Chapter 112: Exchange

Six hours, three energy drinks, and a meal from Igneel later, Natsu and Lucy were finished with an essay worthy of being submitted. Lucy knew he stood a great chance. Excellent, even. In her opinion, his personal essay had a healthy balance of who he used to be, who he was currently, and the type of person he aspired to become in the future.

It was perfect, both of them pouring their best efforts into his essay.

The plan was to stay and play the video game Natsu mentioned, but by the time they finished it was getting late. That didn't stop Natsu from asking if Lucy wanted a ride home. Despite Virgo saying she could pick her up, Lucy took Natsu up on his offer.

She seized any excuse to get a few extra minutes with him, even at the cost of Virgo's snickers through the phone.

Lucy hung up, biting her lower lip as she turned towards the living room. Natsu and her had camped out there for most of the day. Neither said anything, but she assumed they had an understanding. Being alone in his room or the basement weren't good ideas.

After a few deep breaths Lucy entered the living room, Natsu's head lifting when she came into view. "You good?" he asked, causing her to nod.

"Yup. Virgo said it's fine."

"Sweet. I'll go warm up the car if you wanna wait here?"

"Sure," she said, watching as he snatched his keys before heading outside. She rolled her eyes when she realized he was going out there without a coat, but a few minutes wouldn't hurt him. 'At least I hope not.' She turned her attention to the walls surrounding her, imaging Natsu at a younger age.

He never mentioned getting hypothermia as a kid when they were dating. There were hundreds, maybe thousands of things she didn't know about him, and at the rate they were going she would never learn them all.

'He'll be gone in a few months,' she reminded herself, her eyes drifting to the computer and notebooks on the coffee table. Natsu would be graduating soon, and shortly after that he would be going to college.

She saw the anxiety and nervousness he had when it came to college. She wasn't sure what caused him the most fear. Keeping up with his schoolwork? Getting accepted into the college of his choice? Moving? Tuition?

Whatever challenges he would face, she knew he would find a way to overcome them. Natsu was stronger than he gave himself credit for, and Lucy knew he would continue to grow as a person.

'Wish I could be by his side during it.'

Lucy sighed, her head hanging as she mentally scolded herself. She made her decision, and no matter how much it hurt, she couldn't see herself changing her mind.

Her happiness could be shelved if it meant helping people.

Her feelings for Natsu had to be shelved, for both of their sakes.

Lucy tipped her head back, eyes unfocused as she tried thinking on the bright side. While it was true Natsu would be leaving after graduation, that didn't mean she couldn't make the most of the time they had together.

Well, 'making the most' was a bit out of her reach. With both of them working and dealing with homework, the chances of them hanging out were few and far between, but that was all the more reason to enjoy what time they had left.

With that in mind, Lucy grabbed her stuff, making her way out of the house to meet Natsu in his car. The freezing air bit at her exposed skin, but that fueled her to rush to get into his car.

To say he looked surprised when she opened the door was an understatement, but Lucy realized her arrival wasn't what spooked him. Natsu had his phone up to his ear, his wide eyes staring at Lucy with an uncertain look before he rushed out, "Can I call you later? I'm kinda busy."

Lucy's brows twitched as she tried figuring out why Natsu looked uneasy, but as soon as she heard a feminine voice through the line, her heart dropped. She couldn't make out what they said, but she could tell it didn't belong to his mom or sister, especially since Wendy was inside in her bedroom.

"Thanks, bye," Natsu said, hanging up the phone as Lucy wondered who he was talking to.

'Mavis? Erza? No, the voice sounded lighter... Beth?'

Lucy swore something formed in her throat, making it difficult to breathe as the mystery plagued her mind. Natsu didn't offer any answers, placing his phone in the cupholder as he asked, "You get tired of waiting?"

His tone was teasing, but she heard the underlying tension. Whoever he was talking to, it wasn't up for discussion. 'Not that it should be,' she reminded herself, fighting the jerk in her stomach.

"I guess... I was a little impatient," she lied, unsure if she sounded convincing.

