Warnings: Graphic depictions of violence, sexual encounters, substance abuse (probably?) and other such sensitive topics. Mature audiences only, please.
Fairy Tail belongs to Hiro Mashima
The Monster and the Man
It was hard being good.
Not because the right choice was indistinct. No. And not because he didn't want to be, either.
It was just oftentimes, Jellal felt people just didn't deserve it. It took effort to smile serenely. It took skill to go high when people dug down low. To slide into the man he'd been during his Tower of Heaven days… that was an easy thing. It came to him naturally. He'd spent more than half of his life living on the dark side and relishing every minute of it. It was what he knew best.
When that chapter of his life entitled 'Tower of Heaven Sadist' closed and he'd been freed from the Tower of Heaven's grip, as his penance, he'd made it his mission to try to right some of the wrongs in this wretched world. His means of doing so were simple: destroy the dark guilds overrunning Fiore. It was something he excelled at and it was something that kept the beast in check. To the most damaged mages that dared to beg for their lives he'd say, "I was a monster before I was a man."
Monster, then man. Monster, then man. And then he was a monstrous man.
Jellal knew that the charges he bore were innumerable, his guilt unsurpassable. The blood he had on his hands… the only way to wash it clean was with more blood. That's what he told himself, anyway, because, in reality, his sanity wasn't just a switch. Ultear had spent so many years digging around in his head, rerouting the way he thought, the way he felt, that even now, years after she'd taken out her talons and joined the fight for 'good,' Jellal still had trouble deciding how much was too much. What was punishment and what was pleasure? What was justice and what was just…
It was a ledge he trod every day. So far, he'd yet to slip over, but as he walked into Primal Instincts, a tattoo parlor housing an interesting kind of devil on the edge of a town called Innisfil, he considered what the fall down that rabbit hole would be like. Amazing? Terrifying? And really, when he was doing this kind of business, should he care?
Those were the kinds of thoughts that brought out the monster.
The bell over the door jangled and the man behind the artist's counter looked up. He was older, with pudgy cheeks covered in tattoos, a double chin adorned with a long goatee, and sausage-like fingers that were deceptively nimble. He met Jellal's gaze, then dropped his eyes. "Afternoon."
"Ingin." Jellal nodded. Despite Ingin's coolness, they knew each other well enough.
"Need a touch-up?" Ingin asked.
Jellal touched his right cheek gently, fingering the mark over his eye. "Yeah." When he was young, it had marked him as one of Madam Genève's boys, belonging to Innisfil's most secret pleasure house. The Vault was elite, where rich men and rich women came to pay for services from exotic looking creatures. It was his hair that had caught Madam's attention first, blue and vibrant as it was. Then it was his smile. 'Magnifique,' she used to say in her eastern tongue. 'Magnifique.' That word still haunted his dreams.
"We could remove it, Jellal," Ingin said, dragging him back to the present.
Jellal knew it wasn't that simple. It was a part of him now, something he'd come to loathe as much as he loved. "If I came to remove it, I would lose its effect." Though he supposed it should bring him shame, it was a mark he bore proudly, in defiance of that time.
"And what effect is that?" The way Ingin said 'is' came out sounding like 'eez'.
"It reminds guilty people of their misdeeds," Jellal said.
Ingin waved him to the leather chair. Only after Jellal sat and leaned back under the drooping overhead light did the man say, "Why would you want to remember those? It isn't good to punish yourself, boy. The past is the past."
"Yes," Jellal agreed, though Ingin had missed his point entirely. "The past is the past." It was a philosophy everyone would do well to adhere to. Closing his eyes, Jellal waited for Ingin to prepare his needle. There was a click, an exhale of sour breath, then the tattoo gun buzzed to life.
"Stay very still." Steel, not still.
Jellal was careful not to move. The needle went over his eye, again and again, darkening the tattoo he'd had for as long as he could remember. Every few years he'd come in. It was always to the same place, because not only did Ingin know who he was, he kept his secrets well. Mostly because Jellal knew a few of Ingin's darkest tales, too.
Beyond being a criminal, seedy even amongst the dregs, Ingin was an excellent tattoo artist. His lines were straight and true, his hands steady, and most importantly, his mouth was always sealed.
"Doesn't hurt, ja?" Ingin asked.
