Title: Knight and Crafter
Summary: AU, Grayza. The story of a young knight, Erza, and the boy who makes her weapons, Gray.
Notes: Please let me know what you think! I'm still considering how far to take this AU :)
I. Heart and Cross
"—Is that her? She's just a kid. Did she really pass the trials?"
"—the youngest knight in Fiore's history!"
"—She beat two of the captains—"
"—an entire bandit gang with just an old sword—"
"Erza, wasn't it—"
The whispers followed Erza as she strode through the halls of the knights' headquarters. They had been following her since a knight patrol picked her up from the middle of a bandit gang's hideout, surrounded by the beaten bodies of the thieves. That had been less than a year ago, and in the time since then, she had blitzed through the training and the trials to become a full-fledged knight.
Not everyone had been happy with her, a girl of only twelve, joining their ranks, regardless of her phenomenal strength that could put grown men on their backs — had put many grown, armed men on their backs and in the infirmary when they tried to "convince" her to abandon the training and the trials, whether out of genuine concern or misplaced envy.
But Erza hadn't gone with that knight patrol to make friends. She'd gone with them because she had nowhere else to go. She didn't need their goodwill or their support. She'd learned better than to rely on anyone anyway.
Erza held her head high and lengthened her sharp stride, her oversized boots clanking heavily against the floor stones.
The door of the armory creaked as she shoved it open. There was only a moment of silence, every gaze turning onto her, before the whispers returned there as well. The man behind the counter at the front glanced at her out of his one good eye when she stalked up to him, and Erza matched his hard glare with her own one-eyed one.
"I was ordered to receive equipment from you," she said shortly and clearly, but out of sight, her hands were already clenching into fists, readying for another verbal — or even physical — fight.
The armorer slowly looked her up and down before snorting. "We don't have anything in your size," he told her flatly. There was a flutter of amused snickering from the men around them, and Erza gritted her teeth. To her surprise, the man behind the counter swept a glare over them, making many fall silent. Not that it mattered, their opinions and their noises meant little to her.
"I can use normal weapons," Erza said. "Any weapon is fine."
She received a cutting look that spoke volumes about her ignorance. "You'll have to," the man said flatly, "but I'm talking about armor. We don't have anything small enough, and armor that's too loose isn't going to do you any good. It'll just get you killed."
Armor? Erza pursed her lips, turning the thought over in her mind. She'd barely had clothes on her back, before, much less anything else. She barely had clothes now, really — her shirt, breeches, boots, everything had come from the stable boys and kitchen hands, the closest to her in age and size. And even so, everything was too big and ill-fitting.
In the training... the men trained beside her had worn leather armor, hadn't they? It had been scruffed up from use, but of good quality. She vaguely remembered a drill sergeant sneering at her that they wouldn't make special exceptions for a little girl who wanted to play at knight, and that had been the end of it. She'd done the training without armor — not that it had helped her opponents much. She'd broken the breastplates, shoulder pads, bracers and even cod pieces of several opponents clean through.
That was right. The "armor" had just caved or parted under her dull practice blade. Erza nodded to herself.
"I don't need it," she declared, with full certainty.
The man behind the counter snorted derisively. "Sure thing, kid," he muttered, already turning away.
Erza almost began to walk away, accepting the dismissal as the best outcome she could hope for, before remembering that she still hadn't received the weapons she had also been sent for. Perhaps he'd refuse to provide her those as well... but even Erza preferred not to go into battle unarmed.
Fortunately, the armorer had only been retrieving her new equipment. The sword and dagger he laid out on the counter were plain but sturdy and, as Erza when she half-drew the sword, sharp. Whet stone, polish, belt and holster — the standard issue items piled up, taking Erza by surprise.
"These are yours," the man said, and she couldn't help staring at him. It was... it was more than Erza had ever owned or been able to claim.
And then, he dropped a small, plump bag onto counter. It jingled — like money.
