Hey Y'all! Yes, I know, I'm alive...still. And it's been WAY too long since I updated. But, here's a super long chapter! Forgive me? *begs with dewy kitten eyes for good measure* (also, all those PAPI fans out there, hold onto your britches, Ch.52 is with my beta and should be posted within the week!)
Lucy woke up the next morning to find Virgo standing beside her bed.
And Gray, Laxus, Bickslow, Freed, and Elfman in her bed.
She bit back the scream of panic that rose in her throat in response to the unforeseen development and zeroed in on the likely culprit.
"Virgo!" she whisper-yelled. "What the hell is going on here?! How did they all get in my bedroom?"
"Good morning, Princess!" Virgo responded at full volume in complete disregard for Lucy's delicate situation. Laxus stirred a bit at the sound, but was quickly stilled by the koala-bearing limbs of Freed wrapped securely (and happily, if his grin in his sleep was anything to go by) around his massive torso. And her leg. Somehow.
Which was just...awesome.
"Sssssssshhhh! Are you crazy?! Tell me, quietly, what the hell all the men in my apartment are doing in my bed!" Lucy whispered again, harshly. She didn't like the sparkle at the corner of Virgo's eye. Not at all. Something was up.
"Well, Princess," Virgo obliged in a conspiratorial whisper that belied the almost completely blank look on her face. "Aquarius received your letter and expressed her concern that Princess had not yet managed to obtain a boyfriend, so she very nicely asked the spirits to help you get one. Do you not like my contribution? Would you like to punish me now?"
Not for the first time, Lucy actually considered it. She wanted nothing more than to kick Virgo back to Celestial Realm for bringing this situation down on her head. But, as always, she knew it wouldn't do any good. Punishment was useless if the one being punished enjoyed it.
"No Virgo. I'm very disappointed in your actions and you are NEVER allowed to do anything like this again, but I'm not going to punish you. Put them all back where you found them please." Lucy rubbed the bridge of her nose as she felt the vein at her temple twitch. It was too damn early for this kind of nonsense.
"Very well Princess, but this close to morning it will probably wake them all up if I move even one. Oh well, here I go-"
"Nevermind! Just go back, I'll deal with it myself!"
With a smirk so tiny, Lucy wasn't sure if she even saw it, Virgo bowed and disappeared in a poof of pink smoke. Laxus stirred again, nose rising into the air as though he smelled the celestial gate closing. She was suddenly curious just what the celestial realm smelled like. She bet Natsu would know.
But that was a question for another time, because she had much bigger problems.
Like the fact she had five fully grown men pinning her down to her twin mattress, two of which were spoken for by Mard-Geer-level harpies (AKA Evergreen and Juvia).
Ever so slowly, she started with her right arm where it was being used as a pillow by Elfman. He was absolutely the priority. If Evergreen saw her gentle giant sleeping on any part of the celestial wizard there wasn't a star dress in the multiverse that could save her. Thankfully, he also seemed to be a heavy sleeper, as during the process of extracting her arm, Gray, even the helpful partner in sleep, kicked the massive Strauss brother squarely in the chest and off the edge of her bed. Cringing, she froze, waiting for all hell to break loose, but breathed easy when she realized he hadn't even opened an eyelid.
"Hmm, guess they are made for each other," she muttered to herself. He'd have to be the heaviest sleeper known to man to spend the night anywhere near Evergreen the Sleep Apnea Queen. Satisfied that the Elfman problem had at least been solved, Lucy turned back to the rest of the rabble invading her bed.
And found Gray's enthusiastic response had created a-whole-nother problem. That is, his very naked, very heavy leg weighing down her torso where it had landed. But, there was hope! With the newly vacated space to her right and the liberation of her right arm, she had room to work with. If she could just get her left arm out from under Bickslow's head (she was beginning to think Virgo had actually spent quite a bit of time posing the men around and on her in her sleep...punishment had never looked so appropriate…) and unclamp Freed from Laxus and her leg long enough to pull it free, she could shimmy off to the right and use her keys to summon a more accommodating spirit to get them all back where they belonged before anyone else woke up and found her snuggling with them in her admittedly skimpy star-print pajamas.
It was a good plan, in theory. Looking back, if she had to pinpoint where it went wrong, she would say her underestimation of Freed's unconscious devotion to Laxus. And maybe how much Gray was missing fighting Natsu.
Anyway, here's how it went down:
Lucy managed to free her arm from Bickslow fairly easily.
Then, she began the pain-staking process of carefully unclamping one of Freed's arms from Laxus. Which was harder than she thought. So she tried with a little more effort and strength. Unfortunately, his grip was more secure than hers, so when her fingers slipped, all of that effort traveled right through her elbow into Gray's stomach.
Still asleep, and acting on more than ten years of being knocked out in the guild near Natsu, Gray's conditioned response was to mumble, "Ice Make: Hammer" and swing it squarely into Laxus' head.
Laxus, as was understandable, woke on the offensive, blanketing the whole bed and it's occupants in what appeared to be heat lightning. Thankfully Freed took the brunt of the attack, being in the most contact with the lightning dragon slayer, but the shock was enough to wake everyone up, and more importantly, incite a squeal out of Lucy that could have broken glass.
Gray, half-awake and hearing her scream, threw himself over Lucy, presumably to protect her, managing to get a very secure handhold on one of her boobs.
Laxus, surprised by the sound, fell out of bed with a very undignified squeak.
Freed, quite singed, with his hair fried into an afro of exploded Happy proportions, fell with him.
Bickslow stuck his tongue out in his sleep with a grin and curled further into the crack between bed and wall.
Elfman leapt to his feet and yelled, "MAN!" at the top of his lungs.
Which woke Juvia and Evergreen, who noticed their missing men and immediately made a beeline for Lucy's bedroom.
Where Juvia found Laxus, Freed, and Elfman standing around the bed in offensive positions looking at Gray frozen in place pinning down Lucy with his mostly naked body and groping her chest.
Which was when, contrary to popular belief, all hell really broke loose.
Levy watched the sky steadily lighten in the east from her makeshift home in Gajeel's cave with a heavy heart. It was almost dawn.
And Lucy was nowhere in sight.
It wasn't like the two of them had never fought before. The time Lucy had gone too far and convinced Natsu to tie up Gajeel in her apartment for a birthday gift and the two of them had destroyed a centuries old manuscript in the resulting scuffle had even been particularly bad. But, they had never gone more than a day without making up.
