“Un-fucking-believable.” Gajeel cursed aloud, stomping his way back to the team's assigned hotel with Levy and Lilly in tow. The other two members of their team, Tadzio Atreus (the big guy with the mustache) and Priam (the red haired kid) left to drink their victory in some bar for the night.
Gajeel and Tadzio had somehow managed to beat the other four teams, but when their magic had been measured at the end, it was near empty. Hence, last place and the Dragon Slayer’s pissy mood. Closing her eyes, Levy tried to embrace the logic of it all. Their reunion didn't go as she liked (he tried to get her disqualified), their first match in a big competition had happened (it is up to debate if it was even official) and they haven't resolved the unspoken tension between the two of them which is: he didn't want her here and she couldn't accept that.
Before she could say something, Levy felt a sudden shooting pain in her temples and froze where she stood. Not again. Panic raced through her veins in a choppy rhythm as she fought to not show the pain lacing through her head. If Gajeel knew there might be something wrong with her, he would have all the proof he needed to make her leave.
Whirling around, Levy started jogging away, “I'm gonna go look around, guys. See you later!”
“Hey! Get back here!” Gajeel yelled after her but Levy gnored him. Thankfully, Lilly changed forms to intercept the Dragon Slayer..
“Be careful, Levy!” the Exceed waved her off, pushing at his friend's chest to get him moving again.
With a thankful smile, Levy searched the stalls for anything related to healing. Due to her excitement to prepare for the travel to Valdis, Levy forgot to restock her potions. With how sudden and severe the headaches have become, she couldn't afford to cost her team any points.
Rubbing her temples to try and sooth the ache, Levy thought back to the preliminaries and how brutal everyone used their magic against another to get the upper hand. They were punching, casting, getting caught by someone's magic or running to avoid being hit by a spell. It was a frantic scramble for survival to stay on their feet. By crafty use of Gajeel's shadow manipulation and Atreus' use of enchantments, they were able to be the last team standing. Althought this tournament is merely a form of entertainment, there are few holds barred and nearly killing participants is encouraged. She didn't want to hurt others, it isn't in her nature.
Sniffling from the stress and the pain, Levy felt tears well up in her eyes. She wants to become stronger so Gajeel can see her more than a friend. Hugging herself, Levy clenches her eyes closed to squeeze the salty tears away. Will the cost of proving herself mean hurting others? Can she do it? This is a mistak-
You are you, Levy. No one can define that but yourself.
Wiping away the tears, Levy slaps both her hands hard against her cheeks. Not believing in herself is the kind of attitude that would be an embarrassment to her guild's way. Zied is right, she is who she is and when it comes to fighting in that dirt covered arena, she will fight her way. With or without Gajeel's approval.
Feeling better, Levy once again searches for a pain potion. Luckily she found a healer's shop near one of the rivers bisecting the shore side of the city and paid for ten bottles.
Leaving the shop, she noticed a large bonfire near the river. Even through the busy streets, Levy can hear the boom of drums and the echoes of laughter. Deciding to check out the festivities, she drinks half of a potion bottle and walks toward the giant dancing flames.
Pushing through the crowd, Levy found herself looking at a large tent placed over a great spread of food where people in organized lines fill large porcelain plates. Big platters of freshly made meat dishes, mashed potatoes and soups lined the long tables where bowls of fresh fruit are placed in between. At the end of each table are large barrels of water with several ladles hung on the sides. In one corner, a liquor vendor is giving out free wooden mugs of ale to any and all who approach him. On the barrels and on each side of the tent canopy is the Anatola insignia of a flower and an axe. Maybe Zied is around with his team somewhere?
Case in point, she noticed several woven blankets and pillows spread over the soft grass behind the food tent. Sitting among the fabric facing the massive bonfire is the Anatola team, their rulers and several children. The group laughed and ate among themselves while clapping to the music, watching people dance around the bonfire.
“Hello, Levy,” a deep voice murmured near her ear and she jumped around to face Zied. He no longer wore his team uniform but a loose gray shirt and black pants with an empty sword holster hooked onto his belt.
“Hi, Zied! What is all this?” she asked, gesturing to the free food and bonfire.
The older man took her hand and pressed it into the crook of his arm, leading them around the tent. “My sister-in-law wanted to treat the people of Valdis as a sign of good will to King Acelan. We'll find out tomorrow if it was such a good idea.”
