AN: The story will make a few jumps between perspectives, so here's a chapter for those who've been wondering what Gajeel's been up to while Levy's been off getting kidnapped by dragon-in-laws.
Also, here's a little note on the logistics of the story: In the time after the dragons invaded, most of the cities and villages have been abandoned, and the survivors have settled in sanctuaries within the mountains and underground, the largest and most prominent of which are Refuge, Haven and Harbour. There's also the new 'frontier settlements' in the south, Anchorage and Sanctum (Sanctum being the one furthest out). Levy travelled from Refuge to Haven in the first chapter, while Gajeel went south to the frontier settlements.
Warning: This is an AU, so I will take my share of artistic liberties regarding the plot. Also, rating has changed to 'M' for language.
Disclaimer: I do not own Fairy Tail or its characters – Hiro Mashima does. Cover image by Rae.
It'd been four months.
Four months spent without her, not knowing whether or not she was doing well after the move. Four months spent in the worst, most ravaged parts of the country, living with the constant reminder of the danger that lurked overhead.
It had been four months, and he was tired.
Raising his hand to shield his gaze from the glare of the sun, Gajeel rested his eyes on the horizon in the distance. Nothing stirred the trees spanning the stretch of land from the slope of the hill to the snow-capped mountains in the distance. At least for the moment, the world was quiet.
"Do you see anything?"
He sensed Lily come up beside him, and let his hand drop as he adjusted the bag over his shoulder, although it wasn't very heavy. They were low on rations, as they'd been forced to make a detour to avoid a particularly dangerous area where a dragon had decided to nest. Gajeel wondered idly if they would make it to the mountain range before they ran out completely. Field rations did little for his appetite, but metal was hard to come by these days, and even if he'd had some, he couldn't have carried much with him. Travelling cross country meant carrying as little as possible in order to move swiftly from one destination to the next. Keeping enough rations was all well and good, but when it came to hostile dragons, keeping a fast pace was far more crucial.
"It's quiet," he muttered after another scan of the scenery. Autumn was fast approaching, and the sky was a clear, cloudless blue over the yellowing leaves of the trees. It was deceptively normal, and he struggled not to unintentionally let his guard down. Just because he couldn't see the dragons didn't meant they weren't there. He grunted. "Almost too quiet."
His partner snorted, casting a wary look at the sprawling land before them. "Please don't say that – that's the textbook way of asking for something to come swooping down."
Despite himself, Gajeel felt a grin tug at his lips, and he shot his partner a sly look. "Scared, Lil?"
The Exceed crossed his arms over his chest, throwing Gajeel a sidelong look. "Under the open sky? Always."
Gajeel said nothing to that, but cast another quick glance over the cloudless expanse of blue stretching out above them. Empty. There was no beat of great wings, and no ear-splitting screeches marking their impending doom. For once, the skies were peaceful.
A pretty façade, and they both knew it, but neither of them mentioned it as they set off down the sloping hill. They had a long trek ahead of them, and he doubted they would reach Haven before sundown. But then, travelling by night was safer than travelling by day, and finding shelter was dangerous even if one of them kept watch. He'd travelled Fiore enough after the siege to know the new rules of the land by heart. Venturing outside at all was dangerous enough, but moving across the country, now that was just asking to be snapped up and devoured, which was why only a few were allowed to travel between the sanctuaries. They didn't have any mages to lose, but they couldn't stay cooped up underground, either. It was a tight rope to walk, and not for the first time did Gajeel find himself thankful he wasn't the one stuck making decisions, like Titania.
They passed through the first line of trees at the bottom of the hill, into the cover of the sparse forest, and Gajeel felt his shoulders relax as they stepped into the shadows granted them by the trees overhead. Of course, the danger was no less imminent, and trees only provided so much cover, but living in constant vigilance was exhausting, and he welcomed the feeling of temporary protection from the open sky as best he could. It probably wouldn't last very long, their recent luck taken into consideration. He'd had a few near run-ins before he'd caught up with Lily, and then one nasty encounter on their way south. He wasn't eager to repeat either experience.
"So, you looking forward to seeing your girl?"
The teasing comment fell so naturally between them, it was like they were on one of their routine missions, back before the world had gone straight to hell. It was almost too easy, forgetting where they were and what they were doing. Easy, but dangerous, and he had to keep a tight leash on his senses to remind himself just what lurked overhead.