Natsu didn't challenge her, shifting in his seat so he was better facing her before gesturing for her to come closer.

Or, at least that was what she thought he was doing. Instead of wanting her to enter his personal space, he said, "Go ahead and close the door. It'll get warmer that way."

"Oh, right." She would have facepalmed if she could get away with it. Lucy sat in the passenger seat, closing the door behind her before placing her coat in her lap. The cold hadn't registered, Lucy too focused on the girl Natsu was on the phone with.

She wished she didn't, but she couldn't deny what she felt. It was ugly, bitter and threatened to rip at her heart. Jealousy was something Lucy didn't handle well, but there was nothing she could do.

"Wanna listen to something?" Natsu asked, not giving her a chance to respond before he turned the radio on. He turned the volume up a few notches, the boy smiling as he stared out the windshield. "This is a good song."

"... Yeah," Lucy said, shoulders falling as reality set in. She should have known it would happen. Natsu was a great guy. Sure, he had his faults, but everyone did. She knew she had her own baggage she lugged around, but she had hoped things wouldn't change too much between them.

However, it was bound to happen. Natsu would move on, and Lucy would watch as someone else had the opportunity to be happy with him. She didn't think it would be so soon, but maybe it was for the better.

'Like ripping off a bandage,' she thought, wondering if that was the reason Natsu didn't kiss her earlier. Maybe he had been caught in the moment, but when they were interrupted he realized his mistake? Of course, there was a chance she was wrong. Maybe it was just a friend on the phone, but that didn't change the fact that one day, Natsu was going to be with someone else.

Lucy just hoped she was over her feelings for him before then.

"Thanks again for helping me," Natsu said, breaking past Lucy's thoughts.

She mustered a smile, but she didn't feel it. Her attempt wasn't convincing, Natsu lowering his voice as he asked, "Are you okay? You seem kinda quiet?"

Lucy opened her mouth, wanting to ask a simple question, but she knew the answer had the power to hurt her. So, she didn't ask who he was talking to. It wasn't her business, and revealing her jealousy had no upsides.

"I'm a little tired."

Natsu's eyes softened as he reached over, placing a warm hand over hers before giving it a soft squeeze. The action made no sense, Lucy struggling to comprehend it as he pulled his hand back to his lap. "Sorry about that. I know it wasn't easy, but I really am grateful for your help."

"N-no problem," Lucy said, eyes unblinking as she looked at her hand. The heat his skin brought was fading, but she swore she still felt the phantom pressure.

Forget who was on the phone. The only question burning through Lucy's mind was, 'What does this mean?!'

"Let's get ya home so you can rest," Natsu said, turning away to start the engine.

Lucy sat there in a daze, her heart racing the more she wondered why Natsu grabbed her hand. His touch had been gentle, familiar and welcoming, but it didn't make sense.

Did that mean he wasn't on the phone with a potential match?

Did that mean he still liked her?

Lucy swallowed hard at the thought. Logic went out the window for a moment, Lucy imagining different scenarios where she would ask him to pull over and talk about what happened. She was torn when she thought of the possible outcomes.

Half of the time she envisioned them deciding to put the past behind them and try again, but the other half showed Natsu kindly telling her he didn't mean anything romantic by the hand touch, and that he was good with staying friends.

The swirl of confusion in her chest didn't end right away. Even after Natsu tried starting a conversation about hanging out with Gajeel soon, Lucy couldn't dismiss what happened. However, despite it bothering her, she didn't dare bring it up. If she was wrong, she wanted to save herself the embarrassment.

Their friendship was getting back on track. The last thing they needed was a misunderstanding to shake their unsteady foundation.

"I'm glad you and Gajeel are getting along better," Lucy said, tearing herself away from her troubling thoughts to focus on Natsu.

He tightened his grip on the steering wheel for a few seconds before easing up, letting out what sounded like a frustrated noise. "He's still annoying as hell, but I guess he's not all bad... We're gonna work on his project car."

"The muscle car?" Lucy asked, earning a nod.

"That's the one. He's been trying to fix it up for years. The outside looks great, but it still needs some work under the hood."

