Laxus saw it occur. That's how he knows. He's pretty sure Freed hasn't told anyone else.
Laxus happened upon them, Freed and two men. Saw Freed fighting back futilely, saw what was happening, all in an instant. He observed the awful look on Freed's face when he saw that Laxus was witness to the most terrible night of his life—
Laxus doesn't like to think about it. To this day, he doesn't know if the men ran because Freed struggled too much or because Laxus's appearance scared them off.
The question haunts him.
It shouldn't, because he knows he's not Freed's savior, but he still wonders what would've gone down if he didn't hear strange sounds and go check it out.
These days, he counts himself lucky he gets an excuse to be around Freed all the time. Not because he thinks he has to keep Freed safe, but because he can tell Freed needs someone there sometimes—Laxus would, if someone had done That to him. And Laxus wants to be that person…but he doesn't know how. He waits for clues and opportunities.
Sometimes that waiting is so painful. When the team shares a room on missions and Freed falls asleep crying, silent but with salt in the air the Dragon Slayer can taste, Laxus wants nothing more than to hold Freed in his arms.
But he can't, because Freed doesn't do touching anymore.
Before It happened, they had a thing between them—a flirtatious thing neither was good at talking about, which culminated frequently in making out in hidden corners. Breaking apart breathless and awkward.
Doing it again a few nights later.
Laxus had planned to make a move. He could see the way Fullbuster, Rocko, and some of the others looked at Freed, and he knew they couldn't stay in this liminal space forever. And then It happened, and Freed wasn't the same. He built walls higher than Mount Hakobe, didn't respond to people, didn't flirt, and didn't talk much.
While others backed off, Laxus drew closer. Not too close. But he didn't run away.
Once in the beginning, he leaned in and kissed Freed, just like they used to, and Freed responded, melting into him…for about four seconds, before shoving Laxus off and disappearing. That's how Freed deals with any form of touch now: panic and coldness.
Evergreen figured out Laxus's feelings, though she doesn't know the story of Freed's withdrawal. She says Laxus tortures himself 'wanting what he can't have.' She says he needs to let Freed go if the man's not interested, but Laxus knows that's not the problem. He and Freed have plenty of chemistry.
Laxus awaits the day Freed wants him again.
When that day comes, Laxus will be there ready to give. Until then, he can't ask for anything, because it'll freak Freed out, and he doesn't want Freed to deal with any more trauma.
So he doesn't burden Freed with expectations. He just tries to be there.
Laxus, Freed, and Bickslow are holding boards up as they fix the western walls during the guild's latest "remodel" (thanks Redfox this time), while Ever flies around nailing things in place. She and Bickslow are chatting, Laxus focusing only when he hears Ever say, "…I'm serious about her."
"About whom?" the Dragon Slayer asks, alert to anyone invading their team.
"Mira, you dolt." She scowls. "So no more teasing. I like her. A lot."
Laxus is about to ask how long they've been dating, because it feels like a while (and when was the last time they teased her about it?), but Bickslow pipes up out of the blue, "I think her brother is the hot one."
Ever kicks Bicks's head as she flies over.
"I'm not into men."
"I'm not into women."
"Yes, tell us more about that, Bicks," Ever says, nailing the board Freed holds with more vigor than she needs to. "I'm done answering questions about my love life. Your turn."
"What's there to tell?" Bickslow gives a long-suffering sigh. "I'm never settling down."
"Sure." Ever looks at Laxus and they both roll their eyes.
"Everyone I'm attracted to is either hypersexual, aromantic, straight, or…just not into me. It's hard when you're ace and gay."
"I keep telling you Elfman is ace, baka," Ever says. "Ask him out already."
Bickslow pouts. "I'm probably not his type."
"You can't complain if you're not doing anything," Laxus puts in. "You won't find someone if you're defeatist about it."
"What about you?" Bickslow accuses. "I don't see you making a move on anyone."
"I'm also not whining."
"So you don't like anyone?" Bickslow asks.
Laxus shifts one of the boards, not looking up.
"I like my life how it is."
Bickslow shrugs, while Ever keeps her expression neutral. Damn her people-reading skills.
