A/N: Happy April Fools (Hehehe Dez I lied to you about updating)! I hope you guys like (read as: sob and die a little and really hate me) this chapter. Only two more after this! :3
Everything had been fine for three years.
Crops were harvested; extras were milled into alcohol, much to Cana's surprise and pleasure; couples were formed and made unbreakable bonds.
Gray had to smirk at the pride that radiated off Gajeel as he escorted Levy and his unborn child around, had to grin at how Romeo and Wendy seemed to get along better than most fourteen and seventeen year olds did, and had to laugh at how Natsu still treated Lucy the way he had since the beginning, but he touched her hands and hips more often.
And the fact that Erza still treated him as her personal assistant and trusted him as her right-hand man made him wonder if life would've ended up so great if the dragons hadn't forced them into submission.
At least, that was what he'd been thinking the day before. Now, he wondered what had gone wrong.
"Oi Titania, Stripper," Gajeel greeted, a somber and irritated look on his face. "Bad news out by the west wall."
Erza looked up from the grain tallies, a scowl marring her face. "What's 'bad news'?" She asked, setting down the pencil she'd been tapping against her lips and abandoning the table. No one was awake yet, except for anyone who belonged on Erza's team and was used to waking up at the crack of dawn.
"Rather ya see it than me tell ya," Gajeel shrugged, not making eye contact. "It's pretty bad, though."
Gray sighed and stood up, abandoning his breakfast of toasted bread to investigate. "Come on, Erza," he said, grabbing her arm and yanking her out of her seat, only to have her hiss at him, but follow after she snatched her arm back.
The three of them crossed the hundred-yard gap to the west wall, silence falling upon them. Erza's shoulders tensed as they neared the spot, and he felt her form shake and her hand rise to her mouth in shock.
There were two bodies, mangled, bloodied and broken, laying on the ground, and Gray was barely able to make out the Fairy Tail marks on their exposed skin. He rested a hand on Erza's shoulder, trying to stay calm, but an anger rolled in his stomach at the sight of two of his guild members dead on the ground. "Already checked out the injuries. It's the two girls on the council. Strangled and stabbed, probably even ra- defiled." Gray saw the hesitation in his choice of words, probably hoping that Erza wouldn't completely break down right there, because she'd built a strong bond with the girls and valued them like the people she'd grown up with.
Her knees gave out and she wailed loudly. Gray sank to the ground next to her as she cried, pulling her against him. He nodded to Gajeel, who left them alone, taking the hint that he hadn't seen what happened here.
He sat with Erza, letting his thoughts run over the memories of sparring with the two girls just the other week, with Dani almost knocking him out again and Desiree starting off timidly but eventually fighting back with the same force as Dani.
"Gray," she said thickly after a few moments, "I'm declaring war."
"Maybe we should send someone to infiltrate their camp first," Gray suggested. He was uneasy about the prospect of war. It didn't sound like anything would be accomplished. "I want to prove it was really the rogues."
"Who else could it be?" She asked loudly, her voice sounding close to hysterics. "It was them, Gray! No one here could want to kill them!" She hiccupped, and resumed crying against him. He stroked her hair, but knew that he might have to veto her decision. "My people couldn't want to kill them! Are you doubting me?"
He wanted to scream right there. As much as he loved everyone in the guild, he had to analyze every angle. It could've been the rogue mages, yes, but it could be someone inside the guild. He just held her tighter. "No, I'm not," he lied. "I could never doubt you."
It was incredibly early, and Wendy had no idea why she was awake, but she sat in the guild hall, waiting for people to emerge from their rooms. Wendy blinked at the sight of Gray carrying Erza on his back into the guild hall. He went to their room and emerged a few minutes later with a bag.
"Oh, good. Hey, Wendy, I need a huge favor," Gray said, sitting across from her and pulling a piece of paper from his pocket. "I'm leaving on a mission. You never saw me, understand?"
"Okay," she said skeptically, not sure what was happening, but deciding to go along with it. He scribbled numbers on the piece of paper and gave it to her.
"This is when we meet up. Each number is the amount of days you wait until we meet up at the south barrier after dark. Show this to Gajeel and Natsu, but don't, under any circumstances, tell Erza. And convince her not to start a war." He said quickly, before leaning forward and placing a small kiss on her forehead. "Be careful, and don't leave your room at night."
"Okay," she said shakily, folding the paper and putting it in her pocket. "Be careful too, Gray-san."
"Wouldn't dream of doing anything else. Don't tell Erza where I went. As far as you know, I'm gone." He grinned and left the table before leaving the guild hall completely.
