Disclaimer: I don't own Naruto or Fairy Tail.
Chapter 21: Turmoil (X784)
Kurama's head perked up as the heavy cloth of the entrance was pushed aside, the rustling noise alerting the fox to Erza's presence. It seemed that the two-hour rest between their arrival at Cait Shelter and now, did the crimson-haired mage a world of good. The swordswoman looked far healthier than earlier, no longer carrying a shattered visage upon her flawless features. The perpetual frown from since the collapse of Nirvana had not yet left her face, however, as she stared at the unconscious body of Naruto. Only the uneven, gentle rise and fall of his chest told her that the blond man was still alive, although that was but a small comfort. Bandages wrapped generously around his midsection were drenched in an amalgam of fresh and coagulating blood, and his sickly pallor told the rest.
Erza's eyes then swept the room, which had been a normal hut until Roubaul had whisked Naruto away to it, and turned the living quarters into a makeshift medical ward. Said man was seated beside the bed of Naruto, a thousand-yard stare affixed on the convalescent blond. Erza had not known Roubaul personally, but it was clear that he was carrying more than just the standard concern over his subordinate. White-knuckled fists were clenching and unclenching with irregularity, the tribal leader's dark eyes a well of restrained emotions. He turned his head briefly to regard the Requip mage's entry, before summarily ignoring her in favour of staring at Naruto again.
Wendy was snoozing against the side of Kurama, the scarlet fox having shifted to the size of a large wolf to better accommodate the petite girl. She looked placid in her deep sleep; a sleep Erza had no wish of disturbing after her heroic efforts to bring Naruto back from the brink. She had kept up her healing along their entire journey back towards Cait Shelter, and when her magical reserves ran dry, she dredged up some more and carried on. She had completely refused to heed Carla's advice for her to stop and recuperate despite her own state of exhaustion, and the flying cat eventually gave up. Erza could only hope that Wendy did not run herself into the ground for nothing; that the blond shinobi would keep on breathing.
"How is he?" Erza whispered, her question not directed at anyone particularly.
Silence followed, until it was finally broken as Roubaul sighed listlessly. "Not good. Wendy can only do so much for a man who was nearly in two halves."
"Will he live?" the swordswoman murmured, bracing herself for the worst.
"For now, yes. You can freely shed your burgeoning guilt over his current condition, Erza-san," Roubaul replied tiredly. "The blame lies with me."
"You were not at the battle. Whereas I was the wielder of the weapon that Naruto-san…injured himself with," Erza retorted hollowly, her Heart Kreuz Armour creaking as her fingers dug into her gauntleted palms. "I was the field commander who ordered Natsu to go ahead. I put my faith in Natsu, when I should have realised that his animosity would hamper his objectivity, that Naruto-san was unlikely to have died and was already fighting Oración Seis…I neglected my duties as a leader, and Naruto-san was the casualty of my mistakes."
"Listen to yourself, Erza," Kurama growled softly, careful not to awaken the slumbering Wendy leaning against his furry torso. "You couldn't have known Naruto tricked everyone and went to play hero. You couldn't have known Natsu would attack Naruto if he were still fighting Oración Seis. And how could you have controlled the fact that Naruto was fighting you and willingly got himself cut in half to keep from doing any further harm to people? You sound like the blond idiot back when he was still in the doldrums about his past."
"And as the creator of Nirvana, I think I have a greater claim in this blame game you wish to play," Roubaul smiled bitterly. "I was the one so eager to accept Naruto's deal, to give him the backing of an ersatz guild in exchange for the destruction of Nirvana. He was the recourse, the salvation I had sought for years, and in my alacrity, I bought into his enterprising plan. I should have known that it sounded too good to be true."
"But…how? How could you have been the creator of Nirvana? Its legend originated from centuries ago!" Erza hissed in disbelief.
"I am but a spirit, waiting ever since the collapse of my tribe for the person strong enough to destroy our foolish creation. I am not a true guild master, not by any measure," Roubaul answered quietly. "Cait Shelter was born when a certain child by the name of Jellal brought Wendy before me, citing the danger he had to face was not for her. When she woke up and asked if she was at a guild, I was unable to deny her. So I created phantasms of the Nirvit tribe as I recalled them, and provided a home for this young child with no home and no family."
The weight of the revelation hung heavy in the air, already thick with remorse and self-recrimination. Gingerly, Roubaul rose from his seat, chancing regretful glances at Naruto and Wendy before focusing his attention on Erza. "With Nirvana destroyed and my wish fulfilled, I no longer have the strength to keep going. I won't be able to see Wendy off, nor apologise to Naruto. Will you convey my message to them?"
"Of course. It's the least I can do," the crimson-haired mage nodded solemnly.
"Naruto knew this was coming, but Wendy doesn't. She's a good child. Take care of her," Roubaul smiled softly, as his image started to waver.
"She is more than welcome at Fairy Tail. We've all been quite taken by her," Erza replied stiffly.
No more words were spoken as the man slowly vanished, until all that was left of Roubaul was a whisper of his magic dissipating into the air.
The next few minutes passed in relative silence, until Carla flew into the room in haste, looking rather harrowed and frazzled. She scoured the room with near frenzied eyes, an elated cry escaping her lips as she dived at Wendy. The petite girl woke up with a squeak as the white Exceed crashed into her midsection with a muffled thump, clutching at the confused dragon slayer tightly. It was a sight Wendy was unaccustomed to, given how unflappable Carla always seemed. The drowsy raven-haired girl returned the affections, thin arms encircling the usually curmudgeonly feline, almost slumping over in her exhausted state.
