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Honestly, Lucy thought death would be scarier. When she pictured dying, she imagined a cold, dark world without hope. Maybe a grim reaper like figure holding a scythe that would sweep down to take her by the hand and pull her away from life. Of course, she wouldn’t be taking death’s hand willing. She’d be damned if she was going to die without a fight; they’d take her kicking and screaming.

But as she toppled to the ruined floor of the old castle, all she felt was numb detachment. She wasn’t scared like she thought she would be, and she wasn’t angry either. If she had to put a name to what she felt, she would call it acceptance. There was no point fighting what had already happened, after all.

Her senses dulled until she wasn’t sure if she had them any more. The ceiling blurred above her. Far away fighting beat on her eardrums like she was hearing it through cotton. It didn’t hurt, exactly. But a dull throb did spread throughout her skull, originating from the sides of her head like it was being knocked from side to side by something almost soft.

Lucy’s chest heaved, the labour of breathing dawning on her slowly as every inhalation jostled the horrible hole drilled in her side and sent spirals of lightning pain coursing through her entire being. It was all she could do to just lay there and simply breathe. Needing relief from the pain, Lucy tried to shift into a better position, and gasped. A rocket of agony took off through her abdomen, exploding heat all over her torso and chest.

‘Argh!’

Off to her right, the battle between her assailant and her best friend came to a very brisk and very fiery close. Although Lucy couldn’t hear his shouts, the way the rocks around her bounced against the ground from the explosive force of his attacks spoke to her of his fury and intensity. Against her will, Lucy’s eyes began to close.

Natsu felt his pants tear at the knees as he skidded to a kneel next to his fallen teammate. He didn’t register the scrapes that formed there or the leak of blood from them. His only concern was lying motionless on the ground in front of him, bleeding from a wound the size of his head. Blood was quickly staining one of her favourite shirts. It soaked through, dying the pale fabric a violent red.

‘L-Lucy!’ shouted Natsu, grasping her shoulders and giving her a small shake. ‘Hey, wake up, Lucy!’

‘Ngah!’

Painfully - agonisingly - slow, the stellar mage’s eyes fluttered open. The warm cocoa brown that used to fill up his chest with such glee every time he caught them was glazed over like glass, all misty and unseeing. Lucy stared past him, her gaze drifting over his shoulder at nothing.

‘I’ll get Wendy!’ an unsteady voice yelled. Natsu barely glanced towards Happy as spritely wings burst into existence against the Exceed’s back. ‘Hold on, Lucy!’

‘Hurry, Happy!’ Natsu spurred.

‘Aye!’

Lucy shivered, and that smallest of motions caused her to cry out with a throttled voice. Her fingers stiffened and her hands trembled before they curled into fists, pulled tightly against her sides. Hovering over her, Natsu’s own hands were far too still.

Where did he put them? On the wound? Should he apply pressure? His thoughts ran a mile a minute and he couldn’t latch onto a single one of them.

Natsu’s voice was carefully controlled when he spoke, a stark contrast to the pandemonium of his mind. ‘You’re gonna be okay, Lucy. Wendy will be here in a second. Just- just hold on, okay? Stay awake. Wendy will be here soon.’

That was a desperate lie, and she probably knew it. Wendy was somewhere on the floor below, fighting what was left of the dark guild’s foot soldiers with Gray and Carla. An easy enough if not dragged out battle. Erza had taken her fight outside the castle walls, an irritatingly strong wizard teasing the fight into a one-on-one duel that had the requip mage leaving the rest of the guild in her team’s capable (now questionably so) hands. There was no help close by.

Lucy didn’t reply to him. A consistent stream of tears rolled down the sides of her tense cheeks, pooling in her ears and dampening her dirty locks. It didn’t seem like she could move at all. Her chest rippled in a blend of discreet breaths and sobs that dragged like a razorblade across his heart. Even those slightest movements would stimulate another spurt of blood to come pouring from the wound, spilling out of her like life itself.

Slamming his eyes shut tight, Natsu cursed, ‘Dammit! I-I should’ve made you stay with Gray. I coulda taken this guy on my own.’