“Well I think it's a great idea! I'm sure not everyone here can afford buying food all night, much less all week.”
He smirked, “Or at all. The homeless and poor have been thanking us all afternoon since we first opened up the buffet tables.”
Levy tilted her head to the side, curious, “When was that?”
“Around the time I left you at the prelims. I escorted my niece and sister-in-law out here to help out. Since Anatola didn't need to compete today, we've been out here cooking and stoking the fires.”
Smiling, Levy felt happy Zied and his family were being so generous until she realized he is leading her straight towards them. At first she panicked, feeling under dressed for a introduction with royalty. But the Queen of Anatola herself is sitting crossed legged in her expensive green and silver dress, holding a two month old baby to her ample breast with a blanket covering the feeding. Tanned auburn skin, bright green eyes and luscious waves of azure blue hair spread around her shoulders, the older woman was breathtaking in beauty, yet didn't hold herself with the usual noble blood indifference.
“Zied, who is this lovely lady?” the Queen asked, shifting the baby in her arms.
“Levy McGarden is that girl I saved from those wolves. Levy, this is my sister-in-law, Serenata Sanctus, Queen of Anatola.”
Laughing, the beautiful woman waved off Levy's hasty bow. “Just Rena is fine. Since our monarchy is technically nine years old, I don't act like a Queen most days.”
“Isn't Anatola considered a wasteland with no viable resources? How did you get the other countries to accept an alliance?”
A brown haired man with streaks of gray at his temples took the baby girl from the Queen's arms, “My wife is descended from a Goddess which is considered divine blood. She pulled rank on all those stuffy nobles to accept her terms for needed supplies for our starving people. For them to admit that publicly would be embarrassing indeed.”
“How, though?” Levy demanded, her thirst for knowledge shining in her eyes.
The man winked up at her, “Rena summoned the Goddess Fatharni herself when they were about to throw her out.”
Serenata glared at her husband, “Ciro! Don't tell her that!”
“But Gods don't really exist anymore, right?” Levy asked, a frown on her face. “All the texts I've read say none has seen them in centuries.”
Beside her, Zied crossed his arms, “They exist, Levy. Trust me. Now, have you eaten yet? Everything offered here is free.”
Shaking her head, Levy held the bag with her potion bottles a little closer, “Oh, I just came over out of curiosity. I should get some sleep before the first day tomorrow.”
A giant man on the other side of the blankets shouted over to them, “Nonsense, girlie! Grab an ale, relax!”
“Oh, I really shouldn't!” Levy tried again, looking to Zied for help.
The giant with shoulder length orange hair, large purple eyes and a big goofy grin was not
deterred as he waved his mug of ale around, splashing the young monk sitting next to him. “You're from Fairy Tail, right? You guys know how to party! Go have fun!”
Her guild is gone, her family broken. Never has Levy she felt more alone, looking at Zied's family and their happiness then she does right now. Her heart hurt, her eyes burned and suddenly all the loneliness and frustration she kept bottled up comes gushing out. Tears strung her eyes, sobs racked her chest and then she's bawling her heart out in Zied’s arms.
“Drakeer, shut up.” Zied snapped as he held Levy protectively to his chest.
“I'm drunk and you expect me to listen?” the giant slurred after taking another big gulp from his mug, “All I said-”
Beside him, the monk swiftly pushed a big spoonful of food into Drakeer's mouth to shut him up. “Will she be okay?”
“I hope so.” Zied murmured as he stared down at Levy's blue hair, eyes filled with concern. Gently pushing the girl from his chest, he wipes a few tears away. “Three months is a long time to be without family. Did no one stay with you?”
Trying to calm her breathing, Levy bit her trembling lip, “Jet and Droy left one day without telling me. It hurt so much...being all alone...sniff...It wasn’t...hic....like them....”
“I’m sorry. If you want, after the tournament you can stay with us instead of going back to Fiore. We won’t abandon you.” Zied promised, gripping her shoulders firmly.
Blinking her red, puffy eyes, Levy looked up at her friend. He stared down at her with kind eyes, the look softening the lines on his face to make him look years younger. Cheeks hot from crying in front of everyone, Levy felt overwhelmed from the concern they were all showing at her heartache.
