Disclaimer: All rights to Naruto belong to Masashi Kishimoto and its respective publishing house. The same goes for Hiro Mashima for his utterly delightful series, Fairy Tail.
Author's Note: This story has run its course for me. Have a last chapter as a parting gift.
Chapter Nineteen – A Place to Call Home
What had happened to his world?
It had been hours since the subjugation of the Kingdom of Extalia and its people have reached his ears.
"Witness... Witness the lie that has been perpetrated for nearly a century!"
Jellal Iscariot cursed under his breath. Lost as the ungodly mass of bodies were in their crazed jubilation, it didn't make it easy to breathe in this suffocating heat. Keeping his head bowed, he pushed past the throng of people transfixed at the sight above them.
A legion. His father. A God flailing in his grasp.
Mystogan had failed.
He had doomed them all.
As his father's belligerence had grown in the past years, he had been too passive; too content with his guerilla tactics to think of the bigger picture. Alone, he had done everything he could to disrupt the Anima gates that fed into Edolas, but that was narrow-minded.
For every gate he suppressed, there were two more that he missed. He understood the disparity of resources between him and his father, and how much his operations paled in comparison to a kingdom-wide scale, but he had been too proud to seek help.
That pride, that hubris, had made him overlook his priorities. Mainly, here in Edolas.
He had always feared his father's transgressions against Earthland, but all was not well in the kingdom that was once promised to him. Edolas had become nothing short of a dystopian nightmare, and he had done nothing to stop its slide into the decaying carcass that was once their great kingdom. That was why he had been forced to return, so brazen was he to step inside the capital he had abandoned ages ago, right into the den of foes, to witness the aftermath. To them, he was just one of the tens of thousands of faces peering up to witness his father usher in a turning point of their world.
When man wrenched a God from her seat of power, and not long after, declared it as their own.
"There is no God!" his father roared, ably supported by the entitled and the highborn masses of the Royal Capital of Edolas. Some of the lesser-folk were more subdued. "There is no Queen! There is only us! And we are our own makers! So rise with me, my brethens! Rise with me unto this new age of man! And I shall lead you from now until eternity! Forever!"
"Glory! Glory unto our Immortal King!" they shouted back in crazed devotion.
Something made him stop.
A slender hand was wrapped around his wrist, tugging him back. Then, he could feel a worn piece of parchment being slipped into his fingers. She had edged closer. The prince could feel her pressing into his back, breathing down his neck. He doubted it was intentional with all the bodies around them jostling for space.
Mystogan unfolded it, still not turning back to the woman who had stopped him. It was a picture of him that dominated the centre of the parchment. There were smaller portraits beneath his; people he recognised from Earthland, but had not met in Edolas.
It was a wanted poster.
[Jellal Iscariot – JUDAS]
[Fairy Tail Six – INSURGENTS]
"I think you could do with a better disguise," the figure whispered into his ear. "Besides, our Guild Mistress would like to speak with you."
When he turned, Mystogan couldn't quite believe his eyes.
"Oh, my ruggedly handsome boy-toy! Leap! Leap into your wonderful benefactor's arms!"
Naruto sighed, whatever embarrassment such a scene may have had on him when he was younger was non-existent now. Such was the price of being around crazy for the better part of three years. However, it did give him a means to provide for his team. At least, there was that. Although, he was getting weird looks from his entourage.
Or it may just be the Fairy Tail team, barring one stalwart individual, looking to get away from Millianna's antics...
"Not gonna happen," he told Yue.
The restaurateur pouted. "You've made your wonderful benefactor sad," she said. "I haven't even factored in all the business I'll lose once I tell everyone that there'd be no more ladies' night. I even drafted up some new ideas, costumes even! Don't make a woman beg, Naruto-kun! Who needs a new guild anyway when you've got me? I still have that 'Go-Go Naruto' (TM) action figure prototype. If you'd just sign over your image rights, I can—"
"I'll miss you guys," he said simply, interrupting the woman.
Yue pawed forward, clamouring for a hug. He decided to allow it, letting the restaurateur bawl into the crook of his neck, mumbling incomprehensibly about her investors and falling profit margins due to unfair loan repayments for small-medium enterprises. Then, again... What did he know about any of that?
The hug tightened about half-way through.
"Aww, I'll totally miss you too, you big lug," Minori said. "So... How are things with you and Wendy?"
Unconsciously, his eyes sought for her. Wendy and Carla were at the other end of the harbour, conversing with Martha. The entire town of Camoa had been evacuated due to the threat posed by Nirvana, and the motherly bartender had seen fit to remain in Dilligeon to see them off. He saw Martha lean in to whisper something in Wendy's ear.
Their eyes met.
Her lips quivered, thinning. Then, she looked away.
"I'm... not sure."
I want to go home.
Those five words kept repeating in her mind. It had made for an awkward trip for the duration of their travels to Magnolia Town. Naruto himself was speaking, but his voice was barely audible over the overzealous whoops and meandering catcalls. Even that sounded like unpleasant chatter to her.
"Yo," Wendy heard him say. "The name's Naruto Uzumaki, and this is—"
He gave her that look again, half-way between encouraging and worrying. She hated that look. She hated how small she felt when she found her reflection peering down at her in his blue eyes. She wanted nothing more than for him to look away, but he didn't.
He was waiting for her. Everyone was.
Wendy shook her head, bowing deeply. "Ah, my name is Wendy Marvell. This is Carla." She motioned to the Exceed in her arms. "It's nice to meet you, everyone. We're new here, so we'll be in your care from now on. Please treat us well."
Naruto clucked his tongue. "Took the words right out of my mouth!"
The end of their introduction was met with raucous approval and boisterous hoots. Being the centre of attention at their new guild was alien; it was uncomfortable. Wendy kept expecting to find a familiar face hidden among the unfamiliar ones. It was a slippery slope—hoping to find ghosts among the living.
Naruto had told them that this was going to be their new home. He was lying to them again.
I want to go home.
It was never going to be his home; the same one he was planning to leave her for. That was why despite her new Guild Master's sudden proclamation to throw a welcoming party for them, that met to the cheers of her new guildmates, Wendy couldn't tear her eyes away from the floor.
She knew Naruto was giving her that look again.
In the relative silence of his office, the S-Class mage in front of him had her head bowed.
Well, one of them.
The one with the red hair.
Makarov held his cheeks in his hands, pushing them together. When he spoke, his voice was muffled, "Just what are you trying to do to this old man? Why'd you have to go and pick up another stray, and a troublesome one at that? Oh, this new Magic Council hates us enough as it is..."
"Master," Mirajane warned.
"I believe it was you who told us not to put much stock in our esteemed council. Several times, in fact," Erza told him. "I have no doubt that Naruto-san and his team would be a valuable addition to Fairy Tail." She raised a delicate brow. "However, if you still have such strong feelings against them joining, I would be more than willing to excommunicate them personally."
Makarov waved her away. "Now, now... I never said anything about wanting that." He sighed, sobering. His gaze was now grim. "What you've told us is worrisome indeed. A failed Take-Over... and an extremely powerful one at that. I've heard rumblings from Yajima about the council's magical detectors going haywire and imploding on itself. Mine went kaput the same way."
The diminutive man hopped up his desk and retrieved the destroyed spherical object, tossing it at Erza. She caught it, but didn't deign to examine it.
"I do not need a reminder," she said, exhaling. "I was there, Master."
"Just trying to point out that the Magic Council has him in their sights. If they don't, they will soon enough. That explanation and Jellal's arrest may be enough to tide them over for now, but they'll come back. They'll come back once they think they have a sure-fire way to neutralise him. I shudder to think what's going on in those empty heads of theirs, especially without Yajima around."
