This is a little non-traditional story that found its way into my head and onto my computer. I may eventually create a series of oneshots of NaLu, but don't hold me to it! I may even add a chapter or two later. There is a little of everything in here-but I won't give it away. Please don't hate me for my mind's babbling creativity!

Reviews are always welcome, as this is a vestment of my time and brain power and I like to read your reactions ;) Happy Reading! Enjoy!

Disclaimer: I don't own FT. You know what's up.


~OoOoO~


"We're home."

The soft-spoken words were filled with finality and anxiety as two pairs of eyes scanned the brass sign that arced over the town's entrance.

Magnolia.

It was not as he had left it, but six years would make a man's memory fade. In regards to some things, that is.

Six long years of a journey that, in the end, had been fruitless. Igneel was unreachable, the memory of the dragon virtually unspoken of. His former disciple had never felt so abandoned—so alone. The void that was left had lessened over time, but knowing that he had spent much of the third decade of his life searching was painful. Raw. The thought left a bitter taste in his mouth as his eyes continued to trace over the metal letters.

"Aye," the cat agreed, his voice only for his companion to hear.

He, too, had grown over the past few years, no longer the playful Eksheed he had been. The inseparable duo had seen much together, making friends and burying enemies on their journey. There were many things that he would rather forget. It was only in the past few years that he had come upon his ability—an astuteness that allowed him to capture the subtleties of human emotions. Whether it was the hint of truth that flickered across their features or the tell-tale deception that caused a microtwitch of their facial muscles—Happy could detect it. He was able to ascertain the tiniest dishonesty that hissed from the end of a man's tongue.

He was a lie detector, so to speak. It was both a gift and a curse. A bitterly ironic one, given he was named after an emotional state of being.

Despite this, he was not above lying—though he preferred the term avoiding the truth. It was much easier that way, especially with Natsu. He couldn't stand hurting his dear friend; the pink-haired man coming to rely heavily on the cat as the years passed. Natsu still held a naivete when it came to believing in people. It was his hubris—to see the inherent good in everyone around him, even when it didn't truly exist. Happy no longer believed in that good as Natsu did.

"Finally. It feels like we've been gone forever." A yawn cut into the dragon slayer's short-lived speech as he folded his arms behind his head. They could play this game forever.

"Aye. Six years."

It was a fact. A warning cast with a cautioning look that was ignored by the fire mage. Natsu's eyes were filled with the desire to see everyone, to smile as he had at one time in his life. Did he have expectations that everything would be the same? That everyone would be waiting for him to return with open arms and smiles on their faces. Happy felt sorry for his pessimism as excitement washed across his friend's features. Natsu scratched his beard—something he had grown accustomed to over the past few years. As well as cheap women. Loose, cheap women that shared very specific traits: blond hair, brown eyes, and big breasts. It was no coincidence.

"Be careful, Natsu."

"Eh?"

"Things won't be the same as when we left. People won't be the same..." The cat's voice was barely a whisper.

"Don't be such a downer, Happy," Natsu smiled, though Happy could sense the underlying fear and anxiety. "Everyone'll welcome us back. Just like before."

Just like before. Natsu and Happy had journeyed another time, though it was only for eighteen months. Happy could still remember how angry Lucy had been with the duo for "leaving her behind." The changes were difficult to accept then, how would six years bode?

Despite the fact that their first journey had not been fruitful in finding Igneel, Natsu had remained hopeful that their second absence would surely lead them in the right direction. But the years had not been kind to those aspirations, and fell into a depression. One that was often accompanied by heavy drinking and paid companionship. Happy hated both, though the latter more, perhaps. He couldn't deny a man his desires, so he turned a blind eye. Of the two of them, Happy had grown the most over the course of their journey. Perhaps it was his genetic makeup, but he had seemed to become all that Natsu was not: rational, level-headed, intuitive. He made up where the brash dragon slayer lagged. He was the yin to Natsu's yang.

That had been Lucy's job before they left...

"I wonder how Lucy's doing." Right on cue.

"There's only one way to find out, isn't there?"

"You're right, buddy. Let's do it!"

