A/N: Hello! This is my first story for Fairy Tail. It follows on from anime episode 19 'Changeling', shortly after the return from Galuna Island, though it should be pretty self-explanatory. I'll write a bit more about it at the end, so, without further ado, I hope you enjoy it! ~CS
Rise Up Once More
Chapter One: A Disgrace of a Guild
Returning to Magnolia was always a bittersweet experience for Laxus.
It was sweet because Magnolia was, and always would be, his home. It was where he had been born and raised, and all the travelling in the world could not erase the memories tying him to this place: training in the guildhall with his teammates; shopping in the marketplace with his grandfather; taking part in the highlight of the season, the Fantasia Parade. It was the place to which, after a long and arduous S-Class Quest had dragged him to the ends of the earth and back, he could always return and feel safe. It was the home of his beloved guild, Fairy Tail.
But such homecomings were always a bitter experience too, for Magnolia was the home of the guild he detested, Fairy Tail.
Every time he returned, he held afresh in his heart the hope that Fairy Tail might have changed; time and time again, that hope had been mercilessly crushed. He had come to understand that Fairy Tail was never going to change of its own accord – not while that old man still held the title of Master. Laxus couldn't bring himself to leave Fairy Tail, but neither could he bear to see it carry on like this. And so each time he left, he travelled further from Magnolia and for longer, and every time he returned to this bittersweet place, he grew a little less fond of it, and a little more hateful.
It was only a matter of time before he changed all that, though. His plan had already been set in motion. Freed was studying in the ancient libraries of the north, putting the final touches to the spell of runes that would change Fairy Tail once and for all. Evergreen and Bickslow were training – rather, killing time – by fighting the pathetic Dark Guilds that had sprung up in the less-populated areas. Soon, they too would return to Magnolia, and Laxus would finally be able to take his rightful place as Master of-
Of this absolute disgrace of a guild.
Laxus had rounded the final corner lost in vicious thoughts, and the sight of his guildhall had frozen him in his tracks. For a moment, he could do nothing but stare at what had once been the grandest building in all of Magnolia. It was a mess of torn-down walls, collapsed roofs, shattered furniture, and heaps of rubble. The bits of it that were still standing only did so because of the enormous iron bars which pierced through the guildhall, preventing it from crumbling away completely. The ruins of Fairy Tail were completely silent, devoid of the life and raucous spirit which had – not for all the right reasons – set it apart from the other guilds. At long last, the guild's exterior matched what, to Laxus, Fairy Tail had increasingly been becoming at heart: tumultuous, pathetic, undisciplined, self-destructive; in other words, a disgrace.
The expression of surprise on his face became his usual sneer. "Is this why the old man called me back? Because some other guild thought they'd use ours to practice their home renovation skills on, and he wasn't capable of stopping them? If he's going to be such a pathetic Master, he should just retire already…"
Laxus could sense the faint magical presences of his fellow guild members in the basement below the ruins of the building, so he began to force his way through the rubble in search of any intact stairs. He hadn't really intended to come back, just because the old man had begged him to. The Master had told him that Fairy Tail was in trouble, and that it needed its strongest members back immediately. Laxus had laughed in his face; when the old man had tried to order him to return, Laxus had become so angry that he had accidentally broken the communication lacrima. That should have been the end of it, but Laxus hadn't finished giving the old man a piece of his mind just yet. There were some things that could only be said face to face; some sentiments that could only be conveyed in person.
Was he also a little bit worried? If so, it was only because the request, and the way it was delivered, was unusually out of character for his grandfather. Concern, he told himself, was low on his list of priorities.
He could hear them now, the other guild members, their voices rising up to him from the stairwell and conveying the usual sense of the chaos that ruled Fairy Tail in his absence. There was something else too – a rush of magic power, sudden and overwhelming, dark and intense. Uncontrolled magic like that, in the confined space of the basement? Maybe this time, the chaos really was chaos.
Before Laxus knew it he was running, his coat flying out behind him, tearing down the stairs towards the source of the power. He recognized that magic. Emerging into the basement, his suspicions were confirmed: Mirajane, floating beneath one of her magic seals, screaming in true terror as violet lightning rained down all around her.
Mira. Laxus had respected her once, maybe even accepted her. But that had been back before the accident, which had rendered her almost completely unable to use magic. How could he still respect her, after she had let something like that destroy one of the strongest mages in Fairy Tail? And she seemed to have decided that here, in this half-destroyed basement, in close proximity to her fellow guild members and with no enemy in sight, was the best place to try her first Take Over in nearly two years. Try… and fail.
"Laxus!" someone shouted, having finally noticed his presence. It was the old man himself – backed into a corner, as far away from Mira as possible. His pathetic position was matched only by the relief in his voice.
