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Cana's Weekly Drinking Club

Chapter Text

Mira paused amid her scrubbing to look over at her cleaning partner.

Ostensibly swishing a broom around, Cana wasn't really paying attention, eyes on the invisible and eyebrows occasionally scrunching in a frown. The corners of her mouth were drawn down.

Mira walked over and grabbed the end of her broom. "Hey."

Looking around slowly, Cana blinked at her. Mira's hand slid to her shoulder for a few seconds; they stared at each other.

"What's up?" Cana asked.

"You looked intent in your thoughts," she said, scrubbing mindlessly at the table beside them. "Anything bothering you?"

"Yeah, it's nothing." Cana smiled unconvincingly.

"Your fathers are on a mission again?"

"It's not supposed to take more than a few weeks." Cana swooped the broom around the table legs searching for crumbs. "The whole family is gone but me. I should probably take a job too. Be useful."

She flashed Mira a half-smile. Mira frowned in concern.

"You're plenty useful, Cana," she said. "Thank you for helping me clean up tonight."

"It's Saturday." Cana shrugged, moving to the next table. "I always help you on Saturdays."

"I know, and I'm grateful." Mira smiled. "This is my favorite night of the week."

When Cana looked up again, Mira was still smiling (and blushing, but she'd learned from experience Cana wouldn't make it awkward when it was just the two of them). Cana smiled back, eyes crinkling at the corners. It made Mira's anxiety loosen.

"You just got back from a job," Mira said as they cleaned their way across the hall. "You don't have to go back out immediately, you know. You can take a break. It's important to relax. Brain and body need it."

Cana snorted. "You of all people aren't allowed to talk about resting."

Mira stiffened. Just because she didn't go on jobs, people thought she was lazy. And she was getting this from Cana

"You never take vacation," Cana went on, turning around with a wry, kind smile and making Mira's self-defense evaporate. "You work harder than anyone else. You're allowed to take a break too, Mira. I'd like it if you did, and I know Elfman and Lisanna would too."

"I… You're one of the few people who says that to me," Mira said, flushing.

"Then the rest of the guild are idiots," Cana said. "They goof off most of the time anyway. Unless there's a crisis, this guild is full of lazy fairies. They probably rationalize that what you do for them doesn't count as work to make themselves feel better about working you so hard. And being so goddamn rude about it, too!" Cana burst out. "Charle today? Normally she's got a good head on her shoulders, but she unleashed her grumpiness on you full force."

"Yeah." Mira twisted the rag in her hands. "It was...uncalled for."

"Completely undeserved," Cana agreed. "You never deserve shit: you're an angel."

"Cana."

"You are," Cana said, smiling. "Like I said, you deserve to rest and relax too."

"Maybe we need to take a vacation together and hold each other to it," Mira laughed, face growing warm.

"I would hold you to it, too." Cana raised an eyebrow. "We don't need you getting sick again."

Swallowing, Mira stared down at the tabletop she was scrubbing, suddenly afraid of eye contact.

"That would be awful," she said in a small voice.

When Cana touched her shoulder, she jumped, then let Cana pull her into an embrace. Cana's arms were strong, like Mira was safe here. Held by someone else. She was so grateful for the physical contact.

"There'll always those of us who will take care of you, Mira. Always. So if you get sick, or need someone to cover the bar—if you need anything, we're here."

"Thanks," Mira sniffed.

Cana pulled back to look at her, smiling encouragingly.

"You truly know that, right? You'll ask for help when you need it?"

Mira smiled and nodded, folding back into Cana's hug.

"Good," Cana said.

She rubbed Mira's back for several minutes, and Mira soaked it in. Cana soothed her frayed edges; so good at giving.

As they returned to their chores, Mira shot covert glances at Cana's back. The card mage looked less glum, humming softly.

Mira held the dustpan for Cana and they went to the back door to shake out the broom.

"It's a nice night for this time of year," Cana sighed, staring up at the stars. "Brisk and dry."

Mira turned to look at her. "Do you feel better now about being useful?"

Cana nodded. But a few seconds later, she bit her lip and stared up, away from Mira, eyes sparkling.

"Cana?"

"I'm—I'm sorry, Mira."

"Darling, what for?" Mira asked, reaching out automatically to touch her, to rub her shoulder and comfort her. Cana was so rarely vulnerable enough for her to do this. Cana gave, but receiving...

"I just feel shitty. For no reason at all." Cana's voice was gruff, and she sniffed.

"That's okay."

"It's not. You can't fix things that aren't broken. There's nothing wrong, so I can't do anything. I just feel angry. And numb. And hopeless."

"Cana." Mira crooned her name quietly as she pulled Cana into a hug, the card mage finally giving into the build-up of sniffling tears.

When Cana sagged into her, Mira had to readjust her footing, but she would carry anything—anything for Cana.

It would be okay. She whispered those words until Cana's breathing slowed down.

Straightening, Cana wiped her eyes and gave her a watery—but genuine—smile.

"Thank you, Mira."

"Always, lovely."

They were very close together. In Cana's wide eyes, Mira felt she could see the edge of something so big and beautiful it took her breath away. When Cana hugged her, it felt like their hearts were a shared entity and the space between them ceased existing.

It always felt that way. Next week, Cana would go off and date Lucy. Or Laki. Or…

Cana always found someone.

So this was just this. Mira had gotten used to it, and it was okay.

Every Saturday they still hung out, just them, being totally themselves. Silly and raw and comforting and honest.

Mira was one of the few people who got to see the days like this—when Cana grew moody and dark. There wasn't always a cause. Mira reasoned there didn't have to be; you could feel shitty from a conflagration of circumstances, like having an upset stomach and not finding your house keys and running late and doing poorly on an easy job and forgetting it was a friend's birthday and getting home to find you were out of food.

Life could simply be unfair: sometimes it was unfair for Cana, and sometimes Cana was affected by that. If it affected her more strongly that it might've someone else, well—what was one mind's breaking point might not be another's.

But Cana was happy now; the night was beautiful; and now they would walk home together and chat all the way to their doors, which were right across the hall from each other at Fairy Hills. And Mira would wish to hold hands, but would be okay that they didn't, because she still had this.

As Cana sighed peacefully and moved inside, Mira almost whispered, I love you.

Chapter Text

Taking a swig of her drink, Cana slid the keg below the level of the bar so Mirajane couldn't see it. The bartender had the eyes of a tigress. Currently cut off—cut off!—Cana felt it took all the fun out of drinking when she had to pretend she wasn't.

A few seats down, Juvia sank onto a stool, putting her forehead on the counter and letting out a heavy sigh. A distraction. Perfect.

"'Sup, Juvin?" Cana asked.

"Oh dear, a nickname," Juvia mumbled.

"It's cute, just like you."

Juvia's response was a despondent stare. "I'm not even cute enough to…"

"What?" Cana asked in a softer tone.

Juvia sat up and looked away. "It's n-nothing."

"Would you like me to cast cards to figure it out?" Cana asked. Juvia had a fascination with tarot.

"No, no," Juvia chuckled. "It's love."

Oh boy. Noting Mira was busy at the other end of the bar, Cana snuck a long gulp from her keg.

"Love, huh?" Cana wiped her mouth, feeling a tingle as the drink hit her stomach. "Step into my office and tell me about it."

"Office?"

Grinning, Cana spread her arms. "The bar, of course."

A tiny smile graced Juvia's face.

"There isn't much to it. I like someone who doesn't know I exist. The end."

"Isn't that a bit exaggerated?"

"They know I exist," Juvia acquiesced, "but they never in a million years would acknowledge my feelings."

Cana, like the rest of the guild, was well-aware how Juvia felt about Gray—and how Gray apparently didn't notice. As stepsister to the accused, Cana knew Gray did notice, but he was too scared to admit it, unsure how to tell a manic fangirl he was one-hundred-percent gay. Idiot.

"Did something happen?" Cana asked, sneaking another sip of her drink. Drunkenness might be necessary if this was a Gray-Juvia matter.

When Juvia sniffed, Cana jerked and stared at her. Though not crying, Juvia looked the saddest Cana had ever seen. Immediately, Cana slid over the stools between them to perch at Juvia's side, running a hand over her back.

"Lovely, what happened?"

"Nothing." Juvia took a shaky breath. "Just the same old. It's been going on for so long now. You'd think I could get over it. But I just can't. I just… So damn attractive, you know?"

Juvia is swearing. Holy shit. Cana took a deep breath. She had to tell the woman the truth. Grow some lady titties, Cana; come on.

But all that came out was, "Aa-hh-have you considered not being around your crush for a while? Distance might help."

"Everywhere I go, even on missions, I somehow end up bumping into her."

"That's—" Cana blinked. "Her?"

"Yes," Juvia said, looking forlornly down at the bar.

"HER?!"

"Not so loud, Cana-chan," Juvia begged.

"Sorry, I just…we all thought…Gray?"

"Gray is gay."

"I know that, but we thought you had no idea. How you behave around him…"

"Oh." Juvia blushed. "That was a misunderstanding we cleared up ages ago."

"But I saw you acting lovesick about him just a few weeks ago!"

"Only sometimes." Juvia gave her a reproving look, as if Cana should know these things. She lowered her voice to a whisper. "He asked me to do that when we're in the presence of a certain person. It makes the man he likes get jealous."

"Wait, wait. He likes someone?" And he didn't tell me?!

"He asked the man out a month ago. But the man, er…turned him down, you might say. I've been keeping up the act to prove to them both that, yes, the man really does like Gray and is just being an idiot. I'm hoping Gray will get his courage up and ask him again. They'd both be happier if they talked it out."

"I can't believe my own stepbrother didn't tell me he asked a boy out," Cana said, taking a wounded drink from her keg.

"I'm sure he meant to."

"You don't understand. Gray and I grew up together. He's the one I told when I found out the girl I'd been dating had HPV. He walked me to the clinic when I got checked; helped me keep my nerve. Of all my best friends, he's the most best." Cana took yet another drink. "He's going to catch hell for not talking to me."

Juvia patted her arm encouragingly.

"He might've been…embarrassed. The other man—well, I think anyone else would make fun of them. He roped me into helping him because I was new to the guild and didn't know how things, ah, worked."

This mollified Cana a little bit.

"Enough about my idiot brother," she said. "We're going to solve this problem of yours. Who is the woman?"

Spinning around on her stool, Juvia checked in all directions before holding out a hand to Cana. Befuddled, Cana stared at the empty palm.

"The keg," Juvia said. "Hand it over. I need a drink for this."

When Cana passed her booze over, Juvia knocked it back and gulped for several long seconds.

"Damn, lady!" Cana grinned. "I had no idea you had it in you."

Juvia inhaled.

"I like Lucy."

Cana's eyes bugged out and she clapped a hand over her mouth.

"Really? No. You're serious? Lucy?" She took a deep breath, focusing on keeping her voice down. "You've got taste, Juvia, that's for sure. Wow. Lucy is top shelf."

A smile crept over Juvia's face.

"She's so smart, knows her way around many types of magic, even if she only uses keys. She reads every book that hits the bestseller list, can talk about them at length, is the most intelligent conversationalist I've ever met…" Juvia sighed, the spark in her eyes dimming, "…and she has no idea."

Cana nodded in sympathy.

"Probably because she thinks you like Gray."

Wilted, Juvia turned to her, looking like a puddle on dry ground. "How am I supposed to change that, Cana?"

Biting her lip, Cana turned to survey the guild as she thought. If Gray and his mystery boy would just get together, Juvia would be free to flirt with Lucy—and when it came to flirting, Cana had lots of tips.

Just then, she saw Gray himself standing by the bar taking two tankards from Mirajane. The ice mage smiled, saying something that made Mira laugh in that pure, jubilant way of hers— Distraction, Cana: focus. Suddenly she had an idea.

"Gray! Otouto!"

Gray let out a heavy sigh before turning toward her with a put-upon look.

"What do you want, Neechan?"

"Get your ass over here," Cana called. When Gray stopped at her side, she said, "We need your help."

His eyes shifted between Juvia and her, narrowed in wariness, before glancing over his shoulder to whomever he was taking the second drink to. He looked almost wistful, Cana thought.

Slipping one of the tankards from him, Cana handed it to Juvia before he could react and motioned the dazed ice mage to a stool.

She happened to catch Mira looking her way and smiled instinctually. Mira stubbed her toe on a crate, cussed, and approached them.

Cana grinned wider: she had an idea.

"Why the mischievous look?" Mira asked,walking up.

"Mira," Cana said, stretching langorously out of habit—stellar way to get a queer woman's attention. If she cajoled just right... "Just wondering if we could get another one of these."

She pointed at the mug in front of Juvia. Juvia was watching this interchange placidly; Cana winked at her, elicting a smile. That was it: positivity, people. Gaiety. Friendliness.

When she turned back, Mira's fine brows had risen sharply.

"You're still drunk, Cana."

"You caught me." Cana grinned, reaching out to brush Mira's arm. "How could you tell?"

Mira pushed Cana's hand away, which hurt more than it should've.

"You're only ever this touchy-feely when you're drunk, Cana Alberona." For some reason, she turned to Juvia. "Sorry."

"I'm not bothering Juvia," Cana retorted, irked. "I bet you think I'm cute this way."

Mira went a startling shade of red—and glared at her. Cana dropped her smile at once. She hadn't expected that reaction.

"That doesn't mean I'm going to encourage you, Cana."

Mira sighed heavily.

"I really don't think you should have any more. It's not even ten."

"A totally reasonable time."

"In the morning."

"So?"

"You're still cut off," Mira said firmly. "Try to get a little sober in the meantime, okay?"

"Sober's no fun!"

"It is for the rest of us," Mira snorted. "Leave our beautiful ladies alone."

Cana jerked. No, no, wait, what? Ladies had nothing to do with this; but also Mira was beautiful and she shouldn't devalue herself; and also there was nothing wrong with flirting with attractive women.

Why was Mira going after her so much today?

"You jealous, Mira?" Cana asked in retaliation, giving Juvia a suggestive grin.

Juvia snorted humorously.

Mira's face scrunched in a strange way.

"What would I be jealous of?" she quipped back. "Your bad pick-up lines? Your beer breath?"

"Oo, zing," Cana said, chuckling in surprise. "Damn, Mira. I didn't know you could be sarcastic."

"Only with you," Mira muttered, flushing and looking away.

"Zing again! She goes two for two."

Mira huffed, apparently unable to find a comeback for this, and walked away.

"You're still cut off until noon," she called over her shoulder.

"Damn," Cana whispered under her breath. She'd really thought that would work. At least she still had her keg.

"So, um," Gray said, "is there a reason I'm sitting here?"

Cana turned to him and snapped her mind back to business mode. Mira was distracting.

"I heard you like someone, Gray."

Gray's eyes narrowed.

"So?" he hissed.

"First of all—which is the most important—you didn't tell me. You're going to answer for that. Secondly, I need you to release Juvia from helping you make your crush jealous."

He blinked stupidly. Juvia had gone small and quiet.

"Drink up, both of you," Cana sighed. "You're making me fucking nervous."

When Cana lifted her keg, they obeyed, the three of them sipping in silence for several minutes. The sight of pale hair and a curvy figure had Cana stuffing the keg down at her feet again.

Stealing ale was too much effort. Damn Mirajane's 'concern.'

"Here's the new plan," Cana began. "Juvia has a girl she needs to impress. Gray, I know you asked your boy out and he said no, right? But Juvia thinks he still likes you."

"Um, yeah, basically." Gray scrubbed a hand through his hair. "Fucking men."

"You are a man," Cana chuckled, while Juvia stifled a laugh.

He glared. "That's not the point. This one's an idiot."

"You're a good pair, then," Cana said, getting an elbow to the ribs in response. Sticking her tongue out, she continued, "Having Juvia fawn over you isn't working—not well enough, anyway. So here's the plan. You're going to fawn over her."

"What?" both mages exclaimed.

"We're…switching roles?" Juvia asked, uncertain, while Gray growled, "That'll ruin my chance with him."

"Keep it down, people!" Cana glanced around. "Yes, you're switching roles. Do it slowly, not sudden, so that it won't seem strange. For this week, Gray, you'll ignore your man except for anything job-related. Act depressed, like you've given up. And Juvia, you're going to do the same with Gray, okay? See if you can go to Lucy for 'comfort:' that'll be a great setup."

"Lucy?" Gray's eyes widened. "Wow. What a catch. I can see you two together."

"Thanks," Juvia whispered, disappearing into the collar of her jacket while red suffused her cheeks. "She really is a catch."

"You can get her," Cana and Gray said together.

"Especially with my plan," Cana said, smiling. "After emo-week, Gray is going to start flirting with Juvia. I mean hard. You're desperate, lonely, and being gay isn't going to stop you from flirting with the one person whom you know will take you. If this boy of yours likes you as much as everyone apparently thinks, he's going to freak out thinking you're moving onto someone else and he'll finally fess up, or risk losing you. And Juvia, well…"

"People always look more attractive when someone else likes them," Gray filled in. He'd been party to Cana's plots before. "Hopefully Lucy will not only notice you, she'll feel she needs to make a move before I snap you up first."

"Exactly."

The stepsiblings high-fived and smiled at Juvia, who gave a tentative grin.

"You think so?" Juvia asked softly. "I don't want to sound insecure, but she really is one of the most beautiful mages in Fairy Tail."

"Lucy doesn't date a lot of people," Cana said. "To be honest, most people are too afraid to ask her out. You have a good chance with her. Plus she's already friends with you and trusts you."

"She says she doesn't like most of the girls in the guild because they're too butch," Gray added. "You're adorable, pretty, and totally her type."

Flushing, Juvia grinned. "Okay. Let's do this."

"Cheers—" Cana began.

"Yo, icicle," Natsu interrupted, walking up with a scowl. "What are you doing?"

"Having a fucking drink," Gray snapped, hunching his shoulders and twisting so his back was to the Dragon Slayer.

"It's my weekly drinking club," Cana lied immediately. "Wanna join?"

"No, he's going to fuck off," Gray spat.

Ire rolled across Natsu's features. "I don't want to join anything involving this piece-of-shit snowflake."

Cana saw Gray's knuckles go white on the bar. She hurriedly flung out an arm.

"No!" she shouted, making the pair jump. "If you're going to fight, do it somewhere you won't hurt my alcohol."

"Beer can't get hurt—" Natsu began.

"You're not supposed to have alcohol." Mira marched up. "Cana."

"Mira, come on!"

"You finished three kegs this morning already. Cana, are you…" Mira pinched the bridge of her nose, voice softening. "Are you okay?"

Emptiness opened up in Cana's chest. Okay. Was she okay.

Behind the fear, anger rushed in like a crashing tide.

"I always drink," she snapped. "You know that. Everyone fucking knows that."

Mira stiffened.

"Regardless, you're still cut off. When you get drunk this early, you make stupid decisions. Especially when it comes to anything that has boobs."

Mira threw Juvia an apologetic look again.

"I do not!" Cana shouted.

Mira held out her hand. "Hand it over, Cana."

They stared at each other for a long minute before Cana huffed and reached down.

"You didn't even pay for this," Mira chided, taking the half-full—still half-full!—barrel.

"I was going to, once you left long enough for me to slip the money over." Stubbornly, Cana crossed her arms. "I'm not paying you now."

Mira put out her other hand.

"Fine," Cana growled, forking over Jewels.

"That's too much, Cana. Take one of the 500s back."

"Consider it your tip," Cana grumbled. Her chest felt unusually tight. I don't—I'm not like that. "You got what you wanted. Shove off."

A long, undiscernable look from the bartender had Cana's insides writhing. Why did Mira command so much power over her fucking emotions? Why couldn't they just be funny and at ease, like on Saturdays? Their Saturday nights together closing the guild, cleaning and talking and laughing and consoling, were so much easier than this bullshit. Saturdays were…special. Shy, honest Mira even got flirty sometimes. But this. If Mira had ever trusted her, now she was a steel wall.

"Fine," Mira said, turning away. "Enjoy your club."

As she walked away, Gray murmured, "Gods, Cana; what was that about?"

"Not much of a drinking club without a drink," Cana grumbled without looking at him. Grabbing Juvia's cup, she downed the remains in one long gulp.

"Hey," Juvia protested with a laugh.

Cana wiggled her eyebrows suggestively. "Don't you have somewhere to be? Someone on whose shoulder you need to do some dramatic crying?"

A wisp of a smile tipped up the side of Juvia's mouth. "Thank you, Cana. See you later."

Cana was so proud of her little brother when he turned around bodily to watch Juvia exit. He even managed a good imitation of puppy-dog sadness. The card mage did a surreptitious sweep of the hall, wondering if Gray's secret crush was watching the act.

Meanwhile, Natsu had given up trying to get a fight out of Gray and stomped off toward where the rest of their team sat.

Alone, Cana and Gray stared at each other.

"So, who is it?" she asked.

"Not telling."

"Come on," she pleaded, leaning against him and managing to switch his tankard with Juvia's empty one while he was distracted. "This is what older sisters are for, Gray."

"You're three fucking days older."

"That's three days more mature than you, asshole," she said affectionately. Gray chortled.

"If a week from now he's checking me out more, I'll tell you his name."

"Deal," Cana said, holding out her drink until Gray tapped glasses with her.

When she tipped hers back, she saw Gray do the same and hurried to swallow as much as she could. Gray made a choking sound, slammed his foamed-but-empty tankard down, and made a grab for her drink, spilling it across the floor in the process.

"Hey, that's good beer!" she protested.

"Yeah, and it's mine," Gray growled, downing the rest. "Thief."

Cana just grinned.

After a minute, she mused, "We were born three days apart, which means… Have you ever considered that on opposite sides of the continent, our dads might've been fucking our moms on the same night—"

"Goddess, Cana!" Gray exclaimed while she burst into rolling laughter. "Do you think about anything besides sex and drinking?"

"Of course I do," she forced herself to laugh. "I also think about annoying little brothers."

"Hey," Gray said suddenly, "are you free for a job later this week? I just need one other person, and you're one of the less irritating people in my life."

"Thanks," she snorted, while Gray grinned. "Sorry, Gray. I'm busy this Saturday."

"You're busy every weekend."

"Yeah, because I have shit to do."

"All you do is hang out here, drink a lot, and clean up afterward."

"Yeah, and that's important." She stuck her tongue out at him.

Gray rolled his eyes. "Whatever."

Chapter Text

Entering the guild that next Tuesday, Cana saw a very glum Elfman and headed over to him, signaling Mira for a drink. The bartender frowned a little, and Cana's mood immediately dampened. On Saturday, she'd stayed to clean, feeling unusually timid; they hadn't talked much, but Cana accidentally splashed Mira with soapy water and a battle ensued which led to laughter and…what Cana thought was forgiveness. Maybe not.

But there was something more important to deal with right now.

She slid onto the stool next to Elfman, who leaned on his elbows on the bar.

"What's up?" she asked.

He didn't move.

"Elfman? You okay?"

He turned and saw her for the first time.

"Hello." He looked back down at the bar again.

His melancholy shot her full of resolve. I can fix this—even if she couldn't fix her own shit. She needed to fix life for someone else.

"Something go wrong on a job?" she asked.

"No," Elfman sighed.

Walking up, Mira set a quart-sized mug in front of Cana.

"Wow. Um, thanks."

"On the house," Mira said, giving her little smile.

Cana's stomach tightened. This was confusing.

"Is Elfman a member of your club?" Mira asked.

"He is now." Cana looked up at the frowning man. "Welcome to my Weekly Drinking Club."

"Cheers," Elman said, lifting his cup without drinking.

Eying her brother for a moment, Mira scooted off. Cana was grateful: there were some things people didn't talk about around siblings.

"Alright, tell me everything," Cana said when the woman was out of earshot.

He sighed.

"It's Evergreen. We had a date last night. It went really well."

"Congrats."

"Yeah, well." Elfman scrubbed a hand through his hair and glanced at her, making eye contact at last. The big man had kind eyes, even if he was the size of a monster. Today, those eyes pinched in anxiety.

"What went wrong?" Cana asked, taking a long drink—alcohol always gave her better ideas.

"She likes me."

"That's pretty obvious to everyone who sees you two together."

Elfman pinked. "I like her. She's the kind of person I could date. Long-term."

Cana grinned. "None of these things are problems, Elfman."

"They are," he hung his head, "if you aren't a man."

Cana froze. Oh.

"Elfman…are you…trans?"

"No." He faced her. "I'm asexual."

"Oh." Cana blinked rapidly. "Don't take this the wrong way, but…so what? It doesn't mean you're not a man. It doesn't really mean anything. In fact, this changes my perception of you zero-percent."

"It'll mean something to Ever."

"Why do you say that? Did she jump you on your first date?"

"No," he stammered, "nothing like that. But she's normal, and I'm abnormal."

"Elfman." Cana grabbed him by the shoulders—as much as she could reach—and made him face her. "I'm gonna say this once, so listen carefully. There is nothing abnormal about being ace. Everyone has different levels of desire, okay? Because allosexuals are the majority, people assume everyone is allo, which means ace and demi people get mislabeled and Othered. People should just accept you. I know Ever will."

"I'm not… It's not…"

He swallowed several times.

Releasing his shoulders, Cana took a drink to give him a few seconds. Elfman followed suit, and when he wiped his mouth, he looked a bit more composed.

"I have no doubt she'll accept me and say it's okay," he said. "But she's not ace and she has needs—I get that, because my need is to not be pressured, so I really do understand: this sort of thing affects a relationship. But I can't offer her what she needs. Not without being really uncomfortable and—I just don't want to."

"You don't have to," Cana said firmly. "Don't ever have sex when you don't want to. I will personally beat you up. Unconsenting fuckery ruins relationships."

He let out a tense breath. "Okay."

"Good."

They smiled at each other.

"Okay, here's the deal," Cana said, before Elfman could droop into self-pity again. "You need a solution that allows her to get her needs met and which you both agree to. List some of your options for me."

Cana had plenty of ideas—plenty—but he needed to do a bit of the legwork, or he'd never actually try. People were high-maintenance like that.

Elfman looked pensive.

"We could…agree for her to sleep with other people. I'd be okay with that as long as I knew she still wanted to be with me. I want emotional exclusivity, but I'm flexible with the rest."

"Would she be okay with that?"

"Hard to say." Elfman squinted at the ceiling. "Supposedly Ever has a really high sex drive—I only heard that through Bickslow, who likes to tease her. So she might like that solution. And…I guess…from her perspective, she gets to try out different people in bed. On the other hand, Ever's pretty exclusive. Even more than me."

"Okay, it's one option. What's another?"

Biting his lip, Elfman admitted, "I don't know."

"There are sexual things you can do together that don't involve sex. Would you be okay watching porn together? Or how about if she jills off in front of you?"

Shyness painted his face a color she hadn't seen on him since they were kids.

"I, um… Maybe. Yeah," he said in a small voice.

Cana grinned and lay a comforting hand on his arm. "That's an option. A way to be together, exclusive, and satisfied. You can get as creative as you want, you know. It's your relationship, and nobody is in bed with you."

"In bed." He let out a sigh.

"You can be in bed without fucking. Most people, you know, sleep. And everybody likes cuddling. That'll satisfy some of her needs and yours."

"Cana, what if none of these options work?"

She raised an eyebrow.

"First off, things are rarely as bad as you make them in your head. But if you two can't agree on anything? Then you try things without sex. Spoon and hug and hold each other. Do everything that's within both your comfort zones, and see if it works. Not everyone needs sex, Elfman: she might surprise you. Sometimes people find they love someone more than they love getting their spots titillated.

"Or maybe it won't work out. But you'll have those happy memories to look back on, instead of forever wondering if you could've made it work."

"I'd definitely regret not trying." Elfman swallowed. "You're really wise about this stuff, Cana."

"Thanks." She smiled. Something sad and wounded inside of her uncoiled. It felt strange and vulnerable. A damaged creature seeking sunlight, as if it could find what she needed in his words. Was she really this desperate for reassurance?

"I might have to come back to Weekly Drinking Club," he said.

"You definitely will. You have to tell me how it goes."

They grinned and drank.

Nearly slopping beer in her lap, Cana cursed in surprise. "Was my glass always this full?"

"I filled it while you were talking," Mira said softly, making Cana jump.

Mirajane was leaning on the bar to Cana's other side, out of her line of sight.

"Oh." Cana found her voice. Mira kept surprising her. "Thank you."

"That was good advice," Mira said. She looked up and shared a private grin with her brother. Elfman must've seen his sister standing there, but he didn't look upset about her eavesdropping. Maybe he'd already told her about all this already—the Strausses were pretty close.

Envy twisted Cana's heart despite her smile. She wondered what it would be like to have that. Someone who was always there, whom you could tell your darkest insecurities and they'd just wrap you in a hug.

"I have things to think about now," Elfman said, rising. "Thanks again."

"Any time."

As he ambled off, Mira leaned toward Cana. Smiling tentatively, Cana bent forward expecting to hear some intimate detail.

"For the reputation you try to cultivate, you have a lot of wisdom," Mira said.

Cana put her drink down. "What reputation?"

"The face you try to make everyone see."

"What does that mean?"

Mira chuckled self-consciously. "Cana, come on."

"No, really. What do you mean?"

"Carousing? The jokes? Drinking like a lack of beer might kill you?"

Mira's expression might've been flirty, except Mira didn't do flirty. She was the most earnest, guileless person Cana had ever met. Mira didn't know how to work an angle.

Cana hunched her shoulders.

"Guess so," she said.

Mira stood there a moment longer in silence that just got worse.

As the bartender walked away, Cana put her head down on the counter. A reputation, huh? Fuck those people. Like people understood anything. Like they knew anything about her. In all their happy little worlds where nothing went wrong that couldn't be fixed…

She wanted to go home and hide away. To mourn over loneliness somewhere where guildmates wouldn't try to buck her up and offer her false camaraderie that was never enough to fill the ache in her chest. Her dads were gone on a long-term mission, and besides them, who would notice if she felt sad?

No one. That was isolation: to have so many friends but never be seen. Sometimes not even by the people who knew her best of all, like Mira.

Gray plopped into Elman's empty seat.

After he'd ordered something, he asked, "Are you okay?"

"I don't know." Cana tilted her head to look at him. "Sometimes I just want a big, happy family."

She squeaked when an arm slithered around her waist.

"You have a family," Gray said.

Warmth sloshing in her chest, Cana put her head on his shoulder, sniffing.

"Are you crying?" Gray asked.

"No," she sniffled.

"Cana…"

"I'll get over it," she said, but was still grateful when he squeezed her tighter. "I like your sweet side."

"Shut up," he chuckled

He didn't let go until Mira had passed him a mug. Eyes on her lap, Cana didn't see the concerned glance Mira shot her.

Gray rubbed her back; Cana straightened; the stepsiblings nodded to each other and took a drink.

"Your Weekly Drinking Club is low on members," Gray observed.

"That's the problem with drinking every day: people don't see what's special about Tuesdays." She waved a hand. "But you're here to tell me the name of your beau, right? Spill, Fullbuster."

"Hold on," Gray protested. "I gotta tell you the story."

Cana's eyebrows shot up.

"There's a story? You guys are together without even needing Phase Two?"