Chuckling, Zied gently nudged her towards the bonfire. “You don’t have to answer right now. Go have fun.”
“I don't know the dance steps!” Levy protested, her tears forgotten.
Drakeer grinned wide, his sharp canines flashing in the firelight, “This dance tells you how to move with the beats. Just listen!”
Suddenly the giant of a man is at her left, pulling Levy forward by one hand. On her right, a blue haired girl who looked like Queen Rena pulled at her fingers with glee. Suddenly they joined the moving flow of drunk dancers circling the bonfire. Around and around the people moved, laughing and singing their revelry. The little girl held her hand through a few steps, another man pulled Levy into a swing move, then Drakeer lifted her up to be held into the sky. The song being played was fast, causing their feet to fly and their lungs to work hard for breath.
The music hummed through her veins, the night sky twinkled over their heads. For the first time in weeks since her guild broke apart, Levy didn't feel alone.
Maybe leaving Meredy behind wasn't a good idea. At least with her by his side, Jellal wouldn't feel so stressed trying to keep Cobra from causing havoc. Drinking more of his coffee, Jellal thought back to the failure of a meeting that should have been the solution to everything...
Pulling the thick scarf away from his face, Jellal took in a much needed gulp of air that wasn't full of sand and humid air. Cobra and Meredy joined him, coughing the sand and grit from their lungs. The temple they stumbled into for shelter from the powerful sand storm looked old and abandoned but was built from sturdy rock with a slight metallic sheen to it.
"Remind me again why I'm following your ass through some sand filled wasteland?!" Cobra snapped as he gulped down some water, only to spit it out to cleanse his mouth.
"Quit being rude, Cobra! You know why. Are you going to complain all day?" Meredy growled as she shook sand from her hair and traveling cloak.
"This is called expressing myself and I will execute the right to express my hatred of sand in places you don't wanna know!"
Before she could yell her reply, Jellal reached over to flick them both on the nose,
"Enough, you two. This is the temple I was looking for."
Looking around, Meredy frowned with doubt, "Are you sure? It doesn't look like anything is here."
"There doesn't need to be for what I seek." he replied as he lead them deeper down the dark, sand filled halls. Sharing a look of confusion, his two companions had no choice but to follow. It did not take long for them to find the main antechamber of the temple.
Stairs to the main dais, where a large alter and throne made of white and blue stone stood, are covered in dust and spider webs. On the walls hung racks for torches and ripped bits of tapestries.
Cobra scowled, "This place is creepy and I don't mean like Racer singing in the shower."
Not amused, Meredy swatted at his arm. "Ssshhh!"
Kneeling down to place his hand on the stone floor where a bit of tapestry lay, Jellal closed his eyes. On his right cheek, the black tattoo pulsed with white light as he called forth ancient magic to perform the summoning.
"Goddess of thy blood, Mother of thy people, Guardian of her Kin. I call you on the oath for which you bled!"
Around him the air fizzled and snapped with power...then BANG! Jellal blinked as he found himself on his back, smoking and covered in soot from the backfire of the spell.
Cobra burst out laughing while Meredy jogged over to check on him. He beat the soot from his burnt hair as she wiped at his shoulders.
"Did it work?"
"It didn't need to but that was funny, right?" asked an amused feminine voice from the dais. All three of them whirled around to see a blue haired woman sitting on the arm of the throne. She wore charcoal around her eyes like many desert people as protection from the sun, her clothing is many layers of thickly woven jackets and cloaks to ward off sand and heat. Around her throat is wrapped a blue and green scarf that looks crudely made, as if by a child.
Ready to fight, Cobra bared his fangs. "Who the fuck are you?"
Ignoring him, the woman looked straight at Jellal with sad golden eyes. "I cannot help you, Fernandez."
"My sister is innocent! Remove the curse!"
The woman shook her head, "Once I would have, but now I cannot. There is nothing I can do."
"So you forsake us?"
"I am sorry. Her fate is sealed."
Jellal snarled his fury. "I refuse to believe that. Some celestial being! You must care for no one but yourself to write off people so easily."
Eyes darkening to a furious amber, the woman stood from the throne to descend the stairs. "Don't make me regret saving you from that stupid Tower of Heaven, boy. I will not be insulted in my own home, even by you."
