Gildarts had seen a lot of shit in his time. Fairy Tail was amazing, and magic could be beautiful. He, however, was a man with particularly destructive magic, and found the harder, dirtier, bloodier missions to be more his speed. Gildarts chose his magic. Everybody had magic they were incompatible with, and everybody had Affinities. A class of magic they were born for, a type in which they would excel. A Shadow mage could elect to use, say, Water magic, but they would still be a Shadow mage, and would never be able to access their full power. Gildarts was a Pressure mage, and he wanted to use Pressure magic. He chose Crash, chose to eradicate and disintegrate rather than pin or throw. He knew that probably didn’t say great things about him, but it allowed him to do what he was good at; to protect and defend, to be proactive. At 25, after tragedy and divorce and death, he knew he’d had enough of letting the bad things come to him for a lifetime. At 32, he was proactive about the defence of their guild, and the Master had accepted that he was the man for those kind of jobs. The Master only sent Gildarts on dangerous, bloody jobs, because he knew he could handle it. He could win, and fight, and kill, and come home unchanged. Those were the missions that he thrived on, the feeling of terrible people and terrible things ceasing to be under his hands. So when he was recalled from his hunt of a band of thieves known for burning down buildings with the occupants trapped inside, he knew it was serious. He knew when he saw Makarov’s face it would be fucked up and grotesque. And when he heard the specifics, well –
Human traffickers were the worst kind of scum.
Mages being taken and forced to fight; to unconsciousness, to maiming, to the death. The reported numbers of missing mages was staggering, and Gildarts knew this mission was going to be awful and abhorrent from start to finish.
He hadn’t known, or suspected, about the kid.
He should have, didn’t know why he was surprised by the level of depravity involved. He already knew that the fighters, once they started losing, were no use to the traffickers in the ring anymore, and so were used for other things.
He’d killed the people he’d found in those backrooms slow.
He’d killed the shadows of mages chained to the mattresses in those rooms quickly. It was the least he could do for them, after all they’d suffered. Even Ivan had looked a little ill upon discovering what had been going on, and it took a lot to turn the stomach of the Master’s son. Ivan was fucked up and twisted, but he was still human.
They’d been moving through the cell block, looking for mages to free and direct upstairs to Porlyusica, Master Makarov and Macao doing the same down the other corridor. Gildarts and Ivan had reached the end of the hall, to a cell with a much more elaborate and armoured door than the others. The armouring didn’t make much of a difference to his Crash magic, and it splintered into nothingness just like everything else under his power. The room had been dark, and smelled pretty gross, but nothing too bad, and he and Ivan stepped into the room, while Ivan retrieved a light lacrima from his jacket. Before he could light it, there came a rumbling growl, and both men froze. They hadn’t received any intel about animals being used in the fighting, but they could have missed something. Gildarts flicked his eyes to Ivan in the light of the doorway, and Ivan very carefully started to turn up the brightness of the light lacrima, while Gildarts listened for movement. Once the light started extending further into the room than the light from the hallway, he heard it. But whatever it was was shuffling away from them, so he relaxed a little. A scared animal was better than an angry, aggressive one, as long as they didn’t startle it. If it’s first instinct wasn’t to attack them, maybe they could even rehabilitate the poor thing.
Then the light finally reached the edges of the room, and revealed a dirty, bloodied child. He seemed to be cowering against a corner, up against some red stone. Then the stone moved, and got bigger, and the kid growled again, and Gildarts realised it wasn’t stone at all, but wings. Red, scaled wings, looking a little worse for wear, but impressive, and obviously attached to the scared little boy they’d found. He was in a feral-looking half-crouch, hands flexing below thick manacles. The manacles were clearly a little loose on his wrists, and Gildarts could probably count the boy's ribs from where he stood, if he'd wanted. The kid was a ways back, but Gildarts thought he might have slitted pupils. He took a half-step forward, wanting to see if he was right, and the boy’s wings flared wider, and this time he growled through bared teeth. Those looked sharp, and the kid was definitely edging into angry-cornered-animal territory now. Gildarts raised his hands slowly, which made the kid tense even more, and retreated the half-step. He relaxed a little at that, but kept his eyes fixed on Gildarts’ hands for a few moments more, before darting them to the doorway behind them, and then to Ivan, and then back to Gildarts’ hands. His teeth weren’t bared anymore, but he was panting through his slightly open mouth, and his eyes were wide. Gildarts took Ivan’s arm and moved them so they weren’t directly in the way of the door anymore, but made sure they moved no closer to the kid.
