Chapter Twenty-Seven: Never End
"Good news, Siegrain!" Mira announced. "Apart from Natsu, Gajeel, and Levy, everyone else in the guild is pretty much fine, so the Master has decided to go ahead with the Fantasia Parade this evening after all!"
"…Mira, that is not good news," Jellal pointed out exhaustedly. "In fact, in a day that has been almost exclusively filled with bad things – including but not limited to me being dragged into your stupid Battle of Fairy Tail and almost dying multiple times – I think this takes the biscuit. After everything I've done for your guild, the least you could do is postpone the parade until tomorrow, when I wouldn't have to have anything to do with it."
"Now, where would be the fun in that?"
They were back in the guildhall, which was as rowdy and cheerful as ever. Looking around, one would not think that these people had just survived a guild-wide battle royal against a literally power-crazed former ally in which their lives, and those of everyone else in the city, had come under threat at least twice. Then again, Jellal supposed that it really was just another ordinary day in Fairy Tail. In fact, the most unusual thing about the whole scene was that the guild wasn't throwing an enormous party – and that was only because they had to save all the food for that evening's spectacle.
That wasn't to say they didn't have enough to celebrate to warrant two feasts, however. Makarov was going to make a full recovery, and that alone was worth one. For the time being, he was resting in the infirmary, along with Levy and Erza. The girls were having their burns looked at by Porlyusica, who had just finished treating Natsu and Gajeel. Neither of the Dragon Slayers could walk without crutches, and Natsu in particular was wrapped up in so many bandages that Jellal couldn't look at him without experiencing horrible flashbacks to that time in the haunted house. Unable to join in with the general liveliness, they were sat on a bench against the wall, sullen and grumpy and – thanks to the bandages over Natsu's mouth – blessedly quiet.
Jellal was sat at the bar, trying not to draw attention to himself. That had been easier said than done at first. News of their team's victory over Laxus had reached the guildhall faster than they had, and there had been no shortage of people wanting to congratulate them upon their arrival, much to Jellal's annoyance. He had only managed to get away by insisting he was going to check up on Erza in the infirmary – who had berated him loudly for worrying about her and sent him straight back to the main hall – and, fortunately, he had managed to avoid being noticed as he slipped back up to the bar.
"Besides," Mira was saying, dragging his attention back to the present. Her teasing grin set alarm bells ringing in his head. "When you say today was exclusively full of bad things, are you including the bit where you asked Erza out in that?"
"I said almost exclusively," he grumbled, scowling down at the bar and hoping that his embarrassment would be interpreted as annoyance.
Of course, as luck would have it, two particularly inquisitive girls happened to be passing the bar at that exact moment. Both of them paused, exchanged glances, and then stared openly at Jellal.
"Did Juvia hear that correctly?" Juvia asked him.
"You finally asked Erza out?" Lucy demanded. "I mean, you actually did it?"
"I… sort of…"
"By which he means yes," Mira translated helpfully. "Erza was telling me about it. It all sounded very dramatic."
"That's one word for it," Jellal muttered.
Much to his dismay, rather than being dissuaded from pursuing the line of enquiry, the girls sat down on either side of him. "Go on, then," Lucy prompted him. "Tell us everything. What happened? Was it exciting? Terrifying?"
Jellal thought for a moment. "Accidental."
"Accidental?" Lucy blinked. "Oh, you mean it was a spontaneous decision to confess to her, made in the heat of the moment – right?"
"Not… really. I wasn't intending to confess, or anything like that. I was only trying to stop her from sacrificing herself! Next thing I know, she's taken everything I said literally, and now I appear to be in a relationship." He looked directly at Lucy. "Help me."
"You'll do fine," she assured him, smiling. "Just keep doing as you've been doing."
Several failed attempts at kidnapping Erza sprung to Jellal's mind. "You know, I don't think that's going to work out quite as well as you think it will…"
Mira gave a wistful sigh, placing her elbows on the counter and resting her chin on her hands. "Still, I can't believe that after all our hard work, the one who ended up finally getting them together was Laxus. All that time spent trying to be subtle, when what we really needed to do was throw the two of them into a desperate fight to the death."
"Things have been a bit backward today, haven't they?" Lucy agreed. "For one thing, we all ended up fighting each other rather than a common enemy, and then Gray and Warren had us all abandoning magic to destroy Thunder Palace with crossbows and a biplane."
"Plus, it wasn't even Natsu, Laxus or I who demolished Kardia Cathedral – it was Levy," Jellal added. "I bet no one saw that coming."
"Actually, about that…" Mira began sweetly.
"She'd better not be trying to pin that on me! It was all her! I have witnesses!"
She laughed. "No, Levy owned up to destroying the cathedral. The surprising thing is that the mayor isn't going to press charges. In fact, he's grateful. He's been looking for an excuse to knock that old building down for years, but couldn't get permission, because it was listed. The city council reported it as an air traffic control accident, and they're already filing plans to erect a new building there – a fully modernized town hall which will contribute to the community, rather than a defunct old relic that only history fanatics ever got any use out of."
"…So Fairy Tail destroyed something irreplaceable, and got thanked for it?" Jellal looked amazed. "Alright, this really is a topsy-turvy day."
Juvia suggested, "And then there's the fact that Mira fought too."
"You did?" Jellal inquired. "You got your old magic back?"
Mira nodded. Now that she mentioned it, he could not detect the sinister aura that he had grown accustomed to glimpsing out of the corner of his eye whenever she was around: she had taken back that magic and made it her own.
"And there I thought you had retired from being a guild mage," he remarked.
"I had," Mira shrugged. "But then, I realized that if I was going to tag along on dangerous airship raids anyway, magic or no, I might as well just go all the way and come out of retirement. I didn't know I was going to be able to use magic again until it happened, but I was going to fight for my guild either way."
"Mirajane was amazing!" Juvia insisted fiercely. "She could beat you, definitely!"
"Aww, I wish I'd seen it now." Lucy sounded more than a little put out.
Jellal sighed. "I'm sure you'll get a chance to see her fight soon enough. From my experience in this guild, it'll be a week tops before some deadly catastrophe strikes you lot again."