She looked at the numbers on the paper, glaring at the sequence. 13 21 34 55 89. It stopped after eighty-nine, so Wendy assumed that he wasn't planning on being gone much past all those numbers added up, which was a long time. What was he doing?
She sat at the booth, thinking about what Gray could possibly be doing and why he had to sneak away from Erza. And what if Erza found out somehow? And where was Gajeel? He was always awake right now. She wanted to talk to someone about this.
"What's that, Wendy?" a voice spoke behind her, and she yelped in shock. She hadn't been expecting anyone to sneak up on her!
"Oh, Natsu-san," she breathed, turning around to see who her visitor was. "You scared me! What are you doing up so early, and where's Lucy-san?"
"Some loud noises woke me up, and Lucy's still asleep. But really, what is that? Is it a menu?" Natsu asked, and Wendy sighed at his hungry expression. "I see numbers."
"Can we speak in your room? It's kind of a secret that I still don't have all the answers to," Wendy said quietly. "And whatever I tell you can only be told to Gajeel-san and maybe Levy-san and Lucy-san."
"What about Erza?" Natsu lowered his voice to a whisper, much like a child being told a secret by his parents. "If we don't tell her, she'll kill us!"
"Especially not Erza-san! Gray-san specifically said not to tell her!" Wendy yelled in a whisper, waving her hands around.
"Well, come on! I need to know this if it's a secret Erza can't know!" Natsu said, dragging her down to his room and locking the door behind them. "Luce, I'm having a secret conversation with Wendy, so don't get involved!" He yelled into the room, only to have a grumble in reply.
Wendy sighed at Natsu's bluntness, but sat on the floor across from him. "So, Gray-san left to go on a secret mission," Wendy said quietly. "I'm supposed to meet up with him after dark after this many days has passed between our meetings."
"Did he say why he was going?" Natsu asked, stroking an invisible beard as Wendy handed him the paper with numbers. "These numbers look really random." He took the paper and spun it around, holding it at different angles to see if they made more sense in unique positions.
"He said something about telling Erza not to start a war," Wendy said, which caused Natsu to drop the paper and stare at her in shock.
"Wait, he said that?" Natsu asked, all humor and usually light demeanor gone. He was now the serious Natsu that Wendy appreciated a lot more, but was frankly afraid of. "Damn it."
"What happened, Natsu-san? I still don't know why," she pleaded, grabbing one of his hands. "Why did Gray-san leave?"
"By what you're telling me, some rogue mages killed someone and Erza's planning on going to war with them." Natsu said grimly. Wendy gasped. "But, Gray's probably trying to get a definite answer instead of starting a war that might not be necessary. The idiot's gonna get himself killed. It wasn't her orders. She's gonna be pissed she notices he's gone." His eyes widened in fear. "Erza's scary when she's pissed."
"What do we do?" Wendy asked, feeling fear creep into her veins. She didn't want Erza to be mad at her.
"We have to lie. We don't know where he went, right? Technically, we're not lying." Natsu shrugged. "Let's go talk to Metal Eyebrows next door. He's good at lying."
Wendy nodded, feeling incredibly useless. She was used to it, yes, but not to this degree. She felt like she couldn't do anything by herself. Natsu helped pull her up off the floor, and together they knocked on the door that led to Gajeel's shared room with Levy.
"Oh! Hello." Levy had been the one to open the door. "Aren't you two up early?" She asked, her face taking on a concerned look.
"Is Gajeel-san here? We need to speak to him," Wendy said politely. She thought of Levy as an older sister, much like how she viewed Lucy and Erza, and the two blunettes shared the same gentle demeanor. Through the crack in the door, she saw Gajeel approach the door.
"Whatever you need to say to me can go through my woman," Gajeel grunted from behind Levy. "What is it, kid?"
"Dammit, I'm here too!" Natsu pouted, and Gajeel pointedly ignored him.
"Can we come in?" She asked timidly. "This is secret information."
"Tch," Gajeel grumbled when Levy opened the door with a smile to the small girl. Wendy liked how their room smelled, she noticed. It was iron and flowers and surprisingly reminded her of her voyage with Mystogan when she was younger.
"So, what's eating at ya?" Gajeel asked after the door was closed and Levy was sitting on the bed, a small hand pressed to her stomach. Natsu was still grumbling next to her about stupid iron dragons, but both she and the dragon slayer in question ignored him. She recounted the information that she had, with Natsu interjecting with his own statements every once in a while.
"Shit," he breathed. "That stripper's tryin' ta get himself killed."
"Do you know why he did it?" Wendy asked, still trying to wrap her mind around what had happened with the ice mage.
