(A/N)- hm. long time no see, huh? to be fair, i didn't plan on taking over a year with this chapter, but life has a way of kicking people in the ass. sorry for the wait!
Breakfast at the inn was an awkward affair, consisting of Lucy desperately trying to avoid eye contact with Sting while Erza watched him through narrowed eyes. Natsu, remaining blissfully ignorant of the tension, attempted to start yet another fight with Gray, apparently having not learned his lesson the previous night. Rogue ate in complete silence, cleaning off his plate with small, meticulous bites and remaining entirely unfazed by the chaos around him.
The innkeeper, a small, mousy woman with round spectacles and a splatter of freckles across her nose, bustled about as she refilled glasses with juice and water and complying with (largely Natsu's) requests for seconds.
Erza thanked the innkeeper stiffly as she refilled her with water, her cold gaze never leaving Sting as she took a long, deliberate sip. Somehow, she made the innocuous gesture seen absolutely murderous.
Sting stared as his plate, sweat beading at his brow as he suffered under the knight's frigid scrutiny. He swallowed a bite of toast, but it was thick and tasteless in his dry mouth.
"Oi," Gray said, putting forth an admirable effort to ignore Natsu, "what's our next move?"
Erza finally pulled her attention away from Sting, and it took every ounce of willpower he had not to breathe an audible sigh of relief.
"Information gathering," she responded, a furrow of concentration creasing her brow.
Lucy blinked. That seemed… subtle. And decidedly out of character.
"We should locate some of the bars and see what we can find out about Titan Nose," Erza continued, not noticing Lucy's confused gaze. "It would be a good idea to figure out what we're up against."
Lucy frowned. Very out of character. While Erza was less hot-headed than Gray and Natsu, she was hardly one for planning and information gathering.
A plan in place, the group finished breakfast hastily, and, as they began to rise, Lucy pulled Erza to the side.
"Why do we have a plan?" she asked, a little bluntly, and promptly winced, because questioning Erza typically wasn't good for one's health.
Thankfully, Erza didn't seem offended. "I wanted to make a good impression for the guild's sake," she said, "so I asked the First about a good course of action."
Lucy squinted. "Okay." That made a bit more sense than Erza sitting down and actually planning out a course of action. (In all honesty, Lucy was equally guilty on winging it during missions. She was probably best suited to designing a plan, but she just… didn't.)
She followed Erza back to their rooms with a dogged sort of resignation, a cat threading through her legs as she walked.
Somehow, she thought, they would screw this up in a decidedly Fairy Tail-like fashion.
The six of them (and Happy) met up in Natsu's room, pulling up spare chairs or sitting on the floor wherever there was space. Lucy was seated on the bed next to Erza, Happy in her lap, while Gray straddled a small, wooden chair and Rogue sat tidily in a stool of his own. Natsu and Sting were sprawled out on floor, a sheet thrown down as a makeshift rug to protect them from the rough wood.
"We should go in pairs," Lucy suggested. "We could cover more ground that way, and we're less conspicuous than if we go in a group."
"Smart," Gray commented. "Don't want to draw attention to ourselves. 'Specially if Titan Nose still has cronies 'round these parts."
Erza hummed approvingly, eyes narrowed in thought. "Disguises perhaps?" she offered. "An alias, so that they don't know we're from guilds. Some of us stand out." There was a pointed glance at Natsu at that, who scrunched up his nose in response. Then, suddenly, Erza barked, "Gray, put on your clothes now."
The ice mage squeaked and floundered for a moment, before finally finding his discarded shirt and jacket and shrugging them on with as much dignity as he could muster.
Lucy frowned a bit, squinting at Gray's guild mark before it was covered up by his clothes, then glancing at her own on the back of her hand.
"We should at least cover our guild marks," she said thoughtfully. "They'll definitely get suspicious if they see mages from popular guilds poking around."
There was a disgruntled murmur of assent, and with that, Erza stood and and clapped her hands together.
"Then we know what to do," she barked. "Gather what you need and meet back here in ten minutes!"
Another round of slightly more enthusiastic agreement (and a cheer of "Aye sir!" from Happy) and they scattered to their respective rooms.
Lucy sighed, taking her time to rise and stretch, idly running through the things she had packed in her mind- no gloves, so she would have to pick up a pair on the way, and maybe-
"Eep!" she squeaked, jostled out of her thoughts by a hand on her shoulder.
Sting jerked back. "Uh… sorry?"
"It's fine," she said quickly. "Did you need something?"
He went pink. "I wanted to- ah…"
Lucy blinked owlishly. "Ah…?"
"Apologize!" Sting managed. "For last night."