Erza was quiet.
"Your opinion, Mira?" she asked.
Makarov understood the redhead's reticence in asking her former rival. What a troublesome double-header. To have such a potent reminder of Lisanna's death join the guild, just days before her second anniversary.
For her part, the barmaid blinked airily and took a finger to her lips. "You said that he called it a burden by birthright... It is possible that he possesses demon particles in his cells and the Demon Factor as well. It isn't impossible, but it is troubling. Take-Over magic requires you to know the creature you intend to subsume inside-out; to imprint its very essence, both good and bad, into yourself and carry its traits with you. Somewhere out there, such a terrifying entity exists, and Naruto was able to withstand the entirety of its might. Even now..."
Mirajane paused, then her eyes crinkled. "My, Erza. You've found a very powerful mage, ne?"
"It is more accurate to say that he found us. However, I do not intend to diminish the abilities of his teammates. Carla herself is a bright individual, and Wendy is a very capable healer in her own right. Her prowess as the Sky Dragon Slayer was equal to—if not marginally better than—Natsu at her age."
Mirajane happily clapped her hands together.
"Yay~ Another Dragon Slayer. It's almost like you're collecting them, Master. Do we get a prize if we find two more?"
Makarov nodded wearily. "Yes, yes. They're all amazing," he said, shooing them from his office. "Go out and enjoy the party, you two. We were able to do some good for the kingdom for once. My congratulations to you and your team. You, in particular, Erza. Fine work all around. Indulge yourselves tonight and rest well tomorrow, I say."
The duo bade him their salutations as they left his office.
Once Makarov was sure that they had rejoined the festivities downstairs proper, he swiped his fingers in the air, miming a quick 'X'. The runes that lined his office—or what remained anyway—shimmered and fell. In a beat, he heard his window being forced open, and a body making its way towards his back. Makarov could only assume that the intruder letting himself be heard was meant as a courtesy to him.
"Old man," their new guild member greeted him. "Man, those runes of yours are insane. It was hard enough to get past the basic ones, especially that noise-cancelling rune. Think I could get a few pointers?" he asked. "How long did you know I was there anyway?"
"Oh? I didn't realise we were familiar enough to warrant nicknames. I suppose I have to give you one in return. How about... brat?!"
His arm lengthened, bridging the perceptible height gap. Makarov intended to flick the odd metal head-guard with his forefinger, but the ease in which the boy ever so casually tilted his head to avoid him was remarkable.
"Yah! Take your punishment, brat!"
Naruto looked abashed, rubbing the back of his head. "Ah, my bad. You see, I'm just a clone, so I'd rather not. The boss is still downstairs with the rest."
Makarov harrumphed. "Well, yelling at you should be enough punishment for now," he told the blond, grumbling. "You did well to break through the noise-cancelling rune, but I could feel you tampering with the proximity ones. Before that, you hid your presence well. As for wanting to learn... Hmm, perhaps you should take this up with Freed or Levy. They're our resident Letter Magic specialists."
"Cool, I'll ask around for them."
"You have some background in runes, I see. Interesting..."
"Yeah, I got drilled with the foundation for sealing, and between hearing the odd bits and pieces from my late Master, I guess I got pretty decent with it. It sort of works on the same principles as runes. Back where I'm from it's called Fūinjutsu. Ever heard of it?"
"Oh? Can't say I have. Where is that from then?"
"Another world," Naruto blurted out. "Another dimension, another planet, another timeline or reality. I haven't been able to narrow it down these past few years, and I don't wanna rule out and miss anything. Oh, yeah... Full disclosure: I'm probably going to tell you everything there is to know about me. I made the mistake of keeping the truth from Chief Roubaul and it got me squat. I figured you could help."
Blanching, Makarov had his eyes slit shut. He then proceeded to bang his head against his desk.
"No, no," Naruto said. "Tell me what you think, honestly."
Another one. Another one like Mystogan.
Makarov paused, patting the now engorged welt on his forehead. He turned to Naruto, asking, "Wait, your magic is innate, right? Ignoring the fact that I can actually sense the power you exude... Do you use magical items? Like Holder magic?"
"Hell, no. I use chakra. This whole magic business really weirded me out at first. I mean, magic?! Come on! That sounds like kid stuff! I—"
The tiny Guild Master resumed.
"Seriously, old man. You're going to give yourself a concussion."
Ah, but that was his plan.
Naruto returned to a crowded table.
One woman, in particular, had foregone the bench entirely. Instead she was perched on the centre of the table, conversing with Wendy and Carla. She was a pretty one too. The brown-haired woman gave off the femme fatale vibe; all alluring and mysterious. It was a sharp contrast to what she wore, or what little she wore, with her bikini-top and knee-length pants leaving little to the imagination.
However, Naruto was overlooking the fact that she was nursing an entire keg by her lonesome, cradling the bulky cask against her body. Occasionally, she'd rubbed her flushed cheeks against the wooden frame, cooing into it.
"Who's your friend?" Naruto asked Wendy.
The girl just frowned and looked away, doing her best impression of a broken record. He held back a frustrated sigh.
"Uhm, this is Cana-san."
"New guy!" she slurred upon noticing him. "Come! Come! Let's have a look-see!" The woman peered at him through half-lidded eyes, leaning in. "Okay! Not bad! We could do with another Laxus-lookalike since he left. Let's have a drink together! Gimme a sec." She arched her back, turning to look over to the bar. "Mira! Let's have a round over—"
The sound of shattering glass resounded around them.
"The hell did you say about my mother, Fullborn?! She doesn't have buck teeth! I don't have buck teeth!"
"Face it, Krov! Look at your face! Your mom is a beaver, bro!"
"Take it back!"
The beaver-lookalike hurled another bottle at his muscle-bound antagonist, but it whirled over the man's head. The two quickly took to trading blows. Such wanton violence would have been a cause for concern, had similar scenes were not mirrored throughout the guild hall. Rolling with it seemed like the appropriate thing to do.
Naruto snapped his hand out and caught the bottle loosely. He sniffed the opening and took a quick taste.
"I think I'm good actually," he said.
Cana was gawking at him, fluttering her long eyelashes in stunned disbelief. "Whoa... That was awesome, new guy!" Then, she paused, as if arriving at a sudden realisation. "I think I'm love with you," she said, leaning ever closer. "Whadd'ya say? Would you like to help this pretty onee-san to... top... off... her—bufh!"
"Ah, Cana..." Mirajane came into view behind her, smiling. "I know you're drunk, but you're not that drunk yet."
Cana had nestled her head flat against the top of the keg, looking back at her attacker with a pitiful look. "Ah, Mira is mean... If she wanted him, she should have called dibs first."
Mirajane's pleasant smile didn't waver.
Instead, the barmaid plucked two small glasses from her tray, filled to the brim with an amber-brown liquid, and placed it in front of Cana. "There you go. Now run along now. There's more where that came from at the bar."
"Yaay~ Free shots! I love you, pretty lady!" Standing, Cana reached around her cask to give the woman a one-armed hug. Or... it was more like a hug with her cask that included Mirajane. "Who needs a man when I have a woman like you around, Mira? And Alcohol! Plenty of that too!" she said, scampering off to the bar.
"Well, that was thoroughly unpleasant to watch," Carla said, though her cheeks were flushed. "Did you find what you were looking for, Naruto?"
The blond held up the ad-listings and laid it out on the table in front of them. "Yeap! So now all we gotta do is find an apartment to rent big enough for the three of us that is within our price-range." Naruto gave the listings a cursory glance, then slammed his head down on the large sheet of paper. "I give up..."
