Update 2k17: I've changed a couple of things in this chapter as well ~ The remaining loose ends about the mystery of the horoscope are gonna get tied up in the epilogue. Having re-read all this again makes me very nostalgic and I'm glad that I came back and reviewed every chapter :)
After their battle, matters resolved in a fast pace. It always surprised her how quickly those magic council officials arrived, swarming a crime scene like bees. Especially since you never see them fight or catch criminals on their own. Those lazy bums, they really should stop complaining about Fairy Tail and do their own work. After the officials scratched what was left of Verde from the concrete, Lucy quickly informed them of his victims' location. A curt nod was all the gratitude she got.
Jeez, a simple smile and thanks never killed anybody.
Together with the officials from the council, they led Mary and the rest of the remaining children out of the dungeons. Medics arrived at the scene and tended to the injured. Thinking about how they got them made Lucy's blood boild. How could those people be this cruel? Chaos Hunter had scarred those children for life. She prayed that their families were able to help overcome their trauma. Still, the blonde briefly wished Wendy came along on the mission. Her unique magic would help the physical healing process a lot.
Finally, the rest of her team joined them. Gray had created a gigantic cage of ice which was filled with unconscious dark guild members. Served them right for trying to kill people. Despite their cruelty, Lucy felt the need to bring Urania and Nathan to their father. It was their mission after all and Duke Pandera had seemed to be incredibly concerned about their well-being. It was his right to see them before they were imprisoned in the deep, dark dungeons of Era.
After a lot of convincing on her part, Lucy felt the exhaustion settle in as they headed for the grand Pandera mansion. Not only did they just fight a dark guild, but the celestial wizard had struggled with that stupid horoscope for an entire week. Not to mention Natsu's weird mood swings.
Creepily enough, everything but one aspect of that stupid article came true. Why didn't the most important part – the only positive one – come true? Would she ever find the love of her life? Come on, Lucy even admitted defeat to that damned Miss Mystic. She could cut her some slack.
The celestial wizard dragged her feet on the ground, her only wish right now: soaking in one of those wonderful hot springs. From time to time, she felt Natsu glance at her worriedly. But every time he opened his mouth to ask what's wrong, she just shook her head tiredly. With an annoyed roll of his onyx eyes, the dragon slayer slung an arm around her hip to support her weight and pulled her closer towards his warmth.
The blond turned into a tomato.
Not that she wasn't used to it yet, but his recent need for physical contact was still embarrassing. Especially under the eagle eyes of their team. Well, Natsu was always invaded her personal space, so it wasn't an usual sight. This amount of contact was a new achievement though. Faintly, the blonde could hear Gray and Happy whisper something before grinning creepily at her. She had no doubt it was about their new found closeness.
"Alley cat," Lucy hissed and tried to grab the blue feline. Yeah, tried … because a certain pink-haired clingy person held her back, not letting her escape his supportive hold. "Come on, Natsu, just let me hit him this once."
Her companion just shook his head and continued to drag her with him. Ever since their last fight he practically attached himself to her side. Lucy wouldn't even be surprised if he whipped out some permanent glue. Not that she minded though. The fire magician was warm and his small gestures made her feel as if she floated on a cloud.
If you are able to pass the emotional roller coaster, you will float on cloud nine with your one true love!
Wait, what did she just think? Was she insane? No, no, no! This was all wrong. It couldn't be – Luckily, Lucy's thoughts were interrupted.
Seeing it for the second time, the massive building was still impressive with those golden statues shimmering in the light of the afternoon sun. In front of the huge and prideful entrance stood a small, voluptuous figure with mustache. A big man and his big mansion. It was almost funny. Nervously, Duke Pandera tapped his feet on the ground while glancing at his golden pocket watch. Chewing on his lips, the wrinkles on his forehead seemed to deepen with concern. The man's head whipped up as soon as he spotted the intruders on his property, his expression softened almost unnoticeably.
"Nathan? Urania? Is it truly you?"
Lucy understood the brief confusion that was evident on their client's face. After all, they sported some fashionable bruises and cuts. While Nathan was just an unrecognizable heap of blue and purple, Urania apparently became partially bold. Juvia and Erza did quite a number on them.
