Acnologia was no stranger to the sounds of the forest. The forest, especially in the spring-turned-summer, was not considered quiet by any means, yet to him, it was. Soothing, even. It wasn’t that he hated the cacophony of the guild, or even the bustling of Magnolia, but it was always relaxing when he finally left it all behind and entered the empty forest on his way home.
If he walked slower than normal, savoring the independent and unbothered sounds of the forest for a little longer, than he wasn’t to be judged. It had been busy as of late, and there wasn’t much time he had to himself. He hasn’t even slept more than a few hours at a time in a week.
Not that Acnologia blamed anyone for that. It was just one of those months. Three broken limbs, seven sprains, and some myriad of other injuries throughout the guild had required supervision, and that wasn’t including Makarov’s bogus errand to the other side of the continent, just because his shitty Council-issued long-distance lacrima broke and needed to be replaced.
There was also the matter of Frosch. The young cat that Rogue had brought home hadn’t been in the best health either. The language barrier was difficult too, but that wasn’t the little one’s fault. Between the kids and the guild, Frosch was getting situated, assimilating to civilization. It didn’t take long for Frosch to figure out at least the basics of how to navigate life. She took well to clothing and to ideas of personhood, like with most intelligent beings; however, it took far longer to convince her that she wasn’t a frog.
The most exhausting matter, however, was that she had absolutely no sense of danger or personal preservation. Especially when it came to new things. Specific experiences taught the cat some things, yes, but a brand-new application? By the stars, she was going to touch it. Not to mention that she had even less sense of direction to aid that curiosity. Acnologia regretted ever feeling grateful that he didn’t have to handle Rogue as a toddler because he was pretty sure this was it. This was also what he got to assuming that his days of raising young children was over.
Right now, however, Acnologia could afford to take it slow, just for a bit. Frosch was always accompanied by any of the kids during the day, and even her nocturnal habit was starting to fade. (Starting.)
Right now, nobody needed him. It was fantastic.
(Oh, what he wouldn’t give for a nice, week-long sleep right about now.)
Unfortunately, in his wish for peace, he forgot once again that the universe had a horrible sense of irony. Acnologia was still half a mile away from the house when, distantly, he heard it—yowling. Mewing, more like, because it was high-pitched. He blamed his over-hyper someone-is-in-danger instincts for noticing it, because once it did, he couldn’t hear anything but the sounds of pain and distress from some animal.
And it was just that—an animal. It was the law of nature, and frankly, it happened all of the time. Acnologia knew that it was absurd to attempt to help everyone and everything. It simply wasn’t feasible, and that’s why it was best to keep efforts localized. If the need was urgent or present, that was one thing, but where was the urgency of a nameless, mindless forest creature? Besides, he wasn’t a vet. He was a dragon. Animals feared him, and they had the right to.
In truth, Acnologia was kidding himself. He couldn’t get Frosch, dirty and too thin and unable to communicate in more than syllables, out of his mind, and his memory also provided every time Wendy spent her time healing some fallen bird, or when Rogue would take injured frogs or snakes to him, or even when Lisanna would sheepishly ask if he could mend limps on squirrels. Or that time he helped Elfman’s parakeet when he was sick.
Acnologia turned on his heel and stalked toward the sound. Fine, fine. He wouldn’t be able to let it go anyway. Besides, if the animal was making this much noise, it would have only been a matter of time before one of the kids found it and brought it to him anyway.
It was incredibly loud, different in frequency, and it didn’t take long to track at all. It did take him a moment to recognize it, however, solely because it managed to sound a little like everything at once.
It was a kitten.
Which was baffling in itself, because it had been loud enough to be as large as a wolf, it seemed. It was endowed with the lung power of a dragon, and it used it to scream.
Acnologia bent down in front of the brambles. He could see the tiny thing stuck in the midst of it, somehow so completely wrapped in thorns that not even a creature as boneless as a cat could escape. Though, it was obviously injured—by the brambles and something else alike. It was covered in mud and blood, and some wounds smelled older than others. Like its missing right eye.