"It's been four months," was all he said, knowing full well Lily wouldn't take anything less than an outright 'yes, damn it, ya nosy cat!', but secretly welcoming the familiar banter. Even if it didn't make their trek any less dangerous, it made him feel normal. Like maybe the world hadn't all but ended, and humanity wasn't hanging on by a thread. And it had been months since he'd last felt anything of the sort.
As expected, Lily took the bait. "'It's been four months'? That's all you're going to say?"
"It's a fact."
"It's also a gross understatement. I mean, it's not like I expect you to serenade your feelings or anything, but come on."
Gajeel had to concentrate to hide his smirk. "Whaddaya want then, cat?"
"The truth, preferably, which would be that you've missed her and that you're looking forward to seeing her again. Hell, I know I am."
Gajeel rolled his eyes, and refrained from mentioning that he was well aware. In fact, outside their fragile existence and the ever present danger of being snapped up by dragons, the bookworm was the main subject of Lily's conversations. And it wasn't that Gajeel had anything against hearing about her, it was just that it was damn hard to not miss her presence when the cat was constantly reminding him that she was, in fact, not there with them.
But not thinking about his problems was his way of dealing with them, and he knew Lily dealt better by talking, so he let it slide. And anyways, hearing his partner refer to her in the present tense kept him focused on the fact that she was, in fact, still alive. Unlike too many other people he would rather not think about. Like her accessories.
"–always made sure to bring kiwis, you know? Even if I didn't ask for them. And she actually made sure to read up on the missions we were doing, unlike someone–"
He wondered if they were alive somewhere, Speedy and the fat one. They'd been declared MIA since the attack, and he knew most people thought they were dead. Natsu did, anyways, and the last he'd spoken with Titania, she'd grudgingly admitted the same. But Shorty didn't, and he expected she never would.
"Are you going to tell her?"
The question dragged him away from his thoughts, and Gajeel met Lily's searching look. The previous good humour was gone from his furry face, replaced with a seriousness that made him uncomfortable. He must have picked up on his line of thought, the creepily perceptive weirdo that he was.
He turned his gaze back to the overgrown path before them, meandering between the bushes ahead. "Dunno what there's to tell, Lil."
He could practically feel his friend's gaze on him. "She doesn't know, does she?"
Gajeel sighed. "Knows what?"
"That you made an extra detour all the way out to Sanctum to check if anyone had any news about Jet and Droy. You didn't tell her before you left." There was a note of accusation in his tone, as well as a hint of grudging respect.
Gajeel grumbled. "What's there to tell? Just thought I'd check. Not like it's a big deal."
"It's a big deal to her. They're her family."
"And they're most likely dead. Ya want me to tell 'er that?" he snapped.
Lily didn't flinch away, only raised a brow, as though suddenly realising something. "You care."
"No, you shut up. You care, and you need to stop treating it like it's a disease. You cared enough to travel an extra two weeks, across dangerous territory, to check if anyone had any news. News, Gajeel. That's caring, and she'd appreciate the effort. And don't–" he held up a paw to stop Gajeel from interrupting. "Don't tell me you didn't do it for her. You did, and you should tell her, even if you didn't find out anything more than you already knew. She'd appreciate that, at the very least." He shook his head. "It's got to be better than living without knowing."
Gajeel grunted. "Yeah, well, they could still be alive." But even as he said the words, he could hear the doubt in his own voice. And with a glance at Pantherlily, he knew the feeling was mutual. Living outside the shelters was possible if you were prepared and on the move, but only for a short time. It had been months since the siege of the capitol, and no one had seen or heard from them. If they had survived and gotten out of Crocas, they might have stayed alive for a time. But if they still hadn't made it to any of the shelters...
They'd found evidence of people like that – poor souls who hadn't made it to the sanctuaries. Or their charred remains, mostly. Bad enough to give a grown man nightmares.
"She won't take it well," he said after a moment of silence, as he lifted a branch to make his way further down the path. "Shorty...she thought they were still alive even when Titania didn't. Ya want me to tell her she was wrong all along?"
"I want you to tell her you did everything you could to find them."
