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they sicken of the calm, who knew the storm

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When the smoke finally clears, he blinks around at the lovely green hillside. The sun is high and bright, the grass is incredibly green, there’s a large forest off in the distance, and he is in the middle of freakin’ nowhere.

Is his future self having a goddamn picnic or something? Where’s the Tenth? Where’s anything?

There’s a rock big enough to lean against a few paces away, so he does that and lights up a cigarette. It’s not too bad, he supposes; maybe he was traveling somewhere or looking for something? Whatever, it’s not gonna matter in a few minutes anyway.

Fifteen minutes and another cigarette later, he’s starting to get a bit worried, and after what’s probably a half hour, he gives up on waiting. Something’s obviously gone wrong, but it’s not on his end and his Family will get him back. Eventually.

Probably.

For right now, he’d best find some civilization. Staying in one place won’t help anything, and if he’s gonna be here for any length of time, he needs information.

There’s a path running by the base of the hill, with forest one way and grass the other, as far as he can see. A quick glance towards the sun orients him, and the breeze is light and clean, so he’s not near water. Well, there’s more likely to be people away from the forest, so whatever, he’ll go that way.

As he walks, he goes to light up another cigarette. It’s his default stress reaction, but he forces his hands to stop--he doesn’t know where he is, or how long he’ll have to make his remaining cigarettes last.

He counts them out, then runs a quick inventory of what he’s got on him. He dressed this morning for a casual day in, and he’s really regretting that now.

Things he has: his Ring, his phone, one and a quarter box of regular cigarettes, the cigarette case Tenth gave him which is full of his battle blend, his second-best lighter, a cheap gas station lighter, matches, not nearly enough dynamite, two holdout knives he may or may not have stolen from Bel, decently sturdy clothes and boots, his wallet with a half-dozen ID cards from as many countries with half as many names, a handful of Euros and some leftover yen he never cleared out.

Things he had when he left that he does not have now: Sistema C.A.I.

Things he does not have: a clue, reception for his phone, and time for this shit.

First things first, he needs to know what he’s got, and that includes knowing if his Flames work wherever the hell here is. He brings up his hand and feeds just enough energy into his Ring to light it up red.

His entire hand blazes sudden and bright, and he yelps a bit. Then he shakes out his hand and looks around to make sure no one saw him being startled by his own power, because really, he’s not Lambo, geez. So Flames not only work here, they work better. A lot better, and he spends the next little while trying to figure out his balance again.

It’s not easy, not by any means, because the line between too little and too much is now incredibly thin. Still, it gives him something to do while he walks, and he goes back to basics, back to the first exercises they were ever taught. One hand on fire. Three fingers. One finger. Start again. Move the Flame. Make it dance. Put it out. Bring it back. Change fingers, and repeat.

By the time he sees roofs on the horizon, he’s still awful at it. He can consistently produce the amount he wants, at least, but not with any kind of speed. In a stressful situation, he’ll still overpower anything he tries, but better that than the alternative. It’ll hold, for now.

The town is almost too big to be a town, but it’s not quite large enough to be a city. He picks a person at random and follows them until he finds a bigger group, and follows that until he hits a much larger street. Then he follows the flow of the majority of traffic, looking for a center or somewhere to start from.

At least it’s him here, he thinks. He’s got experience skulking through markets to gather info, he’s got experience in urban survival. He’s got experience building up a life from absolutely nothing, and at least this time he has decent boots, so hey, better’n last time already. At least, he consoles himself, at least it’s not the Tenth here all alone. At least.

He picks the main square as soon as he finds it. It’s the biggest, with the most people and a crossroads besides. He finds a few snobby-looking people in nice shiny clothes, sets his face in its meanest glower, and slouches carelessly through the crowd over their way. It’s been awhile since he had to pickpocket to survive, but he still does it constantly to Takeshi just to annoy him, so it’s not hard to snitch whatever they’ve got.  Not like he knows what he’s got or how much it’s worth, but he can probably eat, at least.

Speaking of, there’s a woman dressed in what looks like a servant uniform carrying an empty basket; perfect. He follows her far enough back to be lost in the crowd, and yes, she’s heading to a market. There’s probably more, but this is a good start.