Erza repressed a sigh, unsure about how to explain the inevitable questions that were going to arise with regards to the disappearance of Cait Shelter members. It was obvious that Carla's relief was from the fact that Wendy had not vanished like everyone else. Exchanging glances with Kurama, the swordswoman was spared the task by Naruto's former partner, the fox indicating that he would deal with it. Nodding in acknowledgement, Erza stepped out of the hut, noting the curious visages of the alliance mages as they peeked out of the huts they were resting in. Perhaps I should have chosen to explain it to Wendy instead, Erza mused wryly, as Jura strode up to her, arms folded across his wide chest.
"Our hosts have faded into thin air," Jura intoned tersely. "Do you have an idea as to what happened, Erza-dono?"
"Roubaul-san…was a powerful spirit who had been waiting for a person strong enough to destroy Nirvana," Erza spoke with candour, as the rest of the alliance hobbled over to listen in. "The guild members of Cait Shelter…the entire guild, was created from his memories of the Nirvit tribe. Wendy, Carla and Naruto-san are the only living members of the guild. Now that Nirvana has been destroyed, there was no longer any reason for him to remain in our realm."
Lucy gasped as she slapped her hands over her mouth in horror, a look shared by most of the mages present. "Where are they going to go now?"
The loud wail that sounded from the hut behind her made Erza wince. "I don't know. Naruto-san, if he were not incapacitated, would probably be the best person to make the decision on Cait Shelter's future. But I told Roubaul-san that Wendy and Carla are both welcome in Fairy Tail, and I believe that Naruto-san would be in favour of that too."
The Fairy Tail mages all carried looks of relief upon their faces, only for Gray and Natsu to immediately butt heads with the Trimens over whether Wendy should join Blue Pegasus or Fairy Tail. As Lucy tried to restrain them with no success, Jura gestured at the hut. "And what of Uzumaki-san? Did…did he share any of his future plans with you?"
"Not that I'm aware of. The…furore that a return to Fairy Tail would invoke, would be quite difficult, if not outright impossible to manage," Erza mumbled quietly, casting a meaningful look over at the roughhousing behind the bald Wizard Saint. "I'm sure he would have made plans of his own. On hindsight, I think he joined Cait Shelter merely to secure the best position from where he could destroy Nirvana and Oración Seis in one fell swoop."
"On reflection, I realise that my expectations of him had been too high. I was convinced he was an unimpeachable figure of strength for us to follow. But he is human like us, and Nirvana was able to beguile him. That he would do such…injurious things in his maladjusted state is a sign that he is of great moral fibre when untainted by Nirvana's influence," Jura admitted honestly. "But after the…lurid scenes, I find it hard to feel completely at ease while in his presence. I cannot accept him in Lamia Scale. I have no doubt Ichiya-dono feels the same."
"I don't think he has any intentions of joining an established guild now," Erza shook her head. "He left Fairy Tail before Oración Seis became a real issue and gave him the reason to join Cait Shelter."
Jura opened his mouth, but paused, pursing his lips as he dawdled on his words. "…And you, Erza-dono? How are you feeling?"
"I have a good relationship with Naruto-san. He is a dear comrade, and I have no problems divesting the Naruto-san influenced by Nirvana from the Naruto-san that I have known for years," Erza replied quietly. "Moreover, he saved my life when he cut himself down. Any lingering resentment I might have had was gone the moment he performed that selfless act."
"He sacrificed himself for you?" the Wizard Saint murmured, before shaking his head mutely. "As admirable as that might be, I do not know him as well as you do, Erza-dono. I will not rescind my words."
"Naruto-san is…a man of responsibility, I believe," the crimson-haired swordswoman answered carefully. "He would probably recognise that you have the right to hold whatever opinion you have of him, and accept it with good grace."
"And on the topic of responsibility…I cannot pretend that Lyon and Sherry are model mages, but Natsu-dono's alleged reckless actions are something I feel should be addressed," Jura stated matter-of-factly. "While we cannot be sure of the true situation, as it will be Uzumaki-san's words against Natsu-dono's, such rashness could prove to be dangerous in future conflicts."
"It will be hypocritical of me to rebuke him, given my own quick temper," the Requip mage smiled mirthlessly. "Truth be told, most members of Fairy Tail have the tendency to let their emotions reign. We wear our hearts on our sleeves, and Natsu is merely the most prominent. I'm certain he would be more wary of hasty decisions after his travails fighting Naruto-san, but I will bring the issue up to Master in my debrief."
The sound of marching feet interrupted Jura before he could respond. Natsu paused in his scuffle, his enhanced senses allowing him to notice the coordinated stomping before anyone else. The alliance mages turned their attentions to the small army that was approaching Cait Shelter with purpose, the flag of the Magic Council fluttering high above their formation. Jura narrowed his eyes at the sight, watching with an inscrutable look on his features as the army ground to a stop in front of the allied mages, their commander in the lead. The man radiated augustness, his splendid white cape flowing gently behind him. Unfurling an official-looking scroll, the commander adjusted his glasses before speaking.
"By decree of the Magic Council, Wizard Saint Uzumaki Naruto is to be placed under arrest immediately, for multiple felonies including consorting with dark mages, starting a guild war, multiple counts of murder, and the activation of Nirvana, a dark magic," the man announced loudly. "If you do not want to be arrested along with Uzumaki as his accomplices, then I suggest you show my men where he is."
