She couldn’t decide if it was important or not that her reflection hadn’t changed much in the last few years or so. Twenty-six wasn’t a milestone she’d expected to reach after the overthrow of King Faust and installation of Jellal so every day following felt like uncharted territory.
“I won’t,” Erza Knightwalker folded her arms over her chest defiantly.
“You will.” Jellal didn’t even bother to look up from his desk.
“Or what? You’ll have me executed? It’s what I wanted anyway.”
“No, I’ll have you dragged.”
“Humiliations upon humiliations. Do you not care for dignity?” Erza knew her indignance was out of line, but this prodigal-prince-turned-king made her insides curl with rage; a man who’d been absent for the majority of his life did not have the right to march in and give her commands.
Finally the king stood and his gaze pinned her. “You speak of dignity? Let me ask you something, Knightwalker, when you were murdering magic users – your own countrymen - at the behest of my crazed father, did you kill them with dignity? Did you consider the dignity of those from whom your magic was stolen?”
Erza did not respond and diverted her eyes.
“Do not look away from the horrors in which you were complicit, Knightwalker, it services no one. These catastrophes exist whether you see them or not.” The young king shuffled the papers on his desk and stepped around it to stand beside her. She felt his eyes on her, but did not meet them. She did not look up until the heavy door creaked open. Jellal gestured towards the hallway. “Well? Will you be joining me of your own volition or shall I have you dragged behind me kicking and screaming?”
She scowled and tilted her head to the side. “Join you?”
He sighed. “Did you hear nothing of what I just said? The state of Edolas is as much my fault as it is yours. I turned my back on my country and abandoned my people to a king who abused and lied to them. I am also a betrayer. Our intentions may not stem from the same rotted place but the result is the same, Erza Knightwalker.”
“Our royal city needs rebuilding and I’ll not sit back in this windowless chamber while it’s done without me.”
“You can’t be serious! You’re the king! It’s preposterous that you’d consider roaming the streets on your own! What of the dangers?”
King Jellal finally smiled and turned his back to her. “I can’t possibly be in any danger with the infamous Captain Knightwalker by my side.”
He left her alone in his council chamber fuming at both his rebuke and flippancy regarding personal safety. After a moment of irritated silence, she followed him.
He still insisted upon walking the streets of the royal city without a cadre of guards, the insufferable fool. Sometimes he wouldn’t even call for her to attend him and she had to hear about it from a door sentry. Erza had long gotten over the humiliation of having to inquire after her king’s location from low-ranking soldiers.
Though, if she were honest with herself she’d admit that it wasn’t Jellal who’d been in the most danger when roaming the streets of his kingdom. It was her.
“Fairy Hunter!” The epithet was one she had heard often and even wore with pride in the past. In her angry youth Faust’s philosophies had been disastrously appealing. He’d provided her with training and magical weapons and the resources to attack his enemies with a deadly force. Erza hadn’t ever thought twice about why he might have so many enemies or whether or not his magical ambitions were best for Edolas.
She’d seen firsthand what violent and uncaring rulers could do to citizens with no voice or power to protect themselves. There were three unmarked graves in the northern borderlands of the country where she’d done her best to bury her slaughtered family. Of course, once she gained position in the royal city the king explained that magic was far more important than rural peasants and, drunk on power, she believed him. Not because she thought his words truthful, but because more than anything Erza never wanted to be weak again. So she would do this man’s bidding and ignore the consequences.
Now words that were once whispered in fear were thrown at her in public with strong vexation and hatred. Rightly so.
“Does it bother you, Captain Knightwalker?” Jellal asked her one afternoon as he watched a store front restored with a complicated system of ropes and pulleys.
“Does what bother me, Your Grace?”
“The whispers and shouts. Everywhere we go they call you the Fairy Hunter. I’m wondering if it bothers you.”
Erza kept her eyes on the sign advertising general wares that was slowly being lifted in the air and would eventually be mounted as a marquee. “I don’t care what people think of me.”