Hands always in his pockets, he slouches through the market, sticking to the edges of the streets. There’s a certain ease in his stride and set to his shoulders that says “delinquent”, he knows, ‘cause he worked hard to cultivate it. It means the nice law-abiding people pretend not to see him and the street kids don’t try anything on him. It can draw bad attention, but this place is small and clean; he doubts if it’ll be an issue. It’s really sad but anywhere civilized, delinquent is the next best thing to invisible.

There’s a nice patch of clear wall over where an empty stall stands, between a fruit stall and someone selling some kind of fabrics. He slouches in to prop himself against the wall and light a cigarette. It gives him an excuse to stand still and watch—and listen.

The language here is a weird bastardization of Japanese, only full of old and archaic words he’s never really heard used. The grammar’s set up like Italian, like French, like English—but the words and constructions are in that old Japanese. It’s so weird, but doable. Definitely doable, and he focuses on listening and memorizing phrases he hears more than three times—idioms are what makes anyone appear fluent.

Money also seems to be closer in value to yen than Euros. That, or apples cost a small fortune that everyone can afford. He watches an older woman in a nice but worn dress haggle over a fish, and figures no, it’s like the yen. Okay, so far, so good.

He grinds out the butt of his cigarette, slinks around a corner into an alley and goes just deep enough to be in the shadows. There’s a dumpster, which is perfect, and he ducks around to the far side. He tries not to breathe as he counts out what he’d taken. Most of the wallets had some notes and a handful of coins, but one is rather sizable and one is just stuffed. Someone’ll miss this, he thinks, but he doesn’t really intend to hang around this town long anyway. He runs up a total in his head, and seems like he’s got a pretty decent haul. He sticks a handful of the notes into his own wallet, tosses the empty wallets into the dumpster, and tucks the rest  of the money away in separate places about his person. Better safe than sorry.

He re-emerges and strolls away, hands back in pockets. There’s gotta be a place or stall around here to get something to eat, and hopefully someone sells smokes, or at least tobacco. Maybe he’ll even get super lucky and find a place with books, but it’s not worth counting on.

A pretty blond girl in an amazingly short skirt and with a frankly mind-boggling rack bounces up to the candy stall he’s passing. He pauses a bit because—well, because. And then he keeps watching as she fumbles a bit at her hip for a little key, which she promptly sticks into thin air.

A…dog-like thing? an insect, maybe, probably a UMA? just kinda falls out of the air in front of her and he’s hit low and hard with sudden longing. She’s cuddling the thing and pointing at various lollipops, and it’s waving around its paws longingly.

He almost stumbles, he’s in such a hurry, “Hi,” he says, coming up beside her.

She gives him a short sideways look, an evaluating once-over he’s very familiar with, but he’s not trying to flirt. “Um, sorry to bother you, couldn’t help but notice—that was amazing, what you did!” And he gestures to the creature.

Her entire face lights up, and her smile is wide and real. “Thanks!” she says. “Well, this guy isn’t the most impressive, but…”

“No, no, it’s really interesting!” he assures her, and reaches out a bit, hesitating for permission. At her nod, he gently touches the thing’s head. It’s smooth, all of one piece, so it’s not fur, and it’s vibrating intensely. “What is this?”

“Celestial Summon Spirit,” she says happily, placing the thing on its two hind feet on the counter. “Now you can pick one for now and one for later, but only those!” she tells it, and he marvels as it wanders closer to the candy. “I’m a Celestial Spirit mage, so I can summon him with the constellation keys.”

She says mage like it’s a job, like doctor or librarian or accountant. Box weapons or summoning or magic or whatever the hell must be commonplace in this place, and that might explain why his Flames are overpowered. Does a magic-heavy atmosphere affect the abilities of everyone? Is it a general enriching effect, or are there others here who use Flames, or is magic just what they call Flames here, or—thoughts for later.

“Constellations, huh,” he says. The creature toddles back over to the girl, dragging a lollipop that’s slightly smaller than its head. He doesn’t know constellations as well as he should, but he’s pretty sure there are next to no cat constellations. Of course it wouldn’t be easy, but hey, it’s a starting place.

“I don’t know much about Celestial Spirit magic,” he readily admits.

She takes it as the cue it is, to his relief. As the UMA heads back to the row of candies, she gives him a short but clear outline on how Celestial Spirit magic works.