"That is preposterous!" Jura thundered, as the mages around him shifted uncomfortably. "We were preventing Oración Seis from getting their hands on Nirvana and destroying the world, and Uzumaki-san was instrumental in their defeat and the destruction of Nirvana!"
"Regardless, these are not minor infractions, but major offences that cannot be forgiven in the eyes of the law," the dark-haired captain replied coolly. "Your guilds have collectively caused enough trouble for the Magic Council already, by going along with Uzumaki's schemes. Be glad we're not taking all of you along as well."
Twin swords materialised in Erza's hands, her face contorted in a nasty snarl. "You can take him over my dead body."
"Erza…" Lucy pleaded, worried for her fellow guild member. "…they're from the Magic Council. Surely they know more about what's happening?"
The armoured woman shot a scandalised look at the blonde, unable to believe her ears. "Lucy…he is a comrade, no matter what he did when Nirvana took over. He saved everyone's lives when he killed Oración Seis, and when he impaled himself on my glaive. We are standing here because he fought for us, bled for us and nearly died for us."
"Naruto-san, you can't! You're still too injured!" came the muffled cries of a little girl.
Heads turned towards the entrance of the hut, as Naruto slowly made his way out. The ninja was still heavily bandaged, and practically dragging his feet along the ground as he trundled along on wooden crutches. Wendy was by his side, the small girl looking extremely concerned for the haggard-looking blond. Carla flitted around her partner, on the verge on snapping at Wendy for being worried over a man whom she harboured little fondness of. Kurama trotted behind Naruto, having shrunken to the size of a regular fox to avoid anything more than a lingering glance. Erza swiftly stored her weapons away, rushing over to help the man, only to be waved aside.
"Lahar-san, am I right?" the shinobi addressed the Magic Council representative. The man replied with a stiff nod, before turning to his troops. "Take him away!"
Erza moved to intercept, but was stopped once more by a single raised hand of Naruto's. The blond flashed a weary smile at her. "Fairy Tail could use a mage like Wendy. Take care of her, will you? And that goes for everyone else too."
"I will," the swordswoman bit the inside of her cheek, struggling to maintain a collected visage. Just saying those words left an acrid taste in her mouth.
Despite his pallid features, Naruto still managed to look dignified, even as his hands were cuffed and two burly men pulled him along like a boat hauling a trawl net. The rest of the alliance watched the scene silently, a medley of different emotions displayed on their faces. As the Magic Council troops marched off, a disconsolate Wendy collapsed to the ground, looking completely shattered. Carla sneered, unable to hold back her vociferous words any longer. "Good riddance, I'd say. He's brought nothing but trouble ever since he stepped into our lives."
"How…how can you say that?!" Wendy hiccupped, tears streaming down her cheeks. "He was a good person!"
"And put you in danger time and again!" Carla lambasted angrily. "He hurt everyone to meet his own selfish ends! The man who arrested him just said he consorted with dark mages! How do you know he didn't conspire with Oración Seis to get his hands on Nirvana, huh?"
"He stopped them!" Wendy argued.
"So he double-crossed them! That just means he's even less trustworthy than a dark mage!" the Exceed raved, before taking a deep breath to calm herself. "Wendy…you are someone who trusts easily. But he's a criminal! He was only using you!"
"In any case," Jura intervened, before the young dragon slayer fell out with her friend. "It is out of our hands. The Magic Council will sentence him, and mete out whatever punishment necessary. Given his prior deeds as Maelstrom, I do not envisage anything more than a punitive fine or a few years of incarceration. One could even think of it as a sabbatical."
As the sun dipped below the horizon, and cast the sky in a vermillion hue, Ichiya spoke sanguinely. "Red sky at night, sailors' delight. Red sky in the morning, sailors take warning. This crimson evening can only be a good omen."
But as much as she would like to feel comforted by those words, Erza couldn't find any hint of hope in the crepuscular rays that washed over them.
Loud cheers greeted Team Natsu's return as they sauntered into the guild hall, broad smiles stretched across their features. And almost immediately, Natsu and Gray found themselves drawn into a typical brawl, the guild descending into its usual chaos. Wendy gazed upon the pandemonium in mortification, unsure of the cause of the puerile violence. But a hand clapped upon her shoulder, and a short whisper from Erza told her everything she needed to know about the normality of the situation that had unfolded before them. The manic grins and hollers of excitement told her the rest.
Lucy was very glad to see Natsu and Gray behaving normally again. While Lucy wouldn't call Naruto an oppressive presence, his arrest meant that no one had to feel awkward around him anymore. He had been quite the scary opponent to face, and just knowing that he was around made the blonde Celestial Spirit mage skittish. On the way back, the festive moods of Natsu and Gray had raised everyone's spirits, and even if Erza didn't seem to approve of the reasons why they were happy, she couldn't begrudge their joy. And despite everything that had happened to her, Wendy was quickly drawn in by Fairy Tail's peculiar welcome, smiling sunnily as she enjoyed the company of her new guild mates, who were in the process of wasting all her efforts healing them back to rude health.
Carla was just about the only grumpy person of the group, but given that Lucy's first impression of her was that she was quite snooty and can be generally found in some state of unhappiness, the blonde teen supposed it was par for the course. As she watched Elfman return one of Gray's punches with gusto, she never noticed the Take Over mage's sister jostle her way through the scuffling mass to reach Erza, who had positioned herself by the wall to stay out of the fighting. Mirajane scooped up Kurama along the way, the fox gladly snuggling into her warm embrace.