Happy watched Natsu clamor into the town, whistling as he did so. The Eksheed was not as enthusiastic; he knew better. He could feel the devastation the hung heavily around them, despite Natsu's blind optimism. He could see the fading paint on the sign emblazoning Magnolia-the chipped metal ominously signifying the wear endured in their absence.


"Oi! Gray!" Natsu yelled as he pushed his way through the guild. Happy quietly followed, his expression calm.

Natsu's childhood friend froze when he heard his name called by a familiar voice. His lips moved unmistakably. "...Natsu?"

"What happened to you, man?" Natsu asked, drawing closer and forcibly gripping Gray's forearm in greeting. His brow creased as he took in his friend's change in appearance. Gray was much more muscle and a few inches taller than Happy remembered. He wore a patch over his right eye, a large salmon-colored scar covering the right part of his face. He was shirtless, his flesh dotted with memories of wounds that the dragon slayer couldn't recall. His hair was no longer jet black, instead peppered with silver and much longer than in his teens. The mages were nearly thirty, Happy reminded himself. They weren't kids any more.

"Natsu?" Gray whispered again, "Is it really you?"

"Why are you asking stupid questions, jack ass?"

"Aye, it's us," Happy murmured, nodding. He could sense the awkwardness that hung in the air—a result of diverging paths of life.

"Where is everyone?" Dark eyes darted around in disappointment. Familiar faces were few and far between.

"Natsu..." Gray began, his tone cautious. Happy knew before the mage continued; it was plainly obvious in his features. Natsu, of course, would not pick up on the subtle cues. Not everything had changed, apparently.

"Where's Gramps?"

Silence. Long, tortured silence—louder than anything Happy had ever heard. It hurt to bear witness to it. Finally, Gray spit out the words: Gone.

"Whattya mean by that? Did he go on vacation? That stupid perverted—"

"I mean...dead."

His words were blunt. Direct. There was no mistaking his meaning. Dark eyes grew round. Happy stared at the floor, waiting for the questions that would follow, of course.

More silence.

Until, finally: "It's been a while since you left, Natsu. Let me buy you a drink, you're going to need one."


Natsu's knuckles were white as he gripped the handle of his beverage. A bead of moisture slid down his cheek as a cold sweat coated his skin. His mouth often opened, but the words never left as Gray continued speak.

Erza gone. Wanted by the Council for freeing Jellal. The two hadn't been seen since, and Gray had no idea where the ex-quipping mage could have disappeared to. He couldn't risk aiding and abetting a criminal, so he told them. Happy knew otherwise, but he didn't blame the ice mage. Erza was still a member of Fairy Tail. They were nakama.

There had been a war—an uprising amongst guilds. A small faction wanted to sell non-magical humans into slavery. A world of ultimate magic rule. The Council stepped in and, for the first time, Fairy Tail fought on the Council's side, though both sides paid dearly.

Juvia died. Gray tried to save her, losing his eye in the process.

Levy.

Elfman.

Mirajane.

Macao.

Cana.

All dead.

Gajeel had taken his own life some time after, grief-stricken over Levy's death, or so some thought. An accident after a long night of drinking. Happy glanced at Natsu. Perhaps that was to be the fate of a dragon slayer...

Wendy had grown up to be a beautiful mage, leaving the guild to marry into a wealthy family after Charle's death. That news struck Happy the hardest.

"You've been gone a long time," Gray repeated, his expression apologetic. His words hung in the air like flies waiting to lie upon of a dying carcass.

"I..see." Natsu's head fell as his shoulders shook slightly and his eyes watered for his lost comrades. He avoided the name he cared most about. Happy's lower lip trembled as he tried to think of anything and everything but Charle."Who—who is Guild Master?"

"You're looking at him."

Natsu's mouth fell open in shock. Happy had expected that news. Who else was there left? Lisanna?

As if she had known they were thinking about her, the pale-haired mage appeared, her stomach rounded with the late stages of pregnancy. She looked at Gray with a doting expression—one she had used in her childhood for someone else...

The ring on Gray's left hand told Happy the entire story, though the guild master still had to piece it together for Natsu. Gray excitedly told them that his first child was due in the spring. Lisanna asked for Natsu's blessing and the dragon slayer gave it, though more out of shock than actual acceptance.

