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Time Is On Our Side (But Time Is Running Out)

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Breaking into the mansion was, in all honesty, so easy it was embarrassing.

Once more, Natsu had to be talked down from just charging straight through the front door and knocking heads together until he got some answers. It didn't help that Lucy very much wanted to just let him go for it, her patience with this mission thinning with every minute, but she knew doing so could result in her never getting Virgo. Which wasn't an option.

She had been so excited for this mission, the first real mission she'd ever gone on as Natsu and Happy's partner in this time, but the longer it went on for the more she just wanted to return to the guild. What if something unexpected happened while they were gone? What if someone else's mission went bad and her nakama got hurt? What if they were dead? What if-

Lucy cut that line of thought off and took a deep breath to steady her nerves. She knew she was being ridiculous, that it was very unlikely that anything had happened in the short amount of time that they'd been gone. Nothing had gone wrong last time, after all, and she hadn't done anything that might change that. Just because she still couldn't fully believe that they were all alive and well here, in this time, didn't mean they weren't. She just had to keep reminding herself of that.

"Lucy?"

She blinked up to find Natsu looking back at her, brows furrowed and mouth pulling down into a frown. She shook her head sharply and forced a smile, determined to finish this mission without any more distractions.

"Sorry," she told him, finally stepping away from the open window they'd climbed through. "I was just thinking of how to get this mission done."

"I still say we should just burn the whole place down. It would be a lot faster," Natsu pouted, Happy piping up his own agreement from under the skull he'd jammed onto his head sometime in the last few minutes.

"I told you already," Lucy sighed, "if we do that, this place will be surrounded by Knights in no time. And then the guild will be in a lot of trouble and will owe a lot of money."

"It'll be fine," Natsu assured her. "The Master already said we can do whatever we think is right to finish the mission."

"He said to do what we thought was right, not what we thought was easy," she told him, though she couldn't help but smile when he slumped in disappointment. "Now, come on, the sooner we find this book the sooner we can go back home."

The boys followed after her as she left the storage room they'd entered the house from, grumbling and complaining as they made their way down the hall. Lucy knew that there was a library around here somewhere but it had been so long that she wasn't sure which door led to it. She was just about to turn and ask Natsu if he could use his nose when she froze, cutting herself off mid-word.

Virgo was near.

She hadn't had such a reaction to Loke, but she supposed it made sense that she wouldn't. Loke was weak right now, only a few weeks away from disappearing from this world completely, and he hadn't been able to return to the Stellar Spirit World in years. Virgo, on the other hand, was in relatively good health, even if her current Key holder was a disgusting pervert and all-around horrible person.

Lucy hurried Natsu along, knowing they didn't have much time before the Spirit made it to them. She'd rather not confront Virgo just yet, not until she had the book in her possession. She was the only one who knew there was more to it, after all. If Natsu found it first, he'd burn it to ashes with no hesitation.

Thankfully, she hit jackpot with the next door, flinging it open to reveal the large library that she remembered. She firmly shut the door behind them, and not a second too late, as she felt Virgo's magic ascend from the floor in the hallway behind them. Lucy could remember them being found out last time as well, though she still didn't know how it had happened. There had probably been a security enchantment in that storage room or something and they'd tripped it both times.

Lucy shook her head at herself. That was beyond sloppy of her. If she'd made such a stupid mistake in the time she'd come from, it would've gotten her and whoever was with her killed, most likely. Just because these times were relatively peaceful didn't mean she could make stupid mistakes, not when Natsu and Happy were at her back and would suffer for them.

"The book is probably in here somewhere," she told her partners quietly. "We should split up and look for it."

"Why not just burn them all?" Natsu grumbled even as he made his way to one of the shelves.

"I already told you. Besides, books shouldn't be destroyed so easily." She might not be as devoted to reading as she had once been - it was barely safe enough to sleep, most days, let alone lose yourself in a book - but that didn't mean she didn't still have a healthy respect for books and the authors that created them. Growing up in that big mansion after her mother had passed away had been painfully lonely and the books had been one of the only things to make it bearable. And, better yet, her father had never complained about seeing her with a book. It was one of the very few things she did that he actually approved of.

