I WAS trying to get this out in time for my birthday (Feb 1) but didn't quite make it before the crazy weekend started. Anywho, this one's dedicated to ShanaHollows and her borderline problematic obsession with Gray...hehe. Enjoy.

Images swam in Lucy's head: blurred lacrimas, glistening beer mugs, grinning and laughing people standing just a little too close. Her ears caught snippets of conversation that seemed to echo in her skull…

"... come on, babe...I'll show you a great time…"

"...last night in Magnolia, Lucy! Make the most…"

"...cheers for Fairy Tail! May it never…"

Then the blur solidified into a familiar face inches from hers...Gray's face…

"Lucy! Lucy? Let's get you home…"

"He's not here…"

"..made the choice to leave..."

"...not your fault…"

"...but, you're only alone because you want to be, Lucy!"

Then darkness.

Warm arms closed around her body as she floated in the formless abyss and she cried out.

'Natsu? Is that you?'


Then the warmth turned into an icy embrace. The darkness oozed down her throat and she fought to breathe in the vast, dead silence.


Lucy sat bolt upright from her desk with a rippled piece of parchment stuck to her face, a ruined quill in her hand, and a hangover the size of Ishgar. She didn't notice the blanket that fell off her shoulders and nestled into the crook of her chair.

Bright sunlight filtered in through her wide open window of her bedroom causing her to wince at the pain it caused in her head and shiver at the biting cold of the wind. With a groan, she peeled the paper off her face and levered herself from her desk chair, quickly shutting and clasping the window tightly. Her skin was chilled to the touch from exposure to the cool wind all night. What had she been thinking leaving the window open?

Speaking of that...she honestly didn't even remember coming home. Lucy looked down at herself, noticing she was still wearing the dress she'd worn to the bar last night with Cana and the Strausses, though it was certainly worse for wear, and damp in some places. Only her shoes had been removed, which-judging by the dirty state of the bottom of her feet-probably happened much earlier than when she had gotten home.

What the hell had happened the night before? She didn't remember anything after...her and Lisanna laughing at something? And being suuuuper drunk. Like, rolling on the floor drunk. She remembered that well.

It was probably a miracle that she'd managed to get home at all. She looked around the room, struggling to find some clue as to how she'd gotten home. Her shoes were in a pile next to the door instead of with the larger pile next to her closet. Her bed was still made-unsurprising considering where she'd woken up-but there was a book lying on it she didn't remember leaving there.

Gingerly, she leaned over to pick it up, but a bout of hangover nausea and dizziness hit her like she was a dragonslayer on a train before she could even read the title. She bolted to the bathroom, getting there just in time to avoid throwing up all over her bedspread.

As her head spun, the image of Gray's face from her dream popped up again. She looked at the book she'd discarded on the bathroom floor and recognized the fantasy romance Gray had been sneaking in to read for the last month (yeah, she knew what he was reading, despite the fact he pretended to go for the classics section every time he was near her bookcases).

What the hell?

Gray hadn't even been there last night…

Had he?

She couldn't remember...but, maybe Lisanna did?

She looked at her lacrima alarm clock and screeched. How had she overslept that much?! The Strauss' train was due to leave in fifteen minutes! If she wanted answers, she was gonna have to run for it. Grabbing her boots and keys, she ran out the door, still wearing last night's dress, her hair streaming freely behind her.

Laxus and Bickslow, standing in her kitchen doorway with mugs of coffee, looked at each other, shrugged, and went back to enjoying their morning brew in comfortable silence.

Natsu shoveled scrambled eggs into his mouth in between sending bursts of fire through the protective barrier with his other hand.

"Geez, can'tcha wait until after breakfast? The smell of your burns from yesterday are ruining my food!" he grumbled to the semi-charred dark wizards, cracking his neck to work out the familiar kinks from sleeping on the ground as he chewed.

"Yeah! You're ruining the fish smell!" Happy chimed in, dropping the guy he'd picked up from a place high enough to break something inconvenient.

"Happy, are you sure you don't want me to fry those up for you?" Libby asked apprehensively, one eye on the dark wizards just outside the barrier wall and one on the freshly caught salmon beside her. She picked it up, avoiding looking at its bulging eyes.

"No, sir! Fresh fishies taste the best raw!" Happy argued back, swooping by to take the fish in her hand from her and munching on it in mid-air, scales and all. "Unless Lucy cooks them. They're ok like that too!"

"Oh come on, Happy, you're just saying that because she gives you as many as you want if you compliment her cooking! She's not that great at making fish," Natsu scoffed, pausing to Fire Dragon Roar another group of attackers back into the trees where they were trying to sneak around the side of the barrier to attack from behind.

"Nuh-uh! Lucy's a great cook! Way better than Erza!" Happy retorted. "AND she gives me as much as I want whether I say it's good or not!"

"Well, I can't argue there…" Natsu muttered under his breath as he scented the wind. Erza was a terrible chef (great with prepwork, but somehow managed to undercook and burn everything to a crisp simultaneously). He paused as he picked up something familiar on the wind. There was a small group, maybe 3-5 coming up from the south side, but the musky scent coming from the forest behind the barrier was much more interesting. If he wasn't mistaken...he'd smelled that particular magic before… "Happy, hold down the fort here for a bit, I'm gonna check something out!"

"Aye sir!"

Natsu ran back through the barrier feeling the whisper of the rune wall Mystogan had erected slide over his skin. In the attacks the day before Natsu had been caught off guard and sent flying into one of the staves keeping the magic in place. He'd gotten it mostly back to where it had been, but the spell had definitely been weakened. It was barely a tingle now. He guessed it probably had maybe another day or two before it gave out. Which meant he had to handle this particular threat quickly and get back as soon as possible to make sure nothing happened to Ari and Libby. As a Fairy Tail wizard, he would not fail a simple protection detail like this. Plus, he and Happy still really needed the money if they were going to get out of Oak Town without starving to death.

He raced through the woods, feeling his muscles contract and stretch as he engaged all of them with synchronicity. Nothing felt better than good old-fashioned exercise. Plus, the air blasting past his face was full of scents, making him almost giddy as he breathed them all in, searching for traces of the one he was tracking.

The one that smelled distinctly...snooty. Like cologne. The wind shifted and the scent got much stronger all at once. Natsu immediately adjusted his direction to where the wind had come from. The bastard was close…

He slowed down, his dragonslayer eyes picking up the slightest movement among the branches around him. Then, he saw it: a glimpse of green hair and the flash of a monocle.

"Hey! Wily Dude, I see you! Let's fight already! I've got a job I gotta get back to!" Natsu yelled.

He had barely finished speaking when the ground beneath him turned to soup, burying him up to his knees before he knew it and well on its way to getting to his waist. Hastily, he shot flames into the earth on either side of him, exploding it into a cloud of burnt dust and propelling himself into the air. He caught the branch of a tree and pulled himself up while he waited for the dust to settle. "Not bad Wily Dude. I forgot you did Earth magic. Ya almost had me there."

"Non, non, non! My name," replied a male voice with a nasally French accent. "Iz naught 'Wily Dood', it is Ze Great Earth Sol of ze Land, or Monsieur Sol if you must, se vous plait...Monsieur Dragneel." While the thin shifty ex-Element Four mage's words were polite, his actions were not: a giant fist of stone appeared and punched at the branch Natsu balanced on.

He managed to dodge the attack, but his return Fire Dragon's Crimson Wing missed his target as his opponent's whiplike body maneuvered quickly away from it. "I don't care what your name is. I'm just here to defeat you so Ari and Libby can be on their way."

