AN: A little explanation on the last chapter, since some of you requested it: no one's seen the Leviathan for generations and so Acnologia's chosen form of execution is more showboating than anything serious; he was thinking the mermaids would meet their end through light-deprivation, anchored to the bottom of the pit (sans massive sea monster or not, it's still a pretty shoddy way to kill someone), hence his surprise when the thing comes charging up like a massive, underwater jack-in-the-box.
There'll be some more on Leviathan's history later, but for now you'll have to contend with this.
The day before the execution
"Where did Lily say to meet?"
Gajeel didn't spare the pink shark a glance as he cut through the water, busy keeping a look-out for guards as they made their way across the palace grounds. Juvia swam at his other side, as silent as she'd been when he'd told her to come along at her own risk. Lily's message had been cryptic, but Gajeel had known the shark long enough to understand what that meant. Proceed with care. "He didn't."
Natsu swam up to his side, a frown creasing his brow. "Then how do you know where you're going?"
Gajeel spared him a look. "I just know, would ya leave it at that? Lil was in on this way before you came along. This ain't the first time we've had to meet like this."
Natsu snorted. "What, you two got secret codes or something?"
Gajeel didn't answer, but his thoughts went back to his youth, when the Guard Captain's young apprentice had spent his few hours of free time teaching the prince to fight, and indulging Gajeel in play Lily had been much too old for himself. They'd had codes, then, the two of them, and secret meeting spots, back in a time when Metalicana had been on the throne and Gajeel's heart hadn't been too heavy for a pup's make-believe games.
Then his father was dead, and his mother soon after. The pretend games became reality, and the secret meeting spots used not with play in mind but murder, and the dethronement of a false king.
They were heading to one of them now – Lily's obvious choice, if not Gajeel's. It was where he'd wait if he had news he didn't want anyone to overhear, at a secluded spot some ways south of the palace, on the far end of the coral-garden that hadn't flourished since his mother had been alive to tend to it. His uncle had no patience for such things and no mind to keep a gardener, and so the garden now rose, a barren stretch of rocks and natural ridges from the back of the palace to the southernmost edge of the grounds. Behind him as he swam across it, his mother's favourite balcony sat high on the palace wall, the banister overtaken by barnacles and clinging seaweed. A door of green and blue glasswork led to a chamber that had stood empty since his parents had passed; even Gajeel hadn't been near it in years.
As he'd hoped, the grounds were abandoned, and as they swam towards the furthest edge, Gajeel wondered if that wasn't Lily's own doing. He didn't know the extent of the contacts the bull-shark had in his former guard, but he suspected it was enough to make a few of them turn a blind eye if Lily needed them to.
As they neared a small outcropping of rocks, he saw the flicker of a dark tail through the water, before Lily came around the side. "About time you showed up," he greeted, with a nod of his head to Natsu and Juvia. "Good, you've brought them. I was worried you were going to come alone. We need all the hands we can gather for this to succeed."
A frown tugged at Gajeel's brow. "For what to succeed?" Lily didn't usually act on his own, but it would seem he had, although for what reason Gajeel couldn't hope to guess.
A shiver in the water to his right interrupted his thinking. "Whaddaya think? The rescue mission, of course. Isn't that why we're here?"
The new voice claimed and reeled his attention like a hook, and Gajeel looked towards the watery shadows, an oath pulling free of his lips as he spotted the colourful scales, and the tips of their tails soft and transparent, like veils where they curled through the water. Unmistakable features, in a kingdom of sharks.
He looked to Lily, disbelief clear on his face. "More mermaids?"
"Hey," one of them protested, and he noted that it was, in fact, not a maid at all. "Watch it."
The one who'd first spoken – sporting a deep green tail and hair almost as dark as Gajeel's own – barked a throaty laugh. "Can't really blame him, Gray, though I'd question your supposed 'maidenhood' before I did your lack of tit–"
"Cana," the other mermaid cut her off, this one sporting hair of such a vivid, violent red Gajeel wondered what the hell they fed merfolk to get that kind of colouring. "Please." She turned her attention to Gajeel, and he had the distinct feeling of being seized up. "You're the prince?" Without waiting for an answer, she bowed her head. "Erza Scarlet, Captain of the Royal Guard, at your service. I've been told you've got a plan to save our friends."