Lucy hummed as she nodded. "Well, hope it works out."

"Me too."

The rest of the car ride was filled with idle chitchat. The subject bounced from cars to school to their friends and then back to cars. Natsu mentioned his dad was giving him more responsibilities around the shop when they pulled up to Lucy's house, a heavy sigh escaping him as he turned off the engine.

"It's not as bad as it was a few months back, but it's still not my favorite stuff to do. I mean, I'm a lot better now that I have some working pills, but I've never really been interested in cars like my dad and them..."

Instead of focusing on the medication, Lucy's thoughts were stuck on the first thing he said. "What happened a few months back?"

Natsu's eyes rounded for a second before returning to normal, his gaze drifting to the dash. "I forgot I didn't tell you..."

"Tell me what?" she asked, shifting in her seat to better face him.

Natsu kept quiet for a moment, every second gnawing at Lucy's mind. He used to open up to her about what he was feeling, but now that they weren't together, she feared she lost that connection with him. Despite just being friends, she wanted him to feel comfortable talking with her about anything. However, she knew she had to accept there would be changes between them.

They would never be as close as they once were.

"Some people quit at the shop, so my dad was scheduling me more, which kinda made homework harder to do..."

"Oh," she whispered, nodding because she could relate now that she had a job. "I bet that made it hard to do your pyrography too?"

Natsu shrugged. "I wasn't really doing it as much. It uh... did make it harder to..." When his voice trailed off, Lucy cocked her head.

"What?"

"It's nothing." He shook his head. "Forget I said anything."

She knew she needed to leave it be, but she couldn't fight the urge to ask. "Natsu?"

His eyes flitted to hers for a second before dropping, Natsu sighing as he leaned away from her in his seat. "Just... working extra hours and trying to do my schoolwork, it wasn't going very well. My grades were slipping, and on top of that I was trying to deal with the whole thing that happened with Beth, so I—"

Lucy didn't think she said anything, but she must have made some noise because Natsu cut himself off to look at her. "What?"

"When was this?" Lucy asked, her stomach jerking as she realized it herself. "They quit while we were still dating?"

"Yeah," Natsu said, the furrow in his brow suggesting he didn't understand the relevance.

"Your grades were slipping?"

"Yeah..."

"And you were overworked?"

"... Yes."

Lucy stared at him, putting the pieces together. She tried imagining herself in his shoes, having multiple AP classes and working more than normal while also trying to be in a relationship and manage homework. Adding in the incident that happened with Beth...

'No wonder he was sick so often. All of that stress... it must have been tearing him apart.'

Lucy swallowed, the new information festering in her head. While he still should have told her what happened, clearly there was more to it. "Why didn't you tell me?" she asked, catching the way Natsu flinched. Before he could assume she meant the situation with Beth, Lucy clarified. "About your grades and work?"

Natsu shrugged, his voice distant as he mumbled, "It was stuff I had to handle. Telling you wouldn't have changed it."

"Maybe, but maybe not? Did you talk to Jessica about it?"

When Natsu shook his head, her shoulders fell. "You just kept it bottled up?"

"It's not a big deal," he said, Lucy hearing the defense in his tone.

"Did—" She treaded lightly, not wanting to upset him. "Did you ask your dad for a break?"

That wasn't a wise question to ask, Natsu's brows darting in as he turned his glare towards the steering wheel. "That would've made things worse."

"How? Wouldn't a break help?"

Natsu's nose scrunched up, but he relaxed his face before sighing. "No, it wouldn't."

"I..." Lucy swallowed, hoping she wasn't pushing him too far. "I'm really sorry for asking, I'm just trying to understand."

Natsu remained quiet for a minute, eyes fixed on the wheel but they were unfocused. The air grew colder the longer they went without the heater, but Lucy didn't care. She wanted to figure out Natsu's motives. If his grades were suffering, why didn't he tell his dad he couldn't handle more work. Sure, they were probably short-handed, but it wasn't Natsu's responsibility.

