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Many happy returns

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The sword cuts through the space around me, hissing and swaying into the air.

The runes glow dimly through the grass, one after another. Protection. Alert. Shield. Rejection. I'm utterly tired, yet I can't allow myself to rest. Defence. Shelter. I swear that every single bone and muscle in my body is sore and aching. Warning. Expulsion. Yet the girls are still talking to me, apparently uncaring of my lack of interest in their vehement complaint.

<<Please, Freed!>> Lisanna insists, offering me a wooden cup. <<At least drink some fresh water!>>

<<And most importantly, let us help.>> Levy adds, furious.

I ignore her stare to walk away and draw some other protection runes around the campsite, but the thing doesn't seem to make the two of them desist. Lisanna huffs, running after me like a petulant child.

<<Don't take it personally, Freed,>> she points out, <<but you look rather tired.>>

<<He doesn't look tired, he is!>> Levy yells, hardly catching up with us on her short legs. <<The funny thing is that, for today, I thought I've already had my fair share of stubborn, self-centered machos who won't listen to anyone just to prove how tough they are.>>

<<It is funny indeed on behalf of myself to have thought that a dark guild would have been the worst thing to unsettle the peace of this sacred island today.>> I coldly comment, writing another rejection rune on the grass. The gesture is so fierce I chop some grass with my sword. <<Surely I wasn't taking into account your annoying urge to help anyone in sight.>>

They stare at me, both seemingly uncaring of my harshness. I glance at Levy's face, heart-shaped and resolute despite the tiredness, soaking wet under the pouring rain, and I'd like to bite my tongue. I can't say whence this bitter taste in my mouth came. I suppose that perhaps a part of me really longed to become an S-Class mage – and I swear that if only I hadn't picked Cana as the first opponent, I'd have done something better, or at least I hope so.

Despite my rudeness, anyway, the girls don't give up. Levy stands in front of me, hands on her hips, lips curled down in a pout. <<You just fought a tremendous battle and you're nearly running out of magic. If you were to pass out, you'd put all of us in danger. It is a risk we can't afford right now.>>

Rules are: if you mistreat someone you care for, you must apologise. I let out a sigh, placing a hand upon her tiny shoulder; she's so tense I can feel her tendons dart beneath the damp skin. <<I am deeply sorry, don't mind my words. I'm tired and concerned for the others, as long as we don't know what's happening out there, on the rest of the island.>> I take a look at the tent, straight behind her back. <<I do appreciate your concern, but I prefer you to look after our injuried. The both of you.>> I add, before Lisanna takes the chance to reply. <<Leave the defense to me and Bickslow and rest. Whenever I'm feeling tired, I tell you. I promise.>>

I didn't manage to convince them, I can tell from the look in their eyes; nevertheless, Levy does as she's told. Lisanna and I watch her slowly walk back to the tent, stopping in front of Mirajane to tuck a blanket around her unconscious body. Then she leans over Gajeel, strangely hesitant, checking his bandages with utmost care.
<<She's hopeless.>> Lisanna whispers, softly nudging me and pointing towards them with her head, the tension from a few minutes ago now completely gone.

Gajeel suddenly growls in his sleep, and Levy jumps back with a thin cry, caught off guard. My eyes meet with Lisanna's, and we can't help but burst into laughter. Levy turns red up to her hairline, falling on her knees with a long sigh.

<<It is somehow comforting,>> I softly comment, <<to see that even in the most desperate of situations there are things that simply can't fade out.>>

She's about to say something when Bickslow and his flying dolls invade my field of vision. He slams an arm around my neck, tickling my face with his feathered helmet. <<Yo, what's the buzz?>>

I sneeze. <<I'd genuinely like you to pay more attention to the place where you put your gracious headpiece.>> I mutter, sneezing again.

Bickslow laughs, taking off the helmet and rubbing a hand through his flattened hair. His eyes are circled and his skin is damp with sweat and rain, but his usual amount of energy survives untouched. He throws a glance at my face, then weakly hits my arm with a fist. <<Damn, don't take it personally, man, but you look like shit.>>

I hear a chuckle right behind my back. Lisanna gives me an apologetic look, raising her hands as if to say I told you already.

<<I thought I asked you to go looking after our injuried.>> I coldly reply, trying to comb my wet hair on my shoulder. Do I really look that bad?

