AN: Because being a grandfather is so much more than just watching from afar.
Disclaimer: I do not own Fairy Tail or its characters – Hiro Mashima does.
The next time she came to visit, she didn't come running.
He had not expected them, but then, Gajeel never did give any hints if they were thinking about dropping by, or any warning whenever they did. But Metalicana didn't mind – time passed at a different pace for dragons than it did for humans, and he appreciated the pleasant surprise in his usual routine. It wasn't something he would ever have imagined adapting to, isolated as much of his life had been for the past two decades, but he'd found that he didn't much mind the interruption.
The day had so far been a very pleasant one, and the afternoon sun was warm on his back as he basked on his perch. Contrary to Igneel's jokes that he preferred the dark, Metalicana had a great appreciation for sunlight. And with his metal-rimmed scales, which absorbed the heat delightfully, there was little he liked better than to laze about in good weather. He'd noticed their approach long before they'd even neared the clearing, as his ears were almost always alert for the sound of their footsteps. His son's he could pick out from a mile away – brash, stalking steps that demanded as much attention as the man they belonged to, cutting a path through the trees with a tang of arrogance that never failed to have him rolling his eyes. The little one was the complete opposite with her jaunt, cheerful strides, and he could almost always tell she was with child, or if she was carrying one of her young just by the change in her pace. On the last few visits her steps had been measured, if not without a small 'waddle' as Gajeel had taken to calling it, much to her chagrin.
And the littlest one always ran; paces ahead of her parents, and with a quick and careless grace that he had come to recognize her by. She was a bundle of barely contained energy on the best of days, and had trouble sitting still, much to her mother's fond exasperation. Her steps were always light, almost jittery, and always brimming with anticipation, as though she couldn't quite wait to reach their destination.
But she wasn't running this time.
Settling down into the clearing, the great dragon shifted his weight as he made himself comfortable, and tried to ignore the near ominous apprehension that had come over him. There was something deeply unsettling about the steps approaching him, but he could not quite figure out what it was. He could pick out Gajeel's steps, as always, but they were lacking their usual confidence, and there wasn't a shred of the usual arrogance thrumming along the edge of his senses. They seemed...subdued, almost. As though his son was purposefully stalling. He couldn't pick out the little one at all – in fact, as far as his ears could tell, there were only two sets of footsteps approaching him; his son, and the eldest hatchling. A shiver of discontent ran down his great spine at the prospect, and when the bushes rustled ahead and they entered the clearing, his fears were confirmed.
Gajeel entered first, which was an oddity in and of itself, and the old dragon felt something close to dread settle deep in his belly at the dark look on his son's face. There were shadows under his eyes, and his general stance brimmed of something akin to...regret? It was hard to tell. Human emotions had always been a foreign concept to him, but he had enough experience to tell some of the more primal ones apart. But his own assessment did little to remove the heavy weight of dread that had settled over the clearing.
Close behind his son came the eldest hatchling, and Metalicana was at once struck at how much she had grown, even in the past few months. She wasn't much taller, even now, and her shape was growing with the awkward pace of the first human decade. Coming to stand beside her father, he noticed she was yet to greet him, let alone raise her head from where it was bowed. Next to Gajeel, she looked incredibly small, and the old dragon was reminded, startlingly, of the first time he had laid eyes on the little dragonling. Admittedly, she had been hiding behind her father at the time, but she was close enough now to underline the fact that something was terribly wrong. On all their other visits, she would be climbing his tail at this point, or so eager in retelling the latest events of her life that she'd be gasping for breath.
But she hadn't spoken a word since they'd entered, and it was a testament to how much he'd adapted to her chatter, that the fact deeply disturbed him.
"What has happened?"
The directness of the question took neither by surprise, but then, he'd never been one to beat around the bush, and he suspected they both knew that. Igneel always called him an unsentimental bastard, and he'd never argued for anything else. He didn't see the point in stalling a conversation, no matter how difficult. Even now, with his son and his grandchild standing before him looking like the world had ended, he was loath to prolong the tension. And then there was the deeply unsettling fact that their silence was frightening in its severity – a sensation he had not experienced in years.
Neither seemed eager to answer his question, and the hatchling seemed to shrink in on herself, her sharp teeth clamping down on her bottom lip. Gajeel looked weary, which was a bad sign on a good day, in Metalicana's experience with the boy. Anger he was familiar with, and could interpret better than most people who knew him. But what plagued his brat now...
A thought struck him then – clamped around his black heart in a near-suffocating grip as his mind wrapped itself around the prospect.
No. It wasn't possible. Not her, surely?
"The little one is not with you."
The words sounded hoarse, even to his own ears, even as his mind fought to keep up with his thoughts. She couldn't–
No. Surely not. His son would not be so calm, let alone fit to travel such a distance, if that were the case. He knew from experience the devastating effects of losing a mate – had been effectively incapacitated for months after...
