Thunder Snow (Fairy Tail Fanfiction)

Title: Thunder Snow
Author:
Rhyssa Fireheart
Pairing:
None officially
Characters: Laxus Dreyar, Ciel Moorland (OC)
Fandom:
Fairy Tail
Rating: T (PG-13) for language and situations
Prompts: NA
Disclaimer:
Don’t own it, never will.  Just like to play around with it in my mind.


+ 1 +

He woke up slowly, the headache pounding at his temples making him groan.  His mouth tasted like sour milk and his eyes felt glued closed with grit.  Trying to remember the previous night didn’t bring up anything unusual and he was certain he’d had at most two mugs of the local alcohol to drink.  That definitely wasn’t enough to give him a hangover like this.

He sat up carefully, trying to move his head as little as possible, which didn’t work out so well.  Finally giving in, he opened his eyes but the room which swam into view certainly wasn’t the one he’d put his belongings in last night.  Bare, dingy walls covered in flaking plaster, roughhewn floor boards, a second basic bed with a woman sitting on the edge, a long narrow window along the top of one wall, blocked with bars, a solid looking door with another small barred window…

Wait…

Barred windows?

“Are you finally awake?” The woman’s voice was soft and tired sounding.

“Who…where…no, who are you?” His voice came out in a scratchy rasp, making him cough.

“I’m Ciel and the two girls here are Ino and Shira.  We’re all prisoners in a mining camp, somewhere over the Bosco border, is my guess.” For the first time he noticed the two young girls huddled under blankets on the other bed. “The guards dragged you in here a few hours ago, not sure from where.”

“Mining camp?  What’s going on here?  Is this a joke?”

“Definitely not a joke.  Going by what happened with me, they probably drugged something you ate or drank because the bandits that run this place needed another body to work the mines.  They have groups set up as “families” to work together – a father, mother, and two children.  The fathers dig out the ore, the mothers carry it out, and the children sort through it looking for the stones the bandits want,” she said bitterly.

“Good for them.  I’m getting out of here though.”  He stood up a bit shakily and headed for the door, intending to drag it open.  He grabbed the handle and for a second, it started to turn before he was thrown across the room to slam into the wall.  He slumped there dazed, trying to figure out what had happened and watched dust float in the wan daylight slanting through the window.  The woman stepped over to stand above him with hands on her hips.

“Let’s start over, I’m Ciel and you are…?”

“Laxus.  What was that with the door?”

“The door is locked by magic; it won’t open unless you have the right key and the collars we’re all wearing definitely aren’t the key.”  She pointed at a silver band resting snugly above her collarbones. “This is how they keep everyone in line, too.”

Laxus felt along his own neck, running his fingers along the smooth metal.  His fingers gripped the object and yanked, intending to pull it off so the damn door would open.  A shock shot through his body and he jerked in sudden pain, head cracking against the wall again.  When he opened his eyes, Ciel sighed and crouched down before him.

“Okay, look, why don’t you just let me finish explaining before you do something else stupid and get all of us hurt?  Sound like a plan?”  At his nod, she grasped his hand and helped lever him off the floor and back onto the bed.

“Let’s start at the beginning again – we’re prisoners in a slave mining camp.  Groups are arranged in what the guards call families – a father, mother, and two children. We’re being forced to mine some kind of mineral; I haven’t been able to figure out what it is or why they want it.  It doesn’t look particularly special from what I can tell.

“They control us through these collars.  There’s magic sealing stone integrated into them so no magic obviously.  I think it’s tied to some body-link magic in the metal that prevents you from removing the collar.  In fact, you can’t even think about removing it or you’ll be shocked, as you’ve already found out.  The collars also control what areas we’re allowed in; so if you try going somewhere you’re not supposed to, again, you’ll get a shock.

“I’ve been here just over two months now, the girls for even longer; they really can’t remember.  Today’s a rest day so tomorrow we’ll be expected to work. This little “family” hasn’t had a father since I got here, but from what the other women have said and what I’ve seen, if one member screws up, the whole family gets punished.  Now, I’m not too worried about myself, but if you’re going to do anything stupid, stop and think of the two kids at the very least.  They don’t deserve getting hurt.

“Any questions?”

Laxus just stared at the woman.  Her whole speech had been delivered in a tired monotone without pause.  She sat on the edge of the other bed absently brushing her hand over the hair of one of the girls.  Both children were huddled together under the blankets, their breath puffing out in white clouds.  Once he noticed that, the cold suddenly seeped into every bit of exposed skin.  He looked down at himself and realized his clothes were gone and he was wearing roughly woven shirt and pants.  His feet were bare and uncomfortable against the scuffed flooring.

“Why is it so damn cold in here?”

“The bandits have decided that we can be warm in the mines.  Otherwise, we get to huddle under blankets in the room here.  It helps to keep the slaves in line if they’re too damn cold to move around and rebel. There’s some socks and shoes at the foot of that bed for you; you should put them on.  I’ve been sharing the bed with the two girls to help keep them warmer at night, so you’re free to have the other bed by yourself. “ A pause. “And another one of the blankets if you want.”

“No, I’ll be fine,” he said, looking around.  At least with his feet covered he felt slightly warmer. “So what time is it?”

“Late afternoon, probably getting close to dinner.  There’s a communal dining room they feed us all in, so you can get a look at the other prisoners there.  I’ve counted about 100 total, which would be about 25 families.” As she finished speaking, a bell rang and the sounds of locks releasing filled the air.

“Everyone out!  Time to eat!  Move to the hall now!”

“Come on, they’ll come in and drag you out if you try to avoid it.  That’s happened once that I’ve seen.  The mother refused to come out and the father and two children were beaten pretty badly.”  She urged the two girls out the door, giving him a worried look as she passed.  He sighed in frustration before getting up and following. 

The hall was crowded with other “family” groups and Laxus took the opportunity to study the other prisoners as they headed down the hallway.  As a group, the other men looked like a brutish assembly. Most he saw were smaller than he was, although several were about his size and all seemed to be a lot dirtier.  One man had to duck his head to make his way down the hall, which told Laxus a lot about whatever control methods these bandits were using.  The few guards he could see didn’t look particularly threatening at all, at least not enough to keep this many people confined without strong measures.

“Come on,” Ciel said, grabbing his arm. “We’re supposed to keep together.”  She took the hand of one of the girls (he supposed he’d have to learn which was which) and lead them towards the dining room.  They queued up for food, carrying trays to an empty table. 

“This looks like crap,” Laxus said, staring at the food on his tray.

“I know, it’s not very appealing to look at, but it keeps us healthy enough to work.  That’s all the guards care about.”

Later that night, after the lights were turned out (long before sunset, judging by the amount of light still coming through the window), Laxus sat on the side of his bed with the blanket draped around his shoulders and stared at the rest of his sleeping “family”.  The collar may be blocking his magic, but it couldn’t do anything about his enhanced senses.  The scant light was plenty for him to study the woman and two girls.  Both the children clung to each other tightly and were in turn held protectively by Ciel.  Even lying on her side with her legs bent, the bed looked far too small for three people.

Her, he couldn’t figure out at all.  She sounded tired and defeated, but for whatever reason, he was sure that was an act, or at least partially an act.  He noticed that the slight scowl she’d had since he’d woken up was gone and she looked younger than his first impression, maybe not even his own age.  In the dim light, the white streak in her dark hair stood out like a beacon.  He hadn’t paid close enough attention to see what color her eyes were, but he thought they were dark.  She wasn’t bad looking, he decided, although that really didn’t make a difference.  He wasn’t going to be sticking around for very long.

Six weeks later, staring into a whirlwind of white, he reflected back on that thought and smiled grimly to himself.

+ 2 +

Laxus shuffled down the hallway from the baths heading towards his room.  He’d discovered on the second day that the bandits let their prisoners have hot baths each night, which felt like heaven after spending the day working in the mines.  But then back in the rooms, with the cold leeching into relaxed muscles and stealing all that warmth away, his body started to stiffen up.  He’d woken up several times that night with cramps in his arms or legs and only got back to sleep after forcing himself to relax.  It was also a harsh way to learn that working out and being fit wasn’t the same as doing draining physical labor for hours on end.  His whole body hurt and made sleeping almost impossible.  He refused to even acknowledge the pain though, not after seeing another woman punished because her “husband” had an accident while digging.

Ciel woke up on the fourth night while he was trying to ease another cramp in his leg.  Contorting himself around to massage one leg was putting him on the verge of a cramp in other locations.  Laxus didn’t even realize she’d woken up until he felt strong hands grab his calf and start massaging away the knots, working her way up to his thighs and back down.  She switched back and forth between both legs, stopping only once she felt his muscles relax.

“You should have said something,” she whispered.

“Tonight was the first time it happened,” he whispered back.  “I was fine before this.”

“I’m not that heavy a sleeper,” was all she said before climbing into bed with the children, leaving him to stare into the darkness and realize she knew he was lying.

The next night, after they returned from the baths and she’d gotten the girls settled into bed, Ciel turned and ordered him to sit down on the edge of his bed and hold out his hands.  He did so, wondering what she was doing.  She picked up a small pack from the chair and opened it up, pulling out a small jar and rolls of white fabric.

“Your palms,” she said, waiting for him to turn his hands over.  When he hesitated, she sighed and gently grabbed his right hand, turning it over to rest on her knees.  She slathered ointment from the jar over his broken blisters, rubbing it in carefully before wrapping white gauze around his hands and fingers.  Once she’d done the same to his left hand, she told him to lay face down on his bed. 

“What?”

“Just lay down.  I’ll rub out your muscles so you don’t cramp up again.  Plus, it’ll probably help you tomorrow when you’re digging.”

Laxus laid down on the bed, feeling uncomfortable mostly because he wasn’t used to being touched, especially not like this.  Sure, the Raijinshuu could be a bit exuberant around him, and Freed was clingy sometimes, but that was different, they were his friends.  Right now, he was just very conscious of the fact that a woman he barely knew was giving him a massage.  It felt nice and while he didn’t really mind that much and wasn’t entirely sure he wanted it to end, he also wasn’t about to say that to her. 

“Thank you, that…uh…helped.”

“You’re welcome.  Next time, don’t wait to ask for help,” Ciel replied.  “Don’t forget, it’s in my best interests to make sure you stay healthy while we’re all stuck in here together.”  They both heard giggles coming from the other bed and looked over to see the two girls grinning at them from the mounded covers.  “What are you two monkeys laughing about?” she said with a smile, getting up and moving over to their bed.

Six days after waking up a prisoner, the bandits threw a new variable into the mix.  Laxus walked into their room after the evening baths and ran into the back of Ciel, who was standing frozen just inside the doorway.  He grabbed her around the waist to keep from knocking her to the ground but she didn’t seem to notice.  Looking past her into the room, he tried to figure out what was wrong.  The girls weren’t there and the room was bigger somehow.

“Good evening!  Tonight is adult’s night for all our fathers and mothers!  Don’t worry about your precious children; they get to have a big sleepover together!  That means all you loving couples won’t be interrupted all night long!  And since tomorrow is a rest day, you can sleep in to recover if you need to!  Gwahahahahaha!”

The cell door slammed shut behind him and Laxus realized what was missing – one of the two beds, the other replaced with one that was larger.  That meant that he and Ciel were going to have to share the bed if they didn’t want to risk freezing.

“I forgot.”

“Huh?”

“I forgot about this. Since I’ve been the only adult in this family for so long, they didn’t do this before.  I’m sorry.”

