Notes: The X777 childhood arc is finally done. Thank god... Anyway, I tried to turn it toward at least something vaguely hinting at possible romance, maybe, but uh. Yeah, no. I suck at romance or character relationships. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
EDIT: Jan 2017 I've lost all interest and love for Fairy Tail, so I'm unfortunately cutting this story short. There was supposed to be a X784 arc about Jellal and Alvarez, but I just don't have it in me to write it. Sorry!
VII. Giving and Given
"You're leaving on a mission now?" Hisui said in surprise and dismay. "But then..."
Erza blinked at her in surprise. "Your Highness?"
"It's just... it's almost New Year's. If you get delayed on your mission at all, you'll miss the celebration," Hisui explained. She clasped her hands together awkwardly, glancing at Erza. "I was... Well, I had hoped we could spend New Year's Day together, at least some of it."
"I'll be back before the new year," Erza said with certainty. "Or the mission will be a failure. ...It's important? To spend New Year's Day together?"
"Well, a little?" Hisui replied uncertainly. "It's... a day for friends and family. We have audiences in the morning, but after that, I would like to spend some time with you, exchange gifts... Oh, speaking of gifts, have you gotten something for Master Kreuz yet?" she asked. "Just so you are aware, I intended to give him a book of local legends and stories. But if that was also your plan, I can find something else..."
She trailed off, seeing Erza's blank expression. "Giving gifts for the new year..." Erza started, leaning in a little and lowering her voice, "who do have to give them to?"
Hisui chuckled awkwardly. The gaps in Erza's knowledge still caught her off guard sometimes. "It's tradition," she explained. "Just to friends and family is enough. To Master Kreuz, for example. I'm sure he'll get you something too. I will be giving Papa a gift, of course. I also have some social obligations, for some of the nobles and our closest allies, but I don't think the Garou Knights will expect anything."
Listening to the explanation closely, Erza nodded along. She didn't have any family, and the Garou Knights aside, she didn't have any social ties either. That left Gray, and maybe Lambert... And if Hisui was giving Gray something, then she would probably give Erza a present too, even if she hadn't mentioned that.
'Right, presents are supposed to be a secret,' Erza thought, even though she didn't really understand why.
Three people, then. Fortunately, that went well with her mission.
That mission was quite simple and straightforward, even though it had come directly from the king himself — to go to Era and purchase a magic grimoire for Hisui.
"It'll be her New Year's present," Toma had explained. "Master Makarov told me she's ready to move past the basics, but that means she will need to study a specific style. We don't have many magic tomes in Fiore, so we'll need to purchase one in Era. But there's plenty of fakes out there, so I will leave it to you to go in person and choose a real grimoire. You're friends with my Hisui, so I know you'll pick one that will suit her."
Being friends with the princess — Erza supposed they really were. They met often, and they talked about things that had nothing to do with work or duties. Hisui asked for advice often, and Erza had stopped hesitating about asking her things too. Since they were the same age, everyone already assumed they were friends anyway.
If she compared the way she felt about Hisui to her feelings for Wally, Sho, Millianna, Simon... It wasn't the same. But it wasn't completely different either.
'Friends, huh,' Erza thought. 'I have two friends.'
It was more than she could have imagined having, at one point. Not just friends — all of it. A place to call home, celebrating holidays, giving and receiving presents, even being able to spend a leisurely while together. Sometimes, it made her chest feel tight and full of happiness that she might burst.
However, Hisui had brought up a very troubling point — Erza had no idea what to give Gray. Lambert was a warrior, so she could guess with him, and Hisui talked so much about her life that Erza knew exactly what she wanted. But Gray... What did he even like, aside from his work?
Why was Hisui getting him a book in the first place?
"Do you like books?" Erza asked, staring at him dubiously.
Gray, who had been in the middle of making the last adjustments on her winter cloak, paused and stared back. "You... Why are you asking that now?" he muttered, around the pins in his mouth.
"Do you?" Erza pressed stubbornly.
"They're okay," Gray sighed, giving in. "Hold up your arms — it depends on what's in the book. They're useful for learning things, but I don't really love them or anything."
Erza nodded, making sure to hold her pose steady while Gray tugged at the folds and grumbled to himself. "Do you like history? Legends and things like that?" she asked.
"Not particularly," Gray muttered distractedly. "But it's important if you want to learn about why magic gets used this way or that."
'So it's a practical gift,' Erza surmised. That made it easier. She could understand practical things. Maybe she could get Gray some rare catalyst then? There were bound to be plenty of them in Era. But she didn't really know anything about them. Which one should she get?
"Alright, you can take it off," Gray said, stepping back. "Give me half an hour, and it'll be done. By the way, if you have time when you're in Era, could you see if you can get some of this stuff for me?"
He held out a piece of paper with a long list of strange names followed by quantities. Although they were almost entirely unfamiliar to Erza, she could guess that they were materials, reagents, and catalysts that Gray couldn't find in Crocus.
"This should cover the costs," Gray added, handing her a pouch of gold as well. Seeing her sulking expression, he paused. "What's wrong? You think you'll be too busy? You don't have to do it, it's fine."
"No, I'll do it," Erza said firmly. It was just a bit annoying — if he gave her a list like this, she couldn't buy any of it as a gift.
This gift giving business was turning out more complicated than she'd expected.
Darton was already waiting by the doors to the audience room when Toma and Arcadios approached. He gave a sharp nod of acknowledgement, his expression even more ill-tempered than usual.
"So far, his story appears to match," he said without any greeting or preamble. "Not that it means much. We have too little information on Alvarez to judge whether he's lying or not. The only thing I can say is that his paperwork, travel documents and trade applications are correctly filed according to the new treaty, and that the Runic Order allowed him and his group entry."
For all that was worth, was the silent but obvious implication.
"He's not carrying anything magical in nature except some protective charms on his ring," Kama commented, stepping out of the shadows. "And judging by the level of magic in his body, he's not a practicing wizard either."
"He's not carrying anything as far as you can tell," Darton said. "Alvarez magic is different."
"Yes," Kama agreed dryly. "Regrettably, I don't know how to find magic I don't know anything about."
