I know the vast majority of this chapter looks like it is just filler meant to convey the passage of time. Parts of it are a bit of fluff; however, I promise there are little tidbits scattered throughout that will be relevant either in the next few chapters or in the next story in this series as it is planned now.

Trigger/Content Warning: Description of a dissociative episode. If you don't want to read it, just skip the first two paragraphs.

The remainder of that evening was a bit of a blur for Cindy. She hadn't touched a drop of alcohol that she recalled, but still, part of her had checked out after what little hope she'd had left was snuffed out. She pieced together most of what happened from what Natsu, Loke, and Levy told her later, but she could only access a few fractured moments here and there from her memory of the evening.

She hadn't noticed Erza's presence, but Natsu and Loke agreed Makarov had asked Erza to direct her to Levy's apartment for assistance subscribing to all of the research journals. Walking into an apartment piled high with more books than Cindy had ever seen outside of a public library or the larger Barnes and Noble bookstores back home was one image that did stick in her head. So, she was certain they'd made it to Levy's apartment, and it certainly matched her reputation.

Suffice to say, Cindy was now the proud owner of more than a dozen trade and research magazine subscriptions, and sweet Levy would often strike up conversations with her about some of the articles since issues began arriving a week back.

Of course, the one thing Loke and Natsu seemed to share, aside from membership to Fairy Tale, was a firm belief that distraction was the best way to deal with an unsolvable problem. While Cindy found it increasingly difficult to focus without a set task at hand, Loke took it upon himself to keep the two of them in steady work while allowing for her to stay close enough to home not to miss her subscriptions by more than a day or two.

They continued their morning sparring sessions, and Natsu seemed determined to help her break through the block she'd placed on her magic. The evenings of their lighter days, he'd more or less drag her into the clearing he made for training and goad her into pushing farther and harder than she'd have ever dared on her own.

All in all, the two of them kept her too busy and tired to dwell on the what-ifs, and Levy helped her focus on searching for a solution as days crept into weeks.

Cindy had made great strides in improving as a wizard in the past month. She was still far from being powerful, but she could hold her own without collapsing after a couple minutes going all out now. All the exercise combined with a lack of preservative and additive packed, nutritionally defunct food had produced a profound difference in her health and strength as well as her appearance.

While still heavier than strictly healthy, she'd lost a good amount of fat and built muscle through the extreme shift in lifestyle. Her asthma wasn't as bad as it had been and her knees and hips protested less these days thanks to the weight loss. Yet, for all the good, the constant exercise kept her aching on a daily basis.

She'd run out of her pain cream last week, and she just didn't have the spoons left to stand the constant burning ache on top of the baseline pain she'd had for years. The local analgesics worked, but they were just as prone to making her sick for hours as the NSAIDS back home.

She'd been able to get the correct herbs from Porlyusica weeks back; however, the potency was not as good using a tincture as it was from the distilled oils. So, Cindy turned toward the town proper instead of the guild this morning to look for the local apothecary, hoping they would have the oils she needed.

A bell chimed as Cindy entered the quaint little shop. The front part of the store was small with very few items available on display. The lighting was dimmer than most shops, and the smell of so many herbs and tinctures and suspensions packed into such a small space was quite pungent.

Cindy was rather surprised to see Emmy walk into the room from the apothecary's workroom in response to the bell.

"Oh hello, Cynthia," Emmy said, wiping her hands on the corner of her apron. "Can I help you with something?"

"Yes, please," Cindy answered. She crossed the small room in four paces, joining Emmy at the counter. "Do you carry distilled essential oils? I ran out of my pain cream months ago, and tinctures just don't have the same kick."

"We do," Emmy answered. She tilted her head to the side and frowned at Cindy. "Are Loke and Natsu pushing you too hard?"

Feeling her face flush hot, Cindy shook her head and gave a self-deprecating chuckle. "Just gettin' old and paying the price for letting myself get so out of shape in the first place." She looked about the shop. "I didn't know you worked here. Do you enjoy it?"

Emmy nodded. "I always wanted to be a wizard growing up, but I just don't seem to have the knack for the stuff they find useful in guilds," she said. "But, I do pretty well with creating the potions and things we sell."

She reached below the counter and retrieved a notepad and pencil. "Are you a potioneer too?"

Cindy shook her head again. "Nah," she said. "I owned a little soap shop and did well enough creating perfumes back home, but that's the extent of it. The pain cream was a fluke. A failed experiment that proved useful."

"Happy accident then," Emmy answered with a giggle and grin. "So, what can I get you?"

Cindy listed off the ingredients and supplies she needed to create the cream from scratch as she'd done back home. The apothecary didn't carry a few of the oils at all. Two didn't matter so much as they were simply there to prevent it from smelling too strongly of lemongrass, which had mostly been a problem for Cindy's mother and parents-in-law back home. Considering an attempt to return home would end in disaster, that wasn't a factor anymore. However, the lack of eucalyptus oil was a problem.

"Well, I used eucalyptus because I always had it on hand," Cindy said, "but anything in the mint family will work."