“For what?  It’s not your fault these bandits are sick bastards.”  Through the door, he could hear faint cries and once, a short scream. “So some of the men don’t care if the woman is willing or not, huh?”  He could feel anger begin to rise.  Taking advantage of someone weaker in a situation like this was sick, especially when the other person couldn’t fight back properly.

“No, some of them don’t care at all.” Ciel’s voice was tight with anger and he realized they were still standing in the doorway, his hands clamped around her waist.  He could feel her sides move as she took a deep breath and he abruptly let go, stepping around her to sit on the edge of the bed.

“Look, I’m not going to do anything to you,” Laxus said, not looking in her direction.  “Let’s just get ready for bed as usual and….” He didn’t continue, unsure of what else to say.  He’d been with women before, but he couldn’t think of any instance when he’d just slept with one. That screamed of domesticity.

“Right, you’re right,” she said. “Why should this be any different than usual?  Go ahead and lay down.” 

Their nightly routine suddenly felt much more intimate now that there were no giggling children around.  The other nights when she’d massaged his back and shoulders had been uneventful, but now they were alone and he couldn’t stop thinking about how an attractive woman was straddling his hips, her legs pressed against his sides.  He could feel her thighs flex whenever she leaned forward to reach his shoulders, the rough weave of his shirt pressing into his skin.  Her hands moved across his shirt, traveling from the small of his back up the spine, pressing outwards towards his sides and sliding across his shoulder blades.  Her thumbs dug into the muscles of his shoulders, easing the tightness there before moving down his arms, first one side then the other.

“That’s enough!” He pulled his arms under his chest and pushed up; not realizing it would result in her breasts pressed against his back and her arms around his shoulders. The back of his head collided with her face and with a gasp, Ciel scrambled off the bed and fell onto the floor.  She twisted around to face the door, sitting with her head bowed.  She didn’t move when he got up and moved to her side.

“Ciel, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean for that to happen.”  He leaned forward to see her face and caught a glimpse of blood before the lights went out for the night.  “Dammit, are you all right?” he said, placing a hand on her shoulder.  She didn’t move for a few seconds, making him wonder what to do next.

“I’m fine; it’s just a bloody nose.  You’ve got a pretty hard head, heh,” she finally said, moving to stand up.

“Yeah, sorry about that, too.  I promise I won’t do anything else to you tonight, all right?”  They moved to the bed and he urged her to climb under the covers first before climbing in after her.

“It’ll probably be easier if we sleep back-to-front, if that’s fine with you,” she said quietly.  “I mean, I normally sleep on my side but I don’t know about you…”

“I’ll be fine, just go to sleep,” he said roughly, putting his arm around her waist and pulling her body back against his.  The position wasn’t as awkward as he was afraid it would be; he just hoped the feel of her body against his wouldn’t cause any problems in the night.  After several minutes, he felt her finally relax against him, so he tucked his chin into the hollow of her shoulder and closed his eyes, falling asleep more quickly than he expected.

The next morning he slowly woke up to the feel of a calloused palm softly running up and down his arm.  He felt rested and there was a comfortable warmth pressed against his front.  He could feel freezing air biting at his exposed skin and had just decided to stay in bed a little longer when the memory of the previous night flooded back in.

“Good morning,” Ciel said softly when she felt him jerk awake. “It’s still early so we don’t need to get up yet.  Breakfast isn’t for a while.”  Laxus froze at her words and stared at the back of her head for a few moments before relaxing again.

“At least it’s warm,” he said wryly.

“Yeah, very warm like this,” she murmured back, already half-asleep again.  “Oh! You’ve probably been freezing before this with only the one blanket, haven’t you?”

“Don’t worry about it.  As a… friend of mine would say, it’s manly to not feel the cold.” Laxus smiled to himself thinking about Elfman’s favorite saying.

“Well, that may be true, but freezing doesn’t do anyone any good when there’s an alternative.  Besides, with the four of us, it’ll make things easier on the girls.”  Laxus noticed that while she was talking, Ciel kept running her hand over his arm, letting her fingers skim gently over his skin, and like the night before, he realized he enjoyed how it felt.  He wondered how her hands would feel on other parts of his body….

“Uhh, I’m awake now.  Why don’t you just stay here under the covers though?  No reason for you to get up just because I can’t sleep anymore.”  Laxus scrambled out from under the blankets, tucking them against her back once he was up.

“Mmm, thank you, Laxus,” she said, already falling back to sleep.  Laxus stared down at the dozing woman, confused about what was going on.   After a moment, he just shrugged and started stretching to stay warm.  If he didn’t want to be stuck here forever, he needed to make sure he was ready when an opportunity to escape presented itself.  First, he had to do something about this collar though. He started reviewing everything he knew about body-link magic and how it worked, trying to see if there was a way to break the link without causing too much damage.

+ 3 +

The days fell into a pattern – wake-up, eat breakfast, get herded into the mines where he and the other men used picks to break chunks of rocks from the walls, digging tunnels further into the mountain.  He could see the sparkling mineral veins running throughout the denser stone, but couldn’t tell what was so special about it.

The women hauled the chunks of stone to a sorting area where the children picked through it all, pulling out the sparkling mineral pieces.  In some cases, the rocks had to be broken down into smaller pieces in order to get the mineral out.  Laxus was surprised the first time he saw Ciel swinging one of the smaller sledge hammers; she was stronger than he realized, especially if she’d been doing this for over two months by now.  He also noticed that his “family” easily out-produced the others by a wide margin.

Swinging a pick at stone was tiring work and if he wasn’t paying attention, it resulted in sharp chips of stone ricocheting back at him, leaving cuts and scratches on any bits of skin they hit.  His forearms were traced with healing white lines and his knuckles were constantly kept wrapped in gauze, although that was more from venting his frustration against the walls than any mining problems.   And every night, Ciel checked his hands over and bandaged them up to heal.

At the end of the work day, they were taken back to the dining hall to eat and then afterwards, given the chance to bathe before being locked into their cells for the night.  Most of the time everyone was too tired from working all day to cause any trouble, but when it did happen, it was at dinner time. He’d already seen at least three instances of someone trying to remove their collar and the shocks they suffered as a result.  In one case, the woman was so determined to break free that she rendered herself unconscious and guards arrived to drag her body away.  Soon enough, a different woman took her place.

The guards also enjoyed doling out any punishments before dinner was served.  They would push the tables to create an open space and line the prisoners up against the walls, pulling their victims into the center of a circle.  Only for the worst offenses did the head guard bother to make an appearance, and he would laugh uproariously while the abused person cried or lashed out.  Anyone even hinting at protest was usually roped into the current punishment.

“Hey, woman.  I’ve seen how you work in the mines and I think I prefer you, so we’re going to change up the families, got it?”

Laxus saw the man leaning over Ciel seated at the table and he picked up his pace a bit to get over there more quickly, Ino and Shira following behind.  She’d gotten her food first and carried over her tray and one for Ino, leaving Laxus to carry his and Shira’s trays.  He looked over at the table the man usually sat at and saw the woman there sitting with her head down, bruises visible beneath the fall of hair covering her face.  Both children also had fading bruises on their exposed skin.

“No thanks, I’m fine with the family I’m in now,” Ciel said politely.

“I don’t think you get it.  I said I want you to be in my family now, so that’s how it’s going to be,” the man said roughly, grabbing Ciel’s arm and pulling her up.  “You look pretty strong, unlike the weak bitch I have now, so I’ve decided you’re going to work with me.”

Laxus slammed the two trays down on the table, breaking the bully’s hold on Ciel’s arm at the same time.  He faced the other man and stared into his eyes, fists clenched at his side.

“She said she’s fine with this family, now go away,” he said.  Behind him, he could hear Ciel talking to the girls, telling them grab some food and go back to the room now.  The rest of the dining room had fallen silent at the sound of raised voices and a space had opened up around them.

“Laxus,” Ciel said from behind him. He turned his head slightly to see her standing to his left, glaring at the bully. “Whatever you do, just don’t start the fight, all right?”  She gave him a quick glance before turning her attention back to their opponent. 

“You bastard!  No one asked you to get involved!” the bully shouted.

“I told you I wasn’t interested in joining your family.  You’re the one who pushed this,” Ciel said, taking a step forward.

“And you!  You’re a fucking bitch!” The bully launched a punch that caught Ciel on the side of the face, knocking her into the next table.  She grabbed the edge to keep from falling, scattering chairs to the ground.

“That’s it,” Laxus growled before sending his own punch at the bully’s head.  He felt a satisfying crunch as his knuckles hit the man’s cheek and followed that up with a punch to the chest, sending the bully stumbling back into the wall. 

His opponent responded by charging at Laxus and grabbing him around the waist, taking them both down to the ground with the bully on top.  He started to throw punch after punch at Laxus’ head, forcing him to use his forearms to block the blows. The man obviously weighed more than he did and Laxus was having trouble twisting his body enough to knock the guy off him. 

The other man suddenly fell to the side and as Laxus scrambled back to his feet, he saw Ciel crawling away from the bully, having crashed into the guy to get him off.  She didn’t move quickly enough though and the bully grabbed her ankle, pulling her back so he could deliver a few punches to her lower back.  Laxus stomped on the man’s arm, breaking his grip on her leg and then he caught the guy with an uppercut to the jaw that cracked the man’s head against the floor.

By this time, the guards had organized themselves and Laxus was grabbed and restrained.  He struggled for a few moments more until a guard sent a shock through his collar, dazing him.  Ciel lay curled in a ball on the ground near his feet.  The bully was flat on his back, laughing like a crazy man.  Guards were herding the other prisoners against the walls and moving tables to create an open space around the three of them.

“Well, looks like some of you have the energy to fight tonight.  So who wants to tell me what happened here?”  The head guard stood in the middle of the circle, tapping his command stick into the palm of one hand.

The bully stopped laughing long enough to say “fucking bitch got up in my face and tried hitting me.  Then her man got involved and that’s when you guys showed up.”

“Really now, you don’t say? Anyone else see what happened?”

“Yeah,” Laxus said.  “Bastard grabbed her and said she was joining his family and when she said no, he punched her in the face.  So then I punched him and he came right back for more. She helped get him off me and he took another shot at her, so now here we are.”

“And now we have your version of the story.  Good, good.  That gives me something to work with, gwahahaha!” The head guard laughed at his own words.  “As a matter of fact, your version happens to match what one of my guards told me, so you’re in luck!  We won’t punish you for defending your woman!”

Laxus relaxed slightly at the words.  The head guard gestured and two guards went to Ciel, pulled her to her feet and dragged her over to the wall.  Her hands were attached to what he’d thought were decorative rings hanging there, leaving her facing the rough stone.

“Hey, what are you doing?”

“Oh, you won’t be punished,” the head guard said as Laxus was yanked back against a support column and his wrists secured around it.  “But she’ll have to be punished for causing this other poor man to lose his mind.  We can’t have the women causing problems like this, now can we?”  He smirked at the look on Laxus’ face.  “Oh, don’t worry; it won’t leave a mark at all! Gwahahahaha!”

The head guard walked over to Ciel and slowly dragged his stick across her back.  Laxus could see her stiffen in pain but she didn’t cry out.  The guard touched her back with his weapon again, reaching up to grab her hair and drag her head back so everyone could see the grimace of pain on her face. 

“Not going to cry out for me, my pretty?  We’ll see about that!”  He then proceeded to whip the stick across her back, over and over again.  Ciel struggled to avoid the blows but despite the obvious pain, she didn’t cry out.

