The first night, Natsu hadn't attempted to leave and Lucy didn't even think to ask him to go.
With everything that had happened and all of the damage and destruction laid out around them as a reminder of what the battles with Zeref and Acnologia had wrought, the thought of leaving each other's sight was too much to bear.
Retreating to Lucy's apartment had been a given, the room relatively unscathed despite the magic Brandish had cast upon it, and Natsu and Happy had fallen asleep shortly after eating, exhaustion overcoming them frighteningly easily, even if they were clearly unsettled in their rest. Lucy had also been exhausted, but sleep had evaded her for a long time, memories of all the fighting and close calls and moments of sheer horror playing out every time she closed her eyes.
When Lucy awoke after only an hour's fitful rest, her heart in her throat and choked sobs threatening to spill out, it had been fear and an aching grief that had driven her out of her bed and sent her kneeling next to the couch, one hand placed on Natsu's chest to feel the beat of his heart and the rise and fall of his breathing. The light touch and the scent of salt in the air had been all it took for Natsu to drowsily pull her up, swiftly drawing her into his warmth where the heat of his skin and the soft purrs from Happy, curled between them, allowed her fears to subside.
The second night she hadn't even dozed off before she threw the covers aside and made her way back to his embrace.
The third night she had shuffled Happy and Natsu into her bathroom early, to wash off the grime from the various rebuilding efforts they'd been involved in, knowing that she could spend as much time as she wanted washing her long, maintenance heavy hair after they were done. The benefit of sharing a hot water supply with a Fire Mage was that a fresh tank of water could be heated whenever she wanted.
By the time she had finished her nightly routine, she'd exited the bathroom to find that Happy and Natsu were already curled up in her bed, blankets drawn up over them, even if limbs were sprawled out of the edges. At any other time she would have probably been filled with indignation at the impropriety of it. She would have kicked them out of bed and shouted at them and watched as they playfully brushed her complaints aside before she shuffled them home or let them convince her to allow them to crash on her couch.
Instead, knowing that they were safe and warm in her own space filled her with a sense of peace and security, and joining them was the most comforted she had felt since the war had ripped their world apart.
The fourth, fifth, sixth, twelfth, twentieth night passed and sleep would only come when Natsu's exhalations ruffled her hair and the steady thump of his heart beat out a slow duet with hers.
She knew Gajeel and Wendy could tell that Natsu was spending the night with her, that they could smell their scents interwoven and blended, but Gajeel's interest had not lasted past the lack of sex in the air and Wendy was too polite to comment on the situation.
She was sure that she should feel like she should try to send Natsu away at night, that she should try and reclaim her own bed and her apartment try to make it through the night without waking with panicked thoughts of how everything could have gone so very wrong. She knew that Natsu and Happy hadn't even started on making repairs to their own home, that had fared less well than hers when Alvarez troops had stormed through the land surrounding Magnolia.
But at the same time she didn't understand why she shouldn't take comfort in their presence. Why she should force herself to not accept the comfort and warmth and peace of mind offered by being able to reach out in the middle of the night and know that her biggest fears could be brushed aside.
By the time clean up in Magnolia had finished and the guild were forming teams to send aid to areas with no mages to help in the post war recovery, their new sleeping arrangements were so normal that Lucy hadn't thought twice about the fact that they would no longer be encased in their own little bubble of Lucy's apartment.
When their team stopped to camp for the first time, she instinctively made her way to where Natsu had propped himself up against a fallen tree, blanket roll cushioning the harsh bark and fire blazing a practical distance away. After a long day's trek, she was weary and only wanted to fall into a deep, dreamless sleep.
She collapsed down next to him, drawing her arm across his stomach and threading her hand into Happy's soft fur on his other side and letting her head fall onto his shoulder. It was only when the sound of Gray choking on his drink reached her ears and caused her to sit up and look in his direction that she realised that the stunned looks on Gray and Erza's faces, with Erza blushing and trying to stutter out a 'Lu...lucy!' were because she had forgotten that spending the night cuddling her best friend wasn't considered normal. Wendy was looking at her with a wide eyed expression, as if she knew something like this must be happening but hadn't quite believed it till this moment.
But even with a mortifying blush filling her cheeks, the thought of getting up and moving elsewhere, away from the steady sound and feel of knowing that Natsu was alive alive alive, filled her with dread and before she could even shuffle anxiously a hand reached out to tangle in her hair and softly draw her head back down to it's resting spot.
'Would you guys shut up, we're trying to sleep.'
Natsu's words rumbled through his chest and she felt the tired grumble more than she heard it. But even though she could practically feel the gazes of her friends burning into her back, the gentle pressure of Natsu's fingers twining through the strands of her hair overrode any embarrassment and she buried her nose further into his shoulder, breathing in the scent of his clothes that now smelled of her own laundry soaps and the smokiness of his magic and she let herself doze off to the thought of everything that was them blending into one.
The first time they had to sleep apart, after the war, was both harder and easier than Lucy had thought it was going to be.
When Gray had dragged Natsu off on a mission, Happy fluttering after them and leaving before she could even offer to come, she had just taken advantage of the opportunity to spend a nice, relaxing day with Juvia, going shopping and stopping off at their favourite cafe for lunch and meeting up with Levy to talk about the latest trashy novel Juvia was reading that Lucy may or may not be planning on borrowing after she was through. It was only when dusk settled over the town and the lamps in the guild started to light that Lucy realised that Natsu wasn't yet home.
'Well, Gray-sama did say that he expected to be back this evening, but that it could take a little longer.'
Juvia didn't seem worried in the slightest, so Lucy knew there was probably nothing to fear with regards to the job. But memories of waiting night after night for a whole year, never knowing if or when Natsu and Happy would return, fought for space in her brain against the memory of the crushing fear of Natsu facing almost certain death or lying comatose at her feet or being taken over by a magic outside of his control and all she wanted was to be able to see him, hear him, smell him, touch him.
When she finally drifted off after several hours of tossing and turning, eventually finding that one spot that smelled the most like him and felt almost as warm as his hands softly stroking up and down her back, she wondered what it would be like to taste him, too.
The first time she tasted him, she wondered why it seemed both world shattering and like everything slotting neatly into place.
When she had joined him in bed one evening, Happy already sound asleep on a pillow and Natsu softly smiling at a picture book that Asuka had left behind when they had watched over her that afternoon, she'd been so overwhelmed at seeing him look so contented that she'd brushed her hand against his cheek and turned his face to her's so she could gently press her lips to his before she had even realised what she was doing.
When she pulled away to find him softly blinking at her, as if trying to slowly process what had just happened, she'd felt the urge to clamber out of bed and run out of their apartment, even in her soft and flimsy pyjamas, so that she didn't have to explain to Natsu, and herself, why she'd had the sudden urge to kiss him.
But when his own hands lifted to cover her burning cheeks and she felt him softly pull her forward, all the while looking at her lips like he was trying to understand a great puzzle without all of the pieces, she realised there was nowhere else she wanted to be right then.
The first touches of his lips to hers were softer and more tentative than she was expecting, but the gentle pressure left her yearning for more and she pressed into him, clutching at the ends of the scarf still casually draped around his neck in an effort to stop herself from drawing him closer faster than he was ready for.
When she felt him tenderly tilt her head slightly, to better fit their mouths together, she couldn't help but nervously lick her lips at how harshly her heart was racing. And when she tasted his own lips, still pressed to hers and felt his mouth shudder and instinctively nip gently at her lower lip in response she felt the world underneath her fall away.