"Father, you won't believe how those imbeciles treated me." Urania swung the remains of her black hair over her shoulder, trying to keep a scandalized expression. Lucy sighed, there were some people who never learned their lesson. "How could those commoners even dream to lay a hand on me. Please father, they must be punished."
His mustache bounced as he wobbled with surprisingly energetic steps towards the pair. Duke Pandera graced them with a critical observation of their appearance and scrunched his broad nose. Wow, that relief and happiness lasted long. Lucy felt strongly reminded of her own father. Natsu seemed to notice her reaction and shooed those glum thoughts away by holding her tighter. His concern made her smile shyly.
Happy snickered behind his paws, probably withholding some comment.
"About time you showed up. Nathan, you missed many hours of your studies. As my only son and heir of the Pandera family, I expect that you will get back to your work immediately. And you, Urania ..." Duke Pandera talked himself into a frenzy. "Your fiancé was extremely worried when you suddenly vanished. His father was not far from severing our business connection. In the future, you will know how to behave yourselves! Have I made myself clear?"
One of the government lackeys cleared his throat, effectively gaining the ungrateful father's attention. "Sir, I must inform you that this meeting here is simply to pay our respects. Nathan and Urania Pandera have been found guilty by the following charges: actively joining an unofficial guild, promoting violence against an official guild, several cases of kidnapping and they are prime suspects in seven cases of murder. As follows, they will be judged by the righteous power of the magic council in Era."
Silence settled over them like a blanket.
"That's how it is, old geezer. Denying everything would be even more of a pain and you know how I hate to get headaches," Nathan muttered as he watched his father's reaction through half-lidded eyes. "And don't pretend you didn't suspect anything. With that stict hold you had over us, it was more likely that we ran away than being kidnapped. You just couldn't deal with the fact that your precious children would rather join a dark guild than to spend one more hour at your beg and call. You were lying about us, so you wouldn't have to face the disgrace we brought to your name."
For one moment, Lucy swore she saw a flicker of realization and despair in their client's eyes. In the upper class, showing weakness was a no-go so it didn't shock her when the pale man just nodded in resignation. His demeanor was back to business. "Out of my sight, I don't wish to lay my eyes upon you ever again."
The odd reaction created a rainbow of emotions in their faces. While Gray and Erza wanted to protest, Natsu was not far from raining a mountain of insults at the man and Juvia just looked sad. Urania and Nathan smiled for the first time. They must have really hated their old life, if they would rather stay in a prison cell. Then again, if your life already was a prison what difference did it make? Although she despised the way they went about their life, Lucy could emphatize with the siblings.
Thinking back to her childhood in the Heartfilia mansion, she thought there wasn't that much of a difference between them.
After treating their own injuries, the group of wizards decided to stay the night in order to 'make sure the festival would go smoothly'. At least, that's what Lucy and Gray came up with to convince the warrior woman. It didn't take much effort and so the magicians were currently strolling along the colorfully illuminated streets. Stopping a few times, only to grab a snack or look for interesting items they could bring back to the guild as suvenirs. Erza was the only one missing, having to re-negotiate their reward with the major.
The festival was in full swing and the place was filled to the brim with people, happiness radiating from their faces. A grumbling sound came from his stomach. His hunger was burning holes into tummy and having food all around him didn't help. Natsu had to wait though until Erza got back with their reward.
It smelled of delicious food and spices, children dragged their parents towards booths and one could hear laughter coming from local pubs. Floating calmly, the glowing lacrima threw dancing lights around the streets and also on the face of a very angry celestial mage. A silky dark blue yukata that was covered in constellations flowed around Lucy's form like a waterfall as she tried to keep pace with her partner.
"Can you believe that guy, Natsu?"
He tried to stifle a laugh. All of her previous pity for that poor excuse of a father must have vanished into thin air after that particular conversation. Natsu watched as his partner stomp her feet on the ground, puffing her cheeks up in anger. Actually, the dragon slayer would have been fuming about it himself, if he didn't enjoy Lucy's expression that much.
"How could that old jerk just cut our reward in half? We did everything he asked from us," she grumbled and balled her hands into fists, before shaking them at the sky for some reason. Lucy always had awkward reactions like that. "How is it our fault that he can't control his children? Or that they had enough of being goody-goody and doing everything he wants them to?"