At this rate, they wouldn't have the chance before she had to leave. Maybe they would never make up. Maybe this would be it for their friendship; doomed to never speak again because Levy had abandoned her best friend and didn't deserve to be forgiven.
Pressure grew behind the little blunette's eyes until tears lined her lashes, threatening to fall. She opened them wide, willing the brisk morning wind to dry them up before Gajeel or Lily saw them. The last thing she needed was them realizing how very weak she really was.
"Oi. You ready to go, Shrimp?" The voice behind her was still husky with sleep, sending a delicious shiver down her spine and her heart racing.
"A-almost," she stammered, blinking rapidly to clear the tears the wind hadn't. "I'm just waiting on...um, well...dawn! The sun hasn't risen yet." She put on a brilliant smile, turning just enough to see the iron dragon slayer who had come to lean against the mouth of the cave next to her. "I thought it was worth watching the last sunrise over Magnolia we might see for a while."
"Hmph," Gajeel grunted noncommittally before settling into silence.
They stood there for a while, just watching the sky as the glow of day spread across it in a symphony of reds, oranges, and finally a brilliant, clear blue.
A rustling in the forest leaves hailed the arrival of their third companion, calmly strolling in enlarged warrior form back from his morning workout. Gajeel nodded a greeting to the Exceed and Pantherlily nodded back, slinging his sword back over his back and transforming with a poof back into fun size.
"Nothing unusual to report. The road is clear and empty. Should be a fine day for travel."
Gajeel nodded again, absentmindedly fist-bumping with his cat as the feline made his way back into the cave. Then he just stood next to her...conspicuously silent.
Levy could feel his admonition. They really did need to get going. They had an appointment in Era that they couldn't be late for. It was kind of a miracle the substitute magic council had even taken their offer seriously.
But, she couldn't shake the feeling that if she just waited another five minutes, Lucy would come barrelling down the little path in the trees to hug her goodbye and tell her that everything would be okay.
Five minutes passed.
And then she just couldn't wait anymore. "Alright. Let's get going then. We've got a long way to go today."
Gajeel straightened, the vertebrae in his neck crackling metallically as he rolled it. "Alright Shrimp. Let's go then." It almost sounded like there was a note of disappointment in his tone, but when she turned to look at his face it was carefully blank. "Lily, you'll carry our stuff and I'll get the Shrimp's demon bag."
She couldn't help but grin at his horrified tone, even through her sadness. "Are you sure? I mean, it feels pretty unfair to make you carry my bag...after all, you didn't understand what you were promising when you agreed to take it the whole way there…"
Gajeel glared at the impish grin on her face, but felt his heart lighten a bit to see her smiling. Even if it didn't make it all the way to her eyes. "A deal is a deal. I'm not about to ride a fucking train just because you don't know the meaning of 'pack light'."
Levy mock-pouted. She had planned on using that to convince him to take the train initially, but she'd resigned herself to walking soon after. It wasn't like she didn't have options. "Guess only Lily and I will be riding to Era then. It's a shame you're so set on walking the whole way…"
His eyes narrowed suspiciously. "Riding?" he asked, but Levy was already turned away, bag slung over her shoulder and light pen in hand.
"Solid Script Bicycle!" she exclaimed, stepping forward to catch the magical word, the 'B' forming a cushy seat and the two 'c's rounded into wheels. With another wicked grin, she looked back at him and flicked the tiny word 'bell' sitting on the "E" shaped handlebars, making a dinging sound that rang through the air.
Gajeel barely heard it. The devilish look on her face was making it hard to remember how to breathe. For a brief second, he pictured her making that face in a very different scenario...with a lot less clothing, and his breath hitched, sending spit down his windpipe and making him cough uncontrollably.
Nice, he thought at himself sarcastically. Real smooth, dumbass.
When he was able to look up again, her face was inches from his, the impish flicker in her eyes replaced by concern. He jumped backward in surprise, cursing himself for his over-awareness of her. She was the only one for whom his training was absolutely useless. He hoped to hell she hadn't noticed.
A light chuckle in his ear as Lily landed on his shoulder told him that he at least had definitely noticed.
"Okay? Well, he's not really...okay, per say. But he'll live," the Exceed stated politely, with only the slightest hint of sarcasm.
"Shut up, ya damn cat," Gajeel muttered, shaking him off and heading back into the cave to get Levy's bag.
Five minutes later saw them making their way slowly down the road, Gajeel dragging Levy's tiny red suitcase as though it was the size of a house while Levy and Lily literally rode circles around him on her Solid Script bike.
And five minutes after that, Lucy burst through the trees, trailing Juvia. "You said it was this way?!"
"Yes! Juvia is sure his cave is that...way…" Juvia trailed off as they both took in the sight of the empty cave in front of them.
Lucy's shoulders slumped. "Well, we knew it was a longshot...they did say they'd leave at dawn. We probably missed them by an hour. Or more."
"Juvia is so sorry! If she hadn't misunderstood the orgy in Love Rival's bedroom this morning Levy-chan and Gajeel-kun wouldn't have left before Love Rival could say goodbye!" Tears ran down her face in alarming amounts, beginning to pool beneath her, but oddly not even getting her beautiful blue velvet coat damp.
"For the last time, it wasn't an ORGY!" Lucy barked back at her, her face turning red as she thanked Mavis there wasn't anyone around to overhear. "And it wasn't entirely your fault. Gray's the dumbass who tried to use me as a human shield. And ruined my favorite pajamas. Come on Juvia. The others are already training, and I really need to kick someone. I mean...er, something."
Lucy didn't wait for Juvia as she stomped off through the woods again, so she missed the look of pity swimming under the tears still falling from the water mage's face.
"Poor Love Rival," Juvia whispered, frowning forlornly at the empty cave.
Then she remembered that Lucy was heading back in Gray's direction and scrambled to catch up. If anyone was going to spar with her precious beloved, it would be Juvia!
Natsu's nose woke up to the smell of breakfast cooking and his feet followed the delicious scent before his eyes were even open.
"Mmmm, that's smells great Luce…" he muttered. Then the wind shifted and he realized it wasn't Lucy's scent he was smelling with breakfast and his eyes popped open. Libby sat next to a huge fire ring eyeing him with amusement as she made a gigantic pan of scrambled eggs. His mouth watered just looking at it, but for some reason, the giant cast-iron utensil also made him want to punch someone. "Mornin'. Where'dya get the massive skillet?"