"Now, now," Mirajane said, taking the seat across from him. "Maybe I can help. What was your previous budget?"
"We don't have one?"
"Excuse me?" she said, blinking.
Naruto laughed weakly. "We didn't have rent at our previous guild, so it never factored into our finances. Most of it usually went to the guild's commission and our travel and personal upkeep. So, we don't really have money set aside for the first month's rent, much less a security deposit."
"I don't see what the problem is," Cana said.
The woman had returned from her sojourn to the bar. Seeing that there weren't any places to sit, and with her hands occupied with a tray full of shots, she settled down atop her wooden keg. She happily begun to imbibe her sizeable cache of liquor.
"If you're that desperate, then do what everyone else around here does. Just crash at Lucy's place. It's not like she cares or anything. She's so happy-go-lucky, that girl!"
That girl happened to have overheard their conversation, given that their table was just beside them. "Cana! W-W-What?! Don't just randomly decide things on your own! My apartment is not some kind of sleep-easy hostel!"
"Aww, be nice to the new guy, Luce," Cana said, pouting. "Look at his sad face." Naruto felt his shins being kicked. "Look at his sad, wittle face... Besides, I'd be more than willing to help them out if I could. I already told Wendy and Carla that they're more than welcome in my room. It's not like I sleep there every night. But since Naruto's a guy and Fairy Hills is a female-only dorm, well... it's not like I can magically turn him into a—"
A shroud of white blanketed his position.
Oh, the depths he'd go just to scrimp when and where he could.
The shame of it.
"Yahallo, Cana-chan!" Naruto, transformed into his female counterpart, chirped. "Now that I've magically turned into a girl, is it still okay if we crash at your place? Pretty please?"
Cana paused in mid-sip, blinked once, then howled out loud.
Mirajane started clapping in the midst of all the delighted peals of laughter. "Ah, your transformation magic is flawless!"
"Well, this stuff is pretty basic where I came from." It was weird to hear himself laugh in such a high-pitch voice. "So back to the topic at hand, because it's kinda getting dark out there... Is it still okay for us to sleep at your dorm?"
He waited for Cana's laughter to subside, "You could have, if you didn't telegraph what you wanted to do so brazenly." She pointed behind her, and he duly followed, only to find an S-Class mage at the end of it looking at him stonily. Erza mechanically shook her head, her brown eyes unnaturally large. "Too bad Erza's our matron, and you know how she gets... Or not? Maybe you should try it and find out?"
To his credit, Naruto released his Henge.
"I might take our chances trying to find a cheap inn. Or maybe we could bunk with Gray... or Natsu. They have places of their own, right?"
"Na-Naruto." He felt Wendy tug on his sleeves. "Maybe Carla and I should stay with Cana-san." Her voice was soft, "For the time being at least? U-Until we find something more permanent? I have lived alone before... before we met you."
Naruto smiled encouragingly.
"It won't take that long to scrounge up enough money to find us a decent place to rent. A day! Two tops! It's not like we're totally broke. We can spare the Jewels to stay at an inn for a few days. That's long enough for us to—"
"I just think it would be best—" she interrupted him, "—if I just stayed at Fairy Hills."
He was quiet.
The uncomfortable air was broken only by the rhythmic tapping of his finger on the aged wooden table, but that itself was lost in the ambient noise of the guild hall. He was aware that there were eyes boring into him, but he hardly gave it attention. In his mind, he recalled the conversation he had with the illusion.
Sooner or later, you'll start to resent me for the simple reason of not being able to let me go.
After an impossibly long moment, Naruto stopped.
"If you're sure..."
Wendy fidgeted in her seat, nodding. "Yes?"
"Okay, this might be a good thing." Naruto wasn't sure who he was trying to convince here. "You'll get to know your new guildmates better this way," he said, looking towards Cana. "Ah, look out for them, will you?"
Recognising the prompt, Cana shrugged. "Sure, the liquor's feeling a bit stale already." The woman stood up, downing the last of her shots. "Come on, you two. Let's help your cool onee-san snag another one of these babies—" she patted the cask lovingly, "—before she helps you settle in at the dorms."
Wendy quietly bade him goodnight, "I'll see you tomorrow, Naruto."
"Bright and early," Naruto said.
He shared an uneasy glance with Carla, but he waved away her concerns with a shake of his head. The Exceed gave him an exasperated look before following Wendy out of the guild hall with Cana.
Blue eyes stared back at him.
"Is everything all right with you two?"
"Things have been a bit weird lately," he conceded. "What with Nirvana, and... Well, you know everything that Erza knows already, right?"
The ease in which he mentioned it caused the barmaid to blink slowly. "Yes, I was there for the briefing with Master Makarov. As a Take-Over mage, he believed I could offer an insight into what happened to you."
Her unspoken question lingered.
How exactly do you know that?
"I had the appointment after yours," Naruto said. "Well, have... He's up there still talking with my clone. Besides, you don't have to worry about what happened to me back then. That was like, an outlier. It won't ever happen again. You can bet on that."
Mirajane hummed under her breath, "Those who are strong need help too, Naruto."
Naruto was quiet.
"Right... So—uh, you got a younger brother, right? Elfman?" He was hesitant to change the subject, but he pressed on regardless, "I know it's not the same as having a sister, but I'm doing the right thing, aren't I? Giving her space? Wendy hasn't had time to herself, and we've been cooped up together since Dilligeon. That was almost two days ago. I was getting a little stir-crazy myself."
Mirajane looked dazed, saying, "People fight, Naruto. Even siblings. You can't escape from it." She reached out and patted his hand. "If you're asking me what I would do in your place, maybe I would have a heart-to-heart talk with her?"
Naruto suppressed a snort. "That's exactly what caused all this in the first place."
"Oh? Do you know why she's mad then?"
He shook his head.
"Was it possible that it was a bit one-sided? That you talked too much, but didn't listen?"
"I... Maybe," Naruto admitted, grimacing. He stood up. "Crap. That actually sounds about right. You think I should go talk to her now?"
Mirajane tugged him back to his seat. "It may be best to allow her some space to sort out her thoughts, Naruto. You weren't wrong in that regard. Growing up is as tough on her as it is on you. I remember being quite hot-headed when I was younger."
"That so? I think I'm still hot-headed now."
Mirajane smiled wistfully, but didn't say much else.
The air between them got a little weird.
"Hey," Naruto said, pointing to the mission request board. "I kinda need some help with that too. You mind?"
Naruto motioned for Mirajane to follow him. There was another person perusing the listings. He was a tall dark-skinned man garbed in a colourful tribal attire. He wouldn't have look out of place at Cait Shelter. Naruto offered the man a nod as he joined him. There was quite a selection of mission requests; a lot more than what he would have seen at his old guild on a good day.
"Right," he said, turning to his guide. "How many requests do you see that are in town?"
"Ah, there's this one. It's a mission request that has you cleaning someone's mansion. It's been here for a while, and no one seems interested in it."
"Dibs. I might save that for the team tomorrow." He found the tall man frowning at him. "Unless you want it?"
The man took a hand to his chin, saying, "That sounds like the perfect mission I've been waiting for, and—H-Hey, just how many requests are you taking?! Let me see those! The perfect mission might be among them!"
Naruto pulled his hand back, away from the man's long reach.
"Now, now, Nab," Mirajane said, coming between the two. "You've been staring at the board for more than an hour tonight. Whatever Naruto has there, you've already seen it." She pulled another one from the board and handed it to Nab. " Here, I think you might like this one."