Lucy thought Natsu had shut down. A shiver ran down her spine when he grabbed the keys, preparing herself for him to kick her out and leave. However, Natsu turned the keys before lowering the radio's volume, allowing heat to fill the car.

"My parents..." His voice was small, reminding Lucy of the time he told her about the incident with Jenny. Every shred of confidence left his voice as he said, "I heard my parents fighting... about money. If I stopped helping at the shop, they might've had to close down until they found more people, and I... I don't think..."

Natsu's lower lip wobbled before he sucked in a deep breath through his nose. "I didn't wanna find out what would've happened if I didn't help, so I worked... It doesn't matter now. They found some help and my grades are getting better..." Natsu's voice fluctuated between normal and hollow. Lucy wasn't sure who he was trying to convince, but she wasn't buying it.

"You were struggling with all that? Why didn't you tell me?" She frowned, eyes falling to the console between them. "I don't want to make it about me, but I... I thought... we..." She couldn't finish, her eyes watering as she realized they didn't have as strong of a connection as she thought. The openness didn't end because they broke up.

Apparently it ended while they were still together.

"You had your own stuff you were dealing with," Natsu whispered, his head slowly turning towards her, but his eyes stayed down. "I didn't wanna pile on."

"I wasn't dealing with much?" Lucy started, causing Natsu to shake his head.

"Maybe you weren't, but I thought you were. You mentioned you wanted to stop going to counseling... Mentioned your classes were tougher this year... You didn't mention the friends thing, but it can't be easy knowing most of your friends are graduating this year... And... I—" Natsu grit his teeth and closed his eyes.

"What?" Lucy didn't think he would continue, but he surprised her. His tone suggested it was difficult to talk about, but he pressed on regardless.

"I-I... didn't think I... deserved—"

The silence was thick, Lucy's hand twitching to reach over and cup his cheek. She wanted to bring him comfort, to coax him out of whatever state of mind he had trapped himself in. What did he think he didn't deserve?

"Natsu," Lucy whispered, deciding to keep her hands to herself.

His eyes slowly opened, but he was turning away from her seconds later. "I didn't think I deserved to tell you."

"Why?" she asked, finding that more confusing than his silence. He gave a weak shrug, arms wrapping around his stomach. "I dunno... I didn't really realize it until after the fact, but... I just didn't think I deserved it. You probably would've helped, or tried to make me feel better, but... I—" Natsu swallowed before looking at her through his peripheral vision. "I think I wanted to suffer."

As Lucy opened her mouth to ask why he would want that, Natsu explained. "Not at first... I think I kept quiet when things started getting overwhelming because I thought it was just temporary, but then things started getting harder, and I didn't wanna worry you because you had your own stuff going on, and then the whole thing happened with Beth, and—"

Natsu took a deep breath. "And I already felt like I didn't deserve being with you, so telling you would only make things worse, and then the guilt just kept getting worse, and I didn't wanna tell you about the other stuff because by then I think I was looking for punishment. Jessica kinda helped me figure it out, but I think I was unconsciously wanting more punishment to justify not telling you. It... it probably makes no sense."

Lucy turned that over in her head a few times, hating the fact that he thought he shouldn't be with her before the Beth thing. She thought they were happy, but he was doubting his worth the whole time? Or just towards the end?

"It kind of makes sense. The punishment part, not the deserving being with me part." She sighed, wondering if his self-esteem would overpower his doubt one day.

She hoped so.

"I think we deserved each other," Lucy said, but Natsu shook his head.

"Doesn't matter now, huh?" he asked, turning his body to face her. From the way his eyes kept flitting away every few seconds, Lucy figured keeping her gaze was a struggle. Was he stating the obvious? Or was he hoping she would tell him he was wrong.

She wanted to correct him, to tell him they still had a chance at making things work, but she couldn't do that to him.

It would be cruel to string him along, even if he was the only one she wanted.

"Guess not," she whispered, her body cold despite the heater working. Their eyes fell, neither filling the silence for a moment.

Lucy bit her inner cheek, processing everything said until she deflated. There was no hope of them getting back together, but that didn't mean what happened didn't matter. "I'm sorry," she said, causing Natsu to lift his head.