"It was a gift. A passing traveler won it off a pair of mage brothers and didn't want to carry it anymore, so he let me have it. It's been a godsend though. Ari eats a ton!" Her giggle twinkled through the air as she expertly twitched the pan in one fabric-wrapped hand with less effort than he would have thought necessary and the contents of the pan flipped neatly over. "I'll make you something to eat when I'm done with hers," she said, gesturing to a pile of large spotted eggs next to her. Natsu recognized them immediately as wyvern's eggs and his opinion of the small woman shot up again. Not only were they difficult to find, they were wicked heavy. Before he could ask about it though, a deep feminine voice spoke from behind him.
"You should take Kindheart up on her offer. She is a very talented cook."
Libby rolled her eyes. "I'm average, I assure you."
"Are you arguing with an all-knowing immortal being renowned through the ages for her insight and wisdom?" Every eye peeking out from Ari's fluffy purple hide narrowed on the girl.
She blushed and concentrated a little too hard on her next flip of her frying pan. Her soft denial would have been lost to anyone but a dragonslayer. "No, Ari…"
"Good. Now serve up those eggs. Monsieur Mustache informs me they are about to be overcooked."
Natsu raised an eyebrow and glanced around the clearing, confirming there was no one there but the three of them and Happy, still snoring several feet away. "Who's Monsieur Mustache?"
Libby let out another laugh. "It's Ari's name for the chef who gifted her his eye a while back. As I said last night, people offer her their eyes after their deaths in order to live on through her or to lend her the wisdom of their lives. Monsieur Mustache is more opinionated than most. Honestly, most of my cooking skills just come from being constantly criticized by him through Ari."
Seeming to remember the most recent criticism, she pulled the skillet off the fire and proceeded to dump the eggs onto an equally large, slightly rounded metal disk sitting on the ground next to the immortal creature. Ari made a deep hum of satisfaction and began to eat...somehow. Natsu never saw a mouth of any kind open, but the mound of golden eggs steadily began disappearing all the same.
"Anyway, Ari never calls anyone by their given name. At least not since I've known her. She says very few people even get to hear the true name written on their heart, so she prefers to use those. Though, sometimes, I think she just does it to tease people." Libby's voice dropped to a conspiratorial whisper. "After all, who could possibly have a 'true name' like Monsieur Mustache' right?" She giggled. "Or, take her nickname for me! I might be a generally nice person, but I'm hardly worthy of being called Kindheart! I have to say, though, Summer Child does seem to suit you pretty well…"
Natsu quirked a brow. "You mean what she was calling me last night? Naw, I figure that's just 'cause my name means summer. Igneel, my dad, told me that once anyway."
At the sounds of his dragon father's name Ari's eyes suddenly shifted as one to look at Natsu. It was only for a second before they resumed their random roaming, or in some cases, sleeping, but it didn't escape Natsu's notice. He tucked that bit of information away for later and pretended not to notice.
"Hm. Well, that does seem to be unusual. Maybe you're one of the few who was named correctly then… Oh well! Not like it really matters anyway. You are who you are, no matter what people call you, right?" Happy to conclude the matter with her snippet of philosophical wisdom, Libby hummed a little to herself as she settled the skillet back over the fire with her wrapped hand before abandoning the wrappings to crack more eggs into the sizzling pan. She swizzled them together expertly using a large metal set of chopsticks he hadn't noticed sitting next to her and began rewrapping her hand again to protect herself from the heat of the cast iron.
"Hey, ya mind if I give that a try?" he asked suddenly, grabbing the handle of the pan before she could say no.
"It's hot, be careful!" she cried belatedly, making a movement to stop him, only to see him grinning and letting fire dance over his other hand.
"Fire wizard, remember? The least I can do is take care of the flipping!" Natsu went to lift the pan with one hand the way he had seen her do and found his wrist straining even before the pan moved an inch. With a quizzical look at Libby and the addition of his other arm, he was able to pick up the pan and mimic the flipping motion he'd seen her make earlier, barely managing to keep the eggs from flying into the fire. "What the hell? How were you lifting this thing with one hand?! You're a lot stronger than you look! You wanna fight after breakfast?"
Libby laughed at the excited look on his face, but waved away the offer. "No, no, no, I'm not strong at all! If I was, I wouldn't have had to put out a job request for help! I've just got a little gravity change magic, that's all. I can change the weight of objects I'm touching sometimes. I'm not at the level of a wizard in a guild or anything, but it comes in handy for day to day stuff. Especially since I started taking care of Ari."
"Oh...well that makes sense I guess. You're a lot different than any of the other gravity mages I've met though. Wait! Are you secretly fat like the lady in that all women's guild?" he dropped the skillet back onto the logs propping it over the fire knocking them over and extinguishing most of the flames with the pan. Quick as lightning he made a hand out of flames and caught the bottom of the pan with it suspending it over the ring with a lot less effort than just holding the pan took. Most people didn't know how much strength there really was laying dormant in fire.
With wide eyes Libby watched the whole spectacle, faintly answering his question. "Uh...no. I can't manipulate my own gravity, I can only change that of things, or sometimes people, around me. I can only do one or two things at a time though. I can't do anything close to what you can. That's amazing! How do you make the flames do what you want them to?"
Natsu puffed out his chest a little at the admiration in her voice. "Well, these are my flames, so they'll do just about anything I want them to. I make them, so it's sort of like they're an extension of me. This is a trick someone in my guild taught me when I was a kid though. It's handy to have flames I can manipulate, but I like the ones I can eat better!" He used his free hand and feet to expertly toss and kick logs back into the fire under the pan, blowing a thin stream of fire across the half burnt logs to get them going again before settling the pan back down and releasing his flames, letting them dissipate into the morning air. Then he grabbed a pinch of the now naturally burning fire and popped it in his mouth.
Not bad, in a pinch. Could use a little more hardwood or cedar to give it some spice, but satisfactory overall. Maybe when she was done cooking she'd let him snack on it. It was still way better than the fires he'd snatched here and there in Oak Town. City fires always tasted kind of dirty, or chemically if they were fueled by a flammable gas of some kind.
"You EAT fire?! And breathe it? Holy cow! How do you do it? Does it fill you up at all? What does it taste like? Is your stomach lined in dragon scales or something?!" Libby started rambling, eyes glowing as she thought about more and more questions she'd like to have answered.
