A/N: Been a month since last chapter... That's too long, even for me. Had a bit of a block, didn't know how to properly set the story with events. Not that I didn't had what to write about, it was too much to write. I had so many ideas that I had to eliminate one by one so that I can keep story to follow specific path. I am however not in doubt about next chapter and it will be very... surprising. That's all you are getting, for now, enjoy the next chapter and thank you for you continuing support.
Clicking sound of wagons on the rail was only thing that kept Gray from falling asleep. There weren't many passengers in train so he was sitting alone in coupe. His left leg was bent and placed on seat, arm leaning against the knee as he was watching through the window at the countryside. Chaos took over inside his head, creating a maelstrom of thoughts and feelings. Anger, sadness, relief and fear were, however, dominant ones. He didn't think this through…
What was he thinking? Even if Juvia would to move on it wouldn't happen right away… but then again, it was months since that occurrence in the village. In months he managed to become something he himself loathed… Yes that was the anger… He was angry because he really didn't put that much trust in Juvia to fight her own battles, believing that she is a fragile girl who needed to be protected. He acted as her shadow, kept harm at bay. What was he trying to achieve with those acts of selfishness?
His head turned as he heard steps, at first it appeared that couple of passengers would enter his coupe but they moved on. Good… He didn't want any company anyway.
How did things ended like this? He thought after finally sharing bed they would resolve things to one end or another. It appears as it really did resolve for her… But, what about Gray? It appears that it was just a gateway that led to more questions. Was it that easy for her to get over him? No no no, she said she would always love him but… that means nothing if it is just said and not done. The very thought depressed him and his brows furrowed heavily, taking long and deep sigh, exhaling through his nose.
So why am I on this train? He asked himself. If there was one truth among all those thoughts of uncertainty, it is that he really didn't think this through. Just after he left Erza in front of Fairy Tail he only made a short stop at his house. At first he thought he should pack his things, some clothes but he quickly dropped that idea. Instead he only took wallet and jacket. Money might do him good if he will travel and further he is from Magnolia the better… Well now he is regretting. Extra clothes would've been useful. And there is the job…
"I forgot about the job…" He groaned silently, leaning head back to knock few times against seat lean. "I didn't even need to bring the wallet. Wait… where is the job anyway?"
His hand reached into pocket to grab the poster from it. His head was in such a great mess that he didn't even check what job he took, where it's located or what the reward is. The extent of his newfound stupidity extended even to fact that he just bought a train ticket without realizing if it will lead him closer to the job or further from it. What if it was in opposite direction? Mess is a mess, everyone has it in their lives but his line of work prohibited him from not taking job requests seriously… they must not suffer his personal life, especially since he took the job… no one else will be able to do it which may turn badly to those who posted it.
Fortune smiled upon him. This rail was leading toward capital city of Crocus however job request mentioned a Pine Village. Gray knew his basic geography to know locations of at least major towns and few villages and Pine was definitely in that direction. Upon further inspection he learned that job was to 'dispose' of a bandit group that harassed village over the course of months, a job he is all too familiar with. Reward is 80 000 but there wasn't that big of a concern. No, it was the fact that he had to leave; this is just a station on his road. He folded poster and placed back into his pocket. There was small bit of relief inside of him and that was due to the fact that he could now focus on something else rather than to constantly think about Juvia. Still, it wasn't easy forgetting her either… he felt something else now in his stomach… it wasn't anger, it wasn't sadness or fear, it was anxiety. Leaving her behind was not something that he wanted; no matter how much he thought it was needed to be done but now it was distance that separated them. Was it the fact that he could no longer protect her? No that is not it, he saw her fight and she can hold her own easily for as long as she picks her fights carefully. Is it because he no longer could know if she will move on? Of course she will… she tried with Lyon… if not him then, someone else…
Next station was closest one to Pine Village and it was his stop, now it was a matter of reaching village itself. He only knew general direction which means he had to ask around for specific directions and yet again he found that fortune still favors him as some of the locals were quite familiar with the area. They pointed to a road out of the town leads straight to the Pine Village, no more than 30 kilometers. It was a relatively straight road to it.
Evening was slowly approaching when he spotted the village, small in size no more than fifty houses, rather old-fashioned and simple with farms and orchards surrounding it. As he approached it he looked around, noticing that it was silent, too silent for this time of day. Perhaps something went wrong while he was coming and knowing his previous encounters he always expected the worst. His suspicion would prove to be well justified.
