CH9: An Unorthodox Solution
Days since Naruto joined Fairy Tail: 33
November 17th, Year X782
A sweltering heat clung to his soaked body like iron shackles that dug and abraded into his skin, the rancid stench of hot iron and sweat filling the air while a blood red moon illuminated the world around him in a crimson luminescence.
Standing on the battlefield of the Fourth Shinobi World War once again, Naruto Uzumaki could only look on at the scene of the massacre in an indescribable haze of white noise, a faint ringing assaulting his hearing accompanied by a thick throbbing sensation in his temples. Countless screams and whispers pervaded through the fog and dragged his senses deeper into the murky depths. Gaze sweeping over the devastated land, he struggled to control the growing urge to vomit as he met the hollow and empty eyes of the countless shinobi that lay dead before him, skewered and crucified like mere insects.
Hundreds of men and women met their fates at the hands of the Ten-Tails, wooden sprigs piercing their bodies, perforating their insides, and leaving them dead in a pool of their own blood. A frigid numbness overtook the muscles in his legs and a crippling fear invade his bones as he was left alone in the endless hellscape devoid of life.
Struggling to even breathe and move his fingertips, Naruto felt a cold hand grasp his heart, his head throbbing while a loud ringing filled his ears, as he looked down and found a cold, lifeless set of lilac eyes staring back. Kempt shoulder length brown hair lied muddied in earth and ichor, and a thin trickle of red spittle escaped a pair of lips curved upwards in a haunting smile.
"Neji no…" Naruto breathlessly murmured, reaching out towards his slain comrade.
As his cold, quivering fingers reached the body of the late Neji, Naruto recoiled in revulsion as the Hyuga's body melted. Organs and blood liquified into an intermingled pool of putrid gore, skin had been flayed off and absorbed into the growing sludge, and marrows were broken down and dissolved like bone meal.
Falling to his knees in a wet splatter, he brought his hands to his face and paled finding them drenched in red as the iron odor attacking his smell worsened. Wiping his hands against the fabric of his orange jacket in a hysteric frenzy, his horror was exacerbated as the dreadful color would not fade no matter how hard he tried to erase it.
The whispers and voices filling his head grew louder and louder, screaming spiteful curses and howling words of damnation. The burning heat enveloping his body became unbearable as Naruto's lips parted in an attempt to verbally deny the reality before him.
With a cry of terror, Naruto was awakened by a clattering bang caused by the merciless winter winds barreling through the aged and flimsy windows of his attic living space. He soon found his senses assaulted by a rush of frigid air as his sweat-soaked body shivered within the season's chilly ministrations while a throbbing pain pounded against his head like striking hammers. The drenched sheets did little to protect him against the cold even as he threw away his covers.
Hyperventilating, Naruto inhaled shakily and released ragged breaths as he grasped the side of his head in hopes of relieving the intense pain that besieged him, his mind unwittingly returning to the vivid hell he had just escaped from.
"It was because… you called me a genius."
Neji's final words played within his head like a broken record, each iteration driving a rusted, cracked dagger deeper into his gut while the grisly images leading up to his demise played like a movie. The final image of his dead visage falling to the ground struck the final nail as Naruto could no longer bear the overflowing nausea flooding his senses.
Scrambling out of the cot, Naruto dove for small trash bin that occupied the corner of his space and emptied out the contents of his stomach. Hot liquid clambered up from his stomach and burned past his throat as he continued to retch and release the filth inside of him.
After a few minutes of dry heaving, Naruto coughed before slumping against the baseboard of the attic, wiping away the drivel trailing the corners of his lips as the hammering pain in his head began to subside.
Placing his trembling palms against his eyelids, Naruto did his best to rub away the fatigue as he attempted to suppress the lingering sickness in his stomach.
The nightmares had started a week or two after he had met everyone at Fairy Tail. Like felines, they were fickle in how they behaved. Sometimes they would visit him once a night, and other times they would come only once a week. In the previous occurrences, he had only seen minor fragments, mere bits and flashes from the recesses of his memory that had done no more than wake him earlier than usual.
It was hard to distinguish where each piece came from as his clones had been the ones to fight at nearly every front of the war; however, not a single one of the nightmares prior had been as powerful and lucid as this.
Neji had died for him.
Neji had died because of him.
Dimmed blue eyes recalled the day they first laid sight on the Hyuga prodigy. Back then, the youth's obsessive fixation on predetermined fate clashed heavily with the ideals held by Naruto's younger self.
The two were rivals that had settled their differences in the final stages of the Chunin Exams with Naruto emerging victorious.
Naruto's win not only signified the possibility that he could become Hokage, but proclaimed that even Neji could alter his destiny as long as he possessed the will to do so. Neji changed for the better, and even improved the relations between the Hyuga's main and branch families. He was supposed to be the one to reform the Hyuga and abolish their usage of the Caged Bird Seal, giving the entirety of his clan the freedom of choice.
In a cruel twist of fate that Naruto witnessed firsthand, Neji's first and final act of free will was to die for Hinata and him.
A cold howl of air rushed through the room, chills clambering through Naruto's bones while leaving a trail of goosebumps across his skin. As if he grew nearly five times in size, Naruto felt the walls close around him, trapping him in a tight box with an urge to escape to the outside.
Pushing himself to his feet, Naruto strode to the window with a briskness matching the chilly air and looked out upon the sleeping town. The sky was still dark, quietly awaiting the arrival of the morning sun as the streets were still alit by the rows of street lamps. Thousands of twinkling, white stars watched over the peaceful land while the chilly morning air enticed Naruto's body as he inhaled deeply to soothe his mind. Like a compressed spring, Naruto felt the tension gradually leave his body with each breath.
Losing himself in time while standing as still as a toad statue, Naruto's shivers gradually calmed as he was able to find his center once again. When he finally reopened his eyes, he noticed dawn's eager arrival far off in the distance and sighed as he closed the clattering window frames with a soft click. Turning around, feet dragging across the wooden floorboards, he left the stuffy confines of the Church's attic. Too tired to travel far and too wired to go back to sleep, he made his way to begin his early morning responsibilities.
Few Hours Later
November beckoned the coming advent of winter as its arrival stripped the last vestiges of Magnolia Town's trees, adorning the ground in a collage of red, orange, and yellow. Early winter air rolled into the port town, its frigid teeth biting the exposed napes and ears of Magnolia's citizens, forcing most of them to bundle up as they went about their daily commutes.
Despite the many hurried adults and children who sought warmth that could only be found indoors, one young man continued to labor in the chilly morning, swiftly swinging an old and worn axe down upon his target.
Each breath he took could be seen in the winter weather while a slight red tint colored his cheeks. Cold perspiration slid down his neck and into his plain white shirt further growing the wet patch of fabric on his back. Naruto could feel the shirt clinging uncomfortably to his body, yet paid this small complication no attention as his mind was focused on other matters.
A brisk swish through the air was followed by a hollow thud as two neatly split pieces of lumber tipped over the sides of the tree stump. Wrenching the edge of the axe free from one of the countless grooves left behind on the ligenous surface, Naruto breathed deeply, feeling the knots and twists in his chest unraveling before heaving the tool over his shoulder. Using his free left hand, he bent downwards to pick up the other half of the small log he had split before tossing it over into the growing pile on his right.
Straightening back up, he wiped the edge of his brow with his wrist before placing a new log upon the barren stump. He gripped the handle of the axe with two hands and made a few practice swings, stopping the edge of the blade mere centimeters away from the lumber before raising it one final time.
Before he could swing, Naruto found he was no longer alone as a boy a few years younger than he called out to him. The blond could even feel the palpable stare leveled upon his person.
Glancing behind him, Naruto wedged the axe's blade back into the stump and returned Kojiro's stare with a small smile. Taking the orphanage's second oldest resident's interruption as an opportunity to rest from his task, Naruto wiped his hands on his pants before giving Kojiro his attention.
"Hey, what's up?"
The frown that marred Kojiro's expression conveyed the boy's discontent towards Naruto, but what it was for the shinobi did not know.
"That's my line." Kojiro retorted, with a strict and agitated tone. "For the past few days since you got back from your last job, you haven't talked to anybody and haven't made a single clone. All you've done is the hard labor around here without saying a single word to anyone. Hinako's been bugging me about it for days, and I swear you better have a damn good reason for this because you know just as well as I do how bad she can get."
A deep sigh escaped Naruto's chest as he scratched the side of his head, his actions awkward and hesitant. He could tell that his behavior had to have been a striking and worrisome contrast to his usual personality given by the fact that Kojiro was the one standing before him.
"Got a lot on your mind, huh?" Kojiro spoke, his expression plain and neutral.
Naruto's features cracked into a grin, a small chuckle escaping his lips as he meandered over and slumped down on the ground beside one of the church courtyard trees.
"Yeah, I guess you could say that."
The bespectacled boy groaned aloud, making his displeasure for having to "fix" Naruto known. He ran a hand through his messy coral hair before sitting by Naruto on the opposite side of the tree.
"So? What did you screw up this time?" Kojiro questioned, the boy clearly wishing he was anywhere else at the moment.
"Why do you think I was the one to screw something up?" Naruto retorted, both offended and irritated by the younger teen's insinuation.
"Because despite how much you do to help around here, you're only a few years older than me." Kojiro replied as if he was stating the obvious. "I've watched you since you got here too. You're not some perfect hero from a comic. When you make mistakes, you're the one who usually ends up depressed."
Naruto leaned up from his resting position to direct a sideways glare towards Kojiro and found the boy's eyes to be closed as he remained as collected and calm as usual.
"Hmph, better than being a dumbass, Dumbass. So are you going to tell me what you did, or are you just going to chop down another tree?"
Kojiro's eyes opened and fell upon the massive stockpile of wood that was the result of the older blond's labor.
"I'm pretty sure that's going to be enough to last us until next winter." he mused.
Naruto grumbled under his breath before rubbing the sides of his face with his hands, attempting to massage away the tiredness that weighed down on his eyelids.
"So… what if you and someone you knew—"
"Dude, just say it straight." Kojiro interrupted blithe and lacking any semblance of respect.
Naruto's open mouth shut with a click as he looked over his shoulder to see Kojiro's dispassionate stare.
"... I used to know someone just like you, y'know?"
"What? Straight to the point?" Kojiro smirked.
"No, he was an asshole." Naruto evenly replied with a certain black-haired teammate in mind. "Never had a girlfriend either."
Naturally, Naruto neglected to mention it was by Sasuke's own volition and circumstances, but that's besides the point as he received an immediate growl.
"Can it, hobo. Are you actually going to tell me why you've been so depressed or not?" was Kojiro's biting remark.
"Yeah, yeah, sorry." Naruto grinned with a chuckle. Gaze shifting to the empty gray sky, Naruto admired the clarity of the view as it was not often that one could behold the splendor of the endless expanse without the glare of the sun staring back. Cool bark settled against his messy hair while intermingling with his sweat. The blond surmised that he would in all likelihood smell exactly like how he was feeling at this moment. In accordance with Kojiro's condition, Naruto spat out his predicament like it was a bitter fruit.
"I lied to my friends."
Naruto did not receive an immediate response, and he was neither able to see the upwards rise of Kojiro's eyebrows nor the slight surprise present in his expression.
"Was it on purpose?" Kojiro finally asked glancing to the side with interest and underlying uncertainty.
"Well… no." Naruto replied scratching the side of his cheek. "It was just a really, really, hard to believe story, so I didn't bother telling anyone."
"How hard to believe?" Kojiro asked through one eye.
Naruto paused for a brief moment. Choosing to instead gauge Kojiro's observing gaze to see if the youth was actually listening. Seeing an amber-colored eye, free of insincerity and false intent, Naruto made his choice.
"Would you believe I'm actually a ninja that was reincarnated from another world?"
Naruto was not certain of what to expect from Kojiro, but to the youth's credit Kojiro appeared as stoic as ever. He had neither budged in the slightest nor responded with a single word only building upon Naruto's growing curiosity. Was there a chance? Was there just the smallest possibility that Kojiro actually believed him?
Naruto heard Kojiro inhale deeply before sighing, an indicator that he had found his words.