“Stop it!  Leave her alone!” Laxus shouted.

The head guard turned to him with a scowl and whipped his stick at Laxus’ face, catching him across the cheek and sending a jolt of electricity through his body.  As he flinched from the pain, the guard triggered his collar to produce an extended shock.  Laxus’ muscles tightened up in spasms, pulling against his bones until he felt like he was being torn apart.  He fell to his knees, trying to keep from blacking out.

“Shut up or you’re next!  I’ll make her scream for me sooner or later!”

“Ciel!”

The head guard continued lashing his command stick across her back, occasionally pausing to pull her head off the wall so he could see her expression.  He finally stopped when he realized that Ciel was crying and blood was dripping from her mouth.  He grinned in pleasure as other guards released her wrists from the restraints and she fell to the floor.  One of the guards removed Laxus’ restraints as well and they all walked out of the dining hall, laughing.  The other prisoners didn’t meet his eyes as they filed out of the room, leaving him to stand up and stagger over to Ciel’s side.

“You idiot.  Why didn’t you at least scream out?” Laxus asked as he knelt down.  “That’s all he wanted.”

“And then what?” she said between gasps. “He wouldn’t have stopped there; I’m sure of it.”  Laxus just shook his head and slid his hands under her back and knees, pausing to catch his breath before picking her up.

“Let’s just go back to the room and see how badly you’re hurt.”  He carried her back to their cell, finding the girls huddled on the bed, staring at the door in fear.

“Ciel!” they cried and jumped off the bed, grabbing at her hands before Laxus could set her down on the stool.

“I’ll be fine, girls.  I just need a good night’s sleep and everything will be back to normal,” she said.

“Take off your shirt; let’s get a look at your back,” Laxus demanded after she was sitting down. “You still have some of that salve, right?”

“I’m telling you, it’s fine.”

“Just do it.”

She glared at him over her shoulder but started pulling up the bottom of her shirt anyway.  He didn’t move to help although she was obviously moving stiffly, but once her back was exposed, he was surprised to see almost unmarked skin.  There were faint red lines from the whip marks, but nothing like he was expecting to see.  She turned slightly to get a better look at his expression, giving him a view of a tattoo of leaves and vines wrapped around her left arm, with one deep blue flower above her wrist.

“It works on the nerves,” she said softly.  “That’s why there aren’t any marks.  I was beaten like that shortly after I got here, which is how I found out that remaining silent frustrates the head guard.  He’s too lazy to actually try breaking me all the way, so he just does enough until I cry and then stops.”  Ciel hung her head, taking deep breaths to try to relax.  “The cold air actually feels good right now.”

“Girls, go and get cleaned up while you can, okay?” Laxus said, sending them out the cell and to the baths.  “Are you going to be able to bathe on your own?”

“I’m going to have to; it’s not like you can help, after all,” Ciel replied with a smile.  “Come on, let’s go before it’s time to get locked in.”  She took his extended hand as he stood next to her and they headed to the baths.

+ 4 +

That night, as usual, they crawled into the one remaining bed together; the girls huddled between the two adults so they’d be warmest.  He stayed awake long after the others had fallen asleep; listening to Ciel’s ragged breathing.  He could feel her body tremble occasionally, muscles spasming from the abuse.  Despite not leaving a mark, her pain must have been horrible; he could still feel lingering traces of his own pain.  The cold air did feel good against his cheek, but not enough to stay uncovered for long. 

As the days passed, the cold deepened in intensity, making it painful to be outside the warm bed at all.  Whenever they weren’t sleeping huddled together, they wrapped a blanket around their shoulders to keep warm.

And every seven days, the girls were taken away for a “sleepover” and he and Ciel were left alone in the freezing cell.  He kept his promise to not touch her but it was becoming harder to ignore the fact that he liked this woman.  They would pass the time chatting about stuff outside the mines.  He told her about his Raijinshuu in as vague terms possible, not mentioning that he or they were mages.  She told him about her auntie, the de facto leader of her extended family, and all the siblings and cousins and nieces and nephews she had.  They lived in the mountains nearby and as she put it, “grew them large” in reference to the fact that she was barely a half-head shorter than he was.

“I’ve spent a lot of time climbing around the mountains, and going up and down hillsides,” she said with a laugh.  “I definitely took after my father’s side of the family.  Unlike me, my two sisters are dainty and delicate and beautiful, but they’re just as tough as the rest of us.”

“I wonder what it would be like to have siblings,” he said.

“You’re an only child?”

“Yeah, I was mostly raised by my grandfather.  He and my dad had a falling out when I was in my teens and my dad left.”

“So what are you doing up here in the mountains?”

“Just wandering, I guess.  I had a pretty big argument with my gramps and did some stuff I shouldn’t have, so I took off for a while.  I was mad about a lot of stuff then.”  Laxus figured that was about as vague an explanation he could give about what he’d done to Fairy Tail during the Harvest festival and still get the basic point across. “He got really mad at me, too, so this is probably for the best.”

“Oh, I’m sure it is.  I’ve done that before as well.  In fact, I think all my siblings have had something similar happen to us.”

“Get into huge arguments with family and then leave? Why’s that?”

“Too much love is my mother’s theory,” Ciel said.  “Despite all the arguments and yelling and fighting, we really do love each other.  So it can get tense and one of us just goes off for a while to cool off.”  She shrugged self-consciously.  “I just got back from one of those breaks about a month before I got captured.  Things were tense for a lot of reasons so I just left and spent time with Auntie in the next town over, so it’s not like my family didn’t know where I was.”

“I just needed to leave and take a break from it all.  My friends thought they should be punished to, since they helped me with what I did, but I didn’t want them to get hurt too; it was all on me.  I hope they’re getting along better with everyone else though.”

“Sometimes family isn’t easy but they’re your friends, I’m sure they’ll be fine.”

At night, after she’d fallen asleep, he found himself thinking of their situation and how he was going to get free.  She was turning into a distraction, which he suspected the bandits knew would happen.  How else to explain setting up “families” and making your relative comfort dependent on three other people, not to mention basic survival against the cold.  It forced cooperation for all involved, unless you were a complete sociopath and didn’t care about what happened to others, especially children.

Still, he couldn’t deny that he kept circling back to thinking of all the times they’d touched, either deliberately or not.  He couldn’t deny enjoying the massages, although after several weeks now, he was no longer bothered by sore muscles.  He couldn’t deny that he enjoyed talking with her about random topics, or just sitting quietly together before the lights went off for the night.  He couldn’t deny that he found her attractive but wasn’t sure if that was only because they’d been locked up together for over a month now, or if he really was attracted to her despite their circumstances.

Six weeks after being captured, something finally changed.  It was adult’s night again and they’d both eventually fallen asleep as usual, but something woke Laxus up in the late hours of the night.  He lay still trying to decide what was different before realizing that Ciel wasn’t asleep either.

“What’s the matter, can’t sleep?”

“No, I had a dream that we were stuck here until we grew old and never saw daylight again,” she said softly, running her hand along his forearm.  “Nothing but night worries, that’s all. Sorry if I woke you up.”

“It’s all right,” he said, tightening his arm around her waist for a moment before relaxing again.  Just as she had that first night (and nights since), she trailed her hand gently over his arm, fingers barely skimming and tickling his skin.

“Do you know what the worst part of the dream was?  I didn’t mind being stuck here because it was with you.  We watched the girls grow up and get moved into their own families here and I didn’t seem to mind any of it,” she said.  “I was so scared when I woke up; afraid I was starting to become comfortable here.”

“It won’t happen,” he said roughly.  “There’s no way I’m staying here for any longer than I have to.  We’ll figure something out eventually and escape from here.”

“Yeah, I’m sure we will,” she said. “Still… there were some nice parts to the dream.”

“What could be nice about dreaming you were a prisoner for the rest of your life?”

She didn’t say anything for a long while and they laid together in the dark silence.  Finally, just when he was on the verge of falling back to sleep, she shifted, turning around to face him. Her arm slid under his and her hand slipped beneath the edge of his shirt to rest against the small of his back. “Mmm, some parts didn’t seem so bad.”

“Uh, they didn’t?” he said nervously.  Her hand was a fiery warmth against his skin as she started rubbing circles on his back.  She pulled herself closer against his body and he felt the touch of lips against his neck.  “Ciel?”

“This was one of the better parts,” she whispered.  “Maybe I’ll just pretend I’m still asleep.”  Her mouth traced a path along his jaw and Laxus responded by holding her closer, turning his head to catch her lips with his. 

“Are you sure about this?” he asked after breaking off the kiss.

“Yes.”

At her reply, he rolled them over, bracing himself above her and kissed her again.  She took advantage of the new position to push his shirt further up and he could feel her fingers digging into his back.  The cold air of the cell felt refreshing against his heated skin as he helped her finish removing his shirt, shoving the blankets down around their legs at the same time.

Her breath caught in a gasp when he slid his hand under her shirt, resting it against her waist.  As he slowly moved it beneath the fabric, she arched her back, making it easier for him to lift her shirt up.  His thumb grazed the bottom of her breast, making her moan slightly as he stopped there.

“Don’t stop!”  Her hands moved up his chest to slide around his neck, fingers tangling in his hair.

“I don’t plan to stop,” he said, pressing his mouth to her collarbone and biting softly.  His leg was between hers and he could feel her pressing herself against this thigh.  She pulled on his hair to bring his mouth back up to hers and he cupped her breast as they kissed.  He could feel her fingers moving through his hair and against his neck.  Her breath was coming in gasps as he kissed his way along her neck, intending to lift her shirt to give access to her breasts.

+ 5 +

Laxus heard a faint click and then the slither of warm metal against his neck before a jangle of links landed in the hollow of Ciel’s throat.  The feel of his magic being released caught him off-guard.

“What the…?”

“What’s this?”  She grabbed the pile of metal and lifted it up.  Even in the dim light Laxus recognized the control collar the bandits used on everyone.

“How’d you take it off?” he demanded.

“I don’t know!  I was running my fingers over the back of your neck, playing with your hair, but I wasn’t consciously thinking about unlatching the collar,” she said.  “Does this mean you can take another person’s collar off then?”

“I don’t know, let’s see,” he said before reaching behind her neck to feel along the metal for the latch.  With a click, the ends parted and he pulled it away from her neck. 

“We’re free!” she breathed softly.  She drew him back down into another kiss before pulling back with a huge smile.  “My magic’s back!”

“Wait, you’re a mage, too?” he said, sitting on the side of the bed to grab his shirt and pull it back on.

“Too?  You’re also a mage?  Why didn’t you say so,” she said. “Hopefully that means we won’t have any problem taking out the bandits to get out of here.  I don’t think I could leave the kids here.”

“That’s fine.  I owe these bandits some payback, plus we’ll catch them sleeping like this.  We just need to figure out how to open the lock on the door.  I’d rather not alert everyone to what’s happening yet if we can.”

Ciel finished putting on her shoes and grabbed one of the collars lying on the bed, tucking it into a pocket. “We’re going to need to figure out how to disable these as well.”

“Let me try something quick,” he said.  He held the ends of a collar in each hand and then sent the smallest bolt of lightning he could manage through the metal.  There was a pop and a trace of smoke drifted into the air.  “Looks like that might have worked.  Let me do the one you have so that we don’t have to worry about them putting these back on us.”  Once that was done, they turned their attention to the door.

“Can you disable the lock the same way?” Ciel asked.

