» chapter eight

» in which natsu finally learns

"Let's do a mission, she said. Something 'classy,' she said," Natsu mimicked quietly as he was being slowly choked to death.

"Be a little less dramatic, will you?" Gray smirked as he pulled the tie's knot as high as it could go, coincidentally at the pulse point of Natsu's throat. The borrowed suit was itchy, hot even to him, and he could barely lift his arms, let alone throw a punch. But, as Erza spared no expense in reminding them, the mission required blending, not burning.

A few days after Natsu's magic had fully recovered, Erza suggested a mission outside of their usual seek and destroy. And, she insisted with a grave expression as she set the request—exposing the misdeeds of a nobleman during one of his frequent galas—it had absolutely nothing to do with the enormous strawberry concoction baked like a wedding cake within the background of the ballroom's photo. Gray, Lucy, and Natsu knew that that was bullshit, if not by the photo then by the wicked glint in her eyes, but none were brave enough to call her on it. Thus, Natsu's near suffocation by monkey suit.

"There, now you look semi-human," Gray finished, pulling away and crossing his arms. He, on the other hand, didn't have to suffer through getting painted into a suit, because everyone knew he would lose it after a few seconds, and even Natsu could tell that that wouldn't fly in some hotshot's party. Instead, he wore his navy-blue shirt from Galuna Island and his usual black pants and boots. Although Natsu usually avoided him like the plague, he found himself roped into being Lucy's escort, as Erza claimed she would be busy investigating

Investigating that cake, he thought, but again held off on saying.

—and he himself had no knowledge what prerequisites there were for a ball/gala/whatever the hell it was supposed to be. He just knew that it was where stuck-up rich guys (not including Lucy!) pranced around speaking nasally to one another with noses held to the sky, or at least that was what some Guild members told him, not that they were any classier than he was.

He sat down hard on the bed of their hotel room with a furious huff. "What's taking Lucy and Erza so long anyway?" he groused, glaring at the door. "Don't they just gotta throw on some dresses?"

"Lucy's noble by nature—of course she'd go all out for this. Erza's the same, minus the status." Gray glanced at Natsu as he snorted. "I didn't ask before, but you and Lucy, you're fine now I see?"

"Yup," he said with a small smile.

"So she likes you back?"

"Nope," he said, the smile fading. "But we're friends, and that's more important to me."

Gray raised his eyebrows as the door opened. Erza was in first, dressed in a fitted evening down with a burgundy bodice that matched her pinned-up hair and a velvety purple skirt. The corset was accented by stiff rods at the inseams, which perplexed Natsu. "How are you gonna fight in that? It looks like you can barely breathe," he pointed out.

"A true lady is always prepared for battle no matter what she wears," Erza beamed. "And besides—" With a wave of her hand, lit by a slight glow of magic, the rods shifted into a full silver breastplate, then vanished as she repeated the movement.

"Okay, I see your point."

"You don't look bad yourself," she praised. "Although you seem barely able to fight in a suit like that."

"Told you!" he snapped at Gray.

"I'm sorry I don't have your size memorized, Sparky," he sneered in response. The argument might've escalated if not for Erza's presence, plus a new one:

"Okay, I'm ready, let's go." Natsu's jaw dropped as Lucy swept into the room. She was a fancy lady before joining Fairy Tail, and probably hit those kinds of extravagant gatherings all the time, so she looked completely at home in the dress she wore. The bodice was dark blue, almost black, with off long silk gloves the same gold as her hair. A cyan ribbon separated the bodice from the skirts, which were puffy and layered like a storybook princess' dress, colored black and stitched with little silver studs in a perfect imitation of the starry night sky. And that wasn't even touching on her makeup or her curled and pinned hair.

"Wow, Lucy, you really went all out," Gray whistled. Lucy flushed a little at the compliment, touching her neck self-consciously. It was such an out of place gesture for her, it made him wonder what she thought of returning to an aristocrat's life.

"She'll most certainly get a private audience with the Lord," Erza beamed. The thought had Natsu fighting back a sneer. Lucy, alone with some old fart stuck-up rich dude? For all he knew, it could be a Duke Everlue clone. "And as she said, we should go before we're late."

