Previously on Capturing Her Damaged Heart:

Natsu comes back from Hargeon with the group and finds Lucy acting a bit odd, more confident with others but shy around him. He's convinced she knows he told her secret to Makarov, and when he confronts her about it, she decides to lean into that instead of admitting that she realized she has feelings for him while he was away. He then finds out she changed jobs to be a runner off base, they fight because he thinks she's going to get hurt, and ultimately after she cuts him off and he hits his breaking point, he talks with Levy and decides he needs to change for the better and accept Lucy's new role at Fairy Tail.

Some time passes, they're getting better, Lucy asks Natsu to escort her off base to find a present for Hibiki's birthday. It leads them to Everlue's house where Natsu and Lucy stumble upon a sex room. Seeing all the toys and such with Lucy around sparks some feelings he had done well to repress for years, but now that they've started poking through, he can't stop thinking about it. While the mood was ruined when they ran into some sprinters that led Lucy to having a panic attack, Natsu was there to support her through it, and they made it back to base.

Later that same day Lucy gives him a massage and he cuts it short because he needs to take care of a growing problem. He feels bad about touching himself while thinking about Lucy since she was a victim of physical and sexual abuse, but he also knows she's not that defenseless person anymore, but he can't shake his guilt. He talks with Alzack, still feels confused, then in the middle of the night he's awoken by a knock on the door. It's Lucy, requesting to stay with him because she was having nightmares. They talk, she confides in him more, she says she loves him (platonically) he says we (him and Happy) love her too. He's reminded of Igneel's pain and struggles of losing the love of his life, thinks it's better to not go down the same path, even if he's feeling something for Lucy. He denies it to himself the best he can.

More time passes, Natsu still feels bad about trying to control Lucy. His plan is a grand gesture and leads to him finding a cozy house outside of Fairy Tail with a clawfoot tub and a fireplace, perfect for them if they ever decide to expand the perimeter of Fairy Tail and incorporate the neighborhood into their base. Lucy has been getting mixed signals from Natsu for a while, trying to figure out if he likes her or not, but after the bath he drew for her (which took a lot of effort since they have no running water or electricity), and a massage from him, she decides to lean in for a kiss. Natsu abruptly cuts off their time off base and says they should go back. Lucy is convinced that means Natsu doesn't like her. She's disappointed, but she knows she'll be fine in the end.

When they go back to base they run into Laxus who informs them after weeks of trying, he can't get the solar panels to work, so he decides instead they're going to finally go after Ivan. Maybe Laxus was delaying the trip because he didn't want to face his father, maybe Laxus just needed something he could actually handle since the electricity thing wasn't working out? Either way, a small group sets out to find Lucy's lake house. On the way there, Natsu realizes her lake house is right next to the camping grounds where his friends were staying when the outbreak started. Guilt fills him wondering if he could have done something to save her, but he's also conflicted when he goes inside the lake house and finds a note from who he suspects is his father, but he thinks Lucy's been through too much today to ask, and even if he asks, it probably won't do any good seeing as it had been half a year since she had left the lake house. If it was Igneel, he could be anywhere by now.

They find Ivan dead, Lucy confirms it was him because it was the same clothes he was wearing the day she escaped, she realizes he died that same day by a gunshot wound, meaning no one else had to suffer after her. They all go back to Fairy Tail, and while they didn't witness it, Mest accused the kitchen of giving smaller breakfast portions to make up for their new lunches, which Mest had been fussing over. He riled up some of the other survivors who started agreeing with him. He had been doing it for a while, but it was becoming a problem now. Makarov promised to look into fixing it.

Jellal was becoming more concerned with the future of Fairy Tail, but he had a little hope when the group returned from their mission. While processing the men, he came across a photo Natsu had in his pocket of Lucy as a child. He thought it looked familiar before realizing it was the same photo he saw well before the outbreak, at Jude Heartfilia's lake house he visited one summer. He put two and two together, then later confronted Lucy with what he discovered. He agreed to keep it quiet.

Later Lucy and Natsu talk, he says his campsite was right by her lake house, she assures him he shouldn't feel guilty. They seem to be in a good place when Lucy leaves. A bit before dinner Natsu gets a knock on the door, surprised when he sees it's Hibiki. He asks Natsu if he likes Lucy, Natsu denies it, Hibiki tells him his intention is to ask Lucy out. Natsu doesn't like it, but he can't come up with a good reason to stop it. Hibiki leaves, and Natsu accepts he has feelings for Lucy, but he can't act on them out of fear.

The next day Natsu is worried about when Hibiki is going to ask Lucy out, but by the time dinner comes along, Natsu is convinced it either happened and Lucy rejected him, or Hibiki chickened out. However, before dinner is over Hibiki comes over and hands Lucy a note telling her to meet him in his room before the play. She does, Hibiki confesses his feelings, and Lucy has to let him down gently. He tells her Natsu likes her, he says Natsu didn't say it, but he just knows. Lucy is unsure if she should take the risk.

