AN: This was inspired by Rae's amazing artwork depicting Gajeel and Levy in a post-apocalyptic Fiore. (She's raedoodles on tumblr – go check her out!) The story is AU from after the Grand Magic Games, and explores a reality where the predicted army of dragons invaded Fiore, and in which the remaining 10% of the population is struggling to survive. It's also loosely inspired by the film Reign of Fire. (It's got nothing to do with the twin-paradox-slayer theory, alas!)
Warning: This is an AU, so I will take my share of artistic liberties regarding the plot.
Disclaimer: I do not own Fairy Tail or its characters – Hiro Mashima does. Cover image by Rae.
by Miss Mungoe
It was her first time seeing the sun in over a month.
Lifting her hand to shield her eyes from the glare, Levy breathed in the smell of fresh air with an almost greedy vigour, letting it fill her lungs until it physically hurt before exhaling. The warmth of the midday sun felt foreign on her face; too hot, somehow, and she pulled the hood of her jacket over her head to stifle the sense of nakedness. The open sky made her uneasy, but there was not a sound in the low valley to suggest any impeding danger.
Soft footfalls to her left alerted her of the return of her partner, and she looked up as Gajeel stepped into her line of sight, his own eyes fixed on the endless blue of the sky stretching far and wide above them.
"Juvia was right – the nest's been abandoned. We don't have to take the long way around," he said as he turned his eyes on her, shifting the weight of his duffel over his shoulder. "You ready to go?"
Levy nodded, summoning courage she didn't really think she had. Inhale. Exhale. "Yeah."
He gave her a long, hard look, studded brows pulling down beneath the headband keeping his hair away from his face. "Ya don't have to do this today," he said then, and despite his gruff tone, she caught the underlying concern he wasn't able to fully mask.
She smiled, and brushed her hair away from her face, tucking it behind her ear. The slight shift of his gaze would probably have gone unnoticed by anyone else, but she caught it, and she wondered how bad the scars really looked. She hadn't had a mirror in weeks.
The action had been deliberate, though, and he took it for answer, motioning for her to follow him as he searched out a hidden path amongst the brushwood at the edge of the forest. Crawling up the slope of the valley, it looked innocuous in the warm light of the sun; lush and green against the backdrop of bright, sun-kissed blue. Welcoming, almost, for those who knew nothing of its beautiful deception. Making sure her hair was properly tucked into the confines of her hood, Levy chanced another glance at the sky through the sparse canopy.
"It's quiet," came the low rumble, and she said nothing as she let the words sink in. Too quiet, was the unspoken warning, but he knew better than to voice that aloud.
She walked closer, and he shifted his weight to accommodate her, never walking too far ahead, and lingering just close enough but not too close to hinder her own pace. The hem of his coat brushed against the backs of his shins, and her fingers itched to reach out to the free hand dangling invitingly by his side, but she pushed the urge away. They had more pressing matters, and now was not the time.
It didn't take long before the light peppering of shrubs grew thicker, and the stillness of the forest seemed almost loud in her ears the further in they ventured. Overhead, the rays of the sun broke through the canopy, spilling light onto the patches of dirt and leaves ahead of them, and all around them was the dim glow of golden green. In another life, she would have stopped to take in the splendour; to pause and admire the wonder of nature and the peaceful tranquillity of the forest.
But the ravaged truth of their existence had long since torn the simple pleasures of life from her grasp, and where she once saw beauty there was now the ever lurking suspicion of betrayal. Because Nature wasn't on their side in this war, and the lulling safety of the forest could well be camouflage for the hulking shapes of their adversaries.
Gajeel paused in his step, and Levy followed suit, and schooled her breathing as she watched him listen. His casual stance betrayed none of the tension or the constant alertness that governed his behaviour topside. There was no room for relaxation for those daring the scrutiny of the open skies.
She knew the coast was clear by the change in his breathing; the subtle shift from barely perceptible to audible, but waited for him to take the lead, moving in behind him as the path grew ever more obscured. The soft soles of her boots made no noise against the fallen bark and leaves underfoot, but always at the back of her mind lurked the nagging fear of discovery.
