She'd been paying a lot more attention to her hair. Always brushing it with such tender care. And her smile… lately, it'd been shyer in nature. She'd been changing, metamorphosizing, and not really for the better. At least… he didn't think so. She was changing for that man, changing because of that man, and all he could do was watch from the sidelines.
"How do I look?"
… Really, that'd been the last straw for him. She'd been growing so distant from them, and suddenly his opinion mattered? It wasn't fair.
"Why bother asking me? We all know who you're doing this for. Go and ask him if you're so worried."
It hurt. Kami, the pain was excruciating.
He didn't move to dodge or block her punch. It's not like the physical pain would be any worse. So like usual, he went sailing across the room and into the wall. What was different was that he didn't move to get back up immediately. He just sat there, and acted like the punch had knocked him out.
It was better than continuing their "conversation."
The rain was coming down pretty hard. Thankfully, they had gotten back to Natsu's house before it became a torrential downpour, although it was a pretty minor thing to be relieved about, in the grand scheme of things. The Dragon Slayer's body was littered with cuts, slashes, and bruises; his clothes were in tatters; and the only reason he'd made it back to his house at all was because Mira was shouldering him.
Yet it wasn't the injuries that were hindering Natsu. He was still very capable of moving on his own power. A single glance into his eyes would tell you the real problem… he wasn't mentally there. Mira knew exactly where his mind was, and she bit her lower lip as Meredy closed the door behind them. As gently as she could, she guided the Dragon Slayer over to an empty chair and sat him down. As expected, Natsu did nothing. Said nothing. Just sat limply there, staring off into space, while Mira and Meredy looked on in concern.
"He's… He's going to be okay, right?" The pinkette asked nervously. Truth be told, Natsu hadn't been unresponsive like this in the beginning. Looking at him now, Meredy wished he'd stayed alarmed and panicked; at least then he was talking, even if it was just to yell at them to stay away. Now he just looked so empty, like his fire had been snuffed out. His Magic, his personality, everything.
Mira's gut reaction was to answer yes, of course he would be. This was Natsu, of course he'd bounce right back. Unfortunately, Mira knew him better than that. Natsu might've been resilient, but there were some things that even he needed time to get over. Lisanna's "death." Igneel's death. It was little surprise that he was shook up about this as well; Erza might not have died, but she was gravely wounded, and Natsu blamed himself for it. He said that it was his own two hands that put her in that state – it didn't matter if he was in "control" or not. Mirajane couldn't even remember how they'd convinced him to let them help; after a lot of screaming, Natsu just lost the will to fight back.
Well. It was more like he was afraid of fighting back. Natsu saw firsthand what he did to Erza, and he didn't want to hurt them. That was probably the reason he gave up resisting… because none of them were giving up on him, and the choice was getting taken out of his hands again. Mira hated doing that to him, but she wasn't about to let Natsu do anything hasty when Erza was more than likely going to make a speedy recovery. Mira felt this situation was her fault. She had a duty to help repair the damage, as much as she could.
"He'll be… fine." The silver-haired woman replied, her voice reflecting the doubt and worry in her eyes as she stared at the Dragon Slayer. "It's going to take some time, but Natsu will come back. He will…"
He has to.
Meredy chewed her lower lip and decided to take Mira's word for it. Earlier, she had used her Maguilty Sense to see how Natsu was holding up, and she didn't exactly like the emotions she found. He wasn't feeling suicidal by any stretch of the imagination, but there was no telling what he was going to do with all that sadness and self-loathing.
The Demon strode forward again until he was standing a little to Erza's left. When he spoke again, it was scarcely above a whisper, and the four words rendered the scarlet knight speechless.
"Natsu Dragneel loves you."
There was no way Erza could have anticipated those words. Natsu… loved her? As in loved, loved?The romantic type of love? Not the love felt for their Fairy Tail family, or close friends? Taking a side glance at END… Yeah, Erza could tell that was what the Demon was implying. His smirk was downright sadistic, and his eyes danced with dark delight.
