No Better Place

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Chapter 1

(in which Lucy cannot manage her budget, Mirajane experiments, and Gajeel doesn't even have to be present to make an impression)

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Sunlight was streaming through the open window. A gentle breeze was billowing the curtains. The birds were chirping happily in the nearby tree, and right under the same tree two stray dogs were doing something that no decent person would ever care to mention in a polite conversation.

Lucy Heartfilia was sitting on the edge of her bed, thinking gloomy thoughts and being angry at herself for doing that at the same time.

Rent money was – as usually – one of her problems. In her mind, Lucy visualized it as a great big boot ready to kick her out of her cozy little nest the moment she turned out to be unable to provide enough jewels. Every month she brought the necessary amount and sacrificed it to appease the monster, but it was insatiable and would come back for more in no time at all.

She wondered if one day she would finally be able to save enough to actually buy a house. She used to think so, back when she had only just arrived in Magnolia and become a member of Fairy Tail, but she knew better now. The way it was going, her jobs would never really be profitable. If anything, she'd end up so poor one day, that she'd be forced to ask Makarov if she could please have the permission to put a mattress in the corner of the bar and sleep there.

Maybe if she became a famous writer... or at least finished at least one of her novels-in-the-making. Somehow she never managed that.

Lucy sighed, staring down at her feet. She was wearing new shoes – one of the reasons she found herself short of money earlier than expected. Nevertheless, no one in their right mind could deny those shoes were awesome and absolutely worth it. They were red, for one thing. And sparkly. Sparkly was very important.

She would just have to pick another job as soon as possible. Today would be good. Well, yesterday might have been even better, but it was already too late to dwell on that. Natsu was probably at the Guild already, loitering around the bar and getting into fights and arguments, so there was no point in waiting.

Of course, that brought her back to the other problem. The one that was truly important at the moment – more so than the shoes, and the rent, and her apparent writer's block.

It was Natsu's oncoming birthday.

There were only four days left.

-/-

Their beloved bar was half-empty, and – for better or for worse – completely devoid of Natsu. Now that Lucy really came to think of it, she was not all that surprised. The clock had barely struck midday and the weather was so hot and stuffy that even those who were not away on an assignment of some sort must have decided there were better places to go to. Frankly speaking, they couldn't be more right about it.

Where would she chose to go if she didn't have any pressing matters to attend to?

A picnic, maybe. Or the lake. Or even Hargeon – why not go to the seaside if you were between jobs? Lucy used to live in Hargeon so she knew that entertainment options were more than just abundant there. And as far as the booze was concerned –

"Something on your mind today, Lucy?"

"Eh?" She blinked and was a little embarrassed to find Mirajane looking at her with a mix of amusement and worry. "No-o... I was just wondering where Natsu might be, you know. Actually, do you by any chance know?"

"I sure do." Mirajane always knew everything. One couldn't very well become the center of all gossip in the Guild without an ability to absorb all sorts of information. "He went fishing."

"Fishing?"

"He promised Happy he'd take him to the lake and get the biggest fish for him." Mirajane put a generous amount of mint syrup into the glass she was holding in her right hand and sniffed suspiciously. "Ah well, that's just about right... He'll be back by the evening, I'd wager," she added, smiling, as her eyes met Lucy's. "Were you thinking of taking a job?"

"Yeah. I'm kinda short of money again. You know – my rent."

"It's a bit like a really long-lasting curse, your rent." Seemingly out of nowhere, Mirajane produced a bottle of translucent golden-brown liquid. When she opened it, Lucy was very nearly knocked off her feet.

"Isn't that a little too strong?" she coughed, waving a shaky hand in front of her face.

"Not at all," said Mirajane cheerfully. She poured some of the treacherously gleaming substance into the glass and beamed. "Have you maybe considered moving into something smaller and cheaper though? And there's always the dorm, although it's a little expensive..."

A little expensive was putting it mildly.

"I have, but I just can't bring myself to do it. You know, when I came here, it was the first place I found and I loved it absolutely. I just knew I had to get it. It's perfect for me!" Seriously, why would she want to go somewhere else? If ever there was an apartment suited for the development of a young author, it was the one Lucy inhabited now. She was sure the environment played a key role in her growth as a future writer. Famous writer, hopefully.

"But you'd have more money left to spend on other stuff," chirped a happy voice from behind, and a second later Levy climbed up on a high stool and put her elbows on the counter. "Like clothes, and books and... are these new shoes, Lu?"

"Ohhh, they're red!" Mirajane exclaimed, leaning over to get a better look. "And sparkly, too."

"And expensive like hell, I bet!" another voice added as Cana materialized on Lucy's left, a very big, very empty mug clutched in her hand like a weapon. In fact, Lucy had seen Cana throw mugs and glasses at annoying people's heads, so the fantasy was not that far from the truth.