She goes to see the play and sits by Natsu. He's surprised she's there, wondering if that meant Lucy said no, but he doesn't ask. After the play she goes back to Natsu's room and they play a game. During a moment of silence Lucy tells him Hibiki asked her out. She says the reason she couldn't fathom liking Hibiki or anyone else was because she liked him. Natsu is stunned, but ultimately fear wins and he says he's sorry. He can't explain it, and Lucy doesn't force an answer from him. She pretends she's not hurt, downplaying her feelings, but Natsu can tell she's crushed. They part ways, both hoping things don't have to change between them now that her feelings are out in the open.

And now on to the next chapter, taking place a little over 3 weeks after the rejection:

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Chapter Eighty-Three: Questions

(June 24th, 2018, Sunday Morning)

Gasps for air were deafened over the sound of footsteps pounding the pavement. She thought by now they would have given up, but the monsters were relentless, chasing her down every street, every alley. She tried losing them through a playground, but they were too quick, keeping her in their sights.

How they could see with those bloodshot eyes, she would never know, but she had more important things to worry about.

"No!" she cried when she felt one of them touch her back, its rotten hands trying to grab her shirt. She panicked, twisting her body to the side. The move gained her a few seconds to react, her hands shaking as she pushed the creature with all her might.

They were fast, but they were also clumsy.

The thing staggered before losing its footing, falling to the ground. She didn't stick around to watch, seeing the others catching up. In that moment she couldn't remember what happiness felt like, couldn't fathom the feeling of safety. Everything in her mind screamed for her to run, and thankfully her body complied.

She found herself in another neighborhood, all looking the same as the last. She would never find her way to her group now, not that it mattered. With the horrid luck she had today, she couldn't count on seeing tomorrow.

Despite the sense of doom, she kept moving, kept fleeing for any chance at survival.

The sun was low in the sky, the morning air thick. Any other time she would have rejoiced in the soft warmth on her face, but sweat dotted her skin, her heart beating too fast for her ribcage to contain.

A growl behind her let her know they were closing in. She knew she was out of time. Her pace had slowed, her legs trembling with every push off the ground.

She wished her last moments were full of peace, surrounded by her friends and family, but no one had that luxury anymore.

Not since the world ended. Doom and despair clung to every death, and she was no exception.

Her vision blurred as tears filled her eyes. She knew she wasn't going to make it, but she couldn't stop. She would take her last breath knowing she tried everything she could to live, even if it was fruitless.

Ironic, seeing as fruit was the reason she was going to die.

She closed her eyes when she heard them, their snarls echoing from every direction. She let out a final scream, frustrated and scared, but mostly filled with regret.

If she could do it all over again, she would have done more with her life.

The road ahead had been cleared, but she winced when she ran into something. She expected a house or pole, but seconds later she felt hands on her.

'This is it!'

She refused to give in without a fight, twisting, swiping, doing anything she could to break free. She kept her eyes closed until she felt those hands off her, heart racing as she found a few more seconds to live.

She didn't want to die, but she had no weapons, no skills that would help her take down the living dead. She was hopeless, her eyes stinging when she opened them to find a new escape.

However, she didn't get a chance to take one step before she was face-to-face with a wall of monsters, all snapping and snarling, their arms reaching towards her.

She screamed, wrapping an arm around her face as she shrunk down. There was no chance she was escaping that, Aries accepting her fate as she waited for the inevitable pain that would precede death.

She waited, waited, but it never came.

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(Forty-Five minutes earlier)

"I think it sounds fun."

"I don't know, Mest made a good point. If we can pull something like that together, why can't we have more days off every week instead?"

"Yeah, I can see that, but it's not like we're bringing in as much food as we used to."

"We will now. I heard they're a few days away from the second chariot. Then runners and clearers will be off base at the same time."

Erza kept quiet as she listened, her back pressed against the rails of the trailer as they moved further away from Fairy Tail. The bumps in the road were always accompanied by a groan, Erza frowning as she peered over at Natsu.

He was slumped over the edge of the trailer, ready to throw up if needed. She had seen him like that every day he joined the runners since she changed jobs, and every time she felt for him. Motion sickness medication wasn't something most people had in their houses, so until they reached a store with over-the-counter drugs, he was out of luck.

'At least Lucy's there for him,' she thought, watching as the woman gently ran a hand over his back, whispering something to him.

The conversations around her kept her from eavesdropping, everyone discussing the upcoming festival. She was unsure how she felt about it, still perplexed on how Fairy Tail would pull it off within two weeks. Makarov made the announcement that morning during breakfast, promising a three day event that would help boost morale and remind them of the good things in life.