"Oh, I hope not. You know, I could have sworn things weren't this bad before you arrived."
Mira nodded sagely. "Councillor Siegrain, you are a troublemaker and a bad influence on this guild."
He glared at her, but it only made her laugh. Much to his chagrin, she explained, "I haven't seen you glare at anyone like that for a while. I was beginning to get worried."
Before he could growl an angry retort, Erza appeared, entering the main hall from the infirmary and making a beeline for the four of them. Despite launching herself straight into the heart of the inferno which had razed a centuries-old cathedral to the ground, she looked completely fine. The faint smell of medicinal herbs was the only indication that she had taken any damage during that battle at all. Fortunately, now that Laxus had been defeated, she was free to Requip again, and so was wearing clothes appropriate for appearing out in public in. There was a spring in her step, and she couldn't keep a smile off her face, and Lucy, Mira and Juvia suspected that the end of the Battle of Fairy Tail wasn't the only reason for it.
"Glad to see you're looking well, Erza," Mira greeted her. She shot Lucy and Juvia a meaningful look. "Though we'll have to catch up with you later, I'm afraid. We were just on our way to… to go and check on Levy."
"She's fine," Erza informed her. "She'll be out in a minute; there's no need to go-"
"She might need help," Lucy overrode her hastily. "We'd best go and see."
"Help with what…?" Erza wondered, but the three girls were already sidling away, leaving her and Jellal alone. She seemed to realize this, and sat down beside him without further protest.
Seconds ticked by in silence. Both of them stared fixedly at the counter, as though waiting for it to send them instructions. It did not.
They both bit the bullet at once.
And they both glanced awkwardly away again, and the silence returned.
We're going to have to talk about this, Jellal realized. We haven't had a proper conversation since she told me she knew who I was, and that… didn't end well. Everything which happened after that was impulsive and illogical, for both of us. I don't know what 'this' is, or what 'we' are… or what we're supposed to do next.
Because, at some point, they were going to have to talk about the past eight years. Erza might have said that she didn't blame Jellal for what he had done, but it wasn't Jellal she had said those things to. It was always to her friends, or to 'Siegrain'.
When he had expressed his uncertainty to Lucy earlier, it wasn't because he didn't know how he felt about Erza, or because he didn't know whether he wanted to be in a relationship with her – because he did. In this tentative new world, where the Tower's role – and his own – had yet to be defined, that was the only certainty he had. He just couldn't see how, given their past and everything he had done as a dark mage, Erza could possibly be okay with it all.
What had happened in the heat of battle was one thing. What they would do now that it was over; now that they had a chance to think things through and understand just what their being together meant… well, that was another matter entirely.
"Jellal," Erza said suddenly.
Nervous, his response came out as more of a snap than he had intended. "What?"
"Are you alright? Only, I know you're not indestructible, no matter how much you like to pretend otherwise in front of the others. Are you sure you don't want to check in with Porlyusica in the infirmary? I'll come with you, if you want."
"I'm fine, really." Jellal shook his head. "This seems like the first battle in a while that hasn't resulted in me collapsing immediately afterwards, so to be honest, I feel pretty good about it."
"I guess so," she laughed. "You always did push yourself too hard for us. That hasn't changed."
Jellal didn't know how to respond to that. The uncomfortable sense, which their borderline-normal conversation had been driving back, returned all at once.
Erza realized this at the same moment he did. "Jellal…" she began, and then frowned. "Actually, is it okay if I call you that?"
"It's fine. Actually… I think I'd like it if you did."
She gave a small smile, grateful that he had allowed it but even more so for the simple honesty in his words. That look put him a little more at ease, and he added, "Still, it's going to confuse the hell out of the others."
"I suppose it will," Erza agreed, with a laugh. "I'll try and come up with some way of explaining it to them." Then she seemed to consider the matter more seriously for a moment. "I may have to tell them quite a lot. I've never spoken to anyone about what happened to me before I came to this guild, but I feel as though I should… do you mind?"
"It's… it's up to you, Erza. It's your story to tell."
The silence returned. That was the only answer Jellal could have given her, and he knew it, but all it really did was draw attention back to the matter at hand. After all, she only had half the story – there was a lot she didn't know. She knew he was Jellal, which also meant that she knew he was a dark mage, and she must have worked out that he had infiltrated the Council for some nefarious reason. But she didn't know why he had turned against her all those years ago, or what terrible things he had been hoping to achieve with the Tower. In fact, for all that she knew, he might still be holding her friends hostage, or planning to activate his R-System at any moment. He wondered if it would ever be possible for her to believe in him again.
So absorbed was he in his own thoughts that it took a moment for him to realize that this silence wasn't just between him and Erza, but had spread across the entire guild. Laxus had returned. Every single pair of eyes turned towards him as he advanced through the hall. Jellal was reminded of his first encounter with the guild, whereupon they had tied him to a chair and glared at him judgementally, united by their shared dislike of him, and he had to fight back a smile.
He was, however, quite possibly the only person in the hall who found anything amusing about the situation. The air was thick with tension – and magic, as more than a few mages prepared for a confrontation.
But Laxus just said, "Where is the old man?"
He obviously wasn't here to fight – his injuries and subdued manner aside, there was none of the aura of madness around him that had governed his actions at the end of the battle. Not that that was enough to stop certain angry members of the guild from demanding retribution and blocking his way to see the Master.
Fortunately, common sense had Erza on its side, and she was enough to stop the guild. After their encounter on the battlefield, she understood Laxus just as well as Jellal did. She was confident and she was calm, and there was a fond smile upon Jellal's lips as he watched her ease the tension and allow Laxus through to see his grandfather.
Of course, not even she could stop Natsu from jumping to his feet and challenging Laxus to a rematch, one-on-one this time. Well, it was impossible to make out what he was saying through the bandages, but with Natsu, it was never too difficult to guess. The room waited with bated breath – half of them expecting Laxus to simply brush him off, and the other half expecting a fight to break out then and there.
Neither happened. Laxus told him, quietly, "I think you'll have to get in line, Natsu." And he glanced over the crowd to meet Jellal's gaze.