“That’s just what you want people to think of you.”
She sighed loudly and tried not to roll her eyes. This man was relentless. “Of course it bothers me.”
“But it didn’t bother you before?”
“Your father always said that lions don’t concern themselves with the opinions of the sheep.”
Jellal laughed loudly and finally turned to her. “I think perhaps you were the child he wished me to be. He used to say that often when I was small.” He stepped closer to her and Erza bristled. She hated when he behaved so casually. “Do you concern yourself now, Knightwalker?”
“I don’t consider myself a lion now, Your Grace. I’m only one of the sheep.”
She still didn’t think Lucy Ashley and the rest of Fairy Tail had forgiven her or excused her actions before Jellal took the throne. There was little hope of that ever happening, but instead of rancorous vitriol there existed a common thread of duty.
Lucy worked for the people and Erza protected their king. There was no more room in Edolas for hostility amongst their own. The defining moment of this duty nearly cost Captain Knightwaker her life and left her with a scar that would mark her for the rest of her life.
The ruined patch of skin on her shoulder and chest still stung when she ran her bathwater too hot, but it served as a reminder of important ground that could not ever be lost again.
The night was dark and without stars. As per usual her warnings of safety and lurking dangers went unheeded by her king. More than anything it angered her when he waved away her concerns as if they were troublesome gnats.
Citizens were gathering in the streets of the royal city for a celebration. The last of the rubble had been removed and there were no more boarded windows. Outlying regions were still in need of assistance and Fairy Tail would be leaving the capital to provide what help they could. Jellal was shaking hands with guildmembers he’d known other versions of in Earthland and Erza imagined the experience must be incredibly surreal for him. She opted not to ponder on her own doppelgänger.
Erza’s eyes traveled the crowd of excited, and partly intoxicated revelers so many times a shift in the group should’ve been more obvious to her. But it was dark. And half the attendees were in cloaks due to the quickly approaching cold season. By the time the assassin sidled up to Jellal it was too late to do anything except throw herself between his knife and the king’s body.
The blade was clearly the work of a master smith. Its combination of jagged edges and barbs ripped through her skin and dragged across her bones excruciatingly. An armed group of Fairy Tail members surrounded them and detained the assassin.
Erza could feel her king struggling beneath and heard him shout her name repeatedly. Before her eyes closed she glimpsed a familiar expression on Lucy Ashley’s face. Her eyes were hard but she nodded at the captain in a brief moment of respect.
The water reached the mangled spot on her chest and she sighed. Despite the pain it brought and the frustration of recovery time, Erza had decided it was a blessing - however thickly disguised. Jellal’s life had been saved and public hatred of her had been dimmed with one swipe of an assassin’s arm.
Erza’s fingers combed through the wet strands of her hair and she was glad it had grown back. Slicing it off had been an act of rage directed toward her Earthland counterpart. The very idea that she and Scarlet could be so easily mistaken for one another was insulting. Never mind that the other woman was just as formidable as herself.
She still didn’t care for Scarlet and her ramblings on the meaning of life and love. Captain Knightwalker didn’t want to admit that the person whose words had jarred her most not only looked exactly like her but had relations with a man who looked exactly like her king. Never mind the sordid details.
There were things she didn’t want to share with Scarlet. Ever.
“Did you love her?”
The king startled and looked up at her from the place he leaned against his desk. “Excuse me?”
“Scarlet. Did you love her?”
“I barely knew her.” He kept his face carefully blank.
“But you knew your face matched her lover’s exactly, and you were in the same guild for many years.” Jellal set his stack of missives aside and eyed his captain.
“I did know those things, yes. But I wouldn’t go so far as to call my counterpart Erza Scarlet’s lover.”
“No. Men who sit incarcerated for crimes against the Magic Council and humanity in general can’t exactly keep lovers. I doubt the opportunity for such a relationship existed before that.”
“How do you know all of this if you weren’t close to her?”
