The table shuddered as Loke's fist suddenly slammed down on it. "What do you mean you're Cana's partner for the exam?" he demanded.
Ignoring his outburst, Lucy continued eating her meal calmly. "It's exactly how it sounds," she replied, staring straight ahead of her to avoid him.
He continued to stare at her for a moment, before glancing around and noticing for the first time that the card wizard was absent from the guild. Turning back to the Celestial mage, he asked, "But…how did that happen?"
Lucy frowned, placing her utensil down as she finally looked at him. "Cana still needed a partner for the exam, and I happened to be available."
Loke studied her, his sunglasses magnifying the suspicion in his eyes. "So she asked you then?"
"Not exactly. I actually just offered to do it."
He groaned and ran his fingers through his shortened mane. "Lucy, what were you thinking?"
She glared at him. "What? You can suspend our contract to help Gray out, but I can't help Cana?"
The lion sighed, sounding slightly aggravated. "Lucy," he said slowly, trying to keep his tone even, "you can't participate in the exam. You're not –"
"Not what?" she shot back, interrupting him. Her chocolate eyes bore hard into him, as though daring him to say that she wasn't strong enough to take part with them.
Noticing the threat that lay beneath her gaze, Loke paused and seemed to rethink his words. Then he sighed again, removing his sunglasses to pinch the bridge of his nose. "What brought this on so suddenly?" he wondered. "When we were talking about it last night, you didn't seem interested in getting involved. So why would you volunteer to be Cana's partner?"
Lucy hesitated, averting her eyes. She couldn't tell him the real reason. Cana's story still echoed in her head, occupying the forefront of her thoughts, but she was certain Cana wouldn't want something so personal spread around. So instead, she replied, "Cana's my friend too. Why shouldn't I help her?"
Loke frowned, and she knew he didn't believe such a simple answer. "Lucy…"
"Listen, I don't have to explain myself to you. This is my choice, and I promised to help Cana become an S-class mage." Grabbing her coat, she quickly stood from the table. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I've gotta go meet my partner so we can prepare for the exam next week."
She turned to leave, but was stopped when Loke suddenly grabbed her wrist. She turned back, ready to lash out at him in order to protect Cana's secret, but the angry words died on her lips as her eyes locked with his. His sunglasses lay forgotten on the table, exposing the concern and anxiety in his expression so clearly that it startled her.
"Have you even thought," he suddenly spoke, snapping her out of her trance, "about how dangerous this might be?"
"If you and the others can handle it, then so can I." Though truthfully, she spoke with a lot more confidence than she actually had. She knew she wasn't the strongest wizard ever, and she had her doubts about herself, especially when compared to all the other people chosen to be partners to the S-class candidates. But if she was going to help Cana, she would have to try her best. "Besides," she added, more to assure herself than Loke, "the Master wouldn't do anything to seriously hurt us, right? So even if it's dangerous, I should still be okay."
He didn't seem convinced, though. "I won't be able to help you, you know. If you're in some kind of trouble, I can't do anything for you."
She huffed softly. "Now you're worried about that? Where was that kind of thinking when you first broke our contract, huh?"
For the first time since he mentioned it, Loke glanced away rather guiltily. "It wasn't that I didn't think about it…" he protested weakly.
Deciding to take pity on him, the blonde simply shrugged and smiled. "I'll be fine…really. I mean, I've gotten in and out of trouble without you before. And I still have all the other spirits to help me. So I should be okay."
Still, Loke didn't seem reassured and wouldn't meet her gaze. Just as she began wondering what was still bothering him, she felt his grip on her wrist tightened ever so slightly.
"What if," he murmured, so softly that she almost couldn't hear him, "the candidates had to fight against each other? What if…we had to fight?"
Lucy blinked. She actually hadn't thought of that before, even though Gray had mentioned the possibility of them battling. But it was starting to make sense why he didn't want her to get involved. It was bad enough that she might get hurt at all during the exam, and he wouldn't be able to help her despite being so close by. However, the chance that something might happen to her because of him made it a lot worse, especially since she knew that he hadn't entirely forgiven himself for what happened to Karen. Just the idea of fighting against her must upset and worry him.
And for a moment, she wondered if she could press it to her advantage. After all, she had promised to make Cana an S-class mage, and even if they didn't have to compete with only one of the other teams, it would be a lot easier for them. If she could convince Loke to go easy on her, then maybe she and Cana would have a chance…
Lucy shook her head furiously, chastising herself for even thinking such a thing. She couldn't do that to Loke, and she didn't think Cana would like using such deceptive methods to become an S-class rank, no matter what was at stake.
"If we do have to fight against each other," she finally answered, "then that's what we'll have to do."
"I don't know…" Loke's fingers slipped from her wrist as he sat back. "I promised Gray I would do everything I could to help him. But if that means fighting you…"
"Loke," she said gently, sitting down beside him, "you annulled our contract for the time being, remember? So right now, you're not one of my Celestial Spirits. You're just my fellow Fairy Tail guild member, who promised a friend to do whatever it takes to make him an S-class wizard."
At first, Loke said nothing and simply continued to stare down at the floor. But he finally glanced up at her, and she flashed him a little smile before continuing. "So you have to do your best to help Gray, just like I have to do my best to help Cana. And if that means we might have to battle each other sometime, then we'll do what we have to and give it our all." Her brow set with determination, she held up her fist. "So if that happens, you better give it everything you got, or I won't forgive you. Got it?"
He blinked, surprised by the assurance in her tone. Then, returning her smile with one of his own, he nodded. "Got it."
"Good." Feeling rather proud of herself, she rose to her feet. "Anyway, I better get going."
"Lucy." She paused, turning back to him once again, and he looked at her from behind the safety of his shades. Giving her a smile, he winked. "Good luck."
She nodded. "You too," she replied. With that, she took her leave, pulling her coat on as she stepped out of the guild's doors.
It was only as she walked along the snow-filled streets that her smile faded, as all her uncertainties resurfaced and crumbled the resolve she had given Loke. It was only fair, she reasoned, that Loke should do his best so Gray would have a fair chance to become an S-class mage, just like everyone else. But while he had promised Gray, she had made a similar promise to Cana. Only one team could pass the exam, and for one of them to keep that promise, the other one would have to fail.
It couldn't be her. Lucy couldn't let it be her. Cana was counting on her, and she would do her best to help. But that's what troubled her the most. She feared that her best wouldn't be good enough, because if it wasn't, then the guild would lose Cana for good.
And she couldn't bear the thought of ruining things like that for everyone.