Author's Note: So this is the last chapter. Therefore I have an excuse for an extremely long author's note. Just bare with me.

I think I should cover all the standard last author's note stuff. I'd like to thank everyone who read and reviewed and favorited and followed A Tale Or Two right down to the very end. It was a laborious two year process, but it was a labor of love, and I think it was worth it. I'm pretty proud of it, and I sincerely hope that you guys have enjoyed reading it as much as I've enjoyed writing it.

Unfortunately, there will be NO PREQUEL and NO SEQUEL. This is the absolute last chapter of this story. There will be no more Natsu or Lucy in this particular universe. However, I do plan on writing some more NaLu (for those of you who asked in their review). I don't know when exactly, because I've got some other stuff that I'd like to work on first, but eventually there will be another NaLu story. Check my profile for more details, and while you're there, feel free to vote on the poll. :)

It's been a great ride, guys. I've really enjoyed it. I don't know what I'm going to do with myself now. Probably sit in front of my computer like a potato, staring blankly at the screen, trying to think of something to type with my potato fingers but failing miserably.

Disclaimer: I don't own Fairy Tail. I never have. I probably never will. It will forever and always belong to Hiro Mashima, that dirty bastard.

CIV: A Happy Ending

It took several hours of explaining, but Lucy eventually convinced the Rune Knights to not arrest Natsu and Jude.

The Knights barged in soon after the two of them had tied Zoldeo up and propped him against the wall. They'd been alerted by the large flashing green lights and loud noises coming from Love and Lucky, and worried about dark sorcery taking place in the vacant castle. When they saw the destroyed door and then the decrepit old hobo and stranger tying up another defeated man, they didn't ask questions. They just made arrests.

Luckily, Lucy heard the commotion and came to investigate. Natsu and Jude were trying to explain, but Zoldeo had awakened and was screaming false accusations, telling the Rune Knights that the two of them had attacked him and were planning on using him as a human sacrifice.

"That's preposterous!" Jude bellowed. He turned to a Knight. "Do you not recognize me? I'm Jude Heartphilia! The former King of Fiore! Why would I dabble in dark magic?"

"He's a necromancer!" Zoldeo shrieked, trashing wildly. "He's deranged! He wants to resurrect my cousin, Layla Heartphilia! He was going to use my blood and body to bring her back to life!"

"You shut your filthy mouth!" Jude snarled, launching himself at Zoldeo. The madman screeched again and scrambled away, trying to hide behind the circle of befuddled law enforcement.

"You see?!" he cried. "You see?! He's violent! He's aggressive! He's evil!"

"I would never desecrate my wife's memory like that! I would never taint her soul with black magic, you dirty lying bastard!"

"Calm down, both of you," said the head Rune Knight. "Come on, we're taking all four of you to the headquarters until we get this mess figured out."

It was then that Lucy stepped into the light, revealing her presence to the Knights. "Um, excuse me? I think I could help with that."

A room had never gone silent so quickly. After several tense, uncomfortable moments, Zoldeo started up with, "You see? You see?" again, but this time no one was really listening.

First, Lucy had to convince the Knights that she was not, in fact, Layla's resurrection, but her long lost daughter returned from a seventeen year imprisonment at the hands of Jose Porla. She told her entire tale from beginning to end for the second time that week, slowly convincing each dubious Knight of her identity. When she recounted the suffering Zoldeo had put her through, supported by the bruise blossoming across her cheek from where he'd struck her, the Rune Knights grew incredibly livid. What Capricorn - or, rather, Zoldeo posing as Capricorn - had said was true: the Lost Princess's disappearance was still a festering wound in Acalypha, chaffing the people's hearts and burdening their spirits. They had adored their late queen, and Layla's loss had been a loss to them all.

Lucy's testimony was enough to release her rescuers and convict Zoldeo. The Knights dragged him from the castle, but defeat had driven him mad. He said nothing more, but occasionally he whimpered or growled.

