Summary: Natsu realizes something about Lucy after seeing her in her old habitat. (Nalu)

Author's Notes: I'd seen an interesting comment from Jhayni-in-the-rain on Tumblr about Lucy's preoccupation with her appearance being related to her upbringing. It made absolute sense to me, and then this happened.

It made more sense now.

When he'd first met her, Natsu had thought Lucy to be vain and a bit shallow if also surprisingly generous when buying meals for total strangers. Her early reliance on her 'sex appeal' strategy had been puzzling since she was a competent wizard, but it was an undeniable truth that she was pretty.

Heck, he'd tried to use that to his own advantage right off the bat. Sadly for them both, Duke Everlue's tastes ran in a different direction, and they'd ended up wrecking the place in his normal haphazard manner. It still always seemed odd that Lucy put such an emphasis on her physical appearance when she was just a complete badass and tough as nails.

But it made sense to him now.

When Mirajane appeared at Team Natsu's table holding a job posting specifically requesting Natsu, Gray, and Erza, they could scarcely believe it. Not that someone had singled them out by name - they were amazing, so it just stood to reason - but that the job was for an exorbitant amount of money with very little risk or actual work.

A wealthy couple was traveling across Fiore with their two young children and the wife's sister on their way to a relative's extravagant wedding. Since it was 'well known' that bandits preyed on the affluent, the couple wanted to hire mages to protect their family on the four day trip. Naturally, they wanted the best, and the best of the best was Fairy Tail's top team. All they had to do was keep an eye on a bunch of rich bigwigs, and they were told they could bring along as many other mages as they felt necessary.

It sounded like the kind of job Lucy would jump at since her share would easily pay six months of her rent. Instead, she'd blanched at something written on the parchment and excused herself by saying she was in the middle of a 'hot streak' on her novel. Natsu had begged, whined and wheedled, complaining that the job would just be too boring without her. He'd draped himself on top of her, sulking with the seriousness of an expert pouter, until she caved like a house of cards.

It wasn't until they'd arrived for their job that he learned why she'd been so hesitant.

The family had greeted her with "It's little Lucy Heartfilia!" and "You've grown so pretty" and "So sorry hear about your father, a shame really." She knew these people from her childhood, and something in the strained smile and fake laughs she put on made him acutely aware of her discomfort.

Erza had taken charge of the operation, as she was wont to do, ordering Natsu, Gray, and Happy around while quietly asking Lucy if she was alright staying near their patrons. The blonde girl had smiled weakly, nodding. Her parents had known them, walking in the same social circles, so they'd be more likely to accept direction from her than the 'uncouth wizards.'

They'd insisted she ride with them in their carriage while the other mages traipsed along beside, pleading that a young lady of her upbringing really shouldn't strain herself by walking everywhere. Besides, that kind of physical activity would make her bulky, and she had such a lovely, soft appeal. Eza had quirked a red brow at that, and Natsu snickered. He'd been all set to tease Lucy about being squishy when Gray elbowed him in the ribs and started hushed, irritated scuffle.

"Best behavior," Erza said menacingly, ending their tussle as soon as it began.

But the family's continued comments about the blonde's appearance started to dig in under Natsu's skin. He just couldn't understand why they weren't gushing over how strong a wizard she'd become or how much ass she'd kicked during the Grand Magic Games. Talking about her golden hair, trim waist, and shapely legs seemed like missing the entire point of his partner.

One of the evenings they'd been traveling, Natsu had complimented the aunt on her 'cool' black veil, prompting Lucy to swat him on the arm and hiss that it meant she was recently widowed. Feeling a bit foolish, the dragon slayer had smoothly said, "That sucks."

The lady chuckled indulgently and replied, "It's not all bad. I do get a portion of the estate after they finish parceling it out to his children from his first marriage, and this time I can do whatever I like with it. The money is mine and only mine."

He'd blinked at that, not quite getting why it would even be something to make note of. It also seemed strange that the woman didn't appear all that sad about having lost her spouse. She seemed like a nice lady otherwise, and it really wasn't his place, so he didn't waste too much time pondering it.

Later the aunt leaned over to talk to him quietly. "This is likely going to sound rather cruel," she'd said, "but the best thing that could've happened to little Lucy was her father losing his fortune after she ran away. Otherwise she would've ended up just like me..."

"Like you? You don't seem so bad," Natsu put forth.

