"Lucy, I'm hungry…"
Lucy trudged alongside Natsu, feeling her feet practically crying out in pain. However, her mind spoke of other problems- no doubt her father would be furious that she had left with no notice. With a pout, she kicked a pebble on the roadside.
"It's not my fault that you're such a big eater," Lucy reminded the dragonslayer. "You've eaten all the food supplies that I thought to bring with me."
"You didn't bring a lot," Natsu sighed, rubbing his growling stomach. Lucy almost laughed as his expression, but reminded herself that it was his fault that the dragonslayer was so… childish!
"It would have lasted a good two weeks if you had portioned it correctly. And, Natsu, we've been on the road for four days." She let this fact sink in as they meandered down the road, and then tacked on as an afterthought, "And it's Princess Lucy to you."
"Sure, sure, Lucy," Natsu laughed, waving her comments off. Lucy cinched her face and was about to say something when Natsu cut her off before she could say anything. "Look! A town!"
"W-what? Really?" The Princess excitedly peered, and sure enough, a small town was in sight. She hadn't wanted to admit it, but she was hungry as well. She blushed when her stomach grumbled, and Natsu laughed, pausing to poke her midriff. The blonde squealed, and chased after him.
They had been wandering the path for four days since Hargeon, and Lucy hadn't thought that it would be so hard traveling. Her resolve was wavering the tiniest bit; Lucy wasn't a bad fighter, but her stamina was apparently something to be looked down upon, seeing as how Natsu wasn't even breaking out a sweat under the sun.
The excitement of finding refuge from traveling with little food and little sleep was a bright prospect; the two raced into the town, ignoring any aching joints they had.
"At last, food!" Natsu rejoiced. Lucy silently agreed, outwardly choosing to maintain an air of dignity. (If one could retain dignity while laughing at the top of your lungs while running like a banshee, that was.)
Lucy wasn't surprised when Natsu swung into the first joint they came across with his anticipation coming off in the form of drool; she looked sadly into her knapsack and sighed at the little amount of money she had left.
"Well, it wouldn't be 'a little' if the guy didn't eat so damned much," she murmured as they sat down on a pair of stools. Natsu sent her a cocky grin.
"Dragonslayers eat a lot," he said knowingly, waving over a bored-looking waiter who produced two menus and left them on the small table.
"I wouldn't know, would I?" Lucy replied dryly, picking up one and flipping through it eagerly- she could smell the aroma of the food around them, and her stomach felt like an empty cave. "I mean, you're the only dragonslayer I've heard of. For all I know, you're making this up."
This comment sparked an entire rant from Natsu as he vehemently protested her claim and gabbed about what he was going order. She pointed out that she only had so much money with her, which he ignored- she huffed in exasperation, but managed to smile. He was certainly energetic, and he wasn't bad company… Lucy had been expecting someone more intimidating as a traveling companion with the title of 'Dragonslayer', but Natsu was good company.
"No, really," Natsu was saying as she scanned the list. "There are others like me."
She closed the menu interestedly and clasped her hands with a smile at his enthusiasm. "Really? How do you know?"
The Princess was surprised to see Natsu falter at that, and watched in trepidation as he fumbled for an answer; he was saved by the waiter, who came back and monotonously asked for their orders.
"I'll have this steak," the pink-haired boy jabbed at something, and the waiter scribbled it down. "And that thing under it. Oh, those noodles in that picture look good, too. I want a cheesecake as well. Can I also have some curry? With chicken. Does that cost extra?"
Lucy flinched consecutively with each thing Natsu added onto the list; the waiter took it all in stride, as if this happened every day, and turned to Lucy. "And you, ma'am?"
"I'll…" she laughed nervously. "I'll just have some water." The waiter shrugged and walked away- Natsu turned to Lucy in surprise.
"But aren't you hungry?" He asked in all seriousness, frowning. Lucy buried her face in her hands.
"Of course I am," she sighed. "But I don't even know if I have enough to pay for half of your order."
"And you're letting that stop you?" Natsu asked, confusion etched into his features, as if her predicament was unheard of. "Why don't you just eat something?"
Lucy groaned and slumped onto the table. So much for good company. "Never mind."
They passed the next few minutes in a comfortable silence- well, Natsu was obviously so- but Lucy was awkwardly refusing to look at him until his food arrived.