“It’s okay kid, it’s all gonna be okay.” And he was baring his teeth again. Great. Gildarts sucked at being soothing. He was very aware that the blood he was spattered in probably wasn't helping his case either. “Hey, easy, it’s alright. We’re the good guys. Those people upstairs can’t hurt you anymore, it’s over, they’re gone. You’re safe. You’re gonna be okay. Easy.” He tried his best to keep his tone soft, as Ivan carefully checked his watch. They had a set time to meet up with the rest of the guild, and it must be soon. The last thing they needed was more battle-wired mages storming down here. The kid’s eyes moved back to Ivan at the movement and he watched him carefully for a moment after he had returned his hands to the lacrima. Then he looked back to Gildarts, or, well, his hands. Then flicked to the door, and regained all the tension he had lost through Gildarts’ ramble. “We aren’t going to make you stay in here, you aren’t trapped. You can leave if you want, go straight through that door. Do you want to leave?” At that, the kid hissed and pushed himself further back into the corner of the room. There was a pained noise, and the boy jerked forwards a little again, letting out a whine. “Whoa, you’re okay. We have a medic upstairs, she can help you if you’re hurt. Are you hurt? That’s a lot of blood, kid. We can get you all fixed up so it doesn’t hurt anymore.” The boy was trembling now, small shivers all over his body, as he hunched down, but spread his wings higher. Gildarts looked to Ivan, who seemed deep in thought, staring at the boy. Staring at his wings, specifically. Feeling Gildarts’ gaze, Ivan turned his head to face the other man.
“I don’t think he’s the one that’s hurt, Gildarts.”
The boy leapt to his full height and let out an almighty snarl, which echoed in the small cell. His wings moved agitatedly, and his gaze was fixed on Ivan now. Gildarts didn’t understand how a kid so young – the boy barely looked eight years old, for gods’ sake – could be so damn intimidating. He’d be a monster when he was older, provided he had magic which Gildarts assumed he did, since the traffickers had been taking mages, and the only way he could have physical features like that was through some kind of magic. Most likely a kind of Take-Over, like the Strauss children, although the power to hold it for this long while obviously afraid and undernourished must be monumental. Mirajane could barely hold hers this long under good conditions, and she must be significantly older than this kid. This kid who was obviously in serious distress over what Ivan had said, although Gildarts didn’t think the kid understood Fioran. Maybe it was his tone? Whatever it was, the kid was upset, and that wasn’t good.
“Who’s behind you, kid?”
And then the kid breathed fire.
Gildarts grabbed Ivan by his ridiculous collar and yanked him out of the way, out of the cell and behind the wall the door used to be set in. When the fire died down, he peeked his head around the doorframe, Ivan’s dropped lacrima miraculously unsmashed and still illuminating the room. The kid had fallen to one knee, heaving for breath, wings seemingly keeping him balanced. And there was a tiny, dirt-smudged hand on his shoulder. Another kid, behind the first one. A kid that was being protected by the Take-Over kid’s wings, if Gildarts had to guess. It explained the slightly odd way he’d been moving them, keeping them flared wide even when shrinking in on himself. There was another kid, and Ivan thought they were hurt. Maybe badly, if they’d been still enough during a confrontation that Gildarts hadn’t noticed them. But Ivan had. And the kid had reacted when he knew the other had been noticed, so maybe he did understand Fioran, or enough, at least. That was good, Gildarts could work with that.
He motioned for Ivan to stay put, and then carefully stood. The boy’s head jerked up and he shook off the hand, flaring his wings again. Gildarts’ hunch about the balance had been right, and the kid wobbled when he tried to leap upright, but stabilised fast. Gildarts raised his hands again, and spoke in an even tone.
“It’s alright kid, it’s all okay. I’m going to come back in the room now, and I’m not mad about the fire, I promise. You were protecting your friend, and Ivan’s kind of a dick anyway, so he deserved it.” Gildarts pointedly ignored Ivan’s offended noise. “So he’s going to stay out here, and I’m going to come back in to talk to you, okay? We’re all good.” Gildarts did exactly that, moving into the room, and then away from the door, hands still raised. The kid was back to staring at his hands and then the door, and then his hands. That was a little odd if, as Gildarts suspected, his friend was too injured to move. This kid didn’t seem likely to leave without them, so he couldn’t make a run for the door, so why –
Oh. He wouldn’t make a run for the door because of his friend, but he actually couldn’t make a run for the door even if he wanted to. On account of there being no door, because Gildarts had Crashed it out of existence with his bare hands. Which was probably why showing the kid his bare hands wasn’t helping much. So, Gildarts sat his ass down on the dirty floor and put his hands in his lap. Sitting was even more non-threatening than standing with his hands up, and the kid could still see his hands without them being directed at him. It seemed to help, as the kid’s shoulders dropped a couple of inches. Great.