"Yeah, yeah," Natsu continued to whine. "There sure are a lot of them, though. Hey, Happy, I found one about fish!"

"Oooo! That's so cool!"

Lucy sighed but left them to it. Even if they were goofing around, they were still looking. And hey, at least they weren't destroying anything.

Her pink-haired partner was right, though, there definitely were a lot of books. She didn't think it had taken them all that long to find it last time, probably because Natsu was practically made of dumb luck, and she was hoping the same would be the case this time. Otherwise they'd probably be here for awhile and she wanted to have found it before Everlue found them.

"Hey!" Natsu crowed, as if on cue, "I found a golden book!"

"A golden book?" Lucy demanded, spinning about quickly to face him. And, yep, there in his hands was the novel Day Break. She shook her head, exasperated but pleased. "Really, Natsu, you have all the dumb luck in the world, don't you?"

He threw a fanged grin her way. "Now all we've gotta do is burn it, right?"

"Aye!"

"Do you mind if I see it first?" She asked, reaching for it. Her partner cocked his head at her but didn't hesitate to hand it over, which was a difference from last time, when she'd had to swipe it from him. Maybe it was because she wasn't suggesting not completing the mission this time? Or maybe they were just closer and he trusted her more? Either way, she'd take what she could get, and if Natsu wasn't fighting her every step of the way on this, it just made it a hell of a lot easier for her. "There's something strange about this book. It isn't right."

"So?" Natsu asked, uninterested. "Our mission is just to burn it and that's it."

Lucy frowned at that but continued to flip through the pages, undaunted. "There's no way this author would've ever written something this bad. I've read all of his published books and this reads like it was written by a completely different person. There's something more going on here and I want to know what it is."

"That's not the mission," Natsu huffed, crossing his arms over his chest and staring her down, unimpressed. Happy, at his feet, didn't look much better. She rolled her eyes at the both of them.

"Like either of you are the type to follow a mission to the letter," she grumbled. "Besides, I'm not saying we don't complete the mission. I'm just saying that I want to get to the bottom of this before we do. Please?"

She could see him caving to the pleading on her face, in a way he never would've last time around, but before he could say anything more, the floor before them exploded upward, revealing an obese man that she remembered all too well.

"Boyoyoyoyo! So, this is what you mages were after, was it? A worthless book like that?" The mansion's owner asked as he landed, his obnoxious laugh making her cringe. "But how dare you touch something that belongs to the great Duke Everlue?! I'll make you pay for it! Come, Vanish Brothers!"

At his words, a section of the shelves began to move, opening up to reveal a passage way and two tall and menacing silhouettes.

"It's time for actual business, huh?" The shorter of the two remarked.

"Yeah, if we get payed without actually doing anything, Mama will be mad," the taller one agreed.

"Good afternoon," the first greeted them, voice bland.

"Those armbands!" Happy yelled, pointing towards the two newcomers. "They're from the mercenary guild, Southern Wolves!"

"He hired guys like that?" Natsu scoffed, unimpressed.

Lucy ignored the lot of them and continued flipping through the pages. She remembered there had been something different about the book, that it had held a secret intended for the author's son, but unraveling the magic itself was taking a bit of focus. It had originally been intended to be read by his son and only his son. Older now, at least mentally, and more experienced, she could recognize the more intricate parts of the spell, parts she now realized she'd haphazardly bulldozed through last time around.

"Hey, Natsu," she called absentmindedly, not looking up. "You don't mind taking these guys on, do you? I need some time to figure this out."

"Huh?" He demanded, turning a disapproving stare on her once more. "We're supposed to be destroying that, not reading it!"

"It's fine!" She assured, waving him off. "You can probably handle these guys easily. Just hold them off for me, okay?"