"No. Juvia and I talked and we're still doing the me-stalking-her thing. I will now go against everything in my nature and fall for a woman."

He grimaced while Cana laughed.

"It's for a good cause. Well? Story!"

"Gods, you're so impatient," he whined, which earned him a punch on the shoulder. "So by Thursday last week, he started trying to talk to me more. Like, friendly talking. Which is rare for him," Gray explained, flushing. "When that didn't work, he tried to piss me off."

He rubbed his knuckles.

"Almost worked a few times—gods, I could just hit him. Anyway. This morning, I took Juvia to get tea on our way here, and Na— he followed us."

"Oh my god, you have a crush on Nab?" Cana whispered.

"No! Dammit, Cana, don't act stupid. It's Natsu."

Stifling a laugh, she grinned lopsidedly and elbowed Gray's ribs.

"Of course it is."

"If it was obvious, why did you need me to tell you?"

"I didn't know, but he's one of the few people who matches everything you've said. So he was on my list of guesses."

"How far down the list?" he asked.

Cana bit her lip and muttered, "Fifth."

"Fifth!" Gray cackled. "Who were the top four?"

"Well, fourth was only higher than Natsu because you don't pretend to hate him: Gajeel."

"Seriously?" Gray laughed.

Cana shot him a look.

"Third was Freed, second Rogue, and first Lyon."

"Lyon's not even in the guild," Gray snorted. "Nor is Rogue. Wow, you really have a thing for pairing me with Dragon Slayers."

"You're the one with a crush on—"

Gray's palm clapped over her mouth.

"Yes, fine, stop talking."

"They all had to be people who would've rejected you," she explained.

"So you picked every fussy guy you could think of? Is that what you think of me?" he teased.

"Hah."

"You do realize I'm a twink, right?"

Cana scowled. "I wish you wouldn't call yourself that."

"What? I am."

She shrugged this off. "It was hard to come up with that list. My stepbrother might be an idiot, but he still attracts the attention of quite a few boys."

Gray blushed.

"There are plenty of people in this guild who would say yes if you asked them out," Cana told him with a warm smile. "Just saying—if things don't work out with you-know-who. Loke, for example. That's why he didn't make the list: no way he'd say no."

"Loke," Gray groaned. "Don't mention him to me. For the record, if Laxus weren't around, Freed would say yes, too."

"How do you know?"

Gray wiggled his eyebrows. "It's not like I haven't made out with other boys, Cana."

Cana's whoop and burst of laughter was interrupted by a grunt.

"Whatcha talking about, droopy-eyes?" Natsu said behind them, hands in his pockets, glowering.

"Nothing that concerns you," Gray shot back, not looking around.

Cana smirked when Natsu marched up and twisted Gray around by the shoulders.

"Oi!" Gray exclaimed, slapping Natsu's hands away and rolling to his feet.

"Look at me when we talk, stripper."

"You didn't strike me as being desperate for my attention," Gray spat. Something broke in his voice.

Natsu's eyes bulged. "Fuck you."

"Fuck you, too," Gray croaked. He sounded breathless. "I'm out of here."

Cana saw the pain in his eyes. Poor little brother. He marched out, Natsu growling and stomping off in the opposite direction.

"So," Mira said softly behind her, "did Gray come to you for romantic advice too? You've quite the business set up."

Cana couldn't meet Mira's eyes.

Nothing wrong with being a tramp. Nothing fucking wrong with sleeping around and knowing shit…

"Is eavesdropping a way of life for you?" she asked, choking down the lump in her throat. Why does it hurt so much? Why, why?

Something strange crossed Mira's face. A frown. "It's as much a way of life for me as thieving is for you."

"That was one time, Mira!"

"And it was only the one time I overheard you talking to Elfman. I have no idea what you and Gray said. So don't—don't get prickly with me!"

While Cana swallowed a wave of hot emotions, Mira whirled, graceful steps carrying her away too quickly.

"Fuck." Cana put her head in her hands. All I do is ruin shit.

Chapter Text

That weekend, Cana went above and beyond, collecting dishes and scrubbing the surfaces during work hours so everything was clean by the time Mira closed. It meant they didn't stay after hours on Saturday working together. But it meant Mira could go home and enjoy her evening.

It put Cana back in Mira's good graces for the most part. That made Cana's insides unclench, like she needed this—relied on things with Mira being cool.

But at night, she contemplated everything Mira had said to her over the last few weeks, every accusation long-buried in her soul. Mira wasn't wrong: she was a flirt. She slept around, had a bit of a conquest issue.

That didn't make her a bad person.

On Tuesday, the Drinking Club's third meeting began with these heavy emotions—Cana half-drunk when Juvia and Gray joined her. The pair sat down just as Evergreen and Freed walked up to the bar.

"Yo, Freed." Cana gave him a high-five, managing to hide her unsteadiness. "Can I get you to drink yourself under the table?"

"No," he said, "but I'll have a drink. Ever?"

"Sure."

As Freed reached behind the bar to grab a bottle and two glasses, Gray teased, "Wow, the Raijinshuu are drinking in the middle of the day. This is a big occasion."

"We just had some intense…discussions," Freed said.

He and Ever didn't look at each other, but Cana saw their faces.

"I find masturbation a fun and relaxing topic," she said blithely.

Evergreen jerked and sprayed a mouthful of her drink across the bar.

"Oh Goddess, I'm so sorry, Mira," the woman exclaimed as the bartender hurried over. "I can clean it up."

"Mira, while you're here," Cana piped up, "Freed stole some liquor. You need to chew him out."

"Freed pays me in other ways," Mira said, hands on her hips. "The stealing only comes from you."

Cana's self-control cracked.

"If you let me pay you in other ways, I wouldn't have to steal."

Mira's mouth fell open while everyone else let out various amounts of mortified laughter. After a moment, the bartender turned and walked away.

Woman can't take a joke. Cana took a long chug as she tried to push back the anger pinching her smile into something entirely unpleasant. Who the fuck do you think you are, Cana Alberona?

By the time Cana had downed her whole drink, her shaking had stilled, but she wasn’t numb yet.

"Give me some of that shit," she muttered at Freed, holding her cup out.

"You like bourbon?"

"I drink anything," she said as he poured her a generous amount. "You know that."

"So," Juvia spoke up for the first time. "We were discussing jilling off?"

"Um," said Freed.

"What's the subject: frequency, methods, fantasies…?" Juvia asked.

Freed turned red.

"In a relationship," Ever finally said.

As they watched, Ever knocked back her entire spot in one go.

"Looks like I'm drinking like Cana today," she muttered, finally smiling.

"That's the spirit," Cana said, grinning. Not everyone in the world hated her.

"I figure masturbation, like anything, is okay so long as it's consensual," Gray said. "I mean, who doesn't like watching their mate service themselves?"

"I never thought about it," Juvia said. "I suppose it would be hot, but I might get too antsy and want to help out."

"That's why you do it together."

"I prefer to actually have sex," Freed interjected. "Masturbation is for if there's no one to, you know…"

"Fuck," Cana finished. He nodded.

"Or be fucked by," Gray added, grinning.

Poor Freed just coughed. He and Cana were close enough friends she knew discussing sex didn't embarrass him, but Freed had the unfortunate complexion that flushed or paled with little provocation. If you knew him, it made him easy to read even when the emotions were subtle.

Cana knew exactly who he was trying not to think about.

Wanting Freed to smile and stop looking as depressed as she felt, she decided to prod the bear.

"Fucking aside, Freed, what would you do if Laxus wasn't interested in sex?" Cana asked.

Freed choked.

"I—there isn't—he and I aren't together," he stuttered, gripping the edge of the bar.

"Hypothetically," she said. "Suppose you started dating Laxus and found out he was ace?"

"Not. Laxus." Freed's voice was jerky and he didn't meet anyone's gaze.

"Fine," Cana sighed. Good fucking job, Cana. Shaming everyone today. "If you started dating someone and found out they're ace…"

"Personally, I couldn't do without some action," Juvia said, giving Freed time to recover. "That's just me. If someone I liked was ace, I'd date more than one person."

She shrugged.

"Meaning, you'd sleep around," Ever said. "That's an idea."

"No, I'd pursue having a relationship that's more than the two of us."

Everyone stared.

"What?" Juvia chuckled. "Never heard of polyamory?"

"I confess, I stereotyped you as the only-one-at-a-time type," Cana admitted.

"Don't judge a book by its cover." Juvia grinned slyly.

"Have you actually…" Gray stopped.

"It's okay, you can ask."

"Have you had a polyamorous relationship before?" Gray asked.

"Yes. In Phantom Lord."

Evergreen's eyes went wide, cheeks flushed (which might've been the bourbon).

"How did you… How?"

"When Aria and I began our relationship, I made sure it was okay with him that I continue dating. He was still transitioning and I wasn't sure if he'd be insecure… But he expressed interest, so sometimes we'd take someone out together. When Totomaru joined the Element Four, he took us on a date; first time someone had done that. Things just clicked…"

Juvia shrugged again.

"Sometimes it was me and Aria, sometimes me and Maru, sometimes the two of them; but usually the three of us together. Everyone does polyamory differently: we generally shared everything. Dates, sex, living quarters." She smirked. "Made for great teamwork."

There was a pause. Freed said, "Suddenly, I feel a lot less experienced."

"Seconded," Cana laughed. "I thought I knew things. But I've never tried that arrangement. I guess I didn't know how to make it work."

"And you tell me sisters know everything," Gray snorted. Everyone smiled.

"Personally," Freed spoke up, "I'd abstain from sex if I had an ace partner. I like to think affection for the person would be enough. Maybe I'm wrong. I want to be monoamorous, but that's just personal preference."

"I used to think like you," Gray said slowly, "but these days I don't care so much. I think whatever works as long as you care for each other. As long as you…are with someone you love."

"What about masturbation?" Ever asked. "Cana's first question."

"Masturbation isn't sex," Gray said. "It's not like a partner can—or should—control your self-stimulating habits."

"Right," Freed agreed. "If it makes them uncomfortable to watch or listen, do it when they're not around."

Cana caught Gray smirking and they grinned at each other. They'd had a discussion at one point about the lack of sound-proofing at home.

"Cana?" Ever asked.

"I think masturbating in front of a partner is incredibly hot," Cana said. "For everyone. But I also think it's fun because it's vulnerable and bold. It's a sexy, romantic way of saying you trust someone. So yeah, jilling off for the win. If I had an ace partner who was comfortable with it, I might even get a toy with a remote so they could participate without the pressure of being hands-on."

"Hands-on," Freed muttered, leaning his head in his hands and laughing. "Really, Cana?"

"How is that more risqué than Juvia's ménage a trois?"

"It's a pun," Gray said. "And a bad one."

"You're a bad one," Cana shot back.

"You really are siblings," Ever chortled.

"Oh no," Freed interrupted softly.

He gave a subtle, dread-filled nod toward the far corner of the guild.

Laxus, Natsu, and Gajeel huddled in the corner talking in low voices, shooting occasional glances at the Drinking Club.

Cana did a double-take. Laxus, Natsu, and Gajeel huddled together…

'Talking,' Ever mouthed in shock, carefully not looking at the spies. 'Holy shit.'

"Damn," Gray breathed. He and Juvia were using one of their glasses as a mirror. With a distasteful twist to his lips, he murmured, "This isn't good."

"It isn't," Freed agreed sadly.

"Whatever it is, it's about us," Gray muttered. "Shitfuck."

"Oh my god, would you doomsayers shut up?" Cana said loudly.

The ice mage shot her a meaningful look. While Natsu was paying Gray more attention these days, most of it was negative. Inciting jealousy was working. Cana gave him a sympathetic grimace.

"—fine, Freed," Ever murmured, almost too quiet to hear. "You need to stop doing this to yourself."

Freed looked like he might be sick; when Cana poked him, he merely grabbed her hand and returned it to her lap.

"Spoilsport," she said, but squeezed his fingers.

Ever rose, dragging her captain to his feet.

"We have Raijinshuu business with Bickslow this afternoon. Thanks for the drink and chat."

"The Drinking Club is always here for any sexy matter you want to bring up," Cana said.

"Thanks," Ever laughed.

As the two walked away, Cana called after them, "I think you and the big one will figure it out fine, Evergreen."

Smiling over her shoulder with mortified pleasure, the woman led Freed away.

"Freed's standing so straight it looks painful," Gray observed. "Poor bastard."

"I need to go, too," Juvia admitted. "Fun as it is to awe you with tales from my past, I need to take a job if I'm going to meet rent."

Gray sat up.

"I can come with you. You might need help."

The instant Juvia realized what he was doing, her eyebrows shot up.

"No," she commanded, convincingly austere. "I'm fine by myself. Believe it or not."

"I don't mean to imply you're not strong," Gray said in a rush, slipping into an amusing show of deference. "With two of us, you can take a higher-paying job. I don't need the money, so the reward would all be yours."

"No."

"Juvia—"

A blur of pink slammed Gray into the bar.

"What the hell?" Gray exclaimed, practically in Natsu's arms with the way the Dragon Slayer had him pinned against the bar.

"Erza wants to go on a job," Natsu said, omitting the usual insults. "You're coming with me."

Heaving a breath, Gray twisted away from his touch.

"What?" Natsu growled.

"You hate touching me," Gray spat. A shiver wracked his body, the hurt in his eyes too real. "I'm helping you."

For a moment, Natsu went deadly pale. Then he threw a punch, and fire soared at his rival-friend-crush-enemy.

When Gray dodged, Cana leapt off her stool to avoid the flames, hissing when the floor froze under her feet.

Here she'd thought the two would fight less.

Rolling over the bar to crouch in safety on the other side, Cana saw Mira huddling over a collection of expensive-looking bottles.

"Want help?" Cana asked, crawling over.

"Sure. It is your favorite thing, after all."

"Gods, I have other passions besides alcohol," Cana grumbled. "I just want to help you."

Mira let Cana slide in beside her. In the tight space, Mira's perfume made the air smell like a summer meadow. It was far more intoxicating than the whiskey Cana had had.

"Sorry I said that," Mira murmured.

"It's alright." Closing her eyes, Cana swallowed. "We know how you think of me."

It's okay, and it doesn't bug me, and it's all fine, because it doesn't really matter.

"Cana, I don't think you're a thief. Or a drunk. I know you better than that. The drunk comment a few weeks ago was…was wrong. I meant to be teasing. I'm not very good at it."

"Really?"

Cana glanced up, finding those blue eyes staring meaningfully back. When Cana swallowed, her mouth was dry. I thought I was a useless piece of shit?

"Why did you cut me off a few weeks ago?" she asked.

"Well, you do get flirty when you're drunk…" Mira bit her lip, something fierce entering her expression. "You pull out your pick-up lines and get all…physically affectionate."

Cana's stomach sank and the world came untethered. This. This was all she was.

"Thanks a lot, Mira."

"I didn't say it as judgment," Mira stammered. "I just…I…"

"You make it sound like there's a problem with how many women I've gone down on—like it's bad to be flirty and like people. But I'm proud." Cana sat up straighter. "I've eaten out, fingered, or otherwise fucked nine different women in my life, and I don't regret any of them. And for what it's worth, I had relationships with most of them, not that it should matter."

"N-Nine?" Mira's expression was defenseless.

"Yes." With shaking fists, Cana rose, leaning out of the way as a snowball crashed into the wall. "It's not for you to judge me."

From the floor, Mira looked up at her with giant blue eyes round and watering.

Fuck. A monster chomped on Cana's throat.

"I don't—" Mira began.

"Cana!"

Lucy's shout made both women startle, Mira wiping her face. Her tears were knives in Cana's chest: guilt, anger, hurt. Guilt, guilt, guilt. Cana's existence just made Mira cry. Everything about Cana sucked. Cana was fucked-up and hurtful and a source of bad things…because she drank all the time and she liked ladies a lot…

She wasn't anywhere near drunk enough to be feeling this sick.

Looking up, she gave Lucy a winning, sharp-edged smile.

"What can I do for you?"

"I need to talk to you," Lucy said. "Alone. Romantic things."

"Oh?" A lightbulb clicked on. "Oh. Let's take this outside."

"Thank you." Lucy looked relieved.

Without giving Mira another glance, Cana followed Lucy out the back door of the guild. But she could still feel Mira's eyes. Her tears. For a few angry seconds, the only thing processing through Cana's brain was the word FUCK in large letters.

Once outside, Cana took a deep breath and listened stoically. Lucy knew she and Juvia had chemistry, had noticed what she thought was Juvia flirting, and wanted advice on what to do next.

"Spend more time with her, compliment her, do things together," Cana said. "Ask her out, Lucy."

"What if she says no?"

"You think she will?"

"I don't know anything right now," Lucy muttered. "I've always thought she was smart, but things were just...well, it's complicated. Now I think someone else likes her, and I just... Ugh, I'm nervous, Cana."

"Then ask her out. You never know until you try."

Lucy sighed. "Yeah, I guess. I just…I'm gonna have to think about it more. That's… I like Levy, too."

Cana gaped.

"It's confusing and I'll just have to figure it out myself, make my choice," Lucy said hurriedly. "But that's why it's complicated."

Cana almost said something, but her thoughts weren't collected and she could tell Lucy didn't want to talk about it, lips tense and eyes hard. Putting an arm around Lucy's shoulders, Cana let Lucy lead the way back to the guild.

"If it doesn't work out with either of them," Cana joked, "you've always got me as a platonic snuggle stand-in."

Lucy finally laughed, and Cana's face split into a lopsided smile. She liked making people happy. Liked the sense of purpose it gave her, like it could wipe out the dark things which crept up on her when she was alone.

As they walked into the guild, Lucy leaned in and kissed Cana's cheek.

"Thanks, lovely."

"Always," Cana said, blushing and happy. "Go knock it out."

While Lucy sauntered off, Cana surveyed the guild. Gray and Natsu were absent, and the destruction left behind wasn't as bad as it could've been.

Inhaling, Cana approached Wakaba.

"Know where Mira is?"

"She took off. Wasn't feeling good." He patted his gut significantly.

Cana tensed.

"Shit. Again?"

For a few months Mira had suffered from intestinal illness—Cana knew because she'd worked to improve her cooking and bring over foods Mira could eat.

"I don't think it was a stomach thing," Macau spoke up. "She sounded congested. And looked…distressed."

Cana frowned darkly. This day kept getting better.

"Who's in charge of the bar?"

"Lisanna," Wakaba grunted. "Why, you volunteering to wash dishes?"

"Just wondering. I'll probably head home."

"Wise," Macau said. "Mira announced you weren't allowed another drop."

"What?!" Cana's jaw hardened. "Now I'm really going home. You assholes keep well."

She waved and hurried out.

When had Mira gone from funny and warm to…to this? She used to be one of the few people Cana could trust. Could hang out with whether she felt good about herself or not: someone who got to see the other face Cana didn't let people in on.

Chapter Text

When Mira came in at 5 AM on Thursday (after taking Wednesday off for illness—a.k.a. to cry soggily for an hour and then clean the whole house from top to bottom the rest of the day), she found one of the windows wide open and everything behind the bar gleaming.

She didn't understand: Lisanna said it was a zoo and she hadn't gotten a chance to clean a single thing—precisely why Mira was in early. There weren't even spots on the tables or crumbs on the floor. The high-proof liquor was organized, labels facing out.

Someone knew their alcohol: it was sorted by quality and flavor.

Cana? But Cana hardly talked with her except to order drinks. Cana's thoughts had turned dark, Mira unable to persuade her that she didn't judge Cana…she loved her. Deeply. As only a best friend could.

Cana hadn't truly smiled in weeks.

Pinching her eyes shut, Mira took a deep breath. No more thoughts.

Heart heavy, she prepared the guild for the day, wishing the anonymous cleaner had left more to keep her busy.


The previous evening, while Mira was still out sick, Freed had walked into the guild, spotted Cana, and experienced a shock akin to Laxus's pre-storm static when he saw her dark expression.

Cana was in such a foul mood she wasn't even pretending to look cheerful.

To his observation, she was the type who joked, teased, and even made fun of herself so long as everyone else remained happy and oblivious to her state of mind. He knew Cana struggled with depression—whether Cana herself knew this, he wasn't sure, but it was pretty clear from the way she drank. Usually she treated alcohol like the river of life, but sometimes she drank as if hoping it would erase her.

She leveled a blank stare at Freed when he touched her arm. He'd sought her out so he could vent, but it seemed she needed a friend even more than he did.

"Hey," he said.

"Hey."

They blinked at each other.

"Want to sit down?" he asked.

"Drinks," she replied as they plopped onto a bench. Freed stayed on the same side of the table as her, shoulders touching.

"Drinks…" He glanced around. "Lisanna? Can you—"

"On it." Lisanna called and darted off.

"So what's up?" he asked, propping his chin on one hand and turning to stare at her.

"I'm getting wasted," she said. "You should join me."

She looked scary: full of rigid, otherworldly tension.

He knew how she felt.

"I'd love to," he said, as Lisanna delivered two tumblers and an entire bottle of something that made Cana's eyes light up. "Can you keep it coming, Lisanna?"

"Sure thing." Lisanna moved off.

Mira would've asked him what was wrong. He liked not having to give an answer today.

"This is a really smooth meade," Cana said, pouring. "A good way to start. When Mira mentioned they had this... Well, I've wanted to try it forever."

"Cheers."

They both tipped back and Freed experienced a surprise.

"That's really good stuff."

She nudged him. "Told ya."

They drank in silence. It really was good liquor, the taste subtle and layered. Far too classy to get drunk to, but he couldn't care less.

They drank in silence at first. By the third glass, Freed felt delightfully carefree. Able to put aside all the stupid rules he carried everywhere like baggage. Maybe that's what they really were: just baggage. Why care about rules? Why care about anything?

"Laxus is a fuck-up," he declared.

"I'll drink to that."

They did so.

"Love is stupid and overrated," Cana said, and they both drank again.

In a lower voice, she grumbled, "I'm a stupid fuck-up, too."

She took another gulp, but Freed put his down.

"Cana."

She shrugged and looked away.

Knowing nothing he said would change anything, he put an arm around her instead. Cana sighed sadly and put her head on his shoulder.

According to his late stepdad, boys weren't supposed to get along with girls, but Freed was a 'freak of nature' and nearly all his close friends were women. In his experience, women were far more logical than men.

A fact which Laxus keeps confirming.

"What are you thinking?" Cana asked, peering at him.

"Laxus…" He broke off, straightening. "I was just trying to help him last week. The idiot: I'm a teammate—it's what we fucking do. And he had to get all bitchy… We've been fighting about it all week. He just hates people seeing him vulnerable. Which is a damn stupid thing to get upset about. He's a fucking nuisance," he ended, breathless.

Cana smiled. "Nobody insults people with the word 'nuisance' anymore, Freed. That went out of style a hundred years ago."

"Whatever." He blushed. "You know what I mean."

"Freed..."

She met his eyes and he waited for her question. They'd reached the early point in drinking where everything was solemn and earnest.

"Have you ever thought maybe you and Laxus should just talk everything out?"

Freed leaned back. "Which everything?"

"All the sexual tension between you guys."

Freed flushed hot.

"What tension?" he mumbled into his cup.

"You love him, right?"

Freed didn't know whether to answer yes or no, but Cana blessedly didn't wait for his answer.

"You really need to talk about it, or it's just going to keep hurting you. Pretending does that. I know you think there's a power thingy between you..."

"Power differential," Freed said. "Him being who he is; me being who I am. It'd feel crass. Like...like fucking your boss."

"Except you'd be doing more than fucking."

Freed didn't think it was possible for him to go redder than he already did when discussing his feelings for Laxus, but the blood pounded in his head.

"Doesn't matter," he said, voice uneven. "He's the person I protect. He's my guildmaster's heir. He's the person I take orders from. It just wouldn't be right."

"If you think so," she said. "But if you're ever tempted to do something drastic, fess up to him instead. It's a less-drastic drastic thing."

Freed laughed.

"Thanks."

Cana nodded and stared down into her cup.

"We need a third bottle. Something really strong."

"You mean second."

"Third-and-a-half," Cana corrected. "We drank half a bottle of that meade but decided to save the rest for when we can taste it; there was rum which tasted like ass so we drank the whole thing; and we just finished that cheap tequila."

"I don't know how you keep track…" Freed frowned, vaguely remembering the rum. "How much are we costing ourselves to get drunk?"

Cana shrugged.

"Most of it's me, you lightweight. I wish I could get shitfaced as fast as you can."

Freed stuck his tongue out. "I'd say I'm holding my own pretty well if we've had that much."

"You're making me proud," she agreed.

He stopped trying to count glasses.

It turned out Cana knew a lot of puns. Complicated ones, with words they both stumbled over, like secret jokes. It temporarily brightened what had been a very shitty week.

"I can't believe he and I are still arguing about it," Freed said for the hundredth time.

"Details," Cana said after another round. "What service did you do for Laxus that pissed him off?"

"I told you already," Freed laughed. "Now who's shitfaced?"

"You just said you tried to help him. And he hates being weak."

"I didn't tell you about the thing with the cow?"

Cana jerked. "Wha?"

"And Laxus-chan falling backward down a flight of stairs?"

"I'd definitely remember that."

"Your memory's bad; I told you this already," Freed insisted. He could've sworn he told this story.

"Whatever, tell me again."

"It all comes down to Laxus being an ass."

"That's pretty well established," she chuckled.

That got him laughing, too, because it was so true, and it was a relief someone understood.

"Right. So," he said, tongue feeling thick, "on our latest job there was this woman, and—"

A shadow loomed over them.

It was Laxus, of course. Laxus had a shadow that loomed. He was a prick like that.

A tiny prick, Freed thought belatedly. With atrocious people-skills.

"You reek," Laxus grunted.

Something hit Freed in the chest. The ache of how deeply that sneer hurt him. His palm hit his breast trying to shove away the self-disappointment that rose automatically.

No. Laxus didn't get to do this.

"You…suck," Freed shot back. He had a feeling he'd missed the timing for a comeback.

"Yeah," Cana said in support. "He's right, Laxus."

Ignoring her, Laxus put a heavy palm on Freed's shoulder.

"You should go home."

"No." Freed pulled away, despising himself for it, but despising Laxus's familiarity more. "I'm fine right here."

"Gods, Freed, you're sloshed. You'll hate yourself tomorrow."

Freed tried to formulate some sentence that put hating oneself and Laxus together in a meaningful way, but he was too drunk. Which had been the point, of course. Mission accomplished. He was pretty sure he felt better, too.

"You don't get to tell me what to do outside of work," he said. "Go away."

Laxus grabbed his arm; this time his grip was steely.

"You'll thank me tomorrow," Laxus growled.

"I won't, asshole." Freed glared. Laxus just rolled his eyes.

He pulled Freed to his feet. Searching for escape, Freed waited for his balance to settle…

"You should probably do something too," Laxus told Cana, sounding almost regretful about giving her advice. "Even you get hangovers."

"Mind your own fucking business."

When Laxus opened his mouth to retort, Freed slipped his grasp and lurched toward an escape.

"Oi!"

Freed dodged, not that he could escape Laxus while drunk, but Cana lunged at the Dragon Slayer and wrapped her arms around his waist, slowing him down. Freed made his escape, hearing the scuffle but not looking back. He heard Laxus's heavy footsteps a few seconds later, but sped up and made it to the back hall before his gut forced him to stop. The doors burst open and Laxus came through glaring.

"What the hell, Freed?"

"Go. Away."

"What did I ever do to you?" Laxus tried to get under his arm, Freed struggling to throw him off.

"Nuisance," Freed said.

There was a heavy sigh, then Laxus finally got a hand around his waist and pulled him away from the wall he was leaning on.

"Why do you hate me so much?" Laxus muttered.

When Freed opened his mouth to reply, Laxus said, louder, "Don't answer that. That was rhetorical."

"Fuck you."

"I'm just going to forget everything you say until you're sober again. You're welcome. And I'm going to make sure you don't have the worst hangover ever tomorrow—you're welcome again. Come on."

He led them toward the back door, and Freed stopped struggling because it was too much effort. In their current position, Freed could turn his head and see Laxus from quite close up.

Quite a pretty fucking face.

Freed narrowed his eyes.

"Why are you being nice to me?"

"Nice?" Laxus looked sideways at him. "It's what teammates do. You do this when we're idiots. Apparently even you're an idiot sometimes. Someone's got to make sure you don't knock yourself out or fall off a cliff or something."

"Fall off a cliff?" It was so ridiculous Freed laughed.

"Come on, Freed."

"...Fine. But you…you… You won't remember this in the morning."

"I wish," Laxus grunted.

The words fell like stones into Freed's stomach. Laxus wanted to forget him. Laxus, who didn't want his help even when he needed it…

Freed fell into a lonely silence for the rest of the walk home.


The next day, Thursday, Gray wandered into the guild and slunk to a seat as far from the doors as possible.

"Hello." Mira appeared with her kind smile. "How are you?"

He checked to make sure his shirt was still on before lying.

"Fine. Have you seen Cana?"

Mira's face fell.

"No."

"Damn." He sighed. "Maybe she went on a job."

"No: I would know," Mira said. "I mean—that is, because I'm the one people sign off with. You know, to keep track of which jobs have been taken."

Gray nodded. Cana might very well be at home (or at Fairy Hills, but that was rare—why she still rented a room when she only slept there on Saturdays he had no clue). He'd been keeping odd hours lately, due to a mix of things—lack of sleep, pathetically trying to be wherever Natsu was, pathetically trying to avoid being where Natsu was—so he hadn't seen her in passing. Last night he'd gone to bed before eight, and left the house at sunrise when he couldn't fall back asleep after a running-away nightmare.

"When you see her this weekend, can you tell her to find me?" he asked.

"This weekend?" Mira stammered.

"You know. Cleaning or whatever. It's the highlight of her week."

"Cleaning on Saturdays is a highlight?"

"I know, I think it's weird too. I guess it makes her feel useful when she's…you know. Not feeling good about herself."

When he smiled at her, he was confused to see Mira just blinking and looking…blank.

"I'll pass on your message," she said slowly. "If I see her."

"Thanks."

The woman walked away. It wasn't until she was on the other side of the hall that Gray realized he hadn't ordered anything.

A gleeful shout made him jump in his seat. Natsu was here, bouncing into the hall with Happy. He looked so normal, chipper, like nothing untoward was darkening his world.

Gray glanced down with itchy paranoia to make sure his shirt still covered his injuries.

Shuffling a hand through his hair, he snuck out the back into the brisk winter air. His life was a fucking disaster.


At one in the morning (while Gray was having disturbing dreams about Natsu in the next room), Cana had jerked awake drenched in sweat. She was disoriented for a few seconds: in her room, in her house, in her bed. Huh. She vaguely remembered that.

When she pulled off the covers, she was still wearing her shirt from yesterday, but the bottom half of her was naked. It was too much to wish a pretty woman licking her cunt had been the reason. Probably just too drunk to get in pyjamas.

Her headache wasn't too bad, considering. She was lucky she had a high tolerance. Poor Freed would probably be sick multiple times tonight unless someone made sure he hydrated.

She still didn't understand why she'd woken up.

Rising, she threw on pants and grabbed her keys.