"Now, now, let's not get so worked up already," Toma said, waving his hands placatingly as the two of them glared at each other. "He could be telling the truth, and there's no need for all this suspicion. Arcadios will be attending the meeting, and Kama will be watching secretly. We're as prepared as we can be. Shall we begin?"
Receiving no objections, the king smiled and pushed open the doors to the audience room.
There was only one man inside, dressed in a simple but well-cut suit. His eyes quickly passed over Arcadios and Darton, who took their places on either side of the throne, and, once the king was seated, he bowed deeply. "Thank you for agreeing to meet me today," he said. "It's an honor, Your Majesty."
"Welcome, welcome!" Toma greeted, gesturing for him to straighten. "It's a pleasure to have our first official visitor from Alvarez. I hope you are finding Fiore to your liking so far."
"You have a beautiful country," the man said. "It's quite different from any part of Alvarez. Please forgive any impropriety on my part. I am still adjusting to the customs here."
"Of course. Understanding and compromise are key to any relationship. As long as both sides keep an open mind, I'm sure this will become a fruitful partnership for both our countries," Toma said. "We expect great things from the new trade routes we are establishing."
The man tilted his head in imitation of another bow. "Then let me reiterate that it is an honor to be on the forefront of that partnership," he said.
Although it would not be brought up, his presence as the first delegation from Alvarez was surprising, so late in the year. The Alvarez ports closest to Ishgar were to the north, and it had been assumed that no one would make the trip until spring at the earliest. Their visitor was very reckless or very determined, to push through in winter.
Darton and Arcadios exchanged a quick glance — both found it suspicious, naturally.
"The trade ministry informed me that you have a particularly interesting and ambitious proposal," Toma noted, leaning back. "Ambitious enough to require my direct approval."
"Yes, but I believe it will be well worth your attention," the man said. "Let me begin by introducing myself. I am Jude Almathis, head of the Almathis Group. We are a trade organization that specializes in transportation of goods between the many regions of the empire. Unfortunately, the government expressed some concerns regarding revealing the exact size of our fleets, but I can assure you that Almathis is a household name in Alvarez."
"Then you would like to handle the transportation of goods between Alvarez and Ishgar?" Toma guessed.
"Certainly, that is a great opportunity for us," Jude said, "but we have another proposal. The key to transportation is infrastructure — and technology. What we would like to offer to Fiore, and the rest of Ishgar, is a certain technology that can decrease travel time between major cities by days or even weeks. This technology is known as the railroad."
As a soldier with a deep sense of duty and propriety, who was rumored to sleep upright in full armor if at all, Arcadios rarely allowed himself to indulge in anything that might dull his senses. But, after finally returning to his office, he pulled out a decanter of an expensive, amber alcohol and poured himself a glass.
Glancing at the shadows, he raised an eyebrow and offered, "A glass for you?"
Kama chuckled as he emerged, shaking his head. "No, I'm good. I still need to take Kamika's report on our new friend, the good Mister Almathis, later tonight," he said.
He could at least be grateful that he and Arcadios had been dismissed from the emergency meetings that were still in progress. The audience with Jude alone had lasted a good while, as he explained the basic concept behind the technology of "trains" — which was simple enough fundamentally, but impressive in the lack of any magic involved.
The trade ministry, who had been summoned immediately afterwards, had certainly been intrigued by the promised speed and reliability, but naturally also skeptical. So had the other ministry representatives summoned afterward, for the next round of a conversation Kama had already grown tired of. Thankfully, that was when he and Arcadios were finally dismissed, having little to contribute to a discussion about trade, finance and technology. Darton, who had remained, was more than suspicious enough of Alvarez for all of them.
"Do you suppose he's telling the truth — about his railroads?" Arcadios asked, taking a careful sip of the spirits in his tumbler.
"Probably. Most of it, anyway. I'm sure he's playing up some of it to make a better sell, but we already know Alvarez has strange technologies," Kama said, shrugging.
"Like that airship," Arcadios said. "But that was magic. This is..." He gestured vaguely, trying to express the strange sense of contradiction in that. All along, they had worried about Alvarez's unsettling, dangerous magic. To have a place like that also embrace technological advancement felt like it went against all sense.
Those who embraced technology were those who had rejected magic — that was the common sensibility. Except in Alvarez, it seemed.
Kama inclined his head, understanding his point. "Alvarez is a big place, even we know that," he allowed. "Maybe there's parts of it that love magic and parts that don't use magic much. There might be areas where there's no magic at all. There's no way to know." He snorted. "Runic Order's going to flip though. This is going to make a mess of everything for them."
And not just in the general sense. 'If they haven't been meddling with the advancement of technology here, I'll eat Cosmos's hat,' Kama thought.
Thinking about the Runic Order made him think about Era, and thinking about Era — he grimaced.
Surely even Erza could make one simple trip to pick up a book. Then again, the girl had managed to find a dragon — an actual dragon — while investigating routine rumors. She'd been to Era before and made it out without any issue... unless you counted an ancient wyrm appearing out of nowhere. And that had been with the princess and a full delegation. Alone, there was no telling what kind of logic-defying nonsense Erza might end up in.
Everything from overly persistent recruiters to illegal slavery rings to just plain getting lost flashed through Kama's mind, and he had to stifle a groan.
He would have preferred to send someone with her, but that had been right around the time that the Almathis group arrived. Receiving a mission directly from the king, Erza hadn't bothered confirming it with her commander and just took off before he even knew about it. He supposed he could scold her for that when she returned, but since it was a mission from the crown, she wasn't precisely wrong, just a bit inconsiderate.
'Why did I take this forsaken job?' Kama wondered not for the first time. 'Why did I even want to recruit that terrible girl?'
Staring broodingly down into his glass, Arcadios remained thankfully unaware of his thoughts. "To be honest, I would prefer the order deal with Alvarez, even the traders," he admitted. "It would give them even more influence, but at least we could avoid their meddling. Serving as an intermediary like this makes me uneasy."
"There's no helping it. Era is inland, and we're the closest and best placed to receive their ships," Kama said, his tone echoing Arcadios's sentiments.
Of the other nations on the western ocean, Seven was too cold, with their ports impassable a good part of the year, and Caelum was too far south, not to mention the whirlpools and treacherous currents along their shores. So it was always going to be Fiore that Alvarez reached first.
