AN: Last NaLu chapter for this story (can you tell it's moving towards its conclusion?) Read at own risk and pleasure!
Disclaimer: I do not own Fairy Tail or its characters – Hiro Mashima does.
She'd almost forgotten how large her father's estate was.
Gloved hands tightening in the fabric of her skirt – long-hemmed, for the occasion – Lucy drew a deep breath, brows furrowing as she took in the sloping road leading from the black iron gates, across the park-like expanse of the front gardens and to the manse itself. Her father's house. It had ceased to be hers the day her mother had died and taken the life of the place with her. Ever since, Jude Heartfilia had retreated to his study and had spent more hours inside it than anywhere else in the years that had followed. The only time he'd seemed to have time for Lucy had been to present another suitor, and as that venture had torn a rift between them, growing with every following attempt at marrying her off, Lucy had few fond memories of her father after her mother's passing.
Sighing, her fingers slowly relaxed their tight grip on her skirt, and her shoulders slumped a little as she considered the prospect before her.
"D'ya need an invitation to go in?"
Lifting her gaze, Lucy felt a smile tug at her lips at Natsu's blunt question. Hands stuffed into his pockets and gaze raised to take in the sprawling park before them, he looked a little impressed at the sight. She laughed, but her heart wasn't in it. "No, but a little courage would be nice."
His gaze snapped back to her, and he tilted his head, brows furrowing in a frown. "You scared?"
She pursed her lips. "Not quite. More...nervous, I guess. I did run away." Of course, her father had known all along where she'd been, but the point was that she'd made the choice to leave. That alone should have infuriated him, so she'd been surprised when she'd received only a summons to see him. She'd feared he'd resort to some drastic measure, after his failed attempt at collecting her earlier.
Of course, she wasn't thick; she knew what it meant. He wanted her in a good mood; to come of her own free will. He couldn't force her to marry, and forcing her to come home wouldn't have done him any favours. By letting her choose to come and see him, he no doubt assumed she would be more than willing to accept whatever proposal he had waiting for her.
"What's eatin' ya, Luce?"
She shook her head. "I think I know what he wants to talk about, and it's not exactly something I look forward to."
Natsu was silent a moment. "Marriage, yeah?"
She nodded, and breathed, "Yeah."
"Then say you don't wanna get married."
She sighed. "It's not that simple, Natsu."
"Sounds simple to me. D'ya want to get married?"
"N-yes. I mean no. Not right now. Or, not to whoever he's chosen for me. I want to choose who I marry, but it's not really a privilege I have at the moment," she murmured the last part.
The oddly serious quality to his voice had her turn towards him, and she met his gaze. "Look at it this way. If I refuse, he might disown me, and then what do I have? How many men would marry a woman who has nothing?"
His brows quirked in a disbelieving look. "So your Pa's money is all there is to you?"
Lucy smiled wryly. "From the perspective of most young and eligible suitors – yes." Not even the fact that she was pretty would help her if her father cast her off; she'd be alone, and with no prospects at all. No reputation, no name. Nothing.
"Well to hell with 'em," Natsu said with a snort. "Why would you want to marry someone like that anyway?"
"I'm the only heir to my father's name," she said with a shrug. "He needs someone to take over the company when the time comes, and it's my job to make sure he has a male heir to do that."
"It's how things work in my world," she retorted. "I don't want to marry some rich sugar daddy, but I might have to. What else would I do?"
"Don't you want to write?"
She laughed, looking up at him incredulously. "Yeah, but that's...that's just a dream."
"So, I...I can't bet everything I have on something like that. My future...it's too big a gamble." She shook her head. "I don't have that many options, but I have a responsibility to my father. And until I meet someone who wants to marry me for something other than the money, I'm going to have to settle with what I've got." And right now, what she had was her father; his money, his name, and his company. It was more than anyone could wish for, and she knew she should be pleased with her lot in life, not miserable. Not when she wasn't living on the streets with barely a penny in her purse. She had, in essence, everything she could wish for.
The only thing that remained was for her to convince herself of that.