The food was awkwardly piled onto each other on the small table, and Natsu dug into the food eagerly- Lucy watched with a small frown marring her features.
She hadn't brought that much money to start with, and the odd dragonslayer had quickly eaten her out of food within four days. The Princess was starting to worry that she had been too optimistic in setting out for Loki. On one hand, she didn't want to marry him, but if it meant saving hundreds of people from dying in the war between Hargeon and Magnolia, she would gladly sacrifice her own happiness.
On the other hand- Lucy flinched away from Natsu as food splattered from his general person (how could anyone be so messy when eating- this dragonslayer was dangerously brash and had no worries. How would she even begin solving her problems when he, the supposed solution of them, was so… so-!
"Hey, Luce," Natsu mumbled through a mouthful of steak. "You like noodles?"
"It's Lucy," the said girl replied brusquely, and then paused. A moment later, she amended; "Princess Lucy, and yeah. I guess I do."
"Good," the dragonslayer laughed. "You can have the noodles." He clumsily pushed the plate towards Lucy, grabbing a bread roll and stuffing it into his mouth at the same time.
She smiled at the gesture and graciously took it (finally, food!), wondering if she wasn't perhaps being too paranoid… Natsu laughed when she slurped the noodles with a very un-royal-like splatter from the sauce, and she couldn't help but laugh with him. He was so free-spirited for a reason, she reminded herself. She shouldn't try to be so uptight; it wouldn't get her anywhere…
The two were about halfway finished with their meal when a loud crash interrupted.
The blonde whirled around as a mess of customers fled the joint, shouting in panic. The waiter that had served them walked through the doors from the kitchen, took one look at what had caused the ruckus, and promptly fainted. Natsu chuckled mercilessly.
"Wha-?" Lucy turned towards the source of the noise, and her blood ran cold.
From the corner of the restaurant, debris had flown from a gaping hole in the side, allowing the sun entry. Chunks of wood were scattered carelessly around the mess; Lucy's eyes followed the rubble upwards, and sure enough, her suspicions were confirmed.
"Princess Lucy Heartphilia," Erza Scarlet stepped into the building, dual swords brandished, "I've been looking for you."
"Sheesh, you could afford to be less dramatic about it," Natsu called from next to Lucy, and hopped off his stool, cracking his knuckles with a snarl. "You ruined my meal, freak. You're gonna pay for that."
"Princess," Erza said coldly, and Lucy almost, almost regretted leaving at that moment- the only friend she had ever made was regarding her with such distance that she suddenly felt very, very alone. "Who is this?"
Lucy opened her mouth to reply, her hand twitching towards the whip at her side, but Natsu interrupted.
"I'm her friend, I'm gonna kick your ass." He stepped forward threateningly; Erza matched his movement.
"W-wait, you don't understand," Lucy choked out, wondering how she would possibly stop this mess- was Erza sent to retrieve her? Did Erza actually listen to her father instead of hearing her friend's wishes? She didn't have the proper amount of time to feel betrayed, apparently- a calloused palm grabbed Lucy from behind and spun her around, tossing her aside into the opposite corner.
"Lucy!" Natsu snarled, whirling around. Lucy coughed and forced herself to her feet, cursing herself for having let her guard down. The dragonslayer was being cornered by their two assaulters; one being Erza, and the other a dark-haired man she had never seen before.
"I," she hissed, "can take care of myself, Natsu." She expertly swung her whip from her hips and snapped it out- it made a satisfying crack, and she felt a rush of adrenaline- it had certainly been a while since she had last fought with Fleuve d'étoiles, and the feeling was such a wonderful rush-
The pink-haired dragonslayer laughed- she thought she caught a mix of relief and amusement in his tone- and turned to charge at Erza. The blonde's eyes widened when his entire body lit on fire, and the heat in the destroyed restaurant suddenly became sweltering. Erza stood her ground, and Lucy glumly remembered that Erza wasn't the Head of Magnolia's Royal Guard for nothing. They clashed once; the power that the two emanated was… terrifyingly beautiful. For one moment, Lucy felt envious.
A fist slammed into her face, effectively waking her from her stupor. Lucy growled in frustration at the dark-haired man that had caught her unawares yet again, and leapt forward with her whip in hand.