"You sure are curious for not being a cat," Happy chimed in as he flew over and belly-flopped on Natsu's head, still rubbing the sleep out of his eyes. "You got any fish?"
"Er, sorry, no. I haven't been able to get away to fish in a while...and sorry for the questions too, I guess I get a little too excited when it comes to things I don't know yet. People always say I ask too many questions. But how can you not? There's so much to know!"
"Kindheart is a natural knowledge seeker. It is what I am able to give her in thanks for her particular care of me. Dragon slayers are able to eat their element due to their magic changing their physiology. Summer Child has the stomach of a fire dragon which allows him to withstand fire and convert it into energy. As for how it tastes, I believe it is very dependent on the fuel of the fire. My young Exceed, there is a stream due west of here within easy flying distance that should offer a fair amount of decent fishing." Ari had finished her breakfast and settled in a little closer to the fire and their conversation without Natsu noticing. Not for the first time, he was surprised by the creature. Not many things that large could move without a dragon slayer noticing. Especially creatures with no visible legs. Or feet. Even fewer knew what an Exceed was.
"Well, then I'm gonna go catch some yummy fishes!" Happy exclaimed immediately taking off into the air, suddenly wide awake.
Natsu eyed Ari with new suspicion. "How do you know so much about dragon slayers? You got a few of their eyes or somethin'?"
"Actually, I haven't had the pleasure. However, I have made pacts with a dragon or two. I have been roaming Earthland since the time dragons flew the skies and battled for supremacy over humanity. I have gained some knowledge of my own over that time, you know."
Natsu scanned her eyes with more interest. "Dragons, huh? That's awesome! Which dragons? Maybe you met Ig-" Natsu cut himself off as he caught a new scent on the wind. His ears twitched as he heard the sound of boots swishing through dew-soaked grass and the clinking of buckles and weapons. He jumped to his feet and stalked over the foundation ruins of Phantom Lord's base until he reached the edge of Mystogan's barrier. A wicked grin quickly took charge over his face. "We'll have to finish talking later guys, cause we've got company."
Libby jogged over to peek around him. She could just barely see the flash of metal on several groups of people in between the trees as wizards approached their haven. "Yeah...they're actually a little early this morning. They must have heard you were coming or something. Are you sure you can handle all of those wizards by yourself? You seemed pretty confident last night, but-"
"Nah, don't worry about it." Natsu rolled his shoulders and stretched his arms, cracking his neck and knuckles for good measure. "These guys are nothing. I'll barely have time to get warmed up fighting them!"
Without another word, he stepped over the boundary of the runespell and made himself known at the top of the hill. Libby watched in fascination as he lined up his fists in front of his mouth and drew in what seemed like an unrealistic amount of air.
"Fire Dragon's Roar!"
With his cry, a cone of flame erupted from his mouth, funnelled through his hands to shoot through the trees in front of him. Below them, screams of surprise and terror could be heard. Libby's mouth dropped open as she viewed the devastation his single attack had left in its' wake.
"That was a warning shot! Anyone who makes it to the top of the hill is gonna fight me, so if you're weak and don't want to get burnt to a crisp, then go home. Anyone who's worth my time, get your ass up here and FIGHT ME!" Natsu cackled with glee as he turned and strolled back to their fire. He grabbed the frying pan off the fire, this time brazenly one-handed, tossed the eggs into the air, ate them in one impossible bite and dropped the pan back onto the fire. "Thanks for the grub. Make some for yourself while I go finish up the job!"
Libby couldn't even nod as she stared after the gleeful Fairy Tail wizard who had answered her summons. Fire crackled and popped from his hands as he raced out of sight. Within moments there was a ball of flame exploding into the sky and the sound of trees falling.
What had she gotten herself into?!
Lucy blocked another blow from Laxus and tried to aim a kick at his side, which he easily caught and used to toss her across the field, using his lightning to propel her faster than normal. With the help of her Capricorn Star Dress, she executed a neat flip in the air and would have landed safely on her feet if she hadn't collided with Gray in the process. The two of them went sprawling, Gray immediately moving to protect her as they rolled over the ground. When they finally came to a stop, Lucy's hair was faintly smoking and the smell of burnt ozone rent the air.
"Dammit Laxus! Don't you think that was going a bit far?!" Gray yelled, still holding onto Lucy tightly without realizing it. Lucy gently pushed against him to get up, but he didn't notice, too busy hauling them both to their feet and yelling at Laxus, who answered his anger with an amused look.
"Blondie can handle it." With that, he walked away, seemingly bored, but really fighting not to breathe hard and pissed to admit he still wasn't to high enough power again to defeat Lucy.
"Like hell she can, it's Lucy we're talking about!" Gray said, thrusting Lucy forward forcibly in illustration without bothering to look at her. "See, you fried her to a crisp!"
Lucy rolled her eyes and finally put her Capricorn dress strength into play as she shoved off his arms. "Gray, he's right. I'm fine. I told you earlier, with this Star Dress, there's not a lot his lightning can do to me but heat up the air around me. And maybe straighten my hair…" She examined her braids, frowning at the puff ball of hair at each end where cute curls used to be. She tried to smooth them out only to have them get even worse as they stuck to her hands, charged with static electricity. Nothing like that had happened the day before! She narrowed her eyes suspiciously at Laxus.
When she meet his eye and held up the fluffy end of her bread he snickered like a little kid. The asshole had totally done it on purpose! Apparently, her Star Dress didn't guard against static electricity.
Gray finally examined Lucy and his eyebrows shot up. "Shit, Lucy. That's not bad. I mean, only a handful of guys can take Laxus' lightning without being affected at all. I totally thought you were burnt toast!"
"Yeah, well, I'm not as delicate as I look!" she preened, striking a pose and abandoning her hair to the static.
A huge bubble of water closed around her in an instant, surprising a stream of precious bubbles to escape from her lungs. Juvia, crazed eyes red and merciless, huffed out angry breaths as she stomped across the field. "Keep your filthy love rival hands off my beloved Gray-sama!"
Gray immediately retreated, past experience proving that it would only get worse if he was the one to come to Lucy's defense. He quickly scanned the clearing, taking in the three-way training battle going on between the members of the Thunder Legion and the hastily concocted arm-wrestling competition between Elfman and Laxus. He side-stepped around Juvia and ran their way. "Hey, you guys gonna help her out, or what?"