With a deep breath, Lucy squared her shoulders, and before she could lose her courage, took the first step forward through the iron archway and onto the ground of the Heartfilia estate. She sensed more than saw Natsu stiffen behind her, but before he could speak, she turned towards him. "Please wait here. I'm safe as long as I'm within the grounds, and I won't be long." She hesitated. "And...and if I have to stay, I'll come and let you know."
"You're not staying–"
"I won't know for sure yet," she cut him off, voice resolute. "Please, Natsu."
He crossed his arms over his chest, and looked entirely displeased with the prospect. She gave him a challenging look, daring him to move, but at the same time trying desperately to convey the importance of her plea for him to stay behind. She didn't know what her father would do if she showed up with a liquor smuggler at her heels, claiming to be her escort.
She breathed a sigh of relief when he didn't argue further. Shuffling over to the brick wall running around the property, he leaned against it, hands stuffed deep into the pockets of his trousers and with a petulant yet determined look on his face. "I'll be here if you need me."
Lucy smiled. "Thank you, Natsu."
He said nothing to that, and she turned back, fingers once again gripping her skirt to lift the hem out of the dirt. She'd become so used to short hemlines lately, it felt almost foreign, dressed as she was. It almost felt like she was stepping back in time – not just to another life, but to another world.
The road to the manse seemed longer than she remembered, yet part of her wished she never had to reach the front door and what awaited her behind it. As she came closer, she could spot the car parked outside, and the driver washing it with the same rigorous attentiveness she remembered from the day she had left. Some of the windows on the upper floor were open to let fresh air inside, and in the gardens one of the maids was busy beating one of the dining room carpets.
"Miss Lucy! Oh, it's Miss Lucy come home at last!"
The shout came from one of the upper-story windows, and Lucy waved up at the maid, a small smile tugging at her lips. All at once, several heads appeared in the row of open windows, and even some of the windows on the first floor were opened to reveal eager faces and searching eyes, and a murmur of voices drifted out as the news of her arrival spread throughout the house.
"Welcome home, Miss!"
"Miss Lucy is back! Go tell the Master!"
Stepping up to the main entrance, Lucy shielded her eyes from the sun, smiling at the housekeeper and valet as they came, almost stumbling outside in their eagerness. If she had missed anything about her old life, it had to be the staff.
She was glad when they didn't question where she'd been – she figured her father must have told them, at some point. Without much ado, the housekeeper ushered her towards the house. "Are you hungry, Miss? Or would you like something to drink?"
"Ah, no, that's fine. I'm just here to meet Father."
The older woman snorted. "Well, you father can wait until you've had a rest. Have you walked all this way?"
"Yes, but there's no need to–"
"Fix her something to eat! Something light, yes?" the housekeeper spoke to one of the maids, who nodded.
"Wait!" Lucy spoke up then, as an idea struck her. Smiling at the startled maid, she nodded to the direction she'd come from. "Could you please bring something to the man at the gate? I told him to wait for me, and I don't know how long I'll be."
If the housekeeper was surprised at the news of a strange man loitering at the gates, she didn't show it, but nodded to the maid. "See that it is done." Turning back to Lucy, she gave her a once-over. "You look good, Miss. Fresh faced and well fed. You father will be pleased to know."
Lucy pursed her lips, but nodded. "I should see him straight away," she pressed. As much as she'd like to sit down with some of the staff, there were more important things on her mind.
The housekeeper sighed. "Well, there's no helping it, I suppose. Got that stubborn streak from the late Missus, you did. In you go then, but I'll have something made for when you're done. Lord knows you'll need it." The last part was muttered, and not meant for her ears, but Lucy caught it, and had to bite down on her lip to hide her smile.
Gathering her skirts, she made her way inside, moving up the winding staircase and down the hallways with practised ease. Nothing had changed in the months she'd been gone, but then that didn't really surprise her. Her father hadn't had anything changed since her mother had died, after all. If he ever did change something, even if it was only a carpet, she'd be worried something was wrong.
Finally arriving at the dark wooden door to Jude's study, Lucy drew a deep breath, before lifting a loosely fisted hand and knocking three times. "Father, it's me," she called.