"Just out of curiosity, is there a brain underneath all that stupid or is it just a hamster running on a wheel? Who in their right mind would actually believe that?"
For a brief instance, Naruto was struck with genuinely speechless, his brain not yet registering the information passed in through his ears, but once it did his reaction consisted of a raucous laugh before it gradually devolved into depressed sniveling.
"Right…?" Naruto groaned in a dismay as he dropped his face into the palms of his hands.
"Let me finish. I wasn't done yet." Kojiro replied, features bland and tone tiresome.
"Haven't you said enough…?" Naruto groaned with his face still buried away.
"Unfortunately, as much as I would like to say that, after giving your explanation some thought it would actually be crazy enough to make too much damn sense." Kojiro spoke with bitter acceptance.
Naruto blinked, not entirely certain of what Kojiro had spoken. Raising his head from the solace of his callous and sticky palms, he looked towards an undeniably petulant youth who continued his train of thought.
"After your first week here, I stopped by the local library on the way back from some errands and checked out an encyclopedia called, "X782: Magic, Artifacts, and More". It's essentially a record of all known magic recorded from past to present by the Magic Council, but unsurprisingly it has excluded any references pertaining to dark wizardry or dangerous items."
"I'm sorry, but are you saying you believe me?" Naruto abruptly decided to ask.
"I'm getting to that." Kojiro groused while rubbing his forehead temples in hopes of soothing the developing migraine. "Originally, I wanted to learn more about your Clone Magic in hopes of replicating it. However after searching through the entirety of the book, there was not a single listing close to what you were doing. I suspected then and there that there was more to the ability than you let on; including the reason as to why there was no usage of magic circles."
Naruto watched Kojiro shift around, the younger teen attempting to find a more comfortable seating position yet continuing to voice his reasonings.
"And then there was the times you helped me and Hina with cooking duty. Although you knew what most of the ingredients looked like, you mixed up salt and sugar one time for dinner when the packaging clearly had the names on the front. At the time, I thought you probably weren't paying attention to what you were grabbing, but it wouldn't make sense since you've clearly shown a higher level of awareness in other areas. "
Kojiro adjusted his slipping glasses back onto the bridge of his nose as he redirected a cool, calculating stare towards an unsettled Naruto who had a distinct feeling Kojiro was about to say something rude or hurtful.
"You don't know how to read do you?" he pointed out with certainty.
Naruto could not help but chuckle aloud, impressed by the incredibly perceptive youth, and sighed in acquiescence. When he had arrived in the forest that day, he found that he could understand Mirajane, the townspeople, and Elfman speech-wise without issue. He attributed it to Hagoromo's influence with ninshu, yet he soon realized it was not an almighty solution to everything as he could not read any form of text..
"No, I don't," Naruto sighed in admittance. "I've been getting by so far, but I don't know what I'm going to do at this rate."
"You do know that Magnolia has schools for language?" Kojiro stated as if the solution were simple. "Granted most of them are for kids, it shouldn't be too hard to find one that teaches even people around our age."
Kojiro's facial features scrunched up in confusion, the strange outburst actually managing to make him curious enough to look at Naruto who appeared to have swallowed a metaphorical lemon. A single glance at Kojiro's expression was enough for Naruto to determine he had been figured out.
"You… You're a special kind of stupid, aren't you?" Kojiro asked unable to suppress his candid nature.
"No... just the regular kind." Naruto grumbled in response.
It was not an opinion, but instead a simple fact. He was terrible at studying. Whether it was learning jutsu or basic academy homework, Naruto had always been a slow if not horrendous student with the grades to show for it. Even during the written portion of the Genin exam, Naruto could not even determine a way to cheat like everybody else had. Honestly if given the choice to abstain from ramen for a month while around Tsunade during one of her drinking sessions, or study like a proper student, he would at least write a will before joining his surly, drunken grandmother figure.
"So what then?" Naruto said, gesturing with his hand for Kojiro to continue. "Even if I can't read, I could still be lying. What other reasons do you have that prove I'm telling the truth?"
Naruto did not receive a verbal response. What he did receive was a sudden smack to the head by a tree branch eliciting a sudden shout of pain.
"What the hell was that for?!"
"Nothing in particular." Kojiro shrugged as he tossed the branch to the side. "Just proving a point."
"And what point is that?!" Naruto growled, and grabbed Kojiro by his collar.
Kojiro remained unfazed by the abrupt rough treatment and simply readjusted his crooked glasses as he met Naruto's heated glare.
"You're too genuine to lie," Kojiro replied.
Momentarily taken aback, Naruto let go of Kojiro's shirt as the bespectacled teen dusted off his shirt and continued his response.
"Omit some details maybe. Believe it or not, I actually haven't spent nearly as many years as the other kids here," Kojiro stated, shoving his hands into his pockets while leaning back against the courtyard tree. "I used to live with my Mom on a small farm just over in the next town. The two of us got by with the vegetables we grew, but she never had the best health."
The hot air in Naruto's chest floated upwards and settled behind his burning ears as the fire in his voice was washed away by a downpour of guilt.
"I'm… sorry to hear that, Kojiro."
Naruto felt cold indifference exuding from Kojiro's posture, but observing closer Naruto could see a slight sag to the youth's shoulders and a dimness to his amber eyes.
"She passed away a few years ago. I learned the following day that there are some adults who would gladly dupe an orphan into signing away his dead parent's property on the promise that it was an "investment"."
Kojiro's fist slammed against the tree trunk sending a jarring shudder upwards and causing a few remnants to fall as well.
Naruto could see the anger boiling behind the boy's pupils and the frustration held within his clenched palms. The blond could not blame Kojiro in the slightest as he could feel his own stomach churn in disgust. The actions of those rotten adults who had stolen the land Kojiro's mother had left for her son had gone unpunished and unnoticed.
Kojiro calmed his nerves, continuing his tale with somber remorse stitched within his tone.
"I wandered homeless for the next few days and eventually had to leave town," Kojiro chuckled with bitter spite. "I learned my lesson after losing my home, and met many different kinds of people. Some people would smile and offer to help, but the sick look in their eyes said otherwise. A few would just kick me to the side, and tell me to get lost. It didn't get any easier when I got to Magnolia. For most, it was more convenient to look away from someone suffering than to do something about it. I was lucky enough to be found by Father Brock that day."
Naruto quietly watched Kojiro sigh and run his hand through his hair once again, a habit he seemed to have developed for when he was stressed.
"Look, what I'm trying to say is that I'm good at telling when someone's a rotten scumbag who's lying, and I've hung around you and your clones long enough to know you aren't one of them. You've spent just as much time with us as you have with your guild, so if I can believe you then so can they. At the very least, I'm sure Mira will listen to you."
With each word spoken by Kojiro, Naruto felt a liter of fuel being fed to the smoldering question lingering in his mind.
"What am I doing?" Naruto thought, standing up to his feet. "Thanks, Kojiro. I owe you one!"
In the blink of an eye, Naruto had taken off on a full blown sprint as grabbed his jacket off a nearby branch and whirled past a surprised Kojiro.
"Wha—At least take a shower, you idiot! You smell awful and you look like shit!"
With one foot halfway through the church's old stone archway, Naruto stopped and examined his condition. Glancing down towards his sweat stained shirt, Naruto, with great hesitance, lifted up his collar and made an experimental sniff. Recoiling in disgust a second later, Naruto smacked his forehead and turned around to head towards the showers.
"My bad! Thanks!"
As he disappeared indoors, Naruto left behind an exasperated Kojiro who could not help but manage a dry chuckle. Still early in the morning and finished with his task, Kojiro felt a wave of drowsiness overtake him as he yawned deeply. Slipping his hands back into his pockets, Kojiro headed back towards the dormitories intent on catching up with his sleep.
Fairy Tail Guild
After arriving to Magnolia, the team had agreed to report their safe return from the Decade Quest and reconvene after three days of rest to deliver a full account to Makarov.
The three days since Naruto and the Fairy Tail mages cleansed the Falsuryus of their curse passed by without incident. The original request's listing had promised great rewards, yet had never specified what kind of rewards. When the Fairy Tail team finally met the chief of the Falsuryus, their reward for the completion of the job was not mere paper.
Glimmering gold, glistening jewels, and aged antiques; wealth the Falsuryus had accumulated over the centuries of their existence was to be offered as a reward towards the heroes that saved them.
Erza had nearly fainted, unable to even comprehend the sheer bulk of the bounty, and even Laxus could not remain as unperturbed as he projected himself to be after a single glance at the stockpile of ancient riches.
At the time, the atmosphere around Naruto and Mirajane was awkward, so neither of the two had a particularly strong reaction to the payment. The two were unopposed to allowing their teammates to handle the process and simply chose to watch from the side. Despite Erza's constant insistence that the reward was far too great, the Fairy Tail team accepted the gift graciously and bid their farewells towards the adamant Falsuryus.
Walking along Magnolia's cobbled road, Naruto could see the guild hall's pagoda style rooftops peaking over the nearby buildings as he neared closer to its entrance. It was still early in the afternoon, so he reasoned that it was probably a slow day with only a few members strewn around. Reaching towards its large mahogany doors, Naruto's hands pushed past the entry as the blond stepped inside.
"It's Naruto this time!"
"He's here! Way to go, Naruto!"
Not a second after his spiky hair poked through the opening, Naruto nearly jumped backwards through the door in fright upon receiving an electric, enthusiastic welcome followed by cheers and applause.
Shouts of praise and admiration showered down upon his shoulders like rain. A sentiment foreign yet familiar swelled within Naruto's chest as he returned the praise with an earnest smile.
"Thank you! Thank you!" he laughed with a bright smile.
Contrary to his original belief, the guild was quite packed as there were apparently members that had arrived far earlier than normal in hopes of obtaining details about the fabled Decade Quest.
Swarming around the new arrival, a crowd had begun to congest around Naruto with one impish pink-haired boy pushing his way towards the front.
Popping out of the mess of arms with a blue cat floating over him, Natsu managed to stumble his way through with an excited smile plastered across his exuberant features.
"Naruto! Over here!" he called out drawing the blond's immediate attention.
Freeing his other leg from the chattering crowd, Natsu ran up to Naruto with his fists clenched by his side in excitement as he finally asked the burning questions everyone had been waiting for.
"So? How was it? What was the Decade Quest like? Did you fight anything strong? I bet there was a giant monster!" Natsu said, practically raving.
"Whoa, whoa, slow down!" Naruto laughed in response to the electrified youth.
"Natsu lay off a bit! Don't start being a pain in his ass when he just got back!" Gray spoke criticizing his rival.
Gray's comment earned Natsu's immediate ire as the fire dragon slayer flipped up his middle finger in response to the opposing ice user.
"Oh piss off! Don't pretend you aren't curious either!"
"I was just being considerate for the guy. You trying to start some shit?" Gray retorted, daring his nemesis to make the first move.
"Guys, it's really no big deal." Naruto cut in, simultaneously inserting himself in between the two adversaries much to the relief of the surrounding audience.
The corners of Naruto's lips tugged upwards into a grin as he made sure to enunciate his next sentence, taking the extra measure to steal both rivals' attentions away from each other.
"If you two start fighting right here, I won't get to tell you about the building-sized monsters we fought."
Natsu and Gray quieted as they stared, eyes wide and jaws dropped, at the grinning blond.
"So there WAS a giant monster?" Natsu bumbled in disbelief.
"Monsters." Naruto corrected, amused.
"Building sized?" Gray repeated with dubiety behind his stare.
"Fifty of them just a little bit smaller than the guild." Naruto evenly replied.
The previous chatter and murmurs had been hushed by the sudden reveal, many rationalizing that creatures of that size and quantity could not possibly have coexisted; however, their minds argued that the possibility of such existences was entirely plausible given that they were the reason countless S-Class mages had "disappeared" for nearly ten years.
"That's amazing!" Natsu said being the first to break the silent situation. "Then does this mean Gramps is going to promote you to S-Class?"
"Well…" Naruto began, unsure of how to reply to the valid inquiry. "I'm not too sure myself, but there's a lot of things I'd have to talk about with him before then."
Naruto and many others looked towards the source of the commanding grunt, finding it standing upon the second floor's railing, expression austere and posture stern.