"Sir," she said to the head Knight, "I know that Love and Lucky is vacated and that my father doesn't own it anymore, but...I'd really appreciate it if I could stay here. Just for tonight."

The Rune Knight smiled at her gently, placing a hand on her shoulder. "Stay as long as you need, princess. It is a relief to know that you are alive, and an honor to have met you. If you need anything, please come by headquarters."

Lucy nodded as they left. When they were all gone, the room was quiet. Natsu, Jude, and Happy were all staring at her. Without a word, she turned and left them once again.

She wandered until she found the room she was looking for. It was at the top of one of Love and Lucky's sturdy square towers. The door was closed and locked, but when Lucy stepped inside, she knew immediately that it was the place where she'd been born. Her mother's bedroom.

Everything was dressed in light cream and gold. The bed was made, and there was a glass on the nightstand that had obviously been filled with water. There were fingerprints from a dainty hand still around the middle, and smudges made from full lips on the rim. From the window Lucy could see a garden, one that was probably gorgeous during any other season, but was bare and desolate all covered in snow.

At the foot of the bed there was a tarnished bronze trunk. Lucy turned from the window and knelt beside it. Her fingers trembled as she opened the latch and lifted the lid. Inside were dresses, folded neatly between tissue paper and pressed gardenias. Lucy took a soft blue shift in her hands and pressed it to her cheek, breathing in her mother's preserved scent. It sent a pang of longing through her entire body. When Lucy set the dress down, there was a deeper dot of blue on the fabric.

She jumped when someone knocked on the door.

"Uh, Lucy? It's Natsu," said the Dragonslayer, his voice uncertain from the other side of the door. Lucy didn't think she'd ever heard Natsu uncertain about anything. He was always pressing forward, always knowing what was right and best. In his mind, at least. He was reckless, but he was decisive. "Look," he continued after a pause, "you don't have to come out and talk to me, but I wanted to bring you your keys. In case...well, in case you wanted to talk to Loke. Or somebody."

Natsu seemed startled when Lucy opened the door. He had bent down and was preparing to slide the keys under it. He straightened up when he saw her, like a soldier coming to attention. Then he frowned and touched her cheek. "You're crying," he said.

"How did you know I was in here?" Lucy asked, accepting the key ring.

"I followed your scent." His eyes flicked to the room. "Is this...?"

Lucy turned. "Yeah. It's hers." She bit her lip as another tear slid down her face. "How is it possible to miss someone you've never met so much?"

Natsu's embrace was warm and strong. Lucy gave into it, letting the warmth engulf her, clinging to it for support. Natsu was always there to support her. "I don't know what I'm going to do," she sobbed into his chest. "I have no idea."

"No one's rushing your decision," said Natsu. "And everyone'll be fine with whatever you do decide. Don't worry about anyone else but yourself, okay?"

Lucy nodded as she pulled away, but she knew that was impossible. So much of her happiness depended on Natsu's happiness. But there was also a part of her that yearned to know more about her family, her mother and her father, her past, where she came from. She wanted to know about people like Zoldeo, and better people, too, the people who'd stayed by the Heartphilia family's side until the end of their era.

"How's your eye?" Natsu inquired, touching the bruised half of her face.

"Fine," said Lucy. She wanted to know so much, but she couldn't imagine life without Natsu and Happy, either. They were as much her family as Jude and Loke. "It hurts a little, but it's nothing I can't deal with."

"Okay," Natsu said. "I'll leave you alone to think, then."

Lucy smiled. "You're not going to barge in without warning?"

"No promises."

She watched as he turned his back and walked away. The word rose up her throat like a wave of hot air, too quickly and too suddenly for her to stop it. "Natsu!" In that word held all the desperation she felt, all the conflicting emotions within her, all the longing and utter confusion battling inside. It was at once a warning and an invitation. Natsu stopped, turned back, and smiled over his scarf, but then he kept walking.

