Notes: I don't even know. I wanted to try a light-hearted romcom about GrayTear pretending to date? But it's not really funny at all? And instead there's some weird plot-like thing going on? And halfway through I start dragging Juvia? Whatever.
Summary: Gray and Ultear pretend to date. Also, they hunt a secret cult. And also, politics.
"Ultear, I need your help," Gray hissed urgently as he dragged her around a corner.
For her part, Ultear just let her eyebrows rise meaningfully. She could already tell that this would be either ridiculous or hilarious, or both — given the way Gray was glancing nervously behind him and actually jumped at the sound of quickly approaching footsteps.
Apparently, she took too long to give a response. Eyes darting behind him again as the footsteps drew closer, Gray turned back to her with a determined, fatalistic expression. "Sorry, please don't kill me," he said — and leaned in, pressing his lips to hers.
The touch was dry, cool, and completely unromantic. The only point of contact was their lips and Gray's hand on her arm. It was what some countries considered a greeting between friends, the only difference that Gray didn't pull away, remaining stock still in the same liplock.
Ultear's eyebrows rose higher at the — yes, it really was a — kiss.
'So that's what it is,' Ultear thought, resisting the urge to snort or maybe sigh. 'Well, I guess I'll help him out...'
Yes, it was certainly because Gray asked for her help, not because of any ulterior motives. It was just a pretend kiss to throw off an overly-persistent suitor, nothing more.
Angling her face slightly, she pressed closer. Her lips parted, and the kiss deepened — becoming warmer, a little slick and wet. One hand slipped over the back of Gray's neck, to keep him from pulling away in surprise, the other coming up to lay on his shoulder. Letting her eyes slip shut, Ultear swayed against Gray, their bodies touching and shifting. She hadn't noticed before, but of course he'd lost his shirt a while back.
Gray made a quiet sound of surprise, his hands resting over her waist lightly, as if afraid to do more than that.
Finally, Ultear drew back. But only a little, just far enough to study Gray's face. He'd closed his eyes too, at some point, and they only just fluttered open, staring at her in a daze. Ultear smiled, slightly smug. Leaning in, she whispered in his ear, "If you're desperate enough to go this far, go all the way. I know you can do better than a schoolyard peck."
"—erk." With a last shocked, strangled sound, Juvia collapsed into a puddle of faintly steaming water.
"About time," Ultear noted, glancing over at her. "So you finally decided to be serious about turning her down?"
"R-right..." Gray muttered, sounding rather strangled himself. "I mean, yes. That's right. Yes. I tried telling her I wasn't interested, but she never listens. Mira said she won't give up until she 'loses' when I start dating someone else. But she doesn't take other guys seriously, so it would need to be a woman, and someone who could deal with Juvia if she got jealous, so..."
"So — me," Ultear concluded, listening to his increasingly flustered rambling with an amused expression.
"Well, it was you or Erza, but Erza's terrible at lying and I'm not sure I'd survive her," Gray admitted. He kept glancing at Ultear with an expression of hunted apprehension.
"While I'm good at lying and won't kill you," Ultear said mildly, leaving Gray to try to guess if she was offended.
For a moment, Ultear considered pretending to be angry. It was certainly something a woman could get angry over, being kissed suddenly just to throw someone off. But... it wasn't as if she hated it. It had been a long time since she kissed someone. Even longer since it had been anything but pretense. No, thinking about, had she ever been honest in an intimate relationship?
She didn't hate it. It was the opposite. And if it was to help Gray, then surely it would be okay to indulge a little...
"Well, I can't argue with the first one, and it seems you lucked out on the second," Ultear went on instead, her amused smile giving away nothing of her thoughts. "You're also right that I'm not scared of Meldy's little friend... Alright, I'll help you."
Gray's shoulders slumped in relief. "Thanks," he said, then made a puzzled face. "But you already did."
It really had been a completely spur of the moment action on his part. He hadn't thought through the logistics of the charade at all. Ultear looked at him scolding disbelief. "Do you really think that'll be enough to convince her?" she asked. "And since she passed out, she'll probably just write it off as a nightmare."