Another lie. Lucy’s Taurus Star Dress was the only reason the guild master was thrown off enough for Natsu to land a solid attack that sent the dark mage reeling. Then on the other hand, Lucy’s Taurus Star Dress was also the reason the mage was able to bore such a sickening hole in her side at close range.

Natsu lowered his head, teeth grit tight enough for them to grind and groan.

‘M-my … choi-ce …’ Lucy uttered, surprising the dragon slayer. Her voice was garbled, choking on the blood in her throat. ‘Don’ … beat … -self up-p …’

As if the effort of speaking were too much, Lucy’s eyes glistened like polished stones and her entire body seized up in a momentous convulsion. Blood seeped out of her mouth and dribbled down her chin.

‘No, no, no, hold on, Lucy!’

Natsu fingers wrapped into fists. Wendy was too far away; there had to be something he could do now. Lucy only had now. He could do something; he had to do something. Racking his brain with fire pulsating from his chest, steam coiled from his shoulders as his intense body heat struggled to keep up with his panicked thoughts.

Heat. Fire.

Suddenly, Natsu knew exactly what to do.

In a fluid motion, Natsu tore his scarf off his neck, bunching it up into a thick mass of material. Lucy didn’t so much as bat an eye when he tilted down her jaw and crammed it into her mouth as gently as the situation would allow. She was so very still now; very quiet. The only indication that there was life still in her at all was the erratic rise and fall of her chest.

‘Lucy,’ he started, and held in a sigh of relief when her head turned very slightly in the direction of his voice. ‘Bite down. This is … this is gonna hurt a lot, okay? Just … hold on.’

Lucy nodded, a tiny motion of her head, and clenched his scarf tightly in her mouth, eyes pressing shut in anticipation. An awful weight formed in his chest. Unfortunately he didn’t have time to reconsider his course of action. Already hot tears were beginning to form in his eyes, just behind the wicked dam that he called resolve. He couldn’t let them fall. Lucy was dying right in front of him, and he had to be strong for her sake.

Natsu called a blaze to the palms of his hands, cupping a ball of flames that rivalled the sun with their heat. Pushing himself and pressing harder on his magic power, he incited the fire to grow hotter, until it grew to a temperature that even he could feel and call boiling. The furious brilliance cast shadows all over the castle walls. Perspiration slicked quickly over their crowded bodies as the heat became close to unbearable. A few stray tears that were stuck to Lucy’s cheek quickly evaporated.

‘Stay with me, Lucy.’

With a brief look into the face of his partner and best friend to ensure she had his scarf grasped tightly in her teeth, Natsu pressed the ball of flames against her side.

The scream that followed was the most ghastly sound Natsu had ever heard.

Muffled as it was against the fabric of his scarf, the ear-piercing shrieks that ripped raw from Lucy’s throat stabbed his ears like a thousand knives, digging into him relentlessly, over and over and over again. Her eyes shot open, wide as saucers and swelling in their sockets, the foggy aspect vanishing in replace of brown that shimmered with something like terror. Tears declined to fall one by one. Instead they came as a river, catching on her skin and making it shine horribly bright.

‘AAAAAAAAAAGGGGGHHHHH!’

Natsu repressed his contrition, holding his hands against her side as the stench of burning flesh mingled with the air’s salty tang. Skin bubbled between his fingers, blistering bright red.

‘I’m sorry,’ his throat was thick and constricted. ‘I’m sorry, Lucy. Stay with me, please.’

Lucy refused to stop screaming. Every time she would run out of breath, she would draw another one and wail louder than before. The penetrating sounds of his partners cries made Natsu falter, the fire in his hands flickering dangerously several times as his own determination became the only thing that held it fast. Even then, it was difficult to steady his willpower when Lucy’s screams were the only thing he could hear above the pounding of blood in his own head.

He shut his eyes knowing he couldn’t look at her. Not with that terrified look on her face, directed at him. Not with those screams protruding from her mouth, caused by his hand. The shrill noise assaulted him, aiming for inside at his heart rather than outside on his skin.

He couldn’t stop. She wouldn’t stop. Why wouldn’t she stop?