She didn't wait for his answer, knowing he'd do it regardless, and instead took off at a steady run. She needed space and quiet to fully unravel this spell and being in the middle of a fight wasn't going to cut it. She'd probably be able to finish it before the Duke found her, too, which would leave her able to beat the tar out of the guy and receive Virgo's key in return.

Speaking of... She almost paused as the thought occurred to her, but kept herself running out of sheer will. Why did she need to wait for Virgo to hand her Key over to Happy, and then for Happy to remember to give it to her? She'd taken Keys from defeated enemies before, after all, when she knew they didn't deserve them. And Everlue definitely didn't deserve Virgo. So, why did she have to wait?

The answer was, she didn't.

The whole time thing was still tripping her up. She wanted to change things but she didn't want to change too much. She hadn't wanted to change Natsu and Happy bringing her to the guild, hadn't wanted to change their first mission together. There were so many small things that had happened that had led to her being closer to her nakama and what if she changed something and those relationships never happened?

She'd been tempted to approach Loke so many times since she'd returned to the past. Seeing him like he was, weakening and in pain, almost physically hurt her. And she wanted nothing more than to help him, to save him, to have him by her side once more. But the last time around, he'd had tickets to that resort when she'd saved him, and he'd given them to her and the rest of the team. That was how they'd run into Jellal's group, when Erza was taken to the Tower of Heaven.

It was important that that happened again. It was important that Erza was reunited with the ones she'd known when she was younger, who meant so much to her. It was important that Jellal was saved and able to heal and become the mage Lucy remembered. She owed him that much, at least. He'd done so much, lost so much, and still had stepped aside and insisted that she be the one to go back.

He hadn't thought himself worthy of it, she knew. Hadn't thought he deserved another chance, hadn't deserved the right to see Erza again. Which was bullshit, Lucy knew, but hadn't been able to convince him of. In the end, he'd taken the part of conductor for the spell, the one who everyone's energy and magic siphoned through as it poured into the runework they'd drawn all around them. He'd thought of it as his final penance as he knew that there was no way of surviving that much energy flowing through a single person.

Jellal had died to give her a chance to come back and save their loved ones, their family. She owed it to him to save him in return, no matter what it took. And to do that, she had to make sure they ended up at the Tower of Heaven like last time.

But how was she to know what she could change and what absolutely had to stay the same? If she took Virgo's Key at the end of this mission, would that change anything, really? How was she to know?

Lucy sighed. This was part of the reason she'd fought so hard against being the one sent back. She was smart, she knew, always had been, but she didn't have a head for strategies, not like this. She couldn't plan ten steps ahead based on one little detail. She couldn't map out the domino effect her actions would have on the timeline.

All she could do was her best and pray that it was enough.

.


.

"You can't be serious."

Jellal met her stare calmly, arms folded on his lap and book open on the rickety table beside him. He looked as if they were discussing nothing more than the weather outside and it made her want to scream.

"It's worth it," he told her simply with a shrug.

Lucy wanted to argue that, she really did, but she couldn't. Because if it worked, if they were able to change all of this, then it would be worth it. Still, though, "It doesn't have to be you. I can do it instead. You should be the one going back, you know it! You're the one that found this spell, you're the one who still has hope!"

"Lucy, we already discussed this, you know why -"

"Bullshit! That reason is bullshit and you know it!" She snarled, slamming her palm onto the table. The man before her, long used to her bouts of rage at this point, didn't so much as twitch. "You were involved in a lot of those battles, too! You have just as many connections as I did, just as much of a chance to change things. Picking me because I was a part of Na - ... a part of their team isn't a good enough reason."

He sighed and, for the first time since he'd started this quest on nothing more than a whispered, 'What if we could change it?'looked as tired as the rest of them felt. And Lucy couldn't help but feel a twinge of guilt for bringing that expression back to his face but persevered regardless. She had been ready to accept defeat, ready to agree to be sent back, but not now. Not after what she'd just found out.