“I might be able to, but that wouldn’t open it.  We’d be stuck in here.”

“Okay, let me try something then,” she said, putting her hand through the small window in the door.  Laxus stepped back as a flurry of white surrounded her form and when it disappeared, she was gone.  He stared for a moment before stepping up to the door, trying to peer through the window into the dark hallway.  The click of the lock was loud in the silence of the night.

“Well, it’s been a while since I’ve done that.  Glad I remembered how.” Ciel smiled at him through the open door, backing away to let him step out into the hallway with her.

“So what kind of mage are you, anyway?” he asked quietly.  “It might help to know if we can use our magics together somehow.”

“Elemental snow mage, which probably isn’t saying much if you ask me.  I can whip up small blizzards and use the snow for protection, but I don’t have a whole lot of offensive capabilities other than that. It just takes too long for me to get something big started, so I stick to using smaller attacks.  You?”

“Lightning, although I’m familiar with some other kinds of magic that my friends use.  It won’t do us any good right now though; I don’t have the time to worry about putting down runes for anything.”

“Then fighting it is!” 

She looked down the dark hallway towards the main room.  Faint light came from there, probably from the few guards keeping a useless watch on the prisoners.  If luck was with them, anyone in there would be dozing or close to it.  Laxus lead the way towards the light, keeping as silent as possible.  Every little noise felt amplified in the dark and he worried that someone in a cell they passed would be awake.

They crept along the walls until the room was visible.  Two guards were sitting at a table playing a desultory game of cards and another was dozing in a chair nearby.  Laxus looked over his shoulder at Ciel, pointing at the sleeping guard and giving her a questioning look; she peeked past him and then nodded before dissolving into snow.  He watched as she moved slowly along the ground, appearing to almost be a fog that pooled behind the sleeping guard.  With an upward –whoosh- of movement, she reformed her body and grabbed the guard by the neck, twisting it sharply to one side and dragging him to the floor.

The other two guards gaped at her in surprise and didn’t notice Laxus moving up next to them.  He grabbed a head in each hand and then slammed them together, knocking one out immediately.  The other looked woozily up at Laxus and tried to reach for a weapon, but a simple punch finished him off.  They both froze in place to see if the small amount of noise they’d made had alerted anyone else around.

“Did you kill that one?” Laxus asked.

“Don’t know, but he’s out of it either way,” Ciel replied.  “Is that going to be a problem?”

“No,” he said after a pause.  “Not like we can really worry about that now.  Let’s keep moving; we have to find the other guards and take care of them next.”  They used the guards own restraints to tie them up, dragging the limp bodies to lie against the wall and out of the way.

“Which way next?”

“Straight ahead is the only way I haven’t been before.  Down that hallway are more cells and this one leads to the tunnels, so it’s the only option,” she replied.  “I just don’t know when the guards change shifts or how many there are down there.”

The crash of crockery breaking surprised them both.  They whipped around to look down the hallway leading to the other cells and saw a fourth guard standing there, a broken mug at his feet.  He pulled out his command stick and pointed it at them, obviously intending to shock them into compliance.  When neither Laxus nor Ciel reacted, a look of panic stole over his face and he opened his mouth to shout.  He managed the start of a strangled scream before Laxus got there to slam the guard to the ground, knocking him unconscious. 

“Dammit, I hope no one heard that.”  Laxus finished putting the restraints on the unconscious guard, pulling him around the corner back into the hallway when he was done.  “I don’t want to get…”  The rest of his words were lost in the clang of a door down the unknown hallway.

“We need to keep them trapped in the hallway,” Ciel said.  “If they get behind us, we’ll be in trouble.”  She ran to the start of the hallway, staring down it to see how many guards were coming. 

“Makes sense.  Plus they won’t be able to come at us more than three or four at a time, if that.  I doubt they’re used to fighting together.”

“Neither are we,” she replied grimly.

“If I can mark where they’re standing, can you throw up a snow curtain to blind them?  That way they won’t see my lightning attacks, I hope.”

“Just let me know when you want it; I’ll do it.”

The guards piled into the hallway before them, making themselves easy targets grouped together as they were.  Laxus took careful note of where they were standing before nodding at Ciel.  She smiled at the guards and gave a little wave, causing most of them to pause in confusion, before sending a wave of heavy snow down the hallway. 

As the guards were enveloped, Laxus used his magic to hit each one with a bolt of lightning, using the metal on their bodies to spring from body-to-body.  The sounds of screaming were muffled by the snowstorm Ciel had called up, but after a few minutes, silence took over the area.  Ciel let the snow fall and blanket the ground, revealing figures collapsed and covered in white.  The two mages waited to see if anyone would try getting back up before they stepped further into the hall.

“Gwahahahaha!  You two seem to like causing me trouble, don’t you?”

At the sound of the head guard’s voice, they both froze.  Laxus waved Ciel back and moved forward alone, trying to see where their opponent was waiting.  The flurries of snow still drifting through the air lowered visibility somewhat, but they didn’t explain the wall of white he saw further down the hall.  Suddenly, the wall collapsed, sending puffs of snow flying into the air and revealing the head guard along with four others arranged protectively before him.

“So you two troublemakers are mages!  I’ll have to make sure you’re both kept locked up tight once you’ve been recaptured!”

“You’ll have to capture us again first and that’s not going to be easy,” Laxus yelled back.  He turned to wave Ciel closer, whispering once she was at his side, “He’s got some kind of shield up.  Can you see the glimmer across the hall?”

“Yeah, but we need to know if it blocks magic or physical attacks or both,” she said after studying it for a moment.

“It blocked your snow enough to form a wall, so I’m guessing physical attacks.  Which means I should be able to attack through it with my lightning.”

“Makes sense to me.  And if that’s true, I’ll be able to get through it in my snow form as well.  I just don’t move as fast as lightning though,” she said with a smile in her voice. 

“That’s fine.  You take care of the other guards and I’ll take out the one in charge,” he said.  “I owe him some payback.”

“All right.  Let me give us some cover and blind them to what’s going on.”  At his nod, Ciel threw out her hand and shouted “BLIZZARD!” 

Instantly, the snow lying on the ground was whipped up by a gust of wind, multiplying and thickening as it filled the hallway with white.  The temperature dropped several more degrees and their breath streamed out in clouds.  Laxus heard shouts of surprise from the guards and using that as his signal, changed into his lightning body and shot down the hallway, intending to attack the head guard directly.

+ 6 +

As Laxus went through the shield, it felt like his body was coated in soap.  His momentum pushed him past the front line of guards before they could react, but whatever the soapy effect was, it pulled him out of his lightning body and back into physical form.  He slid along the floor and caught himself against the far wall, facing the head guard’s laughing face.

“You expected to attack me with magic, gwahahahaha!  But I’m way ahead of you; this device blocks magic from being used around me, so now I have the advantage!”

“Not really, unless you have some way of stopping me from punching you instead,” Laxus said, stepping towards his opponent and raising his clenched fists.  “How are you going to stop this?”

“Easily!” 

Laxus scowled at the man’s insane confidence.  He took another step forward but stopped abruptly at the feel of steel sliding into his back.  Where had that come from?  All the guards were still in front of him… Falling to one knee, he stared as several more guards came from further down the hall to surround the head guard.

“Ciel, stay back!  It’s a trap!” he shouted, hoping she hadn’t followed him through the shield yet.

The head guard whipped his head around to stare through the snow still flying through the air.  Everyone seemed to hold their breath waiting to see if she would respond but when nothing happened, they turned their attention back to him. Laxus hoped she wouldn’t do anything crazy.  He could feel blood flowing sluggishly down his back and the pain was a dull throb, beating in time with his heart.  Unluckily for the guards, dragon slayers were a lot more durable than regular humans, so he pushed himself back to standing and once more stepped towards the head guard.

His target cowered behind the new line of guards, trying to keep as far from Laxus as possible.  The guards all pulled short swords or daggers, easier to use in the close confines of the hallway.  They arranged themselves into a semi-circle across the hallway, blocking him from moving forward.  Before he could decide which guard to attack first, a snowball came flying through the shield to smack into one of the four original guards.  The man hit turned in time to take another snowball to the face, dropping him to the ground unconscious.

As the confused guards looked at each other, more snowballs came flying through the air.  The protective arc before him started to break up as those guards turned to protect their faces from flying snow.  Laxus took advantage of their distraction and charged the guard on the far end of the line, catching him unware and crashing them into the wall. The man tried to get his weapon up at the last moment but Laxus pushed his arm to the side and landed a punch to the stomach.  The guard folded over and he finished him off with a blow to the back of the neck. 

He turned in time to avoid a strike from the next guard in the line.  Taking a cut across his forearm from the guard’s knife, Laxus easily hit the over-extended guard with several punches to the ribs, knocking the air out of him. One last hit to the head knocked the guard out completely.  Looking at the remaining opponents, two still blocked his way to the head guard and one was moving to reinforce the original line of guards, now down to only two standing.

“Laxus?  You okay?” Ciel shouted through a curtain of whirling snow that hung right outside of the shield.  Flurries of snow and ice pelted the entire hallway and made the floor slippery.

“I’m fine!  Just do what you can with those guards in front of you,” he yelled back.  One of the guards in front of him used this momentary distraction to start another attack and the second guard followed seconds behind.  Laxus dodged knife thrusts from both men, taking several blows on his arms.  He landed solid hits against each man, but they covered for each other and he couldn’t get enough leverage to do any significant damage.  He had to get through to the head guard before that man managed to sneak away somehow.

He spared a glance towards the shield and saw only one guard still standing.  The others were lying under piles of snow and ice.  As he watched, two snowballs flew through the shield to impact the final guard but he remained standing.  More snow flew through the air, freezing pellets of ice that stung the eyes and then Ciel charged through the shield to knock the guard off his feet, throwing several punches at his head.  The guard twisted his body to throw her off balance but she recovered in time to hit him with one last blow to the face, making him slump to the ground in defeat.  She stood up and ran past Laxus, grabbing his arm in passing and heading further down the hall and away from the shield. 

“What are you doing?” he demanded.

“You’ll see in a moment,” she said and kept pulling him along.  When they were about twenty feet from the head guard, Laxus felt the soapy sensation again and then they were through another shield.  Ciel turned to look at him with a smile.  “It’s a bubble.  And while we can’t use magic inside of it, there’s nothing stopping us from using our magic to send attacks into that space. “

“So that’s what you were doing with the snowballs.”

“Yep.  Well, actually, they were ice balls coated in a layer of snow.  We should be able to send a mix of snow and lightning into there and take all three of them out at once.”  While she was talking, Laxus could feel the temperature around them dropping even further.  Steam started rising from the floor as the trace bits of heat there were leeched out into the air.  “Ready when you are.”

“Now.”

“BLIZZARD!” “LIGHTNING DRAGON’S ROAR!”

Blasts of snow covered everything and they had to wait for the air to clear before seeing the result of their combined attacks.  Lightning danced from any bits of metal it could find and the force of Laxus’ Lightning Dragon Roar had blasted a hole through the side of the mountain, opening the prison to the outside world.  The head guard lay twitching against a shattered pile of stone and the others were slowly becoming covered in snow as Ciel’s Blizzard dispersed.

As the air cleared, one lone guard was revealed sitting in the room Laxus’ attack had blasted open.  When he saw the two mages staring at him, he quickly got down on his knees and raised his hands in surrender.  Ciel went over to grab his restraints to tie him up, leaving Laxus to do the same for the head guard.  Dust continued to float through the air as the two of them restrained the remaining guards while they were still unconscious.

