Chapter Two: Embers
Natsu Dragneel was born in fire.
In the year of the Long Drought, when the sun had relentlessly beat down on the lands of Fiore, causing the soil to bake and crack, on the hottest day of the high summer, a Prince was born.
A wildfire had spread from the nearby forest – encroaching, but never breaching the castle walls. The Queen had been too far along in her labour to safely move, so it was said that the Prince came into this world in the heat of flames.
Pink-haired, pink-skinned, crying inconsolably when the midwife gave him his first bath to clean off the afterbirth.
He had always hated the water.
As a child, he could never be coaxed to have more than a few sips of liquid. He fought bathtime with a darting slipperiness that earned him the nickname of Salamander.
He learned to swim only because his father threatened to drown him if he didn't—earning his father an offended, narrow-eyed glare from his mother—so his father offered instead that his brother, Zeref, be the one to teach him.
He had always adored Zeref and would do anything to spend time with him; but was by necessity a quick learner. Even the presence of his revered brother couldn't offset his repulsion at feeling cool water against his bare skin.
Raindrops pelting him felt slimy and weird and just plain wrong. He preferred the burning sunlight, the roaring hearth, the expanse of desert underneath his sandaled feet. He never got too hot or felt too dry. He worshipped the sun.
He eschewed vegetables, fruits and rice when he was young, preferring meat. Always meat. With the hottest spices available in the kingdom lathered on his food. Never touching a drop of water to dampen the burn on his tongue. His carnivorous tastes along with his ferocious fighting skills garnered him the moniker, The Fire Dragon.
As he aged, he learned to adapt to water somewhat. His sensitive nose couldn't tolerate a stink, so he was forced to bathe regularly. So adamant was his loathing that his father commissioned the best architects in the land to find a way that he wouldn't have to submerge his body fully in order to get clean. He preferred his 'shower' much more than a tub. It was quicker and easier. Zeref had been so impressed by the shower, he had one made for himself.
Those golden years of his youth soon faded. He wasn't even ten years old and Zeref was only fifteen when they started losing people. Their mother died first. Natsu missed her the most, because their father seemed to die that day, too. The King seemed to slip into shadow, losing substance...until one day he was completely gone, and Zeref was the new King. It happened gradually yet somehow all at once.
The brothers forged ahead. That's what it was called – as if they were berries that needed to be continuously plucked; insinuation being if left to their own devices, they would run wild and rampant. Maybe they would have. If not for Mavis.
Mavis looked small and soft. Blonde hair cascading like a waterfall almost down to her ankles, gentle cyan eyes that missed nothing. Your first impression of her was delicate. Even though she was anything but frail. She was fiercely intelligent, with a keen military understanding and was invaluable as a battle tactician.
Maybe it was seeing his brother's happiness with Mavis that had first planted the seed for what he desired in a potential mate. A girl with inner strength even if she looked as fragile as spun glass.
Maybe on some level, Natsu had been searching for her all along.
Natsu had gone along with Zeref and Mavis into the village on the pretense of giving status reports. A shoddy excuse—he could have stayed behind and written a report—really he just wanted to be around his brother.
Time with Zeref was precious and as Lord Commander, it was his sworn duty to protect the kingdom of any insurgents or threats. 'King' Acnologia had no claims to the throne, was not of noble birth and seemed uninterested in caring for the land or people he seized…or so the scant gossip leaking out of the Southern region told.
It was said that Acnologia only had one desire — absolute destruction. The rumours swirled that he was born of dragon's blood, was hundreds of years old, and could shapeshift using dark magic.
Stuff and nonsense, was Natsu's opinion. Tavern minstrels will weave any tale as long as it kept the coin and strong ale flowing. Acnologia was an ordinary man just as he was an ordinary man. And men could be killed.
The Dragneel brothers trailed listlessly behind a buoyant Mavis. Natsu had thought initially his brother and the woman made an odd couple, Mavis was so light and Zeref was dark — but they were two sides of the same coin and complimented each other the way the sun compliments the moon.
His sister-in-law was giddy with excitement during the past few weeks about an upcoming Grand Ball being thrown inside the castle in honour of Natsu's 25th birthday. He doesn't need such pomp and ceremony, but Mavis was so gentle-hearted, he couldn't refuse her wishes.