Elfman looked up, obviously reluctant to forfeit the match, since his beast arm takeover was holding its own against Laxus. "Well...a man would definitely help a damsel in distress…"
"Don't worry about it. Blondie can take care of herself. What are you, Gray, her fucking babysitter?" Laxus sent a pulse of electricity through their clasped hands and Elfman reacted immediately, his arm shifting to that of a rock golem instead. The sparks died quickly on contact and Laxus gritted his teeth. "I've had enough of beating my head against that wall for this morning anyway. Let the Water Woman have a go at her for a while."
Gray ran a frustrated hand through his hair and glanced back at Lucy. He knew from experience, she could only hold her breath for so long… Juvia wouldn't kill her though...probably.
Lucy, meanwhile, was busy trying to keep her sunglasses from floating away. Across the field, she could see Capricorn standing by, wary, but still. She had asked him to stay out of the fight, so she could see what she could do, but this hardly counted, right?! Her lungs screamed at her as she struggled to figure out how to get out of Juvia's spell. She tried punching and kicking through the bubble using Capricorn's agility, but suspended in water, her moves had no force behind them. If only she still had Aquarius to call on.
But she did! Sort of! Closing her eyes and doing her best to block out the pain in her chest at the lack of air, she dropped her Capricorn Star Dress.
If connecting to Capricorn was like a walk down memory lane, than connecting to Aquarius was like being shoved into a pool unexpectedly: abrupt, unexpected, and chilly. She could feel the mermaid spirit's power wash over her, feeling like a slick second skin as her waterlogged Capricorn Star Dress disappeared to reveal her Aquarius Star Dress bikini, armlets, and cover-up. Like a soft caress, she felt the black lines of Aquarius' tattoo brush over her collarbone and suddenly she could breathe again. She took deep breaths of...well...water, her body processing it as naturally as air.
Then she got to work.
She flipped in the water lock, until her head was at the bottom, floating just inches from the ground. Reaching down, she pushed at Juvia's lock, this time having no trouble pushing through. Her hand hit earth and she smiled.
Gray, watching the whole thing, never would have admitted to anyone the chill that slid down his spine at the look on her face. Elfman and Laxus too had turned to watch, forgetting for a moment their clasped hands resting on the boulder between them.
"Aqua Metria!" Lucy shouted into the water, her words coming out clearly. Beneath Juvia's feet, the ground roiled like a wave, knocking the other mage off her feet and breaking her concentration. Another wave of earth swelled above her, crashing down in a spray of dirt. Juvia's Water Lock popped, leaving a very precariously Lucy balanced on one arm, before she fell on her face, the rest of her following. The ground stopped moving, leaving the two girls lying in a muddy field, their ex-guildmates staring on in shock.
Lucy lifted a hand from the mud beneath her and wrinkled her nose. It was everywhere. She hoped the Celestial Realms had one hell of a dry cleaner.
With one final stroke of her katana, Erza sliced the magic resistant beast that had stoppered itself into the main water tower of Desert Village into two neat pieces. Then, she requipped quickly into her cooking outfit and butchered the massive creature into perfectly portioned cuts, stacking them up next to the line of grills she'd told the people of the village to prepare. They got to work cooking immediately as representatives from every household rushed forward with buckets to get water for their homes.
"Single file! Keep it orderly!" she shouted above the crowd, and the people immediately following her directions. Not even the fear of drought and thirst could overcome the fear felt for the wrath of Erza Scarlet. Once she was sure everything was running smoothly to her specifications, she relaxed, allowing her massive butchering knives to dissolve into light as she put them back where she'd found them. She moved to requip her clothing as well, but caught a whiff of her own body odor and changed her mind. The village had been rationing their little remaining water for more than a week before she got there, and defeating the monster had taken more time than she'd anticipated. She was dying for a bath.
Looking around to find the village headman, whose house she was staying at during the job, her eyes fell on a dark, caped figure slowly making his way on foot down the main road of the village. She didn't need to see the face of the figure to know who it was. Immediately her heart beat faster, and her blood heated up, causing more sweat to drip down her back.
Panic quickly followed. She REALLY needed a bath now! Without regard for her surroundings, she raced around the square begging, threatening, and demanding a bath with fear in her eyes as she tracked his progress into town with quick glances.
When Jellal finally made it to the town square of Desert Village, he couldn't figure out why every citizen he tried to talk to ran away, but he assumed it had something to do with Erza and smirked.
She had never been a hard one to track down.
Gray peeked his head through Lucy's window.
All signs pointed to her apartment being empty, so he stepped off his rather beautifully made ice staircase (if he did say so himself) and released the spell, the ice shattering into quickly melting splinters.
Confident in his lack of company from the dead silence, he strolled to her door and threw it open, to find Juvia rummaging in a box and talking to herself not five feet from where he stood. He had definitely forgotten about the sound spell on Lucy's bedroom.
"Juvia was sure she packed it with the other…"
She didn't seem to have noticed him yet. Gray shot one desperate look at the end table smack dab between the two of them, where his prey lay open face down to mark the first page of the last damn chapter of the book he couldn't get out of his head. Logically, he knew he was living on borrowed time just standing there and not doing anything. It was insane to think of going for it. With Juvia staying in Lucy's apartment, there were no boundaries he could hide behind in his sanctuary. She wouldn't hesitate to follow him into Lucy's room if she saw him, and Mavis only knew what she'd try with a bed in the same room.
Before he knew what he was doing, Gray was leaning forward, reaching out a hand, one foot stepping forward onto the rug oh-so-gingerly.
His fingers brushed the edge of the book.
He shifted his weight forward just a little, so he could get his thumb under the edge…
The sound might as well have been a siren. Juvia's head popped up out of the box she was searching like a rodent in one of those whack-a-mole lacrima arcade games. Gray was suddenly struck with the urge to make a mallet to put her down with.
He could practically hear Lucy scolding him for the very thought. She was such a hypocrite. Like being kicked more than a block away hurt less than being knocked unconscious by an ice hammer. Please, at the very least they were on par.
