A/N: Sort of been a while since the last update, hasn't it? Sorry for that, seems to get harder and harder lately to get things written. Also, for whatever reason this uploader always gives me trouble with spacing out segments (always edits lines and dashes away when used to break sections) so bear with me on it for the moment. Anyways, wanted to wait until I had more finished to release this so that it wouldn't be another large gap between updates but I figure if it's done I may as well release it and just keep working on the next. I'll try to have the next chapter up soon, though it'll have to be after finals! Enjoy.
It was cold.
Actually, Erza thought, just saying it was cold was an understatement. It was freezing outside. She absentmindedly ran her hands up and down her sides to generate some meager amount of warmth to comfort her. When all that was returned was the sound of gauntlets scraping on armor, Erza looked down and scowled.
She wasn't very well equipped for the hazardous weather outside, she belatedly realized. Armor, while very supportive and protective, could get cold pretty easily in the worst conditions. And if her slowly numbing body, stinging nostrils, and dried, teary eyes said anything; these conditions were pretty bad for armor.
Begrudgingly the scarlet haired mage requipped out of her favored armor and into a warm winter coat with matching leggings and boots to go along. Warmth instantly embraced the swordswoman and she reveled in the sensation for a quick moment before realizing she couldn't feel her ears. It wasn't much of a problem, however, as Erza simply requipped a wool cap to cover her head, her hair parting behind her ears.
As nice as the warmth was, the scarlet haired mage couldn't help but feel somewhat naked in the clothing she wore. She'd grown up wearing armor around herself and taking it off only made her feel vulnerable. Thinking about why she was in the cold and why she had to discard the armor that comforted her, Erza frowned.
It wasn't like him to act this way. As long as she had known Gray Fullbuster, Erza had never recalled him storming out of any situation in such a manner. Perhaps that was the reason why she felt so concerned about him and was now pursuing the ice mage, or perhaps there was something more to it than she realized. She pursed her lips, deep in thought.
"What's bothering you, Gray?" She asked absentmindedly to herself.
The swordswoman scoured her memories to see if there was any trigger to what could have caused this reaction from her childhood friend. It took a couple of minutes of her wading through alleyways and street walks to recall the events of a particular island she'd been to a few months prior.
It was a bizarre situation, indeed. Apparently Natsu, Lucy, and Happy had gotten a hold of an S-Ranked mission without approval from Master Makarov and had embarked on the quest. It was requested from certain villagers pertaining to an alleged demon island, people who hoped that they could be rescued from their curse. She had heard that Gray was assigned to bring the group back before they could make a mess out of everything and yet he somehow ended up accompanying them on their objective. It hadn't been until later, when Erza had returned from her own matters, that she had been asked to bring the others back to the guild.
It hadn't taken her long to find the wayward group and, while disappointed in the ice mage at first, Erza had come to understand why he'd ended up tagging along with the others. It was probably the first time she'd noticed it, but when grouped together her childhood friends along with Lucy had a strange way of drawing others, especially her, into their shenanigans. Erza had hardly done any missions with Natsu or Gray before Lucy had shown up and then before she knew it the four of them were basically a team.
She didn't mind it too much, though, as time spent with Gray and the others was becoming more and more enjoyable. The scarlet haired mage didn't quite understand why that was the case but didn't dwell on it too much.
Erza continued blindly wading through various roads and paths before realizing that she wasn't making any progress. At the rate she was going at it would take days before she'd even come close to finding the ice maker. She paused by a building, leaning against it, and racked her mind for any clues that would indicate where Gray had gone off to.
The warrior's eyes lit up as a certain location very special to her came into mind. It was a long shot, and chances were likely that Gray wasn't there, but Erza couldn't get rid of the nagging feeling that she would find him there.
After all, it's where he'd found her so many times before when she was down on her luck.
Gray sat motionless on the snow covered riverbank while staring across the body of water it bordered. It was a sheet of pure, unmarred white that stretched out as far as the ice maker could see in the dark and disastrous weather.
The male sighed and a shiver escaped unconsciously. He finally realized that barging out of the guild in such a manner without even grabbing his shirt was probably not the best idea that he'd ever had. It only made things worse that he was stuck without both his wallet and keys, having taken them out when he'd bought a few drinks from Mira. He wouldn't be able to get into his apartment and the last place he wanted to be right now was back at the guild. So he just sat, alone with his thoughts and, more recently, his regrets.
Gray chuckled. If nothing else, at least the buzz he had from the rum was keeping him somewhat warm, even if it was a false sense of it. Not that the weather outside bothered him much nor the sensation of being cold. He'd basically grown up in these conditions, after all.
It dawned on the mage that he was sitting at the very bank that he had found Erza crying at all those years ago when she had first joined Fairy Tail. There wasn't any landmark that confirmed this for Gray that he could recognize; rather it was a feeling that he couldn't shake. He'd somehow stumbled across the spot that held so much meaning to him. The spot where he'd finally accepted Erza as a friend and comrade.
Gray thought there was a touch of irony in his situation, sitting there alone and cold with his own troubles weighing heavily on him, but he couldn't exactly place how. Maybe it was that he was the one who needed consolation for a change.
Yeah, right. Like anyone cares about my terribly uninteresting past. Even if I explained why I'm this way, they'd just tell me to suck it up and move on with my life.
He'd told himself the same thing, many times before. "Suck it up and get on with your life." It had been years since his teacher had died because of his actions. Except that wasn't right, either. He'd been averse to admitting it at first, but Ur was the closest thing he'd had to having a real mother.