She pulled away, hands shaking from adrenaline and her breathing heavy and rapid with anticipation. But when she looked at his face and saw his blown pupils but a confused and overwhelmed expression, she couldn't help but feel like this was both a completely expected turn of events and also something completely life changing that needed to be handled oh so carefully.
Pushing him gently back to the pillows, so that she could settle her head down on her usual spot on his chest, was the only way she could think of giving him space to think whilst also letting him know she wasn't running away. And when she felt his hands hesitate but eventually settle around her, she knew it was the right call.
'Goodnight, Natsu...sweet dreams.'
Lucy had always desired love and romance, but placing your heart in another person's hands required so much faith and trust that she didn't know if her love, shattered and fragile from her father's neglect and her mother's passing, would ever be strong enough to survive.
But then, she had always trusted Natsu and her faith in him had never disappeared, even when that long and lonely year had turned her faith from a blaze to a flickering candle.
She probably shouldn't have been surprised that kissing Natsu and letting him kiss her had fit neatly into her life like he had fit neatly into her bed. Their partnership had always connected together seamlessly and shifting the boundaries of that partnership hadn't changed that. But when he would do something new like stare at her whilst she read, watching expressions play over her face as she reacted to the words on the page, then suddenly push the book down with one finger so that he could softly catch her mouth before declaring that he was running to the market to get some food, she wondered why this was so unexpected and yet felt perfectly right.
Loving Natsu wasn't a shock. Neither was realising that watching his skin shift over his muscles or seeing him grin in her direction or feeling his hand against hers made her mouth dry and her blood race. But knowing that she wanted him always: in her home, in her bed, by her side, catching her breath with his kisses or pressing her down into her sheets to discover if her neck tasted the same as her mouth...that longing to forever keep him tucked into the corners of her heart took her by surprise.
She knew that Natsu was more unsettled about the changes in their relationship than she was. Natsu understood love. He loved Igneel, he loved his guild, he loved Happy and Lucy knew without a doubt that he also loved her.
But she knew that Natsu was less familiar with desire. That his tentative explorations into the world of women had been more at the prompting of his male guild members than his own need to peep on the girls. He'd admitted to her, once, curled up in bed and letting her play with the fingers on the hand he'd draped over her stomach, that he didn't get why the guys at the guild went crazy for naked pictures of women. That he didn't feel anything when they cooed over their exposed bosoms and didn't understand why some of them liked their legs or the shape of their rears.
When she'd sat up and looked down at him, the strap of her nightdress falling off of her shoulder and knowing that the soft light of the lamps outside her window was playing over the top of her breasts and leaving deep shadows that lead the gaze down into her cleavage, she asked him if he felt the same way about her body.
'But that's different, 'cause it's you!' He'd seemed confused at her even asking, like of course it wasn't the same as looking at a stranger or at a women he didn't want to work with and play with and share every moment of his day with. 'I mean, sometimes it isn't different. Like when we're fighting and your clothes get ripped because obviously that's got nothing to do with sex…' And he'd stopped talking then as if he hadn't quite connected that liking the shape of Lucy's body and liking the taste of her mouth and the way his hands felt on her skin was to do with sex and she'd watched as an almost adorable blush had blossomed on his cheeks and down his neck, almost colouring his collarbone with a pink tinge.
She'd giggled at him, watching the pink deepen, before taking pity and laying back down, turning on her side facing away from him and wrapping his arm back around her stomach. The stiff lines of his body had smoothed against her now that she could no longer see him flustered and they'd fallen asleep relaxed and melted into each other's warmth.
She'd known the moment that Gajeel had realised things were truly shifting between her and Natsu when Levy pulled her down into the Guild Library, the only room in the building that didn't allow dragon slayers to eavesdrop, and asked with all the subtlety of a brick 'So, how's Natsu?'
'Really, Levy?' Lucy sighed, 'Should I ask you how Gajeel is, too?'
Levy merely raised her eyebrow, completely unphased. 'Well, if your relationship with Natsu is comparable to my relationship with Gajeel, then I think I have all the information I need.'
'No!' The intimacies between Gajeel and Levy were no secret to anyone in the guild, and the careful explorations and steps that Lucy and Natsu had been making were nothing as risque as Levy's imagination was probably painting. 'No, Levy, it's not like that.'
'That isn't what Gajeel says, and we know how reliable his nose is.'
Lucy thought about how Natsu always knew when she was most affected by him, how sometimes he let it guide him forward and sometime it made him step back and consider if he wanted to make his next move. She had no doubt that Gajeel had sensitive enough olfactory senses to know some of the things they had done and also probably knew what they hadn't done, which was probably why he was sending Levy her way to clarify the situation.
'It's not quite like that.' Lucy admitted, knowing that Levy was not going to let the conversation drop.
'Is he…' Levy's words trailed off as if she either didn't really want to ask the question or was afraid of the answer she would get, 'He isn't, you know, pushing you into anything...anything you aren't ready for, is he?'
Lucy couldn't help but seize up a little at the question, her hands stilling over the book she'd been flipping through in order to keep her nervous hands busy, and she watched as Levy noticed her tense posture and jumped to the wrong conclusion. 'That little...! I'll…'
'No! Levy, no!' Lucy unfroze and reached across the table to grab onto Levy's hands and keep her in place instead of running up the stairs to throw false accusations, and possibly literally sharply worded spells, at Natsu. 'I'm...it's me...I mean, if anything I'm the one who is trying not to push him.'
She couldn't help but think that Levy had unwittingly jumped onto her greatest fear regarding her developing relationship with Natsu. That what she wanted was tricking his senses into thinking he wanted things too, that he was trying to make her happy rather than doing things for his own happiness. And she couldn't help but spill these fears out to her friend, hoping for her to ease her worries.
'Oh, Lu-chan...do you really think anyone can make Natsu do something he truly doesn't want to do?' She smiled at her, soft gaze making Lucy feel better for having talked to somebody about everything. 'Not even you can manage that.'
For all that Happy teased and playfully taunted Lucy, his loyalty to her was second only to his loyalty to Natsu.
The first time he'd seen Lucy and Natsu kiss, something they'd managed to keep between just themselves for longer than she had thought possible, she'd half expected him to fly straight to the guild and tell everyone about how 'Lucy and Natsu are eating each other's faces'. But when, instead, he'd cried and begged them not to make him sleep outside all the time like Lily had to, Lucy had just grabbed him out of the air and cuddled him close, smiling into the soft patch of fur between his ears.
He'd clung to them both, alternately, throughout that evening and neither Lucy or Natsu had complained when he'd snuggled down between them that night, obviously afraid that whatever was happening between them would leave him behind.
But despite Happy's childlike attitude, afraid of losing his parent's attention, he was also smarter and more intuitive than most people gave him credit for.
He already had a habit of fleecing the tourists who visited the guild hall in card games, none of them realising that the small blue cat that sounded naive and young was actually a vicious card shark when given the opportunity. Lucy knew it wasn't a coincidence when he started coming home later than usual, games carrying on further and further into the night, almost always after her and Natsu had fallen asleep. And he was always first out of bed, in the morning, offering to fly to the market for fresh fish or milk for breakfast.
She knew this was his way of trying to keep out of their hair, trying to avoid them thinking he was an obstruction to remove. It was also a subtle hint of approval, that he was not only giving them time and space to themselves but also keeping it between the three of them and not gossiping about it to their guild mates.
