Her arms felt as heavy as her legs, and so did her head. She saw Rogue napping with his head in his arms to her right; a nap sounded nice about now. Her enchantment probably wasn’t working because she was both physically and magically exhausted. Sleep would help. It was better than spacing out and sitting in silence, which was what it had been like ever since Natsu left.

“We got food,” Charle announced, flying over with Happy. “Eat up.”

Wendy nearly groaned. Actually, she believed she did, because Charle looked at her oddly.

“I’m not hungry,” Wendy managed with a small smile. She was so tired, even talking was hard. “Thank you anyway, but I think…I’m going to take a nap…”

Charle softened, and Happy shifted his gaze to the table. “I know it’s hard, but you should eat something,” Charle insisted. “It’s not good to sleep on an empty stomach.”

Everybody else was sleeping, she thought sourly. Well, not everyone. But it was true that most of her guildmates that made it back to the guild hall were passed out. Or eating.

(Her stomach gurgled. She really didn’t want to eat.)

“I’ll b’fine,” Wendy said. The food that Happy set on the table didn’t even look all that appetizing anyway. It smelled bland.

Wendy blinked. She stared. It was grilled fish. The grilled fish that the restaurant down the street made. It was… (Her head felt foggy; she was so tired.) She’s had that fish before, and it was…good.

She stared some more. Charle said something, but Wendy didn’t register it. She was focused on the fish. It looked the same as it always did, but it didn’t smell like it.

No. That wasn’t it. Wendy realized it too slow:

She couldn’t smell anything.

She couldn’t smell Rogue, or Charle or Happy, or the fish, or, well, anything. Her nose wasn’t stuffed it was just…numb. Like her arms and her legs. And her ears worked, but they were cottony, and the more she kept her eyes open, the blurrier everything got. Maybe it was because of the headache that was creeping in.

Something was wrong. What was wrong? Wendy had been learning about so much medicine between Acno and Porlyusica, so why couldn’t she come up with anything?

“Wendy!” Happy waved his paw in front of her. “Are you okay?”

Wendy focused long enough to see that Happy and Charle were standing on the table now. Charle had a paw on her shoulder, too.

“I think you might need to rest after all…” she said, worry clear in her voice, even to Wendy’s fuzzy ears.

Her body ached, her head felt stuffed with cotton, and her neck felt flushed. Oh. “I feel sick,” she whispered back, the realization dawning on her. Except that wasn’t right either. Wendy felt like she was sick, but was she? Dragons and dragon slayers didn’t get sick easily, much less sky dragons. And Wendy was perfectly fine before all this. Was she really that fatigued after one race? She thought that she was handling her stamina so much better too…

“Um…” Happy called their attention, his paw on Rogue’s forehead. “Rogue feels really hot, too…”

Rogue, who was waking up slowly—and he wasn’t a deep sleeper, so that was just another thing wrong about everything—blinked at them in confusion. “I’ss freezing in here…”

“Rogue, how are you feeling?” Charle asked. Her tail was lashing back and forth, and she looked worried. What was wrong with Rogue?

Oh. Wendy was once again very offput by the fact that she couldn’t smell hardly anything, so she couldn’t rely on that sense, but Rogue did seem off. He was always pale, but there was a grayish tint to his fingers, and his eyes were heavy.

“Jus’ tired and sore. And really cold.” Rogue yawned. “I’m jus’ gonna’…”

He started to lay his head back down, but Wendy jumped out of her seat stopped him, grabbing his wrist. “Rogue, can you smell that?” she asked, pointing to the food that Happy and Charle brought.

Rogue pulled himself up and stared at the fish. He was trying to sniff, but he was breathing rather quickly. “I— I can’t.” He looked to Wendy like she could provide answers. “Am I sick too…?”

The four of them fell to silence. Was that it? Did she and Rogue both get sick from overexertion? Wendy could understand if she pushed herself too hard, but Rogue was really good at shadow travel—he certainly practiced enough. Plus, he got back way before her, and he seemed fine when she met up with him. Just tired. Everyone was tired. It was normal to be tired. But the other symptoms… There should have been signs earlier, right? Even if they were minor, they should have been there if this was some contagion or sickness. Right?

Unless… Unless the quick-acting symptoms were a sign of something else?

“Raise!” Wendy cast, lifting her hand between herself and Rogue.

Her hand burned. Wendy yelped reflexively, but she tried to push through the spell anyways. Nothing happened, except for the shooting pain in her arm that turned to tingling numbness.

“Wendy!” Charle cried.

“I’m— I’m fine,” she managed, but her vision was getting spotty. Did she fail to cast it, or did it not work? She wasn’t sure. But she wasn’t out of magic…she didn’t think. Even if she was sick, she shouldn’t be out of magic. Raise was a simple spell too… “It’s less of an enchantment,” Grandeeny had said, all that time ago, “and more about purifying the air. It is the sky in its purest form, to remove all else from it.” So, was there no magic to remove, or was she reduced to that weak of a state?

Her legs buckled underneath her, and it was the combined effort of Charle and Happy to stop her from hitting the ground. They guided her back into her seat, and Rogue moved closer.

“Should we get somebody?” he asked hesitantly.

She continued to hold her shaking arm close to her, the tingling sensation jolting her nerves and reminding her that she failed. Wendy couldn’t heal them. She nodded, the action dizzying her.

“I can go try to wake Acno up…?” Happy suggested, sounding unsure.

Acno… Sometimes it could be hard waking him up, but Wendy wanted him here, because he would know what was happening and he could fix it and be comforting at the same time.

However, Charle vetoed it before Wendy could voice her wishes. “Porlyusica is closer and faster. We should get her first, then we’ll get Acnologia,” she decided. “And we get you two to the infirmary.”

“But—” The infirmary was for injuries. Wendy would rather go home. However, when she tried to voice that, a harsh cough cut her off, and her vision got spotty again.

“Infirmary,” Charle pressed.

Charle was right. She really wanted to go home, but she didn’t think she could make it. Rogue might not want to walk that far either.

Happy and Charle helped them up, because they needed the help. Wendy felt the dizziness return, and Rogue went from lucid to barely being able to walk in about five feet. Another few steps, and Rogue went down.

Wendy instinctively reached out to catch him, but she was slow and unbalanced, and she stumbled instead of helping and—

And Jellal was there, in a flash of gold, holding Rogue off the ground while Charle steadied Wendy.

“What’s wrong?” Jellal asked quickly, looking from Rogue to Wendy and to Happy and Charle.

“Wendy and Rogue got sick,” Happy explained with a frown.

“We were taking them to lie down in the infirmary, then we were going to get Porlyusica,” Charle added.

Jellal scooped up Rogue so that he was fully being carried. “I can help.”

“Thank you,” Charle breathed, and Wendy knew that she really was worried, because she didn’t insist that they could handle it themselves even once.

Wendy managed to make it to the infirmary without incident. Even though it was only down the hallway—they had been seated close to the necessary doorway from the beginning—it felt like another mile. Jellal carried Rogue, who did not wake up, and he laid him down on a bed. Charle fretted over her as she reluctantly pulled herself into one as well. Rest was good. Acnologia always said that rest was more useful than medicine, or even healing, alone.

She didn’t want to just sit there and do nothing, but as soon as she sat down again, the fatigue caught up to her. The only thing was that she was now so hot she felt like she was about to break out sweating, and the beds did not help. The lack of comfort hardly mattered though, because she was certain she could fall asleep despite it.

Before anyone could say anything—or maybe they had said something, and Wendy didn’t register it—somebody else entered the room.

“Shit… Wendy, Rogue, what happened?”

Erik was next to her within seconds. Without thinking, Wendy reached for him, hoping that he was as cold as he usually was. His hands were, like he had just been outside, so she grabbed one, childishly needing the comfort (and the icepack). He let her, and he even ran his fingers through her hair like he knew she liked it, though Erik was shifting his focus from them to Jellal, Charle, and Happy.

“Wendy and Rogue got sick, and Rogue passed out,” Happy explained.

Erik jolted. “What?!”

“Jellal caught him though,” Happy added.

She wanted to go to sleep, but she had to give her best rundown of what happened so they could tell Porlyusica and Acno. “After the race we were tired, so we sat down. I don’t… I don’t know about Rogue, but I felt achy for too long. We can’t smell anything, and—and I think we might be feverish, and I couldn’t…cast raise.” The explanation sucked, but if anyone could fill in the blanks, it was Erik. She felt like she was struggling to breathe now, so she hoped she didn’t have to talk anymore.

“Shit,” Erik repeated, and she didn’t know the full implications of his concern until he added, “I think it’s the same thing as Gajeel and Sting.”

Wendy gasped. The others did too. They were sick too? Wendy thought that maybe she and Rogue just overexerted themselves, or maybe they had caught it before and didn’t notice, but if Sting and Gajeel had it too… She wasn’t sure. If it was something they caught before this, she could believe that Sting might have caught it too, despite his stubbornness, but Gajeel had more stamina than all three of them combined, so she doubted something as simple as this race pushed him over the edge…right?

Where were they? Wendy should try to help, but she wasn’t sure if she could do much since she couldn’t even push past it herself.

“No, you rest,” Erik asserted, pushing her down into the bed so that she was laying down fully, and she could no longer see anyone but Erik standing above her. “We’ll handle it. Okay?”

She wanted to argue on principle, but now that she was laying down fully, she could feel the fatigue hit her the rest of the way, and her blinks slowed down until she was struggling to keep her eyes open.

“Okay.”

—o0o—

Erik hated being right, sometimes.

Now with four out of five dragon slayers confirmed to be down with something, not including Natsu, Laxus, or Acnologia which he has yet to see—though Acnologia has been asleep for weeks, so there was no way he would have been exposed if this was anything recent. Considering that he himself could likely be an outlier, then it would possibly be a one hundred percent sick-rate amongst dragon slayers as of now.

Wendy, despite her initial stubbornness, fell asleep quickly, though her breathing was still too fast to be normal. Rogue was too, but in a strange way, his breathing and heartrate was marginally steadier; maybe because he passed out.

Happy, Charle, and even Jellal were now watching him expectantly.

“Gajeel and Sting too…” Happy mumbled, stuck on the realization that this was a bigger problem than anyone initially realized.

Their presence was further proof that this might be a dragon thing. If it was some bug, then everyone in the house might be susceptible. Granted, their cat-ness could be the reason for their immunity. Or whatever they were. Happy had no idea, and Charle was tight-lipped and awkward about it.

Charle was beginning to formulate the same suspicions, he could tell. “Are you sure you’re feeling fine?” she asked him pointedly, like she didn’t believe that he was.

“No symptoms. Just feel like I normally do after a long-ass race.”

“Oh yeah?” Happy challenged. “Use your magic. What am I thinking about?”

“Fish.” Eighty percent of the time, it was fucking fish. A low bar, but Erik appreciated their effort to make sure he wasn’t pushing himself too hard. (If he was, then Charle would have probably attempted to shove him into a bed. In a strange way, it was a touching notion, because he would do the same thing for these idiots in a heartbeat. And he had the feeling he will.)

“We need to get Porlyusica over here,” he said, running through the necessary steps and precautions to make. They needed to do damage control, but they also needed to know what the damage was. “And check on the others. Has anyone seen Natsu or Laxus recently?”

“Should we get Acno too?” Happy asked.

It was so very tempting, but, “No.” Erik shook his head. “We don’t know how contagious this is, and if dragon slayers are susceptible, then he could be too. And he would come anyways if he knew.”

Charle nodded. “That is a good point. Though you’re not sick.”

“I’m immune to anything the body considers to be a poison. At this point, I wouldn’t be surprised if malignant bacteria were part of the deal as well.”

He was aware that Jellal was still in the room, and that now, Jellal had questions. Erik honestly didn’t care if Jellal knew about some of this stuff, because he already knew the gist about Erik, and he was too smart not to research any of it instead of just accepting whatever vague bullshit they told the guild to stop every resident of Fiore from knowing about dragon slayers. Besides, Jellal knew how to keep his mouth shut about sensitive topics. In fact, he was so good at that, that Jellal was willing to stay away from Erik and bury his feelings so that Erik didn’t have to deal with him. Which started as a gesture that Erik secretly very much needed to process, well, everything, and then quickly turned into a stalemate of unresolved issues because Erik didn’t know how to bring it up without making Jellal think that he was mad at him or pushing aside his feelings or doing it for Erza, and Jellal already pushed aside his feelings because he didn’t anyone to be upset.

(They were both such a mess. Erik wanted to fix it, but he had no idea where to start.)

However, his siblings were mysteriously sick, and he was too busy to figure how to be tactful, so he wouldn’t. He was just glad Jellal was here, because he needed the help, and Jellal was trustworthy enough to deal with potential secrets spilling.

“Natsu went, um, off by himself after the race,” Happy said. Oh. Of course he did; so, Natsu was in the woods. It was a bit far, but he wouldn’t be hard to find. “I don’t know about Laxus.”

“I— I think he went to his apartment to shower,” Jellal said, acting like he was inconveniencing Erik with very relevant information. (Right, he thought Erik was uncomfortable around him and he had no idea why Laxus was a factor.) “Um, we finished the race around the same time, so I saw him head in that direction.”

Huh. Jellal beat Laxus this year. That would be hilarious (at Laxus’ expense) under any other circumstance, but it might be proof that Lightning-Legs wasn’t at his best either. (That, or this was proof that Jellal-the-Meteor was actually faster.)

Not that that was important information now. Erik had a plan, and this plan admittedly hinged on Porlyusica knowing what the hell was going on, or at least having a good idea, but he was willing to accept that. “Happy, Charle—one of you go and fly to Porlyusica and explain what’s happening and bring her here. I’ll go find Natsu. I can hear Evergreen out there, so I’ll ask her to check up on Laxus. I left Gajeel and Sting with Cubellios back home while I checked on you guys and got Porlyusica, but at this rate, it would be better to bring them all here for Porlyusica’s sake. Jellal—could you go get them?”

Shit, Jellal was the only one here who could carry Gajeel, but he didn’t know where it was, did he? And now Jellal thought he was going to disappoint him again, and oh shit— “Or, go with either Charle or Happy or somebody if you don’t know where it is. I should have assumed it would come to this and done it myself. Cubellios can help you, of course.” Erik would go back, but he was also the best to find Natsu and drag him back. Even if he wasn’t correct about his location, he could track Natsu in his sleep. Maybe if Erik was quick enough, he could make it around to help Jellal in time…

“I can do it,” Jellal answered. “I’ll help anyway I can. I can either get directions, or… Erza is done. I could take her with me too, if…that’s okay?”

Oh. He was asking his permission to involve Erza. Jellal really thought Erik didn’t trust him… He filed that under the list of ‘things he needed to fix with Jellal before they both killed themselves from misunderstandings’ and moved on, because now wasn’t the time. “That would be great.” Erza already knew most of it, and she wasn’t the judgemental type anyway. (He wasn’t sure if she knew about Laxus, or if Laxus would even be affected, but it was all possible and Erik was the type to be careful with other people’s secrets, but not above their health.) “Thanks.”

With that, and one last glancing observation at Wendy and Rogue, to make sure they weren’t about to combust, Erik hurried off. The symptoms came on so fast, and Erik didn’t know if there were worst symptoms to come. He didn’t know what any of this was, but it unsettled him deeply and it worried him.

“Evergreen!” He spotted her mid-sip of something at the bar, and he yanked her aside with absolutely no regard for whatever she was doing, because there wasn’t time for that.

“Hey! What’s the big idea?!” she yelped, before blinking at him with more confusion than rage. “Erik?”

Maybe it was the oddness of him pulling her aside—they knew each other, sure, but it wasn’t like they talked much—or maybe Erik was a damn open book of anxiety, because she grew concerned really quickly. “I need you to go check on Laxus. Something is up with all the other dragon slayers. They’re sick, and it’s bad. I need to go find Natsu, and Happy and Charle are already getting Porlyusica.”

“Wh-what?” she stammered, completely taken off guard. “Sick?” Then she scrutinized him. “But what about you?”

“No idea, probably because poison immunity.” Everybody really was concerned about him, huh? Though she was also attempting a stab at denial that Laxus could be hit by this too. “I doubt lacrimas make much of a difference at this stage.”

Evergreen nodded shakily. “Yeah, I’ll go check on him, then.”

Erik nodded back in gratitude, and then he left for the woods.

Natsu didn’t roam the woods as much as he did when he was younger (and Lisanna was there), but it also wasn’t uncommon for him to wander off alone. Especially lately. Since June.

Erik kept an ear out for him as he walked, but he didn’t particularly search, already having a destination in mind. It was—had been—Natsu’s favorite spot (their hideout) but now it was just Lisanna’s grave. She and Elfman had graves in the city, but this one was personal. Private. It was a remnant of a Desian tradition, to have a marker in a place important to them—just like how there was another for Elfman, on his favorite hill. (All of the graves were empty. Lisanna’s body disintegrated. Elfman’s was absorbed. Erik always felt bad for being relieved, because he’s seen too many familiar corpses in his life.)

When Erik approached the spot, he didn’t immediately see Natsu, but he heard and smelled him—quick breathing, a stale and sour odor, rapid heartbeat. Shit. Erik continued to be right, and he continued to hate it.

“Natsu,” he called, hoping for a response but not necessarily expecting one.

Natsu groaned. Well, that was at least something.

He found him laying inside the straw hut he and Lisanna made when they were kids, curled up in a miserable ball. Erik crouched by the entrance, aware that he was likely going to have to crawl in and pull him out. “Natsu, are you awake?”

Not really, because Natsu was barely responsive. It wasn’t quite dreaming either, but he wasn’t lucid. “…Lisanna?”

Erik’s heart clenched. “N-no, it’s me. Natsu, can you get up?”

Natsu lifted his head half an inch above the ground, squinting his eyes open. His fever dream was fading now that he was focusing on him, but he was still confused. “Erik? What’s…?”

“Come on. You’re sick. I need to get you to the infirmary so Porlyusica can look at you, okay?”

Natsu blinked blearily at him. “…no I’m not.”

“Oh yeah? Well, your body says otherwise.” Erik held out a hand. “Here, let me help you up, okay?”

“But I’m fine,” Natsu insisted. However, he did take Erik’s hand as leverage for pulling himself out of the hut. Despite all his stubbornness, he only managed it with difficulty. “So, we’re heading back home now?”

Erik wasn’t sure if Natsu was just in denial, or if he was genuinely confused; it was probably a cross between both. Either way, Natsu’s bravado carried him exactly three steps on his own before his legs buckled and he swayed forward. Erik darted forward and caught him, repositioning Natsu so he could drape him over his back and carry him. Natsu was nearly his size now, so maneuvering him was slightly difficult, but he could still lift him off the ground by looping his arms underneath Natsu’s knees.

Natsu’s skin was hot to the touch, but that wasn’t technically anything new. He was shivering, though, and Erik honestly couldn’t decide if that was the most worrying part, or the fact that Natsu no longer tried to protest the state of his health, instead burying his face into Erik’s shoulder.

Erik didn’t even make it halfway back to the guild before Natsu’s grip on consciousness slipped again.

—o0o—

Erik must have been really desperate to specifically want Jellal to help him. Jellal would help of course—why wouldn’t he? these were his guildmates—but it surprised him that Erik had no problem with it. That Erik actually wanted him to keep helping. (Jellal was always willing to help, but he understood if people didn’t want it.)

The situation was very concerning though. The last he had seen some of the other dragonlings, they had looked perfectly fine. In fact, Rogue had zoomed past him at one point in the race so fast that Jellal barely registered that it was him. (Jellal must have passed Rogue again later, since he did finish before the ten-year-old, but he wasn’t sure if it was luck, or if that’s when Rogue’s stamina was starting to fail him.)

He should have been paying better attention. They were his guildmates, after all. However, it was too late for preemptive measures now, so all that was left was to fix things before it got worse. Whatever sickness they contracted, it seemed to be bad.

Charle gave him directions as she prepared to go fetch Porlyusica. They agreed that someone should stay with Wendy and Rogue, just in case, so that fell to Happy. The two cats determined that Happy was actually the faster of the two, but Charle felt more comfortable explaining the situation to Porlyusica. From Jellal’s own experiences with them, he could understand why; Happy was not…very detail orientated.

Jellal hurried off as well. He found Erza outside, stretching towards the back of the assembly gathered for the race—mostly comprised of recovering guildmates, Magnolia citizens, and some representatives from Sorcerer’s Weekly. He understood Erik’s concern about privacy with all the publicity happening for the event. It was a shame that Master was in the thick of it, still waiting for the last few Fairy Tail members to return; there was no real way of contacting him without calling for unwanted attention.

She looked up when he approached, waving. She was likely about to say something, but for the sake of time, Jellal had to interrupt her before she began. “Can you help with something right now?” he asked, trying to gauge for himself how she was feeling. He had no idea when she finished, only that it happened while he had been inside and then occupied with everything that was happening.

“Of course,” Erza responded easily. She didn’t sound winded or anything. “What’s wrong?”

Aware that there were curious onlookers nearby—Erza was a popular S-Class mage—Jellal just shook his head and took her by the wrist, guiding her away from the crowds. Erza took the hint and kept ahold of his hand silently until they were close to the edge of town that Charle directed him to.

“Wendy, Rogue, Gajeel, and Sting are sick,” Jellal finally explained, feeling bad for keeping Erza waiting. “Nobody knows what it is, but it’s pretty bad and sudden. Erik thinks that their magic made them susceptible to it, so he went to go find Natsu.”

And Laxus, for some reason. Jellal knew Laxus, of course, but they weren’t particularly close; all he knew about his magic was that it was lightning, though sometimes he would be close enough for Jellal to notice the way his eyes were shaped, and now that Erik implied as much, it wasn’t a stretch to determine that he used the same type of magic the rest of them did—dragon magic, or as they sometimes called it, like just now, dragon slayer magic. (Dragon magic and dragon slayer magic almost sounded the same, but the connotations were…different.) The added word was likely important to historical nomenclature, but Jellal wasn’t here to poke into details regarding his guildmates’ magic and their privacy. That was the least he could give Erik at this point.

“That’s awful,” Erza gasped. “What do we need to do? And Erik isn’t pushing himself too much, is he? If that idiot is also sick—”

“We thought the same thing too, but he seems fine. Especially compared to Wendy and Rogue. He said it was because he was a poison user.” It was further proof that the element of their dragon magic mattered more than a fighting style. It wasn’t just a magic they learned, but rather, seemed to resonate with on a deeper level than simple affinity. (No, stop it Jellal. Don’t invade their privacy with questions. It’s not important.)

“Gajeel and Sting are at their house, but Erik was thinking it would be better to move them closer to Porlyusica and the medical supplies. We might have to carry them though, if they’re as bad off as Wendy and Rogue were.”

Erza nodded, concern and steel mixing into her eyes. “Understood. Do you know how to get there?”

“Charle gave me some directions.”

They headed off into the woods. Erza had been to their house before, so the directions may not have been necessary, but Charle wasn’t convinced that Erza would remember. She probably wasn’t wrong. Erza seemed to follow his lead more than not, only pointing out occasionally some things she remembered. It was true that it was a little difficult, though maybe not as arcanely impossible as some of the other guild members claimed. It wasn’t a straight shot, and the indications of where to turn weren’t obvious without prior warning. For instance, he didn’t understand what ‘forty-five degrees south at the twisted pine tree’ meant until he saw it. At least the winter seasons meant that it was easy to see through the trees, so the cabin came into view before long.

They had a nice place out here. He could see why they preferred it to the city. (It reminded Jellal a little of where he lived with his dad, as a kid, though this cabin was certainly bigger.)

However, the front door was locked. There wasn’t a spot for a key, so it was probably magic of some sort. This was troublesome. The detail was likely forgotten in the anxiety of everything. Hopefully one of them would be responsive enough to open the door. Otherwise…

“I got this,” Erza declared, looking at the door.

Right, she has been here before. “Do you have—?”

“HAAAAAA!!!”

Oh no. “Erza, wai—!”

With a spin, Erza kicked the door in. Magic sensor lock or no, the wooden door was no match for armored boots, and the door caved in at the hinges. Before Jellal could process the implications of breaking their door, there was a hissing sound and a flash of purple.

Cubellios hovered in the middle of the room, wings spread, teeth bared, and Jellal swore that she was definitely larger than what was normal. The tense exchange only lasted for a second or so before the snake recognized them, closing her mouth and sinking to the ground.

“I’m sorry, my friend,” Erza said, pushing aside the broken door with a wince of remorse. “It wasn’t my intention to scare you.”

Cubellios accepted Erza’s offering of a consolatory head-pat, but only for a moment, because then she was slithering to the back of the open room that the front door led into, where the couch was. He wasn’t imagining her being bigger than normal, because she shrunk back to her usual python-size as she climbed the back of the couch, stretching between both of her charges with a stance that Jellal could only describe as both protective and worried.

For that’s where Gajeel and Sting were. Between Cubellios thinking that they were intruders, and the sheer number of blankets that their living room possessed, Jellal hadn’t immediately spotted them buried in the midst of it.

Cubellios seemed to stare at Jellal pleadingly. It was always hard to tell, because she was a snake with a limited range of expression, but she was obviously both intelligent and capable of emotion despite her species. He remembered thinking—back when his mind was warped—that she was just a silly pet that Erik clung to for a sense of normalcy, but since actually getting to know her alongside Erik (from a distance, because he owed them both that) it was plain that she was intelligent, despite her inability to communicate—with words, at least.

Being that she was an intelligent creature, she deserved comfort. He probably wasn’t the best candidate to give it, but he would try. “We’re here to help them,” he told her softly. “We just need to bring them to the guild, okay?”

She responded by reaching her head out and pressing her nose into his chest, before turning back and doing the same to Sting, who only groaned softly. Jellal wasn’t sure what the gesture meant, but it seemed accepting of their help.

“Gajeel? Sting? We’re here to help you,” Erza declared, hovering over them for reactions. There wasn’t much. She tentatively poked Gajeel in the shoulder. “Hello?”

He could hear the nervousness in her voice, and Jellal felt the same. Whatever this sickness was, it was bad. He’s never seen anyone deteriorate from normalcy this quickly. And when people did reach this stage… It normally didn’t last long after that.

Jellal reached down and checked Sting’s pulse, and it was still going strong, though way too fast. Gajeel was the same. “We should hurry them back,” he said, though it was only stating the obvious. Jellal just prayed that it wouldn’t be for nothing.

Erza lifted Gajeel into her arms with minimal difficulty—her strength never ceased to amaze him—and Jellal did the same with Sting. Cubellios following them closely the entire way to the guild.

—o0o—

The first thing Porlyusica did when she arrived was kick everybody out.

Which was fair. There were a lot of people hovering. It would have given Erik more anxiety if he hadn’t been so exhausted, and if the people crowding were any different. As it stood, besides him, Charle, and Happy, Jellal and Erza had stayed after they brought Gajeel and Sting, and Cubellios came with him—whom he was very glad was here, because he was definitely using her as a lifeline right now. Evergreen and Bickslow had stayed after bringing Laxus here, after they found him passed out in his apartment. (They were shaken up over it. Everybody was.) Either they told Freed, or Freed caught wind of it, because he was here too.

Erik had absolutely no desire to go back into the main hall and pretend like everything was fine, so he sat in the hallway the connected the main hall to the infirmary instead, Cubellios curled next to him. Everybody had the same idea—or at least similar ones—because the crowd simply moved into the hallway. Aside from the clinking of Erza’s armor as she bounced her knee, and the similar tapping of Freed’s finger against the hilt of his sword, it was quiet. Mentally, it was not as much so, but Erik could barely handle his own worry, much less theirs, so he very firmly shut off that part of his magic as best he could, focusing on the various heartbeats from inside the infirmary instead.

When the door opened, it sounded like a thunder crack.

“They’re stable. For now,” Porlyusica announced. The statement was meant for relief, but Erik heard the underlying but not for much longer that lingered after her words, so he was not comforted in the slightest.

Either she knew that he would not be placated, or she had more pragmatic reasons, because she eyed him purposefully from the corner of her eye. “Erik. With me.”

Erza shifted. “Can we—?”

“No,” Porlyusica replied preemptively, correctly guessing the collective intention of everyone else.

Erik scrambled after her, slipping in as she shut the door again. Porlyusica was not the type to beat around the bush, which was something he appreciated about her, but it almost meant that there was absolutely no way to prepare himself for what she said.

“They’ve been poisoned.”

“What?” His voice was barely audible, even to himself. He saw red and gray at the same time, and he was probably dizzy, because the world tilted because of it.

How the hell have they been poisoned? What poisoned them? (If it was a who, then they were going to die.) If they were exposed to poison, how didn’t he notice? Damnit, it made sense why he wasn’t affected—stupid stupid stupid, he should have realized it—but when did it happen? Why?

“Sit down,” Porlyusica ordered, practically shoving him onto an empty bed.

He sat down, but only because he needed to get a grip on his racing thoughts. “What poison?”

She frowned. “That’s the problem. I have no idea,” she admitted, “but the symptoms all point to it. However, it seems to be specifically affecting their draconic nature, so it certainly isn’t an average poison.” She huffed, frustrated with herself. “Not that I can claim to know much about Earthland’s dragons. You’re going to have to wake up that lizard from hibernation—even if he’s never come across this before either, he’ll know more. Assuming he can possibly keep a level head. At the very least, to try and synthesize a cure, his blood would help, if my hypothesis is correct; his is the closest to pure dragon blood we can likely get.”

Erik was still reeling from it all, but a small part of his brain grasped onto the logistical solution that Porlyusica was offering. He clung to it, because otherwise, all he would have was anxiety. (He still had that, of course, but he could at least be productive with it.)

“Okay.” It was not, but he needed to accept that so he could focus. “Okay, what do you need me to do?”

Porlyusica was already inserting a syringe into his arm, drawing out blood. “I’m going to do tests on this as I continue to monitor the others. You’re going to help me either identify the poison, or use your magic to recreate it, so we can use it to create an antidote. Also, tell the peanut gallery crowding the hallway that if they want to be useful, they can do the following: wake up Acnologia, determine the potential site of poisoning, and inform Makarov.”

The last thing startled him, and Erik side-eyed the bed that Laxus was in subconsciously. “Are you sure?” he couldn’t help but to ask. Sure, Master knew that they had dragon slayer magic, but not that Laxus had it. (Granted, Erik was amazed that he hadn’t figured it out, but Laxus also went through great lengths to stop the connection from being made, so it was a moot point.) In fact, Erik himself skirted around the lacrima bit in most cases, because it wasn’t the most flattering magic-origin story, so he understood the complete lack of desire to make that information public. Sure, Erza and Jellal knew about him, in addition to the usual hoard, but it wasn’t like he could be any more pathetic in their eyes because at least they understood. The same thing happening to the master’s grandson? More people would probably give him grief for it. No, Erik didn’t blame Laxus for not wanting people to know.