Zeref drew his attention by muttering in a low voice, "It's not just the Southern provinces, Natsu. There's faint rumblings coming from The Graveyard Seas of ships being wrecked on shores…all the goods still intact and onboard, but every last man gone, no trace of them anywhere."
Natsu sighed. He normally was the impulsive one, but Zeref had been jumpy lately. The pinkette ran a hand through his hair.
"Gossip and fabrication from bored scullery maids and fish-mongers," he denounced, "Our borders are protected and we haven't seen or heard anything concrete enough to march armies off and plunge Fiore into a full-scale war. As long as Acnologia stays on his side, we can't worry too much about it. Fiore needs our protection, that's the priority."
Zeref opened his mouth to speak, but Mavis called out.
"I'm just going to take a quick peek inside here, love," She darted inside another shop.
They had visited an alarming number of merchants that day. Natsu hadn't realized before how much women loved to shop. He'd been bored out of his skull for the vast majority of it, filling his brother in on the happenings of various duchies and manors he'd visited on his latest circuit around the kingdom. He began relying his status reports early that morning, but had run out of things to say well before noon.
He would gladly forfeit Zeref bringing up Acnologia every other sentence, but he understood that his brother, as King, needed to keep a close eye on such things. Natsu wasn't worried—if the threats turned out to be real and not just mere heresay, he would take the usurper down. Let Zeref worry about the politics and leave the strategies to Mavis. The direct route had always worked best for him and he saw no reason to change now. The brothers discussed it at length, each saying their same opinions multiple times in slightly different ways, neither changing the other's mind.
Mavis was consumed in her preparations, but promised the dress shop was their final destination. Natsu had been so inundated, he was well past the point of caring.
He smelled her before he saw her. He had been fixated on with the conversation with Zeref—repetitive though it may be—it still beat shopping. So he didn't notice at first the gentle scent of petrichor and silk wafting up to soothe his senses. His muscles started to relax and his normally rigid guard slipped down as soon as he entered the dress shop.
He didn't notice his hearing becoming muted, or his sharp eyes becoming hazier. The beguiling scent lulled him into a dreamlike state.
Then he saw her.
Blonde hair with golden sparks that winked in the sunlight when she bowed her head to his brother and curtsied. Her skin milky white but with a sheen like pearls. She was wearing a pale green and white dress.
She was a Water Goddess arriving on a wave of seafoam.
"Here, let me help you down from there, milady." Natsu offered up his hand to assist her descent from the wooden box she was perched on.
Skittish topaz eyes hit him full force and he felt all the air leave his lungs. She placed her soft, cool hand in his own.
And for the first time in Natsu Dragneel's life, he felt thirsty.
His hand moved to interlock their fingers by sheer instinct and a primal wave of longing sizzled through his veins. Natsu let his emotions carry him for a few heartbeats.
Protect her, a voice from deep within resonated through his bones.
A flush crept up her face, but she held his steady gaze. She looked at him like she was seeing the scattering sky fragment into stars and he was the light that would guide her home.
I will, he vowed to the inner voice. He tightened his hold on her hand, not fully understanding what was going on, but whatever it was, it felt good. It felt right.
She said her name.
"Lucy…" He repeated, just to taste the syllables on his parched tongue.
A slight cough. Mira.
Lucy tried to loosen her hand and his brows knitted together in confusion. No. She wasn't going to slip through his fingers.
He heard the chimes of the door opening, but was unconcerned. That was Gray's job. But a huge man with long black hair was standing there, filling up the space. Unafraid of sharp steel against his throat and obviously unimpressed by royalty. He didn't bow before his brother or kneel in front of his Queen. The insolent man was searching for the blonde girl beside Natsu, whose hand he held so tightly.
"Lucy, Aquarius is looking for you," the intruder said, breaking the spell.
Natsu whirled so that Lucy was hidden behind him. She's mine. He bared his teeth and growled at the newcomer.
The brutish man covered in iron studs held his hands up peaceably. Natsu could feel Lucy pressing against his arm, peeking out from behind him.
"She can't find me here, Gajeel." His water goddess sounded upset, but not at the man in front of them.
Gajeel snorted and rolled his strange crimson eyes. "No shit. Especially with you dressed like that."
Natsu's nose wrinkled at that. How was his goddess dressed? Like the celestial heavens themselves had opened up? But the stupid metal-face started talking again.