Of course, neither Lucy or Natsu intended on kicking Happy out or excluding him, even if there were certain things they definitely didn't want him present for. So it was nice that Happy had made his own solution before things became awkward.
So when he got possessive over Natsu's time on occasion or teased her senseless about something minor, she brushed it aside. Because that was the way he showed his love, and their little family was so dear to her.
Just because their partnership was seamless, it didn't mean there weren't occasionally hitches in the fabric.
They had always bickered, casually, and sometimes those bickers had escalated, in the way fights between friends do.
Lucy always felt bad when their arguments were her fault, when she was irritable or stubborn or impatient and took it out on Natsu. Sometimes she simply needed time to herself and would find fault with the slightest thing that would cause her to scream and shout till everyone fled. Natsu never really fought back, just became quiet or slunk away, only to return cautiously when she felt calmer as if he was afraid she would lash out at him again. Everytime she saw him approach her, hands hidden away in his pockets as if to hide the way they trembled and his gaze lowered to the floor, she felt her heart give way as if this was going to be the moment he realised he didn't want to team up with her anymore.
But whilst Lucy always knew that what she did or said was hurtful, even if she knew she didn't mean it, the same couldn't be said for Natsu.
Natsu didn't always understand how his words or actions could hurt others. He knew when people were hurting and he seemed to know when others were being insensitive or thoughtless. But it was if he didn't always realise that he could affect others, that people would react to the things he did or said. She wasn't sure if it was a lack of self-awareness or if he lacked the self-confidence to believe that he could have any impact on the way another person felt.
He had made her mad and begged forgiveness. He had made her cry and panicked and pleaded for a way to make things right.
Happy always cried when he truly upset Lucy. He would sob and clutch at her and repeat apologies until she would pet his ears and forgive him. Natsu would panic and clumsily try to make amends. He would try and repair what he broke, even if he made more of a mess. He would offer to allow her to punish him, even if they both knew she wouldn't ever try to actually hurt him. He would rush off and try to bring her a gift or buy her food or some sort of compensation for whatever grievance he had caused. The two of them apologising for the same thing led into a cluttered mess of grovelling and begging until she caved and realised how much they genuinely regretted their transgression.
Sometimes he would understand what he did wrong and apologise. But sometimes he would get nervous and anxious, as if he didn't know he'd even hurt her until he'd seen her reaction. Those times were the worst, because she didn't always know how to bring it up, how to fix it. It always led to the worst moments, when the resentment would linger under the surface until she let it explode.
But for all of their worst moments, it never erased how happy she was in the best of moments. She never regretted trusting Natsu and partnering with Natsu and being with Natsu. She never regretted letting him into her home and her heart.
When the hurt and anger was over and they lay together, limbs tangled in sleep, she knew the bad was worth the good.
Lucy didn't know whether she should be hurt or relieved that Natsu never got jealous.
When she had been younger and recently escaped into the world beyond her father's estate, she had always wanted people to look at her and appreciate her looks. She put time and care into making her hair look good and ensuring her skin was smooth and clear. She chose her clothes carefully to show her figure to it's best potential and didn't think twice about harmless flirting to get what she needed. She desired the admiring gazes of young men who could whisk her away into a tale of intrigue and romance, even if she also shied away from many of the well intentioned attempts and ran far from the more seedy ones.
As she'd gotten older and less naive she had realised that she didn't care about what strangers thought. She made herself look good because she liked looking good and she dressed in revealing clothes because she liked knowing that she owned her body and could do as she liked with it, memories of the constricting corsets and ballgowns forced upon her by her father making her yearn for outfits that allowed her to feel the air on her skin.
Natsu never cared whether she was wearing a cute new outfit or a well worn ensemble or tattered rags from their latest fight or even soft, warm pyjamas that had zero sexual appeal. Natsu just liked Lucy and the clothes she wore didn't really matter to him when he knew what she looked like and smelled like and how warm and soft her skin was.
So it had started to take her by surprise when strangers would stare at her and make advances that were no longer all that welcome.
Most men were more subtle than this guy, though, and watching his eyes rake up and down her body made her want to step back and cover herself with her arms. But despite his obvious intentions, the conversation he'd struck up about the keys dangling from her belt had been interesting, and she'd resisted the urge to brush him off and walk away.
He'd been surprisingly knowledgeable about Celestial Spirit magic and had shown an actual interest in the keys she owned and how she'd used them, despite his underlying motive, and she couldn't resist the urge to talk about her friends.
She was talking about some of the strength training Capricorn had taught her when Natsu's arm casually draped over her shoulder and he pressed himself against her side, smile open and welcoming as he asked 'New friend?'
Her conversation partner looked put out by Natsu's appearance and, with the obvious lack of personal boundaries between the two of them, it wasn't all that surprising that he quickly came to the conclusion that he wasn't going to get any further than a conversation.
'No, Natsu,' She smiled at the man, who was clearing his throat and obviously preparing a polite way to end the conversation and leave 'I don't think he really wants to be friends.'
Of course, she should have known that Natsu, who valued friendship and the bonds between guildmates above almost all else, would have taken offence to her trying to give her ineffectual paramour an easy out.
'What the hell? Why wouldn't he want to be friends?' Natsu looked personally offended at the thought that anyone would think that Lucy wasn't worthy as a friend, and she couldn't help but feel her heart melt a little at Natsu's obvious regard for her. The look he was giving the man was stern and uncompromising, and she could see how nervous Natsu was making him. 'Lucy is the best, why wouldn't you want to be friends with her?'
'Look, man, I just wanted take her out, you know? Show her a good time?' Quite a few of the men in the guild used that phrase to describe their dating escapades, so she knew when the jewel dropped for Natsu and he realised the guy's intentions.
'Oh...I guess that makes sense.' He looked at Lucy then, as if he was reorganising his brain to make room for the fact that if he desired Lucy then of course it meant that other people desired Lucy, too. 'Did you want to go with him?'
That was not a question Lucy expected, and the 'No!' sounded strangled when it fell from her lips.
Before she even had a chance to feel put out by the fact that Natsu didn't seem to have any objections to her dating another man, he turned back to the guy who was subtly trying to leave and brushed the guy off. 'Sorry, she doesn't want to go with you but you really should think twice about being friends. Lucy is awesome.'
He ran off before anything else could be said, shooting Natsu a strange look the entire time, especially when Natsu waved at him in a friendly farewell.
'What in the world would you have done if I'd said yes?' Lucy couldn't help but ask, wondering if Natsu truly didn't care if she wanted to see another guy.
'Did you want to say yes?' He was still looking at her calmly, completely unruffled, and Lucy was starting to wonder if she would have to have an embarrassing conversation with Natsu explaining that she was not comfortable with an open relationship. Hell, she didn't even know if Natsu even knew what an open relationship actually was.
'No, Natsu, I really didn't.'
'Well, that's what I thought you would say. Because I figured that if you were happy with me then you wouldn't want to go out with that guy, right?' He sounded unsure, and Lucy realised that the reason he wasn't jealous was because he trusted her. 'I mean, you are happy, right?'
And all of a sudden, she watched him start to fall apart.