After a minute of burning, Lucy’s shouts developed into something strangled and taut, becoming quieter and weaker until they died out completely. Alarm forced Natsu’s eyes open just in time to see Lucy's roll back into her head. The whites reflected his firelight for a moment after her pupils disappeared, and then her eyelids slumped over and her mouth fell open as she lapsed into an unsettling coma.

Perhaps that was for the best. Natsu’s flames snuffed themselves out as the last of his will vanished along with Lucy’s consciousness. He removed his shaking, bloodsoaked hands from her side. Hands that had so often wedged his team into violent encounters had just seared his partner. His best friend; his maybe-something-more.

What had he done?

Lucy’s face was pale, hauntingly so. The gaunt, sallow appearance it gave her cheeks as they stained with perspiration was sickening. Her breaths came in short bursts. Ragged sobs stretched in between each broadly spaced inhale and exhale. Hoping to help her breathe, Natsu tugged his scarf from her mouth, barely hesitating before he snaked it behind her neck and knotted it over her chest. He prayed that some of the comfort Igneel had left in the garment would ease Lucy’s suffering.

The mediocre cauterisation had sealed up the gaping hole in Lucy’s abdomen, but the burnt and sticky crimson mess that remained was still a dangerous state for the stellar mage to linger in. Natsu had stopped the bleeding, for now, but as he sat back on his hunches he knew it wasn’t going to be enough. Lucy needed serious medical attention - fast. He wiped his brow and cheeks, feeling a damp mixture of what was probably both tears and sweat.

‘Natsu-san!’

Spinning on his knees, the scratches he’d given himself twisting achingly in the dirt, Natsu reared his head towards the voice that was going to save his Lucy.

‘Wendy!’ he called. Gray was at her heel, Carla at her head and Happy leading them a few feet in front. ‘Quick! I burned her!’

‘Natsu!’ Happy bawled, careening into the fire dragon slayer’s chest. ‘L-Lucy can’t die!’

‘I know, buddy … she’s not going to.’

Dropping quickly on Lucy’s other side, Wendy examined the patchy job Natsu had done on the wound, squeezing back tears of her own, ‘Gray, get some ice for her forehead.’ Wendy extended her arms, the telltale blue glow of her healing magic faintly shimmering to light around her small hands. ‘She’s probably got a fever; she’s burning up.’

Clenching his jaw, Natsu gripped the sides of his head, eyes fixed on watching Lucy tremble, ‘This is all my fault.’

Wendy ignored him, ‘She’s no longer bleeding, but there’s no telling what damage has been done inside.’

‘My fault,’ Natsu grunted, and then he roared in frustration.

‘Calm down!’ demanded Gray. A thin block of ice hissed into existence in his palm and Gray wasted no time placing it against Lucy’s temple where it began to drip immediately, contrasting against the burning of her pale skin.

Natsu shook his head, ‘I can’t! If Lucy dies, it’s all my fault!’ Happy snivelled, watching his partner through blurry vision. ‘This is all my fault!’

‘Gray!’ Wendy snapped, a distressed lilt to her tone.

‘Alright,’ the ice make wizard murmured, sounding indignant and impatient as he scowled at Natsu.

In his befuddled state, Natsu hardly noticed what was going on until his teammate was at his side. Self-blame clouded his mind. Gray wore an expression Natsu had never seen before; annoyance crossed with anger darted around his dark irises, and below that was a lightly revealed layer of worry and fear.

‘I’m sorry,’ Gray said, and Natsu felt like he meant it.

That was before a cold fist crushed the air from his chest and Natsu dropped into darkness like a marionette who’d just lost his strings.

●▬▬▬▬•●◉●•▬▬▬▬●

Waiting for Lucy to wake was troubling and restless. Every hour that passed by was an hour that Natsu didn’t see the tender brown of her eyes or the heartening smile that never seemed to leave her. All the things that Natsu thought he wouldn’t take for granted again. Not after seeing her die to save herself from another timeline. Not after cradling her limp, bloodied body and believing the worst.

But he’d done it again and he hated himself for it. He’d taken advantage of all the times he’d seen her face, alive and healthy, and yelling at him for one reason or another. How he wished she’d open her eyes to yell at him again. He would be overjoyed just to hear her accuse him of failing to protect her; any movement on her behalf that meant she was okay.