It’d be more helpful if he understood half the terms she uses, but he’s getting the gist anyway. Magic is common enough here that mages are an accepted norm, he guesses, and some of them summon, and some of those pull from constellations. Minor constellations are common, and there’s multiple keys of them, while the golden keys of the Zodiac are unique and rare.

But if you can summon from the sky, there’s no reason you couldn’t summon from elsewhere, he supposes. First step would be to acquire a summoning medium, such as those keys.

“Where do the keys come from, then?” he asks her.

“Oh, well, it’s a really under-studied branch, you understand,” and he’s read enough science papers to know it’s gonna boil down to ‘no one really knows but here’s my pet theory’, and sure enough, “I think they’re, like, manifestations of the spirit’s essence made physical. There’s got to be some connection for the summoning channel to work through, so it would make sense that they’re extensions of the spirit itself. Besides, the spirits seem to be aware of their keys.”

He frowns, thinking this through. “But it’s a key,” he says slowly, mind racing ahead. “That’s a really human thing. How would a spirit make something like that? The first time, I mean.”

She also frowns. “Hmm, maybe they’re just copying each other? Unless all 88 just popped into being at the same time?”

“But then what was the trigger for that? It would make more sense if a spirit, at least the first one, was bound to a key by a mage.”

She’s still frowning at him, but he knows it’s the ‘interesting new theory’ frown, not ‘cause of him. She also has no situational awareness at all, or she’d’ve stopped the UMA from collecting a pile of lollipops the size of itself. “But if it was a matter of binding, why are there multiple copies of minor ones? One mage wouldn’t need multiple copies.”

“Maybe someone bound the Zodiac and the minor ones are copycats?” he suggests, then asks dryly, “Is that much sugar good for him?”

She looks down to see the UMA eating a lollipop that oughtn’t rightfully fit in its mouth and sitting next to a pile of more, and promptly freaks a bit. The stall owner, who’s been watching, is now frowning ominously at the girl.

She picks up the UMA and shoves it into his arms, and he barely catches it before it falls. “Hold this a sec,” she fumes, and he nods mutely as she alternately tries charming and browbeating the poor stall owner. When the guy eventually gives up, she gives him a real cute smile, drops a pile of coins on the counter and scoops about half the pile into a little pouch that looks far too small to hold even one of the lollipops and holy shit he wants it. That is the actual coolest bag, he wants to pick apart the seams and turn it inside out and find out how it breaks physics, he wants one.

Maybe Giannini can make him something similar, but this one doesn’t seem to have side-effects.

When she steps away, he follows, still carrying the UMA. The thing has settled happily in his arms, sucking on the lollipop and not fidgeting.

“Sorry about that,” she says a few steps later, and reaches out to take the creature from him. “Thanks for helping out!”

“It was nothing,” he says, because it really was. “By the way, I’m sorry, I never caught your name?”

“Lucy! Hi, sorry, I’m Lucy,” she says, and shifts the UMA to stick out a hand.

“Hayato,” he answers, and takes it. He’s pretty sure that despite the Japanese words, the Western grammar structure means it’s a first-name type of place, and also Lucy is a first name. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

She beams at him, and then there’s a bit of an awkward pause as neither of them pick up the slack. So he takes a chance and asks, “Is there a place around here that would sell silver keys?”

“Yeah, I think so,” Lucy says, looking around. “I mean, most magic item stores will have a few, and I think there’s one of those a few streets back.” At his curious look, she explains, “I’m not from here, myself; just here on a job.”

He makes a noise of understanding and nods. “Over that way, you said?” It’s clarification, but also a bit of a question.

“Yeah, I think this way,” and thank anything, she’s gonna take him there. He quickly asks about how physical Gates are, and she falls into the conversation easily. It lasts them through wandering around, and all the way to eventually finding the shop.

Before they go in, though, Lucy pulls out a key from the ring on her belt and sets the UMA on the ground. “I’ll call you again later,” she tells it, and it pulls out the lollipop to wave it goodbye. It’s adorable. She waves the key in a graceful arc, says, “Close, gate of the dog,” and the UMA disappears.

“It’s a dog?” he asks, because that’s just not—no. It’s not a dog.

