This Torch I Carry Will Set Me Ablaze
"Keep a little fire burning; however small,
— Cormac McCarthy
"Natsu's here," Lucy announces as she storms into the kitchen.
She can feel the anger simmering in her veins, the outrage. There's a hard edge to her lips, a few wisps of flyaways escaping her immaculately coiffed hair.
Levy doesn't bother to look up, despite her tone, too busy measuring out coffee grinds to add to the filter.
"I know. I invited him."
Frustration erupts like an invisible mushroom cloud over Lucy, her spine freezing in place as she blinks twice – the amber in her eyes sharpening.
"You did what?"
"You heard me. I invited him." Levy closes the lid of the Cuisinart, brushing the smattering of decaf grounds off the counter before moving to the sink. The sound of the tap gurgling to life fills the room.
Lucy is right behind her, snagging the blunette by the elbow, forcing her to do an about-face. Water sprays as it hits the coffee pot's glass rim, narrowly missing Levy's sleeve.
The blonde hardly notices.
"Levy, how could you? You know better than anyone how I feel about Natsu Dragneel!"
Lucy and Natsu had been high school sweethearts. From the ages of sixteen to eighteen, they'd been inseparable.
They had been young, so young...but high on love too.
Levy ignores her friend's outburst in favour of pouring water into the coffee maker and turning it on. She darts around Lucy, pulling open the fridge and taking out several prepared trays of cold appetizers. She starts stacking them on the kitchen island behind her.
"Natsu's my friend, too. Gajeel wanted him here and so did everybody else. Now, can you take the saran wrap off of these and start bringing them out to the guests? I have to start prepping the hot foods," she murmurs distractedly.
As if on cue, the oven timer dings. Levy reaches for a nearby pen, making a quick check mark in the box to cross the item off her meticulous list.
Lucy works her jaw, heat crawling up her neck when the blunette still can't be bothered to look at her. Levy grabs the next two cookie sheets filled with finger foods that still need baking from the assembly line waiting on the counter.
Of all the people in the world, she expected her best friend to be on her side for this. Betrayal burns a hole in her gut.
"I refuse to step foot out of this kitchen until Natsu leaves this house!"
Natsu had broken up with her – went straight into the Army after graduation with nary a glance back at the girl he left behind.
Even after all these years, Lucy still went on about it when she was drunk.
Levy slams the trays down, potstickers and tortillas jumping as she whirls to face the blonde.
"Oh, you're stepping out of this kitchen all right! You're twenty-five years old but you're acting like a child! It's been seven years since the two of you broke up. Seven years since you have refused to even be in the same room together. Seven years of making your friends choose sides in this cold war the two of you have had going on. Well, I'm putting an end to it even if I have to humiliate you to do it. Tonight is important to me and all I'm asking you to do is grow up, Lucy!"
Lucy stares at Levy, feeling her cheeks flare, stunned into silence.
Levy has never yelled at her before.
The scent of percolating french roast wafts toward them and the oven timer dings again. Levy shoves past her, tugging on oven gloves and taking out the crab cakes. She slides the next round of hors d'oeuvres into the stove to take their place.
Then, as if nothing has happened, Levy resumes speaking in her normal tone, "There's a bowl of garlic aioli and a plate of lemon slices in the fridge. Would you mind getting them out while I plate these?"
Never mess with a preggo Levy McGarden.
The mercurial mood swings are making Lucy dizzy.
She has never understood the point of having a gender-reveal party but Levy, six months pregnant, had wanted one. Gajeel, of course, went out of his way to indulge his wife, seeming every bit as excited as Levy to find out the sex of their first child.
The thought had never crossed Lucy's mind that Natsu might be here. She knew their other friends kept in touch, but last she'd heard, he'd been on his second tour of duty somewhere in the Middle East.
Avoiding a man stationed thousands of miles away had been simple. The few times he'd been home in recent years, she'd been notified well in advance by their mutual network and always found an excuse to be out of town.
Facing him now, she'd rather sign-up for a deep-sea diving expedition with Juvia...
… And she hated the water and the only fish she liked came in a sushi roll.
"Lucy?" Levy prompts, sliding the spatula under the crab cakes and arranging them on a bed of lettuce.
There's a brief pause before the blonde bursts into action.