The armorer observed her reaction with a tightening of the lips that Erza couldn't read. Something about his demeanor seemed to loosen as he bent over, leaning closer to her. "Here, kid," he said quietly, "the knights pledged to provide arms and armor for you. We've got nothing to fit you, so you're going to have to get it yourself. This is what you'd pay to replace a standard set of armor here. Buy yourself a set somewhere else for now. It won't get you much, but it'll keep you alive until you finish a few missions and save up enough for a real set. Got it?"
Erza stared up at him in bemused silence for a moment. "...I don't need it," she repeated.
"Well, you're getting it anyway," the man told her, straightening again. "If you're one of those wild young fools that thinks first strike wins, then you can get yourself a better sword instead. It's your life."
She accepted the equipment and the money in the end. It was her duty as a knight, after all.
But still, this was the first time she had ever had money of her own. That presented its own problem, as Erza realized while wandering the town streets later that day. She had never bought anything either, and she had no idea how to judge whether she was being cheated or misled.
Every weapons shop and armorer she'd tried had all but laughed at her. Some had even refused to speak to her, sneering at her ill-fitting clothing. "We don't work in kids' sizes," one of them had put it. And the only weapons they agreed to sell her were so low quality she'd break them after just one strike.
Were they lying to her? Was there some trick to... haggling? Or had the man in the castle armory shortchanged her?
Glaring down at her oversized boots with a deep scowl, Erza had come to a stop without realizing. She looked up only to realize that the street around her was empty. Lost in thought, she had wandered out of the main shopping and trade districts into the poorer, deserted areas — not that she was in any danger.
It was almost sunset, the shadows long and the sky beginning to change color and darken. "I should head back," Erza mused. "It'll be curfew soon. I'll try again tomorrow."
But as she turned to head back, a small sign hanging over a small door caught her eye. It looked like a sword at first, the paint gleaming silver. But it also looked like a cross. And behind it, there was a heart just as red as Erza's hair.
"...Just one more," she decided, her feet already turning toward the shop.
There was a bell above the entrance that rang frantically as she threw open the door in her usual, forceful way. Striding up to the counter — empty — Erza scanned the narrow, cramped interior with a critical eye. There wasn't much to see, the walls almost entirely bare, and she felt a niggling of doubt in the back of her mind. Was this even a weapon shop like she'd assumed?
"O-one moment!" someone shouted from the back, and a moment later, a boy stumbled out. He was clutching at the back of his head, blinking away tears of pain.
Erza had already opened her mouth to reel off her order, but she paused at seeing him. "...Are you okay?" she asked instead, her eyes narrowing.
"Uh... Yeah. I just hit my head," the boy admitted, blinking in surprise.
He seemed sincere, and she couldn't feel the presence of anyone else in the shop. The slight tension in Erza's shoulders relaxed as she decided she wouldn't need to teach some rough shopkeeper to keep their hands to themselves. "You should be more careful," she rebuked.
The boy bristled. "I-it's because you burst in like that! You startled me!" he shot back. He clamped his mouth shut immediately, paling as he realized that he was yelling at a customer. "I-I mean... It's completely my fault, it's an honor to have you here! I'll be happy to serve you, uh, miss!"
"Good," Erza said plainly. "I need a sword. Something light but durable. This is how much I have."
She dropped the bag on money onto the counter, though in retrospect she should have just handed it to him. Neither of them could see over the counter, having been arguing through the open gap instead, and the boy had to grope around awkwardly to pull the bag off again. He hefted in his hands with a look that was less dismissive than the other shopkeeps, but no more encouraging.
"I don't think you can get even just plain dagger with this," he judged, looking up at her again, "much less a magic sword."
"...Magic?" Erza repeated.
"Well, yeah," the boy said, apparently forgetting his manners again. "I make magic tools, that's the point. ...What kind of shop did you think this is?"
"Weapons," Erza answered promptly, "...and armor."
He winced. "I knew I should've put something else on the sign," he muttered, "but there wasn't any room..."
"So you can't sell me a sword?" Erza pressed.