"Come on, Lucy, it's still 3.500.000 Jewel. That means everyone get about 700.000 Jewel," Gray reasoned with her, trying to lift the mood. The ice wizard lifted one of his hands to ruffle her hair, earning him a glare from Juvia. "That amount is still enough to pay your rent for a couple of months."
Natsu wasn't that bothered by his rival's friendly affection towards the blonde anymore. The epiphany during his fight with Verde gave him back the reign over his emotions, now that he knew where they were coming from and why. Natsu still wasn't sure whether he wanted Lucy to know about his feelings. But he'd have to tread carefully from now, if he ever wanted her to return them. Getting angry at Gray over a simple gesture and getting her angry at himself, wasn't worth it. He decided to trust her long ago, so he would.
"Gray-sama, Juvia wants comfort too!" Oh, but Juvia draping herself all over the ice wizard still helped a bit.
"Natsu ~ How much fish can we buy with that?" Happy flew around is head, eyes getting big and dreamy. "It'll be fish-wonderland."
Gray's calculation seemed to calm the blonde down considerably. Though Natsu knew she wouldn't stop complaining any time soon. That's just who she was. Huffing, Lucy crossed her arms. "It still doesn't make it right."
Suddenly, an ominous dark aura disturbed their friendly banter and the group turned towards the culprit. A demon, there were no other words to describe it. Scarlet hair waved dangerously around its head, eyes narrowing into slits as it searched for a speck of guilt in their faces. Natsu felt the sudden urge to grab Lucy and run very, very, very far away. He gulped when a glint of silver alerted him towards the dozen swords pointed at them from behind the demon.
They needed to escape now.
"3.500.000 Jewel, you say? 700.000 each? Are you really confident about your calculation?" Erza Scarlet pinned Gray down with her gaze, sporting an eery grin on her face. Holy crap! And the pink-haired man thought she was scary when she wasn't laughing. His eye started to twitch nervously and he wasn't the only one. "Lucy, why don't you do me the favor and read this out for everyone."
"Me?! A-alright," Lucy squeaked, but accepted the paper that was thrust in her direction. "Dear wizards of Fairy Tail, a-although the city of Hosenka d-deeply expresses their gratitude t-towards Fairy Tail, we m-must charge t-them for the damaged property resulting from their involvement."
Oh, crap and he thought they could avoid that topic. Leave it to Erza to ruin the festival.
"The accumulated amout is 3.496.700 Jewel for destroying the following property; the local library which contained ancient books, parts of the historic underground city, a hotel room and some pillars in the hotel lobby. We also received several complains from shop vendors, a cake store and locals about your general behavior. Moreover, some lend books still haven't been returned to our library. We will subtract the amount from you pay-check. Yours faithfully, John Dawn Substitute Mayor of Hosenka."
Crickets chirped. Natsu scratched his head in embarrassment when his growling tummy cut the silence. "Uuh ... is it bad?"
"Stupid, of course it's bad!" Lucy yelled and whacked his head. A thought must have entered her mind because she suddenly started counting something on her fingers. Then the blonde woman sighed in defeat, probably cursing that substitute mayor. "That would leave us with only 3.300 Jewel, meaning 550 Jewel per person. That's not even enough to feed your bottomless pit, Natsu."
"Exactly, I can't even afford a piece of strawberry cake," Erza snapped and Natsu had almost forgotten that she was still there. Women were scary. Seriously. And if you ignore them when they're angry, they get even more frightening. Knowing what was about to come – who wouldn't if a dozen swords were pointed at you – he decided to act upon his urges and run. Natsu briefly looked at Gray and a silent understanding passed between them. Everybody for themselves.
The pink-haired man grabbed the soft hand of his partner and bolted in a random direction, his wide black jacket billowing behind him. Surprised at the sudden movement, Lucy stumbled a few times before falling into pace with him. Involuntarily, a huge grin spread across his face. This was fun. It reminded him of the time he first met Lucy in Hargeon. Natsu also liked the feeling of their hands together, it was strangely soothing. Gray and Juvia probably headed in the opposite direction. Happy used his wings to fly away.