Glancing at Juvia, still a steaming puddle that was murmuring nonsense to herself, Gray had to acknowledge the truth in what Ultear was saying. He swallowed heavily, going pale — but his cheeks still flushed, creating a nearly feverish contrast.
"We'll have to be a lot more convincing," Ultear confirmed. "We're going to have to actually date."
Gray's expression of absolute horror at the prospect of dating her might have been insulting, if it hadn't been so amusing. It was also not entirely unfounded.
The first part of making your lies believable was getting someone to corroborate them. If just Ultear and Gray claimed to be involved, Juvia could conceivably figure out that they were making it up — or even just cling to that explanation in pure denial. But if someone else confirmed their story... well.
Meldy and Jellal watched Ultear with growing weariness after she gathered them to "discuss something important."
"When we founded Crime Sorciere two years ago," she began, "we agreed on a certain rule... that we would not get involved with those who walk the path of light."
She paused, waiting to see if either of them would jump to the obvious conclusion, but there was no comments forthcoming. Meldy and Jellal only waited, frowning faintly. Ultear took a deep breath. If anything, their reaction just confirmed the other benefit she thought might come from playing along with Gray — for their sake, to correct an unfortunate trajectory they had assumed due to her poor choices as their leader.
"At the time," Ultear went on, "it felt like the most logical thing. We are wanted criminals, operating without permission from the League of Guilds, and our purpose goes against the Magic Council's laws about inter-guild conflict. To become involved with someone who lives a law-abiding existence would only cause them trouble and put all of us in danger. However, as you must have realized, there was another reason as well."
"It is our penance," Jellal responded this time, his expression pensive. "To remain alone, except for each other, our comrades in seeking redemption."
"...Right," Ultear said. And this — this was the reason she needed to make corrections. She hadn't intended to get Jellal so fixated on making himself miserable, and she especially didn't want Meldy to follow along and spend the rest of her life chasing an impossible ideal. "That was something I thought at the time," she admitted. "But I was wrong."
Meldy and Jellal looked at her as if she'd said the sun rose in the west. Really, it was beyond foolish. They, of all people, should have been aware of Ultear's many shortcomings and failures.
"Listen to me," Ultear said firmly, looking each of them in the eye in turn. "It's true that we've committed sins that we must strive to atone for. But that atonement is part of finding our way back to the light. Someday — someday soon — I want all of us to be free of our sins and able to live as we please. Including loving and being loved by other people."
'And I'm going to lead by example, if that's what it takes,' she added mentally. '...Faked example, but it's the same principle.'
The other two exchanged a long, unreadable look. Oddly, it was Ultear's turn to feel a thrill of weariness.
"So... you're going to date Gray?" Meldy said finally.
"...ugh," Ultear was unable to stop from letting a sound at this verbal direct hit. She hadn't expected that. "W-why do you think that?"
Jellal and Meldy exchanged another look. Suddenly, Ultear felt very off-balance. "Well, you really like him," Meldy pointed out diplomatically. "You think about him a lot, and he and Erza are why we're teaming up with Fairy Tail, right? ...Also, you smeared your lipstick a bit, so it looks like you guys kissed."
Rallying herself, Ultear cleared her throat and said, "Yes, that's right. I'm going to date Gray. Since we'll have a lot of downtime on this extended mission, we're going to... see if it can work between us."
"You couldn't stand to turn him down, huh?" Jellal assumed — somewhat incorrectly, but not entirely — looking both vaguely disapproving and very sympathetic. He sighed forlornly. "It's hard, breaking their hearts when they put themselves on the line..."
He trailed off into brooding, no doubt remembering some overture Erza had made and which he had turned down for his noble, self-flagellating reasons. That poor woman, honestly, Ultear felt so sorry for her. If nothing else, Erza had the patience of a saint.
"Congratulations," Meldy said, smiling at Ultear. "I'm happy for you, Ul. No matter what happens, we'll support you." Reaching over, she laid her hand over Ultear's and gave it a gentle squeeze.