Doubtless he would have said more, but it was hardly the appropriate time. Mira gave one final shriek. The enormous magic seal above her blazed once more and then vanished, leaving her floating a metre or so above the ground in full Satan Soul form. The eyes of everyone in the room were fixed on her silent form, waiting with bated breath.
She turned to look at Laxus with eyes utterly devoid of rationality. A smirk crossed her face; a twisted parody of the smile with which she would always welcome him home to the guildhall. It was a challenge. She – or whatever she had become – had acknowledged him as the greatest threat to her.
It was the only warning he got before she teleported the short space between them and aimed a blow towards his face. Fortunately, it was the only warning he needed.
As instinctively as breathing, Laxus slipped into his lightning form; an instant later he was well beyond her reach. She sensed him reform behind her, but her reactions were too slow. Her magic was unfamiliar, and out of control, whereas Laxus wasn't called the strongest in Fairy Tail for nothing. Before most people in the room had even worked out what was going on, he had gathered all his lightning magic in one strike and driven it straight into Mira's defenceless back.
In such a small battlefield, the effect was devastating. It was not in Laxus's nature to hold back when he was attacked without warning, even if his opponent was a fellow guild member. The explosion launched her into the wall with the force of a cannon. Cracks raced up and down the brickwork. For a moment she stayed there, static bursts crackling along her body, pressed into the indent in the wall, and then her Take Over wore off and she fell, unconscious, to the floor.
Cana was the first to react, dashing across to Mira with a horrified cry. It crossed Laxus's mind then that he might have gone a little too far. But that was what she got for not being able to control her magic. If he hadn't arrived in time, the consequences for the rest of the guild would have been much, much worse. Not that they realized that, the fools. At least half of them had taken up aggressive stances against him, some even readying magical attacks. Loke – of all people – was yelling a challenge at him, above the threats and curses filling the basement.
Master Makarov banged his staff against the table and called out for silence; with great reluctance, the furious rabble quietened. Laxus ignored them all. He strode towards his grandfather, demanding, "Is this why you called me back here, old man? Can't you even keep your own guild under control?" Sparks sizzled through the air around him. "You are a disgrace of a Master, presiding over a disgrace of a guild!"
"Umm…" was the Master's only response. He looked to the others for support, swallowed nervously, and gave Laxus an apologetic smile. "Actually, the Master's over there," he added, pointing to Mira's unconscious body.
"What?" Then understanding came to Laxus, and he repeated, "What? You're telling me you finally resigned and chose a new Master, and it wasn't me?"
"No, no!" Makarov shook his head emphatically. "Makarov is still our Guild Master. But he's over there. I'm Mira."
Laxus glanced around the basement and saw the true chaos of Fairy Tail for the first time: Loke, challenging him to a fight; Natsu, watching Lucy nervously from behind a barrel; Lucy, trying to pull her shirt off over her head; Gray, flapping his arms wildly in a hopeless attempt to stop her; Erza, wearing a swimsuit; Happy, repeatedly hitting his head against a wall; Elfman, lying comatose next to a tankard of beer; Cana, crouched next to Mira; Mira, the Master of Fairy Tail; Makarov, who had been acting not at all like himself…
And Laxus said, "Someone had better tell me what the hell is going on here."
[The Previous Day]
"Well," chirped Happy. "It could be worse."
No fewer than nine people rounded on him furiously. "How could it possibly be any worse?"
Happy thought about it. "Well, I could have swapped with you, Natsu."
"What are you trying to say?" roared Natsu.
"Please calm down," Mira interjected. "Now is not the time to be fighting amongst ourselves. I'm sure, if we put our heads together, that we can find a way out of this."
No one was listening. Fairy Tail was in what could politely be described as a state of panic. To any outside observer, the reason for this was not immediately obvious. Only those who had been directly affected knew the truth that couldn't be seen: the strongest members of Fairy Tail had swapped bodies.
Mira was stood on the table trying to attract attention. Trapped in Makarov's small body, it was the only way she could get people to notice her. The Master stood next to her as 'Mira', too busy examining his dress to be of much use. Not that it would have done any good. Chaos, indignation, and pandemonium held the floor.
Nor were they the only ones affected. Gray and Lucy were engaged in some sort of bizarre wrestling match on the floor: Gray's stripping habit was engaged in a battle with his new breasts, while Lucy desperately tried to stop him taking his top off to protect the modesty of what had been, up until half an hour ago, her body. God only knew where her own shirt had gone – Gray had probably already jettisoned it before she had ended up in his body, and she had been a bit too preoccupied since then to look for it.
Natsu wasn't helping either, having seen what he perceived to be a fight and jumped in eagerly, regardless of the fact that he was 'Loke'. On the other hand, switching bodies with Natsu hadn't cured Loke of his irrational fear of Lucy; he had scarpered from the guildhall shortly after it happened. Cana and Elfman had also switched; the former had discovered that Elfman's body wasn't nearly as well-adapted to alcohol consumption as hers was, and promptly passed out. For his part, Elfman was put out that he was no longer a Man, but was trying ineffectually to help his sister restore order. Jet and Droy had been swapped too, but as usual, no one was paying them any attention. Happy was trying to stop Natsu, Gray and Lucy from fighting, but he was far larger than he was used to being, and was only getting in the way and making things worse.