He won't do anything, Lucy thought, looking down at the key ring in her hands, complete with two new keys, Capricorn and Taurus. He knows it will be too painful for both of us if he does anything and I chose my father anyway. It didn't stop Lucy from wanting him to turn back and hold her some more. She supposed that this was a sort of test; exactly how well could she do without Natsu's council, without his presence and support, things she'd depended on for so long?

But she had other council, opinions that mattered just as much as Natsu's and Jude's. She squeezed the keys in her fist and retreated back into her mother's old bedchambers, closing the door.

There were opinions that mattered, but there was something more important now. The first Spirit she summoned was probably the only one without an opinion, but the one who would bring her what she wanted most: comfort.

Plue popped into existence, landing shivering on her mother's bed, and Lucy folded him into her arms, laying there with him and burying her face in the pillows.

Jude and Happy were waiting silently on the stairs when Natsu returned. "Took you long enough," the poor old man grumbled, rubbing his fingers through his beard as he regarded the Dragonslayer with a suspicious gaze.

"Don't worry," Natsu said with an ugly grimace, "I didn't try to seduce her or anything."

"HA!" Happy blurted out, unable to control himself. The two men looked at him. He blinked. "Sorry, it's just...funny, that's all. Natsu trying to seduce anyone. Because he's been so oblivious to everything. Or pretended to be, I guess. It's really hard to tell."

Natsu shook his head and returned his pinched gaze to Jude. "Yeah. I'm not a cheater like you."

"How did I cheat? You're clearly at an advantage," said Jude. "All I did was mention what I could do for her. Tell her about her mother. Find a way for Loke to be human again. I offered her the only thing I can give her: a family."

"Family isn't all about blood, you know," Natsu replied. "Lucy's got plenty of family. There are people all over Fiore who love her and would do anything for her in a heartbeat. Levy, Mira and Fried, that dumb droopy-eyed Gray, Makarov, and Happy, too. Lucy's got a lot more family than you might think."

"It's not her real family."

"What does that even mean? Her real family. You think because you're related to her you're more her family than we are?" Natsu stood up. "Let me tell you something about blood, Jude. I've never met my parents. Happy's never met his, either. Are you seriously telling me that, if we were to finally meet our 'families,' they would have more of a right to that title? That's stupid."

"It's the way it is," Jude said.

Natsu sat back down, crossing his arms. "Fine. Claim to be her family. I'm her nakama. That's not something you can ever take away."

"What are you going to do with yourself?" Jude said after a bit of a pause. "If she chooses me. What will you do?"

"What I've done for ten years now," Natsu replied with a shrug. "Look for Igneel. Travel. Fire-juggle."

"And if she decides to stay with you?"

"Same thing. But with Lucy."

"That's quite the nomadic lifestyle. Unstable. Unpredictable. Dangerous, even."

"Lucy's been in plenty of danger," said Natsu. "This deal with Zoldeo isn't even the worst of it. But she can handle herself. And Happy and I always have her back. Right, Happy?"


"Plus, Lucy can leave whenever she wants to," Natsu continued. "If she decides that she wants to stay with you, or live in the royal castle, or live out in the East Forest with Levy, she can do that. I just want her to be happy. I'd like her to stay with me, but if she's unhappy, then there's no point."

"What happens if you find your dragon?" Jude asked.

Natsu blinked. "...No one's ever asked me that before."

"Well, you must have envisioned it happening," Jude said. "I'm curious. What are you going to do once you find Igneel? What are you going to do if you never find him?"

"I guess I'll ask him everything I've always wanted to," Natsu said. "Why he left. What he's been doing. Stuff like that. And then...I don't really know. I guess it depends on what Igneel's answers are."

"Could you ever settle down?"

Natsu shrugged. "Maybe. I don't know. I don't really like being in the same place for a long time. Makes me antsy. But Makarov's asked me to work for him a couple times, and that requires a lot of traveling, I think. So I could live in Magnolia and work for him. If...if I wanted to settle down. For some reason."