"Garlic aioli and lemon slices...right. I'm on it." Lucy does what she's asked, movements robotic under Levy's watchful gaze. After handing over the requested items, she takes the saran wrap off the other appetizers, balling up the sticky plastic to throw into the garbage, all the while feeling a niggling bite of shame at having been reprimanded by her best friend.
There's a touch on her shoulder, and Lucy finds herself being pulled down into a hug, Levy's round stomach acting as a barrier between them.
"Lu, I know it's hard and I'm sorry I yelled at you. I blame the pregnancy hormones. But you guys were together for two years and it's been over triple that already."
Lucy licks her lips, the tang of gloss sour on her tongue.
She knows it has.
Time is the greatest trickster god of them all.
Ever the reasonable one, Levy adds, "Natsu knew you'd be here and he isn't freaking out, so why should you?"
No, I bet he's not.
She curses him even more for it too.
Apparently, Lucy is the only one holding a grudge.
She takes in a long, steadying breath. She's being selfish, she knows. This is Levy's house, her party. She can invite anyone she pleases. Lucy tilts her mouth up at the corners and tries for a pleasant tone.
"You're right, Levs. Besides it's only one night. How bad can it be?"
Levy rolls her eyes, clearly unimpressed by her paltry attempt, but thrusts a platter into Lucy's hands. Various crackers are spread out like decks of cards around a cheeseball.
"That's the spirit. Now let's rejoin our friends as if we all know the meaning of civilized manners."
Before Lucy can say anything else, Levy is swooping back into the living room, crab cakes in one hand, a shrimp ring in the other.
Gajeel spots her and is instantly pulled into her orbit.
"Shrimp, why didn't you tell me it was time for the food?" he asks fondly, his words always softer with her than with others as he confiscates the plate from her hands. "I see you're serving the food of your people. Isn't a shrimp eating another shrimp cannibalism?"
Lucy bits her lip as Levy rolls her eyes yet again. It's a small wonder that the blunette didn't get them permanently stuck mid-rotation.
"Haha, you know I'm not eating shellfish right now. All I want is spicy foods."
Gajeel is suddenly on high-alert. "You need me to get something for you? I can go to the store right now."
Levy lightly smacks him with her free hand. "Nope. I just put the curried chicken taquitos in the oven. They'll be ready in fifteen minutes."
"I can get you a bowl of thai soup in under ten," he says with confidence.
Lucy watches as her best friend's nutmeg eyes become tender, even as she refuses her husband's offer. Levy sneaks a kiss instead and the pair look at each other like the rest of the world has fallen away.
Lucy's throat feels tight and dry.
"Hey," a voice says from behind her.
Lucy thanks her lucky stars she saw that flash of coral earlier, just as he entered the house. So although her heart leaps, she doesn't jump out of her skin.
No, she's calm, cool and collected as she swerves around to face Natsu Dragneel for the first time in years.
Or so she tells herself.
He's slightly taller than she remembers, or maybe it's just his posture – spine ramrod straight with the confidence of a soldier. The Natsu of her youth had been a sloucher. The Instagram photos that she just happened to stumble across in the intervening years didn't do him justice, that's for damn sure.
His hair is buzzed short on the sides but in an undercut so that the pink strands are still long and spiky at the top. It suits him.
He's wearing a white shirt, his throat revealed by the top two buttons undone, skin like toast and honey. A pair of charcoal pants that cling in all the right places.
Lucy can tell at a glance that the materials are expensive. If they were eighteen again, she would've let out a wolf whistle.
She keeps her mouth welded shut but keeps drinking in details the way a drowning person gasps for air.
His face used to have a roundness to it, but that's now given way to sharp-cut cheekbones and full lips with a more clearly defined cupid's bow. His gem-green eyes remain as bright as ever, but there's a hardness to them that she doesn't recognize.
"Hello, Natsu." Even saying his name hurts.
She's only spoken two words and she's already to be done with this conversation.
Damn Levy for arranging this gathering and for springing Natsu on her. And damn herself for getting worked up over a man she should've moved on from long ago.
To his credit, Natsu looks as uncomfortable as she feels, running a hand through his salmon locks in an uneasy gesture.
"Long time no see," he offers.
Lucy barks out a laugh. "Seven years and that's the best you can do?"
Natsu selects a cracker from her tray, smearing a bit of softened herbed cream cheese over it.
