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Freed was the most capable person Laxus knew: she seemed to know about every form of magic and had read every book in her personal library (which was extensive). Basically, she was brilliant.

He'd wanted the rune mage on his team since he first met her. Forever, if possible. He recruited her immediately, not only because she was powerful, but also for her loyalty and kindness. She was reliable in the worst of circumstances.

Powerful and loyal were the basic descriptors of all the Raijinshuu, but it was especially true of Freed, and that's why the other two nominated her as their captain.

The Dragon Slayer couldn't have asked for a more awesome team. Laxus sometimes teased them that he only picked them because they were all women or (in Bickslow's case) aromantic. It wasn't quite a rule on the team that they wouldn't date each other, but they obeyed it anyway. None of them liked drama—another reason the four of them got along.

Just back from a job, they headed to the house the Raijinshuu rented, Laxus tagging along, less comfortable in Magnolia these days and in need of comfortable things.

"Any plans tonight?" Evergreen asked him.

Tonight. Ugh. Since they were back in town, he had to sleep at home.

"Drinking," he decided. "Unless the guild is too loud. You?"

"I'm going out with a friend." A private smile tipped up her face that made him curious. But if it were a date, he knew better than to ask. Evergreen said less the more you pushed. He'd have to smell her later.

"Bickslow? Freed?" Laxus asked, not wanting to face Fairy Tail alone. "Want to join?"

"Happily," Bickslow said, but Freed shook her head.

"I have a book to read."

Laxus grinned, his first genuine one all day. "Just one?"

"Why would there be more?" she asked.

"Because one book will take you, what, a half hour?"

Ever chortled and Freed went red.

Poor Freed got teased the most out of all of them because she was good at so many things, but couldn't seem to see them herself. It wasn't humility: Freed honestly didn't think herself above average, and that had bugged Laxus for a long time, but it didn't interfere with her abilities, so he let it lie. Everyone had baggage.

While Laxus hovered in the doorway waiting for Bickslow to put his things away, Ever went off to dress up and Freed puttered around the house, cleaning random surfaces. There was no book on her person, just skittish energy.

Laxus opened his mouth to ask if something was up when she spoke first.

"I'll take that for you," she said, grabbing his pack before he could reach for it.

"It's fine," he insisted. Freed did too much for him already. "I'm going home after a few drinks."

"You don't want this burdening you while you relax, Laxus." She gave him a tired smile. "Besides, it's you: you'll forget it at the guild and be even grumpier."

"Yeah, probably," he admitted, scrubbing a hand through his hair.

Pausing, Freed aimed a glance at him that didn't quite hit home.

"I…understand hating home," she said. "I'm sorry we have to be here. I'll find us a mission tomorrow."

Laxus shifted. She had a way of seeing him. She'd once said his house haunted him, and that was the perfect word: abandoned just like him.

"Do you not like going home either?" he asked.

"No."

"People suck?" he asked, realizing he'd never heard her talk about her family.

"People suck," she agreed.

Silence stretched. He wanted to ask more questions, but her frown discouraged it. Ironic, because for once he almost wanted to talk about the emptiness of home, just to hear someone felt the same way.

Relief twisted his gut when Bickslow emerged and said, "Ready?"


When they arrived, Fairy Tail was rowdier than usual. Dragneel and Fullbuster were going at it again; Loke had an even larger group of fanpeople and several were squealers; and Cana and Mirajane were glaring at each other so darkly there was practically a cloud over the hall—something about Mira cutting Cana off. After only one drink, his head was splitting like a bad hangover.

Sneering, he pushed the empty cup away from himself.

"I'm leaving," he told Bickslow.

"Already?"

"Fucking migraine."

Bickslow grimaced. "You can sleep at our place. Freed's the best at taking care of people and you know she enjoys making you feel better."

That was undeniably true: somehow Laxus had gotten into her good books and never fallen from grace, though he should've by now. And Freed's presence was calming, even if he'd never seen her relax.

"I think she'd rather read her book," Laxus replied. "It's just a headache."

Outside, the cool night was an instant balm, clearing his head as he walked toward home. His steps dragged on the familiar streets. He really didn't want to go home. Idiot—he should've taken Bickslow up on the offer to sleep on their sofa.

As Laxus turned a corner, music drifted out of Nichou, his favorite bar, a medium-sized crowd visible through its doors. Though not strictly a gay bar, it mostly attracted that demographic. If he felt like flirting (which was less and less these days), Nichou was the place.

Maybe he'd get another drink or two before entering his empty house. Anything to avoid that, really.

Stepping in the door, he angled for the bar, sliding between patrons and appreciating several toned bodies before settling down to order. Nice asses present tonight.

Awaiting his drink, he saw tumbling brown hair and jolted. Short silhouette, green dress—Evergreen. She was meeting her friend here? Probably just friends then. Maybe she was the wingman.

A young man further across the room caught his eye: Laxus's age, shorter, and dressed well. Not to look good—although he certainly did that—but simply because, his posture said. Clearly someone who knew how to dress for his body, muscled shoulders shown off not by a too-tight shirt, but a well-tailored jacket. Damn.