"Why? You didn't do anything."

"Exactly." Lucy stole a deep breath, forcing herself to meet his gaze. "I wish I'd done something different. Maybe then you'd feel comfortable talking to me about what happened with her."

Natsu shook his head. "I handled it poorly. I should've just told you and dealt with it. Even if it would've hurt your feelings, I should've told you. I'm sorry."

Sensing they were heading down a path of continuous apologies, Lucy said, "I've already forgiven you for that. I know things aren't the same between us, but if you're ever feeling overwhelmed again, or just need someone to talk to, you know I'm there for you, right?"

Lucy swore she could see the inner conflict in his eyes, his voice strained as he said, "I'll try, but at the same time, know that if I don't share stuff with you, it doesn't mean I don't want to. Some things are just... hard to talk about. Most of the time I don't even wanna deal with it, and telling someone else just makes it feel more real."

"I get that," Lucy said, offering a small nod. "Are we okay?"

"Yeah," he whispered. They shared eye contact for a moment, the silence not as painful as before. "Um, thanks... for listening."

"Anytime. I mean it."

Natsu pressed his lips into a tight line, the expression on his face unreadable. He didn't hold it for long, letting out a breath before his face softened. "I miss... hanging out with you," Natsu said, the twitch in his brows suggesting there was more he wanted to say, but he kept his mouth closed.

The tension in her stomach loosened, hoping they were moving past what happened, even if it had her second-guessing her choices once more. "Me too."

"Maybe, if you're okay with it, we can hang out again... Just the two of us?"

Lucy fought to keep her smile tamed, not wanting to look too excited. "That sounds good. Maybe then we can play that game?"

Natsu perked up, his lips pulling into a grin as he said, "Yeah! That'd be awesome!"

Lucy couldn't stop her chuckle, her body relaxing as the air around them changed. While she was relieved Natsu opened up to her, it was nice looking forward to fun times instead of trudging up the past. 'Hopefully we can hang out more before he graduates.'

"Remember to send your essay," Lucy said, grabbing the handle on the door to signal her departure.

Natsu nodded, thanking her again for her help before he froze. It caused Lucy to cock her head, but before she could ask what was wrong, Natsu said, "Speaking of writing..."

She watched as he opened the center console, pulling out something rectangular wrapped in shiny gold paper. He held it out for her, Lucy hesitating before accepting it.

"Is this for me?"

Natsu nodded, biting his bottom lip for a second before saying, "It's a Christmas gift." As soon as Lucy opened her mouth, he said, "I know. We all promised we'd only do Secret Santa, but I saw this at the bookstore and thought of you."

Lucy had no intentions of arguing with him, relieved by the present because it made what she was about to do less awkward.

"Wait here," she said, rushing out of the car. She bolted to her front door without another word. There was no time to find Virgo and tell her she had arrived, Lucy heading upstairs to grab the gift for Natsu from her room.

She snatched it off her desk, but before she could turn to leave, her curiosity got the better of her. Lucy tore the wrapping paper off her gift, jaw dropping when she saw it was a writing prompt book. According to the title, it had 365 prompts, enough to keep her busy all year long. While she wasn't sure she could commit to writing in it consecutively, she knew it would help boost her inspiration, especially when she was hit with writer's block.

She smiled at the gift as she set it down, mentally assigning one of her best pens to the book as she left her room. She didn't bother hiding her smile as she made her way downstairs, excited to see Natsu's reaction to what she got him.


Natsu stared at the door Lucy disappeared behind, his confusion higher than it had been when talking about the events surrounding their break up. To be fair, he felt more frustration than anything. He was not only frustrated at himself for how he handled things months back, he had gotten frustrated talking about it.

However, now that it was out there, he felt a little better. Like he could take a deeper breath now that it wasn't weighing on his chest.

He wanted to confide everything in Lucy, but their relationship had changed. They were navigating new territory, but Natsu didn't mind. The alternative was not being her friend, and he didn't want that.