The sentiment sounded good, but he picked a weird time to hold the festival. Makarov said it would start on July 6th, which was one day before the one year anniversary of the outbreak. She doubted it was a coincidence, which meant he wanted to celebrate during a grim reminder of their circumstances.

Perhaps that was the reason he chose that time, to distract them from the world they now lived in. He promised food, music -at a low volume, games, and time off for all non-essential personnel.

Erza planned to ask if Makarov wanted her to pick up a shift or two as a guard during the festival to lighten the load. After she transferred jobs, others did the same. There were a third of the guards now, leaving the remaining ones constantly busy. The amount was down, but they kept their toughest and strongest as guards: Elfman, Jura, Orga, Azuma, Bickslow, Simon, and Evergreen.

Even if it was all caused by Mest complaining, it made sense not to waste manpower protecting the base that had never faced a serious threat after the first few weeks of the outbreak.

She couldn't remember the last time a stray zombie found its way to their gates, let alone an actual attack on the base. Fairy Tail needed no more than six guards on duty at a time. Two to maintain the front gate, one for the back, two to patrol the perimeter, and one to escort survivors to and from processing, the arsenal, and the gates. The seventh guard would take their day off, causing them all to shift jobs accordingly.

She imagined the remaining guards would like a break to enjoy the festival, and she doubted Makarov would have a problem with her helping.

"Are you going to ask him today about...?" Jellal whispered, her husband's arm pressed against hers. She hadn't wanted him to become a runner at first, but she would be lying if she said she didn't feel a sense of comfort knowing he was there to watch her back.

Erza didn't respond right away, glancing over at Natsu and Lucy. The two seemed oblivious to Jellal's words, so she offered a simple, "Yes."

They had a few conversations about the weird dynamic their group had taken on over the past few weeks. One day everything seemed fine, then the next Natsu and Lucy were sitting as far away from each other as possible at their table, barely exchanging glances, let alone any words. The tension had been thick, but over the passing days things had settled into an awkwardness that left Erza and the others confused.

Judging by the lack of concern on Levy's face, Erza guessed she knew what was going on, but she hadn't revealed any information when asked. Instead, Levy told Erza to ask Lucy or Natsu if she wanted to know, as she wasn't going to 'disclose information' about the situation.

Ironically that alone revealed that there was in fact something going on, leading Erza to carefully plan how she was going to approach Lucy about the subject. Of course, that didn't go as planned. Yesterday when they were doing deadlifts in the weight room Erza had blurted out, "What's going on with you and Natsu?"

The question had come as a shock for Lucy, the woman nearly dropping her weights as she was coming up. She recovered, setting the weight down before wiping at her forehead. "What do you mean?"

"Let's skip the part where you act like you don't know what I'm talking about," Erza had said, setting her own weights down before crouching to get on Lucy's level. "You two have been acting strange around each other. What gives?"

"...You didn't ask him?"

"Should I?"

"No! I-I mean, that's not necessary. It's nothing, really. Just... a misunderstanding."

Lucy had tried changing the subject, but Erza was adamant about getting the truth. She had been called persistent -and stubborn- over the years, and she was beginning to see why. It took some coaxing, but eventually Lucy spilled the secrets of what transpired weeks back.

Apparently she had confessed to Natsu, and he had rejected her.

That led to more questions, but Lucy insisted there was no reason to pry further into the matter.

"It was just a misunderstanding," she kept saying, but Erza wasn't convinced.

She had seen the way Natsu acted around Lucy, the way he was more concerned with her than his other friends. Sure, it could be because she was the newest to the group and he wanted to make her feel included, but she doubted that was the reason.

Erza had been convinced Natsu had feelings for Lucy for months now, so to hear he rejected her? It made no sense, and she was going to get to the bottom of it. Today, if possible.

He wasn't in his room when she stopped by after dinner last night, but judging by the teasing Gray gave Natsu during breakfast that morning, it was because they were doing a late run around the football field.

Apparently Gray won, which didn't seem to faze Natsu too much.

That alone was surprising, but with the new information Erza received, she was convinced there was a deeper reason for Natsu rejecting Lucy's confession. It couldn't simply be that he wasn't interested in her, and if that was the case, she wanted to look him in the eyes as he told her, otherwise she wasn't buying it for a second. He had been acting too strange, like the fire within him was doused.

She was also curious why Lucy was fine with rubbing his back yet seemed to avoid sitting next to him during meals. Though, she had to admit Natsu looked rather miserable during the rides. She took pity on him as well, though her solution was to knock him out during the trip. At least then he wouldn't get sick.

Jellal had dissuaded her from that approach, stating it was too harsh, even if it was effective. It wasn't like it would be every day. Natsu only joined them twice a week now. He switched his schedule more times than Erza could count, but he seemed to be going back to his old routine, changing out days in receiving for watch duty, while also joining the runners and clearers on certain days.

