The walk back to the Learnaean Hydra guild complex was as awkward as Talia had feared it would be. Frosche tried to keep a steady stream of conversation going by continuously talking to the both of them, but, at first, Talia was still too irked about the shadow mage trailing along beside her to give more than short, direct, polite replies that didn't allow for expansion. Rogue was simply taciturn, responding in one word or a small phrase. A few times, he just hummed in affirmation rather than giving a true answer. Frosche seemed used to this, as the cat would simply take his friend's answers in stride and continue chattering. This continued for a good ten minutes as the trio wound their way through the city. The sun was setting quickly and the shadows lengthening, street lamps were flickering to life and Crocus's night life was just beginning. The first stragglers who would spend their night at a local tavern or wandering the street with friends passed them. As well-known as the both of them were, and as well-known as the rivalry between their guilds was, they were drawing a number of stares and whispers. A few of the men they met who were more familiar to Talia called out "alright there, Talia?" and "having some sort of trouble?". Some of the women did much the same, asking "on your way home, dear?" and "are you sure you're alright?". The songstress waved them off with a good-natured smile, replying that she was just fine. Many of them were the relatives of the children she told stories to or regular clients of Learnian Hydra. That, she thought, was the difference between Learnaean Hydra and Sabertooth. No one was checking up on Rogue. She actually felt a little badly for him. After all, the common misconception seemed to be that he was threatening her in some way.

Rogue barely seemed to notice the commotion they drew. If he did, he simply didn't care. She suspected that it was the latter, and her pitying feelings faded. He walked with his eyes fixed on the path ahead, only occasionally glancing off to the side when something piqued his interest. Talia winced. Her brother was a quiet sort of man too, but, at least he would crack a smile. And he laughed. And he was nice. And he was sickeningly cute when it came to his wife and daughter. Talia was pretty sure that, if Rogue tried a genuine smile, his face would crack. A shame. He really was good-looking, and a smile would have made his face look much nicer.

As if sensing her watching him from the corner of her eye, Rogue's gaze cut to her, red meeting grey for a moment. She flinched slightly and looked away. Getting caught checking a guy out was always embarrassing, even more so when it was this particular guy. The tension between them was almost palpable. She wasn't sure which of them would crack first and break the invisible barrier of silence. Neither of them did. Now that her irritation had been given a chance to be soothed, Talia was starting to feel awkward. Normally, she was outgoing enough to keep up a conversation, but, she had listened to Frosche's attempts to do so and was fairly certain that the Shadow Dragon would be even less inclined to reply to her than he was to reply to his Exceed friend.

As if sensing the uncomfortable levels that the silence was reaching, the cat began to speak again.

"Is Talia going to be singing again soon?" he asked, his wide eyes focused on the songstress.

She looked down at him, one hand gripping the strap of her guitar case to keep it from biting into her chest. She was more self-conscious of the effects the strap had on her top than before, what with an unfamiliar male mage at her side. The shirt was made to securely cover her bust and the wrappings she wore beneath. A regular bra would only get in the way when it came to a fight and a training bra would show due to her wardrobe choices, thus making wrappings a much more logical choice. While not incredibly curvy, Talia was well aware that the way guitar strap laid between her breasts caused them to strain against the fabric of her shirt just slightly. Not to mention, if she wasn't careful, her low collar might be tugged down far enough to reveal her wrappings, which was just as bad as showing a bra. As hyperaware as she was of the Shadow Dragon walking beside her, the threat of that happening was all too embarrassing. She'd literally just met the man, the last thing she wanted was to flash him.

"Hmm," she thought about her reply to Frosche for a moment, "I'm not sure. The reason I was performing today is because Lady DeVous contracted me to sing for her birthday party."

The cat looked a bit sad.

"So you don't normally sing in the city?"

Talia shifted her head from side to side in order to convey that the answer was a bit ambiguous, sending her soft hair rippling over the guitar case on her back.