"Would you bring her to Acalypha again, if she wanted to visit me?" Jude inquired.

"Yeah, whenever she wanted."

"Would you visit her if she stayed here?"

Natsu thought about that question for the longest time. "Yeah," he said. "Yeah. I would."

The second Spirit Lucy summoned was Taurus, to make a contract. There was a little confusion at first (apparently, Taurus was under the impression that Natsu promised he could "have Lucy's hot body" if he'd broken the barrier on Love and Lucky), but eventually it was cleared up and a generous contract ("Whenever you want me, baby") was made.

Next, Lucy summoned Capricorn, in order to make a contract and to learn more about Zoldeo's unlikely tale. When he appeared he looked the same, although quite stunned at his surroundings. He focused on Lucy and his furry jaw went slack. "You survived," he said in awe.

"You mean Zoldeo?" Lucy replied. "Yeah. He's in prison now. I think he's gone a little bonkers."

"He's always been crazy," said Capricorn, lowering himself down on the bed. "I've had him in my head for more than a decade. Controlling my body, my will, my powers. Keeping me trapped here, in the material world, although it was agony for the both of us. He didn't want to risk my taking control again if we went back to the Celestial Spirit world, or, worse, having to follow the commands of a key holder should someone summon us."

"I'm glad you're back," said Lucy. "I don't think we've been properly introduced. I'm Lucy Heartphilia."

"Capricorn. I belonged to your mother. Layla. I don't know if Zoldeo told you that."

"He mentioned it," Lucy admitted. "I never knew that my mother was aware of her powers. I just thought...she'd never had the chance to explore them. I guess that was naïve. She probably just kept it from the public to prevent panic."

"Jude's idea," Capricorn confirmed. "Layla felt awful lying, but they had to do it. Things were just a lot less messier that way. That's why she gave me to Zoldeo, who aspired to be a mage but had until then projected no magic. She wanted me to have an adventurous life and for Zoldeo to chase his dream. She never realized that Zoldeo already had magic, a kind he couldn't control. She was a good woman."

"I've heard," Lucy murmured. "Thank you. For sharing that with me. How long were you in her service?"

"Since her birth. I've been in her family for many generations, passed down from mother to daughter when the power makes itself known. Usually I am the first and only Zodiac key the Celestial mage possesses, but I can see that you are already experienced."

Lucy placed her hands on her keys. "Yes, I've done some traveling. Taurus and I have a contract now."

"I'm sure you do," Capricorn said with amusement. "I served Layla for most of her life. I can tell you that she was a wonderful person. My affection for her went beyond that of duty or honor. I truly loved Layla, and I feel that you and her are similar souls. I would also like to make a contract with you, Lucy."

Lucy smiled. "I would like that, too."

So they made one, and Capricorn, like Taurus, offered his services whenever she might be in need of him. He promised to tell her stories of her mother and her grandmother, and her great-grandmother before that. The prospect made Lucy's stomach twist in excitement.

When Capricorn disappeared, there was only one Spirit left for Lucy to talk to. She always saved him for last. His opinion was the most important to her, particularly in this matter. Besides, he needed to know what was happening.

"Open, the Gate of the Lion! Leo!"

The tug for summoning Loke was uncomfortably strong, as though it took more of her power to get him here. But he arrived in a blazing hot flash of sunlight, dazzling in his suit and tie. His eyes rested on Lucy and his entire body went limp in relief. "Thank goodness," he sighed, grabbing her wrist and pulling her into a hug. "I'm glad you're safe."

Lucy gasped and wriggled out of his arms, craning her neck to see his back. It was drenched in blood. "Loke! What happened?!"

"It's nothing that won't heal in a few days," Loke assured her. "Time moves differently in the Celestial Spirit world, don't worry. I was fighting Zoldeo and Taurus's axe got me in the shoulder. That's not important, though; how are you? Are you doing okay? Did Zoldeo or Jude do anything to hurt you? Who did this to your face?"