The town where the request took place, Charoite, was the largest town on the northwestern end of Fiore, maybe even bigger than Magnolia. It was certainly richer, with older and larger houses in seventy percent of the area, and the town's plaza was taken up by their local church, the Temple of Chalcedony. He had no idea who that Chalcedony guy was, but whoever that may have been, he sure was loaded. The temple's only defining feature was the brass bell clocktower, the rest of it being a large and mainly open space used for local celebrations. Thankfully, the plaza was a few minutes' walk from the hotel.

"Gray, remember the plan," Erza warned as the bright fairy lights of the gala came into view. He gave her a thumbs-up before disappearing into a nearby alleyway. A few moments later, they caught the signaling shine of moonlight from his icy bazooka atop a nearby building. "Natsu, you too," she said, rounding on him now. "No acting out, or it'll draw unnecessary attention."

"Got it," he sighed.


"I'll keep an eye on him," she sighed as well. Erza nodded and drew a matching decorative fan from within her deep cleavage. "That's a weapon too?"

"What else do you expect of me?" she smirked, flicking it out. The tips shimmered with an edge that was a little too stiff to be silver fabric. "Now, let's mingle."

"Mingle?" Natsu repeated, going a little stiff himself as Lucy curled around his arm.

"It means socialize. Let's go stiff around some stiffs."

The gala was dark, but illuminated with floating multicolored fairy lights all around. There was a buffet table and dessert table that Erza beelined for, but Natsu was held off by Lucy. "We greet the other guests first," she told him as he drooled at the sight of roasted duck, ham and lentils, and a frigging alcohol fountain. She tugged him around to the circles of other overdressed couples, nudging Natsu until he introduced them under the alias of Mr. and Mrs. Bloodstone. Their eyes lingered on them just long enough to be uncomfortable; Natsu's hair was charmed to be dark red as to mask his identity, and the dim lights helped, but the disguise felt so bad he was sure everyone could see through it.

"Relax, would you?" Lucy whispered, glancing from the corner of her eye.

"It's hard to relax in this stupid suit," he retorted, but that was just one issue. The whole guise of being a couple—a married couple—was another that made his skin prickle even worse. His instincts hadn't given him grief in a while, but that didn't mean his normal human hormones were quiet too. "Where's that old Lord anyway?"

"He'll come out to signal the start of the dancing," she explained. "A few minutes tops."

"Then what do we do until then? I hope not more stupid introductions," he grumbled. "I wanna go eat."

"Social conventions, Natsu," she reminded him. He made a face and crossed his arms as best as he could without pulling the stitching.

"Screw that! I'm hungry." A nearby couple heard him and shot him dual disgusted looks before slinking away, whispers trailing behind them. Lucy watched them before clinging to him yet again, gluing on a bright and fake smile.

"Don't draw attention, remember?" she said through her teeth. He growled internally but kept his face carefully neutral. "If you think it's horrible tonight, imagine all those years I spent doing this."

He sobered at the thought. "Lucy…"

"It's okay," she said immediately, glancing at his expression. "It's all in the past now. I'm not Lucky Lucy Heartfilia anymore, just Lucy of Fairy Tail." She beamed at the thought, then her eyes took on a special glint. "And tonight, I'm Mrs. Bloodstone, aren't I, dear?"

He couldn't help laughing aloud at the statement. That was Lucy at her best, something he had been missing out on lately. "Alright, let's go rub noses with some more stiffs."

The night drew on, and introducing themselves became less annoying and a lot more boring. Natsu was just about to keel over and die when Erza finally made her way to them, her lipstick looking a little stickier than before with strawberry filling. "Erza! You're done investigating?" Lucy asked quietly. Erza looked perplexed before quickly slipping back into her stoic persona.

"Yes, investigating. I didn't find anything amiss where I looked." Natsu pulled a face that she ignored, probably because they were in a public area. "When is the Lord making an appearance?"

Lucy opened her mouth to respond when the voices all around them hushed down and disappeared. A ball of Light Magic was tossed overhead, and it shone over a particular guest as he ambled his way to the center stage. He didn't look like Duke Everlue, thank the gods, but none less malevolent. His monkey suit had coattails, and he sported a long and curly mustache—evil-frigging-101. Other than that, he looked young, and Natsu could smell traces of an unfamiliar magic on him.

"Greetings, my esteemed guests," he spoke, his voice echoing across the venue. "The citizens of Charoite know me well, but to all newcomers, I am Lord Dendritic Chalcedony, descended of the ones who founded this town and established the religion of it. The citizens also know me as one who takes pleasure in giving joy and entertainment to others, hence this haphazard festival. You all are enjoying it, yes?" Polite clapping ensued while Natsu rolled his eyes. Lord Chalcedony smirked at the sound and raised his arms grandly. In the process, he caught a suspicious glint from one of his many rings. "May the gods watch over us tonight for the rest of this gala!"