"We're coming up on the next checkpoint," Rogue said, keeping his voice at a level so the survivors could hear but the zombies pulling them wouldn't notice. They were too busy trying to catch Lyon, who was walking ahead with a belt full of bells. "Who wants to take over?"

When there were no volunteers, Lucy started to pull her hand away from Natsu's back. Erza feared she was going to take over. Wanting her friends to stay close despite the awkward tension that had settled between them, Erza's hand shot up as she announced, "I will."

Lucy looked at her, eyes wide as her fingers curled against Natsu's back. The man gagged, stealing Lucy's attention and allowing Erza to let out a breath. She knew it was silly to volunteer to lead the chariot just so Lucy wouldn't leave Natsu, but Erza had a soft spot for romance. She didn't advertise it of course, wanting to appear reserved in matters of love, but she was a sucker for love.

She wanted her friends to be happy, and she felt Natsu and Lucy stood the best chance at happiness together.

Before Erza could make a move to stand, Jellal stole a kiss. It was short but sweet, conveying what she knew to be true. They would do their best to make it through every moment of the days laid before them, no matter how hard the struggles they were sure to face.

She whispered her love for him, and he returned it as she disembarked the moving trailer. The next half hour that passed was more of the same, walking ahead with the constant bells ringing in her ears. She drowned them out, eyes sharp as she checked her surroundings every half block or so. With no threats in sight, she sighed, wishing for the millionth time they weren't stuck in the aftermath of the outbreak.

Then again, the alternative was falling like so many others did in the beginning. As much as that fate pained her, she knew they were fortunate in one way. It was better to die and stay dead rather than continue as one of those monsters that plagued their new world.

Erza cracked a small smile when she saw the lines of shopping carts, knowing they were close to their destination. It would be mere minutes before they were able to get to work to bring more supplies back to Fairy Tail, a job Erza found herself proud to have despite the risks. She understood why Lucy was adamant about staying a runner, even if her safety was almost guaranteed as a member of maintenance.

Erza turned to see if anyone else realized they were near their worksite, her eyes zoning past the tethered zombies behind her to see Rogue off to the side of the chariot, his rifle in hands. Her eyes widened when she saw Rogue jolt, the man lifting his weapon before taking aim at Erza's direction.

Before she could question his frightening behavior, a loud scream ripped through the air. Erza didn't have time to look as she turned, something crashing into her body with a force that knocked the air from her lungs.

She didn't think, instead grabbing whatever it was in the hopes of keeping it from biting her. With limited options, she assumed it was a zombie, but when she glanced down and saw reddened cheeks and normal flesh, she realized she was holding a living girl.

Erza opened her mouth to ask if she was alright, but the snarls surrounding her told her now wasn't the time. The chariot hadn't stopped, and the small group of sprinters that appeared in front of her demanded her focus. It didn't take much effort for the girl to escape Erza's grasp, soon running straight for the zombies pulling the chariot.

She must have realized her mistake, another scream filling the air before she shrunk down. Erza didn't hesitate to grab the girl by the arm before jerking her away from the zombies. They had their hands and jaws removed, but she wasn't taking any chances.

All it took was a scratch to spread the infection.

Rogue passed them as Erza pulled the girl to the side of the chariot, firing his rifle once, twice, three times before Erza couldn't distinguish any sounds. She didn't check to see if the sprinters were after her, running as she led the girl towards the trailers.

Other runners were jumping into the street at that point, Erza scanning the small crowd before catching a glimpse of Jellal and Natsu, the two running straight for the fight. She looked back, seeing bodies fall to the ground, but thankfully none of them belonged to the survivors.

Chaos soon filled the neighborhood as orders were shouted, but with Erza's ears ringing and the girl now clinging to her side, she didn't try to move. There were others around her, one of them being Lucy with her bow drawn and an arrow at the ready. She perched herself on the rail of the trailer after the chariot was stopped, bricks blocking the tires so the zombies couldn't carry on.

Erza took a moment to collect herself, heaving in big breaths before looking down at the girl. With a better look she didn't appear as young as Erza first suspected, closer to their age if she had to guess.

The woman had dirt smeared on her hands and face, along with tears and scrapes. They were fresh, dots of blood collecting in the wounds. The woman's pink hair was matted to her forehead, her braid unkempt and dirty, but not as badly as it could have been.

Erza parted her lips to ask a simple question. "What's your name?"

She realized as soon as the words left her mouth it was useless. She couldn't hear her own voice, let alone someone else's. When the mystery woman looked up with dark eyes that held a hint of purple, she didn't say anything. Her mouth twisted as tears flooded her eyes, but Erza didn't see much before the woman buried her face into her side again, crying against her.