To say that Erza felt lost would be a gross understatement. In all the years they'd spent together, not once had Natsu seemed to indicate that he felt anything special in regards to her. The two of them and Gray shared a bond that most found unusual; and hell, even just the two of them… Erza wasn't a total fool. To belittle the bond they shared and call it mere 'friendship,' that hardly captured the essence of it at all. They had friends outside the Guild, and Natsu obviously wasn't on that level. Their Guildmates were more like family than mere friends, but for Erza, both Gray and Natsu transcended even that. For example, if Lucy, Gajeel, or Wendy were to die, Erza would be immensely saddened. She would grieve, but eventually she would move on, because they wouldn't want her to wallow in misery.
But Natsu and Gray…? If she were to lose either, or, Kami forbid, both of them, the void left in her heart would be immeasurable. Erza would sooner lose a limb than go a single day without them. Especially Natsu. That's why she'd taken it so hard when she found out that she'd grown distant from the Dragon Slayer, that she'd been hurting him… Erza couldn't pinpoint a single word to describe what Natsu meant to her; even the term 'best friend' felt like it didn't do him justice. Erza felt like their relationship was that complicated, like they were literally on the line between friendship and a relationship, staying perfectly centered on it. So when she hears that Natsu may hold feelings for her, a part of the scarlet knight isn't surprised in the least. Of course he developed feelings for her, just like she would have for him, if not for Jellal's return… It definitely demystified why Natsu was taking this situation so hard, and it made her feel all that much worse.
Even so… Erza could not help but narrow her eyes suspiciously. Though he wore Natsu's face, the one currently taunting her wasn't the Dragon Slayer she grew up with. This was Zeref's ultimate creation that was speaking. Erza knew Natsu, but not END. For all she knew, everything the Demon just ranted could've been a ploy to place a wedge between her and Natsu. END made it no secret that he hated her; he would say anything to hurt her. But the Natsu she knew… Just how much was truth, and how much was fiction? Erza had never known Natsu to hold a grudge against anyone, even people he'd fought to the death against! For Natsu's sake, she wouldn't take this Demon's words at face value. Until she got confirmation from Natsu himself, she would take anything END said to be lies. To do otherwise would be akin to betraying the Dragon Slayer that she knew and treasured.
"Heh… So it's going to be like that, eh…" END gave a malevolent smirk as he allowed the 'mighty' Titania to Requip into her Flame Empress Armor; though Ikaruga had destroyed it, Erza had long since reforged it, and even upgraded it so that it could channel Natsu's Dragon Slayer Magic. He would've been disappointed if Erza hadn't eventually snapped out of her lethargy, masochistic though she was. True, he'd wanted her to sit down and shut up for their little talk… But they were done talking. To get the full sadistic glee out of their impending fight, he wanted her worked up. Killing her while she beat herself up would've been a treat, but it also would've brought the wrath of Fairy Tail down on him, and they had that one Devil Slayer amongst their ranks… Fullbuster.
END was in no shape to beat them all down, even with the boost he got from that creature – one that he thought had gone extinct ages ago, but grateful to nonetheless for giving him the chance to stretch his legs. He'd need his Book so that he could access all of his Curses if he wanted to annihilate them, and the Fairies cleverly had it hidden away somewhere. Besides which, he didn't feel like slaughtering the Fairy Tail Guild. Maybe rough certain people up, like Titania here, but outright kill any of them, no. The only person he'd ever wanted to kill was his brother, and that had been more because of how Zeref had written his Book than any volition on his part. He didn't have any 'affection' for this Guild like Dragneel did, but they weren't boring, and it wasn't exactly a small feat to entertain a Demon, much less one of his caliber.
He lacked his Curses, but that didn't mean he had to resort to the Dragon Slayer's Magic for this fight…
"What… are those?" Erza asked warily as END's fists ignited with black flames. It wasn't hard to deduce that these fires were much more powerful than Dragon Slaying Magic. She could feel the raw heat radiating from his fists, even from this distance.