"You're not disciplining them as usual, Erza," Mira remarked, absentmindedly scratching behind Kurama's ears.
Erza flashed her a fleeting smile. "They deserve to let go once in a while. The mission was…difficult for everyone. Defeating Oración Seis is something worth celebrating over, in any case."
"Did…did Naruto say anything before you guys parted ways?" Mira enquired hopefully.
Erza stilled, unsure of how to broach the subject. Grimacing, she averted her eyes away from the ivory-haired woman's optimistic sapphire orbs, catching the furtive glance from the crimson canine in her arms. She was rescued from the unenviable task of informing Mirajane just what transpired during the mission, when Makarov called for her attention above the din of the brawl. Glad to have any excuse to escape Mira's increasingly suspicious glare, Erza quickly slipped away, foisting the responsibility of distracting Mira from the truth to Kurama. The fox rolled his eyes, but proceeded to whine and demand for attention from the oldest Strauss sibling, who was far too nice to rebuff (or question) him in the pursuit of answers.
Makarov's visage was grim as she weaved through the crowd to reach the upper floor, where they had a small measure of privacy. "I received some…unexpected news from the capital. That Naruto is under arrest, and could be stripped of his titles, pending an investigation."
"Master…a lot of things happened during the mission," Erza replied sombrely, subconsciously clenching her fists. "It was…difficult. For all of us."
The short man sighed tiredly, rubbing his balding forehead. "The new Magic Council is acting fast…way too fast. His trial is set for tomorrow, and I don't think it'll be a token one like yours. This was premeditated, and Yajima was probably the one keeping the baying wolves on the Council away until now. Whatever happened during the mission, it only gave those pompous fools the final nail to hammer into Naruto's coffin."
"It's imperative that we quickly find a way to tell Mira what happened, one that won't drive her to charge into Era in a bid to help Naruto-san. She just approached me about him, and I don't think we can keep the truth from her for very long," Erza said cautiously. "We also have to discuss how best to manage the situation when whatever pieces of information about the mission reaches the ears of others. I'm afraid that Natsu and Gray might spill some details that we otherwise want to keep a lid on."
The diminutive man nodded wearily. "Bring along everyone involved to my office. I think a proper debrief is in order. God, what a tawdry business all of this is turning out to be."
Acquiescing with the order, Erza went back down the steps, expertly picking out Natsu and Gray from within the intensifying brawl. With the dragon slayer secured by his white scarf and the shirtless Gray in a loose chokehold, the crimson-haired swordswoman began to drag them towards Makarov's office. She barked at Lucy, the blonde leaping into the air in fright before scurrying to Erza's side. Making a detour, the Requip mage shooed away the curious and friendly guild mates from an overwhelmed Wendy. She flashed the petite girl what she hoped was a reassuring smile, as she cracked Natsu and Gray's heads together to stop them from renewing their scuffle.
"Master wishes to talk to us for a bit, about the mission," Erza said, noting the anxious expression on Wendy's face. "Don't worry, it's just a simple debriefing. It's a big and important mission, so he wants to know more about what happened. And of course, he wants to welcome you into our guild."
"Uhm, right!" Wendy nodded vigorously, smiling shyly.
Erza returned the smile, and marched the floundering duo she had grabbed into the guild master's modest office; Lucy, Wendy and Carla followed suit. Happy, desperate to win Carla's heart, was quick to join them as he chased after the white-furred Exceed. Dropping the two onto the hardwood floor, Erza went to close the door, pausing just long enough to allow Kurama to slink through the gap. She broke Natsu and Gray up from more fisticuffs with firm blows to the back of the head, before letting Makarov take the floor.
"First of all, I want to officially welcome the both of you to Fairy Tail. I hope those idiots have been treating you well," the balding man smiled genially.
Wendy beamed wistfully. "It's a very friendly guild, Makarov-sama."
"Hmph. It's good enough, I suppose," Carla sniffed disdainfully. "A lot of people with muscles for brains, but that seems like a standard for most mages anyway."
"Carla!" Wendy cried in protest. "That's not very nice!"
Makarov laughed throatily. "I won't deny that Fairy Tail is a guild that would rather fight than think our way through problems. But isn't that better? We are honest and passionate, wearing our hearts on our sleeves. We fight for each other instead of ourselves. We're more than just a collection of individuals. We're family."
"Is that why the pink-haired one is so intent on fighting that traitor Uzumaki?" Carla deduced, smirking triumphantly as everyone in the room tensed. "So he did something to this guild too. Roubaul must have been senile to have accepted him into Cait Shelter."
"There's a complicated story behind his departure from Fairy Tail, which I don't expect you to believe," Makarov shook his head. "But Naruto is a good man, who merely made mistakes like everyone else. Please don't doubt that he has the very best intentions at heart."
"He sure showed that pretty well during the mission," the white-furred Exceed scoffed, but declined to elaborate further.
"Erza?" Makarov prompted.
"Naruto-san placed what I believe was a clone of his with us at the meeting, while he took on Oración Seis alone," Erza reported. "Oración Seis' subordinate guilds attacked us at the meeting point, while Nirvana was activated. I sent Natsu to try and stop Oración Seis."
"I saw that guy talkin' to one of the Oración Seis members at the top of Nirvana, while standin' around a bunch of corpses," Natsu grumbled, folding his arms crossly. "What was I supposed to think?"
