Thank you, everyone, for the words of encouragement you've all given me. It's given me the strength to finally sit down and start writing this story again. Please note, however, that just because I'm continuing, doesn't mean that my feelings have changed. There will be one more chapter after this, and the story will be complete. Please do not bug me about updating. I know exactly when I plan to post the final chapter, and I will not be swayed from it.

I had intended to post this yesterday, but then I fell asleep while editing. The song gave me a lot of trouble - it took me a while to find the one that called to me for this chapter. It ended up being one from my childhood. I have also changed the rating on this fic back to T, as I've reconsidered what I wanted to do with the ending.

I hope you enjoy this update.

Happy New Year.

Song: "So Far Away" by Staind

Disclaimer: I do not own Fairy Tail or they song.

This is my life
It's not what it was before
All these feelings I've shared
And these are my dreams
That I'd never lived before
Somebody shake me
'Cause I, I must be sleeping

Letting out a great yawn, Mest stumbled into the guild hall in the wee hours of the morning. Every joint and muscle in his body ached from the intense bout of Direct Line-ing he'd done for the past week. This was downright torture. Did mages have something like worker's compensation? For injuring themselves at the behest of their crazy guild masters? Resolving to look into it - and if it didn't exist, then committing to making it a thing - he tottered his way to the bar counter, where Mirajane was already diligently polishing glasses and prepping the place for the daily influx of crazy.

Dear gods, when did the woman sleep? Mest couldn't help but wonder. It was like she was always there in the guildhall doing something or other. Whether it was washing dishes, cooking, serving, or approving job requests. Was it because of the Satan souls? Was that the source of her seemingly inexhaustible energy and apparent good cheer?

"Good morning!" she chirped at him, already far peppier than anyone had a right to be before dawn. Hell, the sun wasn't as energetic as her – taking its sweet time to haul itself up over the horizon.

Unenthusiastic, Mest intoned flatly, "Mira. Morning." Deciding that his muscles weren't up to the balancing act that perching on a barstool required, he changed directions and plunked himself down at one of the multitudes of empty tables instead.

After a few moments, Mirajane glided from behind the counter, placing something warm and steaming in front of the exhausted man. "Steamed milk with honey and a pinch of cinnamon," she explained, giving him a conspiratorial wink. "On the house."

"I love you," Mest professed in abject adoration. His hands winding around the warm cup and taking a sip, he felt its heat suffuse his very soul. "Marry me."

She giggled at him. The deep gratitude emanating from him for the simple act of kindness was rather endearing. "You'll have to fight my fans for the honor, I'm afraid."

Trepidation passed over his face. "Hmm. That sounds dangerous." Mest glanced down at his still steaming mug, studying the whorls in the liquid in serious contemplation of her statement. Then he looked back up at the barmaid. "Let me make S-Class first, and then I'll give it a go." He delivered the proposition with deadly seriousness in his tone.

Mirajane merely continued to smile at him, though her eyes were gentle. "I'll make sure that the Master doesn't send you on another mission during this year's S-Class Trials." Her offer held a sharp note to it, despite her expression. "It's too bad you couldn't participate this winter."

Heaving a sigh, Mest shook his head. "The missions are important, so it couldn't be helped. Making S-Class was never really a big goal of mine, to be honest. I might try harder now that I have incentive, though." Mischievousness glittered in his tired eyes.

The barmaid swatted his arm. "Really, though, Mest. The Master is sending you on too many covert missions." When he opened his mouth to protest, she gave him a hard look and added, "I understand that it's important, but so is your health. If you collapse of exhaustion... then what?"

"I'm the only one that can do them, Mira," argued Mest.

Her gaze hardened further. "I doubt very much that you're the only one capable of completing these missions. What you are is the fastest. And Master shouldn't be taking so much advantage of you for it."

With another sigh, Mest deflated before her eyes. "My magic makes me the ideal choice. I don't want to endanger someone else's life by having them do it at a disadvantage. Besides..." His gaze slid away from hers, and his fingers swirled a pattern on his mug. "I have a lot of time to make up for."

Mirajane's look did not soften. "That's bullshit," she stated calmly, surprising Mest into meeting her intense gaze once more. "You sacrificed a great deal for this guild. For a long, long time. Alone. And you helped keep us together, when we thought the guild would disappear for good. We owe you for that, Mest. Not the other way around." Finally, the tenseness in her brow relaxed, and her expression turned kind again. "You should be spending more time here than anyone else, making new memories with us. You deserve that, and so much more."