"I've got yer back."
The low rumble pulled her out of her thoughts, and she realized with a start that her heart was hammering against her ribcage. Of course he'd noticed, but he hadn't paused in his step; hadn't turned on his heel and taken her back to Refuge, demanding her not yet ready. Clenching her shaking hands, Levy felt her heart swell at the gesture. He knew how important it was for her to conquer the fear. He'd even specifically asked to be the one to go with her on her first trip from Refuge to Haven, even when Juvia had suggested she do it.
"I know," she said then, and when he turned his head a fraction, there was a ghost of a smirk there that made some of the terror uncoil within her. She drew a deep breath, "I won't leave your side."
He halted a little in his step at that, but caught himself before he actually stopped, and she smiled a little at his surprise. It seemed an age ago now – the exams. The trek through the forest, and their argument. It was in a whole other time; a whole other life. The beginning of the end of the world. But it was fresh in her mind, and she wouldn't soon forget. A dark guild would be a welcome alternative to the purgatorial flames of their current enemies. In the blissful silence of the forest it was almost too easy to forget the ashen ruins of their former home, and the paralysing calls of their new Masters. Death seemed an easy escape, but for them, it was never an option.
So they were still here, and still alive. Fighting to live, and living to fight. They couldn't change the fate of the world when Hell descended from the skies, but they had changed their own fate, and for now that would have to be enough. The world would have to wait a little longer.
The forest was slowly darkening around them as they made their way in a curving arch across the slope of the valley. Haven was on the other side, nestled into a deep crevice at the foot of Fiore's northern mountain region. It was the largest of their scattered sanctuaries, and Levy had been meaning to make the move for weeks, ever since Fried had sent for her, asking her assistance with the development of protective and camouflaging rune spells. Haven also had the largest collection of salvaged books and scrolls amongst all the shelters, and if she wanted to do her part in the war, that was her best shot of making a difference. It wasn't on the front lines with Natsu and Gajeel, but that didn't mean it wasn't as important.
"Want a break?"
She didn't let on how grateful she felt when he spoke, and if he hadn't stopped, apparently fully intended to take a break himself, she would have pretended she was fine. She knew he could have kept going for miles yet, and maybe she could have done the same, once, but her recuperation in Refuge had made her too idle too long, and everything from the soles of her feet to her lower back ached from the strain. She tried not to sigh too much in relief when she settled against a protruding boulder sticking up from the earth, stretching her legs out in front of her and letting her muscles relax. A water-skin was proffered, and she accepted it without complaint, and when Gajeel settled down beside her she let her head fall against his shoulder. They sat like that for a few blessed moments – calm yet alert.
"When will you have to leave?" she asked then, the question escaping without her full consent, and she tensed when the words fell between them in the silence of the forest.
She felt him stiffen against her, before his shoulders relaxed a little. It seemed more of a slump, though, and she dreaded the answer long before it made its way past his lips. "I'll take a day ta make sure yer settled, and then I'll head south," he said, finally. "Natsu's gonna need help getting the fourth settlement started. And I told Lil' I'd meet him in two days. If I'm gonna reach the capitol by then, I can't stay too long."
She fidgeted a little with the water-skin in her hands, tracing the scarred pads of her fingers across the soft leather. It wasn't 'Salamander' anymore, she noticed. Not even 'the idiot'. The war had changed a lot of things, and for a moment, she was glad to discover it wasn't all for the worse.
Still, his words confirmed what she had been dreading. Their reunion wasn't going to be very long.
A hand curled around hers then, and she realised with a start that she hadn't said anything, and when she looked up to meet his gaze his brows were furrowed. "I'd stay," he said then, simply, because it was him, but what she heard was what he didn't say.
If I could, I'd stay. And if I wasn't walking into hell, I'd take you with me. I wouldn't leave ya again if I had a choice.