As one of the more mature members of the guild, Erza had managed initially to stay calm. Then Happy had tried Requipping, and had switched from Erza's comforting armour to a skimpy swimsuit, and she had lost it. Now she stood in a corner, one blue paw resting against the wall, shaking and mumbling something unintelligible to herself. A cloud of depression hung in the air around her.
Erza murmured, "How did this happen?"
Happy, ever the helpful one, disentangled himself from the brawlers for long enough to explain things to Erza. "It started with that creepy request, remember, Erza? It had all that weird writing on it, and then Natsu read it out, and now I get to be you! Isn't Requip magic fun?"
"It is not fun," growled Erza. "And that's not what I meant. Master!"
She span around, pointing one accusing paw at who she thought was the Master. "I'm Mira," Mira corrected her, raising a hand apologetically.
"Sorry. Master!" Erza turned her furious gaze upon the real Makarov. "What was such a dangerous request doing on the notice board? What were you thinking?"
"I, umm, uhh," stammered the Master.
"You did know what it was, right? That request was clearly full of sinister magic! How could you put it up in a place where anyone might have read it out like that?"
"You were the ones stupid enough to look at something so obviously evil!" Makarov harrumphed, folding his arms.
"I didn't, it was-" Erza suddenly frowned. Her voice – Happy's voice – couldn't really do severe, but the dangerous look in her eyes more than made up for it. "It was Natsu who read it out – as you well know, Master! No one else triggered the Changeling curse, even though the request might have been on that board for days while we were away on Galuna Island. The only person in the guild who would do something as blatantly stupid as study that evil request is Natsu-"
"Hey!" Natsu interrupted.
"-is Natsu, which is why you deliberately put that request there, knowing he would read it, as punishment for his team doing an S-Class Quest without permission!"
Makarov swallowed. "Umm…"
"Ehhhh?" yelled Natsu.
"Is that true, Master?" inquired Mira. "It seems a little harsh…"
"The Changeling magic is supposed to wear off after thirty minutes," grunted Makarov. "I didn't know you were going to get Levy to start messing around with it!"
Levy, the only person in the room who hadn't been hit by the Changeling curse, was on the verge of tears. "I'm sorry, everyone! I'm sorry… this is my fault…"
"Don't be mean to Levy!" Lucy would stand up for her friend, even if it was against the Master. "She worked so hard for all of us! Don't try and push the blame onto her!"
"But if I hadn't tried to undo it, the magic wouldn't have become permanent," Levy sniffed. "And Mira and Cana and everyone wouldn't have been dragged into this mess, and Fairy Tail wouldn't be in so much trouble…"
"What are you saying about Fairy Tail?" Natsu demanded.
Levy flinched back. "Loke- no, Natsu-"
"Well, you know… since everyone has swapped magic, and it's all reset to really basic levels since everyone was only proficient with their own type of magic… most of us won't be able to take on jobs any more, and doesn't that mean… that the Magic Council will force Fairy Tail to disband?"
Silence followed Levy's tearful revelation. All the members of Fairy Tail looked at each other, hoping someone would come up with a solution; some way that they would be able to keep Fairy Tail together through the times to come.
"Don't be ridiculous," someone said shortly. It took them a moment or two to work out that the speaker was Natsu. He had climbed onto a table, and was staring them all down with a dragon's ferocity. No one had ever seen Loke do an impassioned speech before; no one, looking at Natsu standing up there defiantly in Loke's body, could confuse the two of them even for a moment. "Fairy Tail, disbanded? That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard. Something as little as this isn't enough to stop us! It doesn't matter if we swap bodies, or magic, or have to retrain from the beginning! It's far too early to give up! And have you already forgotten? We're Fairy Tail, the strongest guild in Fiore! We'll find a way to break this Changeling curse!"
"But how?" Erza demanded.
"The library," murmured Levy.
Levy raised her tear-streaked face proudly. "I'll go to the library. If there's any record of Changeling magic, I'll find it. This is my fault, so I won't rest until I've found a cure. I'll get you all back to normal… I promise."
Grinning down at her, Natsu said, "Thanks, Levy!"
"It might be worth sending a messenger to Porlyuscia in the East Forest," mused Makarov. "She's good with this sort of thing. And someone find Mystogan – if anyone in the guild knows something about such obscure magic, it'll be him."
"I'll try to get in touch with Laxus," Mira added. "If we could get him and even the Raijinshuu back to Fairy Tail, they'll be able to take on high-profile jobs and cover for us so the Magic Council won't suspect anything is wrong."