'Wait, are you unhappy? Is this about that mug I broke yesterday? I said I would get you a new one and it wasn't your favourite! Or is it because I didn't want to go on that job you wanted to pick? We can do that one if you really want, Lucy, I promise! Or is it because I threw the covers off the other night and you got cold? I told you I would keep you warmer than the blankets, Lucy, I just didn't know you were chilly! I've kept you warmer since, right?' Lucy couldn't help but giggle as Natsu stumbled through various possibilities, each more ridiculous than the last, and when he started wondering if he should ask Gray for advice, nose crinkled in disgust at the thought, she grabbed his face in between her hands so that she could stop his panicked muttering.
'I am happy, Natsu, you don't need to ask anyone anything.' She couldn't help but feel like Natsu asking Gray for relationship advice would probably result in an argument that would level the guild hall. 'I think we're doing okay working this out by ourselves, right?'
'Well,' The words sounded distorted, slightly, with his mouth hindered slightly by her hands still pressing against his cheeks, 'If we get stuck we can ask Happy, he knows us best.'
'You want to ask a cat for relationship advice.' She deadpanned. Her hands fell away at the ridiculousness of the statement and she couldn't help but tease. 'Why are we together again?'
'Oh my god, Natsu! Don't make that face it was a joke!'
They didn't really talk about their nightmares.
There wasn't a need, really. They were both well aware of the horrors that replayed behind closed eyelids, the memories and could haves and almosts blending together into dreams that were almost heart stopping in their realism.
Lucy had woken up crying more times than she cared to remember, and the few times waking up without Natsu or Happy there had been the worst. When she could feel the security of Natsu's arm around her or his heat at her back, or when she could feel the vibrations of Happy's purrs through the mattress it always helped to dispel the illusions of her sleep and remind her that they had survived and were all safe. But without them she always worried that they wouldn't return to her, that she would have lost them for good this time.
The times she had woken up screaming had probably frightened Natsu more than herself. He hated when she cried and her teary eyed awakenings had always been to him pulling her closer or clutching her tighter or, when their relationship had deepened, to kisses brushed along her shoulders until she turned and captured his mouth, leaving traces of her tears to dry against his cheeks.
But when she woke screaming, bolting upright and out of his grasp, he always seemed afraid to touch her, like he would scare her more. Happy was normally the one to climb into her lap, pressing his paws into her stomach as he begged her to stop, that it was okay, that he and Natsu were with her and that everything would be alright as long as they were together. It was only when her screams were silent and she was gasping for breath that she would feel Natsu carefully brush mussed strands of hair from her face, avoiding touching her skin as if he didn't have the right.
Sometimes she wondered if he feared that the things he had almost become was one of the things that haunted her dreams.
She was sure it was one of the reasons he sometimes shocked awake, going stiff and rigid around her, hands grasping at her nightclothes as if he was afraid to let her go for fear that she would dissolve into nothingness the moment he released her but afraid to hold her tighter.
When he would avoid placing his hands on her or brushing against her and would slip out of bed, retreating to the couch to watch over her from the other side of the room, she knew it was self loathing that was taking over him, a fear of what had lived inside him and almost taken everything he was away. But she would never let it consume him, refusing to let him believe that she feared him. She would crawl out of bed and curl up next to him on the plush cushions, burrowing her face into his arm until she could feel his shivers dissipate and she felt he was ready for her to cup his cheek and invite him back to bed.
The times she stirred awake at the feel of him gasping heavily into her hair, trying to fight down sobs and probably succeeding only because he didn't want her to know how much he was also haunted by their worst moments, were times she only marked by gently brushing her fingers up and down whatever skin she could reach. She wouldn't turn to face him, knowing he didn't want her to see him in his discomposure, but would just let him know that she was there with him until his breaths became soft and even again.
Happy never worried about seeming weak or frightened by his nightmares. He would wake them both and sob about the dreams he had just experienced, trusting Natsu and Lucy to comfort him with their presence. For all of his mischievous ways, he was always surprisingly honest in his emotions and never bothered to hide his tears or lie about his fears and Lucy never held back from giving him a hug when he needed it.
They didn't really talk about their nightmares, but they'd found a way to manage them nonetheless.
There was a section of the guild library that had very, very little to do with magic and yet was one of the most well read sections in the entire collection.
The female wizards of the guild had, over the years, amassed quite the selection of novels of a certain genre that were well thumbed and had been passed between pretty much every single lady over a certain age.
Even when the guild had been destroyed, the girls had quickly reassembled a collection ready to pass around to their guildmates, tired of rambunctious boys who lacked delicacy and a finer sense of romance.
Before, Lucy had always blushed deeply whenever Natsu would climb through her window, shattering the quiet that had surrounded her as she read, and casually asked her what she was reading. By the time she had screamed at him for invading her room and he'd dodged cushions thrown his way, he had always forgotten about the book.
But staying the night with her and eating all their meals together and living and breathing in each other's space every day meant that she should have been prepared to one day find that one of the novels she had stuffed under her mattress and then forgotten about had reappeared and was sitting tucked down the cushions of the couch on the side Natsu prefered.
She absolutely wasn't prepared to realise that not only had Natsu found some of the erotica she had guiltily stashed but he had turned over the corner of a page.
Lucy knew it hadn't been herself marking a space in the book, the thought of purposely creasing a page horrifying to her, and the slightly sooty fingerprints marking the edges of the crease made it obvious that it had been Natsu and not Happy who had been curious about the story.
She had been too nervous and embarrassed to even think of confronting Natsu over the discovery, and had instead put the book back where she had found it, wondering if Natsu would continue to read. She hadn't been able to help but wonder how he would react to the content, if he ever got past the first several pages.
When she'd looked later in the week and found the crease had moved a little further into the novel, she'd been torn between laughter and mortification that Natsu, who still had a look of 'what do I do, am I allowed, am I doing this right' panic on his face when he put his hands and mouth on her bare skin, was reading something that had fed into her own fantasies on a number of occasions.
Natsu was a slow reader. He'd perused other, more publically displayed, books from her shelves but usually avoided reading in front of her, embarrassed at how long it took him to read something she could devour in one sitting. So she wasn't surprised to know that he was reading this particular book behind her back. But the new page marker was beyond the first sex scene in the book, and she'd half expected to find the novel charred at the edges from Natsu being shocked at the contents.
Instead, not only was he still reading it, the sex scene in particular had a higher number of fingermarks over the edges of the page, suggesting he had read it more than once.
Flicking her eyes over the scene in question, she flushed when she realised that the sex in question was entirely the male romantic lead character pleasuring the novel's heroine. She'd enjoyed the scene greatly when she first read it and had kept the novel entirely due to how affected she had been by the attentive and intense love making.
When, a few nights later, he was looking down at her panting, overwhelmed form with a mixture of triumph and surprise and arousal whilst the remnants of her release faded from her trembling limbs, she wondered if he'd reached the part of the book where the heroine reciprocated. Because otherwise, with his permission, she was planning on spoiling the scene for him.
When they had been together, in a loosely defined sense, for almost a year Lucy wondered if maybe they should be more open about their relationship.
Whilst all of their closest friends knew that Natsu had been staying in her apartment since the war and that all of their teammates had worked out that they were, at the very least, sharing a bed, they had never so much as kissed in front of anyone other than Happy. And even Happy had only seen them kiss because of the sheer volume of time they all spent together.
At first, when kisses were new and nervous and still a little awkward in their unfamiliarity, Lucy hadn't even thought of letting anyone in on this new private adventure. She wasn't interested in the commentary she was sure the guild would share and she knew how confused and cautious Natsu was about them becoming intimate.
When kisses became touches became mouths and hands and new boundaries being shattered, each time with a blend of nervous energy and excitement that made even the most exhilarating job seem like the tamest of tasks, it had seemed too personal and emotional to share with anyone.