"Ya gonna use that thing or get it outta my face?" Gajeel looked down to the sword still at his throat, a challenge in his voice as he met Gray's eyes.
"Haven't decided yet." Gray said honestly.
The two men studied each other, each weighing options. Gajeel was armed, but he made no move to reach for his own weapons.
Natsu felt Lucy's body quake in fear. That won't do.
"Put it away, Gray. He's obviously a friend to Lucy." Natsu pulled the girl beside him who quickly nodded.
The knight flicked a glance at him, his face impassive but Natsu could read the question in the sapphire eyes. 'We're worried about this Lucy now?' But when Natsu shot him a return look, he sheathed the blade.
"I can make better," Gajeel said blithely.
Gray sneered, "Not likely."
"Seriously, I can. That blade is about two inches too short for you. Come to my smithy, Black Steel." The iron-studded man unclasped a dagger at his side, handing it over to Gray hilt-first. The knight took it, feeling the weight and studying the craftsmanship. His eyebrow raised an infinitesimal amount.
"Maybe I will," Gray cast a sidelong glance at Prince Natsu, then handed back the blade.
King Zeref and Queen Mavis were studying the scene carefully. Natsu taking an interest in a woman? Some brooding idiot crashing into the seamstress' shop? The hulking man looked completely out of place among the soft fabrics, ribbons and dress forms around him—too black and hardened for such gentle, feminine things.
Husband and wife exchanged secret smiles. This day of shopping had just gotten a lot more interesting.
"Natsu...I can't be seen here. I have to change," Lucy gestured down to her gorgeous green dress. Mira nodded in agreement, grabbing the blonde's arm and hauling her with such force that Lucy stumbled a bit to stand near the silver-haired woman. The pink-haired Prince felt a chill once she was no longer beside him.
"Can you distract Aquarius?" Mira asked Gajeel.
"No. Not any more."
"Shit…" The normally ladylike Mira never cursed, and certainly not in front of royalty.
Natsu, Mavis and Zeref grasped the situation immediately. Whoever this 'Aquarius' was, it was obvious that Lucy didn't want to see her and her two friends were trying to protect her.
So they would, too.
Mavis's eyes took on a steely gleam of determination, looking to Gajeel. "If you lead me to this Aquarius, I can buy some time."
Gajeel canted his head to the side, flummoxed that the King and Queen would be willing to help a commoner and stranger so quickly…even if Lucy was wearing some fancy-schmancy ball gown.
"Thank you." He said gravely with a small, deferential bow. Queen Mavis gave her beatific smile.
Natsu nodded approvingly. Whoever this Gajeel was, he made weapons well enough to impress Gray and wanted to help his blonde goddess.
That was good enough for him.
His brother must have been thinking the same thing, because he quietly added, "Mavis my love, I'll go with you. Surely having both the King and Queen in front of this creature will buy Lucy whatever time she needs."
Zeref shared a glance with Natsu, both brothers possessing the exact same shade of black quartz eyes. Zeref bobbed his head and without further fanfare, he, Mavis, Gray and Gajeel exited the shop.
"This dress is for Mira's sister," Lucy blurted out. Her skin was pale again and she was trembling.
"My sister lives in Crocus, her wedding is in a few weeks. Lucy was just helping me as she's close to Lisanna's measurements. I have what I need, now we have to get you out of here." Mira pushed Lucy to the back room, presumably to change.
Natsu was left standing in the now-deserted dress shop front room by himself. He looked around at the bolts of cloth on the wall, then at the wooden spools of thread lined up neatly on a long wooden table: colours arranged from snow white to darkest pitch black with every conceivable colour in between. Natsu paced the room.
Waiting. Languishing. Losing patience.
At the end of his (very short) tether, he marched to the back where he heard the fretful voice of Mira. There was a small door at the end of a shadowy hallway with light spilling out, blocked by a simple blue curtain. He yanked open the cloth barrier and two startled faces turned to look at him. Lucy was almost dressed, but this time in a rough, course brown dress that had blotchy stains on it. Natsu had never cared what women look like…but there was something about putting a woman so angelic in a dress so shoddy that seemed to defile her.
"Prince Natsu!" Mira gasped, "You should never walk in on a lady while she's changing."