"Hnn…" END cocked his head at the knight. Instead of answering verbally, he lunged forward and punched the blade as it was held up in self-defense. For a few moments, Erza dared to hope that was enough to counter END's attack… unfortunately, the way the Etherious's lips curled up triumphantly proved that it was not enough. A hissing noise precipitated the blade snapping in two, and END's fist continued like it hadn't been stalled. Erza winced as the punch connected, and she proceeded to tumble along the ground from the blunt impact. As she skidded to a halt, END kept his outstretched arm in place and stared Erza down dully. "Oh, come now… You've said it yourself so many times that Natsu is capable of surpassing you. I'm just the culmination of that potential, because I already lived a – rather short – life before Zeref and Igneel took all of that experience and power away. Those tales of rampages weren't exaggerated."
Erza exhaled calmly and righted herself. END was a shrewd opponent to not reveal any information about his Magic. She was able to learn a little, though – those black flames were powerful, to be able to pierce her Flame Empress sword like that. Erza had endured countless flame-type attacks before, but somehow END's Magic trumped all of them. Much more potent than Dragon Slayer Magic… much hotter, too. She could still feel a searing pain where END's blow had struck her, and a nasty burn mark on her abdomen to show for it. Flame Empress Armor wasn't going to cut it.
As for his physical strength… he hit like a tank. It was true. But that was really no different from Natsu.
"C'mon, now!" END sneered as he changed his stance and surged forward with black flames shooting out from the soles of his feet.
Erza was more prepared for him this time, busting out the Adamantine Armor. Yet when she raised the shields in defense, there was no brutal collision. Rather, a column of black flames rose up before the upper half of it took the crude form of a dragon head and neck. A neck that proved to be fairly flexible, as the structure made a downward curve toward her, and the gaping maw came surging down on her. She Requipped into her Flight Armor, which got her out of dodge in the nick of time, but gave her a prime view of the destruction left in the wake of that attack. A rough circle was now carved out on the severely charred and uneven earth, and there was still a raging inferno behind END as he stared her down.
Erza didn't know how, but it was clear that the strongest Etherious could control flames fluidly, just like Juvia with water. It was an elemental manipulation far above Natsu's, as far as she could tell, and she had barely seen anything yet. END had not been kidding when he boasted of his prowess…
'The others will be here soon… I have to end this now, or he will hurt them. If for nothing else than to slight me.' Erza grimaced with determination and brought out her next Armor. Not only did she have to do this for them, but for Natsu as well. He was going to be devastated over this.
"Show me more of that delicious despair, Erza! Go on!"
Erza tensed as END was suddenly right next to her, a giant wheel of black flames rotating at blinding speeds to his right. The knight attempted to strike at him with a sword that unleashed a devastating whirlpool from out of nowhere, but the Demon's grin only grew more demented as he was propelled forward and away from her. Erza thought she was in the clear for now, but she missed three embers of black flames that floated along the ground and formed a triangle around her. When they were in position, END had them explode like a volcano would, and Erza wailed as she took the blast full-on.
END landed in a crouch not far from Erza and allowed his wheel of black flames to die down. His sharp teeth gleamed as he watched the "mighty Titania" crumple to the ground, powerless. He'd waited a long time to make her suffer like this. Too many times, this woman had stabbed his weaker self's emotions and twisted the knife just living her life. Dragneel was too caring to do anything about it, but END had absorbed all those dark emotions that Dragneel tried to bury.
He absolutely despised this woman, what she did. The one person he despised even more than this bitch was the man she had chosen over him; and END was confident the day would come soon when he would get his chance to make him suffer, too. But for now, he would settle for pounding Erza into the dust. It would give him a great workout.
Shakily, the scarlet knight got back onto her knees.
"I won't… give up…!" Erza barked forcefully. "Natsu is my friend, and I won't just let you use his body like this!"
END merely scoffed.
"I told you…!" He scowled as the knight cut him off.
"Maybe you are the same person, in a sense. You are Natsu's past." There was a hardness to her eyes as Erza spoke, and END's scowl only deepened as she continued her tirade. "But since then, he's lived a life of new experiences! We don't know him as the ultimate Etherious. Natsu is the son of Igneel, the most destructive member of our Guild! He destroyed Acnologia, and he can most certainly beat you!"