For trade, and in the case of an invasion.
As if they didn't have enough problems — dragons, demons, and a hungry empire at the door.
Kama sighed, remembering the reason now. No matter how much trouble she caused, there was no denying Erza's power and, more importantly, her potential. That potential would be sorely needed soon.
...But hopefully not for a few years yet. Until he could trust her not to unearth some ancient god on her way to buy the princess a holiday gift, at least.
Despite Kama's dire expectations, Erza made it to Era without incident.
Even moving inland from Fiore, the main highways remained passable during the winter, although travel was much slower in the short, cold days — no one seemed amenable to Erza's suggestion to keep pushing on well after dark.
The king had asked Master Makarov, who had asked his old friend Master Bob, who had asked one of his subordinates, to gather a few suitable grimoires for Erza to choose from, to spare her from having to search the city herself. Thus, her first stop upon arriving in the Runic City was the famous — or infamous, depending our perspective — Club Blue Pegasus, the domain of same-said Master Bob.
It was already growing dark, and the crowds had begun to gather. Warmth and laughter drifted out from the open doors of the club, welcoming all — which didn't stop Erza from receiving several questioning, dubious looks as she made her way inside. It was not precisely the place for a child. Rather, it was an "adult" establishment.
Erza had never been in a club before, or a bar, and the hum of background chatter, the dimmed lights, and the myriad of scents drifting through the air took her by surprise. She hesitated in the middle of the entry way, momentarily unsure how to proceed.
That was when they pounced.
"Welcome, my lady!"
"Welcome, to Club Blue Pegasus!"
Three young men in dark suits suddenly went down on one knee in front of her. Erza stared blankly.
"Ah, what an enchanting crimson bloom has been swept into our hall by the winter winds!" one exclaimed, reaching out to clasp her hand in both of his. Erza twitched.
"This is truly a blessed season, to bring about our meeting," another enthused, sidling up to her and placing a hand in the middle of her back. Erza gritted her teeth.
"So how shall we serve you? Anything is possible, for you," the last declared, leaning in close and reaching out — to caress her face or sweep back her hair, or some other gesture of intimacy. Erza had enough.
Pinning the third with a glare, she allowed a drop of killing intent to leak through into her voice and said very coldly, "Don't touch me."
He was lucky that was all she did, all three of them were. A year ago, even six months back, she would have broken their hands on reflex.
All three of them were wizards, she could tell that much from the subtle magic emanating from them, and they could just as easily feel the immense power coiled inside her. As it flexed with Erza's irritation, they went completely still. Slowly, Erza pushed back the folds of her cloak enough to give them a glimpse of Heaven's Wheel at her hip. They gulped and took a quick step back.
"I need to speak to the master here," she said. "Immediately."
"R-right away!" the host trio chorused.
In short order, Erza had been ushered to a place of honor in a private room, the cushions fluffed to her liking, a glass of something pink and sweet in front of her — though she only sniffed at it doubtfully — and several very attractive young men waiting on her hand and foot. She magnanimously allowed them to take her cloak, but only with a stern warning that it was important to her. The poor young host she gave it to, only a couple of year older than her, squeaked in terror and clutched the cloth like his life depended on it.
The master of the club, who had arrived a while back, watched the scene with obvious amusement.
Finally, he couldn't contain his laughter anymore.
"My, my, you boys still have a long way to go," Master Bob chuckled, as the hosts turned to him with pleading eyes, before his expression turned scolding. "An unsatisfied customer is a mark of shame! It doesn't matter what she came for, a host must read the customer's heart and give her what she desires! Certainly not just rely on the same set of cheap platitudes, tsk, tsk."
He shook his head in disapproval, clicking his tongue. His employees drooped under the weight of his disappointment, shuffling out pathetically.
"You can read a person's heart and find out what they want?" Erza asked. "Is it a magic?"
Master Bob laughed again, his entire body shaking with mirth. "It's the magic of love, the most important quality of a great host!" he declared. "Ah, Hibiki, bring that special order, will you?"
One of the hosts slinking away with their tails between their legs paused and turned back. "You mean, she's the one from Fiore?" he said in surprise, which quickly turned to consideration. "Of course, I should have realized... all the signs of travel are there, and that cloak used threads from both Caelum and Bellum. Only Fiore trades with both..."
"And Makarov said to look for a girl with red hair," Master Bob added.
"Master! You didn't tell us that!" Hibiki protested.
"Oh, I didn't?" Master Bob said, one hand against his mouth in surprise. "My bad, I guess I forgot!"
Erza ignored Hibiki as he sighed and scurried out of the room. "A love magic?" she pressed instead, in her usual single-minded way. "Can you teach me? There's someone whose heart I really need to read."
"No, no, love is a magic all of its own!" Master Bob said. "It's something you learn from other people... but not something anyone can teach you. I suppose, it's just something you are given freely. If you have a strong feeling of love, you'll be able to understand their heart someday, I'm sure of it."
"So if I don't know what he wants, it's because I don't have enough love?" Erza guessed.
"Love takes time to build, and to reach the other person," Master Bob said sagely. "You're still so young, I'm sure you'll be able to understand his heart in time." Then, reaching out to clasp her shoulder with a serious expression, he added, "But don't let any boy pressure you into something you're not ready for. Waiting for the other person to be ready is love too."
They had completely misunderstood each other somewhere along the way.
However, Erza gave this advice due consideration, then nodded back just as seriously. "I'm ready," she decided. "I want to exchange gifts with Gray. So I need to know what's in his heart."
Aside from swords, which Erza was sure there were plenty of. In a way, everything he made came from his heart. However, she didn't think she could give Gray a sword. But maybe a dagger...? He did need a way to protect himself, even if Ice Bringer was always watching over him.
Distracted by her thoughts, she didn't notice Master Bob barely hide a surprised, amused chuckle. "Exchanging gifts... such an innocent affections," he murmured to himself, wiggling in a pleased way. To Erza, "Well, for a gift, it can come from your heart. Yes, your heart will know the right gift for your Gray!"
That was entirely too vague to be helpful, in Erza's opinion, but she didn't have a chance to press further.