"Laxus…" murmured Makarov, with a frown that didn't suit Mira's beautiful face at all.
"You don't think he'll come?" Mira asked him anxiously.
Makarov turned away, affecting disinterest. "Who can tell, with that boy?"
"Of course he will!" interrupted Natsu. "He's still one of us, and the future of Fairy Tail is at stake here. Besides, he has to come back so that I can beat him and prove that I'm the strongest in Fairy Tail!"
"Yeah, because he's really going to struggle to defeat you right now, isn't he, 'Loke'?" growled Gray.
"Shut up!" yelled Natsu, and the guildhall returned to chaos. Peace in Fairy Tail was only ever temporary.
While the others fought, Mira gently touched Makarov on the arm. "I'll talk to Laxus. Don't worry – I'll use all my charm to convince him to return," she added with a wink.
"Don't go flirting with my grandson while you look like me!" warned Makarov, only causing Mira to laugh.
Meanwhile, Levy was busy assembling Team Shadow Gear with renewed determination. "Jet, Droy – you'll come with me to the library, right? You two were also switched by Changeling, weren't you?"
"We can cope with it for now," said Jet, as Droy.
"We'll be there to support you, Levy!" said Droy, as Jet.
"I'll come too!" someone else piped up.
"Thanks… Lucy, right?" Levy guessed, blinking up at Gray's half-naked body. Lucy gave her a thumbs-up, prompting Levy to break out into a nervous laugh. "I'll have to undo the magic as quickly as possible, because this name thing is getting really confusing."
"I'll join you." Gray glanced away. "I'd rather not just sit around here, waiting for someone to save me."
"Yeah, and me!" added Natsu. "Happy? Erza? Let's get Fairy Tail's strongest team out there to support Team Shadow Gear!"
"I'd rather not go outside looking like this…" was Erza's despondent response.
"The more we help, the faster we'll be able to undo the spell, right?" Lucy tried to encourage her. Seeing Erza so down was disturbing. "And wouldn't you rather be with us than sat alone at home?"
"…Alright. But you-" here she pointed one defiant paw at Happy "-have got to pretend to be me. So don't Requip while in town… or talk to any strangers… or, in fact, say anything at all. Got that?"
"Aye!" chirped Happy again, who probably hadn't been listening. But it did cheer Erza up a little, and so the eight of them hit the road. It was different to any mission they had done before, and they were significantly less enthusiastic about it than their usual jobs, but the two Fairy Tail teams had a task, and they were resolved to see it through to its end.
"By this eternal swapping, may you be forever happy."
Even in a whisper, Levy's voice carried throughout the dusty archives. They had spent so many hours in the cloying atmosphere of the library that even she no longer cared for its hallowed law of silence. As the time had passed and the frustration had mounted, they were all desperate for something – anything – to break the monotony and restore a fragment of their withered hope.
"Found something, Levy?" Lucy asked. But after so many false alarms, even she was having to force the lightness into her voice.
"That one line. It's everywhere. Every time there's a mention of Changeling, that's all it says. By this eternal swapping, may you be forever happy."
"What does it mean?"
"It's the Changeling spell, translated. It's safe to read out, as long as it's not in its original language. That's probably why most books that refer to it quote that translation rather than the actual text. I'm sure it's a clue, but…"
"A clue, which tells us the swapping will be permanent? That's all we've got?" Natsu's complaint was muffled by the fact that he was lying on his front on the desk, his face planted firmly into the wood.
"And 'forever happy'? What kind of a joke is that?" demanded Gray, of no one in particular. "I liked being a man. Now, when I walk into the men's bathroom I get yelled at, but in the women's one, I just feel like a pervert."
Happy spoke up, innocently, "This coming from the guy who thinks it's normal to walk around in his underwear."
"This is a library!" bellowed a newcomer, with enough force to make the others fall silent immediately. "If you want to chat, you can do it outside!" The large woman folded her arms and glowered at Levy. "I thought better of you, Levy. Bringing your loutish friends in here like this; I thought you respected the library!"
"Uh, they were just leaving," replied Levy, with a smile. When Lucy and the others looked at her uncertainly, she gave them a little push in the direction of the exit. "Go on. It's okay. You should go and report back to the guild – see if anyone else has had any more luck."
"What about you?" Lucy queried.
"I'm going to stay a little longer. There are still a couple more things I want to check out. I'll probably head straight home afterwards, so don't worry if you don't see me – I'll report in to the guildhall first thing tomorrow morning."
"Will you be alright?"
Levy laughed. "It won't be the first time I've left the library late, that's for sure! Besides, I wasn't hit by Changeling – I'm the last person you should be worrying about. I can look after myself, and Jet and Droy will stay with me. I'll meet you at the guild tomorrow, hopefully with some good news."
"Thanks, Levy," smiled Lucy. "Good luck."
"You too, Lucy, everyone."