Ultear nodded and pressed on to her original purpose. "But I can't just hypocritically do whatever I want. That's why I want to officially strike out that rule," she said. "Are we in agreement?"
"Of course," Meldy agreed cheerfully.
"Yes, of course," Jellal said, far more subdued. Well, he was no doubt planning to still follow it himself. He'd take some work, but for now, Ultear would accept this.
...Still. They were awfully quick to accept her new "relationship" with Gray. Was it really that obvious...? Ah, well. Sighing, Ultear tried not to think about it.
Unlike Ultear, Gray made no move to inform anyone of his new relationship status. A private person by nature, he couldn't just stand up in the middle of lunch and declare, "By the way, I'm dating Ultear now. Hope no one minds."
For one thing, he was sure there would be plenty of minding, and not just from Juvia.
Speaking of Juvia, she had managed to re-solidify herself in time for the strategy meeting, though her expression was vacant and her body occasionally rippled in a rather alarming way. Gray edged away from her, but for once she didn't even seem to notice, staring blankly into space.
He couldn't help twitching a little when Ultear settled next to him. The smile she sent him was decidedly amused, which made Gray scowl. 'At least someone is enjoying this,' he thought mutinously, even though that was unfair to Ultear. He was the one who'd asked her for help, after all. In fact, the entire situation was his fault for not finding a better way.
"...ah." Juvia's head slowly rotated toward them, looking rather like a creepy, blank-faced marionette.
Gray shuddered, feeling an impending sense of doom, but Ultear only stared back with an equally blank, very cold expression. True to her word, Ultear was not in the least bit afraid. Cold sweat beaded across Gray's back and he desperately wished for a coat or three.
The tension was broken when Meldy slid an arm around Juvia's shoulders, crouching next to her. Her expression was painfully sympathetic. And that — also true to Ultear's plans — was what finally seemed to drive reality in.
Juvia's mouth dropped open and her eyes swam with tears. "J-Juvia... lost?" she murmured helplessly. "That can't be..."
Meldy patted her back comfortingly.
"No! Juvia won't accept that! Juvia's love can't lose!" Juvia declared, springing to her feet. Her fists clenched, and she spun around to glare at Ultear again. The edges of her body began to waver again, but purposefully this time. Juvia was preparing for battle.
Undaunted, Ultear stared back and lifted her chin haughtily. Behind her, Gray considered the possibility of replacing himself with an ice clone and making a run for it. But no, he owed it to Ultear to at least stay and cheer for her, since this was his mess to begin with...
"What is going on here?"
A cold voice cut through the mounting killing intent — just as sharply as Erza's sword cut through enemies. Standing in the doorway, Titania surveyed the room imperiously. Behind her, Natsu and Lucy both cringed, despite being obviously outside her ire.
"Nothing! Nothing at all," Gray said quickly. "We were just waiting for you to get back."
Erza's eyes narrowed, but after a tense moment, she seemed to accept his words. "My apologies," she said, striding inside. "Natsu didn't make it back to the rendezvous point, so it became necessary to double back to retrieve him." Slinking in behind her, Natsu flinched. There was a new bump on his head, to mark Erza's displeasure.
"Got lost, flame for brains?" Gray smirked.
"Shut up!" Natsu hissed back. "That squirrel looked really delicious, okay?"
Lucy sighed, Happy snickered, and Erza slowly turned to pin them both with a threatening look. Once satisfied that everyone was in a sufficiently serious mindset, Erza faced the entire group and cleared her throat.
"Let's begin," she said. She paused, her eyes narrowing again. "Does everyone remember why we're here?"
"To beat up some dark guild!" Natsu volunteered.
Displaying some of that saintly patience, Erza managed to keep from hitting him. Just barely. "We are here to investigate," she said slowly and pointedly, "the possible presence of a widespread black magic cult."
"Right, and then we're going to beat them up," Natsu insisted stubbornly.
"It's possible presence — possible," Erza emphasized. "Currently, we don't have any solid leads, except rumors of strange gatherings taking place at the old monastery in Mikage Forest."