<<Ah, shut up.>> To my utmost surprise, Bickslow hushes me with a sudden gesture, placing a hand upon her shoulder. <<You must be concerned for your siblings.>> he states after a while, his voice unusually soothing and quiet. <<Feel free to go and take care of them if you want and excuse this horrible-mannered friend of mine. I can handle this by myself, I promise.>> he adds with a smug smirk, and I'm not sure if he means he can handle the defense of the campsite or, rather, myself.

Lisanna really doesn't sound like a girl in need of consolation, but somehow his words seem to please her. Her cheeks mildly flush. <<I leave it up to you, then.>> she says, giving him one last look with eyes bright and warm before turning her back to walk towards the tent.

<<Take it down, lover boy.>> I mumble. <<I honestly didn't know you were able to deal with such fine diplomacy. Ah!>> I cry out, stumbling. One of my leg falls off, and it feels like someone stabbed it again and again – something not so unlikely, given the way my last hours went on.

Bickslow helps me getting back on my feet. <<Mate, you really are messed up. I think that these runes will be enough for now.>> His dolls hovers around us, chanting for now, for now, for now.

I swat them away with my hand. <<Today surely wasn't my idea of a quiet day, I have to admit it.>>

<<Yeah. I'm pretty sure that Ever would say the same.>> he says back, patting my shoulder with a large hand. We turn our heads to see how she's doing: she's still unconscious, and I really don't like the shade of pale on her face. <<I hope for Elfman that he'll have a very good excuse not to have protected her properly.>> Bickslow adds.

<<Ever would say that she's perfectly capable of protecting herself without any help.>> I remind him, and he laughs, placing his hands on his hips.

<<Yeah, I guess you're right.>> Bickslow looks up to the sky, sticking out his tattooed tongue. <<I really hope that Natsu is going to kick that bastard's ass for good.>> he mutters.

<<He will.>> I say. <<If there's a thing we can know for sure, it's surely this one.>>

We spend the next minutes changing Ever's bandages, then we eat something and try to rest. The rain is even heavier than before; normally I'd put a water-repellent spell upon the camp – and upon my hair – but in this moment I need to save every drop of magic, for we don't know yet if we'll have to fight again.

<<Hey.>> Levy murmurs, coming and sitting by my side on the grass, in a corner of the tent.

I faintly smile at her, an arm placed around one of my knees. <<Hey.>>

<<I'm sorry about what happened before. I was feeling useless, I just wanted to help.>> she says.

I stare at her. <<Levy. You're not useless, and I was being stubborn. It is I who should apologise, actually.>>

<<We're good, then!>> she smirks back. <<Now, come here, turn and let me help you mop up a bit. You're dripping wet, and we certainly don't want our powerful rune mage to catch a cold.>>

Before I can't even protest, she writes FIRE in the air and drags me towards the crackling flames. <<Thank you.>> I murmur, enjoying the warmness behind my back. We stay like this for a while, talking about the S-Class exams.

<<Do you think that the Master will cancel the exam?>> she asks.

I nod. <<It is very likely, and surely the most reasonable decision given the current situation.>> I tilt my head, warming the hair on my nape. <<Although I understand it must be disappointing for the ones of us which were still in line for the title.>>

<<I was lucky, that's all.>> she comments, but she's smiling. <<We both know who deserved it the most.>>

<<I lost.>>

<<Yes, and I don't get how.>> she smirks. <<I thought you really wanted to take Laxus' place.>>

<<I did. I still do.>> I tilt my head to the other side, sighing. <<Yet I lost. I will try again next year.>> My hair lightly quivers on the nape and on top of my head. <<What are you doing?>> I turn to ask her.

<<Nothing!>> she frowns, lifting her hands in an apologetic manner.

<<It feels...nice.>> I murmur, tilting my head a bit under the tickling sensation. I can feel the jitter rolling down my neck and into my chest, warm and pleasant. It fills my head and makes it lighter and lighter. I giggle. <<To speak the truth, it makes me kind of stoked.>>

<<Freed, I'm doing nothing.>> Levy looks at me in disbelief. <<Are you listening? I'm not using any spell upon you!>> Then her eyes widen in horror, fear painted on her face. <<Wait, now I can feel it too!>>

Bickslow pops up behind her, landing a hand on her head and messing with her hair. <<Don't worry, little fella. I can feel it too.>>

<<But could it be something wicked, like a dark spell or something?>> Lisanna asks, frowning.