"I'm telling you, you couldn't even buy a sword with this. And crafting a magic spell into one? No way," the boy said. He watched in surprise as Erza wordlessly snatched the money bag out of his hands and spun around toward the door, and his expression broke into panic. "W-wait, wait! We can figure something out!"
Erza paused, looking back at him over her shoulder. "You said you can't," she pointed out doubtfully.
"Not with a sword, b-but maybe a dagger? Or something else! But I'm sure we can work out something!" he insisted, waving his hands frantically. When Erza turned back toward him, he sighed in relief, shoulders slumping. "Um... So why were you looking for a sword? For your dad?"
"No," Erza said. "It's for me. I will be starting my duties as a night in one week, and I've been given funds to outfit myself properly." She paused, then added thoughtfully, "I prefer swords."
"You're... a knight?" the boy started at her.
"Is that a problem?" Erza asked coolly. But thinking about it now, she wondered how many shopkeepers had assumed she was just a child playing at some game.
"No, I guess not," the boy said. "It's my first time serving a knight, but I'll make a weapon you'll be proud to wield!"
He grinned, crossing his arms and puffing up his chest confidently. Erza began to nod along, realizing only a moment later that he had said something strange. "You'll make it?" she repeated. "So you're not just minding the store?"
The grin flipped into a scowl. "No, I'll make," he said, his tone both and defensive. "Cause this is my shop. It's called Heart Kreuz because I'm Gray Kreuz, and I'm the master crafter here. ...Is that a problem?" He shot her own words back at her, forgetting again how to treat a customer.
"No, I guess not," Erza echoed back. She reached out, grasping his hand firmly, and looked him square in the eye. "I'm Erza... Erza Senketsu. I look forward to wielding your weapon, Gray."
Ignoring the startled look on his face and the flush across his cheeks, Erza glanced back toward the door.
Making a deal would have to wait until tomorrow, it seemed. Or she'd be late for curfew.
"A magic tool?" her soon to be captain echoed. "Fine, fine. Do as you will."
He waved his hand dismissively, not even glancing at her. The only time he had looked at Erza at all, when she first announced herself and stepped into his office, it had been with a sneer of annoyance. He hadn't volunteered to have her in his squad, that much was obvious.
"Yes, sir," Erza said dutifully, forcing down a frown.
But still, she wanted to make sure it really wouldn't be a problem. She had been thinking about it that night, lying awake in her bed in the barracks. Based on what Gray had said, he didn't make the weapons to begin with. He only added the magic spells to them. So to make it cheaper, couldn't she use the sword she'd been issued?
That was what she had wanted to confirm with her captain, but his reply hadn't been helpful, to put it mildly.
"A magic tool?" the one-eyed man at the armory repeated, when she asked him next. "You can, it's your equipment now. It's up to you what you do with it. Of course, you'll be responsible for replacing anything broken or lost, or you'll be going into battle unarmed... But are you sure this place is the real thing? Magic — it's expensive."
"Everything is expensive," Erza muttered, unable to keep the rebuke out of her tone.
The armorer sighed, knowing what she meant. "The knights get everything made at a discount, so the weapons and armor you can buy here are cheap, compared to stores in town," he said. And since he could only give her equal to what she'd pay for a replacement...
Erza nodded, glancing away in contrition. "...It's called Heart Kreuz," she said, as a peace offering. "You haven't heard of it?"
"No," the man said. "Be careful, kid. It might be some scam."
With that advice in mind, Erza watched Gray carefully when she returned to his shop. He had been pacing in front of the counter, and his head snapped up at the bell's frantic jingling. His expression lit up when he saw her... and Erza couldn't believe tgat was fake.
...She'd been wrong before, of course.
"You came back!" Gray said excitedly. "I mean — welcome! So I was thinking, if you're going to be a knight, you already have some weapons and armor, right? Instead of getting a new weapon, I could craft a spell on what you have..."
"I was thinking that too," Erza said, already holding out the sword she had been issued.
"You said you wanted quick but sturdy, right? Doing both might be too much for a sword like this," Gray went on, drawing and examining the blade critically. "Which one do you want more? Fast or durable?"