“It’s been ten fucking years,” Porlyusica deadpanned, turning her attention to some vials full of blood. “It’s not my problem that they are incapable of communicating. But a poisoning on this scale could be considered an attack against the guild, so it’s good policy to inform him. Or don’t. See if I care. Regardless… we don’t have a lot of time.”

Chapter Text

Jellal knew the situation was bad, but he didn’t think it would be this bad. The reality of it sunk into his stomach like coals. Erik stayed just long enough to repeat whatever Porlyusica told him before he retreated back into the room. Unlike last time, Erik didn’t devise a plan; he was probably too worried to get that far.

However, that meant that somehow, everyone turned to him, even the people that were far more involved in the situation. Well, everyone except for Cubellios, who was pressed against the door and making an attempt to turn the handle—something of which she would have succeeded with if Erza hadn’t dragged her back.

He had no idea what they expected of him. Besides, he doubted Erik wanted Jellal and his poor judgement screwing him over yet again.

“Do we… have to get Master?” Evergreen asked with a slow, nervous laugh.

By now, Jellal gathered that Laxus, somehow, had the same type of magic that the others did—dragon slayer. Based on what he…knew about Erik…it was logical to believe that it was magic that couldn’t be learned, but rather, had to be received. By something or someone. It certainly explained why there was so little information about it.

Jellal was also assuming, based on the bewildered expressions of the remaining members of Team Thunderstorm, that Master did not know about it. It was a little surprising, because Jellal figured he knew everything that went on in the guild, but the general privacy of the matter made sense. Evidently, this magic made them susceptible to more threats as well as giving them an edge on others; something that someone could easily take advantage of, given the nature of this present situation. (Or, given this present situation, something someone already has taken advantage of.) However, if someone was also to be trustworthy, it would be their guildmaster; Jellal knew that he had weathered—was weathering—many other secrets of the guild members as well.

“He’s busy, right? Besides, it’s not like he could do much but distract them reporters out there,” Bickslow said. “Shouldn’t we just focus on… Finding clues, or something? I have no idea how, but we gotta try.”

Freed was obviously conflicted, his tapping unceasing. “We can’t…not tell the Master. Especially if something…” He looked nauseous. “…happens.”

“Nothing’s going to happen,” Evergreen rebutted, but it was clear that she wasn’t convinced. “Laxus is strong. And dragon slayers in general are tough. They’ll be…they’ll be fine.”

If they stayed like this, they were only going to spiral, and that wouldn’t help the dragon slayers. (As they seemed to be called.) They needed to break down the requests, figure out what was feasible, and do it. The source of the poisoning was a more complicated matter, because they had so little to work with. Given some more time, they could see if Porlyusica and Erik determined the cause—airborne, ingested, or absorbed, though based on lack of skin symptoms, it probably wasn’t the latter—and that would give them a place to start. First, however, were the people requested: Master and Acnologia.

Master was accessible, and, well, the master. He would have resources, and at the very least, it made sense that they should inform him. However, there seemed to be a problem in the fact that he wasn’t already informed about the nature of the magic out play—or at least that Laxus had it. On the other hand, Jellal was willing to bet that Acnologia already knew everything; he was also the other healer, and if Porlyusica requested him, then it likely wasn’t without need. Not to mention that he was family to most of the people in that room. However, Acnologia was gone. Likely on a quest, and S-Class quests—especially of the SS and above caliber—were not short-term things. Gildarts was still gone, for instance, and it had been over a year now. Acnologia had been gone for a month or so at a time before, too, so the likelihood of tracking him down was…slim. Still, if contact was an option, it would be a good first step, being that it was probably the only clear thing that could be agreed upon.

“Is there any way to contact Acnologia?” he asked, though the question was more directed towards Charle and Happy. If anyone here would know, it would likely be them. “Unless he’s on a quest nearby, I doubt we could reach him in time, but he’s fast, so he might be able to get here.”

Charle dragged herself out of her stupor. “That’s—” She cleared her throat. “That’s not a problem, actually. We can get to him. It’ll only take a little time.”

“It will?” Happy whispered to her, but it was loud enough that his words carried over.

“Of course it will. He’ll panic for sure,” Charle hissed back.

Were they…talking about the same thing? Jellal wasn’t able to follow their concerns or their logic, but before he could clarify anything, Charle grabbed Happy by the arm. “We’ll go get him,” Charle said hurriedly, summoning her wings. They flew away, exiting through the side entrance at the end of the hallway.

He was still confused as to how long it would take to fetch Acnologia, if it was even possible, but they seemed confident, so Jellal would have to trust them; besides, they didn’t have any time to spare in a situation like this.

The next simplest course of action was not necessarily simple. “Now, Master…” he started, but faltered again at Thunderstorm’s expressions.

“We have to tell the Master,” Erza insisted, eyeing them stubbornly.

If their stare off continued, Erza would certainly win—and that wasn’t even considering the fact that as the only S-Class mage present, she held a degree of authority. However, Jellal didn’t want tensions to be any higher than they already were, because that wouldn’t help anyone.

“I’ll tell him,” Jellal offered. “Not necessarily everything, but if things go badly because of it, I’ll take the responsibility. However, Master should know.” Especially if it gets worse.

Freed made a strangled noise, but this time, it was Bickslow who conceded. “Yeah, you’re right. ‘Sides, this just gives Laxus the excuse to drop the ‘it’s been too long it’ll be awkward’ song and dance he does.”

“But what if…” Evergreen began to retort, but Freed backed up Bickslow with a sigh.

“He’s right. It was bound to happen eventually. But for it to be like this…”

Erza stood up decisively. “There’s no time to waste. While Jellal goes and informs Master, we should get to the bottom of what happened.”

That handled that. Jellal left the search to Erza and the functioning members of Thunderstorm; not even Jellal knew where to start in searching for the cause, but he was sure they could figure it out. He slipped out of the guild hall and hurried toward the finish line of the race on the other side of the town. It was the last stretch of the twenty-four-hour endurance race, and the last guild members were trickling in. Master was still positioned where he had been when Jellal last saw him, watching as people finished. The main problem was the Sorcerer’s Weekly reporter that was standing next to him, taking notes on her pad.

Jellal had to separate them. Reporters had no dedication to privacy (unless ordered to by the government) and letting anything of this leak was the last thing any one of them wanted. Not only would pride and reputation be damaged, but it could be dangerous to the dragon slayer magic users (dragon slayers?) since Jellal didn’t doubt that there were people out there that would try to take advantage of any weakness they could.

“Master?” he called as he approached, trying to keep the urgency toned down. “May I speak with you for a moment?”

The orange-haired reporter turned around too, her gaze bearing straight into him. The intensity of her gaze bespoke of recognition, but Jellal wasn’t really a prominent member of the guild, so he had no idea why the reporter would be interested in him specifically—unless she thought his question would be interesting. He needed to ditch her.

“Hm?” Master turned around. “Oh, Jellal. What is it?”

Both of them were looking at him. He was sure the reporter meant well, but he was very unsettled by her presence; maybe it was the staring and the overwhelming peach perfume.

“Oh, it’s uh— It’s nothing much—” a lie “—but something came up in the guild hall that needs your attention. Alone.”

He was messing up really badly, he could tell. He should have figured out a way to get Master’s attention before getting the reporter’s—that’s probably what Mystogan would have done. As it was, he had to figure out how to convey the urgency to Master and Master alone.

Maybe he was succeeding, because Master was squinting at him like he just said something ridiculous. (Or he was failing, for the same reason, which was more likely.)

“Does it specifically need my attention?” Master asked, and it was an easier question to answer without raising panic.

“Yes,” Jellal responded. “S-sorry. It shouldn’t take long.” That was likely another lie, but he needed to hurry this along without raising any alarms.

Gratefully, Master was either perceptive enough or trusting enough to follow with a nod. The reporter did not move from her spot, but he could feel her gaze on his back. He made sure they were well out of her range before speaking again, like Master was waiting for him to.

“Porlyusica said you should come. Some people have been poisoned—we don’t know how or when, but we’re trying to figure it out. It’s…pretty bad.” Jellal wasn’t sure if he was understating the situation or not, but on paper, it was that simple. The problem lied in all of the things they didn’t know—like how it happened, or what would happen next. As for the other details, he would leave those to Porlyusica.

Master raised his brows in immediate concern, before his expression darkened. “Then there’s no time to waste. Let’s go.”

—o0o—

Acnologia has always been wary of being woken up. Never, not in all his life, had it ever amounted to anything good. Accidental, maybe, or just happenstance, but it was always a potential concern. This didn’t end with taking in the kids; in fact, it definitely got worse.

As a dragon in hibernation, waking up was…difficult. It took longer for the brain and the body to catch up to speed. However, there was nothing like a houseful of children to make him force past that bleariness very quickly.

His name and a tugging on his ear pulled him out of thoughtless sleep. The sensations were still distant, but Acnologia managed to latch onto the fact that someone was waking him up, so he focused on that, inhaled deeply, and opened his eyes.

It was Charle in front of him. He was pretty sure the tugging on his ear was Happy now that his senses were coming crawling back. Whenever the kids panicked over one thing or another and woke him, it was never Charle who did it. She was inherently stubborn and generally insisted that any problem could be solved among those present, despite the fact that she was a literal four-year-old. Although, she was practically acting her age now, poking at his nose and saying his name until he woke up fully.

She sounded worried. Something was definitely wrong.

He inhaled again, forcing the magic from the air into his lungs to jumpstart him. (It was times like these when he was glad that he was an ether dragon; it was also times like these—or afterwards—when he couldn’t help but wonder how Igneel did it, because Acnologia knew for a fact that it had to happen.) The magic awakened his blood in the stead of heat, and with it, his body pushed itself awake. The immediate worry he experienced with the knowledge that Charle was the one waking him up—really, that he was being woken up at all—was enough to make his brain and senses catch up.

“What’s wrong?” he asked, though he was already in the process of standing up. He stretched his wings and tail, knowing from experience that he at least needed to loosen all of his limbs enough even if he was going to compress to a human. He definitely needed the limberness if he were to fly. It was impossible to tell what the problem was yet.

“It’s—it’s the others,” Charle started, struggling to get her thoughts in order. “They’re sick—poisoned, we think. Erik and Porlyusica need you.”

His mind barely registered anything after ‘poisoned.’ It was probably a good thing that his responses were still slowed, otherwise the rage of it might have outpaced the panic.

Fucking hell. The panic was definitely setting in. How bad was it? How long had it been? There was a wide variety of effects, ranging from mild nausea to death (no, don’t go there yet; stay level-headed) that could result from this. Not to mention the cause. No, the cause was not the important part (now); it was making sure his kids would be alright. (Later, if someone needed to die, they would.)

“Move,” he managed, because both Charle and Happy were still hovering too close. Acnologia somehow had enough presence of mind to assume that this required his human form, since he could sense that the teleporting circle had been recently activated, and that meant it was at home or at the guild. Probably.

Charle and Happy flew out of the way, and Acnologia gathered his still lethargic magic and shoved it down into shape. The world blurred a little more than it should have when he stood on human legs, but it was a negligible consequence of the rushed transformation. Charle handed him his armband and a shirt, which was helpful because he likely would have forgotten it and not even cared until afterwards.

“Tell me as many details as you can on the way,” Acnologia asked as soon as they crossed the threshold of the portal. He didn’t smell or hear anyone, so they weren’t at home; maybe they were in the infirmary, then.

They nodded resolutely. “It started a few hours ago…”

—o0o—

Levy could have cried when she finally reached the finish line. Actually, she did—just a little. Especially when Master didn’t immediately come and boink her on the head and declare her last. Droy came in right behind her, and he wasn’t targeted either. Team Shadow Gear was safe this year.

However, when Levy looked up at where the Master was standing—in all her trepidation—she only saw Jellal there, saying something to him before they both left in the direction of the guild hall. Huh. Was there still time before the end of the race? Levy had just assumed that she and Droy would be the bottom of the barrel, as usual; it certainly seemed that way by the amount of guildmates loitering about, waiting. She was starting to think that maybe Droy was last and Master was just screwing with him.

Well, it was his problem, if that was the case. Levy would feel sorrier for him, but she was too exhausted at the moment; she just wanted to melt into her seat on the ground. Droy was at least distracting himself by studying the leaf that was this year’s item of retrieval. Levy hadn’t recognized the type of tree, so it was probably rare; Levy hoped that Droy would content himself with his new botanical study, because it might be his last solace for a while.

She was almost done with her consolation-prize-water-bottle when she saw Max huff his way through the finish line as well. Levy shared a questioning glance with Droy—who was clearly relieved—because it was baffling. Why would Master leave? There was just the Sorcerer’s Weekly reporter in his place, smiling to herself and jotting down notes.

“Levy! Droy!”

Jet was suddenly on top of them, and she nearly dropped her water bottle in surprise. “Jet, what—?”

“You guys got to come to the guild. Now.”

Her confusion started to turn into worry. Something was happening, wasn’t it? Even though she still felt dead on her feet, she found the strength to follow after Jet in all his speediness—though he ended up practically dragging the both of them anyway.

Jet still hadn’t said anything until he was shoving them down the stairs to the library.

“What’s going on?” Droy questioned for not the first time.

Jet had a habit of skipping over the communication bit, especially whenever he got worked up over something, but he finally answered.

“Levy’s boyfriend’s been poisoned—his siblings too. Except for Erik. We think it’s airborne, but you’re also the plant expert, so you might know better. I think Jellal and Freed have ideas, but I really can’t follow them.”

Levy tripped down the last step. “What?! Gajeel’s not my— He’s been—? What happened?” Neither her words nor her thoughts could keep up with the surge of panic she felt.

Jet helped her off of the floor right as Jellal rounded the corner, a stack of field guides and botanical encyclopedias in his arms. It clicked. That’s why Master left. Because— Because they were… “Are they okay?” she asked, and it was the dumbest question she could have possibly asked, because obviously they weren’t, but she needed to know regardless.

Jellal grimaced, and her heart dropped before he began. “Porlyusica says they’re stable, but all solutions thus far are short term. Whatever it is, it’s in their bloodstream now. There’s… There’s probably not much time, unless we find a counteractant.”

It was all so sudden, and she was having trouble processing it all—especially when nothing but anxiety and dread wanted to vie for her brain’s attention. However, she was a mage, and mages excelled under pressure. (They were forced to, at least.) She just needed to not think about the consequences of the worst outcome, but rather, focus on the method.

“What do you need us to do?” It looked like research was already underway. As they moved into the library, she could see that Freed was deep in a poison field guide, rune over his eye to make him read faster.

“You and Droy can help Freed and I find potential sources. Erza, Bickslow, and Evergreen went to search the area for potential signs of how and when it happened. Porlyusica thinks it was somewhat recent—after the race, at least. It’s possible the cause is still nearby,” Jellal replied.

“Want me to help them?” Jet asked.

“Actually, if you act as a messenger between groups, that would be better.”

Levy nodded. Yep. Leave it to Jellal and Freed to already have a plan. She took comfort in it, because as bad as the situation was, Fairy Tail didn’t get stopped easily. She grabbed a book out of Jellal’s stack, as well as her gale-force reading glasses, which were gratefully still on the library table. “Let’s go.”

—o0o—

Acnologia had a distant, foggy memory of Dr. Kathryn telling him not to ‘care too much’ regarding patients, early in his apprenticeship. It was a doctor’s job to care, but not to mourn. He found the distinction didn’t exist when his patients were also his guild. The distinction was even less present when the people suffering were his kids.

Porlyusica gave a clear and concise report on what was discovered when he arrived, and it was all he could do to listen with a level-head.

“I can’t confirm until I use your blood as a test, but it’s certainly targeting the dragon aspects in their bodies. Anything that is imbued with a magical resonance begins to break down. However, the cause isn’t magic in itself, because no nullification works. In addition to that, bane particles are unaffected by the dissolution that occurs—Natsu has been the most stable so far.”

Acnologia’s healing spell over the kids did little, which was in line with what Porlyusica said. The cause of their affliction was a nullifier in its own right, so it made sense that magic wasn’t all that effective against it. However, if it was mere nullification, it wouldn’t cause such a reaction. Bane particles, being the antithesis to ether, were the usual suspect, but then Natsu would hardly be affected at all. Not to mention that bane particles would focus on their magic containers, not their circulatory systems—although, dragons and dragon slayers alike were unique in that there wasn’t all that much of a difference between magic veins and blood veins; it all traveled together, and blended. However, their veins weren’t discolored, not even in their eyes, so the culprit was certainly something else.

He absently pricked his own finger so that Porlyusica could sample his blood. “Do you have a spare sample from any of them?” he asked, wanting to test something. In case it did more harm than good, he wouldn’t dare try it on any of the kids.

“One moment.”

They were all unresponsive. Feverish. Struggling to breathe. Yet, there was no swelling, no mucus, no discharge… Even bane particles create a sludge when they collide with ether in an uncontrolled manner. The lack of build-up pointed away from a sickness of any kind—nothing was infected—but the foreign particles wreaked havoc all the same. So where were they?

Porlyusica handed him a vial. He watched closely, dragon sight focusing in on any magic resonance he could, and he cast purify.

Nothing happened.

In this context, it was a massive relief. The contaminant reacted badly with the magic in their bodies, and it wasn’t magic itself so it couldn’t be nullified, but it didn’t react badly with external magic. Specifics of the situation notwithstanding, it was a mundane cause, and it could be solved with mundane solutions—purifications and time.

Acnologia cast purify on each person in turn, focusing on the lungs. The lungs were a dragon’s key to bodily fortification, after all. He felt a weight slide off of him like an avalanche when their breathing eased. His mind had started jumping to…worst possible outcomes…but they would be fine. Now was the part when they just needed time to recover and repeated treatments.

It was also the time to figure out how this happened in the first place. What happened. This may not be fatal, but it was something that he never wanted to repeat. But what could affect a dragon slayer to this degree? Porlyusica was likely correct when she surmised that it was because they were dragon slayers, and that made it all the more…concerning.

If the kids were dragons instead of dragon slayers, it was possible it would be much worse. Dragons were completely imbued. So to that regard—what would poison a dragon? What could? Dragons were notoriously resistant to nearly everything, however, they were still somewhat organic despite tough skins and tightly woven magic defenses. Acnologia knew that no magic resistance could stop what could break down magic itself. Yet, for the body to be affected too…

“What’s going on here?”

Acnologia knew that he still wasn’t entirely awake and aware of things—or at the very least, his transformation to human form was not seamless—because he did not sense Makarov entering at all. The Master certainly hadn’t been there for a long, however, because he took in the room with bafflement. His gaze lingered on Laxus the longest. “What happened?”

“If I knew…” he mumbled, forcing his heart to slow after getting internally jump-scared by a man that didn’t even make it past his hip.

“Good. You’re here,” Porlyusica intervened, stepping between them. She made a vague ‘carry on’ motion to Acnologia, like she needed to tell him twice. “Six members of the guild came into contact with a type of poison, seizing their circulatory and respiratory systems.” She glanced toward Acnologia.

“They’ll live. The effects will likely subside in under twenty-fours, with monitoring, just in case.” He forced an exhale. “We don’t know the cause.” The symptoms were familiar, but there was nothing concrete enough to ascertain how this came to be.

Makarov was still working his jaw like a fish looking for water.

“There’s no way of knowing anything for certain, but whether it was intentional or accidental, there’s cause for caution for the entirety of the guild. That said, I would personally recommend tact,” Porlyusica continued, staring down Makarov out of the corner of her eye like he was a wayward child. To someone Porlyusica’s age, everyone likely was to her.

“I see…” Makarov cleared his throat roughly. “There’s no present danger for these children any longer, correct?”

Porlyusica grunted. “No. Between Acnologia’s magic and the treatments that I’ve prepared, all they will need is bed rest. Now, let us do our job, and you do yours.”

The woman left very little room for argument. She also left a majority of the initial cause for concern out of the explanation altogether. For all that she complained about Laxus’s and Makarov’s lack of communication, she made no move to intervene, even when it would have been more convenient. Acnologia himself also stayed out of it, because it was ultimately Laxus’s decision, though he was secretly glad that he didn’t have to break it to the man that there was a decent probability that his grandson could turn into a dragon one day.

Makarov looked like there was more he wanted to say, but in the end he just nodded. He didn’t leave, however; he just hovered between Laxus and the door with a furrowed brow. Porlyusica didn’t kick him out, either.

There was no more talking to be done anyways. With the knowledge that contact with magic wouldn’t cause more problems than it could solve, both Acnologia’s and Porlyusica’s treatments would speed up their recovery process. Acnologia would continue to flush the foreign substances from their system, and for what had already been absorbed, Porlyusica had copied the function of some of Erik’s blood cells into a mimic liquid to pry out the acclimated poison, so that as little of it reached the heart as possible.

Speaking of Erik… The kid was dead on his feet, practically, but he was still hunched over the vials and trying to glean the poison straight from the blood itself. Normally, the technique would be solid, but not when absorbed.

“They’ll be fine,” Acnologia repeated, laying a hand on his shoulder. Knowing Erik, he would only drive himself crazy without any other way to help.

“I know, but—” he started, but Acnologia never let him finish. He was caught off-guard enough that the sleep magic worked, and Erik slumped into his arms. Yes, Erik was by far the worst insomniac in the household—and that was truly saying something—so Acnologia had no doubt that he would work himself to a state of exhaustion. Erik already did plenty, from what he had heard; he deserved the rest.

“You did good.” Acnologia carried Erik to an empty bed, aware that he likely wouldn’t be asleep for long. Cubellios, who had stayed confined in a corner this whole time—Acnologia wondered if Porlyusica had yelled at her—slithered up onto the bed and curled around him.

He picked up what Erik had been working on, giving it a quick eye of appraisal. He damn near was close to forcing it out, but unfortunately, elements could only be absorbed as magic once. They stayed ether unless they were turned back into poison by the user—hence Porlyusica’s method, since Erik couldn’t manifest his magic inside of another’s body.

Wait.

The poison had been absorbed as magic. Like it was magic, when it wasn’t. By non-poison dragon slayers.

He swore suddenly, earning the stares of Makarov and Porlyusica alike. “I think I might know what it is,” he announced, “but it’s a plant that’s practically extinct.”

Porlyusica narrowed her eyes at him. “Explain.”

Makarov was listening too, but at this point, there was really no reason to keep dancing around it. It was tiring. “Bloodweed—that’s the colloquial, at least. If there was a better name, I don’t know it. It was named because it had a tendency to grow on dragon corpses.” He had vague memories of burning battlefields because of it. Granted, he was sure that he stopped needing a sane reason to do it as time progressed in that war… “Since it sometimes was nourished by dragon’s blood, if a dragon ingested it, it would try to re-enter their bloodstream as if it were magic, and it would stop them from using magic or absorbing more. It was an irritant at best, and fatal at worst. The pollen was the worst of it. The symptoms are nearly identical, though—I think dragons discharged elementally more.” It was a good thing that dragon slayers didn’t. They weren’t literally made up of their element as much as dragons were. Otherwise, the guild hall certainly would have been destroyed by now… “However, to my knowledge, it’s not a common plant around these parts—if it exists at all. The only value it had was a dragon deterrent.” Though, with no more dragons dying out in the fields or the mountains, it wasn’t as if there was cause for growth nowadays.

If it weren’t for the rarity—and nigh impossibility—of the plant existing, he would swear that it was the cause. It would explain why their bodies was trying to absorb it so readily. Dragon slayers, even more than dragons, were built to absorb magic, and if the plant could fool dragon’s blood, it was likely that its makeup was similar to that of dragon magic, despite not being magical in nature.

“I fail to understand what this has to do with them,” Makarov said with a frown. “Do humans have similar symptoms?”

Acnologia would rather be any place but here.

“Do you remember what it looks like?” Porlyusica asked.

He carefully ignored Makarov’s inquiry to answer hers. “A tall grass, a brownish green in color with red flowers. I don’t remember any other specifics.”

“Then I shall inform the researching party,” she said, and like that, she was gone. Traitor.

Makarov watched him silently, demanding answers with the furrow of his brow and crossed arms. Acnologia forced himself to grant him the decency of eye contact, so he stared back. “No. They don’t. But dragon slayers will.”

“But Laxus…”

Acnologia watched him cycle through the stages of realization through his facial expression alone. He was glad that Erik was asleep, otherwise, he likely would have experienced the totality of it. To anyone who knew that dragon slayers existed, and what a dragon slayer was, it was fairly obvious that Laxus was one. The eyes, the teeth, the keen senses… However, to those who didn’t bother with defining dragon slayer magic and what it meant, it was perhaps less obvious; to Makarov—Laxus’s grandfather—Laxus’s change in body should have been obvious. Though Acnologia would be a hypocrite if he denied how powerful denial could be.

“It wasn’t his fault,” Acnologia started, before Makarov could start jumping to conclusions. “Or choice, even.”

“You knew,” Makarov stated like an accusation.

“I did. But it wasn’t my story to tell. It still isn’t.”

Briefly, they stared each other down. He would have thought by now that Makarov would have figured out that such tactics didn’t work on him. Though maybe he did realize it, because their clash of wills lasted for far less time than it used to.

“I see,” he said simply.

Acnologia felt bad for Laxus, because he had that to look forward to. For now, Acnologia would just have to focus on his recovery—and all of theirs.

—o0o—

“Bloodweed?” Levy repeated, trying to recall anything she knew. The name wasn’t ringing any bells, but the description seemed familiar. She had kept an eye out for anything dragon related—reptile related, even—while searching.

Porlyusica grunted to herself. “If you have any more questions, you’ll have to ask Acnologia, though that seems to be all he recalls,” she said as she left, likely to go back to the infirmary. It was a little surprising that she came down herself, but then again, it would probably take a force of nature to drag Acnologia away from his family, and Erik would be in that same boat, so she might have been the only option.

“Tall dark grass, flowering…” Droy muttered to himself. “There are certainly variants like it. Multi-biome, too. Levy, check this one.”

He slid a book over to her, and she sped-read it. “Aha!” She saw a glimpse of it, and she slammed her palm down on the page. Jellal, Freed, and Droy all watched her, but she kept her eyes on the section. “‘Dragonsgrave’,” she read. “‘Named according to legends that it marks the burial spot of large beasts. A dry flowering plant used for thatch roofs in some climates but fell out of practice due to flammability. Not many uses recorded today. Edible. No nutritional value. Endangered.’”

There was no photo—only a sketched drawing—next to the entry, but it matched the description, certainly. However, she couldn’t say that she had seen the plant, well, anywhere. Not that she was the best authority on plants. After a while, they started blending together in her memory (not that she would tell Droy this). However, if he had seen it and collected the seed, he likely would have remembered—just as she could remember history and languages.

“Edible?” Jellal questioned. “Are we sure this is the same one? Or does it have to do with the method of ingestion?”

“There’s also the matter of mages,” Freed pointed out. “Guidebooks meant for humans don’t always take magical effects in mind. Especially those from…”

Levy checked the inside page and winced. “…X697.”

“My point exactly.”

“Makes sense,” Jellal agreed, though Levy had the feeling that it had more to do with their dragon biology than being a mage. Freed likely guessed the same thing, but regardless, mage composition was an important thing to note.

Droy looked over her shoulder and studied the image. “Looks like most other grasses—maybe like a pampas? The coloring is unique though. I can’t say I’ve seen it myself.”

“So if it was the dragonsgrave plant,” Jellal speculated, “then how would they have been exposed? If we’re ruling out accidental exposure…”

Freed glared into the table like it he could light it on fire. “Sneaking it into a food or drink is the most likely. They would have to be clever for a dragon slayer not to notice…”

“But if they ingested it, wouldn’t vomiting be a symptom?” Levy added. In these cases, it was less of a ‘symptom’ and more of a ‘response,’ but the point stood. However, from what she had heard (she was a little glad she hadn’t seen any of it) none of them showed anything wrong regarding their digestive track.

Granted, dragons slayers absorbed magic through the lungs, even when they ate normally, so maybe food and drink was still on the table…?

“Unless… Unless it was inhaled!” Droy scrambled away to get something, disappearing upstairs. Before she, Freed, or Jellal could go after him, he returned, an empty plate from the kitchen in hand.

“What do you mean?” Freed asked. Not even Levy was following… Until Droy took out some sample boxes from his pockets. Of course. Leave it to Droy to take plant samples with him—he was always looking for seeds to add to his quick-grow-belt. But what did he have that he thought was relevant?

Droy took out the leaf from the race. Several, in fact. “Pollen. Grasses especially…” He swabbed the leaves in different areas, transferring the streak to the plate. “…pollenate a lot. Even in the winter, though it’s not as common. Hey, Jellal—could you do that—” he gestured with his hand to the plate “—that light thingy?”

Jellal held his palm over the plate, light magic emitting from it. Droy bent over it, slipping into the ‘green zone’ (as he insisted on calling it). Jellal watched too, tilting his head at Droy’s work. “There’s multiple pollens on the same leaf,” he realized.

Droy leaned back victoriously. “Exactly. I noticed it when I got to the tree field. For November, it was an irregular amount of pollen, for sure, but it was also an attended field so they might have artificially cross-pollinated by hand. I wanted to go back and look at it, because I thought it was interesting, but now…”

Freed’s eyes widened. “Everybody went in that field, and they had to stop long enough to get the leaves. They all would have been exposed.”

Droy frowned. “Though… I might have gotten a little excited. I’m not sure how it only got six people—the pollen was everywhere.”

“No, it makes sense,” Levy agreed. “If any of us breathed it in, it would have just been pollen, but if it was pollen from that special grass, then according to what Acnologia said, then their lungs might have breathed it in like magic instead of pollen—and that’s what caused the problem. Because it’s not magic or their element, so it doesn’t convert right.”

“Right.” Jellal tapped his chin. “Their magic does work like that, allowing them to gain energy from naturally occurring elements and magical elements alike, provided it matches…”

“Exactly.” She felt the rush of a case nearly solved at her fingertips. “And it would have been in a small enough dose that it didn’t kick in immediately. Not to mention that it didn’t affect them until the end of the race, or afterwards. The only other time they ate would have been beforehand, but they all still finished in normal time.”

“We’ll still have to confirm it,” Jellal reminded them, eyeing the samples.

