"Natsu, at the table? Really?"

All at the dinner table turned their eyes to the boy, who flushed and shoved his phone back into his pocket. "Lucy's dad forced her to go to a fancy ball thing tonight. I'm just tryin' to cheer her up a bit."

"I love Lucy too, but I'm sure she can wait until after dinner," Grandine told him with the scary-raised-eyebrow face. Natsu nodded quickly, taking a drink from his cup of milk; he'd already completely devoured his dinner and gotten thirds.

Bacchus casually shoveled down some potatoes, occasionally sneaking some to Theo on his lap across from Natsu. Bacchus and Cana's baby Theo was nearly four months old now, leaning happily back on his father's chest. But Bacchus' focus was on Natsu this time. "So when are you and Lucy gonna start dating?"

Natsu spat out his drink on his plate, sputtering heavily. Gildarts frowned, clapping him on the back and handing over a napkin. He also sent up a quick Thank God Bacchus has that habit of saying whatever comes to his mind.

After Natsu had been given time to recover, he shook his head and stammered, "I-I don't know what the hell you're talkin' about." He only stood abruptly and stiffly marched over to get fourths.

The entire table groaned at his response, Gajeel and his girlfriend, Levy, slamming their foreheads to the wood in harmony and Igneel jabbing himself in the temple with a fork.

The kids were in the first quarter of their senior year, and Igneel had lost the bet last year; but Gildarts wouldn't get a cent until they started dating this year. Not, of course, that he put fifty dollars before his son's happiness.

Cana sat back in her seat, engagement ring gleaming off the light of the chandelier above them. "If I hear an answer to that question like that one more time, I think I'll gut you like a fish, baby brother."

"So how about that new Marvel movie, eh?" Natsu tried in a high voice. "We should all go see it this weekend!"

"Yeah!" cheered Wendy, but she was the only one.

"You and Lucy should go see it together this weekend," Levy muttered, stabbing at her chicken.

"May I be excused?" Natsu said through clenched teeth. "I have homework."

Grandine sighed. "Yes, you may."

After he'd stormed off to his room, Gildarts shook his head, setting down his silverware. "This is ridiculous."

"Not admitting it is screwing them up," Levy said. "If they can't be honest about their feelings, then it's like they aren't honest with each other at all anymore."

"He hasn't even told her that he made varsity his first time trying out on the football team this year," Gajeel brought up.

"I don't get the issue," said Cana, rolling her eyes. "It's so obvious and they're already plenty comfortable with each other."

And then everyone was looking at Gildarts.

He backed up slightly, feeling pressured. "What?"

"You're always the one that talks sense into people," Igneel said in his "duh" voice. "You should talk to him."

While he was rather touched that they all counted on him for guidance, Gildarts shook his head. "I doubt he'd listen to anything I have to say right now. Maybe later."

Later meant the next day; Gildarts was alone in the kitchen for once, other than Theo. While Cana and her fiancé were at work, Igneel and Grandine at their daughter's teacher's conference, and Gajeel out with Levy after his football practice, Gildarts hummed and talked to his grandson, flipping some pancakes.

"Everyone loves my pancakes, Theo," he told the boy cheerfully, ruffling his black hair so that the baby giggled. "Told your mom I could make you something healthy!"

It was at that point that Natsu entered, face red from exercise. His backpack and sports' bag were tossed over his shoulder. "Hey, Pops!"

"Welcome home, kiddo!" Gildarts slid a pancake onto a second plate. "Hungry?"

His son nodded eagerly, snatching up the plate stacked high and dropping his things on the floor. Natsu began rolling up the pancakes like burritos and cramming them down his throat.

As he was nearing the end of his portion, Gildarts casually poured syrup into the middle of his own and rolled it up. He leaned against the counter and kept his eyes on his food. "So… are we gonna ever talk about what the problem is between you and Lucy?"

Natsu didn't look up, but only walked over to the griddle for more pancakes. Gildarts stepped in front of it, crossing his arms. "I asked you a question."

His son blinked up at him innocently. "Oh, sorry. I was so focused on your amazing, spectacular pancakes-"

"Flattery?" Gildarts grinned. "More manipulative than I thought. You know what I said."

Expression morphing into annoyance, Natsu sidestepped him. "You're gonna have to be more specific."

"You two look tense around each other these days, and you haven't told her that you're on the football team," Gildarts told him simply, pouring some milk. "I thought you were excited about that. What's going on?"

After giving a level stare, Natsu put down his plate and made his way to his backpack, where he dug for a moment before pulling out a jersey. A small one.

"I wanted to wait so that I could surprise her with this." Natsu beamed, holding up a small version of his 07 jersey. "Do you think she'll like it?"

Gildarts gave a smile. "She'll love it, Natsu."

Natsu ruffled Theo's hair, and then escaped to his room. It was then that Gildarts realized just how little he and his son ever talked.

When Natsu texted the next day, Friday, to ask if Lucy could come over for dinner, Gildarts knew it was when he was going to give her the jersey. Gildarts eagerly gave a yes as if he were about see the next episode of his favorite soap opera.

[ill make dinner 2nite] the text said.

[Oh, trying to impress the lady, eh?] Gildarts sent back.

[can u not] was Natsu's only reply.

Sure enough, Lucy followed Natsu inside after school that day, Gajeel likely remaining at the library to flirt with Levy.

Lucy had just become more radiant by the year, growing into an intelligent young woman with the grace of a dancer and looks of a model. Her sunny hair was curled down her back today, falling about her face as Natsu dragged her inside by the hand.

"Ah, my child that does not always sleep here! Welcome home, Lucy," Gildarts called out from the living room where he stood spinning Theo around in circles.

"Hi, Gildarts!" She waved with that smile that everyone adored. "Thank you. Ohhh, how's baby Theooo?"

Predictably, Lucy stole his grandson.

She sat playing with Theo's chubby fingers in Plato on her lap while Natsu gathered up all the materials for the lasagna he was going to make. "He looks like he's gonna be an artist!" Lucy chittered, helping squish Theo's little hand around a blue blob. "So fascinated with all shapes and colors…"

"Looks more like a ninja badass meant for the dojo to me," Natsu proclaimed, laying the wide noodles in the pan. Gildarts sat himself down on the couch opposite the kids in the kitchen, pretending to read the closest book.

"Oh, you think everyone is," laughed Lucy, planting a kiss on Theo's head. "Why not both?"

"Yeah, that too," Natsu assented, glancing from the baby to Lucy's smiling face. "Could be the sporty artist."

"Well, martial arts are better than sports," quipped Lucy, reaching for the yellow Plato. "Like, football guys at our school other than Gajeel drive me up a wall."

Gildarts raised his eyes over the book, eyebrows going up. Natsu had frozen in the process of sprinkling cheese. "Wh-why is that?"

"Ugh, they just think they're God's gift to mankind and get to be such perverts," Lucy huffed. "They even make their girlfriends, that I don't understand how they got in the first place, wear their jerseys on game days as if they're some kind of property."

Gildarts wanted to have some kind of remote for this scene unfolding before him, maybe to pause or mute or simply turn off. Anything to stop the unraveling doom that Lucy's words were creating.

Natsu was turned away from her, clearly pretending to get something. His head bowed low, hand behind his neck. "I-I just think th-the girls do it to cheer them on, support them."

But she scoffed, making it twenty times worse with the noise and making Gildarts want to scream. "Support them? I swear, the ones in our school other than Gajeel do football because they're too dumb to do anything else."