Casting about for another topic, Laxus notices Freed sitting by the stack of boards, drinking water and watching them.
"Taking a break?" Laxus asks, the lamest topic change ever.
"Hydrating." Freed sets his cup aside and lifts another piece of wood.
"What about you, Freed?" Ever asks. Her tone is gentler. She may not know what happened, but she knows Freed is sensitive these days.
"I like my life how it is, too," Freed says, his back to them, and those are the last words they get out of him all afternoon.
They've grown used to their captain's new silence, but they usually hook him into conversation at some point, so his quietness today leads to everyone else drifting off. Laxus doesn't mind; the peace is nice. Truth be told, Freed's calm demeanor is something Laxus always liked, even before everything happened.
But the serenity only lasts until that night, surrounded by celebrating guildmates. Perched between Freed and Bickslow (the only people not making noise), Laxus sits at the bar counting the minutes until someone damages the new hall. Grumpiness is starting to pinch between his shoulders when someone sidles up to Freed's side.
"How's it going?" Loke asks, bright and cheerful.
"Mm," Freed hums, noncommittal, sipping his water. "How are you?"
"More energetic than the rest of you," Loke admits. "Lucy forgot to call me out to help. Although, wow: you look as fine and put-together as if you lazed off too."
Freed smiles. "Trust me, I'm as tired as anyone."
"I believe you," Loke laughs. "You're the opposite of lazy, Freed. Didn't you tell me once you went on jobs every day for over a year?"
"I enjoy resting, too," Freed protests, which is a complete lie: they have the hardest time getting him to agree to anything that isn't a mission. Especially now.
"Any plans this evening?" Loke asks.
"No," Freed says. "I'll probably go home and read."
"I have a new book I'd like to get through tonight. It'll come in useful on the job we're leaving for."
"Another job," Loke teases. Then he startles. "You can read an entire book in one night?"
At that, Laxus has to look over, hiding his laughter. Loke looks stunned, while Freed blinks in genuine confusion.
"Yes, of course."
Shaking himself, Loke recovers and winks. "Amazing as that is, I can think of half a dozen things more interesting to do with your night. Even to a scholar like yourself."
Though Freed chuckles, it's tense, body tilting away.
"I doubt it."
"That sounds like a challenge."
Despite the flirty tone, Loke's smile is gentle. But Freed recedes into his coat, shoulders up, and the posture makes Laxus's whole body tingle in alarm.
"You're quite hard to please, aren't you, Freed?" Loke asks.
"Would you be willing to let me try?" the spirit asks softly.
"N-No, I'm good, thank you."
Freed's hand shakes as he wraps it around his mug. How can anyone mistake that for anything other than unease? But Loke chuckles. Laxus wants to punch him.
"I'm not asking for your life's commitment," Loke says. "Just to show you a good time."
Freed stays silent, his every breath loud in Laxus's ears. Eyes on the bar, he looks fixated, or maybe scared.
"You're a very remarkable person," Loke says.
When Freed flinches the tiniest bit, Laxus is ready to jump in and fight—but it's not his battle. He's always been hypersensitive when it comes to Freed and he needs to get a grip or else he's no better than Loke.
Loke reaches out to stroke Freed's cheek.
The rune mage jerks back, eyes pinned on Loke while his pulse runs out of control; Laxus is sure it must be visible throbbing in his throat. Freed is leaning so far he's about to fall into Laxus's lap. With a ragged breath, Freed collects his voice and whispers, "No, thank you."
"Alright. If you ever change your mind…"
As Loke walks away, Freed deflates. Turning, he startles at how close he is to Laxus, though he doesn't draw back. Instead he looks down, a resigned slope to his shoulders. Suddenly Laxus feels guilty: he's always witnessing things Freed doesn't want him to see.
"I think I'll head home," Freed says. "Tired."
Laxus's tongue is heavy. "Okay."
While Freed stands, Laxus's mind whirls through sentences and scenarios. This whole thing has only made him grumpier.
"Wait," he says as his teammate takes a step. "I'll come with you. It's too noisy in here. If that's okay?"
Sighing, Freed nods.