"Ah, but you are all alone, monsieur? Where is ze pretty blonde mademoiselle you are so very fond of? Mademoiselle Heartfilia, I believe..." Sol tilted his head sideways and made a gesture, whispering something under his breath. A mound of dirt rose from the ground and fell away to reveal an unconscious Lucy, hands and legs securely tied. He grinned nastily at the pinkette over what appeared to be his partner's squirming body.

The fire dragonslayer hesitated for a single breath, his fist poised to destroy everything around his opponent. In that split second his eyes met Lucy's familiar brown ones and he was pummeled by a barrage of rocks out of nowhere. He got his guard up just in time to protect his head, but the force of the rocks had driven him back several feet, causing lacerations and bruising over most of his arms and legs. Lowering his arms, he glared at the former Phantom Lord wizard with just a hint of his usual cocky grin to cover up his annoyance. That had been just a little too close for his liking.

"You think I'm stupid enough to think that's Lucy? Doesn't smell like her at all. And that shirt you've got her in got destroyed a long time ago. Lucy complained about it being an 'irreplaceable limited edition Heart Kreuz' for a long time after it got incinerated."

Sol cocked an eyebrow. "Touche, monsieur. Non, non, non, rather, I am sorry for my theatrics. I merely thought you might wish to see your partner again, but perhaps it iz not her that iz clouding your brow?" At a gesture from him, the clay figure tied on the ground exploded in size until an eerily accurate replica of the fire dragon king roared before him, stirring the air and knocking over trees with his massive wings.

Natsu, frozen in place, could only stare as a perfect replica of the father he'd just watched die not a month before gave him a wink and swatted at him with his tail. He didn't even brace himself, his air getting completely knocked out of him as he flew through the air. Even if he knew it couldn't be Igneel, it was hard to suppress his longing to look just one more time. And even harder to incite the gumption to smash the fake dragon to bits.

But smash it he did. Summoning a feral roar from deep in his belly, Natsu let loose on the thing, exploding it like a poorly made pot in a kiln. Sharp shards of rock shot far into the surrounding woods, burying themselves deep in the bark of trees and creating ruts in the forest floor. He completely destroyed the golem, but watching the fake image of his father explode hurt Natsu's heart more than he would ever admit.

Now, there was not a hint of a smile on Natsu's face as he stalked toward his prey, who had fallen back to tend to a large sliver of rock that had buried itself in his right shoulder. The air around Natsu amped up in temperature as his anger increased, his right hand clenched into a fist so tight his knuckles turned white enough to match the bandage wrapped around his arm. Beneath it, the spell circle Igneel had left behind emblazoned on his forearm under the bandages grew hot as well, steadily burning them away. Ember eaten dried leaves took to the air as they disintegrated into ash in Natsu's wake. Grass withered and smoldered beneath his feet. The air shimmered around him in blurry waves.

Sol attempted a kick to cover his exit but Natsu caught and held him, melting the synthetic fibers of his brown trousers beneath his fingers. The fire dragonslayer leaned forward, staring down his enemy until the monocle covering Sol's right eye turned cherry red and he screamed in pain.

"Natsu! What are you doing?! Stop it!"

Natsu jerked out of his rage fueled reverie, the sweltering heat abating immediately as he released his prey and took in a deep breath, eyes searching frantically through the trees. Because he could have sworn he'd just heard…

No. That was impossible.

Sol lay on the ground, his monocle sizzling in the leaves as he curled into a ball and cupped his eye with both hands. Natsu made a move toward him and he twitched, his one good eye swiveling in panic.

"I yield! You win, monsieur!" he screeched, scuffling backward in the leaves until he could regain his feet and run away.

Natsu just stood and watched him go, feeling chilled in the aftermath of so much heat. He looked down at his hands, trying in vain to see how he had summoned it without any fire. It wasn't like any spell he'd done before. He hadn't said anything or concentrated on a particular spell circle. He had just gotten angry. And the fire within him had responded, fueling his rage. If he hadn't been called back from it by her voice, he wasn't sure what he would have done. It was like his magic was completely out of his control. The scariest thing was that it had felt so...right.

A cry of his name on the wind reminded him that his current fight was far from over, and he sprinted back to his mission, pushing the incident to the back of his mind until he had time to think about it.

But, as he ran, he couldn't keep his ears from straining, without success, for any scrap of sound that could explain why he'd heard Lucy's voice when she was so many miles away.

"So, Gray was there last night?" Lucy gasped, still catching her breath as Elfman manfully let her lean on his arm on the train platform. She made a mental note to have Capricorn add cardio to her new training regimen. Without Natsu dragging her around, she was running a lot less lately.

Actually, she should probably summon him soon and explain what was going on since she'd completely slept through her morning training session.

"Yes! Cana and I ran into him and sent him your way. Why, did you wake up in a precarious position with our favorite ice wizard? If so, you're welcome!" Mira chirped with a sweet smile.

"WHAT? NO! What makes you say that?!" Lucy squawked back, coughing a bit as her lungs and sides burned.

"Well...from what I remember last night, you two were getting pretty friendly…" Lisanna added suggestively. "He was laying the knight in shining armor act on pretty thick, actually. Granted, you weren't having any of it. You kept insisting that you could handle yourself. Which was when you called out Loke's Star Dress and knocked out half the bar patrons. It was HILARIOUS! That Star Dress spell looks really handy! I would love to see the rest of them someday!" Lisanna giggled while Lucy stared back at her in horror.

"I did...WHAT?! No way! I haven't even really tried that one yet!"

"Yes way! You totally did! And you were badass! Don't worry, they deserved it. At least it was better than having their hands frozen together and hung from the chandeliers. That's what Gray did to that guy who tried to grab our asses. It was very chivalrous of him, actually. He didn't even brawl much or anything. But since you knocked out those guys, they kicked us out of the bar. That's when I went home."

"What did I do then?" Lucy asked. "Did I go home too?"

"Well, Gray said he wanted to take you home, but you wanted to stay out so you ran away. Last I saw, he was chasing you down Mulberry Street, trying to keep you from running into stuff. I think you were looking for a late night ice cream place maybe? You kept yelling 'Gelato to the victor!' at the top of your lungs." Lisanna and Mira smiled wide, not even trying to hide their amusement. Lucy just buried her head in her hands.

"God...I sound like Erza on free cake sample day."

"Of course not, Lucy! You're so much cuter!" Mira said comfortingly with a soft pat on her shoulder.

Lucy's groan was drowned out by the sharp whistle of the train's call to board.

"Well, that's all we have for time for it seems! We're off for the mountains!" Lisanna tried to say cheerfully, but her smile didn't reach her eyes. In fact, all the Strausses had abruptly lost the gleeful glow they'd been enjoying only moments before.

It suddenly hit Lucy that she wouldn't see them again for a while.

If not forever.

Tears pricked her eyes. Mira would never again stand behind Fairy Tail's bar and listen to her stupid problems over a milkshake. Lisanna would never catch her gaze and roll her eyes again as Natsu did something particularly stupid to someone he shouldn't. She would never hear Elfman say 'MAN!' again!

If anyone had asked her a year ago if she would ever miss that, she would have laughed in their face.

But before she knew what she was doing, Lucy had flung her arms around the siblings, drawing them in for huge group hug.

"I'm gonna miss you guys so much!"

Elfman burst into tears immediately, gathering them all into his arms and lifting them off the ground.