Makarov's aged gaze scanned over the faces of the crowd before centering on the focal point of the bustling storm. Crossing his arms over his red vest, he coughed audibly once more into a closed fist and pointed a thumb over his shoulder.
"Naruto, may I see you in my office, please?" Makarov requested, his gaze firmly locked with the shinobi.
"Speak of the devil." Naruto chuckled, giving an apologetic wave to a deflated Natsu and Gray.
"Naruto, you meanie." Happy jabbed from beside a nodding Natsu.
"Sorry, sorry." Naruto apologized smiling. "Tell you what, I'll meet up with you guys afterwards. How's that?"
Natsu's features and even Gray's to a smaller degree perked up as the vigor returned to their expressions.
"Then, come by the river just outside of town!" Natsu replied in an instant, his mood making a full roundabout.
"Sure, it's a promise." Naruto nodded and waved as he made his way towards Makarov's office.
Disappointed, the crowd dispersed and went back to their original routines with some leaving for jobs while others continued to loiter around and chat.
Naruto made his way up towards Makarov's office, located on the opposite side from the S-Class area on the second floor. Sliding his hand along the polished oak bannister, Naruto gradually ascended the staircase before reaching the top with Makarov awaiting him.
"You've become quite the popular one, haven't you?" the older man noted with underlying amusement. "You're a little early aren't you?"
Naruto watched Makarov jump down from the railing before tailing behind him as he was led to the latter's office.
"I was actually hoping to meet with you before everyone gets here." Naruto replied as Makarov reached for his office's door handle. "Truth is I have a confession to make."
"Hah, don't we all." Makarov chuckled. "Ironically, you don't seem to be the only one."
Before Naruto could ask for the meaning behind his words, Makarov entered his office and revealed an occupant that had already arrived far earlier than his second arrival.
"Master, is everything okay—" she began to ask before trailing off.
Naruto felt the words slip away from his lips, and could tell the same was true for Mirajane who returned his stunned stare in kind.
Glancing between the two teens who had chosen to avoid each other's gazes, Makarov chortled to himself as he inched his way back to the door.
"You two seem like you have some things to discuss," Makarov casually remarked with a mischievous glimmer hidden in his eyes. "I'll see myself out and let you kids hash things out. Don't do anything too naughty now! Hohohoho!"
The door shut behind Makarov with a click leaving behind two beet red teenagers stewing in their own irritation and embarrassment.
"Damn geezer." Naruto cursed beneath his breath, the awkwardness in the air so thick it was palpable.
Silence permeated throughout room as neither of the two knew what to say. Seconds began to pass and the minutes began to grow along with their restlessness until finally the standoff was broken.
"Hey." they greeted in unexpected unison.
Naruto and Mirajane blinked, both startled by the abrupt greeting and simultaneous interruption. The discomfort in the air gradually dissipated and instead devolved into embarrassed chuckles and giggles over the parallel greeting.
"Guess it's been a while." Mirajane mused with a sheepish smile as she sat back down on the loveseat in Makarov's office.
"What do you mean? It's only been three days." Naruto replied with a quirked eyebrow as he sat beside Mirajane.
"You know that's not what I meant." Mira replied in a huff, elbowing Naruto's side much to his amusement.
"I know, I know." Naruto answered jokingly. "I missed you too."
With the tension between them alleviated to some degree, Naruto and Mirajane slipped into a more comfortable mood with the former deciding to lead the conversation. Pulling his legs on to the couch and sitting cross-legged, Naruto lowered his head towards a surprised Mira.
Raising his gaze to meet Mira's surprised stare, Naruto could tell at once that she knew what he was referring to. There was no meaning to dancing around the subject, and so he continued his apology.
"I haven't exactly told the whole truth about myself. The truth is I'm—"
"Not from this world?" Mirajane guessed, finishing Naruto's sentence.
This time it was Naruto's turn to be surprised as he had hardly expected for Mirajane to come to the actual conclusion. His lack of response must have confirmed her inklings concerning his origin as her expression became sullen .
"To be honest, I've had my doubts ever since the first week after we started training together." Mira admitted.
Naruto's features fell upon realizing just how far back Mirajane was looking to.
"Your skills and abilities are unlike any type of magic I've seen or read about, the writing on those seals you use don't resemble any of our recorded alphabets, and what's even stranger is just how much you don't know about the basics of magic."
Her expression painted in recollection, Mirajane mulled over her thoughts as she carefully contemplated each word before speaking.
"At first I really just thought you were from some remote island away from Fiore, but that day on the train when you told me about Itachi, you mentioned a war that happened years before he… did what he did."
Naruto felt a pang of guilt in his chest upon seeing Mira recall the deeds Itachi had been forced to undertake. A mission that had the man forsake his own blood to protect countless people he had no connection to, all while being recorded into the annals of history as one of the most heinous villains of his age. Mira's hands had gripped the fabric of her pants tightly, her dainty knuckles becoming white due to the sudden pressure as she opened and closed her mouth soundlessly.
"Before we left for the canyon, I asked the master if he knew about any wars in recent years, and he said there hasn't been any in decades. The way you described the situation at the time… it wasn't just a small conflict between two villages. You spoke as if there was a very real possibility of a war between nations. I realized then that your story didn't exactly add up, and in actuality, that I really knew less than I thought I did about you."
Mira's gaze, flickering between apprehension and conflict, met Naruto's. Mirajane had clearly thought deeply about this, recounting each of their prior interactions leading to this moment. He could see the hesitation in her eyes as she seemed to question how much further she could prod. The expression Mirajane wore worsened the thrums of regret humming in his culpable heart as his jaw tightened like a vice listening to the quiet tone of her voice.
The feelings of self-loathing that burned inside of Naruto that day in Bloodroot Canyon returned full force. In the three days since they returned to Magnolia Town, he and Mirajane had not spoken to each other a single time. He felt that he had damaged her faith in him, and had resolved himself to make up for it in any way that he could. The burning guilt that arose from his inner remorse could no longer be held inside as he made to speak.
"I want you to know that I do trust you, Naruto."
As if a bucket of cold water was dumped over him, Naruto felt the heat beneath his skin die away as his self-loathing was doused out by a single, emboldened sentence. Taken aback by Mirajane's abrupt and confident declaration, Naruto was in a state of genuine disbelief, his facial expression drawing a small smile from Mirajane.
"Looking back you're definitely the weirdest person I've ever met." Mirajane smiled with reminiscence. "There aren't that many people outside of the guild that would put themselves in danger for someone they never met before, especially for someone like me, but you did it without a second thought that night. "
Naruto watched as slivers of heartache seeped into Mirajane's features, her smile becoming one of melancholy as she remembered the events that transpired on a night not too long ago.
"After Lisanna…" Mira paused, the volume of her voice falling even lower in the silent room. Although Mirajane had resolved herself to move forward to honor her late sister's memory, the memories of that night still haunted her. Inhaling deeply, she continued unabated. "After what happened… If you hadn't been there to drag me out of my house, I never would have forgiven myself. To be honest I still haven't, but I wouldn't even be able to sit here like this if you didn't save me and Elfman back then. I don't need to know where you came from to know you're still a genuinely good person."
"Mira..." Naruto murmured, stunned by Mirajane's resolute firmness. Averting his gaze as a shamefaced expression shadowed over his features, Naruto felt obligated to answer Mira's sincerity. "Back in the canyon, weren't you mad that I didn't tell you so much?"
Mirajane considered Naruto's question, recounting her reaction, the multitude of thoughts, doubts, and feelings that weighed upon her mind over the past week. After a few minutes of quiet reflection, Mira's deliberation came to a conclusion as she shook her head and spoke softly.
"It wasn't that I was mad." she replied with a light tenderness. "I felt hurt. Everyone has their secrets and I'm not an exception. But it wouldn't be a lie to say that aside from Elfman, I've told you more about myself than anyone else. Somewhere down the line I convinced myself that I knew you just as well. "
Mirajane felt her ears burn, recounting the hellish embarrassment she felt when she returned home. When she thought about how she acted after Naruto defeated the final dragon, she only wanted to curl up into a corner from the sheer humiliation, especially when she thought about her reasons for why. They were only friends! It wasn't like they were dating!
"Believe me when I say I know how selfish this sounds, but I wanted to believe you saw me as a... close friend like I did towards you."
"Mira, you are my close friend." Naruto responded, his features marred by a frown.
"Then why did you think I wouldn't believe you?" Mirajane asked.
Caught flat-footed, Naruto sighed with deep reluctance and restlessness under Mirajane's imploring gaze. His reason for concealing his origin was not a tale that could be summarized with a simple statement after all.
"Would you really have believed me?" Naruto softly intoned, a rhetoric underline to his question. "Even if I told you the reason I first came here was because I died?"
He observed Mirajane's lithe frame freeze, her breath catching in her chest as her mind registered the words the person across from her had just spoken.
"I wouldn't find it easy to believe either." Naruto spoke with a brief chuckle as he leaned back into the shared couch, eyes closed in recollection. "The truth is I AM from a different world. I was a shinobi from a country called the Elemental Nations. One month ago, I died and was reincarnated into your world."
Opening his eyes to gauge Mira's reaction, Naruto could tell immediately that, true to her word, Mira believed him. The unadulterated shock coursing through her from the absurdity of his response was compounded by the revelation that the boy in front of her had once perished.
"What do you mean by you died, Naruto? And how is it that you came to be brought into our world?" Mirajane breathlessly asked, consternation latched onto each syllable of her sentence.
Unable to restrain the smile of mirth spreading upon his lips, Naruto could not help but accompany it with a bout of laughter.
"You really do believe me, huh? I half-expected that you wouldn't when you heard it come from me."
Frowning in annoyance and indignation, Mirajane pinched Naruto's side forcing his chuckles to an abrupt end and eliciting a sharp cry of pain from the boy.
Sighing as he rubbed away the lingering sting of sharpness on his side, Naruto gave Mirajane a look that could best be described as a child glaring at his parent after being punished for a bad prank.
"Long story short, the friend that I mentioned before, Sasuke and I fought with the Goddess of our world and after we—"
"Wait hold on, did you really fight a God?" Mirajane asked in disbelief.
"A Goddess." Naruto corrected. Crossing his arms as a sour expression took over his features, Naruto recalled the final moments leading to the climax of the great war and its conclusion. "And we didn't just fight her, we kicked her ass like it was nobody's business. What I did at the canyon is cute compared to what we both did back then."
Mirajane involuntarily shuddered, the memory of the cataclysmic explosion still evidently fresh on her mind. "Back then, it felt like every second seemed to drag on for minutes on end. Nothing in my body felt like it was working. From what you've said, it seems like this Goddess was a real monster. If that's the case, how did you end up losing if you beat her?"
A bitter sigh escaped Naruto's lips as the outside of his jawline visibly tightened in clenched frustration.
"The one thing we didn't see coming is that she was one of the biggest sore losers we've ever met. Unfortunately it was the last thing we saw before she blew up all three of us to kingdom come."
Although Kaguya had gotten the last laugh before being sealed away for eternity, Naruto felt an unparalleled satisfaction knowing that he and Sasuke had stolen her victory and set the Elemental Nations on the path to true lasting peace. With all five great nations united, the rest would soon follow as well. In regards to his death, Naruto could not lie and say he did not have any resentments, however, with he and Sasuke gone the endless cycle of Indra and Asura would never again endanger their world.
"As for my reincarnation and how I got here, well—"
A sudden, dull thud sounded from the door of the office followed by a loud yell and curses.
"Oi! What are you brats doing?!"
"Dammit, old man what the hell?!"
"I-I-It's not what it looks like, Master!"
Naruto and Mirajane paused their conversation, redirecting blank stares towards the door before it was pushed open with Erza and Laxus tumbling inside. Makarov followed after the two young wizards, a stern reprimanding glare directed towards them as he shut the door behind him.
Groaning with deep-seated exasperation, Makarov looked to Naruto and lowered his head as an apology for their rudeness.
"I caught these brats eavesdropping outside my office on the way back. I'll be sure to reprimand them."
"Don't worry about it. It was going to come up eventually." Naruto shrugged with a chuckle. "It makes it easier to tell you as well, gramps."