"You should pay more attention," he smirked. "I'm offended you're not taking me seriously."
"Don't say that when I am," she huffed irritably, pumping her body's magic and directing it to the whip. With a quick leap, she raised her arm and slashed out with the glowing whip.
The man held his arms in front of his body protectively; in a split second, a large shield of ice had encased the space between the two. Lucy clenched her teeth as the whip snapped against the shield, making a sizeable crack, but otherwise leaving Gray completely unharmed.
"You're good and have a lot of potential," he observed, "but you're obviously untrained."
"Now who's not taking this seriously?" She frowned; Lucy was answered with three spikes of ice that shot at her at an alarming speed; she narrowly avoided it, arcing her body- the ice hit the wall behind her. She flicked her wrist; the whip snatched the large pieces of ice that had embedded themselves into the wall and flung them back at her attacker.
He snorted at her resourcefulness and made to attack once more-
"Wait, wait," Lucy interrupted, stopping him short. "Where did your shirt go?"
The dark-haired man looked down at his torso, and sure enough, his shirt had miraculously disappeared. "Gah! How did that happen?"
"Don't ask me!" She hissed irritably, cocking a hip. "Why did you strip in the middle of a fight? Don't tell me I'm that easy to battle-"
The Princess gaped as the ice-wielder frowned in consternation as he stripped off his pants.
"What could have happened to my shirt…?" He groaned, still distracted by the mystery, even as his hands moved to take off his underwear.
"STOP!" Lucy flushed a million shades of red (it was the first time she had seen a man so… so bare!) and instinctually flung out her hand. To her surprise, she had forgotten that she was still holding Fleuve d'étoiles, and the whip arced towards him.
Caught unawares himself this time, the man hissed in surprise as the whip painfully wrapped itself around him and clenched. Lucy grasped the handle of Fleuve d'étoiles determinedly, continuously feeding it magic- in response, her foe let out a moan of pain, slumping against the floor with a twitch.
The blonde Princess immediately felt a wave of regret wash over her, and she forced the whip to unravel- now that it was gone, she could see red marks that had burned their way into his skin around his torso, and habitually let out a worried cry, rushing over to aid him.
The ice-maker looked up in surprise as she helped him up and began to flutter nervously over his wounds (after forcing him to clothe himself). "What are you doing, you idiot?"
"I-I'm sorry!" She squeaked, patting him experimentally- he winced in pain. Lucy began rambling, unsure of what to do or say. "I-I didn't mean to hurt you, I swear! It was an a-accident; I would never have hurt another person-!"
"You're… not a fighter, are you?" he cocked an eyebrow at her frantic behavior, and she forced herself to smile, embarrassed that she had tried to initiate an attack against this man. He shook his head, snorting. "That's okay. I actually didn't expect the Princess to be able to fight."
"M-my name is Lucy," she murmured to her hands. Here she was, cursing the dragon that had ruined the potential peace of Fiore, and yet she had dared raise a hand against another person! It was all so very silly- "I hope you can forgive me."
He burst into laughter as another crash resounded from Natsu's direction. Her eyes flickered towards the sound, and then back down at the man she had helped up as he offered her a hand.
"My name's Gray. I can't believe you thought I didn't know your name, Princess."
With a nervous laugh, she took Gray's hand and helped him into a sitting position. "A-are you from the-?"
"I'm from Magnolia as well," he said, jerking a thumb slowly in Erza's general vicinity. "I serve under that crazy chick."
"You're from the Royal Army as well?" She cocked her head, wondering where all of his hostility had disappeared to. "Are you guys really here to bring me back? Did my father do this?"
Gray seemed to consider an answer before grinning lopsidedly and pointing at Erza and Natsu, who had gone from sizing each other up to a mixed series of close-combat blows. "Ask the Titania herself. She'll tell you- hey, where are you going?"
Lucy had stumbled to her feet as Gray was talking, and raced across the small building towards her two friends. Gray let out a sigh and slumped against the wall, smirking knowingly to himself.
"Natsu, stop!" Lucy shouted over the roar of steel and flames- the heat Natsu was letting out was absolutely torturous, but Erza's sturdy swords bat away at his limbs each time an attack was attempted with the finesse only a master swordsman had. "Natsu, you'll be hurt!"