Arresting emerald irises pin her in place as he sinks his even, white teeth into a Ritz. He always did have the best smile. Lucy glances away, wishing he'd bite into a rock and break off his damnable perfect incisors at the gumline.
"You look good, Luce."
Her startled eyes find his again and her fingers curl so tight around the serving tray that she's certain she's denting the silver.
"You shouldn't say such things, Natsu." Not any more. Certainly not at a party where all their friends are casting covert looks in their direction.
Natsu smiles and the rogue of the boy she used to know peeks out.
"Fine. You look bad, Lucy."
She laughs in spite of herself, catching herself halfway through, but Natsu's laughing too and something that felt so small and empty inside her chest for far too long suddenly feels light and buoyant, pushing against her rib cage.
Seven years away and within thirty seconds you're laughing at his jokes? Pathetic.
The thought sobers her.
"I should circulate. More people are probably dying for this cheeseball." She strives to sound airy, but the words whittle into wood chips and she sounds hard.
Natsu takes the hit, a bit of hurt tingeing the lush forest of his eyes. "Yes, of course. See ya around."
Just one night, she tells herself. Then she can call in sick tomorrow and stay in bed, where she can figure out how long Natsu's visiting so she can avoid him until he catches the next plane back to Iraq or Iran or wherever he's fighting next.
She can survive this, right?
She hides in plain sight for the duration of the party, talking to Erza and Jellal, then Juvia and Gray. She helps Levy serve the food, always managing to stay on the opposite side of the room as Natsu. She works her way through polite chitchat with various friends and notices him doing the same, each hyperaware of the other, but trading no more than brief nods and fleeting looks.
It's pure agony.
Finally though, the champagne is brought out and the glasses are filled, all in anticipation of the cake being cut.
It's a simple, two-tiered affair wrapped in white icing. A plastic diapered baby sits at the top wearing a vacant, blank smile. Lucy knows just how it feels.
But when the knife goes through fondant, she's holding her breath.
"Blue!" Levy cries out before the first wedge is fully revealed.
"A boy," Gajeel says in a daze, his eyes becoming suspiciously bright beneath his rough exterior.
The pair forget about the cake—forget about the room—and wrap themselves up in each other.
"We're going to have a son," Levy murmurs to her husband.
Gajeel can't resist running his hand reverently over her tummy. "Oh little one, I'm so going to love you."
It's an oddly personal moment, one Lucy isn't sure is meant for public consumption, but in the next second, Levy is turning to her, arms outstretched, "I'm having a baby boy, Lu!"
Lucy rushes to her, feeling her own tears forming as she embraces her best friend. The moisture mingles, streaking down both their cheeks as they hold each other in joy and happiness.
"This baby is going to be so lucky to have you both."
"We're lucky to have him," Levy corrects. "I honestly thought it would be a girl."
"Next time," Gajeel says gruffly, pulling his wife firmly against him, her back to his front. His arms form a band around her waist. Gajeel rubs his palms in slow circles around Levy's belly as if he can't believe quite believe their son is in there.
"Congratulations," Natsu offers and the rest of them raise their glasses up to toast, Levy taking a small sip of sparkling juice instead of alcohol.
"Here here!" Gray adds, pressing Juvia to his side. The marine biologist blushes happily, clinking her glass to his.
As the cake is consumed and the champagne flutes empty, the other couples begin talking about when they might start raising their own families.
Erza wants to wait until after she's made partner at her law firm. Juvia says she'll wait until Gray proposes, which causes him to stammer about needing so many hours before he can advance from co-pilot to the captain's chair.
Laxus and Mira want to travel first. Freed and Rufus are on the fence, but have just began talking about the possibility of adoption. Cana and Bacchus say they aren't interested in getting married or having children, but would like to have several pets.
It's discomfiting being the only single people in the room. The slight lull of conversation as everyone skips over Lucy and Natsu.
She can see him fidgeting from the corner of her eye, nursing his glass of champagne rather than partake in the discussion. She can't help but sympathize as she drains her own flute.
As soon as it's socially polite to do so, Lucy makes an excuse to leave.
"I'll walk you home," Natsu says and his eyes are a plea to help him escape.
"Alright," she agrees, feeling a measure of pity for him. "Levs, Natsu and I are heading out."