Drawing a deep breath, she nodded to herself, before pushing the door open and making her way inside.
It was now or never.
Warm sunlight streamed in from the large windows at the far end of the room overlooking the back gardens, and Lucy blinked against the glare, stepping tentatively towards the large desk and the man seated behind it. Upon her entrance, Jude Heartfilia looked up from his papers.
He was silent a moment. "You look well."
She breathed. "Thank you. I–"
"Are you done?"
Her mouth snapped shut, and she frowned. "What?"
He raised a brow. "This rebellion of yours. Are you done? Will you come home at last?"
She felt a spark of anger flare up within her, and steeled herself. "It's not a rebellion, Father. It's my life. I–"
"Your life is here, Lucy, not with those people. I would have thought you'd realized that by now."
"Are bootleggers. Smugglers. Mob affiliates. Criminals. Amongst none of which a young woman of your reputation has any business spending her time," he cut her off, tone sharp as he regarded her from below furrowed, blonde brows.
Jude leaned back in his chair. "You know why you are here," he said. There was no question, no beating around the bush, avoiding the subject at hand. Not that she'd expected anything less.
Lucy nodded. "Yes."
"He is a good man. Just a few years older than you. Nouveau riche, regrettably, but he comes from a good family nonetheless, and the company thrives. You could have had better, but one cannot pick and choose when the prime opportunities have passed." He met her gaze squarely, and Lucy flushed, knowing he was referring to the suitors she had refused.
She said nothing for a moment, and bit down on her lip. "And if I won't accept it?" she asked, after a lull.
Jude sighed. "Then someone else will step up. Many girls would give close to anything to be in your position."
"They're more than welcome," Lucy muttered.
"They will be, if you are foolish." Her father leaned forward onto his elbows. "What other option do you have? I offer you stability; a secure future. Wealth."
She threw her hands up. "I don't want wealth!"
He scoffed. "You speak out of ignorance. You have never once lived without it. You think living under Makarov's roof has taught you anything about the world? He is one of the wealthiest men in the city, and from the look of you, you have benefited greatly from his fortune."
Lucy seethed, but she couldn't retaliate. What he said was true, after all, no matter how much it hurt her pride to admit it.
"What would you do on your own?" he continued. Not because he was curious, she knew, but because he was making a point. "You have no job, no experience. You are a woman. Your name would mean nothing without a husband."
Lucy bristled. "I would make it work."
She hesitated. "I...I would write."
He didn't scoff, but instead he sighed, and rubbed his forehead with his palm. "Lucy..."
"I'd find a publisher. I'd make it work."
Jude shook his head. "On your own, the effort would be futile. You are a woman–"
"And so I should just marry then? Because it will solve everything, even my sex?"
Whatever she'd been about to say fell away from her mind, and she closed her mouth with an audible snap. "It's not that simple."
Her father shrugged. "It is what you make it. He is a good match; by marrying him you will secure your future. You may even write, and his name might be of use to you in your endeavours."
"I don't want to be published because of his name–"
"This is no fairy tale, Lucy!" Jude snapped, and she clamped her mouth shut. "And you are not a girl anymore. You are a grown woman, moving past your prime. You will marry. I have chosen a suitable husband for you, and you will at the very least meet him before you make your choice."
She huffed, but said nothing to that. She wished she could make a good case for herself, but the more she tried to formulate her words, the more she seemed to sound like a rebellious adolescent. And it wasn't helping that her father had a point. No matter how much she didn't want to get married, the fact still remained that she couldn't live off her father for the rest of her life, or Makarov.
"Very well," she said finally, and her father visibly relaxed. "I'll meet with him, and–"
She hadn't had the chance to finish her sentence when the door to the study burst open, startling her out of her shoes, and she spun around, only to see Natsu barging in. Flashing her a grin, he ignored the indignant protests of the valet as he tried to restrain him.
"That's not gonna be necessary," he declared as he came to stand beside her.