"I'm sorry, Natsu," the ice mage studied his friend's reaction with uncertainty. Happy knew all too well what to make of it.

"No, that's great, Gray!" Natsu clapped the young guild master's back, smiling enthusiastically. "Good for you two, you lucky bastard."

"How's Lucy?" the cat spit the words out, tired of dancing around the real question Natsu was aching to ask. The expression that flickered across Gray's face spoke volumes as he paled. Lisanna tactfully excused herself.

"She...er...Lucy's..."

"I bet she's still writing," Natsu breathed as he fantasized about the fulfilling life Lucy must have lived in his absence.

"Natsu..." Gray's voice lowered, his tone filled with warning. Natsu caught on this time, his eyes growing wide.

"What happened to Lucy? Tell me she's alive!" His voice was filled with despair. Pleading, practically.

"We all sacrificed something in the war...a lot was taken from her..." Tears filled Gray's visible eye, the revelation still painful and raw.

"What's that mean?" Natsu grappled at his friend's cryptic words as Happy repressed the rising bile in his throat. The magnitude of Gray's confession and the tortured look in his eye were unmistakable. They had all paid dearly.

Happy knew this day would come. The day that Natsu would regret ever leaving.

"She's...not well, Natsu."

"I have to see her," Natsu turned.

Gray gripped his shoulder with enough force to turn his knuckles white. "We hadn't heard from you for some time...only Lucy refused to believed that you had disappeared forever. She held onto that...it gave her strength..."

"She'll be happy to see me," Natsu defiantly growled. "It's Luce. She's alive and that's all that matters. Let's go, Happy." The dragon slayer gestured toward his companion.

"Aye," came the soft reply as the cat's eyes remained locked with Gray's steely stare.

The dragon slayer hesitated, looking over his shoulder, "Thanks, Gray. You're no Gramps...but you're damned close."

The ice mage shook his head as his friend stalked from the guild, Happy in tow. "Natsu, you ass. You have no idea how much has changed..."


"Luce?" he called, stepping out into the clearing. His eyes darted over the familiar cottage. It had been Porlyusica's, now updated with a more feminine touch. Natsu would have never thought to look here had he not had to begrudgingly return to the guild and ask Lisanna. The pregnant woman had been hesitant at first, but Happy knew she would never keep anything from Natsu.

The blonde woman sat on a tree stump, staring ahead as the creek gurgled before her. She turned her head slightly, her hair much shorter than Happy had ever seen it. It was uneven and thinning as it skimmed her jawline. It was no longer a deep honey gold, now replaced by a lackluster ash blonde.

"Natsu?" Lucy slowly stood, her voice wavering with excitement. With hope. She could still remember his voice after all these years. It still made her heart pound.

"Luce!" Natsu smiled as he shot Happy a look of triumph. His companion said nothing, waiting for what was to come. Natsu stopped a few feet away, smiling dumbly as Lucy turned toward them. Her hand rested on the carved stump, her eyes searching for him.

Pale muddy eyes were directed toward her friends, but they would never find who they were looking for.

"Natsu?" she cried out, tears glistening in her eyes, "Is it...really you?"

"Yeah..." Disappointment. Confusion. Why wasn't she running to him as she always had? Happy wiped away a helpless stray tear that had managed to escape.

"Natsu! Come closer!" she held out a hand, her eyes blankly staring ahead, an indescribable emptiness hanging in them. She shivered, drawing her shawl closer to her body, despite her layers of clothing. It was tell-tale, Happy knew. "Is Happy with you?"

"Aye. I'm here, Lucy," Happy's voice held steady. Natsu looked from Happy back to Lucy, realization dawning on him. Tears sprung to his eyes.

"Lucy, what happened to you?" he stepped forward as she steadily walked toward them, her hands outstretched. Natsu caught her wrists between his fingers. She raised her palms to explore his face, her own blank eyes spilling over with moisture. "It is you! You're home, finally! And you have a beard!"

"Finally," he repeated in confirmation, his face ashen and defeated as she explored him with her hands. She pulled him into a hug, and he could feel her frail figure beneath him. What have I let happen?