As soon as the words leave her mouth, she instantly knows they are the wrong ones. Everyone stops talking, casting speculative glances at the pair, but Lucy can't find it in herself to bother to correct them on their assumptions if it means she can get the hell out of here.
"Sure, Lucy. Thanks for helping out today." Levy walks them to the door.
"Good to see you again, Natsu," Levy says, giving him a warm hug.
"You too, Levs. Thanks for inviting me," Natsu says, giving her stomach a gentle pat. "Natsu's a great name for a boy, by the way."
Levy giggles, laying her hand over his and clasping it fondly.
"We'll keep that in mind. Call me tomorrow, Lu." She raises herself up on tiptoes to give Lucy a departing kiss on the cheek.
"Will do," Lucy says, shrugging on her coat, but she's caught in the backlash of memory as she watches Natsu wind a familiar scarf around his neck.
She needs to get out of here. Now.
The two of them leave the house and start walking side-by-side on the sidewalk. The day has turned cold and Lucy pulls her jacket tighter around her.
She can't seem to stop herself from saying, "Still wearing the same scarf, I see."
It was the first Christmas present she gave him. White and gauzy with the faintest of grey pinstripes ingrained to resemble dragon scales. He had opened the box and used the scarf to lasso her in for a kiss that had stolen her breath away.
In happier times, it goes without saying. Oh so much happier.
When they were young and naive enough to believe that first love lasts forever.
Natsu fingers the fabric awkwardly, clearing his throat. "Yeah...well, didn't want to get rid of it. It was always my favorite."
"Of course," she acknowledges, then abruptly changes the subject. "We'll need to walk, I don't have a car. I'm just down on Strawberry Street."
She could just offer to part ways, but dusk is fast approaching and she didn't live in the best area.
Lucy digs into her purse and finds a pack of cigarettes. She lights one for herself, taking a grateful drag before remembering to offer Natsu one.
"No thanks, I quit. The army encourages you to be healthy in every single way."
"Welp, the modelling agency encourages me to do whatever it takes to stay a size four," she says tartly, inhaling deeply.
Natsu's eyes rove to her figure, and his mouth downturns slightly at how thin she is. He always did like her better with a bit of meat on her bones.
"Still modelling, huh?"
The way he says it makes her feel like he already knows, like he's been keeping track of her just as she tracks him.
"Yup, but I'll need to get out soon. Twenty five is already past your prime in the fashion world."
"Yeah? What're gonna do...after?"
"Write. And I'm already doing it." The seasonal trends pieces went under her own name, the political ones under a pseudonym, Lucy Ashley.
"I'm not the type to just sit around, you know that." She flicks her cigarette butt into the street.
"You could, if that's what you wanted. You have more than enough money to last several lifetimes," he offers matter-of-factly.
Lucy's blood fires. "I don't give a shit about the money, but I'm not going to apologize for my parents being dead."
Natsu raises his hands in a gesture of peace. "I only meant I'm like you, I need to work, even if I didn't have to. That's why I left. I've put in my time and the army will pay for my university now."
… And now they're back. The past seven years dissolve as the same argument picks up right where it left off.
"I would've paid your tuition, I told you that."
"And I told you that I didn't feel right taking money from you."
"So you took yourself away, and that was just so much better for me, wasn't it?"
The accusation hangs in the air. Lucy can feel her cheeks turning pink with anger, the tears threatening to reveal themselves. She shouldn't feel like this. She's spent the last several years carefully forming an icy exterior.
One night, she reminds herself. Just get through this farce of him walking you home like you're still high school sweethearts and you're scot-free.
She tries to calculate how long it will take to reach her place, how long until she can plaster a fake smile on her face and lie about keeping in touch, but everything feels wrong. The tears are getting harder to keep at bay and her throat is gluey. She delves into her purse again, just for an excuse to look down. Lucy shuffles objects around without seeing anything, her vision blurring.
Natsu touches her bicep to halt her and the look of anguish on his face pierces through her like a lance to the heart.
"I thought it was. I thought I wasn't good enough for you, Luce. But I've had seven years of regret stuck in my throat and now I know I made the worst mistake of my life."
"You were always good enough for me, Natsu."
"I didn't think so. You were everything – smart, beautiful, driven. I'm just...me." Natsu gestures down at himself as if he can't see all the absurd perfection Lucy sees.