The elderly guild master cocked an eyebrow. Erza continued. "Well, Naruto-san had allegedly defeated the rest of Oración Seis, and the man he was talking to had been turned to our side during the course of their battle. However, Nirvana had begun to change Naruto-san as well, and Natsu attacked. The…twisted version of Naruto-san later claimed that it was this distraction that allowed Nirvana to force the evils of the world upon him."
"So the alliance had to fight him," Makarov rubbed the bridge of his nose. "It must not have been pleasant."
"No," Erza mumbled, biting the insides of her cheek to ward off vivid memories. "I eventually took down Nirvana, and Naruto-san was defeated and was…injured rather badly. But Wendy managed to heal him, and when we last saw him, he was conscious and coherent."
"And getting dragged away by Magic Council men. A whole platoon, actually," Gray added scornfully. "They said he worked with dark mages and committed murders. Not that I'm surprised. That asshole should have just done everyone a favour and died."
Makarov creased his forehead, but before anything else could be said, the door was smashed into smithereens. Lucy squeaked and ducked as Wendy scampered away from the door, covering her head with her hands. A blur of white flashed past Erza's face, crashing into Gray with bone juddering force. Makarov only just managed to hop aside as his heavy table was knocked aside like a toy. Gray was smashed into the wall, the entire room trembling from the impact. Mirajane's face was twisted with fury as power rolled off her Satan Soul form in roiling waves, her delicate right hand holding Gray aloft by the neck with frightening ease. Her glare was glacial, and she didn't even budge as she unleashed a torrent of raw magic to ward off a blast of ice from Gray.
"Say that again, Gray," the Take Over mage snarled. "I dare you."
"Enough, Mira!" Erza shouted, unwilling to draw arms against a comrade. "Let's talk this over calmly!"
Mirajane swivelled her head back slowly, pinning Erza with an intense gaze. It spoke of the anger at Gray, for his callous words; of the disappointment in Erza, for the Requip mage had failed to understand her feelings; but most of all, it spoke the heart wrenching worry for her lover. At that moment, Erza realised that no one except Naruto was going to be able to stop her in a peaceful manner.
A jet of water burst forth from Juvia's palms, Mirajane coolly deflecting it with her empty palm. It did give Gray more ammunition to work with, as the water swirled to form a massive stalagmite of ice underneath the arm Mira was choking him with. The ice shattered as it hit her arm, the white-haired mage completely unfazed by the assault. With a grunt of disgust, Mirajane hurled the asphyxiating Ice Make mage at Juvia, the former Element Four member forgoing her next spell in order to catch her crush. Mirajane's azure orbs, aflame with cold fury, swept the room, meeting several eyes that flinched away. Her glare finally fell upon Makarov, who returned the stare stoically.
"We're family? When a member curses another and wishes he were dead…you call that a family?" Mira hissed.
Makarov looked a hundred years older. "Please, Mira. Naruto wouldn't want this to be happening. Even family members have differences between each other. Please be rational and let's talk about this, okay?"
"Don't you dare use his name against me, Master," the Take Over mage growled. "He made mistakes, but he deserves better than this enmity from the guild, and this apathy you show. Whatever happened to defending the family, huh? Fighting for each other…pah! Spare me the bullshit."
Without waiting for a retort, Mira spun on her heels and stomped towards the door, muscling past Erza and Juvia. Elfman's big frame stood in the doorway, his eyes wide and filled to the brim with confusion. "Neechan…what's wrong? Why did you attack Gray like that? Why are you talking back to Master?!"
"Because I'm sick of the hypocrisy," she spat out, shooting another glare at the occupants of Makarov's office. "And sick of the unappreciative people who cannot marry the idea of a man who has done so much good, with the mistakes he committed with only good intentions at heart."
"Wh-Where are you going, Mira-san?" Lucy asked meekly, still shaken by her terror at Mira's power.
"To rescue an idiot and give him a good tongue-lashing for breaking promises," the mage replied curtly.
Before anyone could move to stop her, a card fluttered from the sky to hover in front of the furious barmaid. Mira tried to sweep it away, but it only latched onto the back of her hand. The intimidating aura around Mira instantly vanished as the card glowed bright blue, absorbing Mira's magic until her Satan Soul form collapsed, and her consciousness slipping away right after. Elfman caught his falling sister in his massive arms, the befuddlement written all over his countenance. Cana sighed as she walked up to the Strauss siblings, plucking her card off of Mira's hand.
"Good thing he gave me this. Never thought I would be using it on an ally though," Cana mumbled, tucking the card away.
"Thank you, Cana. Would you take her back to Fairy Hills?" Makarov broke the tension, before handing out orders briskly. "Erza, Lucy, please bring Wendy along as well, and get her settled in. The rest of you, shoo! There's nothing more to see."
Nodding, Cana carefully took Mira from Elfman's arms, her eyes flitting towards the angry red mark on Gray's neck that was starting to purple. Ne, Naruto-nii, when you get out of jail or whatever stupid punishment you got yourself into, you better get your ass back here and apologise to everyone for causing so much shit.
Please. Before someone says or does something that cannot be taken back.
Lahar was a man who believed in the law. Law gave structure and order, and allowed civilisation to flourish. Without law, there would be anarchy, chaos and devastation. Lawbreakers were lawbreakers, no matter whether they did something beneficial to society or not. Hence, he had no compunctions when he had been asked to bring the vigilante Maelstrom in. The list of crimes that he was being accused off only solidified Lahar's view that the man was a wolf in sheep's clothing, with no scruples and definitely no regard for the law. That the man surrendered so easily without a fight had confused him initially, but Lahar was not about to be taken by surprise, redoubling vigilance in the prison to ensure he could not escape.