"Mr. Heartfilia, I couldn't stop him! He just showed up outside asking for the young Miss, and before I could get my wits about me he was already inside the house and–" the valet seemed about to explode, he was so red-faced, presumably from running after Natsu. But Jude didn't even seem to see him, his attention captured by the rose-haired man who'd barged into his study like he owned the place.
"What are you doing in here?" Lucy hissed, panic rising in her at the unabashed grin on his face.
"What is the meaning of this?" Jude asked. "Who are you?"
Lifting one hand from his pocket, Natsu tilted his sixpence in greeting. "Name's Natsu. And I said yer matchmaking won't be necessary, 'cause she's not going to marry that guy."
He grinned then, teeth flashing, and the next words out of his mouth almost had Lucy choking on her own tongue.
"She's marrying me."
"Oye, Luce! Wait up!"
Ignoring his calls, Lucy stomped her way down the pavement with as much inelegance as she could muster, hands white-knuckled against her frock as she cut across the road without even looking out for passing vehicles.
She heard him catch up – knew he would, sooner or later – but just as his fingers brushed the thin fabric of the blouse covering her elbow, she whirled around, making him take a startled step back at the fury flashing in her eyes. "No! Don't you 'Luce' me, you–you...ooooh!" she fisted her hands, and whirled back around, storming away down the street towards the river. She'd managed to get away from the outskirts of Magnolia and well into the inner city before he'd caught up with her; the fact meant he'd stayed back to speak with her father, and just the thought had horrified embarrassment well up within her. She didn't need him to defend her, and least of all from her own father!
The river gleamed invitingly in the distance between the redbrick houses, and she made towards it. But she'd taken only a few steps before he was at her elbow again, and this time he threw himself in front of her path, effectively blocking her way, and she almost collided with his chest in her haste to push forward.
Grabbing hold of her shoulders, Natsu steadied her, meeting her unwilling gaze with his own as she glared at him. "Let me go–"
"You didn't say no."
She startled, and then her brows furrowed. "That's not the point! The point–"
"You didn't say no," he repeated, a grin tugging at his lips. "You still haven't said no."
She seethed, and her shoulders shook. "Why?" she snapped. "Why would you put me in that situation?"
"Because I didn't want to lose you."
The next word on the way off her tongue was swallowed before she could speak it, and she stared at him incredulously. "So you want me to marry you because you don't want me to go away? Is that all?"
He snorted. "No. What are ya, thick? I want to marry ya because you're you."
She looked at him, disbelieving, and shook her head. "But...no. No. You are not allowed to say that!" She threw a hand in the direction of her father's house. "He wants me to marry, Natsu. Someone he's picked. He'll never accept it, even if I said yes."
"You haven't said no."
"Not the point!"
He grinned. "And yer old man's already accepted it, so what are ya complaining about?"
Natsu shrugged. "I asked him after you left, and he said it was okay."
She blinked rapidly. "Huh? No. No, that's not possible. You're–"
"My dad used ta be a big business guy before he left," Natsu said with another shrug, rubbing the back of his neck, as though the subject was an uncomfortable one. "Uh, he left me money. I don't know exactly how much – the geezer knows; he's taking care of it for me – but when your old man asked and I said Pops' name he seemed pretty pleased about it. Said it was more than okay." He shrugged again, for good measure.
Lucy was still gaping at him, unable to believe what she was hearing. "W-What are you saying?"
His grin was mischievous, and he raised a mocking brow. "Don't tell me you're gonna accept now that you know I've got rubes, Luce."
"I haven't accepted anything!"
"You still haven't said no."
"Damn it, Natsu!" she made a swipe after him, but he ducked away from her, laughing, one hand on his head to keep his sixpence in place. Her face was flushed with anger and her heart was hammering in her chest, and when he was looking at her like that...
"You're not serious."
He raised a brow. "What?"
She squared her shoulders. "You're not serious. You like me? Fine, but do you like me enough to spend the rest of your life with me? Do you even know what it would mean, getting married?"
He grinned. "Yeah."
He frowned. "Why're you arguing when I'm telling you I know what it means?"
She felt like tearing at her hair. "It's not that simple! You can't just decide–"
"You were about to accept a guy you've never met, because that's what your old man wanted."