Two days ago, she'd made Mira cry. Yesterday, Mira hadn't shown up at the guild. Cana's fault. She knew when she'd fucked up: could own up to that. It was her fault and she had to make it fucking right. Or else what are you, Cana? What the fucking hell are you?

She only knew one way to apologize for shit like this. Luckily, it also guaranteed her mind a reprieve from everything, including her headache. Cleaning had that clearing effect on her.

Chin high, she made her way toward Fairy Tail. She would make the place fucking sparkle.


Cana didn't come to the guild at all on Thursday. Mira waited all day, hoping to see the truth on her face—it had to be Cana who'd cleaned everything. Had to be.

But Cana didn't come. Nor on Friday. Nor…

Saturday.

I scared her off. Cana was gone because of her. She'd scared a guildmate away from their own guild.

On Sunday, Mira couldn't even smile. She put on makeup to stop drunk wizards from asking questions, and went through the motions reminding herself she was an adult and these sorts of feelings would pass eventually. Key word: eventually.

In the meantime, it was okay to feel shitty. Keep working, but keep feeling too. That was life.

Chapter Text

Cana stayed away from Fairy Tail for almost a week. She found a little bar downtown that served good stuff and never cut her off, and spent five days moping and wondering why her fingers tingled painfully every time she thought about Mira and the stupid everything.

When Tuesday rolled around, she wasn't sure she was going to have Drinking Club. Wasn't sure if she wanted to, if it was worth it.

If she could even walk into the guild. Would it hurt too much?

But after breakfast, her feet carried her to Fairy Tail, so she slipped inside and plopped down at the farthest table, snagging Kinana for a drink.

When it came, she stared down in its depths with her head in her hands. Fuck, wasn't the headache supposed to come after getting drunk?

"Cana-chan!"

She jumped, steeling her heart as shock threatened to make her emotions overflow.

Sliding next to her, Gildarts squeezed her in a sappy hug while Silver took the opposite bench.

"You're so mushy," she mumbled, though she didn't resist. She snatched up her drink when he tried to take a sip. "Get your own."

Laughing, Gildarts called, "Oi, Mira! Can we get two more?"

Cana didn't look up when Mira came over, poured, and walked away. The bartender didn't say a word to her, and Cana pretended she wasn't there and everything was normal and this was all okay. She just couldn't stand to glance up.

"Something up between you two?" Silver asked calmly, taking a sip from his mug.

"No," Cana grunted, hating how observant he was. Her dolt of a father went and married someone a lot smarter than him. "So what are you guys up to?"

"We just got back from our job." Gildarts chuckled. "You didn't notice our absence for the past month?"

"I didn't know when you got back."

"Minutes ago," Silver said. A small crease of worry appeared between his eyebrows. "Have you not been sleeping at home?"

"Just getting home late, so I didn't know who was there or not. And don't you dare call me drunk and disorderly."

"Wasn't going to," Silver said, raising his hands.

"If I called you drunk, what would that make me?" Gildarts said, hugging her. It was sloppy, but also full of affection, and Cana forgave him for being a worrywart.

"So tell me about your job," she said. Her skin still felt too tight. She didn't want to cry for no reason.

They relayed what they'd been doing, talking over each other like always and laughing whenever they did, which got her to smile. She hardly noticed Silver waving down Mira for another round while Gildarts teased, "I hear you started a drinking club. Without me."

"It's not cool to drink with your dads," Cana retorted.

"You're doing so right now," Silver said.

She stuck her tongue out at him. When Silver chuckled, she flashed him a smile. He was always on the same page.

"So you drink and discuss the latest works of literature or something?" Gildarts asked.

"Nah, we just talk. About life and sex and stuff. And I make sure Gray is on the straight and narrow."

Silver raised his mug in a salute.

"She gives excellent romantic advice," Mira said as she topped them off.

"I'm not surprised," Silver said. "She's smart. And she's dated half the women here."

"Oi!" Cana shouted. Blood pounded in her head. Not to Mira. It was one thing to tell Mira herself, but a totally other thing for someone else to boast about Cana's conquests.

She wasn't at all surprised to see the dip in Mira's features. But Mira did something Cana had never seen: she lied. Smiling and saying, "No wonder she knows so much."

Cana's mouth opened. She stared.

"For the record," Mira went on, still talking to Silver, "she has—according to my sources—helped in the acquisition of courage, a discussion about not pressuring lovers, and affirming several people in their romantic and sexual choices."

Wait. Was the smile on Mira's face real?

Silver said something, but Cana barely heard. This was too confusing. Mira and Silver both laughed at Gildarts's snarky reply, and then Mira's melodious voice broke in again:

"Folks feeling comfortable with not fucking is just as important—maybe more so, because it's hard for some people to say no if they fear their partner's judgment. I'm glad some people understand that."

When everyone looked at Cana, she turned red.

It was like hearing nonsense. Words twisting around her heart and making everything beat heavily, a thunder of blood shaking her body. Last week Mira had looked at her with disappointment, disgust—Cana could remember those tears clearly in her twisted thoughts. Now she stood there uttering compliments like none of it ever happened, and it hurt: it hurt, it hurt, it hurt…

"Cana's our resident se—"

"Mira," Cana whispered. "Please let me talk to my dads."

In the silence, Mira's mouth opened and closed. Cana couldn't meet her eyes.

With a little gasp, Mira rushed away without another word.

"No need to be mean," Gildarts said quietly.

"None of it matters anymore."

Silver frowned.

"Cana…" Gildarts put his hand on her arm.

"Don't." She shoved him off. "Just don't. I can't right now."

"Okay."

Gildarts took a drink.

"So advice on sex and romance?" he asked after a minute. "I didn't know you knew anything about that. I thought my kids were innocent teens."

"I'm in my twenties!" she exclaimed, blushing. "And for the record, Gray has never slept with anyone."

Silver choked into his mug.

"Are there any women in your life we're going to have to chase off?" Gildarts asked.

"No." The heat in her face was unbearable. Fathers.

"You know, when I was twenty-three—"

"You'd read every hentai available to humans," Cana interrupted. "Don't pretend you didn't."

Silver burst out laughing. "She has you pegged, love."

"Cana," Gildarts said, "are you saying you lost your virginity reading yuri? I think we need to have a talk about how sex works..."

"Grayyy!" Cana bellowed at the top of her lungs. On the other side of the hall, a black head jerked. "Your dads are being mean to me!"

"They're yours, too!" he shouted, but he rose and strode over. "Hey, Tousan. Gildarts."

Silver nodded in greeting and they bumped shoulders as Gray sat down. Far more demonstrative, Gildarts reached across the table to clap Gray on the shoulder.

"Yo. Your sister tells me you're a virgin."

"I- What?" Gray stuttered, going fuchsia.

"Don't worry," Gildarts said breezily. "At your age I'd slept with half a dozen people and still didn't know what I wanted. I didn't find your father until I was almost forty. So you've got lots of time."

"How is that supposed to make him feel better?" Silver asked.

"Dunno." Gildarts shrugged. "But I turned out okay, didn't I?"

"Only sometimes," Silver said, hiding his smile in his mug.

As Gray ran a hand through his hair in exasperation, a green bruise on his temple became visible. Cana snapped up straight.

"Who gave you that?" She pointed.

Gray smoothed his hair over the mark, not meeting their eyes.

"Natsu."

"You let him land a hit?"

"I didn't let him do anything," Gray growled.

Cana was not fooled. She knew that defensive posture, the hunted look.

"Gray…is he beating up on you?"

("When are they not fighting?" Gildarts asked. "Right now, for starters," Silver said.)

Gray narrowed his eyes at her, but a second later his face fell.

"I guess, maybe…yes."

Weariness dragged his shoulders down, showing off a much larger bruise on his side he'd kept covered with his arm. Shit.

"I just want it to stop," Gray sighed. "I told him to leave me alone and he gave me a bloody nose. Not because I couldn't stop him; I was just too tired to bother."

Silver and Gildarts looked at each other seriously, and Cana's heart squeezed. She hadn't noticed. Too deep in her own fucking headspace to see her own brother was suffering. Fuck you, Cana Alberona. You ARE a drunken asshole. Mira's right. Everyone's right. Right right right right fuck you fuck you fuck you—

"Is Natsu in the hall right now?" Silver asked, looking around.

Gray put his head on his arms and sighed. "Yes."

"Good."

Gildarts raised a knowing eyebrow at his spouse, and Cana sat up.

"If Natsu Dragneel can't read the situation and leave you alone when you ask," Silver said in a louder tone, "he needs to watch the fuck out."

Gray blinked, head still on his arms. "For what?"

"Aside from the fact that I'm your father," Silver said, a growl entering his voice, "there's the issue of consent. Anyone who doesn't respect someone's 'no' to touching, sparring, affection—anything—needs to be taught to do so. Those kinds of people deserve…what they get."

A yelp sounded somewhere across the hall, audible in the relative calm of the morning.

A sly smile pushed its way across Silver's face, and he and Gildarts looked at each other. Gray's mouth hung open in surprise.

"He's practically your godson, hon," Silver said. "Thoughts?"

"I know how to get Natsu to listen." Gildarts grinned and smacked his fist in his palm.

"Aren't I too old to have my dads intervening?" Gray grunted. He and Cana both knew resistance was futile at this point.

"You're never too old for family," Silver said, putting a hand on Gray's back.

Gray being shirtless, Cana could see webs of ice dotting his skin—fuck, he was really upset.

Cana registered the crash of the main doors flying open when suddenly Gray leapt up.

"Ow! Fuck!" he shouted, jerking away from his father.

"What is it?" Silver's eyes went wide and panicked. "What—"

"A fucking electric charge," Gray said, trying to see his back. "Must have come from your armor."

"You're not burned," Silver said in relief, looking him over. Carefully avoiding touch just in case.

"Charge? On your armor?"

The intensity in Gildarts's voice made the hair stand up on Cana's arms. That was his focused voice: the closest he ever got to angry. The voice he used before he let loose serious magic.

He and Silver locked eyes.

"Shit, the mission," Silver hissed. "You don't think…"

"Laxus," Cana said loudly, a nervous laugh ripping out of her as she deflated. "Laxus just walked into the hall. That's all it is. He looks fucking pissed; you probably picked up the ambient charge."

They watched the Dragon Slayer march across the guild. With a shout that silenced the hall, he demanded, "Mira! Where's Jijii?"

The bartender pointed at the back office. Laxus slammed the door behind him.

"Damn. Looks like he could use some time in your club," Gildarts said.


"…and you didn't get paid?" Makarov gaped.

"No, I asked not to be paid. Big difference," Laxus said.

"But…why?"

Exasperated, Laxus waved his arms. "I just told you the whole fucking story. Want to hear it again?"

"I just can't believe…" Makarov shook his head. "Thank you for telling me. It makes a difference in my paperwork. Next time, though, I recommend you not make such an idiotic move. Two million Jewels… You could've asked they halve it."

"No," Laxus growled. "It was a small price to pay. Everyone is in the clear. Neither they nor Freed lose face. And nobody goes after Freed."

"Why did they blame him? It was clearly not his kind of letter magic."

"How the hell should I know? Maybe because he's Fairy Tail. Maybe because he's with me. Maybe because he's a fucking amazing mage who could challenge the damn monarchy if he wanted. His magic freaks some people out, with the way his eye looks and his sheer power. Maybe they decided to fucking frame him because he's good-looking! Goddammit! I don't know why, and if I did, I'd—"

Laxus spun around, pacing to the wall and nearly planting his fist through it. I'd take whatever prejudice they have against him and shove it so far up their asses they'd never be able to…ever…

His hands shook. He took a long breath. Fucking control yourself.

"Anyway," he grit out, still facing the wall, "now you know. That's why I came by. The only other thing is: don't let Freed find out about this."

Makarov snorted, prompting Laxus to turn.

"He's going to notice you're out two million Jewels, Laxus."

"The only people who know I took that job are you and Mirajane."

His grandfather blinked. "I thought you went with your team."

"I did—for a different job. Taking down that hive." Laxus pinched his forehead and muttered, "I snuck away in the middle of the night to handle this one. Nobody knew."

The startled laugh that burst out of the old man made Laxus tense.

"And then you dealt with a hive of half-demons? You must've been half-asleep. Does this have anything to do with the falling-down-the-stairs story I heard?"

Laxus sighed. "Yes."

He'd been exhausted. Slow reactions. Fell down the goddamn flight of stairs when he misstepped, and that wasn't the only clumsy mistake he made, by far.

He'd been irrational and short with everyone they encountered. The team became concerned he might've picked up one of the demons' minor curses; Freed wanted to check him over. When Laxus grumpily turned him down (he did not need Freed's firm hands on his eager gay body), it wasn't five minutes before Freed noticed rune fragments clinging to his skin.

So he had been under a curse—but he recognized the runes as being from his job the night before, which made him feel better about all the clumsiness: it wasn't just exhaustion. After that discovery, Freed was all the more concerned, but Laxus couldn't let Freed near. He was scared Freed would realize this curse wasn't from their job.

They argued. Heatedly.

It ended with them hardly speaking to each other. On their way back into the town, Laxus had exploded—literally, an explosion erupted from more rune fragments stuck to his skin—and killed a cow that had happened to be in the vicinity. And of course it was a cow belonging to the woman who'd been giving them grief since they arrived, and whom Laxus had already snapped at several times.

She insisted on hefty reimbursement. For a fucking cow. More like for fucking spite. It had been the disheartening end to an awful twenty-four hours.

But the worst part… The cow-killing explosion had targeted Freed.

It made Laxus cold just thinking about it.

The job he'd taken in secret dealt with a town held hostage in reams of evil Letter magic from some sick mage. A witness claimed the perpetrator had long green hair, was tall and slight, and used a sword. The job was to erase the runes and catch the mage.

Laxus knew someone was setting Freed up. He didn't know who or why, but he knew he had to take the job before another soul caught wind of it—before any misled wizard came seeking Freed.

He dealt with the runes using the only method he knew: blasting them with lightning until they shredded (proof the runes weren't Freed's handiwork). It was a coarse method; no wonder some letters had landed on him.

Instead of catching the supposed green-haired culprit, he paid the mayor to forget about it. She could keep her two million and he could keep Freed.

Of course, it hadn't felt like victory when he was striding through that field, Freed's hurt and angry words churning inside him.

When the explosion had rocked the ground around him, Laxus had let out the desperate prayer of a man sure he was about to die. But then he looked around and saw he, Ever, and Bicks were completely unscathed, while a path of black char rent the ground straight in Freed's direction—cold dread made him shout before he registered Freed standing there also unscathed.

The only thing that spared the rune mage was the fact that Freed was walking some meters away after their argument, and the cow just happened to be between them at that moment…

Laxus would have given up the entire reward for that cow, honestly, because it had saved Freed's life.

In the immediate aftermath, Laxus was afraid the rune mage would ask questions and figure things out with his big, beautiful brain. But Laxus was even more afraid what it meant: someone wanted to seriously hurt Freed.

Maybe even kill him.

And if the explosion had reached its target, the last words he'd ever exchanged with Freed would be, I don't need your help.

What were the last words he'd said to Freed this morning? More of the same; Freed hadn't let things go and they were still arguing.

Before leaving for the guild, Laxus hadn't said, you're amazing.

Not I respect you tremendously.

Not I love you.

Why had he left without at least saying the first two? When anything could happen—when unknown forces stalked Freed and the unthinkable could occur any time—

"Freed deserves to know," Makarov said.

Laxus shook his head quickly. To tell Freed now would mean admitting what he'd done—that he'd done all that to preserve Freed's honor. To keep him safe.

"If you respec—if you care about him, Laxus, you should tell him. He needs to be on his guard."

"Freed will be okay."

"Because you're there?" Makarov asked. "You can't keep him safe, Laxus."

"The hell I can't," Laxus snarled.

"You can't," Makarov repeated. "You can't ensure anyone's safety one-hundred percent. Life gives no guarantees. When he finds out you kept this from him, you will be the thing hurting him, because you didn't trust him."

"Of course I trust him," Laxus grumbled, pacing to the wall again. "He's Freed."

But Laxus wasn't stupid. Six days ago, he'd spent the entire night tending to Freed. Freed, who was usually so open when drunk, had said plenty of things about guildmates' lives, but not a single thing about his own. Not a word of why he'd be so uncharacteristically stupid.

Laxus scratched at the wall with a fingernail. He already feels betrayed.


Laxus exited his grandfather's office with his head down, and walked straight into Mirajane. As they righted themselves, Laxus grabbed her arm.

"You should just apologize to Cana."

"I beg your pardon?" Mira stammered.

"Your name came up a lot the other day," he said, letting go. "Freed is talkative when he's drunk. So, apparently, was Cana."

"If only," Mira whispered.

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"Nothing."

"Goddess, Mira. I don't care about your business. Just maybe deal with your shit before someone gets hurt."

"Getting hurt: like Freed drinking himself into a stupor?" she retorted.

"Yeah," he growled. "Like that."

"I-I'm sorry." She backed down. "Laxus, do you think...Cana's drinking...is unhealthy?"

"I don't know. That's her business."

"I'm just worried."

"You can't make people's choices for them," he said.

Mira sighed. Laxus turned to go.

"Wait," she said.

He met her eyes.

"You too, Laxus. You need to apologize to Freed for whatever it is that went down between you two, even if some of it is his fault. You do know how to apologize, right?"

"Yes," he huffed. He'd learned to apologize to, forgive, and move on with both Jijii and Mirajane. Which meant it was hypothetically possible for him to muster the courage here too.

"Do it, Laxus. I know you can be brave."

"Look who's talking," he said.

Mira stuttered through half a dozen words that didn't make sense.

Laxus gave her a knowing look before walking away.


Mira stared over at the corner where Cana sat, surrounded by her family. Well, not anymore: her fathers had risen and were heading across the hall with scarily-determined faces. But Mira only had eyes for Cana.

Cana leaned her head against Gray's, and the two looked so comfortable, Mira knew she couldn't interrupt that.

That was the story of her life when it came to Cana: she just couldn't. Why could she never change this broken cycle? Why were they stuck here, with Mira lying to both Cana and herself?

But Cana acted so complete. Mira wasn't necessary. When Cana did need anything, she went elsewhere.

Mira was so afraid of being discarded.


In a dark corner of the guild, obscured behind a potted plant, Freed had a collection of drinks around himself; since Mira was in today, he'd snuck them covertly so she wouldn't worry.

He was drinking again. It made all the shit marginally better. This time he did it alone; he wouldn't drag anyone else down with him. Take a page from Cana's book and keep his problems from hurting others.

Fuck yeah.

There was a risky temptation in this act of rebellion. Laxus had taken care of him when he'd gotten drunk the other day; fetched things, watched him, stayed near him, touched him…paid attention to him. It was so fucking sad Freed had to hurt himself in order to get Laxus's attention.

Freed was scared of what his heartbroken desires would make of that. That was a dark, terrible road he didn't want to contemplate. He couldn't go there, destroy himself just to make Laxus stick around.

That was an awful thing to do to Laxus. And Freed would still probably lose him.

To ensure his motives didn't involve Laxus's affection, Freed was avoiding him assiduously. It had turned into a sport: evade Dragon Slayer senses. The drunker Freed got, the harder it was—like leveling up. Freed had always been competitive, so it was a good motivator.

It was too painful to be around Laxus anyway. Laxus was stupid, lonely, and independent. Laxus didn't trust him—him!—let alone want his help.

Freed was done trying to be friends with his teammate.

Freed scanned the hall and saw Laxus talking to Mirajane behind the bar.

Shit.

He didn't know how he'd missed Laxus's entrance, but the Goddess was giving him a chance to get away, because Laxus looked too distracted to notice anything.

Fuck him. Fuck everything.

Freed seized one of the full bottles and fled.


Natsu had heard every word. Gray's family thought he'd been bullying Gray. Bullying Gray. He and Gray fucking fought all the time, and occasionally dinged each other up, and it wasn't like he'd trapped Gray or like Gray couldn't defend himself—

But none of that mattered. Because Silver Fullbuster and Gildarts Clive were heading toward him. It didn't matter what Natsu thought: he was dead.

He kept his back turned as their scents grew stronger, frantically trying to come up with an excuse.

"Dragneel, you've got some things to answer for."

They stopped behind him. Natsu turned around.

"I do?" he asked, dread making him timid and stupid and utterly defenseless because holy shit Gildarts wore The Look and Natsu was so, so, so painfully dead.

When Silver leaned in, Natsu flinched.

"Why does my son have a sizable bruise on his ribs?"

The Salamander froze. That was not the question he expected.

Wait, his ribs? Bruise? Natsu hadn't hit him that hard in days. He knew for certain because—while he'd never admit it—he'd noticed Gray looking tired and had gone easy on him when their inevitable brawls broke out.

There was something knowing in Silver's expression. It made Natsu swallow.

He has Gray's eyes.

"Why have you been beating up my son?" Silver asked, still leaning over him.

"I haven't," he stammered. "It was just normal sparring. Playing around. I don't…we don't bully each other; it's just fun."

But lately, the vindictive, emotional kind of fun,the honest part of him admitted. The kind which releases rage.

Shivering, Natsu raised his hands and said, "I haven't been attacking Gray outside of fights. Honest."

"You instigate the fights?"

"...No more than usual."

Except when Gray was following Juvia around. When he was acting all lonely and lovesick—which was a farce, because Gray wasn't alone or in love with Juvia. Gray wasn't fucking desperate, chasing pathetically after whoever would have him. Gray was better than that. Gray had more self-respect than that. Natsu knew him. The weird, deferential, Juvia-seeking person wasn't Gray.

He wanted the normal Gray back. He couldn't do anything with this Gray. Couldn't get this Gray to respond to any of their usual shared moments. They weren't even friends anymore. They were just…two people occupying adjacent space.

The whole kissing thing a month ago had terrified him that they'd mess things up between them, but Gray's recent behavior had flung the status quo to the wind.

"You've hurt my flesh and blood," Silver said. His icy expression snapped Natsu up straight.

"You make it sound so personal," Natsu laughed nervously.

"It is personal. If you live long enough to have children, you'll understand."

A tremor ran through his body. It was uncontrollable now. Fucking shaking just from facing two men who were technically his guildmates and equals. But fuck they were scary.

"I think that's good, love," Gildarts said. "He's going to rattle his teeth right out of his head."

Silver straightened. "Suppose so."

"You understand, right, Natsu?" Gildarts gave him a glare that could split him apart. "Don't give Gray any more unnecessary beatings."

The Salamander nodded mutely.

"Alright then." Gildarts clapped his hands together, and Natsu jumped. "I think that's everything."

He held out his hand, Silver took it, and they walked back across the hall as if nothing had happened.

When Natsu was finally able to breathe again, he melted onto the floor in a dizzy heap. Well, fuck. That was terrifying.


Laxus smelled Freed's scent, lingering in the hall. The rune mage was gone, but if Laxus could still smell him, he'd left very recently.

He followed the trail automatically to the doors and out into the cold, winter sunshine. Freed had left…while Laxus was at the guild. Without saying hello. It wasn't like Laxus was hard to notice—and Freed seemed particularly adept at noticing him (a fact he usually appreciated).

It was like Freed was avoiding him.

Who was he kidding? Of course Freed was avoiding him. He would avoid himself too.

Maybe they were all fucking right. Maybe he was fucking this up from the very beginning.

Freed's scent led him via a roundabout route to one of the libraries the rune mage frequented. Or sort of: as Laxus crossed the street, the trail suddenly veered.

Laxus had taken two steps when behind him came the sound of impact followed by a scream.

A broken scream. Terribly familiar.


"Oh my god," Gray whispered, mortified as he and Cana watched their fathers march over to his crush. "Oh no. Oh fuck. Gods. Why, shit, why…"

He put his hands over his face and peered out between his fingers.

Cana switched benches to sit next to him, putting an arm around him half for support and half to help him hide. Gray looked ready to fall through the floor.

"They sure know how to embarrass their children," she muttered.

Gray whimpered.

They heard Natsu retort something. He sounded both defensive and high-pitched.

Gray's whole body flushed.

"Goddess, he's going to hate me," he muttered.

Cana sighed.

"I'm not going to refute that, but…he does like you, Gray. He acts like he wants to ruin things with you, so I don't know what's going through his head—what's at war with his attraction to you." Biting her lip, she glanced over at him. "I wish I could help."

"It's okay. Right now you're doing a hell of a lot better than those two geezers."

She laughed, but sobered when she saw the way her father's shoulders squared. He could be scary.

"It was fucking fine," Gray whined. "Really. I could take it. Just a little pain…not like we don't all know what pain feels like."

"Gray, I'm sorry but…no. Look at you: you're exhausted. Emotionally and physically."

"I could just…leave," he said, head leaning into his fists. "Go on a mission for a while. I could disappear, make out with some cute boys in other towns, and when I'm over him, I could come back…"

"Gray."

"I know. It sounded stupid as soon as I said it." He put his head down on the table. "I'd probably lose a limb if I took a long mission right now."

"You could just…rest. Take it easy for a few days at home. We can play games and eat ramen and hang out reading and being lamely awesome."

Gray chuckled breathily, then put a hand to his ribs wincing.

"I'm not going to put this on you, Cana."

"Goddess!" she shouted.

Gray startled so hard he nearly fell off the bench, staring at her in shock.

"Why does everyone keep thinking they should keep all their hurt inside to rip them up, instead of trusting a fucking friend to be supportive?" she demanded. "What the fuck is wrong with you people? Ask for fucking help once in a while. It won't kill you. To a loved one, getting to be there when someone needs it is a gift. You feel wanted. Like your life matters. That's what helping people does for us: it gives our lives meaning. Which means everyone needs to let others help them. It's better for all of us."

Her eyes swept the hall in defiance, wanting to pound the message into every skull here.

On instinct, she sought out Mira, the woman's back to her as she worked behind the bar. But even the back of that pale head punched her with the unspoken words:

Practice what you preach, Cana.

"That was a good speech."

Cana and Gray turned to find a lanky woman with long hair giving Cana an appreciative smile.

"I completely agree," the woman said. "We all need to let others help us more."

"Um, yeah," Cana said.

"Sorry, your bemused face is practically asking why I'm here." The woman chuckled and held out a hand. "I'm with a paper aimed at magical audiences in Seven, writing an in-depth piece on jutsu shiki styles around the continent."

Cana shook her hand.

"Cana Alberona, mage of Fairy Tail. So you're here to interview people?"

"Yes." The woman's smile lit up. (Her smile was quite pretty.) "I'm a bit of a nerd about it, to be honest. I'm looking for Freed Justine next. I've waited around since this morning and haven't seen him. Is there somewhere else I might find him?"

Cana looked at Gray, contemplative.

"There's that one library," Gray suggested.

"Oh yeah." Cana turned back. "He and his team sometimes meet at the research institute in town. I haven't seen any of the Raijinshuu today, so that's your best bet."

"Thank you so much. That's so helpful." The woman looked toward the doors. "I should go hunt this lead down, but I hope we get a chance to talk again, Cana Alberona."

The woman's eyes skittered ever so subtly up and down, and Cana felt a warm shiver follow in the wake of that gaze. She watched the woman saunter out the guild doors.

"Gray," she sighed, "am I shallow?"

Gray straightened.

"What makes you think that?"

"I just—" Cana stopped. "Are there different kinds of jutsu shiki magic?"

"As far as I know," Gray said. "Freed has used barriers for different purposes and the runes looked different, not to mention the draw on his magic power. What does this have to do with being shallow?"

Cana gazed across the hall at the wooden doors.

"There are different barriers, but it's all the same magic. Jutsu shiki doesn't have subcategories: it's its own thing."

"What's your point?"

"That woman…" She met his eyes, her brow creased.

"She never actually gave her name," he said slowly.

"Nor the name of her paper."

Cana leapt to her feet. Seeing her expression, Gray's jaw dropped in horror.

"You don't think…"

"Fuck," she growled.

Together they sprinted out of Fairy Tail.

Chapter Text

The research institute was one of Freed's favorite libraries. Though a private collection, it was comprehensive, and he'd learned more in those silent study rooms than anywhere else. (The first time he'd messed around with another boy had been in one of those rooms…)

It was the Raijinshuu's secondary meeting place, as they'd often used it as a starting point for jobs requiring new expertise or knowledge. All of them enjoyed reading and learning.

The institute was also somewhere Laxus could not come.

This library restricted entrance to patrons, and patronage was hard to obtain. During Laxus's exile, Freed had gotten the Raijinshuu access by putting magical protection over the collection. Between the complex runes Ever helped him with and several gargoyles Bickslow bewitched as watchers, the library was safe from fire, thieves, flooding, typhoons, vandalism, and real estate agents.

As of yet, they hadn't gone through the trouble of extending patronage to Laxus.

When Freed reached the street, he stared up at the pretty façade and realized belatedly he couldn't go in. He was pretty far past tipsy and knew from experience he'd throw up in the next twenty-four hours, with little warning ahead of time.

Best not to be around books when he was like this.

Instead he trailed behind the library and sat on a weathered bench in the small garden. The wild plants were unmanaged and lovely. It soothed his nerves, helped him stop thinking.

"I'm not destroying myself," he told a rosebush. Then, because it seemed to need repeating, "I'm not. Just doing it this once."

A crash, a cry cut off, and the sound of heavy impact reached him.

Freed jerked to his feet, tottering when his head spun and pounded painfully. Fuck.

He made it around the corner of the building and…

When (after several confusing seconds) his brain translated the things he was seeing, burning anger took over.


Mira saw Cana and Gray look at each other in panic before racing out of the guild.

Mira's heartbeat doubled.

Without a word to anyone, she ran out after them.


Cana and Gray raced to the end of the block before stopping to look around, both panting.

"Shit. Where'd the bastard go?" Gray asked.

Cana had her cards out of her purse in nanoseconds, flipping several up in quick succession. Quick-divining with tarot was imprecise, but it was fast.

"She's this way!"

Gray followed at her side through several turns, the pair stopping at a crossroads.

"Shit," Cana panted. "All I know is that she and Freed are both northeast of us. It could be either of these."

"I'll take the left," Gray said.

Luckily the streets were wide and straight, and she hit no more ambiguous turnings. While the walks weren't crowded, there were just enough pedestrians that Cana had to slow to a jog at points, skimming faces seeking that long hair and willowy figure. Damn, why did the mage have to be pretty? If the woman's looks hadn't distracted her…

Whipping around a corner, Cana saw her.

Ahead, the woman strode determinedly up the walkway, her back to Cana. Cana pulled three cards and threw with silent precision.

The woman whirled with an angry snarl.

Her hand slashed and Cana's cards dropped before reaching her. When her fingers danced, Cana was close enough friends with Freed to recognize the magic.

Runes.

Five cards flew from Cana's hands, three in defense and two in attack. The woman parried one while the other exploded in her face. Meanwhile, Cana was busy with the woman's own attack: she mitigated most of it, but felt a wave of pain and strange nausea assault her senses, momentarily unbalancing her.

When she looked up again, the woman was writing once more.

A few more exchanges, and Cana managed to get in another attack, just escaping each of the woman's runes. The woman's smile twisted down as Cana gained the upper hand.

When she looked off to Cana's side, Cana was confused…before taking in the bystander in the woman's sights. Her stomach dropped.