"Long story short; Lightning and Brownie went and got themselves killed, and Titania's gonna go declare war on the rogue mages, since they were murdered. Stripper's probably goin' to prove it wasn't them by goin' undercover." Gajeel shrugged. Wendy gaped at him in shock. Dani and Desiree were killed? She bit her lip to hold back her tears, even though she saw Levy silently crying on the bed. "Gotta say, Stripper made a risky choice, goin' without tellin' her."
"So, how do we go about telling her that he's missing? And how do we hide that we know?" Natsu asked, his face serious. Wendy liked when he was serious, even if it meant that bad stuff had happened. It made her feel safe.
"Listen here, kid," Gajeel said slyly, lowering his voice.
Erza wasn't sure where she was when she woke up. Everything was plain, but she had no idea if she was in her room, or the infirmary, or if she was somewhere else completely.
But when she heard crying and felt a body slam into hers, she woke up instantly, ignoring the sluggishness her body was experiencing. Blue hair blocked her vision, and the petite Dragon Slayer was sobbing into Erza's chest, clutching her neck.
"What's wrong, Wendy?" Erza asked in a soothing voice, stroking the girl's hair and rubbing her back. Whatever it was had to be bad, because Wendy rarely cried anymore. Maybe she had found out about Danielle and Desiree?
"I - I can't find Gray-san!" she wailed, pressing tighter against Erza. The exquip mage stiffened at the statement. "Natsu-san and I went looking for him when he didn't show up to help in the fields, and no one knows where he went!"
"I'm sure he's around here somewhere," Erza ground out peppily, but her heart sank and she wasn't sure how she even managed to say that because her best friend, her lover, her right-hand man was gone and she couldn't stop it because she'd passed out from crying over Desiree and Danielle. Her guild members had been killed and he had gone to defend and warn the ones who had killed her! "You should go work, Wendy. It will help take your mind off it."
"O-okay, Erza-san," Wendy stammered. "Tell me if you find out something, okay?"
"I will do so," Erza reassured her, faking a smile as she ruffled the blunette's hair. Wendy dashed off, obviously feeling a bit better. Erza wished that soft words would make her feel better.
Because she'd been abandoned. She'd been left by her advisor, the one who was supposed to stick by her side until the end. He'd promised her, and to think that he had broken that promise made her heart hurt and her fists clench and she just wanted to kill something because that was what happened when something bad came into her life.
She flopped on her bed and buried her face in her hands. Maybe he'd needed to get away from her. Had she been too controlling? She could be overly dominant (in both the bedroom and everywhere else) and she couldn't help but wonder if this was her fault. Maybe he'd just gone to clear his head. He was fond of Danielle and Desiree also, so she doubted that he was unaffected by their deaths.
But what he'd said this morning haunted her. Suggesting that it was one of their own men should've been treason. She trusted all these people, because they all followed her orders and she had set the rule of "If you do not wish it to be done to you, do not do it" which only took effect against unfriendly teasing at the worst. She knew that no one here would do it.
But maybe she should run a thorough investigation? Make sure that everyone had been in bed when they should have been. But she had checked every room when she went to bed, and everyone had been where they should've been. Every single person had been in bed or asleep.
Erza's thoughts were swarming. She couldn't stay focused on one stray fragment of anything flying around in her brain, but she could latch onto big things. And the one that stuck out the most was that Gray was a traitor.
She didn't know why that thought stuck in her brain. But reasons why it should have been believed kept swarming in her head and she just wanted her brain to shut up. She couldn't doubt his reasons. She couldn't, because he was the only one she had left -
But he doubted you. He went to prove you wrong. He abandoned you to show you that you were wrong about your reasoning. That's not enough reason to not trust him?
She clamped her hands over ears and squeezed her eyes shut. No. She couldn't believe that. She refused to believe it and she couldn't doubt Gray because he was Gray and would always have good reasoning for his actions. He would come back, and she'd welcome him home after beating the disobedience out of him.
But he's trying to prove that you aren't a fitting leader! That you can't make your own decisions and that those decisions hurt the guild! He's trying to get you removed from your position that you worked so hard for! Gray isn't doing this to try and help you, it's for his own selfish reasons!
She wasn't sure when she started crying. She knew that she started screaming after the onslaught of self-doubt attacked.
You're not fit for this position if you can't even trust your right-hand man!
Gray's betrayed you and you're going to wait for him to come home? You're pathetic. Like a housewife.
How could you call yourself a leader if you let your closest advisor go out and do your job?
Forget about the politics, how can you call yourself a good girlfriend if you let him leave without telling you? How can you just wait for him? What if he does it again?