It was Lucy's turn to turn pink. "D-don't worry about it," she said, laughing nervously.
"I think I do need to worry," he replied, "because I'm pretty sure Erza wants to kill me."
"...I'll talk to her," Lucy offered weakly.
He nodded, hesitating for a moment. "'Kay," he muttered. "See you, then."
Lucy nodded and Sting beat a hasty retreat.
This was promising to be a long day.
Lucy rummaged through her luggage, frowning. She hadn't brought gloves, but there she had a cute knit sweater that she'd packed in case it got cold.
She pulled it on, experimentally tugging the sleeves over her hands. They fell well over her knuckles, easily hiding the guild mark on the back of her hand.
Good enough for now- she made a note to buy gloves, and soon.
She glanced at the clock- she had a few minutes to spare- and changed clothes quickly, finding a lighter undershirt to compensate for the warmth of the sweater and pulling her hair back in a neat, plain ponytail.
She made it back to Natsu's room with a minute left, Erza already changed and seated.
The knight turned her piercing gaze on her and Lucy resisted the urge to shrink back.
"Lucy," Erza said calmly, "you would inform me if harm befell you, correct?"
"...Yes?" she replied.
Erza stared her down a few moments longer and gave a curt nod. "Good," she said shortly.
Lucy looked at her owlishly. "Is… this about Sting?"
Erza huffed, crossing her arms. "Perhaps."
She grimaced. "Please don't hurt him," Lucy said. She paused. "Or threaten him. Please. He is Sabertooth's master. And he hasn't actually done anything."
Erza sighed. "Fine," she said, "but I will be watching him."
At that moment, people started to trickle back in- Gray first, Natsu on his heels, and then Sting and Rogue.
Gray had exchanged his heavy coat for something more casual- so long as he didn't strip, his guild mark would remain well-hidden. Natsu had switched out his customary vest with a jacket, and he fidgeted often, rolling his shoulders and tugging at the sleeves.
Rogue had changed out of his normal- and rather conspicuous- ensemble, opting for a dark shirt and slacks, and Sting had done something similar, swapping his vest and bulky pants for t-shirt and jeans.
Lucy all looked so odd out of their normal clothes. Actually, until now, she hadn't been sure that Natsu had so much as owned anything with two sleeves.
"There are three bars around town," Erza began without preamble, "north, south, and east of the city square." She pulled out a local map, unrolling it in her lap and pointing to the respective sites. "We can break off into pairs and scout out the area, search for information."
Sting hummed, brow furrowed in concentration. "Anything in particular that we're looking for?" he asked. "Or anyone?"
"I have been informed that the master of Titan Nose is a large man with the guild mark over his eye," Erza said. "However, it seems that he doesn't frequent the bars often, so risk of meeting him is low."
Sting let out a disappointed sigh. "Too bad," he said, a crooked, fierce grin pulling at his lips. "Figured we could beat the info outta him."
"Do not get cocky," Erza warned, eyes narrowed. She turned, pinning her stare on Natsu and Gray. "That goes for all of you."
The two nodded meekly.
"How should we split up?" Lucy questioned.
"We could draw straws," Gray suggested. "It would make it more interesting."
"Good idea, Gray," Erza said. "Any objections?"
Lucy hid a grimace. She didn't particularly enjoy the chance of being partnered up with Rogue- she got that it was paranoid, but the man made her distinctly uncomfortable. His future self killing her future self and all that.
She shrugged off her discomfort and kept her mouth shut. She could play nice.
"Where are we getting straws?" Sting wondered.
Eventually, straws were procured, and Erza made a great, largely unnecessary show of slicing them down to same-size pairs with a large, impressive sword.
Gray held them in a loose fist, evening out the tops so it looked level.
"Go ahead," he said, and, one-by-one, they all plucked out a straw. (Barring Happy, since a flying, talking, blue cat was a little to conspicuous, even for Fairy Tail.)
Lucy turned hers over in her hand. It was rather short- a brief glance at Rogue confirmed that his straw was one of the longest, and she restrained a sigh of relief.
Natsu waved his around wildly. "Hey! Hey, who has this one!"
Erza held her straw up, and Natsu immediately paled.
"Oi," Gray said, nudging Rogue. "Looks like we're partnering up."
Natsu was with Erza, and the Gray was with Rogue, which meant…
"Heartfilia?" Sting said. His straw, cut short, dangled from his fingers.
"Er- yes," Lucy said. "I- ah- I look forward to working with you," she said formally, giving him a little bow.
A hint of pink dusted Sting's cheeks. "Yeah," he mumbled, rubbing his neck awkwardly. "Likewise."