Water began to fill Mest's eyes, and he bowed his head, clenching the mug a little tighter in his hands. Not trusting his voice not to crack, he nodded slightly. A warm hand clenched his shoulder, giving it a gentle, but firm, squeeze of solidarity. He thought to reach up, to feel his hand beneath hers, and then thought better of it. After a moment, she gave his shoulder another squeeze, and then withdrew.

He felt more alone in that instant than in the seven years he'd mourned Fairy Tail's disappearance.

"Why don't you finish that, and rest up in the infirmary?" Mirajane said. "I'll come wake you once the Master gets in."

"Thanks," he whispered. He heard her footsteps as she walked back to the bar. "Hey, Mira?"


Mest looked up, into her serene gaze. "It means a lot, that you worry. That someone does. Gives me..." His lips quirked up, as he found himself echoing his earlier words. "It gives me extra incentive to make it back in one piece."

Her eyes were the softest he'd ever seen them. "Then make sure you do," she told him. "I'll hold you to that promise, too."

How lucky was he, Mest thought. That he could find a place to belong after all this time?

Now that we're here,
It's so far away
All the struggle we thought was in vain

It was time to wake up.

Lucy didn't want to, though. She wanted to remain in her dreams, oblivious to the world turning outside. But no matter how much she struggled against it, her mind returned to consciousness in fits and starts.

The first thing she became aware of was heat; overwhelming heat. For a split second, she panicked. Heat meant Natsu, and she wasn't ready to face him yet! It was only after she jolted into full awareness that she realized that she was safe in her bed, and that the heat was not coming from her former partner, but her new one instead.

Embarrassed but thankful that her instincts had been wrong, Lucy relaxed into her sheets. She gazed into the slumbering face of her roommate, marveling at how close he was to her. His arms were still wrapped around her loosely, even though they should have long since fallen asleep from her weight.

It was strange, to say the least. Cobra was not a fan of touching. So for him to be as peaceful as this, holding her of his own volition? It spoke volumes to her about how far they'd come since he first joined the guild. Hell – since she first met him, eight years ago in the Worth Woodsea. How was this even possible, really? Cobra was her partner, a member of Fairy Tail; her rock when she was drowning.

She wanted to stay there, watching him, for as long as she could. Her bladder had other ideas, though. It demanded that she get up now. So, with deep regret, Lucy extricated herself from Cobra's arms and slid off the bed. The floor was cold and she practically danced along it to the bathroom, keeping only the balls of her toes in contact with the chilled surface. Grabbing a towel and the first set of clean clothes she could find, she ducked in and shut the door. She turned on the bathtub faucets to a scalding degree, and let it fill while she relieved herself.

On the counter, she spotted their toothbrushes. The sight of the mundane objects made her smile, though she wasn't quite sure why.

Shaking off the odd thought, Lucy finished up, then derobed the rest of the way and climbed into the now-full tub. A great sigh of relief burst from her unbidden as the hot water sank into her sore muscles. Sleeping next to a person wasn't something she was completely used to, and honestly it wasn't the most comfortable thing in the world. Physically speaking, anyway. Emotionally, though…

Lucy hummed quietly, thinking back to her partner's slumbering face, held so close to hers that she could feel his shallow breathing. Her skin burned from the memory, and she sank a little deeper into the water. What was up with her? It was Cobra, for crying out loud! This whole thing probably meant nothing.

Nothing, other than that he trusted her completely.

"Love you too, Bright Eyes."

Squeaking in alarm, she fully immersed herself in the tub. Where the hell did that thought come from?! There was no way he'd ever say that to her! Yet, despite how she tried to force the sound of his voice saying those words from her mind, she couldn't seem to shake them.

She reemerged, gasping for air. It was just a fever dream, or something. Brought on by the stress of Natsu's return. That's all it was. Just her imagination.

Unexpected pain gripped her chest, claws digging in tighter and tighter the more she repeated the mantra to herself.

It left her to wonder. Did she… somewhere deep inside… want Cobra to say those words to her?