"Lucy," his tone was pleading, "I can't go back. I can't. I have been given so many chances and I've wasted all of them. What if I mess up again? This is the last chance any of us are going to get and I'm not going to let it be wasted on me. I refuse."

It was Lucy's turn to sigh. Ever since the Tower of Heaven, Jellal had been all about making up for his past mistakes, that wasn't any secret. But as things progressed, as people died and battles were lost, he'd taken more and more blame onto himself. The only one that had ever been able to smack sense into him had been Erza and she'd been gone for a long, long time. Without her, the guilt was eating him alive and everybody could see it.

Not that the rest of them were much better, guilt and anger bubbling in all of them for being the ones left alive, but Jellal's self-hatred had been festering for far longer than their's had.

"I know you think you don't deserve it," she told him, gentling her tone as much as she was able. Whereas her anger had passed by him with no effect, he now flinched away from her kindness. "But I promise that you do. Out of everyone in this camp, out of everyone that's left, you're the one with the best chance of success here. Your chances are far better than mine."

He was already shaking his head at her. "I'm weak," he told her, plainly, and cut her off before she could protest. "I have a lot of magical power but my soul, my spirit, is weak. Has been for a long time, maybe my entire life. For this to work, for someone to be able to pass through the barrier, their spirit has to be immensely strong. And, Lucy, nobody here has a spirit as strong as yours."

She couldn't deny that. After spending so many years training and fighting with her Spirits, her own had grown stronger in comparison. Not to mention all the time she'd spent in the Spirit Realm. Going back and forth between those worlds had strengthened her spirit even more and, if one was going to make it through to the past, it would be hers.

"But you'll die," she whispered, her last argument, though she knew it was a futile one. Death wasn't really enough to stop any of them at this point.

"So will you," he shrugged, once again nonchalant, and the urge to scream at him hadn't lessened. If anything, it had grown stronger. "Everyone else might, too. This spell is going to take everything that we have, and even that might not be enough. But it's worth it. For the chance to change things, it's worth it."

"Yeah," Lucy agreed quietly, suddenly exhausted. "Yeah, it's worth it."

In a week's time, she'd sit in the middle of circle of runes and sigils, what was left of her nakama spread out around her and powering a spell that would hopefully allow them to save everyone they loved. Jellal would be controlling it, his life shortening with every second he acted as a conduit and conductor for such immense magical power. And Lucy would calmly lay there and turn her magic in on itself, stopping her own heart and ejecting her spirit towards the barrier above her.

In a week's time they'd all be dead, would no longer exist in this time and place.

For now, Lucy reached forward to clasp Jellal's hand in hers and held on tightly, even as her resolve to let go hardened into steel.

.


.

Lucy avoided the sewers this time. She didn't quite remember what had caused her to go down there last time around - probably, she hadn't been thinking at all, simply wanted to get away in order to read the book and discover its secret - but this time she had enough mind to go up, rather than down.

As she'd guessed, the spell interwoven into the book wasn't all that hard to unravel, now that she actually knew what she was doing. Because of that, a lot more details could be read of what had happened to Kemu Zaelon during his imprisonment. She'd already felt bad for the author, having been blackmailed and forced into writing such a horrible piece of literature, but each detail the spell revealed just made her all the more angry.

Nobody deserved to be treated the way Everlue had treated Kemu, and it was obvious that the Duke didn't feel any remorse over it. For that alone, Lucy was ready to punch the guy, even if she hadn't already been planning on doing so.

"Boyoyoyo, finished already, are you?" That obnoxious voice called from behind her and Lucy leaped to the side, neatly sidestepping the arms that had been grabbing for her from the ground. "What secret did you uncover? A treasure map? A Hidden fortune?"

She scoffed at him even as she drew the book closer to her chest, "Like someone as great as Kemu Zaelon would leave something like that in a book as shitty as this."

"What is the secret?!" The Duke raged, coming up fully from the ground. "What is it that he hid from me? That book is mine, you must answer me!"

"I don't have to do anything!" Lucy yelled back, sticking her tongue out at him in the process. "And you don't deserve to know the secret! Not after everything you did!"