Her mouth snapped shut, and then she opened it again, "Yes, but that's different."
He crossed his arms over his chest. "How?"
"That's...I had...I don't need to explain myself to you!" Her fingers twitched against her sides, and she picked up her frock as she started walking again, moving towards the river.
"You didn't want to."
"No, but that's–"
"What do ya want, Luce?"
She stopped at that; the words seeming to strike her as a physical blow, and she halted on the pavement. In front of her the glittering expanse of the river gleamed in the light of the setting sun. There were only a few people about and some of them spared curious glances at the scene she was making, but she found that she didn't really care anymore if she embarrassed herself publicly.
What did she want? No one had ever asked her that before, at least not in the way Natsu just had. Like she had a choice in the matter. Like she could have her way if she wanted to.
She felt him step up beside her, hands still stuffed in his pockets. She didn't remove her eyes from the glittering surface of the water, but she could feel his gaze on her, and ducked her head, her hair falling into her face. "I can't answer that," she said finally.
She shook her head. "I don't have the privilege to choose, Natsu. That's not how it works. You can't just come in and try to change everything. Just because you think you know what you want–"
"I know what I want," he said. "I'm asking you what you want."
She looked up at that, meeting his honest gaze, and the words stumbled off her tongue before she could stop them. "Freedom. I...I want freedom." And all at once, it was like a lock had come loose somewhere within her, and suddenly she found herself speaking her mind; the thoughts she had kept to herself so long because they had been such foolish fancies spilling out before she could stop them. "I want to write, and live the way I wish. I don't want to be a pretty prize on someone's arm, or a housewife cooking meals at home. I...I want to be me. Wholly me, and I...I want someone who wants me despite that. Someone who wants me for me."
Her cheeks flushed at her selfish admission, and she looked away, embarrassed at her own audacity, even to someone as free with their thoughts as the man before her.
She frowned, and looked up, a reprimand at the tip of her tongue for his confusing behaviour – as well as his cheek earlier by proposing in front of her father – but any coherent thoughts she might have entertained left her mind completely when his hand came up to catch her chin between a pair of rough fingers, and before she could react properly he'd leaned down and kissed her.
Warmth shot from her toes and up her spine as he pressed his mouth against hers, and she drew in a startled breath, eyes flying wide at the not just obvious breach of propriety, but in public, no less!
But her anger was draining away, and her white-knuckled grip on her frock loosened as he tugged her closer. Pressing a hand against his chest to steady herself, she was at once very aware of how warm he was, despite the slight chill in the air.
She'd been on the verge of completely giving in when he pulled back suddenly, and her eyes fluttered open to meet his. He grinned.
"D'ya really think I'd want to marry you if you weren't you, Luce?"
She opened her mouth, then closed it, and licked her lips nervously. "I don't..."
Natsu grinned, and his fingers released her chin, tucking a strand of golden hair behind her ear before letting his hand drop to catch hers where it hung limply against her side. He tilted his head. "So whaddaya say, Luce?" he asked, teeth flashing in another grin.
It wasn't anything like she'd imagined it would be. Then again, she'd imagined something quite different. It would have been like earlier, with her father alerting her of a suitor, and then listing the qualities of the man he'd chosen whose name and inheritance would greatly benefit the future of the Heartfilia name and legacy. She'd tentatively accept, and somewhere in the weeks following find herself married to a husband she'd just met, who had eyes for the stock exchange rather than her, and who'd soon tire and find himself a mistress to entertain him when Lucy eventually lost her charm.
She'd never imagined actually hearing the question asked, for her to choose as she pleased, let alone from someone like the man before her. Someone she'd come to trust with not just her life, but her innermost fears and dreams. And none of it had pushed him away. He hadn't had to follow her into her father's study; hadn't had to ask her to marry him. He could have left her to her fate and they would have gone their separate ways.
But he hadn't.
Natsu titled his head to the side, and his smile was mischievous. "You still haven't said no," he observed.
And Lucy couldn't have kept the smile off her face if she'd tried.
"No," she said, her grin widening. "I haven't."