He reached in, snapping the brambles with his fingers and grabbing a hold of the kitten. It growled and hissed, and as soon as it felt it could wiggle, it latched onto his hand and bit it with all its might.
“Hey, this operation was your idea,” he chastised, aware that the cat had no understanding of him. Even injured, the hubris of a cat was something to behold. It attacked a dragon without second thought. Normally animals were squirmy around him, sensing his power or cowed by his scent. Dragons were the king of beasts for a reason. Sometimes it meant that animals ran, and sometimes it meant that they were inclined to be more submissive.
…Cats would fight a god if they could, he was sure.
“Stop that.” The kitten’s squirming didn’t hurt him in the slightest, of course, but it was making it difficult for Acnologia to free it without causing further injury. Finally, he pulled the cat free, able to take the tiny thing in a single hand and observe it fully.
It was completely caked in mud, which was certainly a reason one of the wounds smelled infected—one of the older ones. It was faint, but he surmised a fox attacked it based on scent. The kitten was a female and old enough to utilize its senses fully, but not far beyond that. Likely it was recently weaned, based on the teeth.
The kitten stopped trying to gnaw on him and instead chose to resume screaming. “Too loud to be a snack, huh?” he mused dryly.
She mewed. Definitely a talkative one, then.
At least he took it as a sign that she wasn’t sick—yet. Even the old injuries were too fresh to lead to fever just yet. However, the combination of fresh and dried mud in every wound would change that, if it wasn’t cleaned.
Acnologia’s first intention was to aid the distressed animal and then leave it. However, if he simply applied magic now, he risked the body sealing in dirt. His magic could clean to a degree, yes, but it was better for purification—not as a substitute for a bath.
Well, this ordeal was more complicated than he hoped, but since when was that not the case? Resigned, Acnologia settled the kitten in his hand and started walking once more.
The kitten squirmed a bit more. Normally, he would do as the animal wished—they were more resilient than humans—but Acnologia knew that she wouldn’t survive the second half of the day in this state, so he persisted. Besides, years of caring for Fairy Tail drove in the instinct to apply care no matter how hostilely against it his patient was. (Oh stars, he was a vet.)
Soon the kitten became resigned to the lack of escape, and her fear scent settled into discomfort and pain once the adrenaline drained. He winced sympathetically as he could hear her strained breathing once it slowed down, her lungs unable to expand fully without jostling the larger gash on her side. It was unfortunate that his magic was simply practical—he had no spells for pain relief.
It didn’t take long to get home. Already having determined the sink to be the best location for this, he slipped inside and made his way for it, noting that Natsu, Happy, and Sting were situated on the couch, watching some sort of lacrima film. Naturally, his arrival called their attention full to him.
“Hey Acno!” Natsu greeted. “Wait—what’s that?”
He could hear both of the boys sniffing while Happy hovered upwards. “Is that blood?” Sting asked, slightly cowed. He moved closer. “What are you doing?”
They really could just move closer, but Acnologia was glad that they were at least (somewhat) observant. “Cleaning this mudball in the sink. Clearly.”
He turned on the water at a desirable temperature. The kitten was not pleased and found her voice again.
“Acno, is that—?”
“Yes.” He began to slowly rub the mud out. “Could someone hand me a wash rag?”
Happy did so, flying one over to him and taking the opportunity to hover over the sink with wide eyes. He could feel Natsu and Sting watching too, and he couldn’t help but to grin in amusement. “You guys remember that normal cats exist too, right?”
“Of course we do!” Sting protested. “It’s just… been a while.”
“Are you sure that’s not a talking cat?” Natsu asked after the kitten yowled again.
“Yes, I’m sure.” She really hated water, but at least he was getting her clean, and he could heal as he went, the kitten moaning and yowling all the while. “…I don’t think she knows that though.”
“She’s even smaller than Frosch!” Happy exclaimed.
“Because your species is larger than regular cats. Mostly.”