“So, I know we aren’t off to a great start here, but from your reaction to what Ivan said, I’m going to assume you at least know basic Fioran. That’s good, so let me say some things here, keeping it as simple as I can. Those people upstairs, the bad people, they’re gone. For good. You, and your friend, are free to go, back home, back to your families, whatever you want. We won’t try and stop you, or hurt you at all. In fact, like I said earlier, we have a medic upstairs now, a healer who can help you with any injuries, any hurts, that you or your friend may have. No catch, no charge, and you can leave when you’re fixed if you want. You can leave before, even, but it would make me feel better if you agreed to be healed first, so you can be safe. None of us will try to stop you." The kid tensed again, and Gildarts tried to think of what he'd said wrong. "By ‘us’, I mean my guild: that’s a group of mages who come together and look after each other, like one huge family. My name is Gildarts, and my guild is called Fairy Tail.”
There was a quiet intake of breath from behind the Take-Over kid. (Was he a Take-Over kid if he could breathe fire? If it was a Dragon Soul, maybe? But how would he have ever absorbed one of those? Dragons were long extinct.) The kid reached behind him, and then spoke in what seemed to be another language. The syllables were harsh, but the tone wasn’t. Gildarts kept quiet and waited patiently, very aware the kid’s focus hadn’t slipped from him at all. His friend whispered back, in that strange language, although it sounded choppier, and was interspersed with Fioran. Not a native speaker of whatever that was then. The kid replied shortly, and then a whispered “Let me– ” came, and was cut off with a growl from the boy, head turned towards whoever was behind him, but eyes still strictly focussed on Gildarts. It was slightly unnerving. The other person sighed loudly, and seemed to subside. The kid turned back to Gildarts, and spoke in fractured, rough Fioran.
“Show.” Gildarts blinked. He was surprised to hear a Fioran word at all, but also confused as to what the kid wanted. He frowned at Gildarts and repeated himself. “Show.”
“Show what, kid?”
“Fairy Tail. Show.” A short pause. “Prove.” Prove? Prove what? Prove he was in Fairy Tail?
“You want to see my guild mark?”
“Okay.” He wasn’t going to ask how this kid would know what a Fairy Tail mark looked like, if he could barely speak Fioran. Maybe his friend would? “It’s on my chest, on the left side, so I’m going to have to remove my shirt.” The kid just stared at him. He slowly removed his shirt to reveal the black guild mark over his heart. The kid just watched for another long moment, and then suddenly moved his left wing up harshly, revealing another small child, curled close to the ground. Almost as soon as Gildarts saw the other kid they were being hidden by the wing again. There was more conversation in that blended language, getting much louder as the conversation (argument?) progressed. Gildarts kept very still. He had expected to be cold, sitting around in a dungeon shirtless, but he was completely fine. Probably the adrenaline keeping him warm. In conditions like these, both of the kids before him were probably very sick, malnourished as they were. It seemed the Take-Over kid was losing whatever argument was happening, if his displeased expression was anything to go by. It came to an end with a sharp articulation from the boy, who still hadn’t looked away from Gildarts. He had to admire his dedication to that glare. The glare itself was pretty impressive too. And then somehow the glare got more intense, and Gildarts could feel the magical pressure in the room increase, along with the temperature. It was tangible, clearly an intimidation technique, and way more effective than it should be coming from a malnourished child barely staying on his feet, who looked like he’d be barely 45 pounds soaking wet without those wings.
“You, stay. Erza mine, safe.” Did he mean his friend?
“Your friend? They're safe from me, I’ll stay right here. I won’t hurt them.”
The kid smiled, and it was nasty. Not the teeth baring of before, but a different kind of vicious. “Hurt mine. Try. Kill you.” The certainty, and the feral pleasure in his voice turned it into almost a croon.
“No hands. Hands hurt, take them.” The kid snapped his jaws, leaving no doubt as to how, exactly, Gildarts would lose his hands. He slowly raised his ass off the floor far enough to slip his hands underneath, then sat firmly on them.