"Stay MANLY Lucy!" he sniffled.

Mira and Lisanna squeezed Lucy in superpowered hugs within their brother's arms (they were used to his usual signs of affection at this point).

"Don't worry Lucy. We'll meet again," Mira choked out.

"This isn't goodbye forever! So don't be sad!" Lisanna added, throat thick.

The train whistle blew again for last call and they all broke apart, the white haired siblings running for the train while Lucy stood on the platform waving with all her might.

She stayed that way until she couldn't see the train anymore. Suddenly, without Mira in Magnolia-the light of the Fairy Tail guild hall-it finally felt like Fairy Tail was well and truly gone.

Lucy wallowed in her sadness for a full minute, staring at the empty tracks extending into the distance.

Then she slapped herself across the face and squared her shoulders.

"Time to find Gray!" she announced to the platform full of strangers, her fighting spirit making a comeback!

Until the wind shifted and she caught a whiff of her own breath.

"Scratch that. Time for a shower and a toothbrush, then to find Gray!"

Juvia couldn't decide what to do.

She rolled onto her right side and looked at the custom-made Gray doll Max had tracked down for her in which the ice-make wizard was depicted as an angel with icy iridescent wings and a shiny frozen halo. She had him propped up against a pile of hastily-stripped button down t-shirts beside her.

On the one hand, she desperately wanted to confront Gray about what she'd seen between him and Lucy the night before. She wanted to be straight with him and get a straight answer once and for all. The angelic Gray seemed to agree.

But...she rolled onto her left side and locked eyes with another Gray doll, this one depicting Gray as a sexy demon, his hair defying gravity around a set of curly black horns and ragged black wings. She ran a finger down his stuffed abs and hummed, settling the plushy idyll more securely in the mountain of discarded boxer briefs keeping it from falling over.

On the other hand, doing so would be admitting that she had followed him and broken the deal they'd made in order for her to stay at his apartment until they left. And she really didn't want to leave his apartment, and lying would keep him from kicking her out.

She lay back and looked around again, shivering in delight knowing she was laying in her beloved's bed at last. Well...laying on top of the mounds of clothing layered on top of his bed, but close enough. She rolled onto her face and took in a deep breath of his scent, hugging a mound of discarded clothing to her chest.

After an hour of fantasizing and rolling around on Gray's messy bed with all the Gray dolls she had agreed to get rid of in a few days, she buried herself in his laundry and fell asleep, lying in wait for him to get home like some sort of psycho commando utilizing gorilla warfare love tactics.

"Hey, Gray! Wait up!"

Lucy's voice echoed down the alley behind Gray and he tensed up, looking frantically for some way to escape without straight up running away. Sweat broke out on his forehead and his shoulders crept up by his ears. Without realizing it, he stripped off his shirt flinging it into the air.

"Keep your clothes ON you perv!" Lucy cried as she scooped up his discarded shirt before it could hit the dirty ground and shoved it into his face. "You have really got to get a handle on that stripping problem you know."

"Yeah, thanks," Gray replied automatically as he grabbed the shirt. He left it over his face for a few precious seconds while he tried his best to rearrange his panicked features into his usual stoic expression. It mostly worked.

"Hey, so I've been looking all over for you. You're a hard man to track down! Can you help me with something?" Lucy asked, leveling her signature 100W smile at him. It was blindingly bright, but not enough to cover up the fact she had dark circles under her eyes and she was wincing at the sunlight streaming into the alley.

Gray swallowed hard and furrowed his eyebrows to hide his apprehension. How was she possibly acting so normal after what had gone down the night before? Was that what she wanted to ask about? "Uh, yeah, I guess…?"

"Great! So, Lisanna said that you came out with us last night. But I kiiiiind of don't remember it at all. I was hoping you could help me fill in the blanks?"

Gray froze, a ray of hope finding him in that dingy alleyway. "Wait...so you don't remember anything from last night?" Could he ever in hell be that fucking lucky?

"Well, I remember bits and pieces, but after Mira and Cana left, the night is a complete blur. Still...I have this really weird feeling that something important happened, so I'm trying to retrace my steps. Lisanna said I ran off looking for ice cream, I guess?" she said sheepishly. "I hear you went after me...do you remember what happened after that?"

Gray felt his whole body relax. She didn't remember. Thank Mavis. He smirked at her. "Oh yeah, I was there. You put on quite the show. I had no idea you could hold a Star Dress transformation and waltz at the same time. Especially drunk. You are a seriously forceful lead when it comes to ballroom dancing."

"Oh Mavis…" Lucy groaned. "Apparently there is no end to how much I can embarrass myself. Where was that? Did anyone else see?!"

"Uh...well, no one was noticing the dancing until you started singing along at the top of your lungs. Then most of the block was awake and throwing things."

"You're kidding me!" Lucy grabbed him by the shoulders, her eyes begging him to confirm that he'd been making it all up.

"Nope. Couldn't make this stuff up if I tried." He fought to keep a straight face as he grimly shook his head.

"Well, at least it can't get worse…right?" She stared him down, her entire will turned toward getting a satisfactory answer from him.

"That really depends on what you mean by 'worse'..." Gray hedged playfully with a hint of smirk.

"Thank Mavis my parents aren't alive to feel my shame!" Lucy cried, lowering her head to his shoulder in defeat. "You might as well tell me everything. Then I can mourn the loss of my good reputation all at once."

Gray's arm moved on its own to comfort her, but he caught it right before it made contact, resisting the natural urge to run a hand down her hair.

She might not remember what happened between them, but that didn't mean it hadn't happened.

He cleared his throat and stepped back instead, putting some much needed distance between them. Awkwardly, he gestured over his shoulder at the already bustling street behind him. "How about we go get some ice cream and I'll recount your adventures? I don't think you ever did get that gelato you wanted…"

Lucy didn't seem to notice his abrupt retreat, smiling easily with a nod. "Sounds like a plan."

To Natsu's surprise, and mild disappointment, the ex-Phantom Lord wizards ceased attacking shortly after noon. It was as if everyone had declared an unspoken truse so they wouldn't miss lunch again. As Libby pointed out, wizards were a hungry lot after all.

So, Natsu went out and killed something meaty and started roasting it while Happy went to protect Libby while she went for a sorely-belated wash in the river. Which is how Natsu and Ari suddenly found themselves alone, lounging around the fire.

Natsu figured it was as good a time as any to address the thought that had been waving emphatically at his brain since the night they met. "So, how do you know Igneel?"

If a giant pink-purple ball of fur with lots of eyes could look surprised, Ari did. Natsu waited patiently for the panoptes to gather her words. He had noticed the creature always took her time to think before saying anything important. With how important this was to him, he would have happily waited all day. Luckily, he didn't have to.

"I met the Fire Dragon King many centuries ago. Far before you were born. I'll admit, I was very surprised to hear you refer to him as your father. Especially since the remaining dragons went missing for such a long time."

"It did seem like a long time ago, didn't it? I was just a kid in x777," Natsu mused, remembering all the years he went searching for his father-while it turned he was contained inside him the whole time. His hands curled into fists as he thought of the time that had been cheated from him. Part of him still didn't forgive Igneel for that.

"X777? Oh no. The dragons that survived Acnologia's purge have been missing since the X390s. The year X391 I believe...or maybe it was X392...that was a very hectic year for me."

Natsu looked at Ari in confusion. "I don't know what other dragons you're talking about, but Igneel was definitely with me the day before he went missing in X777. And the other dragon slayers I know were too. If they'd disappeared in X390, that would mean we're all a helluva lot older than we look." He smirked a bit at the ridiculous thought.