The knowledge that Gajeel and Wendy had, thanks to their increased senses, had never spread further than Levy and Levy had only prodded Lucy at very specific times, choosing to wait until Lucy wanted or needed to share more.
Levy had taken her out one day on an outing that had been a circumspect trip to advise her on birth control, and the fact that Gajeel had correctly worked out how close her and Natsu were to needing such items had been enough for her to shy away from confirming their current state of sexual exploration, even to her best friend.
When, a few months later, Lucy had had to ask Levy to take her to get more. She had been blushing too much for Levy to needle her for details.
Lucy knew Natsu would happily drape himself all over Lucy in public, having always been very tactile. But there seemed to be a firm line in his mind between casual touching and sexual touching. It wasn't even a physical line, from what she could tell, as he didn't seem to think much of accidentally grabbing her breasts with a misaimed hand during a fight or picking her up and carrying her out of danger with a hand placed firmly on her buttocks. The line seemed to be built on emotional intensity, so he could hug her in the guild when he was excited about going on a new job but she knew that he would probably panic over letting anyone see the way he held her before he lowered his face to hers.
She didn't want to make Natsu uncomfortable and she loved him too much to push him into making their true relationship public. But she sometimes felt that keeping the happiness they had carefully cultivated between them from their friends was a little like lying to them.
However, she knew that Natsu was slowly becoming more accustomed to the more romantic aspects of their partnership and she knew he wasn't one to let uncertainty dictate his actions.
So she would wait. Because she was sure that Natsu would surprise her again, one day.
When Lucy had promised Aquarius that she would find her key, she'd somehow internalised that she should find the key without any help at all. A part of her brain felt that because she had broken the key, no matter how dire the circumstances had been, that it was her responsibility and her's alone that it should be found.
In between rebuilding efforts around Fiore she had asked around for rumours or whispers regarding a new golden key, she had researched through libraries for news stories and texts on the histories of the keys and patterns to their movements and appearances throughout records.
Part of her wasn't all that hopeful that she would find it through hearsay, since Celestial Wizards were so few after the Zentopia crisis. There were only a handful of them remaining and she was close enough to Hisui and Yukino, the two most prominent other than herself, that they would probably pass on any rumours before she thought to ask.
She was so absorbed in trying to hunt down clues herself that it hadn't even occurred to her that her own spirits did not share the mindset that she had to do this completely alone.
When Grandfather Crux had summoned himself to her rooms to tell her the exact village where Aquarius' key had reformed itself, Lucy had been horrified, feeling like she was betraying Aquarius somehow by having the answer handed to her. It had only been when Scorpio had joined them, on Crux' insistence, to tell her that Aquarius didn't want anyone else to have her key and had asked Crux herself to help Lucy find it that she had started making her plans to travel to the village on the far east of the Ishgal continent.
Of course, all of her planning was much easier than telling Natsu and Happy that they would not be joining her. There was still a part of this she felt like she had to complete by herself.
'But, Lucy, come on it'll be so boring if you go alone. You said it'll take weeks to get there and back, even without still having to find the exact location of the key.' Natsu had been complaining at her refusal to allow him to accompany her for almost half an hour and had had counterarguments for every single reason she had given him.
Telling him how long the train journeys would be had been answered with a suggestion for them to travel on pack cats, as had become popular in the last few years. Natsu hadn't had problems travelling on them as long as he got to feed the creature and know it's name first.
Telling him that Natsu hated search and find missions and would be better off completing a job of his own whilst she was gone had prompted him to complain that all of the jobs in the guild right now were boring and he didn't want to do any of them without her.
Telling him that it was a waste of resources for them both to be out looking for the key, which wasn't even official guild business, had been answered that it would go so much quicker with him to help, so they would be back to work sooner.
Eventually she had just decided she needed to be firm.
'No, Natsu.' Her eyes hardened and she raised her hand, cutting off any more arguments from him. 'You are not coming.'
'But, Lucy,' Happy had been agitatedly fluttering around, backing up Natsu's side of things all evening, 'Why?'
She sighed, rubbing a couple fingers across her forehead as if to relieve some of the tension building up.
'I've already told you, this is something I have to do myself.'
'But that doesn't make any sense!' Natsu was taking the opening, 'Why can't we help you?'
'Because I don't want any help!' Her voice was raising, and she couldn't help but feel the irritation build that they just wouldn't let this go. Her reasons for wanting to do this alone weren't completely rational but they were what she wanted and she didn't need them to understand but she needed them to accept it. 'I am going to go alone and you guys are going to stay here and I am done arguing about this with you!'
She could see Natsu tense, as if he wanted to continue arguing until she caved. But she guessed that he could tell this was something she wasn't going to back down on, because he collapsed back down on her couch and crossed his arms over his chest, pouting and muttering out his next words.
'Well, it doesn't seem fair that you're leaving us behind when we just want to help.'
'Well, it wasn't very fair when you left me behind to go on a training journey for a year, but that didn't stop you from leaving me to sob my heart out, did it!'
She hadn't intended to say that. But she was so worked up from the argument that the bitter words that she had kept from spilling out ever since he had returned had been spat out like weapons, and she could see that every single one had left damage.
The few times she had even alluded to the year they had left her had been horribly tense and she had backed away from the conversation each time. She knew her heart tugged with loneliness every time she remembered being away from the guild and her friends and, especially, Natsu and Happy. And she wasn't sure if it was sensing that heartbreak on her or his own guilt that made Natsu so nervous and flustered each time.
Right now he was avoiding her gaze, eyes dropped and shifted, whilst he fidgeted with his hands. She could see his brow furrowed and the tension in his shoulders that betrayed how uncomfortable he was.
But now that the words were out there, she knew it was time to deal with this.
'Natsu?' Even saying his name made him flinch a little, even though her voice had softened and she'd lost the sharp irritation from earlier, but this had to be resolved. 'Why did you leave me behind?'
He winced, visibly, and his gaze was pinned to the floor, not even daring to meet her eyes. Happy had stopped floating near Natsu's head and had flown into her arms, cuddling against her whilst he nervously looked between the two of them. He had been so clingy when he and Natsu returned and she wondered if Natsu had ever told him why they didn't take Lucy with them. He certainly had an air of curiosity around him, obvious even over the nervous tension that had affected him, too.
'...I wasn't strong enough.'
The words were whispered, barely audible, but with the room so silent the words had cut through regardless.
She didn't really understand what he meant by them, so she stepped forward and dropped to her knees on the floor in front of him, ducking her head so that she was forcing him to meet her gaze. When her eyes met his she could see he looked pained and she almost felt sorry for forcing him to talk about this, but it had been long enough and it was certainly a hurt that she needed to start the healing process on. He needed to confront this for her sake if not his own.
'What do you mean?' Her words were soft and coaxing, asking him to elaborate, but with a sternness that said she wouldn't accept less than the truth. 'Why would that mean I couldn't come?'
He opened and closed his mouth a few times, fidgeting slightly as he tried to get the words out. '...I wasn't strong enough to save you...I wasn't strong enough to save Igneel…' His voice cracked a little and she could see his eyes shine with moisture he was blinking back. 'I watched you die because I wasn't strong enough to protect you and I watched Igneel die because I wasn't strong enough to help him.'