He raised his brows – the question apparent, and she laughed. Hand curling around one of his suspenders, Lucy raised a challenging brow in turn as she tugged him down. "Are you really aware of what you're asking?"
He grinned, his mouth a breath away from hers. "Ya still think I'm not?"
"Could've fooled me."
He laughed, and she felt it reverberate through his chest where she gripped his shirt and suspender. "You're an oddball, Luce," he declared.
She smiled. "You still want to marry me." It wasn't a question this time.
The grin on his face told her he'd caught on. "Yup!"
Still smiling, Lucy rose to her toes, pressing her lips against his, and this time he caught her around the waist, hoisting her up and spinning her in a circle. She yelped and shrieked, but it dissolved into laughter as she steadied herself, gripping his shoulders as she broke the kiss. "Easy, you lollygagger! You'd give a girl a heart-attack with less!"
"Still waiting for an answer, Luce," he said, grinning up at her from where he had her in his grip, and Lucy was aware of the people who'd stopped to look. She smoothed her hands against his shirt.
"You said you were rich, right?"
She laughed, and poked a gloved finger against his forehead. "Don't think you're off the hook for what you pulled earlier," she warned him.
He shrugged. "I don't regret it."
Her eyes softened, and a small smile tugged on her lips. "No. You wouldn't, would you?"
His hands loosened around her as he set her down on her feet, but he didn't release her completely, and she couldn't be bothered at the curious murmurs from around them anymore. "So?" he asked. "You ever going to answer?" The sun caught in his hair, making the rosy colour flare like white-hot flames, and Lucy pressed her palm flat against his chest, smiling up at him.
"Yes. I'll marry you, you oddball," she said, her grin turning mischievous, and she saw his brows furrow at the look on her face, but he didn't have a chance to question what she was planning before she'd taken a step forward, hand splayed flat against the middle of his chest. "But if I'm marrying you, I want us to be on equal ground. So let's get even, first, hmm?"
He blinked. "Even? What–"
Before he could finish his sentence, Lucy shifted her weight, shoving with all the strength she had...
...and stepped back as Natsu toppled backwards, shouting and flailing into the watery embrace of the Magnolia River.
"Mr. Heartfilia, what...what just happened?"
Jude Heartfilia did not raise his eyes from the papers on the desk in front of him. "My daughter is getting married. Did you not hear?" He didn't need to look up to know there was an expression of disbelief on his valet's face.
"But–but Sir. The young man– that rascal–"
"Is to be my future son-in-law. Now, unless you have more pressing issues to attend to, I'd like my tea in the garden today."
"Y-yes, Sir. Quite alright, Sir. I'll...I'll go let the cook know."
The shuffle of feet and the closing of the open door followed, before he was left to himself, and only when the door had fully closed did Jude lift his gaze from the document before him. Releasing a deep sigh, he felt a smile tug at his lips, and shook his head with a brusque laugh. Shifting his gaze to the old photograph sitting at the very edge of his desk, he brushed the thin layer of dust from the frame. Next to the well-preserved portraits of his late wife and his daughter, the picture looked old. And it was – it had been with him nearly two decades, and had not always been in a frame. But despite the evidence of folding and general wear and tear, the smiling faces of the two young men in the picture were as bright as the day the photograph had been taken. And though black-and-white, he could conjure the memory of his old friend's flaming red hair without much effort. He laughed softly.
"My, my, Igneel old boy. Who could have imagined this?"
AN: And we come full circle with these two! They've been such a joy to write, and I'm glad so many of you have enjoyed these small, easygoing interludes to the main plot. And if you're confused about Natsu's past, in this AU Natsu refers to his dad as having "left" in order to avoid saying that he "died", because that's how he's always coped with it. After Igneel's death, Natsu ran away and ended up on the streets, and having known Igneel well, Makarov set about looking for his son. After searching for years, he finally found him, and that's where he's been ever since. Natsu's also grown so used to being a street-rat that that's what he considers himself, which is why people don't know he's actually an heir.
Next: All is not what it seems, and Levy finds out the hard way.
lollygagger: person who enjoys making out