Bickslow shakes his head. <<I doubt it. I know that feeling very well.>> He looks at me with a smile lightning his face up to his eyes. <<You, of all people...>>

A buzz of electricity streams down my spine. Yes. Yes, I got it. The dizziness, the sense of a power so great that it makes the earth tremble from its depths, the faint burning smell in the air. It's been a while since I felt this way, but I remember. How could I ever think to forget?

<<This isn't an ordinary storm, is it?>> Lisanna quietly asks.

<<Laxus!>> I whisper. My legs move before I can stop them, and I run out from the tent. A dreadful bolt of lightning strikes somewhere above our heads, bright and dashing, its deafening roar bursting over the tent's damp roof. I look up at the sky, right beneath the top of trees, but it's too far from our sight to see what's happening.

The odd tension fades out.

I remain standing there, looking out in hope to see something through the rain – I let the water stream on my face until I can't see further than the tip of my nose.


I'm so weary I don't even see him, at first.

When we catch up with the rest of the team, the first thing I spot is a blurred clump of scorched hair and shining metal: Titania walks upheld by Natsu and Gray. They're surrounded by enemies, but our appearance is enough to make them wisely flee before we even start.

Then someone hugs me, Gajeel roars something about his cat (almost deafening the poor Levy who stands beside him), Mira and Titania high-five, Natsu sets something – or someone – on fire, and Lucy tells us what happened. Many questions follow the first, but before I can hear the whole summary a hand on my arm drags me aside.

I turn to face a scruffy Gray, looking at me with a confused look in his eyes. <<Where's Juvia?>>

I shake my head. <<She never returned to the camp.>> I'm just about to offer to go finding her with him when the Master yells at someone behind my back, startling me like a fearful child. <<It looks like the Master is throwing a fit again.>> I lift my eyebrow. It must be Natsu, fot it certainly is the I don't care if you're a Dragon Slayer, I'm mad all the same speaking voice.

I turn my back to enjoy the scene, and there he is.

He is sitting cross-legged, seemingly annoyed by the sermon he's receiving, all hunched over the grass like a huge tree bent after a storm. It is a funny sight, a giant kid being scolded by his grandfather after a prank – a giant kid covered in scars and bruises, wearing a shirt which is half ripped off his left shoulder, leaving his tattoo clearly visible despite the blood. And why, why in heavens must he always be drenched in blood?

His name comes to my lips without any effort, easy as breath itself. I speak it in a barely audible voice, but his terrific dragon ears twitch, and I know I've been caught.

He turns his head towards me, sticking his sharp eyes into mine without a word. His face is clean-shaven, and he's tanned, of that particular shade of bronze which occurs to people who spend too much time outside.

<<Long time no see, Captain.>> he says. He grins, and a remote part of my brain idly registers the fact that his nose and cheeks are covered in freckles, something I last saw on his face when we were kids. I thought long and hard about the purpose of being the captain of Raijinshuu when there wasn't any God of Thunder to safeguard – it felt somehow pointless, and anyway nobody ever calls me like that.

Yet he's there, smug and handsome and somehow different from the man I used to know, and he calls me Captain as though it's the most reasonable thing to say after months of wistful distance and no talking at all. Being thunderstruck suddenly seem a piece of cake in comparison to this, as tears of relief and remorse fills my sight and drench my cheeks, rolling down to my neck and inside the collar of my shirt.

Lo and behold, people! The mighty rune mage of Fairy Tail, captain of one of the strongest teams, the man once known as Freed The Dark, is shaking and shivering as a weak-willed child would do just because a man he used to admire is now sitting right beside him. Oh no, wait, he's standing up. Should I make him sit back again with a spell? Nowadays I really can't trust myself.

I'm about to say something – "It's been a long time indeed" or, most likely, "get the fuck back and allow me to take some time to elaborate the simple fact that you're back" – when someone knocks me forward, and I end up finding myself sandwiched between a messy tangle of arms and legs. Laxus huffs, an annoyed (and rather pleased) look on his face as the whole Raijinshuu slams him down on the grass.