The Wizard Saint grinned at him. "Come back once you've got that Dragon Force of yours under control."
A small smile might have touched Laxus's lips at that moment. Then he was gone, with his coat billowing out behind him; disappearing through the door that led to the infirmary.
The spirited atmosphere returned at once to the guildhall – nothing could keep them down for long on such a day of triumph. "Did you hear that?" Natsu was saying excitedly, to anyone who would listen. "Laxus didn't turn me down!"
"Honestly," Erza sighed, as she returned to her seat. "And you're just as bad," she added to Jellal. "You're setting a poor example for Natsu to follow."
"It's not as though he ever does what I say anyway, is it?" Jellal replied dryly. "What do you think will happen to Laxus now?"
But it was Mira who answered, having resumed her usual position behind the bar. "The Master will expel him from the guild. He has no choice, however he might feel about it personally. He can't allow someone who deliberately endangered the lives of other guild members to stay. Laxus understands that. It's why he came to visit the Master now, in person."
Upon noticing Jellal's expression, Erza inquired, "Why? Are you sad that Laxus will have to leave?"
That wasn't quite it. He had only met Laxus twice, and on both occasions, Laxus had tried to kill him… but then again, at least Laxus had been open and honest about his intentions, and that was always refreshing. He supposed he did feel that it would be a shame if Laxus were to leave the guild.
What bothered him the most, though, was that Laxus had made a poor decision, and even though he had come to understand that what he had done was wrong – and was, as far as his pride would permit, apologetic – he still could not be allowed to remain in the guild. Jellal thought about the Tower of Heaven, and about Erza, and that was why he was sad.
"It's none of my business, is it?" he deflected, affecting a shrug.
"I suppose not. I'll be sad to see him go, though. I understand why the Master has to do it, but… I wish that weren't the case."
"You'd rather he stayed?" Jellal asked, a little too quickly.
"Maybe it's just because I was there in the final battle, but I know he knows he went too far, and I don't think he was fully responsible for everything he did either, especially not towards the end. As it happened, no one was seriously hurt by his actions, and I think he would learn and find forgiveness a lot more easily in the guild than he would alone. We all make mistakes, and because of them, we grow. That's why I think he deserves a second chance."
"You really think that?" he insisted, and neither of them was talking about Laxus any more.
"Weren't you the one who told me that the future is always more important than the past?" she smiled. "If he truly wants to change going forwards then I want to help in any small way that I can."
Mira gave a deliberate cough. "Even if you almost died because of him?"
"Well, I may have almost died stopping Thunder Palace," she conceded. "But it's also because of that that I- that we-" She glanced briefly at Jellal before returning her gaze to the floor, a curtain of scarlet hair hiding cheeks that were almost as red. "Well, all I'm saying is that it wasn't all bad…"
"I see," said Mira, with a knowing smile.
Lucy and Juvia returned with Levy, who was as cheerful as ever, despite her assortment of plasters and bandages. Without a word, she hugged Erza, and then, much to his astonishment, she hugged Jellal too. "I'm so happy for you two."
"Thanks, Levy," Erza smiled.
A loud knocking interrupted them before she could say anything else. Makarov had appeared, strolling down the counter towards them and rapping the end of his staff sharply against the wood in a call for silence. He looked as fierce as ever; if anyone noticed the redness of his eyes, or the single tear he had not managed to wipe away from his cheek, then they did not mention it.
"Alright, everyone, listen up!" the Master ordered. "The Fantasia Parade begins in three hours. We have a new route from the mayor which avoids the most damaged areas of town, and I want you all to familiarize yourselves with it before we set off. Between now and then, I want you to repair the damaged floats, finish off the last costumes, rehearse your performances to perfection, and get yourselves to the starting point with half an hour to go. After what we've put Magnolia through this afternoon, we are going to give them one hell of a show tonight. That is all."
The entire guild burst into life at that command, but no one more so than Jellal, who jumped to his feet so quickly that his stool was sent flying. "Crap, the parade!" And with that, he sprinted out of the door and took to the air. Moments later they heard a distant crack as he broke through the sound barrier in his haste to get away.
Lucy blinked at the empty space where he had been sitting. "…Overreaction, much?"
"Typical," Levy remarked. "Battle to the death against Laxus, and he's right there. But ask him to take part in one little parade, and he's out of here faster than you can say 'spoilsport'."
"Well, it isn't really his sort of thing," Erza reasoned, but they could all hear the disappointment she was struggling to keep out of her voice.
Mira tried to reassure her. "Don't worry, Erza. I'm sure he'll be back. He's probably just trying to get out of whatever awful thing the Master was planning to make him wear for the parade. Look."
She pointed to the diminutive old man, who was striding back and forth through the hall, dragging what looked suspiciously like a black and white lacy maid outfit behind him. "Where is that fool of a councillor?" he was muttering to himself.
"…Good point," Erza accepted.
"He'll be back to watch you in the parade," Mira promised. "He definitely will."
But by the time the bells atop the guildhall rang out, announcing the start of this year's Fantasia Parade, there was still no sign of Jellal.
As the three hours of preparation had drawn to a close, Lucy, Levy and Juvia had grown increasingly frantic. After a thorough search had confirmed that he hadn't doubled back and hidden in the guildhall to surprise them, they had split up to check every bar and café in the town centre – only stopping when an exasperated Erza had caught them trying to pick the lock on his front door and sternly instructed them to go and get changed for the parade.
In fact, the only person who didn't seem concerned about his whereabouts was Erza herself. And while, on one hand, she was a little sad that he wasn't going to watch her participate, she knew that this wasn't goodbye. After everything they had been through, he wouldn't just leave without saying anything. Once Fantasia was over, he'd be back, and they could talk things through – she was sure of it. Far more important than worrying where he had got to was ensuring that their guild's celebration was a success.
Within minutes of the parade starting, she had already forgotten any sadness she might have felt from standing on that float alone, rather than with Jellal. She took that stage and made it her own. She danced with her swords; one, two, or a hundred; spinning, weaving, flowing; ribbons of fluid silver rippling around her; as much a part of her as her hands or her hair or her heart. There were no fireworks – they had all been set off earlier – but there was light everywhere nonetheless: the fairy lights decorating the floats; the flashes of her magic, and that of her friends close by; the shimmering of the stars, far brighter than usual, as if they had come somehow closer to watch her dance.