Natsu was quiet at that, and Gildarts winced in sympathy. Intelligence had always been a sore subject for Natsu, with his difficulty with grades in school. "Maybe they think it's fun."

"Sure. Well I tell you, I'd prefer a guy that would rather read a book or sing than one that spends his nights getting soaked in sweat on a football field to ease his testosterone build up," Lucy sighed, absently forming the shape of a man from her pink Plato.

Out of a wild impulse of frustration, Gildarts threw the book he was holding across the room and into the kitchen wall. "NO."

The sound jolted the two from their separate puddles of scorn and misery, causing them to jump and stare at Gildarts in bewilderment. "The hell was that for, Pops?" Natsu asked.

"Uhh… favorite character died!" Gildarts supplied quickly.

Lucy peered over at the cover of the book. "Your favorite character in… Essentials of Pathophysiology?"

"Don't judge," Gildarts grumbled, taking the book from Natsu, who'd picked it up. "Speaking of judging, don't you think you're being a bit judgemental, Lucy?"

She blinked. "Uh, well I did say 'except for Gajeel', and isn't judgemental if it's true, right?"

Gildarts' eyebrows drew together, especially at the sight of Natsu swallowing and fumbling with the tomato sauce jar. Always pretending like nothing could effect him.

"Lucy," Gildarts said firmly, "I'm disappointed in you."

Her brown eyes were wide as they stared back at him, and she appeared lost for words. He knew that after her terrible daddy issues, his words probably hit her hard. But maybe that's what she needed.

Natsu backed away from them awkwardly, but before more could be said, they were saved by Gajeel entering, Cana only minutes behind. The conversation was led astray by the new arrivals, the new tension between them lost in the rabble of continually arriving family that began to ready the kitchen for dinner. The three of them didn't say a word to each other until everyone was home and around the table.

"Stayin' for our marathon tonight, Lucy?" Igneel asked, cheerfully cutting his lasagna. "We promised Wendy we'd catch up in Miraculous Ladybug, and then we'll rewatch Star Wars in a three day span!"

"Em, actually," Lucy said, a flush coating her cheeks as she twirled her fork on her food. "I have a thing tonight."

Everyone at the table paused, peering around in confusion. Other than Gray, Erza, and Levy, she only hung out with the Dragneels and Clives, and according to her schedule, she didn't have anymore forced parties this month. Gildarts looked around, counting. Yes, everyone was here…

"What's the thing, if I might ask?" Grandine said with a smile.

"Ah…" Lucy smiled down at her plate, pushing some hair behind her ear. "I-I was asked to go see a movie tonight. By a really nice guy in my class."

Natsu's fork clattered to his plate, and he cleared his throat, fingers grabbing back at it when they looked at him. Lucy continued, "We're going to see that new Marvel one… I told him no for dinner because I was coming here, but it's my first date ever and I really want to do this tonight so…"

The table grew rather silent, blinking in bafflement at Lucy. It was Cana who voiced their thoughts. "You… do?"

Lucy looked awkward under the pressure of their gazes. "Y-yes… why?"

After a beat of silence, the family made a silent agreement, and offered smiles. "That's awesome, Lu!" Cana said, Grandine smiling and nodding along. "I'm so excited for you."

Igneel's smile looked much more like he was constipated, and Gildarts could only offer a light, fake laugh and turn back to his food with an internal groan.

Not turning his head, he slewed his eyes over to Natsu beside her, who was staring wordlessly at his plate with his shoulders hunched and brow creased in confusion. His eyes were wide, fork stilled. Gildarts wanted nothing more than to comfort his son, but knew that it was hopeless right now.

Finally, Natsu managed a quiet, "Why didn't you tell me?"

Lucy only viewed him cooly through narrowed eyes. "Why should I, when you don't tell me where you go almost every afternoon? Did you think I wouldn't notice you slipping off?"

Bacchus snorted while Gajeel muttered, "Whomp, there it is…"

"Extra Karate training for the tournament," Natsu tried with a shaking voice.

"You're a terrible liar," sighed Lucy, finishing the last of her drink. "This has been amazing as usual, and I was so happy to see you all." She rinsed off her plate in the sink and stuck it in the dishwasher. "But I should really be going now."

Natsu cleared his throat, standing. He pushed his plate away and followed her to the door. When he grabbed his jacket, Lucy frowned at him. "What are you doing?"

He tilted his head. "Um, walking you there, as always. Or driving, if you want-"

"I can do it myself, and I can defend myself." Her voice was sharp, though she clearly attempted to sound warm with him. "It would be kinda weird if a guy walked me to a date with another guy, don't you think?"

Natsu's stare was level. "Not really."

"Well, I do." She opened the door and waved. "Good night! Thank you!"

"Good luck!" called the girls, while the men just returned the wave with a smile.

As soon as the door had closed, there was a collective sigh. Natsu stared at the door for a few moments, before trudging back to the kitchen and gathering up the plates without meeting anyone's eyes.

When it was time for the family movie night, Gildarts could only watch Natsu in worry as he curled up on the couch and stared at the floor, in a daze rather than taking a single glance at the screen. It was so… quiet.

They ended up calling it a night after one movie, Natsu's gloom seeping into the rest of them as they wandered off to bed. Before Natsu could follow suit, however, Gildarts put a hand on his shoulder. "Natsu?"

His dark eyes were dull. "What?"

"I'm so sorry about how tonight turned out. Is there anything… you'd like to talk about?"

"I don't know what you're talkin' about. Goodnight, Pops."

It was a long two weeks before Gildarts saw Lucy again. She hadn't visited the house, but Gildarts was taking a walk by the school with Wendy and her parents. Since it was likely one of the last warmer days of the year, they'd decided to walk the boys home from practice. Sitting on the front steps of the school was Lucy, laughing at something the boy beside her said while holding a book in one hand and the boy's hand in the other. Ignoring the growly sound Igneel was making, Gildarts gestured for them to continue to the football field as he strolled casually up to Lucy.

"Hey, kiddo!" he greeted, hands in his pockets. She looked up, eyes shining.

"Gildarts!" she said with a wave. "Good to see you! What're you doing around here?"

"Out with a walk with the Dragneels," he said, eyes wandering to the boy. "Who's your friend? Is he the one that took you out to the movie a while back?"

"Oh yes, this is Wes," Lucy introduced, flush creeping up her cheeks. "Wes, this is my kickboxing teacher, Gildarts."

Usually, she'd introduce him as Natsu's father.

"Very nice to meet you, sir," the boy said, standing and holding out a hand.

Gildarts shook it in good nature, but examined him closely. He looked harmless enough, sensible glasses on a reasonably good-looking face, with straight black hair, and a simple, button-down shirt. He had a kind, shy, yet confident air about him.

"Likewise," he said eventually, offering a smile. He gripped the boy's hand more tightly. "I have a black belt in over five martial arts and most of my students and children go here. I have dangerous eyes everywhere-"

"Ooookay!" Lucy squeaked, quickly grasping Wes' other arm and tugging him away. "Ehe, that won't be necessary. He's just joking, Wes."

"I'm really, really not. But you seem like a nice fellow and Lucy can take care of herself, so brute force castration doesn't appear to be necessary yet. How are you two today?"

The boy looked rather white, so Lucy cleared her throat and said, "W-we're fine. We were reading a bit and about to head over to get some ice cream…"

"Ah, I should suggest to take Wendy there. Have you seen Natsu, by chance?"

At this question her expression twisted; she looked frustrated, otherwise closed off. "No. As always, he slips off almost every afternoon to who knows where."