Preposterous. Ludicrous. It was insanity. There was no way that was true. Maybe she just… just wanted someone to say it. Yeah, that was it. She was just lonely, is all. And projecting onto Cobra those feelings. Given his ability to hear her thoughts, she needed to smother these ones fast. This kind of thing had the potential to ruin a relationship, and she desperately wanted to keep Cobra in her life. She couldn't lose another person in her life. She just couldn't bear it.

"I'm a coward," she said softly.

"Do you… do you think that I'm a coward?"

A sense of déjà vu swept through her like a current. Did she… did she say that last night? Wracking her brain, Lucy tried to pull out the memory from the clutches of sleep that still held fast to it. She could have sworn she did ask him that. She really did. But what had his response been?

For the life of her, she just couldn't remember.

Throwing in the towel on the endeavor, Lucy set about washing up. Water cooling fast, and her skin pruned from how long she'd been in there, she was relatively quick about it. Soon the water was draining, and she was standing in front of her fogged mirror. Rubbing a section clear, Lucy stared at her reflection. There were blue markings on her collarbones, and she traced them with a loving fingertip. They'd been Cobra's idea. Tattoos to replace Aquarius's mark once it faded completely. The sight of them made her feel… not whole, exactly. Less alone.

She hadn't been alone this entire time, she realized. Aquarius's love was still with her, and the love of her spirits. Her guildmates, too, were always just down the street if she needed them.

And there was Cobra, too.

Natsu may have left her. Juvia and Gray and Happy may have left her as well. But her life was still full of people who cared for her, and people she loved dearly in return.

"Night, Erik. Love ya."

"Love you too, Bright Eyes."

Tears filled her eyes, and the strength left her legs. She sank to the floor, an ungraceful tangle of towel and limbs.

Not a wish, after all. Not her imagination.

She'd told him she loved him, and he'd responded in kind.

It would be easy, to write off the confession as something uttered when there was more sleep in her brain than sense. But the tears running down her cheeks were a testament to the truth of her feelings.

Lucy loved him. Thinking back on the toothbrushes, and all of the other signs of Cobra in her apartment, his presence in almost every facet of her life… She had probably felt this way for a long time.

This was too much for her to handle. Natsu's return, and the inevitable confrontation alone was enough to overwhelm her. Her feelings for her new partner, and his for her, were a magnitude all their own.

Grabbing the counter, she slowly pulled herself to her feet. There were things she needed to do, before she and Cobra dealt with this. One thing at a time.

Unlike a year ago, this time she would keep herself afloat. She finally had the strength to do so.

All in the mistakes,
One life contained
They all finally start to go away
Now that we're here it's so far away

Cobra stirred to the sound of rain drumming upon the windowsill, warm beneath sheets still thick with Lucy's fragrance. Stretching out across the bed, Cobra felt the absence of his partner in the coolness of the empty space. A gentle hum behind him, and the rattle of dishes soothed any rising worry or concern about where Lucy had gone. He yawned; the warmth of the covers, the lull of the steady pattering of rain, and the heavy fog of pleasantly quiet dreams still drifting in his head forestalling any further action on his part. Instead, he was content to let the peace of the morning, Lucy's humming, and the lingering scent of the sheets wash over him, cocooning him in a sense of safety he had only recently begun to accept could be commonplace in his new life.

"I see you're awake!" Lucy teased from the kitchen. "Get up and help me with the cooking dishes." She paused for a half a beat, and then added with a light laugh, "What few there are, anyway. We seriously need to restock the fridge."

He groaned, loathe to leave the profound comfort of Lucy's bed. "I take it you hit the coffee already," he grumbled, running a hand though his grimy hair and half-heartedly attempting to stifle another yawn.

"I would not be functional without it." She plunked a mug on the counter. "And there's yours, grumpy."

Sitting up, Cobra heard several of his joints pop and creak. "I feel like I'm getting old," he grumbled, struggling to summon the energy necessary to push himself to his feet.

Lucy giggled, the brightest and happiest sound he'd heard from her in weeks, and hope slid into its new home inside Cobra's chest. "I'm getting some serious deja vu right now," the Celestial Mage remarked, emerging with two plates. Setting them down on the table, she went back for Cobra's coffee and her own. "Remember the first night you stayed here?"

"Vividly." He made his way over to the table, and sat down at the place beside Lucy's customary one.