She remembered the desperation on his face as he'd reached towards Future Rogue's magic attack, the sheer horror in his eyes as it had flown past his outstretched hand and towards her heart. She remembered the way he had been frozen as she'd held her future self in her arms, his whole body shaking but unable to move as they'd all watched the life in front of them drain away. She remembered the tears he'd wiped away as he told her to run, as he swore to protect her, as he swore to avenge her.
She remembered the way that desperation to reach her and to protect her had been mirrored every time since. When his hand had desperately reached out for her's when Alegra had been activated, when he'd rushed to protect her from Jackal, when she'd been pinned down by the necromancer's pawns and he'd almost abandoned his own fight to reach her. When he'd fought desperately against shackles to stop the Avatar Guild from hurting her, when he'd stepped in front of attacks during the war, when he'd ran past their friends and allies so that he could defend her specifically, when he'd lost control and hurt DiMaria so badly because he'd thought he'd lost her again...so many moments when he was reliving that nightmare and trying to keep it from repeating.
'Oh, Natsu…' She wanted to reach for him, pull him down off the couch and into her arms, but he was still tense and holding himself stiffly, his whole body language closing himself off from her.
'I know there wasn't anything I could have done to save Igneel. Even after everything, none of us were strong enough to defeat Acnologia alone. And I don't really get what they all did, but I know all the dragons were pretty much gone before they reappeared.' Even though he sounded sure as he said this, she could tell the knowledge didn't make him feel any better. 'But I know that if I'd been stronger then I could have saved you. I could have saved Future Lucy and I could have protected you from whatever you went through when you saved us from Alegra and all the other times I watched you hurt and could have stopped it.'
This time she did reach for him, grabbing his hands that had clenched into fists over his knees and uncurling the fingers so she could entwine her own with his.
'I get that you wanted to get stronger, Natsu. I really do. I get that maybe you wanted to be stronger to protect me.' He squeezed her hands, then, like he was trying to agree with her without saying the words. 'But, did you ever think about protecting my heart?'
He squeezed her hands again, but this time it was because he was trying to clench his fists again but her fingers were in the way. He grimaced and she could feel him pulling away from her, but she didn't let him move far. Happy uncurled from where he had slid into her lap and moved forward to hug Natsu's knees, as if he was afraid Natsu would bolt.
'I didn't know the guild would disband.' Guilt wracked his words, and she knew he probably regretted the way things had gone. 'I knew it would be lonely for us to not be a team for a while, but I thought everyone else would be with you.' She tried to imagine what it would have been like if Fairy Tail hadn't disbanded. What it would have been like to have gone on jobs with Erza and Wendy to track down rare sweets and what it would have been like to have fended off Juvia's imaginative accusations whilst she joined her and Gray on missions. Even if she'd spent the whole year working and having fun with her friends, her family, she knew it would have only done so much to ease the sting of his absence.
It wasn't like she had been useless or constantly sad when he had been gone. She'd learned new skills, trained, found enjoyment and satisfaction in a new job...but there had been a gaping hole in her life and her heart had throbbed painfully whenever her thoughts had strayed.
'You knew I would be lonely, that we would both be lonely. But you still left anyway?'
He grimaced but met her gaze, begging with his eyes for her to understand.
'It was something I had to do.'
And she smiled at him, untangling one hand to reach up and cup his face.
'I know.' She was grateful that he had brought this conversation full circle, because maybe now he would understand. 'And going after Aquarius' key on my own is something I have to do.'
She didn't move her gaze away, even when he opened and closed his mouth a few times as if he wanted to say something, to argue or deny. But eventually the words that came out were quiet and resigned, but without any of the sulking she had expected.
'..Do you still need any help getting anything ready to leave?'
Waiting at the station for her train to come in was horrible. She'd been filled with a nervous anticipation that had made her fidgety and anxious and she'd already left creases in her skirt from clenching and unclenching her hands into the fabric.
Happy had buried his face into her stomach the moment they had all sat down on the benches, and she could feel a slight dampness that suggested he had been silently trying but failing to hold back tears. Natsu had been sat next to her, closer than he would normally sit with the heat of his body solidly pressed against the length of her right side, but he'd slouched down, legs stretched out before him and hands stuffed in his pockets as if trying to look nonchalant about her imminent departure.
Gray, Erza and Wendy had also come to see her off, and she'd been trying to focus on their conversations regarding the sights she was likely to see on her journey, but it was difficult to ignore the dread creeping up on her about being away from everyone for so long.
Although she was looking forward to the journey in some respects, recognising the opportunity to explore a place far beyond where their missions normally took them and also looking forward to the chance to prove to herself that she was more than capable of standing on her own two feet, it didn't change the fact that she would miss the guild and her friends. It certainly didn't change the fact that she was leaving the most important people in her life on this railway platform with nothing but a communication lacrima to keep them connected for at least a month.
When Natsu tensed up suddenly, she knew that his heightened senses had picked up the sound of the train approaching, and before she could even grab for his hand, to try and calm or relax him, he leapt up in order to make sure her bag and case, located at her feet, were ready to be stowed on board.
The whole of the last week had been slightly awkward between them, with her departure tainting the time between them. She'd been guilty for the sadness that lingered in his gaze whenever he looked and her and he'd been hurt and disappointed, but not able to be angry or spiteful. They had both been clingy and desperate, but it was like they had also closed a part of themselves off, like they were trying to preempt the pain of their separation.
When the train pulled in, he picked up her luggage and took it on board and she watched through the window as he located her seat and stored the case in the compartment above, carefully placing the bag on her seat so she could access it. The rest of her friends were wishing her luck and offering last minute words of advice for her journey, words that had probably been repeated to her several times since she had made her intentions for this journey known, but it was difficult to hear them speak when her eyes met Natsu's through the glass, the thin sheet already feeling like too much separation for her to handle.
Her heart felt like it was breaking.
Happy was pulling on her top, and she looked away from Natsu to look down at watery eyes and paws hooked desperately into her blouse.
'You'll call us every night, right, Lucy?' His plea was accompanied by a sniffle and she hugged him tight and rubbed her cheek against the top of his head, already missing the feel of his fur.
'And you'll let us know when you reach the village, and if there is anything we can do to help? Any research or resources we can find for you?' Erza had offered all of the guild resources for her journey and it had been almost as difficult to convince her to allow her to make this journey alone as it had been to convince Natsu.
Gray reached out and clapped a hand against her arm, his own wish of luck for her unspoken but clearly communicated, and Wendy reached out and softly hugged her as she asked her to stay safe.
All too soon she was walking towards the door of the train, waving a hand at her friends, whilst she waited for the final farewell that was awaiting her. Natsu was stood by the door, watching her as she approached but staying clear from the others, as if he wanted their goodbye to be just between them. Happy had finally released her and had settled on the ground next to Carla, trying to regain his composure and see her off with a smile instead of a tear.
'Don't break anything whilst I'm gone.' She didn't know what to say, how to say goodbye to him. It felt like their goodbye was too big for words.
'I'll try,' He managed a tiny smirk, even if it didn't reach his eyes, 'But I can't promise anything.'
'Make sure you eat the fish in the fridge, it won't be any good past today.'
'Next week's rent is in an envelope on my desk. I know it's your turn to cover it but since I won't be here for a few weeks I wanted to do my part…'
She didn't get a chance to finish, but it had only been a poor attempt at avoiding confronting their imminent parting, and being stopped by Natsu pulling her forward to tenderly tangle his fingers in her hair and press his mouth to hers had been a highly satisfying way to have her words stolen from her.