With those words of parting, Lucy, Natsu, Gray, Erza and Happy left the library. An unusually sombre mood had fallen over the five of them, after an afternoon's worth of failures. Fairy Tail's strongest team had never known despair like this. None of them spoke, not even to marvel at the fresh air of the outside world after several hours of being stuck underground.
Erza was trailing behind the others, her feline gaze fixed firmly on the ground. Her depression had returned more strongly than before. While Lucy was sure she wasn't going to do anything stupid, it didn't stop her from casting repeated glances over her shoulder to check that Erza was still following them. She wanted to support the other girl, but didn't know what to say that wouldn't make things worse. 'It'll be okay'? That was impossible to say with any conviction, especially after this afternoon. Even Natsu, with his usually-indomitable spirit, would have struggled to convince Erza that he believed it.
She supposed, in a way, it was worse for Erza than for her. Lucy was certainly not impressed at having suddenly become a man, but it wasn't too hard to get used to, especially since she still thought and felt emotionally like herself. At least she was still a mage, even if at the best of times her control over Gray's Ice Make was a pale imitation of what he himself could achieve – and at the worst of times it was all she could do to stop ice cubes from pouring out of her mouth. More importantly, though, she was still human. Erza, the S-Class Mage, Titania of Fairy Tail, had become a talking cat.
It would have been a blow for anyone, but Erza… Erza was proud. She didn't like to show it, but deep inside, it was the truth. An army of powerful foes couldn't bring down Erza Scarlet, but this? This struck right at the heart of Erza's inner fragility. She needed help, and Lucy just had no idea how to help her. So Fairy Tail's strongest team walked on in silence.
It was a peaceful night; on any other day, this walk through the familiar streets of Magnolia would have been enjoyable. The sun was far beyond the horizon, leaving the sky a beautiful deep indigo, punctuated by the sharp staccato of distant stars. Closer to the ground, the night was lit by the homely amber-orange of magical lanterns. The atmosphere was quiet, but not silent. The footsteps of friendly strangers were never too far away, and the chatter of partygoers and the murmured easy-going conversations of those on their way home livened up the night. Between those ambient sounds and the gentle splashing of boats travelling along the canal, nightfall in their city was by no means a hostile time.
Apart from the sound of explosions.
At the first faint kaboom, Natsu stopped dead in his tracks, and Lucy promptly walked into him. Both of them fell to the ground with startled shouts as a second distant explosion rang out through the night.
Natsu exclaimed, "Hey, watch where you're going!"
"I'm sorry-" Lucy tried to apologize, but Gray overrode her.
"What are you shouting at Lucy for, huh?"
Natsu glanced from one of them to the other. "Obviously, I thought she was you, you clumsy idiot!"
"Who are you calling an idiot?"
It might have been amusing to watch 'Loke' and 'Lucy' go head to head like that for a change, were it not for a third explosion, this one far louder than the other two, tearing up what remained of the peaceful night. The ground seemed to shake with the force of it; there was the crunching sound of what might have been a landslide in the distance.
"That's coming from…" began Happy.
"…Fairy Tail!" Erza finished, suddenly alert again with the threat of danger. "Let's get back to the guildhall, now!"
Rivalries put aside, they ran – ran for their friends and for Fairy Tail.
They arrived at a scene of destruction. The guildhall had been utterly ruined, speared through by those huge metal lances. Even as they watched, another wall surrendered with a weary groan and collapsed into bricks and dust. Just like that, their home was gone. First, the guild had been driven to desperate measures by the Changeling accident, and now this. It was fortunate – for Natsu and Gray, who would otherwise have rushed off to certain death – that whoever had done this was long gone.
The sound of someone moving in the wreckage of the guildhall snapped them simultaneously out of their horror. "Hey!" Natsu called out. "Is anyone there? Can you hear me?"
"Help… I'm over here…"
The voice was weak, but it was one they all recognized: Macao. Erza took charge, a brief flash of steely determination returning to her eyes. "Natsu, Gr- no, Lucy! Get Macao out of the rubble and make sure he's alright. Happy, Gray – you're with me. We'll have to find the others!"
No one spared a thought for their own safety as they searched through the remains of their beloved guildhall. In the absence of magic power, teamwork and coordination were necessary to round up the survivors – to find them, to communicate and share their knowledge, and to locate someone strong enough to free anyone trapped. For the most part it was disordered chaos. The searchers were driven by desperation and haste, and only occasionally guided by Erza's shouts; urgency overrode any sense of patience, and Erza was struggling to make herself heard or see the big picture as a cat. Still, despite their disorganization, their sheer love for the guild members they were trying to save pushed them forwards.
Presently, Fairy Tail's strongest team was joined by Cana, Elfman, Mira, and Makarov, who had avoided the worst of the damage since they had been searching for ancient documents in the archive when the attack had hit. As they were able to free the less-fortunate members of their guild, the search team added to its ranks those who were still in possession of their original bodies and thus their magic power, and progress began in earnest.