“We need to find out where the kids are being held.  I want to get Ino and Shira free, at least,” Ciel said tiredly.

“Ask that last guy,” Laxus said.  “I’m going to find all the command sticks for these collars and take care of them.  That should prevent anyone from doing this again.”

“Sounds good to me,” she said before going over to the guard in question.  “Come on you.  You’re going to show me where all the kids are being kept.”  She dragged him back to his feet and pushed him down the hallway towards the cells.  After she was out of sight, Laxus dragged the head guard over to a chair and dropped him into the seat.

“Wake up,” he said, slapping the man lightly on the cheek. “I know you’re not out; I can smell your fear.”  The head guard’s face twitched but he kept his eyes tightly closed in an attempt to appear unconscious.  Laxus smiled and then clenched his fist under the guard’s nose, sending sparks of lightning flickering over the metal of his uniform.  With a yelp, the head guard opened his eyes and tried to flinch away.

“Stop that, you fool!  I’ll have you know this means nothing!  You’ll be captured again shortly!” he yelled.

“You think so?” Laxus replied.  “Maybe whoever you’re talking about will come in through the hole we just blasted into the side of this place.  We wouldn’t want to make it too hard for them to recapture us, after all.”

The head guard gaped at him in surprise before twisting his head to look out the hole mentioned.  His face froze in surprise before crumpling in defeat.

“How..how… what are you two monsters?” he mumbled.

“We’re mages and you’ve lost.  Now start talking.  I want to know about these collars and who made them.”

“I don’t know anything!  I’m just supposed to run this mine and keep the prisoners in line, that’s all!” he babbled. “The owners provided the collars and command sticks when I was hired.  That’s all I know!”

Laxus glared at him in frustration, wanting to beat the man until he confessed to knowing something.  Before that could happen though, he heard his name called and then Shira came running through the dust and grabbed him around the waist in a hug.

“You’re okay!  Ciel said you beat up the bad guys and we’re going to be free!” she yelled.

“Uhh, yeah.  The guards are all tied up now and we’ll get everyone free as soon as we can,” he said, unsure what to do about the girl looking up at him so happily.  He settled for putting his hand on her head and patting her hair a few times.  He noticed she was still wearing the collar, so he reached down to unlatch it and holding the metal in front of the head guard’s face, he sent a jolt through it, burning out whatever magic it contained.

“You get anything from that bastard?” Ciel asked as she came down the hall carrying Ino in her arms.  The younger child was crying silently into Ciel’s shoulder.  She handed Laxus the other collar and he repeated burning it out, making the head guard’s face turn faintly green in fear.

“Nothing.  He says everything was provided for the guards when they were hired,” Laxus said in disgust.  “He’s useless, we could probably just get rid of him and no one would notice.”

“We’ll let the authorities take care of him,” Ciel said.  “There’s a town nearby here, or there should be one.  They can handle calling someone to clean this up.  I’ve sent out a message to my guild as well, so hopefully they’ll be here soon and can help with these collars.  I’m not sure I want to just take them off everyone yet.”

“I agree.  Let’s take a look outside and see if we can figure out where we are at least.”  Laxus took Shira’s hand and the four of them stepped over the rubble left from the blast, finally getting a look outside.  The air was bitterly cold but after being locked inside stone tunnels for months, it felt wonderful.

“Look!  There’s lights moving down there!” Shira said, pointing off to the side.  The adults stared into the darkness, trying to discern who was heading their way.

“Let’s wait inside for now, but we don’t know who’s coming.  They could be with the guards,” he said.  “I think you girls should wait in the cell and try to get some sleep.  Ciel and I will wait here.”

“But what if they lock us back up?” Ino asked softly.

“I’ll come make sure the door won’t lock, okay?” Laxus said.  Ino smiled shyly and grabbed his other hand, both girls pulling him down the hallway.  “I’ll be right back,” he said over his shoulder. “Don’t do anything crazy.”

“I won’t,” Ciel said with a smile.

+ 7 +

It took the group hours to climb the mountain side and the sun was just starting to light the sky when they arrived.  Laxus and Ciel had spent that time dragging all the guards into one of the cells and locking them in.  They searched the guards’ rooms, looking for anything that would give information about the collars or who was in charge of the mining operation, but found little that made sense.

The only treasure they managed to discover was behind a locked door that Laxus kicked in when the key couldn’t be found.  Behind that door were piles of personal belongings taken from the prisoners.  With the girls help, the two adults dug through the stacks of boxes, bags, and barrels until they found their own possessions.  They gladly pulled on warmer clothing now that the hole in the side of the mountain was letting out any bit of heat from inside.

The group turned out to be from the nearby village and they were actually quite upset to see the damage done to the mines.  They acted as brokers for the selling and trading of the mineral and seeing the mines damaged and possibly unworkable would cause problems for those who made their living that way.  Once they found out how the minerals were being mined, and by whom, their attitudes changed and the village leader was more than happy to call in the authorities to handle the guards.

With the assistance of the village leader, Ciel and Laxus started letting prisoners out of their cells and removing slave collars.  Each one that came off passed through Laxus’ hands at least once and he took the opportunity to short it out so the collars could never be used again.  He also took comfort in the knowledge that even if he did miss a collar, he and Ciel had ransacked the guard quarters pretty thoroughly and destroyed any command sticks they could find.

Two days later, the other members of her guild arrived and she was enveloped in a laughing and crying crowd of people, all trying to hug her at once.  Laxus watched from the sidelines, surprised by the amount of love and affection shown by everyone there.  It made him miss the chaos of the Fairy Tail guild hall and the Raijinshuu the most.  He was pulled into the chaos of her guild instead, finally getting introduced to her Auntie, the guild leader.

“So this is the young man who helped out on the job?” the old woman said in a querulous voice.  Laxus privately thought that she wasn’t healthy enough to be out of bed, much less climbing mountains and giving orders to anyone. “He looks like a lowlander.  Is he a lowlander?”

“Yes, Auntie, he is,” Ciel said with a laugh.  “Don’t hold that against him though; he’s good in a fight.”

“Hmpf.  If you say so, girl.  At least he’s got some decent height on him.  Those lowlanders don’t grow their kids big enough.  Can’t trust them!” The old woman stomped off, smacking several people with her cane when they didn’t get out of the way quickly enough.  Ciel laughed silently as she watched her guild master walk away.

“I hope you realize she was messing with you, right?” she said.  “And she’s really not as shaky as she appears.  For some reason, she likes acting like that to throw people off.”

“No, it’s all right. Reminds me of my gramps.  He’ll do the weirdest things but just don’t cross him or hurt his family.”

“Once the authorities have arrived, you’re welcome to come back to our guild hall to recover for a bit.  The parents of most of the children have been contacted, but it’s been taking a bit longer to find some of them, so the guild is taking charge of those kids for now.  It’s the least we can do and honestly, I’m not sure I’d trust the authorities to do it.”

“Why not?”

“Because I really find it hard to believe that no one in charge knew anything about this mine or how it was being run,” Ciel said.  “Even if they mostly captured strangers to make them work in here, someone had to come looking for those people and track them to this area.  Would you believe it if you were told they’d just disappeared?”

“No,” he said. “You’re right.  Someone has to know about the collars, too.”

“Exactly.  I have one with me that I can use to do more research on; see if I can find out anything about who made it.  I just hope you destroyed all the others so that they can’t be used again.”

“GIRL!  We’re leaving here now.  Let the villagers handle the rest of the prisoners.  We’ve got some children to help out so you and that boy get your things and come along!”

“Yes, Auntie!” she yelled back before turning to Laxus.  “So, would you like to come to the guild hall?  It’s not that far away, just over the border in Seven, actually.”

“Why not.”

The two day walk to Ciel’s guild hall took closer to three days and showed Laxus just how much he (and everyone else) needed to recover from being held prisoner.  Afterwards, he did some mental calculations and realized the straight line distance wasn’t much longer than walking from one side of Magnolia to the other.  The mountains weren’t as accommodating as his home city though and the path lead up, down, and around peaks and valleys.  Several times, Ciel had to prod him or one of the girls to keep moving when a vista would open up before their eyes.

Throughout the walk, Shira stuck close to his side and Ino frequently rode on Ciel’s back.  He couldn’t imagine trying to climb these hills with a child on his back but she didn’t seem to mind at all.  When Shira started to stumble though, he found that as long as she didn’t move around, going through the mountains with a child on your back was as difficult as he’d thought.  The other children were helped along in the same way by the other members of Ciel’s family and guild.  The first night, Laxus asked her about that.

“My family?  Well, they actually do make up a good portion of the guild.  It wasn’t anything we set out to do, really.” She stared into the fire a bit before continuing.  “Auntie is actually my mom’s great aunt, but everyone just calls her that.  She started the Morning Glory guild years ago, named it after her favorite flower.  I guess most of the members have some sort of earth magic, so it fits us.

“That’s why I’m used to getting upset with guild members and taking time off from them.  It helps keep our family and guild together without killing each other,” she laughed.  “I mean, I love them all, but sometimes I really don’t like any of them very much either.” 

“And they’re all fine with you just going off like that?”

“Well sure, why wouldn’t they be?” she asked.  “It’s not like I’m actually quitting, and in most cases, I end up taking a long term job at the same time, so I’m still working for the guild but I’m staying away for an extended period, too.  It serves the same purpose.  If I really needed a break from everything guild related, I can do that, too.  But I’d make sure to let someone know what I was doing and not just disappear.  Taking a break doesn’t work too well if people get worried and start looking for you.” 

She smiled at him from across the fire.  All seven of the children being protected by the guild were running around the campsite playing a noisy game of tag to burn off excess energy.  When the daylight started to fade, Ino came to join them, sitting down and leaning against Ciel.  As they continued to chat, Ciel finger-combed the girl’s long dark hair, pulling it back into a loose braid for her.

“So I’ve been meaning to ask, what’s up with the white streak in your hair?  No one else I’ve seen from your guild has it.”

“Oh, that!” she said with a laugh.  “When I was a kid, I was out playing in the hills and fell down into a gully.  I hit my head pretty hard and it left a scar under my hair.  The healer cut my hair away to put in stitches and when it grew back, it was white for some reason.  My parents actually thought he’d done something to me to cause it, but he swears it wasn’t him.  My turn, how’d you get your scar?”

“Ah, it’s not a good memory actually.  It was something my shitty dad did.”

“He abused you?” she said in a horrified voice.

“No, it wasn’t anything like that. Not really.” Laxus sat in silence for a few moments before continuing. “He was doing something he thought would help make me stronger.  I ended up with the scar as a result.”

“Did whatever he do work?”

“Yeah, I guess it did.”

Shira was giggling when she finally returned, the game of tag long over and the children starting to settle down for sleep. Ciel settled both girls down into bedrolls and blankets next to her own.  While he watched from the other side of the fire, she told them another story to get them to sleep.  She eventually lapsed into silence and soon enough, they were all wrapped in their blankets around the fire, dozing under the night sky. 

Laxus stared at the fire as it burned down to embers, finally sitting up to add another log to the pile.  As the flames chewed greedily at the fresh wood, he saw the two girls huddled up against Ciel, just like they used to back in the cell.  He sighed and picked up his bedroll and extra blankets, dragged them over to Ciel’s side and lay back down again, this time pulling the covers over all four of them.