The kiss was soft, but there was a desperation to the way he licked into her mouth, as if he was trying to memorise the taste and feel of her before she was gone. She couldn't stop herself from pressing closer, as if she could somehow trap this feeling between them and store it safe in her heart. When he pulled away she couldn't help but chase his lips once, twice before the train whistle broke the spell and she moved back to stand firmly on her feet before him again.
'Take care, Lucy. Come home safe.' Before she could start to respond he started to unwind the scarf from around his neck, something that froze her in place from how few times she had seen it. When he reached forward and gently placed it around her own neck, wrapping the ends back over but leaving it loosely draped so as to not smother her, she could do nothing but reach up to grasp at the fabric he had so lovingly wrapped her in, as if he was trying to leave a part of himself with her to protect her and keep her warm.
When she caught traces of his scent on the scarf, she couldn't help but feel moisture well up in her eyes and she reached forward to hug him one last time before rushing onto the train, afraid that if she delayed any longer she would never leave.
She only just reached her seat before she felt the train lurch as it started moving, and she didn't bother to sit down in order to wave goodbye to her loved ones on the platform.
When Magnolia was no longer even remotely in sight she was still stood with her hands pressed against the glass, trails of tears dripping gently into the scarf around her neck but a resolve to complete her journey and find her way back home helping her to stand firm.
She was also left with the realisation that that was the first time Natsu had kissed her in public.
Lucy was quite certain that Warren was going to go down in history for developing the portable lacrima communication crystals. Other than how useful they were in coordinating missions and keeping in contact with friends and family, she was quite certain that after two weeks of her being gone from Magnolia, Natsu would have caused some sort of mass casualty damage if she hadn't been able to talk him through his boredom and frustration on a nightly basis.
As it was, her nightly calls had been met with a wide variety of responses that never failed to make her smile and miss the entire guild even more.
Sometimes she had caught him when he was at home, eating or working out or playing a game with Happy. Those times were when they were able to talk for hours, until she got sleepy or, when she was on route, until the movement of the train got bad and it made Natsu queasy to even watch her sway with the motion. He would tell her about the missions their guild members had taken and the antics they had caused. Sometimes he would detail a small job he had taken and would complain constantly that it had been boring without her. A few times he and Happy had taken jobs with others and then complained constantly that they told them off for damaging something or because he was too rash or didn't listen. When she commented that she constantly told him off for the same things he scoffed and claimed that it was different when Lucy told him off, because they were a team and she was allowed.
When he was in the guild hall their conversations were much less predictable.
Magnolia was a close knit town and Mirajane, in particular, had connections with practically everyone. So nothing that happened in the open stayed private for long.
Obviously, their farewell at the train station had become public knowledge, because the first time he answered her call when sat at a table in Fairy Tail, Macao had made a comment she hadn't quite been able to make out but had clearly been leery and provocative. Natsu had frozen, blushed deeply and then abandoned the crystal in order to leap over the table and chase the quickly retreating man out of the guild hall. Wendy had, instead, picked up the crystal and had a pleasant conversation with her about the village her train had stopped at for several hours that morning and some of the local herb and plant seeds she had gathered and was planning on bringing back for her and Polyurscia to peruse.
The next time she had caught him in public was when he was on a mission with Jellal, of all people.
'I was trying to save the job for when you got back, since it needed star affiliated magic.' He'd pouted down the crystal at her, 'But Erza said it was too important to wait and said that Jellal would be able to take care of that part.'
'Oh, how did it go? Is the mission done or are you just starting?' Lucy had been horrendously curious as to how calm and cautious and tactically minded Jellal had worked alongside Natsu's explosive impulsiveness and lack of concern for any plan beyond 'hit it till it doesn't stop and if that fails burn it till it does'. Of course, Natsu could be remarkably clever and creative when he had to be, but he normally managed to solve problems through sheer force of will which set a bad precedent for his methods.
At this, Natsu's face had lit up and the grin that split his cheeks had been wider than any she had seen since she had left. He'd briefly had to scramble, and she could see Jellal's sleeve wave in front of the crystal as if he was trying to grab it out of Natsu's hand, but he'd dodged out of the way long enough to cackle 'Jellal destroyed the roof of the town hall!'
The groan that Lucy heard was obviously Jellal giving into the inevitable and leaving Natsu to regal Lucy with all the details of how their mission had gone perfectly right until it went wrong, in typical Fairy Tail style.
'He won't let me tell Erza, and he made us stay and fix the roof.' Natsu had looked particularly put out by that, as he normally cut and ran when he left destruction in his wake, confident that the master would sort out the collateral damage. Obviously Jellal had either not wanted to leave Erza the extra work load or had been hoping to keep it out of her awareness completely.
'Well, I don't see why he should keep it quiet,' Lucy had commented, hoping Jellal was still in earshot, 'It sounds to me like he's truly a Fairy Tail Wizard, now.'
Of course, sometimes when she called he wasn't available to answer at all. Sometimes she'd had panicked thoughts of him hurt on a mission or in too much trouble to answer the crystal. Most of the time it was because he was involved in a brawl and didn't hear the crystal chime until someone pointed it out or he realised he'd missed her and hurriedly called her back.
More than once the crystal had been picked up by another member of the guild, and she'd had the opportunity to chatter with many of her friends in these instances. She'd had a long discussion with Levy over everything they had missed since she'd been gone, a wonderful conversation with Lisanna over her travels and comparing the sights to the training journeys the Strauss siblings went on over the year apart. She'd spoken with Erza and Gray and Juvia and Reedus and she'd been passed around to get brief greetings and pleasantries from most of the members.
Other than a few suggestive comments, the guild seemed to be taking the news of her and Natsu's relationship in their stride, but it never failed to make her heart quicken when one of them would look up from their talk and knowingly comment 'Oh, Natsu's coming. I'll hand you over.' as if they all knew and recognised that, obviously, he was the one she wanted to speak to the most.
The time when she'd rang, a gleaming, crisply crafted key clasped protectively in her hand that stood out sharply against the other, softly worn keys in her collection, had involved Mirajane answering whilst the sounds of a fight was clearly going on in the background.
Part of Lucy had wanted to share the news with Natsu first and foremost. But seeing Mirajane's happy, smiling face, the face that had been so welcoming and friendly when Natsu had first dragged her through the guild doors and who had been unrelentingly supportive during her time with the guild, had made her hold her hand up, triumphantly, and show Aquarius' key off with pride shining from her face and happy tears glimmering in the corners of her eyes.
Mirajane's happy gasp and 'Oh, Lucy, you found her! Congratulations!' had quickly drawn nearby attention and Lucy had clearly heard Natsu shout 'Dammit, Gajeel, get off!' before his face filled the lacrima crystal a few moments later.
'Lucy! You got her?' 'Did she splash you? Are you coming home?' 'How long are you going to be? Was there any trouble when you found her?' 'Did she shout at you?' His rapid fire questions had only been interrupted by Happy squeezing between Natsu and the crystal, asking his own similar questions and offering his own congratulations. Eventually they managed to both settle in front of the crystal, Natsu disappearing once to throw a chair at Gray, who hadn't realised why Natsu had left the brawl.
'Well, I've already told you that there aren't many wizards nearby and no one had any idea about a key in the area.' Lucy hadn't had any trouble from the locals in her search for the key and, in fact, had been very kindly welcomed by the innkeeper and their family who had been ecstatic at a new face. But it had also meant that she'd had no clues as to where to start her search and had spent much time trawling through the local countryside to find the tell tale glint of a golden key. She'd been sure that the bramble bush she had eventually found the key in had been one last tease from Aquarius, with light scratches up and down her arms to show for the wicked humour from the spirit. 'But it also means that there aren't many wizards nearby to help them deal with problems.'