All the blond man did in the short time he had been incarcerated, however, was meditate. He ignored the taunts and profanities spewed by his fellow cell mates, many of whom were languishing in prison due to his actions. He was polite to his guards, a far cry from the vulgar behaviours that they were used to. For a man associated with Fairy Tail, Lahar thought he came across as rather urbane and erudite, something he would never have connected with members of that rowdy guild. He didn't seem to understand the brevity of his rather perilous situation though, and was almost seemed upbeat for a man destined for the gallows.
His good attitude was unfortunately balanced out by the galvanising effect his presence had on the other inmates, who got even more restive and insufferable than usual. It was a maddening situation for Lahar to handle as the prisoners whittled away at his patience, throwing him out of kilter. The corollary of his constant frustration was the eager deployment of heavy-handed tactics against the criminals, brandishing weapons and doling out what some might call old-fashioned punishment. It only incited more unrest. That his guards haven't been overwhelmed by a concerted effort from the inmates was probably down to luck more than anything else.
That, and the magic-suppressing seals Uzumaki had placed on them himself, Lahar thought, as he stepped into a blaring world of jeers. Gritting his teeth as he tried his best to ignore the criminals, he marched directly to Naruto's cell, a contingent of his best men following behind him. Escape was the easiest during the process of moving the prisoner, and Lahar was not about to take a chance and lose the faith of the new Magic Council. Amidst the wall of noise produced by his fellow inmates, Naruto was mantled by a surreal peace. The blond man's eyes were shut as he sat in the lotus position, cerulean orbs revealed only as Lahar unlocked his cell door. The ornery guard beside Lahar tossed a pair of crutches onto the ground roughly, which the man used to pick himself up with a small measure of grace.
Lahar allowed the mage to walk on his own, the suppressing seals ensuring that he was essentially a half-crippled, normal man against a well-trained platoon of soldiers. The Magic Council saw no reason to put the doctors on hand in Era to finish up the healing process, and the bespectacled commander felt it was a prudent, cost-efficient decision. The expenditure would only go to waste when he was executed.
It was mildly disconcerting to see his prisoner walk towards the courtroom without any need of guidance or directions, as if he knew the Magic Council headquarters intimately. That was another thing he would have to correct once they were done with the whole Maelstrom mess. Too much information about the Council had found its way into a single man's hand, and it was both dangerous and embarrassing. Naruto could ostensibly blackmail the Council without facing repercussions. But as brazen as the blond was, accordingly to the former members of the Council anyway, Lahar doubted that Gran Doma would yield under threat. That the vigilante had allowed himself to be arrested meant that he gave up any sort of advantage he had over the Council, who now held all the cards. The trial was all but a formality.
The courtroom was far larger than the ones in other branches, with grander furnishings and plush environs that seemed more like the great hall of a palatial home than a place where justice is dispensed. The stands were packed to the brim with people, ordinary citizens who had come to see the downfall of their former hero. There had been no need for the Council to invite anyone to see his fall from grace; curiosity drove the public to flock to the open trial. It was more of a stage performance than an actual trial, something that went against Lahar's sensibilities. But he was not a Council member, and the old Council had been dismissed anyway. The old system was still in place, but it would change eventually; just not soon enough to give Naruto any chance of fighting against his sentence.
Lahar walked the man to the defendant's box, a rectangular balustrade open at the back. He muttered quick instructions to his men, assigning them to various strategic locations in the room for maximum coverage. He stood right behind the blond, ready to move at a moment's notice. The Magic Council was not present yet, and it led to an anxious wait for the guard commander. The nervous energy had spread to the rest of the spectators, who began to whisper amongst themselves. Journalists scribbled away in their little black notebooks, scrutinising every aspect of Naruto and forming conjectures about the reasons for the state of his appearance. One of them looked particularly glum, his face cycling through the gamut of emotions from sadness to disappointment to intrigue.
Once more, Naruto seemed impervious to everything, the proverbial eye of the storm. He showed no visible reaction when the Councilmen arrived either. The group of ten took their time to climb the steps to their seats, raised high above the courtroom floor. Gran Doma was the last to settle into his throne-like chair, positioned higher than everyone else. It was a testament to the importance of this trial that all the Councilmen had attended it in person. But by their relative silence, it was clear that there was only one man who would be making any judgement, and that was the Chairman. The bearded man slowly unfurled the parchment before him, a hush falling over the audience.
"Uzumaki Naruto, also known as Maelstrom," Gran Doma rumbled. "You are here today because you have broken numerous laws that govern this land. This includes aiding and abetting dark mages belonging to the team known as Trinity Raven, arson in Clover Town, inciting a guild war against Oración Seis, the activation of Nirvana, a dark magic of purportedly catastrophic danger that threatens many lives, attempted rape, the murder of six mages and inflicting grievous bodily harm to many more. How do you plead?"
"Everyone in this courtroom knows fairly well whatever I plead will not affect my sentence in any way," Naruto deadpanned. "So why don't you show the evidence you undoubtedly possess against me, and we can end this farce of a trial?"
"Silence, cretin!" one of the Councilmen shouted, jumping to his feet. "This is a sacred chamber, and you will do well to keep your insolence to yourself!"
"That's enough. There is no need to stoop to his level," Gran Doma interjected. "Let us continue."