END seemed contemplative for several moments before straightening up and extending his arms in a gracious gesture.
"Alright. Since you're so tenacious, I'll give this one to you for free!" He grinned darkly. "Strike me down now. One all-out attack is all I'll give you. If you don't aim to kill, I can't guarantee your 'friend' will gain control of his body back, and I will definitely aim to kill you in retaliation. It will take the both of you to 'win' against me. But just how far does your trust go? What happens if you really do kill Natsu? The choice is yours."
Erza gritted her teeth at the choice presented to her. She couldn't surrender here. She had resolved to fight until Natsu came to his senses again… But she couldn't risk his life either. No matter how dangerous END was, her friend was still somewhere in there. What's more, attempting to kill him would dishearten Natsu even more…
But if she didn't put everything into this attack… They might not get another chance for Natsu to regain control. And END would try to kill her – she didn't doubt that the Demon would.
'Natsu…' Erza clenched her fists in determination before Requipping into her Nakagami Armor. If this was going to be their one chance, she wasn't going to wallow in doubts. And she certainly wasn't going to begin doubting Natsu now.
She readied her attack…
Cobra rolled his eye as he watched Jellal sit at Erza's bedside. There was nothing strange or different about this… and that was just it. Jellal was being himself. Nobody needed his helpless guilt complex right now.
"Those lines on your forehead are gonna be permanent if ya keep frowning like that…" Cobra wisecracked.
Jellal didn't even twitch or anything.
"Erik. You should go home." Jellal eventually mustered a reply, not looking up from his view of Erza.
Cobra just snorted.
"And leave you to your 'woe is me' thoughts? Yeah, because those are so helpful." That got a flinch from the blue-haired man. Cobra let out a sigh again. "Punishing yourself isn't going to help, Jellal. Maybe we all bear some responsibility for making this happen, but I kind of bear the most because I knew about END and didn't say anything."
That got a reaction, and Cobra could only stare dryly as Jellal glared at him heatedly.
"You knew?!" Jellal could barely hold back his rage. This deserved answers, and Cobra was going to give them one way or the other.
"Yeah. Because Natsu and END aren't 'one and the same' like you might think, dumbass!" Cobra drawled. "Look. It wasn't just because Natsu asked me not to say anything. It's because I know about your 'mission' and how friggin' conflicted you were going to be after learning about this. It was complicated enough with that 'love triangle' you guys had, and I wasn't gonna make the situation any messier."
Jellal could feel his throat tighten. His fists clenched but he did nothing.
"I deserved to know…!" He eventually spat out.
"You 'deserve' a shrink…" Cobra sarcastically quipped. Jellal emotionally gestured at Erza.
"Erza's in this state because of…!" Cobra cut him off sharply.
"Uh-uh. Don't go there, pal. I might've made it worse keeping Natsu's secret, but Erza put her life on the line to snap Flamebrain out of it. No one's to 'blame.' Even END is… complicated." He grunted at what an understatement that was. Even he was still mulling over the thoughts that guy had running through his head.
Jellal seethed but sat back down wordlessly. He stared dourly at Erza again. His hands occasionally balled up into fists but then relaxed soon after.
"Just accept you're pissed already…" Cobra sighed after silence had lapsed for several minutes. "END did this to Erza, and you want to fight him on her behalf. That's the real reason you're beating yourself up over this. To work up the nerve to do it."
Jellal bristled at the Dragon Slayer 'reading his mind' again, and he abruptly stood up.
"I'm going to get some air." He briskly replied and stormed out.
"Don't do anything brash…" Cobra warned him, and heaved a sigh when the blue-haired mage shut the door behind him.
Wasn't the leader supposed to babysit, not the other way around? Not that he was part of Crime Sorciere anymore…
"Natsu Dragneel loves you."