With every person they found, injured but alive, the grip of despair around the heart of Fairy Tail began to loosen. For the first time since Changeling, they were beginning to dare to hope again – to pray that things might not yet be as bad as they could possibly get.
It might have taken them an hour, or perhaps it was only a few minutes. No one cared. The important thing was that all the members of Fairy Tail who had been in the guildhall when it was destroyed were present and accounted for in the basement. The damage only extended to the above-ground structures; the basement, and the archives below, had remained intact, and offered them a safe shelter.
While those with medical knowledge or healing equipment tended to the wounded, others ran about fetching what furniture remained whole from the ruins of the floor above and turning the storage area into a temporary base of operations. Not once did anyone complain about the lack of warmth, or proper lighting, or general facilities. Everyone in that room would have traded all those things in an instant in return for the miracle they had just received: that no one had been badly hurt when the building had collapsed.
The hour grew late, and still no one left. They wouldn't admit it, but everyone wanted to be with Fairy Tail right now – to be safe, amongst their family. When all the wounded had been tended to, and all the pressing concerns had been met, the guild members began to assemble silently before the Master. He stood in front of the counter of the makeshift bar, while Mira sat atop it, in Makarov's usual position. The others sat in the chairs and on the tables they had salvaged from the ruins of the guild above, and waited patiently for their Master to speak.
A murmur ran through the crowd, but nothing more.
"This is the handiwork of their strongest mage, Gajeel Redfox. Of that there can be no doubt. There's never been any love lost between that guild and ours, but I never thought they'd go this far. Attacking us in the night without provocation… it's unforgiveable."
"Let's get them!" someone in the crowd called out: Natsu. "We'll strike back when they're least expecting it! We'll make them pay for harming Fairy Tail!"
This declaration was met by fierce cheers. "Silence!" yelled Makarov. The sharp command was strange in Mira's gentle voice, but their Master's sentiment reached them through it, and they fell once more into subdued silence. "I know how you feel. Believe me, after today, no one wants to destroy their guild more than I. However! It is absolutely out of the question!"
"Whaaat?" Natsu's screech was echoed by many others in the hall.
This time, it took Makarov a full minute to restore order. "Listen to me, all of you! This is a serious matter. Inter-guild warfare is strictly forbidden by the Magic Council. We cannot simply go to war with Phantom Lord."
"They're the ones who've declared war on us!" Natsu fumed.
"We can't just sit by and take it!" Gray added his voice to the fight.
"We can, and we will," said Makarov firmly.
"Fairy Tail is in a very difficult position right now," Mira confirmed, in solidarity. People fell silent when she spoke because she did so with their Master's voice, but people listened because she was their beloved Mira. "We've got enough to deal with without a war against a guild as powerful as Phantom Lord. As it is right now, one rash move could be the end of Fairy Tail. We're safe and we are together. Let's not risk that on something as petty as revenge."
"Not to mention the main reason why we can't afford to fight Phantom Lord at the moment." Erza's logic, Happy's voice. The S-Class Mage-turned-cat stood on the table, sky-blue arms folded. "The few of our strongest members who are actually in Magnolia right now have been rendered powerless by Changeling. We wouldn't even be able to beat Gajeel, let alone the Element 4. Not to mention, their Master Jose is one of the Ten Wizard Saints! If we attack Phantom Lord, we will lose. Mira and the Master are right."
"Then what do you suggest we do?" Natsu again. "Just sit here and wait for them to come back and finish the job?"
Makarov responded as best he could. "We protect ourselves. We look after our own. If they come back, we'll defend Fairy Tail with everything we have."
Mira added, "First thing tomorrow, I'll dispatch a message to the Magic Council requesting assistance. Phantom Lord attacked another legal guild without provocation; the Council will have to take our side on this, especially if we don't fight back or cause any trouble for them. If we're lucky, with their intervention, we might be able to settle this peacefully. If we're really lucky, we might be able to get out of this without them discovering how badly we've been crippled by Changeling."
Grumbles of dissent rippled through the guildhall. "I don't like it," Natsu spat, putting into words the sentiment of most the people in the room. "They destroyed our guildhall! We can't let that slide!"
"Buildings can be rebuilt," came Makarov's restrained reply. Mira cast him a glance, but said nothing.
"What about all the people that bastard Gajeel hurt? Someone might have been seriously injured, or- or-"
"But no one was." Mira took over, placing one small, wrinkled hand on the Master's shoulder. "In a few weeks, we'll all be okay again. If we go to war with Phantom Lord, we won't have that guarantee. Things worse than this will happen."
"Since when has Fairy Tail backed down from a fight?"
"Since they encountered a fight they couldn't win, and decided protecting their family was more important than revenge," Mira countered.