"Sometimes. I usually keep to the guild hall unless I have an assignment, though. It's my home, after all."

Frosche looked relieved, apparently having thought there was no chance of seeing her again.

"Oh! That's fine! Frosche will just have to come visit you!"

Though Talia had said he was welcome to visit her guild, she hadn't expected that he would take the invitation so seriously. She glanced a bit nervously at Rogue knowing that, even if he wasn't looking at them, he was listening.

"If you'd like to," she said kindly, looking back to Frosche, "I'm sure the kids would love to make a new friend."

"Kids?" the cat cocked his head curiously.

Talia nodded.

"On days when I don't have assignments, we open up the guild hall to the community kids," she paused for a brief moment, "I mean, we do that almost all the time, but, they usually only come when Terra and I are there. They like to listen to me sing or tell stories," she smiled, then, turning her eyes back to the road, "And they like Terra's cooking."

"Does she make yummy things?"

"I think everything she makes is yummy," Talia replied with a grin, "Sometimes, when I'm really annoyed with Nox, I'll hold it over his head that I get to enjoy his wife's cooking more than he does, since he's out on missions so often."

Frosche made an amused sound, not quite a laugh. Then, he skipped ahead so that he was walking closer to her.

"Does Talia cook too?"

Talia was so startled by the question, and what it entailed, that she laughed without meaning to. Frosche cocked his head quizzically at the response, obviously not sure how to take her apparently amused response.

"I'm sorry, Frosche. It's just that, honestly, I'm a terrible cook. I manage to burn even simple things."

She very vividly remembered the day that Terra and her father had decided that she was never to be allowed in the kitchen again. When she was growing up, Nox had done a lot of the cooking, and he was good at it. Her father had been busy with the guild and her older brother had been her primary caretaker. Then, when he began to go on missions, and Talia had no idea how to cook, she took to eating prepackaged foods or those where only the addition of hot water was necessary, with the occasional restaurant meal. Then, Terra had joined the guild and taken over the bar by adding a kitchen in the back and working as a cook for the guild at meal times. With her there, it came to pass that, for a small amount, the Leanaean Hydra members could eat a home-cooked meal in the guild hall. As Terra became more integrated within the guild, before she met Nox, she and Talia became friends and Terra had taken it upon herself to teach the younger woman how to cook.

It was a disaster. Terra had tried and tried and tried again, but, Talia was a lost cause. Despite her efforts, she couldn't seem to do anything right. Whether it was boiling pasta, frying eggs, baking pies, if it involved a stove, she was absolutely terrible. After a week or so of trying different things, she'd been banned from the stove. Then, Terra had tried to teach her how to make cold dishes, like salads. Talia had done just fine, as it was exceedingly difficult to mess up something like a sandwich. But, for the sake of space, she had been removed from the guild's small kitchen, as she seemed to be more of a hindrance than a help.

"Oh, well," Frosche said, pulling her from her memories, "Talia is good at music, so it's okay that you're not good at something else."

Talia gave the cat a smile. He was sweet, always seeming to focus on the good and always maintaining that happy smile.

"Thank you, Frosche."

She glanced at Rogue. The Shadow Mage was still silent, his eyes fixed ahead, giving no inclination of having even heard the conversation. She frowned slightly. With her irritation gone, she felt a bit rude in not at least trying to speak to him. She still felt that he wouldn't actually talk to her, but I wouldn't hurt to at least try. She gave a tiny sigh, not really sure how best to go about this. This was the first time she had ever met him, and she only knew him by reputation. He was infamous for his coldness, though, now that she was in his presence, she thought he was more taciturn than cold. Taciturn, she could maybe deal with. The only other things she knew about him came from Sorcerer Weekly. Which she didn't read regularly. Per-say. Neither did she have the latest issue waiting for her on the nightstand for when she returned home. Nor did she have a collection of issues on her bookshelf. Not at all. From what she had read though, in her quick glances, Rogue was quiet, powerful, and a ruthless opponent. Which didn't tell her much, since the magazine was hardly a reliable source.