Some of Ari's eyes stared back him in interest as she seemed to gather a response.

"Yes...I believe you're right about that. It appears the explanation for the disappearance of the dragons is not as simple as it seems. You are quite an auspicious person, Summer Child."

"Huh? Is that supposed to mean something to me?"

"Maybe someday it will."

Natsu didn't know what to say to that, so he got up and turned the spit holding their roasting meat over the fire instead.

"Igneel made a pact with me, you know," Ari said after more silent deliberation. "He promised his right eye to me upon his death, after he nearly lost it in his trial by combat to become king. It's one reason I knew the dragons had only disappeared and would some day return to this world. Though, I'll admit, I did not expect his death to come so swiftly after they did. I offer you congratulations on Igneel's noble final hours. It is a death befitting the Fire Dragon King."

"Upon his death...so, that means…" Natsu's eyes lit up as he realized just what it meant. "You've got Igneel's eye! Which means he's talking to you! And he can see me!" Frantically, Natsu jumped to his feet and started circling Ari searching for his father's familiar yellow sclera. It didn't take him long, the large eye on Ari's back standing out due to its size alone. He wondered why he hadn't noticed it sooner. "Dad! Hey! It's me!" he yelled out joyfully, getting up close to grin into his father's fiery gaze.

A deep, musical laugh startled Natsu from his greedy view. He realized he'd never heard Ari laugh before.

"Igneel is quite proud of you, you know. He's hasn't shut up about you since he realized you were here. He says you're getting lazy on your left side and should work on that. He also wants me to hit you upside the head, but I think I will refrain from that. I suspect it would hurt me more than it would you."

"Why didn't you tell me when we first met? I told you about him that night!" Natsu was back to staring at his father's eye, hardly noticing what he was asking.

"It is very disorienting having one's soul removed from one's body and placed with hundreds of others. It can take a human mind decades to regain full awareness. Dragons, thankfully, are much quicker, but he was still quite muddled until he felt your fire nearby."

"Ok, I get that. But you knew, didn't ya? You coulda told me!" Natsu rebuked, like a petulant child.

"Summer Child, you are clever in your own way, but you are still ignorant of much about the world. When you look at me, what do you see?"

"A fluffy ball with lots of eyes," Natsu replied bluntly, slightly annoyed at her for the 'ignorant' comment. He could practically hear Igneel laughing as his eye scrunched with amusement.

Ari merely continued, unoffended. "Precisely. I have no claws and no teeth; no way to defend myself. I have no limbs I can strengthen for running away. But as a panoptes, I have still outlived many human lives. That is due to one important factor: humanity's undying sentimental attachment."

"What the hell is that supposed to mean?" Natsu asked.

"My people are preservers of the souls of the dead. We survive by being served and protected by the loved ones of those we carry. In a sense, we are merely parasites, using not only the living, but their inability to let go of the dead in order to secure protection. Kindheart is an extraordinary case. There are very few caretakers in our histories who came to us for reasons outside of maintaining contact with those we carry with us. Were I not the last of my kind, her true name too would be passed down and revered by all my kind in our vast memories."

"Okay, I get that, but what does that have to do with me and Igneel?" A heavy weight had been growing in Natsu's chest since she'd said the word 'parasites'. He knew where she was going with this, he just didn't want to admit it.

"Mortals have wasted their lives serving my people. They have eschewed lovers, children, and futures in desperate, addicted dedication to preserving their connection to the past. It does not take centuries of experience and a consciousness encompassing the brilliancy of hundreds to know that you, Summer Child, are meant to do important things. World changing things. I would not have you waste your life in order to regain the years with Igneel you have lost. I would not be responsible for changing the fate of Ishgar."

"Then, why did you even tell me?" Natsu attempted to tear his gaze from Igneel's, finding it harder than he thought it would be. Even blinking felt like too long a time to look away. Eventually, he mustered all of his will just to lower his lids, even then tempted every moment to make sure Igneel's eye was still there gazing back at him.

"Igneel insisted. He has important things he must share with you, so he convinced me that a child of the Fire Dragon King was not a mere mortal to be swayed by selfish impulses. I bowed to his wishes against my better judgement. Will you prove his faith misplaced?"

Natsu bowed his head, still eyes closed as he fought down the sick feeling of empty loss that still swamped his heart at least once a day. Ari hadn't moved an inch and he already felt Igneel's loss a third time. How many times would the hope of reunion be dangled in front of him only to be ripped away again?

"Hey guys! How's lunch coming? Damned if it doesn't feel GREAT to be clean!" Libby's voice shook Natsu out of his internal struggle. With only a short glance back at Igneel's dark iris, Natsu turned back to tend the fire.

"Should be good to eat now," he mumbled, returning Libby's giant metal chopsticks to her before walking to the edge of the barrier and dropping to sit cross-legged unceremoniously. A weight landed on his head not long after and a blue paw appeared, dangling roasted meat in front of him. He sighed. "I'm not that hungry right now Hap."

"What's wrong?! You're never not hungry! Are you sick? Did someone try to force you onto a train?!" The flying blue cat leaned over, gripping Natsu's hair with his claws and unfurling his wings to stay balanced. "You do look a little green...want me to punch you in the stomach? It always works when Erza does it!"

Natsu couldn't help but smile. "Naw, I don't think that will help, but thanks for offering, little buddy."

"Ok...well, what if I feed you like you do to Lucy when she's drunk?"

Natsu felt his cheeks heat up. "I don't know what you're talking about."

"Yeah you do! You know, when she's had too much but won't eat? And the only way she'll have anything is if you-"

Natsu grabbed the Exceed off his head and wrapped a hand around his mouth, face now almost completely red. "If I eat something will you shut up about that?!" he asked.

Happy nodded, eyes twinkling with mirth. Natsu grabbed the roasted drumstick the flying cat had offered him and then released him. "Mention that ever again and I'll tell Carla you hate tea."

"You wouldn't! Right?! Naaaaaatsuuuuuuuuu!"

"Okay, so let me see if I've got this right...after singing and waltzing in the middle of the street and the resulting riot from the locals, I summoned Pyxis and gave him a piggyback ride, running around declaring I was queen of the Exceeds...then I insisted on doing a photoshoot with a random group of guys who tried to kidnap me, which resulted in a showdown at the park, which we won almost immediately," (Lucy paused here for a quick fist pound with Gray) "...after which I got away from you long enough to buy a bottle of strawberry liquor, that I drank all of by myself (which really explains the alarming color my vomit was this morning), at which point you tried to take me home. I then attempted to go skinny-dipping in the canal and dragged you in after me, which was when the cops showed up and you had to forcibly take my keys so I didn't summon any of my spirits to fight them off...because I declared 'to Mavis, Zeref and all the mother-fucking demons of Tartaros' that they 'would never take me alive.' Which brings us to...3am," Lucy rattled off in a weary deadpan. She stared down Gray as a rivulet of ice cream dripped down the cone onto her hand. "That right?"

Gray swirled a little cold air around her cone to refreeze it before he nodded back to her just as solemnly, crossing his heart with his index finger to indicate that he had told the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

Which was, of course, an implied lie. Well sort of. He had told her the absolute truth about everything...up until 3am. The next part was where it was going to get dicey.

"And after that, please, for the love of Mavis and all the Fairy Tail Masters, tell me we went back to my apartment."