Streets were simple, local made chiseled slabs to form a path and avoid standing on dirt. All streets were leading toward the center where he found people standing, talking. Villagers took little time to notice stranger and heads turned to see him, raising his tension and feeling that suddenly he became center of attention. His steps led him further toward the crowd that dispersed before him, opening path toward the center of their commotion where older man was sitting on a rock, holding cane in front of him with deep frown. He resembled Makarov to good extent with exception of long beard and size… unlike master, this man appeared to be just a little bit shorter than Gray himself… at least that is how much Gray could tell without him standing up.
"Greetings, stranger…" elder man spoke in soft tone, his eyes slowly rose to look at Gray "Forgive us for lack of welcome, you came at dark hour."
"Yeah, I got that." Gray responded, looking around at various faces that were gazing at him, men and women ranging anywhere from young to old but all had sad expressions. After few moments of glancing around he directed his gaze back to elder man "My name is Gray Fullbuster of Fairy Tail. You placed a job request and I came to help."
In that very moment, old man's eyes widened and lit up. "Ancestors be praised! You heard our plea…"
Despite the urge to assure old man otherwise, Gray refrained from saying anything. Instead he allowed man to slowly stand up from the rock he was sitting on and watch as he placed hands on his arms. Fortunately for them… he was still properly clothed… well at least that can be changed.
"I am afraid you came at worst of time, but greatest of need." Man's words slowly grew silent, tone followed his expression that soon turned grim and he slowly removed hands from Gray's shoulders "My name is Isaim, village elder and the one who asked Fairy Tail for help. We heard much of your guild… yes… word reached even here about your great accomplishments but we feared you might not come."
"Why did you think that?" Gray asked, watching man carefully as he looked down.
"Our need is great but the money… we know it is insufficient for it however it is all we can spare." As Isaim continued, Gray's eyes glanced around, noticing that people around joined in his reaction, bowing head down… it was the look of shame and guilt. "The problem, it is not new one. Our village is a peaceful one, we are mostly farmers and workers, fighting was never something we eagerly accepted. Because of it a group of men came to us several months ago, demanding payment in exchange for not attacking us. We thought we could overpower them with number but…"
"But?" Gray asked as elder took a long pause.
Isaim continued with slightly trembling voice. Feeling of shame took him over as well as he spoke "But we couldn't… We did not know they had a mages and we have none. Fight ended before it even started and we had no choice but to collect money and pay. We believed that they would leave us alone but they came again, and again we paid… then they came once more. Now they demand we pay again, more than we can afford, but this time…" Man stopped to take another long pause. "This time they took one of our young ones, threatening to kill… if we don't pay. That money for reward is all we can spare."
It didn't take Gray any extra time to think about the job. Pay was small, no doubt about it but they were in great need which made issue of money completely useless. He would've agreed anyway. Faces around turned and looked at Gray as if he is their savior as he agreed and elder Isaim was not falling behind in reaction. He pointed Gray to the place where they were supposed to meet and deliver money and without any delay he started walking toward it. There was another thing that became apparent after he heard the story. For this job, it would be wise not to take off his shirt and reason for it was simple…. He could predict how 'negotiations' would go and for what he will do… it would be best to keep emblem hidden.
Appointed place was a small clearing before the entrance to the forest. He looked around, judging carefully the area and he deemed it as excellent ambush spot. Whoever wants to hold element of surprise will have to approach from the forest… and Gray will have nothing to use as cover. He remained standing for couple of minutes until he heard steps coming from the forest. At least he was right about direction where they would come from. Five men appeared. First and most noticeable one was rather bulky, bald one with quite the amount of fat around his belly. Another one was short, roughly size of Makarov, clothes matched those of a winter fashion with a scarf over his face, having only eyes uncovered and fixed on Gray. Other two were roughly size of Gray along with similar physique, sharing same clothes with dark brown hair… twins. Final one was a good head above ice wizard, wearing black leather jacket and sunglasses despite the fact sun was setting. His oiled, blond hair was combed backward, seemingly defying the breeze that attempted to rustle it.
"So, old man decided to pay up." He spoke, lips curved into a grin. The group slowly spread, moving to encircle Gray with their leader, mentioned man in leather jacket, standing in front. "Can't say I've seen you before."
"I'm here to inform you that you are not getting any more payments." Gray spoke calmly "And to return one you took before things turn ugly."
Group burst into laughter, making Gray look around him as if he didn't get the 'joke' but he wasn't fazed one bit by this. Finally, leader was first to regain composure and he took off his glasses to wipe eyes that had few tears due to laughter. Apparently they did consider this funny.