She'd laughed and smiled grimly at him. "I meant forced into marriage with someone she barely knew and didn't love, but thank you all the same."

His face must've betrayed his extreme confusion because the woman's eyes turned speculative. "You didn't know? About Junelle?" When he'd shook his head negatively, she'd offered a sympathetic curl of her painted lips. "Jude was going to marry her off to the Duke in order to cement a business deal. Don't look so shocked; it's a common practice. What else are daughters for?" The bitterness leaching into her voice dropped ice cubes into his gut.

By now things were sinking in. A few more offhand remarks by the widow made him consider that, in the world Lucy had grown up in, her looks were considered something of a commodity. A prize, a bargaining chip. Something for her and her parents to use to get what they wanted. The thought made him quiet and somber which Erza and Gray both acknowledged. He wasn't quite sure how to express what he was feeling, so he played it off as having eaten some fire that didn't agree with him.

All the while he watched Lucy wilting in the light of the family's shallow admiration. Was this how she'd looked when she'd been under her father's thumb? False, brittle cheer laying over anxiety and inevitability? Even thinking it made him nauseous.

At one point, the husband leaned his face in close to Lucy, whispering in her ear, not realizing a dragon slayer could pick out every damning word, that she really had grown up so beautiful and it was just a shame that such a delicate girl was reduced to the hard work of being a wizard to sustain herself. If she would consent, he would be oh so happy to support her instead… if she would just make herself available to him. It was the way Lucy tensed when the man's hand dipped low against her back that brought Natsu's hackles up along with the revolting realization the man had just propositioned her.

Teeth baring, he'd been ready to jump up and beat the crap out of the guy, employer or no, when Lucy's high, too loud to be genuine, laughter attracted everyone's attention. The situation was immediately diffused by her "You're very funny!" and the prying eyes of the rich man's wife.

He'd never been so glad to be done with a job in all his life - at least not one where he hadn't been required to take transportation. Natsu had been eager to be rid of these people only to find out that Erza had accepted their very gracious invitation to the wedding reception. They even offered to provide the wizards with suitable clothing for the event.

A swanky party stuffed into itchy, restrictive clothing… Just the way to round out a miserable job. He hadn't even gotten to fight any bandits!

Now that Lucy wasn't having to glue herself to the family's side in order to keep watch on them, the fire wizard quickly took their place. She gave him a tired, tiny smile, starting to perk up as he grinned, huge as he could, and made her scold him when he started shoveling food into his mouth. That was more like it.

Her dress was a flowing, pastel pink which he privately decided looked nice but didn't suit her nearly as well as her t-shirt and shorts. In fact, this whole moneyed world of hers didn't suit her at all. The way she was waving her hands and scowling at him would make anyone who didn't know her think she was righteously angry, but he could tell. She was having fun. Finally.

Cramming his belly until he felt like he might burst out of the heavily embroidered coat, the dragon mage began to come down from the peak of unease he'd been feeling. Lucy was relaxing, Erza was nodding her head absently at something a rich gentleman had said while trying not to get caught ogling her boobs, and Ice Bastard chatted with some other rich old dude about the potential entrepreneurial applications of ice make magic.

Happy just draped his little body over Natsu's shoulder, stomach also rounded with too much food.

"Miss Heartfilia, I have to say I was surprised when I learned that you joined a wizard guild," another man spoke up, catching the dragon slayer's attention away from the glass of wine he was frowning at. He hadn't even asked for it. Some waiter just handed it to him.

"Your mother was quite a treasure with her talent, but I think poor Jude was relieved when she put away those keys of hers." The man laughed like he'd told a joke, and the other rich guys joined him.

One of the younger ones smiled at the blonde, doing something weird with his eyes that he probably thought would make her attracted to him. "I saw your performance on the lacrima at the Grand Magic Games." Lucy tensed, her own smile snapping into place like a mask. "It really was just awful to see those Raven Tail and Sabertooth thugs treat you so horribly."

He edged in closer, evidently not noticing the way Erza and Gray turned to stare at him or how Natsu's sharp teeth peeked out under the lip that was peeling back threateningly. "It seems like a shame that such a pretty girl would have to go through something so terrible. That someone so… stunning would have to fight all on her own."

Gray cleared his throat in a way that just was noisy enough to be rude. "So, you don't think a pretty girl can be strong too?"