"Gray-sama?! What is my beloved doing in…" the surprised and somewhat lovestruck expression on her face suddenly darkened. "Love rival's bedroom…"
Gray grabbed the book he'd been after and held it up like a shield, backing quickly toward Lucy's room again. "Oh, hi Juvia. I had no idea that you would be here. What a coincidence. I was just coming to borrow this book from Lucy and didn't want to bother anyone, so I came in through the window. Ok, great, glad we got that settled, I'll just..." She started walking towards him, dark clouds forming above the apartment complex and blocking out the natural light. Gray swiftly changed tactics. "And, uh, I was looking for you! You know, to see if you wanted to train together maybe, since we didn't get a chance to spar this morning-" He was cut off by the simultaneous feeling of Juvia's patented iron grip (he swore she'd been training with Gajeel or something) tightening around his naked (when the FUCK had that even happened?!) torso and the sound of the front door slamming open with a frantic Lucy in the doorway.
"I swear to Mavis, Juvia, if you drown my bookcase I WILL END YOU!"
"Like Love Rival could…" Juvia muttered darkly under her breath as she rubbed her face on Gray's abs. The fur from her hat was tickling him like crazy, but Gray mustered all of his self-control to remain perfectly still, ignoring her. If he squirmed just the wrong way, she would slide down further...and, well, it was really hard to convince a girl that he wasn't interested when his body clearly was.
"I'm sorry, what the hell did you just say?" The quiet voice was unusual for Lucy. It was like her body was being possessed by Erza. And quiet Erza was the most scary. Gray frantically tried to diffuse the situation, distracting Juvia.
"Get off! Dammit Juvia, why do you have to be so damned clingy! You don't have to hug me every fucking time you see me!"
Juvia just kept caressing his abs with her cheek (which he had to admit was insanely soft) and ignored him. "You heard me. Love Rival couldn't kill me if you tried. Juvia is much more powerful. In a real fight, Love Rival wouldn't stand a chance."
"What the hell do you call this morning then! I won fair and square! You were lying unconscious in the mud!"
"Juvia was caught by surprise. She was not expecting Love Rival to fight back. When she is on her guard, Juvia is way more powerful. Love Rival can't even protect herself, so how could she possibly hurt Juvia?" Juvia turned and pulled away enough to glare at Lucy.
Lucy's face went pale for a moment, then bright red. "Oh, heeeeell no. That's it. GET THE HELL OUT OF MY APARTMENT! AND TAKE YOUR STUFF WITH YOU! You have an hour to get every last freaky, Gray-themed plushie off the premises or I will have Virgo bury them in a hole so deep you'll never find them!"
Juvia gaped at her in horror. "You'd bury them ALIVE?! How could you?!"
Lucy glared at her. "They're not FREAKING ALIVE IN THE FIRST PLACE. Juvia, I'm not kidding. I'm done. Get your shit out of my apartment by the time I get back, or I will throw you out myself. You think you're so much better than I am? I saved everyone on Tartaros' creepy floating cube in the sky all by myself, and you're nothing in comparison." With those words, she spun around and headed for the door again. At the last minute, she spun back around and looked at Gray.
"If she ruins any of my stuff I'm holding you personally responsible!"
Then she was out the door, slamming it behind her.
Gray released the air he'd been holding. "Juvia, seriously, get the fuck off. We need to start moving your stuff. Lucy isn't playing around."
"Juvia...has never seen Love Rival like that. She was almost...mean." Juvia slowly unwrapped her arms and slid to the floor. "What did she mean? About Tartaros? I don't remember hearing about that…"
"Yeah...Wendy mentioned something about that. Lucy's going through some shit right now. She saved our asses in Tartaros, but she lost a lot too. We all did. Still, it does seem really weird. Just a few days ago, she turned me down to go away and train together because she wasn't powerful enough. She even suggested you were a better option. And now she's declaring how much better she is than you? It's weird." Gray stepped away from where Juvia was slumped on the floor, losing her fighting spirit now that Lucy was gone. He started looking at the boxes sitting around, trying to figure out which ones were Juvia's. "She isn't acting like herself at all. I've never seen her threaten any of her friends like that before. But, I mean, she has clearly gotten stronger. Even Laxus acknowledges her strength. You can say what you want, but she was holding her own this afternoon against you too. Maybe she would be willing to train with me now…"
"No! I want to train with you!"
Gray's head snapped up and he looked over at Juvia in surprise. "Uh, what?" Was he imagining it, or did she just…
"I said, don't invite Lucy again. Take me instead!" Juvia stared him down, stubborn hope in her eyes. "Give me a chance. I can be what you need. Just...let me try. Please."
Gray stared at her, two opinions warring inside him. On the one hand, living with Juvia would be a nightmare. She was clingy, and daydreamed weird things all the time. Her line between fantasy and reality was severely blurred. On the other...well...traveling with Juvia back to Magnolia hadn't been so bad. She behaved like a normal person as long as no one else was around. If they went somewhere in the middle of nowhere, it would be okay maybe... And she was really powerful. Water mages had always given him trouble, so she would make a difficult opponent.
And, if he was being completely honest with himself, if he had to look at only one other person for months on end...he wouldn't mind looking at her. She was ridiculously high on the crazy-hot scale...
BECAUSE SHE WAS CRAZY! What the hell was he thinking!? He couldn't go with Juvia of all people! He'd spend half of his training time getting her to quit groping him. And the sleeping situation! There was no way he could avoid her at night. There was just NO FUCKING WAY it could work.
But...she hadn't spoken in third person. The last time he'd heard her refer to herself as 'I' had been when she'd apologized…
For killing his father.
It took a lot for her to forget herself and speak that openly.
And a part of him couldn't betray her like that. Because, pest or not, Juvia was his nakama too.
"There would be rules: One, you would have to respect my space. Two, you can't bring anything that has my face on it. And, three, we absolutely would not sleep in the same bed." Gray couldn't believe what he was saying. He'd clearly lost his fucking mind. This was a recipe for disaster.
"Okay. Juvia will sleep on the floor until Gray-sama says she can join his bed."
"That's not what I said! And you don't have to sleep on the floor."
"Gray-sama would give up his bed for Juvia!? Juvia could never allow Gray-sama to sleep on the floor!"
"Oh for the love of-NO ONE is sleeping on the floor, okay? We'll have two beds. That AREN'T next to each other. And you can't touch me when we're not training! That too! That's rule number four!"
Juvia seemed to think about it. "It would just be us, right? Just Gray-sama and Juvia? No one else?"
"Yeah, somewhere out in the middle of the woods or something. I don't know where I'm heading yet, but it's going to be remote. We'd have to rough it. Not much more than camping. Training can be pretty destructive, so it's not worth paying for all the damage in a town."
"Then, yes. Juvia can do that."
