Chapter 2

(in which Lucy's hospitality is tested, fish is involved, and Happy is not amused)

-/-

"Look at you," said Minerva of Sabertooth, her slanted dark eyes full of malicious triumph. "Aren't you pathetic? Where are your precious friends? Fairy Tail may let all sorts of useless trash join their ranks but in our Guild, you wouldn't last one day."

"I don't want to join your Guild!" Lucy glared up at Minerva, hoping she came off as brave but suspecting it wasn't really the case. "I wouldn't want to join you if you were the only Guild left in the world!"

She couldn't remember how she'd come to be here, alone against one of the strongest five mages of Sabertooth, that heartless woman who treated everyone as if they were pawns meant to be sacrificed. Where was Natsu? Where were Gray and Erza? What had become of her friends, her home?

It was too dark to discern any details except that they were in a great room – more like a ballroom in the house of her childhood – and the floor was stone, cold and hard, but smooth, as if polished by generation upon generation of shoes. She could just about imagine what kind of shoes those were - light and snug and elegant, suited for gliding rather than walking. She used to have many pairs like that, back when she was a rich daughter of a rich man. It seemd like an eternity had passed since she last thought about it but suddenly she missed dancing.

Minerva's chuckle reminded Lucy in no uncertain terms this was not a good time to reminisce.

There were no windows to be seen anywhere, and the air was stuffy, heavy with a nauseating smell of something organic left for too long in the heat. Lucy held her breath instinctively, afraid she would throw up in front of her enemy.

Towering above her, Minerva seemed to be enjoying herself immensely. The smirk on her lips grew wider as she brought up a gloved hand.

Dangling from her fingers were Lucy's keys.

"I think you might have dropped these. Would you like to have them back, I wonder?"

Lucy gritted her teeth and and stared back defiantly, while in the back of her mind a very small but nevertheless very audible voice whined why her?! why does it have to be her!? Really, there was a pattern and not one Lucy could appreciate at all. It was simply unfair. No matter who was the enemy and what they were after, if they had a truly epic bitch among them, she would have an eye out for Lucy. First Shelly, then Angel of the Oracion Seis, Erza Knighwalker, Flare Corona, and now this? Of the five top mages of Sabertooth Guild, why would the universe pit her against Minerva? Granted, none of the others were what she might possibly call nice and friendly, and under normal circumstances she would choose to give each and every one of them a wide berth; but she honestly believed she would have fared better against one of the Dragon Slayers. Not because they were any weaker (unfortunately), but simply because they didn't look like they would find it amusing to torture or humiliate someone for no reason except that they were bored.

Well, apparently that was how the universe rolled these days. Not that it made Lucy feel any better.

"There is nothing more boring than dealing with the likes of you," said Minerva with disgust. She threw her head back and laughed, and kicked Lucy in ribs.

The pain was sharp and sudden, and, absurdly, Lucy felt betrayed and angry at herself. Her body jerked convulsively, Minerva's face, contorted into a grimace of cruelty, swimming out of focus somewhere above her, as she tried to reach out for her keys despite everything

and

she was home, in her rented apartment in Magnolia, lying in her own bed, looking at the ceiling. It was dark and quiet, exactly the way it was supposed to be in the dead of the night. The window was wide open but the only sounds audacious enough to disturb the silence were the sloshing of the water in the canal outside and the occasional echo of uncertain footsteps as the most obstinate drunkards of the town made their way toward whatever they considered to be their safe haven for the night. They seemed to Lucy like the most beautiful melody that had ever existed in the world. Way better than gleeful giggling.

Needless to say, Minerva of Sabertooth was nowhere to be seen. If anything, Lucy thought sourly, the woman was probabaly fast asleep some place far away and had no idea that out there in the world a Fairy Tail spirit mage might be very busy inventing nightmares that featured her as the unstoppable Force of Evil.

The more Lucy thought about the whole thing, the more stupid and ridiculous she felt. Seriously, how scared she must have been of Minerva to end up dreaming her up! If Natsu knew, he would laugh until the ceiling came crumbling down on top of his head. He would never let it go, that was for sure. And Happy would be even worse, if that was possible. Much worse. Happy had the uncanny ability to think of the most awkward, embarrasing thing ever and blurt it out immediately, in a loud voice, for everyone in the vicinity to hear. The sheer number of times she had wanted the earth to open up and swallow her because of Happy's big mouth was astounding. If he were not cute, there would be no forgiveness.

Not to mention that this whole thing was a total waste of a good night's rest, and of course that had to happen exactly when she was so utterly short of money and useful ideas.

Or maybe it was the weather. Lucy squirmed uncomfortably. The air in the room was as hot and stuffy as it had been in the nightmare and the horrible, unpleasant smell persisted in trying to assault her nose. It must have addled her brains too.

Also, her ribs still hurt like hell.

That was definitely all wrong–

Something moved to her right – something that was right beside her, in her own bed – and before she could react in any way, an arm was thrown across her stomach.

If the breath hadn't been knocked out of her, she would have screamed. As it was, she gulped and tried to jump out of the bed but failed, because her feet got tangled up in the sheets. Inexplicably, the sheets stirred again and pulled back. Lucy aimed a vicious kick at whatever was inside – the effect was spoilt slightly, what with her being a nervous wreck – and made a final dash for freedom. This time, she got lucky.