Lucy shrugs. “It’s the Key for Canis minor, so Plue must be a dog,” she says, but no, he’s still not convinced. Still, he follows her into the store.

It’s pretty big, and very clean. There’s shelves, aisles in the middle, and a few glass displays around the edges. One of them has three silver keys laid out on velvet displays, like jewelry or really nice lighters. “Hmm,” Lucy says, leaning closer. “Canis minor, Lynx, and Circinus. Pretty good selection.” She drops her voice to tell him, “Pretty overpriced, though.”

“Really?” He’ll trust her judgement, he has no concept of how much summon keys should cost. The Canis minor key is priced at 22,000, the Lynx at 30,000, and Circinus at 35,000. He already knows what he’s going for, and his earlier efforts mean he’s got just barely enough to cover the sticker price. “How much would Lynx be worth, d’you think?”

“I’ve seen it sell for 27,000 before,” she murmurs. Then she blinks at him, and says, “Are you even a holder-type mage? Can you even summon?”

“I have no idea,” he admits freely. “I’ve done something a bit similar before, so I think it’s worth trying, though.”

“Well, I want Circinus and I don’t have Lynx,” she says slowly. “Make you a deal—if you buy either and it doesn’t work for you, I’ll buy the key off you for half.”

A rather significant loss, but that is still a fantastic offer for him. If it works, wonderful, and if it doesn’t, at least he’s not totally broke. “Deal,” he says firmly, but he remembers earlier and adds, “Let me do the haggling.”

She squints at him doubtfully, but must decide it’s his money to waste because she nods and drifts away to look at a rack of shiny things at the other end of the counter.

He’s haggled in Sicilian street markets with his actual life on the line, and he manages to get the guy to drop to 26,500. He’d been aiming for 25,000, but he also knows a hardstop when he sees one, and this is a store, after all, not a street stall. Besides, Lucy might still want the other so he doesn’t wanna piss the guy off too bad.

After he hands over the money--called jewels, apparently, which, why?--Lucy moves forward and asks for the other key, Circinus. Hayato hangs over her shoulder with his angry scowly face still on, and the shopkeep accepts her first offer of 32,000.

She hands over her jewels, and the shopkeep retrieves both from the glass case and hands them over. Lucy barely glances at him as she accepts it, and immediately heads for the door. Hayato follows her out, keeping up the slouch and scowl until they’re around the corner, in a plaza.

Then Lucy is clapping and laughing, and he smiles back at her. “That was amazing!” she says. “I’ve never seen anyone haggle like that before!”

She’s honestly really impressed, and it’s almost embarrassing. “S’nothing,” he shrugs it off and looks for a distraction. There’s a couple benches in front of a small park-looking area just up the way, so he heads towards them and asks, “So how do we do this anyway?”

“I’ll go first,” she says, and holds her silver key in front of her. “I am linked to the path to the world of Celestial Spirits, now!” She starts to glow, and a golden path follows the arc of the key through the air. “O spirit, answer my call and pass through the gate: Circinus!”

It’s amazing to watch, and a large metal (probably?) set of pliers (maybe???) appear from nowhere, just like the UMA from earlier.

“Oh,” Lucy exclaims, clapping once in joy. “You’re a compass!”

And it is, he sees. One tip is pointed, and the other has a pen tip of some type on it. How it is sentient, or what use it could possibly serve, he has no idea. Why would you want giant circles? Maybe you could, like, stab someone with the pointy end?

The compass spins itself around, then draws a circle just barely around Lucy. The line glows blue in the dust of the street, and Lucy says, “Oooh, it’s a ward! You make warding circles! That’s so amazing!” and it really actually is.

She asks the compass a lot of questions about days and summoning and it swings left for no and right for yes. This place, he swears, nothing makes a lick of sense. Sentient magical compasses, what even, he just wants his demon cat.

And he’s going to get to try, apparently; Lucy’s closing the Gate for Circinus again. “See?” she beams at him, still happy over Circinus, “Not so hard. Your turn!”

Well, simple enough.

He holds the key like Lucy did, and tries to focus on it, like he does for his Ring. Then he tries it again. Then he closes his eyes and tries some more.

“Something wrong?” Lucy asks.