Bickslow stomped on my foot, Ever is sticking her elbow in my hip and someone is pulling my hair, but after months of grief and repentance and hard talks it feels like our tiny family is reunited again. I can't even remember the last time we all were so close – maybe we never were, perhaps I never allowed it.

Rules are: when a happiness so grand you can't put it into words blesses you, you must not hold back. It's as simple as this, and if losing my temper is the price I have to pay to have him back, then I'm more than happy to turn myself into a sloppy, sobbing mess.

He looks down at me in utter surprise, and I catch my own reflection trembling in those big, clear eyes of his; a smile thrives on my lips, and I suddenly know it is not only Laxus which I'm greeting back.

Chapter Text

He comes to me while I'm alone and busy checking on my own runes in a glade through the woods. He walks carefully, his feet hitting the ground at a slow pace, light enough to allow me to pretend I didn't notice him.

<<Always committed, I see.>> His voice rings clear and tired in the woods, a sound as familiar as the breath of wind.

I don't turn my back, keeping up with my work. <<Indeed.>>

He stops just a few meters away, and I suddenly find out that his simple presence makes me unable to restrain from smiling.

<<How are the rest of us doing?>> I ask, perhaps just for the sake of having something to say.

<<Well and resting, I guess. Let's see...>> he mumbles, thinking. <<After Gildarts got tired of mocking me for being kicked out, he and Natsu went off fishing with Happy. Ever got in a fight with Elfman – don't ask me why, I didn't got it – and I got to know our newest acquisitions. Wendy, I think?>> he says. <<She doesn't talk much, but she seems fine.>>

<<She is.>> I nod. <<You know, I assisted her on her first mission alone. At first she was very insecure, and she's still slightly timid, but she's braver than one would think.>>

<<You like her.>> he states.

I lift an eyebrow, resisting the urge to turn and face him. <<Does the thing surprise you?>>

<<No. Yes. I mean...>> He huffs, at loss for words. <<The three of you look closer to the guild than I've been in ages. Even Bickslow...I caught him chasing Lisanna's skirt all over the place since I got my foot on the island. It''s almost awkward.>>

<<Still not anywhere near what he did when he possessed Elfman, though.>> I mutter.

Laxus gasps, astonished. <<He did what?>> he howls.

<<It was just to defeat an enemy, but I can tell you that Ever wasn't pleased. She and Elfman got slightly close recently. Who would have thought it?>> I chuckle, taking a step towards left and adjusting a blurred line in my own spell. <<Answering to your words, yes, we are trying to spend more time with the rest of the guild. Speaking of Wendy, I went with her after the insistence of your grandfather.>> I avoid to tell him that in all likelihood our Master sent me after her in an effort to drag me out of the brooding state of mind I had fallen in since his exile. <<I wasn't allowed to interfere.>> And I don't tell him either how lost I felt during that first mission without him, how desperately I cried out his name when the first distress crossed my path.

<<I see.>> he comments. <<I guess I'm just a bit jealous, then.>> There's something in his voice which makes me think of the child he was – as demanding as ever, of course, but more earnest and kind. Now he talks less like a god, and more like a man.

We stay silent for a long moment. I'm tempted to turn and see what he's doing, and I'm about to do so when his chest collides into my back, his arms clutching me like a cornerstone. I gasp, and his grip tightens.

<<Coming here I...ran into Cana and Lucy.>> He chuckles, sounding almost embarassed. <<They were bathing in a pond. Naked. I almost got kicked in the ass to get here.>>

<<What an honour, to think that you faced many hard struggles just in order to come back to me.>> I tease him, slowly putting my sword back into its sheath - not exactly a piece of cake, when you have a man this large wrapped around you from behind.

He giggles, sinking his face into my shoulder. <<Yeah, but that's not the reason why I'm telling you.>> His warm breath comes through my shirt, and I can't help but shiver. <<It made me think of that mission, back in Tulip, when we bathed in that weird mossy pond.>>

<<You mean that one time when we were teens, Bickslow snatched our clothes and we had to go back to town completely naked?>> I mutter, slightly easing into his embrace. It is somehow unreal to think that he's here, that we can really talk about something so trivial and distant in time like these months of distance were nothing serious.

<<Mh-mh.>> he mumbles, and it takes me a few moments to realise he's breathing in.