The Council member who had spoken backed down quietly, folding his arms. Gran Doma cleared his throat, and affixed Naruto with an amused stare. "The previous Magic Council had been very wary of you, and sought to find a way to shackle you. Although the idea came from two traitors now known to be members of dark guilds, it was a sound plan. Turning you into a Wizard Saint increased your visibility, which was to keep you from causing too much havoc. But another measure was taken to ensure that we could monitor you directly."
Naruto shut his eyes as he pondered upon the Chairman's words, before heaving deeply. "The medallion?"
"Precisely," Gran Doma nodded, the faintest smirk curling the corner of his lips. "It was a recording lacrima that transmitted all the sounds emitted around it, back to an observation unit set up specifically to monitor your comings and goings. All the words you have said have been recorded, and there is irrefutable evidence of your wrongdoings."
"Foiled by the simplest of tricks. I suppose I should congratulate the Council, but the idea came from dark mages anyway, so I doubt you would be keen on taking the credit for such a sneaky plan," Naruto laughed hollowly. "But you must be quite the foolish man if you believe that I possess even an iota of concern for my own survival."
"What?" Gran Doma creased his brow, as did several of his fellow Councilmen.
"I don't care if I live or die. Does that make things clearer for you?" Naruto said patronisingly. "I'm here for two reasons. One, to find out how the Magic Council gathered its evidence against me. I've accomplished that. Two, to explain my actions to the citizens in a public arena, where my words would not be muddied by your falsehoods."
"You dare accuse us of dishonesty?" another Council member screeched.
"Yes, because that is the truth. I have had…private access to Council documents for years now. There are plenty of weapons under the Council's control that should have been destroyed a long time ago, but are kept secret. They are tied to the lives of Councilmen who are left vulnerable with shoddy protection, and even worse, the Council itself was recently infiltrated by Grimoire Heart," Naruto expounded matter-of-factly. "Your obligations are to protect the people, and yet, your desperate attempts to maintain power has you hoarding weapons that could have so easily been turned on the very citizens you swore to defend. How…two-faced…of this Council."
Gran Doma remained stoic throughout Naruto's diatribe, but several members recoiled in horror as the implications of Naruto's last words hit them. The blond mage smiled pleasantly at the Chairman, as if he hadn't just accused the Magic Council of corruption. "For example, you stated that I activated Nirvana. But Roubaul, who was the spirit of the creator of Nirvana, had recruited me to destroy it, and that involved activating it. The dark guild Oración Seis tried to use Jellal to activate it for their nefarious purposes, a former member of the Council. Does that mean that the Council knew of Nirvana's existence, yet did nothing to destroy it?"
"That is preposterous!" someone spluttered indignantly, red-faced.
"Is that so? Your face is telling me otherwise," Naruto retorted slyly, causing the Council member to reel back. "And anyway, the six murders you accuse me of? I killed Oración Seis, forever preventing them from causing harm to the world. Trinity Raven? They are double agents, working for me from within. Saying this now will blow their covers, but since their counter-intelligence work has gone unappreciated here, I might as well take them out of danger and let Tartaros wreak havoc across the country as they try to find Zeref's artefacts. And who knows what they will be capable of when they find what they want?"
Whispers filled the gallery, as everyone couldn't help but discuss the revelations. Gran Doma slammed the gavel down several times, desperate for some order. "Silence! Order in the courtroom!"
As a quiet tension blanketed the people in the trial, the wizened Chairman returned his attention to the defendant. "And what of the arson, the bodily harm and the attempted rape? Do you also have some contrived excuse for those actions?"
"The fire was an unfortunate circumstance that arose from fighting Oración Seis, defending Clover Town from being attacked," Naruto replied factually. "As for the bodily harm and attempted rape, I will not contest those charges. I did do those things while under the influence of Nirvana, which turns evil to good, and vice versa. I was careless, and was turned to an evil version of myself. But the person who deserves to decide my punishment is not this sanctimonious Council, whose lies preclude them from being unbiased, trustworthy arbitrators of justice."
"You are a mage of Fiore, which means you are subjected to the rules set forth by this Magic Council!" Gran Doma thundered. "Nothing you say here will change that fact!"
"No, I suppose they won't. My spine is not fully healed, I'm barely standing with these crutches, and my magic is sealed. You also have men surrounding this entire courtroom," Naruto agreed, turning his head to glance at Lahar. "And the very reliable Lahar-san is standing right behind me, ready to secure me at the snap of a finger. Although, judging by the shrewd glint in his eyes, he's probably considering whether working for such a corrupt organisation is worth his integrity and honour."
"Don't drag me into this, Maelstrom," Lahar riposted. "You're just a criminal who got too big for his britches, and spreads lies and twisted truths to win over public opinion."
"Huh. Perhaps I judged him wrongly. He's nothing but a perfect lapdog who doesn't question his masters," Naruto quipped to Gran Doma. "In any case, I hope I've opened some eyes today. The people of this country, of the world, deserve better than a bunch of fraudulent men whose craven ways have only endangered the livelihoods of the people they swore to defend."
The bespectacled man finally lost his cool, and lunged bodily at Naruto. Just as his arms caught the faintest grip on his prisoner, the man winked out of existence, leaving Lahar to smack impotently against the wooden banisters of the defendant's box.
The image in the orb slowly faded away, until all that was left was the reflection of a beautiful woman. Brushing her luxuriously long hair behind her ear, she casually spun the glassy sphere on a finger. "So, Master. Why the interest in him? You're not trying to marry me off, are you?"
"I won't let anyone marry Ultear!" the pink-haired preteen beside her immediately said, pouting as her guardian giggled and gave her an affectionate pat to the head.