"You don't say…" man said and placed glasses into his front pocket. "You should know what will happen if you try to interfere." With a snap of fingers, man's shadow suddenly turned, no longer being on the side but rather in front of him, defying the physical laws. From it first emerged fingers, than hands, rising up slowly until a person was pulled out like a magician pulls a rabbit out of the hat. It was a girl, roughly Gray's age with curled blond hair that reached her shoulders. Her clothes were torn and ripped, letting Gray deduce that she suffered quite a bit of abuse. Extent of it would probably determine how calm he will be in the next couple of minutes… most important ones.
Leader grabbed her left wrist and pulled behind her back, making her moan out of pain as he did. Still, Gray didn't flinch.
"If they won't pay then you will. 500 000 jewels, and since they had the balls to try and hire a lackey, we are going to demand double next time. Oh… and the pretty one stays with us." He chuckles as he leaned down, placing his face close to hers neck.
Gray's eyes squinted slightly and he took a deep breath as he turned his head left, then right, looking at rest of the gang. He wondered how many are mages… and for that matter, which one. Bald one? Short one? Twins? Perhaps twins. It didn't matter, his head faced forward as girl let another cry. She looked up at Gray, her eyes on verge of letting tears out, desperate and defeated. He saw this look before, he knew it well and silent, cold rage was bubbling inside of him.
His lips and he spoke softly, not even looking at leader but rather at her "I need you to trust me for 30 seconds, alright?" He asked and after a few seconds she nodded, making him smile wide as he looked up at leader.
"What the fuck are you saying?"
"I said… Ice-make pillar." Gray said and lifted his right leg, slamming foot down making a pillar rise underneath girl, snatching her from man's grasp and lifting up high. With a twist of his heel, five finger-like limbs emerged and grabbed her, holding her in place and from falling. Gang was ready to attack and on leader's command they did however Gray was quicker than that, his hands connected and he shouted Ice-make hammer! creating a long heavy hammer in his hands that he swung to the left, hitting fat one first on his left shoulder, instantly slamming him down on the ground. He turned to look at his next target which were twins who instantly split as hammer's head was approaching them from above in high arc. He missed but he never intended to hit them from that attack. He quickly turned and punched the very pillar that held girl up and entire segment half meter long flew and hit leader directly into the chest, knocking him down on the ground. There wasn't much time to think and in moment felt both of his arms were grabbed. Grip was strong and it kept him almost immobile while the smallest of gang stood in front of Gray, closing his hands together and around them blue magic circle appeared, sending multiple icicles at him. Gray was surprised but every icicle that connected with his skin instantly dispersed.
"You call that ice magic?" Gray asked and grinned wide, his hands turned and pressed against abdomens of his current captors and from his palms cold wave spread, creating thick ice that spread quickly, encasing them in icy prison. With a strong tug he pulled his arms out of their grasp and started walking toward the short one. He was afraid, he was terrified and with good reason because Gray connected his hands again and uttered Ice-make Ice geyser. Not even a second later a large burst of ice appeared under gang member, trapping him in cold embrace. Gray's head turned back as he noticed that pillar was collapsing and girl screamed. He rushed over and stood under pillar, making it disperse into nothing but smoke, catching girl into his arms before she could fall.
"I am here to help, just wait a bit more." He reassured her and placed her down on the ground, there was still one more thing to do. Quick steps led him toward the leader who quickly stood up, coughing as he managed to regain air that was forcefully expelled from his lungs by Gray's attack. He spat on the ground and quickly sank into his shadow, leaving Gray to question where he might emerge. There was little to no knowledge about this magic but if it is anything like Rogue… he might appear anywhere. Suspicion was correct.
Man appeared behind gray, sending strong punch into his back and before Gray could turn he disappeared again. This repeated two more times, making Gray realize that he cannot defeat him by waiting… but he had to wait for a right opportunity to strike. As punches connected with Gray so did gang leader's confidence rose. A slight hope that he just might win… a foolish hope.
"What is wrong?" he asked as he emerged in front of Gray, ten meters away. "Can't hit me you little fucker?" But Gray said nothing, his eyes were fixed on man.
"What's that? Oh right you are too afraid to speak. You know what? Just for this, I am going to triple the demand, and we may have to kill few just to show that we are not kidding. What do you have to say about that?"
"I say, you talk too much." Gray responded with cold voice. Man took few steps forward and Gray's foot simply tapped twice on the ground. Right hand slowly closed and inside the palm first a haft was made, long enough to almost reach ground and before it did, head of icy hammer was formed. He did placed great effort to be as quiet as possible with his magic and this was one time when he was glad he pushed himself beyond his own limits. Leader looked at Gray's hammer, snorting once in process and yet again began sinking down into his own shadow but the moment last strand of hair entered this dark domain he emerged again as he was being forced out of it.
"What the fuck?" He looked down, only to notice a thick layer of ice underneath them and it was spreading further and further.