"I heard the door knocking at two in the morning," she reminisced, sitting down next to him. "You looked like hell."

His mug was passed to him, and he drew a grateful draft of the hot liquid from it. "Definitely felt like it." Which was putting it rather mildly. It had been so horrendous where he had been staying, what with the nightmares, and the overwhelming sensory overload from the crowding, that it had led him to seek out the only person besides Kinana that he was on semi-friendly terms with at his new guild. "You didn't even ask why I was there, like you should have. You just let me in without a word." It was no exaggeration to say that that had probably saved his life. That trust, her understanding. He'd been offered water when he hadn't even known he was dying of thirst.

"And then you crashed on my couch," she finished, thoughtfully. "And never left." She drank from her own cup, and then set it down. Running her finger along the lip of the ceramic, she bit her lip.

Cobra waited as she shifted through the confusing multitude of thoughts circling her mind. Content to let it wash over him like background chatter as she puzzled herself out. It was yet another thing that he'd become used to over the past year. The balm that was being able to turn down the volume on his Soul Listening magic was something he'd never considered possible before. He wasn't sure the old him would recognize his newer self. And if he did, he probably would have tried to kill his current self out of a misplaced sense of self-preservation.

"Erik," Lucy finally said, and his attention returned to her. Her eyes bored into his, the gravity of her feelings as keenly felt by him as they were by her. "I think you saved my life."

"You saved mine," he responded. "We're even."

He was surprised when she thought to move her hand to cover his, and then did so. He gazed into her eyes, searching for an answer, and slowly curled her calloused fingers into his. Where their skin met, it burned, but not unpleasantly. It was an anchor, for both of them.

"I'm sorry for last night," Lucy stated, swallowing thickly. "I panicked over... over Natsu's return. And left you to deal with it."

"It's fine. It would be weird if you were unaffected by it all."

She nodded at him, grateful for his saying that. "I think... I need another day to prepare myself, but I'm not going to run from him, from the reality of all this. I need to… I don't know. Figure out how to explain…" She made a vague gesture with her free hand at the apartment. "All of this." Wrinkling her nose, she grinned at him. "Also, you need a shower. But." Her expression became somber once more. "This isn't going to be pleasant. For any of us. It's going to hurt, and there's no way out of that. I'm not going to lie and say that it doesn't scare me. A lot. But… but once it's over... let's go on a vacation."

Cobra raised an eyebrow at her. "I thought you were done with running?"

"I am!" she swiftly reassured him. "I am. But I think Natsu will need time to process and… honestly? I can't recall you and I going on a single non-work-related trip. We could use some quality rest and relaxation. And..." She gave his fingers a firm squeeze. "I think we need to talk about… what I said to you last night."

Her words froze him in place, his entire body stiff and his body failing to even remember how to breathe.

She remembered.

That fact hit him like a giant hammer to his gut.

She remembered.

"I think I can wait until then," he somehow managed to choke out around the emotions threatening to escape him. Actually, he wasn't at all sure about that promise, as his gut threatened to turn itself inside out. This was what he'd simultaneously hoped for and dreaded. One way or another, the feelings growing inside of them would be addressed.

Lucy smiled at him, happiness in her eyes, and the hand holding his showing no signs of relinquishing its grip anytime soon, and suddenly it became just a little easier to wait.

These are my words
That I've never said before
I think I'm doing okay
And this is the smile
That I've never shown before

With a hearty groan of complaint, Mest abruptly awoke in Fairy Tail's infirmary. It was much brighter than when he'd fallen asleep, the fluorescent overhead lights glaring down on him and highlighting the dust motes that floated through the air.

Just as painful were the sound stemming from outside his room, in the main hall. From what was drifting in, it sounded like a celebration? Or a brawl. Or a celebration that had become a brawl. All were equally likely with the rambunctious guild he called home.

Since commotion was nothing new at Fairy Tail, and this wasn't Mest's first encounter with it, he didn't pay it much mind, other than to internally bemoan the migraine he could feel coming on. He yawned, stretching his arms above his head. On a nearby stand, he spied a lukewarm glass of water, with a small note tucked under it. Gratefully, he downed the contents of the glass, and thumbed open the folded paper.

He smiled down at it, recognizing the beautiful penmanship.

I expect you to keep your promise about the S-Class trials.