A scared little girl hovered at the edge of the street. With a wave, the woman shot a rune at the child.

Cana lunged. She threw cards, but the woman was still writing, runes slipping past Cana's defenses. She reached the girl just in time, wrapping herself around her as they fell to the earth. The ground met her body and she tried to go boneless. She had to be a cushion for the girl in her arms. A protector. The girl was shrieking—Cana had to keep her safe.

When multiple runes hit her body, pain ripped through her, sparking out from her shoulder, ribs, and hip. She knew this pain thanks to Freed long ago: the mind-numbing miasma of screaming fire and assaulted nerve-endings. She knew it left no marks. It did no physical damage—only trauma to the psyche.

Cana focused on the girl, held her tight, tried to imagine herself as a shield. Had to hold onto the girl so no runes could touch her.


Freed's head was burning. His fingers too, tingling as they sliced the air. Cana was on the ground. Her cry had died and now she was silent. Neither she nor the child in her arms moved.

He was ready to explode.

Cana's attacker turned a second too late, his runes landing before she could stop them. They blew the woman off her feet to crash into a brick building. Freed took the moment to catch his breath and his balance, but the woman recovered too quickly. Letters glittered on the wall behind her: she'd broken up the impact.

A smart mage.

That thought flickered while he wrote, faster, reading her runes as he wrote his own. Her magic was similar to his—too similar, both of them editing and crossing out and adding phrases to counteract what the other wrote. Seconds of racing each other to get ahead, to complete something the other couldn't block.

Freed faked and wrote a word that soared across the space on its own, a single rune for pain. Another followed for dizziness, and another for momentary blindness. She copied his tactic, but in the second while she switched over, he finished his paragraph and sent the complicated spell at her.

Somehow, impossibly, she wrote a frantic defense that blocked it.

Freed wobbled despite the adrenaline in his veins. Had to focus—keep writing. They switched to a battle of single runes, each trying to unbalance their opponent, to shell-shock the other long enough to get a serious spell in. He felt his right eye burning as magic coursed through him.

The sludge in his brain slowed him down. He couldn't quite keep up with himself; couldn't do everything he knew he could do. At a wave of dizziness, he focused on his magic and tried to forget how the rest of him felt.


Laxus hated himself for recognizing Cana's scream. He sprinted around the research institute to the next block, and found Freed facing off against a strange woman.

Cana lay on the ground some meters away, not moving.

Unsteadily, Freed drew his runes, but the woman wrote something back. Laxus watched in horrified fascination as a silent battle of ancient words filled the air between them. It was enchanting in a dark, dangerous way.

His shock lasted a few seconds before his mind took in the salient details of the battle. Freed smelled strongly of liquor. The woman's face was twisted up in sharp, pointed hatred.

Shit. This was the mage who was after Freed Justine. She'd cursed an entire town to get to him, had already tried to blow him up. For whatever reason, she wanted his blood.

Across from her, Freed tilted unsteadily.


"Freed!"

Freed jerked. That voice. It was Laxus's—in the tone warning he was about to unleash his lightning.

Anger pounded in Freed's brain. Laxus taking over his fight, making him useless again.

Dodging an oncoming attack, Freed faced Laxus for a split second, long enough for their eyes to meet and Laxus's to widen as Freed ripped out a line of script.

"Wait—!"

"I don't need you," Freed spat, turning his back.

He heard Laxus slam into the barrier, but his focus was on the enemy mage again. He'd lost ground to her, a pain spell landing square in the middle of his chest and making him wheeze. Push through. Just push through.

It's no worse than everything else you've been through.

Battle-ready instincts were his friend. Freed didn't have to see or think to send a barrage of annoying, small-scale runes at the woman, giving him long enough to get his bearings before she erased the spells.

Ignoring the signals in his body telling him he was in no state to do this, he dove back into battle. His body could claim it was breaking, but he knew better. He could withstand anything. Cana still lay on the ground. He wouldn't let the sickness in his stomach halt him: he had to stave it off for the length of this fight.

But this woman was good. And his senses were sluggish. If he didn't deliberately focus his eyes, things got blurry. He dodged, worked on instinct, let his magic work for him. But it wasn't going to be enough. He kept having to mentally catch up.

When he realized she was closing the distance between them, his thoughts stopped for a second, unsure what to do about that—

He had his sword. Duh. His fingers were still moving. Another rune. Another rune. When he finally drew his blade, the movement was clumsy and too slow.

He ducked away from a spell and felt pain clip his leg.

Not magic: a sharp edge. Bleeding, Freed growled and drew several darker runes—and was disturbed when she returned her own, the magic smoky with intent. His quick barriers were barely enough to protect him.

He glimpsed brown hair out of the corner of his eye: Cana still hadn't moved. It had been too long. Too fucking long. He had to end this.

He wrote another spell: the runes for terror.

The violet letters struck the woman's arm just as hers for nerve-pain clipped him.

"Fuck!"

Freed dropped his sword and stumbled sideways.

She was shrieking, but fear wrapped around him: he couldn't right himself in time, couldn't get his bearings.

He threw up.

The acidic emptiness was much worse than the roiling stomach. Freed only managed to grab his sword by sheer determination, forcing his fingers to follow his commands. The world blurred for a second. No. Goddamn fucking—

Cana needed help. And he couldn't lose in front of Laxus.


Cana was a fast runner and Mira quickly lost track of her, staring down diverging streets.

"Shit."

She took a few turns at random, anxiety rising, when clashes of noise drew her ahead. She ran another block and onto a thoroughfare.

Freed stood in the middle of the street unsteadily battling another rune mage. It didn't look pretty: both were winded and bloody, and Freed looked ill.

An explosion of purple sparks drew her attention to Laxus, looking thoroughly pissed and hemmed in by jutsu shiki. Ah, fuck.

Mira jumped when she realized that the woman crouching a few meters ahead of her wasn't a bystander. It was Cana, sitting there with no expression on her face.

Cana…


Cana swam back into the real world.

The pain had taken over her brain: she wasn't sure whether she'd passed out or simply been hurting too much. But it was fading, and she sat up, small arms clinging to her as she gripped the little girl.

The small body gave her comfort, purpose. Things inside Cana's ribcage didn't feel right: something was off and her body was telling her this was not a good thing…

"Oneesan." The child wriggled and touched her face. "Oneesan."

"It's okay," Cana said as quickly as she could. Something sticky in her mouth tasted weird. She swallowed.

Sitting up was agony, but she did it anyway and released her tight grip on the girl.

"Go hide," she told her. "It's going to be fine. I need you to hide for now, okay?"

The girl's eyes were round. Cana touched her small cheek, praying her fingers weren't shaking as she did so and that that was just her vision.

"I am going to make sure everything is okay," she said, filling each word with promise. "Can you stay out of sight for me? Don't come out again until it's quiet."

The girl nodded, seeming to gain strength from her touch. When Cana gave her a small smile, the child hurried to a cranny and tucked herself away.

Safe. Cana exhaled.

Now she had to take care of herself.

When she looked around, she found the woman locked in beautiful combat with the very person the woman was hunting. Spells crashed between her and Freed, their magic an even match.

Cana blinked, and suddenly Freed and his opponent were three meters to the right. The world spun as she realized she'd blacked out.

"Cana!"

Mira gasped her name and Cana twisted around, keeping her torso stiff and still.

"What happened?" Mira rushed to stand beside her. Her concern eased the pain a little.

"Attacked." Cana swallowed. "That woman—looking for Freed."

Mira paled. "He's...he's drunk."

Cana's eyes skipped over the scene in front of her. Freed was unsteady and flushed. Goddamn him…

"Looks like it," she sighed. "Also…"

She looked back over at Mira, eying her up and down.

Cana was terrible at asking for what she needed. But things within her body were shifting, screaming. She didn't think she could stand up. What had she told Gray fifteen minutes ago? Ask for help.

"Mira..."

"I'll help him," Mira said, as if answering an unasked question.

"Wait."

Wearily, Cana grabbed for her hand. Mira looked down in confusion.

"Freed's...he's got this," she said. He was better than a little alcohol. This was Freed after all. Wincing at the pain in her stomach, she squeezed Mira's fingers. "Mira, I...I think..."

A strange, wide-eyed look came over Mira, and she jerked out of Cana's grasp.

"Don't pass this off, Cana," she said. "Being drunk isn't a joke. He's incapacitated."

Cana barely restrained her lip from a sneer.

"He isn't incapacitated. Not even close."

"Don't…don't do this. Don't make me choose."

"I—but," Cana said. They were getting away from the point. "Choose?"

Mira didn't meet her gaze.

"I must protect people I care about."

The words hit her like an evil spell. Cana's next inhale pressed on bruised ribs, until it felt like her chest was breaking open.

I will stand up.

Just tensing her muscles made her grit her teeth. Okay, so she couldn't do this. She took a deep breath for humility. Looking up at Mira, she opened her mouth.

With a sad look, Mira turned and walked away from her—walked away, leaving Cana hurting and weak and actually incapacitated.


Mira couldn't understand—didn't want to understand why Cana was insisting they leave Freed on his own. He clearly needed assistance: he was walking with a distinct (and unsteady) limp now, while blood trickled down one arm. She knew Cana passed off problems with alcohol, seemed to not see there could be problems…but this was too far.

Cana could not be anything other than the woman Mira believed in. Addiction wouldn't take away her Cana.

But maybe it had already—maybe Cana wasn't who Mira thought. Maybe she hadn't been for a long time.

Mira started crying and transformed just as Freed's opponent swiped out with a knife.


Laxus watched helplessly as Freed held his own—then sustained a gash, then another, even while he got in hits of his own. Runes hit him that looked like they hurt: Freed reeled back wheezing. The next attack made Freed throw up, and Laxus yelled, punching his stupid prison.

But these runes were Freed's, and he couldn't just smash his way out.

Because Freed, gods be damned, was a good mage. But he was also in a poor state—already at a disadvantage, and clearly up against someone of close skills. And Laxus, smelling his blood, could do nothing.

He didn't understand what the hell Freed thought he had to prove. Laxus was going to be seriously pissed at him when this was over. Please stop shutting me out, Justine.


Cana watched as Mira blocked the woman's knife arm, took several runes to the chest, and punched the woman in the head. The woman hit the ground with a resounding crack while Satan Herself wiped her hands. Mira didn't even have a scratch.

"Thanks—" Freed grunted, breathless. He bent over as if to be sick, but toppled instead.

Cana forced herself up, her side screaming, screaming, stumbling toward him. But it was Mira who grabbed Freed's body before he hit the ground.

"He passed out," Mira said as she transformed back.

Laxus ran forward, free of his cage, and tried to take Freed from her. Growling, Cana flung herself at him, grabbing his arms to stop him from reaching out—and to keep herself upright.

"Don't you dare," she hissed, ignoring the sheering pain in her belly. It made her retch—dear Goddess, that couldn't be blood.

"Cana!" Mira protested.

Laxus glared. "He's my—"

"He's in this state because of you." Cana coughed. "Don't make it worse."

Freed spluttered in a whine.

"Don't," he said, holding up his hands. "Don't touch me. Please, just stop..."

He dropped off, eyes closing. Laxus made a sound like a dying bear and grabbed for him again.

"Did you not hear him?" Cana shouted. "He doesn't want you touching him!"

"Cana, they're teammates," Mira said.

Cana turned on her in shocked fury.

"So what? He withheld his fucking consent, Mira."

"Just calm the fuck down," Laxus rumbled, accepting Freed from Mira and lifting him. Cana had to admit he looked awfully gentle.

But that didn't change anything.

Cana surged forward to stop him, thrown off-balance when Laxus moved out of her grip—but arms wrapped around her middle from behind.

"Calm down," Gray said in her ear.

No sound came out of her mouth. She didn't have the words to tell him how much his grip around her stomach hurt. Instead, she backed into him, leaning on his chest and letting her breath saw out of her.

Mira was plain ignoring her now, talking with Laxus. Cana's heart was beating so fast, too fast, breaking her chest with each pulse.

"Cana?" Gray asked quietly.

"Get me out of here," she whispered.

He obliged, getting under her arm and helping her walk away. Cana steered them down the nearest side street, and only when they were out of sight did she start to feel safe.

"I can't believe her, Gray. I c-can't…"

"Are you hurt anywhere?"

"My insides got banged up, I think. Maybe pulled an abdominal muscle. Or broke something. A rib maybe. I can't tell."

Gray made a sound of consternation and sped up. "Let's get you home."


By the end of the first block, Gray was carrying most of Cana's weight. She didn't look like she was in life-threatening danger, but still the excruciating kind of banged-up that would require bedrest which she'd completely ignore. Luckily they had plenty of magical remedies.

He took her the shortcut through central park, and that's when dread climbed his throat. Pink hair meandered into view.

It was too late to run: Natsu had seen them. Was walking over.

"What do you want?" Gray demanded, still moving while Cana silently clung to him. Natsu fell into step beside them. "Can't you see I'm busy?"

"Are you okay?" Natsu asked Cana, eyes wide.

Cana just made a small huhhh.

"Natsu…" Gray began.

"Are you okay?"

"I'm fine," Gray said, voice flat. "She was in the fight, not me."

Natsu's eyes trailed down to his side and back up again.

"That's old, sunflower," Gray growled. "I ran into the bar."

"The bar."

"You hit me and I slammed into the bar."

"I'm sorry." Natsu's voice was small, like he wanted to be invisible.

But he sounded sincere too. Wanting to believe him, Gray's pulse sped up, and he knew Natsu could hear it. It just made him so tired; like he'd been having this conversation his entire life.

With Natsu, maybe he had.

"What are you doing here?" Gray asked finally.

"I'm not going to beat you up, if that's what you're thinking."

Gray almost snorted, but another part of him relaxed, because he trusted Natsu. After everything they'd been through, how could he not?

"I'm too tired to be around you right now," he admitted.

"You didn't used to feel that way," Natsu mumbled.

Gray's steps stuttered. "So we're talking about my feelings now?"

His heart hurt. Even now he wanted to be around Natsu. Gray couldn't hate him. Even with things so stupid between them, there was still that spark that precipitated all the good times together.

Even with the pining after Juvia and Natsu getting violently jealous, they had these moments that were just…wonderful. Natsu's smile, and his jokes, and those times Erza made them work together and they found they made a really good team.

Natsu sighed heavily and Gray, whose head had been down watching over his and Cana's feet, looked over at him.

Natsu was beautiful. It made Gray smile and it made him ache, because—why didn't you want me?

"I don't want things to change," Natsu muttered.

"Pardon?"

"I don't want us to change. I just…don't want…"

Gray's jaw hardened.

"Fuck you. You think I want to hear this right now?"

Natsu halted.

"And giving fucking mixed signals, too," Gray growled. "If you're not interested, don't act interested. Don't treat this like a game, Natsu. Hearts are involved. People get hurt."

"I'm sorry—"

"Don't give me that shit." Gray was breathless. "If you were sorry, you'd leave me alone."

Natsu swallowed. "What if I don't want to leave you alone?"

There it was again: the desperation pounding behind Gray's collarbone. Reckless, hurting, he grabbed Natsu's shirt and hefted him forward. Stumbling, Natsu put his hand on Gray's chest to catch himself.

Gray moved on instinct, snagging his neck and kissing him.

Natsu's palm on his skin was hot, hard, strong. Gray swore he felt Natsu's thumb slide over his guildmark. So gentle.

It was just like two months ago. Too painful to think about.

Shuddering, the ice mage relinquished him. As he found Natsu's startled eyes, Gray pulled back his fist and punched him across the jaw.

The Dragon Slayer stumbled to the ground.

Gray knew he couldn't speed away, but he turned his back and started walking, praying to every god Natsu didn't follow. He didn't.

Gray looked at Cana, still attached to his side, looking like she hadn't taken in anything.

"Let's go home," Gray murmured in a broken voice, hugging her closer.


Mira turned around and discovered Cana was gone.

She'd noticed Gray's arrival, but wanted to deal with Laxus and Freed first. Laxus was capable in many things, but eradicating hangovers was Mira's secret power. Plus there was the question of making sure Laxus wasn't so pissed he'd say something stupid; Cana was half-right to be worried about the pair.

When Laxus lumbered off with Freed on his back, Mira opened her mouth to ask Cana if she'd help with tying up the unconscious dark mage—and Cana was gone.

She knew Cana was pissed—over a silly thing, Freed pretending he didn't want Laxus's help. Alcohol had made him fussy, but she knew from many years of friendship that sober Freed did not mind having Laxus take care of him. He'd once gotten pneumonia, and smiled about it afterward because apparently Laxus stayed with him the whole time reading books aloud so he wouldn't get bored.

Mira no longer pretended to understand Cana's logic. Ugh. Right now, Freed and Laxus needed to be locked in a room together or things would get much worse than Freed trapping Laxus in a box of runes.

The thought of Cana's anger at her didn't hurt anymore. It just made her numb. She felt powerless, worn, unattractive. Stupid lies in her brain. She wanted to sleep.


The first Laxus knew of Freed's return to consciousness was a grumbled, "Ugh," in his ear.

"Freed?" he asked, looking over his shoulder but seeing only green.

"Oh." Freed's voice was flat. "Laxus. 'Morning."

"Good afternoon."

Freed snorted. "Please put me down."

"It's okay to need help—"

"Put me down."

Freed's tone, quiet and determined, made him stop walking and lower the rune mage to the ground. Freed swayed, Laxus reaching out to help him, but Freed pushed him sharply away.

"You don't need me," Freed said. "Ergo, I don't need you."

"Goddess," Laxus breathed, rubbing a hand over his face. Where to fucking start.

Freed cut his eyes at him, shutting him up.

Laxus realized his magic still thrummed through him and he ceased the spell, looking Freed up and down. Despite his injuries, the rune mage did look more alert.

"Guess it does work on other people," Laxus said.

"What?"

"Low levels of electric charge help sober me up. Apparently you too."

"I might be an outlier," Freed said wearily. "I've built up tolerance to your magic over the years. I have no doubt it affects me differently than other people."

"Maybe," Laxus said, feeling oddly elated.

Freed had also been shivering—another vagary of the alcohol—and was no longer. I can be useful to you after all.

"I'm going home," Freed said, straightening with a wince and taking a few steps with his hand on the nearby wall.

"If you're not feeling good—"

"You'll what?" Freed snapped.

"I'm just here to help," Laxus muttered.

"I told you, I don't need your help. This is how reciprocity works. If you want to do the lone-wolf thing, I...don't care," Freed's mouth twisted, "but you don't get both worlds. You don't get to have me only to push me away when you don't want me."

Laxus felt strange things in his chest: heat filling him, and through it, shards of cold. Decisive as Freed could be, Laxus didn't think he'd ever seen the hard, cut-off expression Freed currently wore.

"When did this start?" Laxus asked.

"You know when."

"You realize that was one time, right?"

"Sure. One time you pushed me away. Amid a number of fatal dangers. Including an explosion that only through a miracle didn't touch you. You were exhausted, injured, and under a curse. And you didn't. Want. My. Help."

Freed shook his head, then stopped the movement quickly, leaning back against the brick wall.

"If you want me, you take all of me." Freed's voice was low and beautiful. "Everything, Laxus. If you want to help me, you have to be honest with me and let me help you. I want us to be equals."

"We are equals."

"Not really. You're you and I'm me."

Laxus didn't know what that meant.

Staring down the street, Freed sighed, "Cana was right. I need to tell the truth. Goddess, this is not the place I wanted to do this..."

"Wait," Laxus said. His chest felt too tight. "Before you say anything, I have something to tell you."

Freed blinked several times, eyes wide.

Laxus swallowed. Now he had to actually do it.

"I took a job in secret. Some town had been turned into a giant runic trap; they claimed you were the perpetrator. I dealt with the runes and paid them off to keep quiet about the rest. So nobody would come after you. I was going to figure out who was framing you, before it ever became an issue or anyone got hurt, but…I think you just fought her.

"The runes you saw on my skin that day were debris from the job. Being sleepy, the explosion—everything was because of the job, and I didn't want you to know about it, so I didn't want you to help me. That's why."

Freed stared at him.

"What?"

"That's why I pushed you away—"

"No, the job. You took a job to—what, protect me? Because I need it?"

"No—"

"In secret from the team? Why? Why didn't you tell me? I could've protected myself. I might not have gotten drunk if I knew someone was after my skin!"

"I'm sorry." Laxus struggled to pull air into his lungs. "I fucked up."

"I don't even know what to say."

"I'm really, truly, badly sorry. Freed."

Freed held up a hand. Laxus watched him in trepidation.

"I'm not saying I'll forgive you," Freed growled. "But I'm going to react to this later when I have time to work through what I'm feeling and not just lash out. Because if we keep talking about this, I'm going to be full-blown furious in less than two minutes, and I don't have the self-control not to say things I'll regret."

Laxus could've kissed him. "Thank you."

Freed hmphed.

"My turn for honesty," Freed said.

He eyed Laxus up and down.

"You were looking for that mage. And I took her down for you. You're welcome."

"Um, thank you," Laxus grunted, refusing to look down at the blood on Freed's shirt.

"I helped you," Freed went on, "so it's okay if you help me. Would you…help me walk home? I don't feel very steady."

"Of course."

Laxus held out a hand and Freed grabbed his forearm, leaning heavily on him. Laxus tensed his muscles, firm. You can trust me.

They moved slowly as they headed to Freed's flat. After a little while, Laxus asked, "So…what did Cana tell you to say to me?"

"Home first," Freed panted.

"It's that bad?"

Freed barked a laugh, which became a cough. "It's drastic in the sense of honesty, not insults."

Laxus loosened with relief, though he didn't relax the arm Freed was holding.

Freed explained, "Talking is a less-drastic—"

"—drastic thing," Laxus said. "Yeah, she's told me that before too."

"About what?"

Laxus winced. Cana had turned on him out of the blue one day when he was watching Freed. She told Laxus he was too obvious and needed to stop pretending. He'd spluttered, because he knew exactly what she was referring to.

"Just…things," he said, still remembering the way she looked between him and Freed like she could see everything. The woman was terrifyingly observant.

"She doesn't like people knowing she's smart," Freed murmured.

"Guess we all have secrets," Laxus said before he could stop himself.

Freed gave him a funny look. "Yeah."

When they reached Freed's door, the rune mage let go of Laxus to fumble with his keys. After a minute of shaking hands, Laxus held out his palm and Freed handed them over.

"Come inside," Freed said as Laxus unlocked the door. "You can leave whenever you want to stop listening to what I have to say."

Laxus eyed Freed's back. I'm pretty sure that'll be never.


When Gray dragged Cana in the door, they were both a mess. Worn out, despairing. Gray felt like he'd punched himself when he hit Natsu, and Cana looked like she'd been punched a hell of a lot more times with angrier fists.

"C'mere." He led her to a seat in the kitchen and started rooting around the medikit, glaring at several lacrimas which looked exactly the same.

"I might've just bruised a rib," Cana said, laying her head on the counter. "It hurts a little less. I think. Maybe not. I take it back, my whole fucking side is broken."

"I'm going to heal up anything internal first."

She leaned over and he started inexpertly trying to heal her.

"Gray," she said, "I'm depressed."

"About what?"

"No, I'm depressed."

He looked up. "Like the condition?"

"Yeah."

"What brought you to that conclusion?"

"It's obvious." She waved expansively, wincing at the movement. "I hate my life. I feel angry for no reason. Sometimes I feel nothing at all. I keep telling myself I suck, and hearing these voices that just list over and over all the things I do wrong…"

Gray inhaled.

"And I do suck," she whispered.

A pause of silence before he reapplied the lacrima.

"Did something start it?" he asked.

"Sometimes I just feel this way." She exhaled. "Also, I have a crush on Mira and I don't know what to do."

"On Mira?" Gray whistled. "No wonder you're stressed."

"Thank you. Nobody else would understand."

"Hell yeah. You've been glaring at each other off and on for weeks. Goddess, Cana, what happened?"

"I don't even know. I drank too much? I cried one time, and she hugged me and it was all good, but then the next day she just acted like nothing happened. And sometimes I say snippy things which I regret so much later, and Mira doesn't understand sarcasm so it always hurts her feelings… Plus I have a rep."

"What kind of rep?"

"Womanizer," she groaned. "Again, because I drink too much. It all comes back to that, you know."

She slumped further across the counter, nearly falling out of the chair—Gray held out an arm just in case.

"All comes back to that?" he prompted.

"Alcohol's a depressant," she said. "It fucking destroys my mood."

"Why the hell do you drink?"

"Because it makes me feel better—no, it makes me feel nothing. Which is better. It's the next day that it makes me feel worse. So I drink more the next day…"

"…and the next…and the next…"

"Yeah."

"Do you think—" He stopped.

"That I have a problem?"

"That you have an addiction?"

Cana sighed. With her face against the formica, he couldn't read her expression, but her body sagged a little lower.

"Maybe."

"Do you…?" He coughed. "What's your next step with the depression?"

"I think," she said, "I need to stop drinking."

Gray put down the lacrima.

It was what he'd been about to ask her, but still, hearing her say it, hearing her come up with the idea all on her own—

It was unthinkable. Cana, not drinking. But she'd always been the type to try to be better, do better. Improving, not just for competition or for impressing Gildarts, but because Cana didn't know any other way to be.

She always saw the world for what it could be. She was also a realist and saw what the world wasn't, and maybe that painful disparity was why she was the way she was.

"I'm proud of you," he said, peeling an adhesive heat pack and putting it on her growing bruises.

"You're the only one who is," she mumbled. "Thank you."

"Don't do that," he said. "Say depressed shit. You're awesome and lots of people think so."

For the first time since sitting down, she twisted her head to look at him, giving him a crooked smile.

"You, too, Fullbuster. No matter what Natsu may do."

Biting his lip, Gray fetched two glasses of water.

"That was a pretty spectacular kiss-and-punch earlier," she said.

"Whatever," he said over his shoulder, hiding his reddening face. He hadn't actually thought she'd been conscious.

"You got him good. Totally surprised him with the kiss, and surprised him even more with your fist."

As he returned and handed her a glass, he sighed. "I don't know where things stand anymore. He doesn't want things to change? What the hell does that mean? Things have already changed."

"What happened when you first asked him out?"

"We made out a few months ago," he muttered into his glass. Cana choked on her water. "I initiated but he was damn enthusiastic about continuing."

"Damn, how did that come about?"

Gray pulled out the chair beside her and sat down.

"We were having a really good time," he said, "and kept getting closer, and flirting, and Natsu kept saying all these suggestive things, and then we kept touching… You know how it goes. Then I kissed him and…"

He waved a hand, refusing to think about Natsu's sinful fingers. They'd made out for a long time.

"Afterward, I asked him out. He got this shocked look like I'd just woken him up to reality. He shouted what the hell, punched me, and ran off."

"Shit."

"Yeah."

"Looks like we're both unlucky in love," Cana sighed. "Sorry I haven't been much help with him."

"Hey, that's fine. I've been zero help and a lot of burden for you."

"You know I don't care." She smiled. "Strategizing this shit is my thing. Oh." Her eyes widened. "The drinking club. How am I supposed to help people with their issues if I can't drink?"

"Uhhhm. Do it sober?"

"Fuck this is going to suck. Gray, will you stay home with me the next few days in case I have withdrawals? I know I don't get past buzzed most days, but that's still a hell of a lot of alcohol, and I dunno what the lack will do to my system."

"Of course." He grinned. "You promised me ramen, board games, and manga reading time, remember?"

"Mm, three of my four favorite things. How could I forget?"

"What's the fourth?"

"Drinking," she teased, but then she turned serious. "Mira. She's my favorite."

Gray sat up. That was a surprisingly vulnerable statement coming from her.

"Let's be honest: a lot of my life revolves around hers," Cana said, seeing his expression. "Cleaning the bar, helping her deal with crazies, walking her home when it's late, chatting about everything. She's my best friend. After you, obviously."

He squeezed her shoulder as he rose.

"Love you too. And again, I'm not the only one. I can't speak for Mira, but you're definitely not unloved or alone."

"Never," she agreed.

Smiling, he approached the cabinet which housed the games. "What do you want to play first?"

Chapter Text

8. Week 5 – Dry But Still Sexy

Cana sat down at the bar and Mira automatically reached for a glass.

"No alcohol," Cana said.

"Beg pardon?" Mira's mind whizzed through drink options, not fully processing. Cana hadn't been to the guild in a few days. Mira had done a lot of thinking, made many silent promises to herself. One of them was to try to fix this. Even if it took ignoring some of the things Cana said or did. They had to get to a point where they could at least talk it all through, because they definitely weren't there yet.

"No alcohol," Cana repeated. "Just the so-called cheap vodka." She winked.

Mira stared at her.

"Water," Cana filled in. "Because it looks like vodka but doesn't cost anything? Get it?"

"Okay, I get it," Mira said slowly, filling a mug at the sink.

Cana looked like she'd expected a better reaction to her joke, biting her lip and looking down. But Mira couldn't get past the no alcohol part.

Mira opened her mouth to ask what was up, but Lucy launched into the seat next to Cana with a heavy sigh. Cana turned to Lucy in concern.

Mira set the mug in front of Cana and took a deep breath. She could easily identify the emotion in her chest. Jealousy. She'd said she was going to do better with managing her emotions around Cana: pay attention, not just fly off the handle without realizing where her feelings were coming from. Because she knew where they came from.

From the same place that made Freed get drunk and lock Laxus out.

Jealousy wasn't a logical or realistic response, but emotions were always valid, even if unreasonable. What she needed was to not act on it.

It was easier when she reminded herself jealousy was a relationship killer. Nobody belonged to anyone else. And Mira didn't really want Cana to herself: she wanted Cana's attention during their own time, when Cana wasn't helping others. Mira loved what Cana did as advisor to people in the guild. Admired her for it. She just wanted to have those eyes turned on her like they currently were on Lucy, just for a little while, when they were alone at the end of the day.

She wanted to talk and be heard. To get to listen as a trusted confidante. To have someone notice her. It was like Elfman: he didn't need, or even want, Ever all to himself. He just wanted to know she would still love and care for him.

"…for both. I'm serious," Cana muttered to a very red Lucy. "I think—"

Loke popped into existence in a shower of sparks and Lucy clapped a hand over Cana's mouth.

"Hello, ladies. Mira." Loke nodded to each of them, his charming smile in place. He wiggled his eyebrows at Lucy, who still had a hand over Cana's mouth. "Oo, secrets? Do tell."


When Lucy arrived as the first member of this week's drinking club, Cana could see the anxiety written all over her. Cana knew how to give out courage.

"Hold up," Cana said, stopping Lucy's list of close calls and mixed messages with Levy and Juvia. "It's clear there's chemistry on both fronts. What this comes down to is what you're going to do."

Lucy let out the sigh of the century.

"I just don't know. You're not supposed to be able to fall in love with two people at once." Lucy stiffened. "Not that I'm saying I love…"

She shook her head and put a hand over her eyes.

"It's okay," Cana said, smiling softly. "And it's fully possible to be in love with multiple people. Love doesn't mean ownership: it means caring about someone. You can most definitely care about more than one person. You have a big heart, Lu-chan. That's a beautiful thing."

"Is it?"

"Yes." Cana grabbed her hand. "It is."