Sure, he had parents that he could vaguely remember before Deliora showed up and took everything from him, but those were just that; vague memories. His strongest childhood memories came from his teachings by Ur while accompanying Lyon and onward after he joined Fairy Tail. There wasn't much he could remember from when he wasn't an orphan, and maybe that's what had pained him so much about losing Ur.
The first time he'd lost his parents, there was nothing he could do to prevent it. The second time had been his entirely his fault.
Gray punched the ground next to him in frustration. The crumpling noise of snow giving way beneath his fist was met with the loud crack of his knuckles slamming into the layer of ice below. A twinge of pain surrounded his hand and the mage brought it out of the packed snow, blood trailing along his fingers. Small lacerations covered his knuckles from where they had come in contact with the ice.
Gray welcomed the pain; anything to distract him from his heart-wrenching thoughts that he couldn't get rid of. He found himself craving a cigarette and cursed loudly when he remembered he had no money on him. Not that it would have mattered if he did, Gray saw that just about every store was locked up and the lights were off; the ones with lights still on barred entry from the multiple feet of snow piled against the door.
The ice mage looked at his cut up hand while holding it gingerly, flexing each finger to make sure he hadn't done any serious damage. With his free hand, Gray rummaged around his cargo shorts' pockets to see if he had anything that could cover his bloody, now throbbing hand. He may not have broken anything, but he hadn't exactly been gentle.
Turning out nothing but empty pockets, Gray sighed in exasperation. He knew he was going to have to go back to the guild eventually, but now people were going to think he got in a fight with someone. At the very least, they would think him a nutcase considering everything that had happened. Coming back with a bandaged hand was one thing, but a freshly hurt one with no attempt at dressing the injury was quite another.
"Need a bandage?" a soothing voice from behind asked calmly.
Gray looked over his shoulder to see a figure in pink winter apparel standing over him, a cloth extended in one hand with the other at their hip. He looked upwards to see a hair a vibrant shade of red that lightly covered a face he knew all too well.
"What's with the pink?"
Erza's face contorted into something of a grimace. "That's the first thing you say? Not an 'oh, thanks Erza!' or a 'gee, sure is nice to see you came all this way to find me, Erza, what's up?' I can't believe you."
"Yeah… but… pink?"
"Oh my god! Again with the color! Why, do you not like it or something?"
"It's not that I don't like—"
"It's supposed to be like a strawberry for your information. If you had half the appreciation for them as I do then you might just be able to understand why this is so stylish."
"I wouldn't exactly call it stylish…"
Erza lifted an eyebrow. "Oh? Then what would you call it, mister fashion expert who doesn't wear a shirt ever, even in a blizzard?"
Ouch. "I'd call it cute," the ice mage blurted out before he could catch himself. He shirked back apprehensively, not knowing if calling Erza cute was a dangerous thing or not.
The two guildmates stared at each other for a long moment awkwardly, the tension growing as neither knew how to respond. Finally, Erza coughed into her glove –was she blushing?– and withdrew her hand holding the cloth before looking off to the side indignantly.
"Fine then! I guess you don't want this."
"Wait!" Gray pleaded. "I'm sorry, Erza. Thanks for coming all this way for me! Can I have the bandage now? My hand is really starting to hurt."
Erza looked at the ice maker sideward, a look of mischief overcoming her features. "I don't know, maybe you should ask me more nicely. Call me 'Master Erza' and I might reconsider."
Gray's blank expression said everything.
"Or…" Erza continued, looking downward girlishly while pressing her pointer fingers together. "I guess if you called me cute one more time…" Erza stopped suddenly. What was she saying? It must have sounded even more ridiculous than telling him to call her master; she couldn't believe she'd told him to call her that again. Sure, hardly anybody ever told her she looked cute, and it was generally only girls that did it, but that was no reason to feel this lightheaded about it, especially from someone like Gray. Why was she feeling so flustered right now and why was she making such a big deal about the bandage? She should just give it to him already; his hand was all cut up for crying out loud!
Erza looked at her childhood friend and saw him as stunned as she imagined he would look. The blank stare had turned incredulous, as if the idea of Erza the Titania entertaining the notion of being called cute was unbelievable. Was she really that intimidating? Did nobody really see her as a feminine sort of person, just a force of nature? Her lightheaded feeling turned sour and her shoulders slumped. She limply handed Gray the bandage and he took it without a word of protest. The ice maker looked like he wanted to say something but nothing came.
"A-Anyways, how did you find me? Did Master Makarov send you?" Gray awkwardly fumbled out, desperately trying to change the conversation. If Erza noticed his unusual behavior she didn't show it, instead instantly latching on to the change of subject.
"Yeah, he asked me to come find you as a favor, but I'd have come anyways. As for finding you, I just had a hunch that you'd be here, I guess. It's where you've always found me."
"Anyways, what happened, Gray? That's not like you. I've never seen you lose your temper like that before. I think I speak for everyone when I ask what's bothering you?"
Gray didn't even bother trying to hide what had been on his mind the past few days. He answered the scarlet haired woman's answer with a single word.
It finally made sense to Erza and she knew that things were going to get a little bit more complicated.
"We're totally lost…" Lucy sighed.
"Nonsense!" Natsu replied energetically. "I know exactly where we're going! We just need to go…" He paused for a moment, looking down the two alleyways to each side before compulsively walking towards the one on his left. "This way!"
"You're just going in random directions you idiot!" Lucy yelled at the dragon slayer. "Why did I agree to come with you? I should have known that you were just going to get us lost in the middle of the city."
"And what about you, Happy? Can't you fly around or something and figure out where we are?"
The winged cat looked blankly at Lucy for a moment before realizing how good of an idea it was.
"WOW! You're right, why didn't I think of that?"
Lucy buried her face into her hands. It was going to be a very long night.