There was cheering, merriment, and laughter from performers and spectators alike, as the citizens and the guild came together to celebrate the harvest. Fairy Tail was an irksome guild, often more trouble than it was worth – or so Magnolia's residents were wont to mutter when yet another house was accidentally destroyed – but it was their guild, and when it came right down to it, they were as fond of Fairy Tail as its mages were of them. There was so much happiness and the night was alive with it. It was beautiful, truly beautiful, and standing at the heart of it, Erza was the happiest she had ever been.
She wished Jellal could have been here – not because she missed him, but because she thought he would have loved it too. If anything in the world could have convinced him to stay in the guild, surely it was this.
Then she wondered if that was precisely why he had avoided the parade, and laughed out loud.
It was only as they approached the end of the parade route, where the crowds were thinner and the town quieter and the night somehow a little lonelier, that it really hit her that he wasn't coming. For the first time, sadness seemed to creep into the festival atmosphere-
It wasn't Jellal's voice which broke into her thoughts. It was a female voice, though it didn't belong to anyone in her guild, or she'd have recognized it straight away. Rather, it took her a good few seconds to place, because the last time she had heard it, the speaker had been a child, and so had she.
Four people were running down a side alley towards her. Leading them was the young woman who had shouted: a bubbly brown-haired girl, with unmistakable cat ears atop her head, waving her arm wildly to attract Erza's attention. At her side, still wearing the blue and white patterned shirt and shorts of Akane Resort's staff uniform, was a tanned, blond man, also waving. Behind them ran a far larger man, his already-imposing physique made all the more frightening by his eyepatch and the steel framework supporting his lower jaw, yet his single visible eye was warmer and brighter than any Erza had ever seen. The fourth person, lagging somewhat at the back, was harder to recognize, because his body was unusually blocky and he was wearing shades despite the time of day – but by this point, Erza already knew exactly who he had to be.
She couldn't believe it at first. She froze; twenty swords hung dead in the air around her. It was a hallucination, some accidental illusion created by the stray magic drifting around the parade; it had to be… But she blinked and rubbed her eyes and they were still there, still running towards her, still calling her name, still so full of life and joy-
And she was running too, the parade forgotten; her blades clattering to the ground behind her; her eyes so full of tears that she could hardly see where she was going.
Simon reached her first, and he lifted her up and swung her round as if she were weightless. The moment her feet touched the floor, they all piled on, hugging each other and laughing and crying; trying and failing to talk through the rush of emotion.
"You're all… you're all alright…" Erza managed to sob.
"And so are you," Simon responded solemnly. "You looked so strong up there, Erza, and so happy."
But this only made her break out into a fresh wave of tears. "I'm so sorry. All this time… I should have come back for you… I should have tried to do something…"
"Erza, it doesn't matter," Sho interrupted her. "You couldn't have come back. We understand. The fact that you've been happy and free – and that we could meet again here, all of us alive and well – is the only thing we care about."
Millianna interjected, "Besides, we're the ones who should be apologizing to you. For all this time, we believed that it was all your fault… we blamed you for everything! If not for that, maybe we could have seen you sooner…"
"That doesn't matter!" Erza insisted, and when she realized she was giving back to them the exact same reassurance they had given to her, she understood that all was forgiven. She smiled again, tearful and fragile and radiant. "I'm just so happy to see you again…"
"Us too," said Wally simply.
"What are you all doing here, anyway?"
"We're working at Akane Resort now," Millianna began. "So we were there this afternoon when Jellal just showed up out of the blue and ordered us to get on the next train to Magnolia. And you know what he can be like when he wants something doing… well, maybe you don't know, but let's just say that we were going to be on that train whether we wanted to or not. We ran for it, and made it just as the doors were closing. Then Jellal finally had time to explain that you were going to be performing in a parade tonight, and he thought it would be good if we all went to watch. We just about made it on time! We've been following you through the crowd the whole way – we've only just managed to catch up with you!"
"I'm sorry we can't stay and talk properly," Sho added. "Only, Simon's on the night shift tonight, and I just upped and left an hour early from my shift and I really ought to go and apologize to my boss…"
Millianna grasped Erza's hands in her own. "But we'll come back and visit you again very soon, I promise!"
Erza stared at them. "You came all the way here, just for this?"
"It was worth it," Simon told her, and he meant every word. "Erza, watching you dance as part of the parade… you're so beautiful, and so strong, and so very alive. That was worth eight years of waiting, let alone one train journey."
"Not to mention," Wally interjected, "Once we found out it was okay with Jellal for us to finally see you, nothing in the world could have kept us away."
"I…" Overcome with emotion, Erza couldn't say anything more, but they understood.
Sho patted her shoulder. "Erza, we have to go, or we'll miss the last train. But, like Millianna said, we'll be back as soon as we can, and then we'll catch up properly. It's a promise."
"And if you're ever near Akane Resort, just give us a shout." Millianna winked at her. "We can always get you discounted tickets!"
Erza's eyes shone with tears of happiness. Still she could not speak, so she made do with an earnest nod.
"We'll see you very soon, Erza," Simon promised.
Then the four of them were running back down the alleyway, heading for the station. Erza waved until they were out of sight, and then, slowly, peacefully, she let her hand fall back to her side. She stood alone in the night, but she was not lonely. A bright happiness had taken up residence in her heart, and she knew in that moment that she would never feel lonely again. In the distance, she could hear the parade coming to an end and the crowd beginning to disperse in search of food or rest or more festivities in the town centre – all the people of Magnolia just living – and it made her so wonderfully content.
Wiping her eyes, Erza raised her head towards the cloudless night sky. In a tremulous voice, she called out, "Jellal?"
There was no answer.
Erza gave a rueful smile, and this time, her voice was stronger; more in control. "Come out, Jellal. I know you're there."
A shadow detached itself from a nearby rooftop as Jellal got to his feet and jumped down into the street. She rested her forehead against his shoulder, and he put one arm around her impulsively. She asked, "It's over, isn't it?"