Gesturing for Makarov as well as Erza and Laxus by proxy to sit, Naruto allowed the three new arrivals to situate themselves across from the couch he and Mira shared. Observing the bearings of the two offenders, he found great amusement in Erza's case. The usually virtuous knight resembled a child whose hand was caught in the cookie jar as she shifted around with nervousness before receiving her parent's rebuking. Laxus on the other hand behaved more like a rebellious teenager who could care less about punishment.
"So out of curiosity how much did you guys hear?" Naruto asked, making a mental note to lighten Erza's payback compared to Laxus.
"Hardly anything! Laxus and I only recently returned from town and were just about to knock on the door!" Erza stuttered, still frenzied having been caught red-handed.
"I heard enough." Laxus dryly replied, his contradicting yet truthful response turning Erza's facial color into an even brighter shade of her hair. "We got here right when you said you fought and died against a Goddess?"
Naruto's eyes met Makarov's shocked stare at the same time he turned towards him. A tidbit of information like that would be a cause for concern for numerous reasons. Running a hand through his hair, an action that had become custom to Naruto in tense situations like these, Naruto breathed out before leaning forward placing his interlocked fingers beneath his chin and elbows upon his knees.
"I trust everyone in this room explicitly, but I will ask that you keep what I am about to tell you all between the people in this room."
Although it had been phrased as a request, Naruto's promise for an explanation was accompanied by an unspoken condition requiring their confidentiality until otherwise stated. Not requiring any further affirmation from Mirajane, Naruto waited a few seconds longer before accepting nods of acquiescence from Erza, Laxus, and Makarov sequentially.
Nodding as well to confirm their nonverbal agreement, Naruto allowed himself a small smile as he met the gazes of each person in the room.
"Allow me to reintroduce myself. My name is Uzumaki Naruto, former shinobi of the Village Hidden in the Leaves. One month ago, I died in a war for our land's freedom against the Goddess of our world, Otsutsuki Kaguya. Before my soul moved on, Kaguya's son Otsutsuki Hagoromo, who asked that we defeat her, offered me a second chance to live again. As you can see, I took it and was reincarnated in a forest of Fiore not too long after."
Pausing to jerk a thumb towards a less surprised Mirajane, as she had already been told a few minutes before his repeated summary, Naruto resumed his tale.
"I heard a loud commotion from where I arrived and rushed there where I met Mira and Elfman. The rest you all already know. Thankfully it seems that I can still talk to you all like normal, but I have no clue how to read the language of this world."
The room was heavy as not a single person dared to make a sound. Erza appeared to be the most stunned out of the group. When she had said that she had not heard much, it was not a lie. The majority of Naruto's and Mirajane's conversation had been muffled to an extent, allowing her to hear practically nothing. The only reason she hadn't entered initially was because Laxus had prevented her from doing so for reasons undisclosed to her.
Unbeknown to Naruto, Laxus on the other hand was able to hear the conversation as if he had been in the room himself. His ability to do so was an unexpected side-benefit of his exiled father's "kindness".
In contrast to Erza and in Naruto's perspective, he appeared the most distrusting in Naruto's eyes. The shinobi could hardly blame him. The very sentence of normal humans fighting against the progenitors of their very way of life, let alone winning, was blasphemous.
The oldest person in the room seemed to age several years as Makarov's seasoned gaze gave Naruto a slight tinge unease that settled into his stomach. The reason being was that Makarov was not regarding him as a child like others his age, but as someone who experienced the cold realities of life.
Naruto felt an indescribable feeling of bitter respect. Although Makarov appeared physically harmless, the greatly older man had more than earned his position as guildmaster. If Naruto had simply revealed himself to have hailed from an alternate world, the revelation would have never earned a gaze as hardened as Makarov's.
Naruto knew that Makarov had specifically isolated two pieces spoken from his brief overview. The first fact was his admission to having fought in a war. From the steel in Makarov's hawkish gaze, Naruto could tell that the man recognized war for what it was. War was not a petty bar brawl held by surly drunks in a run-down watering hole and it could in no way be likened as a large scale free for all between battle maniacs.
In the tense atmosphere within the confines of the plain office, both Naruto and Makarov confirmed an agreed upon cognition through the sharpness of the other's eyes.
If a person truly wondered if hell was a real place, they need only stand upon the battlefield of war to confirm its existence.
Naruto was seventeen years old, the Fourth Great War ending on the eve of his birthday. Although he was young, the world that had molded him was to this world as fire was to water.
To grow up, attend the Academy, graduate as a Genin, work with a team under a Jonin leader, get promoted, and hope you live long enough afterwards to get your own team someday were the life checkpoints ordinary shinobi had to look forward to. Apart from heirs to prominent clans, these milestones applied to every other individual.
To seek adventure, explore lands unseen, and dream of a peaceful future were ideals similar to clouds. They were transient and fleeting, able to be ripped away in a cruel stroke of misfortune. Tsunade, Nagato, Obito, and Sasuke were just a few of many who had lost the lights of their lives because of their world. If Naruto were to share what the life of a wizard from Earthland was like, his account would be ridiculed like a tale of fiction. After all prior to the last Great War, a rose-colored lifestyle free of lies, war, strife, and hatred was only a dream of the wistful.
Naruto may have been close in age to Natsu and the others, yet he had seen far more of the world than they could fathom.
"So Mira's suspicions of you were really true." Erza spoke first, crossing her arms over her chest. Erza's lips had fell into a close-knit frown as she appeared disappointed yet begrudgingly accepting. "Truthfully I would be inclined to doubt such an absurd story, however, the strength you showed on our recent job cannot possibly be explained as normal."
Blinking in surprise at the abrupt acceptance of his account, Naruto watched Erza continue her train of thought as she directed a side glance towards Laxus.
"I do not see any reason for Naruto to construe a lie this fallacious," Erza said with a level-headed rationale. "So why is it that you still appear to hold your own misgivings, Laxus?"
Glancing towards the grandson of the current master, Naruto found himself locked in a staring contest with Laxus.
"It's not that I don't believe him." Laxus calmly retorted to Erza as his pointed glare stabbed Naruto like daggers. "What I can't believe is why he would come here in the first place."
Laxus's expression looked as if he had swallowed a bulbous lemon, the words struggling to even escape from his mouth.
"You're strong. I admit there's not a single chance that any of us could beat you, and that includes our current ace." Laxus was aware of the surprise that came upon his grandfather's features. "Fairy Tail is weak compared to you. Other than the four of us and Mystogan, the rest of the guild wouldn't last a minute against you if you tried to snuff us out. Why would you choose to stay here? You could have reached the very pinnacle of the magic world, but you would rather waste your talent and pretend you're a nobody?"
The bitterness laced into Laxus's voice became more evident as he continued to declare both his distrust as well as his weakness. Although they could understand the lightning user's self-spite, the other mages in the office could not agree with his dissatisfied view of the guild as they frowned upon his opinion.
Makarov's watchful gaze shifted from his grandson to Naruto, observing for any subtle cues or articulations that would provide him with a deeper understanding of the child.
From the previous worldless exchange, Naruto knew the older man was no fool. Despite the jovial image he presented to the world, Makarov had lived long enough to travel the world and meet many different people. The old man was well attuned and accustomed to human nature. In touch with the human psyche and individuality to a point of familiarity, Makarov could deduce his own probable theories just from considering each factor and variable involved in Naruto's arrival.
"It was not your intention to conceal yourself from us. Rather, you were hiding something or from someone outside of the guild were you not?" Makarov questioned with a cadence that spoke of understanding and empathy.
Three additional pairs of eyes fell on the quiet shinobi, each projecting a wide range of disbelief. For someone who could decimate the cursed remains of a dragon, to hide from an unknown threat, it was as if the person in front of them was a meek bull.
Faced with Makarov's conclusion and locked under his shrewd gaze, Naruto could not control his minute, involuntary response to avert his eyes elsewhere. The elder's years of experience had no doubt seen the subtle and near imperceptible tell that had confirmed his theory.
"Yeah, I was." Naruto answered with a nod, leaning forward to rest his chin upon his interlocked fingers. "I know I told you all to keep what I tell you about me a secret for now, but trust me when I say that for the good of the guild do not break your word over what I am about to tell you all."
Naruto observed the features of every person in the inner circle, checking each face for an agreement to his condition of confidentiality. The hanging threat to their guild in his warning was received with the utmost severity as the shinobi was given grave nods of acquiescence in return.
Naruto spoke as he lowered his head with gratitude.
Releasing a sigh of relief he had not realized to have been holding back, Naruto recollected his memories and conversations during the war. There was much to explain and the best place to start would be... well… from the start.
"I'm sure you guys have noticed, but I'm not a mage and I don't use magic. In the world I come from, people like me were called shinobi and the power that we use is called chakra, the combination of our physical and spiritual energies. I'm not too knowledgeable about the smaller details but the easiest way to understand it would be to view it as life energy. Running entirely out of chakra meant death for my people." Naruto explained trying his best to remember his academy lessons.
"The Goddess I fought was called Kaguya Otsutsuki, the first chakra user of my world. Originally her rule was ended by her two sons, the oldest who was later hailed as a legend by my people. After they defeated her, the older brother split her power into nine sentient beings known as the Tailed Beasts. The name came from the fact that each of the nine had a different number of tails going from one to a set of nine, the number used as a way of ranking the strongest among them. Every one of them was an immortal being of chakra with enough power to flatten and devastate a country hundreds of times over. Over time, the shinobi of my world created methods of sealing these beings into people so they could use the power of the Tailed Beasts for their own purposes. These human sacrifices were known as jinchuriki. Every country's jinchuriki became powerful shinobi that could turn the tide of entire battles just with their presence alone. They were basically human weapons; however, most often lost control of their beast due to being incompatible or by the treatment of their village."
"Human... weapons?" Makarov interrupted with an underlying rage.
A mark of his fury in the form of a prominent vein bulged onto the side of Makarov's forehead. The man made his abhorrence towards the idea of dehumanization known to every child as a heavy, encumbering pressure settled on their shoulders. With a faint, yellow glow emanating around him, Makarov's magic gave his diminutive stature a domineering air that promised to flatten all that opposed it.
Laxus grabbed ahold of his grandfather's shoulder, the gesture lessening the immense heaviness in the room like a valve on a pipe.
Laxus's intervention served its purpose as the grandson gave his grandfather a disapproving frown that forced the elder to reign his temper in. A single look was all it took to convey the silent message between blood relatives.
Mirajane, Erza, and even Naruto observed the interaction with contained awe. It was already quite strange to see the usually hot-blooded grandson reprimanding his even-tempered grandfather. However, the gravity Laxus expressed for the current situation was an even more impressive act of maturity given his reputation.
Naruto soon found Laxus's gaze redirected towards his person along with a question burning in the older blond's eyes.
"These… jinchuriki you called them. What happens when they lose control of their beasts?" he asked seeking a direct answer.
"When a jinchuriki loses control," Naruto began with a poorly veiled frown, the question reminding him of many unfavorable experiences, "The tailed beast takes over their body and transforms back into their original form. If they can't regain control or if the beast isn't properly subdued, they die."
"Wait," Erza spoke up with sudden concern.
The hesitance and unease within her interruption indicated that Erza had realized a distressing inconsistency, and Naruto had an inkling as to what she had picked out from his explanation.
"If the jinchuriki held that much military importance, then what did you mean by the treatment of their village resulting in their loss of control?" she asked with sincere perturbance.
Similar looks of comprehension dawned upon the other mages within the room as they came to realize the peculiarity of the detail.
"I was actually getting to that part." Naruto replied with a thin smile. "Remember how strong I said every tailed beast was? How many people do you think died trying to subdue or capture them? How many of those people had families back home: husbands, wives, or kids? What kinds of feelings they held towards the people who housed the being that killed their loved one?"
Erza's facial features seemed to wither as if her worst fears had been confirmed. Laxus and Makarov were not any slower on the uptake as they could only imagine the hardships the jinchuriki underwent.
Glancing towards Mirajane who had been silent for a large duration of his explanation, Naruto noticed that her appearance was practically unreadable. Her gaze was firmly glued at an uninteresting trinket lying upon the coffee table leaving the blond to wonder what had he said to gain such a reaction.