The man had his back to Laxus, but Laxus continued staring even when his drink came. Here was someone he wouldn't mind dreaming about tonight. The man's ponytail swayed under the colored lights when he moved, and his purposeful gestures as he conversed… Seriously. Laxus hadn't come here intending to flirt, but maybe he should make an exception.

Finally tugging his eyes away, Laxus stared into his glass trying to calm his thoughts. Too fast, idiot, he told himself, cracking a true smile for the second time that day. Didn't want to sprout a hard-on, or think himself into being in love with a fantasy. Chortling, he took a drink. Clearly he didn't get out enough.

Or this guy's much hotter than the average person.

When Laxus next looked around, people had shifted and obscured his view, but he saw Evergreen still standing alone.

Suddenly a ponytail swung into view and the gorgeous man walked up to her. Damn all the gods. Please don't be straight.

As he spied on them, the crowd shifted and gave him a clear view. Several faces hit him at once.

There was Evergreen's soft smile: not flirtatious, more like a big sister. So she wasn't into this guy, thankfully.

There was also the young man, clean-shaven and very attractive.

And then there was Freed of all people, her expression relaxed in a way he hadn't seen ever.

Laxus's brain held these last two faces simultaneously, the man and Freed. Stuck in some warring loop, unable to make sense of the fact that these two faces were the same person.

A young man…who was definitely Freed, whom he'd known for years, who was definitely a woman.

As he stared, the-attractive-man-who-was-Freed checked their watch and ducked their head toward the exit. Evergreen nodded and the two turned toward the door—toward Laxus.

He knew he was gaping. Couldn't stop.

Freed's gaze slid toward him, a warrior's sixth sense that someone was watching…

Her eyes met Laxus's and her expression transformed in shock.

Laxus still gaped. It was too loud, too loud in here. This wasn't… What?

Gasping, Freed reeled back a step and bumped into Evergreen. Following Freed's eyes, Ever jerked to a stop. Laxus could read the 'shit' on her lips. Grabbing Ever's hand, Freed shouldered her way toward the exit, not looking at Laxus as she moved around a group, avoiding him—

"Freed, wait," he said, not loud enough, but when he moved in their direction, Freed sped up, practically dragging Ever after her. "Freed!"

Several heads turned; Laxus knew she'd heard. Freed darted out the door.

Dropping a bill on the bar, Laxus bounded out after them. He looked both ways before he saw the pair—running, already halfway down the block.

Freed. Gods dammit. What the hell?

He didn't sleep that night, his whirling thoughts compounded by being home. The high ceiling echoed his emotions back at him without reply, its silence a mockery.

Besides the obvious question of why Freed would dress as a guy, which circled his brain in an unbroken cycle all night, there was the more insidious question of why he'd found her so attractive. Not her, he repeated over and over: it was a suave young man who attracted him. That was not the Freed he'd spent a majority of his waking hours with the last few years. He'd briefly fallen for a fantasy person with a sharp and well-groomed figure. They didn't exist.

When the morning light bloomed, Laxus pulled the comforter futilely over his eyes, layered in new levels of exhaustion.

When he showed up on his teammates' stoop, it was early but nobody would fault him, all aware how much he hated being home. Besides, coming early usually meant getting in on Freed's excellent breakfasts.

Not this morning. A solemn Bickslow let Laxus in.

"She's sick," Bickslow said without preamble.

"They told you?"

"Just that something happened out at a bar. Not what."

"I think I saw something I shouldn't have," Laxus admitted.

Bickslow led him silently to the kitchen, where half-fixed food littered the counter. Bickslow passed him burnt toast and they munched at the table in silence.

Footsteps made Laxus straighten. Rounding the corner, Ever saw him and stopped.

"Morning," he said.

"Freed's ill," she announced. "Has a fever. Sicked up twice. I doled out painkillers and insisted on bedrest. I joked about attaching chains to the bed—you know how antsy Freed gets—but snores followed me out of the room."

Ever ended on a breathless note, as if filling every square centimeter of air with sound would force the pain away.

"Fuck, what happened?" Bickslow asked in concern. "Did she drink too much?"

"No." Ever's mouth twisted. "Freed was…exposed in a very intimate way, and, um…body is reacting."

"Fuck!" Bickslow shouted. "You mean someone—?!"

"No," Laxus and Ever said at the same time.

"Oh, good. Gods." Bickslow put his head on the table. "You freaked me out."

Laxus stared down at his palms. Freed's body was reacting. To being seen. Laxus seeing her doing something Ever called intimate. What did that mean?

"Freed hasn't been sick since…I don't remember," Bickslow murmured. "She's the one that takes care of us."

"About time we pay it back." Ever sighed. "I was going to make broth, but I don't have ingredients. Would you two pick things up?"

Bickslow jumped to his feet, but Laxus frowned.

"What about you?" he asked.

"I'm staying with Freed."

He had no fucking idea what her hooded gaze meant.

Chapter 2 - Illness and Books