"Natsu?" Wes tilted his head at her curiously, though he didn't look bothered or jealous. "The pink-haired one that gets into those fights? I didn't know you were friends with him."

Gildarts couldn't help but sound flabbergasted. "What?"

Lucy, meanwhile, looked rather trapped. "O-oh yeah, well he's in my kickboxing class, I'm friends with his older sister, I babysit his nephew and little sister sometimes, and Levy is his brother's girlfriend, so…"

Though it made him feel immature, the words just flowed from Gildarts' mouth, "And, you know, they've been best friends since the first day of freshmen year and she's practically lived at our house for the past four years, where we've been more than happy to have her. At least that's what it seemed like." He gave a tense smile at her ashamed expression. "Good to see you; it's been a while. I gotta go find him now-later, kiddo."

"Later, Gildarts."

He jogged back to his family, more ticked off than when he'd stopped. Igneel had waited on the other side of the steps for him, out of sight. "C'mon," Gildarts muttered to his friend, anxious to get further out of earshot before he burst, "I can't believe how she's acting. No wonder Natsu's been so miserable; her boyfriend didn't even know they were friends! Has she been completely ignoring Natsu?"

Igneel apparently had calmed down from his original growliness. "I'm sure it's temporary; she's going through the honeymoon phase, where they are distant from their friends for a while because they're so focused on the new significant other. She'll probably even out soon; she's a sensible girl."

"Yeah, you're right… but for so long, I just thought…"

"That she liked him back," Igneel finished with a sigh. "Me too, and you've said I'm as obtuse as a bowling ball."

"She also acted like being his friend was something to be ashamed of. Lucy is such a smart, loyal, and good person; I just don't get what's come over her."

"Hey Lucy… It's Natsu. Again. Well, you know that, ehe… I mean I probably came up on the caller ID thingie… yeah. Maybe you didn't get the last texts or voicemails or whatever, but, em, I'm free this Saturday! New thing. And I was just wondering…"

Two weeks later, Gildarts paused by the boys' closed door as he walked to the kitchen dinner, feeling his heart sink at Natsu's sigh into his phone on the other side. Judging by the footsteps, Natsu was pacing slowly while he spoke. "We haven't hung out for a while, ya know? I mean, other than school and kickboxing. Which is fun! But I dunno, we used to hang out a lot and I know you've been busy… with… W-Wes, and all…" Natsu trailed off, footsteps halting.

A clearing of the throat. "Um, yeah, cool guy. But as your bestie I figured maybe if you were free we could… I dunno. You could come over, or we could go somewhere… the arcade, movie, park, maybe. Even if just for an hour or… yeah. You might have to come over at least for a little bit; Happy misses you sooo much so you can't disappoint that cute ball of fur, right? That would be animal cruelty. So we should hang out. And… we need to talk. About… things." He heard the wood creak-Natsu likely leaning on his desk. "Okay, honestly I think you're mad at me, and we should get that cleared up. It's what friends do and stuff! So please… call me back. Uh… yeah. See ya."

Gildarts sighed and continued on. Natsu's misery and (if possible) even quicker-tempered attitude lately in missing his best friend had seeped this dark mood upon the whole family for the last month; Gildarts hadn't realized just how much they all relied on his energy and optimism.

Tonight was no different. The family attempted some conversation, made more difficult by how Levy, Cana, Bacchus, and Theo couldn't come tonight. Natsu had his phone sitting on the table, glancing toward it every few seconds. Once, the screen lit up and Natsu sat up straight hopefully, only for his face to fall when he realized it was a game notification.

It was mostly silence until they did the dishes. Natsu stood first, rinsing off his plate before going back to pocket his phone. Gajeel walked by him then, and Gildarts only heard Gajeel mutter something under his breath to Natsu in an annoyed tone before there was a crash of a ceramic plate smashing on the floor and the banging of chairs knocked over as Natsu instantly punched his brother in the face. "SHUT UP, YOU SON OF A-"

Wendy screamed, ducking under the table as Natsu tackled him to the ground, Gajeel crying out and growling as he tried to fight back. Igneel gave out a shout, and Grandine screeched at them to stop while Gildarts scrambled to grab them. Igneel helped, though it was hard to get a hand in-the boys were rolling on the floor and fists were flying and curses were being thrown back and forth until Gildarts held Natsu back. Gajeel, rubbing his bruised jaw and snarling, was pushed away by Igneel. Natsu, bleeding from the broken plate shards, kept trying to lunge after Gajeel.

"Natsu! NATSU!" Gildarts yelled, locking his his arms behind his back in a restraint hold. "Stop! Out of the house! Take a walk-cool off! Out!"

He walked a hissing Natsu towards the door, and he grabbed at the door handle, throwing a ferocious look back at his brother. "I hate you! If you ever speak to me again I'll-!"

"OUT!" Gildarts shouted, pointing to the door. "Take a walk. Go."

Jaw set, Natsu flashed a glare at Gildarts, a look of pure rage, before he slammed the door behind him with enough force to rattle the house and stormed off into the coming night.

The silence that descended upon the family was somehow deafening, broken by Wendy's sob. The tenseness in Gildarts shoulders faded as he looked to the small girl, curled up with her head buried in her knees on the floor. Grandine instantly was beside her, arms wrapping her up and rocking her back and forth. "C'mon, sweetheart; let's go to your room and read a book, okay?"

Gajeel was grimacing, and said with a softness only Wendy could bring out, "I'm sorry about that, Wen. We shouldn't have done that."

"W-why d-does Natsu h-hate Gajeel?" she hiccuped, voice muffled in her arms. "We all l-love each other and i-is he e-ever coming b-back?"

"Wendy, of course he's coming back," Igneel soothed, petting her hair. "We do all love each other; we just fight sometimes. Natsu shouldn't have done that. We'll talk to him about it when he's done with his walk and they'll make up. You'll see. Now how about you go read that book with Ma, okay?"

Nodding and sniffling one last time, Wendy allowed her mother to walk her to the girls' room. As soon as the door closed, the men both turned on Gajeel.

"What in the name of hell did you say to him?" Igneel asked.

Gajeel didn't answer.

Gildarts felt anger and frustration burn in his chest. "Does it matter? Natsu overreacted either way. Like he always does. We can't let him keep flipping out like this."

When Igneel saw Gildarts turn to open the door, he called out, "We haven't heard both sides of the story! I think you should leave him to cool off for a bit; you know how he gets-"

"I'm done letting his anger get the best of him. We need to talk."

And Gildarts took off after his son.

He found Natsu at the pond where they'd always gone fishing in the park, chucking stones far out into the water and making ripples that glinted jarring moonlight. He was muttering to himself, giving out huffs and exclamations when he launched another rock towards the opposite shore. The chill of the night air didn't seem to bother him even in his light t-shirt and jeans.

"Natsu," Gildarts said behind him, not whispering, "this needs to stop."

"Gajeel's existence? Yeah, it does-"

"Stop." Gildarts grabbed his shoulder and spun the boy to face him. "For years I've tried to teach you how to better channel your anger, told myself that it was just a phase and you'd grow out of these freakish rages you get in, but I've been stupid. You're eighteen and you lose it at the slightest provocation. You need to get a grip and I think you need help."

Natsu ripped his arm out of Gildarts grip. "I don't need help! What the hell, Gildarts-!"

"Since when do you call me 'Gildarts'?!"

"Since you said I was a psycho!"

"I didn't say that! I said you have anger management problems and you need help!"

Natsu made a choking sound, stumbling back as if he'd been hit. "Go away."