If she had to guess the woman couldn't hear properly either, Erza deciding formalities could wait. She wound an arm around the woman as her eyes scanned the area, watching as runners flowed through the streets and between houses.

Rogue mentioned during training that if shots were fired, they would most likely retreat for the day. So far Erza hadn't witnessed that, so she wasn't sure what Rogue would choose to do, especially considering their day hadn't started yet.

Erza couldn't be certain how much time passed before her hearing started returning, the ringing now faint as the voices around her filtered in. By that time the runners had returned, reporting they didn't see any other zombies in the area.

Rogue looked reluctant as he nodded, brows furrowed and arms crossed. "Okay, but everyone works in pairs today. Do not go outside without telling your buddy, and keep your eyes and ears sharp today. There's no telling who might've heard those shots."

The majority of the group was dismissed, beginning their workday with caution. Erza watched as people paired off, spotting Natsu walking up to Lucy. She wished she could sigh in relief when she saw Lucy nod before the two walked off together, but she had other issues to tend to.

Namely the body attached to her hip.

Erza cleared her throat, but her voice still sounded off when she asked, "Do you have a group you belong to?"

The woman with pink hair hesitated to look up, eyes red and watery while her lip quivered. She didn't respond with words, merely nodding as more tears fell down her cheeks.

The questions continued to pile up, but Erza kept them to herself for now. All that mattered was that her friends and comrades were safe for the time being. Everything else could wait.


"Man, and I thought the craziest thing to happen was this festival bullshit."

"Me too. Makarov's lost his damn mind if he thinks that's gonna fix things. Like slappin' a bandage on a torn off arm. Just a waste a' time and resources."

"I don't know, I think it could be fun. And we could all use the extra day off."

"I guess, but why not just give us all an extra day off without all the festival stuff too?"

Aries had no idea what the three men in the other room were talking about, her eyes fixed on the bottle of water and damp towel on the table in front of her. She sat at someone's dining room table, her stomach in knots from being in a stranger's home. Her family had only recently started taking shelter in abandoned houses, but the way the people around her were acting, it seemed like a regular occurrence.

She let out a shaky breath, arms crossing her torso with her hands gripping her elbows. What had she gotten herself into? Being far away from her family and friends was one thing, but being surrounded by strangers?

Armed strangers for that matter?!

'Only one has a gun,' she noted, the rest carrying everything from hunting knives to baseball bats. They all looked comfortable with their weapons too. That should have brought Aries a sense of security knowing they could defend against the undead, but it only contributed to her panicked state.

"Did you not want to wash up?"

Aries jumped, letting out a small gasp that earned her a concerned look from the woman with red hair. It took a few seconds for her to regain her composure, Aries mumbling an apology before her eyes fell to her lap.

"It's fine," the woman said, her name escaping her. It started with an E, or maybe it was an A? Aries couldn't be sure, her mind frazzled after almost getting ripped to shreds multiple times that morning.

"Aries?"

The call of her name was accompanied by the woman sliding the damp towel closer to her, Aries reluctantly accepting it. She pulled it towards her chest, not yet ready to wipe away the sweat and dirt she collected that morning. Doing so would acknowledge it was real, and she was willing to deny as long as it kept her heartbeat at a decent pace.

Her mind wanted to pull her from the reality she had found herself in, seek shelter in a safe place until her family arrived.

'If... they even arrive.'

A sense of dread washed over her, Aries sinking into her seat as she clutched the towel. The dirt from her fingers stained the material, tarnishing the soft petals of the flower printed on the fabric. The image vaguely reminded her of a pillow her mom had embroidered when she was younger. Some small semblance of happiness tried to pierce the barricades in her mind, but it wasn't strong enough.

There was no safety in her heart, no chance of relaxing until she found her family.

"You said you aren't alone?" the woman asked, taking a seat next to her. She was beautiful, even with her arms adorned with bruises and healed cuts. That braided red hair especially had Aries envious, wishing her father had let her grow hers out.

It was always chopped off at her shoulders, never allowed to grow past that. If it wasn't for her natural curls that bunched her hair at the ends, it would appear longer, but there was nothing she could do about that.

It was all trivial now. Who cared about what one's hair looked like when the world around them was rotting?

"No... I wasn't."

"Can you tell me about it? Your group? How you ended up out there?"

By 'out there' Aries assumed she meant running through the streets being chased by the living dead. She had seen some horror movies before, but nothing compared to the fear she felt every time she encountered those monsters.

With a slow inhale, Aries summoned the strength to explain her morning, starting with her wish to gather fruit from a peach tree one block down from where her family had been staying the past few nights.

"I just wanted to make my sister happy, but..." Aries eyes dimmed, remembering the horrid stench that hit her nostrils seconds before she heard the screech. "The dead found me, chased me until I ran into you."