Wendy had promised them all that Lucy’s life was no longer on the line. Along with some assistance from Porlyusica, the stellar mage had been gently pulled back from the brink of death. Her body was recovering fine. Assuring Natsu that she would wake soon, Wendy had left her remaining care in his hands - his fiery, dangerous, destructive hands.

The burns he’d made had faded considerably, but she would forever have a scar in the shape of his flames. Once upon a time the notion may have been somewhat attractive. For Lucy to bear a mark eternally from him. Now, though, it only brought back to him the air that tasted of her burning skin and the raging screams he had put her through.

Natsu pushed back in the uncomfortable wooden chair, raising his gaze from his best friend in the bed next to him to the roof as though it were more interesting than her. Truthfully, he wasn’t sure if he deserved to look at her. He didn’t deserve to touch her with those hands anymore.

Happy could tell what he was thinking; the exceed always seemed to be able to do that.

‘Lucy won’t blame you,’ Happy reassured, slicing through his thoughts. ‘She’ll say thank you.’

‘I know.’ He knew perfectly well of the stellar mage’s extraordinary forgiveness and generosity. ‘That’s not the point.’

Nuzzled up against Lucy’s side, Happy looked at his partner, confused, ‘Then what is the point?’

Natsu sighed. His fingers raked through his hair in frustration. ‘I can’t stop hearing her screaming. Even when I was sleeping. And I can’t stop thinking about it.’

‘Wendy said you saved her life. She would have bled out by the time we got back to Fairy Tail.’

‘I know,’ Natsu said again, ‘and that’s why I don’t regret it.’ He paused, closing his eyes. ‘But I just keep hearing her scream.’

Happy whimpered meekly. There wasn’t much he could do or say to make the dragon slayer feel better. Natsu appreciated the sentiment, nonetheless.

‘Thanks, Happy.’ He tried for a smile, but it felt like more of a grimace. ‘Really.’

A strained silence followed. Above their heads, the sounds of Fairy Tail packing up for the night were muted but noticeable. There was much less fighting and only the occasional extra-loud shouts twisted their way downstairs into the infirmary where they would become mere mumbles of the words they used to be. What was surely Mirajane’s danity steps moved back and forth repetitively where the bar should be.

None of it seemed to reach Lucy. Her body was so still it was almost frightening, and her face so relaxed that it could’ve been mistaken for a permanent sleep.

Natsu dozed off soon after, though he wasn’t quite sure what time that was. His body slumped forward with exhaustion until it was bent double over Lucy’s bed. It was an uncomfortable position to say the least. But Lucy’s hand rested just by his head, and the lively warmth it radiated meant she was still alive and that blood was flowing through her veins. Happy’s tail flipped and twitched, eventually resting against the back of Natsu’s neck where it lay as a warm comfort. With that, sleep deprivation finally claimed him.

When he woke later, the moonlight spilling from the window and over the bed told him that the clouds had dissipated. It streaked across his face and strained his eyes. Someone had placed a pillow under his head. The extra height that it afforded him meant the stiff position of his spine wasn’t quite so severe, though his back still protested as he sat himself upright and stretched.

And then froze.

Lucy stared back at him, eyes wide with a vague emotion that wasn’t immediately clear and her mouth falling open in a small ‘o’. A disoriented air crossed her face. She blinked recognition slowly into her mind.

‘Lucy,’ Natsu whispered. His fingers twitched, moving by themselves and without permission to linger beside her face, millimeters from her skin. Skin that was soft and unmarred, as opposed to the damage he’d done. ‘Oh thank god.’

‘Natsu,’ the murmur came quiet and unsure, voice cracking from being overused and roared bloody. Lucy made a motion to sit up and winced as she dropped back onto the pillows. ‘What happened?’

A hollow chuckle escaped him. He couldn’t help it; she was alive and talking and simply okay . Natsu’s hand dropped back into his lap, his head falling down too. A rattling breath forced its way out and he peered back at the stellar mage from around the shocking pink locks that fell over his face.

‘You were an idiot,’ Natsu joked half-heartedly.