"My interest in him lies in his methods. He does not act like the typical light mage, and that intrigues me. To win over the trust, and utilise dark mages to counter other dark mages is quite unheard of amongst light mages. That he doesn't even bat an eyelid despite Trinity Raven being a team specialising in assassinations speaks volumes of the way he thinks. The skills that he uses are not based on magic either," the bearded master replied, leaning into his high-backed throne. "Finally, to be able to kill all of Oración Seis on his own is quite the feat. I don't think even Bluenote is capable of doing that. He is an enigma that I'm curious to unravel."
"That's quite the claim, Master. Bluenote is far from a pushover," Ultear murmured, rolling her orb along the table between her hands. "What do you think?"
"I think he's an adversary I can relish fighting. No one has given me a challenge for a while now!" a mildly crazed voice sounded out from behind the youngest in the room, causing her to jump. "Bluenote!"
Said man slid into a chair across of Ultear, smirking lightly at Meredy, who crossed her arms in ire. Tapping his fingers on the table, he shot an excited glance at their guild master. "So, Master Hades, are you going to send me to kill this guy? After all, he did collapse a pillar of our Balam Alliance."
"Heavens no. Maybe he can even take care of Tartaros for us," Hade chuckled throatily. "But I wouldn't mind coercing him into changing sides. We could use a talented man like him. None of the Seven Kin of Purgatory have any sense of delicacy and subtlety. Someone who can actually perform his duties without blowing up half the town in the process of doing so will be much welcome."
"That's a generalisation, Master. Does my infiltration of the Magic Council not speak of subtlety?" Ultear complained whimsically.
"If you didn't destroy the headquarters of the Magic Council when you tendered your resignation, I suppose you have the right to describe yourself as such. I'm sure this Uzumaki would have slipped away without a sound, leaving the incompetent fools still in charge. Then we wouldn't have unknown factors like this Gran Doma to deal with," Hades reminded her.
As the buxom woman sulked, Bluenote chimed in. "Master, you mentioned this guy used Trinity Raven or something?"
"That was what was mentioned during his trial, yes," Ultear answered.
"I know of them. Good record. Took care of all the officers in that pesky Western Army. Wouldn't say we won the Cabria War thanks to them, but they did a fast and efficient job. He made a good choice hiring those three," Bluenote remarked, leaning his cheek on his fist. "The contract they signed with Gohra was even more lucrative than my shitty salary though."
"Are you implying that Uzumaki paid them to work for him?" Meredy piped up.
"Probably. They are mercenaries through and through. Only money talks to them. I know the Western Army tried to hire them too, but we had the better offer," the guild Ace shrugged carelessly. "He must have paid through the nose for their services."
Hades turned to Ultear, to which the raven-haired woman rolled her eyes and sighed theatrically. "Very well, I'll keep an eye on Uzumaki for you. I suppose he is quite cute…"
"Ultear!" Meredy exclaimed in shock, before growling. "That's it, he's fifth on the list."
A young man paused in his tracks, raising his head to stare aimlessly into the dark, dreary skies. His damp hair was plastered to his head, his long fringe shadowing his dark eyes. His red and tan robes were drenched, as was his white toga that sagged against his lithe figure. The cold rainwater splattered against his pale cheeks, but the man seemed entirely unbothered by the drizzle. Shaking his head despondently, he continued his purposeless wander through the dense forest.
Naruto-dono, if even someone like you had to resort to using Nirvana…is humanity truly unsalvageable?
Author's Notes: Sorry guys. I really should have gotten this out some time ago. I had it roughly planned out before, but couldn't focus. Then I got hooked by High School DxD and Futurama. Before I knew it, my first semester was over. I hope I haven't disappointed with this chapter, especially after that cliffhanger that I left you guys with for months. We'll see if I can get another chapter out before the next semester creeps up on me. Anyway, I'm going to pre-empt some questions here.
Why does Naruto let himself get arrested?
Because he doesn't want to cause trouble for the alliance (see canon Jellal), and having heard Lahar read out his charges, he's genuinely curious as to how they found out. I hope the medallion still managed to surprise some people, because I hinted blatantly at it in chapter 13's author's notes.
Why does Naruto seem so OOC during the trial?
Most people don't associate him with Fairy Tail (either as Naruto or Maelstrom), but he's pre-empting any tarnish on Fairy Tail's name by accusing the Council of corruption, keeping the people's focus on them and not Fairy Tail. Otherwise, he would have Hiraishin-ed out of jail the moment a guard turned his back.
Will Naruto return to Fairy Tail?
I think that's obvious. He's a fugitive now.
What will happen to Fairy Tail?
There are a lot of cracks in the guild now, but they are still family. Things will get better. Although I'm planning a bit more drama in the next chapter, before we head on to Edolas.
The blatant hints at 'Face'; will you use it in the next arc?
No. It was my way of flipping the bird at Mashima-sensei. What sort of retarded weapon is that anyway?
Does Zeref know Naruto in the way he knows Natsu?
Nope. Zeref knows Naruto in another way. It's part of my plot twist thingamajig. A subtle clue is in the way Zeref says Naruto's name.
And finally, I got to give my proprietary thanks to all my readers, for your lovely support! I'm glad you guys have stuck with me all this while, and I hope I can continue to write well and keep you aboard my little ship! Ciao!
P.S. I would dedicate this chapter to Nelson Mandela, but I don't think it will hold any meaning for him. Nor would it to Paul Walker, or the people affected by Typhoon Haiyan. All I can say is: cherish your loved ones, and live life to the fullest.