"But you did. You didn't have to go all the way to Sanctum. Hell, even Natsu said you were crazy for doing that. Their last two messengers hadn't made it, or did you forget?"
Gajeel only grumbled. "Someone had ta make contact sooner or later."
"But it didn't have to be you, and yet you still did it. And you should tell her that, even if it means they're most likely dead."
Gajeel said nothing, and Lily fell silent, no doubt knowing that arguing about it further was useless. But it wasn't like he'd just made the decision out of nowhere. He'd been weighing his options since they'd left Sanctum two weeks ago. Hell, for a while it had been all he'd thought about. He hadn't seen her in four months, and to bring her news that her boys were nowhere to be found in any of the shelters? That they were most likely dead, and had been all this time? If he said nothing, she would hold on to the belief that they were out there somewhere, alive. That they'd made it south with the others, and were in one of the sanctuaries but just hadn't been able to make contact. After all, the people in Anchorage hadn't heard a word from Sanctum in six weeks because they kept losing messengers. Gajeel was the first who'd brought back word that they were even alive. And now Gajeel would be the first to bring back news from the frontier settlements in six months.
Pinching the bridge of his nose, he tried to fight down the approaching headache. Two weeks, and he wasn't any closer to figuring out what to do. Tell her and break her heart, or lie and let her live with her hopes?
It struck him then how much of an influence her mental state had on him, that he was actually considering going with the option that would spare her feelings. Years ago he would have called anyone who avoided the truth a pussy. Only weaklings clutched onto comfortable lies to spare themselves from feeling pain. Years ago he would have delivered the news without so much as a thought to how the recipient would take it.
But then, years ago he'd also had no scruples when it came to beating up and pinning innocent girls to trees.
"She'll be glad to see you again."
He didn't take his eyes away from the path before them. The trees overhead blocked his view of the mountain range where Haven was located; they had quite a trek ahead of them. Neither of the frontier shelters had sent out messengers other than the two of them, so their arrival would be unexpected. She'd be happy, he knew that, but part of him was still dreading their arrival. Four months was a long time – longer than they'd been together before they'd parted. If they had an official date, that was. He wasn't even sure of that himself. It had just sort of happened, and the transition from comrades to...whatever they were now, still wasn't very clear. One day they'd just...been. The end of the games had been the catalyst, he knew that much. It had been all awkward glances from him and shy smiles on her part before that; the actions of uncertain people with all the time in the world ahead of them.
The end of said world had changed their perspective on things, but they'd never declared themselves official. It was just there – the knowledge that they were exclusive. Hell, everyone else knew it, and had taken the news in stride, as though it was the most natural thing. But then Fairy Tail had always been weird like that.
But four months.
"You're not still afraid she's moved on without you?" There was a touch of reprimand in his friend's voice, and Gajeel closed his eyes, remembering that he'd brought up the subject before, and that Lily had called him an idiot for even thinking it. "This is Levy."
He shot the Exceed and annoyed look. "Yeah? And I might be dead for all she knows. Or she might've...fuck, I don't know. Stop pokin' yer nose into my business!"
Lily snorted. "And let you wallow in self-pity over something as ridiculous as this? Get over yourself. And get over your fears – she'd wait years if that's what it took, and you know it."
Gajeel muttered, "I ain't wallowing."
"But you're afraid, and I get that, but I still think it's ridiculous. She's the most stable thing you've got in your life right now, and you know where you've got her. At least you don't need to worry about whether or not she's still alive, like she has to."
"Don't jinx it, Lil."
"Don't pretend to be superstitious, Gajeel. If Haven had fallen, we would have heard about it; it's the biggest settlement, and they've got two dragonslayers stationed."
"Still doesn't make it completely safe."
Lily shrugged. "It's the safest there is at the moment."
His friend had a point, but it didn't mean he liked it. He knew her work kept her well within the mountain, but there was always the chance of their sanctuaries being discovered. Dragons were not unintelligent; they were clever creatures, highly adaptable to new environments and more than capable of rooting out their prey, no matter how hard it might hide. Part of him – and a selfish part at that – had wanted to take her along with him, but he had enough common sense to know that even if he got to protect her himself, being outside was by far the more dangerous option.
"And you know she's resourceful; she knows how to take care of herself, if something were to happen," Lily continued.