A stack of heavy, thick tomes in his arms, Hibiki staggered into the doorway of the private room. He wavered for a moment, struggling to maintain his balance, and lurched forward. The stack was beginning to tilt, wobbling threateningly, but Hibiki backpedalled desperately and somehow managed to balance it long enough to reach the table.
Despite his clumsy movements, the way he set down the books was gentle and filled with outmost care. To a wizard, any grimoire — no matter the magic within — was a priceless treasure, the culmination of a life's work and the key to knowledge that could so easily be lost forever.
"His Majesty requested tomes on light magic," Master Bob said, as Hibiki laid the grimoires out across the table. "Acting as intermediaries, we were able to find these through our contacts. Do you know what you're looking for more specifically?"
Erza didn't answer, only running her fingers lightly over the covers. They were all genuine grimoires. She could feel the magic inside them, but that was to be expected. Master Bob wouldn't have tried to fool a customer sent by his old friend Makarov.
But which one felt most like Hisui? Even Erza couldn't tell.
Hisui didn't have a strong presence of magic. If Erza had to say, she would consider Hisui's defining characteristic to be her affability, her ability to smile and keep a calm, steady demeanor in any situation. Hisui's presence was soft, subtle, and adaptable, which also made it hard to read.
As such, it was more a matter of choosing a magic Hisui would like. But... Erza sighed. She really wasn't good at reading her friends' hearts, was she?
'Not enough love, then?' she thought, quite seriously.
Her gaze and her hand paused on one cover. The silvered letters of the title had begun to fade with age, but the words were still clear enough. "Heavenly Body..." Erza read aloud.
It reminded her of the story Hisui liked so much, the Heavenly Record, which Gray had used to name Heaven's Wheel. But the feel of the magic in the book... it was familiar too. A distant familiarity, from somewhere long before the two of them.
"Ah, Heavenly Body magic is certainly a powerful choice," Hibiki said with a salesman's smile, as Erza picked up the tome and let it fall open in her hand. "It allows the caster to use the properties of astronomical objects, racing like a meteor in the sky or shooting beams like starlight. And it's not only a magic of light. There are spells that use gravity as well! It is a versatile and beautiful style. A truly regal choice!"
'You're doing it a bit too thick, Hibiki,' Master Bob thought, shaking his head a little. 'More subtle, more subtle!' His knowledge of magic and memorization were amazing, but Hibiki's skills as host still needed some polishing.
Fortunately, Erza was too distracted to notice.
"Meteor... starlight..." she murmured, her eyes darting over the pages. It was a good grimoire — she could feel the shape of the spells within it, if only a whisper. Yes, those spells were familiar, from what felt like long ago.
Racing like a meteor, the spell she'd copied roughly as a short dash. Shooting beams like starlight, dominating every battle so no opponent could even get close. This magic felt like him — like Jellal.
Most likely, this was the style he had been naturally inclined toward, his magic's original manifestation. He'd always been looking up toward the stars, hadn't he? 'It's nice, isn't it? Being so high above the clouds,' he'd said. 'The sky is so clear!'
As if there could be anything good about being in that horrible tower... He was always that kind of person.
Until he wasn't.
In the end, the power he used to destroy the tower was completely different. Closing her eyes, expression brittle, Erza could still see the last vision of him — floating over the top of the tower, his hand around her neck as he held her up; his impossibly complex magic circle combining four elements into a single devastatic, dark power.
'Wait, Jellal! Everyone— everyone is still in there!'
'If they deserve to live, they will survive. Isn't that how we lived this far? Only the strongest, that is the truth of the world. You too, survive this—'
Falling, down toward the sea below the clouds, as he released his grip.
The dark blast shooting down, tearing through the tower, was the last thing Erza remembered before hitting the water and losing consciousness.
'What happened back then, Jellal?' she let herself wonder for the first time. 'What did they do to you?'
It was too late now, of course. He hadn't answered her back then either. She would never know why things had turned out that way.
"Oh dear, oh dear... Are you alright, sweetheart?" Master Bob called out worriedly, when she remained stiff and still for too long. "Did we let a bad one through? I was sure we checked all of them for any traps or tricks."
"...No," Erza managed, forcing herself to take a deep breath. "It's... a fine magic tome. A good magic."
It was, wasn't it? She had always thought it was beautiful, back then. It had protected them during their battles — Jellal had protected them. A beautiful, powerful magic from the stars — it was certainly a magic of light. That was the way she wanted to remember it. No matter came after, there was light in those memories, something precious.
Hisui would like it too, she thought. The name, in particular.
Taking another slow breath, Erza nodded to herself. "This one," she said. "I'll take this one."
It was a good magic, and it deserved to be used.
Choosing a gift for Hisui from herself also came easily, when she went shopping the next morning — although, admittedly, the princess would like any present she received.
Unfortunately, Erza's feelings of satisfaction didn't last long because, as always, Gray had to be a problem. Not even speaking of an actual gift, the list he'd given Erza alone was proving too much. Erza had assumed that the fact she didn't recognize anything on it had to do with her own ignorance. As it turned out, it wasn't just her — none of the shopkeepers seemed to recognize any of it either.
"Clear Ciel crystal? Lilium orb?" the jeweler read off, shaking his head in confusion. "I've never heard of those, or anything else on here."
The smiths hadn't heard of Inhibitor ore either. The apothecary didn't know about Dinei potions or Penguinist quills. No one knew what an All Divide might be. Erza didn't think that Gray had played a prank on her, and he'd said it was alright if she couldn't get what he asked for, but it was all very frustrating.
"I see... Thank you for your time," Erza muttered, glaring down at the paper the jeweler handed back to her.
But even preoccupied with her frustration, she didn't miss the prickling feeling of someone's eyes on her. Turning slowly, Erza stared back — at a boy her age, who was studying her consideringly. It was a little impressive that he didn't look away despite her flat look.
"What do you want?" Erza said badly, straight to the point.
The boy raised one pale, thin eyebrow and suddenly smirked. "I heard what you're looking for," he said. "I was just surprised that someone else would be interested in those kinds of things. Are you a crafter?" His eyes trailed over her cloak, focusing on the stitching in the same way Gray sometimes looked at weapons that he was mentally deconstructing.
