Chapter 5: Ephemeris
I can't recall at what moment I seemed to have slipped out of consciousness but when I came to, I definitely wasn't in the Clover Plains anymore. I was in some type of tent, and there was a frosty bite of air surrounding me. It smelled like campfire and I could hear a steady rhythm against the roof of the enclosure I was in with the occasional pop and crackle of a nearby fire.
I tried to piece together what had happened. I remembered walking with Natsu and noticing the terrain got steadily more and more desert-like in nature. Surprisingly, it was cold (though not this cold), and the bite of the wind sent a shiver all the way to my bones. I think I drilled him a bit about being a Dragon Rider, but he blatantly sidestepped and evaded questions, leaving a bitter and annoyed taste in my mouth. After that, it got fuzzy and I couldn't really remember what happened.
My train of thought was interrupted when I heard voices outside the tent. I tried to sit up, much to the aggravation of my body. I was sore and besides the fact we ended up in an utterly different landscape, it was obvious I was severely fatigued. My lips were dry and cracked and my legs were burning; I also became aware of how my side screamed in pain. I noticed that my wardrobe had been changed out of what were formerly reasonable attire for the hot and arid climate of the Clover Plains into warmer and heavier clothing. I made a mental note to kick Natsu's ass for violating my privacy (honestly, did that man have no decency), but my internal memo was interrupted when the volume of the voices escalated.
"So, what? You just thought it was a great idea to pick up a girlfriend in jail!?" a male whom I didn't recognize groaned.
"Hey! She's not my girlfriend," Natsu protested. "She just didn't seem like she belonged there. Besides, what was I supposed to do? If I left her there, she could have been hurt."
"First of all," the other male began. "She wouldn't have been injured because if you were just escaping yourself, you wouldn't have needed to blow the place to kingdom come to get out of there. Secondly, if you hadn't been galavanting about the entire prison facility looking for that ugly fashion accessory-"
"As I was saying, if you hadn't been frolicking about looking for that fashion accessory, you would have found it sooner. Thirdly-"
"Stuff it, Popsicle Princess. I would like to have seen you do better."
"Anyone could do better; Romeo could have done better and he's barely 10."
"Enough!" a woman snapped. "There's no point in arguing because she's here now, and whether we like it or not, she was dragged into this situation the moment she was arrested."
"Fine," the other male conceded. "I still think it was reckless to bring her along."
"Duly noted" the female replied. "Natsu, I do have to agree with Gray these are not favorable circumstances. It was one thing to bring her to safety but insisting we bring her along... can we trust her?"
"She's a good ally," Natsu answered.
"That's not what she was asking," the other male, whom I assumed to be Gray, said flatly.
"Are you hiding something?" the woman asked suspiciously. "I expect you to be fully honest with me regarding matters of this level of importance. We're on the same side, Natsu."
"Nope, I'm not," he said in a tone that sounded like a flat out lie to me.
Either the woman and Gray bought it, or they decided whatever Natsu knew he was not sharing because the next thing she said was, "Fine; I suppose we should talk to her and see what she knows. Her name is Lucy, right?"
"Yeah. She's kind of a weirdo but she's nice enough."
"Says you," Gray retorted.
"Watch your mouth or I'll turn you into snow-cream."
"Bring it on, Flame Brain. I'd like to see you try."
"I won't try; I'll succeed."
I heard what sounded like a loud thud and then two males whimpering.
"Shall I demonstrate that technique again, or are you two quite finished?"
"We're done!" both males affirmed.
Whoever this woman was, she was scary.
I saw a shadow approach the tent and I tried to tuck myself back in and pretend I was still sleeping. While I was somewhat confident they were not enemies, I couldn't be sure if they were friends yet. Natsu himself seemed harmless enough – towards me anyway, but Gray and the mysterious woman were wild cards in my book. Best to play it safe and avoid a confrontation if at all possible.
"Is she still sleeping?" I heard Natsu ask as I closed my eyes tightly and tried not to stir. "Yo, Luce! Wake up! There's bacon! No one can resist bacon, right?"