+ 8 +

His first sight of the town the Morning Glory guildhall was located in wasn’t very encouraging.  It was early morning still as they approached from above, coming down a low hillside and onto a plateau with several houses on it.  In fact, he wasn’t sure that town would be the best way to describe the place; it was more like a small village or even a large collection of houses.  The main road sloped gently down towards the lowlands and as they rounded a curve, he could see more buildings sprinkled like jewels along the path. 

“Wow!” Shira said breathlessly.  She was riding on his back again because the walk had been the hardest on the children.  In fact, each adult in their party carried at least one child on their backs and one giant of a man had two perched on his shoulders.  “It’s so pretty!”

“Yeah, I guess it is,” he said.

The path opened up at the base of the cliffside into a field of flowers.  There was a small house pressed up against the stone wall behind it and it was there that everyone was heading.  Laxus studied the building as they got closer; it looked far too small for the number of people heading towards it and rather shabby as well. The decorative carvings covering the stonework of the house were worn and aged looking.  Ciel reached the door before he did and turned with a smile.

“Welcome to the Morning Glory guild hall!”

He gave her a skeptical look as he entered the door and then stopped in disbelief a few steps inside.  This time, it was Ciel’s turn to almost run into his back, stepping around him to move further into the vast entrance.

“It’s carved back into the mountains.  We’ve been enlarging it for years now, so there’s plenty of room in here.  Most of the cliffside is actually hollow by now.  Let’s get the kids to some rooms so they can rest and then you can drop your stuff off.  I can show you around after lunch.”

He followed her through the entrance hall and towards the main staircase dominating the view.  The other members of the rescue party were already on the next floor and heading down a side hall, herding the other children before them.  Ciel and Laxus climbed up after them, turning down the same hallway. 

About half way down, she opened a door and gestured for Laxus to go in first.  Shira climbed down from his back, slumping onto the bed he was standing next to.  He then helped lift a sleeping Ino off Ciel’s back, laying her on the other bed in the room.  By the time that Ino was tucked under the covers, Shira had recovered enough energy to move to the large window, peering out through the glass to see outside.

“Go ahead and open it up if you want,” Ciel said.  “There’s a spell so it can’t rain in, but it’s fine to let the breeze blow.  For right now though, you and Ino should rest.  I’ll come get you both when it’s time to clean up for lunch, okay?”  Shira smiled at her before jumping back into bed.  She was asleep before the two adults made it out the door.

“They were both pretty tired after all,” she said as she led Laxus down the hallway to the other side of the building. “The kids usually stay on that side of the hall and the adults on this side.  It gives us some peace and quiet.”  This time she stopped a few doors down from the main hall.  “Our guest rooms are closer to the front of the cliff so that the windows give more light.  I can move you to one further down the hall if you want though…”

“No, this should be fine,” he said, looking around.  “I didn’t expect such luxury when I first saw this place though.”

“Yeah, it’s a bit deceptive.  Auntie likes it that way and so does most of the family.  Not that we’ve had problems with enemies or anything like that, but it’s just safer this way, I guess.”  She walked towards a door on the far side of the room, opening it to reveal a private bath.  “This is the other reason this is a guest room; you don’t have to share with anyone else.  And there was a hot spring pulled up into here for everyone to use years ago, so that’s a plus, too.”

Laxus walked over to the bed and dropped his bag on it, covering it with his coat.  He’d been wearing it instead of just having it draped over his shoulders and in the warmth of the guild hall, it was too much.  The floors were covered in thick carpets and heavy drapes were pulled back from the wide windows.  After spending almost two months freezing in the mines and then walking here, all this comfort felt out of place.

“I’ll leave you to rest or get cleaned up or whatever you want to do.  We have a few hours before lunch, so I’ll come back to get you when it’s time.”

As she walked past him, Laxus caught her wrist and pulled her to his side.  Ciel looked startled for a moment and then gave him a slight smile.

“Are you sure you have to leave?” he asked. 

“I really should let you rest,” she answered before stepping a bit closer.  “It’s been a rough time for all of us.”

“It has,” he said softly, bending his head to brush her lips with his. “But resting together sounds like a good idea to me.” Her eyes drifted shut as she leaned into him, her free hand sliding up his chest.  He kissed her again, letting his mouth linger over hers.  He pulled her against his body, deepening their kiss.  Her hands moved down the front of his shirt, slowly slipping the buttons open one-by-one.  She stepped back slightly as the shirt fell open, pushing it to the side so her hands could rest on his abdomen.

His own hands were busy opening her shirt as well, pulling the smooth fabric off her shoulders to be caught at her elbows, freeing him to place kisses along her collarbone.  She let the shirt slide off her arms and to the floor, falling into a pile at their feet.  It was soon joined by his shirt and she ran her hands over his chest before settling at his waist, pulling him closer.

“CIEL!  Where are you, girl?”  The shout from the guild leader shocked them both and they broke apart suddenly.  Ciel stared at him blankly for a few seconds before reaching down to grab her shirt.  “CIEL!”

“Dammit,” she whispered angrily.  After giving him a quick kiss, she ran from the room trying to pull her shirt back on at the same time.  Laxus sighed and grabbed his own shirt from the floor, tossing it on the bed as he headed for the bath.  What he needed now was a cold shower after all.

The next week and a half was spent recovering from being imprisoned for so long.  Just being fed regularly and sleeping in a warm bed was more than enough to make him feel normal again.  The other members of the Morning Glory guild were more than happy to replace his clothes and other items that the guards had either destroyed or stolen. 

Ciel was kept busy running errands for the guild master or else kept close by that old woman’s side, almost as if she were trying to keep them apart.  He didn’t really suspect her of anything, but it certainly was suspicious.  The other members of the guild were friendly and undemanding, asking if he needed anything or letting him help out with chores when he could, but no one tried to pry into his past or asked uncomfortable questions.  It felt odd to just be accepted with question.

The chaos of the guild hall itself wasn’t all that different from what he’d seen in Fairy Tail though.  There was a constant stream of people coming and going – townsfolk coming in with requests for help, mages leaving to assist or returning from completed jobs.  He spent the days off to the side, watching all the activity with an intensity he’d never bothered with back home.  Ciel had said her family members made up a large portion of the guild members and now he could see the resemblance between many of them.

While waiting for Ciel to join him, a noisy troop of children, the rescued ones among them, charged past and ran through the front door, heading out to play in the fields surrounding the guildhall.  The volume inside the building immediately dropped down to something resembling normal.  It felt out of place to have that many kids running around a guild, but considering the members were mostly family, it did make sense.  He’d never noticed any children around Fairy Tail, although he knew there were a few – Macao’s son Romeo for one – but not many.  Still, he grew up running around the guildhall, along with a good portion of the current generation of mages there; why hadn’t he ever realized they were all just part of a big family? 

After fifteen minutes of waiting and still no Ciel, Laxus finally got up to go look for her.  A few questions got him pointed down one of the lower hallways he hadn’t explored yet, so he started looking there.  He could faintly hear the sound of raised voices from behind a partially closed door further down the hall and was heading that way when he finally registered what was being said.

“Well, why haven’t you, dammit!” The old woman’s voice made him pause; Ciel must be speaking to her guild master.  He was ready to turn away when his name was mentioned.

“Auntie, I’m not trying to make Laxus stay here,” Ciel said.

“He’d be perfect for the guild!  And I’ve given you plenty of opportunities to do something about it.  Silly girl, we need good members in the guild.”

“Plenty of opportunities?  You’ve kept me by your side since we got back from the mines.”

“Are you stupid? You were supposed to go seduce him at night into wanting to stay here.  How else is he going to be tied to us?”

“Auntie!” Ciel sounded scandalized at her guild master’s words.  “I’m not.. I won’t do that… I’m not sleeping with someone just because you think he’s handsome and strong and you want him to join the guild!”

“But what if you think he’s handsome, eh girl?” The old woman paused for a moment and then burst out into cackling laughter.

“Auntie, you didn’t hear him talking about his friends or his guild.  They’re obviously his family and he’s just taking a break, that’s all.” She sighed in frustration.  “Besides, how would you feel if one of us was out on walkabout from the guild and someone tried to recruit us into their guild?”

“I’d take my cane to them!” she shouted, and Laxus could hear wood striking wood.  “No one steals my members from me!”

“Well, that’s what you want me to do with him.  I don’t get the feeling that he’s ready to go home yet, but I’m damn sure he’s not ready to stay here forever, either.”

“Hmpf.  Fine, fine, I see your point.”  Silence from the room and he was wondering if they were done speaking when Auntie spoke again.  “Maybe he could leave sometime behind though…”

“Like what?” Ciel sounded cautious.

“Oh, you know… heh heh heh… we’ve always loved having children around the hall, after all.”

“AUNTIE!  I’m definitely not going to seduce him just to get pregnant!  You’ve lost it, old woman.”  He heard a chair scrape against the floor and footsteps.  At the sound of the old woman’s laughter, the steps paused.  “I really do hope you were just joking, Auntie.  I’d hate to think that’s how you repay someone who’s helped us out.”

Laxus missed the guild master’s reply because he was already heading back out.  He was waiting in his place in the main hall when Ciel walked out of the hallway, frowning to herself.  She smiled when she saw him though and headed over to take his hand.

“Come on; let’s go down to the town to have lunch.  I need a break from this place.”

+ 9 +

With Ciel in the lead, they headed down the path to town.  It was actually much larger than he’d initially thought; the bulk of the buildings hidden by the curve of the plateau.  Walking down the hill provided a picturesque view of the area, with a central core of buildings surrounded by larger estates and fields.  The path from the guild hall eventually grew into the main street through town, making it easy for anyone looking for a mage to find their way.

They walked along the main road through town towards the market square, dodging people out doing their midday shopping.  The brightly colored stalls lined the road and merchants called out their wares in cheerful voices.  The air was full of the scent of flowers and food and masses of people, all mingling to create a distinct smell that every town had.  Laxus tried to remember what Magnolia in the spring was like and could only remember the Fantasia Harvest festival, when the season was winding down towards winter.

“Okay, so what’s up?” Ciel asked once they were settled at a table in the restaurant, waiting for lunch to arrive.  Laxus stared at the table trying to decide the best way to say what he needed to say.

“I’m planning to leave in the morning,” he finally said.  Ciel didn’t say anything in response so he looked up, trying to gauge her reaction.

“I can’t say I’m surprised,” she said quietly.  “I’ve had the feeling for the past few days that you were ready to start traveling again.  I guess I was hoping to be wrong.”

“I’ve enjoyed meeting your family and guild, and I don’t want to be ungrateful, but….”

“I really do understand.”  Ciel put her hand over his, smoothing out the fist he’d been unconsciously making.  “I didn’t expect you to want to stay here forever.  I have a feeling this area is far too quiet for you.”  She laughed at the expression on his face.

“You’re right.  It’s beautiful here, but it’s not home, either, at least not for me.”

“I know the girls will be sad, but on the plus side, that means we get to have a going away party for you tonight!” Ciel looked excited at the thought.  “I’ll have to let the cook know, so he can make something special for dinner tonight.  Anything you like in particular?”  Laxus just gave her a blank look and didn’t say anything.  She waved away the question and kept talking to herself about what they needed for a party.  He answered the random questions she would throw his way occasionally but for the most part, she was caught up in planning.  It was only after lunch was delivered that she stopped talking about the party and instead let the conversation flow into something more relaxed between them.