That wasn't the only way he reminded her of Gray — even though they looked as different as night and day. After a moment, she realized it was the faint roll of his accent, which she hadn't heard from anyone else in Fiore.
"No," she answered, after a moment. "But I know one. He asked me to get those things."
"I thought so," the boy said with obvious satisfaction. "They're rare materials. I don't think anyone except a crafter would even use them. You won't be able to just buy them... but I have keep some in stock, in case I need them. I can sell a bit to you, as a favor to a fellow crafter."
"Alright," Erza agreed. "Let's go."
She had already taken two steps before she realized the boy wasn't following her. "Wait, wait," he said, shaking his head. "You're not going to just go with some stranger like that, are you? Don't you at least want to know my name? Or see some proof that I'm not messing with you?"
"Oh, that's true," Erza said. "I haven't introduced myself. I'm Erza, of the Fiore Kingdom's Garou Knights." She didn't bother addressing his other points, only lifting her arm to part the folds of her cloak — and let him see the sword at her waist, the proof that she could more than handle any trap or trick.
His eyes widened, and Erza wondered if he recognized how amazing Gray's work was — even if she didn't have much basis for comparison, she was sure Heaven's Wheel was a masterpiece. But there was something else that settled in his gaze, something unreadable but heavy, like a growing suspicion.
"I see..." he said slowly. "I'm Lyon. Lyon Saphir."
Lyon led the way to a small shop some distance from the main shopping districts of Era. The sign above the door was a six point star — no, a snowflake, in a silver paint like Gray's sword-cross emblem. Maybe it was a crafter tradition, or had some hidden meaning. Perhaps Erza would ask when she got back to Fiore.
Inside was a little larger than Gray's shop, wider, with a single open showroom. Pedestals stood along the walls and hooks were hanging from the ceiling. Mounted on them were animals — made of wood and metal, jewels and feathers, and many other materials that Erza couldn't identify. Pausing in front of an elaborately plumaged bird, intricate gold design gleaming between the feathers, Erza reached out cautiously. She jumped a little as the bird suddenly moved, spreading its wings and bowing.
"Surprised? They're not just plain tools," Lyon said, smirking over his shoulder. "My specialty is automatons — dolls that move on their own according to their purpose. Unlike golems, they don't need to be directly controlled by the master's magic." With the same face Gray always made when asked to craft more dresses, he added, "Of course, I can make golems too."
"So crafting can do this too," Erza mused, tilting her head to get a better look at the bird doll. It mimicked her motion, curving its long neck gracefully. She could just make out the glint of tiny gears in its wings and inside the latticed body, but its movement were smooth and only slightly stilted.
"If you know how," Lyon said, his tone a little off. "So, the guy who made your sword, he specializes in just weapons? It's... pretty high class. Working silverite is... rare." He hesitated, his expression strange. "About him... is he..." But he trailed off without finishing his question and only shook his head. "Nevermind. I'm going to go see what I have in stock."
He hurried away before Erza could say anything. She stared after him blankly. Asking a bunch of questions, not even finishing the last, and then hurrying off without waiting for a single answer... Maybe crafters were all weird, like Gray.
Shaking her head, she turned back to the works on display. Not all of them were animal automatons — several shelves held statues of plants or abstract shapes, and Erza wondered if they somehow moved too. It was hard to believe this was considered the same as what Gray did. Then, again, comparing dresses and swords, Gray's works weren't particularly similar to each other either.
What would he think of Lyon's creations? Erza could only think that they were beautiful if delicate, but Gray would probably list off every aspect of the creation method. He'd find it interesting, wouldn't he?
Smiling suddenly, Erza nodded to herself. Practical and personal — a good gift.
"Here, this is most of it," Lyon called out as he returned from the back of the shop, holding out a surprisingly small parcel. "There's a couple things I don't have, but that's because you can't get them at all out here in the west. I wouldn't waste time trying anywhere else around the city."
Erza nodded, accepting it carefully. It was heavy, almost making her fumble. "How much is it?" she asked. "Also, I'll take one of your tools. I need another moment to decide which one."
"I'm surprised you're interested," Lyon said. "You don't look like the type to use artificial familiars... or want a fancy decoration."
"It's not for me," she said simply. "It's a gift, for the one who made my sword. I think he'll like it."
Lyon's lips thinned and he seemed to be on the verge of asking something, only to hesitate again. "If you're buying him a present, you must be close," he compromised. "Or just politeness?"
"He's my friend," Erza agreed easily.
"That's... that's good then," Lyon said, his tone strange again. "And the sword he made, it works well for you?"
Smiling, Erza nodded. "It's just right." Instinctively, her hand lifted to touch the hilt of Heaven's Wheel. "Not just this one. All the things he's made have been amazing. They've protected me every time. It's thanks to him that I've been able to come this far as a knight."
She'd said the same to Gray, before, and Erza was happy to repeat it. There was a warmth in her chest that accompanied the words, like a proof their sincerity — the proof of their friendship.
Lyon nodded slowly. "That's... how a crafter should be," he said. "If he's figured that out..." He sighed heavily. For a moment, his gaze grew distant as he was absorbed in his thoughts, but in the end he just shook his head and turned away. "Here," he said, pulling an object from one of the shelves. "Take this."
Shifting the parcel into the crook of one arm, Erza cupped the item in the palm of her other hand. It was a pale white crystal, which she almost mistook for a lacrima at first, carved in the shape of a flower and set in a silvery metal frame. As Erza held it, the flower opened, spreading its petals, and began to emit a soft glow from its core.
"It's a lamp," Lyon explained. "Out here, there's a lot of lacrimas that are easier to carve, but it's not like that in Isvan. So everyone uses crafted lamps there instead. This shape... it's something like a trademark of my... our teacher. It's just a guess, but I think that friend of yours will like it."
Erza's thoughts had been along the lines of something small but complicated — easy to transport back to Fiore, but interesting for Gray to study. A lamp seemed awfully plain, but...
"Isvan? That's perfect then," Erza decided, smiling.