Following the rune mage out, Laxus stays a few steps behind him, Freed's stride hurried, fleeing. The place they rent with Bickslow and Ever is a few blocks away, through a park. Under the dark trees, Freed speeds up until he's almost jogging.
"Freed," Laxus calls, "wait."
Laxus doesn't know what he wants to say. How do you maintain someone's dignity while offering them your help? Freed's eyes are empty, black in the darkness, no hint of their usual green. There isn't much light, but the Dragon Slayer can see lines of stress dragging at Freed's face.
Laxus has been quiet for too long. Freed walks back to him and asks, "What's wrong?"
Instead of speaking, Laxus takes a tentative breath and spreads his arms.
"What?" Freed asks, but he takes a step closer.
Laxus bites his lip.
Freed walks into his arms haltingly. It's barely an embrace, his hands loose at Laxus's waist, but Laxus copies him and makes it a light, relaxed hug. Freed sighs, a warmth ghosting over Laxus's shoulder.
"Sorry," Freed says. "Sometimes I don't understand why people want me."
Laxus opens his mouth, startled, not sure how to respond to this. 'Because you're amazing'? That just sounds like Loke.
But as quickly as he came, Freed pushes Laxus off again.
When Laxus is too slow letting go, Freed shoves him, gasping, smacking Laxus's arm in his haste to get away. Laxus releases him as fast as he can and steps back, shrinking, trying to be non-threatening—which is hard when you're 202 centimeters.
"Come," Freed grunts, voice low and grating.
It breaks Laxus open. He mumbles something in the affirmative.
When they get home, Freed unlocks the front door and heads to his room without saying a word. After a few seconds of crushing silence, Laxus goes to his own room, ignoring the damage in his spirit that leaks emotion through his body. He doesn't know how to deal with all the unsaid things that are bursting inside him without a home, so he goes to bed without pondering them.
As he slides under the comforter, he sees light under the door—Freed up to read. Laxus hears the creak of the sofa, the familiar swish of pages. He falls asleep wondering why Freed can't accept that people like him.
At some point in the night, there's a sound like distant thunder. Laxus is awake in an instant, listening for the storm while he gathers his wits.
But there is no storm: he hears scuffling instead. A thundering heartbeat makes his chest twinge—it's nearly loud enough to be in the room with him.
Rising, Laxus opens his door.
Freed is curled on the sofa twitching, book closed beside him. His calloused fingers catch in a strand of his hair and his expression scrunches. A nightmare.
When Laxus picks his way to his sleeping comrade, helplessness crashes over him like the sea. He wants to do something, but he can't risk touching Freed. He doesn't want Freed's panic following him into the real world.
So Laxus grabs a pillow and lies on the ground beside the sofa. It's the closest he can get: Freed's walls are made of steel a meter thick.
Laxus hates that helping Freed sometimes means not doing anything.
In the morning, Laxus awakes to Freed shifting. A green silhouette peers over the edge of the sofa.
Shoveling up onto an elbow, Freed stares around the sitting room, while Laxus avoids looking at him: it seems Freed's worst moments happen when Laxus is watching him, and he doesn't want this to be another humiliation.
"What are you doing?" Freed asks.
"Sleeping," Laxus grunts. "Or I was. What are you doing?"
"Why were you on the floor?"
Freed isn't going to let him get out of this.
"You were too loud," Laxus mumbles.
He didn't mean to accuse Freed. Gods. At least Freed doesn't sound upset.
As Freed swings his feet to the floor, Laxus rolls out of the way and stands, stretching.
"Shit, it's after seven," Freed says. "Our train is at eight."
Laxus groans at mention of a train and thinks he'll probably skip breakfast. Rising, Freed heads toward the hallway, no doubt to wake Bickslow and Ever. Before he can disappear—before this moment between the two of them can vanish completely—Laxus says, "Freed."
Curious, Freed looks back. "Yes?"
"If you ever need anything, you can come to me."
"I don't want anything," Laxus adds. "Just…it's hard to sleep when you're…loud. If you ever want, I know some tricks for avoiding bad dreams."
"Oh. Okay," Freed says, and his gaze is clear, green eyes meeting Laxus's with a bit of surprise.
Ironically, the next time one of them needs the other, it's Freed who comes to Laxus's rescue. They're on the train, Laxus hating his stomach, when Freed touches the back of his hand.