Lucy sent a lopsided smile his way, ‘Now that doesn’t sound right.’

He snorted sharply, ‘You got yourself injured, you weirdo. You’re lucky you have an awesome team to save your dumb ass.’

‘Now that sounds more like me,’ she agreed, humming lowly. ‘I don’t really remember much. I got hit by that wizard’s magic … I remember being in a lot of pain … And then I think I passed out.’

‘Yeah,’ Natsu pulled away suddenly, sitting back in his chair. He couldn’t look at her. ‘I-I’m so sorry, Lucy.’

‘Sorry? For what?’

Muscle that popped and bubbled, exposing bone. Steaming skin that intoxicated the air with the stink of burning and melting flesh. And those screams; screams that he knew would haunt him until the day he died. He could hear them even now, surging like waves in the back of his memory. Natsu’s hands balled into fists tense enough for his nails to draw blood.

‘I had to,’ he reasoned, more with himself than with his partner. ‘Wendy was too far away, and I … I had to stop the bleeding.’ Tears threatened to fall but he would not let them. He had cried enough, and it just wasn’t like him. ‘I had to do it, but I’m still so sorry.’

Lucy’s fingertips danced over her side, covered by bedsheets. Gingerly, she felt the swell of bandages. Realisation flickered over her eyes, tarnishing her tone, ‘You cauterised it.’

‘Y-yeah,’ he couldn’t manage another word.

Hugging his arms tightly around himself, Natsu felt his strength drain away as he collapsed into the pillow, feeling Happy’s tail twitch when the motion stirred him slightly. All of his willpower crumbled to dust. Lucy sighed. Lifting her hand, she summoned just enough energy to find her partner’s head, burying her fingertips in his hair and running her palm gently over his crown.

‘I’m okay,’ she said.

That was that. Lucy didn’t say that what he did was right, because he knew that already. She also didn’t say that it was okay, because it wasn’t. But she was alive due to his actions and that was the one thing that mattered.

Natsu lost control of his tear ducts. The soft gesture on the back of his head, coupled with the two people most important in his life being so close and so alive and so okay tipped him over the edge. Sobbing openly into the pillow, Natsu cried the night away.

●▬▬▬▬•●◉●•▬▬▬▬●

Lucy smiles. She’s waiting for him.

There are many places to meet in Magnolia that are much nicer than out the back of the house he and Happy shared together, but somehow she insisted. Natsu can’t quite remember her asking to meet him there, but she must have. He also can’t remember when he cleaned up out here. The trash bags are gone, and so are the ravenous weeds that have been around for so long. Thick, shaggy grass rolls out where dirt used to dominate.

Though the first airs of autumn are nipping and draining away all the warmth that summer left over, Lucy is dressed thinly in a breezy white skirt and a pink top that doesn’t fall all the way to her hips. It shows off the smooth skin of her midriff. Her long hair falls free of any constraints, and stray locks blow gently across her shoulders. The longest strands almost touch the ground that she is sitting on. To Natsu, it almost looks like she is wearing a headdress made of sunlight.

‘Hey,’ she greets.

Her voice is soft and gentle, because Lucy is soft and gentle. For the most part. Though in the moment, Natsu can see no anger, frustration or irritation in the calm brown of her eyes.

‘Hey,’ he says, taking a seat next to her.

They sit silently for a moment. The sun is midway through its descent from the sky, turning the air colder and crisper around them as they rest in the shade of his house. Natsu tries to turn up the temperature. Despite his best efforts, however, his skin remains cool and the feeling of fire doesn’t swell up within him as it should. He … probably should be worried about that.

Lucy breaks the moment, ‘You care about me, right?’

Natsu doesn’t even have to look at her to convey the amount of ridiculous he thinks her statement sounds; his voice is laced with blatancy, ‘Of course I do!’

‘Then why?’

There’s a crack in Lucy’s voice and it startles him. Turning his head back to her takes place in slow motion and his heart comes to an instant stop inside his chest.

‘Why would you do this to me?’