'Isvan, huh...' Lyon thought. 'Then it's definitely...' With that craftsmanship, it couldn't be anyone else. He would have recognized the style of that silverite sword anywhere. 'So he ended up in Fiore.' His hand clenched for a moment, but a deep breath — and the surge of ugly rage-sorrow unraveled.
'In the end, a crafter doesn't decide how their creations are used,' Ur had told them. 'True, you need to think about what you're making. There's things that should never exist... But the final choice isn't with you. You can only give people the tools. What they do with them is their decision.'
Gray had made something that should not have existed. But Ur was the one who chose to use it.
'Crafters aren't like legendary heroes,' Ur had also said. 'We're not remember for what we do, only for what we leave behind. Our legacy is what we create.' And then she'd grinned, ruffling their hair. 'And of course, our cute little students!'
Despite that, Ur had become a hero. The rumors had been trickling in, only a little behind Lyon, of the one who managed to destroy a demon. That... wasn't how Ur wanted to be remembered, Lyon thought, not the legacy she'd wanted to leave behind.
Coming to Era, becoming a master, doing the work of crafter, those were the only ways Lyon could carry on her true legacy.
If Gray was doing the same thing, then... Lyon sighed, making a frustrated, petulant face. 'Master Ur, you better be proud,' he thought rebelliously. 'It's not like I'm going to forgive him, but I'll allow this much.'
Erza closed her hand, making the flower close as well, becoming a simple, easy to carry teardrop shape. Perfect for travel too, it really was a great gift. "How much will it be?" she asked, looking back to Lyon.
"Just take it, on the house," he muttered, crossing his arms and scowling.
"If I don't buy it, it's not a gift from me," Erza protested.
Lyon threw up his hands. "Then take it for five jewel!"
Erza was about to protest that as well — 'I don't need a discount,' she wanted to say, but a sense of familiarity made her pause and stifle a smile. That was what she'd said to Gray the first time, wasn't it? Looking back, she realized now that he'd given her one anyway. He certainly hadn't charged her the full price of what his time and work was worth.
She had ended up ruining the vest he'd made when it took a blow for her on patrol, and she had cracked the blade against the ghost dragon under Mercurius — but the sword still hung on the wall of her quarters, an important memento, even if it could not be used any longer.
This time, she didn't need to be tricked into accepting the kindness she was given. Whatever Lyon's reasons, she would just be grateful.
"Okay," Erza said simply. "Thank you."
"I didn't think it would be this hard," Gray admitted, his words muffled as he dropped his head into his arms. "I just don't know what to get her!"
Hisui made a vague sound of encouragement, though it was fortunate he couldn't see her — her eyes were glinting with amusement at his predicament.
"I thought it'd be easy," Gray went on. "I'd just make her something. But..."
But he already made Erza things all the time. Weapons, armor, even small useful items, Erza already had all of those because Gray had made them for her. And they were all quality works, it wasn't as if he'd held back. He supposed he could create something more specialized, imbued with a specific element or property, but to be frank, Erza wasn't at the level where she could make use of that yet and she had no need for it either.
And, well, Gray wanted the gift to be something special, unique. Not just another armament, but something that stood out.
Groaning, he banged his head lightly against the surface of the table. "I thought I'd have more time to figure it out, but she's back already," he muttered. "And I have all those orders for the New Year parties..." He let out a sound of disgust.
For a moment, Hisui struggled to hide her smile, but her sympathy won over her amusement. "Maybe you're looking at it the wrong way," she suggested. "Rather than what would be useful to her, you could give her something she doesn't have."
Gray turned his head fractionally to peek at her sideways. "...Like what?" he said sulkily. "She's got everything, that's the problem."
"You two... She has all the practical things, but there's many things Erza doesn't have," Hisui huffed a little. "For example, any nice bedding. I asked the maids — she sleeps on a bare mattress, with just one old blanket. And it's not like she'll get anything nice for herself, even if her stipend should more than cover it..."
She had a point there. Erza wouldn't spend money on anything "frivolous" like a simple creature comfort. Gray was pretty sure she still didn't own a single casual outfit. Even the blouse and skirt she had taken to wearing under her armor had come secondhand from the maids.
"So... a dress? Something frilly?" he guessed, trying to force down his distasteful expression.
He was more than sick of dresses already, with all the orders he'd received for the coming holiday parties and dances. But if it was for Erza's sake...
"This is just my personal feelings, but..." Hisui began hesitantly. "If I could be given anything at all, I think... memories are the best. I've always received many things, but for me, what I always treasured most was the time my parents spent with me on New Year's. Even though we have so many duties, Papa and Mama always made sure that we celebrated together, as a family, if only for a little while."
A frown had formed on Gray's face as he listened, but it wasn't from disagreement or distaste. Rather, he couldn't help remembering his own family and the holidays they had spent together. Even with Ur, she had insisted that they take a day off from training, despite Gray's sullen protests. Back then, he'd considered it a waste. But now... those were precious memories for him too.
"I feel that... Erza doesn't have too many good memories, you know?" Hisui went, her expression pensive. "It's not just being too practical. She doesn't know about things like giving gifts or holidays, and it's not like she has a family to teach her. If there's anything we can give her, I think... happy memories would be the best."
Gray couldn't disagree, but he made an uncertain face. "So... you mean..."
"You should spend the day with Erza," Hisui explained plainly, smiling. "I asked Commander Kama to give her the day off, but I will be in audiences for most it. So you should go have fun together, just the two of you. Go out and see the city, eat something nice... things like that. Celebrate!"
'But I don't know anything about the city either,' Gray wanted to say. But what kind of excuse was that? He could see the logic behind what Hisui was saying. He thought the same thing, about Erza.
If he didn't know anything, then he just had to find out. If this was really Erza's first New Year celebration like they thought, he'd just have to make it absolutely amazing. ...Somehow.
In fact, Hisui had considered that point. Gray handled himself better than Erza, but he was a complete shut in too, when you got down to it. From her perspective, doing it this way was like getting two birds with one stone. It was just too bad she couldn't go with them — or at least observe the results.
"Celebrate, okay..." Gray said distractedly, already turning over plans in his mind. "Thanks."
He left with an absent wave, completely missing Hisui's slightly smug and amused smile. It wasn't until he was halfway back to his shop that it occurred to him...