After an hour of playing cat and mouse, they were finally able to shake the demon off their trail. Breathing heavily, Natsu took in their surroundings and noticed that they had somehow ended up in the forest. One could still see the city in the distance and hear the noise, but it was a lot less stuffy. Thankfully. His nose could only take so much of that spicy smell. The dragon slayer took a deep breath and gasped when the familiar scent of lemon tea and books reached his nostrils.
He was alone with Lucy.
"Oh my god, I thought you would never stop running." She sent a half-hearted glare his way and dusted some invisible dust from her silky yukata. The moon bathed her figure in silvery light, making her features all the more soft and inviting. A warm night breeze brushed against her hair and swept a bout of alluring aroma towards him. Natsu caught himself openly staring at her, but hoped that she wouldn't notice. Her uncomfortable shifting told him otherwise.
"N-Natsu? I think we need to talk," she said softly and took a step towards him. Immediately his heart rate increased. "About … you know ..."
Er … should he? Lucy was in a weird mood again. Natsu hated when she was so cautious around him. He knew that look in her eyes … something was definitely up.
She stared at his profile, debating whether or not to say the words that she carefully prepared in her mind. Somehow it seemed easier when you imagine the conversation in your head, but only because you can decide the outcome. Her stories were also easier to handle because she could control her characters, solve the conflict and create a perfect happy-end.
However, the concept didn't apply to reality.
Why did he act so different around her? Why did his fuse seem to get shorter every day? Why was he suddenly so over-protective? Was he jealous of Verde and Gray? It was possible. Why did he always touch her? Why did he say all those sweet things to her? Why did he always save her? Why did he care so much? It could also just be friendship, right?
"N-Natsu? I think we need to talk about … you know ..." Dammit, stuttering didn't help her cause at all.
Now that Lucy had time to think about her feelings, she found that she had reached her limit. Being incredibly stubborn didn't help her cause. Feelings are not something you should bottle up inside forever and ever, it won't solve your issues. The blonde woman was determined to get some answers out of the dragon slayer. Rest in pieces pride, her mind was already made up. If Lucy couldn't prove how wrong the horoscope is, she would prove just the opposite.
If you are able to pass the emotional roller coaster, you will float on cloud nine with your one true love!
The only part that didn't come true … yet. Lucy saw his clenched first which were an obvious sign that he was still bothered by something, if you couldn't tell by the heat his body was radiating. No, she wouldn't back off now. It was supposed to be her lucky day, right?
"What's wrong, Natsu. You've been acting weird for a while now. I'm tired of hearing excuses. I'm your best friend, right? You can tell me what's bothering you!"
Lucy was stubborn and just because he decided to play mute didn't mean she would give up. She laid a hand on his arm to let him know that she was there for him; she just wanted an explanation that's all.
"Nothing is wrong. Why would you think something is wrong?" Lucy didn't know whether it was genuine confusion or if he was just acting the part. But fine, if he insisted on being difficult, two could play that game.
"Okay, then let me give you some ideas. Usually, you don't care who I share a room with or if someone flirts with me," Lucy challenged and raised an eyebrow. When Natsu turned towards her to meet her eyes, she saw the flicker of realization and something else in his. Still, his lips stayed glued together. The dragon slayer made a face as if she was torturing him. Her heart sunk and her voice grew quiet, "I don't think we've ever had so many fights with each other in just one week."
"Lucy ..." Natsu's eyes were wide as he lifted his arms almost pleadingly. He took a deep breath to steady himself. "I … I didn't know why back then, but I had these weird feelings and I didn't know how to handle them. Then you became angry at how I was acting and it scared me because I thought you wouldn't want to spend time with me anymore. I was afraid that you were gonna leave me."
Weird feelings? The truth was a real shell-shocker and probably hard to admit for him. Lucy was glad that he finally answered her, but her shock was soon gone and replaced by disappointment.
"You idiot, why would I ever want to leave you? I would never do that," she countered angrily. Really, the girl was livid by now. She didn't even care anymore. Her honor as partner was at stake. "We're partners and we've always been together. Don't you trust me?"