He'd really said that. He'd said that to her face, point blank. Natsu didn't know what was worse – that he confessed to Erza, or what came afterward. Hell, even before he confessed… he'd vented so much…
In hindsight, it didn't matter which was worse. He'd hurt Erza. Physically. Emotionally. He'd spat on their bond. And he couldn't have done anything about it. But he couldn't claim innocence because he was powerless; he was END, and END was him. 'Different personality' or not, END was his responsibility. His past. His skeleton in the closet. Natsu thought he could keep the Demon in check, but this incident demonstrated END had gotten a leg up on him. He could take control at any time. If Natsu wanted to make amends at all, get END under control, he needed to go away for a while. Vent as much Magic as possible.
Once that was done, maybe he could come back. Maybe then he could face Erza. And Mira. And all their friends. He could even face Jellal, and get their "issues" sorted out. But not now. He was far too volatile.
Natsu set out from his home with this in mind, a cloak draped over his form, and a note clenched in his right hand. At the very least, Mira had to know about his decision, but he wasn't going to bug her about it. She'd stayed by him for hours after the incident, and had only left to check on Erza when he insisted he'd be fine. It was a lie, and he had a feeling they both knew it, but she'd left all the same. Freed, Jellal, Meredy, and Cobra had taken Erza to the Guild infirmary, but Mira had been rather insistent he needed somebody after what happened. After all, he'd only regained control after Erza was on the ground and at his mercy; she'd known it was him from just one look in his eyes, and she knew the mindset he'd be in.
Mira was perceptive like that. One of the few outside of Team Natsu that could understand him. Empathize with him. That made him feel somewhat guilty that he wouldn't be bringing her along… But… he couldn't take any more risks. He had no idea what END had planned at any given moment; if he snapped and wanted to kill… Natsu wouldn't be able to stop himself. He needed to leave before it came to that. That's all there was to it.
Though he was already striding at a brisk pace, Natsu picked up the pace ever-so-slightly. The sooner he dropped off the note, the sooner he could leave.
Author's Note: Satora imaoman domosamashi detashinuke taregasayo sonoka! This took far too long to pump out. I had most of this written out last year – or at least a draft – but I wasn't happy with it. I'm still not too happy with how it came out, if I'm honest. Angst is hard. It was never my forte, and it still drags me down into a bitter state. That's why this fic is updated so irregularly – it's not one of my main fics, and it is hard to write this out. Up to this point, even if I didn't mean it, I was bashing on Erza because of the Jerza ship, and I want to work to change that. Similarly with Jellal, I'm not going to bash his character. That's not my style. And even though I'm focused on Erza, I want to work to make Mira more relevant, too.
Having said all that… demanding to make me update this REALLY isn't the way to make me write faster, guys. To those who were patiently waiting, I thank you. Your patience means a lot. But the others who were spamming the reviews, PMing me? I understand your frustration, but I'm only one writer. I've got my own life, and if my muse wants me to update other fics, I'll do that. I've managed to hold back posting Danganronpa fics because of places like Tumblr, but I was on the verge of attempting a Danganronpa one-shot for a while. This fanfic here is very different from the other ones I am currently updating. With this fanfic, so much of the plot is "on the go." As in, I have no synopsis to go off of. No concrete details etched out. If I had to describe what is powering and guiding this fic, it's "emotion." I only have a very vague idea where we're headed, and I don't want to rush it because I care about the characters too much. I still plan to wrap this thing up by Chapter 20-ish, if not a few more chapters than that. There might be some timeskips because healing takes time, and it'd get monotonous showing every detail of that process. The main thing is the clash that Natsu and Jellal are heading toward, in order to resolve the tension that they never got to resolve in canon. Once that gets cleared up, it's going to be smooth"er" sailing from there.
In the future, please try to not harass me about updates. There is no schedule, and as the writer I'm the one in control of updates, not you guys. I will update when I can and when my muse feels cooperative. I do feel about making you wait, make no mistake about that. But getting heated demands does not make me want to rush back into this; in fact, it makes me even more uneasy because of expectations. Writing is not an easy process, not even fanfiction writing, and I'd much rather work at my own pace than a deadline. Especially because I have some big stuff coming up in the fall. Don't be afraid of this fic getting abandoned; as this is a hobby fic, I do intend to finish it because it's smaller in general than the other stories I'm working on. However, that makes updates harder because I'm feeling it out and trying not to rush things. Just be patient, please.