Even now, the mere thought was difficult to finish. It was an ache that never quite went away – that would never go away, he was certain. Some dragons succumbed completely, but Metalicana had always been too damn stubborn for that. Not to mention, she'd have never forgiven him, if he'd given up, which was partly what had kept him going for so long after her death. That, and the brat standing before him. The brat who looked close to the breaking point himself, and whose restraint was no doubt solely for the sake of the small shape huddled so close to him.
Gajeel's shoulders visibly tensed at the laden remark, but it wasn't his son who spoke up to answer it.
"Mom miscarried," came the surprisingly blunt reply; the small voice uncharacteristically hoarse, and all the while, she refused to raise her head to look at him.
Human expressions of speech were not his expertise, and he wondered briefly at her use of the word, but knowing her mother, it was hardly surprising she'd developed a grasp of her language beyond her short years. It took him a moment for the words to settle, and for him to connect a meaning to them, and when he did, the resulting pain was as unfamiliar as it was violent.
Gajeel visibly bristled at the words, but said nothing, and a grief so sharp it was tangible thrummed along the edges of Metalicana's senses. He had always been good at sensing what the boy was feeling, but now he wished he couldn't. The hatchling clenched her hands into fists, and the sting of salt on the air was sharp to his sensitive nose. Her small form trembled with pent-up emotions, and for the first time in his relatively long life, Metalicana had no idea how to proceed.
An image flickered past his mind's eye, of the little one on her last visit, smiling and with her small hands across her stomach in the gesture that was as fiercely protective as it was fond. That had been near two months ago, and already then had she been far enough along for him to have picked out a heartbeat. He had made a comment on the rapid expansion of their little clan, and she'd merely laughed and shared a look with her mate that had almost served to make Gajeel fidget.
Placing a hand on his hatchling's head, Gajeel tangled his fingers in the bright blue hair. "Shorty's recoverin'," he said then, his voice a deep rumble that bordered on a rasp. "Kiddo needs some time away from the city."
Metalicana nodded, acknowledging the unspoken request. "It's done."
Gajeel nodded, the brusque action betraying his supposed calm, and Metalicana felt suddenly and violently out of his depth. Grief clawed at his insides, a feeling he had only felt twice before in as many centuries, first when his young mate had met her premature end, and then when his son's presence had vanished from the face of the earth for the longest seven years of his life.
But this grief...
"How is she?"
The question was a rumble in the small clearing, making the flowers tremble with the force of it. Gajeel sighed, the sound a heavy thing between them, and when he met his father's gaze, there was a suffering there so potent it was staggering.
The littlest one stiffened, but said nothing, and Metalicana was again acutely aware of the last time they had visited. The little hatchling had been eagerly doting on her brother, who had grown a considerable amount since the first time Metalicana had seen him. Still not old enough to walk, she'd lugged him around with the potent enthusiasm of an older sibling, glowing with pride to rival that of her father who lingered in the background with her mother. Shorty had not been feeling well, and the journey had been tiring. His son had hovered and she had been playfully indignant, claiming that she was fine. After all, she'd made the same journey whilst heavy with both her hatchlings in the past – there was nothing different with the new one, she was just tired.
The thought was a heavy one, and the memory of the fierce little mother was only further emphasised by the dark tension that clung to the two before him.
Finally, the hatchling looked at her father. "The train's gonna leave," she said, but Gajeel looked reluctant.
"You sure you gonna be okay, shrimp?"
The question was laden, and Metalicana knew he was asking for more than what he appeared to. The conviction in his words when he'd proposed she stay for a few days seemed forgotten. She nodded dully, and Gajeel gave her hair a good ruffle. When he pulled his hand away, however, she latched onto it. "Dad..."
For his part, he said nothing, only hoisted her up and let her bury her face in his neck, which was the single most un-Gajeel like thing Metalicana had ever seen his son do. A hiccup escaped her, and the sound was amongst the worst he'd ever heard, in all his encounters with humans. Once, he might have called it pitiful, but he'd learned enough about humans to know that visible sorrow was not necessarily a sign of weakness.
When she spoke next, her voice was muffled from where it was buried in the neck of her father's shirt, but for his hearing, they weren't any less discernible. "Can I be munchkin? Mom's the shrimp..."
Gajeel snorted, but the action carried none of the wry scorn it usually did. "Ye're even smaller than she is," he pointed out.
She shook her head. "Mom's still the shrimp."
Gajeel said nothing to that, but his grip tightened a fraction, before he set her back down. Kneeling down to make up for the height difference, he repeated his question. "Last chance, kiddo. You wanna stay?"
She nodded, wiping furiously at her eyes. "Will you take care of Mom?"
He nudged her forehead. "Always do."
Turning his head towards Metalicana, who had been watching the exchange with hooded eyes, Gajeel attempted a smile. "Take care of 'er, Pops."
He nodded. "Assure the little one that she is in good care."
His son's smirk was wry. "Will do. I'll bring 'em both next time," he said, and for a moment, a twinge of conviction broke through the grief.