Jellal grunted. It did hurt but the pain was welcomed. The pain let him know that he was alive, that he was free, free of the Vault, free of the Tower of Heaven, and that he still had a duty and the means to complete it. The pain could stop when he was dead.
The needle pressed in over his eyelid. This was the worst part. The skin was thinnest here, the needle reaching nearly to his eye. He breathed in and out slowly, telling himself that it would soon be over. In reality, this part took the longest. Ingin was extra careful and extra slow.
Jellal counted the seconds until he was finished.
The needle moved to his forehead. "Do you still speak to Sienna?" Ingin asked.
Sienna, with hair almost as violently red as Erza's. Thinking of the Fairy Tail mage made his chest feel kind of empty with loss while thinking of his one-time friend and co-Vault captive made him feel panicked. To be fair to Sienna, it wasn't her, exactly… it was what she represented. A time when he was too afraid to escape. "No."
The answer came out so abrupt, Ingin didn't press it.
But Jellal was curious, remembering Sienna sitting on Madam Genève's lap, the woman's orange-painted nails threading through her hair. 'Magnifique. Magnifique.' "Do you?"
"You know she wasn't there when the Vault was raided by those child snatchers," Ingin said. "The house was closed down after that. She had nothing, so it was the streets with her." Clearly, Jellal remembered the night the slavers from the Tower of Heaven came crashing into the Vault to steal the children away. Out of the frying pan and into the fire. Their reasoning for raiding the whore house was simple: the children there were already counted as lost causes, no one would be looking for them.
That old, familiar rage and panic came back. It tasted like searing acid when he swallowed it.
"She was pretty, though." Ingin concluded. "The last I heard, she was being eyed by a rich man's bitch." The needle stopped. "You're fine again for another few years."
Jellal opened his eye. The skin felt sunburned; it was a pain he both knew and welcomed. Calmly, he asked, "How many more, Ingin?"
Ingin paused unhooking the needle from the gun. "How many more what?" He asked it carefully, guardedly.
"How many more children have you marked up for her?"
With great purpose, Ingin placed the needle into an alcohol bath, then turned and faced Jellal head on, so Jellal could see that the man's tattooed face was wrinkled now. When Jellal was small, Ingin had been just as covered in ink twisted to look like monsters in myth, but he remembered looking up into the man's eyes and seeing a thread of kindness there. Despite Ingin's role in Madam Genève's business, he was, at the heart of things, at least striving to be a good man.
Jellal knew better than anyone that the struggle was real. It didn't make him sympathetic, though.
"It is done." Eez.
"I know she's collecting them again." Innisfil had been an unhealthy obsession of his for years. He was always looking for the moment he saw Madam's children darting through the streets again, using the cover of darkness to remain unseen, the tattoo over their eye. Maybe it had been going on for longer than the few weeks he'd been aware of (likely) but it was only recently, with Tartarus' destruction, that he was able to really focus on the segment of Fiore that housed his deepest, darkest secrets.
"It's not children any longer," Ingin said finally—ashamedly. "At least, not mostly. Now it's women and mages Madam wants."
That changed, but not much else. "How. Many?" That ledge he toed never looked so steep, nor so close.
"I don't have a number, Jellal."
"You mark them as hers and turn a blind eye, and you can't bother remembering how many feet have stepped through your door?" His throat was as dry as parchment, his stomach burdened with the revelation. "She treats them worse than slaves." He should know.
Jellal knew he was about to defend her. He didn't want to hear it. "The last time we spoke, you said it was finished."
Ingin, perhaps feeling the rise of agitated magic, paled. "Yes, it was finished. The Tower of Heaven business crushed the Vault. Then… then something changed. A man came looking for her, wanted mages, and Madam—you have to understand—she—she threatened to close me down and ruin me if I didn't help again." Me. Not my shop, but me. Broken knees, broken elbows? Broken cheeks? That was how Madam Genève did business. Or… how she got people to do business for her. She was too much of a lady to get her hands bloody herself.
"Forgive me." Ingin bowed his balding head, his long, silver goatee, auburn when Jellal first met him thirteen years earlier, nearly brushing the floor.
Jellal's chest got cold and he knew the kind of forgiveness he was in the mood to grant. "I was a monster before I was a man."