Hours later, the guild was gathered in the main hall which was decked out with an over-flowing buffet and tables arranged for eating in small groups.  Notable townsfolk had made the trek up the path to the guild hall as well, although Laxus suspected they were there more for the party than anything to do with him.  The children were divided into several smaller packs, apparently playing a game the adults most likely wouldn’t have understood.  They wound their way through the chatting groups of people standing around, passing the buffet multiple times, each group acquiring plates filled with food and sweets before they headed to one of hallways.  From his spot off to the side, Laxus could hear them bartering with each other to see who could “buy” the best treats for themselves.

Meanwhile, despite his efforts to stay off to the side, Ciel pulled him into the center of the room, dragging him from one table to another and introducing him to the local town dignitaries.  The mayor of the town was a tiny old man, standing barely taller than Laxus’ waist, forcing him to bend over just to hear what the mayor was saying.

“I’d like to thank you for your help on the missing person job, young man,” the mayor said in a quavery voice.  “I’m sure that our young Miss Ciel didn’t mind the help either.  You make sure she gives you your portion of the reward though.  You deserve it!”  At that, the old man turned around and wobbled off towards the punch bowl, making Laxus wonder if he should walk with him to make sure he made it without getting hurt.  Instead, he straightened up and looked at Ciel, mouthing “missing person job?” at her. 

“I’ll tell you later,” she said, stretching up to speak in his ear, her breath tickling his neck.  The noise wasn’t the loudest he’d heard, but it was a constant volume of chatter that hadn’t died down yet either. 

As the night wore on, the tables were cleared to the side and someone started playing music.  Partners whirled around the dance area and as the party got wilder, the children were bundled off to bed, stuffed full of sweets.  The hours ticked closer and closer to midnight and the guests left to head back to their homes in town while guild members headed to their rooms.  Ciel finally found Laxus sprawled in a chair, head propped on his hand, watching the few last couples stumble out the door.

“I’m going up to say good night to the girls,” she said. “Cleaning this up can wait until morning.”

“I’ll come up with you,” he replied, standing with a stretch.  They walked slowly up the staircase; turning left to head down the hall to the room Shira and Ino were staying in.  “Has there been any news about their parents yet?”

“Nothing that I’ve heard,” Ciel said.  “We haven’t given up hope of finding them all though.” 

They paused outside the girls’ room and opened the door slowly.  Inside, Ino was sprawled across her bed; covers shoved half off onto the floor.  She didn’t stir when Ciel bent over to drop a kiss on her cheek nor when Laxus awkwardly tucked a stuffed bear back into the little girl’s arms. 

Shira, however, was nowhere in sight.  The sounds of laughter carried down the hallway and the shadows of children could be seen in the rectangle of light spilling through the doorway.  Another adult stepped out of the room and waved to Laxus and Ciel, walking to meet them.

“The older kids are still wound up and playing, so I’ll keep an eye on them for now,” her sister said. “You two can go get some sleep if you want.” 

“Thanks, Mera.  See you in the morning.”  They walked slowly back down the corridor towards the main hall.  Due to the late hour, only the occasional light was still lit, shrouding them in soft darkness.  The soft murmur of voices came from below them and they paused on the landing, looking down to see some guild members sitting around a table talking softly, illuminated only by the embers from the hearth.  Someone else was taking their time gathering dirty glasses onto a tray before heading off to the kitchen.

With a sigh, Ciel rested her head on Laxus’ shoulder, leaning against him.  He shifted his arm to her waist, pulling her closer.  They remained like that for a long moment before Ciel stood up straight, taking his hand and continuing down the other hallway towards his room.  At the door, she turned to face him, leaning back against wall and smiling.

“I hope you enjoyed the party tonight,” she said softly.

“I did.  It was nice of your guild to throw a going away party for me,” he replied, just as softly.

“Well, you helped me out in the mines and helped us with the children and then you came here and helped out some more.  Auntie said you deserve a reward for what you did.  Plus, it gave us an excuse to have a party, so everyone wins.”

“So your Auntie said I deserved a reward,” his voice was low, barely above a whisper as he leaned forward to place his lips beside her ear.  “Do you think I deserve a reward as well?” He felt a shiver run through her body at his words.

“Mmm, I think a reward could be arranged,” she breathed.  He felt her teeth nip at his earlobe before her lips pressed a kiss to his jaw.  “I’m open to suggestions on what you feel is appropriate.”

Laxus didn’t answer immediately, instead taking the time to drop his own kisses along her neck and collarbone, running his hands up her sides.  She tangled her fingers into the hair at the nape of his neck, the other hand fisted into his shirt, pulling him closer.  Their lips met in a series of gentle kisses before he nipped at her lower lip with his teeth.  She moaned softly, letting her head fall back to the wall and he again started to press kisses along her neck.

His fingers moved down her shirt, slipping each button open one-by-one until he could push the fabric to the side.  Ciel was breathing heavily, her breasts rising and falling against his palms.  His thumbs brushed across the smooth fabric of her bra, grazing her nipples and pulling another moan from her.

“Are you telling secrets?” a childish voice asked.  “I like secrets.”

+ 10 +

They both froze at the sound of the voice and Ciel lifted her head so quickly, she cracked it into the wall they were leaning against.  Laxus turned around and used his body to block the view of Ciel’s, looking down at the little girl standing a few feet away.

“Ino, I thought you were asleep,” he said.  He could feel Ciel’s arms moving against his back as she readjusted her bra and buttoned her shirt back up.  She stepped to one side before the little girl answered or more importantly, got too curious about what she was doing standing behind him.

“I was, but Bepo Bear wanted to get up again.”  She held up the stuffed bear that she’d co-opted from the communal toy chest.  “So what secrets did you tell Ciel?”

“I was…,” he hesitated, unsure of what to say at first. “I was telling her how much I’m going to miss you two girls.”

“Are you really going to miss us?”

“Of course he will, sweetie!” Ciel picked Ino up and hugged her.  “You and Shira were both such good girls when we were prisoners.  And you were so strong walking all the way here.  How could he not miss you?”  Ino lifted her head from Ciel’s shoulder and looked at him hopefully.

“She’s right.  You and Shira both were such a big help, I’ll definitely miss you,” he said, giving the child a smile.  Their voices covered the muffled sound of feet heading towards them along the carpeted hallway.  Shira ran the last few feet to grab Laxus around the waist in a hug.

“I don’t want you to leave!”  She clutched at him and sobbed.

He crouched down to be closer to her level, putting his arms around the crying girl in a careful hug.

“I can’t stay here forever though.  And eventually, your parents are going to come here and you’ll be back with your family again.  Don’t you want that?” he asked.

“Yes, but I want to stay here with you and Ciel and Ino and all my new friends, too!”  Her obvious distress started Ino crying and he looked up at Ciel, trying to figure out what to do next.

“Come on, sweeties,” she said. “Let’s go sit down and I’ll tell you a story until you can fall back asleep.”  For some reason, she headed into his room and sat down on the bed holding Ino.  Laxus picked up Shira and followed, settling on the other side of the bed. The two little girls squirmed their way to the middle, snuggling together with Ino’s Bepo Bear between them.

“So what kind of story do you want to hear?” Ciel asked.

“A story about a princess!” “Bepo Bear story!” the girls cried together.  Ciel laughed at them before replying.

“Okay, how about a story with both Bepo Bear and a princess in it? Would you like that?”  Shira got a thoughtful look on her face while Ino’s lit up with joy.

“Will the princess be strong and cool and awesome?” Shira asked carefully.

“Of course she will,” Ciel said. “And she won’t have to be rescued or anything, not really.  Trust me.”

At her reassurance, both girls nodded excitedly and settled down to listen to the story Ciel made up for them.  She propped herself up on the pillows next to the girls, waving her arms around to help tell the story better.  Laxus, stretched out on his side of the bed, listening to the girls giggle and laugh at the story.

“So once upon a time, a princess from a very cold island was running away.  She wasn’t doing a very good job of it though, because she was sick and couldn’t run very fast.  But just when she thought her guards were going to recapture her, she was saved by a nice, handsome doctor who took her back to his ship after she fainted.”

“Why does he have a ship?” Shira asked.

“Well, because he’s really a pirate.  But he’s not a bad pirate, he’s a good one.  That’s why he helped save her.  And when he got her back to his ship, he examined her to see why she fainted at his feet.  He found out that her heart was broken so he did what he could to fix it.  And when she woke up, he was sitting by her side reading a book.”

“Where’s Bepo Bear?”

“He’s coming.  He hasn’t been introduced to the princess yet.”

“Really?”

“Really.  Bepo Bear works for the pirate doctor and he’s very, very loyal to his doctor, but when he meets the princess, she adores him instantly!”

“Really?” Laxus said.  “She falls in love with the bear?”

“I didn’t say that,” Ciel said primly.  “I said she adores him.  Because Bepo Bear is very big and fluffy and loveable looking, so she just wants to hug him.  Bepo thinks it’s a bit strange, but his pirate doctor has become very attached to the princess as well, so Bepo lets her hug him.”  She smiled down at Ino, who was hugging the stuffed bear close.

“Well, it turned out that the pirate doctor and the princess had grown up on the same island and his father, who was also a doctor, had helped the princess when she was a very little girl.  So she ended up deciding to stay with the pirate doctor on his ship and help his crew out and really just hug Bepo a lot. 

“But then one day the princess went missing.  You see, the pirate doctor was on a mission to defeat a very bad man who had hurt someone he was close to, and the princess wanted to help.  So she had been doing a lot of research and she found out something about the bad man but she couldn’t tell her pirate doctor about it.  Instead she went off on her own to confront the bad man but she got captured by him.”

“I thought you said the princess was going to be awesome!”

“She is, you’ll see.  Because when he found out she was missing, the pirate doctor got very sad and didn’t want to do anything anymore.  Bepo Bear was very sad that she was gone and worried about his pirate doctor, you see, so he got some of the other crew members to help him look through all her notes to find something out.  And when they did find something, the pirate doctor made a plan to get her back.  Before he could do that though, he was told that she was dead and his heart broke, too.”

“Was it broken like hers was?”

“Not exactly.  He discovered that he really, really did love her after all.  But what he didn’t know was that she really wasn’t dead, she was just captured by the bad man.  And even though his plan took a long time, he finally got to the island where she was being held prisoner even though he didn’t know it.  So he fought the bad guy with some help from some new friends he’d made but before they could escape, the princess found him. 

“See, she’d gotten away from her guards again, and she heard from the people in the kingdom that the pirate doctor was fighting the bad guy, so she went looking for him.  And they found each other and escaped before the bad guy’s friends could get them.  He was so happy she was still alive and she was happy that he was safe and had defeated the bad guy.  So they escaped the island together with his new friends and sailed away.

“The princess had missed the pirate captain very much but she was sad when she found out Bepo Bear wasn’t with him.  So they sailed to where Bepo was waiting with the rest of the crew and when she saw him again, she ran to hug her beary friend with all her heart.  And after that, they sailed all around the seas and had lots of good adventures together and since Bepo Bear was very special, he lived a very long time, so he was around to be hugged by the children of the pirate doctor and the princess.  She made him the honorary captain of her guard, so he would be able to protect their family forever.”

She finished with the story and looked down at the two girls, now sleeping lightly in the middle of the bed.  With a smile, she looked up at Laxus and shook her head.

“Sorry about this.  I didn’t expect them to wake up and interrupt us like that.”

“It’s all right.  Maybe we can carry them back to their room?”  He started to get off the bed but at the first hint of movement, Shira stirred and mumbled something in her sleep.