But Natsu doesn't hear her, because Lucy was staring at him again with her hot butterscotch eyes, making him feel like the most powerful being in Fiore.
"It's alright, Mira. We were just about done. I can finish the back ties myself, I've done it hundreds of times." Lucy answered in her soft, hesitant voice.
"I would like to have a moment with Lucy, if that's okay with you." Natsu rarely pulled rank, but he stood up a bit straighter, hitting Mira with a level gaze.
"Oh, alright! Just don't take too long, she has to be back at her stall soon or there will be Fates to pay." Mira must worship The Three then. Not altogether surprising for a seamstress. She huffed away, muttering under her breath about 'what sort of establishment am I running here?' but he only had senses for his goddess.
"You really shouldn't be here," Lucy said, but she was smiling, too.
"Do you want me to go?"
"No." Such a simple word, but the admission sent a zing straight to his heart.
"Lucy...something happened to me when I first saw you," Natsu rushed out the words, afraid she might not believe him.
"Oh?" Her hands dangled at her sides and she stood frozen…waiting. He briefly wondered if she was a huntress. Such stillness was unnatural for most people.
"Yes...I felt something...here…" he placed his hand over his heart.
She looked at him from slightly downcast eyes, through her thick black eyelashes. "I felt something, too." Her voice a lapping wave at low tide.
She reached out to touch his forearm and her pale skin started to change. From the pallor of fresh cream it took on an apricot hue, then peach, to finally rose-pink staining her cheeks.
"I have never felt heat..before...before today." She confessed like it was a sin and he was a priest to absolve her.
"Before today? You mean at all?" He couldn't imagine never feeling the sun. But it wasn't much different from his own affliction, was it?
"You touched my hand, and I felt heat...Prince Natsu," she looked at him with such trust in her eyes that he wanted to wrap his arms around her and tell her he would always protect her.
"I…" How could he explain the thirst, the unquenchable desire he felt the second he laid eyes on her? The voice inside his head whispering in his blood that she was his? He didn't think he had the words. He never liked talking when he could be doing something, anyway.
He stalked toward her, a predatory glint in his onyx eyes. "You only feel heat when I'm touching you?"
She backed up a bit, but the dressing room was small and he was not.
"Do you like me touching you, Luce?"
She shuddered visibly at his somber, beckoning voice. "My Prince, we should be getting back outside, my step-mother is looking for me." But she moved no further.
"Hmmm…" He mumbled distractedly. Her scent was so much better up close. No silk on her body now, but the petrichor scent was there, wafting up to his nostrils. He closed his eyes and leaned into her, just to savour it. Lucy gave a small mewl and he opened his eyes once again.
She had gorgeous lips. Plush. The word invoked velvet cushions. Someplace soft that you want to linger on for a long, long time. She was looking at him expectantly. He lifted one hand to sculpt her beautiful spun gold hair, lifting and smoothing it back over her ear. She raised one shaky hand and placed it over his heart.
… And then the girl who never felt heat and the boy who never needed water kissed.
Lucy felt her heartbeat hammering in her chest as she watched the Prince of Fiore move in slowly toward her. Letting her know his intent, watching her with careful, obsidian eyes that had golden embers flickering in them.
Her eyelids fluttered closed and her lips parted slightly, her breath fanning his face, touching his skin. Natsu moved down, bumping his nose against hers, nuzzling. Her fingers flexed over the fabric of his leather jerkin, clutching at him. He kept the one hand threaded through her hair, tugging gently to raise her neck to meet him, the other hand pressed against the wall above her.
"Natsu…" her voice reedy and strained to her own ears. If she had time to think about it, she would have never allowed something like this to happen. It was too ridiculous, too fast, too weird to even contemplate. She was about to share her first kiss in 22 years with the Crown Prince of Fiore in the back of a dress shop.
She was glad she had no time to think, because Natsu's eyes were feral and hungry.
She was hungry, too.
He slanted his mouth over hers and something seems to happen in that moment. The heat expanded inside her chest, full to bursting, wet and hot clashing and blending, melding together perfectly. She opened her lips further and he snaked his hot, muscled tongue inside her moaning mouth.
Her heart beating like some new-caught wild thing, battering against its bone and marrow rib cage, the flames consuming everything in her. He deepened the kiss, fuller…hotter…wetter. She sighed, pulling at his coral hair, wanting more.