Right. Confirming it. It was all just a theory as of now. They couldn’t expose the dragon slayers to it in case it was the cause of their condition, but they were also the only test they had. Unless Erik could confirm it, but that would be assuming that any and all pollen didn’t count… Granted, pollen wasn’t a ‘poison,’ it was an irritant, so it probably wouldn’t, unless the secondary pollen was from a completely different poisonous plant. Though if that was the case, then would the batch size have been large enough to account for affected humans too…?

“Porlyusica had drawn blood samples, right?” Freed brought up. “Surely she and Acnologia could find a way to test it without direct exposure.”

“Let’s bring the plate to her, then,” Jellal decided. “And go from there. For now, we should send Jet to inform the others.”

—o0o—

It didn’t take long, but it also felt like forever. Porlyusica opened the door.

“Sample two was a match. It’s the cause of the condition.”

—o0o—

“How do you feel?”

Natsu yawned. “Like I’m starving.”

Acnologia could have laughed or cried, but all that came out was a relieved huff. “Glad you’re back to normal.”

Natsu woke up first. The others followed suit in a close margin. It stood to reason that if they were infected around the same time, race results depending, then they would turn the corner of recovery within quick succession as well—with Natsu being the outlier, though not by much.

“H-hey, quit crowding me,” Laxus tried to assert, but his team still resumed their group hug.

“No, you worried us,” Bickslow countered.

“Worried! Worried!” his stray souls echoed.

Jet clapped his hands together, wiping a (real) tear from his eye and playing it off like a joke. “Levy and her boyfriend—reunited.”

Gajeel went red, and it had nothing to do with the remnants of the sickness. “We’re—We’re not—”

Levy threw a spare (ink) pen at Jet, nailing him in the face. “I told you! It’s not like that!” she rebutted, equally red in the face. Their arguments were severely weakened by the fact that Levy was wrapped around Gajeel like a leech with abandonment issues. Acnologia idly wondered when those two would get over themselves and admit; if he had to smell all of their pining, the least they could do was admit it.

Wendy flexed her arm. “My magic is back to normal. I think.”

“That may be, but lay off for another twelve hours or so,” Acnologia responded, before sweeping his gaze across the room. “All of you.”

“Aww…” Natsu groaned.

“You don’t need magic to eat,” Happy told him, still attached to his head—also like a leech with abandonment issues.

“I’m hungry too,” Rogue added.

“You all need rest, too,” Charle reminded sternly. Acnologia didn’t need to spend as much effort drilling it into them with Charle around. Granted, if she began to overwork herself as much as Erik tried to, she was getting the same treatment.

Sting laid dramatically on his bed, gratefully staring there after Porlyusica shoved him back down twice. “This sucks.”

“But you’ll live.” That, at least, was what Acnologia focused on. It was concerning that some subspecies of bloodweed still existed in this area, but knowledge of it diminished its power. Jellal had suggested going to the owners of that plot of land—they were friendly with Fairy Tail anyways, hence allowing them access to it for the race—to ask them about the pollination, so they could ascertain the source of it after that. Best case scenario, they could destroy it, and worst case, they could do better to avoid it.

That was a problem for later, however. Jellal and Erza, as well as Levy and her team, had already volunteered to go investigate. As much as Acnologia would have liked to do it himself, he also couldn’t get close to it, lest he be poisoned as well. He would have to leave it to them. He trusted that they would handle it, however. It was nice to realize just how much some of their guildmates cared for the kids. He was glad for them.

Somebody’s stomach rumbled, and Natsu once again brought up food, this time with more people joining in.

They’ll be fine.

—o0o—

A woman walked down a hall and into an office, pocketing a notebook with a smile on her face. The man in the office gave her a glance as she entered. “Well?”

“The test was successful,” she announced. “The poison worked.”

Chapter Text

November 11, X782

 

If Laxus knew that pollen of all things would make him address the fact that he never explicitly told his grandfather about the whole ‘being a dragon slayer thing,’ he would have given up and told him a long time ago. Maybe. Or maybe he was destined to be tormented by inane things out of his control.

Like pollen, apparently.

The entire ordeal was embarrassing, honestly, though it was less embarrassing now that he heard Acno tell vague stories about entire-ass dragons dying to this grass because no healers were present by the time it got bad—a story followed by the moral of “if you’re ever stubborn enough to keep a condition or injury to yourself, don’t be.”

At least it was over now.

Well, not over. That would mean that there were no more situations to be had directly related to this, but that wasn’t true—because he had to talk to Gramps. Here he had begun to hope that if Gramps didn’t notice by now, then he never would. It was a dumb hope, of course, but it was an easy one.

Acnologia was at least kind enough to warn him, as well as give him the time he needed to mentally prepare—granted, Acno might have made him stay in the infirmary and then over at their house anyway, because Acno was doing that mother-hen thing when he wouldn’t let anyone out of his sight even though he never explicitly stated that that was what he was doing. It was obvious though, because Erik was getting the same treatment, and he was immune to the dragon-poison. He might have protested a little more if being stuck under the watchful eye of a paranoid dragon hadn’t meant that he could put off the inevitable worry and disappointment of his grandfather. But it did mean that, so Laxus didn’t complain. Not even when sitting through the cheesy adventure-detective lacrima film that Gajeel insisted was good. (He was pretty sure that Freed would have loved it, however, though he would have denied it.)

However, time ticked on, and honestly, Laxus felt fine. It wasn’t surprising, because he’d been hit with enough passive healing spells to prevent future injuries and sicknesses, at this point, as well as enough soup to replace his entire blood supply. Okay, maybe it wasn’t that much, but this kind of treatment for sickness was new to him. He wondered if things would have been different when he was a kid if healing magic was still prevalent in the modern world. (Or don’t wonder about that. Stop it.)

Even Acnologia gave him the open invitation to leave or stay. Laxus almost wished he just kicked him out so he would run out of excuses.

Stars, he was an adult now and he was still worried about this. What a joke. Nothing his gramps even said or did would ever matter! He was just being stupid about all of this. Besides, all he had to do was address—it was Laxus’s problem anyway. Even if he turned into a dragon, it would just be his own problem. It wasn’t like any of the side effects of being a dragon slayer were all that debilitating, though; sure, this pollen business was irritating, and it was a pain to get used to the bodily changes, but there were benefits too. If it meant he wasn’t all that human anymore, so what? Laxus was old enough and experienced enough now to realize that it didn’t mean much. It was just different.

“Heading out now, or are you going to stare at the door for another hour?”

“Come on Acno, give him some credit—I’d give him another thirty minutes, tops.”

Laxus shot a short glare at Acnologia and Erik in turn. Damn, he didn’t hear Acnologia enter the kitchen, or notice that Erik had woken up. (How long had he been by the door, anyway?) Granted, Erik was still pinned under Cubellios and Wendy—who were asleep—so he gave himself some credit there.

“I’m leaving now,” he corrected, not bothering to look back. Mostly because Erik would definitely be giving him some knowing look, because okay, Laxus had been stalling.

He was halfway through the door when Acnologia interrupted him. “It wasn’t your fault.”

Laxus wasn’t sure if his reminder was for the pollen or the fact that his grandfather found out. Or maybe it was his old man’s death; Acnologia had made it clear before that he took responsibility for Ivan’s death, and if Makarov had a problem with it, he could take it up with him.

He knew all of this—though maybe he was still beating himself up for the pollen thing. It wasn’t something he could have foreseen, sure, but he at least should have noticed the symptoms before they got as bad as they did. Laxus was sure that Acnologia wouldn’t appreciate his self-reflection on that matter, however, so Laxus didn’t voice it. He also didn’t turn around, even though he could feel the dragon’s eyes on his back. “Sure,” he acknowledged reluctantly, if only to make Acnologia happy.

Not that it worked. Laxus closed the door behind him, but it didn’t stop him from hearing Acnologia’s exasperated grunt of disappointment.

Oh well. At least Acnologia’s disappointment was just in Laxus being hardheaded, and not in Laxus himself. He at least knew that much. Gramps, on the other hand… Laxus had no clue. Though he was very sure that the ambiguity would change after today.

He went to his apartment first, but not to avoid anything. He just needed real clothes. Acno was paranoid enough to incinerate everything they had been wearing, leaving him in just his spare sweatpants that he had left there the last time he crashed on the guest bed and a slightly-too-small shirt that Acno lent him. (Between the presence he carried, and the size of his dragon form, sometimes Laxus just…forgot that Acnologia was shorter than he was.)

Though it proved to be evidence that either he was still out of it, or he was way more preoccupied than he thought, because he didn’t notice Bickslow inside his apartment until after he opened the door.

“Wh—?! Shit, dude, don’t do that.”

Bickslow was remorseless. “Your fault you didn’t hear me drawing on your lampshade.” He pocketed the offending marker as he tsked at him. “Though this could also mean that you’re still dying, which is one of the reasons why we split up to canvas the city and watch for you.”

“‘One’?” he questioned, feeling tired already.

“Well, yeah. To be honest, though, we all doubted that Acnologia would let you get more than a mile away from him if he thought you were still sick, but there’s plenty of reason to watch you. Like if you relapse, or if you decide to go on a hard job after the docs said that you shouldn’t, or—now this one is mostly me—if you decide to avoid your gramps forever.”

“Since when did you care if I told Gramps? You never did before.” In fact, Bickslow was so pro-secrets it was spoiling. Though Laxus knew that if anyone understood being ostracized for magic, it was Bickslow.

His friend poked his tongue out petulantly. “Because,” he began, “now that your gramps has probably figured it out, you’re both going to worry about it until your stress literally bleeds into the entire guild and kills us all.”

“…it wouldn’t be that bad.”

Bickslow clasped a hand dramatically over his chest. “In everybody’s souls, yes. Yes, it would.”

“You’re so dramatic,” he sighed. Underneath the drama, he understood where he was coming from. Laxus had successfully pushed most of the potential ramifications of this potential conversation out of his mind up until now, but with the conversation more ‘imminent’ than ‘potential’… Well, Bickslow was probably right.

“I’m just here to change. I’ll go tell Gramps I’m a dragon slayer to his face right after this. Trust me, I want to get this over with,” he said, moving past Bickslow and heading towards his closet to make the point.

A part of Laxus wanted very much not to do that, if only because it was a waste of time. However, he knew his grandfather, and he wasn’t good with just accepting context clues for what they were; he wanted to be told things directly, otherwise, he’ll just go on believing what he wanted. In this case, Laxus would rather the story be set straight. Gramps…did deserve that much, at least. His dad was Gramp’s son, too, so he should at least know what he died over: protecting his investment.

Laxus had since then learned a decent amount about lacrimas, and he knew that dragon slayer lacrimas were rare and insanely expensive. They were also, essentially, condensed dragons in spherical form, so they were incredibly hard to transport unless they were being masked by something—either sophisticated magic barriers, or, people. Laxus could only guess that his dad was using him as a method to hide the lacrima. Why? Laxus didn’t pretend to know. Maybe for ‘safekeeping.’ Maybe he was hoping that Laxus would be a powerful ally in his schemes, just because they were family. Laxus didn’t care. It was over anyway, and none of it would ever come to fruition. The only thing he truly wondered about, was what possessed his dad to think his chances of surviving it were worth the risk? If there was anything is old man hated, it was risks.

No, that wasn’t true. Laxus knew. He had a good idea, at least. Acnologia told him that he was seizing when he arrived, but that it was likely that Laxus could have survived it anyway—though maybe with minor brain damage. However, there was reason to believe that Laxus had latent lightning magic, which helped significantly in the transition. For a while, he thought that it was just speculation, because Laxus struggled to control that ‘natural affinity’ of his for what seemed like years until he could do everything he wanted it to. Then he met Erik, and he watched as the young teen struggled not to burn and poison himself every time he used his magic, and suddenly, Laxus realized that he had been lucky. At least a little bit.

His dad had always told him that he had no magic. No natural affinity, no predisposition, and likely, no way of learning. He was just a dud. A sickly dud who maybe had a chance of forcing himself to use some magic, but he wasn’t going to be anything great. Not like Dad, and not like Gramps.

He wondered if his dad knew. He was smart, of course he knew. He wouldn’t have wasted time and effort on a lightning lacrima if Laxus was going to die from it. He had to have known. Sometimes, Laxus wondered if Gramps knew too—that the possibility of him having magic wasn’t so far-fetched at all. Granted, that meant his grandfather had to be paying attention, so Laxus doubted that he was as petty as his father.

“You sure?” Bickslow asked. “You’re doing that thing again.”

Laxus looked over his shoulder to see Bickslow leaning against the doorway into his bedroom. “Thing?” he questioned.

“Yeah, the thing where you’re lost in thought, so you glare angrily at some random spot, so people think you’re cool when you’re having a crisis. And I doubt you’re that bent out of shape choosing a shirt. Oh, extra cool points for doing your thing shirtless, though. Movie stuff, right there.”

Laxus threw Acno’s shirt, nailing Bickslow in his laughing face. “Okay, okay, I’m going, sheesh.” It’s not like he meant to get all existential anyway.

He hurried up and changed, and this time, he did well not to let his mind wander, lest he be called out again. He was ready this time. Definitely. There really wasn’t anything to deliberate anyway, so it would only be a waste of time. Bickslow was right. The sooner he did it, the sooner it would be over.

“Okay, if you’re leaving for real, then I’ll head out too and tell the babies that they can stop scouring for you.” Bickslow tilted his head. “And I need to go get Puppu. He fell down the well again.”

“…Magnolia has a well?”

“Yeah, in the old part of downtown. People use it as a wishing well. You’ve probably seen it before, but it’s in the corner that looks the same from every direction that you always get lost in, because you don’t notice things like wells.”

Okay, okay, I get it. You just tell that dumbass that he can fly.” Why Puppu kept forgetting that was beyond him.

“Aye, aye!” Bickslow saluted him, but before they parted ways outside, he added, “We’ll find an easy Acno-won’t-kill-you job for afterwards. Something relaxing.”

An excuse to not be around for an unspecified time immediately following his conversation with Gramps? It could be a job in the fucking tundra, and he would be glad for it. “That sounds good.”

Bickslow waved him off, and Laxus took a deep breath and headed for the guild.

Here goes nothing.

—o0o—

Makarov nearly groaned into his paperwork when there was a knock on the office door. Since he declared the race void—he wasn’t there to confirm who was last, after all—there had been some worry amongst the guild. Some figured out that some people had been sick; some were worried that there was tampering; some were just curious; everybody had questions.

Everybody had questions, and he had few answers—fewer still that were appropriate to give. As a guildmaster, he had to juggle between people’s ease and privacy. His one solace in this was that this year’s Sorcerer’s Weekly reporter took his excuse of “some paperwork caught on fire and I voided the race because I have to witness it to be fair” seriously, and she accepted his suggestion of simply not publishing anything on the race at all. Whatever other mundane subject she came up with in its stead was not his problem.

What was his problem was handling what really happened. It was all a very incomprehensible ball of unfortunate circumstance. Honestly, Makarov would be at even more of a loss if some of the children who got involved hadn’t already taken it upon themselves to visit the owners of the field and investigate. Between Jellal, Levy, and Droy, their report was very thorough, on top of that. The owners were Magnolia denizens, and they had been very willing to allow the race in hopes that it would better prune their year-round trees for spring growth. However, they recently acquired a new…fertilizing method…of some sort, that just so happened to involve a grab bag of various pollens in hopes of…enhancing the biodiversity? It was all nonsense to him, but even he could ascertain that it was innocent in nature. It was just very unfortunate that the pollen of a nearly extinct grass—that dragon slayers happened to be very allergic to—was among the mix.

It was also problematic that this was directly involved with several members of the guild being dragon slayers. Makarov admittedly didn’t think too much of the implications of such magic, other than that it was rare and hard to obtain, being that dragons were nearly extinct as well. However, it seemed to truly affect their biology, and not just their magic. That in itself wasn’t uncommon; mages became physically affected by their magic all the time. Ears could grow, skin could change color, and even body mass could be affected. Makarov himself knew this well—years of expanding and shrinking his body’s mass through magical means had turned him into a runt of an old man. However, magic was magic—inconsistent by nature. The dragon slayers all wielded different elements, but their functions and side effects were remarkably similar. Though perhaps this bafflement was merely due to his lack of knowledge on dragons.

The concept of dragons isn’t what Makarov found himself getting stuck on, however—it was the fact that Laxus was a dragon slayer too. He had been under the impression that it was a magic that had to be given by dragons—or dragonoid beings?—and that it took time to acclimate. Laxus surely hadn’t had the same experience as someone like Natsu…right? Besides, he didn’t even have magic as a child. It wasn’t until—

No, Makarov had to stop thinking about it. It was a fruitless topic, and wondering would get him nowhere, with no real answers. He had to focus on the present.

“Come in,” Makarov called, already tired. He just needed a way to ensure that such an incident didn’t happen again, and to wait for it to blow over from people’s minds—which wouldn’t happen if they kept trickling in to ask questions.

To his surprise, however, Laxus was the one inching into his office this time, closing the door quietly behind him.

“Laxus,” he greeted, certain his surprise was evident. For multiple reasons, but he was a grandfather, so some concerns superseded others. He looked the boy over himself, but he still asked, “Are you well?”

“Yeah, I’m fine now,” Laxus shrugged. He must have caught onto Makarov’s dubious look—because Makarov knew that Laxus wasn’t always the most forthcoming with how he was feeling—because he added, “Trust me, I wouldn’t be here if Acno still thought I was sick. The only things in my bloodstream right now are blood and soup.”

Makarov nodded, relenting. It was true that as slippery as Laxus was, even he would have trouble escaping that beast of a man. “I am glad that you’re better. You…had me worried.” It was a hard thing to admit, but he found himself doing so anyway; perhaps his worry had eroded away at his inhibition more than he realized. Although, he didn’t let his slip of presentation bother him too much. It was just him and Laxus, and Laxus was an S-Class adult now—even though he often forgot it. It was too easy to remember Laxus as a lad shorter than he, sometimes.

“Sorry,” Laxus mumbled, averting his eyes.

“No, no, you recovered. It’s all in the past now,” Makarov replied. And that was true; if Laxus recovered, and the others had as well, then it was over. Except for, perhaps, ensuring that the incident didn’t repeat itself, but that was little compared to the health and safety of the guild. Although…there was the matter of how it happened in the first place as well—namely, Laxus being a dragon slayer. However, Makarov had long since learned that Laxus couldn’t be forced to share with him. Shouldn’t, even. Makarov had had to comes to terms with the fact that Laxus was no longer a little sickly child; he didn’t need him anymore, and Makarov wasn’t even sure he wanted him in the first place.

So Makarov would not ask. He could, as a guildmaster, but now that he knew… Well, it was all he needed to know.

A moment of silence stretched between them. It made the office seem larger than it really was.

“I’m a dragon slayer,” Laxus stated, looking forward to meet his gaze. “Though I guess you already figured that out.”

If Makarov had been surprised by Laxus’s entry into his office, then this was perhaps more surprising. Although, now that it was out in the open already, he supposed it was less surprising, rather. Laxus was a private boy, but everything was circumstantial. Makarov nodded, swallowing the awkward lump in his throat over the matter. “I do.”

More silence.

He wasn’t sure if Laxus was mustering up the willpower to say more, or if he expected Makarov to ask questions. He had questions, of course, but he honestly wasn’t sure which ones were his place to ask—if any. There were the finer details of more health concerns, but those could be saved for Acnologia; there was no need to hound Laxus for them—not after Laxus actually offered Makarov this olive branch of clarity in the first place. Other questions were largely ones of curiosity…and perhaps concern, though at this point, asking now was only proof of his neglect. Makarov had no desire for his need to rectify his failures of a grandfather to overshadow Laxus’s need for independence, however, so it was a fine line to walk.

Laxus seemed to be waiting for him. His jaw was too tight for it to be anything but. Makarov settled on one of the broader questions—still a damning one, but he determined it did fall under his purview as a guildmaster, since it must have happened while Laxus was in the guild. (Under his care, but what good did that do?) “How did you learn such magic?” he finally asked.

If there were dragons about that he didn’t know about, or accidental ways of coming across the magic by other means, he should know. If it happened to Laxus, it could happen to others, and this time, Makarov determined to be properly prepared.

“I didn’t.”

Makarov startled. “Excuse me?” But how else…?

“Learn it, I mean,” Laxus continued. His jaw was still tight, and his eyes flickered like he wanted to break eye contact. “Not like normal magic. I just got it—from a lacrima.”

“A lacrima?!” And now, Makarov’s worry grew. What had Laxus been doing—or thinking—for him to use such methods to implant himself with—?!

“The one Dad stuck in me.”

Makarov deflated instantly, the hot concern settling into the cold dread of realization.

Oh.

It all made sense now. After…it happened, Laxus had developed magic—overwhelmingly so, even. It wasn’t uncommon for stressful situations to cause latent magic to bloom, so Makarov hadn’t thought much of it, as unfortunate of a way for Laxus to gain magic as it was. It was true, that based on Porlyusica’s assessment, it had been implied that there was a factor other than stress that caused his magic to overload the way it did. If Makarov had known that it was a lacrima, he would have wanted it removed immediately. It was bittersweet to think of such what-ifs now, because it would have saved Laxus from all the pain he endured as a child, but then, Laxus likely wouldn’t be the mage he was today.

He also realized, now, that Acnologia knew all along. Years ago, when Acnologia had first joined the guild and Makarov was driven into a corner confronting him over Ivan’s death, the subject had come up directly between them only once, and it was after Acnologia had become S-Class, though he had not known the true context of it then.

 

“Why did you kill Ivan?”

They were alone in Makarov’s office. After deliberating the matter for well over a year—which was to say, too long—he finally confronted the mage over his involvement with Laxus on the day on Ivan’s death.

It was all in the past now, yet still, this was one thing that Makarov struggled to let go of. He nearly succeeded, on account of observing Acnologia and deeming him to be free of malicious intention. Besides, it was seven years ago, just about, that the deed happened. It was a long enough time for things to change, and Makarov shouldn’t judge him for something so far removed.

However… The knowledge that Acnologia was a dragon was bizarre and surprising, but he took it in stride. What else could he do? Acnologia was still a man, at least, in addition to whatever else magic transformed him into. It wasn’t altogether impossible; one of the founders of Fairy Tail was still alive as a half-tree man. Yet, Acnologia’s great age stood out to him the most. Seven years was but a drop in the water compared to four hundred, so was it really that far removed?

Maybe if only because this man was involved with Laxus, somehow. If Makarov had at least one duty as a father, or as a grandfather, then this was it.

It was a heavy question, but Acnologia weathered it with just a small huff, gaze unwavering. “I found a man hurting a child. I confronted that man. He fought back, so I did too. He didn’t yield, so I didn’t either. That’s the end of it, and there’s no undoing it.” For the first time, Acnologia almost grew awkward. “For what it’s worth, I’m sorry for your loss.”

“But not that you killed him?” Makarov shot back, fueled by the freezing feeling in his veins.

“No.”

The freezing grew, clenching his heart. People died in this line of work, yes, and sometimes misunderstandings happened when it was mage against mage, but to show no remorse?

“Knowing what I know of him after the fact, I don’t regret killing him,” he continued in elaboration. “That could have been different, I realize, but that is the way it remains. So no, if I were to go back, knowing what I know now…”

The intensity of Acnologia’s expression returned.

“I would have killed him sooner.”

 

Even though Makarov had never acted on it, that exchange had haunted him, in the back of his mind. If Ivan had truly been that bad of a seed… What had he done to Laxus? He was ashamed that he never grasped that, and that Laxus never trusted him enough to tell him. Until now, that is, when it was all said and done and water under the bridge.

To think, that Ivan placed a charged lacrima inside an eleven-year-old child… his own child at that. And after this long… Well, Makarov doubted there was much they could do about it now.

“Does it bother you?” he asked, quietly. Makarov was a failure of a grandfather and a guildmaster for letting Laxus down—for not noticing or truly comprehending what Ivan was doing until it was far too late—but the least he could do was ensure that the present was taken care of.

Laxus grimaced lightly. “Not anymore.”

Makarov nodded slowly, feeling the weight on his shoulders of it all. He expected an answer like that—but he took solace in the fact that Laxus was an honest boy, though not forthcoming. He meant what he said.

“I’m sorry.” The words were heavy, and even Makarov wasn’t sure what they were most applicable to—that he was saddled with magic he never asked for, or that the situation with his father ever got to the point it did. Both were likely. Makarov was always one to look to the future, first and foremost, but with his grandson… He allowed himself to grieve the past, just this once. Laxus deserved as much. “If I had known…”

Laxus softened, his awkwardness remaining but the tenseness of it all easing just a little. Makarov likely wouldn’t have noticed if in this manner, Laxus hadn’t been so much like himself—which was a fate that Makarov never hoped for.

“Thanks, but it’s fine—you didn’t know,” Laxus replied with a shrug. “Anyway, that was it. I’ll see you around, Gramps.”

Laxus turned to leave, and Makarov was still left numbed by the entire encounter—so much so that he couldn’t muster a response to Laxus as he quickly slipped away. At least his side of the parting was a clear ‘I’ll see you later’ so Laxus was not mad enough to abandon him quickly. Briefly, he wondered if he should have been.

Although now, all that was left was to gather up the last shards of the past and truly face tomorrow.

Chapter Text

September X778

 

Acnologia, for all of his years of knowledge and experience, found himself constantly learning new things—specifically about people. Specifically about the kids currently in his care. He learned new things every day, about every single one of them, and he knew that they would only continue to grow and change. He’ll probably get the hang of catching up with it all eventually. Hopefully.

One thing that he learned, fairly early on, was that Rogue never went anywhere and returned empty handed. Ever. He could walk six feet away from the house, and he would return with something. A particularly straight stick, a rock he liked the color of, a fragment of a three-hundred-year-old knife, a poisonous mushroom, a dead leaf that crinkled funny, a piece of asphalt, a broken spoon—anything.

If kids in general weren’t enough to keep him vigilant, then Rogue was more than enough singlehandedly. Sometimes he was tempted to put him on a leash and make sure that he never left his sight—because otherwise, he would find something and that something was going to be cursed and/or deadly. Thank the stars Rogue at least learned the merits of never eating anything he found. Apparently, Skiadrum had drilled that one into him, and Acnologia was insanely grateful to a dragon he barely knew, just for that.

Still, a wandering six-year-old was not ideal, and it didn’t help that Rogue was a damn quiet kid, and a stealthy one at that. Territory of shadow magic, he supposed, but it was annoying and nearly anxiety-inducing at times. Acnologia had to keep telling himself that the kids would be fine, and that they were more than free to go the guild or wherever on their own, but sometimes his resolve would waver, mostly on account of Rogue. (Though all of them gave him worry from time to time.) How much could Gajeel or Natsu keep an eye on him when Acnologia could sometimes barely keep up with the boy? His best solace was that Rogue at least was attentive, and he believed he was starting to drill the “stick together” and “be careful” concepts into his head enough to keep him from wandering off by himself outside of earshot. Or at least not telling anybody before he did so.

If Rogue only picked up normal things, that would be one thing. However, he was a child with keen eyes and keener interest, so Acnologia was always on his toes. Especially now that he was exposed to more things through that guild. So Acnologia felt justified in being understandably worried everytime Rogue said “hey look” or went to hand him something.

This time, Rogue approached him with his hands cupped together.

Acnologia dearly missed that month when his primary fascination was sticks.

He sniffed the boy over, and he just smelled strongly of dirt and pine, so at least it wasn’t another magic item. Rogue was also chipper and unhurt, practically bouncing over to him, so that was another good sign.

“What is it?” he asked, trying to keep any trepidation out of his voice. Another thing he learned about Rogue is that he loved showing people the things he found, and if they were keepable, he wanted to keep them. (When they weren’t keepable, like perishable and dangerous things, then Rogue understood but he was also very heartbroken over it.) Acnologia did his best to keep crushing Rogue’s dreams to a minimum.

“I found it by the creek and it didn’t move, and it let me hold it!” Rogue began excitedly, which was unsettlingly vague until Rogue carefully un-cupped his hands.

It was a frog.

He exhaled deeply through the nose. It was just a water frog, but if this meant that Rogue was now capable of collecting living things…

“That’s a nice frog,” Acnologia replied lamely, stalling for the inevitable letting-down of the child when he had to answer…

“Can I keep it?” Rogue asked, red eyes hopeful. “It’s really nice.” He petted its head for emphasis. “But I don’t know where to put it.”

“Rogue, frogs are animals—you can’t just ‘keep them,’” he told him, trying to break it to him gently. Rogue also asked a lot of ‘whys,’ simply because he was the curious type, so it was also better to lead with the explanation; it made exchanges shorter. (Meanwhile, explaining things to someone like Natsu just led to empty expressions and lack of retainment.)

“Oh,” Rogue said, head starting to hang. “But what about pets? People have pets, right?”

Who the hell would want a pet frog? As far as animals went, the tiny amphibians were really low on both the emotive and the logic scales; they were just slimy bug-eaters. “You take care of pets,” Acnologia explained, pulling himself away from overthinking the sentience of frogs. “They need to be given food and water and a proper place to sleep. And for frogs, that’s the woods and the water, like where you found it. Which is not what our house is like.”

Rogue nodded, deep in thought. Oh yes, Rogue retained things very well, but it was always unpredictable just how he retained it.

“So, are we like pets too?”

“What? No!” Stars above and heavens be damned, what the hell?! “No, you’re kids. Sentient beings. I might take care of you, but you can make your own decisions and take care of yourselves. Pets aren’t like that. Pets are also incapable of critical thinking, so if they don’t have instinct to fall back on, they can’t take care of themselves.” He took a deep, steadying breath. Rogue looked pensive. “Do you understand?”

He nodded, completely unbothered by his previous line of thought. That was good, at least. Acnologia knew that dragons inherently struggled with independence issues, but he didn’t want anything to be that bad.

“So I should take it back to where I found it?”

Acnologia fought the urge to sigh in relief. “Yes. It’s what is best for the frog.”

Rogue was disappointed, but he was also thoughtful—though a part of Acnologia was afraid of just what he was thinking about. “Okay, I’ll take it back,” he relented.

 

(Acnologia hoped that Rogue now understood the difference between taking home pebbles and animals. And he did. Perhaps too well, because Rogue later discovered the concept of terrariums.)

—o0o—

February X779

 

“And over here is the curvy tree, and by that is the part of the creek where the creek sometimes gets stuck,” Rogue explained as he pointed to the landmarks in turn.

Sting nodded, not sure what else to say to that. It was a curvy tree alright, but it didn’t seem all that special beside that. Though maybe he could climb it. Actually, he probably could. Sting positioned himself underneath the tree, appraising the best route up it.