She'd watched the smile fall off Natsu's face, as he realised that she was about to say something he didn't want to hear.
'I've promised to help them clear out a few monster nests nearby that have been giving them some troubles, so I'll probably be out here another week before I make my way back.'
She'd expected them to react badly, to whine and cajole her for not returning to her as soon as possible. Maybe even to complain that they could have helped her clear monster nests if she'd let them come along. But, instead, she watched them look at each other before turning back to her.
'The villagers have been really nice to you, haven't they?' Natsu had asked, knowing how glowingly she had spoken of them during her stay. 'Of course you want to help them.'
'You aren't mad?'
He shook his head, looking disappointed but not petulant or irritated. 'Obviously we want you to come home,' Happy nodded in agreement, 'But it's not like we expect you to turn away from people in need. Especially when they've been good to you.'
She'd smiled softly at them, grateful that underneath all of the brash recklessness they were also two sweet boys who wanted to help people. 'I promise I'll be home as soon as I can.'
'Just be careful, Lucy!' Happy had insisted, 'And bring us back lots of souvenirs!'
She'd thought of the extra case she'd had to buy and the two extra bags filled with things she was already bringing back to the guild for all of her friends, and couldn't help but laugh.
Lucy had noticed that the feel of the magic around Magnolia had a unique, recognisable feel to it when everyone first returned after that year apart. The volume of mages living in the town over the last hundred years, since Fairy Tail was formed, and the high percentage of them who had been affiliated with the guild had left a sense of camaraderie and home in the very air that you breathed when in the town.
Lucy could feel that calming blanket of magic before the train even reached the outskirts, and her entire body relaxed into the familiarity.
She'd managed to catch an earlier train at her last change over and was running about two hours ahead of schedule, but she'd decided not to bother informing anyone on the hope that she could surprise her team for once. After the number of times they had sprung themselves on her, it would be nice to return the favour.
However, when a blue blur flew through the open high window before the train even finished slowing to a halt, and collided with her with enough speed to almost throw her from her seat, she relalised that it had been an unlikely pipe dream.
Happy had burrowed his face into her chest and was talking a hundred words a minute about how much he'd missed her and how he hoped she'd brought him presents and how they were having fish for dinner to celebrate her return and how the station was boring because he and Natsu had been there for hours waiting and why was she so late…
She wasn't really paying too much attention to the stream of chatter, too focused on cuddling him closer and feeling his purr vibrate through her, something she had missed far too much whilst away. It was only when the train pulled to a complete stop that she pulled her face away from where it had snuggled against the top of Happy's head and had caught sight of Natsu stood on the platform and staring with a soft, pleased smile on his face. When her eyes met his, the smile on his face widened into a grin, so big and happy that she caught glimpses of his sharp canines.
Heavens above, she'd missed him.
Gathering her things together felt like her limbs were moving through treacle for how desperately she wanted to get off the train and into Natsu's arms so she could feel him against her and breath him in. The scarf that was still wrapped around her neck, and had caused many a comment from the other guild members when they saw her wearing it during calls, had been a poor substitute. But being able to bring it to her nose and smell Natsu's scent lingering on the fabric when the nights had been cold and lonely had gotten her through the separation.
But she was so ready for it to be over, and she had barely gotten one foot off the train before she found herself swept up into a bone crushing hug as Natsu swung her around once, laughing all the time he was welcoming her home.
She couldn't help but giggle, joy overflowing from her at how relieved and complete she felt to be back home with Natsu holding her off the ground in his arms and Happy having flown into her back to hug her from behind. Natsu had buried his face into the hair covering the side of her neck and she could feel him breathing her scent in deeply, the deep inhalations shifting against her with the way she was pressed against him so tightly.
It was only when the Station Attendant cleared his throat and asked which cases were Lucy's from the luggage compartment that she pulled herself away from the embrace and let her feet meet the ground again.
Unfortunately, breaking the hug seemed to be the trigger for Natsu to ask her question after question about her journey, with Happy cutting in with questions of his own, both obviously desperate to find out all the details they missed of her journey whilst she pointed out the cases that she needed.
She wanted to share everything with them, she really did, but she also wanted to sit in a chair that wasn't rocking with the motion of a train and she wanted to take a bath in her own bathtub and she wanted to curl up in her own bed with Natsu curled up alongside her.
And, most of all, she really wanted to kiss him right now.
She wondered if she could reach out and pull him down so she could press her lips to his. If he would freeze up and fluster at the public display of affection or if he would melt into it, falling into the warmth of her mouth and ignoring the gazes of the stragglers on the platform.
Although he'd kissed her goodbye, that didn't mean he would be receptive to kissing her again so publicly and she still couldn't stand the thought of pushing him beyond what he was ready for.
Instead, she busied her hands by unwrapping his scarf from around her and smoothing the fabric tenderly before gesturing for him to duck his head down, so she could place it over his own neck. He lowered his head and allowed her to place the scarf back where it belonged, and she couldn't help but run her hands down over where the ends fell against his chest.
Whether he could tell what she was thinking or if he was merely extraordinarily in sync with her, she'd barely had time to fantasise about how much she'd missed her hands on his body before she felt his hands gently moving some of her hair out of her eyes and tipping his lowered face towards hers.
The kiss was short and sweet, barely a brush of lips and certainly not the extent of what she wanted from him right now. But with several pairs of eyes on them it was enough for her to know that it was a deliberate move from Natsu, to show that he wasn't keeping everything just between the two of them anymore.
They would probably need to reestablish their boundaries, make it clear what they were willing to say or do in public and in private. The lacrima calls he had answered in the guild hall had been tiring sometimes, with the number of guild mates who teased and taunted both Natsu and herself with harmless comments, despite being also supportive and unsurprised by the development. But it had been worth it to see so many people smiling at the idea of Natsu and Lucy being together, to see them taking happiness from their happiness.
But with Natsu stood in front of her, his forehead pressed against hers, and with Happy's weight pressed against her back, she was was filled with an overwhelming sense of love and family and belonging. It was like feeling accepted by the Guild after the Phantom Lord kerfuffle and coming back from their seven year entrapment on Tenrou Island and returning to Magnolia after the year away all rolled into one. And she couldn't help but softly whisper the words into the still atmosphere between them.
This started out at a google document titled 'soft nalu bedsharing because i'm trash'. It evolved.
Ten thousand words later it became how Lucy and Natsu slowly fell into a romantic relationship, whilst trying to keep them as in character as I could and without relying on any of the popular fanon tropes. It also became an opportunity for me to address some of the outstanding issues I'm not sure the manga has time to resolve.
This may all be trounced by canon in the next few months but if it does then Mashima-sensei had better address some of the things I want dealt with!
Thank you for making it through! I hope you enjoyed the rambling of my brain and my outpouring of Nalu feels.
Also, be glad that I can't bring myself to write smut. Because the only thing that I could think of is that Natsu absolutely would blow raspberries into Lucy's stomach whilst she was lying vulnerable beneath him. And yet her helpless laughter would just turn him on even more because happy, smiling, laughing Lucy is his biggest kink.
(They would absolutely be in the 'if you can't laugh during sex then what is the point' school of thinking)