She entwined her fingers with his and drew a shuddering breath. For weeks, she'd awaited word of his whereabouts; every day dreading the worst. Then he'd shown up, with new scars and new shadows behind his eyes, but she hadn't cared because he'd been alive. And even if she hadn't seen the sun in weeks, just seeing him before her, breathing, had been worth more than a lifetime in then sunlight.
"I miss you," she said then, voice barely above a whisper. It wouldn't change anything, she knew. He would still have to leave, to go south with the others because his role in the war was not the same as her own. And no matter how badly she wished she could be with him instead of the opposite way across the country, Levy also knew they couldn't afford to be selfish. Not when there was so much at stake.
He didn't verbally answer her admission, but then that didn't surprise her. Instead he drew her closer, tugging at her scarred hand as his free one reached for her chin. The rough pads of his fingers traced the jagged marks against her skin before tangling in her hair, and she met him halfway, mouth searching out his with blind desperation. It was the most egoistic they would allow themselves to be, and she clutched the moment greedily to her heart, drawing him in with the same vigour she had drawn fresh air hours before. The stone jutting into her side ceased to exist, as did the muffled silence of the forest, and she hadn't even realized she was crying before his thumbs wiped the wetness away from her cheeks, and she sobbed silently against him. Clutching at his coat, she tugged him closer, trying to make up for weeks apart and desperately attempting to prepare herself for the lonely days that would follow when he left her again.
She shifted closer, always closer, and he let her, tugging her towards him until she was snug against him. The steady 'thump thump' of his heart against his ribs rang loud and comforting in her ears, cutting through the silence around them, and it eradicated the haunting memories of lonely nights spent wondering if he was still alive. She savoured the sound and the feel of him as though she'd never experience either ever again, because she couldn't say for sure that she would. Neither of them could.
When she broke the kiss, her hands shook against the scarred skin of his face, fingertips tracing the familiar piercings lining the bridge of his nose and the arch of his brows, memorizing the feel and the look of him. The scar slicing down the length of his face had faded since the last time she saw it, but it still stood out against his skin. For others it was a mark of their struggle and a reminder of the enemy they were fighting; an emblem of their common goal, transcending the crests of guilds. For her, it was something far more personal.
It was the reminder of the life she owed him.
His eyes were closed, and he looked tired – more tired than she's seen him since the war began. Knowing him, though, he wouldn't have allowed himself to be tired; to think about life as something other than an endless battle, and a struggle to stay alive.
She was about to open her mouth; to tell him what she'd been too afraid to say the last time they'd parted ways, when his eyes snapped open, baring dragon-like slits in blood red irises, and before she'd even had a chance to react he'd hurtled himself forward, tackling her to the ground just as an ear-deafening screech tore through the silence. His weight crashed against hers, driving the breath from her lungs with a force that had pain flaring like fire in her chest. Her head slammed painfully against the forest floor as his shape covered hers, and her vision was obscured by the fabric of shirt.
The canopy above them exploded with fire the moment they hit the ground rolling.
The forest floor rippled beneath them with the force of the attack, and Levy's mind hadn't had time to catch up when another echoing shriek answered the first, cutting into her ears and all the way to the marrow of her bones. Gajeel was quick, though, and on his feet, pulling her with him even before the second attack shook the forest. Pushing her behind him, he surveyed the hole in the forest roof, and Levy's heart lodged into her throat as a shadow fell over the sunlight streaming in from the open sky. The beat of enormous wings above was loud as a great drum in her ears, and had the heavy branches of the old trees bending to the will of their power.
"Two," Gajeel muttered, before turning around enough to meet her gaze. "When I say 'run', you run."
"That's not a suggestion, Levy!" he snapped, cutting her off, and desperation crept into his voice even as it hit her with the force of a physical blow.
The ground beneath then heaved suddenly with the sudden descent of a great weight, and Levy staggered forward, hands grasping for the lapels of his jacket. He took advantage of the momentum, dropping to the ground and rolling around the boulder they'd been previously resting against. He opened his mouth to speak, but she cut him off.