"So what do I do?"

"What do you think you should do?"

Lucy bit her nails and muttered indecipherable words.

"I know it's not your usual thing, but you could date them both," Cana said innocently.

Lucy swallowed.

"What if things start getting serious with both of them?"

"I don't mean take them both on dates: date them both. In a relationship."

Lucy's eyes went round. "Serious?"

"Lucy," Cana chuckled, "what if your girls like you too—and could like each other? What if all three of you have chemistry?"

"I…but…" Lucy looked thoughtful.

"Polyamory isn't a new invention. Some of your guildmates are polyamorous. If you're this into both of them, you should try for both. I'm serious. I think—"

As light filled the air beside them, Lucy's hand clamped over Cana's mouth. The light resolved into Loke.

"Hello, ladies." He smiled at them, then across the bar. "Mira."

Mira stood at discreet eavesdropping distance. Cana found she wasn't putout. Maybe it would give them something to talk about, later, and that would be a chance to finally spend time together and not fight…

Except Cana wanted to talk to Mira about their own lives, not others'. About all the fascinating things that went through Mira's head. Like we used to. She didn't know how to do that, and she really didn't know how to do that sober.

"Oo, secrets?" Loke said. "Do tell."

Lucy released Cana, but gave her a pointed look.

"It's nothing, Loke."

He pouted.

"We could tell him," Cana said. "Get his opinion."

Lucy turned red and shook her head vehemently.

"No, thank you, I have a lot to think about, this was all good advice, I'm all good now!"

And with that, Lucy hopped up and vanished across the hall.

"What did I walk in on?" Loke asked.

"A private advisory meeting," Cana said. They exchanged warm hug. "Are you here for something?"

"Just dropping by. It's been a while."

"Perfect. Could you help me with something?"

Loke grinned.

"Of course."

"Good. We need Levy."

They both spun around to search for her as Gajeel marched up and sat beside them.

"Yo," Cana said, startled. "Here to join the drinking club?"

"I couldn't help overhearing." He flicked a glance at her. "Figured I'd be useful."

"Useful...?"

"You're convincing my teammate and my former teammate to date each other, right?"

"Oh! Um. Wow. Deductive." Cana's surprise slid into a smile. "Your former teammate will be easy."

"Yep. Juvia's had those kinds of relationships before," he said.

"Exactly. Your current teammate I'm not so sure about."

Gajeel nodded thoughtfully.

"What's going on here?" Loke asked, gaze flicking between them.

"We have a sort of...love triangle that only needs a nudge before it'll become a relationship triangle," Cana said. She added quickly, "I don't believe in interfering. I'm just planting ideas. Polyamory is the sort of thing people are often too scared to talk about, so I'm getting the conversation started to make it easier on them."

"Now I'm definitely in," the lion said.

"Good." Cana took a gulp of her drink, disappointed when she tasted only water. Right. She called across the hall, "Oi, Levy! I need your brain!"

The short mage wandered over looking curious, hair wild and fingers ink-stained.

"I hope I'm not interrupting," Cana said, as Levy sat down between her and Loke.

Levy shook her head and Cana turned to ask Mira for a drink for Levy. Mira was watching her intently; Cana tried not to react to that.

After ordering, she told Levy, "We're having a discussion and need someone smart to settle something."

"Smart?" Levy chuckled.

"You read more books than almost anyone here."

Levy laughed self-consciously, her face burning pink. She muttered softly, "Lucy probably reads more than me."

"Maybe; you and she are a killer combination."

Cana was proud when the casual comment resulted in more blushing. This was all too easy.

"We were having a discussion about multiple partners," Cana said. "The morality of it; whether jealousy ever plays a role; how to navigate boundaries. Thoughts?"

Levy spluttered. "Well, that's quite a topic."

"Don't be like that." Loke nudged her. "Some of our guildmates are poly. It's not abnormal."

"Like who?" Levy asked.

"Like Juvia. She's very open about her multi-relationships," Cana said.

"Is she?" Levy squeaked. Cana heard Gajeel laughing softly behind her, and wondered what other secrets he knew or bodily reactions he could sense. This was excellent. She should've mined his skills sooner.

"Back to the point." She was not going to give Levy any time to change the topic. They needed to normalize it. "Me, I think jealousy is unhealthy regardless of how many partners you have," Cana said. "Not that everyone should be polyamorous: some people aren't good at opening their hearts wide enough to let more than one person in."

"Which is sad," Gajeel broke in. "Fucking culture."

Cana looked over with eyebrows raised. She wouldn't guess he had strong opinions on this, but he and Juvia were good friends. Levy jumped like she hadn't noticed him before.

"Not just any culture," Loke put in. "Emotionally-detached culture making people scared of vulnerability."

Gajeel grunted agreement.

"Exactly. So maybe having many loves isn't for everyone," Cana said. "But it's pretty clear to me there's no mental health objection."

She looked around to nodding heads.

"Morally either," Gajeel put in. "It strengthens a society to have as much loving going on as possible. Anything encouraging emotional openness and peace between individuals betters the whole group."

"Some societies value monoamory for religious reasons," Loke pointed out halfheartedly.

"Just because local gods value it doesn't mean those gods are right," Levy said.

"Fair. And I totally agree with you."

"For me, I'd be down. Assuming all the people involved were attractive," Cana laughed. "And Loke..."

"I said I'm clearly down." He winked.

"And I said it's not for me," Gajeel put in. Cana was impressed at the two men's ability to make up a conversation from thin air. "But I'm fine with it for others. Obviously. Juvia."

"Right." Cana turned on Levy. "What about you? Is it morally objectionable? Would you do a threesome?"

"A threesome?" Levy coughed, turning red beneath their lacadaisically curious gazes. "Wait a minute… Loke, I already told you I'm not into men."

"Don't worry, that's not what we're getting at," he laughed.

"Mm." Crossing her arms, Levy sent Gajeel a glare. "Have you been telling people about my recent dreams?"

"No," he grunted. "I keep your secrets, shrimp."

Cana straightened. "Dreams?"

"That's nobody's business but mine."

But Levy's thoroughly flustered demeanor told Cana everything.

"Threesomes?" Cana asked again.

"Got nothing against it. But Cana, you're neglecting the biggest hindrance to polyamory, and that's The Conversation. In the current culture, some people are offended by multiple partners, so bringing it up could be enough to get the person you like to stop talking to you. Ever again. You have to risk everything."

Cana fiddled with her cup. That fear was precisely the problem.

"What's the solution?" she asked.

"Goddess, I have no clue. Build a more open society; not care about rejection."

"I like both of those," Loke put in.

"They're not practical though," Gajeel said. "No offense, shrimp. But if someone right here and now wanted to ask two or more people out on a date, that's not going to be helpful."

"If it were me, and I'm not saying it is, but just hypothetically," Levy coughed, "I would probably use the old-fashioned method of getting friends to feel them out first." Levy was growing redder by the second. "Just hypothetically."

Cana wanted to keep her cool: she really did. But the laughter came bubbling up despite everything. If only you knew.

She caught Gajeel's eye, and that proved to be disastrous, because his expression was twitching inexorably into a smile.

"That's excellent," Loke jumped in, stealing Levy's attention. "It really is the old-fashioned way. Back when people met through friends…"

"People still meet through friends, Loke. Friends interfering may feel childish, like passing notes, but it's what I would do."

With Levy's attention on Loke, Cana wiped away the tears of her held-in laughter and got her breathing back to normal. It was hard not to laugh again, though. Passing notes. It brought back silly memories of when they were kids.

"That's what I'd do too, Levy," Cana said. "I know I'm usually open, but I'd probably be nervous of scaring a partner off. Friends can broach the subject without risk."

Levy nodded. She finished off her mug while Cana drank her water and Loke waved Mira down for more.

"Was that really all?" Levy asked, a tad suspicious.

"Yup." Cana beamed. "Thanks for settling that."

With a deep inhale, the shorter woman stretched and stood.

"I enjoyed that, Cana. I've heard many things about drinking club, and it lived up to all of them. Fun and thought-provoking."

The words made an emotional smile burst across Cana's face. Lived up to. Because people liked it. She wasn't even drinking today and people liked it. People got something out of it.

"I note," Levy winked, "this isn't a conversation you really needed a smart person for. Or needed me for."

"You were very helpful," Loke protested.

"Mm. Sure." Levy gave Cana a friendly poke. "I'm well aware who else has come to your club."

Blushing and grinning, she walked away.

"She strikes me as being quite aware of the situation," Cana said, turning to Gajeel. "What's been happening in her romantic life?"

He shrugged. "Nothing. But she's been hanging out with two particular women a lot recently."

"Two?"

"More like she and Juvia have both been trying to hang out with the same woman."

"And they're not at odds?" Cana asked nervously.

"As far as I know, they're on great terms. Levy mentioned walking Juvia home the other day."

"Excellent," she grinned. "This is turning out so well. Sometimes I say I tinker and dabble, but I really don't have to: I just mention ideas, sit back, and watch the show."

"All you do is give them nudges to do what they were already going to do," Gajeel said. "People need that."

"Yep."

"Okay, seriously," Loke broke in. "Who is the third wom—?"

Cana cut him off with a gasp. A familiar face had entered the hall. "Back in a minute!"

Jumping up, she ran toward an oblivious rune mage.

"Freed!"

She collided with him next to the bar, squeezing him and trapping his arms at his sides.

"You idiot. Are you okay? I was really, really worried last week."

Freed maneuvered his arms around her, Cana covering a wince when he brushed her side.

"I could say the same," Freed said softly.

"I'm not the one who had a murderous asshole after me."

"Did you hear about her confession? It was all because we took out her mother's illegal guild last year. The revenge plot is getting old, don't you think?"

"Old, but still strong enough to wound."

"I ended up okay," he said. "Cana, I followed your advice."

"Which?" she asked suspiciously, pulling away but keeping an arm around him. It made her feel better to be close.

"Why are you glaring?"

"I've given you some bad advice lately. Drinking…"

"—had nothing to do with you," he said firmly. "No, I followed your advice about drastic measures."

"Holy shit, Freed." Cana put a hand over her mouth. She couldn't read his nervous expression. "How did he react?"

"Well—" Freed startled at a loud noise elsewhere in the hall. As he jerked with a cough, Cana leapt back, arms wrapping around herself.

"Fuck, am I hurting you?"

"No," he laughed, clearing his throat, "I'm truly fine. Just got startled."

He held out a hand to her and Cana curled against his side again. She missed snuggling. She'd been running away from human contact. Not initiating, not seeking it out. She fought a strange urge to cry.

"I mean it," Freed said again, squeezing her. "You won't hurt me. I just have a few cuts."

"You were lucky, Freed," Mira said.

She stood on the other side of the bar, brow creased with anxiety.

"You're a very good mage," she went on, "and that alone saved you. Or else it wouldn't just be cuts."

"I know. Thank you for your help at the end."

"Always," Mira said.

For some reason her eyes skipped over to Cana. Cana's hands went cold, like her family's ice, like winter days without a jacket. Always, huh?


Freed gave Mira a smile when suddenly Cana pulled away from him.

"I don't feel…" She swallowed. "I'm gonna go."

"Are you alright?"

Freed reached for her, concerned by her shrunken posture, the way she was rubbing her side, but Cana took a step back. She looked like she was going to cry.

"Cana—"

"Sorry, Freed."

She turned and hurried away toward the toilets. Freed pinched his forehead.

"Shit. She didn't even tell me how she's doing."

Mira stared after her, expression almost sad. "Cana is strong."

"Last time I saw her, she was unconscious," he grunted.

Mira jerked. "What?"

"You know, the fight. I didn't see it happen, but I came running when I heard her scream. Gray said she cracked a rib. You were sober: you probably remember better than me."

"I…don't."

"I came around the corner and she was just lying there. At first I thought…" Freed shook his head. "Cana would never go that easy. It was the scared conclusion of my stupid, alcohol-fueled imagination."

He knew he was coming down hard on himself for drinking, but he deserved it. It had been stupid. It was self-harm.

When he looked at Mira, he jumped. She had tears in her eyes.

"Goddess, Mira, am I missing something?"

She hoisted herself up and sat on the edge of the bar.

"She was hurt," she repeated as she wiped her eyes.

"It wasn't like it was deadly," he assured her. "Mira, what's going on?"

She sniffed. "Nothing. Absolutely nothing."

When he raised a skeptical eyebrow, she reached over and squeezed his shoulder.

"It's going to be okay, Freed. All of us in this guild—we have each other. So even when we mess up, someone else is there to cover for it, and so nobody is ever—" she hiccoughed, "—alone. Everyone always has at least someone."

Tears sprouted again and spilled down her cheeks before she could wipe them away.

"It's just…I wanted to be that someone," she whispered.

He didn't know whom or what she meant. It made him realize how long it had been since they'd talked.

"Let's get out of here," he said. "Come on."

"But the bar—"

"They'll survive. Have you eaten lunch? Let's go to that place you love."


When Cana reemerged sometime later, Freed was gone. She sighed. She hadn't gotten an answer about his confession with Laxus. That mystery was going to eat her up.

At the bar, Loke sat alone, contentedly humming to himself. Gajeel was having a quiet conversation with Levy in a corner booth. Interesting.

Joining Loke, Cana snagged another glass of water—something to occupy her hands—and said, "So. How have you been?"

He smiled. Kindly: not with an angle. She'd always been able to trust Loke. Her heavy heart loosened.

"I'm alright. Cana, is your brother still single?"

"Technically, but not really. He's stuck on someone else."

"Still the same?" Loke asked.

Cana tensed. Apparently she was the one person who'd been blind.

"Yeah," she said.

Loke nodded and took a sip from his glass. When he saw her watching him, he offered it. "Want some?"

"I'm good." She glanced around. "I have a hunch Freed might be in the market. Recently let down, in fact. If you're looking for casual."

"Tempting as that is," he smiled, "I happen to know otherwise."

She leaned in. "You do?"

"I saw them walking across town holding hands a week ago. Basically leaning on each other. Actually, he was leaning on Laxus, quite closely if I recall."

"Holy shit! That's fantastic. I'm sorry I have no single men to offer you, but I'm so happy for Freed."

"About time," he agreed, smiling.

They sipped their respective drinks.

"So," Loke said. "Juvia and Levy. The things Lucy said."

"Loke, I know you can read people and put things together. Probably nothing got past you. Please, in the name of the Goddess, don't bring it up with Lucy. She's mortified: too afraid of people's judgment, just like Levy was saying. I'm the only person she talked to. I don't want to make her so embarrassed…"

"—that she doesn't make a move," Loke filled in. "Alright. But I want a full report when this story is no longer secret. You know I love romantic stories."

"I promise to tell all when I'm allowed."

"Deal." He tipped back his drink and finished it off with a satisfied sigh. "I'll be going for now. You won't be lonely without me?"

She nudged his shoulder. "I'll miss you, but I'll be okay."

With an honest, vulnerable smile, he kissed her cheek. "See you around, beautiful."

He vanished.

Cana hadn't even turned back to the bar before two people approached her. Halfway there, Elfman and Gajeel noticed each other.

"Get over here," Cana called to both of them. "Drinking club needs you."

They sat on either side of her. Glancing at Gajeel, Elfman said, "Things are going well."

He wore a shy little blush of pleasure.

"More good news!" Cana said, beaming. "Is it okay if I ask for details?"

"Yeah. We, er—"

He looked over at Gajeel. Cana was just considering whether to ask Gajeel for privacy or tell Elfman to update her later, but Elfman broke in.

"Excuse the awkward subject matter."

Gajeel shrugged. "Anything's okay. I won't tell."

Elfman nodded.

"We're keeping things sexually open," he told Cana. "She doesn't have anyone right now, but if someone attractive comes along, we'll talk about it."

"So you're officially an item?" Cana asked.

"Yeah."

Cana whooped while Gajeel smiled and said, "Congrats."

"Thank you. She liked the, um, masturbation idea, Cana. I gather you talked to her?"

"She and Freed brought it up first," she said. "I just opened up the conversation."

"I'm glad you did. She's a lot more at ease talking. And…asking for what she wants."

"And what does she want, if I may ask?"

Though bright red, his voice stayed strong.

"To be held. She handles anything else. And I like holding her, so it's perfect."

Reaching up, Cana squeezed him in a hug that stretched her healing side a bit too far, but his pleased chuckle was worth it. She'd never seen him so confident and at ease.

"You're awesome," she said. "And you deserve it. I'm so glad for you."

"I need to steal your ideas," Gajeel said. "I have a demi friend shredded with guilt and insecurity with their partner right now."

"You can tell them to talk to me," Elfman said.

Gajeel's laugh was gruff.

"Good as that would be for them, their boyfriend is a bit…high-profile. They're ashamed they can't 'meet his needs,' and trying to keep everything about their sexuality a secret in fear of what people would say. I only know about it because they and I go way back; they haven't told anyone else."

Cana thought through the nonbinaries of Gajeel's acquaintance.

"You mean Rogue," she said.

"You didn't hear it from me."

"Sting doesn't strike me as the type who would abandon his partner over sex."

"He's not. But try telling Rogue that. Way too much fear and shame."

"Well, of course they're ashamed," Elfman said. "Nobody is ever like us. Not in stories or articles or talks about sex. We're invisible. Like we're not supposed to exist. It only takes one person to tell you you're broken: you'll never hear anyone say different. You'll be left believing it's true."

"That's just…sad," Gajeel sighed.

"Invisible," Cana said. "Gods, what a word."

Elfman smiled. "That used to be one of Mira's keywords."

"Invisible?"

"Yeah. In the town where we were born, they had a similar thing with vaginas," he explained.

Cana looked up.

"Are you fucking serious?"

He glanced around quickly and nodded.

"You can say anything about sex here," Cana said. "This is the drinking club."

"Right." He smiled. "The local deity considered people with vaginas special and holy, or something like that," he said, blushing. "So you weren't allowed to talk about vaginas, learn about them in sex education…you couldn't even say the word 'clit.' People just never talked about it. There was tacit understanding that the only thing which should touch a vagina is an unprotected penis for the purpose of children. Other than that, they were off-limits. People joked about jacking off, but I'd never heard the term 'jill off' until I came here."

"Um, wow. That's…what the hell?"

"I know. The silence implied people with vaginas didn't deserve pleasure, couldn't give or refuse consent. Vaginas were disconnected from the people they were attached to—something separate. It was messed up," he said heavily. "I'm grateful we had to leave. Mira used to talk about it all the time after we came here. She was ashamed of having one; yet embarrassed she didn't know anything about her body. People made fun of her for not knowing shit. Both of us.

"She's very open about this all now; she tries to encourage everyone to have confidence in their body. That's why she does all those photoshoots and interviews with the magazines. She talks about stuff like how touching yourself is good—she had problems touching herself for years. She was afraid of dating, because she didn't know how to have sex with women or if she could enjoy it. And me, I clearly want nothing to do with touching them either. I think I'd be this way regardless. But point is they messed us up a lot.

"Lisanna was the only one who escaped: she was too young to take any of it in. Mira made me help with sex education later. Said we had to make sure she knew clits and vulvas and the rest weren't shameful. Looking is okay and asking questions is okay and exploring is okay… There was a lot of telling her things were okay," he chuckled. "Probably not your usual sex education."

"Wow," Cana said, something thick in her throat. "I had no idea."

"People like that are bullshit," Gajeel growled. "Dumbass town. Sorry— Hearing that just really pisses me off."

"I figure the town will die out in a few more generations." Elfman said. "Since they're not allowed to know how reproduction works. It gives me vindictive pleasure."

Gajeel burst out in a laugh.

"So Mira," Cana said slowly, "was ashamed of her body when we were younger?"

"Among other things. She's fine now, obviously. But it took a while for either of us to be comfortable with bodies and sexual topics. People in Fairy Tail are unashamed and thus pretty explicit." Elfman chuckled. "I don't think I stopped blushing until puberty was over."

Cana's thoughts churned. It explained Mira's innocence, her reactions to innuendos, her complete lack of dating when they were younger. Back then, Cana thought she must be stuck-up, and assumed now she'd grown out of it. But stuck-up was good cover for scared.

"Goddess," she murmured. "I can't imagine."

It was the complete opposite of everything her childhood had been.

They kept on talking, Cana probing in little bits and pieces, but Elfman didn't give much else away about his sister.

Eventually Gajeel rose.

"I'm getting a refill. You two?"

Elfman shook his head while Cana said, "Water please."

He gave her a funny look but nodded and headed around the bar—their illustrious bartender was still absent.

"It's been a good week for romantic happiness," Cana said, aiming wheedle information about the Raijinshuu. Elfman might know.

He gave her a wide, suggestive smile she was completely unable to parse.

"Has it?" he asked with a grin.

"Um." She shifted. "Beside you and Evergreen, I've heard Laxus and Freed finally sorted their shit."

"Oh. Um. I wouldn't be so sure." He looked down, voice going quiet. "Freed cancelled all their jobs this week. Ever and Bickslow have been puttering around having fun, but neither Laxus nor Freed have been seen around the guild much. Today was only the second time I've seen Freed in a week, and I think he left already."

Cana let out a long and heavy sigh. All these conflicting reports. The truth was probably complicated, which meant things hadn't gone rosy like she'd hoped. They were both so obvious, but Freed was uptight and Laxus was defensive. If they miscommunicated…

Gajeel returned and handed her a glass of water.

"Funny drink for the drinking club," Elfman noted.

She shrugged. "I'm glad you joined again, Elfman."

"Duh. It's the best club." He smiled. "I'm going to find Evergreen. I'll see you guys later."

Cana and Gajeel waved as he lumbered off. As soon as he was gone, Cana turned to eye Gajeel. He watched her.

"Time to talk about your romantic troubles?" he asked. "That note-passing idea might work in your case."

Cana raised her eyebrows, thoughts derailed.

"Er. Actually," she said, then coughed. "No. Um. I was thinking I want you on my staff."

"Beg pardon?"

"You notice things. And you're insightful. I want you to join the drinking club."

"I'm right here."

"As a permanent member. Giving people advice and stuff, so it's not just me and my dumb ideas."

"You have dumb ideas? News to me."

Cana flushed happily. "Now you're really hired."

"Okay," he laughed, "I'll be your assistant. Easiest job I've ever gotten."

This made her laugh more, and he smiled. Maybe he was a bit like her. Just wanting people to be happy.

"I like you like this," Cana said. "Not so uptight."

"I'm only uptight when I fight."

"Even more reason to join: we never fight. Our purpose is to make a world where people fight less."

"That's something I can get behind."

"Welcome."

She held out her hand for a fist-bump and he complied.

"I meant it," Gajeel said. "You honestly might try writing her notes."

"Wh-What?"

"What Levy said. Passing notes works for kids. Maybe it'll work for you."

Cana avoided his eyes and ran her fingers through her hair. "Um. So. Firstly of everything, I have an important question for you."

He nodded with serious attention. Cana's exultation came rushing back. This was going to be so much fun.

"How much do Freed and Laxus smell like each other these last few days?"

Chapter Text

Cana had hardly entered the guild Wednesday morning when Juvia darted up to her, flustered, pink, and out of breath.

"Did I miss the drinking club? Tell me I didn't miss the drinking club."

"Technically, but it can happen whenever you want. So who's the culprit: Lucy or Levy?" Cana asked.

"Levy?" Juvia blinked, brown skin darkening in a blush. "Not who I would've expected…"

"But I'm correct in assuming a woman has you this out of sorts?"

"Of course," Juvia sighed.

She led them toward the bar, and as they sat, another figure got up and joined them.

"Hello, Gajeel," Juvia said. "Did your dragon ears hear how one of our other Slayers reacted to my appearance?"

"Appearance?" Cana asked.

"This." Juvia peeled down her high collar to show Cana and Gajeel the dark mark on her neck. Cana clapped her hands over her mouth to suppress a squeal.

"You got it on with—?!"

"I got it on with my stupid curling iron. But it certainly looks like a hicky."

"Fire-brain sure thought so," Gajeel grunted.

"I know. I haven't been very helpful to Gray in his endeavors, but I think this time may have worked. I was wearing a lower collar this morning, before I knew the mark was there."

Cana's eyes widened. "Natsu didn't try to hit you, did he?"

"No, thankfully. He stomped off in search of Gray."

"Shit."

"Haven't you heard? Natsu doesn't hit people anymore," Gajeel said. "Because of your dads."

Cana gaped. "Natsu doesn't… Excuse me?"

"Okay, he hits people," Gajeel amended. "But he doesn't do it in place of feelings or flirting."

"How do you know?"

"He mumbled it. Over and over all fucking last week. He can't keep his thoughts inside his head." Gajeel rolled his eyes. "Point is, Silver got through to him. So you can stop worrying about losing a sibling."

Cana looked Gajeel up and down. He was turning out more observant than she imagined.

"Damn," she said, "this is all good news. I'm glad to hear Natsu won't attack Juvia out of jealousy, either."

They looked over at the water mage, who shook her head.

"Why he still thinks I'm with Gray…"

"Seriously," Gajeel grumbled. "You don't even smell like each other."

"Thank you!" Juvia exclaimed. "Gray and I aren't even compatible humans. But persuading Natsu of that at this point is as easy as finding a straight man in Fairy Tail."

Cana cocked her head. "Goddess, you're right. Are all our men gay?"

Gajeel raised a hand. "I don't discriminate based on gender."

"Pan, huh? I think you're the closest we've got," she laughed. "And Master."

"So, um, Cana," Juvia said, twisting her fingers. "Thing is, I ran into Natsu and Lucy this morning, and Natsu couldn't stop staring at my burn, and I'm sure Lucy saw it too and probably came to the same conclusion…and, um…"

Cana was already nodding.

"Do you think my polyamory turns her off?" Juvia asked.

"I don't know," Cana said honestly.

"But," Juvia bit her lip, "do you, maybe…a little? Maybe not? What do you think?"

"I really don't know."

Juvia put her face in her hands and sagged.

"Hey, hey…" Startled, Cana squeezed her arm while Gajeel circled to sit next to her and rub her back.

"Are you okay?" he asked.

"I'm sorry. That was weighing on me."

"It's alright to be nervous," Cana said.

"I'm terrified of rejection," Juvia whispered. "I don't want to end up alone."

"If it ever came to it, there are other women. I hear you've spent almost as much time with Levy."

"Yeah. But I like Lucy a lot. That's not just going away. I don't…want it to go away."

"I didn't mean it like that," Cana said quickly.

"No matter who else I date or fall for," Juvia said. "I really like Lucy."

The way she said it, eyes soft, Cana could suddenly picture it: her, Lucy, and Levy.

"Gajeel and I talked about the polyamory subject just the other day with Levy."

"You're bringing up Levy a lot." Juvia gave her a questioning smile.

Cana bit her lip. Juvia was smart. And open-minded.

"I hear things," Cana said. "But tell me about you. I hear you're spending more and more time with Levy."

"Yes, inadvertently."

Wiping her cheeks, Juvia turned around to search the guild. Both bookworms were present, and Cana watched Juvia's considering eyes land on each woman in turn.

"The two of them have only ever been monoamorous," Juvia murmured. "Getting them to talk about it—if they would even want it—feels herculean."

"You never know until you try."

"Cana…would you mind, I don't know, bringing it up? Just if it comes up, if there's a chance, mentioning it, getting them to at least think about it…"

"I've already done so. Not revealing your secrets or anything, but I thought I'd…you know."

Juvia beamed at her. "You deserve a gold star."

"Me?"

"Yes, you. Helping with the things people are too afraid to face, or don't know how to say, or are afraid to admit. You have courage. You read people. That's a special skill, Cana. Most people can't do what you do: being everyone's confidante."

Cana felt her face heat up.

"Thank you."

Smiling, Juvia looked past her and her expression dipped for a moment.

"Anyway," she said. "Thank you, Cana. I really should start expecting to feel better when I come over here."

With a teasing poke, Juvia walked off.

Someone behind Cana cleared their throat. When she turned, she expected someone addressing her. But Mira stood behind the bar with a paper in her hand, swallowing and fighting back tears. She cleared her throat a few more times.

"Mira?" Cana asked.

"What?" Mira sniffed hurriedly. "No, it's nothing. I'm fine. Just need some fresh air. Do you mind watching the bar?"

Cana stared at the wall of alcohol behind Mira.

"As long as you're okay with nobody getting served."

"That's fine. Thanks, l-lovely."

Mira hiccoughed around the last word, but Cana knew she'd heard it.

It was the same endearment in the note in Mira's hand.

As Mira darted out the back, Cana sank down in her seat and sipped her water. Glancing sideways, she saw Gajeel's eyes go back and forth between Mira's note and Cana, eyebrows raised.

She shrugged. "It was a good idea. Don't you gloat."

"Gloat about what, Alberona?" he said innocently.


"You didn't," Natsu said behind him.

Gray startled and turned.

They were alone behind the guild, and a little thrill went through Gray's body. He wasn't nervous: Natsu hadn't raised a fist at him in a week.

"Please tell me you didn't do that to her," Natsu said. He looked pained.

"Do…?"

"Marks. Juvia."

"Wasn't me." Gray raised his hands. "Honest."

Natsu's gloom shifted. "Really?"

"I'm not sure what marks—hickies or something? Definitely wasn't me, fire face." Gray inhaled. "You're…the only person I've kissed lately."

"So the thing with Juvia…"

"A farce. To make her crush jealous."

The rest of Natsu's posture finally deflated, the Dragon Slayer exhaling noisily. Gray watched him.

"Oh," Natsu said. "Good."

Good?

They stared at each other.

"Does that," Gray said, "mean things are okay to change?"

Natsu tilted his head and Gray stammered out, "Last week, you said change…er, you didn't want… Is that all still true?"

Natsu stared into his eyes. He looked scared. "Um. No."

"No?" Wait, then—?

Natsu stepped into his personal space. Quite close. Gray, like an idiot, stared at his lips.

"D-Do you want…" The ice mage was hoarse. Why did this have to be so goddamn hard?

"I think so." Natsu's mouth firmed. "I know. Yes, I do, Gray."

Natsu touched his arm. It wasn't just a touch: it was ever-so-slightly a caress, trailing down Gray's wrist before stopping just above his fingers. Gray nearly jumped out of his skin.

"Is that okay?" Natsu whispered.

Gray wasn't sure if he meant the knowing and wanting, or the touch, but he nodded.

Jerkily, Natsu leaned in and kissed him.

Warmth washed through Gray like a wave of static. Natsu pulled him closer, began to nip at Gray's lips, tracing inside his mouth. Gray leaned into his chest and touched his tongue tentatively to Natsu's.

Natsu groaned.

Oh. Oh my gods.

Gray smiled against Natsu's mouth. The ice mage hadn't initiated, hadn't made the first move—any move. This was all Natsu, wanting him.

When Natsu released him, Gray panted, "What changed?"

"I did a lot of thinking."

"…Okay?"

Natsu took a deep breath. "I like being best friends. I don't want that to change."

"What if this is a step forward in our friendship?" Gray interrupted.

He just wanted to cuddle, and forget words, but he needed to know this first. Had to hear the answer before he got hurt again. Natsu was worth pain, yes, but Gray wouldn't be stupid about getting his heart broken.