"Why you - !" He took position as if to dive into the ground again and Lucy readied herself to dodge away from him. Before he got the chance, though, a blue cat landed on his head, knocking him harshly backwards.

"Happy!" Lucy cheered, grinning. She'd been the one to leave her partners behind to deal with the mercenaries but that didn't make her any less excited to see him, especially when he smiled back at her.

"Lucy, are you okay?"

"I'm fine," she assured, waving off his concern. "What about Natsu? Did he send you ahead?"

"Aye, Natsu can handle those two Wolves, no problem!"

"I'm sure," she agreed without an ounce of doubt as she reached for her Keys. "In the meantime, though, we need to beat this guy. He can't have this book. We need to get it back to Kaby and let him decide if he still wants to destroy it."

"We're not gonna destroy it here?" Happy asked, frowning when Lucy shook her head.

"There's a spell on this book. And Kaby needs to see it. If he still wants it destroyed afterwards then we can, but he needs to see it first."

"Nobody will be destroying that book! It belongs to me!" Everlue raged, forcing himself to his feet once more as his face reddened in anger.

"Just knock it off, already," Lucy rolled her eyes, thrusting one of her Keys forward into the air. "You're not going to win this. Cancer!"

The crab Zodiac appeared with barely a sound, scissors in hand and already prepared for a fight. "What kind of hairstyle would you like today, Lucy, ebi?"

"Ebi?!"

Ignoring Happy's outraged and disbelieving cries, Lucy smirked at her Spirit. It had taken her awhile to get used to her Spirit's quirks, she had to admit, but she'd had years to get to know them. By this point, there was very little they could do that would cause her more than a bit of exasperation.

"Duke Everlue here needs a bit of a makeover, don't you think? Maybe you can take a bit off the top for him?"

"It would be my pleasure, ebi."

"Don't get so full of yourself!" The Duke yelled, thrusting his own Key forward. "Open, a door to the Virgin! Virgo!"

"Eh? The same magic as Lucy's?!" Happy yelled, shocked, as smoke exploded in front of their opponent. That was enough, honestly, to demonstrate the differences in their skill. Lucy hadn't summoned one of her Spirits in such a sloppy way since even before she'd been this age originally.

The smoke cleared quickly to reveal the gargantuan form of Virgo... and Natsu, who had apparently once again grabbed hold of the so-called maid just in time to be transported. Lucy wondered how he'd managed that, since last time around Virgo and the other maids had already been beaten by him before they'd even reached the library. Maybe they'd confronted him afterwards?

Natsu's dumb luck really was something to be feared.

Instead of commenting on it, Lucy could do nothing but sigh and palm her face, even as her lips pulled into an amused smile.

"Master, how can I help you?" The giant spirit asked, seemingly unaware of her tag-along.

"Get that book back, at any cost!" The Duke commanded imperiously. Just the way he talked to the Spirit had Lucy's hackles rising. How dare he? And to make her call him 'master'? It was disgusting!

"Natsu!" She yelled, breaking him out of the shocked daze he'd been in due to the sudden transportation. "Knock her out!"

"Right!" He agreed instantly, not hesitating to do just that. Virgo went down with an almighty boom, shaking the floor and, subsequently, the rest of the house around them as cracks appeared and began to rapidly spread. They'd have to end this quickly, lest they get trapped in a collapsing house.

Not wasting anymore time, Lucy flicked the whip held at her waist and wrapped it around the Duke, who'd been attempting to flee into the ground. "Not happening!"

With a great heave, she lifted him up out of the floor and over her head. Cancer leapt forward, slicing into the man as he fell, so that once he'd crashed into the ground, unconscious, it was without any hair and covered in cuts.

For a moment, none of them moved, and then Natsu was jumping forward to pat Lucy on the back, the force of which had her stumbling. "Way to go, Lucy! That was great!"

"Aye!" Happy agreed brightly, flying circles above their heads.