Gajeel looked at Lily again. The bull-shark was sporting a deceptively innocent look. "A plan?"
Lily shrugged. "I assumed you had one."
"Well I don't. Why in Neptune's depths did you tell them that?" He looked towards the three merfolk. "What are you even doing here?" The palace grounds were sealed off, and even sharks would have a hard time getting past the guards. How had three mermaids – and as colourful as these particular three – managed to sneak past?
Lily grinned. "I found them."
"You found them?"
Lily nodded. "And a good thing that was, or your uncle would be throwing more than two down the pit tomorrow," he retorted easily. "They're looking for their friends, so I said we'd help. You were planning on helping, weren't you?"
Gajeel was about to open his mouth, but one of the mermaids beat him to it. "As amusing as this little back-and-forth is, could we start making a plan, since you obviously don't have one?" It was the dark haired one who'd spoken – Cana, Red had called her. "We were told we were running out of time?" At that she threw an accusing glance in Lily's direction.
"We are. Your friends will face their execution tomorrow."
"They're chucking them into that pit, right? So we just need to get them out before they hit the bottom," she said. "Sounds simple enough."
Gajeel snorted. "They're gonna be falling pretty fast with the weights around their tails." That was a particularly inventive trick of his great-grandfather, from back when they'd still kept up the tradition of tossing criminals into the pit.
She seemed unperturbed. "I'm a fast swimmer."
"It's pitch dark."
"Then I'll bring one of those glowy crystal-things, Poseidon's trident but aren't you a cynic?" Her eyes glittered with a mirth he couldn't understand – couldn't she grasp the seriousness of the situation? "And yet you're awfully worried about these mermaids," she drawled, tilting her head thoughtfully. "Why is that?"
Gajeel tried not to let his expression betray anything, but the way her smile curved he wondered how much she could read. "Oh, I see how it is. It's not an everyday romance, I'll give you that, but who am I to question your taste in fins?"
He wanted to protest, because just what was she assuming – and maybe part of him was irked that she'd been able to read him so well – but he was interrupted by Red. "What can we expect down there? You spoke of a 'Leviathan' – what's that?"
"An ancient sea creature," Pantherlily spoke up, before Gajeel could answer. "Part of our local history, a scary bedtime story for pups – take your pick."
"It's not just a story," Gajeel interjected.
Lily guffawed. "The beast is a legend of your great-grandfather's reign, Gajeel," he said, arms crossed over his chest. "It's a story. And your uncle has always loved a good show, you know that. Sacrificing the intruders to an underwater creature adds flair. Not to mention, I'm pretty sure the thought of scaring his prisoners half to death before their executions sounds pretty appealing to him, given that they're Makarov's kin."
Gajeel shook his head. "I don't think it's just for show."
"Juvia agrees," the shark-woman added then, surprising them all. When he looked at her for an explanation, she simply shrugged. "Juvia...feels the water," she said at length. "Juvia can't explain it, but Juvia thinks there is something down there."
Gajeel didn't question that intuition. Old blood ran in Juvia's veins, and her ancestors had been said to have known magic, back when it was a commodity amongst their kind – to have been attuned to the sea in a way few other sharks were. When they'd been pups, she'd always had a good sea-sense, better than anyone Gajeel knew, anyway. It had gotten them out of trouble on more than one occasion. And so if Juvia said there was something in Leviathan's Pit, he was damn well inclined to believe her.
"You really think it's real, don't you?" It was Natsu who asked, looking between the two of them. "I mean, I saw how you reacted when your uncle gave the sentence, but I just though it was because of, well, the sentence? If that thing's not just a myth, how come no one's seen tail or scale of it for three generations?"
Gajeel shrugged. "The hell would I know? I didn't say I'd seen it or anything, I just don't think that it's a story."
"And your uncle?" the sole merman asked. "What does he think?"
Gajeel scoffed. "Neptune knows what that bastard thinks. He's sick, either way. If there ain't no creature, they'll rot. They'll be down there until they starve to death." From lack of light or from food, whichever came first. No matter how you looked at it, it was a messed up way to go.