"Durable," Erza responded with barely any deliberation. "They always break."
"Huh..." Gray drew out. He turned the sword over in his hands, then looked up at Erza with a considering gaze. "Is there a reason why? This sword's pretty good. Not great or anything, but it'll last a long time."
"They always break," Erza repeated, frowning. "When I use a weapon, they always break soon."
If she hadn't been so used to it, the doubtful way he looked her up and down might have been insulting. But Gray didn't say anything, just scratching at his head thoughtfully. Finally, he nodded to himself, coming to some decision.
"Come on," he said, turning away and gesturing for her to follow.
Ducking under the counter, they squeezed through a narrow passage into the back of the shop and continued on. What must gave been the workshop was as bare and rundown as the front but far more open, with a large skylight, of all things, that cast a small patch of sun in the middle of the smooth, clean floor. Everything was clean, if worn, Erza realized — the floor, the battered table in the corner, the large trough of clear water...
The backdoor led out into a small courtyard surrounded by other crooked houses and a single dried up tree.
"Okay," Gray said, coming to a stop and facing Erza again. "Show me. Swing like you're fitting an enemy."
He held out her sword, and Erza accepted it with a only a short doubtful glance. Drawing it and focusing, she imagined an enemy in front of her. Her expression went blank and cold. She swang.
A burst of wind tore through the courtyard, sending up clouds of dust on either side of her strike's path. Old post she had aimed toward splintered, gaining a shallow, long gash across the middle.
Erza straightened and sheathed her sword, and turned toward Gray. His jaw was hanging open slightly, and he jumped in surprise when their eyes met. "T-that's, uh... yeah. You're really strong," he stumbled over his words. "A-anyway, I think I get it. You have really strong magic, you know. And you're—"
"I have magic?" Erza interrupted.
"Well, yeah," Gray said, shooting her a strange look. "You've definitely got a lot of magic power. That's what you're doing — you're channeling it through your sword to hit harder. That's why your weapons break faster too."
He seemed to have more to say, but the look on her face — puzzled and unsettled — made him hesitate.
"Magic is... just energy that exists in everything, in nature, in people," he said instead. "It's not anything bad, and everyone has some inside them. But some people have a lot, so it comes out easily..."
"I know what magic is," Erza cut him off.
Grandpa Rob had explained it — that each of them was special, that there was a power sleeping deep inside them, and that someday they would be able do amazing things. Thinking back on it, hadn't he done something amazing to save Erza...?
No, more than that... 'That's why they left me alive,' Erza realized. 'That's what they meant about me being useful.'
Realizing she had been glaring in Gray's direction, pinning him place like a startled rodent, Erza shook her head and said, "Continue. Do you know what to do now?"
"...Yeah," Gray said, eying her uncertainly for a moment. "There's lots of ways to make something more durable, but it'd take a lot of magic, or a complicated spell, or some rare reagents... So for you, it'd be easiest if we just made the sword a better conductor for your magic. Then it will last longer — more like how it should."
"I see. How much will that be?" Erza asked.
"There's not really a lot of materials, so it's just me doing the transmutation..." Gray muttered. "How about I just do the full set, sword and armor for you, and we'll call a discount for my first customer?"
"That's not necessary. I don't have any armor," Erza said. Pausing for a moment, she added, "And I don't want a discount."
"Wait, you don't have any armor? Isn't that..." he looked her up and down again, frowning, "...dangerous?"
"That's why I need a good sword," Erza said. "So I can protect myself."
"I... guess that makes sense," Gray admitted. "But I could try to make something from scratch..."
"I don't want a discount," Erza repeated, frowning.
They stared at each other, unwilling to back down. Gray was making a face she couldn't read, except for the stubbornness. Why did he care do much? Was this some kind of scam after all?
Erza's eyes narrowed, unintentionally projecting an era of menace that made cold sweat break out along Gray's back.