"You don't tell me to-"

"Leave me alone!"

"Don't you dare walk away from me; face it like a man and talk it out," Gildarts warned, but Natsu clearly wasn't listening.

"Go away! I don't want to talk to you about anything! You're all the fucking same-leave me alone!" was all he shouted back, shoving Gildarts hard in the chest before taking off down the wooded path.

Lost for words, Gildarts stared after him, wondering what happened to that smiling little boy that used to fit into one hand.

Gildarts stopped by the boys' room that night to check if Natsu had returned safely. Sure enough, the sound of pacing again filtered through the doorway, and Natsu's tired voice into his phone.

"Hey Lucy… It's me again. I'm sorry… I know it's late. Wow, it's really late, em, but I just… I've been telling so many people that I don't want to talk but… Maybe I lied a little. I wanna talk to you. I need to. Or at least just hear your voice, I mean…" Natsu faltered. "E-everything here is kinda falling apart… and you always got me. I think. I mean, we always got each other, right? Really late though, so you're probably sleeping like a rock with one arm hugging yourself and the other around Plue… I mean that's how you do it when we have accidental sleepovers. That sounded creepy. I don't watch you sleep, but I just happen to see it sometimes. In an un-creepy way. Anyway, um, this is a really terrible and embarrassing message… I hope I didn't wake you up. I really shouldn't have called. Sorry. Bye."

The next several days were some of the most awkward of Gildarts' life, and he'd survived Igneel and Grandine's honeymoon stage and Cana entering puberty.

Natsu would barely speak to any of them, and not at all to Gildarts or Gajeel. Gildarts had thought Natsu wasn't one to hold a grudge, but he was sure being proven wrong. It was because of a rather unfortunate and epically stupid incident in which he began to again acknowledge their existence.

All the friends were coming over; Grandine had thought it a way to cheer Natsu up and maybe get him and Gajeel on speaking terms again. Gray and his stalker, Juvia, Levy, and Erza were over along with Cana's family, getting into their Mario Kart tournaments on the couch that rose in volume every minute. But as it was mostly laughter (a few of Natsu's), Gildarts didn't mind.

And then the doorbell rang again.

Gildarts looked up from his spot in the kitchen to see Cana open the door to a hesitant-looking Lucy in a simple sweater and jeans. "I was invited for a Mario Kart day?"

"Lucy!" Cana said happily, opening her arms for a hug, but she wasn't fast enough. Natsu barreled past with a shout of happiness, sweeping up Lucy in an embrace and spinning her around.

"You came!" he cried, giggling madly.

Lucy only offered a smile when he set her down. "Can't miss out on Mario Kart, can I? Who's winning?"

It felt right to have their Lucy back in the house, kicking ass at Mario Kart and making sarcastic jokes along with the rest. Hearing the kids laugh was Gildarts' favorite sound in the world.

Around dinner time was when it all went to shit.

They'd just ordered pizza-Gildarts walked to the pantry to get some popcorn to go with it.

"I think it's on the right-" Igneel was saying beside him, until Gildarts saw Natsu and Lucy approaching down the hall and rushed to close the door before they noticed. He clapped a hand over Igneel's mouth.

"Shh! They need uninterrupted alone time!"

Igneel shoved the hand away and rolled his eyes. Together, they shuffled to the door and peeked out through the slots of wood.

"-really glad you could come today, Lucy," Natsu was saying with the biggest grin.

"Me too," she told him, not fully meeting his eyes. "I've missed Mario nights."

"Yeah. Well, we've all missed you. You should come for rematches tomorrow!"

"Maybe. I might have a thing planned."

Igneel cursed, and Gildarts stepped on his foot.

"Or you could ignore the thing and come here," suggested Natsu, a slight edge to his tone now.

"Or you could stop blowing up my phone."

The two of them stopped walking, and there was a silence other than Igneel whispering, "Well shiiiiiiit…"

"Just got real," Gildarts finished in quiet horror.

Finally, Natsu said, "I-I thought maybe something was wrong with your phone…"

"You could've asked me, and I would've told you that the only problem is that your name keeps showing up on it. Constantly."

Another silence. "Why… why were you ignoring me?" Hurt was laced into every syllable.

"Why were you flipping out just because we didn't hang out five times in a week?" demanded Lucy.

"I wasn't flipping out, and I'm not that desperate. I started calling when we hadn't hung out in a few weeks and you didn't answer me."

"Maybe I was pissed that you wouldn't just try to talk to me about it in person-"

"Maybe I've tried but you keep dodging me at school!" Natsu shot back. "And maybe I've needed you and you weren't-"

"Well, maybe you shouldn't need me!"
"Well, wouldn't that be nice! As if I could just stop-"

"Maybe you should just cool it and stop leaving cute messages!"

"Maybe you should just shut up," groaned Natsu, grabbing her face and kissing her. Right there.

"Oh CRAP," Igneel squeaked about ten octaves higher than usual as Gildarts slapped a hand to his forehead and hissed, "Natsu, no!"

But luckily, the two teens were two caught in the moment to hear the disturbance in the pantry. The two friends could only watch in both euphoria and horror as Natsu kissed her deeply, wrapping an arm around her waist to pull her closer. Lucy finally relaxed, winding her hands up his neck and into his hair and kissing him back-

Natsu slowly released her, breathing heavily with his eyes still closed. Lucy was staring straight ahead, mouth parted and eyes wide in shock.

After a few long beats, Natsu breathed out. "Sorry. Just let me explain-"

There was to be no explaining- Lucy's hand slapped across his face with an echoing CRACK and Natsu trained agonized and aghast eyes toward the ground.

"I can't believe you!" Lucy yelled at him, nearly in tears. "What the hell was that?!"

"I-I'm s-sorry-"

"You can't just do that! I'm seeing someone and already pissed at you and your lies! I knew I shouldn't have come here!"

Natsu said nothing.

Angrily drying her face of the tears that had slipped free, Lucy pushed him back. "Just stay the hell away from me."

She turned on her heel and stomped off.

Before Igneel and Gildarts could react, Gray and Gajeel were running over to Natsu. Gajeel looked concerned but said nothing, while Gray hesitantly stepped up to him. "Natsu? What happened? What's going on?"

Gray had been reaching out to put a hand on his friend's shoulder, but it was slapped away. "Piss off, stripper."

"Natsu, I'm just tryin' to-"

"Leave me alone," muttered Natsu in a daze, head down as he hurried out towards the back door. They heard a slam.

Hesitantly, Igneel pushed the door open. The boys didn't even seem mildly surprised that they were there. "So…" Igneel said awkwardly.

"That could've gone worse," Gildarts tried.

"You're a filthy liar," sighed Igneel.

"Yes I am."

"What happened?" Gray asked in complete bewilderment. "And what the hell has been wrong with them?"

"Long story short, Lucy has been avoiding him with precision, he's been trying to hang out with her and figure out what's going on, they were walking over here and somehow got on the topic of how she wants him to stop calling and texting her, and he randomly kissed her, she slapped him, and they both ran away," recited Gildarts.

"That's about it," Igneel agreed.

Gajeel awkwardly scratched his neck. "Well there's a problem."

"You don't freaking say," snorted Gray.

"Well?" They were all looking at Gildarts as Igneel raised an eyebrow. "What are you still doing here?"

"What do you mean?"

"You're always the one that gives people the inspirational private talks," Gray said simply.

"Last time I tried to talk to him, he pushed me away and shouted at me to leave him alone."