Emmy smiled, looking relieved. "That I can do," she said. "We have common mint, peppermint, spearmint, or wintergreen."

"Give me a bottle of wintergreen and spearmint," Cindy said. "And would you happen to have some dried peppermint?"

Nodding, Emmy took down Cindy's order and asked her to wait for just a moment. Cindy meandered around the tiny storefront, perusing the shelves while Emmy disappeared into the back to gather her order. She was amazed by how much it resembled a pharmacy back home with the pretty glass or amber jars and bottles replacing cardboard and plastic for containing medicines and tonics for treating common ailments.

"Here you go," Emmy called as she brought the bundle from the back several minutes later. She chatted while she tallied the amount Cindy owed in the little notepad.

"Tsubaki, Mei, and I were planning on having a girls' night at my place on Sunday." Emmy glanced up from the notepad and gave her a crooked grin. "You ought to come. Get away from the guys for a bit."

"Thanks," Cindy answered, but she waved the offer away. "I appreciate it, but you wouldn't want me around. I'd spoil the mood."

"Nonsense," Emmy, who had gone back to tallying the purchase, argued back as she worked. "We girls take care of one another. It's the whole point of our girls' nights because, as much as we love him, Loke's ignore it until it goes away tactic doesn't work for everyone."

Emmy finished and looked up from the notepad, giving Cindy a concerned once over. "The others and I might not be able to help you get home, or even contact your family," she said. "But we can give you shoulders to cry on and somewhere to get away from the magic stuff and clear your head."

"You're sure?"

Emmy nodded, and Cindy acquiesced. She got Emmy's address and promised to come if she was in town before Emmy told her the amount she owed. Cindy counted out the jewel, which was considerably more than she'd expected. Yet, with the need for specific equipment, she didn't know why she was so surprised.

Before taking the money, Emmy leaned forward and motioned for Cindy to come closer. She complied.

"You should bring a jar of the finished cream and talk to the owner," the younger woman whispered. "He pays creators of potion recipes a stipend based on how it sells each month. We get potions no one else has, and, it's not much, but you get a little passive income."

Uncertain but hopeful nonetheless, Cindy thanked her and promised to give it some thought as she gathered the bundle and left. Deciding to forgo the guild today in favor of making the cream and perhaps seeking Makarov or Porlyusica's advice regarding their local apothecary as it set up, Cindy made her way home.

An introvert with an unhealthy amount of anxiety, Cindy had never been much of one for socializing. Come Sunday evening, she still didn't know why she'd agreed to join her partner's trio of girlfriends for a girls' night in. All three of them were far younger than her. Their whole lives were here. What did she have in common with any of them aside from an association with Loke, albeit with hers being in a vastly different vein than any of theirs?

Still, Cindy'd had just about all she could take of the guild and wizarding life in general this week, and she'd already said she'd be there. So she went.

Emmy lived in a cute little single bedroom apartment on the western side of Magnolia. It was cozy without being confining for the four of them, and it seemed she was the only one feeling the slightest bit awkward. The three younger women made themselves comfortable with an array of comfort foods and their choice of tea or alcohol, and they were engrossed in a conversation about the trials of shop work in a matter of minutes.

Cindy sat on the periphery, stiff and uncomfortable, until Mei pulled her into the conversation with a question about what she'd done before coming to Magnolia. Cindy shared a few of her own odd or difficult customer stories from her days working retail in college, apparently a universal experience at the heart of it. Between swapping stories and the wine, Cindy found herself relaxing into the group over the next hour.

Soon enough, the discussion shifted from small talk about work and life about town to their relationships. At this, Cindy began growing uncomfortable once again, and she began floundering for an excuse to beg out.

"We won't force you to stay or talk," Mei said, voice slowing just the slightest after her second glass. "But we want to include you."

Tsubaki nodded. "Your relationship with Loke is platonic, we get that, but it still impacts him. What impacts him, impacts us, and vice versa."

"Open lines of communication are how we prevent or work through issues," Emmy picked up where Tsubaki left off. "Now that you and Loke have decided to become a permanent team, we thought it time to welcome you to the pride as he calls it."

Cindy sat there stunned for a long moment. So this was how they kept peace with one another? Was Loke making a joke when he referred to the girls as a pride, and why exactly did they want to pull her into it? The younger women watched her with concern growing more prominent in their expressions, making Cindy certain her confusion was showing in hers.

"We know about what happened between you and Charissa the night she broke things off with Loke," Tsubaki murmured. "We'd like to prevent such misunderstandings and petty jealousies from causing trouble in the future."

"If that's all it is," Cindy answered. "I can assure you right now, nothing's going to happen. Even if I am never able to be with Lee again, I am a married woman and will remain faithful." She shuddered and downed the last bit of her wine and poured a second glass. "Besides, even if I was completely unattached, it wouldn't be an issue. He's a kid!"