With a jump, Sting clawed his way up the tree, finding decently high but sturdy branch and relishing in the victory of a successful climb. Rogue followed easily—he must have climbed this particular tree before, then—and sat on the branch below him.

The forest wasn’t bad. Not as interesting as Rogue made it out to be, but not bad. It was big forest, to be sure, and it had some stuff in it, but it wasn’t like a magical place or anything. It was just a forest.

Rogue had been excited to show him around though, and since Sting was trying to know his way around Magnolia and the house as soon as possible, he agreed. It was beneficial to ‘know the territory,’ or however Weisslogia would have said it. Besides, out of all of the dragon slayers, Rogue was the one he remembered spending the most time with, so it was a nice chance to do it again, even though they were older now. The benefit to that though was that they got to explore farther—Ms. Anna had never let them out of her view before, so exploring the forest their parents met in hadn’t been as fun once they combed it over.

Sting hoped that the new forest would have some new challenges, befitting of the fact that they were older now, but the most he had seen was just birds, insects, and a lizard.

The first peculiar thing he saw was a shallow trench dug into the dirt, like a scar on the ground. From his vantage in the tree, he noticed that it was like a line—long, continuous, and as far as he could see, unending. Like some sort of ominous magic circle. They definitely needed to check it out.

However, Sting didn’t want to look stupid in front of Rogue and assume that it was new when it wasn’t—that feeling was all the more reason why he wanted to hurry up and know everything around here—so he pointed it out and asked, “How long has that been there?”

“Oh, that’s the hearing line,” Rogue answered quickly, sounding like it was, in fact, super normal. Sting tried not to get disappointed.

“What the hell is a ‘hearing line’?” he asked, annoyed that it wasn’t something new or dangerous sounding. He’s never heard of it before either, but Sting hasn’t heard of a lot of things because he was stuck in that stupid orphanage for so long instead of doing something cool or important.

“Acno doesn’t like us going out of ‘hearing range’ when we’re alone. I’m pretty sure he can hear louder things past that line, but that’s where he drew it and he doesn’t like me going past it, even on accident.”

Ugh, great. Acno was just like Anna, just with a bigger circle.

“That’s dumb,” he grumbled. “He’s a dragon slayer too—he should know that we can handle ourselves. Besides, nothing is going to happen in this boring forest.”

Rogue just gave him some sort of look; he had no idea what the blank expression meant. “But Acno is a dragon, so he’s way stronger than us,” he said. Right. That would make Acno stronger, but that didn’t mean that they weren’t strong either! “Oh, there are some vulcan here. Maybe. Acno’s at war with them.”

Sting blinked. “Vulcan?” He’s never seen one, but weren’t they strong monsters? They must be if Acno was fighting them.

“Yeah. Acno told them to leave the forest or he’ll kill them. I think some have still been stupid enough to stay though.”

Huh. So that was a thing. Sting kinda hoped that they would see one now, because that sounded like a good fight.

“What’s that?”

Suddenly, Rogue was gone. Sting startled as he practically disappeared from his perch right below him; he had to look around just to see him by the ‘hearing line.’ Sting jumped down and scrambled to catch up.

He tried to spot whatever Rogue saw, but he couldn’t see anything. Ugh, sure he didn’t know this forest that well, but surely he could see things? Especially if they were enough to catch Rogue’s attention.

Rogue put his finger to his lips. Sting still couldn’t figure out what the hell Rogue was seeing, so he was just stuck there, useless, while Rogue crept forward, crossing the line that he said he never would cross. Magic gathered in his palms, and he waited and watched for the time to strike, but Rogue came back as quick and as silently as he left, but this time with a triumphant smile.

“Look!”

He held up something to Sting’s face. It was a golden diamond with red coloring in the middle—oh, he must have seen it from above, since it was so small, but it was shiny. “Oh that’s cool,” Sting said, observing the object. It definitely looked important—and familiar, but he couldn’t place it.

“I’ve never seen a loose diamondillo spine this big intact before,” Rogue explained excitedly, turning it over in his hands.

Ohhhh that’s what it was. Well, it was still pretty cool, he guessed.

“By the way…” Rogue turned to him, looking him in the eye serious calm. “I never crossed the line.”

—o0o—

April X780

 

One moment Rogue was there, and the next, he wasn’t. Gajeel swore. “That little fucker,” he hissed under his breath, scanning the forest and sniffing for shadows. How could Rogue do this to him again?

The people from that mining town had called them back, requesting a part-two to their first job. Apparently, the mine shaft that they were looking for in order to excavate was caved in, so they needed the other entrance too—because apparently there were two ways in. This damn town had way too many underground passages and mines; if they didn’t smell like humans, he would have been easily convinced that they were a colony of gopher beastmen in disguise.

Since they more-or-less knew the vicinity of the correct tunnel, and what it was supposed to be like, they just split up to look for it faster—Sting with Levy, and Rogue with him. But they were supposed to still be in pairs, and Gajeel was not thrilled to lose his eight-year-old brother in the woods. Especially Rogue.

He was hyper vigilant after last time, too. Rogue already made a fool of him in front of Acno and the new kid after he failed to realize that he smuggled five frogs all the way back to Magnolia. In his defense, Rogue always smelled vaguely like mud and frogs, so if the frogs didn’t pee on him, it was easy to miss.

Still, Gajeel would be damned if he let that happen again. Or if Rogue fell into tunnel and got hurt. The latter part was less likely than Rogue somehow finding a colony of frogs or an entire buried city, because Rogue was stupidly light on his feet, but still.

“Rogue!” he yelled, still looking for him. Brat was fast too. “Come back!”

Gajeel grumbled some more, cursing the fact that Rogue smelled so much like a forest that he often blended in with them. Just as he caught onto the telltale scent of his active magic, Rogue appeared on the other side of a tree.

“Sorry,” he mumbled. “I saw something.”

“You could have told me, idiot,” Gajeel chastised, but at least Rogue didn’t fall in any holes. He sighed and shrugged the occurrence off. “What was it, anyway?”

He pulled a fucking skull out of his bag. “I don’t know what kind of animal this is, but I wanted to keep it so I could look it up later,” Rogue explained, pleased with his find.

At least it probably was an animal skull, and not something else, being that it was about the size of a cat’s. (Still, it was unsettling.)

“Sure bud, you do that.”

—o0o—

June X781

 

“What kind of snake is green with a black belly?”

Fuck.

Erik always considered himself fairly resourceful, and generally, he was pretty good at reading the room and figuring out how the bomb ticked before it blew up. It was a hazard of living at the whims of control freaks for so long, he supposed.

Still, he found early on that Rogue was not the predictable type. At all. In fact, he was the opposite of predictable, and he was pretty sure that Rogue was already responsible for the most single-handedly caused heart attacks Erik ever had in his life, and he only knew the kid for a year. And he’s known Jellal for five, four of which he was screwed over in the head. (Though maybe that Ultear chick was responsible for at least some of the ones he used to attribute to Jellal. It was weird to think about.)

He stood from his spot in the garden bed, immediately laying eyes on Rogue as he approached from the woods. His heart skipped at least a few beats when it became quickly evident that Rogue was holding the black-bellied viper, but at the same time, he wasn’t even surprised, because it was Rogue.

However, he forced himself to stay calm. If he panicked, Rogue would get squirmy, and then the extremely deadly viper might notice and bite him. “Let me see it,” he said instead, voice carefully even.

Cubellios began to hiss, sensing the other snake. Before she rose to her full height and started a turf war, he shoved her back down to the ground; Cubellios could likely win a fight with any other snake, but he wouldn’t risk the black-bellied viper getting aggressive now.

Rogue held up the snake complyingly. Very carefully, Erik guided it to his hands away from the not-venom-immune nine-year-old. The relief felt palpable when the viper was completely in his grip. He would have liked to have a better grip on it—like around the neck—but the snake was calm so he didn’t want to risk it striking if he wasn’t faster than it.

Well, not that it stayed calm for long. Erik very much smelled like Cubellios, and the viper took personal offense to it. It lunged, and despite Erik catching it almost by the neck, the speedy fucker whipped around and sank its fangs into his forearm before he got a proper grip on it.

Well.

“Erik—!”

The sensation was incredibly weird. He could feel the venom flare hotly at the bite, but then the familiar feeling of his magic absorbing it, except it was straight from the source, and not through his throat and lungs. It wasn’t bad, per se, but he definitely preferred reducing poison to magic before it hit. His arm was tingling more from the phantom feelings of poison on the skin than from anything the snake did.

“Are you okay?” Rogue asked, worried.

“Yeah.” The only thing that lasted was the bleeding that started, but that was nothing. Maybe he could feed this bastard to Cubellios for its trouble. “But please, don’t pick up anymore black-bellied vipers. Or any venomous snake that’s not Cubellios.”

Rogue’s eyes widened, and he nodded mutely.

Well, at least Erik knew that he was immune to blood-introduced venom too. Acno was probably going to pissed when he found out how that knowledge was tested, though.

—o0o—

May X782

 

Rogue always found weird stuff in the woods, but it had been a while since he came across anything cursed.

At least he didn’t touch it.

Natsu wasn’t sure what to do with it either, but he knew they couldn’t leave it there.

It was just him and Rogue now, out in the woods in southern Fiore on a job. Some guy’s goats had run off into the woods—which were considered “dangerous” by the locals—so it was their job to bring them back. Happy was leading a couple back to the farm when Rogue led Natsu to his latest find—something of which was creeping both of them out. Still, it was a good thing Rogue noticed it so nobody accidentally ran into it. He was a little surprised that he didn’t sense it when coming by—though he had been focused on the goats—but then again, Rogue had a radar for weird-things-in-the-woods so it made sense that Rogue was the one who found it.

Because it was just him and Rogue, it was Natsu’s job to take charge here. The problem was, he felt just as clueless as Rogue. “It smells like…”

“Rotten cinnamon,” Rogue finished, nose scrunched up.

Natsu hummed in agreement. “But not burnt cinnamon.”

“Nope.”

So it wasn’t a shadow-type magic. That meant that it had a low chance of leaking or being slippery. Maybe. Black arts could still do that stuff, though, and it could smell cinnamon-y sometimes. (But then, so could fire sometimes.) That was the reason, coupled with the fact that it smelled like a corpse, that Natsu was pretty sure the sword stuck in the ground was cursed, or something.

It didn’t have a wide signature, but this close to it, he could feel the magic pulsate a little.

Rogue stared at it as well, head cocked. He flicked a piece of shadow magic at it experimentally, and Natsu found himself reflexively stepping in front of Rogue when the sword reacted to the magic with a boom.

Both of the boys winced as the sword crackled violently against the shadow magic, before fizzling out as quickly as it erupted.

Natsu kept holding Rogue behind him as he tried the same thing, except with fire. The result was… well, pretty similar, but his fire took a chunk out of the rusty sword, so that was something.

“It’s unstable,” Rogue realized. Natsu noticed it too, but Rogue put it into words faster.

“Well, it’s not moving then,” he observed. That scratched out the reliable take-it-to-Acno method of freaky magic items. However, it did destroy itself with the reaction, because the smell of its magic hadn’t changed in the area except that it was a little weaker now.

Probably no long-term effects then. And they couldn’t touch it or leave it so… He punched his fist to his palm, activating more of his magic. “Time to torch it, then.”

“Can I help?” Rogue asked.

“Yeah! Sure thing, buddy!” He ruffled Rogue’s hair with a grin. “We’ll hafta’ take a few more steps back though.”

Between Natsu’s and Rogue’s mixed shadowy flames, the sword blew sky high, leaving nothing left. Too bad it scared the remaining goats further away.

—o0o—

October X783

 

“It was over here,” Rogue said, leading Wendy to the creek bed.

Wendy glanced up at the sky worriedly. Rain was coming soon—the air was thick with it—and they both knew it. She could stave off the rain for a little while if necessary, at least around them, but it would be troublesome.

She jumped down after him, and she spotted the print he was talking about. Ever since Rogue learned how to make molds from Levy, he started collecting footprints. Today, he had come running back to home to grab the mold mix, just barely getting across that he found a new print, and because of the incoming rain, he had to hurry. Wendy had been both home and available, so she tagged along too. Besides, Rogue had been wanting a heron print for a while now, so if she could help her brother make one without the print getting wet, then it was the least she could do.

“Oh, that is very nice,” Wendy agreed, looking down at the trail. It smelled fresh, and it was big. She didn’t know the scents between species of herons, and she doubted Rogue did either, but she was also sure that he could somehow compare the print to his various reference guides and find it.

“They normally just stay in the water, or he gets washed away,” Rogue explained, getting the mold ready. “So I was glad to see one, finally. It’s a bit late in the year, but I guess this one was flying south for the winter and needed a stop.”

“Akane beach is pretty warm this time of year, if it was heading there.”

Rogue hummed in agreement.

The two were quiet as they worked together to make the cast. When it formed, Wendy swirled some wind in her palm and sped up the drying process.

The rain started falling soon after. There were sky spells to affect the weather, but they were complicated and had a toll to match the scope of its effect. They were carefully filed in the back of the book Grandeeny gave her for later. However, Wendy was getting better at wind shields, like how Acno made them. She held one over their heads like an umbrella as Rogue scooped it out of the sand.

“Is it okay?” she asked, worried that the sideways rain she couldn’t catch was getting to it.

“It’s good!” he announced, grinning. “Thanks!”

Rogue cupped his hands over the mold, and they hurried back home.

—o0o—

April X784

 

The first night he was in this century, Rogue spent in the forest outside of Oak Town. Actually, he spent the first few there. It was where he landed after the Eclipse Gate ejected them, lost and bleary. He spent the first few hours looking for Skiadrum, instinctively, until the memory—the fake, stress-induced memory—of his sickness and death crept up to him.

That forest had been both his sole solace and the site of his anguish. He spent a few days there, wandering aimlessly just to try and find shelter and food and water. He can’t remember how long he had lasted until a lumberjack found him and brought him back to the town. After it became clear that he had no family—Rogue knew that he had been alone—he was taken to the orphanage. Rogue remembered being relieved at first, but then, it had quickly turned into wanting to go back to the forest. He didn’t though; maybe because he was scared, and maybe because he later became fascinated by Gajeel, probably because some part of him remembered.

Those days were gone, and Rogue was glad of it. He loved travelling Fiore, but if he never had to step foot in Oak Town again, it would be okay.

Being back in this forest was weird enough. Luckily the geologist that put out the job was sure that the xenolithic rock was on the northside of the forest, so there was no need to get close to the town. (Because that would be even weirder.)

By now, the forest looked completely different, though Rogue knew that he didn’t remember every detail of it anyway. It smelled familiar though—the oak and cold granite. It was too bad that they had no idea what the xenolith would smell like. Or even what it was. He was starting to think that the geologist was just desperate, because the job was too vague.

They split up to search better. If Rogue listened, he could hear Sting muttering and Wendy’s light footsteps and Charle’s tail lashing, so they weren’t that far away from each other. He also heard faint splashing. He had thought he smelled water somewhere, but he had been focused on areas where the pluton showed through the forest floor. Maybe the water would be a good place to check though, in case it’s only visible with more erosion. That, and Rogue wanted to go see it. It could be interesting.

To his excitement, it was a frog pond. He could tell by the scent and the way the grass grew out of the muddy shallows. He had plenty of frogs at home, of course, but he still liked to watch them out in the wild, and to play with the tadpoles. And still look for the rock, of course; Rogue was good at multi-tasking.

Rogue crept up and crouched at the bank, idly watching the tadpoles swim around as he observed the rocks. There was sediment built into the back, stretching into the ground; it wasn’t granite, and it was a rock, so it counted as xenolith, right? Maybe the geologist would be happy with that. What he wanted was something to study, anyway.

Sting would be better at taking a clean break at the sheet of sedimentary rock, but in the meantime, Rogue looked around the area himself for the best section.

There was a hop and a half-croak nearby, and Rogue scooped up the frog on instinct. “Hey, big guy,” he greeted, impressed by the size of the it. It was a leopard frog, and it might have been bigger than Alligator back home, too. He was about to let it back go into the water when he heard something else.

Rogue looked back, expecting to see a raccoon or maybe a possum coming to drink or fish, but the sound of the shuffling was different, he realized. Staying still, Rogue waited to see what it was, curious.

Green fur poked out of the bush, and Rogue found himself staring into round, black eyes.

It was a cat. More specifically, it looked like a cat like Happy and Charle, though smaller, and not like cat-cats, being that this cat was on two feet and had hands a big head. Though their fur was all muddy and matted; they probably were out here by this pond for a while.

They stared at each other, equally fascinated. Happy and Charle were the only talking cats that Rogue knew; Mystogan said that they were called Exceeds back where he was from, and he even wondered if some of the eggs fell through those tears, though it was also likely that there was a similar species from Earthland. Either way, there were only a few of them around, so what was this cat doing out here in the woods? Was this where the Earthland Exceeds lived? Or was this one lost and separated too? “Are you from here?” he asked.

The green cat stared, blinking once.

Okay, maybe he went too fast. “Hello. I’m Rogue,” he introduced. “What’s your name?”

The green cat stared some more.

Oh. Happy and Charle both spoke Ishgaran, but that might be because they were raised by Natsu and Wendy when they were little. “Can you understand me?” he asked.

The green cat continued to stare. Then, they pointed at the frog that was still sitting in Rogue’s hand, making a sound somewhere between a croak and a purr. “This is a frog,” he explained. Was there something wrong with the frog, or was it just a way of comparing words? “Frog.”

“F—” The cat tried to arrange their lips. “Fr— Fro.”

“Frog,” he repeated, emphasizing the ‘g.’

“Frosch.”

Close enough.

“And I’m Rogue,” he said again, pointing to himself. “Rogue.”

“Roe-sch!” Also close enough.

“Yes, Rogue!” He pointed to the frog, then to himself again in turn. “Frog. Rogue.” Then, he pointed to the cat.

They picked up on the game—at least, he thought they did, until they chirped. “Frosch!”

“No,” he corrected gently, giving the frog another point. “This is a frog.” He pointed back at them. “What are you?”

They pointed to the frog. “Frosch!” Then they pointed to themselves. “Frosch!”

…huh. “Frog?” he asked them. Was their name…‘Frog’? Or ‘Frosch’? ‘Frosch’ was probably a better name anyway.

The cat croaked/purred. “Frosch! Frosch!”

Rogue gathered the pieces he knew. The cat-person could speak, but not Ishgaran; unless they were simply really shy, he was starting to doubt they spoke any language at all. Also, he knew that Happy and Charle did not sound like frogs, but this cat—‘Frosch,’ he call them—tried their best to emulate the leopard frog’s croak. It had a similar pitch. Plus, Frosch smelled almost exactly like this pond. They had been here for a while. Maybe alone.

He listened around and gauged the scents of the area.

Probably alone.

Rogue decided that he was bringing this cat home with him.

“Do you live here?” he asked, before he remembered that they wouldn’t understand. He mimed sleeping then pointed at the pond.

Frosch tilted their head in confusion.

He pointed to himself, mimed sleeping, then pointed out to the horizon, westward. He then pointed to Frosch.

After a moment, Frosch responded by pointing to the bush that they had come out of. He parted the bush and looked inside, finding a nest of dried mud, leaves, and pine straw. It certainly wasn’t new.

He was definitely taking Frosch home. They were just a baby, really, and nobody should be alone, much less so young. Though unlike the last time a child was taken out of the woods outside of Oak Town, Rogue knew that the other side would be much better.

Still, he should try to ask—or at least let Frosch know that there were others. (Just like he should actually meet back up with Sting, Wendy, and Charle, because now he wasn’t sure how long it’s been.) Rogue drew a stick figure in the mud with his finger, and then pointed to it and himself at the same time. He then drew a small cat figure in the mud and pointed to it and Frosch. Frosch watched intently. Next, he drew two more human figures and another cat figure, circled them, and drew an arrow to the stick figure that was him. He pointed in the direction that they were at.

Frosch studied the drawings before looking up at Rogue, interest still shining in their eyes. He could smell it too, and Frosch seemed relaxed around him. He took it as a ‘yes.’

He stood up, Frosch still nestled in his arms.

Carefully, he scooped them up into his arms. Frosch made a startled sound, a flash of surprise in their scent, but it melted away as Frosch immediately pushed their nose into his chest and started croak-purring, until the purring part won and took over. Rogue smiled, though he doubted they could see it; he emulated the purr instead, hoping that they would recognize at least that. (It was one of the perks of having the throat of a dragon—most animals did not recognize speech, but they recognized sound; even if Frosch was more person than animal, sometimes, the difference didn’t matter that much.)

Using both arms to support them and their snuggling, Rogue stood up and walked towards his siblings, listening out for them. Oh, they were calling for him.

“There you are!” Sting said, making eye contact with him first. “Wendy found something, so we were just going to— Wait what’s that?”

Wendy sniffed the air lightly. “Is that…?”

Charle sharp intake of breath was small, but noticeable.

“I found them by the pond. They were alone, so I’m bringing them home,” he explained.

“What’s your name?” Wendy asked kindly.

Frosch blinked and pointed at her. “Roe!”

“No, that’s Wendy,” Rogue corrected, pointing. He shrugged at her, looking up. “They don’t really speak. I think they want to be called Frosch though. Or ‘Frog.’ The pronunciation isn’t great.”

“Are you sure… Just taking them is a good idea?” Charle asked, arms crossed and bearing the scent of mild anxiousness. “They could be dangerous.”

Sting shot her an incredulous look. “That thing? They’re so tiny. There’s no way they’re dangerous. ‘Sides—” He directed his next question to Rogue. “You said that the twerp was all alone, right?”

Rogue nodded.

“They look like they’re still a baby, so we can’t leave them,” Sting decided.

Wendy hummed along in concern. “Happy and Charle’s eggs were both alone, too. I bet the poor thing had to be hatched all alone as well…”

It was true. Whatever seemed to have happened to some of these Exceed-cat-people, it was bad. Either they fell through rips or ‘Animas’ or something terrible happened to drive the Earthland cat-people into hiding, and some of them got separated or abandoned that way.

Whatever it was, it didn’t matter to Rogue. He watched as Frosch shifted in his arms into a more comfortable position. The only thing that mattered was that this kid was safe and happy somewhere. And if that meant taking care of them, then he’ll gladly do it. “Let’s turn in this job and go home.”

Chapter Text

December X782

 

It was that time of year again. Jellal didn’t know why he dreaded it as much as he did.

Like every other year, the S-Class candidates were announced with a flair of ceremony and then dispersed to find their partner, and then they scattered to use the next week to prepare. The rest of the guild was able to resume as normal.

Jellal wasn’t sure how other guilds went about things, but in Fairy Tail, nominees typically stayed nominees, unless there was some exception. (He felt like there was a current exception, but nothing came to mind; it was probably just his anxious mind betraying him yet again.) So it was normal to assume that the trial would be preformed over and over again until that nominee succeeded. Master said it was because life was an ongoing trial, so the path to S-Class and beyond was likewise. It made sense, but Jellal sometimes found the number of chances overwhelming. He understood Cana’s frustration, albeit in a bit of a different way.

Jellal was nominated in X780, and to this day, he had no idea why. Being S-Class was more about magical prowess; it was about personal prowess as well. And Jellal was still a wreck of a human being—he was even more-so two years ago. He honestly didn’t understand why anyone thought he was capable of more. It took so much just to claw his way back to normalcy, and even then, Jellal knew that was an impossible standard after everything that had happened. He just (selfishly) wanted to be good enough. Greatness was nowhere within his grasp.

He should have been honored that the Master apparently thought more of him, but in the end, it felt like just another burden. Another impossibility.

A part of him wished he could just go alone to the trials, so he wouldn’t have to embarrass somebody by asking them to have to watch out for him. Jellal felt bad, still, for dragging Levy halfway around the countryside at a pace she couldn’t support last year. He wouldn’t blame her if she didn’t want to go through that again. Not that he was sure who to ask, even…

Maybe he could just take somebody who wanted to go? There were always people who eyed the S-Class trials with the longing that was to be expected of a proper mage. He couldn’t grant them a taste of success, but maybe he could let them get closer, so one day they could make it on their own merit.

“Jellal.”

His attention snapped to the present. Somebody was calling for him? Had he accidentally ignored somebody while trapped in his thoughts again? Jellal looked for the person, but it didn’t take long, because he was right beside him in another blink.

Erik regarded Jellal with some mix of emotion that he could never ascertain, but he did recognize the resolve in his eyes. It made sense that Erik would be one of the ones upset with his nomination; he knew what kind of pathetic person Jellal was more than Master did.

“I’m coming with you.”

His thoughts faltered, what he believed to his grasp on the situation slipping away. “What?”

“I said, I’m coming with you,” Erik repeated, eliminating what Jellal had considered the high probability that he misheard something. “I’m going to make you S-Class.”

Oh. Oh. Jellal’s thoughts were slowed, as if underwater, but he realized what must have happened fairly quickly. He tried his best to offer Erik an apologetic smile. “You don’t have to,” he assured. “I know Erza must have asked you.” It wouldn’t be the first time, either. She tried to take Jellal and Erik both along on jobs many times, sometimes even trying to arrange for just the two of them to go together. He knew it made Erik uncomfortable, and the dragon slayer normally found a way to dodge it. When he didn’t, he was usually quiet. Jellal didn’t blame him. It had gotten better lately, at least, with Jellal succeeding in convincing Erza to go take some time to herself for her S-Class jobs; she was making a name for herself, and Jellal didn’t want to drag her down, even if she was willing to risk that.

“She didn’t,” Erik answered readily, resolve not shaken. “She doesn’t even know, yet.” He glanced to the side, before taking Jellal by the arm. “And she won’t know—yet—if we move this conversation outside.”

Jellal followed him, still unsure of what was happening. Erik wasn’t one to blatantly lie (he didn’t think) so he probably meant it when he said that this wasn’t just Erza trying to make amends for something that wasn’t even her fault. They moved outside to the back of the guild hall where it faced the lake, and nobody was there. Nobody was probably anywhere close, if Erik was choosing this place for privacy.

“Look,” Erik continued, obviously discomfited. It took a moment of him staring at everything but Jellal to find his words. He would have stopped him—assured him that he didn’t have to do whatever Erik thought he did—but Jellal barely knew what he was doing. “This—” He made some vague gesture around them. “—has gone on long enough. Besides, I can’t just sit here knowing that you’re probably throwing the trials.”

“I— What?” Jellal was still trying to figure out why Erik thought he needed to do this (because surely, he didn’t want to), so the last comment through him in for another loop before he was done with the first one. He wasn’t sabotaging anything! (Maybe the…other side of him, would, but Jellal had nothing to do with being chosen. He wouldn’t be, if it was up to him.) It made sense that Erik would suspect something like that. He had seen the worst of Jellal out of everyone in Fairy Tail, because he had the misfortune of being there. Still, Jellal had to set things straight—

“No, not like that,” Erik said, pinching the bridge of his nose. “Trust me, I know you’re not doing this on purpose. I meant the opposite, you know—you’re stronger than you realize, and I’m surprised you haven’t claimed the spot yet.”

It was just one surprise after another. “I don’t know what you mean,” Jellal admitted, feeling cornered for some reason. It didn’t make sense.

Erik sighed, deep and slow, and his shoulders lowered enough for Jellal to realize that they had been tense. “Look, I didn’t mean to insinuate anything, or to accuse you of anything” he clarified. “I’m just…worried. About you. For you.”

‘Why?’ was the first thought that Jellal could formulate, but he didn’t blurt it like he wanted to. (The restraint probably didn’t matter, because if Erik was listening, he was laid bare anyways.) Still, Jellal tried to comprehend it first. He had thought that he had been doing…better, at least…but maybe he was spiraling more than he realized. Jellal always knew that Erik was a better person than most, because he was able to withstand Jellal for Erza’s sake, and Jellal appreciated it more than he could express, but Erik being concerned for him now was more surprising still. Unless he was worried it would worsen. Jellal could be a danger to himself and to others, and that was the last thing he wanted. Maybe this was just a chance for Erik to keep an eye on him.

“If you want to come, then I would appreciate it,” Jellal replied, finally. He trusted Erik not to trust him too easily, which was the safest option for everyone, if that was the concern.

He got punched (lightly) in the shoulder in response. “Nope, that’s not the point,” Erik corrected again. “Stars, you are dense. Jellal, it’s not that I don’t trust you—you just don’t trust yourself.”

“I—” Jellal worked around a lump in his throat. He didn’t know why it hurt so bad, because this was something he already knew. Already accepted. “Of course I don’t trust myself,” he whispered, because if he spoke any louder he couldn’t promise the integrity of his voice. “I can’t. Not after… Not after everything.”

It didn’t matter if his actions were spurred by Ultear and her spells, or if his mind had been warped into obsessing over things he wouldn’t have. It had still been him. His mind. It had been his drive and his ambition that led to what happened. Even if the dedication to the Tower had been implanted, and even if his inhibitions had been artificially stripped, it didn’t change the fact that Jellal was capable of being a terrible person. He hurt people. He stepped on people for his own goals, and he hated that, and he hated more that it made sense. If Jellal no longer cared about people, or his inhibitions, then he would be that cold-hearted driven force, and Jellal wasn’t sure if he could contain himself forever. Not with his mind as fragile as it was.

“H-hey, Jellal?” Erik laid his hands on both of his shoulders, beckoning his attention. “Look at me, okay?”

He did so, and he braced himself for what was to come. The “it wasn’t your fault”s and the “you weren’t yourself”s. Erza was a master at them, and sometimes, he could believe them. But deep down, he knew that it was still him—a part of him, at least—and he had to accept that. He could let his guildmates comfort him while keeping that inescapable truth deep inside. It was the best way he could balance himself. So Jellal was completely unprepared for what Erik said.

“I don’t hate you.”

Jellal’s breath caught in his throat. “What?” Because the words were spoken clearly and earnestly, but surely… Surely it wasn’t that simple.

“I don’t hate you,” he repeated. “I’m not scared of you. I don’t think you’re a monster.” Erik spoke slowly, so his words had no choice but to sink in. “You’re my guildmate and I care about you, so please, get that through your stars-damned thick skull. I don’t want to help you because I think you’ll snap. I want to help you so you don’t. I don’t want you to hate yourself.”

He registered the words, and they were all so tempting to believe. Tempting to accept. But he didn’t understand—he couldn’t. He couldn’t see whatever Erza and Master and now Erik saw in him, because it didn’t make any sense. He was broken. As soon as he fooled himself into thinking the shards of his life weren’t shards, he would just hurt somebody with them.