Still, he had attacked her when she'd gotten close to the Sabertooth guild hall. Without really ascertaining anything about who she was. Was he really just that violent? She didn't think so. He'd been…okay since that point. And had calmed down as soon as Frosche- she paused in her train of thought, grey eyes moving to the Exceed that walked between them. Violence? Or protectiveness? Frosche continued on his way, ignorant of her observation as she looked at Rogue again. Though she'd only met the cat that day, she was certain that he was the purest, most innocent creature she had ever met. Surely, he wouldn't be best friends with Rogue if the Dragon Slayer was as ruthless as his reputation suggested.

Even as she watched, the Exceed stopped, his attention drawn by a number of shining lacrima in a store window. Talia glanced up and immediately flushed pink. Her own picture was plastered on the sign above the lacrima, the words "Talia Drakos, Crocus's Own Nightingale! Gift Special: Buy One Get One Half-Off!" written across the lower portion. It was ten times more awkward than when she usually saw these sorts of advertisements, what with Mr. Tall-dark-and-silent there. Normally, she flinched a bit and simply moved on, trying to ignore the way the photographer responsible for the picture had obviously tried to make her look like she was looking at the audience with a sexy smolder. She didn't…smolder. She wasn't even sure how they got photos like that, but they popped up everywhere. She had the urge to cover Frosche's eyes and pull him away from the display. Rogue seemed to immediately notice the way Frosche had stopped. He paused, looking back at the Exceed.

"Frosche," his deep voice carried softly through the air.

Frosche responded as soon as he heard his name, skipping after the Dragon Slayer, smiling widely.

"Rogue! We don't have that one!"

Rogue nodded once, eyes flashing briefly to Talia.

"We can buy it after our next job."

Talia's heart gave an odd little flutter as Frosche gave a happy giggle. He'd talked about liking her music, but, did he really…collect her lacrima? She glanced back at the display and then down at the Exceed. He drifted closer to her as they began moving again, looking up at her.

"Fro has a lot of Talia's lacrima, but that one's new, huh?"

Talia found herself nodding. How was a creature so adorably sweet as him even real?

"Yeah, just a few months old…" she fell quiet for a moment, considering, "Um, Frosche?"

Frosche cocked his head slightly.

"What is it?" he asked unassumingly.

Talia looked ahead, feeling somewhat awkward. She didn't like to really acknowledge her fame in Crocus's music industry. It made her feel like she was holding something over people, or saying she was better than them. But, he was so cute…and had been so kind and sweet and he had even gotten lost just to listen to her…She pressed her hands together, interlocking her fingers tightly, as though doing so would dispel her odd bout of nerves as she pressed ahead.

"I'm in the process of recording another one. A new one. And…if it's okay with you," her gaze darted to Rogue quickly, "Well….would you like one of the lacrima when they come out?"

Frosche's tail tensed, sticking straight out as his eyes widened even further. Rogue glanced at her and then at the Exceed. Did she imagine a little quirk of his lips? She wasn't sure. She was far too concerned by Frosche's reaction. What did it mean?

"If you want it!" she hurried to clarify, "I'm not trying to-"

"Yes!" Frosche burst out, smiling so widely that his eyes closed.

Throwing his paws up in the air, he ran ahead a little, apparently so overcome by excitement that he had to vent it in some way. Talia watched him, surprised. She hadn't been expecting that. The little cat spun around to face her.

"Thank you, Talia! You're so nice!" he all but pranced back to her, "Will you play your special song on it?"

Talia felt her face flush at the praise. This little one would be bad for her ego if she was around him too often. He obviously thought far too highly of her. She reached up, wrapping her fingers around the strap of her guitar case, relieving some of the weight from her chest.

"Ah…I can."

The music lineup had already been approved, but, watching the way Frosche seemed about to burst with happiness made her unable to refuse him that. She was well enough respected to slip in one more song. After all, it had never been recorded before.