He didn't bother telling the Exceed that he already knew that. He knew it probably better than most, but that didn't change the fact that he felt better – felt more useful – if he at least had the chance to keep her safe. And in his experience, physical strength trumped wit and intelligence when it came to dealing with dragons. At least the ones who'd invaded, who seemed to share a common single-mindedness in taking out the human populace. You couldn't communicate with dragons like that, who viewed humans as prey and prey only.
And not for the first time since the siege did Gajeel find himself wondering where his old man was, or if he was even alive. If he was, he had to know what was going on, if he was still in Fiore. Why hadn't Metalicana sought him out? Why hadn't any of their dragons shown themselves, even now? The kid hadn't heard anything the last he'd spoken with her, months ago when he'd taken Levy from Refuge. Even Natsu'd had no more news, and Gajeel knew he'd volunteered to go south almost exclusively for a chance to look for Igneel.
He turned his gaze to the foliage above, catching the barest hints of sky between the branches and the leaves, and flickers of filtered sunlight. The forest remained quiet around them, the only sounds being the gentle rustle of the leaves, and the steady shuffle of their footsteps along the path. Gajeel's brow furrowed as he searched amongst the branches, eyes alert for any signs of dark shapes against the patches of open sky.
Where the hell are ya, pops?
It was an hour from sunrise when they finally approached the edge of the forest at the foot of the mountain – the starting point of the journey he had begun four months ago. Aside from a near-encounter half-way through their trek that had led to a breakneck run through rough terrain, they were both mostly unscathed. They'd been damn lucky, and as Haven came into view before them, Gajeel almost couldn't believe they'd made it back alive.
They'd had a heavy shower of rain throughout the last two hours of their journey, and his clothes were soaked through, his heavy coat dripping with water and his boots soggy and uncomfortable. The smell of wet fur clung to his nose, but he guessed he didn't smell much better to Lily. Never thought I'd say this, but I'd give my left arm for a fucking bath.
"Finally," he heard Lily mutter as they stepped out of the forest and into the shelter of the mountain, looming tall above them in the grey morning light.
"Yeah." Letting his shoulders relax, Gajeel took a moment to survey the area, making sure it was completely clear before making his way forward, away from the tree line and towards the mountainside, Lily at his heels. And despite his previously dark thoughts, his head seemed to clear as he neared the hidden entrance. Days of travelling on an empty belly and in bad weather – it seemed a lifetime ago as they approached the sanctuary, something akin to eagerness simmering in the pit of his stomach, like it did before a particularly promising battle. Without realising, he'd picked up his pace.
He heard Lily chuckle behind him, and refrained from snapping something insensitive, focusing instead on making his way towards the entrance to the shelter. Like everything else, it was quiet as they approached, but it didn't take long for the sentries stationed outside to notice their arrival. He saw one of them make a signal, and the other disappeared inside, no doubt to inform Titania.
"Gajeel Redfox." He recognized the guy – one of those flowery idiots from Blue Pegasus. He raised his hand in a silent salute, and pushed past him without another word. He wasn't up for a chat, and the guy looked like he'd wanted to say something, so his best option was to just keep walking.
"Talk ta Lily – I'm getting something ta eat," he snapped as he ducked into the cave and out of sight.
The passageway into the mountain was dark and musty, but blessedly dry, and he welcomed the change from the damp forest he'd spent the past two days travelling through. There were small lacryma crystals embedded in the walls along the corridor, emitting a soft yellow-green glow that lit the path into the mountain. A few early risers passed him on his way, and an eager murmur of voices rose in his wake – it wouldn't take long before the entire shelter had been alerted to their arrival.
He wondered if she was awake.
"Alberona," he greeted with a grunt as the brunette popped into his field of vision. Ignoring the surprise evident on her face, he pushed past her. "Ya got any liquor stashed away? I could do with somethin' sharp."
She didn't answer right away, and he stopped in his tracks. "What are ya, deaf?"
She seemed to snap out of whatever state she'd been in, and his brows furrowed at the look in her eyes. Nothing good came with looks like that. "What," he asked, only half joking, "You out of booze or somethin'?"
Still she said nothing, but her brows were furrowed, and she seemed to be weighing her options. He turned to fully face her. "Oye, yer freakin' me out here. What's the deal?"