“But if I don’t hate myself, I’ll become that again.”

Jellal blurted the words before he could stop himself. They hurt coming out, because Jellal knew that they were true, but speaking them aloud made it real.

If he didn’t regret his actions, then what would stop him from repeating them? From thinking that it was okay? Jellal was like that, once, and he really, really didn’t want to become that again.

Before he knew it, Erik was guiding him downwards until they were sitting on the steps leading down the lake. Erik moved his hands off of his shoulders, but he was still close enough that his arm brushed against Jellal’s. It made it easier to believe Erik’s statement about not being afraid of him. If only by a little.

“You know I did some awful shit, too, right?” Erik said quietly. His gaze fixed itself on the lake. The lake by the guild was big, but it was calm. Nothing like the sea. The difference was enough to calm Jellal as well—especially when the forest was clearly seen on the other side. “I agreed to go with Brain willingly, no matter what you tell yourself. Sure, I didn’t get the big picture, but I knew he was going to use me, and I was going to let him.”

That hazy memory of meeting with Brain and telling him that he was free to take whomever he wished off of the island was one of the worst. Especially with the clarity of hindsight, knowing what kind of man ‘Brain’ was. Jellal allowed that he wasn’t in his right mind, and he didn’t send anybody kicking and screaming, but he did agree to the exchange. He practically sold people. For what? Knowledge of black magic?

It made him sick to think about. Brain had people under his thumb, and it was all his fault. He knew Erik had been lucky enough to leave, but… Well, he’s never actually heard it from Erik himself. The least he could do now was listen.

“The fun part about empathy magic is that I’m a great judge of character,” Erik continued wryly. “But I was also tired and an idiot, so I told myself that my only options were to stay on that shitty island—I did hate you then, by the way, but I didn’t realize you were crazy until I figured out what normal people were like—or let that shit-head use me in exchange for becoming stronger. I thought— I thought that the hope of strength was all I had left. I knew I could never be a normal member of society ever again.”

Jellal swallowed. That made two of them, then. He wondered if Erza ever thought the same thing. It was strange to think about, because Erza was thriving. So was Erik, for that matter.

“I played his games. I did his dirty work. We… We all did. I stole for him, and I even killed people.” Erik stopped for a moment, his nails digging into his arm. “I didn’t have anyone screwing my mind over. No magic making me obsessed over anything. I— I made those decisions by myself. Sure… I was in a tight spot, but… But it was all me. I could have become a shell of a human who hurt people just because it made me feel better. I was willing to go there.”

“But you didn’t,” Jellal replied softly. He had no idea that Erik felt this way, but…it made sense. It was similar. He wasn’t sure if it was as similar as Erik made it out to be, but… But he understood. Erik made it out though, and that was really all that mattered—and he didn’t need to be blasted through the head for that to happen.

“Neither did you.” Erik’s slitted gaze was challenging—like he was daring Jellal to try to prove him wrong.

…it was an impasse. Jellal didn’t feel like the statement was accurate, but…he couldn’t necessarily argue the logic, either. It was unsettling.

“If you think you’re special because you had to get blasted in the head—” Oh, he heard that. “—then you’re out of your mind, because I got the shit scared out of me by Acno before I even stopped to listen. Sometimes, it’s just like that. We need help, and that’s fine. I got help. You got help. In Fairy Tail, it’s sorta’ impossible not to get help. Just like I’m helping you now, whether you like it not.” Erik cracked a smile. “Got it?”

“…I think so.”

In truth, Jellal was still coming to terms with everything. He did believe that he understood Erik’s statement—they were on the wrong path, but they were pushed out of it. That was the luck of life.

Yet, that former path existed. It was still there, waiting to be stepped on. Able to be tread upon.

That’s what always scared him the most.

“Does it ever worry you?” he asked, now unable to stop from hoping for solidarity. “That you’ll…go back?”

It could very well be just Jellal’s problem. His issue was rooted less out of anger and bitterness, like Erik had been, but rather, his weak fortitude. Maybe it wasn’t all that similar after all.

“At first,” Erik admitted. He released the vice grip he had on his arm, moving his hands to rest limply in his lap. “But… Acno would tell me that just because the past never went away, it didn’t mean that the past still needed to hurt. Everybody is allowed to change—they just need to decide to do it. And before you start spouting more bull about how it was only because you were clocked in the head with fairy magic, if you’re this worried about being a monster, then you decided already.”

“…you make it sound so easy,” Jellal mumbled, mulling over the words. Decisions were one thing, but Jellal knew as well as Erik did that life was always in your own hands.

Erik huffed a laugh. “Never said it was. But I think… I think having people you can rely on makes it easier. Somebody to pick you up when life goes for the sucker punch. So keep us around, yeah?”

That was something Jellal already knew—at least partially. Sometimes, a helping hand was the only way you could be pulled up. He himself was quite a testament to that. But, he also remembered those days before Ultear tipped his mind over the edge, when the only thing keeping him upright was Erza, Simon, and the others. He had to stay alive for them—stay strong for them. He failed all of them, eventually, and he assumed that it was purely his own failing. However… Erik was right. Jellal would have lost himself earlier if it weren’t for them, whether it was his dark side snapping, or simply his will to live giving out.

Fairy Tail was full of people nice enough to lend a helping hand. Though the majority of them had no way of knowing exactly what Jellal had done… But Erik knew better than anyone else, even Erza, so maybe… Maybe Jellal could accept it. If just a little.

“Thank you,” he said sincerely. He wasn’t sure what else to say, but at least Erik could pick up on the emotions behind it. “But I don’t want you pushing yourself either.”

Erik rolled his eyes, but there was a small smile still on his face. “I told you already—I’m not scared of you anymore. I’m know you’re not an idiot, so I won’t bother telling you that I never was. But you know what? You gave me space, I worked on my shit, and now I’m back and that’s my choice.” The smile cracked into a lopsided grin. “So do you wanna do this thing or not?”

He offered his hand to him. Jellal wasn’t falling. He wasn’t crashed on the ground, unable to claw his way up. He was careful not to be, of course, but he was at least stable.

It was odd to think that he could be helped even when he wasn’t in the middle of a crisis.

Jellal would also be lying if he said that he didn’t want to accept Erik’s second chance, because he did want the opportunity to do right by him. He may never get that with Simon, or Wally or Milliana or Shou, but… It wouldn’t be wrong to take this if Erik was offering, right?

He took his hand.

—o0o—

Jellal stood, still in shock.

“What…?” He looked behind him and around him, sure that someone else made it to the summit before they did.

Erik laughed, panting slightly. “Congrats. And told ya’ so.”

Meanwhile, Master smiled widely at him. “Congratulations, Jellal. I hereby name you a S-Class mage of Fairy Tail.”

Chapter Text

July 5, X784

 

The first time she walked into Fairy Tail had been… an experience. An unforgettable one, but hard to explain, nonetheless. It was like chaos incarnate. It was equally horrifying and fascinating, but this was already her third or fourth time walking into the guild, so it was definitely too late to go back. Not to mention the pink fairy that rested on her hand. That alone made whatever screaming and insanity worth it.

She was eager to find an apartment—perhaps the only thing that could make this More Real than officially being part of a guild—and spent the majority of the previous day working on that. There were several options in Magnolia, though the shiniest was by far Fairy Hills, the guild dormitory. However, it was shiny and expensive, so Lucy wisely looked no further; it would only disappoint her more if she got attached.

The search was overwhelming, and way harder than joining the guild. Lucy had assumed it be the opposite, but she was in the business of being proven wrong these days, so she accepted it for what it was.

She toured complexes until the thought of going back to that cheap inn to sleep was absolutely blissful. Everyone in Magnolia was nice and helpful though—so much so that she almost immediately got a tour of any place she asked about. It was helpful, but exhausting.

Eventually, she narrowed the list based solely on her needs and what was convenient. Which…was to say that she sorted it by price. Everything she looked at so far had the basic necessities—though she would dearly miss the pool in that one complex, she knew—so really it came down to what she could get. Halfway through the process she became aware that down payments were sometimes required, and she didn’t have the means to that. (She didn’t think that down payments should be needed for rentals, but again, what did she really know?)

The lowest priced option on the list was scratched out really quickly. The building smelled faintly like pee, and when she looked at the first available apartment, a roach crawled out of faucet.

Nope. She was broke, but she had standards.

The second lowest, however, was doable. The landlady even said that another Fairy Tail mage rented there, even though the complex was pretty far from the guild. It was small, but it was clean, and it had nice windows and a kitchen that looked like it worked. Lucy had never really cooked before, but she knew that she would need to sometimes. (The landlady was…peculiar…but Lucy wasn’t one to judge.)

It was almost done. All that was left was to finish signing papers, and for that, she needed proof of employment. The landlady laughed when Lucy tried to sheepishly use her guild mark to do so, but she said that the guild would have the papers and she just needed a copy. The task sounded simple until Lucy stepped foot in the guild hall and was once again overwhelmed by, well, everything.

She waded through the crowd. Some people would notice her and wave, and she tentatively waved back. Lucy realized that, aside from Natsu, Gajeel, and then the Master, she really didn’t know anybody. Not beyond what she knew from the magazines, at least. Oh wait! There was that white-haired girl that greeted her the first day. She was the one who arranged for Lucy’s guild mark. She was probably a good person to ask, right? Wherever she was.

Lucy headed towards the back counter, assuming that people who knew what they were doing were back there. She was correct, because she saw the white-haired girl behind it, balancing a tray of drinks in the crook of her arm.

She caught Lucy’s stare, apparently, because she smiled at her. “You’re the new girl. Lucy, correct?” she asked.

“Uh, yes! Yes, that’s me.” Lucy was suddenly very aware that the girl had probably introduced herself before, but Lucy had no idea what her name was. She couldn’t ask for things if she didn’t even know the girl’s name!

She was already moving around the counter, though, weaving around the tables and delivering drinks. Lucy sat down on one of the barstools with a sigh, resigning herself to wait patiently.

“Hey! Lucy!”

Lucy looked around for bit before spotting the owner of the voice. Natsu appeared from who-knows-where and waved at her with a smile. “How’s house-hunting?” he asked. “If you can’t find anything, you can always build.”

That sounded like a lot of work, even if she had the money for it. “I found something, actually,” she reported. “An apartment on…” She forgot the name of the street, but she remembered how to get there. “By the water-canal thing.”

“Nice area,” Gajeel said, walking up behind Natsu. “Pretty quiet over there, too.”

“Because it’s like a mile away from the guild?” she joked. It was a mile away though. She was going to be so in shape, doing all of this.

Gajeel laughed. “Probably, yeah.”

“Congrats on finding a place!” Natsu cheered. “Oh! I’ll have to show you how to go on jobs and stuff now that you’re done with that.”

“Well, I wouldn’t say done,” Lucy admitted. “I’m still working on the paperwork. That’s why I’m here, actually—to get proof of employment.”

“But you have a guild mark,” Natsu said, blinking. “Doesn’t that count?”

For some reason, she felt equally vindicated and embarrassed that Natsu thought the same thing she did. She had no idea what that said about either of their thought processes, though. “Heh… Unfortunately, no.”

Gihi, business-people like paperwork. It makes for better records,” Gajeel remarked while ruffling Natsu’s hair, eliciting a squawk and shove from him.

Lucy couldn’t help but to roll her eyes at the brothers’ antics. They were just like the rest of the guild, it seemed; simultaneously violent and easy-going. Natsu mentioned being there since they were kids, and she believed it now.

“Hey, where’s Happy?” she asked, noticing the lack of blue cat.

“Oh, he’s back home watching mud,” Natsu replied like…whatever answer he gave made sense. (Which, of course, it didn’t.) Lucy was about to question it—something she was learning was common when trying to understand Natsu—but both of the boys suddenly turned their gazes towards the front at the same time, like grinning, distracted squirrels.

She knew just enough about their strange magic to guess that she would not be able to see or hear or smell whatever it was that they did, but Lucy was curious, so she subtly looked in the same direction and waited. Before she saw anything, Gajeel spoke. “How was being arrested? Did they give you your one lacrima call?”

“Ha ha. Very funny.”

Another young man, probably around Gajeel’s and Natsu’s age, approached the bar area where they were. Even though it was the middle of summer, he wore a long white coat with a high collar, though past it she could see a Fairy Tail emblem on his neck. Despite his lack of summer-wear, he was super tan, and— were his ears pointed? Huh. Mages were interesting people, weren’t they?

Gajeel’s jibe registered to her a moment too late. “Arrested?!” she blurted.

The new guy glared dryly at the laughing Gajeel and Natsu before heaving a sigh. “Stop telling people that I’m arrested,” he deadpanned.

“But it’s funny,” Gajeel retorted expertly. The new guy grabbed Gajeel by the face and shoved him without even taking his other hand out of his pocket. Gajeel’s head lolled back, but he kept snickering.

The guy turned to her with an exasperated exhale through the nostrils. “Don’t listen to them, they’re idiots,” he informed her. Lucy already had a good idea about that, though. “I assume you’re new here?”

“Yeah, I’m Lucy. And I uh, totally didn’t think you were actually arrested. Sorry.”

He snorted. “It’s fine. I’m Erik.”

“Glad you’re back, Erik,” another voice interjected. Oh! The white-haired girl was back! She moved around the counter swiftly. “How did your arrest go?” she asked, a small smirk growing on her face.

Erik continued to glare passively, bags practically visible under his eyes. She felt sorry for him already. “The words you’re looking for is ‘how was your umpteenth forced recruitment spiel for the Rune Knights?’ and the answer is, it was awful. As always. Thanks for asking, Mirajane.”

Mirajane! So that was her name. (Why did that sound familiar? Wait, it was probably because she told Lucy before. Duh.)

Mirajane just smiled. “Do you want your usual?”

“Nah, I’m wiped. I’ll just go home and get the belladonna.”

Lucy blinked, hoping that it would somehow clear her ears instead. “What?!” she blurted. No, she misheard him, right? There was no way he just admitted he was going to go home and poison himself…right? Her experience with the craziness of Fairy Tail was beginning to make her wonder.

Erik smiled wryly. “Nothing like it before a nice, long sleep.”

Oh gosh, was he actually being serious?! All of the horror must have shown on her face, because then Natsu was punching Erik in the shoulder, who only responded by laughing.

“Shut up, she believes you!” he chastised. Natsu turned to her sheepishly. “He’s not actually gonna’ die,” he assured her. Unfortunately, she actually needed that assurance.

“Not yet,” Gajeel interjected. “Erik, did you even sleep?”

Erik stopped laughing just to lean on Natsu casually. “That’s not important.”

“You dumbass!”

“Hush, I did sleep while I was still at the compound. I just didn’t bother on the way back, ‘kay? Did you get the guy?”

The two stared each other down, and Lucy wondered if it was normal for guildmates to mother-hen each other like this. If that’s what they were doing. It was a bit hard to tell.

“Of course we got him,” Gajeel replied with a puff of pride. “Natsu and Blondie here helped too.”

Oh, were they talking about Bora?

“Gajeel used me as bait,” Natsu offered. Probably knowing it would get a reaction out of Erik, which is exactly what happened.

“Gajeel!”  

“What? He agreed to it! I’ll have you know, nobody got charmed! The plan went perfectly.”

At this, Lucy felt a bit of indignation herself. What about that was perfect or smooth?! “Hey! I got charmed!”

Gajeel waved a hand dismissively. “That was before you got involved with us, so it doesn’t count.”

“But then Natsu and I had to jump overboard in the middle of the bay! And then half of the harbor got wrecked!” Okay, so a little bit of the damage was her fault by proxy, but to be fair, she didn’t think Aquarius would be that bad.

Erik calmly grabbed both a snickering Natsu and an indignant Gajeel by the back of the heads and shoved them downwards, while regarding her. “I apologize on behalf of my brothers. They’re idiots.”

She felt a prick of surprise. “Oh, you’re their brother? I didn’t realize there were more than just those two.” Lucy laughed. “Next you guys will tell me there’s more, right?”

“Yeah!” Natsu piped up, rolling out from under Erik’s hand. “We got…” He started counting on his fingers, and Lucy knew she was in for it. What kind of large wacky family did these guys have?! She was mostly sure the three in front of her weren’t even related.

Natsu got to the second hand, when Erik intervened. “There’s a lot of us,” he answered simply. Lucy was left being very curious about the number.

“Hey! Cubellios!” Natsu suddenly called. He ducked down in lieu of a greeting, and—

Lucy might have screamed, but in her defense, she was not expecting a giant purple snake to come slithering out from underneath a table.

She scrambled on top of the bar stool at the exact same time the snake raised its body and crashed into Natsu’s shoulder. And Natsu—

Laughed. And hugged the snake.

Okay, she should really start just…expecting the fact that nothing made sense.

Gajeel was laughing too, practically wheezing, but Lucy was pretty sure that was just at her expense. Soured, she slowly unwound herself and sat properly on the stool.

“She doesn’t bite guildmates,” Erik assured, looking a little amused as well. “She just likes to sit underneath the tables.”

Lucy didn’t point out the implication that the snake did bite non-guildmates, because honestly, her being on the no-bite list was good enough. Though how would the snake be able to tell? Was she a magic snake? Judging by the size and the color… Yeah, Lucy was just going to assume she was magic. Like Happy. Did the snake talk too?

The snake—maybe her name was Cubellios—flicked a tongue at Natsu’s cheek. Okay, maybe no talking.

“Well, I’m going to go home now. And yes, I’m going to sleep, geez,” Erik said, eyeing Gajeel. “Cubellios, you coming or staying?”

“Come on,” another voice interjected, somewhat slurred. A brunette was sitting on top of the table the snake just slithered under. Lucy didn’t know what was wilder—her sitting cross-legged on top of the table, her wearing pants and a bikini, or the fact that the girl was drinking what was probably alcohol out of a mug the size of her forearm. “You always hog her. I wanna play with Belli’ too!”

Cubellios made no move away from Natsu, and Erik sighed, the noise directed more at the lady on the table. “Don’t try to feed her anything weird, Cana.”

Cana didn’t look drunk, but she acted drunk when she laughed. “Wouldn’t dream of it! Come on up and join Auntie Cana,” she said, patting the table next to her, trying to elicit the snake’s attention.

In the end, Erik left but the snake stayed. Lucy was distracted watching as the massive python-sized reptile balanced going between Natsu, Gajeel, and the Cana girl. As well as some other guildmates, but while everyone wasn’t surprised by the snake’s presence, not everyone was super touchy with her either. Lucy didn’t blame them.

“Hey, you’re the new girl, right?” Cana called. “What’s your favorite drink?”

“Uhh…” That was a weird question. What was her favorite? “Fruit smoothies?”

“Laaaame,” Cana laughed.

“Don’t listen to her, she’s just a drunkard,” Gajeel commented.

Cana, in response, just laughed harder. “That implies that I get drunk, metal cheeks. I’ll have you know, I have a tolerance of steel!”

Lucy glanced in between the two. Wait… “Was that a pun?”

Cana grinned. “I changed my mind, I like you. What was your name again?”

“Lucy. I’m Lucy.”

“And I’m Cana! Now, if you ever want to try something more exciting than a fruit smoothie, let me know.”

“Uhh… Sure.”

She probably wouldn’t. She had the feeling that Cana meant ‘alcohol’ when she said ‘exciting,’ and admittedly, Lucy’s experience wasn’t far beyond small glasses of champagne and vintage wine at fancy galas. Even then, Lucy knew when she started to get woozy from just that. She was probably a light-weight, and she really didn’t want to test that against the girl who just finished off an unholy amount of booze.

Lucy watched as Natsu stopped Cubellios from eating a cracker off the ground while Gajeel and Cana continued to trade comebacks about whether alcohol tolerance was physical or mental. How did she end up in the middle of this again?

Oh! The papers!

“Hey, uh, Mirajane?” she called, eliciting the attention of the white-haired lady from the back. “Do you know where I can get proof of employment for my hopefully future landlady?”

“I can get those for you,” Mirajane responded. “I’ll be right back.”

Meanwhile, Lucy decided that Mirajane was her favorite. She was helpful.

—o0o—

July 11, X784

 

Lucy was starting to get the hang of things. Maybe. Probably.

She has certainly come to expect that the guild was always some level of rowdy, and her new guildmates were very helpful but also not above dragging her into something, even though they literally just met.

She also learned that apparently, members of Fairy Tail had a thing for entering through windows.

Lucy had just finished a very long, very deserved bath. Everybody had been exhausted once they returned to Magnolia after the fiasco with Eisenwald, and they all slinked off to wherever it was that they lived. Lucy had been so tired that she crashed on her couch—in her clothes and everything! Once she woke up some hours later, she cleaned herself up and did things properly. Now that things calmed down more, and she had eaten, Lucy indulged herself in some relaxation.

She was clean, happy, and content, wrapped comfortably on the little couch that came with the apartment with a mug of tea, when the shadow flew past her window.

She hadn’t forgotten how easily Natsu and Happy slipped in through it when they came to her with that job. The only reason the intrusion was forgiven was because the job actually paid, and they brought a set of colorful bowls as a ‘house-warming’ gift. How they managed to get a box of ceramic dishware through a window without breaking anything was still a mystery to her. Regardless, the point remained that the windows weren’t secure, so the flying shadowy shapes outside were cause for concern.

Though it was probably just Natsu and Happy again, ready to give her another heart attack.

With a hand on her keys, she crept toward the window. If it was them, then they weren’t going to surprise her again. If it wasn’t, then some creep was about to get a mouthful of sand!

Out of the darkness of dusk, a small object appeared right in front of her, and Lucy screamed and flailed back when the image of a too-wide smiling face made direct eye contact. She had been prepared for a person, not a floating toy!

“Pandia!” a voice chastised, muffled from the distance.

Lucy was still on her butt when an actual figure approached the window. This time, eyes more focused, she could see that it was a young woman dressed in green—a woman flying with golden fairy wings, at that. “Bickslow!” she called, face pointed upwards. “Your babies are scaring the neighbors!”

The lady then looked at Lucy through the window. “Sorry dear, Pandia here is just curious,” she informed her, speaking loudly to ensure that Lucy could hear her. She shooed the puppet upwards as well, and then she, too, left.

Lucy stared.

That was…something. She wasn’t sure if it was the weirdest thing that had happened to her though.

No, it was pretty weird. At least it wasn’t dangerous though.

It was then that Lucy remembered what the landlady had told her—there was another member of the guild that lived in the complex, in the suite above hers. She didn’t say who it was, but Lucy had been meaning to do her rounds anyway and meet her neighbors. She had been busy though, so the only one Lucy knew was the old lady Margaret, who brought her a pie on her first day here.

Filled with curiosity, Lucy opened the window, stuck her head out, and looked up. She saw the last bit of a leg flying through, and she heard pieces of conversation float out the open window above.

“Why can’t you two ever use the door like Freed?”

“Freed’s a wuss.”

“…I’m right here.”

“Did you know you have a neigh—”

The window shut. Lucy couldn’t make out any words anymore, so she slipped back inside and pretended like she wasn’t being a super nosy neighbor three seconds ago. At least she had the new—and strangely comforting—knowledge that breaking and entering was just another Fairy Tail thing.

She reluctantly went back to her business, and soon, she fell back into the bliss of enjoying her very own apartment and simply existing in it. About twenty minutes later, there was a knock at the door.

Either Natsu came back and remembered how to use doors, or it was one of her neighbors. (Though honestly, she doubted that Natsu would come back for that promised second job anytime soon, because he was probably still sleeping. He didn’t get any sleep at all that night.)

Lucy opened the door to see four people crowded in the hallway.

The knocker—or at least, Lucy assumed he was because he was closest—cleared his throat awkwardly. The disposition juxtaposed the fact that he was massive. “Uh…”

The one woman among them shoved him to the side with a petite hand. She was wearing a green blouse, and oh, she was the one from the window! “He’s shy, don’t mind him. We just noticed that you moved in, so we came by to say hello,” she said with a smile.

The blond giant rolled his eyes with a small huff. She noticed that he had a nasty electrical scar over his eye, and somehow, that solidified the theory that he was the guildmate. “Those three don’t actually live here, but they could fool you. I’m your, uh, neighbor. From upstairs.”

Lucy took in the group with the renewed understanding that they all must be guildmates—and that theory wasn’t just there because she spotted the guild mark on a guy’s tongue. (His tongue.) No, it was just because they were as far from a normal group of people as it was. The guy with the tongue mark was wearing a helmet and pjs at the same time, the other guy with the long green hair had a sword on his hip, and there were wooden things—the same one that startled her, too!—floating around.

She snapped herself out of her observations. “I’m Lucy,” she introduced, holding out a hand. “Nice to meet you! I’m actually part of Fairy Tail, too! Er, well, I’m new. Like I’m new to the apartment.”

Way to be weird about it, Lucy. She blamed the lingering fatigue.

He took her hand. “Laxus,” he returned.

“And I’m Evergreen,” the girl interjected, intercepting Lucy’s hand. “And those two are Bickslow and Freed,” she said, pointing to helmet-guy and sword-guy in turn.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” Freed said cordially. Aw, he had his mark on his hand too! Ah, solidarity.

The other guy—Bickslow—just grinned widely, flashing his tongue-mark at her. Odd, but she’ll accept it.

Suddenly, the realization crashed on her. “Wait, you’re— You’re Team Thunderstorm?!” she shrieked, and Lucy hated how undignified it sounded. But in her defense, she was suddenly met with the fact that she was neighbors with the most famous team in Fairy Tail—maybe even one of the most famous teams in Fiore’s guilds. Or, well, neighbors with Laxus.

The S-Class member of that team.

She also connected the dots that Laxus was not only the Thunderstorm Laxus, but the one that Natsu had mentioned being like a cousin, or something.

It was a small world. Or maybe Magnolia was just a small town.

“Yeah, that’s us,” Laxus answered lightly. “I’m gone a lot, but if you ever need anything, I’m upstairs, right above you.”

“I, uh, I mean— Thank you,” she stammered out.

Team Thunderstorm bid good night and left Lucy with her thoughts. Thoughts like how the powerhouse team of Fairy Tail was more like a tired single parent with kids—except she couldn’t figure out who the parent in that analogy was.

She also wondered, considering her past experiences with two of Fairy Tail’s S-Class mages, if it was a good or a bad thing for her sanity and property if one lived this close.

—o0o—

July 12, X784

 

The next day, Lucy found herself wandering into the guild hall with absolutely zero intentions of getting another job that very moment, because she was still tired. She now understood why so many people just loitered around the hall. It was just something to do that involved other people.

She also wanted to see how the others were doing. It had been a rough few days, for sure. Granted, they were probably way more used to the conditions than she was, but there was also the matter of feelings. Lucy wasn’t sure what the history between Gray and Natsu was, but they had been super weird and defensive around each other, and she worried it was because of some deeper issue.

However, she didn’t see anyone from the last job—mission-thing, or whatever—anywhere, so that was that. They were probably resting, still.

Now that Lucy was here, though, she figured she would stick around. There were still so many guildmates that she had yet to meet, and she should at least familiarize herself with them and any other facet of the guild that she missed. Not that Lucy knew where to start. Everyone was doing their own thing and bustling about, as usual.

She was wondering if it would be a sign of weakness if she ordered that fruit juice concoction from Mirajane again when she heard familiar voices. And, really, she should have been trying to introduce herself to new people, but hovering around people she already sorta-kinda-knew was easier.

“If that geezer ever calls us back again, I’m sealing every single fucking mine entrance I can find,” Gajeel complained, loud enough for Lucy to hear as they got closer.

“Gajeel, you don’t mean that,” another voice—a girl’s—said.

“Oh I fucking do.”

“He’s still salty about falling into one.”

“Erik!”

“What? It’s the truth.”

Lucy watched as Gajeel, Erik, and a short blue-haired girl approached, and she waved at them when they noticed her.

“Oh, you’re the new girl Gajeel mentioned!” the girl exclaimed with a clap. She walked over and extended a hand with a friendly smile. “I’m Levy! It’s nice to meet you.”

“Lucy,” she responded, eased by Levy’s, well, normal introduction. “Nice to meet you too.”

When something brushed against her foot, she did not scream. She just jumped a little. Lucy peaked under the table, and remembering the last time she met Erik, she wasn’t entirely surprised by the slithering mass of purple underneath.

“Hey Erik, what was that about Gajeel falling into a hole?” another voice asked, much younger sounding than what Lucy was used to.

A trio of kids converged at the table as well, the speaker—a blond with a single dangly earring—grinning up at Erik. “Please tell me he screamed like a little girl.”

“Sting, hate to break to ya buddy, but you’re the only one that screamed in those damn mines,” Gajeel interjected with a rough ruffle of the blond’s hair, something the kid took great offense to.

Erik shrugged. “Sounded more like a strangle lemur.”

“Hmm, I would say it was more like a cat with a cold,” Levy put in.

Gajeel scowled, but the kids were amused nonetheless, giggling or smiling at Gajeel’s expense.

The three weren’t young-young, but they definitely weren’t grown either. Lucy would put them at the young teenager or preteen stage. There were two boys and a girl, and even without their interaction with the others, Lucy placed them as the younger siblings that Natsu told her about on their way back from that book-job. The two Happy-like cats that appeared with them only confirmed it. Because Natsu did, indeed, have a huge family.

Not only were they Natsu’s siblings—she was still unsure of exactly how they came to be such a family, other than living in one house—but they were also her guildmates (oh goodness, Fairy Tail did start them young!) so Lucy went to introduce herself. “Hi, I’m Lucy! I’m new here.”

“Oh! I think I heard that a new girl joined,” the girl responded.

“Right, yeah,” Gajeel said, forgetting his previous embarrassment. “Natsu and I brought her back a week or so ago, since she was looking for a guild. Lucy, these scramps are my little siblings.”

“…don’t call me a ‘scramp,’” the white cat huffed indignantly, sounding way older than a kid.

“Too late.”

The white cat narrowed her eyes at him, before turning away with a sigh. “Nice to meet you, Lucy. I’m Charle,” the cat introduced very pristinely. Lucy was almost thrown back thoughts of socialite circles.

“I’m Wendy!” the blue-haired girl piped behind her, waving at Lucy with a smile.

“Sting,” the blond boy said with a grin.

The last boy waved once. “Rogue.”

The pink—wait green, the pink was an absolutely adorable onesie—cat jumped up. “Frosch!”

“What kind of magic do you use?” Rogue asked, looking up at her with curious red eyes. Natsu had mentioned that his family had similar magic, but Lucy was just now realizing that all of them had strange cat-eyes. “It smells different.”

“Rogue,” Charle chastised. “You can’t just sniff people like that.”