He could function without her. He could be happy too, but having her in his life added something he couldn't describe. Being around her made his heart feel safe, even if it also skittered out of control every now and then when she did something cute.

Which, if he was being honest, was frequent.

Natsu sighed as he tipped his head back, mind drifting to the time they spent in his living room that day. They had been hard at work, but they had their fair share of smiles and laughs along the way. Having Lucy near him felt right, so the thought of them possibly hanging out more had him grinning.

That was, until he was startled by the car door opening.

Natsu jolted as Lucy slid into the car. She closed the door behind her, turning to face him before holding out an arm. "Thank you for the gift!"

Natsu understood what she wanted, heart jumping as he leaned into her hug. It was awkward in the car, the center console hitting his stomach in the process, but that didn't negate the warmth he felt in his chest from the simple hug.

He missed when he could hug her whenever he wanted, missing the way her hair tickled his cheek or how her familiar scent drove him wild. He wanted to hold her forever, but they were parting seconds later.

"I'm going to make good use of it," she promised, holding out a wrapped gift. "I hope you do the same."

Natsu blinked, surprised she got him something considering they weren't together. Did she do it for the same reason he did? He wanted to show her he considered her different than his regular friends. He didn't get her something romantic in case that crossed a line, but he wanted her to know she was special.

He would break a rule or two, or even more for her.

Natsu swallowed as he accepted the gift, wondering if he should open it with her there. Lucy didn't leave him guessing long, nodding to the present as she smiled.

"Go on."

Natsu felt a blush creep over his face as he turned his attention to the gift. His finger slipped into a loose part in the paper, tearing it away to reveal a flat box of coloring pencils. He didn't recognize the brand, but judging from the feel of the box and the weight of the pencils, it didn't seem cheap.

"They're supposed to be really good for coloring wood," Lucy said, calling his focus to her face. "I hope they help with your art."

He was dumbfounded for a moment, part of him ready to refuse the gift because it felt undeserved, but the look in Lucy's eyes kept his mouth shut. She wanted him to have them, picked them out specifically for him. He didn't dare do anything to wipe that smile off her face, his chest lighter as he clutched the gift to his stomach.

"Thank you, these are awesome."

The light in Lucy's eyes made his heart jump, but he didn't get carried away. Lucy leaned in for one more hug, and while he wished she would stay, he nodded and told her good night as she exited his car.

His smile didn't fade as he watched her disappear into her house, Natsu waiting a moment before making his way home. He found himself singing to the radio as he thought about their day. He loved what happened moments before, but his mind kept drifting back to their almost-kiss in the park.

He sighed, part of him kicking himself for not going through with it, but it was for the best. If they were going to kiss again, he wanted it to be because they were both on board. No mistletoe, no silly traditions or games. A kiss like that would be meaningless, and that didn't sit well with Natsu.

He wished more than anything they could be together again. He knew he would be better, communicate even if things got awkward or messy. Lucy was worth it and so much more. His heart hurt not being with her, but he couldn't force it.

'If there's a chance we can be together, I gotta let it happen on it's own.'

Until then, he needed to continue working on himself.

Sometimes it was hard believing his worth wasn't based on his looks or what other people thought. He wanted to be happy with himself, and he was, for the most part. As corny as it sounded, he wanted to love himself. He liked himself, but he wasn't sure if he loved himself.

'I just... want to live without feeling the need to apologize for existing. Like I'm inconvenient to have around, or an eyesore to others.'

Natsu took a deep breath as he pulled up to his house, deciding to switch back to thinking about his day with Lucy. Those produced happier thoughts, Natsu's smile soft as he exited his vehicle.

He collected his gift, wondering if he should test some scrap wood to see how well the colors blended before working on a real piece. His thoughts on that didn't last long as he walked up to his house, using the flashlight on his phone to unlock the door since someone forgot to turn on the porch light.

Natsu's brows furrowed when he saw he got a text from Sherry, remembering their conversation earlier. They were discussing her joining his group to help with the raids in Pokémon GO, but then Lucy had shown up and those thoughts were put on the backburner.

