Mslead here! Hey guys, I know it's been AGES since this fic was updated! I'm catching it up to Snogfairy's posting on tumblr. We're still working on Round 3 right now but we've had a hard time aligning everyone's schedules. I am especially guilty as I have been totally MIA from the internet for over half a year! So for now, I'm just catching up ITR to where it matches tumblr's postings, and then we're going to work on ITR until it's finished. At that point, we'll begin consistent updates again.

Please don't make us feel guilty about making you wait again after this. There are three of us and we really are trying. Please understand that we really do want to finish this story and we're trying to make it work!

So without further ado, back into the ring we go!

Chapter 27

fighters who train at the same gym or under the banner of the same promoter


Lucy had to admit, they must have looked like quite the trio, walking down a broken and pitted sidewalk in a group. Two burly looking men on either side of her, Lucy knew Gajeel and Natsu looked more like her bodyguards than her friends.

Of course with the paranoid glares they shot over their shoulders every three feet, she thought they were doing a great job serving the role. Which was silly, because she was the one tagging along on their little adventure.

As soon as she had woken up, a little irritated over being alone in bed instead of next to Natsu, she had been informed they were all heading out. It was then she realized both Natsu and Gajeel woke up freakishly early, so she found her anger diluted by the gratitude they had let her sleep in.

Their destination was a gym, one Gajeel used to frequent. Apparently he hadn't gone in some time, as there was a woman there who was a sort of specialist in cases like theirs. Whoever she was, the woman sounded both impressive and frightening.

Lucy couldn't imagine either of her friends being 'handled'.

But that was why they were there. Walking to the gym from Gajeel's apartment to avoid taking the car. Natsu seemed wary to go at first, unsure about this mystery trainer. Lucy couldn't blame him either, not when she held reservations of her own about putting Natsu back into an environment so similar to one he had been in for over fifteen years.

Gajeel seemed to think it was fine.

"You sure about this?" Lucy tugged on Natsu's elbow.

His eyes flickered to hers, a wry smile lifting the corners of his mouth. He couldn't fool her, there was a tightness around the edges of his eyes that spoke of a tension he wouldn't voice.

"Yeah, I'm sure. I've gotta at least try." Natsu frowned, seemingly growing distracted by the conversation. He wet his lips and peered around before breathing, "Huh."

"Hm?" Lucy questioned.

Natsu shook his head. His eyes glued down between his striding feet. "Nothing..." He squinted at the buildings. "I just thought for a second how familiar this place looks."

His gaze was hesitant as it flicked over the old buildings, cracks and vines shadowing the bricks. Lucy watched as his hands seemed to curl tighter into fists as they walked, and whether or not he noticed, he was matching Gajeel's strides.

It seemed like every step they took pulsed a nervous energy through Natsu, and he walked like he had a target in mind. Which was ridiculous considering he had spent most of his life in confinement.

What could he possibly recognize?

Gajeel's face remained carefully neutral the whole time they walked, but by the twitch of his jaw, he knew something and he wasn't planning on sharing.

Finally, when they turned the last street to the gym, Natsu stopped moving.

Crashing into his solid back, Lucy grumbled and rubbed her nose. She was very nearly about to open her mouth and demand why he had stalled, but then she noticed Natsu wasn't even breathing. His eyes were locked ahead of him, his jaw slack but spine rigid.

Slowly, she pressed a hand between his shoulder blades and it seemed to draw him out of whatever haze he was in.

"This is Igneel's gym."

Lucy's hand froze, taking stock of Natsu's grim face and the soft tremor that ran through his shoulders.

The gym Igneel had once owned.

Lucy had seen it perhaps once or twice in old newspaper clippings, but Natsu must have spent many years in the place before he was taken. The exterior of the building looked as if it had been repainted and fixed up a little, but to someone who was intimately familiar with the place - no doubt it looked exactly the same.

Natsu didn't even seem to be breathing anymore.

"You knew?" Lucy whirled on Gajeel. A flare of anger made her hands shake, unable to believe her friend would do something so cruel to Natsu. To throw him back to a place with so many memories for him without any warning seemed unimaginably cold-blooded.

"Of course I knew, I have his file." Gajeel barely even glanced at Lucy. The urge to smack him rose like a violent tide, but she resisted the desire by the barest of margins. "If it makes ya feel any better, I've been coming to this place long before this punk dropped into our lives. It's still the best place for him to be."

She wanted to protest. Natsu still hadn't budged, his bangs fluttering in the breeze the only sign of motion coming from him.

"Gajeel, no," Lucy brought voice to her fears. Her hand gripped at Gajeel's wrist, her friend's red gaze dropping down to her hand and raising a studded eyebrow at her. "This isn't a good idea, it's too soon for Natsu to do something like this - "

"It's fine," Natsu's voice lifted, cutting her off before she could go on a true tirade. "I want to be here."

He took off without another word, his stride eating up the distance between them and the door before Lucy could even breathe a word to stop him. Her brow furrowed, worry creasing the dent between her eyes. Knowing there was no way to stop Natsu if he had set his mind to something, Lucy sighed and headed in to follow him.