"Forget it," she snapped, voice no more than a breath, but conveying a refusal that brooked no argument. "No way in hell am I running if you're staying. You either run with me, or we stay here and fight. Either way, we do it together."
"Two dragons is suicide," he growled.
"More so for you alone," she countered, hands finding his. "It will tear me apart to see you go south later, but I'll live, and I'll wait for you to come back, but if I let you leave me now and I lose you I won't be able to go on."
"Don't underestimate how much you mean to me, Gajeel Redfox!" she snapped, and the surprise that flitted across his face at the admission would have made her feel triumphant in any other situation. "I'm not leaving you. Now make your choice."
And he did. When the second drake touched down behind them to join the first, his hand yanked her chin towards him in a violent kiss that had their teeth clashing together and her lip catching in one of his canines, tearing the soft skin so it bled.
"You better keep up, Shorty," he growled against her mouth, before shoving them both forward, shielding her long enough for her to twist around. His hand found her back, splaying warm and strong between her shoulder blades.
Then he shoved, propelling her forward with a force that almost had her falling over, but she caught herself just in time, keeping her balance even though the ground shuddered beneath their feet.
And then they ran.
Her aching feet hit the uneven ground at a full sprint, and she pushed herself forward, to run faster – ever faster – even as fear rooted itself in her heart and threatened to ground her. Part of her wanted to lay down and surrender, to curl up and let fate do its worst, but another part of her – the stubborn part that marked her a mage of Fairy Tail above all else – drowned the feeling with a surge of righteous indignation. She hadn't gotten him back just to lose him. She hadn't wished to join the war just to back out the moment things got rough.
And she'd been dead serious when she'd told him there was no way in the Hell that was their world, that she was running away without him.
He was beside her then, ever the quicker with his long strides. "Go right, down towards the river. I'll find you on the bank by the mountainside," he shouted, before swivelling around just as a roar tore through the forest from the direction they had come. Squaring his shoulders and drawing a deep breath, Levy didn't have to look to know what followed, and threw herself down the passage he had appointed just as he unleashed his roar.
It wouldn't be enough to stop them; but it would, perhaps, buy them time.
Her lungs seared with the effort of keeping up her pace, and her already protesting muscles felt like lead as she hurtled through the shrubbery. Branches and thorns reached their sharp hands towards her as she frantically hurtled past them, and tears blurred her vision as she pushed herself forward until the taste of blood was sharp in her mouth.
A rumble shook the ground then, and she staggered forward, hitting the forest floor with enough force to knock the breath from her burning lungs. Her arms smarted from where she'd reached out to catch herself, but she scrambled back up, holding back an exhausted sob as she made for the greenery ahead. She could just make out the sound of the river, and it was music to hear ears as she sprinted the last steps into a small clearing between the trees.
She could make out the bank near the foot of the mountain further down, and her heart soared as she caught sight of a fissure in the mountainside suited for taking cover. Just as she had taken a step towards the water, however, a shadow fell over the river, obscuring the sun, followed by the cutting shriek of one of their predators.
Without hesitating, Levy threw herself down into the river, clenching her eyes shut as the water pulled her under. Her ears thundered with the surge of her own blood, and her starving lungs flared with the pain of holding her breath. Throwing her eyes open, she made a grab for one of the stones littering the bottom of the river to keep herself rooted below the water. The current wasn't strong, but it tugged at her regardless, and her arms throbbed from the pressure she was putting on them. From above her, a great shadow passed over the clearing and the river, and she caught the ripple of darkness below the clear surface of the water.
Then it was gone, and the sun shone bright and unblemished above her. Still, she waited until she was certain the coast was clear, until the point where the lack of air nearly forced her hand, and then she broke the surface of the river, gasping for breath. Her hair covered her eyes and sight, and she flailed with her arms, searching for the edge of the bank–
A hand grasped hers; rough, warm fingers curling around it, before she was hoisted out of the water and onto the grassy bank. Water merged with the tears in her eyes and she couldn't see a thing, but then arms were around her, lifting her up, and she twined her own around a strong neck, holding on for dear life as her blurred world titled and shifted.