Enchanted instruments in the corner rose and began to play smooth, slow music. The Lord swept down and made rounds about the room, greeting some of his more personal guests, while Erza, Lucy, and Natsu huddled together. "Now is the time to get his attention," Erza told them. "Get him to invite you to his offices and see what you can find there. And remember, we have to keep this civilized—you can't be as tactless as with the Duke of Everlue this time around. It won't be as easy to play off to the Magic Council."

"Since when did we try to play off things with the Magic Council?" Natsu snorted, but Erza had already returned to mingling with the strawberry cake.

"He's coming out direction!" Lucy hissed, clenching his bicep. He yelped in surprise at the motion, then caught sight of Chalcedony creeping over, and he put on his least threatening smile.

"What a lovely lady you have there, if I may say," he said with a smile that bordered sickly-sweet, taking Lucy's hand and kissing it. Natsu was pleased at the shudder that ran through her shoulders from the action. "I gave my name, so may I have the honor of learning yours?"

"Mrs. Bloodstone," Natsu said curtly, tugging her closer as his possessiveness reared its ugly head. "And I'm Mr. Bloodstone."

"Pleasure to meet both of you then," he amended without missing a beat. Lucy suddenly got a look in her eyes that made Natsu nervous, but he trusted her. She detached herself from his arm and stepped closer to the Lord, just close enough to be personal.

"Please, ignore my husband, he can be a little crazy at times," she purred with a certain inflection to her voice that he recognized easily. Well, seduction was one way to go about their mission, but if he could either burn the whole place down and take the consequences, or watch Lucy ease herself over that slimy bastard, he would put handcuffs on himself and sit on the first train to ERA he could find.

"I would be as well, if I had such a lovely lady at my side," the Lord replied in the same tone, shooting her a private smile. She took it and reciprocated with her usual flirty edge without being too frontal about it.

"We'd hate to talk business in a setting such as this, but my husband and I are pressed for time. Might we have a moment with you in a more private area?"

"Of course," he said, leading them away from the main area. Natsu caught Erza's eye as they passed the dining tables and nodded slightly; she returned the motion quickly. They went around the back of the temple and to the main road before entering the mansion closest to the edifice. The main room was circular and decorated with all kinds of ancient artifacts, from knight armors to hand woven rugs, but it also reeked in there. It took all of Natsu's self-control not to pull away as a servant closed the doors behind them.

Smells like Dark Magic, he thought, covering his nose. Lucy and Lord Chalcedony carried on their conversation easily however, and he wondered if it was only apparent to him. Chalcedony waved his hand to describe whatever he was talking about, and again Natsu got an odd sensation from his rings. Something about those rub me the wrong way…

"My office is just this way," he said, leading them down a side hall full of tapestries. The Dark Magic scent intensified as they proceeded, so much that Natsu's magic started spiking reflexively. Even if it hadn't, the looks Lucy were giving Chalcedony were enough to stave him off.

"I need to…relieve myself," Natsu said carefully—that sounded proper enough. The Lord didn't even spare him a glance as he pointed Natsu towards a fork in the hall. He gave Lucy a purposeful look over his shoulder, and she gave him a quick and encouraging smile in return as he disappeared down the hall. "Gotta find out where that Dark Magic's coming from," he growled, finally stripping away the stupid tie and jacket.

His nose led him around to a different hall, same tapestries. They were designed in familiar shades of violet and dark red. His eyes narrowed as he tried to recall where he'd last seen the odd figures. Then, as a crash sounded from the Lord's office, Natsu's eyes widened with realization.

Those are the demons that Hades could summon!

He gave stealth the middle finger as, with flaming fists, he roared back towards the Lord's office. He burned the door to cinders and found Lucy standing against the wall, her keyring in hand, as she faced Chalcedony on the other end of the room. His desk had been flipped, scattering papers all over the carpet that seared beneath Natsu's shoes. He noticed that one of Lucy's gloves was thrown away, revealing her Fairy Tail stamp.

"You two are Fairy Tail—I had a feeling," Chalcedony smirked, raising a fist. One of his rings shone particularly strong as he continued, "Who are you, really?"