There was an appreciable murmur at this. She and Natsu stared at each other. Theirs was a different kind of battle to the one Natsu sought with Phantom Lord; one that transcended actions and words and even the bodies of 'Loke' and 'Makarov' with which they conversed. This was Mira's earnest heart, trying to impress her feelings onto Natsu; trying to make him understand that the safety of the guild had to come first.
Natsu looked away, unable to meet her gaze any longer. "Fine. As long as they don't try anything else, I'll overlook this… for the time being."
"Thank you… Natsu."
The Dragon Slayer's concession was enough to placate the rest of the guild. No one was happy with the way things were, but they trusted Mira, and they trusted their Master. They could overcome even this provocative insult, provided they were together.
Even so, no one wanted to go home that night. Sleeping bags were procured from hidden corners, though most people knew the fear of a second attack would keep them awake all night. Cana opened a cask of ale for everyone's benefit, and slowly but surely a ghost of Fairy Tail's shattered spirit returned to the temporary hideout.
As the conversation began to turn to lighter topics, Mira pulled the Master to one side, out of the crowd. "Mystogan's on his way back," she informed him quietly. "But I got the impression he was quite far from Magnolia. If Phantom Lord strike again soon, we probably won't be able to rely on his help." She shook her head. "I couldn't get in touch with Gildarts, and knowing him, he's probably on another continent anyway. It has been three years, after all."
Makarov slowly nodded; he had expected as much. "What about Laxus?"
"I talked to him," came Mira's troubled response. "I don't think he's going to come. He was…"
"He was his usual self, I imagine. That attitude of his is exactly why I can't retire. He's just not ready to inherit the guild. I'm not convinced he ever will be."
"Of course, there might not be a guild left for him to inherit after this. Do you think Phantom Lord will come back?"
Makarov's eyes narrowed. "Let's just hope that the Magic Council will help us settle this peacefully, before anyone else gets hurt."
He glanced over a guild finally beginning to relax, and the look in his eyes softened. "Still, of all the times for Phantom Lord to attack us… I'm not sure how much more bad luck Fairy Tail can take. I suppose Happy was right earlier, when he said that things could have been worse. Turns out, they could have been – and now they are."
"And how about now? Are things as bad as they can possibly be?"
The Master didn't answer for a long time. "Come tomorrow morning, we'll know for sure."
"…And that's your story?" It was hard to tell whether the incredulity in Laxus's voice was aimed at the curse of Changeling, or the attack by Phantom Lord, or their decision to interrupt his travels and call him back over it; knowing him, it was probably the latter. "That's why you're sat here like cowards in this ruin of a guildhall? Because you and the old man screwed up some ancient magic, and couldn't fight back when the guild was threatened?"
"No," Mira said sadly. "That's not the end of the story. Because, unfortunately, things still weren't as bad as they could possibly be. This morning, we were finalizing the wording of our report to the Magic Council when we heard the news. Levy and her team hadn't been back that night, because they had stayed in the library until it closed, and gone straight home after that. Since she wouldn't know about the destruction of the guildhall, Natsu and Lucy went to Levy's room in the dorms this morning to tell her, and see if she'd learnt anything else about Changeling. When no one answered the door, they went to the library, but no one there had seen them since they left the previous night. Only on their way back to the guild did they encounter Team Shadow Gear – stripped and beaten and tied up against a tree."
"That Phantom Lord bastard Gajeel ambushed them on their way back from the library," Natsu growled. "He beat them up and painted Phantom Lord's guild mark on them, and displayed them like a trophy!" There was a sharp crunch as the table leg he clutched in his hand splintered under the force.
"We took them to the hospital," Mira continued. "The doctors said they'll make a full recovery in time, but… they haven't woken up since. What were we supposed to do? This wasn't just the destruction of a building – it was a deliberate, malicious and unprovoked attack on a member of Fairy Tail. No peaceful resolution would be sufficient to placate our guild, so we called another meeting to decide the best course of action; the plan of attack… I suppose, in the end, I lost."
Mira's gaze flickered to her own, unconscious body, then she gathered her courage and pressed on. "Your grandfather was the worst affected by the attack. He was furious that someone had hurt one of his children, and refused to listen to reason. While we tried to come up with ways we could stand against Phantom Lord without any of our Changeling-afflicted members being put into a scenario where their lives would depend on the use of magic, the Master tried… to use the magic of his new body. My magic."
She shook her head in sorrow. "I tried to convince him not to, but he wouldn't listen. He said that if he couldn't control a Take Over like that, he didn't deserve to be called a Wizard Saint. Though he somehow managed to summon the magic power to use my Satan Soul, he… couldn't control it. If you hadn't arrived when you did, he might have destroyed what remained of the guild. So… thank you for coming back, Laxus."
Laxus blinked at her in surprise. Mira seemed earnest, though it didn't change the fact that many of the guild's other members were still glaring at him.