"You're all I ever wanted," Lucy says simply. "I just couldn't convince you of that."
His eyes flash, pupils blown wide as the ring of jade is siphoned away.
Her words act like a cataclysm and suddenly, his mouth is on hers.
Natsu's lips meld against hers own, plush and firm and knowing.
Instead of pushing him away, she's kissing him back. A low, keening noise bubbles from her chest, but she's pulling him tighter and chasing his lips for more.
They somehow manage to stumble to Strawberry Street, hands roaming over each other in greed and lust. The second they're inside her apartment, Natsu is pinning her against the door. Her lips tingling and swollen – Natsu's always been a biter.
And she knows she's falling, plummeting to a place that she closed off long ago but she doesn't care.
The brush of Natsu's lips against her ear make her shudder. It's been so long since he's touched her. Her body remembers the shape of his hands, the sweet, scorching kisses. His scent – the way pine trees smell during a forest fire. All she wants to do is tear off his clothes and taste what's underneath.
"Woah, whoa. Easy, Luce. We have time."
"We don't," she hisses, reminding him.
"Luce, I'm back. I'm in the reserves now, not on active duty. I've enrolled in college."
His words hit her like a mallet and she stops trying to rip off his shirt.
"You're...you're back? As in staying in Magnolia, no more Iran?"
"Iraq," he corrects, "And yeah."
She's having trouble grasping the concept. "Where are you staying? Why did no one tell me?'
"I'm crashing at Gray and Juvia's. It's temporary, just until I can find a place. They're the only ones that know, I swore them to secrecy until I had a chance to talk to you."
"Oh god. Natsu." Back. For good.
She tugs him down for another kiss her and he willingly obliges. His hair shorter than the memory engraved on her fingertips, but every bit as soft. The kiss turns warm, hot, messy. They fumble their way to the bedroom, leaving a haphazard trail of clothes behind them.
Natsu's body is different now – the lanky musculature of youth hardened and sculpted by the military into a broadness and definition she doesn't recognize, but is eager to explore with her hands and mouth.
Still, some things remain familiar—his taste, the low growls, the husky chuckle when he can't unfasten her bra strap—all these things beckon from another era, another time and place, yet wholly here.
Such thinking is dangerous. Still, she can't stop herself from stepping on the thin ice of memory. Part of her—most of her—hopes she'll drown in it. She knows she's taking something she's not supposed to have, not anymore, but there's pleasure in feeling like a thief, too.
When she's spread out on the bed, wanton and wanting, he pauses to find a condom in his wallet. Lucy can easily imagine Gray gave it to him. They have never been any good at keeping their hands off each other.
He rolls it down his thick length and she raises her arms in welcome as he climbs on top of her, sealing their lips together, his tongue hot and demanding. Her mind addled, thoughts jumbled by lust. She needs this. She needs him.
His first thrust breaks off a chunk of permafrost surrounding her heart.
As they move together, she thaws into him, her body slowly growing flushed and heated. The friction rough and perfect. The fit just as she remembers. Better. She's biting her lip raw to keep any comprehensive words from escaping, and she's all needy whimpers and clenched teeth.
… And she's so, so lost, but he's finding every inch of her.
When her climax comes, high and sweet, she whispers the words she needs to say.
Natsu groans above her, spilling into the condom as he finds his own release. He takes her face in both his hands, searching her eyes.
"Do you mean it? What you just said?"
Lucy feels her cheeks redden, but she's never been a quitter. Not with them. Never them.
"Yes, I meant it."
"You want me to stay with you?"
"Yes." More than anything.
"Okay," he says, like it's that simple...and maybe it can be.
His smile melts away any lingering doubts she has.
It feels like a second chance.
It feels like love.
A/N - Thanks to my amazing friend, Satyrykal. She's always super supportive and encouraging; not just with editing, but with brainstorming and taking much-needed breaks to reset. She's the Levy to my Lucy, the jelly to my PB, the sunshine on my cloudy day. She writes these fantastic Nalu stories, so please go check her out.
A couple of my friends are also participating in a Nalu week! Please check out ShanaHollows and wordsaremyspells1331!
I haven't written a one-shot or anything modern for Nalu before. It was a lot of fun! I hope you guys enjoyed the Chance Prompt! My next one-shot will be posted tomorrow.
Happy Canada Day to all my fellow Canadians!