"Yes," he confirmed. "It's over."
"Thank you," she whispered, and they remained like that for a while, until she mustered the courage to speak again. "Jellal… can we talk about this?"
He took a step backwards, so that he could better see her expression; so that he could better understand. "We're going to have to, aren't we?"
"If you don't want to-"
"No, you're right," he cut in, before she could back out for his sake. "We do need to talk."
"Shall we go into town, then?"
Her suggestion caught him by surprise. "Town…?" he echoed.
"The Fantasia Parade is coming to an end, but the festival itself goes on all night. There are all sorts of food stands, arcade stalls, and street performances taking place in the centre of town… I thought we could go and wander around for a bit, if you wanted."
"I…" Jellal stared at her. On one hand, he had just assumed that if they were going to talk about the past eight years, they were going to need somewhere private… but on the other hand, her suggestion was appealing. Very appealing, indeed. "Alright."
It was a lot less rowdy away from the parade route, but just as cheerful and bright. There were as many people roaming the town centre that night as there would have been in the middle of an ordinary day. Glitter and confetti, thrown from the passing parade floats, had transformed the streets into rivers of speckled starlight.
Walking around with Erza was… strange. For one thing, he wasn't trying to kidnap her. In fact, both had been completely honest about their motives for wanting to be there with each other. No one was spying on them, or attempting, subtly or otherwise, to break them up.
And they were together – not fighting, not out on a guild mission, not forced to participate in some stupid Fairy Tail event; just the two of them side by side, child survivors of the Tower of Heaven, a notorious dark mage and a heroic guild mage, indistinguishable from any other couple out enjoying the festival together. That something so normal could be possible after everything they had been through was a miracle in itself.
They took on several of the games at festival stands; they bought seasonal food and ate it sat together; they watched street performers juggle and play with fire. They ran into most of their friends over the course of the evening, and though they always stopped to say hello, none of them tried to outstay their welcome or invite themselves along with the two of them. Eventually their spontaneous route took them out of the busy centre. It was darker here, and there was no one else around; they walked together alongside the tranquil canal.
It was here that Erza turned to him and asked, "Jellal, what happened? Why did you choose to stay in the Tower of Heaven? What have you been doing for all these years? Why are you on the Council?" This last question held an almost comical note of disbelief.
Jellal glanced over his shoulder towards the soft glow of the town centre, and a darkness momentarily clouded his vision. "You know, for a long time back there, I really thought you weren't going to ask."
"I thought you probably didn't want to talk about it."
"I thought you probably didn't want to hear about it." Again, he could only meet her earnest gaze for a moment before darting across the shadow-painted canal, settling upon anything, everything, that wasn't her. "I've done a lot of bad things, Erza."
"Do you regret them?" she asked gently.
"…Not all of them."
Erza smiled a little at the sulkiness that had jumped unbidden into his tone, but he did not smile back.
"Erza," he continued. "If you ask me, I will answer you truthfully, but you may not like what you hear."
She considered this for a moment. "Jellal," she began. "May I hold your hand?"
They stared at each other, and when she didn't immediately correct herself, he was forced to conclude that she really did mean it. "I… I suppose so." Glancing at the ground, he mumbled, "You don't really… need to ask."
With a small smile, she slipped her hand into his. "Jellal," she said softly, as they began walking once again through the night's serenity. "I told you, didn't I, that I have loved you for as long as I can remember? That didn't change, on the day that you seized control of the Tower of Heaven – however much I might have wished back then that it had. I never hated you for it; I was only ever sad. And that hasn't changed since, except to become all the more important to me.
"That's how I know that whatever you have to say to me, it won't change how I feel about you. All it might do is make this-" her hand tightened around his "-a little more difficult, but if you truly want to stay with me as much as I do with you, then we will find a way to make it work regardless. Today alone you have proven yourself to me ten times over, and whatever happened in the past, I don't doubt for a second that the person stood in front of me right now is a good man. Millianna, Sho, Wally and Simon – they all want to move on from this, towards the futures they are finally able to choose for themselves. Let's do the same, you and I. Let's put this to rest here and now, and start over together."
Her hand in his: a promise that she would not run. No matter what the future held, they would face it together. She smiled at him, that gorgeous, radiant smile, which could at once put him at ease and fill him with happiness and stop his heart with its sheer beauty.
Impulsively, he said, "I do want to stay with you that much."
"Then we'll work this out together," she promised, with absolute certainty.
"…Alright, then. I suppose it all started when I met the ghost of Zeref-"
Erza stopped in her tracks. "You did what-?"
"Met the ghost of Zeref," he repeated, trying not to laugh at her stunned expression. "I never said it had been an uninteresting eight years. Just you wait until we get to the part where I convince the Magic Council that I have an evil twin brother. All I'm saying is that if you're going to interrupt me every time I get to an interesting bit, it's going to be a very long night."
Her eyes sparkled. "And you thought I would have a problem with that?"
"…Point taken," Jellal said, and they walked on.
There was nothing out of the ordinary as the sun rose over Fairy Tail that day, except that a slightly higher proportion of its members were hungover than usual. Perhaps because of this, the atmosphere was calm and quiet. The guildhall was doing a roaring trade in brunch – meaning that, unusually, Mira was the busiest of all its members, yet she still managed to look enviably graceful as she swept between tables, balancing an impossible number of plates on her arms.
Returning to the counter, she deposited plates piled high with sausages, bacon and eggs in front of Natsu, Lucy, Levy, and finally Erza. The latter looked up in surprise as Mira collapsed onto her own stool, exhausted. "I didn't order anything," Erza pointed out, bemused.
"I know," Mira responded. "It's on the house."
"Well… thank you," Erza said, pleasantly surprised, as she picked up her fork.
Mira winked at her. "And in return, you can tell us all about what happened last night."
"Nothing happened, really," Erza mused, as she continued to eat calmly.
"Don't tell us it was nothing!" Levy burst out. "Erza, we know you didn't come back to the dorms last night. You were staying at Siegrain's flat, weren't you?"