Witholding a weary sigh, Naruto could feel the lingering fatigue due to lack of sleep. Despite the sluggishness he felt in his bones, he focused himself forward and recalled the stories he could remember of the two close friends he had met both early and later on.
"I'm not exactly sure how it was for the others, but I was fortunate to meet two people who shared their stories with me. One friend was mostly ignored and left alone throughout the majority of his childhood. Although I can't say he cared too much given his personality." Naruto chuckled with the image of a rapping, eight blade-wielding shinobi coming to mind. The fact that the older brother who adopted him happened to be the leader of the village probably held a large factor in his upbringing.
"The second one had a… different start." Naruto spoke with some reluctance. "He was another friend of mine I met early when I was young. I don't exactly remember what his village was like back then, but I know they were going through some rough times. His father was his village's leader and was a large reason he turned out to be… well, a monster when I first met him."
Memories of his encounters with a younger, bloodthirsty Gaara no longer made him shudder as he used to back then. Rather, they filled him with an almost indescribable sense of awe over how much someone could change should they choose to. As bad as it was to think this, but going from turning people into red paste if they so much as sneezed in his general direction to the beloved leader of his people was a transformation that not even Naruto thought possible for Gaara when he first met him.
Blinking, the teen noticed the rather grim countenances of those in the room before realizing he had trailed off and forgot to finish his thought. Eyes wide and arms waving to correct his mistake before he knew it, Naruto's wild gestures drew looks of befuddlement from those around him.
"My bad! I was caught up in the old days and forgot to say that he's actually doing really well for himself these days. After we "exchanged" some words, he worked really hard to change his image with his people over the years. Imagine how shocked I was when I saw that he had become his village's leader when we met again." Naruto finished with sheepish laugh, the tension in the air lightening.
"Naruto," Mirajane suddenly began with worry in her voice. "Earlier, you said the others. Are you also…?"
Naruto's smile thinned as his arms fell to their sides. He knew what Mirajane was asking without her having to finish the thought once she had trailed off. The girl had kept to herself ever since he had spoke of the jinchuriki. Mira was perceptive and had the sharpness to prove her standing as an esteemed S-Class of her age. It was only a matter of time before she pieced everything together.
"Yes, I am."
Leaning back into the cushion of the loveseat, Naruto had a slight smile as he remembered the warmth he felt meeting his parents for the first time. He remembered the anger, confusion, and awe he felt all jumbled together when he first met his father face to face during Pain's raid on the Hidden Leaf. He remembered the excitement and joy pounding in his chest when he finally met his mother during his training on Genbu, the giant turtle island. Although he came to know what both of his parents were like and the wishes they entrusted to him, he had also learned of the true events surrounding the attack on the Hidden Leaf the night of his birth,
"My mom was the jinchuriki of the Nine-Tailed Fox, the strongest of his siblings. On the night I was born, a former student of my father targeted her tailed beast and kidnapped her. He succeeded in undoing the weakened seal and manipulated the Nine-Tails into attacking the village while he confronted my father. When a jinchuriki's tailed beast is released from them, they also lose the source of chakra their bodies have grown accustomed to receiving chakra from. The sudden loss of a large amount of chakra often leads to their death. Although this is normally the case for jinchuriki, my mom's family was somewhat special. Her family's vitality allowed her body to live a little longer and gave her the strength to help my dad seal the fox back into me. Both of my parents died that night to protect me and their home where I grew up as the Nine-Tails jinchuriki."
From his peripheral vision, he could partially view Mira's heartbroken and empathetic expression, Erza's conflicted frustration in her clenched fist, and Laxus's respectful silence. In this current moment, Naruto looked towards Makarov, meeting the older man's saddened and grandfatherly gaze. The shinobi allowed himself a small smile. Fairy Tail's master had always made it a point to wear his heart on his sleeves, and times like these were no exception.
"Are you alright?" Makarov softly spoke, tender concern within his voice. "Is the tailed beast inside of you at risk of breaking free or taking over?"
With a small and bashful grin, Naruto shook his head thankful for the old man's concern .
"No, we've moved past our differences not too long ago."
"We?" Laxus questioned breaking his silence with an eyebrow quirked upwards.
"I mentioned before that the tailed beasts are living and sentient creatures," Naruto explained, pointing out his previous detail, "They have their own thoughts, feelings, and beliefs just like humans. Although they've killed many humans, most were shinobi who tried to capture and exploit them for their power. Most of the tailed beasts, if not all of them, simply wished to be left alone, but were instead sealed away and weaponized as tools of war."
"That's horrible!" Erza gnashed out, slamming an armored fist onto the table. "How could they rob the free will of another living being and enslave them?!"
"I agree," Naruto said with a slight nod. "That's why I promised myself that I would watch out for my friend and partner. You guys have seen what he and I can do when we work together. Can you imagine what would happen if the wrong people learned about him? The lengths they would go through to get their hands on him? I have no idea if there's anybody in this world capable of doing so which is why I wanted to learn more about it before I acted."
Without knowing, Naruto had struck a chord with the mages present with his account. Unlike him, they were far more versed in the workings of their world than he was and knew more than enough seedy folk in both legal and illegal organizations who would jump at the chance of controlling such a powerful being.
"Hey," Mirajane's eyes suddenly lit up, as if coming to a sudden realization. "Back on our S-Class Job, was the one I met, Fox, your partner? Is he listening to us now?"
On the receiving end of a few strange stares from those unaware of what transpired in Marigold Town, Naruto simply chuckled and gave her a nod of affirmation.
"His real name is Kurama. Has a hell of a temper and the power to back it up. He listens in every now and then when he's bored but he spends the majority of his time taking naps or doing his own thing."
Naruto's expression became sour while his eyebrow seemed to twitch uncontrollably, confusing those around him with the abrupt change in demeanor.
"He actually has a pretty good opinion of you despite only meeting you once. Bastard fox actually said he liked you more than me compared to when I first met him…"
Mira blinked, surprised by unknowingly making a good impression before giggling aloud accompanied by chuckles from the others at the blond's genuinely irritated countenance.
"In any case," Makarov began cutting his own amusement short as a hardness captured his features once again, "I can understand your intentions better now. Indeed, if the Magic Council were to learn of your existence, they would stop at nothing to recruit you or extract Kurama if the former were not possible. I have no doubt they would even try to pressure the guild to get to you."
Naruto's lips fell into a frown, guilt plastered on his features. "I'm sorry about the trouble, Gramps… I—"
"Nonsense!" Makarov declared cutting off and surprising Naruto. "Fairy Tail has always been a home, a family, for those without one. The very minute you walked through those doors and marked yourself as one of ours is the minute you became one of us. No matter what happens, all of us will fight with you should it come to that!"
Looking at those around him, Naruto met the resolute gazes of each and every person in the room. Each mage, even Laxus though to a lesser extent, expressed their agreement with the Master's declaration as well as their resolve to fight. Naruto was filled with an indescribable rush of emotions: gratitude, warmth, loyalty, and strength.
Knowing he would never be able to see his old friends and comrades from the Elemental Nations again was a painful reality that he had to come to terms with. He would never forget the friendships he had formed with countless shinobi from many different villages and countries. Nevertheless, Makarov and the younger wizards' invitation made him feel that he could keep moving forward with these people he could consider family.
With a thankful smile, one of genuine sincerity and fulfillment, Naruto nodded as a gesture of acceptance to those around him.
"Thank you, Gramps. It means a lot."
Makarov simply nodded, the man's relaxed shoulders and wide smile solidifying his grandfatherly image in Naruto's mind.
"That said, I am curious about this chakra of yours." Makarov began with an inquisitive look upon his features. "Can you demonstrate it?"
Seeing no issue with Makarov's request, Naruto acquiesced and reached his hand out palm facing upwards.
With a keen interest, the Fairy Tail mages observed the process attentively from the start to the finish. From the initial stages of its conception, the final result revealed itself as a vibrant, swirling sphere of energy known as the Rasengan.
"Fascinating!" Makarov murmured with awe, gaze transfixed upon the beautiful orb. "The feeling it gives off is certainly different than magic, yet at the same time it possesses subtle similarities…"
"I have to admit, I'm a little curious about something myself." Naruto said as he continued to maintain the sphere's form while his clone stood to the side. "How exactly does magic work for you guys? For shinobi, we have a chakra coils that produce our chakra. The coils transfer the chakra through a system that is similar to the blood veins in our bodies allowing us to use it to perform ninjutsu."
"Veins? That's quite interesting, and I actually believe I may have a theory based on what you mentioned earlier." Makarov spoke coming to a sudden comprehension, his eyes alight with youthful passion. "For mages, it is a little different. Mages have a container of sorts in their bodies called an Origin that stores etherano from the air. Magic is formed from the relationship between a mage's physical Origin and the spiritual flow of nature. Whereas our bodies provide the physical half and use the environment to supplement the spiritual half, you mentioned before that your body produces both halves to create chakra."
Hopping down from the sofa across from Naruto, Makarov's smaller stature approached him until he stood before the blue, rapidly spinning orb. The elder mage opened his palm where a small, sudden flame burst into existence.
"If my theory is correct, then perhaps—"
"Hey." Interrupting Makarov's train of thought with an clear grunt of disapproval, Laxus made his objections vocal. "You can test out your theories later, old man. We're here for a different reason remember?"
Naruto and Makarov shared a brief look between one another before sighing in unison. Dispelling his clone as well as the sphere above his palm, Naruto watched Makarov do the same with the small flare above his as well. Although they had only scratched the surface of the possibilities between ninjutsu and magic, there would be a time to explore them later.
Naruto had to concede that Laxus held a valid point. The original purpose of this meeting after all was to debrief Makarov about the details surrounding the Black Stone job. It was not his intention to derail things this far considering this all started as his way of reconciling with Mira. While he knew he had to tell the others about himself eventually, he had no way of knowing it would be today.
"Laxus is correct, Master." Erza supplemented, her features becoming noticeably grim. "I'm afraid there is much to discuss regarding our recent request."
Any semblance of childish disappointment or sulking after being denied a chance to experiment was wiped away without a trace of its existence as the air around Makarov finally matched the man's aged appearance and standing.
Makarov's diminutive stature stood ramrod straight, his gaze heavy as it swept over every person in the room.
When they had first returned, Naruto and the others had come to the guildhall to notify Makarov of their return. Naruto observed many of the present members reactions at the time and noticed commonalities between each one: amazement, pride, knowing grins, or even looks of relief. The unifying factor of each member's reaction was that they all held the unwavering belief for their success and safe return. With a team comprised of their strongest members, Naruto could understand their perspective; however, it was Makarov's expression when they reported their success that seemed off.
Unlike his children, Makarov appeared genuinely stunned, unable to believe that they had completed a Decade Quest and in such a short period of time at that. Naruto did not need to be a genius to understand that the Master knew the difficulty and danger of a Decade Quest.
Furthermore, the man's prior stance in opposition before they had left was reflected by his long-standing decision to forbid anyone, including S-Class mages like his teammates, from undertaking them.
"I must be frank, there were a few reasons that I allowed you four to accept this quest." Makarov spoke, taking the opportunity to return to his desk and hop into his chair. "And the largest one was because of you, Naruto."
"Me?" Naruto replied confused.
"Yes, you." Nodding, Makarov leaned backwards into his chair that released an audible creak while he folded his hands over his desk, eyes locked upon the boy in question. "The original purpose of sending you four was what was agreed on in the first place and that was to determine Naruto's strength. After returning from your first S-Class job, it did not appear to have posed a challenge given how quickly you were able to return. Usually after the S-Class category is the SS-Class category followed by the Decades Quest job type. I would have preferred to send you on an SS-Class job with accompaniment, but unfortunately we have not received any SS-Class listings."
Makarov's firm expression partially crumbled as a hint of annoyance flashed over his features, his eyes falling upon his grandson.
"The second reason was Laxus's constant pestering." Makarov grumbled towards his grandson who had the decency to look away. "The Decade Quest has been available to nearly every guild across the continent for years and this brat has been needling my ass about it for months now. He's been wanting to try his hand at it and the time before this he even asked me if he could do it alone!"