Metalicana nodded. "If she is better."
"She will be."
He didn't know if it was because he truly believed so, or if he wanted it to be true, but the look on his face brooked no argument. Metalicana turned his attention to the hatchling standing before him, hands still trembling at her sides.
"Youngling," he spoke, and she looked up briefly, and he wondered how his son coped with two pairs of the exact same and overly expressive eyes. She didn't say anything, but she didn't need to. Words were humans' most common form of communication. He was a dragon, and even if he hadn't the slightest idea of how to deal with a hatchling who had lost a long expected and treasured sibling, he wasn't averse to trying.
She looked at her father, as though seeking final permission, and Gajeel nodded, arms crossed over his chest. "Go. I'll be back in a few days." But even as he said the words, there was a reluctance there that would no doubt be impossible to erase, even if he had tried.
She nodded, almost absently, before turning back to Metalicana. "Gramps?" and her voice was very small when she spoke. He said nothing, only shifted his weight and curling his tail around his great bulk. The invitation was clear, but her movements were subdued as she made her way towards him. He did not know why is struck him as hard as it did – it wasn't like he'd expected her to amble forwards as she'd always done. Not now. The open wound would take time to heal, and for one such as she, perhaps longer.
A small hand reached out to touch one of his scales, and the emotion seeping through the faint contact should by rights be too much for such a small body to contain. But she bore it with a grim set to her brows that made him remember, once again, that she was not just her mother's daughter, but Gajeel's as well. And that despite her small form, there was more dragon in her than her appearance gave her credit for.
The climb up his back was familiar ground to her now, and it didn't surprise him that it took her almost no time at all. Rising to his hind-legs, he looked down at his son, who watched them with the wary concern of a father who has lost a child. And though Metalicana knew full well his son entertained no idea of his daughter being in any danger, he doubted that feeling would ever go away, now that it had manifested.
"She will be safe," he repeated, more for his son's sake than his own, and though the tension did not leave him completely, Gajeel seemed to relax visibly at the words. Unfolding his wings, Metalicana shifted his focus to the small shape huddled atop his head.
She was silent for a moment, but then she spoke, and Metalicana found that if she'd asked him to fly across the entirety of Fiore, he wouldn't have been able to refuse.
"Can we go to the sea?"
There was something staggeringly innocent about the query, and Metalicana could only nod as he took to the air, gently at first, assuring himself that she had a good grip on his scales, before he stretched his wings in one great, powerful stroke, sending them soaring to the skies overhead. The forest shrunk beneath them, the tops of the trees blending into a sea of green amongst which his son was no doubt watching their ascent. He'd miss his transportation, no doubt, but then Metalicana knew better than to argue. In stead he angled his course towards the glittering horizon in the distance, marking the very edge of the kingdom.
Usually when he took her flying, she made so much noise it was almost difficult to concentrate, but now he found that her complete silence was even more distracting. He considered asking a question, but could not come up with any suitable topics.
"It's okay, gramps, you don't have to talk," came her voice then, close to his ear, and a rumble of dark amusement rolled through him at her perceptiveness.
"You enjoy talking," he countered.
Lowering herself so she lay practically on her stomach, her sigh was a heavy thing. "I know. Just...I don't need it right now."
He said nothing to that, and despite his weak grasp on the workings of the human heart, he found that he understood why Gajeel had brought her to him. For while his youngest had no doubt yet to understand what was happening, his eldest knew and understood perfectly. And though the littlest one spoke with nothing but pride about the guild she called home, perhaps the comfort of humans was not what she needed. But that was fine by Metalicana.
He was far from human.
"Perhaps," he began, his voice a low rumble along the ridge of his belly. Her ears perked at the sound, and he knew he had her attention. Angling his head towards her small shape, he met her gaze. "It is time you started your training."
The distinct widening of her brown eyes was enough to convince him. Not waiting for a verbal answer, he gave another stroke of his great wings. The horizon glittered, nearer now than it had been a moment ago, the winds carrying them forward with more speed than any human device of transportation could ever hope to duplicate.
He couldn't offer words of comfort to cushion her feelings. He was a dragon through and through, and though far from heartless, he had little knowledge of the remedies for human grief. She was a hatchling still, and her mental defences were still developing, and they would continue to for years still. Raising her to maturity and nurturing her cognitive devices, that was her parent's job. What he could offer her was something else entirely. He could give her bodily armour and scales of steel. Shape her into a protector, for the hatchlings to follow in her wake. He could give her the means to guard those which she held dear. Before leaving his son, he'd made sure he was capable of protecting himself. Now, he would give his granddaughter the means to protect others. Not from fate – that was a lesson she would still have to learn – but from the tangible dangers of their world. Some things were forever beyond mortal control.
But some things weren't, and he would teach her how to control them.
AN: Yeah, this wasn't very happy OR fluffy, but then, life isn't always like that. The important thing is to have someone to lean on when things get rough. Like a big badass dragon-grandpa.