The new voice made him turn his head, and he nodded a greeting to Titania as she appeared in the arched entryway behind him. "Red."
She didn't return his greeting, and it was only now that he took note of the subtle differences from the last time he'd seen her. Her eyes seemed more sunken, and there were new lines between her brows. Despite her usual air of control and determination, Erza looked tired. Gajeel frowned. "Ya look like you've had a rough few months."
Her humorless smile spoke of the understatement of the century, but all she said was, "I'll explain inside," before she turned on her heel. "Follow me."
Gajeel shot Cana another look, but the brunette had averted her eyes, and refused to meet his gaze. Something clenched around his insides, but he pushed the feeling down violently, refusing to deal with the possibility that had presented itself as sharply as a well-aimed kick to the gut. Turning away from Cana, he followed the redhead, ignoring the people walking towards him as he pushed his way down the following corridor, and the next. Surprised murmurs followed in his wake, and the dread rose in his throat like bile, so much so that he felt physically ill.
The fact that Levy had yet to show herself was like a glaring spot on his mind's eye, refusing to be ignored, but he couldn't think about it. Couldn't, because that left a whole world of questions and answers he didn't think he could deal with.
Crossing the doorway into the room he knew was used for debriefings and meetings, Gajeel slammed the wooden door behind him with more force than was strictly necessary. His hands shook, but he masked it by clenching his fist around the strap on his empty duffel bag, still slung over his shoulder. The water dripping from his coat was already making puddles by his feet, but any thoughts of changing into a set of dry clothes had left him the minute Titania had opened her mouth in the passageway.
Now the redhead was leaning against the large stone slab that passed for a table, arms crossed over her armoured chest. He caught a glimpse of Jellal out of the corner of his eye, leaning against the wall to his left.
"Talk," he growled, trying vainly to keep himself calm despite the fact that he felt like tearing someone apart. Part of him could already tell what was about to happen – he'd been present during his fair share of meetings like this. Meetings where nerve-wrecked sods were told their so-and-sos had been killed in action, or better yet, that their mutilated remains had been found somewhere.
He'd never been on this side of the conversation, however, and there was a reason for that. Quite easily, because he had very few people that would require such a meeting to take place. And he'd left one of them only five minutes ago.
Which left him with only two options, neither of which he wanted to think about.
Erza regarded him closely for a moment, not saying anything, and he was about to raise his voice and repeat his demand when she took a deep breath. "You are aware of the expeditions we make, occasionally, into the cities. To retrieve valuable information from our old guilds."
It was a statement more than a question, and he snapped his mouth shut, surprised at the unexpected subject of discussion. Perhaps it wasn't what he'd thought it was, after all.
"Aa," he answered at last, warily, uncertain as to what she was asking–
And then it dawned on him.
Erza closed her eyes. "Gajeel–"
"Don't fuck with me, Red! I swear ta God–"
"I'm not joking, and I'm sorry for what I'm about to say–"
"Shaddup! Don't say it – just don't fucking say it–!"
"Four weeks ago we sent a team to the ruins of Blue Pegasus to retrieve some valuable scrolls from their archives – scrolls that have been a crucial asset to the successful upkeep of this shelter–"
"Red, I swear–!"
"Scrolls,"Erza nearly shouted, "That Levy McGarden helped locate, before she–"
He didn't realise he'd struck out before a hand clamped around his wrist, stopping his fist a hairsbreadth away from her nose. Jellal regarded him coolly, but with a regret so palpable it felt like a physical blow. "Gajeel," he warned.
"What," he snarled, "are ya tryin' to say?" His voice had risen to a shout, and his hand shook in his effort not to latch out again. Jellal tightened his grip, but with visible effort.
Erza closed her eyes again. She hadn't even moved to defend herself, and he wondered briefly if she'd have taken the hit if Jellal hadn't stepped in. Guilt clung to her like a fog – the kind of guilt he'd often seen in Makarov's eyes, the times injured guildmembers had come back from missions that had turned out to be beyond the class stated on the board. The kind of guild that came with a leader's responsibility.
He heard her take a deep breath before she continued, meeting his gaze squarely with her own, her voice hard as steel and speaking words that might as well have been in another language for his lack of comprehension. "Four weeks ago, Levy McGarden was declared missing in action. There was a dragon hiding in the guild ruins they were searching, and it took her away. We...haven't found the remains, although we've sent out teams in search of them. Last week she was declared dead..."