I fidgeted about to give the illusion of waking up and yawned, opening my eyes slowly and rubbing my eyes as sleepily as I could muster. I was pretty convincing, or so I thought, from the years of experience pretending to have 'accidentally' slept through my etiquette and ballroom dancing lessons.
"Our apologies in waking you, Lucy. We just wanted to make sure you were healing properly," the woman explained, crouching down closer to my level. She had a dark blue, heavy cloak and she lowered the hood to show her face. She was pretty, really pretty, with long, dark red hair pulled back in a ponytail and several piercings adorning her ears. Her eyes were a warm, dark brown but they were mostly covered by her bangs.
"My name is Erza Scarlet," she continued. "Do you know where you are?"
I shook my head no, yawning again and starting to sit up. I winced at the pain, which was not pretend, and considered briefly laying back down.
"We're in the Heavensward Mountains," Erza said simply.
"What!?" I shrieked, probably giving away the fact I was well awake but I certainly didn't care. We had made it all the way well into the next territory!? How the heck… how long had I been asleep?
"We're actually technically at the base of Mount Hakobe," the other male explained. "By the way, I'm Gray Fullbuster."
"How long have I been asleep?" I asked, placing a hand on my forehead and trying to determine how much time I had lost.
"Not as long as you may think," Gray answered. "Only a day or so. You sustained some pretty intense injuries; unfortunately, we're not near any medics that could treat them, so we gave you some field treatment, which should sustain you until we get to our next destination."
"How did we get through the Wasteland so quickly? Wait – next destination? Where are we going? Who are you people? What's going on?"
"We understand you have a lot of questions," Erza placed a hand on my shoulder. "And I promise we will answer them, but you need some more rest and food. We'll need you as able bodied as possible to help us when we decide to leave. Wait here with Natsu while Gray and I finish preparing breakfast."
"Try not to blow up the tent, Flame Breath," Gray glowered at Natsu.
"Why don't you come over here and say that a little closer, Ice Princess," he threatened.
"Enough!" Erza snapped, turning to give the two men a look I'd never want to be on the opposite side of.
As quickly as Erza had come in, she and Gray had disappeared and I could hear them talking faintly outside the tent, which left me with Natsu. He had a few bandages on his face and his arm appeared to be in some kind of sling but overall, he gave the illusion he sustained less injuries than me. He was looking at me with an intensity I had never experienced before and it made my heart beat quicker. It was almost primal, and yet also... desperate.
"So how much did you hear?" he asked, still looking at me.
He gave a crooked smile and cocked his head to the side, resting his chin in his hand. "How much did you hear us talking about? I know you've been awake."
"I, uh, I mean I stirred a bit but I fell back asleep a while ago," I lied.
"You're not a real good liar, are ya, Lucy?"
"I suppose that makes two of us," I said hastily, immediately regretting the decision. Why could I just not keep my trap shut?
"What makes you say that?" he asked, folding his arms and leaning towards me some. The tent was pretty cramped as is, and as he leaned in closer, I could feel the warmth radiating from his body and the smell of smoke and burnt wood permeated the small enclosure. I found myself leaning back a bit, as if to put a bit more space between us. Why was he looking at me like that? Why was he getting so close to me?
"You're hiding something," I accused.
He leaned back, though it didn't seem to be because of my discomfort by his proximity. If anything, he looked a little hurt I accused him of hiding something.
"Huh," he said simply, sidestepping my statement entirely. "You gotta trust me. I'm on your side."
"I don't know you," I mumbled. "How can I trust you?"
He nudged me in the cheek gently with his knuckles and gave a warm smile. The truth was, while my mind screamed about how I didn't know him, how our meeting was unusual, and there were a lot of unanswered questions and circumstances - I already did trust Natsu. Something inside me just placed way more trust than I was honestly comfortable with and it scared the hell out of me. There was no way I'd ever tell him that, but it was almost as if he already knew.
"I hope I'm not interrupting anything indecent you dirty pervert," Gray said, interrupting the silent exchange between Natsu and me, which consequently reminded me... Slap!