"Yes," Erza shrugged. "Just probably not in the way you're thinking." At the girl's suspicious look, she clarified serenely, "We had a lot to talk about. We walked around town for a bit, and when it got late, we went back to his flat and continued talking there. It was a good job we had so much to discuss, really, since he doesn't have a bed or anything…"
"Oh!" Lucy exclaimed. "I had forgotten he doesn't have any proper furniture."
"And we couldn't exactly go to my room in the dorms, thanks to Levy's restraining order…"
Levy choked on her coffee. "Erza! I thought it went without saying that I take all that back now you're actually going out…"
Erza just shrugged again, a slight smile on her face, having casually and deliberately turned the girls' attempt to embarrass her on its head. "It doesn't matter, anyway. We needed to talk, and we've managed to sort things out."
"Speaking of which," Natsu suddenly interrupted. "Where is Siegrain, anyway?"
"Era, I suspect," came Erza's cool response.
"He does work there, you know."
"No, he doesn't! He's part of our guild!"
"Not as of midnight last night. His contract with the Master is officially over; he doesn't have to remain in this guild for a second more."
"But… but…" Natsu floundered. "He was so obviously going to stay and join the guild!"
"He hates this guild," Erza pointed out. "He's never made any secret of that. Why would he want to stay?"
"Because he's genuinely been having fun here recently?" Lucy suggested.
"Because, despite his best efforts to the contrary, he's made far more friends here than he actually has at the Council?" Mira tried.
Levy slammed her hands down on the bar in indignation. "Because of you, Erza! You can't seriously be telling us that you two are going long-distance already! Do you even know how far away Era is?"
"I do know. But, that's just the way things work out sometimes." She offered her half-eaten breakfast a sad smile. "Besides, he's a Wizard Saint and a member of the Magic Council. I can't ask him to give all that up for me, when I know I would never give up Fairy Tail to go and live in Era with him."
"But that's different!" Levy protested. "He hates being part of the Magic Council, and he genuinely likes it here! I know he does; we were talking about this just a few days ago!"
"Sorry, Levy. It's just how things are."
"Well I won't stand for-"
Levy's protest was interrupted by a loud cough from Mira. "Ahem. Team huddle."
Much to Erza's bemusement, Mira proceeded to seize Lucy, Levy and Natsu, and drag them over to the corner of the room. There they engaged in a hushed and not at all suspicious private discussion, stopping only twice – once to find Gray and Juvia and force them to join in, and a second time, when Levy seized a passing Gajeel's arm and he too was engulfed by the huddle.
Eventually, Mira resurfaced from the group, and this time it was to accost their Guild Master. "Ah, Master," she breezed. "Can I get permission for myself and an elite handpicked team to go on an emergency mission that definitely won't involve going near the Magic Council or doing anything at all that might endanger the guild's future? Please?"
Makarov gazed at her suspiciously for a moment, and then gave in with a sigh. "Oh, why not?"
Trying not to smile, Erza stopped watching them out of the corner of her eye and returned her full attention to her breakfast.
"You're doing WHAT?" Ultear screeched.
"Cancelling the Tower of Heaven project," Jellal repeated calmly.
"But… but…" Words failed her. "You can't do that! You wouldn't!"
"Allow me to pick you up on a couple of points there," Jellal interjected, and he was clearly enjoying himself immensely. "I can do that, and in fact I already have."
"But what about destroying the world? Finding freedom? RESURRECTING ZEREF?"
"…You know, there's not much point in keeping this a secret for eight years if you're just going to start yelling about it in the middle of the Council Headquarters."
"There's not much point in keeping it a secret for eight years if you're just going to quit when we are this close to our goal!" Ultear shook her head in outraged disbelief. "Are you really willing to let all those years of hard work go to waste?"
"Oh, I don't think building the Tower of Heaven was a total waste of time," Jellal breezed. "I destroyed the core, so it will never function as an R-System again, but I still own the Tower itself. I was thinking of renting it out as a training ground for guild mages. They're always saving the day, but one thing I've learnt from my time with Fairy Tail is that it's mostly just luck. They have very little experience of actually raiding a villain's lair, with traps and secret doors and creepy décor and overly complicated schemes to foil. Now, I happen to own a suitably sinister building, and my staff already have the matching evil uniforms – all ready to fill that gap in the market. Guild staff training days: there's a fortune to be made, Ultear, I tell you."
"But… you…" she spluttered.
"Or, failing that, Simon suggested I could always go into partnership with Akane Resort. The Tower is only a short distance from the resort by boat, and it would make a great themed hotel for guests who like the occult, especially around Halloween."
Ultear's mouth hung open; her arms flapped wildly, like a stranded fish. "You're going to turn the Tower of Heaven… a device designed to resurrect the legendary Black Mage Zeref… into a themed hotel? That's blasphemy!"
"I prefer the word entrepreneurship."
"But what about sacrificing Erza to Zeref?"
"Ah. That. Well, I thought about it, and I realized that I didn't want to give Erza up to anyone, not even Zeref. I'm selfish like that."
"But… you could always find another sacrifice!"
"I could, technically, but destroying the world still means giving up Erza, so… no, sorry. Not happening."
Ultear took several steps backwards across the empty Council chamber, pointing at him in horror. "If you think that I- if you think that the ghost of Zeref is going to stand for this, then you're sorely mistaken!"
"Well, I will admit I was a little worried about repercussions on that front. But, as Erza pointed out, if Zeref's ghost was able to directly influence the real world, he wouldn't have needed me to build a whopping great tower for him, would he? Antagonizing him is a risk I'm prepared to take." Offhandedly, he added, "Plus, I don't recall ever mentioning having met the ghost of Zeref to you."
"Well, whatever. Fortunately for you, I don't care about that any more. In fact, I'm in such a good mood, now that I've sorted everything out with Erza and have quit the whole world-destruction thing while I'm ahead, that I'm even prepared to offer you a choice. Either you can let this role you've been playing with me on the Council become real, as if the Tower of Heaven never even existed…"
"Leave." He folded his arms and regarded her coolly. "Go back to whoever it is you're working with and pursue your dreams of ending the world elsewhere. And, since I'm feeling generous, I'll even tell the Council that I don't know where you've gone, or why you've gone there."