“My friend, Ivan, is still outside. Do you want me to send him away?” The kid’s head cocked.
Gildarts laughed, surprised. “Yeah, my dick friend. He can go, if that will help you feel safer.” The kid seemed to approve, so Gildarts raised his voice slightly, and pointedly turned his head and eyes away from the kid to ensure it carried out the door. “Ivan, go back upstairs. Make sure nobody comes down here, no matter what you hear. We’ll come to you.” He heard Ivan start to protest. “Now, Ivan. That's an order.” The grumbling stopped. Gildarts didn’t like to use that card, knew how it infuriated Ivan, but he would make it up to him later. They needed the kids to trust them if they were going to help, and Ivan specifically made this kid wary, aside from the obvious issue of just being another person to worry about. He heard Ivan shuffle to his feet and stride back down the corridor. Even his walk sounded pissed. Man, Gildarts was going to have to buy him so much booze to make this right. He looked back to the Take-Over boy and decided it was worth it, as his shoulders seemed to relax more with every audible step away Ivan took. He was usually almost silent when he walked, the creepy vampiric bastard, and Gildarts briefly had the thought that maybe the exaggerated footsteps were more to do with the kid than his anger with Gildarts. As he heard him climb the stairs, the idea took on more merit. Even furious, Ivan didn’t walk that heavily. Gildarts waited patiently, even after he couldn’t hear Ivan anymore the kid seemed to still be listening. Gildarts would wait as long as necessary for the kid to be convinced nobody else was coming, and Gildarts knew they wouldn’t be. Sending Ivan up now meant they wouldn’t miss check-in, and their guildmates wouldn’t come down here once they were told of the situation. They were a rough, rowdy, belligerent, and sometimes oblivious bunch, but nobody would want to scare a child.
Eventually, the boy seemed sure that they were being left alone, at least for now, and returned full focus to Gildarts. Not that he thought for a second the kid hadn’t been paying attention to him, and certainly not that he could have gotten away with anything, but some of the weight to his stare had been missing before. It was definitely back, and after a beat, he raised one wing again, slower this time, to reveal the other child standing at their full height. This kid too, looked thin and pale, and had a piece of red cloth tied around their head, covering one eye. The child stood steady, unwavering, and Gildarts didn’t think they looked too injured, but who knew what he wasn’t seeing. The kid stepped closer to Gildarts, but only managed a few paces before the first kid was growling, reaching out to grab them.
“Okay, Natsu, I won’t go any further. You can let go, I promise.” The Take-Over kid, Natsu, visibly hesitated before removing his hand. The other kid turned back to where Gildarts sat on the floor. “My name is Erza Scarlet, and this is my friend, Natsu Dragneel. Who are you?” The kid, Erza, asked, voice strong and demanding, in perfect Fiorian.
“My name is Gildarts, and my friend that left is called Ivan.” Erza raised a delicate eyebrow.
“Yes, I know that, I heard you earlier. What are your other names? Names are important, you shouldn’t hide yours.”
“I am Gildarts Clive, then. And Ivan Dreyar.”
Gildarts blinked. “Makarov Dreyar is our Master. Ivan is his son. Do you know Master Makarov?”
“No. Grandpa Rob told me stories about him a few times though.”
Gildarts jolted forwards at the news, yanking his numb hands out from underneath him only to have Natsu wrench Erza back and snarl loudly, trying to push Erza behind him. Gildarts immediately subsided, kicking himself. “Sorry! I’m sorry, I’m staying right here, I’m sorry!” He sat back on his hands and lowered his head, avoiding eye contact in the hopes of calming Natsu. “I’m sorry, I just, Rob’s been missing for so long, we thought he was dead. I’m sorry, you surprised me. I mean you no harm.” He could hear Erza whispering to Natsu while he growled, but didn’t look up at them. Eventually, Natsu’s growls petered off into the occasional hiss, until even those stopped. Gildarts kept his head down still. He still needed to help these kids, and then he could tell Master Makarov that Rob could still be alive, it was a lead, and they hadn’t had one of those for years now. Maybe that meant he was here, maybe he’d been found already!
“Grandpa Rob is dead. He saved my life. I never got the chance to thank him.”
Gildarts sagged. They were too late. How long ago did it happen? It had taken him weeks to get back to the guild when the Master called, what if he had delayed them too long? If he’d been faster, better, closer, would Rob have still been alive when they got here?