"Hey!" Natsu cried, rubbing his cheek. "What was that for!?"
"You undressed me, you little creep!" I hugged a blanket closer to my chest at the thought of Natsu looking at my undergarments. "Without permission!"
"So I could do it with permission?" he teased and I reared my hand back again before he threw his hands up and waved them. "Just kidding! Just kidding!"
Gray was chuckling before saying, "As amusing as this is, Dragon Breath didn't do it. Erza did. Which may or may not have been worse depending on how you look at it. Don't be surprised if she comes back in here with some kind of exercise regiment for you."
"She seems intense," I said, accepting the food Gray handed me. "Where is she from?"
"Erza's a Nakagami Warrior; they're an ancient order selected at birth, taken from their homes post-infancy, and raised in a secluded area in the height of the Gemstone Peaks at someplace colloquially called the 'Tower of Heaven.' She's very intense, but one of the best allies anyone could ask for, and if you ever were in a fight, she's the girl you want backing you up."
"Woman," I corrected.
He bowed his head as if to acknowledge and accept the substitution. "She's pretty amazing regardless, but you don't want to get on her bad side. And she's a real stickler for the rules; rules are everything at the Tower. It's always a big deal if someone goes 'rogue.'"
I took a bite of the bacon and had to stifle the urge to groan in happiness. It was the first taste of food I had in what felt like forever and it became extremely obvious all of a sudden that I was starving. Perhaps it was the years of etiquette classes drilled into me, but as hungry as I was, I resisted the urge to shove fistfulls of food in my mouth. When I looked up for a moment, I saw Gray's eyes studying and evaluating me.
Not going to lie, Gray was attractive. He had dark hair that was spiky and a little unkempt with the shape of a small scar peeking out from under his hair. He had dark, stormy eyes that most women would probably get lost in for days paired high cheekbones and a lean frame. His facial expression was completely unreadable and his lips were pressed in a line; for God's sakes, just where did these people come from? Was there something in the water near their homes? I thought I was attractive but geez. It's like this trio came from some far off land where everyone was at least an 8.5 on a scale of 1 to 10 and probably belonged in a magazine.
"Where are you from, Lucy?" Gray finally asked, crossing his arms.
"A-around," I replied. "My family and I moved around a lot, so I can't really say I'm from anywhere in particular, but I've lived mostly in the Clover Plains."
I quickly shoved a giant piece of bread in my mouth, hoping he wouldn't ask anymore questions. To my relief, Erza entered the tent and sat down near me. Unfortunately, any relief was short-lived because she then produced my holosphere and looked at me sternly.
"I think we should talk about what you found now, Lucy."
I swallowed hard, and my eyes teared up from the large chunk of bread passing through my throat.
"Where in Fiore did you find this?"
I looked from her to Gray to Natsu, who gave me a reassuring nod.
"Some scavenger outpost. I think he said it came from the Wasteland but I don't know for sure. I figure it's probably garbage but I thought if I could get my friend to restore it, I could sell it for some money," I admitted.
"It's not garbage; it's far from it," Gray said.
"It's something we've been looking for this for over three hundred years," Erza said.
"Three hundred years?" I balked.
"Well, not us personally, but us - as an organization," Gray clarified.
I put my fingertips on my forehead as I tried to process the information. "I beg your pardon?"
"Lucy," Natsu said, and I looked up to meet his smoky eyes. "This is a map that was created by Princess Alexandra herself."
A/N: And now we've introduced more of the gang. This chapter was a bit slower and more... plot serving than the others. Don't worry, there's more to be explained in the next chapter. But where does Lucy fit into all of this? You'll have to read to find out! As for one of the questions, nice pick up on the fact all the chapter titles are named after astronomical/cosmological terminology! They are, in fact! However, as for concern for running out of terminology before the story ends... you'll just have to see. ;)
For now, here's the title to chapter 6: Event Horizon. PS - did anyone else see the trailer for Mass Effect: Andromeda for N7 day yesterday? :'( gonna miss my space wife Femshep but I'm looking forward to the new game!