"Lucy Heartfilia, of the Heartfilia Conglomerate," she answered immediately, then clapped a hand over her mouth with shock. "You're wearing a Truth Charm!" she accused, pointing at the ring. His smirk widened as he angled his hand better for them to see. The offending ring was marked by a pair of red lips, and it sat next to another charm with a crescent moon—Sleeping Charm, most likely.

"Just a measure for when I do business negotiations, to make sure they're not selling me lies," he said calmly. "But I do have stronger magic in place as a measure against wizards such as yourselves." He reached into his coat and pulled out a short wooden magic wand. It glowed with energy before taking on a purple and red hue. Natsu detected noise from right behind him and whirled around as the wreckage of the door and wall became a looming violet figure.

"Open, Gate of the Golden Bull! Taurus!"

Taurus came into the human world with a big bang—well, more like a crash of his ax, but it's the same thing in essence. The demon was rent down the center, but that didn't do anything but split it into two destructive demons. Natsu was more than ready to fight them before he caught sight of the Lord making a break for it through a back door in his office.

"Go after him! We can handle these creeps," Lucy told him. Natsu nodded and gave chase. The back door took them out into the streets again, and the man growled in displeasure as he saw Natsu's firelight blazing behind him.

"You can keep running if you want," Natsu called to him. "The mission's always more fun with an ass-kicking involved."

"That magic of yours… I suppose you're the Salamander?"

"Natsu Dragneel, a.k.a. the son of the Fire Dragon King, Igneel." He could still feel the charm working on him—it must've been powerful to do so with the distance—but it's not like he ever told lies. "A.k.a. the one that'll turn you in, Chancey-donald."

"Chalcedony!" he snapped before turning into an alley and disappearing. Natsu followed him in and immediately had to dodge the fist of another demon. He swept to the side and kicked off from the wall, lighting his foot on fire.

"Fire Dragon's Talon!" He bashed the demon down to the ground before dealing an iron fist to its face, smashing it to bits. He could still smell Chalcedony, and his path led towards the city's train station. Just the thought of it made Natsu sick, but he fought back the urge to throw up until he spotted the Lord within the late-night boarding crowd. Chalcedony saw Natsu and raised the wand again. Not around this many people! Someone could get hurt!

A demon surged up from the ground's tiles, causing those nearby to scatter. Natsu skidded to a stop at the base of the platform—he couldn't attack, not until the area cleared. His fire wasn't exactly known for being precise. The Lord knew this, if his smirk was anything to go by, and the demon raised its fists. He prepared to take a hit when a loud noise rang from somewhere above, then there was a flash as the demon completely froze over. Natsu didn't miss a beat.

"Fire Dragon's Iron Fist!"

The demon shattered into chunks of black-speckled ice that disintegrated into the air. A couple of seconds later, Gray hit the ground next to him, his bazooka disappearing. "Who says I needed your help, Ice Prick?" Natsu snapped. "We're friends and all, but you make me feel like a goddamn damsel in distress." Gray rolled his eyes.

"How about because you were going to take a hit to protect these people? And while your nobility is something I appreciate, I know these demons, weak as they are, hit hard, and I don't want to see you severely injured because I care about you." Gray's eyes widened and he covered his mouth. "What the hell?"

"Truth Charm," Natsu deadpanned. "And we do not speak of this again."

"Agreed." He returned his attention to Chalcedony, who was waving the wand furiously to no effect. "Those things only hold so much magic, and it looks like the ethernano…and your luck…just ran out," he smirked, punching his fist into his palm. "Ice Make—"

"Sleeping Charm activate!" he spoke over Gray. Waves of pink energy flowed from the now-glowing ring and to Natsu and Gray. Gray was more affected—maybe those stupid rings didn't have as much an effect on Dragon Slayers, who knows—but Natsu lost consciousness for a few seconds. When he refocused, he saw the train pulling away from the station at high speed. He wished he had Happy, but since the mission sounded easy on paper, he suggested that the cat spend the night with Wendy—thusly, Charla—instead.

"Come on!" Natsu shouted over the clacking train tracks, seizing Gray's arm. He ran forward and leapt off the platform as far as he could go, still missing the train by a few dozen feet. He gripped Gray tightly around the shoulders and threw his other arm behind him, releasing a plume of flames that propelled them forward. It only took them a short distance before gravity hit, but it allowed Natsu to grab onto the railing of the last car and pull them on. Two seconds later, Natsu was clinging to the railing for life as his motion sickness kicked in tenfold.