"I'm fine," Lucy said, moving from his fingertips as they brushed her cheek. "Zoldeo got a little rough with me, but he never really hurt me. And Jude...that's kind of what I summoned you here to talk about."

Loke narrowed his eyes. "Are you still planning on staying with him?"

"I don't know," she said honestly. "He doesn't have anything anymore, Loke. There's no Heartphilia Kozern, no Love and Lucky, nothing. He's a hobo on the street. All he has is us. I just...I can't abandon him, especially not when he helped save me from Zoldeo, not when that wasn't his fault."

"He doesn't deserve to have anything, Lucy," Loke insisted. "He's a greedy, shriveled old man who doesn't care about anyone but himself. Then again, Natsu is obviously incapable of keeping you safe - "

"I don't need anyone to keep me safe," Lucy said wryly. "I could have escaped Zoldeo if I'd wanted to. And the only reason Natsu left was because...well, I don't really know why, but neither of us guessed that he was a monster in disguise. Both of us should have been more attentive."

Loke sat down on the bed. "Jude knows about me."

"I know. Happy told him everything." Lucy shrugged. "He wants us to be a family again."

"We were never a family before," Loke said harshly. "I don't care what he wants. I don't want him."

"Are you saying that if I decide to stay and live with him, you're going to leave?"

Loke looked shocked. "Live with him? Lucy, he's got nowhere to live!"

"Just answer my question," Lucy persisted. "Would you? Leave if I stayed?"

"Of course not," Loke sighed. "I wouldn't be happy about it, but I would never leave you. Especially not at his mercy. I'll stay with you, whatever you decide, but just know that I'm team Natsu. Or maybe you could even go off on your own. Go work for Makarov or Jellal. Discover the world at your leisure."

Lucy shook her head. "I want both of them in my life. But that's the problem. I don't think that will work well. I want to get to know my father, but I know that visits from Natsu...that just won't be enough. He's become such a big part of my life, him and Happy both. I can't imagine a day without them."

"I think," Loke said, putting his hand on her shoulder, "that you should do whatever your heart tells you. Close your eyes. Whose is the first face that you see?"

Lucy did it, and in that second she made her decision. It was as though everything inside of her shifted to fit together in a purposeful direction, because Loke's words rang true; she was thinking too much with her head, and not enough with her heart. And this was a decision made out of love, not reason. It wouldn't be an easy decision, but she could feel in her bones that it was the right one.

She opened her eyes. "I think I'm ready," she told her twin, nodding. "Will you come with me?"

"I don't want to talk to him again, Lucy," Loke said.

"You saved his life," Lucy pointed out. "They told me about it when the Rune Knights were here. You jumped in front of that axe for him. That's got to mean something, Loke. Just come with me, please. You won't have to talk to him if you don't want to. You can ignore him. But please, do this for me?"

"...Alright," Loke said finally. "For you."

Jude and Happy were beginning to doze when Natsu first heard the soft sound of footsteps coming down the stairs. He was wide awake, looking at Cana's dragon tarot card again, and shot up so suddenly that the other two were equally alert by the time Lucy came into view, slightly supporting a limping Loke. Natsu's heart was in his throat. He could tell by the look in her eye that she'd made the decision.

"Son," Jude whispered, standing. "You're okay. Thank heavens, I was so worried that...well, I don't know what happens to Spirits who are injured that severely - "

"Don't call me son," Loke snapped.

Jude blinked and looked down at his feet. "I suppose I deserve that."

Loke didn't respond. He just looked at Lucy, who was biting her lip nervously. "I...don't know how to begin," she said. She turned to Jude. "I really do want to get to know you. I want to hear stories about my mom, and our family. I want to know where I came from, but after a lot of thought...I've decided that it doesn't matter. Not as much as who I am now."

"I see," Jude rasped. He sat down again. "You're not staying with me. Are you?"

"No," said Lucy. "That's not exactly it. I'm not staying with you, but that doesn't mean I don't want to know you. I don't want you to feel like I'm abandoning you, or that my decision has anything to do with me disliking your or holding some kind of grudge."