"Fuck you, Fatharni!" With a yell, Jellal lunged forward to attack but he only phased through her body. A thought projection?
Before the projection disappeared, Fatharni glared at him over her shoulder. "Should you really be blaming me for her condition, when it was you who hid her from me in the first place? Who warped her memories and sealed her powers so badly, it stunted her magic so that she can only form words from her favorite books as a child? Tell me Jellal, who is the real one to blame for cursing their own sister to die?"
Jellal fell to his knees with his head in his hands in a rare act of despair. Meredy took a step towards him but Cobra caught her shoulder, shaking his head. They both stared at Jellal with pity, the words he kept muttering over and over again showing a broken man beneath the leader.
Forgive me, Levy. Forgive me!
Snapping his eyes back open, Jellal curled his lip into a snarl. Disgust and hatred battled in his chest at a deity who should have been his solution, not a waste of time. He will save his sister from a curse that no one survived from. Levy will be the first.
Dumping his coffee, Jellal went to bed and willed himself to get some sleep. Tomorrow will be the first day of the IMT, and the first day for true strength to be measured.
Hands shoved in his pants pockets from the cool night air, Gajeel prowled the busy city streets. Guilt and impatience whirled in his chest, unable to push past the frustration Levy stirred up. This isn't like her to run towards danger, then thought better of it. Fairy Tail turned their nose to rules and laws if it meant doing the right thing, to defend the pride of family no matter what. Before he had relished in that freedom, now it disturbed him.
If Levy thought she can handle this tournament like the GMG, she is wrong. The people who ran this event are powerful, their eyes cruel and gleam with greed. He would not be surprised if drug traffickers used the busy harbors to sneak in more shipments, or high stake wages on who lived or died were made under the table by nobles and participants. Despite his eagerness to let loose in that arena, Gajeel didn't trust anyone outside of Pantherlilly. At least his Exceed partner worked in law enforcement long enough to know this event looked shady.
Head low and eyes alert, Gajeel scanned the crowded nightlife for any spot of familiar blue hair. It had been an hour since Levy left to take in the sights, which to his anxiety was too long. He wanted her within range in case something bad happened. Also at Lilly's insistence, he needed to apologize for his earlier actions. The hurt in her eyes haunted him, making his chest ache from the guilt.
“Dammit!” he cursed, punching a brick wall of a bustling cafe. There's too many people around to sniff her out, and he didn't want to spend all night tracking her down.
Glancing at the shadows in the alley behind the cafe, Gajeel smirked. If he was high enough, maybe he could see her. Stepping towards the darkness of the alley, he reached out a hand until he couldn't see it anymore. Breathing in deep, he all of his weight fall forward. The shadows enveloped Gajeel, encasing him in blackness. No matter how many times he practiced, his stomach still clenched from the sense of falling. Becoming a shadow is tricky and felt like floating in a space of nothingness. But traveling as a shade feels weirder because it's like the real world was on the opposite side of a two dimensional mirror and he is swimming through jello.
Melting from one shade to another at a fast speed, Gajeel looked for Levy. Like he figured, she wasn't on the ground browsing the numerous bazaars. Moving up to a high rooftop away from the thick crowds, Gajeel stepped from the darkness and into the light of the stars.
Leaning a shoulder against a wall, he looked down and saw a large bonfire. Food was served under a large tent and people sat on the grass, enjoying their plates and festive music. Sure enough he saw a head of blue...wait.
Make that five heads of blue hair.
Gajeel groaned, wanting to slam his head against something hard. Not only did he find Levy, the tent belonged to the Anatola kingdom. Gajeel really didn't want to be near the white haired bastard unless it was to exchange fists. In the light of the bonfire, Levy danced and laughed among the competition. She even drank a big mug of something foamy, probably ale.
For a moment, Gajeel just watched her from the shadows. She looked so happy, he didn't want to ruin it by dragging her back to the hotel room. But they needed rest for the first day and the sooner he got her away from Grey, the better.
Gajeel stiffened. That husky voice belonged to a woman he swore never to cross again. What the fuck is she doing here? Turning around slowly, he saw a tall woman with short black hair and dark brown eyes standing in the shadows. Just his rotten luck, she wore an Anatola uniform.
“L-Lachina.” he greeted, pressing his back to the stone wall. Sheezus, did he just stutter?