She grinned at the both of them, exhilarated at their praise. "Thanks!"

Before she could say much more, the floor they were standing on heaved and groaned, dipping dangerously. The weight of first Virgo and then Everlue being smashed into it had clearly been too much.

"Cancer, you can return!" She called even as she dived forward, scrambling towards Everlue's unconscious form and, more importantly, the Key still held in his grasp, as the floor buckled beneath them all.

"Lucy, what are you doing?!" Natsu yelled, grabbing her around the waist just as she snatched the Key up. "We need to get out of here!"

"I know! Let's go!"

It looked like, once again, Fairy Tale would be leaving extreme property damage behind them.

.


.

They didn't wait around for any authorities to show up, knowing that doing so would only result in them being arrested. Instead, they headed straight back to the mansion Kaby and his wife had met them at, book securely in Lucy's grasp, even when Natsu questioned her further.

She explained to him that the book held a secret and told him what she'd learned about the author, and what he'd gone through while being forced to write it. As she'd expected, he was just as pissed about Everlue's actions as she'd been. Still, their mission had been to destroy it, even if it held such a secret, and he couldn't understand why she was so determined to make sure their client saw what she'd found. She didn't tell him, either, simply promising that she'd explained once they got there. He'd grumbled, put out, but had acquiescenced.

Kaby had flinched away at the first sight of the book, face twisting in confusion and old anger. He hadn't wanted to hear what Lucy had to say, had wanted the book destroyed instantly, even if it was by his own hands, regardless of what secrets it might hold.

Of course, Natsu had been less than impressed once he'd been told that it was Kaby's father that had been the author.

"You don't even care what he has to say?" Natsu demanded, outraged. "He was your dad!"

"Natsu," Lucy admonished, holding him back when he tried lunging forward at their client. "He's trying to protect his father's pride."

"That's right," Kaby agreed quietly. "He disappeared for three years. Was forced to write such trash. Gave up his pride as a writer. The first thing he did upon returning home was declaring that he'd never write again before cutting off his own arm. I said such horrible things to him, I was so angry with him. Even after he died, after he'd taken his own life, I couldn't forgive him. But as I grew older, I came to regret what I'd said. And that's why I wanted this book destroyed. It's all I can think to do to make up for what I said to him and to restore his pride as an author."

"There's more to this book than you know, though," Lucy told him, voice gentle. "It was your father's worst piece, and also his best."

"Best? What part of any of this trash is good?!" The man demanded, waving the book at her angrily.

"The hidden part," she told him, unbothered by his rage. "That book, your father's last work, is two-fold. At first, it's nothing more than a trashy novel about a perverted nobleman. But if you look deeper..."

Having unraveled the spell earlier, it was simple enough to reach forward and tap into it, causing the letters on the cover to glow before floating into the air and rearranging themselves. Ignoring the exclamations of excitement and disbelief, she continued to concentrate, giving the magic just the right push for it to activate on its own. Soon, the room around them was full of floating letters.

"Your father didn't write this book for Everlue, not really. He wrote this book for you, his son."

"I see," he whispered, tears beginning to fall from his eyes as they roved over the words that had been meant for him. "I never really understood him at all. I can't burn this book."

"In that case," Natsu grinned, hands folded comfortably behind his head, "we can't accept any payment!"

"What? N-no!"

"We can't do that!"

"He's got a point," Lucy sighed. As much as she would've loved to receive payment for this mission, it wasn't like they would've been able to anyways. "The mission was to destroy the book, which we didn't do."

"Exactly!" Natsu agreed, grinning at her cheerfully before spinning on his heal and marching towards the exit. "We should head back now. You, too, Melon! You should leave for your own house soon!"

Lucy couldn't help but smirk at Kaby and his wife's gobsmacked expressions, even as she skipped forward to catch up with her partners, who'd already made it practically out the door.

Now all she had to do was somehow trick Natsu back on a carriage, otherwise they'd be spending the next few days walking.

She was more than ready to get back to Fairy Tail.