"I don't know... I still think I should look at what he has."
"No buts~" Mirajane chided happily. "I'm going to register that mission for you. Don't make me get Erza~"
Nab looked flustered. "D-Don't! N-Not Erza!" he half-shouted. Blinking, he cleared his throat, "I will prepare to leave once dawn breaks. Now, if you'll excuse me."
He all but high-tailed out of the guild hall.
"Take care not to hurt yourself, Nab!" she called out to his retreating form.
"Let me guess," Naruto said. "There's some kind of story there that I haven't heard of."
The Satan Soul mage smiled, tilting her head to the side. "Nab can be a little indecisive. Occasionally, he needs a little encouragement, and well... Erza can be quite scary. I'm sure I don't have to tell you that." She then looked at the mission requests he had in his hand. "Could I see what you have?"
Mirajane quickly went over it, frowning. "A monster encounter mission request, a request for an escort to Clover Town, and another request for a monster encounter. Naruto... I'm not sure how things went in your previous guild, but you don't have to hoard these requests. I can register them for you. Normally, people just take the one to finish and come back."
"Oh, no no no. I'm planning to finish all of these by tomorrow morning. I promised those two that I'd meet them then. Look—" he motioned to one of the requests, "—the furthest one is to Shirotsume Town. That would take me six hours tops, there and back. Besides, these two monster termination missions are easy. I could do them with my eyes closed."
"It might take you more than just hours, Naruto. Going to all these places, especially without a magical SE-vehicle, is going to take you more than a day. That's even disregarding trying to set off on a mission at night. It's dangerous, Naruto."
Naruto didn't laugh, but he managed a wry smile. "Not when I have these guys with me." As if on cue, his clones appeared around him. "The only reason I'm going myself is because of the escort mission to Clover. Trust me: nothing good ever happens on escort missions. I learned that very early on in my career.
"So relax, Mirajane. I got this."
Mirajane sighed in not-quite-exasperation, returning his smile. "Maybe you're right. I'm just being a worry-wart." She puffed out her cheeks. "Also, just call me Mira, will you? Everyone in Fairy Tail calls me that. You should start too."
Naruto nodded plainly.
"Ah, cool, Mira."
She gave him a wave goodbye. "I'll see you tomorrow morning then, Naru—"
Sadly, Mirajane was interrupted:
"Where the hell do you think you're going, Naruto?! You said you were going to fight me! Fight me!"
Their clients lied. Chief Roubaul lied. Carla lied. Naruto lied.
Therein lay a common thread. They lie because they thought she was weak, because they didn't think she was strong enough. It was the skewed perception of her abilities that ate at her. Even if she told herself that she was strong enough, that she did everything she could against Oración Seis and Nirvana, her heart whispered otherwise.
Even her memories lied.
Wendy took a deep breath, swallowing thickly.
The waning moon acted as her sole source of light, illuminating the small clearing she had chanced upon. It was a fair distance behind the Fairy Hills dormitory, where she knew she wouldn't intrude upon the other tenants. She gave a cursory glance at her surroundings, lips thinning at her handiwork. The damage to the area was moderate, but it was minuscule compared to what she knew Naruto could do at his worst.
His worst was subjective.
Wendy understood that now.
"Don't push yourself so hard. You need to give your body time to recover fully," Carla said, sounding frayed. "Let's stop. We can go back to bed and rest. Then, tomorrow we can yell at Naruto for leaving us out on a mission." She forced a small smile. "How about that? It'll be just like old times again."
Carla was wrong.
The truth had changed things—changed the dynamics of their team. There was no going back.
Wendy shook her joints loosely, limbering up her body to prepare for another rigorous set. She was barely an hour into her training, having decided that another night tossing and turning in bed wasn't something she wanted.
Quickly, she swiped her hand in the air. "Heaven's enchantment! Arms x Venier!"
Wendy collapsed to her knees, her hands shaking uncontrollably. She could only glare at it, cursing her inability to even make a fist. With a muffled cry, her hands found purchase on the pliable ground. Her head followed, pressed flat against the earth, as she squeezed her eyes shut.
Stop being so weak.
"That's it! I'm putting a stop to this!"
Through gritted teeth, Wendy pushed herself off the ground and returned to her feet. She wiped her eyes forcefully to clear the lingering wetness, and eased back into a loose stance. If her magic was going to fail her, she would turn to Naruto's teachings.
Her fingers brushed against her dress, and suddenly, the weapon she had secreted from Naruto felt like a dead weight despite its size. Wendy retrieved the kunai from her pocket. She remembered how he had been against her learning how to use it.
She gripped the circular hilt tight. It dug into her palm painfully.
I want to go home.
Grandine left. Jellal left. Naruto was going to leave her.
It didn't matter if it was a matter of months, years or decades. He was going to leave her. There was another common thread between them.
They left because she wasn't important enough.
Wendy knew she was being unfair, but such unbidden notions would not leave her waking mind. She wished for nothing more than his happiness, but not at the cost of her own.
Naruto meant the world to her.
She knew how much she meant to him. Midnight's death had all but affirmed it. She didn't fear him or whatever it was that was sealed inside him; such a thought never even strayed her mind. She only feared that he was going to leave her, like everyone else. But maybe if he saw her as an equal, someone to walk alongside, Naruto would come to rely on her.
Just like she relied on him.
"Wendy... What are you doing?"
Wendy was aware how her hair, grimed with wet earth and sweat, clung to her face. She didn't even try to blow it away this time. Absently, she took hold of her long dark hair, and brought the blade level with her neck.
Tomorrow, she was going to show Naruto her resolve.
The only way he'd understand.
Naruto was mindful this time round. By that, he meant not jumping down and appearing in front of his blonde compatriot so suddenly. It didn't mean that he couldn't sneak up on her, because really, she could put more points into her awareness. After all, he was her guildmate now. Helping her was the least he could do.
Lucy, for her part, jumped. He swore he could hear a tiny squeak too.
"Na-Naruto! You're back?!"
He smiled, toning down the cheekiness. "Yeah, the missions weren't that hard. It was only getting there and back that made everything so time-consuming. Besides, it was worth a night's sleep. Pretty soon, I'm gonna have a roof over my head." He gave her a quizzical look. "What are you doing outside Magnolia so early for?"
The Heartfilia heiress still seemed jittery around him, but less so today.
"Uhm, well, it's a lot easier to head out to the woods outside Magnolia, given where my apartment is. It's still terrible, mind you. I mean, the size, and the heating and plumbing. God, and the rent... Always with the rent!" She giggled weakly. "But it's still mine, you know? I wouldn't trade it for the world.
"Anyway, I didn't get a chance to look over those new keys I got, and I couldn't neglect them any longer. I thought I'd get it done bright and early today!" Her cheeriness reverted to anxiety. "Actually, I still feel bad about the whole thing... I was planning to return it to Angel after it all blew over, but those Rune Knights couldn't even find her. What do you think happened?"
"She went to a better place," Naruto said. "I'm sure of that. Pretty much everywhere else was better than where she was. No one deserves to suffer like that for the rest of their lives. I only wished that I could have helped her more."
He gave Lucy a small smile.
"So!" Naruto said, to clear the lingering awkwardness. "Tell me about these new keys of yours. I heard one of them is like a robot or something? Robots are always cool."
"Yeah!" she exclaimed brightly. It was amazing how excited Lucy was about something clearly dear to her, so much so that any previous apprehension vanished in the blink of an eye. "I mean all the Celestial Spirits I have are cool, period. I'm just really glad that they chose me in the first place. There's Aries, and Scorpio whom..."