Lucy is turning into ashes. Where the revealed skin on her torso was once sleek there is now a hideous burn. Patches of flesh smoulder and scorch. The nauseating smell of melting flesh returns like a bullet between the eyes and Natsu feels faint. Blistering, bilious trails begin to reach out from the burn, slowly encompassing Lucy’s whole stomach and crawling under her clothes. Pieces of her break off, turning to dust in the autumn air.

A dizziness is overcoming him. Natsu’s hands push against his own stomach, trying to clench down the bile he feels threatening to slither up his throat. Skin grows colder, colder, colder. The icy bitterness sinks into him, pooling in chest. It’s heavy; so heavy it might pull him through the ground.

The boiling, crimson fissures in her skin grow longer and wider. All over her torso the burn grows. Whole chunks separate from Lucy’s body, peeling away and crumbling until less and less is left of her. The wind picks up her pieces and fans them around his face, bits of melted flesh and ashes landing in his hair and on his clothes. Some of forehead crumbles to dust, dropping to the grass. The burn sizzles as it cooks her. Some of the fat around her waist begins to dissolve and dribble.

‘Why did you do this?’ Lucy cries. Her expression bears no pain, but her eyes are weak with emotional anguish. There aren’t any tears, but that’s almost worse.

‘N-no,’ his voice is broken and small. He isn’t sure whether he should move away or move closer. ‘I didn’t.’

‘You burned me,’ she whispers accusingly.

Natsu muscles are tight and immobile, and his body shakes as one whole mass, ‘I had t-to!’

Hyperventilation constricts his chest as breaths become difficult and painful. He isn't like this; why is he like this? How is Lucy doing this to him? How can she ravage him like this?

Burns are appearing in more places now. Lucy’s shoulder becomes indented as savage flames eat at her muscles and char her bones; cackling fire churns above her left eye, melting the skin until it liquifies and drips down her face. Liquid flesh collects along her collarbone and the corner of her lips. The violent heat ignites the hairs that frame her decaying face, drying them out and burning them up. And still he feels cold, like ice is being poured down his spine.

‘I thought we were friends,’ Lucy whispers. The fluid in her mouth causes a slight gurgle and Natsu nearly vomits. ‘I thought you said you cared.’

‘I do care, I do care!’ Natsu grasps desperately at the sides of his head, fingers knotting in his hair and scratching at his ears. His eyes smash closed, shutting out that … that scene. ‘I’m sorry! I didn't want to! I’m sorry!’

And then Lucy screams that petrifying scream, and Natsu screams with her.

●▬▬▬▬•●◉●•▬▬▬▬●

Natsu jolted upright in the hammock as suddenly as if someone had jerked a chain around his neck. With the choking sensation in his throat it wouldn’t have surprised him.

His feet barely touched the floor before he flew into the bathroom. Frantically grabbing at the sides of the toilet bowl, Natsu emptied the entire capacity of his stomach into the basin, retching and heaving as minutes dragged on. Even after there was nothing left, he stayed there. Natsu clasped the edges of the toilet solidly to keep his hands from shaking.

A groan rose up inside his chest like steam and he fought to suppress it. The skin around his ribs stretched acutely from the heavy breaths he forced himself to take. Leaning over the bowl, the stench of the toilet’s contents wafted back up to meet him, and Natsu suddenly found that there was more left in his belly. 

Once he was done throwing up his guts, he managed to stand. A wave of vertigo accompanied him as a result of crouching hunched over for so long. For a moment, Natsu set himself against the wall, sweat trickling down his forehead, neck and chest as he let his breath return to him.

‘Shit,’ he swore.

An old - and probably moldy - semi-dry towel was heaped at his feet. Natsu scooped it up, moving to the mirror above the sink as he pat himself down and got a good look at the mess the nightmare had made of him; the wild and childish look in his eye had returned. He recognised it from the days he would wake up in cold sweat from dreams of Igneel vanishing, before he was older and could cope. The idea that the situation had made him so jumpy and unstable again was unsettling.

I need to see her , he realised. That was the only way he could put it behind him to sleep for the night.

Tugging on his sandals and grabbing for his coat by the door, the dragon slayer cast a quick look at Happy curled in on himself on the couch. He hesitated by the door. Happy would want to come, and he wouldn’t be mad at being woken up if Natsu explained.