Now that the true Master was temporarily incapacitated, Mira – whether it was because she was currently 'Makarov' or not – seemed to have taken charge of the guild. "Elfman, Cana," she began, turning to the two of them. "Can you take the Master to the hospital where Levy and the others are? It'll be safer there."
"I think he'd rather stay," Erza spoke up quietly. She wasn't looking at Laxus, or Mira, or anyone at all. Though she was stood on a table, so the others could easily see her, she was staring down at the ground. "He'd want to be here, if these are to be Fairy Tail's last moments."
Mira nodded once. "Then, can you make him comfortable?" The two of them ran off to look for bedding and blankets.
"Hey," Natsu began. This time his challenging glare was directed at Erza. "What do you mean, Fairy Tail's last moments? Now that Laxus is here, we're going to charge into Phantom Lord's headquarters and teach them never to mess with Fairy Tail!"
"Oh, really?" Laxus replied easily. "That'll be fun, watching you fools be utterly destroyed by a proper guild."
"Hey-!" Natsu tried, but Gray's roar cut him off.
"Are you saying you're not going to help us, you bastard?"
"Let me put it this way," said Laxus. "This guild is pathetic; I've been saying so for years. But even for you, this is a new low. One lone man waltzes in here and destroys half the guild and, between the old man's idiocy and your own incompetence, no one can do a thing about it. Why on earth should I help you?"
"Because we're all members of Fairy Tail-"
"Fairy Tail? Don't make me laugh. If you can't even fight your own battles, you don't deserve to be in Fairy Tail!"
And with that final pronouncement, Laxus began walking through the stunned silence towards the stairs.
At times like this, Natsu would not have held back from attacking Laxus head-on, no matter how many times he was defeated. But without his Dragon Slayer magic, he could do nothing but tremble impotently. He turned instead to Mira. "Mira, do something! We can't let him leave like that!"
Mira looked at Natsu, troubled. Makarov would have known what to do, but their Master was unconscious, gravely wounded by just another awful twist in the string of calamities that had befallen Fairy Tail. An idea came to her, followed immediately by a warning. There was every chance it would just make things worse, but… without Laxus on their side, Fairy Tail was done for. Makarov would never allow it, but then if Makarov was capable of making decisions right now, they wouldn't need to resort to this in the first place. For the first time since she had stopped taking S-Class Quests, the full weight of responsibility was on her. She made her choice.
Raising her voice, Mira called out, as if in passing, "That's a shame. I suppose we'll have to find someone else to be our Master."
Laxus froze, one foot still in mid-air. "Master?" he growled.
Everyone was staring at Mira, their expressions ranging from incredulity to horror. She kept her gaze fixed on Laxus. She couldn't bear to look at the others. If she did, she might falter. "Of course. We can't go to war with another guild without a Guild Master to lead us. Since Master Makarov won't be taking part in this fight, it's only right that we choose a temporary Master until the battle with Phantom Lord has been won. Since you've always wanted to be the Master of Fairy Tail, I thought you'd jump at this chance to prove to your grandfather that you are ready and capable of taking on that mantle… but clearly not. Never mind, we'll find someone else. I'm sure Natsu is up for it-"
"No!" Laxus's eyes blazed; lightning crackled at his fingers. "No one will be Master of this guild except me!"
Mira smiled. "So, you'll stay, and help out your guild, then?"
"…I suppose." Laxus surveyed the crowd before him, as if daring anyone to challenge him. No one did. "Fine. Get ready to fight. We'll go to war with Phantom Lord."
Though thin at first, the resulting cheer quickly became mighty. Guild loyalty came before personal grudges; no one would complain as long as they were able to enact their revenge upon Phantom Lord.
Unnoticed by the cheering crowd, Erza slipped over to perch on the counter next to Mira. "Are you sure this is wise?" she asked.
"I don't know." Mira's troubled face said it all. "But I'll do what I have to do to protect this guild. I won't let this be the end of Fairy Tail… whatever the cost may be."
A/N: And that's the first chapter. A lot of explanation this time but there you go. I hope you liked it! As you can see, it's less of a 'How can we undo Changeling?' story and more of a 'Given that Changeling is a thing, how are we going to survive the attack from Phantom Lord?' one. I'm planning three arcs like this - Phantom Lord, Tower of Heaven, Battle of Fairy Tail - with weekly updates (life permitting). Despite being a Changeling story, it's a serious one, so not really a comedy - though it will be exceedingly silly in places, starting from next chapter...
In terms of characters, well, I mostly use the normal main cast. The one obvious exception is Laxus, who, as my favourite character, will be showing up a hell of a lot more than he does at this point in canon. I'd still be hesitant to call him the main character though. It's pretty balanced for the most part. I think.
Anyway, if you liked it then let me know, or even if you didn't! This is my first time writing for Fairy Tail so tell me what you think. Thanks for reading! ~CS