"However, we have noticed a lot of small inconsistencies and worrying trends," Ultear spoke up. "They're all minor things, but to sum up — there is a pattern of signs that point to people moving in and out of this region regularly, while seeking to hide their presence."
This region being the far side of Iceberg. Despite the name, Iceberg was characterized by gently sloping green plains and river valleys. It was also several times bigger than Fiore and sparsely populated, making it hard to scout out properly with just three people.
Thus, Crime Sorciere had asked Fairy Tail for help.
They had first met up at the abandoned wayhouse, once a layover point on a shipping route for a trade guild that no longer existed, about three days prior and, after a quick discussion, had separated to do some preliminary scouting.
Unfortunately, Gray and Juvia had been among those to return first, leaving Gray to dodge her affections in a confined space for days on end. Quickly reaching his limits and growing desperate at the prospect of having to partner and be alone with her for the duration of the extended mission, he had then come up with his very stupid idea...
"That's why I had you go to the forest and use that nose of yours," Erza said, pursing her lips in annoyance. "You did do that, didn't you, Natsu?"
"Huh? That's what we were doing...? I mean, yeah! Definitely!" Natsu corrected himself quickly. He crossed his arms, his face screwing up in thought. "People's scents don't stay long, you know? So it's hard to tell. You told me not to go in far too," he added accusingly. "But there was a bunch of trails, and not from hunters — too messy. They were used pretty recently. So I'd say a bunch of people not from around here have been coming and going."
Erza nodded slowly, acknowledging his words. "That matches to what Lucy and I heard from the local villagers," she said. "They haven't seen anyone traveling openly. But at night, there's strange figures walking the roads every few months, always heading to or from the forest." She added, in an unreadable tone, "It's considered cursed."
"That is probably for the best," Jellal said, drawing attention to himself for the first time since slipping into the room before even Gray or Juvia. "If someone went in there during a gathering..."
"They wouldn't come out," Erza finished, frowning. "If we've figured out the schedules correctly, the next gathering should be in about a month. For now, we're going to canvas the region and try to track back to where these people are coming from. If we can't get any leads, we'll have to spy on the meeting. Until then, we'll be splitting up into groups to cover more ground."
"I'll go with Gray," Ultear said immediately, managing to beat out Juvia, who was about the suggest the same thing. Smoothly, she explained, "It's very rural here, so there's little chance of anyone being recognized, especially with the Magic Council... indisposed. But we should still split up Crime Sorciere."
"That's a good idea," Erza agreed. "Then I'll go with Jellal. Juvia, you can go with Meldy." The corner of her lips twitched a little. "Lucy, I'm trusting you to keep Natsu in line."
Absolutely none of those mentioned looked pleased with the arrangement.
"Hey," Natsu protested scowling.
"That's asking the impossible!" Lucy complained.
"Is that really a good idea...?" Jellal wondered under his breath, studiously not looking anywhere close to Erza's direction.
"Juvia wants to go with Gray-sama!"
"Oh boy..." Meldy sighed, seeing a lot of water in her future.
"Quiet," Erza said flatly, and there was immediate silence. She did consider rearranging the teams for a moment, but in the end, this was the most logical combination, and Erza only nodded to herself. "We'll use this old wayhouse as a base. You can come and go at your discretion, but everyone must be back in three weeks, so we can decide how to proceed. Are there any questions?"
"Juvia wants to—"
"Aside from that," Erza said.
"Can we eat now? I'm hungry," Natsu said.
Erza closed her eyes. "Aside from that too," she said.
There were not.
"Don't flinch. That's not very believable at all," Ultear chided him quietly. As had become normal, she looked distinctly amused when he flinched again at the feeling of her curves pressing against his side.
"R-right..." Gray muttered, carefully shifting his hand to better wrap around hers. It was an effort not to jump when she squeezed gently. Did they really need to hold hands, he wanted to moan. But that did seem to be something a couple would do. And... "I can't believe they're blowing off their own mission to follow us," he grumbled.
Ultear frowned a little, not particularly impressed either. "They're not going to get anything done just following us," she said. "Honestly... Well, we'd better convince her quickly. So we can all concentrate on the real issue."