Natsu turned away and vanished out the doorway.

His feet could probably lead him to Lucy’s apartment on Strawberry Street with his eyes closed. The familiar route drilled some comfort into him. Cool night air tangled around him, reminding him of the autumn breeze that picked apart bits of his best friend and surrounded him in his nightmare. A growl tickled his jaw, and Natsu found himself picking up the pace.

The window to Lucy’s bedroom was open. That was strange enough. Lucy often complained about the cold nights and her own blankets inability to keep her cosy during the autumn and winter months. It was one of the reasons why he dropped by so much.

Anxiety hammering his thoughts, Natsu cleared the building easily and perched with practiced precision on the open window sill.

Lucy’s room was murky. Even his enhanced sight couldn’t distinguish the room. Through the limited moonlight most of the apartment was closed off to darkness, but he could see that the stellar mage was not tucked in bed. Alarm jet through him.

‘Lucy?’ he hissed, jumping through to land on her mattress.

No reply.

Inside was even colder than outside, if that was possible. Sniffing around, Natsu picked up the bland smell of ice laying next to her bedside and in a few other place. It was a combination of the ice and the number of fans pushing around the frigid draft that numbed the tip of his nose. Natsu’s breath exhaled in a barely visible mist.

The blue night threw him off, but Lucy’s scent was still strong. The telltale vanilla smell was gathered in the corner made by her bookshelf and the wall, rolling into a ball where she must’ve been huddled. Quick breaths pulled at his ears.

‘Lucy?’ he whispered, more gently this time. ‘Hey?’

Darkness was grating. Setting his palm to face the ceiling, Natsu spurred a small, tempered flame to life. In his hand, the tiny inferno frolic playfully in familiar ribbons of bright orange, red and gold. A scope of air around him crisped lightly. It was enough to light him and the general vicinity, and see Lucy curled up in her rosy pink pyjamas.

‘N-no!’

Barely spying Natsu crouched on her bed, Lucy’s hands sprang to cover her face, shying away from the fire. She shrieked shrilly.

‘What’s wrong?’ Natsu panicked.

Lucy flinched at his tone, ‘S-stop it!’

‘Stop what?’ Natsu dropped off the edge of the bed and took a step towards her, only for Lucy to whimper again and freeze him solid without any help of the biting chill. ‘Lucy …’

Trembling frightfully in a corner, tied up in strangled cries, was an image of Lucy that Natsu never wanted and never thought he would ever see. In his firelight, the blonde in her hair struck an orange tone that flickered like the fire itself. It reminded him of a scream, of hair flaking and dissolving into ashes as skin weeped and burned.

A sickly moan writhed it's way out. The desire to throw up surged again.

Natsu dropped to his knees and the flame in his hand dropped with it. An overwhelming cold encompassed him, glaciating his chest with needles of ice, not entirely brought on by the freezing room. His arms came up to encircle his stomach. As though it would shut away all the abhorrent memories, he shut his eyes to the world. Gradually, Lucy quieted, sobs becoming sniffles that pierced the tense night in dreary harmony with his groans.

‘N-Natsu?’

Forcing his head up came as a surprisingly strenuous task, ‘Lucy?’

Lucy unravelled herself from her ball and crawled over to meet him, ‘What are you doing here?’

Natsu swallowed, hard, ‘What are you doing?’

Glancing back at her bookshelf, Lucy found she was unable to answer. Her arms came up to hold herself timidly, shoulders jumping as the air nipped at the exposed skin on her neck and shoulders. Lidded, burnished bronze eyes tacked themselves on the boy in front of her who barely managed to meet her gaze.

‘Natsu,’ Lucy murmured. Her icy palm found his cheek in the dark. ‘You look terrible.’

He scoffed, ‘You don’t look so great yourself.’

‘You should never tell a girl that she looks terrible, idiot.’

Natsu smiled. It didn’t quite reach all the way to his eyes. Despite his mouth moving upwards and the creases lining his face, Lucy was nowhere near fooled.

‘What are you doing here?’ she repeated.

‘I-’ he faltered, smile ebbing. ‘I had to … see you.’