"Last time you tried to talk to him, you were pissed at him and didn't give time for you or him to cool off," Igneel said firmly. "No one listens to angry tones. You need to be patient with him; the only reason you have more trouble getting through to him than the other kids is because you get mad too easily because he's so much like you."

"What?" Gildarts gave him a weird look. "He's way more like you."

"I don't get angry that fast, and I didn't have a problem talking about my feelings when I was a teenager. I wasn't impulsive. That's you. And that's him. Now go and be gentle with the kid."

With a sigh, Gildarts rolled his shoulders. "Fine. But I'm not guaranteeing any results."

Using his psychic powers (AKA, tracking Natsu's phone), Gildarts finally found his son in the dojo. All of his kids had a spare key to go practice whenever they wanted.

He heard the thumping of a punching bag as soon as he entered the back door, and came out of the hallway to see Natsu beating the crap out of the bag, making the chains rattle and sweat soak his collar and-

"Natsu!" Gildarts called, alarmed. "Stop-you aren't wearing the wrappings-!"

The blood from Natsu's knuckles splattered across the rough material.

"Stop!" he commanded again, but Natsu didn't seem to hear him. Gildarts rushed to his son, grabbing him from behind and holding him back with an arm over his shoulder and under his arm. Natsu shouted, struggling against him and letting out a long, animalistic, frustrated scream.

But then he was quiet, slumping in his father's arm and taking gasping breaths. Gildarts did all he could think of; he turned Natsu around and hugged him. This time, Natsu didn't resist, letting himself be held for a long, long time.

"C'mon, kiddo," said Gildarts softly after a while. He backed away and held up Natsu's wrists to examine his hands. "Let's get you patched up."

Natsu still didn't say anything as Gildarts sat them down on the side benches, wiped the blood clean with antiseptic, and gently began to wrap bandages around his split skin.

"Sorry," he said finally. His voice was small. "I didn't mean to hurt myself. I just sorta forgot to put them on."

"It's okay, Natsu. Just be more careful."


When he finished with one hand, Gildarts looked up in the process of pulling out more bandages. "I'm sorry too. About the other day. I should have been more patient with you and listened to why you were upset."

"It's okay. I shouldn't have talked to you like that either, and I shouldn't have hit him."

He applied antibiotic salve to the scarred knuckles. "Maybe you two should apologize to each other."


Gildarts raised his eyebrows at Natsu, whose eyes looked dead. "What did Gajeel say to you?"

Natsu hesitated. "I don't really wanna talk about it, Pops."

Holding back his desire to insist, Gildarts nodded. "Okay. Wanna talk about anything else? Remember the rule." Gildarts tried for a smile. "What happens in the dojo, stays in the dojo."

Natsu only looked down. Taking that as a no, Gildarts sighed through his nose and continued with the methodic wrapping.

"I can't believe I did that," Natsu said suddenly, staring at his hands with a blank expression. It was as if Natsu knew Gildarts and Igneel had seen everything that had happened. "I screwed up so bad. I-I don't know h-how I can ever fix it… I practically violated her and-"

"You didn't violate anyone. But yes, you screwed up." Gildarts secured the bandage. "Natsu, you two are best friends. You can get through some screw ups, even if it involves how you're in love with her."

Natsu didn't deny it. "Doesn't matter. I know she already knows and she obviously doesn't care."

Gildarts continued, "Of course she cares. You just need to give her a meaningful and sincere apology and wait for her to cool off. Maybe you could even write her an apology letter. I'm sure she didn't mean all of that; she just was surprised and confused."

"But she's been avoiding me," he whispered. "I-I don't know what I did; she can't be upset about me not telling her about football enough to do that. I really think… she just doesn't want to be around me anymore. I don't know what I did."

"Maybe it's not you, Natsu."

"I wouldn't be surprised if it is," he grumbled. "Not the first time someone's left me in the dumpster."

Gildarts froze. "Natsu, that had nothing to do with-"

"Then why did it happen?" demanded Natsu, meeting his eyes with fire in his own.

"You're just looking for things to be upset about now."

"That doesn't mean I don't want to know."

Raking a hand through his hair, Gildarts breathed out. "Your dad… was an abusive alcoholic, and blamed you for your mother's death. He was messed up; it had nothing to do with you. The only reason you survived that long is your brother took care of you."

Natsu's mouth fell open. "Wh-what?! You didn't tell me I had a brother!"

Grimacing, Gildarts muttered, not meeting his eyes, "Didn't see a point in telling you. It would only upset you later."

"Why?" he demanded.

"Because your brother was a serial killer," Gildarts finally admitted.

"What the hell," groaned Natsu, sitting back with his head against the wall. "I come from a family of psychos. No wonder you said I have mental issues-"

"Natsu, I was mad that night." Gildarts rubbed his temples. "It wasn't right of me to talk to you like that. I should have had a calmer discussion with you about it when you'd cooled off. I'm sorry."

"No wonder she doesn't wanna be around me."

"Natsu, don't say stuff like that-"

"I want to go home."

Gildarts sighed, putting an arm around Natsu's shoulder. "I hate seeing you sad, Natsu. I've loved you since the second Igneel handed you to me. So please, never hesitate to talk to me when you need to."

Natsu's eyes were unfocused. "Okay. Thank you."

"Let's go home. Get you something to eat."

"I'm not-"

"You're gonna eat whether you're hungry or not. Now let's go."

"I love you too, Pops."

If possible, it seemed to get worse the next Monday.

Gildarts knew Natsu had planned to catch Lucy and give her his practiced apology, and therefore was already nervous when he saw Natsu walk in the door. "Hey, sweetheart!" Grandine greeted beside him while they chopped vegetables for dinner. "How was-"

Natsu, acting as if nothing in the world existed, listlessly walked past them and to his room. The door closed.

Grandine and Gildarts shared a wince, but said nothing. Best to leave him alone for a while.

A while was far too long. He did come out for dinner and seemed to be attempting to act normal, but his gaze was far off, focus on some planet they couldn't see. Afterwards, it was straight back to his bedroom.

"Gajeel, do you know what happened with Natsu?" Igneel muttered to him while they did the dishes, out of Wendy's earshot.

Gajeel shrugged his broad shoulders helplessly. "No idea. I think he did apologize to Lucy, but I didn't see how it turned out."

"It's probably that," Grandine sighed, shaking her head. "It must not have gone well."

"I'm sure he'll talk to us when he's ready," Gildarts said hopefully, trying to convince himself. "We talked that over."

Grandine pursed her lips. "If you say so."

By ten that night, after all three of the parents had glanced at the clock at least fifty-seven times, Gildarts finally shot up out of his seat on the couch and exhaled. "Okay. I'm gonna check on him."

"Finally," Igneel sighed.

Stomach jittering in apprehension, Gildarts toed his way up to the boys' door and knocked three times. "Natsu? May I come in?"

When there was no answer, Gildarts cracked the door open. Natsu was sleeping, head down on his desk as if he'd been in the middle of homework and had a nap attack.

With an exasperated smile, Gildarts walked up to him and ran a hand through his son's hair. Steady breaths were moving his back up and down, eyes fluttering with dreams. An image of a sleeping, rosy-cheeked baby flashed in his mind.

"Let's get you into bed," he whispered, carefully moving Natsu's hand off of the page-

The top words caught his eye. Yo Lucy…

So he'd decided to write the letter after all.

Gildarts stared at the crumpled paper, then at Natsu. Temptation clawed at his insides. I mean, I should probably check over the letter anyway, Gildarts tried to reason, slowly reaching toward the scrawled script. To make sure he doesn't say something stupid. He was probably gonna ask me to and… okay, I just need to see how he's doing.