Gajeel moved into the hollow in the mountainside, carrying her with him, before edging inside. It was barely enough space for one, let alone two, but they made it work without too much effort. Sliding down, back against the rock with her snug between his chest and his raised knees, he motioned for her to be silent. There were no sounds from the forest outside but the quietly running river, but Levy almost didn't dare breathe, even if her lungs were screaming for air. Her head pounded against her skull and the adrenaline in her system had her heart running rampant against her ribcage. Beneath her, Gajeel was warm and dry, and her head rose softly with the steady rise and fall of his chest; the remnants of their narrow flight showing their signs in the way he gripped her shoulders rather than his heart-rate.
A lone cry in the far distance finally broke the silence, and the shape beneath her tensed. When nothing followed, he allowed himself to relax, and finally Levy let out the breath she'd been holding, sagging against him as relief coursed through her.
They stayed that way as silence fell back over the forest and the sun dipped low towards the edge of the forest in the distance. Moving by nightfall wouldn't be easy, but it would be safer, but for a few blessed moments they remained where they were.
His voice was a deep rumble beneath her ear, and she nodded. Her head felt like lead. "Yeah. Bit tired."
"...you're a damn stubborn woman. Ya know that?"
That made her smile, and she buried her face in the crook of his neck. "Yeah."
He sighed, and her head rose and fell with the movement. "I can't guarantee I'll come back," he said then, after a lull, his words heavy and his voice dark.
She shook her head. "I don't need a guarantee that you will. Just that you'll try."
He snorted against her hair. "That's a given, Shorty."
She was silent a moment. "How do we survive this?" she asked then, voice a hoarse whisper. The adrenaline was slowly wearing off, and with it, the fears came crawling back. The memories of the shrill cries and the fire and destruction that had laid the world they'd known in ruins; that had scattered them all across the expanse of Fiore. It hadn't been total annihilation; they had seen to that the moment they had learned of the impending attack. They hadn't been able to stop it, because they hadn't had the time needed for them to figure out how. Instead they had prepared for the worst, and survived.
But the world they'd woken up to when the sun had risen on July 8th...
"We keep going forward," he said then, voice gruff against her hair.
"And what if there's nothing there?" she asked then, an edge of grief slipping into her tone. The future – any future, was hard to imagine with the present they were living in.
The arms around her tightened. "Then we make it ourselves."
She shifted her head until she could look up at him. And when he quirked a smile, she felt some of the confidence she had lost come seeping back. Resting his forehead against the top of her head, Gajeel breathed. "We'll build it from scratch. We've done it before."
A wry smile tugged at her lips. "That was a guild, not a country." Not the world.
She felt his grin against the crown of her head. "One time's gotta be the first," he grumbled, and for some reason, she felt laughter bubble up within her. Laughter, because it was Gajeel telling her these things. For all his complaints about Fairy Tail's preaching, Gajeel Redfox was trying to make her believe they could rebuild the world. Because they were Fairy Tail.
She felt slightly hysterical, but it also felt good. In her weeks underground, recovering after the attack on the capitol, she'd breathed and eaten and slept, but she hadn't felt like this – hadn't felt alive – since before the attack. But now, perched on the precipice of death and staring oblivion right in the eye, Levy finally felt like the breath in her lungs amounted to something. She wasn't just existing. She was living. Fighting.
"You'll come back to me," she said then, against the skin of his throat. "That's not a suggestion, Gajeel," she repeated his words back to him.
His amusement was a rumble against her ear. "Handing out orders now?"
"You're damn right I am."
He smirked against her hair. "Well I ain't gonna argue with that."