He opens his eyes. “I can’t feel it,” he says, frowning at the key. “Normally, when I summon, there’s a--like, a spark, or kind of a--there’s a thing there,” and wow, he’s never tried to explain that before. Still, Lucy’s nodding like she knows; she probably gets it.

“Keys aren’t for everyone,” she says. It’s frustrating; his specialty is using other types of magic. He should be able to do this.  “Maybe you just use a different medium. What do you usually summon through?”

“Boxes,” he answers absently. He can easily feel the spark in his Ring, that’s as present as always, but the key may as well be dead. But...well, ‘boxes’ isn’t exactly the right answer, is it?

He lays the key across his fingers in exactly the way no one would ever use a key, but it’s in contact with his Ring and yes, there, that’s it. “There you are,” he murmurs, and maybe it’s because he’s using the Ring as a focus, maybe it’s because he’s using Storm Flames as fuel, or maybe it’s just because he wants it so bad he’s imagining it, but the spark burns so familiar.

The feeling grows as he focuses on it, red leaks around him, and the words come full-formed to his tongue. “Across time and space and reason, borne on the tempest winds!” He opens his eyes and his hand, and the key raises above it, shape shuddering. “Come to me now: Uri!”

“Um,” Lucy says behind him. “I don’t think that’s--”

But it’s working, he can feel it. The key’s shape is wobbling, his Flames are draining into his Ring, and it just needs the final push--

Lucy summons Celestial Spirits, but Uri is coming from a lot further away than the sky. It’s taking an awful lot of Flame, but he opens up and pours it all in, and the key pops into a cat.

“Ow,” he gasps, and “Uri!” His knees give out and he sits down hard, but Uri is really actually there. Uri is there, digging sharp points of pain into his chest. Uri is there, drawing blood.

As usual. Sigh.

“Oi, let go, you bastard cat,” he says, but they both know he doesn’t really mean it. Uri uses her claws freely as she climbs his chest, purring happily as she settles down to gnaw his earlobe bloody.

Lucy crouches down next to him. “That was interesting,” she says mildly, and reaches out toward Uri. The purring quickly turns into a throaty warning sound, and Lucy hurriedly drops her hand. “That’s not Lynx.”

“It’s my Uri,” he answers, beaming at her. “She’s a Storm Leopard, not a constellation.”

“So...you used a Celestial Summon key as a focus to summon something else?”

Hayato thinks about it, ignoring the horrid pain in his ear. “Yeah,” he decides. “I mean, I’d’ve been happy with a Lynx constellation, but I guess my connection to Uri just overrode Lynx’s connection to the key.”

Lucy blinks some more, then sighs like she gives up on logic. It's a very familiar sigh; he's just generally not on this end of it. “So do you need to contract with her?”

His first instinct is no, and his first thought is no, so he thinks about it a bit and comes up with no. “I doubt it,” he says. “We kinda already have one?” She comes and goes as she pleases, and it’s not like anyone else could ever summon his Uri anyway.

Uri headbutts his face, shoving her fur up his nose. Then she bites him on the chin. “Yeah, we’re good,” he says.

Lucy shakes her head. “You’re not looking to join a guild, are you? Because your crazy would fit right in at mine.”

He almost takes offense at that because he is the least crazy of his Family and all he really did was summon Uri. Still, better to not take offense, nor give it. “Thanks--I think?--but I’m good.”

“Yeah,” she sighs, and stands. “Didn’t think so. Still, you ever change your mind, come look me up at Fairy Tail,” she says, and taps a pale pink symbol on the back of her hand.

“Will do,” he lies, standing up and offering his hand. He knows a bow-out when he hears one. “Thanks for all your help,” he says sincerely, because he does have manners.

“Sure thing,” she says, and gives him her hand. He bows over it, ignoring Uri’s protest. “Ooh, a gentleman,” she teases, and he grins at her.

“Not hardly,” he says, and turns to go. “See you later!”

“Take care!” she calls at his back, and he waves over his shoulder.

So, he reviews as he ambles. He’s stuck in a world clearly not his own, mostly broke, next to exhausted, and he’s gotta skip town before anyone raises a stink about a pickpocket, but now he’s got Uri scratching the hell out of his neck and his Flames are still burning.

He picks a random street, and starts walking. Better find a bus stop or a train station or something; he knows that scent riding light on the breeze, and it makes him smile.

There’s a storm coming in.