"If you don't mind me asking, how much of your family is still alive?"

Aries shook her head, her eyes flitting around the room before landing on her lap again. "They're... not my real family," she started, heart sinking as she found the urge to cry. She shut out the images wanting to pop into her head.

She didn't need to remember what she had witnessed as her family was quite literally torn away from her. She couldn't think about her loss, Aries focusing on her chosen family.

"We're not related, but we're all close. We... we call ourselves a family."

The woman didn't look confused, instead nodding as she asked, "Do you know where your family was staying? Any street signs that look familiar?"

"No, I didn't look at the signs... But we were in a tan house, with white trim."

The look the woman gave suggested that information wasn't helpful. It made sense, considering how many houses matched that description.

"There was the peach tree about a block away. And there was a... one of those small pools outside, shaped like an alligator."

She nodded, lips pressing together before she took in a breath. "Alright, I'll let them know to look out for that. Anything else?"

"I don't—" Aries was cut off when she saw movement in her peripherals, looking over to see a man with black hair. The scar running across his nose told her he was the same man from earlier who was firing his gun at the dead. He seemed important, especially when the woman straightened up at his arrival.

"Erza? Do you know what we're looking for?"

'Erza, that's her name.'

The woman nodded, relaying the small bits of information Aries had said. The man's eyes never strayed from Erza's until she was finished. He glanced at Aries, voice kind despite his serious expression. His rifle begged for her attention, but she forced herself to focus on the man.

"We'll do what we can to help you locate them, but before my team starts this search, we need to know what your group will do if found?"

"Wh-what do you m— erm, mean?" Aries asked, an apology on the tip of her tongue for stumbling over her words, but it was dropped when Erza answered.

"Rogue is just concerned for the safety of our people. Will your family try to harm them? Shoot them? Attack?"

"N-never," Aries said, shaking her head. "We're peaceful, I promise."

That was part of the problem. If they had more than a few weapons, maybe they would have better defended themselves when the undead found them. The gates could only keep them out for so long. After that, their community was a bloodbath, the lone survivors leaving after their former family and friends joined the ranks of the dead.

It was no longer their home, Aries and her chosen family leaving by horses and foot, traveling into the unknown with the hope of living another day.

"We have no guns, only axes and such..."

She watched as Rogue accepted her words, his hand running through his dark hair before he called for Erza to join him outside. "Thank you."

Aries didn't respond, instead watching as Erza stood.

"I'll be right back. Try to clean up while I'm gone, okay?"

Aries managed a small nod, throat locking up as she watched Erza leave with the man. She failed to swallow as she pulled the towel away from her chest. She stared at it, the design blurring as tears filled her eyes. It wasn't long until she had to breathe out of her mouth, her nose clogged and chest plummeting at the thought of never seeing her family again.

'What if they can't find them? What if they die before I get back to them? What if they die looking for me?!'

With no comforting answers, Aries' body went limp. She didn't have the strength to keep the towel up, resting it in her lap as the tears flowed. She felt the overwhelming weight of defeat. It was suffocating, maddening, and infuriating. Aries couldn't summon the strength to be angry about her situation, all energy drained as she recalled the faces of her family, wishing she could see them one last time.

"Knock knock," someone said, causing Aries' eyes to shoot up.

Her hindered vision cleared after wiping the damp towel on her eyes. She imagined them puffy and red, but the person in front of her didn't comment.

"Hey," said a blonde woman, taking the seat Erza had occupied moments before. "I know you're probably scared right now, but I just want to let you know I was like you once."

Aries raised a brow, but the expression was broken when her bottom lip began to tremble. There was no way she knew what she was going through, Aries feeling lost, confused, and utterly hopeless.

"I don't know what you've been through," she proceeded to say, her brown eyes as soft as her words. "But I was found out here on my own too." A sliver of a smile pulled at her lips, the woman resting her hands on her knees. Aries caught the weird pink symbol on one of her hands, but the woman's voice pulled her focus away.

"Fairy Tail is a good place. They gave me shelter, food to eat, and safety when I thought my world was falling apart. I know it's a lot right now, and hopefully we find your group soon, but until then I just wanted to let you know you're in good hands."

The woman's smile brightened a bit as she stood, grabbing a bow off the table. Aries hadn't noticed when she sat it down, or even when the woman had entered the room. "I need to get back out there. Don't stress too much over finding your group, let us worry about that." She turned, heading towards the door.

Before she left, the woman turned and said, "If you need anything, just ask. My name's Lucy."

'Lucy,' Aries thought, wishing she could find her voice to thank her. The woman didn't look like she expected anything back, giving Aries a nod before she rounded the door, leaving her alone once more.

Only, Aries didn't feel as lonely as before. She didn't feel that safety Lucy spoke of, but she felt a shred of hope. The people around her seemed determined to reunite her with her family.