"Of course not, my dear," Jude said. "I understand."

Lucy walked forward and threw her arms around him. "I'm so glad to have met you finally," she said. Jude chuckled and pulled away, gazing at her. His eyes flicked over to Loke, who was standing beside Natsu and Happy, watching with a blank face.

"I have...another proposition," he said. "For the both of you."

"What do you mean?" Loke growled.

"There's nothing for me in the material world," Jude explained. "I've no business, no possessions, and the only people I love are grown and independent, one trapped in a Zodiac key and the other chosen her own way. Loke, you're young and powerful. You could do great good in this world. I'm old and wasted. Let me trade places with you. Let me be Leo."

"WHAT?!" everyone said simultaneously. They turned to Loke, who was as shocked as the rest of them, eyes wide behind his sunglasses.

"You don't know what you're saying," the Spirit finally said, shaking his head. "You'd have to live in the Celestial Spirit world for an eternity. You'd never be able to come here without Lucy summoning you. You'll outlive everyone you love, and then your fate will be undetermined. You'll have no idea what the next key holder will be like, what your next owner might force you to do. Unless you're lucky enough to have someone like Lucy, you'll be a slave."

"And that's the last thing I want for my - for you," Jude said. "I want you to lead a good, normal life. And this gives me the opportunity to be with Lucy as well. Let me do this for you, Loke. I'm not asking for you to forgive me. I'm just asking you to let me try to do one good thing for my children."

There was a prolonged silence. Loke was still stunned, staring at his father as though he'd never seen him before. Finally he laughed a little and cleared his throat, eyes flitting about the room. "Now I know how you must have felt," he told Lucy through an uncomfortable smile. He didn't seem to want to look at Jude again, but he did it anyway, straight in the eye. "That's...a considerate offer. But I'm not unhappy as a Spirit. I've made friends. There are people - Spirits - that I...I care about. A lot. I don't know what I'd do with myself if I was human again."

Jude blinked in surprise, but he nodded. "Very well. It was foolish of me to think that I could...well. Help you."

"It wasn't foolish," Loke said hesitantly. He offered something that wasn't quite a smile, but a soft expression, one that wasn't so hostile and cold. It was something like a bit of forgiveness.

"...There is something," Lucy whispered, placing a hand on Jude's arm, "that you can do for us."

"What is it?"

"Leave Acalypha," Loke guessed.

Lucy nodded. "Go to Makarov or Fried, or anyone. Don't stay here and wallow in what you've lost. Find yourself again. I know it will be hard to leave Love and Lucky, but it's something you must do to get better."

"Mom wouldn't want you to stay here if it made you ill," Loke added. "Even after everything...she loved you."

Jude sagged under the weight of their suggestions. A glittering tear fell from his eye, landing in the yellow tangle of his beard. He nodded solemnly. Lucy squeezed his arm and stood, turning to the others. Loke smiled and silently dissipated, heading back to the Celestial Spirit world. Natsu tugged at his scarf, half hiding behind it as Lucy stepped forward to address him. He'd been curiously quiet during the entire conversation, as though, for the first time in his life, he was afraid to bring attention to himself.

"You're not staying here," he said when she came nearer.

Lucy shook her head. "No."

"Then what did you decide?"

"I decided," Lucy said, "to go my own path."

"I knew you would," Natsu sighed. He looked up at her from under his scarf, big dark eyes searching. "I'll miss you. I don't know if I told you that the first time. But I will. Happy, too. Right, Happy?"

"Aye," the cat said miserably. He was pinning his hopes on Lucy coming with them. This was the last thing he'd expected.

Lucy smiled and reached out, taking Natsu's hand. "What makes you think I'm leaving you?"

At this, the Dragonslayer and the cat looked at each other, confused. "What do you mean?" Natsu said.