"Okay, fine!" he cracked under the pressure. "But you should definitely get some armor next time!" He turned away quickly, leading the way back inside. "It'll take about a week to stabilize after the transmutation, so you can pick the sword after that..."
"We're heading out on patrol in six days," Erza interrupted again.
"That should work," Gray said, thinking for a moment. "So I'll need the sword and something from you, to match it up with your magic. Something like, er..."
He hesitated, since most ordinary people would have reacted uneasily to what he was trying to ask, but Erza was already nodding along. "Blood, right?" she said, pushing back one of her shirt's wide sleeves.
"That's... A bit too strong, isn't it?" Gray said. "Just some hair will work. You shouldn't use blood unless it's something you're planning to keep your entire life."
He accepted the sword back and was about to offer to find a pair of scissors, when Erza pulled out her dagger and grabbed hold of a thick bunch of bright red hair.
"Wait, wait, wait! You don't need to cut off that much!" Gray yelled. "You... Are you really a girl?"
Erza huffed, giving him a flat look.
"Here, just... let me do it," he grumbled. Glancing at her awkwardly, he stepped closer and reached up to take the dagger from her hand. His fingers fumbled a little, carding through her hair as he separated out a thin strand in the front.
It... had been almost a year since another boy had stood this close to her, gently touching her hair. But that boy was now...
"There," Gray said, stepping back quickly. He handed the dagger back, a few crimson strands in his other hand.
Erza hadn't even noticed him making the cut, but reaching up, she could feel where her bangs were now a little wider on the side.
"I'm... gonna get started, so..." Gray mumbled, shuffling his feet. There was a small but undeniable flush on his cheeks, and he was looking anywhere but Erza.
She frowned, the bitter memories lingering in the back of her mind and souring her mood. "I want to watch," Erza declared, all her doubts rushing back.
Gray only blinked st her in surprise. "Um, sure," he said. "If you want."
He glanced at her periodically as he began to putter around the workroom, before falling into the rhythm of his work. It was growing later in the morning, and the sun had begun to move overhead. The bright rectangle from the skylight had grown and migrated toward the center of the room, and Gray placed Erza's sword, unsheathed, within.
Her red hair went on top of the blade, having been fastened together with a big of soft wax. Settling beside the sword, Gray began to mix black ink in a small, stone inkwell. His hands were steady and sure around the brush as he made the first stroke — a deep black curve across the smooth floor and onto the edge of the blade. Then another, and another, slowly moving around the sword to draw a magic circle that, to Erza's inexperienced eye, resembled the sun.
Watching from the shadows, Erza had to close her eyes for a moment as she started to see blue hair instead of black and other small figures beside him, scribbling away in the dirt with simple, innocent smiles.
She bit her lip, forcing back the unwanted memories. Those days were long gone now.
When Erza looked again, she had missed a few steps. There were four small colored prisms set up in a cross shape around the sword, and something was different too. Gray had moved back a little, carefully packing up his tools. Reaching into a small pouch, he pulled out a handful of some glimmering powder and gently blew it into the air.
The powder danced in the sunbeams, falling slowly. As it fell onto the magic circle and the sword, a soft glow began to emanate from the black lines. It gathered inward, into the blade, and took on red hue. A vivid crimson vein ran along the center of the sword, slowly sinking in.
Once the color had spread evenly through the blade, the glow faded to only a shimmer along the metal and the ink. Letting out a slow breath, Gray backed away and straightened.
"Since I'm using the energy of the sun as a catalyst, it'll need to stay like that for the rest of the day, so the transmutation finalizes," Gray explained, dusting off his hands. "Then it'll need to stay in pure water for the rest of the week to settle and discharge the unstable energy. For five days, I guess, but five is a good number..."
"This is magic?" Erza wondered, still staring at her sword, glowing faintly in the sun. It was strange, but she coukd almost feel it lying there, the warmth, the sharpness of its edge.
Gray's lip jutted out as he glared sulkily. "Yes! Of course it is!" he insisted hotly. "It's just a bit of alchemy, and maybe it's not flashy like an elemental spell, but it's not gonna wear off either! Crafting magic tools is magic too!"