Gray nodded, becoming really absorbed in remembering how to walk and eat ice cream at the same time all of a sudden. "Yeah, you turned into a purring-level drunk and I gave you a piggyback ride home. End of story."

"Purring-level? What the hell is that?! Do I even want to know? No, wait, yes, I do. I promised myself I would face every moment of last night's insanity. So, please, go on." Lucy stopped walking long enough to shake her head violently from side to side, as though to clear it of unwanted thoughts, and then caught up with Gray, focusing all of her attention on him.

Right where he didn't want it. He adopted a light, teasing tone. "I really don't think you care about what that means? Right? You got home safe and sound, so no one else saw anything embarrassing after that. I really wouldn't worry about it." Gray's argument would have been really convincingly nonchalant...if he his voice hadn't cracked midway through. He sped up a bit so she couldn't look him in the face and read the guilt there.

Which resulted in Lucy narrowing her eyes at his back in suspicion. "Graaaaay...what does 'purring-level drunk' mean?"

He sighed and let her catch up. "Well, when you get really, really drunk, you kind of...start acting like a cat and rubbing yourself on people and demanding they pet you." Which is particularly difficult to endure as a guy carrying you when you're soaking wet, half-naked, and panting, he added to himself. "And you...purr. It's really very...endearing..." and the hottest thing that I've ever seen.

Lucy's face reached heights of red it hadn't yet managed. "Oh. That. Yeah. I think...someone told me I did that once. I had forgotten." Gray could practically hear the name she'd left out falling to the sidewalk between them. And leaving a crater behind.


His steps quickened again. Running away as usual, he thought to himself harshly. Way to be a man, Gray.

"So, when we got back to my apartment, I didn't try to assault you or the Thunder Legion or anything right? I guess I sometimes do that too..." Lucy mumbled, picking at the cone left over since she'd finished her ice cream. At least she wanted to run away from him as much as he did. Even if it was for different reasons.

"Oh, uh, Laxus and the Thunder Legion weren't there. I think they went out somewhere with Mira and Cana and passed out at the Strauss' old place. She sent me a communication card a little later to see...uh...how you were doing." More like she wanted a report on whether we'd shacked up yet, but I can't exactly say that...

"Oh, well, that's good then. At least I don't need to worry about Laxus bringing it up during training. Like he doesn't have enough things to tease me about, right?" Lucy peeked sheepishly up through her bangs at Gray, only to discover he was engrossed in his ice cream again. She waited for him to meet her eye, but he still didn't. A little wrinkle appeared between her brows as she realized he was avoiding looking at her on purpose. "Gray, is that everything? I just went to sleep after that right?"

Gray could feel Lucy's eyes on him, but couldn't make him meet her gaze. He couldn't help but feel that she would somehow figure out everything if he looked her in the eye. He finished his ice cream and started eating the cone. "Yeah, pretty much. I dropped you off and you went to sleep."

"And nothing else happened?" Lucy leaned forward, angling her head to try and see his face better. She finished the last bite of her cone just as they got to his apartment building.

Oh sweet, sweet salvation. Home at last! Gray unlocked the door and turned to finish the conversation so he could escape before he said anything damning. But he was cut off before he could start.

"You know, I don't think I've ever been in your apartment before. This might be my last chance, actually. Why don't I walk you in and you can finish the story?" Lucy didn't wait for him to respond, pushing past him and heading down the hall like she'd been to his place a million times. "3A you said, right?"

Reluctantly, he followed, unlocked his apartment door, and held it open for her. "Yeah this is it. I mean, you're welcome to check out my apartment if you want, but like I said, pretty much nothing happened after that, so there's not a lot more to tell." His discomfort was clear in his voice.

"Pretty much?" Lucy pushed. "So, what else was there? It must be something, since you can't give me a straight yes or no. Just spill it already." She was so absorbed in trying to find out what he was hiding, she barely took in the disaster area of discarded clothing that was his studio apartment, or the boxes and furniture piled up against one wall. She immediately went to the edge of his bed and perched on a corner, bracing her hands on her knees in a way that gave her way too much cleavage for Gray's comfort and just waited. He'd be lying if he said he had never pictured Lucy sitting on his bed, but now it was the last thing in the world he wanted to see.

Gray cringed. He only had one more red herring to throw in her way, but he had really been hoping he wouldn't have to use it. She wasn't giving him a choice though. Desperate times and all that...

"Lucy...you took one look at your empty apartment and started crying. And talking about everyone leaving you. That's why I was trying not to bring it up. You got really upset, so I didn't want to remind you of it again." He sat down next to her on the bed, if only so that he would stop staring at her cleavage and propped his elbows on his knees, resting his mouth on his clasped hands. At this angle, she wouldn't be able to see his face. With any luck, this would be the end of it and she wouldn't push any further for what happened.

"Oh," Lucy whispered. " I thought…" She thought back to the things she'd heard him say in her dream and of the warm feeling of an embrace. Apparently it had all really been a dream. There was no great mystery surrounding the night before, just Gray doing like he always did and protecting her. She should have known. "You know what? It doesn't matter what I thought."

They sat there in silence for another minute before she spoke up again, popping up off his bed with more energy than was really needed.

"Listen, I'm sorry I was such a bother last night...and today I guess too!" She chuckled guiltily. "I owe you big time for putting up with all my crazy, so next time we go on a job, you can keep the whole reward or something, 'kay? It's the least I can do."

"Um, actually...sorry Lucy, but we're not gonna get to do that job after all. I'm leaving to train in another village...tomorrow...with Juvia. I was just picking up the keys to my new place when you found me." He patted his pocket in illustration, the two keys for his shitty new cabin in the woods clinking together. He couldn't bear to look at her, so he stared at his feet. If he saw the heartbroken look he'd seen last night on her face one more time, he would probably end up staying. And, after what happened the night before...he absolutely couldn't do that either. Not without ruining their friendship somehow. "So yeah...I'll have to take a raincheck on that job with you. You can just owe me until the next time we see each other."

Lucy stared at the last member of her team still in Magnolia until the tears in her eyes wouldn't let her see them anymore. Then she ducked her head and let her hair fall over her face. She swallowed several times until she felt like she could speak normally and tried to smile. "That's great Gray. I'm glad you finally made up with Juvia. She'll be a great training partner for you. Or more, who knows right? You should really give her a chance this time." She fought the urge to sniffle and abruptly turned to the door. "So, okay. I guess you've still got a lot of packing to do before then, right? I'll just leave you to it then." She had the door open and was halfway into the hall before he realized she'd moved.

"Shit. Lucy?" his words froze her, half-in, half-out of his apartment, but she didn't turn around.

"What is it?" Her words sounded strained. Any other day he would have called her on it.

"I'll come by to see you before we leave. To say goodbye. Okay?"

"Okay," she whispered. "Thanks."

He could hear her soft words echoing in his silent apartment as he sank back onto his bed, staring dejectedly at the inside of his apartment door.

"Why didn't you tell her?"

Juvia's voice sent him a foot into the air with a yelp and he came down on his feet and braced for a fight, seconds away from Ice-Making one helluva huge hammer.

"Holy SHIT, Juvia! Where the hell did you come from…?" he lapsed into silence as he got a good look at her, still half buried in his clothes and surrounded by dozens of plush dolls of himself in various states of undress. "You know what? Never mind. I really don't need to know." Placing a hand over his racing heart, he sank back down onto the edge of the bed and rubbed his temples. Which was when he remembered what she'd said. He froze. "Wait, what did you say?"