"And you can't try to-wait, what?" Gray forgot what he was going to say.
"Juvia will respect Gray-sama's space. Juvia will leave behind her precious Gray-sama treasures. Juvia will not sleep in the same bed as Gray-sama. Juvia will not touch Gray-sama unless training. If Gray-sama will let Juvia come along and be his sole companion, then Juvia will learn to control herself."
"Er..well, then...okay. If you can do that, then we can train together." Gray rubbed the back of his head and looked away. He felt so freaking awkward. For some reason, it felt like they'd just done something really intimate. He half-expected Juvia to glomp him again, but when he peeked at her from the side of his eye, she looked more concerned than ecstatic.
"Now Juvia just needs to find somewhere to stay until we leave…" she muttered to herself, getting to her feet and brushing off her skirt. It was like she had flipped a switch and gone back to the girl he'd been traveling with before. Gray felt himself relaxing a bit.
"Well, if we're going to be living together to train anyway, you might as well just stash your stuff at my place until we go." Her eyes lit up and he immediately dreaded saying anything. What could he do to get her back to 'less intense Juvia' again? What had he done to flip the switch the first time? Maybe if he made a deal… "But, if you're going to stay with me until we leave, then you have to leave me alone tonight."
"So that you can be with a Love Rival?!" she hissed.
"No, because we're going to be spending all our time together soon, so I want some time to myself. And to say goodbye to everyone without you all over me. I'm gonna start looking for a place to go tomorrow." He was surprised at himself again. Now that he'd decided who to train with, he found himself itching to get started. He'd have to apologize to Lucy though. They wouldn't have much time to go on many jobs together, if any. But he was pretty sure she'd understand. She was training hard too, but...he had to make sure. So, he'd talk it over with her that night. Juvia wasn't wrong; that little speech wasn't Lucy's style at all. He couldn't leave without making sure she was really okay.
Lucy wasn't really sure how she'd ended up in a bar with Cana, Mira, Lisanna and Elfman, but it was like her feet had taken over and were seeking oblivion to lose her shame in.
She couldn't believe something so hateful had come out of her mouth. She had even threatened Juvia! She had boasted that she could take out one of Phantom Lord's ex-Element Four! HER! Yeah, right! Like that could happen.
Lucy didn't know where that kind of confidence had come from, but when Juvia had said that thing…
Lucy downed the shot of whatever was sitting in front of her.
...that thing about her not being able to protect herself. It just reminded her of what Natsu had said. Which pissed her off.
She stared down at the shot in front of her. How long had it been there taunting her? Hadn't she just had one? Maybe not… If Natsu were here he'd probably be telling her she couldn't handle shots.
Stupid Natsu and his stupid idiotic wisdom.
She slammed the shot back. To be honest, she couldn't really remember how many shots she'd taken now...it couldn't have been more than two or three, but she kind of had to pee.
Lucy spun on her stool and hopped off…
...falling flat on her face on the floor. Which was somehow incredibly funny. Giggles spilled out of her as she rolled back and forth on the dirty bar floor.
"Uh oh! That might have been one shot too many Cana…" Mira stage-whispered, a grin on her face.
"No such thing," Cana whispered back. The bartender of the place they'd commandeered for the night gave a pointed look a Lucy and shook his head. Cana pouted. "Let's go hang out at her apartment though. This place is getting stingy."
Mira nodded. "Alright, Elfman, settle up! I'll get Lisanna."
Lisanna, hearing her sister, looked up and stuck out her bottom lip cutely. "Ah, do we really have to go now?"
Like a true Strauss, she barely slurred her words at all, despite the amount of alcohol she'd consumed.
Seven male faces surrounding her place sitting on their table turned to look with mirrored expressions. "Does she really have to go now?!" they chorused.
Lucy, helped back on her feet by Cana, giggled. "Oh man, they look like Jet and Droy when Levy's about to leave with Gajeel! AHAHAHHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAAAAA!"
Lisanna turned to look at the men around her and burst out snorting. "Oh my god, they TOTALLY DO! HHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAAHAHAHA!"
"Oh yeah, it's definitely time to go to Lucy's apartment. If we leave these two alone, who knows what they'll get up to!" Cana laughed.
Mira gave her a thoughtful look. "Or...we could do exactly that…"
Cana and Mira smiled wickedly at each other, just tipsy enough to conveniently forget that they were supposed to be nice to their friends and family. Then they grabbed Elfman by the arm and snuck out of the bar. At last glance over their shoulders, Lucy and Lisanna were holding each other up and teasing the crowd of very intoxicated, but completely smitten guys in between giggles.
The two beautiful wizards took turns supporting Elfman, who was surprisingly a bit of a lightweight when it came to drinking, as they stumbled down the road to Lucy's place. When they got there, Cana produced a magic Key Card with a flourish and stumbled in.
To find Gray frantically shoving a book between two couch cushions.
"GRAY! HEEEEEEY!" Cana crooned, detaching from Elfman and sidling over to the noirette. "We're just having a Strauss sister going away party with Lucy! You should drink with us!" She raised her hand, only to realize she didn't have a drink in it and begin rummaging in her bag, producing a bottle of beer in no time. Like the pro she was, she lined it up with the edge of a nearby end table and popped off the cap with quick tap on the bottle.
"Don't you mean Strauss siblings? And I think you might be missing a couple of the people you started out with..." Gray couldn't help but grin. Drunk or not, Cana always guaranteed a good time. Just what he needed for his own farewell to Magnolia.
"Nah, Elfman's just a big sissy anyway! Hehehehehehehahahaha!" Cana doubled over at her own joke, leaning suggestively on Gray as Mira manhandled her unconscious brother onto the couch for the night.
"I'm a MAN!" Elfman grumbled in his sleep. Everyone ignored him.
Cana gazed deeply into Gray's eyes and leaned forward, prompting him to swallow heavily and become hyper aware of her hand trailing over his bare shoulder, his heart amping up in anticipation.
But, whatever he was anticipating never came as she sneakily held up the book he'd been trying to hide and skipped away from him. "Whatcha readin' Gray? Something naaaaughty?!"
"Shit! Give that back!" Gray sprang after her, chasing her around the box filled apartment as she waved the book over her head. "Seriously, if you fuck up that book in any way, Lucy's gonna kill me!"