"I have been begging the Gods to bring you back to me, both of you! If for only a day, I wanted to see you one last time," she knelt down, her palm open for Happy to offer his hand. She gently hugged him, though he was more afraid of hurting her by the force of their embrace. Another tear spilled down his cheek, but Natsu was oblivious, too engrossed in his own shortcomings to pay the Eksheed any mind.

"You came just in time." Her smile was warm, her face hallow and pale.

"In time for what?" he whispered in confusion.

"Nothing..." she sighed, pulling him closer to her. She felt his heart beat against her own chest. She closed her eyes. "You've finally come home and now I...oh, we just can't get this right, can we?"

Nervous laughter tinged with bitterness that could cut like a knife.

Lucy stepped back, her head cocking to the side as if she heard something. Natsu collapsed to the ground, pulling Lucy's hands in his own as he bowed his head in apology. He held her cold fingers to his forehead. "This is just a bad dream! I'll wake up and this will all be a nightmare!"

Lucy patted his head. "Nightmares are for kids. We are not kids anymore." Her head snapped around as a child's laughter rang out. A soft smile lit up her face. Happy's eyes darted to the source of the noise, finding a small girl running from the cottage.

"Momma!" the child called out. Chubby hands. Rosy cheeks. Deep honey blonde hair and warm chocolate eyes. Gray's words haunted Happy like a bad memory—a testimony to what the guild master had confided in them in far less words. The girl's eyes grew wide as she quickly shoved an object behind her back, side-stepping into the cottage doorway.

"What are you up to?" Lucy's sightless eyes narrowed.

"Nothing," the child shook her head, eyes on the cat and the pink-haired visitor.

"What did I tell you about killing insects in such a manner, hmm?" the spirit mage's voice was stern, though the slightest hint of amusement was noticeable in her features.

The girl frowned as she revealed the magnifying glass in her tiny hand. "I'm sorry?"

Natsu's eyes were wide as he stared at the her-a miniature affirmation of Lucy's suffering and her redemption. Happy couldn't tear his eyes away from the beautiful creature, the unwavering truth too painful to bear. To bitter to speak. He had so many questions.

"Levy!" Lucy laughed, her arms stretched out as she crouched low, "Come meet Momma's friends."


"Nashu" and "Hoppy" were immediately welcomed by the chubby, open arms of a five-year-old girl. She was everything Happy expected in Lucy's daughter: intelligent, verbose, well-mannered, stubborn, and forgiving. The cat couldn't help but fall in love with her—it was inevitable. Natsu was equally smitten.

Lucy Heartfilia had placed her keys in a box, the master key hanging around her neck. She no longer had the strength to use her magic, though Loki and Capricorn would visit her from time to time. The walls of the cottage were littered with pictures from their youth as well as magazine covers that Lucy had graced after Natsu first left to seek out Igneel. There was a short span where Lucy refused to pose for photos—a time that so happened to coincide with Natsu's return the first time as well as the first year following his second disappearance. Happy suspected that the spirit mage had intentionally allowed for her pictures to circulate in the magical world, if only to provide Natsu with a way feel as if he was close to her. The cat found that thought extremely touching and altruistic. It was something only Lucy would do.

Neither Lucy nor Natsu spoke of the events that had occurred during those brief six months between his absences. It was as if talking about it would rip the treasured memory away from them. Happy wondered if it was his presence that kept her from talking about the memories she held dear to her heart. The truth about those missing years.

Lucy sighed, unintentionally revealing her thoughts to the cat in the setting sunlight. "Happy, I'm so glad you've kept him in line."

"I did my best, Lucy. It wasn't easy."

"I'm sure it wasn't," she nodded, her breath ragged as she coughed. When the fit passed, she smiled, "I'm grateful to you, Happy. You are a good friend."

"Aye," Happy smiled, bowing his head.

Natsu returned from Levy's room—where he had put the snoring child to bed with her favorite stuffed animal, Plue. Lucy no longer had the strength to carry her own daughter. "She's asleep."

"Thank you," Lucy softly responded, beckoning to him as she pulled the blanket more tightly around her body. Every evening, she would sit on the porch of her tiny cottage, feeling the sun's last rays before it dipped below the horizon.