That in of itself was enough to make Aries breathe without struggle for the first time since she ran from that peach tree. She didn't know how long it would take for her family to be found, or what lied ahead during that time, but she didn't feel as panicked.

Besides, if they meant her harm, wouldn't they have done it already?


Erza collapsed on the couch as soon as she made it back to her room. She was beat, drained after the long day. They were no closer to finding Aries' family than they were at the start, but at least Natsu came up with the idea of hanging up signs in the neighborhood in case they came by.

Of course, they couldn't advertise their location, but they promised to be back in two days since the clearers would be using the chariot tomorrow. They were briefed on the situation, told to keep an eye out for other survivors just in case.

Erza wasn't too sure about their chances of finding Aries' family. She was hopeful, but like most of the survivors, she had seen enough death and disappointment to know it was risky making promises.

'At least she took a liking to me and Lucy,' Erza thought, recalling how she and Lucy alternated throughout the day to keep Aries company and pry any further information out of the girl. They now knew Aries was surprisingly twenty despite looking younger, and was homeschooled on a farm on the outskirts of Magnolia, formally known as section six by Fairy Tail. Aries had said they had traveled for a few days, so going back to that area was fruitless, but at least they knew where not to look.

Erza let out a long breath, kicking off her boots before rolling on her side. She groaned as her muscles ached, but at least they all survived another day. Being a runner wasn't as scary as she imagined, but today was an exception. She hadn't encountered sprinters like that since the outbreak began, Erza realizing more that she had a relatively safe job as a guard before.

'It's for the good of Fairy Tail,' she reminded herself, even if her feet were disagreeing.

While she liked her new job, it had its drawbacks. For example, she had less energy than before, but every day she was getting used to it. She wanted to catch Natsu and talk to him when they reached the base, but she decided to use her limited energy on helping Aries get settled at Fairy Tail.

Until they found her family, Aries would be staying with Lucy, who was all too happy to have the company. Erza had helped bring a mattress up for her, gotten her some fresh clothing and toiletries from the commissary, and informed Aries were to find her if she needed any help and Lucy wasn't around.

She hoped Aries' family was found quickly, but a selfish part of her knew Fairy Tail would benefit from having her around. From the few brief conversations they had with Aries throughout the day, it was revealed that the girl was a great cook, often making her meals from scratch. She said her family was old-fashioned, passing recipes down from generation to generation.

She spoke of one dish in particular that had Erza's mouth watering, hoping Aries stayed long enough to help Mira and the others in the kitchen at least once. Mira's cooking was amazing, but she knew the ex-barmaid wouldn't mind some new meals to add to her menu.

Erza closed her eyes, deciding a nap before dinner was a good idea. Jellal had said he was going to talk to Makarov more about the festival, so he wouldn't be back for a while.

She pulled a pillow under her head, a small smile curving her lips as she let sleep embrace her. However, seconds before she drifted away to a world that couldn't hurt her, a knock sounded at her door, startling her awake.

Erza let out a grumble, brows furrowing and nose wrinkling at the thought of standing. That didn't stop her from pouring herself off the couch, the bottoms of her feet hurting as she applied weight to them.

'Did Jellal forget his key?'

Erza shook her head as she walked across the room to the door. As she grabbed the handle and lock she imagined seeing her husband or Aries on the other side of the door, convinced it had to be one of them.

She twisted the lock and pulled, deciding it was Aries when she caught a flash of pink. However, her eyes widened when she realized she was wrong.

"Natsu?" Erza asked, peering at her friend.

His pink hair was more disheveled than when she last saw him at processing, the skin around his eyes looking rubbed raw with how red they had become. His voice had never been deep, but it came out more scratchy than usual as he asked, "Hey, is uh... Jellal here?"

"No," she said, trying to make sense of his appearance by staring into his eyes, but she couldn't figure it out. It didn't help that he did his best to avoid her gaze. "Why?"

"I..." Natsu looked down the hall before taking a step back, the man ready to retreat. "I wanted to ask him... for some ad-advice. Never mind though. I-I can come back later."

"Is everything okay?" Erza asked, taking a step forward when she saw his body leaning towards the right. She didn't want him to escape, not with the look of pain that washed over his face.

She saw his Adam's apple bob as he swallowed, his eyes falling to the tiles between them before he raised them to her neck. His hair had grown longer again, but his bangs couldn't hide the tears gathering in his eyes.

Natsu shook his head, voice cracking as he said, "N-no. I... I need help."

.

.