"So that's why you're in such a hurry to get a job." Mirajane nodded, an expression of ancient wisdom and enlightenment looking completely out of place superimposed on her doll-like features.

"Yeah, go figure." Cana shook the empty mug in the air menacingly. "Mira! What's that stuff you're making? Looks interesting. Gimme some."

"Sure thing!"

As the three of them watched Cana down the glass in one gulp – and a sight to behold that was indeed – an idea occurred to Lucy. There was nothing like asking her friends for advice, after all. One head could do some interesting thinking, certainly, but four heads were capable of coming up with awesome projects. They could all save her!

"Look, all of you," she said, straightening up in her excitement. Here was the chance to avoid the terrible feeling of ever-growing dread. "I've been pondering this for a while and I'm kinda lost. I thought maybe you could give me some tips."

"Ohh? Are you having a problem with a guy?" Mirajane's eyes turned dreamy, in a rather creepy way.

"And why didn't you tell us?" added Levy, indignated.

"Who's the poor sod? Do we know him?" Cana slammed the empty mug down on the counter. She truly was a no-nonsense woman.

Lucy rolled her eyes. "Of course, you all know him, it's Natsu, for goodness' sake. And not in the way you imagine it at all! It's his birthday!"

"What about it?"

"I have to get him a present, that's what!" Lucy wailed. "And I don't have a single decent idea! And I'm supposed to be his best friend!"

There was a long pause as they all contemplated the problem. Lucy's heart sank. She could practically see her hopes flying out of the window, not even bothering to wave her good-buy.

"Well..," Mirajane began hesitantly. "How about something romantic?"

"He's not my boyfriend."

"Not even a little bit?"

"No."

"Well, if you're so sure."

"Adamantly sure," Lucy said firmly. She sighed. "You know, who would've thought this would be so hard? But I just don't know, seriously. I considered a scarf – he's always wearing that scarf of his – but then I remembered that he's only wearing it because he got it from Igneel, so he doesn't need a new one from the shop. Now I'm lost. I'm screwed. I'm in need of help here!"

"Maybe a nice book?" suggested Levy who was of the opinion that books were the saving grace of the universe and still couldn't really wrap her head around the fact that the world was full of people who would fall asleep in the middle of the second page of a restaurant menu.

Cana snorted derisively. "Have you ever seen Natsu read anything? Apart from the job offers on the board."

"I have! A magazine, two years ago."

"That time? It wasn't about reading, the thing had pictures of naked women in it."

"It did not!" Mirajane's cheeks were flushed. She shook a finger under Cana's nose, looking rather hurt. "It was Sorcerer Magazine and those were my photos! I was wearing a bikini, for your information, so don't be so nasty about it!"

"I'm not being nasty, it was one hell of a great photoshoot. Like all the others, yeah."

"Okay, fine! Fine! It doesn't matter!" Lucy waved her hands frantically. The last thing she wanted was for them to get into a fight. She had more than her fair share of in-fighting whenever Natsu and Gray ended up in the room together for longer than five minutes. "Really, calm down! Natsu and books don't belong together anyway."

"I still think you could find one for him," said Levy dreamily. "Maybe something with pictures again... You love books, Lu, don't you! Shouldn't be a challenge then."

"I do." Lucy rolled her eyes. "But Natsu loves active lifestyle. Now that we're on the subject, do you give Gajeel books too? He doesn't exactly strike me as a reading sort of guy."

"Yeah, right, what did you get him for his birthday?" Cana was filling the mug with beer, a look of stony determination on her face.

"You did get him something, right?" Mirajane's eyes went wide with concern. "You're always so nice to each other..."

Levy puffed out her chest proudly. "A big bucket of iron nails and knives!"

For a moment, a very complicated silence hang in the air.

"A... what, exactly?" Lucy asked cautiously.

"Quit staring at me like I've grown a second head. He likes iron and always complains it's not good enough because people mix other things into it. He ate it all. He even said thanks!"

A mental image of Gajeel munching on rusty knives, spitting unsavory pieces out on the floor with his usual lack of finesse presented itself for Lucy's inspection. The worse part was that she suspected the reality had been exactly the same. Gajeel never cared enough to take his peculiar habits outside, provided people could survive watching him go at it, if only barely. If anything, he enjoyed provoking everyone around him, and if ever there was a doubt about it, his singing should definitely be considered the proof.

"That," Cana announced with feeling, "deserves a toast. More of that weird stuff, Mira!"

Lucy, still half-entranced by her own graphic imagination, came back to her senses and found out she was actually capable of speaking again.

"Wow." she said, in a weak voice. "But do you guys really think it's a good idea to set the town on fire for the sake of Natsu's birthday dinner? Just asking."


to be continued