"Juvia asked why you didn't tell Lucy what happened between you two last night?"

Gray went white. "How do you know about that?"

"Juvia left something at Lucy's and went back for it," Juvia lied smoothly. The truth was, she'd followed him from a distance all day. Part of her genuinely wished that she hadn't. "You were too...preoccupied to notice me, and Juvia promised she wouldn't bother Gray-sama the whole night, so Juvia hid."

"Oh." Gray didn't have the energy to come up with anything better. All the fight had gone out of him.

"So, why didn't you tell her?"

"Why would I?" There was no point in deceiving Juvia. If she was there, she already knew everything anyway.

"Because she doesn't remember. Don't you want her to know?"

"No. Nothing good could come from her knowing. Hell, nothing good came of acting on it last night, did it? She doesn't even see… Well, you know how she is. It's better this way. She never has to know anything about it. Because even with Natsu Mavis-only-knows-where, he's still all she can think about." Gray gritted his teeth. "Fuck. I wanna punch him in the face so fucking badly. But the bastard isn't even here for that."

Juvia sat in silence, tormenting herself in her head, deciding whether to say what she wanted to or not. In the end, her impulse control lost the battle. Per usual.

"What can I do to make you see me like her?" she exclaimed. The burning question she'd been dying to ask since she'd witnessed them last night burst out of her. "What do I have to do so you see me as your woman?"

Gray's shoulders drooped. "It's not...like that. I don't see her that way. I honestly don't know if I'm capable of seeing anyone as 'my woman'." He thought of every important woman who had tried to get close to him...and the terrible endings they'd met. "And maybe it's better if I never do."

"So where does that leave us?" Juvia demanded, subconsciously squeezing Gray dolls in each of her hands as hard as she could.

"Us? This has nothing to do with us. Our deal stands. We're leaving to train together tomorrow. And that's all I know right now. If you can't deal with that, then you're more than welcome to stay behind. I can always find someone to train with." He stood up from the bed and headed for the door. "I'm gonna go get some boxes to pack up my stuff. Do you need any more, or are you good?"

Juvia hung her head. "No. Juvia's things are ready to go."

"Great. See ya later." He left without looking back, closing the door behind him.

He only made it ten steps down the hallway before his feet faltered. He just...couldn't keep not thinking about it. So, he leaned against the wall and indulged in the memory for what he swore would be the last time. It wasn't like it ended well anyway.

Lucy tightened her things around his waist and purred into his ear again and he gritted his teeth, reminding himself they were only a block away from her apartment.

Which was good, because it was getting harder and harder to walk under these conditions.

"I told you before, you keep doing shit like that, and I'm not gonna be responsible for what happens to you," he muttered.

"Meow?" she replied, playfully, licking his ear.

Gray's legs almost collapsed beneath him. "Seriously! Cut it out!"

"Aw...you're nyah-t any fun!" she purred, giggling to herself at her little pun. "Hey look! We're hooooome!" she crooned, noticing her apartment building. She squirmed from her place on his back and his hands tightened on her thighs, desperately trying to keep from dropping her. He instantly regretted trying to carry her shoes and her at the same time. He should have just left the damn things behind, her pouting be damned.

"Lucy, stop it! I'm gonna drop you!" The words had barely left his mouth when he lost his grip and she dropped, dragging him down with her by her fast hold around his neck. He landed awkwardly on top of her in the grass next to her apartment, but sat up and twisted around almost immediately.

"Dammit Lucy, what the hell did you do that for?! Are you…okay?" his words faded in volume as he got a good look at her, sprawled in the grass, damp hair spread out around her, one strap of her dress hanging useless (where he'd missed her arm hastily forcing the garment back on her after their impromptu dip in the canal), and a rosy glow permeating every square inch of pale skin he could see (it was a lot of inches…), crowned by her booze-flushed cheeks and half-lidded eyes. He blamed the alcohol in his system for his slower than usual reaction, his gaze lingering more than a little too long as he took in the sight. She didn't seem to notice, stretching out her arms out to him and pouting.

"Graaaaaay! Help me uuuuuup!" she whined, shaking him out of his reverie.

Gray shook himself, dropped her shoes in her lap, and scooped her up in his arms, not willing to risk putting her mouth in such close proximity to his ear again. It wasn't but a minute or two before he awkwardly managed to open her apartment door and stumbled in with her.

To discover it was completely empty. He could practically hear the wind whistling through the moving boxes still crowding the apartment it felt so empty. (At least that's what he'd thought. Juvia had really gotten much better at hiding…)

Gray swallowed hard, pausing for a minute on the threshold. He had kind of been depending on the presence of the crowd of people staying with Lucy lately to diffuse the tension between them. In fact, it had probably been the only thing keeping his adolescent male brain in check, so when Lucy nuzzled his neck, something inside of him broke. Instead of yelling at her, or pushing her away, or dropping her onto her sofa and piecing the fuck out like a good friend would do, he hummed, leaning into it.

Lucy, finally hearing a favorable response, reacted enthusiastically, tossing the shoes off her lap onto the floor and looping her arms around his neck to pull him even closer. She ran her lips along his neck, the tip of her tongue poking out to taste the salt on his skin. He couldn't keep from groaning softly at the sensation.

Slowly, Gray lowered Lucy's legs, putting her back on her feet before hugging her snuggly to him at the waist. The action seemed to amuse her, inciting a giggle as she pulled back to look at him with a grin just as he leaned down to her. They ended up nose to nose, both holding their breath as the heat between them ramped up a few degrees.

Gray froze, the last vestiges of self-control still holding out within him demanding that she make the first move. If she pulled away, he bargained with himself, he'd leave right then. He wouldn't explore this new electric thing that had been sparking between them. But until she moved, all he could do was wait.

The moment stretched on for an eternity, Gray's eyes drifting closed as he enjoyed the sweet torture of having her pressed against him.

Then, she moved.

He felt her nose brush against his, nuzzling him again. He hesitantly leaned into her, returning the gesture, his eyes stubbornly closed. As if not seeing what he was doing made it less real somehow. One hand left her waist, cradling her neck gently instead. He paused again, giving her a chance to move away.

She didn't.

So, he went for it. Closing the milimeters between them, he pressed his lips to hers, delighting in the small mewing sound that escaped through her lips and reverberated in his mouth. Before he realized what he was doing, he had her spun around and pressed against the door, his tongue dancing with hers and his arms caging her in. Her arms ran over his bare chest and over his abdomen, fingers tracing the grooves between his muscles as she kissed him back. He'd never been so glad to have stripped his shirt without realizing it. Heat trailed behind her fingers wherever they touched.

He gave in to the urge to taste more of her, his eyes cracking open to find her neck. She arched her neck into his kisses, humming happily in response. Her knee slid up the outside of his leg, her hands moving to touch his back as she raised up on the toes of her other foot, pushing her neck closer to his mouth instinctually. It helped a little, but made Gray aware of the foot of height he hunched over to correct.

Quick as a wink, he grabbed the leg sliding up his side and hitched it over his waist, pulling her off the ground and grabbing the other leg before she could fall. Lucy caught on quickly, locking her powerful thighs around his waist and pulling his head back down to her neck, eyes still closed.

"Bedroom," she whisper-moaned into the silence, and he reacted immediately, stumbling his way through the maze of stuff to her door. He slammed her against it, balancing her in one hand as he fumbled for the doorknob. Lucy took the opportunity to lean forward and capture his ear, tongue caressing his lobe before sucking on it.