"This is a step forward in our friendship." Natsu tentatively took his hand. "Just don't leave the team, Gray. Or walk away. Or leave the guild. Don't. No matter how badly I disappoint you, don't leave. You have t-to promise, and then… But promise first."

Natsu shivered, and that was when Gray saw how afraid he was.

"Goddess, Natsu." Gray wrapped his arms around him. "I wouldn't leave Fairy Tail over something like that."

"It's just…people always leave," Natsu whispered. "When I screw up."

"Gods. You really think that?"

Natsu's voice was tiny. "Yes."

Gray squeezed him harder.

"I'm sorry I messed up." Natsu's breath was shaky.

"I forgive you, Natsu. Shit. I wish you'd just said so. No, don't apologize another goddamn time."

Natsu laughed against his neck.

"I promise I won't leave the guild over your idiocy," Gray said seriously. "Fairy Tail is my family. And I wouldn't leave the team either: Erza would skin me alive. So I can promise you: I won't leave of my own volition."

At Gray's grinning wink, Natsu squeezed the air out of him.

"Thank you," he whispered in Gray's ear.

It made Gray shiver.

"So," he said softly. "What was the 'and then' part?"


"Um." Jet leaned on the counter and looked around. "What does a person do to get a drink around here?"

"Ask nicely," Cana said.

"May I please get a drink?"

"When Mira gets back."

He gave her a pouty look.

Cana shrugged. "I'm only here to knock you unconscious if you try to steal."

Sulking, Jet hunkered down at the bar keeping a hawk's eye out for the bartender. Cana turned back to Gajeel to continue their illuminating conversation about draconic senses when Macao sauntered up.

"Where's the lovely Mirajane?" he asked.

"You also looking for a drink?"

"That, and something pretty to look at." He grinned.

Cana's hands jerked into fists.

This wasn't new. It had always pissed her off, this objectification Mira got. But knowing what she did now about Mira's past, and having seen Mira's tears not half an hour ago—today it made her burn.

"Hey, Natsu Fuckneel!" Gajeel called.

She whipped around—and so did Jet, who was standing right in the way of Gajeel's line of sight.

But beyond Jet there was just empty space. Gajeel burst out laughing.

"Your face," he chortled, pointing at Jet. "You looked fucking horrified."

"Well, yeah!" Jet shot back. "I'm not getting in the middle of that!"

Cana joined in the laughter and behind her Macao snickered.

"That was amazing," she grinned, punching Gajeel's arm.

He grinned back.

As Jet and Macao both dispersed, Cana breathed more freely. She knew he'd done it on purpose.

"So, Alberona," Gajeel nodded to Cana's glass, "water again?"

"Yeah."

"May I ask?"

"I think I screwed some stuff up drinking too much."

"Ohhh. Things begin to make sense." He looked to the backdoor where Mira had gone.

"Kind of that, yeah, but more like I screwed up my head. So I'm unscrewing it. I want to feel things again. I think. Or something. I want to enjoy my life. We'll see if it works."

"At first I thought it was because of your injury."

"You heard about that?"

"I hear everything."

"True. I'm mostly better. Gray makes me apply the healing lacrima every morning." Cana stared across the bar at the bottles, and her smile faded. "I don't know how long this dry phase will last. I don't know how long it needs to last. I hope not forever. I'm not even sure it'll work."

"It's worth trying," Gajeel said.

She smiled at him. "Yep."

"I get it. I had to get off Martensite."

"What?"

"Type of iron. It felt so fucking good, but it was wreaking havoc on me."

She stared at him in surprise. "Is this like when Natsu eats 'nasty fire'?"

"Yup. Except he doesn't get high from it. Martensite gives me a burst of strength. It feels incredible; I can punch through anything. But what it's doing is hardening my body, and while my brain thinks that's something to get euphoric about, it was wearing down the rest of me."

"Damn."

He nodded. "For a while I tried taking less and mixing it with other irons, but eventually I had to stop completely."

"Do you miss it?"

"Not anymore. But it never tasted very good. I think booze would be harder."

"Yeah." Cana grimaced. "I already miss the flavors so much."

"You can get almost any mixed drink without alcohol," he pointed out. "Mira knows her stuff amazingly well. If you asked, I bet she could make you a virgin cocktail that didn't taste virgin."

"Now that's an idea…"

Chapter Text

For some reason Cana kept waking up early. She'd made a discovery: mornings were beautiful when you weren't hung over.

As she sleepily decided between tea and coffee in their sunlit kitchen, she heard the shuffle of feet. She assumed it was Silver (who didn't sleep much, due to being only sort of alive), but an unfamiliar mutter made her turn.

Natsu and Gray were bumbling around in the cabinet, their bare shoulders colliding from standing so close together.

Cana blinked. "Good morning."

Gray jerked—he was always half-asleep in the mornings—but Natsu smiled at her.

"Yo."

"You slept over," she said.

Both boys blushed.

"Yeah," Natsu said.

Cana beamed. "Nice. Congrats."

Gray grumbled something which made Natsu laugh.

"This one is too grumpy to decide about breakfast," he said, rubbing Gray's back. "Any preference, Cana?"

"I have to start with coffee before I can answer that. But I can tell you Gray normally just has cereal."

"So plain and boring, snowflake," Natsu said, reaching into the refridgerator and beginning to pull things out.

"Are you going to cook?" Cana asked.

"I can cook," Natsu said defensively. "Actually quite well, which for some reason always surprises people."

"I'm not doubting you: this is my excited face, early morning style."

He grinned. "In that case, I'll make enough for three."

"If I help, can we bump it to five?" Gildarts asked, yawning as he entered. Behind him, Silver stopped by the table and looked consideringly at Gray.

"Are you awake enough to help?" Natsu laughed.

"Maybe," Gildarts grunted. He straightened. "Oh no, are you going to try to fight me while I'm tired?"

"Nah, I'm good." Natsu reached out and stroked Gray's hand, a reaction Cana wasn't certain was conscious. Which just made it more adorable.

Gray squeezed his fingers.

"You're being safe?" Silver murmured to Gray.

"Otousan!" Gray yelped, suddenly very much awake. "It's not…we haven't…"

Silver raised his hands.

"I don't need to know. But hey, look, you're awake now. You can help your boyfriend cook."

Gray gave him a nasty look, but didn't seem to complain about cuddling close to Natsu and asking how he could assist. Cana saw Natsu lean in to steal a clandestine kiss.

Gildarts returned to the table, sat, and closed his eyes.

"Nope, it's morning," Silver said, kissing his head. "You're supposed to be alive now."

Gildarts groaned. He was about as wakeful as Gray in the mornings.

When Gildarts leaned his head on the table, Silver rubbed his back. Looking from them to the two young men who kept deliberately bumping into each other in the kitchen, Cana sighed.

"Am I the only person in this house who's going to wear a shirt?" she asked.

"No one said you have to," Silver pointed out.

Cana made a face. "I hate loose tits. This is why big ones suck: it hurts when they bounce."

"Do you have to discuss this?" Gildarts grunted, face-down against the table.

"You're totally fine with your son and husband regularly wandering the house naked in front of everyone else," Cana said (both Fullbusters looked down to make sure they still wore pants), "yet hearing your daughter discuss boobs while fully clothed embarrasses you? That's sexist, Gildarts."

"Why can't you call me 'Papa'?"

"I call you 'Touchan' all the time, just not when you're being stupid. And don't try to change the subject away from your patriarchal privileged bullshit—changing the subject is privileged bullshit."

Gildarts groaned. "Sorry?" he said.

Cana hmphed.

"Are they always like this in the morning?" Natsu asked in a carrying whisper.

"Just wait 'til they have caffeine," Gray said.

Cana beamed.


After breakfast, Cana slipped away to pen another note for Mira.

She didn't know if Gajeel had been joking when he suggested it the week before, but she suspected not. Once she got thinking about it, it seemed brilliant. It was a way to say all the little, simple things she always meant to, but either forgot because she took Mira for granted or didn't because they got in a stupid argument.

Grabbing some paper, she thought of the two things about Mira which she loved best—her smile and her emotional intelligence—and penned two notes.

That was the easy part.

Sneaking the notes into places behind the bar where Mira would find them was harder. Cana showed up early, managed to hide from Mira's sight, and slipped the notes into place while Mira was in the back. Then she went for a walk to wait for the guild to fill up in order to avoid suspicion.

All quite elaborate for some little notes to a friend. Coward, some part of her said. But Cana just smiled at that part of herself. Her life was too complicated and she wasn't sure what she felt for Mira, or what she would feel when this whole getting-her-head-straight thing was over. She wasn't sure of anything.

Except this: Mira needed encouragement. The woman had been emotional in the not-quite-weepy way for a week now. They still hadn't had a real conversation. The one time Cana timidly tried (after a few more days of boiling over Mira's comments about 'always helping friends' despite not having come to Cana's aid…she knew she needed to move on, but yes, it made her angry), Mira was shutdown and too reserved. Cana just wanted her to feel better at this point.

As she approached the guild an hour later, she found herself smiling. It wasn't forced. She felt genuinely happy today. Calm. Like life was full of possibility.

Like things could be okay.


Mira had received another note.

Last week's 'you can do this, lovely' was still in her pocket, wrinkled from how much she'd pulled it out to glance at it. It was a huge mystery, which had improved her spirits. She wasn't sure whether it just got in the way of her processing all the guilty, jealous, happy, sad, and complicated feelings, or truly alleviated some of the anxiety curled tight in her gut lately. Maybe both.

This morning as she opened the cupboard to get plates, a piece of paper drifted out like a leaf.

Don't forget to take care of yourself, lovely. Your happiness matters too.

She looked around the guild. Hardly anyone was here yet, and the space behind the bar was her kingdom to command.

She carefully flattened it and put it in her pocket, smiling. She really couldn't help smiling.

Later, she nearly drowned a note before noticing it at the bottom of the mug she retrieved.

You're kind, and also smart. You're smart, and also wise. You're wise, and also strong. Don't forget.

Mira blushed profusely and darted into the back kitchen.

It made her feel good, and also curious, and also a little annoyed that she didn't know who it was.

Someone noticed her. Someone saw her, and wrote to her, and wanted her to know these things… Someone cared.

She needed a minute to compose herself.

As she stared around the kitchen, a soft noise caught her attention, and she rounded the corner into the pantry—

Laxus and Freed were making out against the shelves, hands in each other's clothes, totally oblivious to her presence.

Laxus had Freed pressed up against the shelves with the entire length of his body. The Dragon Slayer bit back a groan at whatever Freed was doing and mouthed harder at Freed's lips.

With disembodied fascination, Mira noted that Freed had to rise slightly on tiptoe to reach Laxus, a hand sliding up under Laxus's shirt while the other wound through his hair to keep him near. Not that it looked like Laxus would go anywhere soon.

At least, chuckled the part of her brain that sounded like Cana, they're still clothed.

Mira gave a little cough.

"Holy shit," Laxus gasped as they decoupled in a tangle of limbs.

"Goddess. Um. Hello, Mira." Freed wiped his mouth and ran a hand through his hair, which was irreparably messed from Laxus's tugging. He didn't notice his shirt was untucked, and that nearly had Mira laughing with happiness for him.

"We didn't expect you," Freed said.

"Clearly," she chuckled.

Both men went red.

"How long as this been going on?"

"A few weeks," Freed said.

"Since the attack," Laxus put in, and Mira nodded. She knew that would be the breaking point.

"Why," she turned on Freed, "didn't you say anything when we had lunch? You! I'm almost tempted to be mad."

"Sorry. We weren't…" Freed glanced at Laxus, "solid at first. Weren't actually certain for about a week where things were going. Plus, you and I were focused on your problems. I wanted to be a good listener. You had a lot going on."

He eyed her, and Mira knew it was true: she'd ranted at length about Cana's fury over letting Laxus carry him—Cana cockblocking Laxus despite knowing Freed liked the man. And making Mira feel guilty about it! She'd also made him tell her all about Cana's injuries, guilt welling up as she pressed for details.

Her self-flagellation over her own callousness gave her strange, sick pleasure. She wasn't sure the mental self-harm was healthy, but it felt good to berate herself over something which was solidly her fault. It was nice to have someone to blame for everything. And to know she could do better: to feel in control.

"Speaking of your problems, Mira. So…Cana was the one who made us talk. I guess you could say she nudged us to be more courageous."

"She did?"

Freed nodded.

"Well, she gave the advice to talk," Laxus grumbled. "She didn't make us. She reads people really damn well and saw everything. Not that I should complain. She doesn't make people feel awkward about it; it can just be startling when she knows everything you don't tell her."

"That's why she has her club," Freed chuckled.

"Mm," Mira said. She shook herself and smiled. "I'm glad to see you're both finally happy."

"Thank you." Freed flushed, while Laxus smirked in a gloating, proprietary way.

"May I get to that shelf?" Mira asked, planning to not have access to the pantry for a little while.

"Oh! Of course."

The pair shifted out of the way while she grabbed several items.

"Thanks." As she headed back toward the kitchen, she looked over her shoulder. The pair had already drawn nearer to each other, Freed's hands settling on Laxus's hips to keep him close. "I won't need to get in here for another half hour at least. So, you know. Go to town."

Freed's face went the color of strawberries, but Laxus reeled him in and started sucking on his neck. As she passed out of sight, Mira almost thought she heard a growl and a gasp.

She closed the pantry door.


As she cooked and served, Mira kept thinking about Freed's hands tight on Laxus's waist. She wanted to be held like that: like she meant the world to someone.

She knew it was insecurity: the voices which listed her fuck-ups over and over were liars and cheaters, and she needed to ignore them. She knew she had to fight it. On her own. But it would be nice, for once, to get some outside input letting her know she wasn't a terrible person. Because what if she was? She would want people to tell her so she could change and do better. She loved her Fairy Tail family. She wanted to care for them.

Was she a terrible person? Had insecurity itself made her a terrible person? If that was the case, then wouldn't insecurity over her insecurities just make it worse?

How much had she screwed up?

That line of thinking made her want to cry.

But the three notes in her pocket said at least someone felt she did okay.


These thoughts were so preoccupying that she almost forgot it was Cana's drinking club. When Cana showed up cheerfully, Mira waited to see if Cana would order alcohol.

She ordered water.

Mira didn't have the nerve to ask. Was too afraid of making it sound like she was checking up on Cana, or gloating, or judging, or anything aside from what she actually was: confused.

And not because she thought Cana was a drunk. (Okay, she was, but not a disorderly one. And that had never been Mira's problem: her problem was the vast number of women Cana flirted with, felt up, and made out with when she was drunk. And did she have any right to be upset when she herself had never made a move?)

It was a change of routine, a change of Cana, and she wanted to know why.

But they weren't talking anymore, and she couldn't find the courage to ask. She no longer knew how to not make Cana mad.


Cana wasn't drinking, but Lucy was.

"Are you okay?" Cana asked, watching her down her third beer. She traded a concerned look with Gajeel, who shrugged. "I've never seen you drink this much in an hour."

"I won't go overboard," Lucy said quickly. "I ate a big breakfast to make up for it. I need the bravery. Sooo fucking much."

"Why—?"

Cana cut off when Juvia appeared.

"Hi," Juvia said to the three of them, blushing shyly.

Cana blinked. She'd never seen Juvia act timid with anyone besides Gray.

"Can I sit here?" Juvia asked, motioning to the seat next to Lucy.

"Yes," Lucy said, giving her a kind smile.

Juvia flushed darker.

A pause. Cana tried to pretend she wasn't there while watching them both.

"Hey, Cana," Gajeel said, drawing her attention away (although they both kept a sight line on the two women). "Did I tell you the latest Laxus-and-Freed smell news?"

He grinned; he knew she loved hearing about dragon-y things. Beside them, Lucy and Juvia struck up conversation.

"What's the news?" Cana asked.

"They smell even more like each other today. Very strongly. Guess who slept over…"

Cana clapped her hands happily. "Good! So they're really moving ahead with it. They're about a week behind Natsu and Gray though. Gray has apparently been staying the night at Natsu's since the day they got together, and now Natsu has stayed over too."

"Not sure they count," Gajeel said. "They practically slept in each other's arms on missions. The rest of the team pretended not to notice. One time they were the last two to wake up and everybody got to see them holding hands in their sleep."

"Seriously?!"

"And that was at least six months ago."

Cana face-palmed. "Of course it was. Idiots. Okay, you're right, they don't count for timing."

"They could get married tomorrow and it wouldn't surprise me," Gajeel said, which made Cana yelp.

"That makes me feel old!" she complained. "Don't say things like that. He's my younger brother. He's supposed to give me lots of heads-up."

Gajeel chuckled.

Lucy and Juvia were having the world's cutest conversation. About books, predictably. Just as Cana's curiosity was getting too high and she began to turn around to look, Levy walked up.

To Cana and Gajeel. Very much not looking at Juvia and Lucy.

"Hello," Levy announced, a little too loud. "How are you two?"

"Okay," Cana said, and Gajeel said, "Good."

Levy interrupted them in her haste to accidentally notice who was beside them.

"Oh! Hey, Lucy. Hey, Juvia," Levy said, voice level and unaffected. "What's up?"

Cana gulped down her water. Ohhh boy. Now the show began.

"Nothing much. Why don't you join us?" Lucy said warmly, and Cana was amazed at how at ease she was.

With how nervous Lucy got talking about her crushes, Cana had expected her to be an even worse ball of nerves when they were present. But she looked serene and happy. Cana knew Lucy, and three beers wasn't enough to cause this level of calm. Lucy genuinely felt comfortable with the pair.

This explained why the three hung out so much: awkward as their love triangle was, there was an easiness to their interactions, as Levy perched against the bar and she and Juvia both relaxed.

"What are you talking about?" Levy asked, cheerful and interested this time.

"The Starlit Water," Juvia said. "Have you read it? The protagonist has your same magic."

"Yes!" Levy said excitedly. "It was thrilling as a journey-to-enlightenment novel. But the metanarrative was what I really loved."

"Us too," Lucy said. The three were leaning toward each other subconsciously. "There was this one quote that just got me…"

Cana tore her gaze away.

"It's going to be an intellectuals' guild if this keeps up," she told Gajeel with a wink, nodding at the trio's conversation.

"Guess I won't belong."

"What are you talking about? You'll always belong here. It's your family."

To her surprise, he reddened, snatched up his drink, and gulped for a long time. She touched his arm for just a second—not enough to discomfit him, but enough to say she was here.

Then she froze as she heard Lucy stutter.

"S-So, um…while you're both here…I was wondering if," Lucy's voice trailed higher, "you'd both like to come out with me some time? I mean, go out with me." She gave a shrill laugh. "Go out, sorry. Yeah. So, um…would you?"

"Both of us?" Levy asked. Cana could practically hear her gaping.

"Yes?" Lucy replied.

"I would."

For the first time since she walked over, Juvia didn't sound nervous. "I would, Lucy. And Levy."

Gajeel was looking over at the women with round eyes. For all that he and Cana had set things up for this, it was a little unbelievable.

Cana spun on her stool to watch. Lucy and Juvia were both looking at Levy, Juvia biting her lip while Lucy twisted her fingers in her lap.

"Yes?" Levy said, mirroring Lucy. "I mean, are you…um…yes?" She laughed, high and shaky.

"G-Good." A vibration ran through Lucy's body. "When are you both next free?"

Juvia and Levy looked at each other; the eye contact made Levy turn pink and bite her lips around a smile.

"I'm…actually free tonight," Levy laughed. "I have an afternoon tutoring session with a newbie rune mage, but that's it."

"Me too," Juvia said. "Tonight, I mean."

They looked at Lucy.

"Oh! Okay. Tonight it is." Lucy looked both shocked and pleased, like something unexpectedly wonderful had just happened. "Shall I— Um, let me think about this. There's a certain place I'd like to take you both. How about if I get Levy, and then we'll come and get you, Juvia?"

"Works for me," the other two said.

A pause lengthened; the three were looking between each other, shy half-smiles twitching on their lips.

As the silence continued, Cana coughed.

Lucy shrieked and fell off her stool.

"Lucy!" Levy dove and helped her up while Juvia gave Cana raised eyebrows.

"What was that for?" Lucy pouted at Cana.

"Sorry. I didn't expect that to happen," Cana admitted. "You sure you didn't drink too much?"

Lucy laughed. "I'm fine. Truly."

She grinned cheerfully, with no idea her happiness was beaming out like a lighthouse. Behind her, Juvia scooted over on her stool to share with Levy, the pair smiling without looking at each other.

They were going to do just fine.


Levy couldn't believe her luck.

A wonderful date with two fascinating women. She knew Juvia was interesting, deep-thinking, beautiful, and kind, but paying attention to every little detail in ways she hadn't allowed herself before, Levy found herself falling in love with her just as much as she was in love with Lucy. She thought of all the times she and Juvia had both gone to Lucy's house; all the times walking each other home after a confusing night of both flirting with Lucy. Maybe this really had been developing for a long time.

They'd reached Lucy's place now: after food and laughter and smiling eyes, they just couldn't stop their conversation, and so sought a place to continue. Lucy had pointed out what all three of them already knew: she had a vast collection of hot cocoa recipes. Syrupy and rich and spicy and smooth. You could probably get drunk off of how good the stuff was.

"Natsu hates hot cocoa," she'd explained to them once. "So I keep it around since he'll never steal it."

That had made Levy laugh. She understood: Gajeel was always breaking into her place and stealing her food.

As they stood around watching the kettle heat up, Juvia asked, "Do you think with Natsu dating now, you'll be able to hold onto more of your groceries?"

"We'll see. I might end up with he and Gray breaking in."

"When Gajeel was dating, he just brought his datefriend with him and raided my pantry," Levy admitted. "So don't get your hopes up."

Juvia let out a startled laugh.

"Gajeel steals food?"

"Like you wouldn't believe," Levy sighed. "I can't have any metal in the house either."

"He ate the furniture at Phantom Lord too."

"Dragon Slayers," Lucy said, and all three shook their heads.

"Speaking of Natsu," Juvia said shyly, "I have a confession."

She glanced at Lucy, who looked as bewildered and curious as Levy was.

"Gray was feigning having a crush on me for several weeks in order to make both you and Natsu jealous of me and him, respectively."

"That's what that was," Lucy exclaimed. "I got nervous that you'd finally landed the person you were after and I'd have no chance. Except then you acted all cold toward him, and I thought maybe..."

"Yep, all farce. It was fake when I pretended to like him all those times, too. That was supposed to make Natsu jealous, and it did, but not enough. Plus then nobody knew I was into women, and it was hurting my own chances." Juvia coughed. "It was Cana who came up with the reverse-jealousy-making plan. She's quite smart like that."

Lucy bit the tips of her fingers, nails too short to chew on.

"Yeah, she is," she agreed. "She's been giving me advice about you two for weeks."

"Serious?" Levy and Juvia asked at the same time.

"Yes."

The pink that entered Lucy's cheeks whenever she acknowledged her feelings aloud made Levy feel like she was special. She was worth getting embarrassed over. It was silly, but it made her feel chosen.

Yeah, she was lucky.

"While we're confessing things about Cana," Levy broke in, "let's just admit she helped orchestrate all the necessary encounters to make this happen."

When she and Juvia met each other's eyes and started laughing, Lucy joined in.

"She did" she chuckled.

"She pulled this whole 'we have a hypothetical question for you about polyamory' thing on me with Loke and Gajeel," Levy said. "All three of them are good at acting innocent, but there was no reason for them to ask me those questions, especially about how I'd recommend a person ask two people out... It was a little too obvious, but I think it was just obvious enough, you know? Because it made me realize...this was okay."

Turning red, Juvia coughed. "I, eh, may have put her up to that. I asked if she'd bring the subject up if either of you were ever around..."

Levy's laughter returned, doubled.

"Sorry," Juvia squeaked, though she was smiling. Lucy and Levy both reached over to touch her comfortingly—shoulder and knee—at the same time.

"Don't apologize, silly," Lucy said.

"Sorry for apologizing—" Juvia caught herself and shook her head. "Ugh. I'm made of water: I'm basically good for crying and fitting in."

"And making flowers grow," Levy said. She watched the little jolt as Juvia's breath caught. Suddenly Levy yelped, "Water! We forgot about the kettle!"

When the cocoa was made, Lucy shooed them all to the sofas to be more comfortable. The conversation flowed, past nine, past ten, as easy as the smiles they traded, or the affection you could feel with every breath, or the sheer comfort of this place with these women. It was just so natural: like Levy belonged here. Admitting they'd all had their nerves and semi-machinations had made it easier to talk about their emotions, too.

Her chest stirred with new things. It was wonderful and all-consuming.

When Lucy excused herself to use the toilet, Levy looked to Juvia. Sparks of excitement were flying up her spine, made more wild by the late hour.

"Levy-san," Juvia said.

"Just Levy," she reminded her.

"Sorry." Juvia blushed prettily and tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. "Thank you for, um…coming on this date with me. I mean, with…" She waved vaguely at their surroundings. "But you know. With me too. You know?"

Levy spent a moment translating, causing Juvia to launch onward, words coming faster and faster.

"I know I'm not… Whatever. No, that's not what I wanted to say. Um. I'm…I like you. And I don't know if you like me. I know you like Lucy—and that's a good thing! Because she's wonderful! Goddess, she's so wonderful—and I know I'm not her, is what I mean, and so if I'm just not as…" Juvia waved her hands, "palatable? That's not it. Whatever—then I'm sorry."

"Juvia…" Levy began.

Juvia swallowed and sniffed.

Startled, Levy reached over and grabbed her wrist.

"It's okay. No need to cry, darling."

"Sorry," Juvia murmured.

"Don't be. I understand. Hey, Juvia?"

She waited until Juvia looked up.

Here, tonight, Levy had two beautiful women all to herself: both smart, both unique, both intense. They made her feel different things, but she liked that; liked the three of them together—if one didn't exist, Levy's relationship with the other wouldn't be the same, because they each brought out different things in each other. It was the miracle of a friend group, or a guild, in a microcosm.

Brave and in love, Levy leaned across the sofa until their noses touched. Juvia inhaled as if suddenly fighting for air.

"I like you too, Juvia. I'd like to date you. Not just Lucy: you too. Okay?"

"Okay."

Levy kissed her.

Juvia's skin smelled cool and natural, like springtime. Like rain. Juvia kissed like she wanted to: like every move of their lips thrilled her, like it was turning her on how many excited noises Levy was making as kisses turned into making out. And goddess, Juvia tasted amazing.

There was a surprised, "Oh!" They broke apart.

Lucy stood there, looking soft and vulnerable. Happiness threatened to burst in Levy's stomach seeing her there, their circle complete.

Juvia said, in a voice that was incredibly seductive, "We've been getting acquainted. We saved a spot for you..."

Chapter Text

Cana had just finished writing another note to Mira when Erza sat down next to her. Cana stuffed the paper away hurriedly—it was risky to do this in the guild, of all places.

Turning, she met a familiar expression of dolor. It was Tuesday, after all.

Erza put her head on her arms and stared down at the wood grains of the bar.

"What's up, Erza?" Cana asked, catching Mira's eye across the room and getting an understanding nod. (Thank the Goddess; on the same page today.)

"I need help," Erza said.

"Blunt as always." Cana grinned. "What kind of help?"

"My mother."

"Oh."

Cana glanced around. Irene had an uncanny way of seeing everything.

"She's not here," Erza said without lifting her head. "I already checked."

Mira brought them water and Cana gave her a grateful smile that had insects jumping inside her because dammit what if Mira could tell Cana was her admirer, she could so tell, gods this was such a—

Erza. Problem. Focus.

"So. Rocks in the relationship?" Cana guessed. Irene wasn't the easiest person to get along with. Fucking Dragon Slayers.

"No, actually, she and I are fine." Erza heaved a sigh and straightened. "But she mentioned the other day how nice it would be to have grandchildren and…"

"Shit. The offspring talk."

"Yeah. It was the worst possible timing, too. I'd just seen a cute woman walking by, and was about to point her out, but she got there first and noted how the woman had a baby with her, and weren't babies cute, and she wished there were more babies around, and would I ever consider… She asked—nicely—if I was going to date ever." Erza shifted. "And I didn't have the heart to tell her I have, in fact, dated, and none were people who can get me pregnant."

Cana gave her a strange look.

"She doesn't know you're gay?"

"Basically."

"No offense, but that seems a pretty essential fact."

As Erza laughed wryly, Cana nodded hello to Freed, who had approached the bar nearby with Laxus.

"We only just reconnected," Erza said. "I've been focusing on magic and hearing about battles she's been in and going on missions with her and all the stuff we have in common. I wasn't exactly thinking much about making out with ladies, or talking about said ladies with her."

"Fair."

"So…what do I do?"

"Well…" Cana tapped her lips. "I understand the whole reconnecting with a parent thing, so you'd think I'd have great coming-out advice. But my reputation with women was pretty well-known before Gildarts knew I was his runt, so there was never much to say about it.

"And Gray apparently has been gay as fuck since he popped out: used to go around attacking boys and kissing them when he was little, so he never had to come out to Silver. When he was five and they explained to him where babies come from, they spent even more time explaining that two daddies can love each other and be intimate too."

"Gray attacking boys with kisses." Erza chortled. "Of course he did."

"But back to your problem…you really think she'll have an issue with it? Irene seems plenty normal. I didn't take her for the procreation-only camp, but I guess she is several hundred years old."

Erza laughed for real, a rich sound.

"Things weren't that different four hundred years ago, Cana. No, she's not a procreative extremist. But she'd still like to see the line continue. It's not just the one encounter—I know from a myriad of tiny things. I think she feels like she screwed the world up and…she says often I'm the one good thing she's done. Grandchildren would make her feel like that good has multiplied.

"She also doesn't want me to ever regret things the way she does. She says children make you better, but also are a way to leave something even better than yourself behind. I get it. I do. And I wouldn't mind obliging her. But unless I get knockout drunk, I'm never doing it with a man."

"The old man was the same," Laxus rumbled.

Both women started, Cana more than a little surprised he'd spoken. Leaning on the bar with Freed beside him, he gave them an easy smile and scooted over next to them.

"Master…wanted great-grandchildren?" Erza asked as he sat.

"Yeah. I had to break it to him that he wouldn't get his blonde miniatures. Because, let's face it, that's never going to happen."

"I understand that feeling," Erza nodded reverently. "What did he say? What did you say?"

"Basically that. He mentioned great-grandkids for the hundredth time, and I told him I like only guys and it wasn't going to happen. I asked him to adjust his expectations and not put the pressure on, because I don't like disappointing him."

Erza nodded, relief in her eyes. "I'm not strictly opposed to kids, if I got with a woman who had some, for instance. But I'm not looking for any."

Laxus crossed his ankles and looked down.

"Yeah. Something like that."

Freed pressed a hand over his mouth to stifle laughter. Cana blinked at him, but the other two didn't notice.

"How did Master reply?" Erza prompted.

"He just said, 'Then you can adopt,' and smiled like that settled everything." Laxus blushed. "Dunno where he gets his ideas. But if it makes him happy, he can think what he likes."

On Laxus's other side, Freed's shoulders shook harder, near to tears now.

"And will you?" Erza asked. "Adopt?"

Laxus's face went through a strange series of emotions.