She continued speaking, like she was giving a report, cool eyes fixed intently on his as she spoke, telling him about the mission, the team that had volunteered – the word jumped out at him, drove the message home. The figurative nail in the figurative fucking coffin.
He didn't hear what she said after that; he could see her mouth working, but there was a white noise ringing in his ears, and he wondered if he wasn't perhaps losing his mind. The air felt heavy, suffocating, and the walls and the ceiling of the cave like they were pressing down on him.
"Why?" he growled, the sound more animal than human, and he saw the way her guard went up, like a physical shield. Even Jellal tensed, but Gajeel wasn't in enough control to curb his anger. And part of him didn't want to; part of him wanted to tear the place apart with his bare hands, because he just couldn't make it add up.
"Why her? Why the hell didn't ya send someone else? Anyone else?!" He was dimly aware that he was shouting, and of the dark, cloying energy surging along his veins. His control was slipping, and he was letting it.
But Erza wasn't easily intimidated. "She insisted, Gajeel. She came here because she wanted to make a difference, she–Gajeel!"
He heard them call after him as he spun on his heel, grasping the iron doorhandle and throwing the door open with enough force to tear it clean from the wall, only to clatter heavily against the stone floor. The noise in his ears rose, drowning out the sounds around him, the voices calling his name, and he pushed past the people crowding the corridor. He had to restrain himself from physically wiping away the pitying looks on their faces – expressions he hadn't recognized on his arrival, but that were so glaringly obvious now that he made his way back out. He saw the looks, saw them directed at him, and he felt rage surge through him, the likes of which he hadn't felt since his days in Phantom Lord.
He barely registered Cana's call as he marched past her, but the brunette wasn't deterred this time. She grabbed hold of his coat. "Damn it, would ya stop!?"
He whirled around, pushing her into the stone wall with enough force to knock the breath from her lungs. "Stay the fuck out of my way, Alberona."
She picked herself up, glaring and rubbing the back of her head where it had connected with the cave wall. "Keep a leash on yer rage, Iron Man," she growled back. "This ain't the time to–Hey! Get yer ass back here! Hey!"
He ignored her, rounding the corner that lead to the passageway out of the mountain and nearly ramming right into Lily. "Whoa, Gajeel! The hell are you going? Gajeel!" But he wasn't listening, too focused on what he was about to do to pay any mind to those standing in his way.
The resigned look on Hibiki's face told him he'd been expecting the blow, and he took it without so much as turning his head away, and the sickening crack as Gajeel's fist shattered his cheekbone echoed in the passageway like the toll of a bell. He caught Lily's incredulous yell from behind him, and a second later a strong hand was wrenching his arm away, the Exceed having transformed to physically tear him off the mage now sprawled on the ground. "What's gotten into you?!"
"Pantherlily, it's alright." Hibiki was pushing himself to his feet, a hand clamped over his cheek. "I deserved that."
"Oye, Hibiki–" Cana began, but he held his other hand up to stop her.
"I'm guessing she told you then?" he asked coolly, his question directed at Gajeel. "That I was the one to suggest she be present at the debriefing in the first place. She wouldn't have been informed of the mission at all if it hadn't been for me." Gajeel heard Cana's sharp intake of breath at the news, and it only strengthened his urge to tear the man in front of him to pieces.
"The hell do ya get off suggestion people for suicide missions!?" He snarled, straining against the hold his partner had on him, but Lily didn't so much as flinch.
"What's going on?" he asked, looking from Gajeel to the bleeding mage.
Hibiki never took his eyes away from Gajeel as he spoke, and with a coolness that made him want to disembowel him on the spot. "Levy McGarden was declared KIA two weeks ago, after a retrieval mission to Blue Pegasus. A mission I personally recommended her for, as her deciphering skills far surpassed those of our other mages." He paused, his look softening. "I'm sorry for your loss, Gajeel Redfox. Your...relation, has been widely known for some time."
Gajeel felt Lily's grip slacken, but Hibiki's words had cooled his anger enough to make him rein in his control. "What?" There was disbelief in his partner's voice.