"You can't pass through my ice floor." Gray explained, watching man's confidence disappear like a drop of water on a hot pan. He lifted his hammer and turned it, holding it in a way of a spear before throwing it hard toward the man, hitting him on the chest again and knocking him down on the ground. Man screamed from pain, even more as he slammed against the icy floor. He briefly looked forward and saw Gray quickly coming his way. In desperation he turned, trying to crawl away but his attempts were proven to be futile as Gray's right foot slammed against his lower back, pinning him in the place.
Silent magic proved to be effective… but Gray enjoyed his flashy side even more "Ice-make Death scythe…" he finished and moved the blade of scythe right under man's throat, pressing edge slightly upward only enough so he can feel cold, sharp sensation on his skin.
"Listen to me you shit-for-brains." Gray said in cold voice "I intend to come here often and if you so much as look in this direction I am going to find you and I promise… There will not be third time for you to return. Am I clear?"
Man quickly nodded but only as much as his head allowed to be moved without blade cutting the skin. Gray removed his scythe away from man's threat and it disappeared and same happened with boy ice geyser and imprisoned twins. He didn't care one bit if they are alright or not, big one was definitely going to need mender's aid as the sheer force of the impact probably either dislocated his shoulder or broke several bones. Leader? Probably one or two broken ribs judging by the force he used to knock him down but he didn't care. He slowly moved toward the girl who was staring at him, more afraid than grateful as her hands were on the ground, trying to back away from Gray
"P-please don't come!" She uttered as he kneeled down in front of her. Who knows what horrors she had to endure… His hand reached slowly, seemingly to simply touch her arm but as she winced he quickly withdrew.
"Don't be scared I am not here to hurt you but bring you back to village. Can you walk?"
She quickly waved her head, making him look down at her feet. They were covered in bruises and cuts, she was most likely forced to walk around the forest bare footed. There was little he could do at this point except take off his jacket and wrap around her, using the moment of her confusion to lift her up, one hand on her back other under her legs, carrying her bridal-style back at the village.
"S-sorry…" she said in soft voice
Gray smiled softly as he continued walking "That's alright. As long as you are safe." This time he took extra second to look at her face. Even covered in dirt and few bruises she didn't look that bad, no, in fact… she looked rather cute. He quickly looked forward before their gazes could connect. Bad thoughts, Gray, bad thoughts.
"What's that?" He asked.
"My name is Melinda…" she said, feeling a bit more secured as she gripped jacket to hold it close.
"Melinda… that's a nice name." he responded, still having his smile "I am Gray, Gray Fullbuster."
"Gray." She repeated his name "That is a bit odd name…"
"Yeah… well you'll thank my dad for it." He snorted.
"I am sorry…" she said, looking away "I am not being very grateful, am I? I didn't mean anything bad by it, just… we don't have visitors from other towns often."
"Don't worry about it." He said and looked at her again, this time she smiled as well.
They arrived at the village who immediately rushed toward him. Two among them emerged from crowd, taking girl from Gray's arms, holding her in tight embrace. Those are probably her parents Gray thought, feeling warmth in his chest as he watched them reuniting with daughter. Others tried to stand as close to Gray as possible, thanking him for what he did. A path was cleared as elder approached Gray, having warm smile on his face.
"Thank you…" he uttered as he bowed head to him and then looked up "As promised, reward is yours." He extended small bag to him but instead of taking the bag, Gray simply pushed it back to him.
"You need that more than I do, I am just glad I could help."
"You put great shame on us with such generosity…" Elder said as he bowed head again, this time, many others did the same "I am terribly sorry we cannot offer more than this."
"It is not that big of a deal. I wouldn't be able to call myself Fairy Tail wizard if I would to leave with money that I know you need more."
"The rumors are true, then." Isaim lifted his head to look at Ice wizard. "Fairy Tail is indeed a great guild. At very least, we placed our faith in right one. If there is anything we can do, please do not hesitate to ask."
Gray looked around, noticing many grateful faces. He then glanced around toward the houses and remembered the image of this village as he was approaching. Secluded, almost cut off from the troubles of the world, peaceful… People seemed to be nice to although it was too early to tell. His eyes then moved down toward the girl who gazed up at her savior, this time with bit brighter eyes free of fear, free of the memory of torment.
"Then, can I ask you to allow me to stay here for a while?" he asked and looked toward elder
For few moments, elder appeared confused, caught off guard but he didn't hesitate to answer to this unusual request "Of course, as long as you wish. After what you did for us, we will gladly be your hosts."
"There won't be need for that." Gray simply waved his hand "I intend to earn my keep."