<<As the captain of the Raijinshuu and a friend of yours, I dearly recommend you not to smell me after a day this long and heavy.>> I suggest, embarrassed.

He breathes in again, deeper. <<I don't mind.>>

<<I reek.>>

<<You don't.>>

<<And may->> I swallow, suddenly very aware of our closeness. <<May I know the reason why you're sniffing me?>>

He sighs, and I can feel his heart quake against my back. <<Because I can't stand the memory of the last time I was so close to you to catch your scent.>>

I stop and think, but it isn't hard for me to remember. <<Yes. It was the night right before we started the battle at the guild.>>

He nods, and his fingers dig into my arms. <<Right now, I just wanted to breathe it in once more without thinking of what I asked you then. Do you remember?>>

<<Of course I remember.>> I remember every single word that comes out of that beautiful mouth, even when it's cruel and full of hurt. I won't say it now, for I'm not sure he deserves to know. I'm not sure I deserve to tell him. Not yet, in any case. <<You asked me to be the fallen angel at your side.>> I whisper, my voice coagulating in the back of my throat.

<<And you did. You insane genius, you beautiful, wicked demon.>> He loosens his grip, and I turn into his arms to face him, my heart trembling and pounding so hard I'm certain that he's listening to it. <<Your spells were flawless, and you stayed by my side even when everything was lost and done.>>

<<What else could have I done? I thought you were a god.>> I say, and my voice half-breaks when our eyes meet. His stare is full of hurt, as if I just offended him - and perhaps I did - but his arms don't let go, still encircled around me. <<Following you was the only thing that made sense, even if you were leading me to the depths of hell.>>

He doesn't reply.

What should I do? I know how to handle the raging demigod who could tear down a city with a snap of his mighty fingers, but I'm not used to this calm, unusually quiet man. So I give up the lead to him, and he leans forward. He's so handsome that I can't stand his sight – I shut my eyes closed, and before I can draw a sigh our lips clash as opposing armies on a battlefield.

I can feel a flock of butterflies arise from my chest. His mouth is hot and steamy and I find myself melting in it, my thoughs flying weak and light far above our heads. Laxus moans – a tiny, gentle sound full of awe and emotion – and plunges his fingers deep into my hair, pulling it to shove deeper inside my mouth.

Then, after a time too long and too brief at once, we part. He softly draws back, speaking so close that our breaths melt into each other. <<Everything I thought I knew proved to be wrong.>> He whispers. <<I've been brutal and vicious to you. I dragged you into terrible deeds, forcing you to call upon your darkness to carry out my order.>> He's speaking slowly, as if he had been preparing and repeating these words again and again before telling me. He brushes my lower lips with a thumb, a wistful, enchanted look in his eyes. <<I know I'm not worthy of your forgiveness, but I can't put down my heart either. I entrust myself to you: take these feelings and do as you please.>>

<<I don't deserve your trust.>> I whine in a broken voice, interrupting him and struggling against the tears flowering into my eyes. He doesn't say anything, allowing me to go on and dare to say the one thing that burns with guilt on the tip of my tongue. <<For if you were to ask me today, if you were to tell me the same exact words you said that night, today I would say no.>>

Tears stream down my cheeks, but I fiercely hold up his gaze. His rough, calloused hands enshroud my face with clumsy eagerness. <<I will never ask you something like that again.>> He pushes his forehead against mine, the tip of his nose softly brushing mine. <<Never.>> he repeats, and his breath moves across my lips.

I clutch the fabric of his shirt under my fingers. <<I am scared.>> I confess. <<So many things have changed.>>

<<Some of them did not.>> The intensity of his stare almost frightens me, as a light vibration makes the air between us quiver with electricity.

I sigh, lifting a hand to wipe away a tear from his face. His magic withdraws, and we both let go of our fears, I can almost feel it, finally realising how lucky we are to be there, alive, finally together. <<Tell me, then: what are we supposed to do with all these feelings?>>

<<Mine? Or yours?>> Laxus softly laughs, a low growling sound which brings old memories of long-forgotten jokes. <<You tell me.>>

<<What about you?>> I ask back. <<What do you want to do from now on?>>

Laxus looks down at me with dark, gleaming eyes, shaking his head. <<I really can't tell.>> he finally says. 

I smile and lean into him, drawing him closer. <<Show me, then.>>