If Mest had been asked a year before that where he thought he would find his life now, he wouldn't have been able to guess this. His hopes for the future were brighter than he thought possible, now.

Tucking away the note in his pocket for safekeeping, Mest then threw back the bedsheets. He slipped into his shoes, and made his way out of the infirmary. Glancing at the ruckus in the guild hall, he did a double take upon seeing a flash of pink hair amongst the crowd. With a short wave, he caught Mirajane's attention at the bar. Motioning with his hands, he indicated the crowd and mouthed, "Is that who I think it is?"

She nodded back, and then motioned towards the stairs.

Ah, the Master must have just gotten in. Old dog was only now showing up to work? Maybe it was time for the codger to retire. Regardless, Mest gave Mirajane a thumbs up, and took the stairs up to the second floor.

He knocked on Makarov's office door, entering at the muffled invitation given.

Makarov looked up from some documents as the man entered. "Ah, Mest! Welcome back, my boy. Sorry for not waking you up when I got here. Mirajane told me you were resting in the infirmary. Then she gave me an earful about letting you rest more!" Upon seeing Mest's slowly spreading smile at hearing that, Makarov then added, "So I did the safer thing and waited until you woke up on your own. But, now that you're here, we can get on with the report."

Nodding, Mest launched into the details of his mission to Alvarez without further ado, and his communications with the spy he'd planted there. "Overall, Sorano seems to be doing well, but I'm starting to get worried that if she pokes her nose into the wrong place too many times that she'll get herself into some real trouble." Cobra would have been a much better choice as spy, he thought to himself. But he and Lucy were joined at the hip these days, and Mest doubted that the incorrigible dragon slayer would agree to it were he to propose the idea to him anyway.

The Guild Master pondered the intel for several minutes. "I see. Are you certain that she can't remain embedded? Her intelligence is proving extremely useful."

Mest emphatically shook his head. "Bad idea, sir. She's going to get herself killed, and I'm not going to allow that to happen under my watch." Flashes of smoke and broken bodies passed over his mind's eye, and the phantom stench of burnt flesh filled his nostrils.

Never again.

A great sigh emanated from Makarov. "I wish you had let me go in myself a year ago, boy. I'm a little more familiar with the political maneuverings than your spy seems to be."

Mest shook his head in further denial. "Not a chance, Master. I have no regrets about stopping you from disbanding the guild and leaving."

Makarov rubbed his temples. "Very well. Choose whoever you need to extract her, and we'll bring them up to speed on the situation. Now… what about that other matter I asked you to look into?"

With a roll of his eyes, Mest let out a groan of frustration. "Right, that. I wish it were as easy as infiltrating an enemy nation seems to be. But I'm making a lot of headway with the new Council. With Sorano and Erik doing so well, and with everything Jellal is doing about Avatar, I think they're willing to consider pardons. Maybe not… full… pardons, but… At least they're more open to the idea than they would have been with the old guard in charge. I'll keep working on it, though."

"That's excellent news!" Makarov exclaimed. "That they're willing to talk about it at all is promising. Thank you for your service, Mest. Really. You've done amazing work this past year."

"Are you sure you're not just saying that because Mira threatened you?" Mest teased.

A violent shudder passed through Makarov. "She is singularly terrifying when she has you in her sights. But no. I mean it. With any luck, this will soon be all over and you'll be able to do whatever you wish with the rest of your life. Keep up the good work."

Mest smiled. "I'll head out for Alvarez again in two days. As soon as my magic replenishes completely. Although… speaking of Erik. I noticed Natsu downstairs… have Gray and Juvia returned, too?"

"Indeed. Dragging Natsu by his ears, as it were."

"I would have paid anything to have seen that," Mest mused. It made for an entertaining mental picture. "So how did it go with Natsu, and Erik and Lucy? I know Natsu leaving like he did hurt Lucy pretty bad, and I can't see Erik responding to his homecoming well. For that matter, I can't imagine that seeing Lucy with another partner went over well with Natsu, either."

Makarov opened his mouth to respond, and then hesitated. His gaze diverted over Mest's shoulder, his eyes as wide as saucers.

"…Erik?" a deadly calm voice inquired behind Mest.

Mest's blood ran cold. "Natsu." Swiveling around, he peered into the raging fire in the Dragon Slayer's gaze. He stood in the open doorway, his hand still on the doorknob.