“You shouldn’t tell people you’re sniffing them,” Gajeel corrected.

“Well, she’s a guildmate, so she’ll know eventually,” Sting put in.

Lucy couldn’t help but to laugh, albeit awkwardly. She had thought it was weird when Natsu made judgements of her based on smell, but now she realized the entire family was like that.

“I use celestial spirit magic,” she replied, knowing that everyone in the guild would want to know eventually. Plus, she was excited to finally be in an environment where she could show it off without it being considered weird. Lucy lifted her keys. “I use these to summon spirits from another world, and they can help me out with things.”

“Weird,” Sting commented lightly, earning a light smack from Wendy.

“What kind of world do they come from?” Wendy asked. “They know they’re being summoned before they come, right?”

Noting the concern in Wendy’s voice, Lucy smiled. “Yes, and I have contracts with all of them! A celestial spirit mage is nothing without a good connection to their spirits. I keep track of what days they’re good for and what times they’re not available. It’s all very complex, really.” Sometimes, it was the impossible task of balancing schedules in the blink of an eye that reassured Lucy that she was very capable, and not just a back-seat driver that couldn’t do anything, like some people thought celestial spirit mages were like. Managing spirits and finding the magic to summon them was hard too!

“How do you meet a celestial spirit?” Rogue asked. “Do you need to go into their world, or…?”

“Haha, nooo… Humans can’t possibly go there. In fact, it’s against the rules. No, spirits are attached to keys like this—” She lifted the ring again. “And then if you can use celestial spirit magic, you can summon them with the correct phrase. The first time, they’ll usually come no matter what, but then you have to make a contract with then. Otherwise, you won’t be able to summon them, and they’ll probably just wait for a new summoner.” She’s never actually had a spirit deny her before. Well, Aquarius acted like she regretted her contract, but she stuck around nonetheless. She wondered if the key would disappear if a contract was broken or never reached, or if it stayed but that summoner just couldn’t use it anymore. Lucy used to think the latter, but after the thing with Virgo, maybe keys could travel a bit on their own.

Rogue nodded thoughtfully.

“I’ve never actually met a celestial spirit mage before,” Levy commented, eyeing the keys with a sense of wonder. “They say that spirits are incredibly old. Is that right?”

Huh, she’s never thought about it that way before. “I’m not sure, I never asked. But I know Old Man Crux has got to be ancient. He knows a bunch of stuff. I summon him whenever I have a question I can’t figure out, and he normally always knows it.”

Levy’s eyes were positively shining. “The stories and histories they must know… I can’t believe nobody has ever reached out to them for records of events before.”

“That would require the higher ups caring about all that,” Erik remarked, a hint of sarcasm evident.

Levy sighed. “Yeah, you might be right about that…”

She made a good point, though. Lucy knew that a lot of history from before the terror of Zeref was lost in all of the madness. Were the spirits even old enough to remember that, or did they pass mantles from generation to generation? Could they talk about history they witnessed under different summoners, or was that against the rules? Maybe she could ask Crux about it, if she had the opportunity to summon him sometime.

Levy continued to ask her some questions about celestial spirits and the history thereof, though when Lucy found she couldn’t answer a lot of them—and it wasn’t a good time to summon any of her more knowledgeable spirits, especially over something trivial—Levy moved on to other topics of conversation. Meanwhile, Gajeel and Sting ended up in an increasingly extreme match of paper football, with Erik, Rogue, and Frosch either acting as a sort of referee, or just watching. Wendy and Charle listened to her and Levy talk about the merits of anthropology and history in mage work.

For the first time, Lucy felt truly at ease in the guild, and she understood more than ever why people loitered here, young and old alike. It wasn’t just a guild—it was a community.

They might test her lifespan, sure, but that sense of belonging that started to creep up into her chest and into her smile? The easy acceptance that everyone gave her? That was worth it all.

Chapter Text

May X784

 

Acnologia was no stranger to the sounds of the forest. The forest, especially in the spring-turned-summer, was not considered quiet by any means, yet to him, it was. Soothing, even. It wasn’t that he hated the cacophony of the guild, or even the bustling of Magnolia, but it was always relaxing when he finally left it all behind and entered the empty forest on his way home.

If he walked slower than normal, savoring the independent and unbothered sounds of the forest for a little longer, than he wasn’t to be judged. It had been busy as of late, and there wasn’t much time he had to himself. He hasn’t even slept more than a few hours at a time in a week.

Not that Acnologia blamed anyone for that. It was just one of those months. Three broken limbs, seven sprains, and some myriad of other injuries throughout the guild had required supervision, and that wasn’t including Makarov’s bogus errand to the other side of the continent, just because his shitty Council-issued long-distance lacrima broke and needed to be replaced.

There was also the matter of Frosch. The young cat that Rogue had brought home hadn’t been in the best health either. The language barrier was difficult too, but that wasn’t the little one’s fault. Between the kids and the guild, Frosch was getting situated, assimilating to civilization. It didn’t take long for Frosch to figure out at least the basics of how to navigate life. She took well to clothing and to ideas of personhood, like with most intelligent beings; however, it took far longer to convince her that she wasn’t a frog.

The most exhausting matter, however, was that she had absolutely no sense of danger or personal preservation. Especially when it came to new things. Specific experiences taught the cat some things, yes, but a brand-new application? By the stars, she was going to touch it. Not to mention that she had even less sense of direction to aid that curiosity. Acnologia regretted ever feeling grateful that he didn’t have to handle Rogue as a toddler because he was pretty sure this was it. This was also what he got to assuming that his days of raising young children was over.

Right now, however, Acnologia could afford to take it slow, just for a bit. Frosch was always accompanied by any of the kids during the day, and even her nocturnal habit was starting to fade. (Starting.)

Right now, nobody needed him. It was fantastic.

(Oh, what he wouldn’t give for a nice, week-long sleep right about now.)

Unfortunately, in his wish for peace, he forgot once again that the universe had a horrible sense of irony. Acnologia was still half a mile away from the house when, distantly, he heard it—yowling. Mewing, more like, because it was high-pitched. He blamed his over-hyper someone-is-in-danger instincts for noticing it, because once it did, he couldn’t hear anything but the sounds of pain and distress from some animal.

And it was just that—an animal. It was the law of nature, and frankly, it happened all of the time. Acnologia knew that it was absurd to attempt to help everyone and everything. It simply wasn’t feasible, and that’s why it was best to keep efforts localized. If the need was urgent or present, that was one thing, but where was the urgency of a nameless, mindless forest creature? Besides, he wasn’t a vet. He was a dragon. Animals feared him, and they had the right to.

In truth, Acnologia was kidding himself. He couldn’t get Frosch, dirty and too thin and unable to communicate in more than syllables, out of his mind, and his memory also provided every time Wendy spent her time healing some fallen bird, or when Rogue would take injured frogs or snakes to him, or even when Lisanna would sheepishly ask if he could mend limps on squirrels. Or that time he helped Elfman’s parakeet when he was sick.

Shit.

Acnologia turned on his heel and stalked toward the sound. Fine, fine. He wouldn’t be able to let it go anyway. Besides, if the animal was making this much noise, it would have only been a matter of time before one of the kids found it and brought it to him anyway.

It was incredibly loud, different in frequency, and it didn’t take long to track at all. It did take him a moment to recognize it, however, solely because it managed to sound a little like everything at once.

It was a kitten.

Which was baffling in itself, because it had been loud enough to be as large as a wolf, it seemed. It was endowed with the lung power of a dragon, and it used it to scream.

Acnologia bent down in front of the brambles. He could see the tiny thing stuck in the midst of it, somehow so completely wrapped in thorns that not even a creature as boneless as a cat could escape. Though, it was obviously injured—by the brambles and something else alike. It was covered in mud and blood, and some wounds smelled older than others. Like its missing right eye.

He reached in, snapping the brambles with his fingers and grabbing a hold of the kitten. It growled and hissed, and as soon as it felt it could wiggle, it latched onto his hand and bit it with all its might.

“Hey, this operation was your idea,” he chastised, aware that the cat had no understanding of him. Even injured, the hubris of a cat was something to behold. It attacked a dragon without second thought. Normally animals were squirmy around him, sensing his power or cowed by his scent. Dragons were the king of beasts for a reason. Sometimes it meant that animals ran, and sometimes it meant that they were inclined to be more submissive.

…Cats would fight a god if they could, he was sure.

“Stop that.” The kitten’s squirming didn’t hurt him in the slightest, of course, but it was making it difficult for Acnologia to free it without causing further injury. Finally, he pulled the cat free, able to take the tiny thing in a single hand and observe it fully.

It was completely caked in mud, which was certainly a reason one of the wounds smelled infected—one of the older ones. It was faint, but he surmised a fox attacked it based on scent. The kitten was a female and old enough to utilize its senses fully, but not far beyond that. Likely it was recently weaned, based on the teeth.

The kitten stopped trying to gnaw on him and instead chose to resume screaming. “Too loud to be a snack, huh?” he mused dryly.

She mewed. Definitely a talkative one, then.

At least he took it as a sign that she wasn’t sick—yet. Even the old injuries were too fresh to lead to fever just yet. However, the combination of fresh and dried mud in every wound would change that, if it wasn’t cleaned.

Acnologia’s first intention was to aid the distressed animal and then leave it. However, if he simply applied magic now, he risked the body sealing in dirt. His magic could clean to a degree, yes, but it was better for purification—not as a substitute for a bath.

Well, this ordeal was more complicated than he hoped, but since when was that not the case? Resigned, Acnologia settled the kitten in his hand and started walking once more.

The kitten squirmed a bit more. Normally, he would do as the animal wished—they were more resilient than humans—but Acnologia knew that she wouldn’t survive the second half of the day in this state, so he persisted. Besides, years of caring for Fairy Tail drove in the instinct to apply care no matter how hostilely against it his patient was. (Oh stars, he was a vet.)

Soon the kitten became resigned to the lack of escape, and her fear scent settled into discomfort and pain once the adrenaline drained. He winced sympathetically as he could hear her strained breathing once it slowed down, her lungs unable to expand fully without jostling the larger gash on her side. It was unfortunate that his magic was simply practical—he had no spells for pain relief.

It didn’t take long to get home. Already having determined the sink to be the best location for this, he slipped inside and made his way for it, noting that Natsu, Happy, and Sting were situated on the couch, watching some sort of lacrima film. Naturally, his arrival called their attention full to him.

“Hey Acno!” Natsu greeted. “Wait—what’s that?”

He could hear both of the boys sniffing while Happy hovered upwards. “Is that blood?” Sting asked, slightly cowed. He moved closer. “What are you doing?”

They really could just move closer, but Acnologia was glad that they were at least (somewhat) observant. “Cleaning this mudball in the sink. Clearly.”

He turned on the water at a desirable temperature. The kitten was not pleased and found her voice again.

“Acno, is that—?”

“—a cat?”

“Yes.” He began to slowly rub the mud out. “Could someone hand me a wash rag?”

Happy did so, flying one over to him and taking the opportunity to hover over the sink with wide eyes. He could feel Natsu and Sting watching too, and he couldn’t help but to grin in amusement. “You guys remember that normal cats exist too, right?”

“Of course we do!” Sting protested. “It’s just… been a while.”

“Are you sure that’s not a talking cat?” Natsu asked after the kitten yowled again.

“Yes, I’m sure.” She really hated water, but at least he was getting her clean, and he could heal as he went, the kitten moaning and yowling all the while. “…I don’t think she knows that though.”

“She’s even smaller than Frosch!” Happy exclaimed.

“Because your species is larger than regular cats. Mostly.”

“Why do you have a cat-cat in the first place?” Sting asked. “Rogue find her?”

Acnologia indulged in a sigh, well aware he was about to be heckled for this. It was fine, though. He conceded that he was being a hypocrite this time—at least a little. “No, it was me,” he admitted. “I heard her screaming her head off on my way back from the guild. She was stuck in briars.”

As expected, Sting giggled. “Who’s the softy now?”

“Hush.”

“Well, it makes sense that it’s your turn,” Natsu commented.

Acnologia struggled not to reply to that, though Sting made a noise of confusion as well. Meanwhile, he finished clearing the mud and closing the wounds, certain only based on smell. The kitten was a tortoiseshell, nearly the same color as the grime she had been covered in. There was nothing he could do for the eye, however—that was long gone, and his magic couldn’t recreate organs.

“No, really!” Natsu insisted. “I found Happy, Wendy found Charle, Rogue found Frosch, and now Acnologia found Mudball—everybody is getting a cat.”

The kitten shook the water out of her fur as indignantly as possible, splattering him in the process. He related to the sentiment. “No, Natsu, that’s— That’s not how this works. It’s coincidence.”

“But three times is a pattern,” he rebutted. Technically correctly.

Sting frowned. “Wait, so if it’s a pattern, then there’s gotta be more, right?”

No,” Acnologia insisted. One, because this implied that there would be more, and two, because Sting hated feeling left out of anything, so it was best to nip it at the bud. “Just because it happened three times doesn’t necessarily make it a pattern. None of it was purposeful, so it’s still just a coincidence.”

“Well, four times now,” Natsu added, hopping off the counter to poke at the kitten. He petted her from within the sink, hand slightly warmed because it started drying her fur. “Isn’t that right, Mudball?”

Stars, what was even happening right now? “I’m sorry…what did you call her?”

“Mudball!” Natsu replied easily. “That’s what you named her, right?”

“You did,” Sting insisted.

Happy nodded too. “Aye!”

…fuck. He somehow walked straight into this one. “That’s not a name,” he explained tiredly. “And this is temporary.”

“Sure it is!” Natsu piped with a smile.

“Says the guy who named his cat ‘Happy,’” Sting snickered.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Happy asked, offended.

Sting shrugged. “I just mean it could be something cooler. Like ‘Fang’ or ‘One-eye’ or ‘Warrior.’” He gestured to the cat that Natsu was now cradling against his chest. “Obviously, that kitten won the fight.”

“With the fox, maybe, but she definitely lost to the bush,” Acnologia remarked dryly, having no idea why he was humoring this.

“The fox was the cooler part, at least,” Sting added with a shrug, poking a finger to scratch at the kitten’s head. “So I say it counts.”

“But she does look like a Mudball,” Happy said. “With the color.”

The kitten took the opportunity to wiggle out of Natsu’s grip, taking him by surprise, and leaping to Acnologia’s shoulder, where she butted her head against his neck before getting distracted by his hair. With only some difficulty, he pulled her out of his hair and transferred her to the crook of his arm. She was still a little wet, despite Natsu’s efforts at drying, so he used air magic to dry her the rest of the way. On the verge of sickness as she was, staying wet wouldn’t do her any good.

“See,” Happy insisted. “She responded to it!”

“She did,” Natsu agreed, incredibly smug. He heard more than saw Sting stick his tongue out at him.

He listened to her lungs, hearing a bit of a rasp in them. It wasn’t bad yet, but it would be hard to say if that would be correct without further supervision. Despite it, the kitten started purring, finally content, and she snuggled closer to him and laid her head on his chest, already falling asleep.

She…was very sweet, now that she wasn’t biting him. Very small, too. It still amazed him that even though he knew he smelled intimidating to animals, she didn’t seem to mind.

“You like her, don’t you?” Happy teased.

He cut a half-hearted glare to the smirking flying cat. “She’s still going to be hurting after those injuries. It’s only natural she needs to rest before she’s back to health. I’m going to let her sleep, and then she could go back.”

.

.

.

…naturally, they kept the cat.

Chapter Text

April 12, X780

 

It was amazing how Magnolia seemed almost peaceful after a longer-than-average job. In a chaotic way, of course, but relaxing all the same. Maybe because he knew—more or less—what to expect.

…mostly.

(It was Fairy Tail. It was never predictable.)

However, it did throw him for a loop to enter the guild house and see Mystogan sitting at one of the back tables…unmasked. Next to Erza. Surely, he was just too tired and hallucinating, because while Laxus didn’t know the entirety of it—nor did he need to—he knew a little more about Mystogan solely on account of him being one of Acno’s honorary kids. So he knew that Mystogan was squirrely about his face—which was admittedly very recognizable—because he looked like somebody else that he didn’t want to get mixed up with. (Something about him being from another world, but Laxus didn’t pay too much attention to the details.) He was also just a shy guy. But Erza was the opposite of subtle, so he was failing to see how this development could have been made, because Mystogan was also the most slippery guy he knew.

Bickslow, who was walking next to him, must have noticed the guy too. He wouldn’t have known if it was Mystogan by face, but he did know everyone by soul. Laxus was still too far away to know by scent, but Bix would figure it out. He watched his friend to gauge his expression, but he just frowned and made a thoughtful hum.

“What is it?”

Bickslow turned away. “Nothing, really. Just, the new guy looks like he had it rough.”

He didn’t elaborate past that, and Laxus knew he wouldn’t. It did confirm that it wasn’t Mystogan though—something he gathered for himself when he managed to catch a whiff of him. Unlike Mystogan, he was full of magic—the pure, burning kind that kind of reminded him of Acnologia’s.

Erza waved at them, before resuming her conversation with the new kid. He heard her point them out by name and explain the team, but he stopped listening at some point after that. Laxus figured that whatever this was, it was already handled, but he resolved to try and ask Mystogan about it, just to see how it needed to be handled.

Not that finding Mystogan was ever easy.

—o0o—

Naturally, Mystogan wasn’t even here—at least he didn’t think so, because Enno said that he hadn’t turned in his job yet.

Laxus never really paid attention to new guildmates, but when they looked identical to one of his current guildmates, it was a little hard to ignore. Gramps would know, too, so obviously he didn’t think there was any present danger if the new kid was a full-fledged Fairy Tail mage. That didn’t mean that there wasn’t any discomfort, however, because he knew Mystogan well enough to know that he would deny his own comfort in a heartbeat and make it look natural. And Laxus wasn’t about to do anything to make him feel worse, because he would bury that too. Although, to that note, maybe it would have been better to try his Plan B first anyway, because Acno would be more willing to share than Mystogan if something was up.

If he was even home. Or awake. This time in the spring, he was probably awake, but that didn’t guarantee availability. Any of the others could help with the same thing too, though. Especially Wendy. Everyone knew that Wendy was Mystogan’s favorite, and considering their history, it made sense. It was kinda cute, too. If he hadn’t had known that Mystogan was from some other world and Wendy was from four hundred years in the past, he would have sworn that they were related.

Laxus figured he should drop by regardless, since it had been a while, so he made sure the afternoon was free when he got around to heading towards the house. When he got closer, he got confirmation that Acno was, in fact, there. There was also…something else?

He knocked once before opening the door, more as an extra warning than anything else. Most of the time, anyone there would hear or smell him coming, but he has scared people napping on the couch by accident before, so he liked to play it on the safe side.

There is somebody on the couch. Somebody he absolutely does not recognize.

Laxus and the strange kid stare at each other, and judging by the other’s expression, he is as startled as Laxus feels. The kid didn’t look like he was from Magnolia, because he would have recognized the tan skin and dark red hair if he had seen it before. Beyond that, the kid looked like shit. He had bags under his eyes, sores on his skin—from what little Laxus could see of it, beneath the blankets—and he could hear his strained breathing from here.

“Laxus,” Acnologia greeted from the side, snapping him out of the staring match with the new kid. “Good to see you. How was your job?”

“Good,” he managed, still dumbfounded. All of the dragon slayers were fairly private when it came to the house—especially Acno. Letting people in was typically the same as sharing all of their secrets, which wasn’t unheard of, but a complete stranger? He was definitely missing something here.

Acnologia must have figured he was confused. “Laxus, this is Erik. Erik, Laxus.” He shared some meaningful look with the boy on the couch, which caused some—but not all—of the tension to leave the boy’s shoulders. Still addressing Erik, he handed him some steaming mug. “Drink this before you fall asleep, okay?”

Laxus could smell the brew as well, so he understood when the boy’s—Erik’s—nose wrinkled at it. “More detox?” he asked, voice raspy and lending to the overall ‘miserable’ look he had.

“It’s only natural for your body to need help accepting it. Nothing to be ashamed of.”

The two had some sort of nonverbal stand-off, but it didn’t last long before Erik relented.

“You taking patients home now?” Laxus asked hesitantly, sure that whatever ‘this’ was, was more complicated that Acnologia deciding that the guild infirmary wasn’t suitable. And the new guy was a guildmate too, apparently, judging from the mark on his neck.

Acno snorted. “No. Besides, Erik’s not…really sick,” he said carefully. “Just adjusting.”

“Could have fooled me,” Erik grumbled. When he brought the mug to his lips, Laxus saw his wrists, which looked…bad. All around. He could smell it too, which was… also bad.

Erik caught him looking and glared, so Laxus dropped it.

This wasn’t at all what he expected when he came here, and he wondered if it was his place to ask about it. That Erik guy seemed on edge, though Acnologia seemed perfectly comfortable with whatever arrangement this was—if not tired. Whatever happened, happened within the last month, but that still wasn’t much time. It shouldn’t be that big of a deal, but the weird additions since he came back from the job were wearing at him all the same.

Laxus didn’t have to wonder long, however, because eventually Erik just huffed. “You wanna know who I am and why I’m fucked up, right?” he asked.

Acno shot him some sort of exasperated warning look. Erik just shrugged underneath. “I am. Maybe more fucked up than Jellal right now.”

He said the line with a tone that obviously was deliriously sarcastic, so Laxus wasn’t surprised when Acnologia narrowed his eyes even further, even though he had no idea what Erik meant. Other than the self-deprecation, at least.

“Erik,” Acnologia sighed.

The teen averted his eyes, shrinking in on himself slightly. It might have been the blankets, or just the way he was curled in on himself, but he looked…small.

There was a soft patter of feet, and Laxus recognized Wendy’s footsteps before he saw her turn the corner of the stairs.

“Hi Laxus,” she greeted with a wave, which he returned, still feeling awkward. It wasn’t his business to pry, but he obviously lacked information, and now there was someone new folded into the dragon slayers, the whole thing happening when he was gone. It would have been more normal if somebody else from the guild got closer to them, but Acnologia was so private, it was hard to imagine somebody new. Yet there was.

This shifted dynamic was only confirmed when Wendy approached Erik. “How are you feeling?” the almost-nine-year-old asked, the same tone she would use whenever anyone got an injury, yet…softer, maybe.

She didn’t seem particularly surprised when Erik just huffed, “Fine.” Which was obviously a lie, but nobody called the kid out on it.

“Come on, Cubellios,” Wendy whispered, and Laxus was surprised when she reached underneath the blankets and pulled out a purple snake. He somehow missed an entire snake in the midst of well…everything. In his defense, the smell of burns and rashes was strong.

Despite that, and while handling a snake with familiarity, Wendy made a spot for herself next to Erik, healing magic at her palms.

Erik glanced back at Acnologia with almost a helpless expression. Laxus noticed that his eyes were dilating randomly in a way that seemed almost familiar. “Just tell him what I did already.”

Was he talking about Laxus? The discomfort of not knowing what the hell was going on grew, and he couldn’t help but to bristle under it. He could be patient, though, because they were obviously in the middle of…something. Laxus had questions for Acnologia anyway, so he just added this one to it.

Acnologia took the mug out of his hands, appraised it, and set it aside on the end table. He was subtle, but Laxus could tell that the dragon was sniffing the boy over in the moments he hovered above him. “Fine. But you rest.”

“Wasn’t planning on doing anything else…” Erik grumbled.

Laxus moved farther into the kitchen with one last glance at the weird sick boy, who now was being fussed over by Wendy and the snake—if the way the snake was wrapping around his shoulders and sniffing his face was any indication. The snake itself was almost as bizarre as the rest of the situation. Laxus didn’t have long to think about it, though, because Acno was directing Laxus to the side with an incline of his head. Well, he had come to speak to Acnologia anyway, and if he had answers, then Laxus would take them.

Acnologia’s room was the only bedroom on the bottom floor, on the other side of the kitchen. It was as dimly lit as it always was, but Laxus’s eyes adjusted quickly as he leaned against the wall. Acno flicked his wrist with a familiar gesture, and coupled with the slight stale formation of the air, Laxus knew that he cast a sound dampening spell of some sort—except Laxus could hear just fine, so it must be so that those on the outside wouldn’t hear them. Which was to say that Wendy wouldn’t.

“What’s all that about?” Laxus was aware that the question couldn’t begin to cover the whole situation, at least Acno was patient enough to deal with follow-up questions. He just didn’t even know where to start. The implications the boy made about him were probably the most discomfiting, but Laxus didn’t even know who he was.

“Don’t take anything Erik says personally—he’s been tense and defensive ever since the acclimation got worse,” Acnologia started with a sigh. He seemed tired, and Laxus wondered if the dragon had slept since he woke from hibernation.

Then the word Acno used registered to him. “Acclimation?” he echoed, but Laxus was sliding the pieces together as he spoke it. The unfocused yet sharp eyes, the feeling that Erik knew exactly what Laxus was, the fact that the kid was here at all… ‘Tell him what I did.’ The entire house always smelled like ‘dragon’ so he missed it, but there also hadn’t been any non-dragon magic smells.

He waited for Acnologia to confirm it, but it didn’t take long. “Erik has a dragon slayer lacrima—similar to yours,” he explained. “His sense of time is a little off, but it was inserted about two months ago. He’s going through the worst part of it now. His chances of survival are good, though.”

A lacrima. Stars. Laxus had been ready to accept that there was some other time-traveling dragon slayer; it completely didn’t register to him that the more obvious and likely reason that a brand new un-acclimated slayer would exist. ‘What I did.’ Laxus knew that it happened—otherwise there would be no market for them—but the thought somebody willingly doing that to themselves was hard to imagine.

Laxus had gotten used to being the only lacrima-born slayer among the dragons, but sometimes, it still stood out to him. He never met a dragon beside Acnologia. He didn’t come from a time when they existed, and he wasn’t raised by one; he didn’t learn slayer magic with guidance and understanding of what was to come. He wasn’t even attached to a certain dragon. There was the latent energy of a dead dragon that he would never meet inside of him, and some days, that still left him feeling… abnormal. But at least he never chose that for himself.

Though Erik was certainly older than he had been, he still looked like he couldn’t be much older than Natsu or Gajeel. He…probably hadn’t known. If he did, then Laxus doubted Acnologia would that patient. The thought of a new second-generation dragon slayer bothered Laxus, but he knew it always bothered Acnologia more.

“So what? Some teenager decided he wanted magic and got his hands on one? You find him like that?” Found him and took him home, too. What a novelty. He hoped that kid knew how lucky he was, despite making one of the biggest mistakes of his life.

Acnologia narrowed his eyes at the door thoughtfully. If Laxus hadn’t already known he couldn’t, he would have wondered if he was staring right through it. He was probably listening, though; Laxus focused on the other side too, and the spell around the room made it hard, but it was clear it was quiet over there. Maybe Erik had fallen asleep.

Acno turned back to Laxus. “I found him about a month ago by chance, when I was watching Wendy on her job. He was in bad shape then, but it was before the internal changes set in. Idiot was doing his damnedest to push it along though.” He shook his head to himself. “I hope to the stars that Erik really does understand this, but because he’s feeling like shit right now, I don’t think he realizes this as strongly as he should. He might have said that he did it, but knowing the story… Normally, I would leave this to Erik, because it’s not mine to tell, but he clearly wants me to. He’s not in much condition to anyway.” A dark look clouded over the eldest dragon slayer’s eyes. It reminded Laxus of the way he would look whenever Ivan was mentioned. Ah, of course. If Acnologia took pity on Erik, then he might have been worse off than Laxus had been.

“Erik was aware it was a dragon slayer lacrima, but not of the full effects. He was coerced by the man who was his master, just being told that it was the only way for him to be strong enough to stay. He’s separated from that group now—and if that man comes within fifty miles of here, I will kill him—but it’s taken some time to get Erik to a good physical condition. The dark guild he had been sold to had given him some of what he needed to undergo the insertion, but it was just a combination of the link he has with Cubellios and sheer luck that caused him not to die. He was malnourished enough as it was.”

Laxus listened with a growing pit in his stomach. Sold to a dark guild? No wonder Acnologia was protective over him. That was… Laxus knew that kind of shit still existed in the world, in other countries or in the shadows, but it was messed up. Plain and simple. He wasn’t sure what Acno meant about the link, but it was clear that Cubellios was that purple snake.

“It’s poison magic,” Acnologia continued, face grim. “Dragon poison is naturally potent. Even if he was in better physical condition, he would have died from it, if it weren’t for the similarity of it and Cubellio’s poison magic. That was the closest preacclimation he received, unfortunately. Might have worked himself to death or to dragonization if we hadn’t found him. He was understandably stubborn at first, but he was also not so jaded that he wasn’t terrified. He comes off as crass, but he’s a good kid. Too hard on himself, though.”

Laxus made a noise of acknowledgement, still thinking about everything that had been revealed. He remembered those first few months after the lacrima. They sucked all right, but he hadn’t been laid out looking like he was terminally ill. Granted, Acnologia siphoned the excess energy from him before he left, so that probably helped. And the fact that he was naturally inclined to lightning magic helped, too. Even though Laxus had been alone and clueless, he supposed he had been lucky in a different way. Death had been closer to this Erik kid, and even though Acnologia didn’t say it outright, it was clear that…it wasn’t off the table, either. He had to make it through the other side of the transformation first.

“How much does he know?” Laxus finally asked. He wasn’t sure if he wanted to know the answer to that, but it was important to know.

“Nearly everything,” Acnologia replied with a shrug. Damn. Laxus wasn’t entirely surprised, but… in under a month? Erik might be close to death, but at least he knew what the hell was going on. Laxus tried not to be bitter about it.

“He did have latent magic beforehand,” Acno continued. “Hearing magic—empathetic in nature. He would have heard as good, if not better, than any dragon slayer, and he can hear thoughts too. Passively, even. You can’t really keep secrets from him, but in case you were wondering, he doesn’t know much of the details of your past. Just that you have a lacrima, too. The other kids told him most of theirs by now, though not every detail—just the gist. Same goes for me.”

Oh. That was good to know. Laxus was glad he was warned ahead of time—telepaths were weird enough, but passive hearing? At least the kid was good. A little messed up, maybe, but that was par for the course for mages. “He lives here now, doesn’t he?”

Acnologia nodded. “It wasn’t like he had anywhere else to go. Sometimes I feel bad for the kid, though—he’s easily overstimulated.”

Laxus snorted knowingly. It didn’t need to be said that the other dragon slayers were overwhelmingly active, and subsequently tiring to anyone who didn’t know how to handle them or shut them up. Well, Rogue and Wendy were quieter, but they were also startingly quick to make friends and trusting, so they were overwhelming in a different way.