Happy knew that the couple needed time alone. His wings quickly sprouted as he prepared to visit Charle's grave, something that would become a routine for him in his later years. Lucy smiled knowingly as the cat swept off into the treetops before Natsu could see his tears. The dragon slayer seated himself beside Lucy, allowing her to lean into him as his fingertips brushed the ends of her hair. She shivered, a gentle smile on her lips as her faded brown eyes stared at nothing. She coughed again, this time more loudly. Sweat shone on her face from the exertion. Natsu's hand settled on her shoulder. She reached up and patted it.

"Levy died protecting me..." The subject was broached. "I only thought it prudent to name her so..." Her tone was filled with sadness as her eyes closed. Tiny droplets of moisture clung to her lashes as her lower lip trembled.

"She's beautiful, Luce," he comforted her.

"She...has a penchant for fire," Lucy whispered softly, her eyes blindly seeking him in the waning light. She stared past him. Through him. A faint smile stretched across her face as his brow creased. When he said nothing, she sighed her weak exasperation, shaking her head slightly, "If anything were to happen to me—"

"It won't! I'll protect you," he growled, gripping her hand fiercely.

"I know," she winced, "But...I want someone to take care of Levy for me. If anything were to, you know..."

"Consider it done. Anything for you!" he replied earnestly. She opened her eyes, her hand cupping his cheek as she stared through him once again. He wondered if she could see his shattered soul.

"I knew I could count on you." She smiled sadly, "A fire-using stellar spirit mage, perhaps? A little piece of me..."

He did not understand her as his dark eyes studied her face. The unanswered questions hovered on his lips. They were dangerously close to talking about that night. The night before he left, six years ago...

"I want to know who did this to you! I'll kill him!" The anger deep within him was beginning to return.

"I already did." Her voice was thick and cruel, her laughter rueful as she indicated her face. "A small price to pay for my daughter's life."

He stared at her, wondering how she was containing her rage. He could barely restrain himself, though mostly out of shame and guilt. He had abandoned her in her time of need. He hadn't protected her as he had always promised, yet, she held no ill-will toward him. She had managed to be the same forgiving Lucy, even after all the pain and suffering she had endured.

"Natsu?"

"Yeah?" His eyes were still on her face as she looked over his head, her expression dancing with a memory he could not share.

"Do you remember how angry I was with you? When you left the first time?" Natsu nodded, his mouth opening to speak. Lucy laid a finger on his lips, quieting him as she shook her head. "You can imagine how hurt I was the second time, I'm sure." She paused, her face close to his as she smiled. For a moment, she looked like she had, nearly a decade ago, "I want you to know...I forgive you."

His eyes widened and the tears stung his eyes. She brushed his mouth with her lips. Soft and warm, tasting slightly sweet. He would never forgive himself for leaving her like this—for not protecting her. He wanted to run—wanted to flee his selfishness.

"Come closer," she drew back, smiling as she held out a hand. "Don't leave just yet."

"I won't." His calloused hand easily engulfed hers as he murmured his solemn promise—one he meant with every inch of his being. He did his best to keep the tears from finding their way into his voice. She sighed as she rested her head against his shoulder. He draped an arm around her thin frame. "Never again."

Crickets sang their lullaby, filling the heavy silence that hovered between them. Threatening to break them.

"I should have never left."

"You had to. You needed to."

"I was being selfish!" It was the truth. He could tell from the way the weight lifted from his chest, ever-so-slightly.

"We are all selfish," she smiled into the darkness she couldn't see but always surrounded her. She was a remnant of the Lucy he remembered, yet she captured his heart all the same.

"Luce?"

"When did you become so talkative?" she hummed, stroking his arm with gentle fingers.

"Shut up and let me talk."

"The stage is yours." It always has been.

"I...I never stopped thinking about you. Ever." The pressure lessened. The guilt eased. It was the closest he would come.

"And I never loved anyone else, as I had promised." Her body rocked with her sigh of contentment. Could she sense the way her words made his heart react? His breathing quicken? Sweat to bead along his hairline?

She had whispered that promise to him, years ago. He had promised to come back for her. His words were uttered in the throes of passion.

Six years ago.

He sat there, unable to tell her the feelings he so badly wanted to share with her but was too cowardly to mutter. Everyone he loved had abandoned him, so perhaps if he selfishly kept his emotions bottled, she couldn't be taken away from him. Like Igneel. Like Lisanna, once.