"Well, I didn't say that," the man amended, discreetly snatching a look at Erza's very carefully straight face. "It's just that… Well, in the social circles we come from," he waved a hand to indicate himself and Lucy, "women are more encouraged to be refined, delicate. We don't ask them to dirty their hands or fight for us. They understand that we need their support in order to run our businesses and governments. Their beauty and fragility are something to be celebrated and protected."

There was a murmur of agreement that had Erza rolling her eyes and Gray giving a little shake of his head.

"I dunno," Natsu said loudly, swirling his drink carelessly and feeling extremely peeved. "The prettiest girl I know is also the toughest." Gray noticed Lucy casting a glance with a small smile at Erza and hid his humor behind the rim of his glass. She really just didn't know, did she?

"That's an… interesting sentiment," one of the men replied diplomatically. It was obvious he didn't understand.

The dragon slayer shrugged, a movement made more exaggerated by the ostentatious epaulets tacked onto the dressy jacket he'd been forced to wear. "She might not be the toughest on the outside, but she sure is inside. No matter how many times she gets knocked down, she'll always get back on her feet and keep fighting. She doesn't run when you need her, and she doesn't use other people as shields. She'll stand and fight right next to you even if she's bleeding and hurting."

His dark eyes regarded the surprised expressions of the wealthy people surrounding them. "It doesn't matter if she can win every fight. I'd rather have a friend who'll risk everything helping me than have 'em hiding in my shadow waiting for me to protect them. She's the most beautiful person because she's the toughest." He chugged down most of the glass of expensive wine, making a slight face at the taste.

Gray watched Lucy's creamy cheeks bloom into deep crimson during Natsu's impassioned speech. There was no doubt who he was talking about now. The ice make mage leaned over to whisper in Erza's ear as the rest of their group started a new topic in earnest. "Do you think that idiot realizes what he's just confessed?"

She chuckled and shook her head. "Not yet, at any rate. It'll sink it at some point."

Once the party was done, Natsu nearly tore the loaned coat in his enthusiasm to be rid of it. Lucy batted his hands away and started undoing the ridiculous number of buttons and clasps that kept it fastened tight to his lean frame. Even if she'd said he looked good in it, the damned thing was insanely uncomfortable.

"Did you mean what you said earlier?" Her voice was so soft even his enhanced hearing almost missed it.

"Oh, yeah! Those little steaks on a stick were so good!"

The look she slid up let him know she was wondering if he was being deliberately dense or not. Her eyes dropped back down to where her hands were working on a silver buckle. "I'm sure they were…"

Maybe it was how he'd watched her struggle over the last week, or the new appreciation he had for her childhood, or how angry those men had made him when they judged her without really knowing her. Or it could've been all that wine he'd drunk tonight without respecting the shockingly high alcohol content. Whatever the reason, his courage was on a high and his inhibitions at a low, and he grasped her laboring fingers with his warm, calloused ones.

She looked up, startled, and he looked down, eyes dark and fathomless. Then he leaned in and pressed his lips to hers in what was probably the most clumsy first kiss in the history of ever.

Really, he had no idea what he was doing.

But he did it anyway, and when he pulled back Lucy's face was burning and her mouth gaping. The heat he felt slithering up his own cheeks was probably not fire he decided, though he managed an approximation of his normal carefree grin. "I meant every word."

"You really think I'm strong?" She sounded shy, but her expression looked like she might start laughing.

He nodded vigorously. "Yep! Definitely the toughest girl I've ever met."

"Tougher than Erza?" she teased, giving him a nudge with her elbow. Natsu strengthened his hold on her fingers.

"Way stronger," he whispered, magnetically drawn back to her mouth for another chaste kiss.

That familiar, singular Lucy smile that bloomed like a rare flower on Mt. Hakobe made him feel 100 feet tall. Invincible. Unbreakable. For all he admitted that he won most of his battles thanks to his friends, he'd never quite put into words what her special presence meant. She lent her unconquerable power to him everyday in little ways. Her strength was his strength, and he knew without a doubt that he couldn't stand on his own two feet without her anymore.

How the hell had that happened? He was definitely screwed, and he definitely didn't care.

Giggles spilled out of her, making her shoulders shake and lending a distracting jiggle to her chest. "Just don't ask me to go carrying any giant monster carcasses, okay?"

Natsu slung an arm around her casually, freeing her hands and feeling buoyantly content. "I have no idea what I'd do without you."

"Well," Lucy drawled as she tucked her own arm along his waist, "happily for you, I don't plan to ever make you find out."