"Useless," Gray sighed, stripping away his shirt to bare his pale upper body. Black tattoos surfaced from beneath his skin and wound around his arm and face, bringing his hair up into spikes. He pounded his fist into his palm before grabbing the railing. "Ice Make: Silver!"

There was a deathly screeching sound as pillars of ice rose from the tracks and wheels, forcing them to stall. The freezing trail continued all around the train like an Ice Magic nuke before reaching the first car, where it jammed into the railing in front like a crowbar. The train was nearly completely encased in Gray's ice, only the windows and top being free—the rest was forcefully welded to the tracks, forcing it to stop. As soon as the last bit of wind left Natsu's face, he leapt back to his feet. "I'm all fired—"

"Save the stupid catchphrase for after the mission!" Gray interrupted as he yanked open the door to the car. The door ahead had been frozen, but Natsu had extensive practice in melting Gray's ice. He smashed through and into the other car, where another pair of demons awaited. The Fairy Tail wizards didn't spare them a moment.

"Fire Dragon's Iron Fist!"

"Ice Devil's Zeroth Destruction Bow!"

The demons went flying on either side of the car, smashing through the walls and going rolling across the sandy plains around them. "I thought you said he was out of magic!" Natsu accused.

"He was—I couldn't feel any magic left in the wand," he said defensively. "Those demons might've been made beforehand." Natsu thought back to the mansion and frowned.

"Could these things be sealed in paintings, or in like wall quilts and stuff?"

"I don't know, maybe if they're enchanted? Why?"

"He might have a lot of them made beforehand."

"How many are we talking about?"

"Well, they shouldn't be a problem if Erza and Lucy are still in Charoite," Natsu said. "Even then, we don't have time to worry about it right now." Natsu blasted the ceiling of the car apart with a Fire Dragon's Roar, then used his hands to propel himself through the hole and onto the roof. He saw Lord Chalcedony standing some ways from the train, still frantically trying to get the wand to work. He grinned and let out a triumphant whoop as he leapt towards him. "Nowhere left to run, Calcified-Dordogne!"

"No!" he shouted, raising the wand. It pulsed with Dark Magic before Natsu kicked it from Chalcedony's hand, sending it spinning end over end to Gray's waiting hand as he pulled himself through the hole in the ceiling. Chalcedony fell to his hands and knees, his body heaving, the scent of terror radiating from him—typical things for opponents of the Salamander.

"M'kay, droopy-eyes, let's cuff this guy and—"

"It's not over, Natsu," Gray interrupted, holding up the wand. "Zeref's brand of Dark Magic is coming off this thing in waves."

"What?" he snapped before returning his attention to Chalcedony. The man was now writhing on the ground and foaming at the mouth, eyes rolled back to the whites. Natsu stepped back as Dark Magic radiated from him in waves, then a bestial roar came from his mouth as his jaw unhinged, making room for two extra rows of extra sharp teeth. He vaguely reminded Natsu of that Doriate creep back in the Sun Village, but the resemblance grew as he suddenly bulked out, tearing his finely tailored suit with bulging muscles that were abruptly swinging down at Natsu.

He jumped back as his fists collided with the loose dirt, throwing up a widespread haze of dust that clouded his vision and nose. He lit his fists to light the way, and the flames casted a ghastly glow on the rushing behemoth. He crossed his arms and easily took the impact of his fists, then dug his heels into the ground before pushing back. Chalcedony went flying and rolling across the ground while Natsu cracked his neck.

"As much as I'd like to stick around and fight…no, wait, I don't want to. But I'll get a lot of pleasure out of shoving my Fire Dragon's Iron Fist in your face, Chalcedony!" Chalcedony struggled to his feet, but it seemed he was driven by magic alone, because he was cumbersome and unsteady, unable to match Natsu's speed as he jumped, dodging a hasty hit, and planted his knuckles dead-center in his previously smarmy face. Flames erupted from the point of contact, then a larger wave of lightning. The Demon-Hybrid had no chance and immediately collapsed into a heap right after. Natsu let his flames die out with a sigh.

"Woo! I could really use something to eat after spending all that magic."

"Not for a while yet, flame-brain." Gray had encased the wand in a faceted ice sphere enchanted with his Ice Demon Slaying Magic. "I'll go contact the Council in town. You keep an eye on him."