Natsu let out a roar as his leg blazed towards the scarlet-haired knight, who sheathed one of her swords and channeled her energy into the single blade, which flared to life with a power that had Lucy intimidated from the sight of the display.
They were going to attack each other.
"STOP!" Lucy vaulted herself between the two attacks, her eyes tightly shut. "I'm not going to allow my only two friends to kill each other because of my stupidity! If it'll stop this meaningless fight, I'll go home with… you… Erza…" Lucy trailed off- why hadn't she been hit be either of their attacks? It was too silent…
Lucy popped open one eye, and then another. To her astonishment, Natsu was rolling on the floor, banging his fist against the wooden panels and trying not to laugh too hard; Erza herself looked extremely amused.
"Princess," Erza snickered, "no need to take things so seriously."
"Yeah, Lucy," Natsu howled from the floor. "You're such a drama queen! I can't believe you actually thought we would kill each other!"
"Lucy," the scarlet-haired knight said gently, sheathing her swords, "we were both well aware that this was just a friendly match."
"Friendly… match?" Lucy echoed, feeling hopelessly out of the loop.
"Yeah," Natsu said, lips curved wickedly at her obvious discomfort. "Haven't you heard that warriors can tell what the other is thinking when they clash fists?"
"Swords," Erza correctly stiffly.
Natsu's onyx eyes narrowed. "It's fists, dumbass."
Fearing that their 'friendly match' really would dissolve into a serious fight, Lucy waved her hands nervously. "Now, now, they're both equally as good-"
The two turned on her and hissed menacingly, ready to protest (and Gray was in the corner, shouting about how it was "Ice, ice is obviously the best!") but a man interrupted them.
"Excuse me, I'm the manager of this place," the short man looked at them, annoyance marring his already-pudgy face.
Lucy felt her face crumple in expectation of the inevitable; Natsu leaned over coyly, whispering, "Ooooh, Lucy, you're busted!~"
Lucy did a quick inventory of all the burns, scorches, and slash marks and very nearly wailed. "It's not even my fault-!"
"No matter," the manager scowled. "In any case, the expenses should amount to…" he assessed the damage and nodded. "About four hundred-thousand Jewels." A pause. "Plus tax."
Lucy's jaw gaped. "Th-that's outrageous! I don't even have ten thousand on me!"
"You don't?" Erza seemed relatively surprise. "But Princess-"
"Oh, a Princess, is it?" The man studied her face, a new glint in his eye that Lucy really didn't like. "In that case, I think the amount can be raised to-"
Lucy grabbed Natsu and Erza, and the three made a swift escape.
The manager began to chase after them, but thought better of it; with a dramatic turn, he smirked evilly at the sitting Gray in the corner, who immediately shuddered at the look.
"H-hey, wait up!"
"I can't believe you guys left me back there!" Gray whined, finally catching up to the other three, who were panting in exhaustion as they finally put decent distance between themselves and the town. "That guy was about to charge me a million Jewels!"
"Not our fault you're so slow," Natsu grumbled.
"That old man was an odd sort," Erza shivered, and Lucy almost laughed, slumping against the older woman's back as the four rested in the shade of a large tree on the side of the road. In her mind's eye, Lucy could see the damage of the restaurant that had been done; Lucy gulped, remembering the gaping holes and debris.
There was honor, and then there was practicality. There was no way she could afford to fix that, and it was even less likely that she would go back to ask her father for the money…
"Did you call me slow?" Gray snarled at Natsu, who immediately responded by butting heads with the ice-mage.
"But it is my fault," Lucy said quietly, looking down at Fleuve d'étoiles, which pulsed softly as if sharing her sentiments. "I hurt him."
"No one's blaming you," Erza was quick to reassure the blonde girl. "You were attacked. Anyone would have done the same thing."
"Besides, I'm strong enough so that I won't be hindered by a minor wound like this," Gray grinned, producing a thin sheet of ice over his (naked) torso as a source of relief. Natsu not-so-subtly blew a wisp of flame that melted the small layer of ice, and the two immediately burst into a loud argument.
"They're just like fire and ice," the Princess laughed softly. "Completely opposite."
"Not so," Erza said soothingly. "They do have one thing in common; they're both your friends now."