"May I?" he asks.
Laxus nods because that's all he can do without throwing up, still feeling those warm fingers. A wave of Freed's hand and the air glows purple. Laxus's eyelids drag shut.
"I'll wake you when we get there," Freed murmurs, voluntarily touching his hand again as Laxus slips into peaceful slumber.
When Freed wakes him later, Laxus swears he can feel a lingering pressure on his fingers, like Freed held his hand through the train ride.
The mission is a good one—hard but successful. A week later, the four of them stumble home late in the evening, exhausted but high on life. Even Freed is animated, discussing spell ideas from their opponents' magic.
"The way that mage re-parsed space and time to slow everything down for herself was brilliant," he says, leading the way into the kitchen. He tosses a sack of vegetables at Laxus, nodding at the sideboard, and tells Bickslow to grab a fry pan. "I can't believe she came up with that herself—that's high-level stuff."
"Think you can do that with runes?" Ever asks, excited. "If you have more time to write, you'll be able to trap people without advance planning."
"That's the hope." Freed grins. "Plus Bicks's souls will be able to use more time-consuming formations in combat."
"Oo." Bickslow sticks his tongue out. "The babies will love that."
"No more speed for me, thanks," Laxus says. "I'll run into things if I go any faster."
They all laugh.
"If we could combine your speed and my runes," Freed says wryly, "we'd have solved the world's problems already."
"Probably true," Laxus says.
Evergreen perches on one of the counters as Freed begins cooking.
"Have two you thought about melding your magic?" she asks.
"Unison Raid?" Freed glances at Laxus. "I'm not sure that would work."
"Why not?" Laxus asks. They're pretty damn in sync.
"I don't think my magic pairs well with others'," Freed admits, biting his lip. "Written magic…"
"It's still magic," Laxus says. "And you're powerful. It might be worth a try."
Freed's smile is soft, almost happy. As Laxus hands him the chopped food, Ever returns to the subject of time compression and Freed lights up, looking like he might actually remember how to relax. He'll never be the same, and even now, Laxus can see the new Freed: shoulders rounded forward, hands hard and twitchy, the delicacy of his movements spasming in ways which, while still fluid, lack the grace Freed once had.
He'll never be the same, but Laxus still sees Freed. Still loves the person he is and has become.
That night, when there's a knock on Laxus's bedroom door, he doesn't need to smell that sweet, dusky scent to know it's Freed.
A creak, and the green-haired man stands in the doorway, framed in moonlight. Laxus flips over and props himself on an elbow.
"Laxus," Freed asks softly, "can you teach me your trick for dealing with nightmares?"
"Yeah," he says, eyebrows rising in surprise.
"I just don't want to wake you again."
"You're fine, Freed." Shit, he didn't mean to make Freed anxious about sleeping.
He scoots over and motions to the empty space. After a second, brow bent, Freed sits on the edge of the bed. He's all stiff, not a relaxed muscle in his body, but he's watching Laxus, and his eyes aren't closed off.
"Don't laugh. It'll seem weird," Laxus says. "When I was little, I had nightmares for years, and this is how Jijii taught me to deal with them."
"First thing: don't think about bad shit while falling asleep. Jijii would have me come up with a new dreamscape. Not something perfect, because that's too unreal—something peaceful. He'd have me describe it. What it smelled like; felt like; sounded like. What kinds of plants are growing in this field? How do they taste? Are there mosquitoes?
"If anything scary appeared, like monsters stalking me, then I'd switch to a different place and start over. Always focus on imagining sensory details. As long as you think about that, you can't think about your fears as much."
"Wow." Freed leans back. "That's surprisingly good advice."
"Don't let Jijii hear you say it that way," Laxus says with a grin.
"This helped you?" Freed asks.
"That, and other things."
"What other things?"
"He had me sing…"
"Sing?" Freed blinks at him, relaxing more as conversation flows. "You? Really?"
"He said it's inherently calming. I think it helps you take even breaths, and if you're focusing on the song, you can't think about other things." Laxus shrugs. He's never told anyone this stuff. "He had me sleep in between him and Obaachan, too, especially when things were bad. Being close to people…it helped."