Frosche gave another happy giggle, running to Rogue's side to gush at his best friend about just how excited he was that "Talia was giving Fro a present!". As she watched them, she was torn between being utterly embarrassed by Frosche's need to continuously praise her and a desperate wish that he would start joining the children for their daily story time. Learnian Hydra would benefit so much from the sheer amount of cuteness. Plus, Ash would love him.

As they neared the gate, Frosche finished in his expression of excitement and fell into a happy silence, occasionally giggling to himself or looking around at something that had caught his eye. Rogue, who had encouraged his friend only with small replies, was as stoic as ever. And, now that Talia had gotten over her annoyance and trepidation with the Dragon Slayer, she started to feel incredibly awkward. She didn't know how to engage him, not really, so she was leaving him out. They walked in silence for another long minute as Talia wracked her brain for something to say. Something that wouldn't leave Rogue out. Sabertooth he may be, but that was no excuse for her to ignore him. He was walking her home, after all…

She blurted out one of the first things that came to mind.

"It's been nice lately, with all the sunlight. It was so rainy before, I thought the river by our guild hall was going to flood."

She immediately internally kicked herself, fighting the urge to slap a hand to her face.

The weather, Talia? Really? You chose the weather?

She didn't miss the look that crossed her companion's face. It was a hybrid of surprise at her direct comment to him and something like incredulity at her choice of topic. His red eyes met her grey ones and she forced a smile, one that looked more like a wince.

"…yeah, the sun's nice."

His reply came after a pause in which she was sure he was judging her sanity. Talia's wince grew more pronounced. His offer to walk her home had come out of a desire to repay whatever debt he perceived he owed her due to her 'rescue' of Frosche. He wasn't here to chat. She cleared her throat and glanced away, realizing that it was maybe better to remain silent. After all, Rogue was from Hydra's rival guild, and Sabertooth wasn't known for their friendliness. Fortunately, the awkwardness wouldn't last too much longer. The city gates came into view, just a short distance beyond, laid the Learnian Hydra guild hall.

Talia cleared her throat, speaking again.

"You don't have to take me all the way to the guild, you know, I can make it on my own."

Rogue didn't look at her, his eyes remaining on the road ahead.

"Frosche said he wants to see your guild."

The small cat looked up at Talia with a wide smile. She gave a slightly awkward one in return. She wasn't getting out of this, it seemed. They passed through the city gates, between the guards stationed there. Like everyone else they'd encountered, the two men gave them incredulous stares. Was that the Shadow Dragon, Rogue Cheney? With Talia Drakos? Was there some kind of trouble? Talia sighed softly, waving to them as she walked past. Never again. Rogue's weird sense of indebtedness be damned, she was never doing this again.

As they approached the guild compound, the sun sank further on the horizon. Even as Taliia watched, the lights around the compound flared up, lanterns dangling from the jaws of stone hydra's heads glimmering in the twilight. Despite herself, she began to relax. Being this close to home put her at ease. She heard a soft exclamation from Frosch. The angle at which the road approached the compound allowed travelers a clear view of what lay behind its walls. The central building, the largest, seemed to glow as the lights reflected off its white stone. The other two, the dorms, were not as impressive but no less beautiful. Even from a distance, the gardens were visible, faerie lights marking the paths through the plants there.

Within a few minutes' time, they were approaching the gates, two large statues of five-headed hydras flanking them, their mouths closed and their stone eyes regarding those who passed beneath with curiosity rather than hostility. Frosche ran ahead, up to the gate. Then, he paused, looking inside with wide eyes, an awed 'ohhh' leaving him. Talia was about to tell him he could go inside when he suddenly looked up. His usual wide-eyed smile didn't change as he raised one paw in greeting.

"Hello!"

Talia frowned slightly. Who had come out to…?