Lucy’s expression sobered, ‘You had a nightmare, didn’t you.’ It was a statement, not a question.

‘Yeah,’ he lowered his head, not entirely shocked the stellar mage was able to read him so well. ‘How’d you know?’

Lucy shrugged and he felt the movement of her hand against the side of his face. Without the light of his flame and only the glow of the moon, her hair turned silvery and luminescent, encircling her shoulders in a blithe fashion like a halo that had softened and slipped. Her eyes caught the moonlight and his breath.

‘Because I had one too,’ she answered simply.

‘Oh yeah?’

As her hand dropped from his cheek, Lucy slipped around to rest against the side of her bed, leaning against his shoulder. Natsu dropped back from his knees, spreading his legs in front of him. Lucy curled into his emanating warmth.

In way of confirmation, Lucy recalled the dreamscape with a tight coil in her chest, ‘Everything was on fire. The guild … and everyone … even you and Happy.’ She laughed but it was hollow and distant. ‘It’s silly; fire can’t even burn you.’

Natsu hummed his dazed agreement.

‘I tried to fight it,’ Lucy continued, eyes taking on a faraway sheen. ‘I tried to summon Aquarius, but she wouldn’t come. None of my spirits would. And then my keys caught fire too.’

In a short matter of sentences, the reminiscence became too much, and Lucy drifted off with a choke as she fought back an onslaught of tears. Slowly, her head lolled against Natsu and found place in the curve of his neck. Perhaps in the morning she would blush and shriek at the intimate position they had lingered in, but for now Lucy only sought comfort in amongst a purgatory of memories.

Natsu stared unseeingly at the opposite wall.

‘You asked me to meet you,’ he said. Lucy didn’t ask, but she understood the dragon slayer was taking it upon himself to begin his story, if only to relieve her of hers. ‘You asked me if I cared about you, and I said of course I did. But when I looked over, you were burning … melting … and it was my fault. Lucy, I’m so sorry.’

‘No,’ Lucy shook her head in the crook of his neck, nuzzling closer. ‘You did what you had to, and saved my life.’

‘You were screaming,’ Natsu uttered in a tone absolutely devoid of feeling.

She couldn’t really protest that.

Outside, somewhere off in the distance, a bird called, probably an owl. The echoing hoot amplified the silence that stretched out, enlarging the space between them that didn’t exist physically. Fans continued to blow around the cold air but Natsu warded of the chill without trying. If only they could fly away like that.

‘So.’ The moment strained. ‘What do we do now?’

Natsu shrugged, ‘Nothing? Stay here?’

‘I don’t wanna be scared of you, Natsu.’

Horror seized up Natsu’s throat. He’d purposefully deflected entertaining the notion that Lucy would be scared of him after the encounter; the idea that his flames terrified her - that he terrified her - nauseated him. Sensing the way his body constricted, Lucy located his hand in the dark and clenched it in her small, cool one.

‘I’m not scared of you, Natsu,’ she promised hushedly. ‘If anything, I’m more scared of being scared of you. I just … I don’t think I can forget this very easily …’

‘I know. I don’t think I can either.’

‘Do you think … do you think we can get over it?’

Natsu huffed, ‘Of course. We’re Team Natsu; we’re Fairy Tail. We can get through anything.’

A smile graced Lucy’s features, gently lighting up her eyes with something genuine, ‘Of course.’

Tipping his head, Natsu managed to find stability against the crown in her hair, feeling silken locks tickle his neck. Melting into him like a lit candle into a warm bowl, comfort had never felt so right. Lucy considered the compromising position but quickly brushed away the thought; there was nothing inherently carnal or flustering about the situation at all.

No one would doubt it either. Visions lingered of the guildhall in flames, of a crimson sky shrouded with smoke as the world burned, and the fear enticing screams as her friends evaporated in bursts of fire. Lucy held back a shudder, turning into Natsu’s side. His very presence guarded against the nightmares.

‘Can you stay?’ she asked suddenly, stunning even herself into silence.

Natsu held no hesitation, ‘I was about to ask.’

In the morning they would have to face their fears. But, for now, if all it took to hold back the terrors was to stay like this, who were they to question.