Shadows danced in her eyes. The temperature of the room dropped several degrees.
Jellal just shrugged; he had nothing to fear from her. "Since neither of us can turn the other in to the Council without also implicating ourselves, I think that an amicable parting is the best option for us. I don't dislike you, you know. It's been a lot more fun pulling off this scheme with you than it would have been alone. The problem is simply that we're not going in the same direction any more. And I would say that you could come with me, but… I think we both know each other a little too well for that."
She snorted. "And now you're being nice to me. I knew you going to Fairy Tail was a bad idea."
"On the contrary," he assured her. "It was a very good idea. Oh, I hated it there, and very nearly died so many times, but, looking back, I'm really quite glad that you refused to help me back when this all began. It's ironic to think that if you'd been a bit nicer to me, we might have already destroyed the world together. Maybe there's a lesson about how to treat people in there somewhere."
In the subsequent sullen silence, he made to leave, but paused with his hand still resting on the doorframe. "Well, it's up to you. Whichever you choose, I don't think we'll be seeing much of each other from now on. Goodbye, Ultear."
Jellal made it all of about halfway down the corridor before the wall exploded. Jumping back in the nick of time, he caught a glimpse of sunlight and a flash of fire, and then a shadow burst through the cascading rubble, straightened itself up, and pointed judgementally towards him.
"Found him!" Natsu called. "Get in here, quick!"
Jellal heaved a sigh, slipping his hands into his pockets. "Couldn't you just have used the door, like a normal person?"
"Yeah, Natsu, couldn't we have done?" Lucy echoed, exasperated, as she entered through the hole Natsu had made.
"What, and given him the chance to slip out the back entrance while we were negotiating with the guards?" Natsu retorted defiantly. "No way am I letting him sneak away without saying anything again! This is our reckoning!"
While he had been talking, the others had taken the chance to encircle Jellal: Gray and Juvia were behind him, Gajeel and Mira on either side, and Natsu, Lucy and Levy blocked his way forward. "Oh, my," Jellal remarked, without a trace of sincerity. "I appear to be surrounded. Now, what could possibly drive a bunch of guild mages to assault me in the middle of the Council Headquarters? Masochism, perhaps?"
Natsu ignored the taunt. "Why, exactly, are you not in the guild?"
"Haven't you been counting? My thirty days as a prisoner of your guild are up. The lacrima carrying the surveillance footage your Master was holding over me shattered at midnight last night. There is no reason for me to remain in your guild for a minute longer."
"There are loads of reasons!" Natsu protested.
"Then, by all means, explain them to me," Jellal challenged him. "Go on. This will be entertaining."
"First of all-"
Levy interrupted him. "I went over all this with you just a few days ago," she pointed out sternly. "There's no need for us to repeat ourselves now. You know why we want you to stay, and you also know why you should stay. So, instead, let me just say this: look around you. We all like you, and we consider you to be our friend."
Gajeel gave a cough.
"We all like you," Mira corrected her cheerfully, "Except for Gajeel, who is indifferent to you, and doesn't care if you leave. Equally, he did tell us on the way here that if Juvia and the Master hadn't convinced him to join Fairy Tail despite his misgivings, he would now be out there somewhere, lonely and miserable and probably in prison with Jose, so he wanted to try and convince you to stay here as well." At Gajeel's glower, she amended, "Well, he didn't use those exact words, but the point still stands."
Levy placed her hands on her hips. "After everything we've been through together, are you honestly still going to stand there and say that you don't like us?"
Jellal appeared to mull this over for a minute. "I suppose I don't completely hate you."
"However," he continued, his eyes flashing. "That is not enough to make me want to stay in your guild. Over the past thirty days, I have been blackmailed and forced to participate in inane events with you; I have accompanied you on stupid outings, have had my expert opinions repeatedly overruled with disastrous consequences, risked my life multiple times without a word of thanks, was almost drowned – twice – and I have been repeatedly mislabelled as a pervert throughout my stay. At the Council, by contrast, I have excellent financial and job security, people don't bother me, there's a top-notch security service to ensure my safety night and day, and no one has ever made me wear a maid outfit."
"Yes," Natsu agreed steadily. "But just think how bored you'll be going back to all that."
Juvia spoke up from the back. "Are you really okay with just leaving Erza like that?"
"Who cares about jobs or maid outfits?" Gray added bluntly. "If you want to be with her, then be with her. Nothing's stopping you."
"You can't honestly be saying that you like the Magic Council more than you like Erza," offered Lucy. "I don't think that's physically possible."
"No," Jellal said, and he shrugged. "But sometimes it's just how things have to be. I'm sure I'll see her occasionally." And with that, he brushed past the people in his way and carried on down the corridor.
They all stared after him in despair – all except Natsu, who caught up easily and threw himself in front of Jellal, as if he intended to stop him from walking away through force if necessary.
Yet to everyone's surprise – Jellal's especially – Natsu didn't start a fight. Instead, he just grinned, and an evil spark ignited in his eyes. "Well then, Mister Councillor, you leave us with no choice. If you quit the guild like this, Erza's going to be upset that she can't see you, and it'll be up to us, as her friends, to do something about that."
He took a step back and pointed victoriously at Jellal. "If the only way that Erza can see you from now on is when she's in Era apologizing to the Council for everything Fairy Tail has done, I can guarantee that we will be going out of our way to cause as much trouble as possible for the Council from here on out!"
Jellal stared at him in astonishment. Lucy had her head in her hands. Gray and Juvia exchanged looks of despair.
"Did he just…?" Levy asked.
"Yeah, I think he did," Mira replied, with an exasperated smile.
Oblivious to the atmosphere, Natsu grinned at Jellal. "That seat on the Council isn't looking quite so appealing now, huh?"
Jellal did not seem impressed. "This is blackmail."
"Ah, you're much quicker on the uptake the second time round, I see. So you can learn."
"But apparently you can't," Lucy muttered, under her breath. "It's not as though trying to blackmail a member of the Magic Council was what got us into this mess in the first place…"
But they all knew that that wasn't quite right. If not for the success of their first blackmailing plan, they would have been here trying to convince Jellal not to close down their guild, rather than petitioning him to become a full-time member. From that point of view, Makarov's scheme had worked perfectly.