"Mm," Erza made a sound of agreement, making him stop short. "I didn't know magic could be like that too. Using the sun... that's good."
Better than using your life. The only magic she had seen had been desperation and flaring power, or something dark and clawing. This... was more like what Grandpa Rob had described, small wonders steeped in harmless mystery.
"W-well, that's good then," Gray muttered, thrown off balance. He crossed his arms, glaring at nothing in particular. "I'll deliver it once it's done. You're staying at some barracks or something, right?"
Erza began to nod, only to stop short. She tried to imagine him coming to the barracks, or to the training fields. He'd probably ask someone to find her, but he was just a kid, like her, and the other knights... would they even tell him?
"Just come to the west gate at dawn in six days," Erza said. "I'll be waiting."
The west gate was still cast in the capital's long shadow when Erza's new squad gathered in preparation for departure.
They were only headed out on a simple, routine patrol along one of the kingdom's main highways, something the other knights had done numerous times in the past, but the easy atmosphere was ruined by Erza's presence and the looks her supposed comrades were shooting her.
Doubt, suspicion, distrust, even disgust. It couldn't be clearer that, in their eyes, she didn't belong there.
But it wasn't their attitude that made Erza grit her teeth and clench her fists at her sides. It was that they were alone at the gate. A few lone travelers, a single wagon, the guards — but no... no...
He hadn't come. She had been tricked.
"Alright, it's time," the captain called out.
At the sound of his voice, the squad began to gather around. The captain's eyes swept over the loose circle, exchanging nods with his men, until his gaze finally rested on Erza.
"You," he said, already frowning, "where's your sword and armor?"
"There was no armor that fit me," Erza said honestly. She hesitated, while the captain gave a long suffering sigh, but it wasn't in her nature to lie of prevaricate. "The sword... was stolen."
"Stolen...?" the captain repeated. He looked horrified before hiding his face in his hand. Among the knights watching, someone snorted contemptuously. Someone else muttered something doubtful about Erza's capacity as a knight. If she couldn't even stop a thief...
"I can still fight," Erza insisted, her voice rising over the hubbub. "I have a dagger, and I'll take a weapon off any opponents we fight—"
"Enough," the captain sighed heavily. "Just... stay out of the way. Let's go."
His tone was frustrated and resigned as he gestured to his men. It had always been obvious that having Erza in his squad hadn't been his choice, that he must have been ordered to take her. Had he lost some draw or fallen out of favor with someone? Not that it mattered, in the end.
Head bowed, fists clenching helplessly, Erza stood silent and let the men file past her toward the gate. It was clear, after all, that she had no place walking among them.
She didn't want to be among them, to be one of them. Trusting people, what good did that ever do? She had been so stupid...
Slowly, Erza forced herself to take a deep breath. It didn't matter, she wouldn't let it. She had come too far to give up. Raising her head, Erza leveled a determined glare at the backs of the men in front of her. Yes, she didn't care if they didn't accept her, but she wouldn't be left behind. She would survive and become strong on her own — strong enough not to need anyone ever again.
She took a step forward—
—only to stop and pause. That sounded like...
She wasn't the only one to turn back sharply and stare in shock at the figure barreling headlong toward the departing group. Teeth gritted and arms pumping furiously, he put on a final burst of speed. The bundle on his back bounced with every step, a sword protruding from it.
"Erzaaa—argh!" Still yelling, Gray finally tripped and faceplanted into the ground with an impressive crash.
Caught up in her shock, Erza actually jumped with a small squeak. She stared, frozen, as Gray lay still for a moment before raising one arm and pushing himself up. When his head snapped up toward her, he was close enough for Erza to see the small trickle of blood from his bruised nose.
"Erza!" he yelled again, shoving himself to his feet.
"Y-yes!" Erza shouted back, straightening instinctively.
"Sorry I'm late! It took longer than I thought! Here!"