"She was in the basement, searching the library." It was Cana who spoke up. "I heard some noises, and I went to check on her..." She trailed off, as though at a loss of how to continue.
"A dragon," Gajeel growled. "That someone should have noticed before you'd fucking entered the place!"
"Even so," Cana said. "We didn't. And she was down there a good while before it got her. Laxus' guess is that it'd been drawn by the hoard and made a lair of the place." She closed her eyes, her brow furrowing. "It's weird, though..."
Gajeel's head snapped in her direction. "What?"
She shook her head, rubbing at the bridge of her nose. "I've gone over it lots of times in my head. I thought I'd imagined it, y'know, so I didn't say anything ta Erza, but...when I came down ta check on her, I heard her talkin'...First I thought it was just girly bein' herself, y'know, mutterin' to herself like she does when she's doin' research, but..." She met his gaze. "I swear ta God I heard it laugh."
Gajeel's brows furrowed. "The dragon?"
She shrugged. "What else? Then it just...snapped her up." She shuddered. "Clamped its claws around her and just...took off with her. It was gone when Laxus showed up. I didn't even get a good look at it, it was pitch black down there."
Gajeel stared at her, having just remembered something Titania had said. "Ya didn't find any remains," he said then, speaking the words slowly, turning them over in his mind.
Cana averted her gaze, shaking her head. "We searched the area, but...there wasn't a nest or anythin'–oye! Where you goin'?"
He didn't look back at her as he spoke, "Ta do yer fuckin' job, Alberona."
"Gajeel!" He heard Lily follow him.
"I ain't got time fer this, Lil. Stay here if ya want, but I'm going."
"Going where? Didn't you hear what Cana said? They've already searched the area–"
Gajeel whirled around, cutting the Exceed off and meeting his gaze with his own. "When was the last time ya heard of a dragon kidnapping someone?"
Lily blinked, before his brows furrowed. "So you think she might still be alive?"
"Alberona said she heard her talkin' to it. My guess is she was trying to communicate, the idiot." But if anyone could make a dragon listen it would be the bookworm. He latched onto the thought with the last ounce of conviction he had left; he was going to need it.
"So...what? It just took her? What would a dragon want with a human?"
Gajeel didn't answer, quite simply because he hadn't the faintest idea of that himself. From what he'd learned of the dragons they'd encountered so far, not one had been interested in communicating. But that didn't mean there couldn't be exceptions to the rule – like dragons with other ambitions than the mindless slaughter of humans. He should know – he'd been raised by one.
They'd made their way outside when Gajeel finally stopped, allowing Lily to fully catch up. The sun had risen above the treetops in the time they'd spent inside, casting a soft golden glow over the mountainside.
"So you're going out to look for her," Lily said.
"I swear, Lil, if ya try ta stop me..." He looked at his partner, only to find him looking back with equal determination.
"Not if you let me come with you I'm not," Lily countered, raising a challenging brow.
Gajeel was silent a moment, regarding his friend closely. "I'll be going into dragon territory, ya know, not around it."
Lily shrugged. "Gonna need someone to watch your back."
"Titania would never allow it," Gajeel continued, although he knew the decision had already been made.
Lily gave him a significant look. "And since when have you ever listened to your superiors?"
Gajeel smirked. "I was talkin' about you, Lil."
The Exceed chuckled. "Well, if the end of the world can't change a person, what can?" Then his look turned serious. "But we're not going back out there without provisions."
Gajeel grumbled. "We'd have ta go through Red to get it."
At the sound of the new voice – the familiar voice – they both looked up towards the cave entrance, and the shape emerging from the shadows of the mountain. Gajeel had recognized her by voice alone, but it still didn't make seeing her there any less surreal.
The water mage smiled, as though her sudden presence was the most natural thing. "Gajeel. Lily," she greeted, tilting her head. "Juvia was wondering if you had room for one more."
Lily frowned. "I thought you were in Refuge, Juvia."
"Yeah, what the hell, woman?"
The corners of her mouth turned down at that, and she cast a glance towards the entrance to the shelter. "Juvia came to Haven when she heard the news about Levy. Juvia did not believe it at first – she wanted to find Levy for Gajeel, but Juvia did not find anything. Juvia is sorry," she said, averting her gaze as she spoke. But when she looked up again, her eyes had hardened. "Now Juvia wishes to go with Gajeel to rescue the love of his life! It's Juvia's duty!"