Lucy allowed a smile to spread over her face as she took this in; for years, she'd had only books and this knight as her friends, but now, in the spurt of a single day, she had three. That was a marked improvement.
"By the way," she suddenly remembered, "why are you here?"
Erza lay down in the grass, watching as Natsu and Gray proceeded to hurl magic at each other. "Your father sent me."
Lucy cast her eyes aside, allowing the shade of the large tree's branches to shadow her pained expression. Father…
"I was told to retrieve you at any cost, and to bring someone with me if necessary," the scarlet-haired woman continued. "I brought Gray as a source of back-up, because I had already suspected you would be bringing someone with you in your quest."
"But…" the blonde bit her lip. "You brought Gray as a back up? But you didn't end up obeying Father, did you? Why did you need him?"
"Obviously," the older woman smiled gently, placing a hand on Lucy's shoulder. "I knew you wouldn't be so easily dissuaded, and you're my friend." The word warmed Lucy's heart as Erza went on, "so I grabbed the most trustworthy person I knew so we could aid you in your search for your fiancé."
Lucy felt her lip tremble, and suddenly burst into tears, wrapping her arms around the Knight's cold armor; the woman blushed in response, lightly returning the embrace. Natsu and Gray broke off their argument, watching in confusion as the two girls had a little moment.
("Girls are weird," Natsu murmured in an aside; Gray vehemently disagreed, if only to disagree with the dragonslayer.)
Before Natsu could throw another punch, Gray quickly broke in, "So do you have any idea where Loki might be?"
"I don't know," Lucy admitted, waving a hand towards Natsu. "That's why I sought this guy out."
"Yeah, she wouldn't be able to get anywhere without me," Natsu preened at Gray, who twitched. "She doesn't need your help- what good would an ice mage do against a fire-breathing dragon?"
"Okay, Natsu, quit provoking Gray," Lucy sighed, morphing her tone into one she used in court; poised, elegant, with a touch of condescending. She put a small hand on Natsu's shoulder and pulled him away slightly from Gray. "You guys don't need to fight needlessly." She took a quick glance at their surroundings, eager to change the topic and avoid a possible war between the two testosterone-filled males. "This seems like a pretty good place to set up camp for the night."
"Agreed," Erza said immediately, and then paused. "Princess, I am afraid I must share a sleeping bag with you. In my haste, I brought nothing but my weapons."
Lucy sighed fondly- Erza was the same as ever- and set down her knapsack; Natsu walked over to help her prepare the camp.
("There's no way I'm sharing anything with flame-breath over there," Gray muttered to Erza. The scarlet haired woman turned and gave him a monstrous glare; the ice mage spent the next fifteen minutes cowering behind the tree.)
"You two…" Erza's lips twitched upwards as she watched their teamwork. "You would make a cute couple, you know?"
"W-what?" Lucy immediately drew back from the dragonslayer, blushing crimson. "N-no way! D-did you see that guy fight? He was l-like a dragon! So dangerous and scary and just plain frightening!" Her mouth was running like a motor now; she couldn't stop her embarrassed rant. "Besides, he's just some… some hunter! I'm a Princess."
The blonde hesitated when Natsu said nothing; she and the Knight turned to look at the pink-haired fire mage, who was staring openly in shock at Lucy.
"U-um, Natsu?" Lucy attempted, feeling all of a sudden, very, very foolish.
He shook his head at the sound of her voice, and looked disdainfully at her before turning his back and stalking off into the forest. "I'll go and hunt something for tomorrow. Finish pitching the tent." His normally tone had turned suddenly into something cold and... Lucy hadn't realized how comforting Natsu normally was until Natsu's voice turned hostile.
Lucy watched in surprise as he angrily away, pausing once to spit in Gray's direction before harrumphing and vanishing into the woods. Erza sat in a stunned silence before murmuring, "My Princess, you don't think that perhaps what you did was a bit… harsh?"
"Dude, you should have seen his face," Gray stepped out from his hiding place, scrubbing irritably at his face with his hand (probably where Natsu's saliva had hit). "He looked so… shocked. Like you ran over his puppy or something."