Knowing that he may go to hell for it, Gildarts picked up the letter, and read.

Yo Lucy,

I guess I'll just start with saying that I don't know what I'm doing or what to say. I'm bad with this letter fancy English stuff. You know that better than anyone.

Well I guess I wrote this because I have something I need to tell you. I wasn't going to, but I was told to give it a try and Gildarts reminded me how I could apologize in a written thingie and Wes also gave you a written thingie that you like so I figured I might give it a try. Except Wes' handwriting was all perfect and well I you probably can't read mine whatsoever, especially since my hands are shaking. And they hurt a lot. I got into a fight with a punching bag a few days ago and forgot about the wrappings. They still bleed but I don't know how to make them feel better. Yeah I probably shouldn't have said that. You'd say I was being immature by losing my temper but I just got so mad at how I screwed up and I was still mad about what Gajeel said.

I'll start with how I'm really sorry about Friday. I don't know what the hell came over me and I never wanted to hurt you or make you uncomfortable. I know I already apologized to you today but I don't think that worked and I should probably say it whenever possible. Kissing you was unacceptable and I'll never forgive myself. I know you'll never forgive me either. I don't deserve any different but when you said you just need me to stay away after I apologized I kind of just felt like you sucked the life out of me. I thought we could fix our friendship but that was a really dumb thought. And then there's the other problem.

I'm in love with you. There. I wrote it. And I kind of want to erase it now because Gajeel was right. I should be ashamed of myself for loving you. He said that I should be ashamed of how stupid I was to think I had a chance with you and I guess I punched him a while back because I knew he was right. And I didn't want him to be. I've been really dumb. But you already know I am so I don't know why I mentioned it.

I meant to tell you a while ago. I had it planned out. I was gonna try to show you slowly, so that you wouldn't get scared, like Gildarts told us in that love speech he gave us last year. I was gonna start that one day you came home and I made you dinner. I was going to tell you what is now my biggest secret - I made the football team, and I got an extra jersey in case you'd want to wear it to the games. We've always been supportive of each other, so Gildarts thought you'd be fine with it. But then you started talking about how all the team members were dumb and how giving their jersey to a girl was like some kind of gross ownership. I don't know I guess I just felt really embarrassed then, and I couldn't bring myself to tell you. I admit I was really excited to make varsity because it was my first try and I think football is really fun, but when you said that stuff I got ashamed of that too. I was ashamed of myself, that I was just another dumb jock. But I just really love playing so I didn't want to quit and so I guess I resorted to lying to you about where I was going every day. Maybe that's what's been breaking our "friendship" the most. More than Wes.

Don't get me wrong. I like Wes. He's a good guy. He's smart and funny and kind and sensitive and that's also why I kinda hate him. And why I'm a douchebag. I feel like an absolute douchebag for feeling jealousy and bitterness eating my insides out every time I see him, especially when the guy has only ever been nice to me. It probably isn't him that's destroying our friendship at all. It's probably me and my stupid jealousy and I try not to let it but it's like it takes control and I can't get a hold of myself.

I know I've been annoying you lately. I've been so selfish. Wes is never annoying or mean. Well he did say only idiots wouldn't get an A on that one lit test, but he didn't mean for me to hear that so I don't hold it against him. I'd been about to show you my B- that I'd scraped after studying. That's the highest grade I've gotten in that class other than our group work so I was pretty excited but when he said that I kind of realized how I was just being stupid again. I threw that test away but Gray's an idiot so he picked it out again and left it in my locker. As if he thinks it's still something I should be proud of.

After Wes said that and you guys joked around, I saw him kiss you. I felt like I'd been roundhouse kicked in the chest and I wanted to throw up a lot. I mean, he's your boyfriend so it's not like I figured you guys hadn't kissed or something, but seeing it kind of made me… I don't even know. It was like my heart evaporated. Nothing left. Nope.

Anyway, I figure I should say why I love you. You didn't seem to figure it out so I should probably explain. I always feel comfortable around you. I want to see you smile all day because it's just the most amazing thing. Man I am so bad at this. Why is it so hard to freaking explain? I wanted to write you pretty words. These words aren't pretty. They're like every failed fifth grade Valentine's Day poem mixed together. Ugh well I just like to hear you talk about anything that makes you happy because your eyes light up and everything you say is smart or funny or interesting and when you smile or frown or cry or hell ANY EXPRESSION I want to kiss you. Every time. It's ridiculous and makes me feel slightly pathetic but you have that power over me.

So moving on, the way I love you isn't so much like you complete me or something. We're both already complete. You're a strong, independent woman and I'll always love you for it. But I feel like we compliment each other, you know? Like a good team. Partners. Hell I'd marry you if I could. Wow. I can't believe I'm dumb enough to write that. I will cut that out of the final draft. I am the sappiest moron in the world right now.

I really am. If I do end up giving this to you, you'll be so grossed out. You'll be disturbed by how I've been feeling about you this whole time and try to figure out a nice way to tell me you don't feel the same. How could you? Even Gildarts thinks I have anger management issues. I come from a family of alcoholics and serial killers and people that would rather leave me in the dumpster than deal with me. Why am I still writing this? I know by now that I'm not giving it to you. It won't do any good. You've made it pretty clear that you'd never feel this way about a stupid, immature jock like me so I don't know why I bother. Being stupid I guess. I don't think I've even punctuated any of this the right way. I have a dictionary right next to me so that I think I spelled it all right but I don't know about anything else.

This is so disorganized. If you read it your authorness would cry. And you'd be horrified and I'd just be more ashamed. I don't see you as much and when I do I know you wish you were with someone else. I can tell. Every time you look away to see if he's coming I feel like I'm dying. It's pathetic I know. I'm pathetic. I actually thought you might feel the same. I am literally the most pathetic thing I have ever seen. I don't want to leave this room. I'm so ashamed I may never be able to look you in the eye again, much less give this disaster of a love/apology letter to you. If anyone ever saw this, they'd probably laugh and wonder why this guy thought he had a chance. Especially with the pink hair. Oh my gosh you probably think it looks ridiculous but you were always too sweet to say so. I didn't even think of that until now. Oh I am so stupid why did I even start writing this?!

Maybe I'm just writing this to vent. I've annoyed the hell out of you lately and I finally understand. This whole time, you've just felt sorry for me. Ever since freshmen year, you felt bad that I was too messed up to have any friends. Now you're finally done pretending. I'm sorry about the burden I put on you, and want to thank you for trying to support me even though you clearly didn't really want to. I'm so so sorry and I feel so stupid for not realizing it earlier. I'll leave you alone. I won't call or text or try to be with you.

I'm going to throw this away now. Maybe I'll burn it. Maybe my love for you will turn to ash along with it, now that it's all splattered across this paper. Don't I wish.

I used to love how I loved you, because it just felt so amazing every time I saw you. Now it's torture every second of every day when I can't get you off my mind and everytime I close my eyes you're THERE. It's pathetic how I can't toughen up and be content with you not feeling the same and how you hate me. Good men can do that. I'm just a stupid sad boy with a small jersey buried in his closet and a stupid dream that he can't let go of. Aren't I supposed to be satisfied since you're happy? I'm happy that you're happy, but if I were a good person, wouldn't that be enough for me? Wouldn't that make it hurt less?

No wonder you don't love me.

I'm sorry. I love you.


"Holy hell," Gildarts muttered when he finished, eyes glued to the page that was now splotched with his tears. He quickly dried his face, running his hand upward to grip his hair. Knowing that his child ever felt like this for a moment… it felt like his heart was being smashed repeatedly.