"Naw, Lucy's too busy with all her and Lisanna's new 'friends', right Mira?! Hehehehe!" Cana turned to grin at her accomplice in crime and tripped over a box, going sprawling, the book flying out of her hand. Gray leapt deftly over her to grab the novel, carefully ear-marked his page and shoved it into his back pocket before she had a chance to look at it. Then her words sank in.
"Wait, you guys left Lucy and Lisanna alone in a bar? How much had they had to drink?!"
The two older girls looked at each other and shrugged.
"I don't know…" Cana mused. "I lost track how many shots we shoved in front of them...20 maybe?"
"No, it was probably closer to 25 if you count the jello shots…" Mira replied sweetly, a mismatch to the demon transformation she'd made while Gray's back was turned. She reclined seductively into a chair, stretching her wings out until they pushed over boxes behind her. Demon Mira didn't give a shit. Demon Mira was a badass.
Gray swallowed hard again. If Mira was at demon-level-drunk (as the guild-hall regulars had dubbed it) then Lucy and Lisanna were easily at purring-level. As in, they actually got on their hands and knees and purred for affection. Like freaking cats. Usually, when Natsu was around, he was their chosen victim, and was always sober enough to keep them in check, but since he was gone…
"Shit. Which bar did you guys go to?"
"The one on Mulberry! Where the drinks are weak and the bartenders are stingy!" Cana cajolled, laying across Mira's lap as she finished off the last of her beer.
"No, that was the one on Hickory! The one on Mulberry has the younger bartender. He was pouring the good stuff until Lucy fell over like that." Mira started running her fingers through Cana's hair off the side of the chair as Cana tilted more and looked at Gray upside down.
"Oh right! I forgot about that! He was pretty cute too! Hey, Gray, why don't you...oh, where'd he go?" Cana pouted, still upside down and staring at the empty doorway of Lucy's apartment.
"Right where we wanted him," Mira cackled, transforming back from demon form as Cana sat up and shook out her hair. "He's really so gullible."
"No kidding. And without Natsu in the way, he might actually score tonight!" Cana crowed, grabbing another couple beers out of her bag, popping off the caps and handing one to Mira.
"We can only hope!" Mira replied, clinking her bottle with Cana's.
It was dark as pitch before Natsu tramped back up to the protected ground at the top of the hill overlooking Oak Town. There was a distinct line showing where he had scorched the ground black outside the barrier. Half the trees that had shaded the area before were smoldering on the ground and there were occasional unconscious dark wizards sprinkled over the landscape (though most of them had been recovered for the night by their comrades).
Thankfully, the attack had ended when the sun went down, so Natsu had had time to stretch, hunt up some grub, and contemplating taking a much needed bath. Happy had retired from the battle after a few hours, growing bored fairly quickly and preferring to nap. There had been about a hundred or so throughout the day, some attacking in groups, others preferring to take him on one on one. A few of them had even been a challenge to defeat, but overall, nothing Natsu couldn't handle.
He trotted over to the fire, careful not to disturb the sleeping girl, cat, and...uh panopoly-thing. He took a moment to really give Ari a once over, since it was the first time he had seen her without being stared at by at least a dozen eyes. Right then, all of them appeared to be closed, and as a result she looked more like a giant furry pin cushion than a monster.
Shrugging off the urge to run his hand over the fluffy fur of his new many-eyed friend, Natsu grabbed a change of clothes out of his duffel and snuck down the back of the hill to where he could hear the river Ari had mentioned before. While ash didn't stick to his skin, thanks to his dragonslayer magic, the dirt and grime he kicked up and fell onto certainly did.
While he basked in the cool water, he gazed up at the pieces of night sky he could see through the trees and thought of Lucy.
"I finally feel like I'm training, Luce! Those guys weren't that strong, but there sure were a lot of them. Honestly, it was harder to keep them all from burning to a crisp than it was to beat them, the idiots. Most of them couldn't even put up a decent defense spell. It beats me how Phantom Lord did so well. I'll have to ask Metal Face when I get back. Or Gray's Crazy Stalker."
Natsu scrubbed water over his left bicep and winced as he pulled at a long scratch down his arm. He frowned remembering how a skinny little knife-requipper had snuck up on his left side. He'd cauterized it with his fire almost immediately, but it still stung a little.
"I missed you out there today Luce. It's been a while since I've had to handle a crowd by myself. Some punk nicked me pretty good when I forgot you weren't there to cover me." He didn't say out loud that he'd caught himself glancing that direction to see if she was doing okay more than once. Honestly, that had probably been what kept the wound from being much worse. "I want to kick myself for not seeing him… Hell, if you'd been here I would have probably been kicked down that hill more than once for taking stupid risks...but it would have been worth it."
Finally freed from the grime of the day, he swished his clothes around in the current in his proximation of what doing laundry was and laid out on a big rock to air dry. Sure, he could have steamed off the water in a jiffy, but it never hurt to conserve magic. Especially when he didn't know who he'd be fighting the next day, and when the air was so fresh.
They'd gotten word around midday that the ship to take Ari away would sail day after next, so he just had to protect them the next couple of days and the job would be done. Libby had invited he and Happy to come along, but something about the way Ari's eyes shifted and she fell silent, made him hesitate to accept.
"Ari...why do you make me so uneasy?" he voiced to himself in the darkness. "Why do I feel like you know something you're not telling me?"
The quiet noises of the forest were his only answer.
It is a little known fact about panoptes that they have excellent hearing; a mystery since no one has been able to locate just where their ears are located. A more well-known fact is that very rarely do all the eyes on a panoptes sleep at the same time, one or two always keeping watch, historically making them the perfect guards for priceless treasures.
Natsu was unaware of either of these facts, so he did not suspect that several hundred yards away, two particular eyes on the last known panoptes on the continent of Ishgar kept vigilant watch and listened intently to his midnight ramblings. If he had, he might have rambled quite so much.
At the same time, several hundred miles away and unbeknownst to either dragonslayer or panoptes, a very drunk, very blonde wizard cried herself to sleep at her desk, ink drying unused on her favorite quill as her tears stained the empty parchment in an wordless cry of loneliness.
Alright peops! That's day 10 finally done. Not sure how I keep making these days so freaking long...this was supposed to be a quick and easy chapter story...oh well! Just go with it, I say! Let me know what you think in a review and I'll see you on Day 11! Plus, I'm betaing this one on my own to speed up posting (ha. ha. ha.) so if you see a mistake, let me know and I'll fix it up quick! Thanks!