“Let’s let them fall deeper asleep before we try that.  I wouldn’t them to wake back up when we do move them.”

He nodded and reached down to grab a light cover from the foot of the bed, draping it over the children.  Ciel reached behind her to turn off the bedside light, throwing the room into darkness.  A light breeze fluttered the sheer curtains covering the open windows, bringing in the scent of flowers from outside.  

“Give me your hand.” Ciel’s voice floated softly through the shadows, and he reached out towards her. He felt her lace her fingers with his and then rest their hands over the girls.  “Good night, Laxus.”  She started humming a quiet tune under her breath, and listening to that along with the sleepy sighs of the children helped send Laxus to sleep as well.

He woke up when Shira climbed over him to drop to the floor, dragging part of the blanket along with her.  Ino was still asleep, pressed up against Ciel and clutching her stuffed bear tightly.  He rolled over to his side and looked at the window, trying to judge the time.  It was still dark out, but from what he could see of the sky through the curtains, it wasn’t too long until sunrise.

While he was debating getting up, Shira crawled back over him and settled against the pillows again, her eyes drooping shut almost immediately.  Laxus pulled the blanket back over them both and the little girl responded by snuggling up against his side.  He smiled to himself and decided to join her in sleep again.

+ 11 +

The next time he woke up, it was from Ino jumping on the bed.  Laxus lifted his head and watched as she tossed her bear into the air and jumped up to catch it, over and over again.  Ciel and Shira were both gone and the sun was shining through the windows.  He sat up and caught the bear that Ino threw to him, holding it up for her to jump.  Instead, she launched herself into his chest, giving him a hug and sloppy kiss on the cheek.

“Yay, you’re awake!  Ciel and Shira said to come downstairs for breakfast when you woke up.  Let’s go!  I’m hungry!”

She scrambled off the bed and grabbed his hand, pulling until he got up and followed her out the door and down the hall.  The scene in the main hall was chaotic, with tables being take down, chairs stacked in corners and workers mopping the floor.  Laxus saw Ciel and Shira sitting with a few other people at a table filled with food.  As he and Ino descended the stairs, Shira looked up and saw them, waving and calling to make sure they were coming over.

“Good morning,” Ciel said as he sat down next to her. “Did you sleep well?”

“Morning,” he replied, looking at the dishes in the center of the table.  “It was fine.  You should have woken me to help clean up down here.”

“Oh no, can’t let a guest clean up after their own party!  Besides, you could probably use any rest you can get before starting to travel again.  Any ideas on which direction you want to head?”

“I’m not sure,” he said slowly. “I’m not ready to head back home yet, but going into Bosco is probably a bad idea.  I guess I could continue along the Bosco-Seven border and head east some more.  I’ve never had any reason to head that direction before.”

“Well, I’m biased about Seven, so whatever I say, just assume it’s good things about my home country.  It gets interesting once you get into Iceberg, though.  The land is pretty barren, at least the parts of it that I’ve seen, but you’d be surprised how hard it can be to see something hiding, even when the land is mostly flat.  Stella isn’t much better unless you’re along the coast.  And that’s about as far as I’ve been.  Haven’t really considered going into Joya or through there into Desierto for any reason.”

“I honestly hadn’t thought about how far I wanted to keep traveling or if I wanted to go to any particular countries.  I was just going to anywhere not home.”

“Well, it’s not as if you have to destination in mind, so I guess head in whatever direction looks good.  If you want to go ahead and get packed up and ready after breakfast, then I’ll have the cooks make up a travel pack of food for you.”

“You don’t have to….”

“Stop it,” she said.  “We aren’t about to send a guest off without supplies.  And it’s not like packing up some meals and trail food is going to break the guild or anything.  So I’ll take care of that after we’re done eating here.”

She gave him such a stern look when Laxus tried to protest further that he just nodded and turned back to his food.  The rest of the meal was filled with the chatter of the two girls and anyone else who wandered down to grab something to eat before heading off somewhere else.  The four of them spent a comfortably long time lingering over breakfast before they couldn’t put off getting up any longer.  Ciel gathered up their dishes and headed off to the kitchen with Ino helping out.  Shira grabbed Laxus’ hand and announced she was going to help him pack, pulling him towards the stairs.

Packing too far longer than it should have but Laxus didn’t really mind.  Shira “helped” him gather all his belongings and when she thought he wasn’t looking, he saw her slip a note into the pocket of his pack.  He smiled to himself and kept on folding the shirt he held, promising to himself that he’d keep her note close, whatever it said.  When he was finished packing, Shira insisted on trying to carry his pack down the stairs by herself.

Arriving back in the main hall, Laxus told himself it was a good thing he didn’t carry anything particularly breakable in his pack.  Shira finally gave up on her efforts to carry the bag and instead ran over to where Ciel and Ino were waiting with another bag sitting on the table next to them. 

“I put some cookies in there for you,” Ino stage whispered to him as he was stowing the bag of food in his pack.  “But don’t eat them all at once, okay?”

“I won’t,” he said, giving her a smile.  “I’ll only eat them one at a time after lunch, so that I can think of you each day.” The little girl’s face lit up at his words.

“All right, you two, he’s never going to make it out of town at this rate, and I still need to talk to him about some things,” Ciel said.  “So finish saying your good-byes and then go play with the other children, okay?”  The girls grumbled but then climbed up on the table to give him hugs and sloppy kisses before running off.

“Sorry about that.  I know they’ll miss you but I was afraid they’d keep finding ways to keep you from leaving,” she said.  “Oh!  Not that I’m trying to get rid of you!  Uhhh…”

Laxus laughed at her consternation and led the way out the front door.  He waved good-bye to the few other members of the guild who hadn’t let the late night change their routines.  Ciel trailed behind him carrying another package and a folder of papers.  Despite the early hour, the field outside was bathed in early morning light, the soft rays highlighting everything in gold.

They walked slowly down the hill and into town, enjoying the sounds of the town waking up.  The cobblestone streets were still shrouded in shadows; the sun blocked by the plateau.  Small birds hopped around the town square looking for crumbs, scattering as they stopped to sit at an outdoor café.

“So I have a few other things for you,” Ciel said, handing over a folded piece of tan fabric.  “First is this – it’s a cloak made by Mera.  Her specialty is spell-woven clothing, and this cloak will either keep you warm or keep you cool, depending on which command you use.   Plus it’s waterproof.”  Laxus looked at her in surprise before unfolding the cloak and holding it up.

“She makes these?” he said.  The cloak looked plain but looking closely, he could see a faint tracery of spell runes along the edges of the hood and down the front.

“Yep, and makes the buyers pay through the nose for them, too!” she said cheerfully.  “Luckily, she had one available and wanted you to have it.  She said it was thanks for helping out at the mines.”

“I wish I’d known last night so I could thank her in person,” he said.  “I really appreciate the thought.”

“She thought you’d like it.  Next is this.”  Laxus picked up the folder she put down before him and opened it up.  “This information came in some time last night, so I haven’t done more than look over it quickly, but you should have a copy as well.  It’s everything we’ve been able to find out about the mine and what was going on there.

“The townsfolk really were kept in the dark because whoever was doing this didn’t want to cause suspicion so close to their base, is our guess.  A few of the local constables have disappeared,  mostly low-level guys though, so we’re pretty sure they weren’t running things.  Auntie’s having it looked into further though to see if we can follow the trail more.

“And last – the mineral they were mining.  It really doesn’t seem to be anything special, unless you spell it to hold energy, then it’s very special.  From the experiments that one of our researcher mages has been doing, this will gather and hold any kind of energy you want and it doesn’t seem to fade away.  So put a spell on it to gather sunlight and it will burn all night long, giving a nice source of light.

“But they also said it could be made to hold other kinds of more destructive energy and it can be set up with a trigger word.”

“A bomb?”

“That’s what they think it was mostly being used for.  We haven’t figured out where it’s all been sold to, but a good guess is someone in Bosco is sending these gems out of their country.”

“Why?  Just to cause unrest in other countries?”

“We aren’t sure, but it’s still being looked into.”  Ciel sighed before continuing. “We have heard from some of the parents for the kids, so those folks are on their way here.  It’ll be good if we can reunite all the children with their families, at least.”

“Any word about Ino or Shira’s parents?”

“We have a lead on Ino’s parents but nothing so far about Shira’s.”  Ciel stared at the tabletop, poking the final small bag sitting in front of her.  “I’m not sure what we’ll do if we can’t find them.”

“You’ll figure it out; you’ve done a good job taking care of her so far, haven’t you?”

“I guess so.  Still….” she shook her head and smiled. “Here’s the last gift for you.”  The bag clicked when she pushed it towards him.

“Money?  I don’t need any though,” he said.

“Well, it’s not a gift, not really.  The mayor said it last night, but I was actually on a missing person job when I was caught and taken to the mine.  And it turns out that the person I was looking for had also been captured, so the job was completed.  But I couldn’t have done it without your help, so you’re entitled to half the reward.  It’s only fair.”  She held her hand up as he tried to speak.  “Seriously, it’s yours.  Besides, I know the guards took any bit of money you had, so you’re broke because of that.  Now you’re not.”

“If it’s in payment for a job and not charity, then fine.  Besides, you’re right, I don’t want to continue my journey broke if I can help it.”

While they’d talked, the sunrise had slowly banished the shadows from the market square and more people started to fill the streets.  Some birds still hopped around looking for crumbs but the majority had flown off, disturbed by the increased traffic around them.  They sat not talking for a while, sipping their tea and avoiding the moment he’d have to leave.

“I suppose I should get going.  I don’t want to lose too much of the day if I can help it.”

“Yeah, that makes sense.  I’ll walk with you to the edge of town, if that’s all right.” 

Laxus packed his new cloak into the top of his bag and placed the sack of coins deep inside along with the folder.  Despite the brightly shining sun, the overnight chill still hung in the air, making the heavy furred coat he wore over his shoulders feel comfortable.  He slung the bag over his shoulder and followed Ciel east down the street.  By the time they reached the edge of town, the shadows were almost completely banished from the streets and the chill was gone from the air.

“Well, this is the edge of town,” Ciel said awkwardly.  “Umm, if you keep heading down this road, it eventually turns more east and parallels the border with Bosco.  Be careful though, bandits from there like to raid the border areas.”

“I’ll be careful.  And you need to pick your future jobs more carefully because I won’t be there to save you again.” Laxus smiled to take any sting out of his comment.  “If I can, maybe I’ll come back this way when I return home.  If that’s all right with you.”

Instead of replying, Ciel reached up to frame his face with her hands, pulling him down into a kiss.  Laxus slid his arms around her waist and held her closer, barely hearing the calls from merchants rolling past them on the road.  They stood together for a long moment before she stepped back, giving him a wavery smile.

“Safe travels, Laxus,” she said. “Don’t get yourself into too much trouble.”

“I won’t,” he said.  Before she could move away again, Laxus pulled his coat from his shoulders and swirled it around her, holding it closed and trapping her arms in the thick folds of fabric.  He kissed her again, pressing his lips to hers in a quick, hard motion and then stepped away.  “Take care, Ciel.” 

He turned and started walking down the road, not looking back to see her reaction.  As the road started to curve away towards the east, he felt a breath of cold breeze touch his cheek.  A flurry of snowflakes flew about him for a few seconds before they disappeared into the air.  He turned then to see her still standing at the edge of town.  With a quick wave, he headed down the road again.