But at least he was in company that understood all the other stuff.

“Any other questions?” Acnologia prodded, already sounding more exhausted than before. Laxus had a good idea why though, if he had been dealing with a new dragon slayer who was also being constantly poisoned by…himself. (Yeah, that sounded worse than random muscle spasms.)

There were more things he wondered about Erik, of course, but nothing else Laxus needed to know. If that kid was going to stick around, then he would get acquainted eventually. “Yeah, something else, actually,” Laxus responded, switching back to why he originally came here. He would sort through the unexpected information later. Maybe at his new apartment, with a strong enough drink to handle it. “There’s a new kid at the guild that looks exactly like Mystogan.”

Judging by the immediate understanding on Acno’s face, he didn’t need to elaborate. “Right, Jellal.” Huh, Erik had mentioned him too, hadn’t he? “Jellal is Mystogan’s doppelganger—the one originally from this world. Mystogan knew that we had found him, but I don’t think he’s been back to Magnolia since then, so I doubt they’ve met. Jellal has no idea.”

“Wasn’t Mystogan worried that his doppelganger was some jerk though?” Laxus questioned. That seemed like a relevant concern, if this person was now in the guild. The fact that Gramps had allowed it meant…little, unfortunately.

“He was,” Acnologia confirmed. “It turned out the matter was more complicated. I only stumbled upon it because of Erik, but long story short, Jellal was under the influence of black mind magic. He’s better now, though. The only threat he poses is to himself. Erza was intent on taking him home, and he…also didn’t have a better option. I’m going to have to catch Mystogan up. Makarov knows the majority of it, however.”

Okay, that answered…most of it. It was clear now that Erik was related to Jellal’s appearance, and Erza apparently was, too. She had been attached to him at the guild, and Acno said she was the one who ‘brought him home,’ so she was involved in whatever incident happened.

He remembered that time when Erza had first joined the guild. The only one he had seen possibly in a worse condition, both mentally and physically, was Bickslow—and Bickslow had been experimented on, caught in an exploding building, and had been chased by scared citizens for a month. Coupled with the connection to where Acno had found Erik… It seemed bad. Laxus didn’t need to know. He really didn’t.

“I see.” Laxus had found what he came here for, and also much more than he had expected or wanted. It was a lot to process, but at least it wasn’t on him to deal with any of it. Granted, Acno looked like he was five days overdue on sleep, so maybe Laxus should stick around town for the next week or so. Just in case.

“I’m sorry, you know.”

The words were spoken so quietly, Laxus almost missed them. Acnologia was staring back at the door, but the words were clearly directed at Laxus. “For making you go through that alone.”

That pit in the depths of his stomach hardened. “You saved my life the first time. You didn’t owe me any of it,” he huffed, awkward at the subject. Yeah, it was shitty to go through alone, but Laxus lived.

“No, I did. I was the only person alive at that time who knew what would happen, and I left you to Porlyusica because I was a shit-person and I thought if I showed my face to society for more than five minutes, the world was going to combust,” Acnologia near-growled, clearly frustrated. His brows pressed together as he sighed. “I didn’t think I was capable of it, so I never tried. Not until…”

He didn’t say, but he didn’t need to. Laxus understood. He knew the story. Wendy was practically thrust on him, and once he spent more than five minutes not-alone, that cranky old dragon realized he cared about people. Laxus understood that feeling, too.

There were many things Laxus could have wished happened when he was younger—like Acno sticking around or Porlyusica explaining more than half a thing at a time—but it was over, so there was little use dwelling on it. He had living family, and he survived. Laxus was a son of the guild, so of course he had been lucky. He made it. He made it out strong, too.

Still, it was nice to hear that, if what had happened to Laxus happened ten years later, that Acnologia would have taken him in, if he needed it. It would have still been unnecessary in that scenario, but it was…nice.

Laxus wasn’t sure how to convey that, but at least with Acno and the other dragon slayers, it wasn’t always necessary. They could sense it. Still, he smiled softly. “Well, old man—you’ll get that kid through it.”

Acnologia returned a weak smile, and then his exhausted expression morphed into something more determined as he headed for the door. Sometimes, Laxus struggled to imagine that there was ever a time when Acnologia wasn’t a protector.

At least they all lived in a time when he was. That was really all the luck they ever needed.

Chapter Text

X7595

 

“Do you think he’s dead?”

“No look—he’s breathing.”

“Not well. Besides, he’s pretty much frozen.”

“Okay, maybe he’s dying, but he’s not dead. Yet.”

 

 

He awoke to the sound of voices he couldn’t understand, and the scent of warm breath on his face. He was cold. That was annoying. Although he wasn’t sure what was more annoying—that, or the fact that he was both still alive and now just miserable.

He should go back to sleep.

Unfortunately, the voices were still there, and something poked his face. He growled. Who was dumb enough to disturb a dragon? Especially one like him. The fool was lucky that he wasn’t in the mood to drive them off by force—yet. He wasn’t in the mood to do anything but be undisturbed. He conveyed these feelings in his growl, but still, the presence hovered.

However, as she shifted, his fingers and forearm sunk into snow, and he realized that he was human. Odd. He could have sworn that he was a dragon when he was awake last. What had he been doing? No, it didn’t matter.

His company said something else. They should leave. He growled again, stronger now as he felt it catch in a part of his chest that he doubted a human should have.

They jumped back, but he still heard the hushed chattering. They didn’t fucking leave.

Irritated, he finally gave up and pried his eyes open, though the action was hard. Had they been frozen shut? That was annoying. They were dried out, too, because of it, and that was troublesome in this weather. Not that it mattered. It was just a little pain and discomfort. (Or injured eyes, his mind supplied, unwarranted.)

Everything was blurry and white. His sense of taste was just as shot, and his nose didn’t work the way it was supposed to. His skin was numb. (Was it because of the cold? Or because it was skin and not scales?) The only thing that seemed to be working properly was his hearing, which meant little when he had no idea what language his unwanted company was speaking. Damn. He was useless in such a state.

Then again, was that a problem? What could he do even if he functioned properly? If the beings hovering over him intended him harm, then they should hurry up and try. They earned it, finding him in such a pitiful state; this would be their best chance to rid the world of him.

They poked him again. He could feel that much, at least. One of the voices said something else, presumably to him, but he understood none of it.

“Oh! Do you speak Ishgaran?”

Wait, he understood that. Mostly. It took his brain a moment to process what the person—a girl?—had asked. Ishgaran… Right. The language deemed to be the best language for a common tongue some time ago, mostly used by travelers and traders, spoken widely in the west…learned as a second language. He did know it. He was taught it, wasn’t he? By…her? He recalled her face but not her name. Ha. He didn’t deserve to know her name now anyway; he was no longer anything close to a doctor.

“Y ̵̽ ́ ̢̡̛͎̬͖̏̎͂̽̓̿ e ̸̅̄͒̕ ̃ ̾͘ ̃ ̍̈́͌̌̚ ̃ ̹͎͎̼͈̅͝ s ̶ ̃ ̢̺͙̦̜̤̝͎̱͓͙̖͚̰͌͜ .”

He wasn’t sure why he bothered, but he responded. They didn’t seem to be capable of leaving him alone, and he wasn’t keen on fighting them. (He shouldn’t fight anything, anymore.) Perhaps he could make them leave without violence—and wasn’t that a bizarre thought.

When there was no response other than some mumbling in that other language, he realized he probably hadn’t responded how he intended. He worked his tongue inside his mouth, trying to refamiliarize himself with how it worked. It just felt wrong.

He also tried to get his eyes working again, lifting himself up enough to see the snow, blinking repeatedly and watching it until it no longer moved in shifting grays. In that process, he managed to sit up. “…Yes,” he tried again, and this time, he was sure he did it right. He mostly only spoke Ishgaran before… Before what happened. It was easier than it had been the first time he tried, for some reason.

“Great!” It was the feminine voice again. There were two voices—a lighter pitched, excited one, and a lower, nervous one. “Are you okay? How did you get here? What are you? Got a name?”

“Astrid… S-slow down.”

“Oh. Sorry.”

The two voices conferred in that different language again, in hushed tones. He tried to open his eyes again, but the brightness of the snow was blinding. Whatever. He didn’t know why he bothered with the strangers anyway.

He was going back to sleep.

—o0o—

He woke up to the most putrid scent possibly contrived. It lodged itself in his throat, and he growled and gagged around it. The unwanted stimulus had jerked him into a sitting position, and after a few beats of his too-fast heart, his blurry eyes sharpened and focused.

He was no longer in the snow. Instead, he was inside of a tent, dimly lit by candles that should not have provided the warmth they did. He was sitting on a cot of some sort, and when he looked to the space immediately beside him, there was an old woman. She stood, still below his eye-level despite him not being at full height, and she wielded a gnarled wooden cane that she used to prod him in the chest.

“That got your heart working, eh?” she laughed.

He could still only stare, his own elevated heartrate in his ears and the awful taste smelling salts stuck in his throat and nose. He could not smell anything past it, but he didn’t need scent to surmise that the old woman was a full-blooded demon. Her leathery skin was some shade of purple and her eyes were tinted yellow. A single horn emerged from her forehead, tinged with magic, and he could hear wings rustle amidst her white robes.

He hadn’t seen a demon in years. The war (a sharp pang pierced his head) had driven most underground, to the depths of the earth where neither human nor dragon could reach. Some tried to stay, of course; he never had paid attention to what had happened to them. And then… And then recently… There had been demons everywhere. Waging war of their own. But they were massive and different—demons spawned of magic, and not blood.

From this one, however, he could sense the more natural and grounded magic of the abyss. The old woman shook with age, but her smile was steady.

“Can you understand me, dear?” she asked, in perfect Ishgaran. He vaguely recalled there having been people near him, but her voice was unfamiliar.

He had no idea where he was. He had no idea how he had gotten here. He barely knew what had happened the last time he had been conscious. Above all that, he didn’t know what the woman wanted from him.

He didn’t know why he was still alive. Why anybody would let him live.

The only thing he was certain of was that he was at this woman’s mercy. It took all of his strength just to sit up, and the magic he sensed from her was not born of ether.

He nodded.

The woman hummed, seeming pleased. He felt her magic poke at him—searching him. It didn’t hurt, but it was disconcerting, nonetheless. Numbly, he realized what she was doing: checking his vitals, while she either distracted him or prodded for lucidness. “Now, do you have a name, wanderer?”

 

“You there,” the guard addressed, scroll in hand. “You’ve come to see the Queen about the war, yes? Where do you hail from?”

He could still see the city burn under the might of dragons in his mind’s eye. His face twisted into a grimace. “Doesn’t matter. It’s destroyed.”

The guard softened some. “Yeah, heard that one before. Your name, then.”

He never had one. He never took one, because not even he wished to contract the ire of the gods, or risk damning some innocent fool along with him. But he was done caring about that. He knew who he wanted to drag down into hell with him.

“Acnologia.”

 

He shivered, stomach churning from the memory. He had been such a damn fool.

“Don’t have one,” he answered quietly, throat hoarse. Stars, he probably hasn’t talked in decades. It felt wrong. Like everything else did.

She judged him for a moment, eye sharp and appraising. “Very well, wanderer.” She continued her check-up, frowning and muttering in that other language all the while. What did most demons speak? Belianese? He had learned some of it as an apprentice, a long time ago, but without much practice it never stuck—especially since it had been so long. It was a feat that he remembered any language at all.

She shouldn’t have bothered. He knew he was fucked up, and he should have stayed that way. They should have left him when they had the chance.

The woman swiftly took him by the wrist, swinging his arm outward. An involuntary growl settled in his throat, and his muscles tensed instinctively, but he already determined to be at the demon’s mercy. Though even if he was stupid enough to believe that he deserved to fight—which he didn’t, not after what he did—he doubted that he could do much. His body was strained, and the obscura in the atmosphere was too thick. Not thick enough that he was in the underworld, but he still strained to breathe.

“I would like to know what you are, however,” the woman continued. “Or else this is going to be very difficult for the both of us.”

What he was? He exhaled roughly through the nostrils. He was a dragon, but he wasn’t. He used to be human, but he wasn’t. A slayer, but he lost his mind.

He was just a monster. One who didn’t deserve medical attention.

“The kids who found you think you’re a half-walker,” she continued when he didn’t respond. “Well, Zoraster thinks you’re a human using magic, but I think we both know you’re in no shape for any of that.”

She held her fingers over his pulse while she used her other hand to grasp his elbow. The nerves felt different there, and he belatedly realized that even though he was smaller than he should have been—closer in form to what he was—he still had blue scales on his arm, underneath the mark. A jolt ran up his arm as she forcefully activated his magic, and he pulled his arm away with a small snarl. He barely trusted himself with his magic—lurking in his blood and in his skin—but he certainly didn’t trust anyone else with it.

“An arcane one, too—my, aren’t you a rare specimen?” she continued, unconcerned with his reaction. Instead, she held up a scale that she managed to pick off in the action and turned it around in her hand. “Though, half-walker or not, no reptile should be this far into the mountains. It’s not good for you. Neither is obscura for those of pure ether.”

Yeah, that was the fucking point.

The old woman didn’t sway underneath his glare. She just tutted like she was disappointed. (And she should be.)

“Those kids are too young, but I remember the dragons.” The tone was almost conversational, but he tensed under the weight of it all the same. “It was a terrible war. Our tribe was fortunate enough to stay out of it, but there were refugees, of course. Human, demon, half-walkers, speakers… Even a few dragon slayers, at one time, but they never stayed for long.”

She was testing him. He knew it, but he couldn’t manage to do anything in response. She couldn’t have known that all of that was his fault, or else he wouldn’t be in a med-tent. How could be possibly convey it? Words were hard to come by, and he doubted they would be enough. But he didn’t want to hurt anyone. Not anymore. He didn’t, but it was all he knew how to do.

He didn’t want to know either, about what happened during his mindless slaughter, but he needed to. He should know what he did. “What…” Stars, his throat was dry. “What happened to them?”

He killed so many. Dragons, dragon slayers… They all blended together. They were the same to him. So were demons and humans and anything that breathed. He tasted the memory of blood, and it burned his tongue. What did he think he was? A judge? A god? Executing penance for something as trivial as a few beings waging destruction? He was just a slave to bloodlust.

The elder frowned sympathetically. He winced under the gaze. “Some killed themselves before they turned. Some were hunted by dragons. Most were hunted by humans.”

He snapped his head towards her in surprise. Humans killed slayers too? And some had also… His mind trailed, trying to grasp at what he knew. His conscious memory of the last two hundred years was a wreck, mostly comprised of phantom sensations and an overwhelming memory of feeling the need to consume, but with prompting, he could remember some. There had been…blood, on the roads, sometimes. It drew him in because he yearned for dragon’s blood (he gagged on the memory), but it was already spilled. No dragons in sight. Just smaller forms.

Oh. Yes, he had killed countless slayers and dragons alike underneath his jaws, but not every death was by his hand. Yet it was. There had been a disconnect between the humans and the slayers the entire time, of course, but there had still been the pretense that they were still human—or whatever they once were—as well. A thin pretense, but it had been there all the same.

But he had been the first to turn. He gave them ample reason to fear. (And he had relished it.)

He felt dizzy, too tired and too empty to even be sick. He couldn’t even suffer properly.

“You’ve already changed, haven’t you?” the elder pressed, tone soft but eyes too sharp. She knew. “It’s been a long time since then, but you’re still here.”

How long had it even been? Surely longer than he would have lived as a human, if she was already wise to it. It felt like a long time too. Maybe his sense of time would be better if he wasn’t so tired. His brain was full of cotton, and he didn’t know whether to blame his crashing body, the cold, or the obscura that lingered thickly in the air, choking out the ether. Or maybe he had just lost his mind a long time ago, and there was no recovery to it. That would be fine, too.

“Is this the full extent of your change?”

She was using him for information, then. That made sense. Fine, if that was what she wanted.

His fingers flexed as he thought about vast oceans underneath him, the weight on his shoulder blades, the strength of his neck—the pressure of his jaws. It was all there, rumbling beneath the surface. He didn’t have the energy to pull it out, but he wouldn’t even if he did.

“No.”

The elder hummed thoughtfully, questions still lingering in her expression. She pegged him as an anomaly, and she was correct, but likely in ways she was not currently imagining. She ceased her questions for the time being, however. The demon elder continued her inspection silently, while he fought to keep his frayed nerves in check. Eventually, somehow—she did something, he was sure of it—he fell back into a slumber.

—o0o—

When he woke up, he was still in the tent, but time had clearly passed. The air smelled different, even though the temperature hadn’t changed.

He felt a bit more…stable. Which was unfortunate, because it meant that he was all too aware, now, of the strain his body was under. He was completely drained and simply living was exhausting.

He was also starving. The cold had numbed it, but now that he wasn’t cold, he felt it full force. It heightened his sense of smell, and he was almost ready to search for another smelling salt to make it stop. He was alone in the tent, but he could smell demons further out, milling about the area lazily, and he could smell their warmth. Their flesh.

No. No, he couldn’t— He couldn’t keep doing this. Every time he cracked, body going into automatic, he regained his strength, but he lost time. Control. He couldn’t live knowing that he could snap and hurt anyone else, just for his own survival.

He just… shouldn’t live.

He pressed his claws into his biceps until all he could smell was his own blood, and then he gagged on the scent of it, so similar to dragons slain.

He was too weak to continue on for long, and soon, even that trivial pain knocked him out again.

—o0o—

He was likely on and off again for a few days. He wasn’t entirely aware of it or what he did. That worried him, but every time he woke up, the tent was in one piece and he was still there. No blood. No death. Just faint obscura magic, candles, and enough herbs hanging in the air to drown out everything else.

(That old hag was using calming herbs on him. Ha. It would be hilarious if it wasn’t working.)

Or, well, they worked to a certain point. The more he woke, blurry and disoriented though he was, the more his strength returned. The elder might have force-fed him broth at some point. He tasted it, but he didn’t remember it. (At least he didn’t taste blood. He hated not remembering after that happened.)

This time, he felt more lucid, the scents and sounds around him sharper. He was clearly in a village of some sort, with people milling about outside in patterned yet casual movements. He could feel his magic simmer beneath the surface, trying to take in the air, but it was still too weak to be a problem. His lungs felt better, and it was only then that he realized that they were messed up to begin with. He hadn’t cared about his physical state, but he took the opportunity to take stock of it now, just because his faculties were coming back.

He was still stuck in between forms, somewhat, but the scales and claws had receded to the point that only a few stray scales were left. It was bizarre. He had spent years as a dragon, and he knew that it was a true body, made of flesh and bone, and not a mere magic presentation. It was magic, in a way, because dragons were creatures of magic first and foremost, but not ethereal. It…didn’t make sense, that without even trying, he took the form of a human. He shouldn’t have the magic to shift into anything.

Though he had taken this form unconsciously several times, hadn’t he? Ever since he realized what he did. Ha. Not even his body wanted to be a dragon anymore. But he was. He knew it, and his instincts knew it as well. Nothing could change what he was and what he had done.

He needed to get out of here. The demons might think he was some poor beastman sap caught in the snow, but he wasn’t. (No, the elder knew, didn’t she? He could hardly recall whatever passed as a conversation, but the hag knew.) If his strength returned, and his true form with it, it would be bad. How, he wasn’t sure anymore, but it would be.

However, he made it halfway out of the cot—his dumb legs hardly strong enough when there were only two of them—when the demon elder appeared in the space before him, magic flashing around her, and she shoved him back into the bed.

“Where do you think you’re going, wanderer?” she questioned, clearly amused by his lack of strength.

He growled, but it was half-hearted. “Let me go.”

“Is that any way to speak to the being that nursed you back to life? I took a lot of time out of my scheduled duties, you know.”

Why she bothered, he didn’t know. But he suspected that the woman was important to whatever type of village this was, judging by her clothing, so she was deserving of respect. Even if he would have rather that she never dealt with his sorry ass at all. Stars, was ‘elder’ still the appropriate title for demon tribes? He had no idea. He couldn’t remember the proper translation for it, either. “…you have my gratitude, Elder…”

“My, so formal, all of a sudden. I was nearly convinced you forgot all language, at some points.” She smiled, but he felt patronized by it. “Now, would eat on your own, this time?”

The elder used magic to conjure a bowl of broth into her hand. He smelled the magic, first, and it made him nauseous, too twisted and turning for it taste real. Not that he had any business consuming any more magic than he already has. The combination of foul spatial magic and the thought of it ruined his appetite, nonetheless. “…not hungry.”

Jorg,” she rebutted simply, much to his confusion, before frowning thoughtfully. “Ah, how to say in Ishgaran… Ah yes. Cowshit.”

Oh that made more sense.

“You nearly starved to death, and I’ve already spent enough effort to make sure you live.” She nearly shoved the bowl into his hands. “Eat.”

He hesitated.

“I will move it inside of your body if you don’t.”

The threat worked. He had no desire to eat anything, knowing that it was the only thing keeping him in this cycle of living and consuming, but he desired to know what obscura-based spatial magic felt like inside of him even less. He shouldn’t piss off the elder anyway, after she went through all this effort.

“Very good. Now…” The elder folded her arms into her sleeves, appraising him once more. “I believe you are finally in a better place to answer questions, yes wanderer?”

Oh good. He could finally give them reason to let him leave. Maybe if he was lucky, they would just kill him. He grunted an affirmative.

“You were a dragon slayer, correct? From about two hundred and fifty years ago?”

Was that how long it has been? It seemed shorter than that. Stars, the amount of damage he must have done in over two centuries… He swallowed to keep the broth down. “Yes.”

“Originally human?”

“…yes.” Were demons and humans at war now? He wasn’t paying attention that deeply—he hadn’t cared much, before—but there was certainly conflict that wasn’t dragon-born. Ha. It would be hilarious if they killed him over that, and not because he was a freak of nature now.

But the elder just hummed thoughtfully. “My experience is limited with your kind, but I had been under the impression that your kind remained as dragons once the transformation was complete. Not stable ones, of course, but a type of dragon all the same. Yet you are an enigma. Do you know why?”

He shrugged. He really didn’t. He wasn’t aware that other dragon slayers had a problem with it. Well, if they survived him. He had been…indiscriminate.

“Have you been alone all this time?”

He nodded. That was an easy question.

“Were you aware that the northern Ishgaran mountains are a terrible place for dragons like you to reside?”

Was he? He hated the cold, because it numbed him to everything, but that was the point. If he froze solid, nobody would have to deal with him, and he wouldn’t have to think about it.

Whatever. This line of questioning was pointless. She assumed he was a victim of circumstance, and he really wasn’t.

“I was the one who killed the dragons,” he growled, voice catching on the words. He had said it before, but it felt awful now. It didn’t make it any less true. “I’m the black dragon that scorned the world—who slaughtered the innocent. I’m nothing but a death-bringer, so just let me go die in peace.”

She stared at him for a long time, face unreadable. He returned the gaze, daring her to do something. Either she let him leave, or she rallied the demons to kill him on the spot. Either were acceptable.

“No.”

Except that wasn’t expected. He startled back in surprise, trying to gauge her emotion. Her heartrate had increased, but not enough to be fearful, and the scent of rage had not yet permeated the air.

“I finish what I start,” she said again, voice flat but confident. “So I will not let you die.”

She left in a puff of magic, leaving him alone once more.

He was too startled and confused to realize that he could have tried to leave again.

—o0o—

The cold kept dragging him back to sleep. It was annoying, and it always happened before he realized it. Everything worked in slow motion. Maybe the general exhaustion was at play too, but he blamed the cold first and foremost.

When he pried his eyes open to find a child staring at him, he blamed the cold on that, too, because surely, he was just hallucinating at this point.

“Dragon-man! You’re awake!”

What the fuck?

She wasn’t the tiniest child, but she certainly wasn’t fully grown. If he had to guess, she was a young teenager of some sort. Yellowish green hair, gray skin that worked like patchwork over tan… The scent was vague, still muddled to him by the surroundings, but judging based on what he observed, she was likely part demon and part human.

“Mimi said you needed to eat, because you were starving, but she also said you were being grumpy about it so I should watch you eat the whole thing,” the girl rambled, holding out a bowl of soup to him. Her voice sounded familiar, but the elder was the only one he remembered.

The girl was bouncing on her feet, waiting for him to take the bowl, but he was still trying to process what was happening. He told one of the village elders that he was the Black Dragon of the Apocalypse, and not only is he not immediately driven out or killed…she leaves him alone with a child.

What the fuck?

The air was still thick with the trails of spatial magic. Surely she was there, watching, just out of his reach. Right? It was the only thing that made sense. She was testing him. Why, and for what, he had no idea. Stars, he needed to leave already. He was the one starting to go crazy at this point.

“What’s it like being a dragon, anyway?” the girl continued, completely unaware of whatever crisis he was definitely in the middle of. “I’ve never seen one before, but Mimi has told stories. Oh! Can’t dragons, like, smell anything? Oh, oh! Guess what’s in the stew from here! I want to see a dragon nose in action!”

He stared at the child incredulously. Maybe the demons were smart and took the opportunity to fry his brain the rest of the way, and he was just going to experience a fever dream for the rest of his life, because he didn’t know what was happening, and there was no way it was real.

“Sorry, was I talking too fast? It’s been a while since I’ve spoken Ishgaran, but it was my first language, technically.” The girl tapped her chin with one hand, soup nearly spilling in the other. “Or am I speaking too well, and you don’t speak Ishgaran enough? I’ll slow down!” With a grin, she extended the soup to him again. “Soup tasty! You should eat.”

He could smell the soup. The hallucination-fever-dream was startlingly accurate, if that’s what this was.

The girl was going to stare at him, smiling like that, until he finished the soup. He was sure of it. He was still too confused and tired to be hungry, but slowly, the took the bowl from her hands.

Trying to eat with a twelve-year-old (or something) watching him like he was a puppy was by far one of the most nerve-wracking experiences of his life. He barely paid attention to what was actually in the soup, though he was fairly sure they slipped meat in it this time. Maybe there was poison in there too, and this was just an attempt to kill him without him noticing. In case he couldn’t stay sane enough not to fight back. That would make sense. Nothing tasted off though.

Stars, the kid was still staring.

“What?” he growled. His nerves were reaching a point of fraying, and he didn’t know how much longer he could take it.

“Sorry, sorry! I’ll let you sleep again!” she squeaked, taking the bowl and exiting with a quick bow.

He had to get out of here. He was losing his mind, and there wasn’t much left to lose.

His balance was wrecked. He realized this as soon as he managed to exit the cot only to have the world spin around him. The death grip on the wall was probably the only thing keeping him upright. But he had managed through worse and blocked out all manner of pain before, so he could probably make it back into the wilderness before his legs gave out.

“And where are you going?”

A startled sound, suspiciously like a yelp, escaped his throat as the elder appeared right behind him. She had the audacity to laugh, but then again, he probably deserved it.

“It’s not good for me to be here,” he replied, words coming a bit easier this time. “I’m dangerous.”

She laughed again. “So you say. Yet, you have not attempted to hurt a single one of my people. What do you say to that?”

“I’m weak right now. But something could always change.”

The elder pierced him with a knowing look, but he couldn’t even begin to guess what she saw, because she was incapable of appearing angry to his senses. “Dying animals are the most violent. You were just sad,” she said, exuding a confidence in her wisdom. She was right, too—objectively speaking. About the first part at least.

“Three more days.”

He blinked. “What?”

“Stay three more days, then I will let you leave. I finish what I start, and you will still die if you leave these grounds.”

His frustration returned. What did these people want from him? He had killed demons too. He knew he had. He was a threat to him just like he was a threat and a scourge to every damn thing alive. “But—”

“Don’t sass me, wanderer. If you are who you say you are, then humble yourself, because you are at my mercy. Beasts never want to die, but that is all you have tried to do. Dying is useless. You’re remorseful? Then don’t waste it.” Her yellowed gaze was intense, and even he froze underneath it. She was powerful, and she was proving it to him. “Three days. Then you get to decide again.”

She left again, teleporting away and leaving him speechless.

He didn’t try to leave again. He just replayed her words in his head over and over again.

Chapter Text

April 12, X780

 

Mystogan slipped into his room, closed the door, turned around, and did his best to breathe.

He wasn’t expecting his alternate self to be here. In hindsight, he had been warned that they were going to potentially seek out Earthland’s Jellal, and Mystogan doubted that Acnologia would be so careless in bringing him back, considering how many people feared him. There was the possibility that this Jellal wasn’t lying, and it really wasn’t some scheme.

It still had deeply surprised Mystogan to see the visage of himself on the balcony. No amount of preparation would have been sufficient, he realized, because it had shaken him in spite of it. He had always known that the possibility of such a meeting would exist, because the studies that his father’s mages and scientists conducted on Earthland had yielded the possibility that, being a mirror world to their own, the people would be mirrors as well. What his father had not wanted to admit—but the reports that Mystogan had secretly stolen moments with had suspected—was that Earthland was not a mirror of Edolas; Edolas was a mirror of Earthland. It was why Edolas was so unstable to begin with.

To Mystogan’s understanding, Edolas was just a fragment of Earthland. A possibility. And the people it spawned, that held the same form and names as people found on Earthland, were just possibilities as well. Mystogan was Jellal, whether he identified as that name or not. He could not change the circumstance of his birth. So it stood to reason that… Even amidst differences, Mystogan and Jellal held much in common as well. From the moment Makarov warned Mystogan of the deeds of his doppelganger, Mystogan had feared what it could mean.

But Mystogan had cut ties with his past, dedicated only to preserving the sanctity of the land his father was trying to needlessly destroy, so whatever connection the two had meant little. It was really just a source of confusion, or perhaps discomfort.

The real issue that remained was whether or not this version of himself was to be trusted. Mystogan had vowed to protect the guild when he became a Fairy Tail mage, and he intended to keep his word.

—o0o—

April 15, X780

 

Mystogan silently trailed Jellal for three days. It wasn’t particularly difficult to, because despite the other Jellal’s general nervousness and what he was beginning to suspect was a keen magic sense, Jellal was constantly distracted. Both mentally and from outside stimulus. It almost reminded him of how he had felt, first coming to Fairy Tail—a crowded and boisterous environment—for the first time, but Mystogan didn’t want to draw more connections between them than he had to.

The nervousness ran deeper than mere discomfort, though. Mystogan was sure of it. It didn’t seem overtly sinister, however, and he spent far too much time in the company of others if his goal was to pull anything over. The only times he was alone was when he went to his room—down the hall from Mystogan’s own in Fairy Valley—or when he wandered off onto that balcony.