At least she would have, had a hand on her shoulder not stopped her.

She looked up to see Gajeel staring straight ahead, his expression firm but eyes glued ahead. With falling spirits, she realized Gajeel had no intention of going in there himself. Which meant for whatever reason, Natsu would be doing this on his own. She pulled herself free and stared at him in surprise, realizing he had planned on sending Natsu in alone the whole time.

"Gajeel, what if something happens?" Lucy demanded, horrified he would even consider this as a viable option.

She found herself being turned around, twisted towards the opposite side of the street. It was then she realized Gajeel was guiding her mechanically across the street to a small coffee shop.

"You can't protect him from this, Lucy," Gajeel grunted, his grip firm but nowhere tight enough to hurt her. "He'll never be ready to go back here, but it's the best place for him to be to get better."

Lucy grit her teeth together, anger sparking hot in her eyes.

"He should have support," she argued against Gajeel, hating how she was being shut down. Still, if anyone knew how to help Natsu, it would be someone who had been in the Ring himself for almost as long as Natsu. "I'm already nervous about this kind of 'therapy' for him. Can't I get him a therapist?"

Gajeel shrugged, but ignored Lucy for just long enough to head to the counter and order them two coffees. He returned to her a few moments later when his ticket was being filled.

"If you think it'll help him, sure," Gajeel finally allowed. He tapped his fingers on the counter while they waited. "But take it from me, he's been conditioned to think certain things are normal. And just pushing him into thinking they aren't may end up causing more damage."

Lucy opened her mouth but closed it from one breath to another. Her brows furrowed, a twinge of guilt settling into the pit of her stomach.

"He's a grown man, bunny girl." Gajeel straightened up at the sight of the cups being pushed towards them. "What he needs is a way to not smash some fucker's face in if they look at you the wrong way. That's the best therapy he can get, the rest will fall into place, even if I can't say he'll ever understand what you want him to."

Lucy's cheeks flushed, her fingers wrapping around her cup. Her broken finger twinged in its splint.

"W-what're you talking about," she demanded. Lucy had the sinking suspicion she knew exactly what he meant. To hear the insinuation about her whispered conversations with Natsu come from Gajeel's mouth made her cheeks burn.

Gajeel grinned, his unnaturally sharp teeth gleaming before he snagged his cup to take a deep drink.

"Next time you and the brat wanna make out, you should probably close the bathroom door."


When Natsu pushed open the familiar doors to his father's old gym, he felt as if his legs were ready to collapse under his weight. His shaky feet could barely take a step forward past the threshold. Emotion slammed into him like a pile driver, pressing the air from his lungs in a crushing vice.

The glass door swung shut behind him, startling him enough to look back over his shoulder. For the first time he realized he was alone, not even having noticed when the others slipped away to grant him his privacy.

He was grateful for the moment alone. It at least gave him time to comprehend his surroundings.

Nostalgia slammed into him just by standing awkwardly near the door. The bite of the air conditioning unit thrummed loud near the back of the gym, going at full blast to cool the room full of active bodies. It hummed so loud, it almost drowned out the drop of weights hitting mats or shifting on Olympic bars.

Towards the back there was a single ring, a sparring match between a boxer and a trainer going on behind the ropes. A large bronze bell was fixed onto the side of the ring.

The thing was ancient, and Natsu found himself drawn to it as if hypnotized. How often had he played with that silly thing as a child? Natsu remembered when Igneel would get into the ring to spar, he had been allowed to ring the bell for every round. His thumb ran over the surface of it, a smile crawling over his cheeks.

The gym had a few higher end equipment in it since Igneel's time, but it still seemed to hold much of the old school practices Igneel had implanted into the very foundation of this place. Part of the dojo even remained intact. Natsu was grateful for such a thing.

It almost made him feel as if his father was still alive. Even if it was just in these walls.

"Are you Natsu Dragneel?" a new voice broke through his thoughts, startling him enough to pull himself away from the bell.

He turned, his eyes falling onto the owner of the voice. She was a couple of inches shorter than him, but had such long, red hair it would be hard to miss her in a crowd.

A black eyepatch covered her right eye, partially obscured by a curtain of red bangs. Her other one seemed to catch and hold him with the strength of her stare alone. She stood straight, shoulder back and chin lifted. At her side she held a quarter staff around a bandaged hand.

She was an imposing woman.

But her face was gentle, a moderate smile that was tinged with warmth and wry playing around her lips.

"Yeah," he answered, a little wary of who she was, and how she knew his name.

The answer came soon enough when she crooked a finger at him, beckoning Natsu to follow her.

"My name is Erza Scarlet, Gajeel told me he had a special case for me similar to his own." She stuck her hand out for him to shake.

Hesitantly, he took it, but nearly jerked back when he felt how strong her grip was.

"Let's speak in private for a moment. Gajeel has apprised me of the situation and I'm sure you have some questions of your own." Erza dropped his hand a beat later, turning on her heel back to a familiar office in the back.

Natsu swallowed hard, his eyes following her. Not knowing what else to do, Natsu took one last lingering look around him before following the strange woman to the back.