Automatically, Gildarts folded the pages and shoved them in his pocket; he couldn't let Natsu see this again, bring back the misery in waves. If he took it now, Natsu would likely think it was only a bad dream.

Tenderly, Gildarts slid an arm under his son's knees and around his shoulders, lifting him and placing him on his bed. Natsu didn't wake, turning his face onto his pillow and letting out a small snore. After he'd covered the boy with a blanket, he straightened up the desk slightly to make it look like he'd never sat in it, pushed in the chair and took the dictionary to return it to the living room bookshelves.

He took a long, last look at his son, eyelids growing heavy with empathy and wonder as to how such an amazing boy that had brought light to his life could ever think less of himself.

A few days later, he finally felt as if he could live up to the "you're the one people go to for advice" role he kept being given.

While the boys were at practice, Cana and Bacchus at work, Wendy at the dojo for classes with Makarov, and his fellow parenting units at work, it was just he and baby Theo today, making some brownies in hopes to increase morale, like the entire family had been attempting to do for several weeks.

Then the doorbell rang.

Gildarts frowned; no one was supposed to be home yet. Maybe Jehovah's witness? Did he really have to give the "my family already goes to another church every Sunday really I have a personal relationship with Jesus" speech again? After all, it was true.

With a sigh, he handed Theo a rubber toy and wiped his floury hands on a towel before making his way to the door.

It was Lucy, standing there with a guilty expression while she shifted her feet. "Um, hello. I'm sorry for just showing up like this, especially after Friday and everything… but… if you're not busy, could I maybe come in for a bit? I just… I need to talk about stuff and my own dad isn't exactly the most willing and you know Natsu best and-"

"Lucy," Gildarts cut her off gently. "Of course. Come on in."

She stepped in as if she were entering a minefield, slipping out of her boots and following him to the kitchen. Lucy smiled at the sight of Theo, ruffling his hair before taking the gestured seat across from where Gildarts was mixing dry ingredients.

"Alrighty," he said, opening his arms wide. "Let it out, hun."

"I'm so confused," she groaned, dropping her head into her hands. "I feel like I'm doing all the wrong things for all the wrong reasons and losing the best friend I ever had because I was a jerk and everything sucks and he doesn't feel the same and-"

"So you started dating a guy to get over Natsu because you don't think Natsu loves you back, but it's not working and you're just ruining a friendship and feel like you're using Wes instead?" Gildarts guessed, nonchalantly cracking the eggs into the mixer bowl.

Lucy smacked her hands on the table. "How did you even figure that out?!"

"I consulted the spirits I raise from the dead every night."

Lucy stared.

"Just kidding; I'm only psychic. So, how did his apology go?"

She hesitated, then muttered, "I don't want him to be sorry for kissing me."

"Um, you slapped him. And you're dating someone. Of course he's sorry."

"I know," she moaned. "So I don't blame him for apologizing because that was only right of him, and it's stupid and I told him to stay away because I can't stand to be around him when he gives me the puppy eyes and I feel guilty and I want things that I shouldn't!"

Gildarts frowned in sympathy. "What makes you think you even have to bother pretending you don't have feelings for him? Did you ever tell him, or give any indication…?"

"He never asked me out," she sighed, twirling her thumbs together.

"I told him to slowly and carefully show someone how they felt last year," he reminded her. "And he's Natsu; ever consider that it would be difficult for him to try to show you and he was trying his best?"

She bit her lip. "I hoped, but… Nothing was happening and I figured I should just give up on it… but I can't if I see him because it just starts all over again."

After giving her a level stare for a moment, Gildarts made a split second decision. He dug the papers that he'd been hiding in his pocket out and began to unfold them. "I see that I can't convince you, but maybe he can. He thinks you already know and your broken friendship can't really get worse, so I don't feel too bad showing this to you."

He handed over Natsu's letter, and she took it like it was a venomous snake. "I found him writing this yesterday. He'd fallen asleep on it and I took it so that he wouldn't see it when he woke up, think it was just a dream. I probably shouldn't have read it, but I couldn't help myself. Give it a read."

She nodded apprehensively, smoothing out the ruffled pages on the countertop and her eyes began to move across it. Gildarts watched her closely. Watched as her amused expression morphed into horror and her eyes welled up. "Oh no," she whispered, quickly turning the page to the next paragraph of his messy scrawls. "Oh no, no, no…"

She got through it much quicker than he had, tears flowing freely now when she dropped the last page and dropped her face to rest in her arms on the table. "Oh no," she kept saying. "No, I can't believe he'd think… no."

"Me neither," he answered quietly.

"He's my b-best friend," she said thickly, dragging her sleeve across her eyes. "H-how could he think I d-don't…? And he… oh why does he have to be so sweet when he's deprecating himself… It's not r-right. H-he's always been so c-confident and n-now I've… Oh, no wonder you were upset with me when I-I was being a j-jerk about the football stuff… I must've made him feel s-so bad. Oh, I'm a t-terrible friend! I w-would've w-worn it… to support him… if h-he's having fun th-that's all that m-matters and… oh, so stupid-"

"Lucy, that's enough," Gildarts said firmly, gripping her shoulder. She looked up at him with red-rimmed eyes. "I've had enough of my kids saying crap about themselves. Instead of beating yourself up, use this knowledge to fix things. You're still an amazing person, or an awesome kid like Natsu wouldn't love you. Doing the right thing isn't always the easiest, and you may have to hurt some feelings along the way. But it's for the best in the end."

She dropped her forehead into her hand. "You're saying I should break up with Wes, tell Natsu how I feel, and apologize to both of them?"

"I'm saying you should do what you think is right. You're a smart girl; is that what you feel you should do?"

After a heavy exhale, Lucy began to nod. "Yes. That's… that's what I need to do."

"Well, maybe I can help with part of it," Gildarts told her. "There's a football game tonight. Wanna tag along?"

Slowly, Lucy smiled. "I think I would. Though I might need proper clothes for the occasion."

With a grin, Gildarts jogged to the boys' room and dug through the closet. When he returned to the kitchen, he held out a wrinkled, 07 jersey. "I think I've got you covered."

When Lucy ran by and hopped into the SUV before the family drove to the game, no one commented. Gildarts had filled them in, and he could see Igneel hiding a grin in the seat beside him. She was wearing the jersey.

The stadium was massive for a high school, high arches with the words "Home of the Magnolia Dragons" stretching across the top. The home bleachers and expensive box seats would've cast a looming shadow over the opposing team's tiny benches if it had been daytime; now it was night, and the giant stadium lights cast an intense and exciting atmosphere that seemed to brighten even Lucy's face. The team went to state almost every year due to the talent and hard work of the boys.

When they finally met up with Levy, Gray, Juvia, Erza, Cana, Bacchus, and Theo, they found some free seats to spread their blankets over. Lucy sat between Gray and Gildarts, and Gildarts leaned over to her. He whispered, "Did you meet up with Wes?"

"Yeah," she said back. She grimaced. "It was hard, because we did have some good memories. But he was good about it; he said he had a feeling it might be that. He wasn't mad, and we'll still be friends."

"He is a good guy," Gildarts admitted, sitting back up. He sighed, stretching his arms over his head. "Not as good as Natsu, though!"

Lucy laughed. "I think you're biased."

"As are you. Oh, here they come!"