The exhiliration lasted for the whole of one second.

Tumbling out of the bed, she hit something hard and apparently metallic on her way down. There was a disturbing sound, wet and heavy and creepily plaintive. Then something cold and squishy fell on Lucy's leg. The awful smell hit her with the renewed force. A liquid of sorts was clearly involved. No longer fighting the desire to shriek, Lucy tried to scramble away from danger on all fours, but her right hand landed on one of the disgusting things and she lost her balance.

Lying on the floor, she finally managed to get a good, close-up look on what had brought her down.

It was a fish. A dead fish, clearly. Its smell left little to imagination. It was obvious that in terms of freshness and edibility, this fish was not doing so great. The metallic thing was the bucket and it was now on its side revealing that more fish was eagerly awaiting the right moment to get out.

Lucy blinked, and the realization dawned.

Pushing herself into a sitting position, she brushed her tangled hair off her face and fixed the bundle of sheets on the bed with a glare. Even in the dark, she would know him anywhere.

"Natsu! You bastard! What the hell do you think you're doing!?"

"Huh? 'S up?"

"What's up!? What's up!? I am up in the middle of the night because you kicked me! You scared me! What are you doing here anyway? I don't remember letting you in!"

With what little light there was in the room, it was impossible to see Natsu's face clearly, but Lucy hardly needed to look at all. She knew him well enough.

As expected, he skipped right over everything except the last question.

"Huh? I let myself in. Through the window."

Of course he had. No one used the freaking door these days.

"That's not the point!"

"Is there even a point? You really need to pull yourself together, Lucy." He yawned. "What's with you, acting like a raving lunatic again..."

"Again!?"

"Whatever, I'm going back to sleep now. I'm tired." And he turned away from her, usurping the second pillow as he did. "That was a veeeery long day, you know."

"Don't just fall asleep like that when I'm ranting!"

"But I heard all that a hundred times already, " Natsu complained in his trademark tone. "Come on, you can rant in the morning."

"Aye..," agreed another voice from somewhere that sounded suspiciously like the pits of hell but was likely to be the couch instead. "You two are being noisy again. I was having a really nice dream about fish, you know."

"That was Lucy," mumbled Natsu, pulling the sheets over his head. "Something probably bit her..."

"Shut up! And why did you bring that awful, rotten fish in here!?"

"It's not rotten, nasty Lucy!" Happy was obviously hurt. "It's my awesome big fish that Natsu caught for me."

"It stinks like crazy," Lucy pointed out, more out of spite that any real desire to prove her point. "It must have gone bad because of all the heat. How is it possible that you two can't feel it?"

"All I can smell is the pillow..." came Natsu's muffled voice which was almost immediately drawn out by the rustle of the sheets as he finally decided to participate in the conversation on equal terms with Lucy and sat up. He sniffed the air loudly. "Gah! It is rotten! What the hell! It's worse than Ichiya's perfume!"

Before Lucy had a chance to gloat, he rolled over onto her side of the bed, snatched the bucket and the fish from the floor and tossed them out of the window. A loud splash announced their arrrival at the final abode – namely, the canal.

"Natsu!" Happy shot into the air, angry and sleepy and the same time. "That was my fish! I was going to eat it for breakfast!"

"You'd only get sick if you did, so be grateful and say thank you... And now my hands stink too, I can't sleep like that."

Lucy took a deep breath and opened her mouth to let them both know the depths of true despair, but then realized she wasn't really as angry as she had believed herself to be. Sure, she was irritated, and bleary-eyed, and tired, and generally upset, but she was also happy, no matter how strange it seemed. Natsu's presence would always remain the best medicine against all the problems in the world and the most comforting thing she had ever had the luck to experience. Nothing could go irrevocably wrong when Natsu was around.

Well, unless Natsu himself was the source of the trouble, anyway.

She sighed as she watched him get out of bed and and head for the bathroom, barefoot, his hair ruffled even more than usually, muttering curses under his breath. She said nothing.

A sudden wave of tenderness for him washed all over Lucy, a feeling that had nothing to do with the rotten fish or this absurd night or anything at all that might have transpired lately. It was as if for just a moment, all her vanity and selfishness, outbalanced by his thickheadedness and lack of understanding – all the petty little things that made them squabble and sulk at each other for no good reason had disappeared without a trace, and she was left all alone in the emptiness, face-to-face with the realization that there was nothing she would not forgive him and no one who could ever take his place in her life. The feeling flooded her from inside, and spread until it occupied the whole world, making everything else seem small and insignificant, and she was defenseless against it and did not care.

Lucy was smiling as she made herself comfortable on the couch twenty minutes later, and she didn't wake up when in the morning, Natsu, who believed in rising early, stood with his hand on the windowsill for quite a long time, looking back at her sleeping form, saying nothing, unwilling to leave.

She opened her eyes again shortly before midday, feeling all cranky because she still had no idea about his birthday present and also because the couch and now her hair smelled of fish.

Apparently, it was just another one of those days.