"And if there is a beast?" Red asked, voice falling like a blade between them, cutting through the tension. A practical mermaid, that one.
Gajeel looked towards the direction of Leviathan's Edge, where he'd been only once, back before his father had forbidden him from going. Lily had been sent to fetch him back, but he still remembered the sight of the gaping chasm, and the darkness that seemed to plunge into the soul of the earth. He had felt it then – the presence of something in the dark. It had haunted him ever since. No one had been thrown to the Leviathan since his great-grandfather had sat on the throne, and no report had survived that spoke of what had happened, or why they'd stopped that particular form of execution. If they were to throw fresh meat into the pit of a creature who'd seen none for centuries, who knew what would happen?
He pulled his eyes away, gaze meeting the worried expressions of his rag-tag team of companions – of merfolk and sharkfolk, coming together for the first time in centuries. He wondered if history would ever remember this moment, or if they'd fail and his uncle – or the beast – would wipe their existence clean from sharkfolk memory. He considered the lot of them, and the task that lay before them, and, lastly, the creature that may or may not exist. But if it did...
"Then we're all fucking screwed."
Should've kept my Neptune-damned mouth shut.
The Leviathan rose out of the pit, long limbs stretching as though from lack of use. Rocks fell from its back to vanish in the darkness below, and the green crystals embedded between its scales glinted like a hundred, glowing eyes that seemed to pin him in place.
"Poseidon's mercy," he heard Red murmur, and Gajeel was inclined to agree. From the corner of his eye, he noted that every mermaid was accounted for – the fair-haired one and the merman had gotten away from the edge in time to avoid being hit by the rocks still falling from the Leviathan's back.
"Shit but that thing's huge," Cana cursed as she swam up to his side, dragging the little gold-finned mermaid with her. Levy looked a little worse for wear, eyes wide in terror as she stared up at the beast that had chased them up from the depths of the pit. Gajeel didn't blame her – the thing was a nightmare personified, worse than what even a pup's wildest imagination could conjure in the realm of sleep.
She seemed to startle at the question, and drew her eyes away from the creature to look at him, seeming to see him properly for the first time since she'd come up from the pit. "U-uh, yeah. Yeah, I'm okay." She tried to smile. "Thank you."
Gajeel had been about to respond, but Cana snorted, effectively breaking the moment. "Don't be saying that just yet, sweet-fins – we're one gulp away from becoming fish food."
"Not on my watch," Red spoke up, fingers tightening around the hilt of her sword. She glanced at Levy over her shoulder. "Can you find your way back to the tunnel on your own?"
Levy looked at her friend, visibly uncertain. "I don't know. Maybe?" But Lucy only shook her head.
"I'll take them," Natsu spoke up then. "I know the way, and I'll make sure they get across the border."
Gajeel nodded. "Then go."
The little blue haired mermaid started at that, realization settling on her face, tugging her previously startled expression into one of surprising anger. "What– no! I'm not leaving you here with that!"
He glared right back. "You wanna be eaten instead?"
Red nodded her assent. "He's right, Levy. Leave the creature to us."
"You're staying?" Gajeel asked, surprised.
Erza nodded. "You aided in the rescue of my kin, when you did not need to. My assistance is the least I can offer."
Levy was still shaking her head, mouth opening to offer another protest, but he was having none of it. "I didn't risk my bloody tail fer you to argue, shortfin. Go."
"They're not going anywhere," Acnologia proffered his trident, madness bright in his eyes. "I'll give your corpses to appease the beast if I must." Despite his calm tone, there was a hint of fear in his words, and Gajeel spared a furtive glance at the Leviathan, still watching them from the mouth of the pit. It hadn't made a move to attack, and he wondered why. Maybe it was trying to figure out which bait to go for first, but he wasn't about to waste what little time they had dawdling just to find out. The crowd that had gathered had dispersed at the first sight of the creature, and it was only them, now.
"Your fight is with me," he addressed his uncle, pointedly ignoring the beast.
"I said go!" He turned to look at her – to ask why she found the concept so damn hard to grasp – but his anger died on his tongue when her small hands dipped into his hair, pulling his face towards her, lips slanting over his in a sudden, desperate kiss. His vision was a blur of blue, her mouth soft and the tips of her fingers cold where they brushed his temples.