His shoulders were shaking as he fumbled with belt across his shoulder, pulling the bundle off his back and drawing out her sheathed sword. His breath was coming short too — he had run the whole way from his shop on nearly the opposite side of town.
Wordlessly — because she couldn't find the words — Erza accepted the sword back and mechanically strapped it to her belt.
"And this!" He thrust out the other object he had been carrying — a roll of cloth of indeterminable shape.
Erza accepted it too reflexively. As she held it up, the cloth in raveled, revealing a simple vest with a strange crest embroidered on the front.
"This is..." she muttered uncertainly, frowning.
"No matter how I look at it, a knight without armor is too weird!" Gray declared, crossing his arms and putting on a mulish expression. "So take this! ...I didn't have any materials, so it's only going to absorb some force from a blow, b-but it's better than nothing so—!"
"But I don't have any more money," Erza said.
"That doesn't matter, you already paid me," Gray assured her quickly.
Erza frowned. "I don't want a discount," she repeated stubbornly.
"Argh, just take it!"
"No," Erza shot back. "Why are you giving this to me?"
Gray threw up his hands in frustration. "I just am!"
"What do you want from me?"
"You are, because no one ever just—"
Someone cleared their throat loudly behind Erza. It was her captain, the rest of the squad lined up behind him with expression ranging from annoyance to amusement. "I'm... glad to see you're armed and armored," the captain said slowly, with the impression of great patience. "You can... pay him after we return and you get your stipend for the mission. But now — let's go."
He turned around and began to depart, the other knights trailing after him. Pursing her lips, Erza slipped the vest on — it was a little too big, which made Gray grimace a little, but at least that meant it fit over her equally too big shirt.
Both of them hesitated for a moment, tension heavy between them.
"After I come back—" Erza started to say.
"You don't have to—" Gray protested. But seeing something in her expression, he sighed. "If you want, I'm not gonna say no. But that's not why I'm giving it you, you know?"
"Then why?" Erza asked quietly. 'I don't understand,' she didn't add, though the frustration was clear in her face and voice.
"I guess... it's 'cause you look like you might need it," Gray said. "Everyone needs help sometimes. ...I did too. So I'm just... paying it back."
Erza's expression twitched a little, but an impatient call from the departing squad made her keep silent. Shooting one last look at Gray, she hurried after the other knights.
Running a hand through his hair, Gray let out a heavy, frustrated breath. "Stupid..." he muttered, even though there was no one to hear him.
The patrol lasted two weeks. Fifteen days later, Erza threw open the door to Heart Kreuz and swept her gaze over the small, empty shop. The frantic jingling of the bell couldn't quite muffle the bang from somewhere deeper within or the cursing that followed.
By the time Gray stumbled out, clutching at his head, Erza was at the counter. She dropped a large, stuffed bag that clinked unmistakably onto it, right in front of Gray's stupefied face.
"We claimed several bounties," she said, by way of explanation.
The rest of the squad had eyed her uncertainly on the way back — both for the poor luck of having her first mission turn out to be so much more difficult than a simple patrol, and also for her part in taking down the criminal gang they had chanced across.
Erza had ignored them with some asperity. They certainly hadn't been much help, as she'd expected. There was a bandage across her cheek and another peeking out from under her wide sleeve, testament to a battle that had given even her difficulty. But, Erza thought, reaching up to absently pat her bruised shoulder and chest, it could have gone much worse. Getting away with only bruises from the sword strike she'd taken head on was beyond lucky.
No, it hadn't been luck.
This time," she said, "I'm getting armor."
"R-right!" Gray agreed, his expression slowly brightening.
"And," she went on, "I want it to be pink. With wings. And flowers. And..."
She had been thinking about it all the way back to the capital, and she had the perfect image in mind. Noticing the way Gray was paling with each new criterion, Erza paused.
"I'll pay in instalments," she added.
"That's... not really the issue," Gray said. "Just, let me get some paper. I'm gonna need to write this down."
"Can you do it?"
"Of course!" Gray declared hotly. "...Probably. I can do the flowers, but are you sure about the wings...?"