Like a set of dolls Naruto, Erza, and Mirajane all turned their heads in unison, each directing his or her own blank, unimpressed stare upon the visibly twitching lightning mage whose pit of shame only seemed to deepen. Refraining from saying anything to at least give Laxus some face, Naruto knew for a fact that if Laxus had taken this job on his own there was a VERY small chance the older blond was coming back in one piece.
"Laxus, are you kidding? Those things literally ate our magic for breakfast. If Naruto wasn't with us, we would all have been their lunch." Mira dryly pointed out.
Then again, it was not like he could telepathically get Mira on the same page as him.
"Hoh? What's this I hear?" Makarov asked with a tone that made the man sound as if he was an all-knowing prophet. The sudden shift in his grandfather's demeanor from irritated to smug and condescending did not help Laxus's recovery from his current situation. From where Naruto was sitting, he could swear he heard a grating sound that sounded like teeth coming from Laxus. "Tell me, how was it, boy? Was it as "easy" for an S-Class bigshot like you? Eh?"
"I get it! I screwed up, okay?!" Laxus angrily responded standing up from his seat, the hot wind thoroughly escaping his normally inflated attitude. "It was idiotic of me to say that I could do a Decade Quest! I learned my lesson, so are you happy now old man?!"
"He's really bad at apologizing…" The other teens in the room all thought at once glancing back towards the master to gauge his response.
"Hmph, maybe next time you'll listen to me when I tell you otherwise." Makarov huffed crossing his arms, the annoyance on his countenance lessening greatly.
Naruto had to admit that despite Makarov's usual jovial attitude, there were certainly times Makarov acted his own age as a cranky, unsatisfiable elderly. The man could be an unimaginably stereotypical elderly who gained his satisfaction through the cathartic prodding of his grandson.
"The third and last reason was that I had honestly expected you all to fail. While I did send Mira and Erza for combat support as well as for evaluating Naruto's abilities, I trusted their judgement the most in deciding whether to retreat if conditions became too dangerous. I'm sure you can imagine how surprised I was by how quickly you came back with news of success. "
The young ones in the room shared looks with one another knowing that someone would need to brief Makarov. It did not take long before Erza cleared her throat preparing to speak.
"To tell you the truth," Erza spoke up as she got in between Makarov and her group to serve as her team's spokesperson. "There are many serious developments that we must inform you of, Master."
Erza began her report from the very beginning, each word that spilled from her lips a droplet of paint on an empty canvas. From the moment they dropped down into Bloodroot's depths, she relayed and recalled every noticeable detail she witnessed through her eyes with such precision that Naruto felt anyone who had not been there could feel as if they were.
As Naruto listened to Erza speak, he felt glad in his decision to leave the majority of the account to the young woman. He could offer his perspective and input to hammer down some of the bumps that appeared in her report where he was involved; however as there were many magic-related abnormalities, he was not confident in his ability to explain them as proficiently as his teammates.
Naruto felt an encumbering wave of tiredness swell within him as he let out a quiet yawn to prevent himself from interrupting Erza. Glancing to his side, he noticed Mira's worried frown directed towards him. Smiling thankfully, he gave her a discrete wave of his hand to ease any misgivings and closed his eyes for a brief moment as the sounds of Erza's voice filled the background.
He listened to her describe their first encounter with the dragon-like soldiers prior to the revelation of who those creatures actually were. He heard her voice falter when asked about the S-Class mages who had disappeared. Following the silence after her response, Naruto could practically see the solemn look of sympathy on Makarov's features even with his eyes closed.
Erza moved forwards to their meeting with Veis and what led to the discovery of a forgotten history. An entire tribe of dragon slayers with a stunning pedigree dating back centuries ago was linked to the Kingdom of Dragonof, a kingdom not recorded in any known history books to date. Erza mentioned her initial doubts surrounding the fantastical tale in her summary, but firmly stated her full belief in it towards the end after encountering the cause of the corruption in the canyon.
"Impossible! The Black Wizard Zeref is alive?!" Makarov's eyes widened in conjunction with his falling jaw, his arms falling to his sides numb as the first bombshell had been dropped.
"Unfortunately, it is true." Erza grimly continued, her features hardening into a steel mask and the metal of her gauntlets squeaking under the pressure of her grip. "Ten years ago, he came into the canyon in search of something but left without it. His visit corrupted the Falsuryus tribe's dragon lacrima made from the body of their kingdom's first king, Belserion. Its original purpose was conceal their existence; however after being corrupted, it released a fog that warped every Falsuryus member into a black, dragon-like humanoid."
There was his name again. Opening his eyes, Naruto frowned as he remembered the multiple occasions he heard the man's name. Every time Zeref's name was spoken it was as if a spell was casted upon those who heard it. If a single word could strike fear into a country, then this man's name was one such example. Watching Erza finish her report by going through the final moments of the mission involving the massive dragonoids and Belserion's Heart, Naruto felt that Makarov had deeply begun to regret allowing them to venture out on the quest in the first place.
"The man should have perished centuries ago," Makarov murmured dazed. "And you mentioned that Naruto was the one to destroy the lacrima?"
Naruto noticed a change wash over the old man's gaze that now looked upon the rest of them with both anxiousness and relief. The elder man looked to him last with a smile of heartfelt gratitude, the pride of a noble lion emanating from his small size as his newest addition had returned safe from his hunt.
"I will inform the Magic Council of this, you all have my word. And thank you, Naruto. I owe you a great debt for this. If there ever comes a time where you need our help, we will be right by your side, my boy."
Makarov's words held the warmth of a crackling fire, calming and comforting to those near it. Sincerity, loyalty, and compassion bled from his promise to Naruto, leaving the teen stunned when he realized he had truly become a part of Makarov's family before he even knew it.
"Don't worry about it," Naruto replied surprised by the sudden thanks, a reluctant smile plastered on his features. "I've been in plenty of worse situations before. Plus a teammate is supposed to have his friends' backs, y'know?"
Chuckling at the irony of being lectured and not the other way around, Makarov simply nodded expressing his agreement.
"I believe this may be a good time to discuss his performance," Erza spoke up taking the chance to claim their attention. "Truthfully speaking Naruto's strength far surpassed our own during the mission. It may even grow to exceed yours if it has not already, Master. I speak for all of us when I say that there are no complaints against his promotion."
Laxus and Mirajane, who had remained as observers for the majority of the debriefing, showed their acceptance as well with clear nods of acknowledgement to Erza's statement.
"Is that so?" Makarov said with interest as the next major point of discussion was brought up. "Naruto, what do you say? Granted it is a little unorthodox since I only hold promotions during the trial exams, it would be a month until the next exam rolls around the corner. With a public S-Class title, it would also be easier for you to act on jobs without drawing too much suspicion for someone with your capabilities. How about it, kid?"
Being suddenly thrusted into the spotlight, the shinobi did not know what to think. While he did not necessarily think the new status was necessary, given that he had no need to prove himself, for someone who had put off his promotion for years the offer was certainly tempting. To accept the promotion, it would be as if he were being promoted to Chunin. It would be a symbol of recognition among his new peers.
Idly brushing his fingers against the roughed-up plate of his Hidden Leaf headband, Naruto's lips curled into a wistful smile as the faces of countless talented men and women flashed through his mind, each donning a green flak jacket. Aside from himself and Sasuke, all of his classmates had long obtained their promotion. He had promised his parents that he would live a better life for them and for mages his age this was like a rite of passage.
Furthermore, Makarov pointed out an important detail. As an S-Class "mage", Naruto would be granted more freedom. It would be far more strange and conspicuous for a new recruit to be capable of defeating a guild's strongest fighters while completing S-Class jobs. Accomplishing those feats as an S-Class prodigy on the other hand would be perceived as expected and would make for an easier tale to spin and explain.
It was a simple stratagem. Rather than wait to be discovered as a wolf among sheep, take the opportunity to reveal himself as a wolf among wolves instead.
It was not exactly how he pictured his promotion from genin but then again he had never been one to follow the old, beaten path.
"Well if you put it like that," Naruto brightly grinned, excitement bubbling in his chest like a spring. "I acce—!"
"Hold on." Mirajane interjected coming to a realization while catching Naruto flat footed. "What about the Magic Council. Promoting Naruto means that his information will be entered into their archive. Is that really a good idea?"
Mira's sudden question pointed to an important issue that they all had neglected to consider. If Naruto were to be promoted, the Council would eventually notice the numerous gray areas surrounding his history, prior affiliations, and his formal records.
Naruto's excitement simmered down as he looked towards Makarov for an answer. To his credit, the guild's master did not show any signs of panic or worry. His expression displayed simple thoughtfulness as he considered and approached the subject with an inquisitiveness intent on pushing aside a cumbersome obstacle.
"I am sure it will be fine. After all, there are many refugees who come to Fiore in search of better opportunities or to escape conflict, especially from the West." Makarov replied as he gradually grasped onto the thread that would lead to their answer. "It won't be too difficult to forg—ahem— I mean "dig up" some of Naruto's past documents."
Makarov soon found himself on the receiving end of three blank stares from Mirajane, Erza, and Laxus, each mage unable to find the proper words to respond to the master's unorthodox and HIGHLY illegal solution. Naruto on the other hand allowed his excitement to block out Makarov's "slip-up" now that there seemed to be hope for his promotion. It was not like this would be his first time breaking the rules.
"Master, I thought Yajima told you to stop taking advantage of his position." Erza frowned with disapproval.
"Oh please, that old goat is just as soft as me," Makarov snorted unconcerned with Erza's qualms with the plan. "Plus if I tell him it's just a cute kid in need, he'll get them signed, stamped, and approved by tomorrow."
"That's a great plan and all, Gramps," Laxus said before directing a dry stare towards Naruto. "Except it ain't a cute kid he's helping."
Laxus's obvious yet valid statement drew nods of agreement from his two peers.
"I can transform into one if it'll help." Naruto supplemented slightly raising his hand.
"That'll be perfect!" Makarov replied with a bark of uproarious laughter.
The accomplice and his accessory laughed with an almost maniacal zeal as those in the room could not help but think a terrible, illicit partnership was being formed right before their eyes.
"Master!" Erza and Mirajane simultaneously shouted in reprimanding tones.
"Oh, stop your worrying!" Makarov reassured with a cunning gleam behind his onyx eyes. "This wouldn't be the first time Yaji's done something like this for me. Besides, the Council isn't as squeaky-clean as they present themselves to be. It would be far better for Naruto's records to exist when he is discovered rather than for him to be discovered without any."
The younger generation of mages all exchanged looks with one another, knowing that the master's words held more weight than they would like to agree with. If sneaking in someone's personal files was an unimaginably difficult task, Makarov would not have suggested it to begin with. The Magic Council prioritized their appearance and esteem above all, but that did not mean the cracks in their foundation did not exist.
With a sigh of reluctance, Erza and Mirajane to a lesser extent nodded in acquiescence.
Turning towards Naruto, Makarov nodded to the boy, a hand extended outwardly for a congratulatory handshake.
"By the power vested in me as Fairy Tail's third master, I hereby promote you, Naruto Uzumaki, as an S-Class mage. May you wear this honor with dignity."
With helpless amusement, Naruto accepted the hand gratefully, his peers looking on with similar states of mind. A ninja reincarnated from another dimension being recognized as a high ranking wizard? Where else would they find a situation like this other than in Fairy Tail?
"I guess since that's cleared out of the way, we might as well move on to the quest's rewards," Laxus sighed, allowing his features to give way for a satisfied smirk as they reached the conclusion to their report.
The lightning mage gave a pointed look to Erza who took that as her cue to take out a slip of paper from the pocket of her skirt. Handing the slip to a curious Makarov, Erza seemed to struggle to contain the subtle tugging on the corners of her lips. Her body language oozed childish excitement and eagerness, surprising Naruto and Mirajane who had not paid attention during the monetary transaction
"Since the Falsuryus have always been a somewhat solitary group, they never adapted to Fiore's economy. Laxus and I had to take what they gave us to an appraiser in Magnolia and this was the estimate they gave us."
Naruto nearly felt his heart leap out of his chest in fright seeing Makarov's eyes almost pop out of their sockets. Makarov's mouth open and closed as the elder, reduced to a bumbling mess by a mere parchment smaller than his palm, struggled to string together a proper sentence.