They sat like that for some time, him gently rocking back and forth while she rested against him. He cherished the feel of her warm skin against his. He closed his eyes and savored the moment as he once again put his heart back into the cage he had created for it.

Even after six years, he was not ready to give away that piece of himself.


She died a few weeks later, surrounded by her friends. Her family. Natsu was at her side the entire time, even in her last, tearful moments. She had wanted to be cremated, her remains scattered into the river that divided Magnolia. Gray had been unable to light the funeral pyre. So had Natsu.

As they stood on the river's edge, overlooking the wall Lucy had so often pranced upon, Happy held the little girl's warm, sticky hand as they stood with Natsu. A crease formed between the child's brow as she watched the dragon slayer hug the urn of Lucy's remains to his chest as the light reflecting off the water's surface danced across his features. He looked like a toddler unable to give up his favorite toy.

"Nashu?" the youthful voice warbled. "Momma wants you to let her go, now."

Happy knew her words were literal, but the effect was tremendous as the dragon slayer collapsed to his knees in grief. He covered his face with his hands, sobbing into them as he accepted Lucy's death for the very first time.

"Lucy, I'm so sorry. I'm not strong enough!" The words were muffled and slurred, and the cat doubted the girl could truly comprehend Natsu's sorrow. "I didn't even tell her!"

Levy pulled free from the blue paw holding her back, firmly walking forward and resting a chubby hand on Natsu's shoulder. She wordlessly leaned down and lifted the lid from the urn. She watched him, mischief flickering in her warm chestnut eyes as she tipped the container over the water. Natsu gasped, his hands clamping over hers to stop her. She stared at him, a look very much like how her mother used to challenge the dragon slayer. Silent tears spilled over Natsu's cheeks as he nodded his head, knowing that he had to fulfill Lucy's wishes. All of them.

"I'll do it."

He hesitated at first. Levy pointed, "Now, Nashu."

His expression became one of determination as his hands trembled. The dragon slayer gently poured the ashes over the wall's edge. They tiny specks floated toward the water, but before they could fall into the river's current, a sudden whispering breeze swept them skyward. The cloud of Lucy's ashes swirled in the air, dancing like leaves in a cool autumn breeze.

Levy clapped, laughing as a child would. Her laughter was high-pitched and tinkling, much like her mother's, bringing a smile to Happy's face. Even Natsu couldn't suppress his own guarded delight as he replaced the lid on the urn, his eyes watching Lucy's remains dance toward the clouds. His tears dried on his cheeks as he felt the pudgy hands firmly grab either side of his face. His head was pulled down so that he was staring into a pair of warm brown eyes.

Lucy's eyes.

"See? Momma's in the sky. Waiting for us," she pointed to the blue vastness above them before tugging at her necklace, "She left me her keys to find our way back to her. She told me so."

Something else was hidden in the depth of those childish features—something that was so familiar that Natsu couldn't quite place it. His heart melted as he stared into that hauntingly familiar pair of eyes. He remembered his promise to Lucy—his promise to protect the little girl until his dying day. He barely knew Levy, but he would lay down his life to ensure her happiness. He would never abandon her. They had an unbreakable bond; akin to one shared between family.

A fire-using stellar spirit mage...

Those were Lucy's words. He hadn't understood them at the time. But now...

Now...

Horrified, he looked to Happy for confirmation. The Eksheed's head bowed in acknowledgment.

"How? Why—?" he sputtered. How had the cat known before he had?

"You've finally figured it out," Happy murmured softly as Levy once again stared at the sky, her hands stretched upward. "That's why Lucy couldn't stay angry at you. You gave her something to remind her of you."

A piece of you.

Natsu's attention was drawn back to the blonde child, his heart finally unleashed from its prison. It overflowed with both joy and love as he watched her spread her arms from her body as she balanced on the wall bordering the river, her face cast up to the sunlight. She was a tiny version of the only woman he had ever cared about—the only woman he had loved. Before now.

While Lucy had been the one to ultimately leave him, she had managed to give him an unimaginable gift—a gift that would forever be a reminder of everything he left behind and all that would be his future.

A little piece of me.