"Ask me again when I'm thirty and maybe I can give you timetable."

She and Laxus both chuckled at that, and Freed finally let the guffaws burst out of him. Laxus looked around at him in bewilderment.

"S-Sorry," Freed chortled, waving a hand. "It's nothing; continue."

Laxus narrowed his eyes, but said, "Anyway, Jijii agreed he'd been pressuring me and apologized. We actually had a good talk out of it about the future and his own life choices…"

As Erza and Laxus kept talking, Freed came over to sit beside Cana.

"Laxus adores children," Freed whispered. "What Master doesn't know is he always planned to adopt. Ever since I've known him."

"Really?"

"Oh yes. He won't even be thirty when he can't stand it anymore and decides to start a family."

Cana chuckled. "I had no idea. What are your thoughts on kids?"

"I'm open. But wary. Won't become a parent until—and unless—I know I want to."

"Don't you have a thousand siblings?"

"Yes," Freed sighed. "Several have their own kids. I enjoy being an entle. But Goddess knows I'd never have more than two of my own. I'd go nuts. You can't love them all when you have eleven."

His drooping sigh spoke volumes.

"Your family here loves you," Cana said.

When she put an arm around him, he hugged her back.

"Yeah." He matched her smile. "That saved me in many ways. And I love spending time with Laxus's family, too."

"Isn't it just him and Master?"

"That's why I love it."

Cana laughed and Freed squeezed her, grinning.

"Freed, what are you saying about me?" Laxus called.

Cana tried and failed to keep a straight face. "He's saying nothing."

"Freed. Seriously. Giving away my secrets." Laxus rolled his eyes, clearly amused, then turned back to Erza. "Hope that answered your questions."

"Yeah, that was really helpful. Thanks."

Erza and Laxus smiled at each other, both of their normally closed-off faces open. Cana was moved by this vulnerability. You could never guess the peculiarities of anyone's story.

A dry cough proceeded Master Makarov climbing up from behind the bar, brushing dirt off his knees as he sat beside Freed's arm. The rest of them jumped at his sudden appearance.

"Jijii!" Laxus exclaimed. "How long were you down there?"

"Long enough." Grinning, Makarov turned to Freed. "Tell me more about this adoption scheme of his. And how can I bribe you to marry him?"

"Oi!" Laxus interrupted, hurrying over and wrapping his arms around Freed. "You're going to scare off my partner, you insensitive codger."

"I doubt it," Makarov said, eying them. Freed had leaned into Laxus's chest, fingers twining through his as he smiled serenely.

Cana was tempted to make fun of them for PDA, except they looked so good together.

"Don't let this one get away from you," Makarov told Laxus, winking at Freed.

"I'm not going anywhere," Freed assured. "Unless there are children involved…then no promises."

He laughed merrily as Laxus groaned.

"See what you started, Jijii?" Laxus said.

Master smiled, then turned serious.

"I do want to say… Having only one child doesn't guarantee they'll turn out okay, Freed. Nor that you'll be a good parent. I should know." He sighed, then glanced at Erza, and Cana thought of Irene. "On the other hand, all four of you are proof that good people can come from shitty or absent parents. Don't sell yourself short, or make decisions out of fear. Make decisions because you want to: because it is in your heart to do it.

"That goes for all of you, in all things. Don't let fear of hurting Irene make calls on your relationship, Erza. And Laxus, I know you're no longer afraid of turning out like your father, but make sure that old fear never creeps back in when you have children; fear is what made him so angry all the time. Freed, don't avoid having children out of fear, but also don't have them because I tease you or you're afraid of losing the person you love. You're smart, so I'm sure I don't have to tell you that."

Freed was flushed (possibly from the proximity to Laxus rather than embarrassment); Laxus still held him close. Erza blinked rapidly before coming over to hug Makarov.

"Thank you, Master."

Cana stared down in thought. She didn't usually make decisions out of fear. She'd been confident most of her life. But according to Elfman, Mira hadn't been. Maybe this was another angle on their miscommunication problem. Maybe Mira was afraid of rejection. Okay, maybe Cana was too. Maybe she just needed to…


For the second time in as many weeks, Freed watched Cana whirl and walk away.

"What is it?" he called after her, but she waved a hand without turning.

"Remembered something," she said. She sounded flustered.

He twisted to watch her go, but was met with Laxus's face instead. Catching his boyfriend's eye, Freed smiled and kissed his cheek.

"Sorry for teasing you earlier."

"Forgive you," Laxus grumbled.

When Freed turned back around, he found Master's smile hadn't abated.

"Are you still coming for dinner tonight?" the old man asked.

Laxus nodded. "As long as you're still letting us do the cooking."

Makarov beamed wider. "Of course. It's my secret ploy to get free food."

"To get Freed food, more like," Erza put in. "I've heard stories about your cooking, Justine."

He blushed.

"It's nothing, really. Just a hobby."

"Don't be so modest." Makarov turned to Erza with a reverent look. "It's everything."


Laxus wasn't the only person in the guild getting kissed, and he would've been jealous to learn the other couple currently doing so was not restraining things to cheek-kisses.

Juvia had her fingers touching lightly at Lucy's chin, lips dancing very slowly across hers, which was driving Lucy crazy in the best way. Juvia could tell just from the sound of Lucy's breathing. Walking her fingers gently down Lucy's throat earned a stuttered inhale, and then Juvia pulled away, grinning when Lucy tried to follow her.

"I've been thinking," Juvia said.

"Yeah?" Turned-on as she was, Lucy still gave Juvia her full attention, eyes wide like whatever Juvia was about to say would be the most interesting thing in the world. This was something Juvia loved about Lucy. She did it with everyone, and it made every person who interacted with her feel special.

"About our girlfriend."

"I hope she's back from her job soon," Lucy sighed.

"Why, your other side getting cold at night?" Juvia teased.

"Yes."

They both laughed.

"You were thinking?" Lucy prompted.

"Wondering if there's a way for three people to kiss at once."

Tilting her head, Lucy looked thoughtful.

"That's an awful lot of noses and jaws getting in the way. On the other hand, mouths are nice and pliable," she grinned. "Don't you have experience with this?"

"Not with this. Maru, Aria, and I tended to take turns. You know how it is; you're not all interested on the same night…"

Lucy coughed. "That hasn't been my experience."

"No," Juvia smiled, "it hasn't."

"All the more reason we need Levy back. I'm half-convinced Gajeel signed this long mission for their team in order to make her spill all her news to him."

"He loves gossip," Juvia sighed. "He doesn't come off as that kind of person, but back in Phantom, he knew everything about everyone."

Lucy snorted a laugh.

As the blonde stared off with a smile, Juvia bit her lip, thinking.

"I think," she said, "if we tried…"

She dove in for another kiss and Lucy squeaked in happy startlement.

At some point, Juvia forgot about trying to find an angle that would allow a third person into the kiss, and just enjoyed Lucy's mouth.

It took the rain woman a moment to notice the chuckle behind her. When she did, she recognized it immediately as Gray's.

He was passing behind her, and on a whim, Juvia stuck her hand out, palm up, behind her back.

Gray gave her a low-five and kept on walking; when Juvia caught sight of him out of the corner of her eye, she saw he had his arm around Natsu.

Everyone was coupling up happily. Juvia blamed Cana.


Mira's pulse sped up when she found another note.

There wasn't time to read it just then—a dozen younger, newer guildmembers had just returned from a job and they ordered a lot of food. Lisanna and Kinana were both on a job today—teaming up together, ironically. So she was all on her own. There were guildmembers she hadn't even said hello to yet. That was a travesty that almost never happened when Mira ran the bar.

The note sat burning a hole in her pocket while she flipped spatulas and hunted down clean mugs. She couldn't decide who the author was. At this point, the most likely culprits were her siblings. The notes were just too personal, like the author knew her well, and it had to be someone who had noted her mood lately, too, which has far as she knew was basically no one.

It could be her siblings, or it could also be Freed. He knew her mood plenty well; they'd taken to having lunch once a week like they used to, and the last meal had been a mix of grinning over Laxus-related stories and moaning over the decrepit state of her relationships.

There were plenty of people she knew it wasn't: Lucy was a good friend but had been too distracted lately. Makao was a dear and tended to do sweet things just when she needed it, but he wasn't one to keep quiet about it.

And Cana: their interactions had improved to the level of awkward smiles and nervous stutters, like they were tiptoeing around each other. Mira was hopeful. They still needed to clear the air, but thanks to the notes Mira was beginning to think she could actually do that and survive.

How many apologies and attempts not to offend would such a conversation involve? It made her exhausted thinking about it, which was sad, because Cana had never exhausted her.

Cana was always the one who made everything lighter.

As Mira sifted through friends, she landed on Evergreen. The woman had been trying to apologize for past grievances and become friends now that she and Elfman were dating.

So that expanded the list to: Elfman, Lisanna, Freed, or Evergreen. Or maybe Kinana…

Ugh. It was too confusing to try to puzzle through.

When at long last she got a chance to unfold the latest note, it read: You can do anything. I believe in you.

She smiled. In this case, 'anything' would mean finally having it out with Cana.

Chapter Text

Drinking club occurred without Cana.

Not by anyone's choice. She just wasn't there. Gajeel, who sat near the bar, slowly became a convergence point, people drifting to nearby spots at the long table. Though he wouldn't have been happy about this had he noticed, he was too deep in conversation with Levy.

Gajeel had of course noted Cana's absence—how could he not?—but it was a different woman's name which finally dragged his attention away from his teammate.

"…haven't seen Mira all day," Freed was saying to Lucy a few seats down. "Do you know where she is?"

"Not today," Lucy replied.

He grunted. "And not even Cana to talk to. That's dull."

Laxus hmphed a protest. Levy, who was watching this exchange with Gajeel, laughed under her breath.

"Cana's on a job," Juvia said from Lucy's other side. "That's what I heard from Gray."

"What?" Gray called from further down, past Gajeel and Levy, Bickslow and Ever (discussing pranks), and Elfman and Natsu (discussing fights)—honestly, the ice mage had good hearing.

"Just passing on what you said," Juvia called back. "About Cana being on a job."

"I don't know for certain," he said. By this point they'd interrupted all the conversations between them. "That's what Gildarts said at breakfast. He's…usually trustworthy."

"Is Cana okay?" Evergreen broke in. "She's not in trouble?"

"Are you kidding? It's only been one day," Gray said, as half a dozen people turned to owl him. "Totally normal."

"Yes, but…" Ever said.

"But it's Tuesday," Laxus finished for her from the opposite end of the table.

Ever pointed at him. "Exactly."

"She's an independent person," Natsu laughed.

"So?"

Natsu rolled his eyes, but Juvia was nodding.

"Do you think she's okay?" she asked Freed, in what would've been an undertone, except the whole table was in on it now.

"She's fine," Gray and Gajeel protested together, then scowled at each other.

"She's gone…and Mira's gone," Levy mused. "Huh."

"What's that supposed to insinuate?" Laxus snorted.

"Oh, come on. We aren't all blind here, are we?"

A timid pause followed, broken when Loke materialized in a shower of light and plopped down onto the bench in the exact middle of the table.

"What?" he asked, grinning around. "I thought overheard the sounds of mischief."

Lucy laughed, followed by both of her girlfriends.

"Don't pretend you don't know what I'm talking about," he told them, smiling.

"Oh my goddess, Loke," Levy chortled.

Grinning, he raised his eyebrows at Gajeel directly across from him.

"So? What are we going to do about those two?" Loke asked.

"I already did my piece for Cana," Gajeel grunted. "I'm not meddling more than that."

"So that was your idea for them to communicate?" Erza asked suddenly, rising from another table and joining the huddle.

"Yeah."

A brief silence followed.

"How on earth could we 'help' Cana and Mira?" Natsu asked. "I assume that's what you're talking about: how to get them together."

"Not force them, just…nudge them," Levy said.

"Seriously?" Juvia looked around mortified, seeking sympathy from Lucy and Freed on her other side, but the two shrugged awkwardly.

"Calling the kettle black, aren't you?" Freed asked. "It's not like Cana doesn't meddle."

"Mira too, for that matter," Laxus added. His shifting made Gajeel and Natsu chortle.

"They just need to talk," Gray said with a shrug. "Isn't that what anyone needs?"

"Yeah, but they're not talking," Gajeel rumbled, and the table went quiet.

"They're distinctly not talking, I think," Erza said quietly.

"Dammit, really?" Loke said. "I didn't even notice that. I thought they were best friends?"

"Best friends can fight," Evergreen said, punching Bickslow beside her as if to prove her point.

He pouted. "You want me to read their souls next time they're in and see if I can tell what emotions have been bruised?"

"That's awfully invasive," Gray said in surprise.

Bickslow shrugged. "You all are the ones who brought up meddling. Besides, not like I don't see that shit all the time anyway; I just don't tell you."

Levy startled.

"Duh. Dragon Slayers! What've you smelled?"

Everyone glanced between the three men.

"Um," Laxus and Gajeel said.

"The usual," Natsu said. "It's not like they're secretly making out or anything. Or drowning their sorrows in booze or anything else out of the ordinary. Just the usual hints of food, sleep, and the places they've been. I guess Cana's smelled less like Fairy Hills."

"She's been home with us instead," Gray said, and Natsu nodded.

"Why does she even still have a room there?" Lucy asked.

Gajeel coughed. "I mean…I think that's obvious."

"Yeah, she walks Mira home," Elfman said in a quiet rumble. Everyone looked at him, and he added, "Sometimes, anyway."

"Okay," Loke said, looking studious, "so when all's normal, they get time alone together. Why can't we just make sure that happens? Hold them both back at the guild until dark, and when Mira goes to leave, suggest Cana walk her back…"

"They totally won't see through that," Evergreen said sarcastically.

"Doesn't matter if they do. It just matters that they get to talk alone."

"Hold on," Freed said. "Step back. We can't just throw them together: there are other things between them besides lack of opportunity. Forcing them to talk before they're ready could end in disaster, and then you'd make everything go backward."

Juvia, Gray, and Gajeel nodded. Everyone else looked confused.

"What I mean," Freed said, exasperated, "is nudge them to deal with their personal issues instead. That's what's keeping them apart. They have to deal with those before anything else."

"Makes sense," Loke said. "Does anyone know what those are?"

"Mira is insecure, for one," Laxus said.

Erza gaped. "Mirajane Strauss?"

"Yep."

"She doesn't think she's worth it," Evergreen put in. "Don't look at me so surprised: it's written all over her face. She tries so hard, but I don't think she realizes that she succeeds without trying."

"At what?" Gray asked.

Evergreen shrugged, but Lucy spoke up.

"Anything." Lucy bit her lip. "I think it's just general insecurity. She probably doesn't think she's good enough, or helpful enough, or kind enough, or brave enough, or interesting enough…"

"Huh. And you think you know your friends," Loke said. "Now I'm feeling guilty."

"Maybe we should all feel a bit guilty," Juvia pointed out.

There was a beat of silence.

"So that's Mira," Lucy said softly. "What's up with Cana?"

Freed opened his mouth, but Gajeel beat him to it.

"She stopped drinking."

Fewer people registered shock than one might've expected.

"I noticed that," Loke said suspiciously. "Anyone know why?"

Eyes flicked around the table, slowly gathering on Gray, who was fiddling with his fingers.

"She's…"

"She's depressed, isn't she?" Freed asked.

Gray nodded.

"Alcohol is a depressant," Levy, Lucy, and Juvia said in chorus, then looked at each other and blushed.

"Smart to stop," Levy went on. "But damn, cold turkey. That can be rough."

"It was," Gray admitted, looking down, "but we spent the first few days hiding out at home. She's doing better now."

Lazily, Natsu propped his head on Gray's shoulder for comfort.

"The urge to drink will never go away," Gajeel said. "Trust me."

"Damn," Laxus said. "She's strong."

"This is all true," Freed broke in, "but avoiding alcohol isn't what's keeping her from Mira. She's happier now, even if she's fighting off the urge to drink."

"Is she insecure as well?" Bickslow asked.

Lucy shook her head. "I don't think that's it. It's a probably mix: she doesn't know how to proceed with Mira, may not know for sure what Mira's or her own feelings are, and is likely still experiencing depression even without alcohol. Depression is disembodying and saps your energy."

"She's writing those notes to Mira," Erza pointed out. "Let's not pretend we don't know about that."

At several exclamations of surprise, she raised her eyebrows.

"You really haven't seen her scribbling away on little sheets of paper when she thinks nobody's looking? And those little sheets of paper ending up behind the bar where they get into Mira's possession?"

"I noticed," Laxus rumbled. "Mira has no idea."

"Ugh, and it's not our job to tell her," Loke said, "easy as that would make things."

"Yeah, that's definitely not," Gajeel growled, crossing his arms. "That's her secret."

"My guess," Freed said slowly, "is that Cana sees the notes as a way to gage Mira's mood, and since she hasn't gotten the reaction she expected, she's letting things lie."

"I think," Elfman said, and suddenly everyone went quiet.

"Oh, shit," Juvia said. "You're not going to tell your sister all this, are you?"

"No. I want her to be happy too."

Elfman inhaled.

"I think Cana is trying to respect Mira's boundaries. They've both had problems doing that in the past. We all know Cana is forward in her relationships, yeah? Mira is not. I've…seen them miscommunicate. I think Cana has realized that, and is trying to give Mira the space to be herself, trying not to push her into anything Neechan isn't ready for. The other day Cana kept asking me covert questions about Mira's past relationships. She wants to do this in a way that will work. But neither of them knows what that is."

Thoughtful silence followed.

"That," Loke said, "is incredibly insightful."

"So what is their relationship style?" Ever asked. "If they didn't any complicated history…?"

"That is what we don't know," Freed said. "And why we can't just set them up on a blind date with each other."

Gajeel nodded. "Gotta make them figure it out themselves."

"So what do we do to help?" Natsu asked, chin on Gray's shoulder.

"Honestly," Lucy said, "why don't we take a page from their book? Cana has been feeding Mira compliments and trying to get her out of this insecurity funk she's been in—I mean, insecurity is normal, but Mira's been awfully down on herself lately."

Freed nodded. "And she's been very careful around Cana because she doesn't want to say the wrong thing."

"Right," Lucy said. "So let's encourage them. Let Mira know she's awesome—which we should do anyway. And encourage Cana to be brave by letting her know we love her. It's—"

"—what she's done for everyone else," Loke finished. "Accepted everyone as they are."

"Yes."

"Nobody can be as good at that as Cana," Gajeel muttered.

"No, but we can try," Juvia said, smiling at him.

"Okay," Gray chuckled, "be nice to my sister: I think I can do that."


Cana returned from her job late that night. Since it was a boring old Tuesday, the guild was mostly empty as she wended her way to the counter.

Mira came out from the back with her arms full, stacked too high with clean plates for her to see over. After she put them away and closed the cupboard, she stood there wiping her hands on her skirt.

"Hey, Mira," Cana said.

Mira jumped and squeaked.

"Goddess, are you okay?" Cana asked.

"Sorry, yes, you just startled me," Mira said, flushed. "You wanted to mark your job as completed?"

"Um, yes, but that's not why I came over here."

Mira had already reached under the bar to grab the folder of active jobs.

"It isn't?" she asked, sifting through papers.

"No."

Cana waited until Mira had marked a few things on one sheet and put the folder down again. Looking up, Mira seemed to focus on her.

"Wait…no? What are you here for, then?"

"I came for you. To talk to you."

Mira's swallow was loud. "Oh."


Mira's palms were sweaty. She wiped them on her skirt.

"What did you need?" she asked.

Cana was leaning on the bar looking as confident as ever, expression serious.

"Can I help you clean?"

Mira blinked. "Yes." She glanced around: only two other people were in the hall. "I guess it's that time."

"It's way past that time," Cana said, smiling—the old, soft smile Mira once knew.

A wave of unidentified emotion swooped through Mira's body.

As Cana grabbed a broom, Mira's hands found a cloth, began wiping down the bar, going through the usual motions. Just like they always used to. It was as if nothing were different, and she wanted to keep it that way, to have their quiet, contented time together and to appreciate Cana being near.

But she couldn't, because she was scared that come tomorrow morning, it would all be a lie. That as soon as they tried to make small talk, things would unravel.

Observing the last guildmember waving and slipping out, Mira asked, "What's going on, Cana?"

Silence stretched. Mira was glad her hands were busy. She didn't have to look into Cana's eyes and be afraid.

"I miss you," Cana said quietly.

Mira halted.

"What?"

She whipped around and found Cana with her hands on the broom, eyes on the floor.

"I'm sorry for whatever I did to offend you," Cana said. "Which is a really awful apology, I know. I know I hurt you when I got angry that one time, and whenever I say flirty things, and with giving you the silent treatment for a few weeks—I'm really sorry: that was immature. But that's not everything. I don't know what else I did, but I'm pretty sure there's lots more because—"

"Cana."

Mira's voice was breathy and Cana stopped talking.

Arm tight across her stomach, Mira thought through all the things she wanted to say.

"Were you really badly hurt that day when Freed was fighting?"


Cana's mouth opened in surprise. It wasn't a question she was expecting.

"I mean," Mira interrupted herself, "I'm not asking. I know you were. Weren't you."

Cana looked at the floor.

"Yeah," she said. She didn't want Mira to feel guilty. She'd dealt with her anger; dwelling would just make her ache.

"Because," Mira said in a high voice, "Freed told me your ribs were broken."

"A rib. It got cracked. Gray fixed me up though. I'm okay." She gave Mira a weak smile—the other woman was looking on the edge of tears.

"I'm so sorry," Mira gasped out. "I didn't know. I didn't let you finish talking—I just walked away and…I am so sorry, Cana. I'm so, so sorry."

Mira covered her face and burst into tears.

Jerking, Cana dropped the broom and ran over to awkwardly pat her on the shoulder, not sure what to do or how to comfort her—

And Mira was sobbing, and Cana decided to fuck it. She wrapped Mira in a hug.

Mirajane leaned into her heavily, face tucked against Cana's neck, trying to wipe away the tears that kept coming.

"I thought you weren't taking the situation seriously—that because it involved alcohol…" Mira gave a loud sniff. "I essentially assumed you were being a jerk, and I can't believe I did that, because that's not what I think of you at all. I don't—I don't think that."

"It's okay, lovely," Cana said, leaning her face into Mira's hair and rubbing her back, holding her in a solid grip.

She liked having Mira against her, getting to comfort her—it gave Cana strength. Like she was valuable. Like she could do something right for once.

"I stopped drinking," Cana said. "I guess you might've figured that out. It was kind of, I guess, um, not really helping, so I quit…"

"Darling, you're not a drunk," Mirajane said with a hiccough. "You are—were—just a sort-of drunk. And you're never bad. You don't do bad things when you drink. I get jealou— I don't know why I acted weird about it. I'm so sorry. It's not my place, and that was me overstepping boundaries to try and corral you into not drinking as much."

"I don't know, Mira," Cana said. "I think you maybe did it the wrong way, but…I am different when I drink. I'm not myself, and the other me does things that this me doesn't agree with.

"Mira…it's the job of family to push the issue occasionally when we need help and don't ask for it. I know Gray was on the point of doing that. So I don't think it was exactly wrong of you, just maybe your approach? Like maybe if you asked why I was drinking instead of trying to make me stop. I kinda…I felt like a little kid."

Mira pressed herself closer against Cana's neck.

"I'm sorry. That was wrong. I didn't know how to talk to you."

Cana laughed. "Just talk."

"But you're you," Mira sniffed. "You're all radiant and have all these people who are always hanging on what you say. I didn't think what I have would be important."

"What you say is always important to me. Always." Cana pulled back until she could see Mira's eyes, wet and hopeful.

"So why did you stop drinking?" Mira asked. "Wait, is it okay to ask?"

"Of course it's okay." Cana smiled and squeezed her. It was so good to finally do this. "I wasn't feeling good, and that's why I was drinking so much."

"You've always drunk a lot."

"Yeah, well, I haven't felt good for a while." Cana scratched her head and avoided Mira's eyes, though she didn't miss Mira's expression going solemn. "I told Gray: it makes me numb. The buzz makes things seem easier to deal with. But alcohol also makes it all worse in my brain and I kept on feeling not-good and having to drink. And so that's why I quit."

"Wow."

Cana wasn't prepared for Mira's face coming very close, eyes staring fixedly at her.

"That's really awesome, Cana. And brave. I'm impressed. And happy for you."

"Thanks," Cana stuttered, trying to look away, but it was hard when Mira was looking into her eyes like that.

"Can we do another hug?" Mira asked.

"Always." Cana embraced her tightly in relief, Mira's cheek against hers instead of nose to nose.

They stayed that way for a long minute.

"So I guess we're both sorry," Mira said. "And I hope you can forgive me."

"I do," Cana said. "Do you forgive me?"

"Yes. But really, what for?"

"Flirting to get a drink; being a petty jerk; not listening very well or hearing you out; and kind of avoiding you for a few days after the whole Freed-fight-injury thing. And for getting so mad at you when Laxus wanted to take him home—I think I was angry for other reasons, and I was in a lot of pain, though that isn't an excuse. I took it all out on you. I'm sorry, and I want to do better."

"I do too."

"You already are better," Cana said, smiling. "You're an angel."

Mira snorted a laugh, and it was so like the old times that Cana could've cried—the happy kind. Comfort radiated through her, the evening suddenly golden. Everything would be okay.

"Friends again?" Cana said.

"Friends."

Giggling still, they pulled apart. As they picked up broom and cloth to begin cleaning again, the air felt lighter and both were grinning.

"I'm glad you're here," Mira said shyly. "I haven't had any help, and I've been so tired from things with us that I haven't given the hall a thorough cleaning."

"No kidding," Cana said. "It's been dusty enough in the back to make me sneeze. I blame Natsu always shaking the building when he starts fights."

"When were you in the back?" Mira asked.

Cana opened her mouth. She blinked. Well…

This was going to be interesting to explain.

Chapter Text

Cana entered the guild with a determined step and looked to the bar where Mira stood. It was just past noon, the guild packed and loud as Cana walked forward.

It was time. Cana tried to steel herself.

Mira's eyes flitted over to her, turned up in a brief smile, and looked back down. A note in her hands was intimately familiar to Cana, who had written it yesterday. Mira appeared to be poring over it.

"Mira," Cana said, leaning on the bar, "we need to talk."

Mira's lips twitched. It was a funny little expression, impossible for anyone to guess what she was thinking. Cana was guessing anyway.

"Please?" she added.

"What's up?" Mira asked.

"Can we…go somewhere private?"

"No."

"Ugh." Cana pinched her forehead. "You're making me do this right here?"

"It's lunchtime, in case you hadn't noticed, and they're keeping me busy."

The pair didn't seem to realize when several heads turned to watch them, or Gray edging closer along the bar.

"Goddess, okay," Cana exhaled, "where to start. I guess with this: I wrote the letters, Mira."

Bomb dropped.

"What—? You mean these?" Mira waved the piece of paper incredulously. "These notes?"

"Yeah, the notes."

Mira closed her eyes, swallowed, collecting herself. One hand landed on her hip.

"Explain," she said, eyes flashing open again, and Cana found it very hard to go on with those blue spotlights turned on her.

"I…you seemed down, okay?" Lamest words ever.

"So you wanted to cheer me up? Why didn't you just say these things to me?" Mira was still incredulous, voice rising; her eyes were wide and sad. "Or how about this: just ask me what's wrong?"

"Fair question." Cana's voice was shaky, so she took a breath. This was hard, even with practice. "We were kind of not talking…"

Mira drummed her fingers on her hip.

"…and I kindoflikeyou." Cana's words shrank into a near-squeak.

"O-Oh."

Mira blinked, looking realistically and quite persuasively surprised. Glancing away for the first time, Mira bit her lip, appearing uncertain.

"P-Please explain."

"What's there to explain?" Cana asked, words growing stronger. "I like you."

"You…" Mira's arms wrapped around herself in a hug. "But I thought you hated me."

Cana's mouth opened, closed.

"I don't hate you. I could never… What I can't survive is your fucking judgment. I have a crush on you; how do you think it felt when you called me a whore?"

"I never called you anything like that!"

"Yes, you fucking have. Leering is a word that's come up a lot lately when you talk to me."

"It's just… But… You've always stared at all the women." Mira's hands dropped to her sides, limp. "All the other women but me. You don't even notice me."


Entering the guild the previous Thursday, Cana had seen Mira and beckoned her out the side door to Their Spot. Their Spot (as of two days before) was in the back hallway of Fairy Tail, where a pile of old barrels provided seating and a solid wood door gave privacy from dragon senses. A perfect place to sit and chat by themselves while Mira could stay close to the bar.

"So my brother told me that everyone else is trying to get us together."

"What?!"

"My drinking club people," Cana said. "They think we need to work through everything and date each other."

"Oh, Goddess," Mira laughed.

"Yeah."

"What do you say," Mira said with a sly smile, "we get them back? Plot against the plotters?"

Cana grinned. "I hoped you'd say that. What's the plan, o wise woman?"

Mira snorted.

"You said Gray told you about this?"

"Yeah. He had this weird expression whenever he looked at me, was acting strangely bright. When I asked what was up, he broke immediately and told all. I'm a little surprised Elfman didn't crack."

"He can be surprisingly tight-lipped when he wants to be."

Cana nodded. "Gray said they were at first going to get me to walk you home at night to make us talk, but then they decided we have too many personal issues and so they're going to encourage us and compliment us and generally try and make us feel better about ourselves so that we deal with our shit and then fess up to each other."

Mira burst out in a laugh.

"Wow."

"You're telling me," Cana chortled.

"So they want us to get along." Mira pursed her lips. "I think I know exactly what we can do."

She looked at Cana with a demonic grin, and Cana cackled. Time for fun.


"Okay, Cana: we finished cleaning. You promised."

Cana glanced around. Despite Tuesday-night-cleaning having technically turned into Wednesday-morning-cleaning, she wasn't tired.

She'd promised Mira to explain the 'story' of why she'd been behind the bar...after they finished cleaning, both to give herself time to collect her thoughts and because this deserved their full attention.

"Is there somewhere to sit?" she asked, looking around as they walked up the hallway from the rear exit, where they'd shaken out two full dustpans and piled five disgusting rags to be laundered later.

"Here." Mira motioned to a collection of discarded oddments where the hallway ended in a sort of open storage nook. Mira hopped up on a barrel and Cana followed suit—regretting a moment later that she hadn't sat on the one next to Mira. She was directly in her sights instead.

Cana found herself sweating. So much for being ready.

"Mira, I know you've been getting little notes. The truth is they're from me," Cana said, gaining strength when Mira's only reaction was surprise, not anger. "We weren't talking, and I saw that you were down, and I wanted you to know you're loved and cared for, even though I was still too mad to face you when I slipped that first one among the kegs."

"The 'you can do this' one?" Mira asked, turning pink.

"Yeah. Even when I'm mad at you, I still care—oof!"

Mira leapt off her barrel and flung her arms around Cana's neck.

"They were so sweet," Mira whispered in a rush. "I loved getting them. They made me feel so much better after I'd failed you so miserably when you broke your ribs."

"Cracked it. And just one," Cana corrected. "Anyway, you didn't fail me and you're not miserable at anything, so stop thinking that way."