It drove him crazy, his hips bucking into her in response. She cried out, and he did it again, wanting to see if he could make her create that sounds again.

Now, he really wish he hadn't. Not that it would have made any difference.


He froze, eyes springing open at the sound of Lucy moaning out his absent best friend's name.

Dread slowly filled him from the feet up, leaving cold, numb limbs in its wake. He hastily let down her legs, ignoring the small noise of confusion she made as he pulled away. She tried to follow his movements, eyes still hooded as she sought after the warmth he'd been providing her. He held her at a distance with one hand, arm outstretched and head bent as he struggled to keep his ever growing anger at her (and mostly at himself) in check.

A hand reached out and stroked his hair accompanied by Lucy's soft voice questioning into the darkness:


He pulled himself away completely then, putting several feet between them before stopping. He swallowed the curses rolling through his head. "I'm not Natsu, Lucy," he barked out harshly. "He's not here anymore."

Lucy's alcohol and lust glazed gaze sharpened as her eyes flew wide. "Gray!" she whispered. "Oh god...I'm sorry! What did I do?!"

He couldn't answer her, all the pain and anger in his heart evident in the heavy glare he leveled at her. She pressed herself back against her bedroom door, seeking escape as her hand flew to her mouth. "Gray...I'm so sorr-"

"Seriously, Lucy?" Gray couldn't keep himself from snapping at her. "That whole time? You honestly thought I was that guy?! He left you behind and you're still..." He crowded her against the door, his side of his fist coming down hard against the wood beside her head. It shook beneath her. "Fantasizing about him?!"

"Gray...I didn't mean to...um, I don't know…" Lucy's words came out thick, her eyes jittering from side to side as they tried to focus. She was still clearly three sheets to the wind. "I don't know what came over me…" Tears broke out in her eyes, spilling over onto her cheeks. "I'm just...everyone keeps leaving me and he's not here and it's all my fault…And I'm so alone!"

Gray's heart broke a little more seeing the constant stream of tears, but his anger out-weighed his compassion, something his sober self deeply regretted. "That asshole made the choice to leave you behind. That's not your fault. But you're alone because you want to be, Lucy! Every one of us, your friends, no, family have offered you a place to belong beside us, and you're the one turning us down. For what?! To wait for him to come back for you? What if he doesn't? What if he gets his dumb ass killed out there and never comes home?! What then, Lucy? You just fade into some kind of guild ghost, like Mavis? Cutting yourself off from everyone who cares about you until you forget what it's like to have comrades? Promise be damned, you're better than that! You're worth more than that, Lucy." He pulled away then, pain swimming in his eyes. "And I'm not gonna hang around watching the light die out of your eyes, when I apparently can't do anything about it."

"But...Gray...what are you saying? I'm so confused." Lucy gasped wetly, unable to stop her suppressed sobs.

"I'm leaving Magnolia. Juvia and I are leaving to train as soon as I can find a place. I was going to stick around for a while and try to convince you to come along with us, but after this… Well, I won't be around to make you confused anymore." Gray pulled back, turning around and stalking to the door. Lucy stumbled forward, acting on some sort of instinct to follow him probably. But, he had yanked open the door and left before she'd made it halfway across the room. He quickly sealed the door shut with ice so she couldn't get it open and half ran, half fell down the stairs where he landed on the last stair, head in his hands.

"What the fuck did I just do?" he whispered to himself. He couldn't leave it like this. He didn't want his last words to Lucy to be a drunken argument. His head was still spinning from the blood rushing out of his head. How had everything gotten so fucked up so quickly? He should have just dropped her on her couch and gotten the hell out of there.

It took close to twenty minutes before he cooled down enough to stand up. And when he did, he found himself walking back up the stairs. In the end, drunk or not, he couldn't leave things like that. So, he broke the ice on the door with a touch and eased it open. The apartment looked empty again, but Lucy's bedroom door was open. He stepped forward, but immediately tripped over Lucy's discarded shoes, freezing to see if she would come running at the sound. But nothing happened. So, he got up, taking the shoes with him.

He hesitantly headed over to her door, his resolve fading the closer he got. Cautiously, he peeked his head in.

He relaxed when he saw Lucy, sound asleep and drooling all over a piece of parchment, hand still clutching a quill. Gray crept closer, quietly setting her shoes next to the door and grabbing the blanket off the end of her neatly made bed. Ever so slowly, he settled the blanket over her. His hand brushed against something and he found the novel he'd hastily left sitting in around her apartment, still set facedown open to the last page. Curious, he picked it up, but quickly forgot about the book.

Underneath it, ink slightly smeared by tears, was a hastily scrawled letter. Gray felt his stomach turn at the sight of it, but he couldn't resist picking it up anyway, tossing the book onto her bed in favor of more interesting reading. It wasn't addressed to anyone at the start, but it didn't take much to figure out who it was meant for.

I'm fucked up. I'm just a screwed up person with no idea where my life is going or what I'm supposed to do. I made out with Gray tonight. Yeah, I was drunk, but still! I MADE OUT with GRAY! And the whole time, my stupid drunken brain thought it was you.

See? Told you I was fucked up. An amazing night happened to bring us together. An opportunity knocked, and I slammed the door in opportunity's fucking face because I can't let go of you! And I'm sitting here, crying and thinking about how you left me here, and I wonder what it would feel like to run into his arms and just be held. To defy all of the painful, true things he said to me and just go with him.

But then I feel like I'm betraying you. You of all people! Even when you're not here, and I'm angry as hell at you, you're still influencing me! But really, deep down, when I find myself thinking things like that, I think I'm really just longing to be held by you. And no one's arms will ever be the same, even if yours never come back to me.

Some days, Natsu Dragneel, I can't help but hate you.

Gray, leaning against the wall outside his apartment and remembering the night before, patted his back pocket and heard the telltale crinkle of parchment. He pulled out the second letter he'd stolen from Lucy, right before he'd heard the Thunder Legion come back and left through the window.

He felt guilty about it, but not enough to return it. That would mean she would know about what they'd done. That would fuck everything up again. So, that letter would never see the light of day. Digging in his left pocket this time, he took out the lighter he kept handy for when he felt like smoking the occasional cigarette when Erza wasn't around. He lit up the letter and watched it burn until he couldn't hold it anymore, then froze it in a block of ice, which he tossed into the grass outside his apartment building.

And just like that, with the assumption of Juvia's silence and a little arson, he'd successfully erased the past.

Lucy shuffled her way up stairs to her apartment with a heavy heart. Gray was leaving. It was a fact. But it just still hadn't completely sunk in.

Even the chaos that was the Thunder Legion hanging out in her living room couldn't break her funk. She just walked through it to her bedroom and closed the door behind her. Evergreen, Freed, and Bickslow didn't even notice her coming it, too busy squabbling over who Evergreen was going to force to carrying her stuff, but Laxus watched her come in and quietly followed her.

Lucy jumped when she heard her door opening and became even more surprised to see Laxus closing it behind himself.

"What do you want?" she queried, wearily. It had been a long day. All she wanted to do was summon Capricorn, apologize for missing her training session and go back to bed. Hopefully to drown her shame in blissful oblivion.

"Rough day Blondie?" Laxus asked gruffly, leaning against the wall next to her door.

"More like rough two weeks," she muttered, flopping down on her bed. Before the guild disbanded, she never would have thought she'd someday be having a casual conversation with the lightning dragon slayer in her bedroom. She guessed life was just unpredictable like that.