As he entered his house, he read Sherry's text to see she was going to bed, and they could talk about her coming down to Magnolia tomorrow. He nodded to himself, thankful he didn't have to deal with anything else for the night.

His plan was simple. Go to the basement for a few hours, listen to music and scorch some designs into wood, then head to bed.

However, Natsu wasn't halfway down the steps to the basement before his phone vibrated, a picture of Gray lighting up his screen with the guy's middle finger blocking his face.

Natsu thought it was hilarious, setting it as Gray's contact photo a week ago.

"Yo," Natsu said, freezing when he heard Happy running down the stairs. He waited until the feline passed before moving, not wanting to hurt his cat by stepping on him. "What's up?"

"Are you sitting down?"

"Uh, no?" Natsu furrowed his brows. "Why?"

The edge in Gray's tone threw Natsu off. "Are you alone?"

"Yeah...?" He made it to the floor, walking over to his desk to set his new colored pencils down. "Are you okay?"

"Me? I'm fine, but you..." Gray's voice trailed off, Natsu's brows furrowing from frustration. What about him had Gray tongue-tied?

"What's going on?"

Gray either sighed or took a deep breath, his voice cautious as he asked, "Have you been on Facebook today?"

Natsu's eye twitched, wondering if Gray was messing with him. The dramatic pausing, the cryptic behavior, asking random questions, it was classic prank material. He relaxed, the corner of his lip quirking into a half-smile as he sat down.

"Nope," he said, blowing some wood shavings off his desk. He had been experimenting with carving into wood to give his art more depth, but it wasn't going too well. He would need more practice if he wanted to incorporate that technique into his art.

Gray muttered a curse before saying, "Alright, good. I wanted to tell you before anyone had a chance to reach you. I don't want you panicking."

Natsu's smile faded. If Gray was pulling a prank, he was going the extra mile. A trickle of worry found its way into his chest, but he ignored it. However, that trickle turned into a flood when the dam was punctured, Gray's words echoing in his head as he said, "It's about Jenny."

Natsu's heart sank at hearing her name, never expecting it to come from Gray's mouth. He thought they had an understanding. The less spoken about that girl and the cruel things she did, the better. He struggled to drag a breath of air into his lungs, his body working on freezing itself.

"Natsu?"

He tried swallowing past the lump lodged in his throat, but it was no use. Shock was replaced by fear as he assumed the worst. Was Jenny back in Magnolia? Was she starting up those awful rumors again? Did she post something on Facebook about him? Calling him a freak for offering her money for sex?

What if her influence spread to more than Magnolia? What if he would never escape her vicious lies?

A cross between a whimper and the sound of something dying escaped his mouth when he opened it, Natsu struggling to find the words despite them pounding at his head.

'What about her?'

His hands shook, Natsu surprised he hadn't dropped the phone. It was a good thing he was sitting, otherwise the news would have knocked him off his feet. He wasn't sure he could support himself now that his body was half-functioning, part of him wanting to shut down and pretend he never heard that name again.

"Natsu? Are you still there?"

"Y-yes," he rasped out, throat dry and heart beating out of control. He wanted to say more, but he couldn't force the words out.

"Okay, well, apparently she got arrested an hour ago for public intoxication."

Before Natsu could form a thought around that, Gray added, "There's a video online of what happened before, and... Just, don't panic, but she mentions you."

'How am I not supposed to panic?'

Natsu wanted to ask, but the words never left his mouth. He wasn't sure what he stared at, eyes growing fuzzy as his mind fought to retreat into a safe place. Anything was better than confronting Jenny, even through a video.

Gray must have known, telling him, "I dunno if you wanna watch it or not. It's not terrible, but... It's fucking unsettling. I dunno what the fuck is wrong with her."

'Me either,' Natsu thought, his throat too tight to speak. He managed to grunt when Gray asked him if he would be alright, but it was a lie. Natsu didn't know how to handle the news, especially since he didn't know the extent of it.

What had she said? Why did she mention him? Was it by name? Or by act?