"Shut up!" She screamed, tears still pouring down her face. "Just shut up and get out of my head!"
But we're you. We're just as terrible as you are.
Natsu didn't like keeping secrets. But what he hated even more than keeping secrets was having to explain them to people who would be involved at some point.
"Lucy, it's not a big deal." He also hated lying. But if was necessary, he'd do it. He owed the Icicle for saving Lucy from falling debris, even if he had manhandled her a bit. At least she was alive.
"Erza could kill you if she finds out that you're hiding something!" She harshly whispered, most likely fearing that the redhead would appear and ask what they were hiding. It had happened quite a few times.
"I can take her!" He boasted, even though he knew it wasn't true. She was still stronger than everyone else, which also made her a good leader. There was a bit of fear hidden under the undying loyalty.
Lucy groaned, much to Natsu's amusement. He knew that she knew that when he said he could take Erza, there was no arguing. He patted her head, and she dropped her head onto his shoulder. "Just don't get yourself killed."
"I won't!" He grinned at her, wrapping his arm around her shoulders. "Can't say I won't be battered and bloodied, though. She is strong," he commented, just to irritate her. Lucy was fun to pick at!
"As I said, don't get yourself killed," Lucy sighed. They fell into a comfortable silence, with him playing with a piece of her hair and her dozing lightly on his shoulder. It was still early, and they both had the day off from the fields, and he waved to Wendy after she emerged from Erza's room, her eyes blotchy and wet.
"And?" Natsu asked quietly, trying not to wake up Lucy. He was concerned about Erza's reaction to finding out about Gray leaving, since Natsu knew that they were close. They always had been. He loved Erza as an older sister, but Gray loved her differently. Natsu wasn't as dense as everyone thought. Or maybe he'd grown up.
"Erza-san is upset, to say the least. She hid it well, though." Wendy sighed, running her fingers through her hair like any other girl did. Lucy did it a lot when she was around him. Maybe it was a stress trigger. "She needs to be alone for a bit."
"Should we stay on standby?" He was concerned. If Erza was upset, then things might get tricky. She might not be open to negotiations about delaying a war to buy Gray time. That was generally their plan, anyway. Give him enough time to be accepted among the rogues, and find out if any of them had killed anyone recently.
"I think she'll be okay. Erza-san is strong." Wendy smiled at him, and he pet her head before she ran outside, no doubt to help in the fields. Natsu sighed and scratched at his neck. He wasn't really sure if he agreed with Wendy, because he'd seen Erza at her weakest, emotionally. He hated seeing her that weak, because she never deserved it. And he wanted to prevent her tears.
"Erza'll get through it," Lucy mumbled, catching Natsu off guard. "Don't doubt her strength. You never have before."
And that was when he heard her loud words. He bolted to her room, mumbling an apology to Lucy for accidentally letting her head hit the seat he'd been sitting in. Erza never screamed, but she was now and her words of "Make it stop!" made him want to kill Gray. But he couldn't because the damn Icicle had a point. Erza couldn't go attack people without confirming it was them.
He threw open her door and found her on the floor, clutching her head with her eyes slammed shut, still screaming loudly and as gently as he could, he pulled her to him, because someone had to hold her if Gray wasn't there. He did everything he did to Lucy when she was upset, like rubbing her back and telling her it would be okay, and after a few tortuously slow minutes, her eyes peeled open and she removed her hands from her ears, before clutching him tightly.
"He's not here, but you have all of us, Erza," he said with a smile. He didn't need to say who the "he" was, but she knew. "Gajeel might not be as cuddly, but he's there to talk to, as part of your council. I'm here too. Just like before, you know?"
She nodded into his shoulder, still clutching the front of his shirt. "Has he been working for the rogue mages?" she asked hoarsely, looking up at him and using a terrified voice that made him angry again, but he stifled the anger because her reaction couldn't be helped.
"Why would he do that? He'd rather die than be under anyone else's rule. He's loyal to you and you alone." Natsu grinned, because he knew it was infectious and Erza needed to smile. Her expression loosened a bit, no longer as sad or tortured, but more defeated and tired. "We all would rather die than be under anyone else's rule," he added, which finally made her smile.
Her smile was also infectious, because it made him happy that his nakama was able to smile like that even though she felt alone. He didn't blame her. He didn't think he'd be as good at covering up his feelings like she was. This was the first time she's cracked since the beginning. She was strong up until now. Through everything, she's been able to keep a straight face and be brave for the people.
"Thank you, Natsu," she breathed, hugging him tightly. "Thank you."