Ladon Drakos stepped between the gates and Talia immediately felt a flash of dread. He had changed into loose pants and a black shirt under a deep green jacket hemmed in gold. He was smiling at Frosche, yes, but it was that professional smile he gave when he was displeased and doing well in disguising it. This wasn't the laid-back grandfather who let the community children into his hall. This was Ladon Drakos, Wizard Saint and Guild Master of Learnian Hydra. He only dressed like this when there were serious matters to attend to. Talia had known her father would be displeased about her escort, but, did he truly feel the need to put on such a display? Or was he dealing with a different matter entirely?

The Guild Master returned Frosche's greeting with a polite tone.

"Hello to you, little one. What's your name?"

"I'm Frosche! Who are you?"

She didn't miss the way Rogue tensed when Ladon looked at him. Even as powerful as he was, he had walked into a rival guild's territory and been greeted at the gate by their master. She jolted slightly. She hadn't realized…for Rogue, this was just as bad as when she was returning Frosche to Sabertooth. Yes, she knew that her father wouldn't act with hostility unless provoked. But he didn't. She glanced at her quiet companion and found him meeting her father's gaze, expressionless.

Ladon waited until they came to a halt a few feet from him before speaking. His surface smile remained as he observed the dragon slayer who had returned with his daughter, sizing him up.

"I am Ladon Drakos, Guild Master of Learnian Hydra," he finally replied, "I confess, when I realized that Talia would be late, I did not expect her to return home with a dragon in tow."

Rogue did not so much as twitch, eerily red eyes unblinking.

"She returned one of ours. I returned the favor."

Short, to the point, and without inflection. Ladon tilted his head to one side just slightly, considering this. It wasn't that he didn't believe Rogue. Talia was, by nature, very altruistic. Rather, he was wondering at how in the world his daughter had gotten mixed up with Sabertooth in even a small way. Frosche looked back at Rogue and then to the Guild Master again.

"Yes! Frosche was lost and all alone and Talia helped!"

Ladon looked down at the cat, smiling again.

"Did she, now? That sounds like her. My daughter has always been a kind soul."

Frosche nodded happily. Then, something resonated with him. He stilled, staring at the man in front of him with wide eyes.

"You're Talia's papa?"

Ladon chuckled, seeming amused by the small Exceed.

"I am."


*crawls in more than a year later*

Oh, hey, look at that, a chapter.

I was at work last night when I realized that I'd left this sitting on my computer and was struck by the need to write more on this story. Thank my cowriter for giving me a little push, XD. I promise that I will try to bring out a new chapter fairly soon! Can't leave it with that awkward cliffhanger after all, can we?

On to reviews!

lieutenant hawkeye: Thanks so much for the compliments! Yes, there is definitely a reason that Rogue spoke up like he did before reverting to his usual taciturn self (the reason is hinted at a bit in this chapter). He's acting a little out of character, which is why Sting gave him the weird look he did, but, all will be explained soon! As for Talia's power level, she is a fairly strong mage, but, she does have a tendency to overestimate her own abilities. Which is why she sensed the Twin Dragons and thought 'I might be able to take them' before seeing who it was. Her true powers will definitely be revealed during the games. And as far as Ladon is concerned...he's definitely not a fan at the moment XD.

o0NerdyTaco0o: Thank you! That comment means a lot! Especially considering where I started as a writer :)

Guest (1): Thanks a lot! I hope you continue to enjoy the story and the future characters who will come into play.

Guest (2): Here's your update! Hope you enjoyed!

To conclude, I'll put out a gentle reminder to all that Melissiaew and I do not own any part of Fairy Tail and this is purely fan work. I would also like to inform readers that this story will diverge from the canon plotline in a few significant ways, since it is an AU, but will mostly stay true to the story. As a final bit of info, both Melissiaew and I immensely enjoy taking what I call 'OC Fanfic Clichés' and turning them on their heads to make them workable. As such, there will definitely be one major cliché present, as introduced next chapter.

Next up! Rogue escapes an awkward situation, the Crocus games are coming up, and Talia finds herself with a curious new friend. Stay tuned!