"Why do I have guard dog duty?" he complained. Gray raised an eyebrow.

"Because out of all the people in the Guild, you're the last one anyone wants to be talking to the Council, especially after your drag moment when Erza was— And smash that stupid Truth Charm of his too," he added crossly before starting the trek back towards Charoite.

Rune Knights finally showed up after what felt like hours, alongside Erza and Lucy and a young woman about their age with silky violet hair and teary eyes. A soldier held her back as they locked anti-magic cuffs around Chalcedony and dragged his limp, mutated body up. "Natsu, this was the one who created the request," Erza said, catching his attention. "She's Dendritic Chalcedony's daughter, Sphene."

"I thought my father was up to no good," she said softly, dabbing at her eyes with a lacy handkerchief. "Especially when I heard odd voices one night from his office. They didn't sound entirely…human. They were making a deal: his money for their protection. After that, he started wearing his charms all the time, and whenever a deal went bad, he used the wand to summon these nasty monsters… But I didn't think he would actually turn into one!" she wailed. "Can he be returned to normal?"

"The last person affected by this is fine now, so rest assured, your dad will come back to you," Lucy beamed, taking her hands. "Plus, all those other monsters were taken out by us as well some time ago, so there's no chance of a repeat happening." She sniffled and nodded.

"I can't thank Fairy Tail enough."

"'s all in a day's work for us," Natsu said glibly.

"On the other hand," came a deep voice behind them, and the Fairy Tail wizards turned to the knight captain standing with arms crossed—coincidentally, the same knight captain from Magnolia—and an unamused expression, "you did destroy a newly built train and its three tons of freight—"

"Welp it's time!" Natsu interrupted in a cry, and he took Erza and Lucy's arms before footing it. They caught on quickly, being Fairy Tail wizards and all, and as they saw Gray walking towards them, "Sorry I took so long to return, I had to—wait, why are we—" they pulled him into the sprint as well.

"Fairy Tail!" The captain's shout chased them into the night.

Natsu returned home to see Happy sleeping on the couch. He went to the river out back to wash the dust off and burn the remains of the suit to cinders, but as he trudged back up the path to their home, he found himself nostalgic of something he hadn't done in a while. With a wicked grin on his face, Natsu broke into a run back to Magnolia, and his sandaled feet quickly took him down Strawberry Street.

Lucy was in the bathroom as he climbed through the window (it wasn't locked! The relief was so great he felt like crying—something still remained normal in their lives) but he couldn't smell bathwater or soap, meaning she had already cleaned up. He idled at her desk but found that she didn't have much at all written for her book. Maybe she was distracted, like I was, he thought absently. The bathroom door creaked open, startling him from his thoughts.

"Natsu!" Lucy exclaimed, but it wasn't with annoyance or frustration like usual. In fact, if he had to classify her expression, it looked…relieved? He shook it off. "Back to old habits, I see."

"You know what they say about old habits," he grinned. Then his eyes zeroed in on some bandages around her upper left arm, a bit hidden by her blue nightshirt. "Those demons hurt you?"

"A little," she said, rubbing the wound. "But I'm tough, ya know. I kept fighting," she added with a confident smile, raising a fist. Natsu chuckled at the thought. "But honestly, I wish the mission had been as easy as going to a ball, exposing that creep, and coming home. It's practically sunrise already!"

"Where's the fun in that?"

"Always the thrill-seeker," she sighed good-naturedly.

"So what do we do with this?" Natsu asked, holding the Truth Charm out in his palm. Lucy looked at it with wide eyes.

"Natsu! Why did you keep it?"

"Seems like a good way to get some dirt outta the Ice Princess to blackmail him later."

"Ugh, you two are so annoying. Although it's cute in a yaoi sort of way," she said offhandedly. As soon as she realized what she said, her face turned a bright shade of red.

"Yow-wee? What's that supposed to mean?" he inquired curiously as Lucy buried her face in her hands. She suddenly lashed out and tried to snatch the ring from his hand. He cackled and held it above his head, watching her try to jump to reach it. "Hey, Lucy, what else do you think of the Ice Princess?"

"His stripping habit is—ah!—irritating," she panted as she struggled to grab his arm. "But I'd be lying to say I didn't enjoy the show. I'm a girl after all."

"Wait, what? You like seeing Gray naked?" He wasn't so much upset as ready to plot ways to take Gray out of the picture. Lucy's cheeks burned as she fisted her hands on her hips.