Gajeel resisted the urge to sigh, marvelling silently that even the end of the world hadn't doused her eccentricity. From beside him, he caught Lily's amused look, and wondered idly how big the headaches would be with the two of them tagging along.
But he also knew he needed the help, and if he was honest with himself, aside from Shorty herself there wasn't anyone he'd rather have at his back than the two before him.
At last, he expelled a long suffering sigh. "Fine. If ya keep quiet about the love-crap, you can come."
She brightened instantly. "Juvia will aid in the search for Gajeel's lost love!"
Gajeel rubbed the bridge of his nose, muttering, "I'm gonna regret this."
Lily grinned. "Probably. But on the bright side, at least she brought provisions."
At the mention of said provisions, Juvia grinned, holding out a heavy duffel, and Gajeel grudgingly took it. He'd have liked to have a change of clothes, but he wasn't about to take his sweet time if he could help it. According to what Titania had said, Shorty had been taken a month ago. And four weeks was a long time, even for someone with Levy's wits. If the dragon hadn't killed her yet, he dreaded to think what it was keeping her around for, if it was. Hell, even thinking she was still alive was a long shot, but the simple fact was that he dreaded what would become of him if he didn't believe it. If he just accepted that she was dead like the rest of them...
He pushed the dark thought back to where it had come from. If there was even the slightest chance she was still alive somewhere, he'd scour the whole damn country to find her. And if it turned out she wasn't...well, there were plenty of dragons were they were going. If he was going to go, he'd at least take a few bastards with him.
He caught Lily's look, and could tell his partner was more than aware of his plan. No doubt that was half the reason he'd offered to come along. Not just to watch his back, but to make sure he actually came back, if the only things they were to find were bones.
Pushing the thought of bones forcibly to the back of his mind along with the rest of his misgivings, Gajeel adjusted his new bag over his shoulder. As far as he was concerned, she was still alive, keeping some poor dragon up at night with her endless chatter. Or she'd gotten away and was trying to make her way back. Either way, he wasn't averse to crossing the border if that's what it took to find her. And that meant weeks of travelling, if they even made it that far.
"Let's head off before Titania comes lookin'," he said. "I ain't got the patience ta deal with any crap about insubordination right now."
Juvia stepped up beside him, her own bag slung over her shoulder. "Juvia knows the way to Blue Pegasus. Juvia thinks it is a good place to start."
Gajeel nodded. "Ya ready, Lil?"
The Exceed shot him a wry smile. "To charge head-first into dragon-infested territory after just making it out of dragon-infested territory? Sure. Just lead the way."
Gajeel gave him a look. "I told ya – ya don't have ta come with me."
Lily only smiled as he walked past him, towards the forest they had not long ago come out of. "I know," he said. Stopping, he met Gajeel's gaze squarely with his own. "But she matters to me. And if there's a chance that she's alive, I'm not going to sit on my hands doing nothing."
And someone's got to make sure you come back, if we fail. He might as well have said it out loud, for all the weight his unspoken words held.
Gajeel said nothing to that, only tightened his grip around the strap of his bag, now heavy with provisions. How long those would last, he didn't know, but that was the least of their problems. "You two better keep up," he muttered, as he made his way towards the trees, leaving Haven behind him, perhaps for good. They followed in his wake without a word, falling into routine as though they were on any other mission, and the bizarre thought struck him that only an hour ago his primary objective had been to get something to eat.
I swear ta God, Shorty, if I find ya yer gonna hear about it.
And yer ass better be alive.
AN: For those of you who've read my other works, it'll come as no surprise that I've dragged Juvia into this, because Gajeel and Juvia being total bros is one of my favourite headcanons and I will shamelessly try and squeeze this into every fic I can.
And for those yet unaware (if there are any, I shall now remedy that!), raedoodles on tumblr is in the process of making the first chapter of Ravaged into a comic! She's made twelve amazing pages already, and it's the greatest honour of all to have such a brilliant artist illustrating a fic that was originally born from a piece of artwork she'd made. AFTON YOU ARE SPLENDID AND THE WORLD SHALL HEAR ABOUT YOU. So go take a look – you will NOT be disappointed!