Naruto glanced to the side to find Mirajane reciprocating his look of confusion, both friends on the outside of an inside joke. Naruto's puzzlement was further compounded as Laxus and Erza chuckled towards one another, the latter pair undoubtedly reveling in the reaction of the master.
"T-T-Two-hundred million?!" Makarov managed to wheeze out unable to believe the sight of so many zeroes.
"Two-hundred million?!" Mirajane squeaked almost jumping out of her seat. The girl whirled her head towards her rival seeking confirmation, her complexion nearly matching her snowy hair seeing Erza nod unable to conceal her grin.
"Wait, what?! How did we get that much money?!" Naruto sputtered in a similar state of disbelief.
"The Falsuryus didn't have money to pay us with," Laxus explained with a rare smile. "Instead, they pretty much shoved a bunch of treasure on us like gold, jewels, and antiques. Erza and I decided to have her store it in her requip space. We took it to a well-reputed appraisal company as soon as we got back and the lady could hardly believe her eyes."
Erza chuckled, most likely remembering the scene Laxus was referring to, before picking up where he left off.
"Although the appraiser's company charges a fifteen percent service fee, it is well worth it to obtain an accurate estimate while making use of their connections. She said it would take her company a few days to organize the funds to purchase the bulk of the metals and jewels. However she promised to contact her associates that work with museums that would be interested in taking the antiques off our hands in the meantime. While this is the final sum we can expect to receive by tomorrow, there is something we would like to discuss with you, Naruto."
"Me?" Naruto repeated, surprised to be the the one singled out. "What's up?"
Clearing her throat, Erza schooled her features and projected what Naruto had labeled as her "business" face. The scarlet-haired girl always used this face when maintaining her reputation as the guild's unofficial disciplinarian.
"To be frank, we would not be here if it were not for you," Erza said lacking any trace of indecisiveness or hesitancy. "Therefore on our way here, Laxus and I made an agreement."
Nudging Laxus with an armored elbow, Erza urged her compatriot to speak his part as well, her insistent efforts resulting in Laxus's irritated countenance returning as he was placed in an uncomfortable position.
"Like she said, we owe you for saving our asses back there, so we agreed that you should decide what we do with the reward." Laxus spoke with finality.
"You guys want me to decide what we do with the reward money?" Naruto asked, jaw almost touching the floor.
Seeing Erza and Laxus nod, Naruto realized that the two were serious about their decision. Finding Mira for a secondary opinion, he instead received a smile in agreement as the girl supported her rival's decision as well.
"They've got a point, Naruto."
Two-hundred million was not a meager amount to come by. The ten-million received from the split reward with Mirajane had been collecting dust these past weeks as he had rarely ever needed to make a purchase. During the week after they returned, he had decided to help out the church that was housing and feeding him by donating half of the money to help Father Brock with his church's expenses and repairs. Even then his remaining balance remained, for the most part, untouched.
To suddenly pass the decision of what to do with an amount twenty times greater, especially to someone like him, was a financially irresponsible whim if he had ever seen one.
Fingers scratching the back of his head as he racked his brain to come to a decision, Naruto found it hard to concentrate. His lack of focus was not a result of nervousness or pressure, but instead a byproduct of Makarov's malfunctioning rambles and mutters as the man had long since crumbled after seeing the reward amount.
Naruto's eyes lit up, struck with a sudden epiphany, while an impish grin stretched from ear to ear unsettling those near him. With a mischievous, crafty bounce to his step, he walked up to Makarov's desk until he stood before the unresponsive man.
Stretching his arms out to the opposite ends of the room, Naruto brought them back together with a resounding clap. The sting-inducing crack of flesh right in front of Makarov's face startled the man out of his stupor. The elder looked around the room with a wild-eyed stare as if he realizing he was in his own office before glaring at the offender.
"Don't scare me like that, brat!"
"Hehe, sorry Gramps. Just wanted to let you know something."
Naruto's devilish grin only seemed to widen seeing one of Makarov's eyebrows rising in curiosity. Mira felt her body involuntarily shiver seeing the unsettling upturn of Naruto's lips. She had seen the expression more than enough times to know when Naruto was intent on stirring trouble.
"About the reward money," Naruto began, his bright eyes and innocent smile the very portrayal of sunshine and rainbows. "We decided to give the guild half of it."
As if casting a nine word spell, Naruto's words turned Makarov as still as stone.
Naruto received no response.
Waving his hand back and forth through Makarov's frozen field of vision, Naruto tested the master for any sign of reaction, even going as far as rubbing the aged mage's bald head without earning a single scolding.
There was no use as Makarov Dreyar's mind had shut down. The man had not just been thrown for a loop. His sense of reality had been rocketed into space, breaking past the clouds and ozone, and catapulted around the moon before returning to Earthland in a fiery, horrific explosion. He was left physically stupefied having become a multimillionaire in seconds.
Receiving nothing yet the same blank and frozen stare, the shinobi made his discontent known through a disappointed sigh.
"Was that really necessary?" Erza remarked with a huff due to Naruto's mischievous tendencies involving the master.
"Works for me," Laxus replied with a bored shrug turning to leave the office. "I'm fine with twenty-five million. Besides, the old man has been looking to renovate for a while now anyway."
"Plus, I'm pretty sure it'll go a long way for paying current damage expenditures," Mirajane added with a snicker preparing to leave as well. She would have followed Laxus out the door, but that was before directing a teasing glance to her rival. "As well as future ones as well. If there's one thing you're better than me at, it's property damage."
Erza's business mask cracked under Mirajane's stab as the knight's cheeks matched her hair in redness. She could not dispute the barb because they had both been keeping track over who caused more damage. It did not need to be mentioned that the winner would have all rights to lord it over her rival.
Naruto did not feel that worried about entrusting the money to Makarov as he was sure the master would make far better use of it than him. He had more important tasks to focus on. For example...
"Hey, hey, anyone know where he keeps permanent marker? I'm wanna draw on his face before he wakes up."
Worn, black sandals traveled along an equally worn, cobbled path with a naturalness gained through years of familiarity. In their owner's case, it would not be an exaggeration to say this was a walk down memory lane, the very same path she walked every day for as long as she could remember.
Granted it had been many years since she had moved out of her second home, the beautiful young lady with curls of wavy, brown hair and mischievous, hazel eyes gazed upon the orphanage that she had lived in prior to joining Fairy Tail with a nostalgic grin.
"Knock, knock! Anybody home?" Cana cheerfully yelled as she pushed open the polished metal gate and entered the church's courtyard.
A portly old priest appeared from the doorway of an adjacent building, a kind-hearted and familiar laugh escaping his lips upon seeing his visitor.
"My, my, what brings you here today, Cana? I'm glad to see you didn't bring any alcohol with you this time."
"Yeah, yeah, you lectured me enough the last time I came here." Cana replied rolling her eyes. The old pastor had badgered her for nearly an hour about her poor habits the last time upon spotting a half-empty flask at her waist. As much as she appreciated Brock's generosity and hospitality, even Cana knew not to test her luck and risk a repeat of her prior visit. "It's been a while since I've seen the kids. Any new faces since the last time I came?"
Brock hummed with thought while mulling over Cana's inquiry. Regarding recent changes, there had not been anything bigger in comparison to his newest ward.
"Well, not the kind of face that you would expect," Brock mused with a pleasant chuckle.
Raising an eyebrow at the priest's strange response, Cana's eyes wandered around the premises noticing many distinct changes and improvements since her last check-in with the orphanage. The creaky, old gate at the entrance that used to be covered with flecks of chipped paint and rusty blemishes had finally been discarded. Cana had to admit to feeling oddly out of place upon entering the church without hearing the "welcoming" squeak of metal in favor of seeing a newer, sleeker replacement.
"Say is it me or have you been remodeling the place lately?" Cana spoke wondering aloud.
"Admittedly, that would be the case thanks to our newest arrival." the father hummed thoughtfully, turning to walk back inside with Cana following behind.
The sounds of childish screaming and delighted laughter coming from the courtyard caught Cana's ears yet they were pushed aside by her growing curiosity as to who the priest was referring to.
"I must say, Fairy Tail has quite the bright future ahead with that boy in its halls."
Cana's ears perked upwards with the sudden mention of her guild.
"Wait, there's someone from Fairy Tail living here?" Cana inquired, surprise painted on her features. As far as she knew, there were not many kids in the guild other than Macao's son, Romeo. With maybe one exception, most of the kids living in the church were no older than thirteen.
"What? You weren't aware?" Brock asked in a puzzled manner. "I happened to meet him on my way back from my usual errands. He didn't appear to have any lodgings so I invited him to stay with us for a while. Imagine my surprise when he saw our condition and decided to stay and help us turn things around." he concluded with a chuckle. "I must admit, his magic is certainly one of the most convenient abilities I've had the chance to witness."
Cana's chin rested upon her index finger and thumb as she cycled through the many faces in the guild. Fairy Tail had been going through a bit of a growth spurt lately which she attributed to the growing reputations of their S-Class group.
There were many new faces that had arrived over the past month, however, there was one that stood out from the rest that her gut could not move on from.
"Ah, here he comes now. Although I believe this may be one of his copies."
"Copies?" Cana repeated, a blink of confusion giving away her surprise.
Her soft, brown eyes gradually widened as they immediately recognized the bright, yellow hair and similarly conspicuous, blue eyes.
"Is there a visitor, old man Brock?" the boy curiously asked as he entered the courtyard covered in sweat and dust. His gaze lit up almost immediately with recognition while his mouth made an O-shape.
"What's up, Cana? What brings you here?"
Cana began to wonder if her eyes were playing tricks on her as they recognized the same face she had seen as she had left the guild not even an hour ago to meet with Makarov.
Brock's earlier offhand comment rang in the back of her brain as she remembered one specific word the priest had used to describe the blond boy's ability. Even so, she could not help but voice her doubts.
'Naruto' shook his head, and jerked a thumb towards the direction Cana had just arrived from.
"I'm just a clone. The Boss is out at the moment. You need something?"
Cana pursed her lips, crossing her arms in a curious posture.
"So you can make clones? That's a neat trick. Why are you living here anyway? Aren't you pretty rich right now?"
"Technically," Naruto's clone said with a shrug. "But this was before I took those jobs with Mira. Now we're just trying to pay back old man Brock for taking care of us."
"My, my, what a responsible kid," Cana said teasingly much to the clone's chagrin.
Cana's expression suddenly lit up, and Naruto's clone found that his personal space was practically nonexistent. Eyeing 'Naruto' with an appraising eye, she seemed to be searching for something that wasn't quite there.
"Say, how old are you anyway?"
"17," the clone said in response, clearly wary of the mischievous girl. "Yourself?"
Cana groaned, her hopes clearly dashed and disappointment clear in her slumped shoulders.
Teasing someone older than her was not nearly as fun as teasing someone younger. Even so, peering at Naruto she could tell it would not be too hard to get a rise out of the blonde if she put her mind to it. Cana felt her eyebrows twitch seeing the smug grin plastered over the copy's features.
"That makes the Boss and I your elders," the clone remarked haughtily.
"Oh, can it. I'm still your senior in the guild." Cana said in retort already undertaking the challenge.
Naruto's clone chuckled smugly, crossing its own arms over its chest with a cat-that-ate-the-canary smile.
"Everybody Cana is here!"
Their conversation was paused as a swarm of young children flooded through the courtyard passage and surrounded Fairy Tail's resident drinker.
"What's up, kiddos? You guys miss me?" Cana said with a playful grin kneeling so she was eye level with the children.
A wide chorus of nods was her answer as she simply laughed and ruffled the heads nearest to her.
"Hey Cana, do you know Naruto?" a young girl asked. "He's in Fairy Tail like you!"
Allowing Cana some time with the children, Naruto's clone gave a small nod to Father Brock before resuming its original task of finishing the last of the repairs for the church. Cana had not been wrong when she implied the boss had enough money to move, but debts came first. The clone took solace in the fact that he wouldn't be the one to break the news.