"I-I didn't mean to!" Lucy stammered; Fleuve d'étoiles was growing cold at her side. A sense of shame overwhelmed the girl as she stammered out, "I was just… just embarrassed, and I couldn't help but…"
But how much of what was said was true? Lucy bit back her words, regretting the fact that she had probably offended Natsu. Had she really been scared? Was she really so… so shallow and petty as to really mean what she had said…?
Erza sighed, producing a map from the folds of her armor, and laying it out. "According to some of the research I've done, the places I've marked on here should be among the most likely for dragons to make their nest, considering their magical aptitude and environment. I'm sure that Natsu, being a dragonslayer, could narrow down the possibilities. However, Princess, I understand that you have an extensive knowledge of the magical world. Do you have any suggestions as to where we should head next?"
Gray and Erza looked intently at Lucy, who had lapsed into a depressed sort of silence. With a sight, Gray shoved Lucy to her feet.
"What was that for?" She hissed, stumbling.
"Go after him," Gray grouched. "You're going to be no help to us if you're busy moping."
Lucy weakly grinned at Gray's embarrassment at showing a soft side, and went off towards the direction that Natsu had gone, leaving the two Knights to strategize.
It wasn't hard to follow Natsu, the whip-wielder realized after a few moments of walking through the forest. The dragonslayer had left scorch marks, likely burst out from frustration, all over his trail. Lucy followed the burns and smoking wood until she came to a small break in the trees; there, Natsu was sitting in the center, legs crossed and head resting in his hands.
Lucy stepped closer; his ears twitched and he briefly nodded, acknowledging her presence. Neither of them said anything for a moment, and Lucy sighed, unwilling to wait out the tension.
"Natsu," she said slowly, "I'm sorry."
He said nothing, settling for gazing at the sky, not even turning to look at her.
"It's just… I guess I've been accusing you of being too brash when I, myself, am the same in a different sense. I really am sorry about what I said."
Still no response. However, the pink-haired boy did turn to eye her contemptuously. She flinched under his sturdy gaze.
"I've been raised in a castle, with no one to talk to," she said to the ground, shifting her feet. "I don't know how to interact properly with other people, and I get embarrassed easily…" her hand wandered to scratch the back of her neck nervously. "You're only the second friend I've ever made in my life, and I'm eighteen. That's kind of sad, huh?"
Natsu's gaze softened, but his mouth remained a stubborn, harsh line. Lucy decided to press on. "I promise, Natsu, I'll get better. I may not be a genius, but I'm a Princess, and we Princesses have our pride. I just… didn't know what to say in that kind of awkward situation. But I can learn how to… to be real friends with you. I've enjoyed our talking and our arguments and… I just…" She held out her hand, allowing it to bask in sunlight as it stretched towards him.
She hoped that the gesture conveyed the words that she couldn't say.
Natsu seemed to understand; he stood up slowly, taking her hand to sway onto his feet as twigs crunched under his worn shoes. "You don't know me very well," he cautioned, his face utterly serious. "Are you sure you want to be friends with someone… someone you don't know anything about?"
Lucy smiled genuinely, ecstatic at his response. "I may not know you very well, but I'd like to."
A smile etched its way onto Natsu's tanned skin in response to her own beam, and the two walked, loosely hand in hand, back to camp.
Natsu was awake before the others. The sun was barely peeking over the land as it shone down onto their camp at the edge of the woods. The beams were peeking through the foliage; a small ray of light found its way to Lucy's face, making her skin as porcelain as it was warm and flawless.
He bit his lip in indecision, looking over from the Princess, to the two Knights (Gray, in his unwillingness to share a sleeping back with Natsu, whose feelings were reciprocal, had opted to sleep on the grass instead), and back to the blonde.
She was so… so weird, he snorted to himself. She was stupid enough to offer to be friends with him when she didn't even know what he was.
With a torn expression, the dragonslayer looked at the map Erza had laid out earlier, and scorched it with the tip of his finger. Then, working quickly and silently, he packed his sleeping bag back into the knapsack and, with one last look, stood up.
In any case, he would see in time. For now...
Without another backward glance, Natsu walked away.
A/N: Thanks for the responses for the first chapter! Please continue to leave feedback as you read so I can know what to work on and what should be kept. I hope you enjoyed what I've written so far- I've worked really hard to lay out the plot this time, so I do hope you guys come back to read and share your opinions.