He shrugged. “People talk. As Mystogan I made it part of my job to know about powerful people and magical activity. It was hard to ignore what my counterpart was doing on that island. His misguided plan wasn’t a threat to my own, but I did learn of it.” Jellal reached behind him for the papers again and grinned. “Is all this of interest to you, Captain Knightwalker? Are you jealous?”
Erza narrowed her eyes menacingly. “Of what exactly?”
“You tell me, Captain. You’re the one inquiring after my affections.”
She did not answer him and instead left his council chamber abruptly.
Erza felt the presence in her rooms even though she hadn’t heard any doors open or close. She crossed her arms on the edge of her tiled bath and rested her chin on them to wait.
“What is it about me that sets you on such rigid edge?” He asked into the darkness. She didn’t even pretend to be shocked at his words or presence behind her. The king often suffered insomnia and was known to wander the halls of his private tower at all hours of the night.
“Are your orders now extending to my emotional state as well, Your Grace? Is my loyalty and willingness to take a blade for you not enough to prove myself?” She paused to gather herself. “What must I do to please you?”
“You misunderstand, Captain Knightwalker. I do not dare question your loyalty. I believe it to be above reproach.”
Erza’s skin prickled. Her affection for him would be her ruination. Somewhere between resenting his presence altogether and saving his life she’d grown to care for him in a way completely unbefitting her rank. Being a woman had never stood in the way of her duties before nor had she ever attempted to use her sexuality for her personal gain. Past experiences with men were kept tightly compartmentalized and had no real importance to her.
But this… she hated the way it savaged her heart so mercilessly. He’d taken her slowly and yet with a force she couldn’t resist forever. And she could not accept it. Not even privately.
“Perhaps I worded my question wrong. Allow me to try again.”
“If it pleases Your Grace.” Erza knew she was demonstrating the exact rigidity he inquired after but didn’t bother to try any harder.
His next words came as a breath upon the skin of her neck. Tendrils of her hair stirred and sent a shiver down her spine. “Why do you keep me at such a distance? I would be closer if you allowed it.”
She stiffened. “I don’t know what you mean, Your Grace.”
“You do.” He spun her around and for the first time that night, but certainly not the last, he surprised her. “If you don’t start letting me in I’m going to assume every time you call me Your Grace you’re really saying I love you.”
“You assume too much, Your –“ She cut herself off in frustration. “King.”
He laughed easily but his mouth flattened when he reached out to touch the still pink scar near her shoulder. “This –“
“Was my duty. And I would do it again.”
“Would you?” Jellal’s hand moved from the scar to her neck and his thumb ran over her jaw. His body had somehow come to be incredibly close and Erza felt her traitorous heart pound away violently in her chest.
“I would.” She couldn’t keep this up. “Your Grace.”
He smiled softly before kissing her.
“You didn’t wait for me,” he said as he eased himself into the water behind her.
“Perhaps later you could give me a royal pardon for offending you so.” Erza turned her head slightly to see him smile.
“Bathing alone in the king’s chambers is hardly the most offensive thing about this situation. A few old guard members of my court are absolutely scandalized that I’m not only taking you as my wife but I hear the way we carry on before the wedding is positively salacious.”
“Want me to slit their throats in their sleep, Your Grace?”
“I don’t think that’s necessary Captain Knightwalker.” She settled back against his chest and twined their fingers together lazily.
“I suppose a handful of murders would delay things when we really should be considering moving the proceedings forward.”
“Oh? Is there a rush now?”
She bit her lip and smiled to herself. “That depends on how secure you’d like to keep your line of succession.”
“I see.” Jellal planted an open mouthed kiss on her neck and touched her still-flat stomach beneath the suds floating on the surface of the water. His quiet words could barely be heard in the dwindling light of day, but she didn’t miss it. “I love you, Erza Knightwalker.”
The captain spun herself around in the bath and slid into his lap. She whispered, “Your Grace.” Before kissing him soundly.