"Who's Erik, Gramps?" Natsu asked. "Is that Lucy's new partner's name?"

Sighing, Makarov nodded. "That is his name, yes."

Abruptly, the pink haired man turned and stalked out of sight. Mest rushed out of the office, just in time to see Natsu leap over the banister and drop to the first floor.

"Oh, crap. What have I done?" Mest whimpered. "I should warn Lucy that he's…"

Makarov's hand on his shoulder stopped him. "I think you'll just get burned if you try."

Mest sank, clutching the banister for support. "But… but Lucy…"

"Isn't home, as far as I'm aware. Besides, she has Erik and her Spirits," Makarov stated. "She'll be fine. We managed to stall him for a day, but this is something that they're going to have to work out eventually." Sorrow coated his words. "Unfortunately, this isn't a conversation we can have on their behalf."

Sick to his stomach, Mest released the railing. "I think I need to be there, anyway."

"Then go," Makarov urged. "Go support them."

Mest nodded, then vanished.

"Oh, my poor children," Makarov muttered. "How I wish I could take away this pain from you."

I'm so afraid of waking
Please don't shake me
Afraid of waking
Please don't shake me

At the apartment, Cobra froze in the middle of preparing lunch, setting off alarm bells in Lucy at the abrupt lack of noise in the kitchen.

"Erik?" she called, looking up from her book. "Is something wrong? You got quiet all of a sudden."

He held up a finger, urging her to silence, as his ears and magic strained. "We're about to have company," he announced after a minute, his tone droll. Hanging up his apron - a frilly thing in royal purple that Lucy had bought for him as a joke (and that he unironically loved) - Cobra waved her over.

"What is it?" she asked in hushed tones, worried over his action.

"We're about to have uninvited company." His lip curled in distaste. "Natsu just left the guild in a hurry, and he's intent on coming here. We may have that confrontation sooner rather than later." Though concern shone clearly in his eye, his tone was matter-of-fact. "What do you want to do about it?"

Dread filled the pit of Lucy's stomach. But she squared her jaw, and a spark of determination settled into her eyes. "Let him," she stated, sitting down at the table. "If he's determined, then there's no way Natsu won't be able to get in here. It's not a fortress, after all. May as well handle him now."

Anger made the light reflected in her eyes dance. "But I'll let him know just how I feel about this conversation being forced."

Cobra grinned, fierce pride flaring inside him. "Let him have it, Bright Eyes."

"Oh, I will," Lucy promised. "I will."

A knock resounded on the door, and Lucy involuntarily stiffened.

"It's Mest," Cobra reassured her. "Seems he accidentally spilled the beans. I'll let him in."

She mustered up a smile for Mest, as he swept in uttering apologies. "Don't worry about it, Mest. Thank you for coming."

He rung his hands, looking absolutely miserable. "Well, I'm here if you two need me."

"We probably will," Cobra stated bluntly. He sat down, and took Lucy's hand in his again, offering his support in a more tangible form. "But we're strong enough for this," he reminded Lucy gently.

"Together, we are." Lucy gazed at him, calmer for his presence at her side. "I'm as ready to deal with this as I'll ever be."

Then came a furious pounding at the door.

With a deep, steadying breath, Lucy let go of Cobra's hand. She walked over to the door, and pulled it open to see the furious dragon slayer on the other side.

The sight of Natsu there, after all this time, was indescribable. Not much was outwardly different about him. His hair was a little longer and shaggier than she remembered, and he might have grown a little more. His chest was heaving with the effort of running all the way to her apartment from the guild, and his shirt clung to him, soaked through from the persistent summer rain.

After all had been said and done, he still looked like her partner, her first human friend, come home after a long, long time away.

"Hello, Natsu," she said, with a lopsided smile. It was difficult to maintain her anger in front of him, when the full force of just how much she had missed him had finally hit her. Then she stepped to the side, allowing him into her apartment. "Come on in. It's time you and I catch up."

And I feel like I can face the day, and I can forgive
And I'm not ashamed to be the person that I am today

I know that most of you don't read author's notes, but please, I'm begging you - do not say a word about updating to me or I will delete this entire thing and be done with it once and for all. Please don't.

Otherwise, I wish you all a Happy New Year.