'Just the two of us, going around the city... Isn't that basically... a date?!'
Not knowing anything about holiday traditions or countdowns, it hadn't been Erza's intention to stay up late on New Year's Eve. Finishing up her nightly exercises, stretches, and meditation, she had crawled into her bed — into the flower-patterned new sheets that the maids had delivered, with a note from the princess — and settled down with a soft sigh.
Then, the fireworks started.
The low whistle of the first rising flare had made Erza tense and sit up, and the bang of the explosion almost had her reaching for her sword, but the flash of light and color outside her window made her pause. In the distance, a chorus of cheers swelled, mixing with another whistle and another bang.
Fire danced across the sky, leaving Erza staring mesmerized. She didn't quite understand what was happening, but no one else seemed to see anything worth panicking about. No, the distant cheering rose again as a bouquet of fire-flowers burst to life, glimmering for several long moments before fading away again.
Pulling her knees to her chest and wrapping her thick, soft blanket around herself, Erza had slowly settled on her bed, her eyes never leaving the window and the lightshow on the other side.
Crocus continued to shine all through the night. Erza wasn't sure when she had finally drifted off, but it had been well past midnight — as the clocks struck twelve, the sky had been lit up bright as day, like a white night in the far south. It was also well into morning when she finally woke up, groggy from oversleep, the rest of the palace already in full bustle.
She had been given the day off, per Hisui's request, and she took her time stumbling out of bed and getting ready. Sunlight streamed into her empty room, and Erza again wondered what she was supposed to do with all that space. Every member of the Garou Knights was considered equal in rank to a captain in the Katou order, and each was granted personal quarters, but Erza's had remained almost entirely unused, except for the necessities of her daily life and duties.
Looking around now, a few more frivolous things had snuck in without her noticing. The pretty pastel bedding that Hisui had given her, the first sword Gray had modified for her hanging on the wall, the dagger Lambert had handed her before departing to visit his old comrade for the holidays — she ran her fingers over the last, smiling faintly.
A knock on the door made Erza glance over in surprise.
"Erza? Are you awake?" It was Hisui's voice calling out from the other side.
"Yes, Your Highness," Erza answered by rote as she opened the door — and blinked in surprise.
Hisui was decked out in a white gown so large and puffy that she looked about to float away. Hair piled on top of her head and held in place by an elaborate diadem, earring and necklace glinting against her skin, she was obviously ready for the string of public and private receptions that accompanied every major holiday, New Year's more than any other.
She looked very much like a princess, certainly, but she almost didn't look like Hisui.
"That's good, that's good," Hisui said quickly. "I'm sorry, today is busier than expected, so I won't have any time free until evening. But please don't go anywhere. There's... a surprise. Just wait a little while, alright?"
"A surprise?" Erza repeated.
"Your Highness, the next audience!" a servant called out from down the hall.
"I'll be right there!" Hisui called back. "Just wait a little! He'll be here soon!"
She was already waving over her shoulder and hurrying away before Erza even had a chance to reply.
Left standing alone in the hallway, Erza suddenly realized something. "Ah," she made a sound of consternation. "I forgot to give her the present..."
Left to her own devices, Erza wandered the castle aimlessly. How long was she supposed to wait? And who was she waiting for, exactly? She didn't think she liked surprises much.
"I want to go see Gray already," Erza muttered rebelliously, glaring out at the empty training fields.
In her eagerness, she'd taken his gift with her, planning to take off as soon as this mysterious surprise was done with. She hadn't expected it, but she found herself looking forward to seeing his reaction when she gave him her present. Would he smile? He'd probably turn red again too. He got flustered over the oddest things, but there was something very amusing about it.
A smile tugging at her lips, she tilted her head back and looked up at the pale winter sky.
The tentative sound of her name made her turn in surprise. "Gray? Why are you here?" she asked reflectively, staring at him as he shuffled his feet awkwardly and hesitated to approach.
"The princess didn't tell you?" he mumbled, looking everywhere except Erza.
Erza blinked. "Then… you're the one I'm supposed to be waiting for?" she guessed. "Why? I could have just gone to your place instead." She huffed a little, perhaps somewhat disappointed that this was the surprise. It was only surprising because it was so unsurprising.
"Guh…" Gray made an awkward sound. "Well, it's… I mean… It's about what I'm giving you, for New Years… It's, uh…"
'Why did I ever listen her?' Gray thought. 'This is a terrible idea! This is stupid!'
And it was too late to back down. Erza was watching him an intent, narrow-eyed gaze now, and she wouldn't let it go until she found out the truth.
"It's, uh, not a thing," he pressed on, squeezing his eyes shut as if that would help or he could pretend that this wasn't really happening. "It's…" A date. Except it wasn't, of course. "It's a day out!" Gray finally blurted out. "We're going out for the day! We're going to see a show and then out to eat, then to the shopping district, and then down to the river! You're getting a whole bunch of new experiences! That's your present! Got it?!"
Once he started, the words just tumbled out, until he was yelling aggressive by the end. Even Erza looked taken aback, but only for a moment.
"Got it," she agreed seriously.
"Well... good," Gray replied helplessly. "S-so let's go!"
"Wait," Erza called out, making him freeze in his tracks.
Cold sweat broke out across his back. What if she refused? This was stupid, Hisui was stupid, he was stupid to have ever even considered this...
"This is for you," she said, holding out a small parcel wrapped in deep blue cloth. "Open it."
She placed it gently in his cupped hands and watched as he peeled away the cloth wrapping with an expression of intent concentration. His eyebrows began to rise as the crystal flower inside was revealed, only to draw together uncertainly at the full shape of it.
"This is..." Gray murmured, running his fingertips over the clear petals and the silver clasps. The flower opened smoothly under his touch, a faint glow appearing within. "It's just like Master Ur's."
He wasn't smiling at all. He wasn't turning red and getting embarrassed either. It was Erza's turn to feel a sudden swell of dread.
Had she made a mistake?
"I... I got it in Era," she blurted out. "From another crafter's shop, he said it's a kind of lamp they use in Isvan, so..." She trailed off, wringing her hands nervously. "Do, do you like it?"