Swallowing, Freed nods. "I think it would help me too."
He's not looking at Laxus, and that's good, because Laxus has no idea how to react. Is Freed asking to sleep with him? Laxus lies there stiffly, waiting for more.
"I often feel lonely," Freed whispers. His mouth twists.
"Me too," Laxus says. It's not something he feels comfortable telling anybody else.
Freed's body jerks.
"May I?" he asks.
Laxus almost asks what he's talking about, but searching Freed's reddening face, he senses Freed will get too flustered and leave. So he nods. Anything.
"Thank you." The relief in Freed's voice is a whole separate entity.
As Freed draws his feet up, Laxus waits in trepidation. Is he going to, is he really going to…?
As he lies down on the far edge of the bed, Freed slides the barest corner of the comforter over himself. Laxus scoots even farther back until a majority of the bed lies between them, holding more comforter toward Freed. Hesitantly, Freed makes himself comfortable.
Laxus keeps his eyes shut at first: Freed is twitchy, shifting. When Laxus pretends to fall asleep, Freed finally settles down.
In the dark, Laxus watches his teammate, mesmerized. Freed always ties his hair back at night, but in sleep, green wisps escape and stick out in funny directions, matching the zaggy cowlicks which remind Laxus of his favorite weather feature. Defensive even at rest, Freed's hand covers part of his face, his guildmark stretching proudly over his skin.
It's hard not to love Freed like this, and something lighter than air expands in Laxus's chest. Somehow he manages to sleep, Freed's soft breathing issuing him into dreamless peace.
In the middle of the night, Freed rolls up against him in the bed. Shivering and groaning, he wakes Laxus immediately, panic crawling up Laxus's throat at how cold Freed's skin is. Sweat has soaked that half of the bed, but what concerns him most is Freed's face pressed against his bicep.
Laxus. Doesn't. Move.
He's not sure what to do: whether to pull away or to stay. Excruciating minutes pass in frozen indecision before Freed lashes awake with a gasping yell.
Laxus can count the seconds it takes Freed to get his bearings.
Freed jerks away from him.
Desperate, Laxus touches his hand. That's it: just the tips of his fingers catching on Freed's palm. There's a long moment, Laxus not breathing while Freed is still panting through his fear. With slow deliberation, Freed wraps his fingers around Laxus's.
Then he squeezes, deathly tight, and shudders once.
Even after the shudder passes through him, Freed doesn't let go. It's going to hurt, Laxus knows: the blood is getting cut off, and at some point his fingers will protest, but right now, he doesn't care.
Eventually, Freed falls back asleep. And sure, Laxus's fingers are bruised a bit the next morning. Evergreen even makes a snide remark about him doing too much jerking and not enough sleeping—apparently Laxus looks tired, though he can't see it himself. The point is, Freed slept the rest of the night.
The next night, Freed comes back, mumbling about needing Laxus's help again, but as they're drifting off on opposite sides of the bed, Freed's hand comes to rest next to Laxus's arm. At some point in the night, he grabs on, and when they wake the next day, Freed's hand is trapped under Laxus's, their fingers woven together.
They never mention it.
Freed doesn't need excuses after that: each night, after the others go to bed, Freed slips into the room—he doesn't even knock anymore, just comes and slides beneath the covers. Laxus always leaves room for him. Sleeping together becomes their thing.
Then comes the night when Freed lies down and pulls Laxus's arm over himself.
Again, Laxus can't move, so afraid of messing this up, but Freed curls up and nestles down like this is how things should be. Laxus falls in love with this new development. To be honest, his fingers were feeling the effects of Freed's nightly abuse. He likes this much better: Freed's back centimeters from his body, Laxus's arm encircling him, able to sense at a moment's notice when something is wrong.
The next night Laxus doesn't ask—though maybe he should've—if it's okay to embrace Freed: he just does it, and Freed lets him. The hug is loose, but at some point, Freed closes the gap between their bodies, pressing his back gently against Laxus's chest, and Laxus pretty much doesn't sleep all night. He's too busy with his heart beating in overdrive at having Freed so close. At smelling him so strongly.
It feels more intimate than they've ever been.