“Why do you have a cat-cat in the first place?” Sting asked. “Rogue find her?”
Acnologia indulged in a sigh, well aware he was about to be heckled for this. It was fine, though. He conceded that he was being a hypocrite this time—at least a little. “No, it was me,” he admitted. “I heard her screaming her head off on my way back from the guild. She was stuck in briars.”
As expected, Sting giggled. “Who’s the softy now?”
“Well, it makes sense that it’s your turn,” Natsu commented.
Acnologia struggled not to reply to that, though Sting made a noise of confusion as well. Meanwhile, he finished clearing the mud and closing the wounds, certain only based on smell. The kitten was a tortoiseshell, nearly the same color as the grime she had been covered in. There was nothing he could do for the eye, however—that was long gone, and his magic couldn’t recreate organs.
“No, really!” Natsu insisted. “I found Happy, Wendy found Charle, Rogue found Frosch, and now Acnologia found Mudball—everybody is getting a cat.”
The kitten shook the water out of her fur as indignantly as possible, splattering him in the process. He related to the sentiment. “No, Natsu, that’s— That’s not how this works. It’s coincidence.”
“But three times is a pattern,” he rebutted. Technically correctly.
Sting frowned. “Wait, so if it’s a pattern, then there’s gotta be more, right?”
“No,” Acnologia insisted. One, because this implied that there would be more, and two, because Sting hated feeling left out of anything, so it was best to nip it at the bud. “Just because it happened three times doesn’t necessarily make it a pattern. None of it was purposeful, so it’s still just a coincidence.”
“Well, four times now,” Natsu added, hopping off the counter to poke at the kitten. He petted her from within the sink, hand slightly warmed because it started drying her fur. “Isn’t that right, Mudball?”
Stars, what was even happening right now? “I’m sorry…what did you call her?”
“Mudball!” Natsu replied easily. “That’s what you named her, right?”
“You did,” Sting insisted.
Happy nodded too. “Aye!”
…fuck. He somehow walked straight into this one. “That’s not a name,” he explained tiredly. “And this is temporary.”
“Sure it is!” Natsu piped with a smile.
“Says the guy who named his cat ‘Happy,’” Sting snickered.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Happy asked, offended.
Sting shrugged. “I just mean it could be something cooler. Like ‘Fang’ or ‘One-eye’ or ‘Warrior.’” He gestured to the cat that Natsu was now cradling against his chest. “Obviously, that kitten won the fight.”
“With the fox, maybe, but she definitely lost to the bush,” Acnologia remarked dryly, having no idea why he was humoring this.
“The fox was the cooler part, at least,” Sting added with a shrug, poking a finger to scratch at the kitten’s head. “So I say it counts.”
“But she does look like a Mudball,” Happy said. “With the color.”
The kitten took the opportunity to wiggle out of Natsu’s grip, taking him by surprise, and leaping to Acnologia’s shoulder, where she butted her head against his neck before getting distracted by his hair. With only some difficulty, he pulled her out of his hair and transferred her to the crook of his arm. She was still a little wet, despite Natsu’s efforts at drying, so he used air magic to dry her the rest of the way. On the verge of sickness as she was, staying wet wouldn’t do her any good.
“See,” Happy insisted. “She responded to it!”
“She did,” Natsu agreed, incredibly smug. He heard more than saw Sting stick his tongue out at him.
He listened to her lungs, hearing a bit of a rasp in them. It wasn’t bad yet, but it would be hard to say if that would be correct without further supervision. Despite it, the kitten started purring, finally content, and she snuggled closer to him and laid her head on his chest, already falling asleep.
She…was very sweet, now that she wasn’t biting him. Very small, too. It still amazed him that even though he knew he smelled intimidating to animals, she didn’t seem to mind.
“You like her, don’t you?” Happy teased.
He cut a half-hearted glare to the smirking flying cat. “She’s still going to be hurting after those injuries. It’s only natural she needs to rest before she’s back to health. I’m going to let her sleep, and then she could go back.”
…naturally, they kept the cat.