Natsu forced himself to swallow, his thoughts twisting when he imagined her confessing to the lies she spread about him. He doubted she would, but part of him hoped she did. While the thought of it made his stomach roll, there was a sense of freedom at the edge of his being.

If she confessed, that would show everyone he wasn't a freak, right?

'Why the fuck do I care what those assholes think?' Natsu ground his teeth, anger spiking as he recalled the senseless beatings throughout the years. He wanted to dish out the same treatment he had been given, but he squeezed his hand into a fist instead.

Revenge would give him a moment of retribution, but then he would be left feeling sour. He hated what they did, but he never wanted to be like them.

Never wanted to be like her.

'What did she say?'

"Are you okay?" Gray asked, causing Natsu to suck in a shaky breath.

"F-fine," he mumbled, trying but failing to clear his throat. "I'll be fine."

"Do you wanna come over? Maybe play video games?"

Natsu shook his head, hating what he was about to do. He didn't want to see her face, didn't want to hear her voice, but a morbid curiosity took root in his mind.

What did she say about him? Was it something he needed to know before the second semester of school started. The thought of going into Magnolia High without knowing had his chest tightening as he broke out into a cold sweat. He didn't want to watch the video, but he also didn't want to be blindsided.

"Thanks, but I... I'm good. Just gonna work on some projects."

That was partially true. He planned on continuing his pyrography after viewing the video, but part of him feared he would lose inspiration after watching it. Seeing her face would be bad enough, but hearing her voice? He wasn't sure he could handle it, but he couldn't ignore it.

'Why did she say my name?'

He wasn't sure, but maybe something in the video could clarify her reasons.

"Call me if you need anything," Gray said, causing Natsu to sigh.

"I should be fine... I've... I've been in therapy. I can handle myself." At least, he hoped he could.

Gray tried once more to see if Natsu wanted a distraction, but he declined. The sooner he watched the video, the sooner he could try to put it behind him. He needed to be prepared for what might be said at school when it started back.

Hell, he might have to stay off Facebook for a while in case people decided to start sending him hateful messages again.

Natsu mumbled a goodbye, thumb shaky when he pressed the red button to end the call. A few deep breaths weren't enough to steady his nerves, Natsu resting his phone on the desk before he accidentally dropped it.

Finding the video was easier than he expected. He typed 'Jenny Re' before some suggested searches popped up, one of which was 'Jenny Realight gets arrested'.

Natsu let out a shaky breath, wrapping one arm around his stomach as he clicked the link. He prepared himself for the nausea, but it was worse than he expected when the video popped up. His mouth watered the same way it did whenever he was about to vomit, his heart dropping when he caught the blurry image of her face through his screen.

The video hadn't begun and he was already panicking, his skin clammy as he stared with unblinking eyes. He thought about exiting the website several times, considered tossing his phone across the basement once when he heard her voice lurking in his head, repeating the vile filth she had spouted the day he was in her bedroom.

He felt trapped like he had that day, his throat tight and muscles tense. Time seemed to stand still as he struggled with what to do, but after minutes of torture, Natsu finally raised a shaky hand and pressed play.

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Thank you so much for your patience! I hope this chapter was worth the wait! Please let me know what you thought! And if you have any theories on what's on that video!

I appreciate everyone who has supported this story! Shout out to those awesome people who left me feedback last time: galactiaconstella, FairyTailxFanGirl, Lodemai04, valerioux, Sele de la Luna, Tara. pasty, shootingstarssel, Wadeparker, sakshishetty3003, vG LOL I, Melz87, AGreen2222, and Copperreign12!

Up next, Chapter 113: Raid

Thank you again for reading!

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Note from May 9th, 2022: I haven't given up on this story, I'm just adjusting to a new job and dealing with a lack of motivation to do any of my hobbies. I'm hoping this passes and I can continue writing soon, but I'm not making any promises on when the next chapter will come out. If you want progress reports I post them on my tumblr (mushi9), but for now updates will be considerably slow as I don't have the same energy as I had before. I thank you so much for your understanding and patience. I love this story and hope to give it a proper ending. Thank you, and I hope you have a great day/night! -mushi9