Gray didn't answer for a long moment, ducking his head so his expression was hidden. His lips moved soundlessly as he tried to form an answer. "Y-Yeah," he finally managed, closing his hands around the flower lamp. "I like it. I like it a lot. Thank you, it's a great gift."
The uncertain silence from Erza was clearly disbelieving, and Gray forced himself to raise his head and smile. He wasn't lying — he did like it, or he would, once his feelings settled down a little. He had just been taken by surprise. Later, he would be glad to have something that reminded him of home and of Master Ur.
"Thank you," Gray repeated, more firmly. "Now, let's go! It's my turn! I'm going to make sure you get the best date— er, day possible!"
And, grabbing Erza's hand, dragged her along without waiting for her response.
Being the one following was strange, Erza thought. But at least he had cheered up, so wherever they were going and whatever they were doing was fine by her. It wasn't the happy smile or bashful look she had been expecting, but his determined expression suited Gray pretty well too.
Unnoticed, she smiled at his back.
A show, lunch at a popular restaurant, some window shopping, and finally down to the river — that had been Gray's plan for their day out.
He hadn't wanted to compromise or risk missing out on anything, creating a full program with the same single-minded dedication he put into his magical creations. However, he had forgotten to factor in one important point.
Given that he was a near hermit who would go for days without interacting with another human being, Gray had vastly overestimated his endurance for social-type activities.
'I'm so tired... It's no good, I can't go on anymore,' Gray thought, slumping over as he trailed after Erza — who, of course, looked as energetic as she had that morning. Sneaking a glance at her, he shook his head. 'No, no, I've gotta hang in there. It's just one more thing. Once we get to the river, it's just sitting and watching the scenery. I can do this...'
He straightened quickly as Erza glanced back. His awkward, forced smile earned him a questioning look. "Do you want some?" Erza guessed, holding out her strawberry and cream crepe.
"No, I'm good," Gray said. Tapping at the corner of his mouth, he mumbled, "You got a little right here..."
It took a moment for her to understand his meaning, before she reached up to wipe away the smudge of cream on her cheek.
"Is it gone?"
"Y-yeah," Gray stammered, looking away quickly. "Looks like the river is just ahead. Do you want to rent a boat?" According to his young noblewoman customers, that was one of the most popular attractions in the capital. The boats carried colorful lanterns, and watching the lights reflect off the water in the evening was supposed to be a peaceful, enchanting sight — and the sun was setting, just in time.
As the buildings opened up to the riverbank in front of them, the scene was indeed beautiful, a myriad of rainbow lights bobbing gently across the water in the gathering dusk.
A smile tugging at her lips, Erza said, "No, it's alright. Can we just watch from here?"
"Sure," Gray said, smiling back.
The riverbank was full of people, passing by or sitting, but after a few minutes, they found an empty slope where they settled down — Gray with a barely stifled sigh of relief. The boats, large and small, drifted past in the front of them, the chatter and cheering of the crowds flowing and ebbing in the distance.
"Did... did you have a good time?" Gray asked quietly, as Erza finished off the last of her crepe.
"I did," she said simply, turning to him with a smile. "Thank you. It's a great gift. I'll treasure these memories forever."
Memories were important, after all. Sometimes, they were the only thing that couldn't be taken away, and one day they might become the only thing you had left. 'I'll treasure them,' Erza repeated, to herself. 'These warm memories of my first celebration...'
"That's good," Gray sighed in relief. "I wasn't sure if it would be enough. It doesn't feel like a real winter without ice skating, but the lake and the river don't freeze over at all, apparently. The west is so weird."
"Ice skating?" Erza repeated.
"Yeah, it's when a lake freezes enough that you can walk on it, but instead of walking you put on skates, so you can skate across it, like this," Gray explained, gesturing vividly to portray the smooth glide of the skating motion. "There's lots of things you can do in a proper winter. Like skiing, or snowball fights, or building snow castles..."
He pantomimed all of it — or at least, Erza supposed that was what he was doing, though she didn't really recognize the motions at all. His expression was unsuitably serious, making her smile slowly turn into an amused grin.
"But it doesn't even snow here!" Gray concluded, with sulky frustration. "What kind of winter is that?"
"It's snowing," Erza noted, glancing up toward the darkened sky.
The face Gray made at her was priceless — a wounded glare as he assumed he was being teased. He was, but not the way he thought. A single snowflake floated down between them, then another, and another. Slowly, silently, snow was beginning to fall across Crocus.
"I don't believe this," Gray muttered, palming his face. "I give up!"
As he dropped backward onto the slope in defeat, Erza couldn't hold back anymore. Without meaning to, she burst out laughing.
'She's laughing... It's the first time I've seen her laugh,' Gray thought, his eyes widening in surprise as he stared up at her helplessly. He couldn't look away, even as a blush spread across his cheeks and his heart thudded painfully in his chest. 'This is really bad,' he thought. 'This is really, really bad. I think I might really...'
"O-oh, that's right," he blurted out, finally managing to tear his eyes away. "I forgot to say it before... Happy New Year, Erza. Let's make even more good memories this year, okay?"
"Happy New Year," she echoed back. "I'll be counting on you, Gray."
That was the first day of X778 — a memory neither would ever forget.
X686 - The "adventurer" band Fairy Tail is founded. (As canon.)
X696 - Makarov born. (As canon.)
X736 - Fairy Tail is disbanded by agreement of all current members. (This is when Makarov became second guild master in canon.)
X761 - Laxus born. (As canon.)
X765 - Hisui born. Erza born (assumed). (Hisui's age is not canonically given, but because of the seven year gap, this is probably not accurate.)
X766 - Gray born. (As canon.)
X772 - Tenrou academy founded by Makarov. (This is when Cana joined the guild in canon.)
X774 - Deliora appears for the first time, destroying Gray's hometown. (As canon.)
X776 - The phantom tower is destroyed; Erza washes up on the Fiore coast. (This is when the Tower of Heaven rebellion took place in canon.)
X777 - Ur defeats Deliora in Brago (winter); Gray comes Fiore (spring); Erza passes the trials to become a knight (summer). (In canon, Gray apparently studies under Ur for less than a year. Since that would be stretching an already suspicious timeline, I changed it to be about three years of tutelage.)
X784 - to be determined