Naruto ignored her completely.
The sudden burst of killing intent was weak, but it had caught his attention.
He narrowed his eyes at the small figure awaiting them at the bridge that led into the town proper. The crowd, as sparse as they were at this hour, seemed to split around her, giving the girl a wide berth; they seemed to pick up on the signs of imminent battle. The only other person there was Carla, who was trying—unsuccessfully—to stop her.
Brown eyes met his. She did not shy away this time.
In those eyes of hers, he ignored everything else. The welts and bruises that marred her skin. The grime and rips on her favourite dress. Even her dark blue hair, that had once reached down to the small of her back, had been cut short. Her physical changes may have held the symbolic transformation of her new-found self, but it was her eyes that told him all he needed to know.
Mirajane told him to listen. He was. Apparently, he just needed Wendy to dumb it down for him.
Sometimes, words were overrated.
"Isn't that Wendy? Oh my God!" Lucy gasped, fretting. "Was she attacked?! And what happened to her hair?! Naru—kyaa! H-Hey, let me down! Naruto!"
He spared Lucy an apologetic smile as a clone absconded with her. The blonde was trapped in a fireman's carry, and was ushered off towards the shadows of the nearby forest, where he knew she'd be out of harm's way. Around him, more of his clones were doing the same, ferrying the odd passer-by or two away from the immediate area.
At the other end, Carla had flown in between them, her eyes bloodshot and face haggard.
"Stop this madness, Naruto! You can't possibly—"
Far faster than even Carla would have expected, a clone snatched the Exceed out of the air and made away with her as well. His unimpeded view of Wendy saw her visibly gulp down.
She was already charging up.
"Sorry," he said lowly. "This is happening."
Wendy sucked in a great breath of air.
Naruto knelt, releasing his kunai from his holster and imbued the blade with chakra. He dug the kunai into the earth until it found purchase. Behind him, two clones had done the same, pressing into his back to shore up his position. With his free hand, he gathered and manipulated the swirling chakra into a Rasengan. However, instead of its normal clockwise rotation, he reversed it.
He was not going to back down from her opening salvo. He would weather through the storm.
Then, he would break it.
"Tenryuu no Houkou!"
A hurricane bore down upon him. It destroyed one of his clones, but Naruto recovered in an instant. Bringing the Rasengan to the fore, he redirected the spiralling gust of wind to yield to his signature technique. The counteracting force caused her Sky Dragon's Roar to unravel, the resulting splash back bleeding into the surroundings.
Struggling to his feet, his clone propped up the lower-half of his body in support. Naruto upped the intensity of his Rasengan, letting the technique reach its second stage: the Ōdama. With the added leverage, he pushed the attack into hers. It unlaced it further until he forced himself into the eye of the hurricane.
Just as quickly, the storm broke, but her resolve did not.
Naruto allowed his attack to dissipate.
"Heaven's enchantment! Arms x Venier!"
This was new...
In a sudden flurry of movements, the Dragon Slayer reappeared to his left, a small fist already inching for his head.
However, Wendy was telegraphing her intentions, as rash as it was. He could read it. Thus, he was prepared. His forearm deflected the brunt of her punch, but it was weak. Even with Arms in play. Wendy didn't have the presence of mind, or the muscle memory borne from countless hours of conditioning, to follow through with her body.
What followed was a passable exchange of Taijutsu.
Wendy flowed from one attack to the other, bolstered by the glowing, translucent sheen of her double support buffs. However, she was too rigid, too content with following what he had taught her to the letter. It was unintentional, he was sure. Naruto had tried on more than one occasion to correct it. While the improvements were minimal, the tenacity was there; something that wasn't present before.
Given how their team fought, Naruto had always felt that it was unnecessary for her to focus too much on her close-combat capabilities, especially given her age and build. He couldn't even think of any female Taijutsu specialists back home to use as a reference point. Tsunade-baachan and Sakura-chan only had to rely on their ungodly strength to finish off a fight, but their fighting style was rudimentary at best.
In truth, Naruto had neglected this aspect of his apprentice.
It wasn't spectacular, but there was potential in her that he missed. Still, attacking him in close-quarters where he had the reach and superiority, and where she was at her weakest.
He would have shouted at her.
Instead, Naruto reminded her of her folly by locking his arm in, using only the momentum from his turn, and elbowed the girl on her jaw. Wendy dropped like a sack of rocks, her body falling at an angle.
His clone drilled the lesson home by sinking a foot into her abdomen. It didn't stick around for much longer, dispelling itself with a grimace when the deed was done.
Wendy rolled roughly to a stop. Panting, she took a moment to right herself.
He would have commended her tenacity. He would have cheered at her overcoming the hurdle of combining her two support buffs into a single spell. He would have praised the strength of her Sky Dragon's Roar.
But Naruto could do none of these now. It would have made everything meaningless.
In that moment, and all that preceded it, Naruto could have easily delivered a decisive blow to prematurely end this fight before it even began, but that wasn't the end they needed. This was a battle to convey her resolve. He didn't need to crush her. He needed to acknowledge her. She needed him to take her seriously.
He was. In a way.
Wendy shot forward again, this time following in the wake of the singular arc of wind that sped towards him. She shifted its bearings, from vertical to horizontal to affect a wider area.
It had been her first original spell; one that he helped to create. Their primary affinity had always been incompatible. His chakra was inherently moulded to cut. Her magic was shaped to batter, much like his often used C-Rank technique. This was her compensating for that. It wasn't without its flaws, like most techniques were.
Destroying Ictus hardly gave him pause. Neither was it sufficient enough to distract his attention away from Wendy, who had tried to sneak under his guard. In due time, when she was older, and a singular arc of wind was but a drop in the ocean, perhaps it would have concerned him.
But for now...
Wendy was gathering her magic around her fists, the wind coalescing tightly around her form.
A lot better than her first try, but even he wasn't going to take that point-blank.
Naruto took hold of her forearm and pulled sharply, stopping her from combining her attack. The brief look of distress on her face was overshadowed by the jab he landed on her nose. Wendy staggered back on uneven footing, but his grip on her forearm remained firm. Somewhat unorthodox, she coiled the air currents taut under her feet, and like a literal spring in her step, she propelled herself into the air.
Wendy lashed out with an overhead kick.
"Tenryuu no Kagizume!"
Naruto blocked her feet with the outside of his arm. Although, it would have done little to stop the gale-force winds from knocking his head off. Doing away with a hand seal, Naruto manipulate the surrounding air to take the sting off her attack. Without a focus, it was weaker, but it was enough to neutralise her desperate gambit. In the end, he was met with a pleasant breeze that ruffled his hair.
In mid-jump, Wendy was completely at his mercy now.
Chakra flared from the tenketsu in his arm.
In another life, he saw lightning crackle, biting into flesh, and menacing red eyes that spun like a dizzying kaleidoscope. A pact of brotherhood, bathed in blood, was made that day. Here, he saw a young girl helplessly pulled into orbit around him, struggling with insecurities that he hadn't given much attention to.
Before, she had been a child who was afraid to inflict pain, even to her adversaries. It was to the point that she even feared hurting him during their spars. Coaxing that aggressiveness from someone as young and as innocent as her had never sat well with him.
But now he saw something more.
His fist found her midsection, slamming her into the ground. It didn't so much leave a crater of her own making, but her body did jounce forcefully on the unyielding surface.
Struggling to breathe, her petite fingers clawed at the hem of his pants, tearing the bandages on his feet. Naruto knelt down and stopped her. He scooped her into his arms, and the girl pressed her head against his shoulders, struggling not to cry.