She poked Mirajane on the nose and Mira gave a startled laugh. She had not relinquished her grip on Cana.

"Thank you," she said again, beaming.

"Wait, there's more."

"More?" Eyes widening, Mira returned dutifully to her barrel and perched on the edge.

"I—oh gods, this is hard," Cana whined, shutting her eyes. "Okay, ready? Um, I like you. I mean, as a friend, but also…in other ways. Gods," she exclaimed before Mira could say anything. "I have never been this embarrassed talking about my emotions. Anyway, that's the other reason I wrote the notes. I wanted you to know some of the feelings that I don't say."

"Oh," Mira said. When Cana opened her eyes, Mira looked shell-shocked. "But…why didn't you just ask me out? Isn't that what you'd normally do…with…a woman?"

"Good question."

Cana rubbed her face, an excuse to hide herself and her blush from Mira's gaze.

"We had such a great thing going—that's a terrible reason, I know. I haven't had a serious girlfriend in a while; I tend to go into the serious ones more slowly. Don't want to mess things up. Also, you're very…no, not closed-off, I'm not blaming you, don't look at me like that. You're shy about this stuff, Mira. Sometimes when I gave you compliments, it's like you didn't know what to say."

"That's because I don't," Mira squeaked, flustered. "I never know how to respond when a pretty woman tells me nice things. There's no manual for this stuff."

"That's the holy truth." Cana inhaled. "I heard from Elfman a little about the town you guys grew up in and how awful it was to people with our anatomy. He said you were ashamed for a while, but aren't anymore, and I realized—or assumed—that maybe that's why you don't react much, or well, when I do big flirty things around you. Right? You're maybe not as sure-footed about romantic stuff?"

"At all," Mira agreed. "I have zero confidence in dating. Ugh, you should see me when I try to ask women out. Actually, you should not. Ever. I'm terrible," Mira laughed. "Let's be honest, my dear: you are not terrible. You're the opposite: you're really smooth with women."

"I don't know why, but this sort of stuff has never made me nervous. Usually," Cana added, gripping her hands behind her back to hide their quivering. "Is it accurate to say you weren't picking up on my flirting with you?"

It was easier to treat this like an empirical conversation, something quantitative and slightly distanced from the actual emotions. Mira wasn't staring intensely at her anymore, and that helped.

But Cana still felt like she was holding her breath.

"Sometimes I didn't get it," Mira hedged. "I found your actions confusing. Sometimes it seemed like you were treating me—" Mira blushed, "—special. Other times, the switch flipped and I was just a friend again. And for the record, I…I wanted to ask you out, Cana. Many times. I never could get the courage. I always th-thought you'd reject me."

Mira's voice was high and tight, face turned to the side with a sad gaze and blushing skin.

Mira had wanted to ask her out. It was mutual.

The sound that came out of Cana's mouth was a nervous laugh.

"Then I guess you'll understand how anxious I am asking you this," she said, swallowing. "Would you maybe want to be my girlfriend?"

Mira bit her lip. She smiled and darted a look at Cana.

"Yes," she said in a small voice.

Cana's heart was beating double-time now. Rising, she moved next to where Mira sat, looking down at her from a couple handbreadths away. Mira's face turned up toward her like a flower following the sun.

"Really?" Cana whispered.

Mira nodded.

Cana put out her hand, hovering in question a few centimeters from where Mira's fingers gripped the barrel with white knuckles.

Releasing the wood, Mira took her hand.

Cana let out her breath and grinned down with a wordless laugh lighting her.

"Hi, darling," Mira said, reaching up to touch Cana's chin.

"Hey, lovely." Cana put her forehead against Mira's and they beamed at each other. "I like you a lot."


Cana let out a long sigh. She and Mira had finished planning their revenge-prank against the drinking club and now they sat side-by-side on the floor of Their Spot, the wall shivering every so often from whatever fight was happening in the main hall.

"I don't look forward to potentially hurting you," Cana said. "I don't want to cause you any more harm. Even in pretend."

"Love, I'll know that it's all just a gesture. How about this." Mira drew Cana against her chest and nudged Cana's cheek with her nose. "Say what you have to say knowing it's what I want—I really want to prank them good for this. If one of us says something which accidentally hurts the other, we'll be proud that our girlfriend is doing such a genuine job acting. Afterward, I'll hold you really close just like this and tell you it was all a lie and you did such a good job, and weren't their facial expressions funny, and damn we are good, and I love you very much. I'll soften everything with a hug and kiss, okay?"

"Okay."

Cana let Mira plant a number of promised kisses on her cheek, pout turning into a grin.

"How about," Cana said, "we practice? We'll come up with the insults we're going to say, but we'll make it clear we're joking so that we'll know it's a joke later. Like what if I called you…I don't know…"

"Judgmental," Mira supplied.

"…judgmental. And then I did this."

Twisting, Cana touched Mira's chin and kissed her languorously, lingering on her lips for a few minutes. Mira gasped into her mouth.

"Mm," Mira hummed as they broke apart. "If you're going to do that after each time, I want you to call me more names."

"How about: you give mixed signals?" Cana laughed as she said it: that more accurately described herself.

Finding Mira's lips, she gave her another long, slow kiss.

"Then I'll call you a flirt," Mira said, leaning into steal a kiss of her own, but Cana held up a finger.

"You can do better than that," she grinned. "This has to be realistic enough they'll believe it."

"Okay, drunk," Mira said, and kissed her.

"Obstinate." Cana kissed her back. "This is fun. Eavesdropper."

"Mmm, good one. Womanizer."

This time, Mira's tongue slipped lightly between Cana's lips.

Cana had to work hard to make her brain come up with another slur.

She settled for, "Bitch," and kissed Mira eagerly, easing a hand into her hair. Mira made a sound of desire, and minutes later they were still making out, fingers caressing the other's face.

Mira was a really good kisser. She knew how to savor the touch, to go slow and pour all her passion into it. Cana had never kissed anyone like her. As Mira's hand climbed her waist, Cana's insides melted. She nibbled Mira's tongue and got a happy sound in reply.

Inhaling, they looked at each other and busted up.

"I'm afraid you look exactly like you've been doing," Mira said.

"I'm a slut, after all," Cana winked. "Oo, there's a good one for your arsenal. Come on. There's a sink in the infirmary we can use to clean off smells."

"Oh goddess, I almost forgot about that."

"I'm learning all kinds of things about Dragon Slayer noses now that Natsu's over all the time," Cana said as they walked hand-in-hand down the hallway. "Did you know they can smell when we're menstruating?"

Mira gave a startled laugh. "That might be useful knowledge. Lucy and I eat twice as much during our periods; I could stock the pantry better."

"Another fun fact—and this one's a total secret, so don't tell anyone," Cana said. "When Natsu stays over, he and Gray disappear in the evenings…to go cuddle on Gray's bed. My little brother is still a virgin. And the thing is, I think he's totally happy with that for now."

"That might be the sweetest thing I ever heard."


The next Tuesday, as more and more of the guild began to surreptitiously observe their argument (they'd made sure to do this when everyone from the drinking club would be there, even Loke), Cana raised her voice a bit more.

"Clearly, I've noticed you," Cana snapped, pointing to the letters clutched in Mira's fist. Her voice pitched higher with imagined pain. "While I've been pouring out what I feel, you've been nothing but a bitch to me for almost a full month."

Mira's huge eyes filled with tears. Damn, she was good at this.

"I'm not a bitch," she said, voice thick.

"Gods fuck it all." Cana snatched up her purse and made a show of turning toward the door.

"Where are you going?"

"Somewhere people can't hurt me!"

She hadn't meant to scream it quite so loud. But the whole guild had definitely heard.

"No." At Mira's harsh voice, Cana slowly turned back around. The demoness stalked up to her, anger painting her features. Cana actually felt a little scared, but she trusted her girlfriend. Mira would protect her.

They both knew any minute someone would try to break up their argument.

"You don't get to walk out while we're in the middle of this, Cana Alberona."

"Yes, I fucking do!" Cana's voice dipped low into pleading. "Just let me go. Please, Mira."

But Mira reached for Cana's handbag and ripped it from her grasp.

Cana shrieked. "That's my magic!"

Mira held the purse close.

"Face me like a woman and tell me why you didn't just say all the stuff in these letters."

"This is why!" Cana yelled back. This speech she had memorized. "You pull shit like this and treat me like—like a child! You think you can fucking control me, cutting me off, trying to shame me into 'better' behavior, stealing my fucking belongings. It's messed-up. But I still love you; so I wrote it down so I wouldn't have to feel it anymore. But it didn't work, so I'm stuck here liking a woman who doesn't as much as respect my boundaries."

Mira's mouth opened and closed.

"Goddess," someone said.

The women whirled toward the source. The guildhall was dead silent.

"Can you two stop being melodramatic for a second?" Freed asked. "Please, just calm down. Let's all take a breath."

They both glared at him, but Cana was actually mad: melodramatic? Really?

Picking up an empty bottle, she lobbed it. It wouldn't hit him, of course: Freed ducked…and it crashed into the person behind him.

Hitting Laxus square on the nose.

"Oh fu—" Cana began.

Lightning raced her way. So fast, and yet long enough Cana had that horrible moment of anticipation, realizing she didn't have any cards, no defenses, nothing. The conduits of her magic were in the bag in Mira's hand.

The impact was too fast for her to register. Too fast for the pain to process at first: there was just the blackness of her eyelids and an overwhelming mess of sensations which were going to seriously hurt when her brain untangled them.

"What. The. Hell. Laxus!" Mirajane shouted.

That voice was much nearer than it should be. Tight, squeezing, wrapping around Cana's arms. In the space between heaving breaths, she opened her eyes and found beautiful skin centimeters from her nose, that fascinating purple crack slithering down Mira's cheek.

"Whoa."

Mira glanced at her, a beautiful smile curving her lips. "Hello."

Flying them down to solid ground, Mira held out Cana's purse.

"Thanks," Cana said, feeling wobbly.

Holding her hand, Mira faced off with Laxus again.

"Relax. It was just a spark," Laxus said. "It wouldn't have fucking hurt her: she's stronger than that."

"Wouldn't have hurt her?" The demon held up her arm, showing a black mark.

"She has magic!" Laxus said.

"No, I didn't." Cana held up the bag. "I do now."

Mira growled and crouched to lunge, drawing Laxus's attention, and in that instant, Cana threw her cards.

The water net would've been a great foil for lightning, but Freed, who was still at his boyfriend's side, stepped in front of the spell and sliced through it before it could fully set, water crashing across the guild in a wave. Cana heard a window shatter. Freed's sword moved as if drawing runes, and Mira screeched protectively.

Okay, this was fun.

When Mira threw darkness at Freed, he parried the spell away to crash through another wall while Laxus attacked, both of them smiling. Cheaters, with their perfect teamwork. Prepared this time, Cana stopped Laxus's electricity and redirected it through the ceiling. The air exploded with dust.

"Stop!"

It was Natsu shouting, he and Gray sliding between them. Seeing Gray's calm, focused face halted Cana momentarily, long enough for Gray to freeze her and Mira's feet to the floor. Mira jerked as if to break free, but took a breath and transformed back into her human self. When she sagged to the side, Cana caught her in both arms.

"Careful," she murmured.

"Thank you," Mira whispered with a special smile.

Cana's gut did pleasant backflips.

Natsu, meanwhile, had forced Freed to drop his sword by super-heating it, and was now having a staring contest with Laxus.

"This is stupid," Natsu said.

"You're stupid," Laxus retorted.

"You're going to destroy the guild."

"Oh my god," Freed chortled. "Natsu is stopping a brawl."

He doubled over laughing. The Salamander narrowed his eyes as if unsure what to do about this insult, but Laxus smirked and Cana and Mira glanced at each other and chuckled.

"You're right, Natsu," Mira said. "Sorry. We got carried away."

Natsu calmed down. "It's okay. I know it's fun. Just do it outside or something."

As Gray undid his ice, sound slowly returned to the hall.

"Are you okay?" Gray asked Cana.

"My toes are frostbitten."

He stuck his tongue out at her.

Cana's heart was beating quickly, Mira still wrapped in her arms and her eyebrows raised in question. Staring into those beautiful eyes, Cana tipped her back and kissed her.

Several exclamations went up. Cana soaked in Mira's solid warmth against her body, her lips sugary. Nipping her, Cana grinned and pulled back.

"You're a really good girlfriend," she said. "And a good actress. Damn, you can fake tears?"

"If you imagine yourself feeling the emotions of crying, it's easy."

"No, it's not. You're just amazing."

As Mira laughed, Juvia stalked over and asked, "Alright, how long?"

"A week," Cana admitted, unable to stop grinning.

"A week! You never said anything!" Gray said. "And you made me tell you what everyone had been planning, and then didn't react at all!"

"Of course not. Mira and I had to plot our revenge. Besides, Freed didn't tell anyone about his relationship for over two weeks," Cana said, squeezing Freed's arm when he walked over.

"I'm sorry for what I said just now," he told her. "I was really surprised the two of you would have a blowout in front of everyone."

"Sorry for throwing a bottle at you," Cana replied.

"All's forgiven," Laxus said from Freed's other side, slightly muffled from the hand over his nose. "Mira, can I get some ice?"

Before Mira could move out from under Cana's arm, Gray handed him a chunk.

"Thanks."

"Shit, is it broken?" Cana asked.

"Nope, just bleeding a little."

"Cana." Freed put his hands on his hips in mock-fury. "You're marking up my boyfriend's pretty face."

Cana glanced up at the Dragon Slayer. "Um, he kinda already was."

"Admit it, you like me this way," Laxus said, smiling at Freed.

Freed blushed.

Gajeel, sitting next to Juvia and her girlfriends, finally spoke.

"So if it was all a ruse, how did you manage to hide it from me?"

"Yeah!" Natsu said. "I haven't smelled a thing."

"And I can tell that wasn't your first kiss," Gajeel added.

"It's called being careful," Cana said, rolling her eyes. "We washed off scents whenever we spent time together."

"Pretty damn elaborate," Gajeel grumbled. He grinned at them. "Nice job. You had the whole guild freaking out."

"That was the plan," Mira said.

Huge elbows landed on her and Cana's heads. "Hmph."

"Elfman?" Cana asked, looking up around the massive bicep.

"Nope," Elfman said as Mira tried to move his arm. "This is punishment."

"For what?" Mira laughed.

"You made him legitimately worried," Evergreen said. "I think he might've teared up."

"Wasn't that worried," he snorted, but Mira had already slipped out from under his elbow to give him a real hug. Cana joined in.

"Oh, fine," he rumbled. "Hugs are nice."

"Laxus Dreyar!" Mira suddenly shouted. "I hope you intend to pay for that."

Laxus, who had a full mug in one hand, waved the other to show the Jewels in his fingers. "I was already on it. Just helping myself since you looked busy."

"You're going to set a bad precedent," she grumbled.

"You know, if you let other people take care of the bar once in a while, you'd have more time for, say, your girlfriend."

"Oo," Cana said, "I like the sound of that."

"But I'm not doing it," Laxus added quickly.

"No offense, Laxus, but I get the feeling you would mix everything way too strong," Lucy chuckled.

"Tastier that way."

"I have extra time," Gajeel mumbled.

Everyone turned to look at him.

"Really?" Mira asked. "You want to learn?"

He shrugged, but Cana could tell it was the shrug of feigned disinterest only.

"Done. You're hired."

"What?!" Natsu exclaimed. "That easily?"

"You think I can't, Salamander?" Gajeel retorted.

"I think your clumsy metal fingers are going to smash more bottles than you serve."

Gajeel glared at him, but Juvia broke up any potential squabble when she touched Gajeel's shoulder.

"You're already pretty good at mixing drinks," she said. Turning to the rest of them, she said, "Fun fact: Gajeel is the best person to have at a party."

"Perfect." Cana clapped her hands together. "Because we need his help. It's Tuesday, and the only person with a drink is Laxus. Can't have a club like this."

Mira made a sound of glee and started counting heads. As Gajeel rounded the bar to grab mugs, he spoke to Cana.

"Want anything special?"

"I want some sake."

"Wanting is fine, but you're not getting any," he said. "No drinks for you, troublemaker."

She grinned at him. "You're so good at being obstinate."

Gajeel put a hand on her head as he passed her.

"It's because I care."

"What does someone have to do to get water around here?" Cana asked.

"Be absolutely perfect in every way," Loke said sidling up and draping an arm around her.

"Damn, I'm out of luck."

"What are you talking about?" he grinned. "You're the only person worthy of drinking water."

This, Cana thought, staring around at her guildmates, is why I'm able to quit. And why I get to date the sweetest and saltiest girlfriend ever.

When Mira handed her a glass of water, Mira leaned in for a kiss.

"For flavor," she grinned.

Chapter Text

Gray was deep in conversation with Cana, Evergreen, and Mira one Tuesday, when Natsu suddenly sat up beside him and started sniffing. Gajeel, who'd also been silent until now, made a grumble of surprise.

Interesting.

"Gajeel, would you hand me that?" Mira asked, pointing at something behind the bar, not aware anything was off.

"…Sure," he said after a moment. "Wait, what else did you put in that?"

Gajeel and Mira were experimenting with their own versions of cocktails. Next week was the second anniversary of the Drinking Club, and Gajeel had insisted they needed to make something special. Cana was their taste-tester for the nonalcoholic bits.

"I want Cana to guess." Grinning, Mira handed over a shot glass full of something purple.

Cana drank, looked consideringly at the far wall, and opened her mouth, but Gray missed her answer when Natsu twisted around bodily and almost knocked him over.

"What's wrong?" the ice mage asked.

"Just…nothing."

"If just-nothing is going to make you fall into my lap, I guess I don't mind."

Natsu laughed and stuck his tongue out.

"Okay, and here it is with the fun stuff," Gajeel said, putting drinks in front of Gray and Evergreen.

Evergreen picked hers up, but Gray pushed the glass away laughing. "You're going to get me drunk with any more of those. It's the middle of the goddamn afternoon."

"So? You're not going on any jobs, are you?"

No, but Gray would lose what little control he had over his stripping habit, and there were hickies in places he didn't want the whole world to see.

He was saved when Levy walked up to the bar and Mira proffered the cup to her instead.

"Try our new cocktail, Levy?"

Natsu, who was sniffing again, stopped.

"Um, no, thank you," Levy said. "Just water."

She hopped up on one of the stools while Mira blinked in surprise. Levy, despite her size, was the two-or-three-a-day kind of person.

"Like Cana?" Evergreen asked Levy suspiciously.

"No. Like me." Levy rubbed her nose, eyes on the back wall, on the counter, on a spot above Ever's head.

"Wait," Ever said. "Wait, oh my god, you—"

"Don't say it," Gajeel and Natsu said at the same time.

Gray's brain clicked.

"You're pregnant?" he asked, turning to Levy in surprise.

"Goddess, Gray!" Natsu exclaimed. "That's so insensitive."

"But true," Levy said, flushed and beaming.

"Holy shit! Since when?" Cana asked.

"I found out for sure a week ago. We're…" Levy looked down shyly, "really excited. It didn't take the first time. But the second time we gave special attention to everything."

Natsu coughed and Gray couldn't help smirking. He'd overheard a snippet of Natsu and Lucy's conversation—something about someone climaxing an impossible number of times—and had a feeling he knew was 'special attention' meant.

"Congratulations!" Mira exclaimed, everyone else chorusing after her.

"Yeah, congrats," Ever said in a warm voice, and spread her arms to offer Levy a hug—a show of affection Evergreen never doled out in public.

After the rest of them had gotten in on hugs, Gajeel and Cana began asking questions about baby plans—not too probing, and always prefaced with, "if you don't mind me asking," but still. Those two could never resist. It was Tuesday after all. Levy let the grilling go on for almost half an hour before admitting she had somewhere to be.

As Mira was serving her girlfriend another shot glass of something that looked like punch, she looked up and blinked.

"Speaking of children," she said, nodding toward the doors.

Gray turned around.

Laxus walked in looking more hulking than normal: a small child was sitting on his shoulders.

"Oh, this is going to be good," Evergreen said.

"Oi," Cana called. "Whatcha got?"

Turning their way, Laxus ducked to avoid a lamp fixture, and Gray heard a high-pitched sound of childish glee from his minion. It was impossible to miss the smile running amok on Laxus's face.

The kid on Laxus's shoulders wore muddy clothes and had long, vividly-colored hair lying loose about their face. They looked like a handful—an excited and curious handful who was looking all over the hall with wide eyes.

"This is Fumie," Laxus said. "Found her on our latest job."

Laxus tilted his head to look up at the child.

"Want to show them what you—?"

Without waiting for him to finish, Fumie waved her hands and something purple flashed in the air. Gray thought he saw a handprint among the foreign shapes. Mud splattered Laxus—and Cana, who sat nearest. Natsu and Gajeel burst out laughing, while Mira said, "Laxus!"

The girl was giggling.

"Sorry," Laxus told Cana (who grinned as if getting sprayed with dirt was the coolest thing ever). "That seems to be her favorite."

"Was that…dark écriture?" Evergreen asked in awe.

"Very similar," Laxus said proudly, wiping mud off his face. "The fingerpaint version."

"This is amazing!" Mira stared up at Fumie. "Did you learn that all by yourself?"

Fumie nodded. Her smile was eclipsed by a wide-eyed survey of this new person.

"It's very pretty," Gray said, smiling up at her. "And amusing."

Fumie ducked down to hide behind Laxus's head, Laxus grabbing her knees so she wouldn't fall off. A few seconds later, large eyes peered out around his blonde hair, Fumie taking in each of them in turn.

"She's a little shy," Laxus explained, and Gray nodded: she did have six strange adults staring at her.

"Letter magic, already," Mira said reverently. "That's amazing. How old is she: seven?"

"Best we figured," Laxus said. "She wouldn't or couldn't tell us."

"I assume there's a story why you have her?" Cana asked.

When Laxus grimaced, Cana waved her hands.

"No need to answer."

"It's fine," he sighed. He still held Fumie's knees as she leaned forward to droop over his head. Laxus managed to keep his balance. "She had no parents in the village: no one was quite sure where she came from, but she's been there awhile. She ran around terrorizing the local farm animals and eating what people felt like giving her. Nobody was taking damn responsibility," his voice slid into a growl, "so we decided to bring her to the guild. It's where she belongs."

Fumie swiped a hand through the air again, and a ripple preceded the sudden appearance of a chicken in midair. With an irate squawk, it landed on Natsu's head, at which much swearing ensued, ending in the chicken strutting angrily away while Natsu picked feathers out of his hair.

"Fuck," he said, impressed. "That's like something I would pull."

He looked up at Fumie.

"I'm proud of you. Keep up the good work."

"Natsu!" Mira protested.

But Fumie, who hadn't hidden this time, beamed at him.

"Really, though," Evergreen said, sounding awed. "That's…incredible."

"Did she just create a living creature?" Gajeel asked.

"Freed says she's teleporting them in from somewhere," Laxus said. "But we haven't figured out where she's getting them from."

As Gray watched the bird strut between surprised wizards and out the front doors, Natsu murmured to him, "Now we know why the chicken crossed the road."

Gray chortled.

"Where's Freed?" Cana asked: the question on everyone's mind. Beside the facts that she used Letter magic, and Freed's boyfriend was very clearly growing attached to her…Fumie's hair was a bright, exuberant green.

"Store," Fumie replied, then ducked behind Laxus's head again. She added in a squeak, "For books."

"He's grabbing a few things to help us figure out what's going on," Laxus said.

"And cope," Ever added, and Laxus snorted a laugh.

"Yeah."

Pulling out a stool, he sat down: he looked tired, and also inordinately happy.

"Want to come down?" he asked Fumie.

"Okay." She let Laxus lower her, but halfway to the ground she grabbed his shirt. He sat back and let her curl in his lap instead.

"So you have a kid now…" Mira began.

Master walked out of his office and called out, "Did a bird fly into the guild again?"

"No," Gajeel began. "It's—"

Makarov looked over, zeroed in on Laxus, and his expression made Gajeel fall silent.

"Who do we have here?" the guildmaster asked, walking over. His face was a mix of smiling and hopeful and hooded.

"Fumie, this is Jiisan," Laxus told the girl, succeeding in getting her to look around.

As soon as she saw Makarov, her whole expression changed to one of wonder.

"Hi," she said, waving. (Gray and Cana both ducked, just in case.)

"Hello." He beamed up at her.

Gray suspected small children liked the guildmaster because he was their size. Fumie actually reached out to pat the top of his head before curling up fearfully against Laxus again.

"She seems awfully comfortable cuddling you," Makarov said, smiling at Laxus. "So why is she here?"

"She's a mage."

Makarov blinked in surprise. "You're a mage, Fumie?"

She nodded.

"What sort of magic do you like to do?"

"Summon," she said shyly.

"Yeah? How do you summon things?"

"Like this," she said, waving a hand (Gray ducked again). "Sometimes I change colors, too."

"And the tickling," Laxus reminded her.

"And I tickle," Fumie agreed sagely. "With magic."

"Wow." Makarov looked surprised. "Can I see?"

"I'm…" She jutted her lip out. "I'm tired, and it's hard, and—"

"Hey, it's okay," Laxus said, wrapping an arm around her tightly. "We all get tired. You don't have to show him right now. Or ever," he added, winking at his grandfather and making Fumie laugh. "You don't have to ever show him if you don't want to. He'll deal."

Makarov hmphed, but his eyes were smiling, tracing back and forth between Fumie and Laxus. Fumie put her head on Laxus's chest, who leaned back so she could lay on him more comfortably.

"Is this going to be a permanent new member, Laxus?" Makarov asked, a unique tenderness in his voice.

"Yes. I hope so. She doesn't have anywhere else to go."

"Someone has to take care of her." Despite his words, the lines around his eyes had softened.

"Already arranged," Laxus said. "I'm not letting just anyone take her home."

"You're going to take care of her?"

"Duh. Who else? Like I said, I don't trust anyone." Laxus frowned down at Fumie, protective. Suddenly he murmured, "Guess it's been a long day."

Gray realized Fumie's eyes were closed. She was asleep.

"This is good. She needs this," Laxus rumbled more quietly. "There were a lot of tears shed earlier; the job—she wandered in and got caught in the crossfire. Anyway. She used a lot of magic on the way to Magnolia. She can do far more than just teleportation and basic transformations on objects. Freed noticed her using certain runes when she was having a tantrum at one point, some highly nuanced stuff intended to manipulate emotions. She doesn't do it consciously: I think she just picks it up. She was learning new spells as we were walking back."

"Freed loves having a pupil," Evergreen said with a knowing smile.

"He wasn't teaching her. She just…made stuff up. Not even deliberately; she just does it. At one point when she felt overwhelmed, she made the air fill with static charge, out of nowhere. And then—gods—then her eyes lit up exactly like Freed's and she burst into a ball of electricity for a second. Not kidding. Almost lit us all on fire, and totally freaked herself out."

Laxus looked over at Makarov.

"Jiisan, it was dangerous for her to stay in the village. She's too powerful to go unnoticed. Even though the runes she uses are half-formed, she was definitely imitating Freed's and my magics, and she had only seen them once. I didn't know this was possible at her age."

"Damn," Gajeel said.

"There are exceptions," Gray said, thinking of Ultear. "But yeah, she's unique."

Makarov rubbed his chin and frowned seriously.

"When she gets a bit older and starts using full languages, she'll be better than Freed," Cana teased.

"Probably," Laxus said.

Mira startled. "Really?"

"Freed already said so himself. I'm serious: what she does sounds impossible until you see it with your own eyes."

"With spells that varied, she's going to be handful growing up," Makarov said. His smile turned sly. "Sounds familiar."

Laxus rolled his eyes. "At least I only used a couple kinds of magic."

Freed strolled into the hall and made a beeline for them.

"Yo, Captain," Ever said, "where are your books?"

Freed frowned at her. "I dropped them off at home with everything else. Why would I have them with me?"

He turned back to Laxus as Ever mouthed at Cana, Everything else?

"Did she 'summon' any other animals?" Freed asked.

"Just a chicken," Gray put in. "It started a fight with Natsu. And won."

"Oi!" Natsu protested, but Freed laughed.

When Fumie made a small noise, the rune mage cut off, but she was awake now, blinking and reaching for him.

Gray watched emotions flash over Freed's face in quick succession: uncertainty, anxiousness, yearning, warmth.

"C'mere, you." Freed picked her up and she immediately began playing with his hair.

Suddenly he went blonde; then pink-haired, blue, and once again green. Fumie giggled.

"Silly," Freed chided, "green is the best color. I want my hair to look the same as yours."

When he looked around again, he realized he'd become the focal point of attention and blushed profusely.

"What?"

"I think you found yourself a protégé," Gajeel chuckled.

"Freed, don't get offended," Cana said, "but she looks like she could be your daughter."

Fumie, who had started twisting some of Freed's hair around her finger, froze.

"I know," he said, smiling at the child in his arms.

"That's a good thing, Fumie, to be like Freed," Cana told her. "He's smart and kind and good-looking."

As Fumie shook her head and hid against his jacket, Freed chuckled.

"You're already big and strong," Freed said. "And wow, it makes you heavy."

Laxus held out his arms, asking, "Fumie, want to come back and sit with me again?"

"No." She gripped Freed.

"Okay," Freed said, and didn't look unhappy—quite the opposite. Still holding her, he wandered off to find another chair.

"Remind me again why he didn't want children?" Makarov asked. "Because he's really good at this."

"I know, right?" Laxus couldn't seem to tear his eyes away. "He held her while we finished the fight, just like that: carried her in one arm so he could shield her. Wrote his runes left-handed. It's amazing what he can do with only one hand."

Laxus didn't seem to notice Cana and Evergreen silently snickering.

Head on Gray's shoulder, Natsu exhaled.

"You gotta make an honest man out of him, Laxus," Natsu whispered in a quiet undertone meant for his Dragon Slayer ears.

Gajeel and Gray burst out laughing while Laxus whipped around and glared.

"What did he say?" Cana demanded.

"Don't dare say that aloud, Salamander," Laxus growled.

Natsu, head still perched on Gray's shoulder, looked at Cana and shrugged.

"Sorry. Guess my lips are sealed. At least until Laxus proposes—"

"Oi!" Gray shouted as Laxus swiped out to punch Natsu, who ducked behind Gray. "Not cool, guys!"

Laxus managed not to hit Gray, snarling at Natsu and marching away to help Freed drag a chair over. The drinking club watched the pair as Fumie made Freed put her down so she could also drag a chair over, following him like a very serious duckling.

"Don't push them," Makarov told Natsu, quiet enough Freed wouldn't hear. He grinned wide. "If we're going to get them married, we have to be more subtle."

Laxus straightened and glared at his grandfather, but got distracted when Fumie 'accidentally' materialized a flock of startled pigeons in the middle of the guild.

The most beautiful moment was when an exhausted Freed swooped her up in his arms and kissed her forehead like it was the most natural thing in the world. Or maybe it was when Fumie nodded at whatever Freed told her and dejectedly but obediently de-teleported the birds.

Or maybe it was Laxus, watching the pair of them with the biggest smile on his face the world had ever seen.