"Of course I do! I just didn't trust myself," Natsu growled back. "When you picked a room with Gray over me and when that seaweed head kidnapped you he –"
"So you were jealous!" Lucy yelled, not knowing if she should be happy or angry. Bulls-eye. It effectively turned him into a stone statue. Something clicked in Lucy's mind, the pieces of the puzzle finally clicked together. For the first time, everything made sense. She had a hard time believing it though. "Really? You were jealous?"
"Shut up, noisy weirdo!" Natsu chose to stare at anything but her, a pink tint covering his cheeks. It was no where close to a confession and she wouldn't let him off that easily. Both of them may be new to romance, but she wanted clarity.
"You shut up, stupid dragon!"
Natsu rolled his eyes and frowned. "What else do you want from me?"
"You don't have any reason to be jealous because I like you!" Lucy almost screamed it at him, otherwise her bravery might have left her completely. He just blinked dumbly at her, confusion and shock written all over his face.
Great, now she felt like slapping herself. Her waterworks had a rough time ahead. Maybe Virgo could dig her a hole to hide in. Or even better, she'd call Aquarius to drown herself. The blonde woman's only sliver of hope was to learn some memory deleting magic and erase those three words from Natsu's mind. Permanently.
Unconsciously, both of them had moved closer to each other during their argument. Just now, Lucy noticed that they were in breathing distance. When she wanted to step back though, two warm arms had already trapped her.
Natsu stared seriously into her warm brown eyes, but strangely his surprise did not ebb away. Instead, he realized that no matter how hard he tried, he'd always be stunned into amazement by this stupidly beautiful woman. Even though he had only put a name to his feelings yesterday, Natsu had felt this way for a long time. It just completely eluded him that she felt the same. He was the luckiest man alive.
"You could've said so earlier."
Determined, Natsu pushed her against a nearby oak tree and crushed his lips to her soft ones. She tasted like sunshine, lime and mint, it left him craving more of her. His chest was pressed tightly against hers – not allowing any space between them.
When the wheels in her head started to turn again, Lucy felt a kind of joy that overshadowed every other emotion. She leant into the kiss, wishing she could always stay like this.
Her breath was stuck in her throat when a low growl rumbled through his chest, making it vibrate against her soft skin. His warm fingertips trailed up her tights, gripping them tightly when he pushed her further up the tree trunk. Natsu had always learned things based on instinct and right now, Lucy knew his emotions were guiding his actions. It sent chills down her spine because his hands ignited a fire; every little cell in her body was burning with anticipation. She felt like exploding from the twirling emotions that raged inside of her body and it made her want more of him.
Love. It was the best feeling in the world.
Slowly, she opened her eyes half-way only to meet his scorching onyx stare that was coated with desire. She had never imagined her innocent almost child-like Natsu could look this passionate when he was not in a battle. His ragged breath blew across her face and she inhaled his masculine scent like a drug addict while planting quick kisses along his jar. Lucy already felt addicted to his touch, his every movement and most certainly him.
"I love you, Lucy."
Then his lips met hers again with the passion of a raging fire and she returned the favor eagerly. Feverishly, one of his hands hands trailed around her back in need to feel more of her skin, but he controlled himself as to not undress her in a cold forest. He didn't want to make her sick.
Her own hands entangled themselves in his ridiculously pink hair to pull him even closer to her. A soft moan escaped her lips and it made him smirk into their kiss, before she could break apart due to the lack of oxygen. A short trail of saliva connected them as their ragged breaths broke the silence. However, Natsu only allowed her to rest for a few seconds before his lips were moving against hers again, this time they deepened the kiss.
Lucky Day: Sunday.
Lucky day? Heck yeah it was! That creepy horoscope had her worried over nothing. It was Natsu. It had been him all this time. How could she have been this blind? Lucy admitted, she had been scared out of her mind to loose their friendship in case she ever confessed her feelings. Still, she should have known that nothing could get between them. She realized through Natsu's earlier words that he had held the same kind of fear for a long time. Lucy resolved to quell his fears as soon as possible.
With a happy smile on her slightly swollen lips, she slowly pulled her head back to get a good look at his face. Natsu threw her a puzzled look when she brought both of her hands to frame his face.
"I love you, too."
The brilliant grin she received in return could possibly cure any disease in the world, it was just that bright. If this is what it felt like to float on cloud nine, she'd never want it to stop ever.
To Be Continued