"It's okay, Wendy," he said. "I get it now..."
"Wendy is a real man."
Apparently, beating up thirteen-year old girls didn't garner him friends in his new guild. Not that Naruto paid such negative comments attention. At the very least, it had elevated Wendy in the eyes of their new guildmates.
"Yo, Mira." He leaned over the counter, looking down across the bar. "Get me two of whatever Lucy usually drinks, whatever juice it is you have, and tea too."
Passing a tray of drinks to one of their servers, Mirajane walked over to him, smiling that smile of hers. "Coming right up." Taking two mugs in hand, she held it under a tab. "So... How are things between you and Wendy?"
"Better," Naruto said. "We didn't really talk, so much as traded words with our fists. It sounds messed up, but it worked. I know there's no magic button that will make everything all right again, but that advice you gave me last night really helped me to figure it out."
"Oh? And what was that?"
Taking the proffered mugs, Naruto grabbed a tray of his own. "That no matter how hard I try to stop it, she isn't going to stay a kid forever."
"Well, it does sound unorthodox, but it's hard to argue against results. I'm happy that the two of you were able to patch things up at least," Mirajane said. "Oh, that reminds me. How's your apartment search going? If you're still having trouble, Elfman and I, we have a spare bedroom... It didn't occur to me last night to offer it to you."
"Really? That's great!" He rubbed the back of his head, grinning. "I don't want to bother you or anything, but there's this place that I've been looking at that's in our price-range. If that goes belly up, I think I might call you up on that offer."
Naruto must have imagined it, because for a moment, her smile grew forlorn. It disappeared as quickly as it came.
"It's not a problem, Naruto. It would be nice to have one less thing to think about, wouldn't it? Be sure to invite me over if you have a housewarming party. I'll be sure to bring a gift~"
"You're a life-saver, Mira. I'll talk to you later."
Mirajane spared him a wave goodbye, just as another customer stumbled up to her with his order. Drinks in hand, Naruto made his way back to their table, but Gajeel blocked him off.
"Feh! You know this doesn't reflect well on me; you beating her up. They're calling me all kinds of names too, like 'that-guy-who-got-beat-up-by-that-guy-who-beats-up-kids'. Just be glad that some of the idiots here aren't that bright."
For a second time today, Naruto took a long, hard blink.
His one-time adversary's face had been scratched to high hell. The visible parts of his body met the same end. That was saying something too given his naturally sturdy constitution as the Iron Dragon Slayer. He was lugging around a box full of assorted pink and red pastries and cans of sardine. Also, a large net was attached to his back, for some odd reason.
"What the hell happened to you?"
Gajeel scowled. "I don't have to take this shit! I gotta weird cat to catch!" he said gruffly, storming out of the guild hall.
Naruto nodded plainly, resuming his trek back to their table.
Roll with it.
"A-Ah, are you done?"
"Just the final touches remain, ebi."
The strange half-man, half-crab was snipping away at Wendy's hair, the two scissors in his hands clacking furiously. The Celestial Spirit known as Cancer was an oddity, ignoring the fact that summons here double up as hair stylists. The crab-man was dressed garishly, with thick gold chains and a shirt that was unbuttoned just enough to show off his chest. Naruto had to admit though, his hair, braided elaborately with streaks of red, was pretty cool.
It was, in fact, his second brush with such summons; the first being the Gemini twins aboard The Christina. It was interesting to see an actual summon of this world (outside of a fight, of course). They were vastly different than the ones back home, but seemed to work on the same space-time principle of transportation.
"Lucy," Naruto said, placing her mug in front of her. The squirrelly girl jumped in her seat, startled. Her moan of embarrassment was kindly ignored by Naruto. "When you have the time, could you help me out?"
"Er, are you sure you want me? What do you need help with?"
"I'd like to know how your summons work. I could pick your brain now, but it'll be too jumbled up. I need to sort out my thoughts first—write some of it down."
"Really? Normally, people find Celestial Spirit Magic boring. Well, except Natsu. That's only because he thinks I can summon a dragon."
"You can summon dragons?"
Naruto shrugged. "Worth a shot. Finding a dragon is on my to-do list."
"Wendy's?" Lucy asked. "The same thing happened with Igneel and Gajeel's, Metalicana, I think? Gajeel doesn't really talk all that much about his dragon unlike Natsu."
Naruto took a sip from his mug, thinning his lips. "He's a strange guy. In fact, there's a lot of strange people here."
Lucy's nails dug painfully into his arm, like she was grabbing onto a lifeline. "I know right?! Once, Gajeel made me wear a bunny costume! Just to make me his groupie back-up dancer! God only knows what he's going to think of next," she said, her brown eyes wide and manic. "These people are like a family to me, but—but... You get it, don't you?!"
Naruto struggled with a reply. Thankfully, he was saved by Cancer.
"It is done, ebi," the Celestial Spirit declared with an exaggerated flourish of his hands.
"Uhm, how do I look?" Wendy asked.
He thought she looked fine. Her dark blue hair had been trimmed short. It framed her face, reaching just below her jawline. Cancer had done what he could to even out the hatchet job from her earlier attempt. It might take him time to get used to such a change, but a haircut was hardly the biggest change about her.
Trying to kick his ass ranked first.
Carla was fussing around Wendy. "It's different. I'm not sure when I'll get used to it, but at least, I won't get a mouthful of your hair the next time we fly."
"Eh, it's fine. You look great," Naruto said.
This was echoed by Lucy, and a few other members seated nearby them.
Wendy ducked her head down at the praise.
Gingerly, Wendy hopped off the stool and limped the short distance to join them at the table, holding back a grimace as she did. She was worse for wear after their battle, but he hadn't really hurt her that much. Whatever injuries she sustained were made worse because she had trained the entire night without rest. Although, she was adamant about not resting in the guild's lacklustre sickbay.
"So... We got a new haircut, money in our pocket, and my clones just finished up cleaning that boring mansion."
Wendy looked put-out. "But I said I was fine to do that mission..."
Naruto flicked her on her forehead, saying, "And I told you that you needed a break. If you're feeling up for it, we can find another one tomorrow." He shook his head. "Anyway, pooling everything we have right now, we should have enough to rent that apartment I was telling you about. Wanna go check it out? Might turn out to be our new place for the foreseeable future. It'd suck if someone got there before we—"
"Naruto! What the fuck?! You fought Wendy and Gajeel, but you won't fight me?! Fight me!"
Light trickled in from the only window in his room, casting silhouettes on his threadbare furnishings that stretched and yawned. There was the faintest creak of wood that resounded in the smothering silence of their new apartment. Naruto didn't pay it any mind, lost as he was in concentration. His touch was precise because the process demanded it. A single, misaligned stroke of his brush spelt the difference between success and failure.
Naruto heard the door to his room open. He didn't turn back to greet the intruder.
"What do you need, Carla?"
"You didn't have to hurt her that much," she said by way of greeting.
Rather than her usual biting tone, Naruto could feel how half-hearted and dull she sounded. It was like she was merely going through the motions of being angry with him. "Wendy and I fought. Then, we made up." He held two fingers, wiggling them. "The seal of confrontation and reconciliation. Just like the two of us, remember?"
"Naruto—" she sounded angrier now, "—waving symbolic gestures from your world, that we barely understand, won't magically make things better."
He shook his head, saying glibly, "You wouldn't understand."
"Why? Because I'm not a fighter, unlike the two of you? I can't understand the intricate nuances of punching each other to death? You didn't see what I saw; how she pushed herself all night just so she could find the courage to stand up to you. It was unhealthy, Naruto! You would have known that too if you saw it!"