“What was his other name? He never told me.”
Gildarts drew in a deep breath, and pushed his recriminations to the side. He could deal with that later, mourn later. Right now, these kids needed him. He slowly looked up to Erza.
“Basil. Rob Basil. He was a dear friend, and a member of Fairy Tail.”
Erza mouthed the name, and nodded.
“He was a good man, and very brave. He helped me, gave me the time to escape from that other place. He always used to tell us if we ever got free to go to Fairy Tail, and that they would help us. That we would know we’d found them when we saw the mark from his back. That they were kind, and strong, and would protect us. I was on my way to you when I was captured and taken here.”
Gildarts smiled. That sounded like Rob.
“He was right. We’ll look after you, if that’s what you want. You can come back with us, live with us, for as long as you want. You didn’t get to us, but you met us halfway. We’re here now. Will you let us help you?”
“Are you in a position to offer us that protection? Will there be room for us? Don’t you need to ask your Master?”
“I already know he would agree. Hell, he’ll probably be furious it took me so long to offer. And the guild definitely has room for a couple more kids; you don’t take up much space, and we have plenty!”
Erza considered him for a long moment, then straightened and nodded sharply, seemingly coming to a decision.
“Do you have room for three?”
At that, Natsu snarled again, at Erza this time. Erza turned sharply and poked him in the chest.
“Enough! He needs help, and if after he’s healed you want to leave then you can! But I’m going with Fairy Tail. I have nowhere else to go, this was always my plan and you know that. I trust Grandpa Rob, and he trusted them, and that’s good enough for me for now.” Gildarts desperately wanted to ask about the other 'he' that apparently needed medical attention, but sensed that Natsu absolutely would not react well to him saying anything about it right now. The two stared into each other’s eyes for a long time. Natsu’s mouth was slightly open again, and he started huffing smoke while he glared. Erza’s back straightened in response, and then bared teeth at him – ordinary, blunt, human teeth from what Gildarts could tell. Finally, Natsu seemed to sag, closing his eyes. He leant forward until his forehead was touching Erza’s, who brought a hand up to grasp the hair at the back of his neck. He let out a whine, sagging further, and then slowly pulled himself back upright and opened his eyes. He looked over at Gildarts for a long moment, before folding his wings away entirely. Or at least, he attempted to, his right wing wasn’t folding away as smoothly as the left. For the first time, Gildarts saw pain on his face, and with those wings mostly away, Natsu just looked like an exhausted, hurt, scared little boy. Gildarts glanced to Erza, who was now the one glaring fiercely at him. It seemed Erza was in charge now, and Natsu clearly trusted in his friend's abilities enough to feel safe letting his guard down. Suddenly, he remembered where they were, what this place actually was, the heat of Natsu's fire, and the question came unbidden from his mouth.
“You fought, didn’t you? Upstairs?”
Erza's chin raised.
“Yes. And until about a week ago, we were undefeated.”
“What happened a week ago?” Erza looked at him for a moment longer.
“If you try anything, I’ll kill you slow, Gildarts Clive. And none of your friends will leave this place either; they’ll be dead before your blood dries on my hands.” Gildarts believed it, wholeheartedly. And how unbelievable was that, from the mouth of a child probably not yet a teenager. But he believed it. Erza stepped to the side, and Natsu shifted his weight enough to allow the light from the lacrima to illuminate what had previously been hidden in their shadows.
It was another child, lying on the floor, probably the same age as Natsu, but with black hair instead of pink. The blood that covered him was as bright as Erza’s shorn-short locks, even dried as it was. His torso was wrapped in rags that looked like they came from Natsu's trousers, and was probably where his shirt had gone. It looked like he was barely breathing. Gildarts managed to control his involuntary reaction this time, which was to jump up and rush to help the kid on the floor. He knew the other two wouldn’t react well to that, but the kid looked like he was on his last legs. They had to get him to Porlyusica as soon as possible, but he knew if the kid had survived a week with those injuries, he could survive the time it took to get Natsu and Erza to allow him to help.
“This is our friend, Gray Fullbuster. We need help. Will you help us, Gildarts Clive?”
Gildarts looked into Erza’s eyes, and nodded. Erza nodded back, and Gildarts rose to his feet. He looked to Natsu before moving any closer. Natsu looked to Erza, and then to Gray, and finally back to Gildarts. He nodded, and Gildarts stepped forwards to help.