"What do you two think you're doing?" Mira yelped, taking in the sight of the Prince and her friend locked in a very intimate embrace.
"Wonderous things. You wouldn't understand," Natsu told her, pulling the curtain closed in Mira's face, then leaning down to kiss Lucy again.
She really was a goddess, her plump lips and saturated tongue danced with his own mouth, pooling deep desire within him, all hard wet and scorching.
"Nat…" the words died in her throat as his lips claimed hers once more, causing the smouldering sparks to feed the blazing sensation she felt clear down to her toenails.
What was she going to say again? Something unimportant. She recklessly wound her arms around him, stroking strong back and shoulder muscles, tasting him in her mouth. She was boiling over, the heat all-consuming, all-encompassing, burning away all doubt.
This. All she wanted was this.
"Lucy!" Mira was suddenly right there, a peeved expression on her face.
The blonde broke free of Natsu's additive lips, but doesn't let him go. For the first time in her life, she was flushed and sweaty.
"You need to go," Mira said.
Aquarius. The stall. Levy.
The last caused her to drop her arms and wrest free of Natsu's tangling, delicious limbs. If she doesn't get back to the stall, if the King and Queen haven't bought her enough time, Levy will be punished for her sins.
"My Prince…" she started.
"After what we just did, I think you can call me Natsu," he grinned down at her. She had to bite her lip to stop from beaming back at him. Being here, with him…it felt like a fairytale but was somehow a thousand times more real than her listless half-life back at the Keep with Aquarius and her step-sisters.
She fluffed out her mussed hair, then smoothed down her dress, her thumb catching on the small hole at her waist. She threw her apron over head.
"I have to go," she reminded him, her eyes reluctant, but her steps sure as she moved around him, following Mira to the front of the dress shop.
A jerk on her apron strings halted her from behind.
"Lucy...you're scared to go back. Stay. Stay with me. I can protect you." Natsu's eyes were bright and his grip was firm. She almost melted at the sound of his words.
But if she never returned, they would hurt Levy.
"I have to protect myself," she answered, she jaw clenched. Natsu flinched under her unrelenting gaze.
Mira knocked Natsu's hands off her apron strings and quick as a flash, tied them up for her. "Lucy is right, she needs to go back. There's things you don't know...can't know. I can try to explain them to you after she's gone. But she needs to leave now."
Natsu and Lucy still stared at each other, pain etched on their faces.
"It will be okay," Mira murmured reassuringly.
The thought echoed through all three of them: Prince, seamstress, slave. But Lucy plucked up her skirts in one hand and with one last, beseeching look at Natsu, she was gone.
A/N - I hope this chapter turned out okay! Please let me know your thoughts! This story is a gift for my amazing friend, Satyrykal! She writes Boiling Point and The Edge, both of which are fantastic and very much worth the read.
I sincerely apologize for the change of tense. Chapter 1 was present tense, this chapter is past tense. I had both in here and it was jarring. I tried my best to put this chapter into present tense, but the flow was being sacrificed. All future chapters will be in present tense! I hope to fix this one as soon as I can.
Thank you to the amazing Freyjabee who gave some sound advice. She is an amazing writer, and I appreciated her input! I admire her a lot. She was super helpful when I cried on her shoulder over the past/present tense problem. I have agonized for days, but I have to move on because the whole thing was driving me insane.
In case anyone doesn't know, The Fates are Clotho (who spins the cloth), Lachesis (who draws out the cloth) and Atropos who cuts the thread of life. Greek Mythology has always fascinated me. These are 'The Three' that Mira worships.
A huge thank you to ALL of you. The first chapter of If The Shoe Fits reached almost 100 followers before I updated today. That's just unbelievable to me, thank you from the bottom of my heart!
A special shout-out to my reviewers. I eat reviews up with a spoon! They really warm my heart. My extra hugs go to Satyrykal, BeachBumBabe, Larissa, stranger1999, ShanaHollows, Glass Dragon's Rose (love that name, btw!), tonialla, firelover11, noseinabook145, Bakers28, MotherofDragons1227, AzmariaMinochi, MasterGildarts, silver light of dawn, gingershipper, mayu05, waiting for you443, YukiMC, FreyjaBee, and artistofthemind!