"Keep your voice down," Naruto said, rubbing his forehead. "Look, there's some stuff that you understand, and there's more that you don't. I'm exactly the same way. This isn't her throwing a tantrum. When we fought, I know what she wanted to tell me."
"And what was that?"
"That she was growing up, whether we liked it or not. That she wanted us to take her seriously, and this is the kind of thing she meant. So, no more late night talks between us anymore, Carla. From now on, we include her or risk her pulling away even more." He paused. "So, Wendy... You can stop hiding now."
The Sky Dragon Slayer peaked her head inside his room; Carla had left the door ajar.
"How did you know I was there?"
"Gaki," Naruto rebuked her with a lazy drawl. "You're a million years too young to try and sneak up on me!" He laughed heartily. "Oh, man... I always wanted to do that!"
"—is exactly what it looks like," Wendy said, nodding. Her gaze was understanding. "It's okay, Carla. I know you guys do this a lot. Sometimes, when you sneak away, I was just pretending to be asleep."
Carla looked torn, her attention switching from Naruto to Wendy. Then, defeat reigned in her features. "I just think you two are missing the whole point of all of this..."
"I know that this thing between me and Wendy is about me leaving."
Carla's eyes were downcast. "I... I don't want you to leave either, Naruto."
Naruto smiled, a small but genuine smile. "Of course, I know you both don't want me to leave. I'm not dense." He thinned his lips, looking away. "But I have a duty to my village and to my friends. I have to go home. I told you two this already."
"We could come with you," Wendy said.
"It's not like I haven't thought about taking you guys with me, but what's waiting for me on the other end, in my world, that's not your fight. You two have nothing to do with any of that."
"But we're a team..."
"And in teams, there are individuals, Wendy," he said kindly. "I'm not against it, but you guys are still young. There's still a life here waiting for you that you don't know about. I can't take that away from you, like it's been taken away from me. What I'm saying is: you may think you have it all figured out now, but the odds are that you don't. Who knows—" he rolled his eyes, "—I may end up being just some guy who you met when you were young."
"I'm glad to hear that, but it might happened. Might. That's why I need you guys to think this through. There's still time," Naruto said, sighing. "It's not like I found anything worthwhile, and there's still a whole bunch of stuff that we need to do here. So... Make your decision when the time comes, all right? I don't want either of you to regret anything."
Wendy's smile would have lit up his room.
Sadly, it remained dark, save for the lone candle on his desk. They had learned that there was a faulty wiring, something about the lacrima generator malfunctioning and short-circuiting the entire apartment block. Their apartment would have to go another day without electricity. At least, he managed to knock down the rent.
"There is something else," Carla said quietly, her head bowed. "Something about me you should know as well."
"What is it, Carla?"
"I too am from another dimension..."
"Wait," Naruto said, deadpan. "What?"
Wendy was quiet, her brown eyes wide. Then, they narrowed. "No," she murmured. "But I found your egg here, in Earthland. There are other cats like you here too. Happy—"
"—is a fool. That tomcat barely knows which way is up."
"So what?!" Wendy bit out. She balled her fists around her nightwear, gritting her teeth. Her face was dark, and she was practically looming over the Exceed. "You want to go home too?! Like Naruto?!"
Anger still felt like such a foreign emotion to comprehend the girl having, much less displaying so openly. Even when he broke the news of his desire to return to Konoha, it was met with a listless sullenness that, in hindsight, was just as bad.
Carla shirked back. Her eyes were squeezed shut. "No," she muttered, her lips quivering. Whatever explanation that came out next was too unintelligible, even to his ears.
"No, I was sent here to kill you, you silly girl!" Tables turned, Carla screamed herself hoarse, "They sent me for a mission! Here, in Earthland! T-To... kill you. To kill Dragon Slayers." She looked away, eyes strained and teary.
Wendy had sunk to her knees, in equal parts shock and disbelief.
"—pretty dumb for someone who thinks she's so smart," Naruto said. "I mean, you've been doing a pretty terrible job for the last six years."
"It's the truth!" Carla hissed. "It's—"
"—stupid," Wendy said, laughing weakly. She smiled through her tears, a hand scrubbing at her eyes to stem the tide. "You're being stupid, Carla."
"I'm not! I'm..."
Wendy silenced Carla by pulling her into a hug, and Naruto, who chose not to intrude, couldn't help but smile. No one spoke then. The spellbound silence, disturbed only by the duo trying to rein in their emotions, was shattered when a muffled voice made itself known:
"Shut the hell up up there! Some of us got work in the morning!"
Naruto reached for his window and wrenched it open, hollering, "Stuff it, asshole! We're having a moment here!"
Rewind Omake: The Melancholic Irony of Gajeel Redfox Part Three – The One Cat To Rule Them All
Gajeel gnawed the inside of his cheek.
It had been a scant few hours since the new members arrived at their doorstep, seeking admission into Fairy Tail. Gajeel had been so happy, so full of indescribable joyful rage, at seeing Uzumaki walk through the tall archways to the guild hall. It would have saved him the hassle of tracking Uzumaki down by himself.
So Gajeel waited in the relative obscurity afforded by the blanketing shadows on the second floor, observing and studying his prey, much like a predator would.
Inexplicably, his eyes were drawn to well-dressed cat nestled in the arms of Wendy Marvell, the Sky Dragon Slayer. Across from them, stood the diminutive form of Natsu's blue-furred cat, his whiny, high-pitched voice grating his ears.
Gajeel had stalked across the length of the second-floor deck to get a better vantage point, unaware that blue eyes were surreptitiously observing him. He hadn't notice the girl-cat when they first came after the Fantasia parade debacle. It wasn't long before the synapses in his brain zapped into life, joining the two seemingly random observations into a single, inevitable conclusion.
What the hell?
Were Dragon Slayers supposed to have a talking cat companion?
Gajeel stewed in his place for a good two minutes, deciding on how to proceed. Once he did, he promptly leapt off the railings and landed nimbly in front of the entrance.
With a final snarky stare at his quandary, he swished his cloak as he turned to leave, heading off towards the town awashed in the warm rays of the setting sun. He wasn't sure how or where he got the cloak, but for the sake of theatrics (and this omake), it made for a dramatic exit.
Unbeknownst to Gajeel, someone was talking behind his back.
"Seriously?" Naruto turned towards Mirajane. "What the hell is his problem?"
Picking up the grey tabby cat by the scruffs of its nape, Gajeel brought the mewling creature closer to his clawed-ridden face. Its big yellow eyes gleamed in the rapidly darkening skies. It then yawned cutely, exposing its sharp canines. Surprisingly, this one was a more docile than the others which had preferred to scratch him.
Scoffing, Gajeel released his hold over it. The cat scampered away down the shadowed alley to parts unknown.
It wasn't fair.
He was just as much as a Dragon Slayer as the other two.
Where the hell was his cat?
Why the hell didn't he deserve a talking cat?
Wendy had a sassy, mean-spirited cat with a wicked tongue. He assumed Carla could fly too. Natsu had... Well, Happy was a little—hmm. Well, Happy could fly, and was surprisingly insightful when there were things that needed to be clarified. The annoying one was like an exposition machine, which belied his stock personality of being an air-headed cat.
Yeah, Happy had some redeeming qualities.
However, Gajeel had a loftier ambition.
He wanted a cat that could crush anything and everything that stood in its way. If not, then just something like the other two cats should suffice, something that could fly at least.
That was a good rebound goal to reach.