Similarly to the first time Mystogan encountered Jellal, he would sit on the balcony, pull his knees up to his chest, and simply stare. As far as he could tell, he rarely, if ever, used magic during those ventures.

Ironically enough, the largest obstacle to Mystogan watching Jellal was Erza. More than anyone else, Erza was the one glued to his side, despite being who he would have labeled as the most susceptible to Jellal’s presence. Contrary to his initial fear that he was using her as a shield of sorts, it became clear that she was the one taking initiative. Grabbing him by the wrist, pointing out places, moving first—Jellal was following Erza, and not the other way around. Either Master had lied to him about the nature of their previous relationship, or there had been a major development, somehow.

Either way, Erza was always the closest to spotting him, despite his efforts to stay unnoticed. She was more alert than usual, marking the pair as both being more nervous or on edge than what is usual in a safe environment.

Though it waned with time. Slowly, both showed signs of easing. Just barely. Erza would take longer getting back to him. Jellal would allow himself to be distracted by some passing action or object. It wasn’t much, but it was a development—one that spoke of lowering guards. It would have been more suspicious if Jellal wasn’t exhibiting the same behavior. If this was just some sort of ploy, then he would be ready for it, not as distracted as the rest of the guild.

Perhaps Jellal had been speaking the truth, then. Mystogan would have suspected sooner, at this point, that his understanding had been based on lies, if it weren’t for the candid fear that Acnologia’s new ward had shown when he mistook him for this Jellal. Gauging Erik’s reaction to this development would be helpful, but he didn’t see the new dragon slayer around. Or Acnologia, for that matter, but three days were hardly enough time to be able to tell if that meant anything—like if he was gone on a job or not.

Mystogan deemed that the situation was not so dire that he couldn’t take the time to investigate other sources, though he didn’t want to stray far. He was just fortunate that there didn’t seem to be any Animas developing at the moment, else he would have to leave.

Watching the guild from afar was a familiar pastime, of sorts, but it had been a while since he had such a particular goal. Even at the beginning, when everything was new, Mystogan only wanted to acquire a general understanding to soothe his nerves. After that, it was merely a way to keep up with the guild without needing to show his face or even reveal his presence—though the arrival of the rest of the dragon slayers, and Wendy, mitigated his hands-off policy, somewhat. But they understood his situation, in something similar themselves, so it did not jeopardize anything on his part. (Except, perhaps, his willingness to leave, should he need to.)

This time, he watched for their reactions to the new kid. Most treated him as they would any other newcomer—which is to say, a mix between crowding him and letting him be—while maybe a few looked deeper. Gray, in particular, seemed to be the only one mistrustful, though that wasn’t necessarily out of the ordinary for the ice mage. It was something, though. Gray shouldn’t know anything about other worlds or the details of Erza’s past, but he suspected something. Though he didn’t act on it. Mystogan admittedly didn’t know much about Gray, so it was hard to say if that meant he was waiting for an opportune moment, or if he wasn’t that concerned.

“What are you doing?”

Mystogan was no dragon slayer, but he was observant. However, due to some combination of his thoughts and his position, he didn’t sense his company until they were present. In his surprise, he nearly lost his balance on the rafter beam. Fortunately, he had some experience of Rogue sneaking up on him.

The shadow dragon materialized out of the shadows next to him, fixing his sight in the same direction Mystogan had been looking. Mystogan inhaled deeply, assuring his heart that his position wasn’t compromised. Much.

“Just watching,” Mystogan told the child truthfully. Now that he thought about it, he didn’t see much of any of the dragon slayers since he returned—just glimpses of Wendy and Charle, leaving the guild, and Laxus, briefly. They would be a good source to use, as well. He felt a little dumb that he hadn’t thought to just go over there before…but then, there would have been nobody to watch Jellal, if he had left.

Rogue was only Wendy’s age, but he was observant as well. The boy was probably the only other guildmate who thought to utilize the rafters—besides Bickslow’s odd floating totems, that is.

Mystogan carefully repositioned himself to give Rogue more room to see what he was seeing. Jellal and Erza were studying a map, pointing things out to each other. There didn’t seem to be a purpose in mind, but rather, just a general geography lesson. “What do you know about the new one?” he whispered, pointing slightly.

Rogue tilted his head. “The one that looks like you? Um, I met him once, but not for long,” he recalled. “He joined on the same day Erik did.”

Interesting. He hadn’t realized Erik officially joined the guild either, but it made sense that it was bound to happen. Fairy Tail was a sticky bunch, like that. It also implied that Erik wasn’t run off by Jellal’s presence, even though he wasn’t present currently. Hm.

“I see,” Mystogan mumbled, unsure of what it all meant. Maybe he should just drop the matter, for now. Even after that first encounter, on the balcony, when Mystogan had been ready to fight the visage of himself to protect the guild only to find that Jellal wasn’t that much of a threat, he assumed that it was only a matter of time before he was. Though if that turned out to be true, there was only so much Mystogan could do, called away by Animas prying themselves open so often.

Though, there were other people who would know to watch. Like Acnologia and the dragon slayers. It was easy to forget that, sometimes.

“Does Acnologia know?” he asked as Rogue positioned himself so that his legs swung over the edge. He was small enough that such an action wouldn’t give his position away.

“Yeah,” Rogue said with a nod.

Okay, that changed things as well. Mystogan assumed Acnologia would know if he was present, but he hadn’t been sure that Acnologia had had the opportunity to know yet. This confirmed that he simply wasn’t acting on it.

Maybe Jellal really had been telling the truth, and the situation was not dire at all. It would be simpler that way, but…it was still bizarre. He had always known that there would be his doppelganger in this world, but to think that Mystogan would be in the same guild as him…

It was a lot to take in. But so long as it didn’t jeopardize Mystogan’s mission or put Fairy Tail in peril, then it changed nothing, except for, perhaps, the need for extra caution regarding his identity.

“Need help getting down?” Mystogan asked, standing up. Rogue was adept with shadow travel, but some locations were easier than others. He wasn’t sure of the specifics of how it worked, but he knew that Rogue got stuck, sometimes.

But Rogue shook his head. “I got it.”

Mystogan slipped away, and with one final glance at Jellal, he left the guild hall altogether.

—o0o—

April 16, X780

 

It was fortunate that Mystogan already had the chance to ease his concerns over the Earthland Jellal, because the staff that detected disturbances in the threads of space-time rattled against his back, calling to attention yet another Anima. He had to go.

Mystogan had gotten better at gauging the time necessary for an Anima to develop to the point of being a problem, so since he had to go past the dragons’ house anyway, he took a quick stop. Talking to Rogue had helped, but it would be beneficial to ask Acnologia directly, or even Erik. (If Erik wasn’t still scared of him, that is.)

He would just check.

He could tell that Acnologia was there and awake as he approached, judging by the magic signature. He was getting better at judging those, though Acnologia was easy to spot simply because he was massive in signature, and he was the one teaching Mystogan how to better use this sense despite his lack of intrinsic magic.

Through a combination of this and his experience, Mystogan knew to bypass the front of the house altogether, rounding the corner and approaching the garden instead. Sure enough, Acnologia was there, unsurprised by his arrival.

The dragon slayer stood as he approached, forfeiting his position in front of the herb. “Mystogan,” he greeted. “Did you just get back?”

“No.”

At his response, Acnologia narrowed his eyes slightly. “You know about Jellal, don’t you?”

“Yes.” Was he not supposed to? No, that didn’t make sense. There was no effort to keep his existence from him.

Acnologia dragged a hand down his face, muttering something to himself before his words became more intelligible. “Damnit. How much do you know already, then? I can fill in the rest.”

Getting information straight from Acnologia would be a lot easier than from Rogue. It was a good thing he dropped by, then. In this case, knowing more would be helpful, even if it was just for personal reasons. He appreciated it. “I know he joined the guild at the start of this month, that he has been living in Fairy Valley since then, and that Erza is very accepting of his presence—and the Master, for that matter. And that Jellal claims that Erza was the one who brought him to the guild in the first place.”

He remembered that night on the balcony. Those words were perhaps some of the only ones that his alter ego could have given to stop Mystogan from fighting him, right then and there. He had been ready to. Yet, Jellal had been non-aggressive and subdued, and he already was a part of the guild. It was a good thing that Mystogan had let him be, that night, since time only seemed to prove that Jellal was in Fairy Tail through honest means, but that didn’t mean that Mystogan had been… thrilled about it, so to speak.

Acnologia nodded. “That is the simple version, yes. The more complicated version that everybody else in the guild doesn’t know is that Jellal had been possessed by some sort of malignant mind spell, leading him to believed he was hearing the voice of Zeref. I had gone with Erza and Erik to investigate the situation, and through it all, Jellal was cured of his condition. He’s back to being sane, though from what I understand, he’s still shaken over the matter. He and Erza had been friends before the incident, so they’re friends again now. There’s no reason for you to be scared or threatened by him. Or by your face, really.”

What did it have to do with his face? Even if Jellal was now confirmed to be a not-bad person, they still shared the same face with the same cursed-mark, and that wasn’t explained easily. It would still be better to avoid it.

“What about Erik?” he asked, still concerned for him. It was a bit of an odd situation, because the other boy knew his face and his history, but that didn’t mean he would be okay with Mystogan’s presence.

Acnologia tilted his head slightly, silent for a moment. It was a more subtle action than what Wendy would do, but he recognized the behavior as listening. Was Erik inside, then?

“He’s a bit jumpy,” Acnologia admitted, “which is completely understandable.” He paused for a moment, before huffing lightly. “Erik says he’s fine with it, otherwise he ‘wouldn’t be here.’ Regardless, he has no issue against you, if that’s what you’re worried about.”

“Okay, I see…” Mystogan nodded, mostly to himself. That made sense. Erik had spotted him based on auditory presence the first time, so it stood to reason that he relied more on that sense than on visuals. Their voices might be of the same sound, but they probably had different ways of thinking. So Mystogan hoped, at least. “Thank you for telling me.”

It did help Mystogan figure out what had happened. Master had been truthful the first time, in a way, but the development in between had been both magical and major enough to warrant the complete turn of personality without it being suspicious. It was odd, sure, but Mystogan didn’t know much about the nuances of ancient magic, so he had to rely on Acnologia’s knowledge. Acnologia hadn’t tried to steer him wrong yet. He had been honest about his lack of knowledge regarding the Animas and how they worked, even, so he had a track record for admitting when he didn’t know things. Mystogan was left with the assumption that the eldest dragon slayer was telling the truth.

That was more comforting than his prior belief regarding the Earthland Jellal. This way… it meant that his alternate self had never been truly evil. The implications of that meant better things for himself. He hadn’t been formed from the consciousness of one capable of such things. Mystogan never had any intention of allowing himself to wander such a path, of course—he denied that when he shed his name and heritage alike—but it gave a measure of ease.

“Of course,” Acnologia responded. “Because you can always ask.” He bent down and collected the leaves he had pruned from his plant. “I’m making tea if you want any. By the way, if Wendy hasn’t already heard you, then she’s been looking for you. Laxus, too, though he just wanted to make sure you knew about Jellal.”

Oh. Had that been why he saw them briefly? He had avoided them so he wouldn’t get distracted from following Jellal. Huh.

Mystogan would take Acnologia up on his offer, especially for Wendy’s sake, but the Anima called. “I have to leave now,” he answered. “But thank you. Tell Wendy I’ll come by when I return.”

Having bid his farewell, Mystogan left, utilizing the air technique Acnologia had shown him to hasten his speed. He had had time for a small detour, but it was best to make up for it just in case.

The Jellal case was settled. Now, Mystogan could resume to his usual activities and ensure that the Animas did not ravage the world he too called home.

—o0o—

May 20, X780

 

No matter how many times Mystogan saw Jellal, it didn’t change how… odd it was. It was like an out of body experience that he was not privy to but was forced to participate in regardless.

For all intents and purposes, Mystogan’s life did not change at all. He still closed the Animas. He was still a member of Fairy Tail. Wendy and some of the others still approached him as normal. He was still Mystogan, and that was all that ever mattered to him, but seeing Jellal carve his place in the guild as well? Jellal Edolas was already dead, but he died a little more; Mystogan knew that he could never achieve that. Jellal Fernandez was here, in the world he belonged, and Mystogan would just be a boy with his face.

He thought he accepted that, but it was different to be reminded of it every time he came back to the guild. Even with his normal routine, which included paths not well traveled, he would still see Jellal, because as fate would have it, Jellal was in the same nearly secluded hall he was in.

And, of course, there was the balcony.

It had always been Mystogan’s favorite point of exit and entry. It was unused by the others and fairly rickety with age and weather, but it faced the edge of town, and it was near his room, and it was peaceful. He could come and go from there, and none of the dorm’s other occupants would be any wiser. It was private, but it faced the open of the outdoors, and it provided such an easy means to just leave. And to come back again.

Jellal spending half of his nights there made the experience…different. Mystogan would have to pass him, to acknowledge him, or to go a different route entirely. The skylight was doable once he learned the trick to opening it from the outside, but it added the extra factor that now he heard echoes of Max insisting that the dorms were haunted.

But he couldn’t begrudge Jellal his right to the balcony. This was his realm and his world, and Mystogan was just…there.

He had just returned from the promised job with Wendy, so it wasn’t as late in the night as it usually was when he headed for his dorm. Since it wasn’t late enough to ensure that the majority of the residents were sleeping, he took a chance on the balcony anyway. Of course, Jellal was there.

Mystogan landed on the edge softly, but Jellal was already looking in his direction. It seemed an interaction was inevitable.

“Oh, um, hello,” Jellal started, straightening from his usual position with his knees against his chest. “Mystogan, right?”

He nodded. Jellal had the lamp lit, as he normally did, so he was sure the action was visible. Mystogan wasn’t much for words anyway, but he made more of an effort around Jellal, and now those he associated with; they had the same voice, after all.

“I’ve seen you come this way before. Um, not that I’m watching you, or anything.” He laughed nervously. “It’s just that I’m usually out here, but… If this is your spot, you can always ask me to leave. I’m not doing anything important out here.”

Mystogan blinked in surprise. He hadn’t expected Jellal to notice, much less try to remove himself.

But this was the only place that Mystogan ever saw Jellal alone, and he understood the need for that. Perhaps their mutual identity both drew them here—to an old balcony that no one else ever wanted but lost its appeal when attention was raised to it. At least nobody else expected anything of the balcony, otherwise it would crumble altogether.

So Mystogan shook his head. He had other places he could go to, and Jellal needed the balcony, too.

Jellal smiled wryly, the expression turning wistful as he turned his head from Mystogan up to the stars. “It’s quiet out here, isn’t it? Or, as quiet as a forest can get.”

Mystogan hummed in agreement. It was true that forests could be noisy, especially at night. He personally preferred them in the daytime—easier to navigate, open-viewed, but just as empty. Full of life, but devoid of people.

“The hill by the lake is quieter,” Mystogan offered, not daring to take his voice above a murmur. “If that’s what you’re looking for.”

It was hard to find quiet, unoccupied places in Magnolia, sometimes. He would know. But at least they were there, if you knew where to look.

But Jellal shook his head. “No, I like it, actually. The noise. Reminds me of when I was a kid.” His smile shrunk, small as it already had been; it turned sadder, but it was a smile all the same. “Back when me and my pops used to live in some woods like these.”

Mystogan had already witnessed this Jellal do things that Mystogan could never partake in, like being open with himself or using magic unabetted, but to look so fond while thinking of Father… Mystogan couldn’t understand any of it.

Normally, he would not press the subject when there was no need—especially when the very act of talking could expose him—but… Mystogan needed to know. He didn’t want to know, but he needed to all the same. “What was… he like? Your father.”

Jellal drew his legs back in, though Mystogan wasn’t sure if he did it on purpose. “I don’t really remember him that much, to be honest,” he answered softly, sad smile still in place, though it faltered. “He… died when I was young.” The smile was gone now. Mystogan suddenly felt bad for asking, but the deed was already done. Jellal continued nevertheless. “But before that, we lived in a little cabin deep in the woods. I don’t know which town it was near, but Pops could walk to it, so I guess we weren’t that far. He was…tall. I remember that much. Because he would lift me on his shoulders whenever he went to pick from the apple trees. Let me pick some too, that way. And…we would star gaze together.”

Jellal shook his head, interrupting himself. “Ah, but I’m sure you don’t care about the details. You were just being polite, and I started rambling… He was a good man. Being out here just reminds me of it all.”

“…I see.”

Mystogan left swiftly. It was obvious Jellal needed to be alone with his thoughts after all that, and…so did he.

To think, that there was a version of Father that was kind… He supposed there were key differences between worlds after all. Mystogan wasn’t sure if it was comforting to know that Father had it in him to be that way, though; not after… Well, everything.

And he felt guilty, too, knowing that Jellal lost this Father to horrible means that he could not control, when Mystogan had attempted to run from him every chance he got. Successfully ran, at that. Mystogan would be happy if he never had to look his father in the eye again, and Jellal was outside missing his.

It put a sour taste in his mouth, and he couldn’t quite shake it.

—o0o—

July 13, X780

 

The more time that passed, the more nervous Mystogan became. It was silly, really, because things continued to not change. Life moved on how it always did for him—with only those small changes. Like how Jellal would wave to him, or said hello, whenever they happened across each other on that balcony.

But that was just it—Jellal kept trying to talk to him.

Jellal was settling in, and the guild was used to him, and that was fine, but Mystogan hadn’t expected to get dragged into that. (Not that having snippets of conversation on a balcony was being ‘dragged into’ anything, but the fact remained that he was becoming more…known.)

It wasn’t a problem if Wendy knew him. It wasn’t a problem if Acnologia and Wendy’s other brothers knew him as well. Or the Master. Or Porlyusica, or Laxus, or even Bickslow or Lisanna. They were uninvolved in the scheme of things, or they had prior experience to things beyond the realm of ‘normal.’ They understood his situation, and they were okay with it. But as for others…

Well, now that Mystogan stopped to reconsider it, his primary cause for concern was gone. Jellal was no longer a problem, so the chances of Mystogan getting mistaken for him and wrapped up in some scheme were low. It could still be inconvenient for the both of them, though, and Mystogan didn’t want to have that tie or put it on anyone else. There was also just the knowledge of Edolas—if the people of Earthland knew that there was another world, it could end badly. Either they would panic, or the mages here would try to take advantage of the multiverse, or… Something. Mystogan didn’t pretend to know of all of the things that could go wrong; it was just better to err on the side of caution and ensure that the chance of that something was low.  

So there was still concern. There always was. But Mystogan found that the thing he feared the most was not the guild knowing—it was just Jellal.

If he ever found out… It would look bad. Nobody would appreciate somebody else using their face. Magic allowed people to shapeshift, yes, but Mystogan couldn’t change into another form if he wanted to. It would be unnerving and uncomfortable for him, and Jellal was just becoming comfortable in the guild. Mystogan couldn’t make him an outsider in his own world. It would be cruel.

Mystogan thought about leaving. Several times, even, but… He didn’t want to. Mystogan had ran away from so many places, and he finally found one he was comfortable with. He liked to roam, yes, but the thought of leaving Fairy Tail forever was…hard. It might be a necessary sacrifice, because his first goal would always be the Animas, but…

He also promised Wendy that he wouldn’t leave again. He couldn’t do that to her, and he didn’t want to, either.

(Idly, he wondered if this was the sort of scenario in mind when Laxus had told him, in their brief conversation a couple of months ago, that Mystogan was ‘here first.’ He hadn’t understood the context of it, because Mystogan was not from Earthland so he wasn’t ‘here first,’ but in the scope of Fairy Tail…)

So Mystogan couldn’t leave. But he didn’t want to wait for the other shoe to drop either. The more time that passed, the more Jellal made himself a fixture of Fairy Tail… The deeper the betrayal would cut, if Mystogan’s secret ever came to light.

Mystogan didn’t entirely know what to do, but he had to do something.

Maybe he should just tell Jellal the truth. It was his face and his identity, in this case, so it wasn’t fair for Mystogan to be making all of the decisions. Mystogan wasn’t going to be pushed out of his home, but he didn’t want to damn Jellal either. (Or, maybe more selfishly, he didn’t want to create a situation that pitted the guild against one or the other.) This was Jellal’s world, so he…deserved to know.

Before Mystogan could lose his resolve, he moved.

It was 2 AM, so it wasn’t a surprise that Jellal was on the balcony, reading. (At one point, Jellal stopped staring into the darkness and began to bring either books or journals. Sometimes he still stared, though.) Mystogan had already been inside, for once, doing his routine marking of the month’s Anima locations on his map, so he approached Jellal from behind, startling him.

“Oh, Mystogan,” Jellal greeted, losing the tension that had snapped into his shoulders. “Are you heading out?”

“No.”

Mystogan breathed deeply, steeling himself. This was the best opportunity. He would do it while they were alone, and then… Well, they would figure it out from there. But Jellal should know.

As always, Jellal had his small lamp beside him, but Mystogan flicked his flint ring and lit the larger lamp on the wall. Just so nothing could be questioned.

“Do you…need anything?” Jellal asked, clearly confused as he looked up at him, book now closed.

Mystogan pulled down his bandana and tore off his cap, squeezing it in his hands to ease his nerves.

It didn’t take long for the realization to hit Jellal, his eyes widening as he scrambled upwards to stand. Their face wasn’t hard to mistake for another, bearing the same cursed mark around their eye. There was little room for doubt, and in this case, Mystogan was glad for it.

“Who—? What’s going on?” Jellal questioned nervously. “Where’s Mystogan?”

“I am Mystogan,” he replied, forcing his voice to a normal register. Though perhaps it can out just as soft and anxious as it always did.

He had to convince Jellal that he wasn’t using magic, but how? Maybe he should just start explaining.

“Or…” Damn, this was the hard part. “I’m… Jellal, too. Jellal Edolas. I’m from another world. It mirrors Earthland, so sometimes, the people are the same too. This is why I didn’t want anybody to know.”

Jellal was shocked to silence, but he could see him thinking. Mystogan itched to leave now that the truth was out, but he forced himself to stand there and let Jellal finish processing it. He needed to know how this was going to end.

“So…” Jellal tapped his bicep repeatedly, still running through the information. “Another world. Like the Celestial Spirit Realm or the outer realms of magic?”

Mystogan shook his head. “No. It’s a physical world, like this one. But an alternate reality. The land is different, the magic is different—people act different, but sometimes, they look the same. Edolas is just a branch off of this one. Like the other side of a coin.”

Jellal nodded slowly. It seemed that he was believing him at his word, which was good, because Mystogan had little else in the way of proof. “Like how magic theory dictates that the farther from the source of something, the more it evolves… You’re saying that time, and even space, behave similarly?”

He shrugged. He didn’t entirely understand what Jellal meant, but it sounded close to the theories of Edolas’s scholars. “Something like that.”

“So…if you’re from this alternate reality, then how are you here?”

“There are people in Edolas who know of Earthland. They try to…” Mystogan frowned, realizing that he couldn’t quite avoid talking of the conflict between their worlds. “Some people over there try to siphon magic from this world and bring it back to Edolas, since it’s similar. Not everyone there knows about it. I used one of their machines to come here, to stop it. What they are trying to do is wrong.”

The scheme was limited to the castle and the military. Mystogan was fairly certain they were even keeping it from the Exceed Queen, too. There weren’t very many people who could put a stop to them, and even though Mystogan would have never been heard by his father—hadn’t, because he did try to talk, once—he could help on this side. Somebody had to stop them.

Jellal looked down at the cap he had in a death grip. “And you knew that there would be someone here that looked like you. That’s why you kept your face hidden, even before I came,” he realized. “You…knew that being mistaken for me wasn’t a good thing.”

Mystogan turned his face to the side, unable to look at the hurt that was building on the other’s face. Jellal was obviously private with his history, but Mystogan had become privy to it simply because they looked the same. “When I first came here, I had guessed that it could happen. But when I joined Fairy Tail… It was after Erza had already joined. Master told me that it would be better to keep my face from her, and from everyone else.”

“And…you changed your name, too? Because of…because of me?”

This time, that wasn’t true. Mystogan was certain of this much. Well, maybe part of it had been because of the doppelganger conundrum, but it wasn’t the entirety of it. He shook his head. “No. That was before Master told me what he knew. I… I just wanted to be different from who I was. That was it.”

Wendy had been, perhaps, the only person to have ever spoken his birth name and mean it for who he was, and not for what people wanted him to be, or what they saw him as. A prince. A stain. Someone who needed to be better. Someone who wasn’t good enough. A traitor. He realized only then that he just didn’t like it. He ran away from that life, practically banishing himself, so he had to own up to that.

“Okay,” Jellal whispered back. “I just… I’m sorry that your life was hard. Because of me.”

What? No, that wasn’t it. Sure, it was difficult when there were extra consequences for his identity, but Mystogan had needed to be careful regardless. “Don’t be. I knew what I was getting into when I came here,” Mystogan rebutted. “I… I came here to tell you because I didn’t want you to find out by accident. I don’t mean any ill will to you, or anyone in the guild. I also don’t intend on using your face, so you don’t need to worry that someone will mistake us.” He should probably say something else, too, as a further reassurance, but he wasn’t sure what would sound right.

Jellal hummed softly, eyes creased in worry. “But… If what you say is true, then it’s your face too. I don’t want you to hide because of me, or… or because of what I’ve done,” he pressed.

“It’s not that anymore,” Mystogan tried to assure him. “It’s just the existence of Edolas itself. It’s dangerous for people to know. And I knew that choosing to come here, so your circumstance doesn’t change that.”

He just never expected—seven years ago or even seven months ago—that he and Jellal would live in the same place. Be in the same guild. The same dorms. The proximity made things a little complicated, yes, but it would only be more complicated if Jellal wasn’t to be trusted with his secret. But after all that time observing him, and knowing what others thought of him… Well, this time, Mystogan was lucky.

“There has to be another way around it, though. One that doesn’t jeopardize anything without you trying to hide yourself.” Jellal chuckled a little to himself. “It’s already a lost cause. Those kids with the dragon magic—they already mistook us for one another. Because there’s sound and even smell, too.”

“They know,” Mystogan revealed. “Because of that, but even before. I met Wendy several years ago, so she recognized me regardless.”

“Still,” Jellal continued. “It proves that just a mask isn’t always enough. There’s a better to solution to all of this, I’m sure. We’ll figure something out.”

Mystogan couldn’t help but to feel surprised by the outcome of this. Jellal was surprisingly accepting—even insisting that Mystogan shouldn’t have to hide. It was bizarre, but it was certainly better than other ways this conversation could had gone. Still, it seemed almost too good to be the outcome. “You’re…not mad?” he pressed. Mystogan’s existence put Jellal in a tight spot too. It was one thing if Mystogan had to be overly careful, but to make Jellal do the same wasn’t fair.

Jellal shook his head. “Why would I be? I’m still a little confused, sure, but you’re not a bad person just because you have to look like me. Besides, if Master and Acnologia trust you, so do I. And… and you trusted me, telling me this. So…we can work it out together. If you want to, that is.”

He found himself smiling. The whole thing was still odd, but face to face like this… Jellal seemed like his own person. A good one, at that. Maybe it was a good thing after all that they ended up in the same place. “Yeah. We can.”

—o0o—

July 17, X780

 

“Twins?” Mystogan echoed, a little surprised.

Jellal nodded. “I know it sounds simple, but after thinking it over, it really is the best way to go about it. The only person who could refute it is my mother, on the off chance that she’s still alive, that is. Pops was pretty sure she wasn’t around anymore, though, so I think the risk is manageable.”

Jellal paced the stretch of the balcony. Even though they had been going on the possibilities for several days, now—Jellal being the main proponent, since Mystogan’s best idea was simply continuing to do what he had always done—he still remained uncertain of the best course of action. Though for a moment, Jellal had been confident on this one.

It was simple—so much so that Mystogan didn’t consider it—but maybe that would be what would make it effective. Unless this version of Mother wasn’t dead as well. “Mine died when I was born. I take this to assume that yours didn’t?”

“I…really don’t know. I think she just left, unless that was just what Pops said to cover up the fact. I only vaguely remember it.”

“She would have filed something when you…disappeared…if she was alive. Maybe,” Mystogan offered. He and Jellal had learned more about each other, comparing life stories. He had always hated his own childhood, but Jellal’s… It was uncomfortable to think about. At least Jellal was out of it too. (Mystogan was glad to hear that Acnologia destroyed that place.)

Jellal shrugged. “Maybe. Either way, it presents a risk.”

“Not a large one. It’s doable, certainly—but that would connect us, in a way. At least in the guild.”

The other froze. “Shit, I didn’t think… I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to impose myself on you like that. You’re right, it’s a bad idea—”

“No,” Mystogan cut in. He recognized the spiral that Jellal was about to drop down into, and it was a good idea. If Jellal convinced himself it wasn’t, then they would be back to square one. And Mystogan wasn’t sure he could keep talking and planning this. He just wanted it to be decided and over with. “No, I just meant, I didn’t want to burden you. You just got your bearings in this world. I don’t want to complicate things.”

“Oh.” Some of the tension left Jellal’s form. “Right. That’s not a problem. I can adapt to anything, if needed. Though, since it would be obvious that we were ‘estranged’ and only met by chance—which is true, really—then there doesn’t have to be a connection at all. It’s just an explanation, in case it comes up.”

That was true. They didn’t have to do anything—but it also wouldn’t hurt if they did associate with each other, because then it would be natural.

“Of course,” Jellal continued. “Erza would know it was a ruse. I wouldn’t be able to keep that from her. Or Erik, for that matter.”

“That’s fine.” Mystogan expected that Erza would know sooner or later. He had avoided her the most because of the prior circumstance, but that had changed. “And Erik already knows—because he’s with Acnologia.”

“Right. He would be grouped in with that, as you said.” Jellal creased his brow, trying to find another flaw in the plan.

“It’ll work,” Mystogan assured him. It would take practice on Mystogan’s part to pull it off—he wasn’t natural with words like that—but it would work. “If you’re okay with it.”

“And it’s okay with you?” Jellal questioned yet again.

Mystogan nodded.

“Okay. Twins, then.”

He had never equated having a doppelganger to a brother before, but there had already been so many changes in the way that Mystogan thought about this world, that this change didn’t bother him. In fact… It was nice. Neither one of them had a family anymore, whether by fate or by design, but they had, well, themselves. Fairy Tail was more than enough for Mystogan, more than he ever expected, but there was something special about finding a sort of blood bond like this. They weren’t brothers, of course, but they were related in a way.

Mystogan found himself smiling. “Twins.”