And to their amazement, rather than calling for the guards to remove the guild mages from the building, Jellal just heaved a sigh. "Oh, fine. I'll come back with you."
"What, really?" Natsu squeaked.
"Yes, really. I give up. Let's go back to the guild."
As Natsu jumped into the air in celebration, Jellal began to walk towards the hole in the wall. Amazed, Levy asked, "What, just like that?"
"Well," Jellal replied, with a mildness that couldn't possibly have been further from his earlier attitude, "We should probably be long gone before anyone notices the damage Natsu has done to the building."
"Good plan," Lucy conceded, hurrying after him.
Levy remained unconvinced. "But… don't you need to go and hand in your resignation to the Council, or something?"
"Oh, I already did that," he told her easily.
"You… already did that?"
"Of course. Why did you think I came back here this morning? I had to tell them I was quitting, and get my personal affairs in order."
Natsu's victory dance cut off halfway through. "…Hang on a minute. Are you saying that you always intended to stay on in our guild?"
"That's right. I cleared everything with Makarov first thing this morning." Jellal pulled his hands out of his pockets, waving the back of his left hand and its deep blue Fairy Tail mark in the air. At Natsu's stunned expression, he laughed out loud. "Of course I'm staying with Erza. There is literally no reason for me to return to the Council any more."
"Why didn't you just say that from the start?" Gray demanded.
"Because it was amusing, watching you all try and talk me into staying. You're very sweet."
While the boys spluttered in outrage, Lucy asked, "Hold on, though. Why didn't Erza just tell us this at the guildhall this morning? Unless… unless you two were in it together…"
Jellal grinned at her. "Erza and I had a bet on. She bet that you would come after me and try to change my mind, and I bet that you would not."
"You bet against us?" Levy demanded, even more outraged by that than by the fact that they had been deceived.
"Of course I did," he smiled. "That way, whether you came after me or not, I would still win, wouldn't I?"
She considered this for a moment. "You're a jerk."
"What can I say?" he agreed. "Old habits die hard."
Through the breach in the wall he could see a figure standing out in the road: Erza, one hand raised in greeting. He couldn't help smiling when he saw her, and she smiled back, as bright and beautiful as ever. "Are you ready to go?" she called.
It was then that they heard footsteps echoing down the corridor – footsteps that sounded far too at home in this pretentious old building to belong to any of the guild mages. In fact, it was a tread that Jellal was very familiar with, but before he could say anything, the Chairman of the Magic Council rounded the corner – and stopped in his tracks.
"What happened here?" he demanded of the hole in the wall, aghast.
"Oh, sorry about that," said Jellal. "My guild came to pick me up."
If the blotchy and decidedly unamused shade of purple that the Chairman's face was turning was any indication, he did not see the funny side. "FAIRY TAIL-!" he bellowed.
Natsu gulped. "Oops…"
"Let me guess," Jellal sighed. "This is the part where we run away."
"Better get used to it," Lucy offered glumly.
And then they were running, all of them, out of the Council Headquarters and down the road; mages who had never run from an opponent in living memory but to whom fleeing from the irked law enforcement was second nature. Somewhere in the chaos of it, Erza's hand found his, and they were running together, towards their guild and their freedom and the future they had chosen for themselves. Despite everything, Jellal found himself laughing with sheer joy.
No, it wasn't quite a glorious into-the-sunset ending, but he had to agree, it was certainly an appropriate way to begin his new life with Erza as a Fairy Tail mage.
A/N: And we're done! Now, time for me to ramble self-indulgently for a bit. When I started to write this story, there were three conditions that I felt needed to be met in order to make a pre-Tower of Heaven arc Jellal/Erza relationship work:
The first was that Erza had to develop feelings for 'Siegrain' before obtaining any sort of proof that he was Jellal. In other words, she couldn't fall for him because he was her Jellal, but in spite of the fact that he wasn't. It's important because the Jellal of this era doesn't have all that much in common with the boy she used to love. And even though, as the story progresses, he starts to act more like he did back then, there's no discontinuous change in his personality like there is in canon. The Jellal in this timeline will always be a little more arrogant, a little more manipulative, and a lot more self-assured than in canon. Thus, it had to be the man in front of her whom Erza fell in love with, and not some ghost from the past who no longer exists.
The second was that Jellal had to reach a point where he would feasibly have chosen to stay in Fairy Tail even if Erza died. Therefore, he had to develop strong relationships with characters who weren't Erza too. While romance stories which focus exclusively on the main couple *can* work, it wouldn't produce a healthy and believable relationship in this situation. Erza's friends and guild are a huge part of her life, and Jellal needs to be able to appreciate that, which he does here through forming similar bonds of his own. Besides, to stay with Erza, Jellal has to give up every single thing that he is. He can do this precisely because he's gaining a whole new life in return - new friends, new guild, new aspirations, and new reasons to live, as well as Erza.
The third was that Jellal had to realize that Erza didn't belong to him, and that was the hardest of all. At the start, his feelings towards her were purely possessive - she is his sacrifice - and when they started to become a little more romantic, that naturally evolved into a very possessive form of love. The belief that Erza belonged to him and him alone became the last thing tying him to the past, persisting long after he had become unsure if he really wanted to active the Tower of Heaven. Only when he realized that she would rather die and save her guild than live and be with him was he forced to accept that he had no power over her, and they finally became able to stand side by side as equals.
That's been my take on it, anyway. If nothing else, I hope I've managed to make this slightly unorthodox version of their relationship a believable one!
If anyone's curious as to what Jellal might look like in that maid outfit, check out this wonderful sketch by the talented (and fearless) Singular Red (crrowe on tumblr) at oi68 tinypic com (/) 1zqzfol jpg - replace the spaces with dots and remove the parentheses. (This site can be a bit fussy about links, and I don't know if that applies within chapters or not, but it should show up this way at least).
Finally, I want to say a huge thank you to everyone who has reviewed, followed or favourited this story over the course of its run. Your support means so much to me. Thank you for giving this silly story a chance, and for sticking with me until the end! ~CS