Funny the clarity that comes at odd times such as these, but something she'd overlooked until now struck Cindy. "You're all kids! Why the heck are you all working full-time and drinking and having serious relationships?" She glared at her glass, which she'd set on the table, before hiding her face in her hands with enough force to sting. "This place is so weird! Why the hell didn't I notice how weird this was until now?"


Cindy peeked up from behind her hands to find all three girls watching her with stunned and confused expressions.

"Girls," Mei muttered after a moment. Her eyes were wide as she considered Cindy over her wine glass without blinking. "I'm beginning to suspect people from Cynthia's dimension age differently than we do."

"Now that's just silly," Cindy said, trying and failing to fight back hysterical laughter. "If anything, wizards should age much faster than people back home because of the stresses they endure. But I swear, most of the guild's between twelve and sixteen."

One of Emmy's eyebrows arched. "How old do you think we are?" she asked.

"Thirteen or fourteen?"

All three girls laughed, confusing Cindy no end.

"Tsubaki's the baby, and she's seventeen," Mei said once they'd calmed a bit.

Emmy nodded. "Mei and I are both eighteen," she said. "Some of the members of Fairy Tale are younger, but no, Makarov isn't going to let Mirajane serve alcohol to anyone under at least sixteen."

"Still ridiculously young to me," Cindy muttered. "You've gotta be at least twenty-one to drink back home."

"I wonder if it has to do with magic," Mei mused. Judging by her posture and how quietly she said it, Cindy figured she was talking to herself, but everyone else heard it anyway.

Mei shifted and her eyes focused on Cindy. "When we first saw you, you looked to be in your middle to late forties, but now." She narrowed her eyes and peered at Cindy, gesturing to her in a vague way. "I mean, yeah you're in better shape, but you look younger too. Maybe late thirties?"

Feeling a bit affronted, Cindy pouted and crossed her arms. "I'm thirty-six."

Emmy got excited, nearly bouncing where she sat. "I think you may be on to something, Mei," she said, smiling at the other girl before turning to address Cindy. "What is the average lifespan of someone in your home dimension?"

"Seventy-nine or eighty years."

Emmy nodded. "There is a difference then," she said. "It's about 100 for us regular humans and closer to 150 for wizards who pass of natural causes."

"Neat," Cindy deadpanned. "But it doesn't change anything other than explaining why you guys look a bit younger than you really ought."

"But it does though," Mei argued. "If you thought we were that young, how old did you think Loke is?"

Cindy shrugged. "Fifteen? Why?"

"Do you know how old he is, Mei?" Emmy asked the other girl.

Mei shook her head. "He hasn't told me any more than he has you two," she said. "But with some of the things he's mentioned when the nightmares hit..." Mei's voice trailed off, and her eyes unfocused. "He's definitely older than he looks."

"Well that's nice and vague," Emmy grumbled.

"The point is," Mei interrupted with a scowl at Emmy, "Loke isn't as young and inexperienced as you thought." She turned and focused on Cindy. "Keep that in mind in the field, and don't dismiss him or his input because you think of him as a child."

Emmy and Tsubaki agreed with decisive nods of their own where they sat together on the sofa.

"That's why we wanted to include you in these discussions," Tsubaki said. "Everyone is prone to making assumptions, and that can lead to problems. You assuming you knew our ages and Loke's might have caused you both to make a mistake in the field one day."

Mira waved Cindy over when she got into the guildhall one morning in late July. The barmaid handed her another letter from Lucy and her issue of Sorcerer's Weekly. Cindy thanked Mira, purchased a cup of coffee, and found a quiet spot to read.

She'd been exchanging letters with the young wizard for several weeks now. Many of their letters were focused on magic and their lives, though some parts did remind Cindy of old online writing boards from her youth. She'd let slip regarding the fact she was a writer while outlining her story to Crux, and it turned out Lucy had dreams of being an author herself one day. So, the girl had asked Cindy to read a short story she'd been working on in her last letter. Having agreed, Cindy expected she would find the story enclosed.

However, what she found was a standard letter holding a page torn from a magazine.

Hello Cindy,

I know you told me to send you my story in my next letter, but I came across something that made me think about you and your situation earlier today. I didn't want to wait until I'd finished the story to send it to you.

You told me earlier you subscribed to all the magic magazines and research journals, but you didn't mention anything about trade publications. So, I wasn't sure if you would have seen this. Normally I don't pay any attention to them. I want to be a wizard not run a company, you know? But I overheard Father talking about it with one of his partners, and I got him to lend me the magazine.

Lots of new technologies started coming from this one town a few months ago, so the magazine went out there to see who this new genius is and their plans.

This one woman is making them all, and get this, she claims to be from a far country that already had all this stuff. She's just been modifying it to run on the user's magic or a lacrima instead of the power source they used in her home country, which she refused to name.

Weird, right? But it gets even better. When they asked her about her plans, she started talking about researching how to access other dimensions! I am enclosing the article as well as the magazine's contact information. Give it a look for yourself and see if it will be of any use to you. I will write again once I finish that story.

Good luck and stay safe.

Your friend,