She had planned to take it easy with the dating game, but it seemed she'd have to step things up.
Gray should have seen it coming, but it was still a shock when Ultear used their joined hands to tug him down a little and pressed a soft kiss to his cheek. He made another strangled sound — but at least he didn't flinch this time. Or trip over his own feet.
The sky was suddenly very cloudy.
Ultear and Gray's assigned task was hitting up the local dark guilds and criminal groups to see what information they had. Ultear had the best connections, even several years after leaving Grimoire Heart, and she was certainly the best at getting information out of people, after all.
Of course, "local dark guilds" in a pastoral heartland like Iceberg were more like small time bandit gangs, and barely existent at that. The biggest obstacle was finding any criminals in the first place.
So it was fortunate that the usual Fairy Tail luck kicked, and they were accosted by probably the only bandit group within five hundred square kilometers while just peacefully walking along.
There were five of them, all unshaven and unwashed, dressed in muddy breeches and stained shirts and wielding an assortment of cheap weapons. They had ambushed the pair where the road passed in a narrow space between two hills, blocking off the only way out on both sides. "Hand over all you've got, and you won't get hurt," the apparent leader growled, brandishing his knife threateningly.
It was almost insulting. No one in Fiore even dared trying to pull this nonsense. There was just too much chance of hitting the one in ten wizard who would retaliate brutally. Sighing, Gray put his hands together.
The bandits shrieked in fear and shock as ice spread over the road, pinning down their legs.
"Y-you! It's you!" one of them yelled.
"Please, we didn't know! It's too early!" another sobbed.
Gray and Ultear exchanged a look. "Oh? You recognize us? Perhaps we're just a pair of passing wizards," Ultear suggested, smiling mysteriously — dangerously. Crossing his arms, Gray did his best to ominously loom behind her, like some kind of dumb brute enforcer type. He felt a bit like Ultear was laughing at him again, even if her attention never wavered from her targets.
"A-a dangerous sexy woman and a scruffy good-looking man! Y-you're with them!" the apparent leader stammered. He had dropped his knife and appeared to be on the edge of wetting himself in terror. "But it's too early, please, we would've never done it if we realized!"
'Scruffy?' Gray thought.
"You know a lot," Ultear said with a dangerous sort of blandness.
"Greenbridge! Greenbridge told everyone, so we'd stay out of the way!" the bandit moaned. "Please!"
"Just about us?"
"A cute girl with pink hair, a clown-looking thing with a doll, and a fat bald man! Please, that's all we know!"
At first, Gray had thought that the bandits had mistaken him for Jellal, and the warnings had been about Crime Sorciere, but the full list was too long for that. These had to be the people moving in and out of Iceberg. Ultear had been right when she said the local rats would know the most details, even if they had no context for them. It was still too vague to be called a lead, but it was a start.
Ultear hummed vaguely in acknowledgment and turned away from the trembling criminals. Reaching up, she ran her fingers through Gray's hair — nearly making him twitch again. "Hear that? He thinks you're looking scruffy," she murmured, leaning in and pressing up against him. "But I think it suits you, sweetheart."
Gray may have choked a little, but somehow managed to keep a straight face. "Should I grow it out a little more, dear?" he shot back.
"No..." Ultear judged. "You'd start looking like our friend then. Maybe you should brush it back instead." Her fingers trailed over his cheek and up to his forehead, where she pushed back his bangs. Her voice lowering, Ultear added, "I like seeing your eyes."
Keeping a straight face was... increasingly difficult.
Nearby, one of the bandits yelped as a piece of hail the size of a cherry hit him square in the forehead. More hail began to pelt down brutally, as the criminals moaned and begged for mercy.
Hidden atop one of the hills, Meldy winced. "Juvia, quit it," she hissed. "That hurts!"
"Juviiiiiiin," Juvia ground out, a burning glare fixed on Ultear's figure below. "Juvia won't lose..."
Easily dispersing any ice before it could come near her, Ultear let her smile widen smugly. Their plan was proceeding well — according to her, anyway.