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Sorry it took nine months for me to update this story. Real life kinda took priority, and honestly that's probably not gonna change. It's been difficult to write since I lost my job towards the end of 2021. I have a new job, pretty settled into it now but it is very physically demanding (standing/moving most of the time about 45-50 hours a week) and that leaves me tired by the time I get home, and all I have the energy for is eating and watching TV, maybe playing video games but not as much as I would like. On my days off I prioritize hanging out with my friends (which is fucking weird to have friends now, lol) and relaxing before the work week starts again. I also try to catch up on chores around the house.

I fell in love this year, and that took up a lot of my physical, emotional, and mental time/energy. It didn't end well... To be fair it didn't start well either, but it is what it is. I don't regret it happening, I wish it had turned out differently, but we don't always get what we want in life. It's been 8 weeks since I cut contact with him, and even though I want to reach out to him most days, I know this is the best for both of us. Miss ya E. Hope you're doing well.

I write a little at a time (usually 100-200 words), but it's just when I find the motivation. I also get distracted easily, and with three cats and a dog it's easy to lose focus on my computer. I also decided college wasn't for me. I got an A in my class but damn it was so boring and the thought of doing that for a career sucked the life out of me, so I'm sticking with my current job for the foreseeable future. I could go on and on, but basically I'm saying I hope you lower your expectations on updates, because they're going to take a while. If you choose to drop this or FTGO!, I understand completely. If you choose to stick it out, I hope it's worth it.

As for the story notes go, the key points to take away from this is Aries is now at Fairy Tail, there have been more shifts in jobs to make the base more efficient, and a festival has been planned! I'm looking forward to writing the chapters covering that, but it'll be a hot minute 'til we get there. I hope I'm not the only one who sees Erza as the type of character to insert herself into other people's business? Kind of a 'I know best so you should do things this way' type of behavior? I wrote her observing the changes in Natsu and Lucy's dynamic and wanting to get to the bottom of it, but it looks like instead of going to Erza for help, Natsu's seeking out Jellal. Wonder why?

Thank you so much for your continued support! I appreciate every single favorite, follow, and feedback! Shout out to those who left reviews last time: Wolfcry77, SwordBlaze221, sonikastalker, queenuly14, Stellar Spirit Mage, CelestialDragonSlayer222, ToastBat, galactiaconstella, ElementalMiko12, Dezez, Guest, MissB, CathJorda, shiinka, SistershoOk, NaluPrincess, Nutella16, valerioux, Mandapandaa, Lodemai04, BloodySabbath44, Tabasco-Devil, Tara. pasty, shootingstarssel, Copperreign12, Guest, Lovetoreadff, dareaderreads, Sanvi010208, Patpat, aly2. 0, guest, IamTeddy, lovelyleveret, SunsetRika, Nastu Dragoneel, Melz87, Guest, Wadeparker, Flor de cerezoNFTLC, skelekc, Doginshoe, Guest, LpboyXlll, Guest, sakshishetty3003, Duchixx, SosoFia, Bookwork129, StellaHeartfilia, FairyTailxFanGirl(x2), sky0fincandescence, peanutcat420, Dudeman1397, justyourtypicalbookworm, theunicorn22, redwolfBm86(x4), ottermadness(x6), AJ, Elayna, Guest, Rivera. Silver. 11Creepypastas12(x2), T-tawny, Guest, Guest, ElementalMiko12, CathJorda, Guest, BetaDreamer, and Lovesmutbabe!

So, on the subject of feedback, I'm still open to constructive criticism, but I'll be honest, I'm not gonna follow most of it. I'm going to have adverbs, I'm going to misuse commas and en/em dashes. Another reason I lost motivation to write was a I started watching a bunch of YouTube videos on how to improve writing and it just kinda killed my love for writing a bit, made me feel like there were too many rules. I understand how they can make a story more captivating and such, but man... I'd rather just write how I write and if people like it, awesome! If they don't, there are sooooo many other options out there to choose from, or better yet, they can start their own story! The world needs more stories to distract from how freaking insane it is out there.

Also, one last note: Yes, Natsu is getting emotional again. He's going back and forth on what he should do regarding his feelings for Lucy. After my last 'relationship' (it was never official but he called it that so I guess it was a type of relationship) I'm more firm on Natsu being indecisive and fearful of his feelings. Like, dude, feelings can fucking suck. It makes you scared, makes you doubt yourself and worry about all the possible outcomes if you do/don't voice them. Throw in the zombie apocalypse and Natsu's just screwed if he tries to figure it out on his own, so he's seeking help. More on that in the next chapter though.

Hope I didn't come across as rude. I'm very upfront with how I'm feeling and don't want anyone to get disappointed if they think the updates are gonna start piling in, because they're not. I'm a realist and unless something drastic happens, writing has taken a backseat in my life. I still love it, just other things have taken priority, like work, friends, and other hobbies.

Thank you again so much for reading. I truly appreciate everyone, whether you've been reading from day one or this is your first time here. Thank you, and I hope you have a wonderful day/night.