There was a loud clatter of steel on concrete as a trash bin was toppled over. What followed was the faintest pitter-patter of paws slinking ever so closer. It would have been indiscernible had it not been for his enhanced hearing. A small, shadowy creature could be seen pawing around the toppled bin. It stood just below his knees, hunched over what seemed to be a half-eaten loaf of bread.
It took quite a while for his eyes to adjust to the darkness.
When it did, what he saw was unlike any cat he had ever seen. Its head was matted grey, drawing attention to the rosy flush on its cheeks, in place of whiskers. Its eyes and mouth were inexplicably turned up in a symmetrical smile despite the fact that it seemed to be in mid-bite. Worse, it had a distinctly rectangular pastry-like mass in place of a body.
It was horrifyingly pink.
The cat perked up at Gajeel's misplaced gasp.
"What the hell are you?!"
Its instincts must have forced it to flee as it sunk low to the ground. It dashed and weaved around obstacles, towards the other mouth of the alley. For reasons that remained unclear, Gajeel gave chase. It was surprisingly agile given its... pastry-like properties, but then again, Gajeel had never been known for his speed.
The Iron Dragon Slayer leapt for its small form. Its pastry-like body was barely in his grasp before it managed to wriggle away due to the slippery feel of its abdomen.
He landed roughly in an undignified mess.
Gajeel looked up just as the not-a-cat rocketed to the skies, a stream of multi-coloured lights trailing in its wake like a hypnotic trance. Its voice was surprisingly loud, even with the rapidly-growing distance, as it belted out a repetitive jaunty tune. He stared long and hard at the pastry-line which had escaped him, feeling oddly mesmerised and equally lucid as the rainbow forged a brilliant streak across the night skies.
It was decided.
Gajeel had found the one cat to rule them all.
At the very least, he was sure that it could beat Happy and Carla.
That was why he wasn't going to let it get away the next time they meet.
He was sure of it.
Feeling a strange, sticky paste in his hands, Gajeel instinctively brought them up closer to his face. His enhanced senses couldn't quite match up with his brain about what it was that he had smelled.
Gajeel looked around. Feeling no eyes upon him, he begrudgingly took a lick.
"Ack! Too sweet!"
Rewind Omake: Butterflies
Eyes closed, Ren could feel the slightest shift in the air as a body made its way towards their position. Almost begrudgingly, he opened his eyes, but didn't stop the subtle mental beat that helped him to keep track of his patient's breathing. It was an important step. Any miscalculation would only be to the detriment of her health.
However, the unconscious woman laying in the hospital bed in front of him was strong.
He knew that.
He admired her for it.
They had hardly spoken prior to this. However, the intimacy of the act; to understand her body well enough to perform the Schlesinger Switch allowed him to grow closer to her. What he felt for her now grew beyond camaraderie, beyond kinship...
"Should I leave?" their blond visitor asked.
In his hand, he held a small bouquet of flowers. It was a colourful arrangement of fuchsia, green, and predominantly pink flowers—very much in the shade of her pretty hair. It seemed surprising that he had another talent, flower arrangements of all things. It seemed so unlike the savage monster that tried to kill—no, using that was too personal... erase their existence just hours ago.
They were ants, after all.
Ants in the presence of an all-too-powerful entity.
"Uh, I already visited your boss before this; they say he's going to be all right. Never mind. I'll just come back later."
"No." Ren didn't know what prompted him to stop Naruto from leaving, but the words just left his mouth. "You can stay. I'm sure Sherry would appreciate the visit, and the flowers as well. You have a good eye, Naruto-san."
Naruto gave him a sheepish look. "Well, I actually like plants more than flowers, you know?" He didn't. "Back then, the academy had the girls go for flower arrangement classes. I guess I picked up a few things here and there. I actually have a friend whose family owned a flower shop. In another life, I could see myself working there."
How utterly mundane. Was this even the same person as last night?
"Is she going to be all right?" Naruto asked.
"Her road to recovery will be a long one, but Sherry is strong, Naruto-san. Even you would admire the willpower she's shown."
Ren was aware he was blinking a lot now. To be fair, he hadn't slept for more than a day, and was still weary from their battles, having been thrust into this role from the onset. Thankfully, he had just been informed just minutes ago that a suitably competent healer would arrive soon to replace him. Despite this, he felt saddened that their time together would come to an end.
"I sure do."
Ren blinked again.
"Well, I just wanted to drop these flowers off anyway. I guess, I'll leave you to it." Naruto placed the small bouquet on the tray at the foot of the bed. "Get well soon, Sherry. I hope I'll see you again soon."
With a last lingering look, he gave Ren a small nod and exited the ward.
Left to resume his duty in the relative silence, broken only by the artificial respiration of the woman in his care, Ren was pensive. More so now, he was willing to admit that he was entirely unsure what to make of the former mage from Cait Shelter.
What a puzzling and terrifying man Naruto Uzumaki was.
Rewind Omake: Absence
It would be two years tomorrow.
The door to the room opened with a soft click. The air was warm, stuffy from a lack of ventilation—of use too.
She stared down at the boundary that separated the marble tiles of their corridor and the parquet flooring of the bedroom; it separated more than just that. With an empty box under her arm, she entered, unbidden memories surfacing and phantom voices whispering in the absence of one.
What'cha need, Mira-nee?
Mechanically, she moved to undo the curtains and open the windows, allowing the cool evening breeze in. Laying the box on the bed, she took a cursory glance around the small bedroom. She hadn't dared to remove a single item in almost two years, much less move something a millimetre out of place. Everything was perfectly preserved.
It was like a time-capsule, removed and ignored from reality, just steps away from her own bedroom.
She took hold of the picture frame standing on the bedside table, wiping away the accrued dust and grime. The bed creaked in protest as she settled down on it. For a long time, she found herself staring at the photo of the three of them; it had been taken months after they first joined Fairy Tail.
She had the same picture next to her dresser. Despite that, she couldn't help but see something new, something she had missed before. She memorised every single detail. It led to newer memories—memories which she had forgotten and glossed over simply because of how ordinary they were.
Ugh... Just five more minutes, Mira-nee.
She didn't shed tears. That phase had passed long ago. Instead, it was a state of blank stupor where even with her eyes wide open, she wasn't really looking at anything. That was why when a hand, large and calloused, pried the picture frame from her, she looked up, startled.
Elf-nii, you can't come inside a lady's room! There are unmentionables present!
Her brother nodded, an act of affirmation and understanding condensed in a single gesture. Carefully, he placed the frame inside the empty box next to her.
It wasn't enough. A single box couldn't fit fifteen years of memories.
"I think we need more boxes," she muttered.
Her brother's voice, although naturally gruff and deep, was soft when he replied, "There should be some more in storage. I'll go get some."
When Elfman made the move to leave, she stopped him. "Please don't be mad. I didn't mean to do this without you. I just figured it would easier if I do it alone." She gripped the front of her dress, saying quietly, "I just... That new guild member, Naruto. He could use a place to stay, even if it's just for a few days. You remember him, right? He visited the guild once before; the day after the Harvest Festival."
"Yeah, I remember him—from the magazine."
"Will you be okay with him staying here?"
"Yeah, he was a real man," Elfman said, grinning. "Lisanna would have liked him."
With that, he left her alone with the memories and whispers that would soon be packed up. To make room for more.
Fuah~ Look at Elf-nii, trying to act all cool and chic. Hehe...
"Maybe just a little," she said aloud.
Side Note: To those that have stuck around, I can't thank you enough. To new readers, it may be disappointing, but this was years of hard work and dedication. I hope it was well-received, at least.
Maybe some years down the line, we'll come across each other again.
Thank you still.