"Well, you haven't been kidnapped or used as a magical catalyst for a doomsday device this week, so I'm gonna go out on a limb here and say you've had worse." He snorted. "Hell, if you take in the state of my weak-ass body right now, and the fact the only relative I have that is a halfway decent human being disappeared and disbanded a guild that has been around for centuries, rather than trust me to take it over, I think I might be winning in terms of shitty weeks."

"Yeah, but did you get so drunk you don't remember skinny dipping in the canal? Or threatening the police? Or, hey, a group of random horny guys trying to kidnap you? Don't just assume I haven't been kidnapped lately. You have no idea how alluring my restrained body is," she snapped sarcastically. Adding quieter, "Or what went down with Tartaros when everyone else got sucked in."

Laxus snorted again. "Pssh, your day couldn't have been as bad as my day. Ever's boytoy left town, so I've been dealing with her bipolar passive aggressive shit all day. I spent a good two hours of this morning as a stone statue. And I had to piss the whole time."

"That's nothing. The last member of my team just told me he's leaving town as soon as possible. After watching me bawl my eyes out, apparently, over everyone leaving me behind. Because apparently walking away from Fairy Tail is just easy as pie for everyone else, while I'm stuck in a perpetual state of holding on too long."

"Don't assume that shit Blondie. You've got no right to say that. You've been a member of Fairy Tail for what? Not counting that shit on Tenrou...a year maybe? Two? Me and your teammates grew up in that guild hall. Don't think it isn't fucking hard to walk away from that for all of us."

"Yeah? Well, it sure as hell isn't hard enough to make them stay is it? I gave up a lot for this guild, because I thought they were my family."

"Don't talk to me about the petty sacrifices you've made. I've seen guild members you never even met lay down their lives for the sake of our guild! I was there when Guildarts came home missing an arm and a leg with all his spirit kicked out of him because of a job! Fuck, you were there when the dragon slayers lost their fucking parents for good this time. Buck up. You just sound like a spoiled brat compared to that kind of sacrifice."

Lucy could feel her blood boiling at his words. "Like you know anything! You wanna know what I sacrificed? You want to know how everyone in Fairy Tail wasn't swallowed up by that creepy-ass living cube? I broke Aquarius' key to summon the Celestial Spirit King! The key my dead mother gave me right before she died! I can't summon Aquarius and might never see her again because I sacrificed her for my friends! All I have left are my spirits, and now I DON'T EVEN HAVE HER!" Lucy's voice rose in volume until she was screaming at the top of her lungs, tears streaming down her face. "You don't know what it's like to have everyone on your team willingly walk away from you! Those idiots of yours would follow you to the end of Earthland and back if you asked them. Mine just leave me behind!"

"What the fuck? You think your team wouldn't if you asked?" Laxus' voice didn't rise from its usual rumble, but his ire was clear. "Did you even tell them what happened with your stupid spirit? Or ask any of them to stay here with you? I know Gray asked you to go with him to train, and I seriously doubt Wendy didn't invite you to Lamia. Hell, I'd be surprised to find out that Erza didn't order you along on her mission. Your team loves you just as much as mine does. It's you that's the problem. They all tried to keep you on their team and you pushed them away."

"NATSU SURE AS HELL DIDN'T!" Lucy wished she could bite back the words as soon as they left her mouth.

"Ah, so there's the real problem. Now we're finally getting down to it. Natsu is a childish dumbass who has never been able to see past his own problems. You're the best thing that ever happened to him and he's scared shitless of anything happening to you. So he left you behind. To keep you safe. Stupid move, but not hard to figure out."

It was Lucy's turn to snort. "Yeah, right. He's always covering for my weakness. He left me behind because I'm not strong enough to take care of myself and he doesn't have the time to take care of me. Training to save the world is more important. It's obvious."

"Blondie, the idea that you're weak is laughable. What's obvious as fuck is that you're the strongest Celestial Spirit wizard there has even been. I've never even heard of anyone else being able to do this Star Dress shit, and I grew up between the greatest guild in Fiore and a dark one led by my shitty dad. If you think there's anything about Fiore's mages that I don't know, you're denser than I thought. The only things holding you back from being an amazing wizard are your own stupid hang ups and a few years of intensive training. But, no matter how strong you are, you're no match for Zeref. And Natsu knows that."

Lucy could feel her argument dissolving under Laxus' no-nonsense, rude, yet straightforward approach. "But how is that any different than Natsu? Why is he suddenly a match for Zeref? Erza is stronger than Natsu by far? Why is he so dead set on leaving me behind for a suicide mission?"

"Because Zeref chooses him. Every fucking time. He's got a weak spot for that idiot for some reason, and with the potential Natsu's got, he could be the only hope we've got to save not only Fiore, but Ishgar. I swear that guy's got no limiters. He needs to get stronger, so he pigheadedly works until he is. He's an idiot for thinking he has to do it alone, but it's not hard to figure out why he thinks that way."

"Then how do you explain why he took Happy with him? He can't even fight!"

"Because he can fly, idiot. That stupid cat's always got an escape route. And they've always been together. I don't think Natsu could leave him behind if he tried."

Again, Lucy couldn't argue with his logic. "So...what the hell am I supposed to do then?"

"Shit Blondie, like you haven't already decided what to do! He said he'd be back in a year, right? If the shit doesn't hit the lacrima fan before then, he's gonna need as much help as he can get to defeat Zeref. When you're planning on facing an enemy like that, a year doesn't seem like nearly enough time to train. But it's all you've got." Laxus stood back up from his position leaning on the wall, heading back to her door, clearly signaling that their little talk was about to end. "You're on the right track. It's only been a few days and you're already almost able to land a punch on me. Even with my body crapping out on me, that's not something just anyone can say. You keep practicing like that, and he won't know what hit him when he gets back." He tugged the door open, letting the sounds of the Thunder Legion's petty argument float back in past the silence spell.

"You really think so?" Lucy asked quietly. She knew he heard her. He had dragon slayer senses after all.

"As far as I'm concerned, you're a Fairy Tail wizard, now and forever. Which means you're capable of greatness beyond anyone's expectations. Gramps wouldn't have let you join if he didn't see the potential in you." He stepped out and started to close the door behind him, but stopped suddenly and turned back. "Oh right...Blondie?" he said in a softer tone. "That sucks about your spirit and we all owe you for that, but that's no reason to give up on her. If you really want to see that bitch again and work for it, you will."

And with that, he was gone, sealing Lucy in with her thoughts for the night.

Laxus on the other hand was being questioned by his team. Eventually, just to shut them up, he explained:

"I was just giving her a much needed pep talk, since Gramps isn't here."

Natsu, though tired from fighting, didn't sleep much that night. Instead, he stayed up talking with Igneel through Ari. And, when Ari nodded off, he kept his eyes glued on Igneel's eye like he thought it would disappear if he blinked, telling him everything he could think of about the time the dragon had missed. However, when he finally did nod off into restless slumber, he was looking not at Igneel's fiery oculus, but the large, brown, human eye that had followed their conversation since Ari had told him about Igneel. He dreamt that night of an angel with blonde hair and brown eyes watching over him and resolved to ask Ari about it in the morning.

Holy crap that chapter got long. And kind of full of swear words. Sorry about that, Laxus is really hard to write without cuss words. He just seems like he'd be a potty mouth. And Lucy tends to pick up the tone of those around her, so she just followed right along! Anyway, hope you guys liked the chapter, and I promise, it WILL stop being so depressing...eventually.