The players ran through the opening from the fence, causing cheers to erupt, signs and screams and airhorns. The boys took their places around the benches, taking some last sips of their water bottles. He spotted numbers 07 and 77-Natsu and Gajeel. Gajeel's hair was tied back, and when Natsu drew off his helmet, the pink hair was more mussed than usual. He saw both of the boys talk briefly before they looked up to search the crowd. At once, the family and friends stood, waving their hands and calling out, "Natsu! Gajeel!"

They were spotted quickly, and the boys' grins could be seen from afar.

Gildarts tuned out the announcer; he only watched as the players warmed up, and it was about ten minutes before they were called into a huddle. Finally, Natsu was sent out into the first lineup, Gajeel likely being saved for defense.

Lucy leaned forward with bright eyes trained on 07. Natsu was set further back, as a receiver.

From the very first second, Gildarts only watched Natsu as he darted past his defender, holding out his hands in a tight pocket that the ball went spinning through. Natsu caught it, immediately turning and taking off down the field. Someone grabbed the back of his jersey, but Natsu twisted out of the grip and kept running. He jumped over a tackle, backflipped over an oncoming defender and took the ball straight into the endzone. His teammates whooped and shouted, patting and jumping on his back, giving him high fives, knocking on his helmet.

"Holy crap!" Lucy choked, agape. The rest of them cheered, but didn't look as surprised. "He's… he's really good!"

"Of course he is," scoffed Gray. "Martial arts skills do ya well in sports. He sucks at hockey, though, so who cares?"

"I do," she huffed, squinting down at the field. "I don't watch football much, but I basically get the game... wait, why are his teammates slapping his butt?"

Gildarts and Gray shrugged. "It's a football guy thing," they chorused.

"That's really… gay."

"They're in tights. They're hugging each other really hard and calling it tackling throughout the whole game," Gray pointed out. "Every football guy is at least five percent gay, or so goes the theory."

"Juvia thinks Lucy is jealous of the teammates," giggled Juvia from beside Gray.

Lucy squeaked, slapping a hand to her eyes. "No I'm not!"

From Juvia's other side, Cana squinted down to the scene. "He does have a nice butt."

Gildarts choked on air. "He's your brother!"

"Adoptive brother, and I'm engaged, so chill. None of that means I'm blind, and also doesn't mean I'm attracted to the kid." She shuddered. "That would be messed up."

Bacchus put an arm around her, looking amused. "Bet my butt is better."

"Yes it is, hun."

"Leeeeet's not," Lucy suggested.

"Agreed," muttered Gildarts, tuning out the couple and staring back down at the boys once again lining up. This time, Gajeel was out with the defense.

They caught Natsu looking up at them as he took a drink, waving until his eyes came further down the row of them and settled on Lucy.

He dropped his cup and took a step back. Gildarts could see the whites of his eyes.

"Oh dear," Lucy sighed, wincing as she tried a wave.

Gildarts thought he would assume what was going on from the jersey and all, but Natsu only looked utterly confused and pained, from what he could see at a distance. Natsu turned away.

"I think my talk with him is going to be harder than I thought," Lucy said.


The game ended in about three hours, the Dragons crushing the other team so badly that Gildarts almost felt sorry for them. Most of them had cheered their voices almost hoarse, and now waited for the boys to return from the showers.

Natsu, of course, would be a little held up.

Most of the spectators had filed out of the stands to attend their various parties or head home. The family remained milling about near the fence that the players entered through.

"Sooo…" Cana began, bouncing Theo on her hip. "Why are we standing here?"

"Waiting for Natsu and Lucy," Gildarts said, rocking on his heels and glancing toward the locker rooms. There was a turn before the doorway where the team members emerged, so Gildarts couldn't see if Natsu had come out already.

Cana gave him an amused glance. "Are we seriously not gonna see the end of the angsty Nalu rom com?"

"It's a private conversation," Gildarts muttered, staring at the hallway.

"Do you honestly think there is a private conversation ever in this family?"

"No," he admitted.

"I know you want to go over there. Your blood in my veins is screaming it."

"Why must you tempt me?" Gildarts moaned. "I already completely set them up from the start, made them realize their feelings, got them in a mess of emotional turmoil, saw private written material, trafficked said material, and got her to confess to him tonight. I have meddled enough!"

"It'll never be enough for you."

"...you're absolutely right. Coming with me?"

"You know it."

No one even bothered to stop father and daughter as they snuck over to the corner of the hallway, unseen to anyone down the other direction. They couldn't see anyone; only hear…

"Hi, Natsu."

"Lucy! O-oh, sorry. I'll g-go this way-"

"No, hey, um, would you stay? For a second?"

"I-if you want…"

A pause. "I wanted to say that I've never been more sorry in my life. I've been a complete asshole."

"No you haven't. You were right to be pissed-"

"No. I made some bad choices and got us into a huge mess because I was a coward. But I won't be anymore."

Gildarts heard a shifting of feet. "I'm not followin' ya. I don't remember you doing anything wrong."

"Stop blaming yourself for what I did and listen for a sec, okay? I'm gonna be straight out with it and stop hinting." She cleared her throat. When she spoke, it sounded as if she'd rehearsed the words over and over. "I dated Wes to try to get over you, and I avoided you because it wasn't working and I needed to get you off my mind because I thought you'd never feel the same way. I was a jerk and I feel awful for ever hurting you and not being there when you needed me. I was a jackass for insulting and judging the fun you have on this team and not supporting you. You're… You're amazing. And fun and you make me laugh and feel happier than I've felt since my mom… You're kind and caring and thoughtful and an impulsive, explosive little shit and really attractive too… wow, that was unnecessary… anyway, I love it. You're the best friend I ever had and I never want to lose you, whether I deserve you or not."

Natsu said nothing. Cana's eyes widened at Gildarts, who only grinned back.

"Um, so yeah," Lucy's voice finished awkwardly. "Th-that's all. So, em, I'll just-"

She was cut off for a mysterious reason, but Gildarts could guess why.

"That's our cue," Gildarts whispered to Cana. "Our work is done."

They took a last peek down the corridor, where Natsu had pulled her into a gentle and fervent kiss.

"Probably shoulda put money on that," Cana whispered, turning away from the scene. Theo had remained perfectly quiet throughout all the sneaking, eyes fluttering with sleep against his mother's chest. "Made my bet more specific to get more cash."

"Someday you will learn, young padawan, through my teachings of psychic skill," sighed Gildarts, pulling the betting sheet from his pocket. He pointed to his name that corresponded with today's date. "I believe it all goes to me."

Heeeey dorks!

24 PAGES. WHAT HAPPENED. Don't expect that many ever again XD I guess I kinda always go all out for Nalu. Got some Papa Gildarts being his nosy yet helpful self, Nalu love and angst galore… I hope Natsu didn't seem OOC, but you've gotta consider how each AU environment would change the character's personality by their influences.

Sorry it's all taken so long; I blame stage crew and school and work along with Brooklyn 99 and Miraculous Ladybug and the amazingness that is Cassandra Clare (AKA LADY MIDNIGHT CAME OUT AND IT WAS AMAZING AND NOW I'M REREADING THE INFERNAL DEVICES AND WILL HERONDALE AND JEM CARSTAIRS ARE AGAIN BREAKING MY HEART). Anyway, I don't intend to get back to The Way We Smile until this story is finished. I refuse to do three multichaps at once.

Also, some more of the TKOF universe Make A Wish oneshots shall keep coming, as well as a Gajevy high school AU oneshot, a sequel to my oneshot "Pass It On", and a sequel to "Stability".

BUT HEY new laptop and on spring break! WRITING SPREE GALORE! See ya soon!