Then she was drawing away. "Don't die!" came the fierce command, and the words seemed to linger in the water even after she'd turned to swim away.
Too flabbergasted to even manage a response, Gajeel could only stare as she retreated, following Natsu and the others as they made to escape, the flash of her tail like a sliver of gold in the dark, disappearing between the underwater shadows with the speed mermaids were known for. His eyes followed the sight until he could no longer see her.
"Juvia," he rasped then, and cleared his throat, but she understood the underlying question.
"Juvia will make sure they get away," she declared, and without a pause, made a dash through the water to chase after Natsu and the merfolk. Gajeel watched her go, unease roiling in the pit of his stomach as she, too, disappeared out of sight. Anxiety sat like tension in his shoulders; events were unravelling like a poorly knit fisherman's net and all he could do was try to hold it together. Things hadn't gone as planned, but he'd expected that to some extent. Now he had to trust that Natsu would get them across the border, while Gajeel dealt with his uncle.
"Well, this certainly explains a few things," Acnologia said, drawing his attention. "But I stand by what I said. They're not going anywhere." And with a sharp, cutting motion of his hand, the guards at his back reacted, fanning out to the sides, cutting a wide arc around Gajeel and Erza before they made for the retreating party.
Gajeel released an oath, but his uncle's next words anchored him to the spot. "They'll never make it to the border," the king continued, in that bland tone of voice Gajeel hated – the kind that made it seem as though he couldn't even make himself care enough to take joy in his own actions. It was a kind of condescending attitude the shark had always had, even when his brother had held the throne – the belief that he was somehow above everyone else, and above fickle things like personal attachments and emotions.
Torn between staying and going; between the Leviathan and the state of his kingdom and the escaping mermaids, Gajeel had never wanted more than in that moment to ram the trident through his uncle's chest.
A stirring in the water at his back provided a dearly sought answer. "Need some help?"
"Now you show up," Gajeel muttered as Lily took his place at his side, unsheathing his broadsword from his back with an ease his years as a prison warden hadn't driven out of him. There were traces of the Royal Guard in him, yet, for all of Acnologia's attempts to purge them.
The bull-shark flashed him a toothy grin. "I had some business to take care of." He looked towards Leviathan's Pit, and the creature still sitting there, as though content with just watching them. It was an eerie sight, and part of Gajeel wished it would just attack and be done with it. Instead it watched them, seemingly curious. "You were right," Lily observed with a whistle. "How 'bout that."
"Yeah, I'm fucking thrilled. If we get out of this alive, I promise I'll gloat." Gajeel chanced a look over his shoulder in the direction the guards had taken off. Mermaids were freakishly fast swimmers, but sharkfolk were natural predators and his uncle's personal guard knew these waters better than most. Even Natsu and Juvia would have problems against a whole group of Acnologia's best warriors. Neptune damn it all!
He looked at Lily, surprised, but Lily wasn't looking at him. Instead he was watching the king, holding Acnologia's gaze without flinching. The tip of his broadsword skimmed the rock beneath them as he hoisted it over his shoulder, the water rippling with the movement. "Go after your mermaid. I'll keep your uncle occupied." He glanced at the Leviathan. "And the creature."
"You and me both," Red added, and Gajeel could only blink at the ferocity in her tone, but she threw him a look that brooked no argument. "Well? What are you waiting for? Go!"
A split-second decision, and he made it, swearing as he turned to make a break for it. "You better not be dead when I get back!" he called over his shoulder, catching a last glimpse of the stand-off before he turned his head: a scarred bull-shark and a mermaid facing off against the king, the swirl of Red's hair like a mist of blood, an ominous foreshadowing that lingered in Gajeel's mind as he cut through the water. At the king's back the Leviathan sat, still like a piece of the rock come loose but unmoving, the glow of the green crystals embedded between its scales winking like the stars on the vast Above. Silent and watchful, like it waited for something.
Lily's charging roar drifted back to him through the murky water as he set his course towards the merfolk border, invoking the name of every damn deity he could think of that he'd reach them before the guards did.
And that he'd make it back in time to save his kingdom.
AN: Gotta love a good dilemma.