The woman walked towards him, a frown on her face. Her muscular form and tall height made Lachina look intimidating, reminding Gajeel of that night when he was fourteen years old. How she stood over his broken body, holding a halberd that was covered in his blood...
When she got too close, Gajeel lifted his fists. Throwing up her hands, Lachina backed off. “I'm not going to hurt you.”
Gajeel scoffed. “Thirteen years ago, you almost killed me!”
“You didn't give me a choice. It was either take you down, or let a drunk Dragon Slayer rampage through Denish.” Lachina gave him a pointed look. “I saved your ass, gutter snipe.”
Mouthing off would be a death wish considering her crazy strength but old habits die hard. Flipping her off, he stuck out his tongue as the excitement rang through his body when sensing the start of a fight. “How's that for thanks, bitch?”
Lachina suddenly had him by his throat, lifting him high until his boots dangled a foot off the roof. Brown eyes narrowed on his face, her lips curled up in a mocking smile.
“Your manners are still shit, Redfox. Need another lesson beaten into you?”
Despite the air being cut off from his throat, Gajeel grinned. “Bring it!”
“Chi.” a new voice said with warning. Lachina tensed, then let go. Gajeel fell to his arse hard, gasping as air filled his burning lungs.
Looking up, he saw another woman with short white hair streaked with shining blue highlights dressed in an Anatola uniform, her jacket tied around her waist. Dark hazel eyes glared at Lachina, who was rubbing the back of her neck as if ashamed.
“Go get something to eat,” the newcomer ordered.
“You're tipsy. I get it. Now go.”
Lachina didn't move for a long moment and then turning away, jumped off the roof. They both watched as the tall woman stalked towards the bonfire. He turned to the woman named Tyth, uneasy and alert for any sudden movements of attack. If Lachina obeyed this woman without complaint, then he needed to be very cautious. Word on the street is, Tythlany Grey is one of the High Generals of the Anatola military. Pissing her off would be a bad idea.
The Anatolian eyed him from the other end of the roof. Unlike Lachina, she didn't bother to approach him.
“Your friend is safe with us. She'll be returned to you by morning.”
He sneered, “Excuse me if I don't trust the word of a blood thirsty mercenary.”
“Former mercenary. I only kill on new moons for pagan sacrifices and voodoo rituals.”
Gajeel blinked. His only reaction.
Tyth's lips twitched from amusement. “Do you not know sarcasm? Or humor? I believe that was both.”
“Keh. That Zied bastard had no right to interfere with my team.”
She rolled her eyes, turning to watch the bonfire below with a hand on her hip, “He did if it meant an alliance with Fiore. You could be disqualified by your King if you jepordise that.”
“I don't give a shit! Levy-”
The hairs on his neck shook when Tyth faced him, a serious look in her green eyes. Gajeel braced himself for an attack by pressing his back to the wall, ready to jump into the shadows at a moments notice.
“You don't get it, do you?” she asked, “You're so emotionally compromised, your grief has blinded you from the truth. You are just as much a threat to Levy as the rest of us so quit being a hypocrite.”
Gajeel flinched from her words, not liking how true they are. Ever since Tartaros, he welcomed the guild's disbandment with open arms. The anguish he kept deep inside festered from his hatred for Acnologia and Zeref, wanting justice for his dragon and friends. He felt the old, dark hunger to attack and kill anything that pissed him off. Trying to pretend everything is fine was too much to ask and Gajeel didn't want to hurt his family if that darkness overwhelmed him.
That is why he joined this tournament. To vent his sorrow away from his friends, and find some peace.
“I would never hurt her,” Gajeel whispered, the words sounding weak to his own ears.
“You already did when you tried to kick her out of the arena. I'll make sure to vote you for 'Asshole of the Year'.”
Clenching his fists, he glared at the woman. “Why are you and that bastard defending her?”
“Zied saw something in her worth protecting. That's reason enough for me But...he saw something in you too.”
The knowing tone in her voice made Gajeel feel uneasy. Tyth pointed straight at his face, green eyes narrowed to fine points. “He knows why you joined Fairy Tail.”
“Makarov gave me an offer I couldn't refuse. Big deal.”
Her eyes seemed to glow eerily in the darkness, “Wrong. You joined because of Levy. Question is, did you agree before or after you realized she might not be human?”
Next up, chapter iv!