"Why do you care?"

"Because I—" Shit, that charm worked both ways. He moved to throw it before her small fingers wrapped around his wrist. She was a little dainty, but with her whip training, she had a good grip.

"You're jealous?" Lucy questioned with her brow furrowed. He sweated a little beneath that state.

"Y…Yeah, I'm jealous." She paled a little, the embarrassment leaving her expression. He didn't understand why right away.

"Is it because you're…with me…?" Her voice had dropped to a small whisper, and Lucy barely ever whispered. His instincts were telling him something was amiss, but the Truth Charm kept his lips moving anyway.

"Because I'd rather you looked at me that way. Because I love you," he declared, all thanks to some evil Lord's stupid charm. He winced, expecting her to lash out, or laughter, or even a refusal—that last one would hurt, but it would be better than the sudden silence that descended on them. The wind stopped blowing, the insects stopped moving, and Lucy stared at him with wide eyes. It was the kind of surprise a deer had before getting eaten by a Vulcan.

"Natsu…no," she said quietly, her voice flat as she tried to restrain herself. "Don't."

"Don't…what?" he said tentatively. "Don't…love you?"

"Yes, that!" Her voice rose in anger, but there was sadness mixed in there as well. She pulled away from him with her hands clasped at her chest, as if her heart might beat out of it. He could hear it beating, as a matter of fact—it was going completely nuts. "Natsu, please don't. Mama loved me, so did Aquarius, and Father was fine until his love came back, and they all…"

He just stared at her as she turned away, tears in her eyes.

"They died," she finished in the same flat tone. "I want to believe your strong, that these feelings I have for you—" she swallowed anxiously, "—can mean something, but it's this fear that holds me back. Even the idea of you loving me is frightening. The people I cared about most in the world died, Natsu, and I don't want that to happen to you. So don't." And she turned and retreated into her bathroom, slamming the door shut. He continued staring at the spot she was in before bringing his eyes back to the charm.

"Shit," he muttered, clenching his fist. His knuckles turned white, and there was a satisfying crackle as the charm was reduced to bits and pieces. He made his own retreat through the window, and a night in Magnolia never felt so cold as right then, even to a Dragon Slayer. Of course, he was going to help her, as her friend above all else, but what could he do? He knew that kind of fear well: he had a fear like that long ago, that he would never be able to find Igneel. In the end, he did, and it still gave him nightmares every now and then. Lucy's issue seemed more…subconscious. Well, if she knew about it, she wouldn't have had a problem in telling Natsu off about the Sorcerer's Weekly thing anyway.

But, if there was anything Natsu Dragneel was good for, it was finding a way.

Chapter Notes- This was supposed to be shorter than the others, because...well, a little background info. I've mentioned before that I come up with everything on the spot, but that's not exactly my philosophy anymore. I know what happens in the current chapter and the subsequent one...that's about it. I fix everything during editing when the story's finished, but I digress. This mission was actually going to be short-short, a little Duke Everlue-type thing where they infiltrated the gala, brown-nosed the Lord a little, and got him arrested. Bing bang boom. But I suddenly got the Action Scene Itch, and it came out like this instead, big battle scene and all, but I at least tried to tie in a little classic "Oh, well, it's Fairy Tail, so"-ending. Shoutout to the Sun Village arc one time!

"Fiore" is Italian for "flower," and Magnolia, Hargeon (Harujion), Clover, and Onibas are flowers as well. So, playing off that, I used my own motif that may or may not have been Steven Universe inspired. The town I mentioned earlier, "Dahlia," where Sabertooth is? Made-up. The canon never names the exact city, so I took one and gave it a florae name. On the other hand, Charoite, Dendritic Chalcedony, and Sphene are all gemstones. There was going to be an opal and tanzanite in there as well, but...budget cuts. Paragraph cuts. Well, the literary equivalent of budget cuts.

Last of this tl;dr segment is the final idea. I had an idea what Lucy's problem would be since her last POV chapter. Since the story nearly takes place right after Tartaros, I figured that she'd still be twisted up about Aquarius, and, grief-stricken, would've blamed herself for it, tying in the deaths of her parents as well into the already blue memory. (What's the use of feeling blue, Lucy?) It's irrational; then again, so is all fear. Friendship love is one thing, but the love that Natsu offered her brought out that primal fear. I'm so on the edge with how I portrayed it in the end, though, but here, I hope you readers get the idea of what I was trying to do.