"I said I'm choosing my own path," Lucy explained, "but that doesn't mean that I'm not accompanying you on yours. Our path is the same. We're in this together. I'm going to meet a dragon, and I'm going to see all I can see, and I'm going to be with my nakama while doing it."

She watched as the grin stretched across Natsu's face, and she matched it with her own. The next thing she knew, she was flying through the air in circles, laughing as Natsu spun her around and around. When he finally set her down, there was a pause. Lucy waited for a heartbeat, and then she rolled her eyes, grabbed Natsu by his scarf, and pulled him down for a kiss. She was tired of tiptoeing around it, tired of waiting. She'd chosen her own path, chosen him. The Dragonslayer was startled, but then he smiled against her lips and deepened the kiss, picking her up off the ground for a second time.

Jude didn't seem impressed, but Happy cheered.

That night, the four of them went to the Rune Knights' headquarters for supplies. They decided to leave Acalypha the next morning, as promptly and quietly as possible, so as not to disturb the steady metronome that kept the weak town stable.

Before they left, Lucy and her father visited Love and Lucky one last time. Jude stopped at the obliterated front door and sighed, taking in the entire dilapidated castle. Lucy stopped beside him, also looking up at the place she'd been born.

"I talked to the Knights," she said. "Asked them not to touch anything inside, except to fix the door. When you get yourself settled in Magnolia you can come and buy Mom's things back. They'll still be here."

"I was never worried about that," Jude said, smiling. "Everyone here loved your mother. They idolize her. No one would desecrate her belongings or the place where she lived. I just...I'll miss it. Being here. She walked these halls. Sometimes I can still see her, feel her."

Lucy touched his arm. "It's time to let her go."

"You're right," Jude said, grabbing her hand. "It's time to let her spirit rest, once and for all."

Lucy could have sworn she heard a little sigh come from the castle, as light and airy as the flutter of a sparrow's wing. But it was probably just a breeze.

She guided her father down the cobblestone streets of Acalypha, which had yet to awaken in the gray light of dawn. Chimneys were just beginning to breathe smoke, melting the soft white rings of snow around the brick rims. It had snowed during the night again, lightly, just enough to cleanse the ground of the sooty mush and replace it with a virgin blanket. It crunched under their feet as Lucy accompanied her father to the train station, where Natsu and Happy were waiting.

Jude's train was the first to depart from the modest station. It was already there when they arrived, a train that was to carry coal to Magnolia, along with just a few passengers. It looked like Jude's only companion was a man in a worn gray suit, who boarded the train without hesitation.

"There you are," Natsu said when he saw them. "We were worried you wouldn't make it on time."

"You've got no room to talk about punctuality," Lucy remarked dryly.

"What are you talking about? I didn't puncture anything this time. All I destroyed was a door!"

Lucy shook her head and turned to her father. "You're sure you'll be alright? Remember, go to Makarov, not Raijinshuu Castle. I don't know if they've rebuilt yet. Fairy Tail is probably your best bet to find Fried."

"I know, darling, we've gone over it," Jude said. "You've even given me directions. I'll find my way."

They embraced once more as the train whistled. "Be safe," Jude said. As he passed Natsu, he shook his hand. "You too, Salamander. Take care of her."

"I will," the Dragonslayer said with a nod. Jude boarded the train with one last wave. The doors shut behind him, and, with all passengers aboard, it began to roll away, down the tracks and around the bend, disappearing into the tall trees of the East Forest.

Lucy heaved a sigh and glanced at Natsu, smiling. "So," she asked, "where to now?"

"I don't know," Natsu replied with a grin. He took Lucy's hand. "Wherever we end up, I guess. Any suggestions, Happy?"

The cat flew up and spun around in a circle, pointing his blue paw in a random direction. "That a-way!"

"Aye!" Lucy and Natsu agreed. The trio began to walk toward their new adventure, unaware of what awaited them, but content with the knowledge that, whatever it was, they could always count on each other to face it together.

And, from those first footsteps on, they lived happily ever after.