Outer Edge of Magnolia
Autumn's chilly winds swept through Magnolia's streets like a cleaner, carrying away a flurry of faded red, orange, and yellow colors littering storefronts and storm drains. The season's breath brought the leaves all the way to the edge of town where the small river encircling Magnolia's borders ferried them away to a destination unknown.
Three teens sat along the edge of the bridge overlooking the tranquil river, each with a fishing rod in hand.
"Why am I here again?" the darker haired boy among the three groaned.
"You didn't have to come, remember?" Natsu replied with an annoyed huff. "I only invited Naruto out."
"I meant why are we fishing?" Gray retorted, the knuckles of his clenched fists turning white. "Besides, you aren't the only one looking for answers. What exactly happened on your quest?"
Gray's second question had been directed towards the third person in their trio who sat in between the pair of rivals.
Naruto hummed with a devilish grin mixed into his expression. The float of the fishing pole in his hands bobbed in the steady ripples of the river as if reflecting their owner's buoyant personality.
If he were in Gray's shoes, he would be just as confused as the younger teen.
After deciding how to handle the reward money, Naruto's group decided to part ways. Upon exiting Makarov's office, the four had been swarmed by their eagerly awaiting guildmates desperate to hear the details of their successful mission.
Laxus had taken that as his cue to leave. Calling on his group of followers he had named his Thunder God Tribe, Laxus's summon forced the crowd to stand aside allowing his team to join their leader. Naruto was able to receive a brief introduction from each member at Laxus's behest that they introduce themselves to Fairy Tail's newest S-Class "mage", an announcement that sent those nearby into an immediate uproar.
Freed Justine, a green-haired young man with a sword strapped to his hip, gave an introduction first. His physical features made him what many would describe as a pretty boy by Naruto's standards. The man's introduction was short, brief, and professional from start to finish.
Evergreen, a fairly attractive young girl with an appearance that seemed to fit with the concept of a "fairy", despite the shinobi never having heard of such a mythical creature back in the Land of Fire. Unlike Freed's clinical disposition, Evergreen's greeting carried an underlying haughtiness to it while her bespectacled gaze seemed to size up the blond.
The third and most interesting introduction was Bickslow, a man of a significantly larger build than Naruto and the personality to mix hand-in-hand with it. Naruto could have sworn he spotted the guild's tattoo on his tongue as he spoke with an enthusiastic interest in the person who caught his leader's attention.
Laxus called for them to leave with him as he gave a small wave towards Naruto before departing the guild, refusing any questions directed his way while ignoring glares from Erza and Mira..
Unwilling to chase after the prickly grandson, the rest of the hall focused their sights on those that remained and swarmed the trio in a chaotic clamor for answers.
Questions asking how much they were paid, what they did, and what even happened bombarded Naruto, Mirajane, and Erza like a rapid-fire gatling gun.
Taking a stand as a proud knight would do, Erza took a single step forward, clearing her throat as she did so, resulting in the large crowd quieting down in the blink of an eye. Whether it was out of respect or fear for the guild's resident disciplinarian, Naruto would venture to guess it was a mix of both.
Not wanting to divulge too many of the details surrounding the quest due to the nature of events that occured, Erza instead decided to wait for the master's approval to do so and redirected the crowd's curiosity.
She had stated that at the moment, Makarov was very busy contacting the proper channels to report the results of the quest and all contents of the quest were to remain classified to the public unless otherwise specified. Naruto had expended much effort to prevent himself from snickering. The image of the old man catching flies in his mouth was amusing to say the least. It may take a few hours for him to come back to reality.
Many showed their discontent with such a bland answer and murmurs of uncertainty percolated through the crowd. Reading the mood in the room, Mira quickly followed up Erza's response by mentioning that Makarov would be holding a congratulatory party later in the evening to celebrate Naruto's promotion as well as the completion of the Decade Quest. It was a declaration exciting enough to satiate the crowd's restlessness.
The guildhall practically rumbled with the cheers of Fairy Tail's loudest and most boisterous members as Mira and Erza's two-pronged diversion yielded great success.
After the guild's members began to disperse, Mirajane excused herself first stating that she had someone she needed to find. After Mira had left their group, Naruto was going to ask Erza what her plans were before two unexpected arrivals joined them.
Natsu, along with Happy, had come to collect on Naruto's promise to join them on a fishing excursion to the river. Gray, who had been watching a small distance away, followed them which eventually led to the three of them fishing away for the past half hour.
The pair had been needling him for details, explanations, and even stories for the entirety of the time that they had sat here and Naruto had yet to give them anything.
"Sorry, Gray." Naruto responded with an awkward smile. "As much as I'd like to tell you about it, there's still a lot of it I don't really understand."
Zeref, dragons, lost kingdoms, forgotten histories, and the idea of magic were all concepts new to Naruto and asking him to put it into words was like asking a monkey to operate a typewriter. In addition before he had left, Erza had pulled him to the side and requested that he keep everything about the quest confidential unless told otherwise by the master.
Although he had been taken aback by the strange request, he did not find it unreasonable upon remembering their meeting that concluded not even an hour ago. The unabated horror in Makarov's features was chiling, elder's usually warm and jestful personality sapped away by a single person's name. The panic and chaos such knowledge would bring if leaked towards the masses would be immeasurable.
Naruto was thankful his earlier slip up of mentioning the mutated Falsuryus was vague enough to confirm nothing.
"Come on, there's not a single thing you can tell us?" Gray groaned aloud as his hopes began to be dashed. "Can you at least tell us how much you got paid?"
"Oh yeah! You gotta at least tell us that!" Natsu blurted out nodding in agreement.
"And how much fish you can buy with it!" Happy cheerfully added.
Naruto could feel his heart ache out of pity, the image of his younger self in Natsu becoming all the more visible.
"I don't think the others would mind if I tell you guys, but just promise me you won't go shouting it to the world, deal?" Naruto reluctantly replied hoping to at least throw a small bone their way.
Natsu and Gray's responding nods had never been faster.
The blue feline made a zipping gesture over his lips, a satisfactory answer for the shinobi.
"The truth is after splitting the money four ways, I ended up getting twenty-five million after I told the old man to keep half of it."
"Twenty-five million?!" Natsu and Happy balked in unison, the former almost dropping his pole into the river before hastily steadying his grip.
Gray's mouth had fell open, expression frozen in disbelief, until his eyes blinked recognizing a peculiarity in the blond's answer. Naruto could practically see the gears turning in Gray's head and observed with an idle grin.
"If you gave half of it to the guild, and split it four ways with twenty-five million spread between you, Mira, Laxus, and Erza then that would mean…"
Gray trailed off as he did the simple math in his head. Natsu looked confused as to what his rival was doing with Happy much the same. Finishing the mental calculations in less than a few seconds, Gray's expression of surprise surpassed Natsu's by miles as his head snapped towards Naruto at whiplash-inducing speeds.
"Wait, that means you guys were paid two-hundred million jewels!?"
Natsu's fishing pole left his grip this time as the fire user jumped to his feet. "Wait, what?!"
"Natsu, you dummy! My fish!" Happy cried aloud as he watched the fishing pole splash and sink into the river.
Naruto burst out laughing as he watched Natsu jump off the bridge and into the river below to retrieve his fishing pole. Happy's cheers of support were the icing on the cake as the shinobi gripped his sides failing to contain his laughter.
Gray could only groan in exasperation, a grumble of "that idiot" escaping as an irritated breath under his mouth. Switching his gaze over to Naruto, He crossed his arms over his chest with an amazed grin. Offering nothing but the shake of his head, Gray was still coming to terms with the unbelievable reality before him.
Natsu reemerged not even a minute later with a shout of, "I found it!" as he held the soaking fishing rod with a triumphant gleam. His victorious shark-like smile faded, his nose twitching as if smelling in search of something, while his expression became that of confusion. Looking towards the direction of town, Natsu's gaze blazed alight with recognition as he started waving towards a pair of oncomers that Naruto and Gray just noticed afterwards. Mirajane who had left earlier with business had returned with another person in tow.
Naruto's eyes were unwittingly pulled towards the younger girl behind Mira who he had yet to meet. The shorter teen had vivid blue hair contained behind a yellow hairband and wore a bright orange sundress. Her lips were parted in an energetic smile as she returned Natsu's gesture with a wave of her own while cupping her other hand over her mouth.
"Hey, guys! What are you up to?" she called out.
Raising his fishing rod like a trophy, Natsu inhaled deeply before shouting, "Fishing!" he yelled back. Trudging through the river, Natsu awkwardly made his way back to the river bank, his waterlogged pants forcing him to hobble the whole way before scrambling back on to land.
By the time Natsu had made it back to the bridge, Mirajane and the shorter girl were already waiting for him as he shook the water down like a dog escaping the rain. Running a hand through his sopping wet hair, Natsu's jubilant personality shone brightly while raising his body's temperature to dry himself.
"So what brings you guys here?" he curiously asked.
The girl seemed to give Mira a subtle glance as the latter took that as her cue to get the ball rolling.
"I wanted to introduce Naruto to Levy." Mirajane replied with a friendly smile while surprising Naruto. "Naruto, this is Levy McGarden. Levy, this is Naruto Uzumaki."
"Hi!" Levy brightly greeted extending a hand outwards. "It's nice to finally meet you! I don't believe we've had the chance to meet at all."
"Likewise," Naruto said while firmly shaking the smaller girl's hand.
"Levy's been a member of the guild for as long as I can remember," Mirajane said, continuing Levy's introduction. "I thought she'd be the best one suited to teaching you how to read and write our language."
"Wait, what?" three simultaneous voices echoed.
Gray and Natsu's flabbergasted faces whipped towards the third who had paled for different reasons.
"Dude, you don't know how to read?"
"Even a moron like Natsu knows how to read!"
"Hey, shut up!"
Naruto's pale disposition regained some color with an embarrassed hue as he looked to the side.
"Don't feel bad!" Levy said, offering a comforting pat on the shoulder. "Mira explained a bit about your circumstances. You're not from Fiore, right?"
Naruto looked up and saw the discrete wink Mirajane sent his way, realizing she had not explained exactly where he had come from. He gave her a thankful smile and nodded in response towards Levy's question.
"Yeah, you could say that," he answered, "but there's really no need! Honest!"
This time it was Levy's turn to be surprised as she openly balked at Naruto's declaration.
"W-What? Then how on earthland do you plan to take jobs? Buy a home or even write your name?"
Naruto at least had the decency to flinch with each point Levy raised towards the ninja's feeble excuse.
"Well what if I just have someone with me?"
His suggestion was shut down immediately by the blank stares courtesy of Mirajane and Levy. Even Natsu and Gray were looking at him with pity. A gloomy cloud loomed over the crown of his head, his shoulders slumping with depression.
"Who cares if I can't read? You don't need to read to be able to kick ass," Naruto pitifully argued.
Natsu nodded his head with approval before being slapped upside the head by Gray. Levy sighed, her small shoulders and back straightening up as she latched onto the blonde's wrist and immediately began pulling him away towards the nearest library.
Naruto's piteous stature was dragged away like a sack of potatoes by the lithe girl a full head shorter than him. Levy's eyes seemed to sparkle with resolve and determination as she led the way to one of her favorite spots.
"Don't worry, Naruto. I'll make a student out of you yet."
With an overdramatic stream of tears trailing down his cheeks, he reached out towards Mirajane, Natsu, and Gray for help who each denied his plea with a pitying shake of their heads. Naruto Uzumaki was many things. An incredible ninja, inspiring leader, and an all around badass trained by the best, of course! An academic acolyte? That he was not.
It's been 2 years since I last posted. I'm sure many have wondered what happened, where I went, or if I even planned to keep writing this. I guess the best way to summarize what happened is a "pre-life" crisis? College hit hard in more ways than one. The pressure to ace my classes, find resume building opportunities, and the anxiety about the future just made writing so unappealing.
When I first started writing, I was basically sitting in front of the computer for 6-8 hours and even then I didn't always finish. It got to the point where I just felt empty and that I gained nothing of value out of putting my time into this. I made a conscious decision to stop treating this as an obligation/responsibility, and just something to do in my spare time. There's many different kinds of things I want to do, and spending 6 hours in front of a computer alone isn't one of them anymore. I will still be writing, just as a hobby.