The sun dipped down behind the treetops, and night crawled slowly across the valley until it was fully shrouded in darkness. When they finally came out of their hiding place, Levy's clothes had almost dried, but her legs were shaking from sitting still and her muscles screamed in protest to her movements. He didn't offer to carry her, but then she hadn't expected him to, but he kept their pace comfortable and stayed close as they walked. Overhead, the forest was silent, devoid of even the noises of nocturnal animals. Not a hoot or a scutter in the bushes – even the wind was quiet, and the forest rested like a tangible weight over their heads.
It wasn't because she was scared that she reached for his hand, fingers winding around it where it hung at his side. She was beyond fear now. There was no room for it in the future she was walking to. Though Haven was a sanctuary – a shelter – it was also a base of operations. She was joining the war, not running from it. Her trek across the lush valleys of their ravaged world had made her realise what she was living for; that she was, indeed, living.
No, she grasped his hand because it had been one of the things she'd always wanted to do, in a past where waking up to a new day had been self-evident, and their lives had revolved around the odd job and a good party. Her past self had been able to afford restraining herself from acting on her desires. But her present self had seen the fires of hell and survived. And she was still surviving, picking her way through the still cooling ashes of the new world. She wasn't just making a stand; she was making a choice.
And as his fingers tightened around hers in return, she knew she had made the right one.
His following departure was tough on the both of them.
"Be careful," she said, as he shifted his duffel across his shoulder. Dawn had yet to break across the valley, but most of the shelter's occupants were awake. Sleep came easy for no one these dark days.
"You're certain you have what you need?" Erza asked from beside her, arms crossed over her armoured chest. From beside her, Jellal stood; a silent pillar in the shadow of the mountain. Haven was under their authority, and they bore the responsibility well, though Levy could tell Erza wished she was going south with Gajeel.
But she also knew that if faced with the choice of staying to protect the shelter and going south to hunt and help with the new settlements, Erza's answer was a given.
Gajeel threw a look towards the ever brightening horizon. "Should be good 'til I get there. Lily should have some provisions," he said, before turning his sharp gaze back to her.
She nodded. "Give Natsu and Lucy our regards."
He smirked. "Aa."
At the mention of her best friend's name, Levy pulled forth from her bag a tattered folder, before holding it out towards him. "Would you give this to Luce for me?" she asked, and when his eyes searched the charred cover, she explained, "It's the drafts of her novel. Fried found it in the guild when they looted it."
Gajeel didn't say anything as he accepted the portfolio, this relic of their old life, and with a care she'd never before seen him display to any kind of material object, he slipped it into the confines of his bag.
"It would be a shame if she doesn't get it," Levy said then. "So you get it to her, yeah? In one piece."
He smirked at that, catching the double-meaning, and nodded. Then he leaned forward, splaying his hand across the top of her head as his warm breath fanned against her forehead.
"See ya later, Shorty," he muttered against the scar, mouth brushing against the jagged tissue, before giving her hair a fond ruffle. When he pulled his hand away, his fingers lingered against her jaw, before he shoved it into the pocket of his trousers.
Erza smiled. "Good luck out there, Gajeel."
He raised his hand in a silent salute, but his eyes lingered on Levy, until he turned towards the forest and his destination in the far distance. In the shadow of the mountain, Levy remained, watching silently as his shape slowly vanished into the trees, until he was out of sight. She didn't make an immediate move to retreat inside, though, and neither did Erza or Jellal.
From behind them, the sun finally surfaced above the towering peaks of the mountain range, filling the valley with the light of morning. From weeks spent in the dark underground, Levy should have revelled in the simple pleasure of finally standing beneath it, basking in its sustaining light, but as her eyes rested on the edge of the forest, willing the dark shape to come walking back out, she found she had little interest in the blazing star. She could live without sunlight, if she had to. She'd fight their battle from within the confines of their sanctuary, developing the protection needed to counter the beasts that now ruled the skies. She would live, and fight, and survive. She only prayed that Gajeel would do the same.
Because an eternity in the dark couldn't measure up to the thought of an existence without him.
AN: This was originally supposed to be a one-shot, but I'm enjoying the idea so much I'm making it into a fully fledged story, although I think I'll wait until I've finished Hard Liquor. Let me know what you think?