“Did you know,” his mama said to him one night, as she held him in her arms and rocked him by the fire, “that families can get bigger?”
The seven-year-old twisted around to see her better. “What? Really?” He knew that their village was like a family, and it got bigger all the time, but Mama and Papa had told him that already, so she must have been talking about something else.
She nodded with a hum, her eyes sparkling in the light of the fire. “It sure can. When two parents love each other very much, sometimes, their family gets bigger.” She guided his hand toward her stomach. Natsu repositioned himself to see it better, but it looked normal to him. Maybe a little bigger, but they just had dinner. Besides, what did that have to do with what she was saying? Of course, his mama was super smart—smarter than Zeref, even, and he was away at school all the time—so she would know.
“And since your papa and I love each other, and you and your brother, very much, we have plenty of room for another,” she continued with a smile. “Do you want a bigger family, Natsu?”
Natsu loved his family very much, whether it was his parents and brother, or the tribe-family that was his village. They always loved him and looked out for him, and showed him things and talked to him and other stuff. So more family? That sounded great! But… “What do you mean by room?” he asked her with a tilt of his head. She said something about ‘having room’ and Natsu didn’t think he had much. His room was really small. At least compared to his parents, and to the outside. “Is somebody moving into my room?”
“No, my silly little firefly,” Mama laughed, tapping a long finger to his chest. “I meant in here. In your heart. That’s where family really lives.”
“In my heart? I thought we lived here.”
She laughed again, wrapping him tighter until she was tickling him and making him laugh too. “Cheeky, aren’t you?” she teased, and he giggled again.
“Think about it this way. When your papa or I are off working, we’re still your parents, right? And when your brother is off at school, he’s still your brother.” He nodded. “This is our home, but that’s not what makes us family.” She pointed again to his heart, laying a hand over it. “If you love a person in your heart, that’s what makes them family. And your heart can be as big as you want it to be.”
“Really?” he asked brightly, but Natsu knew it must be true if his mama said it.
Mama nodded again, still smiling. She bent over him, leaning near his ear. “And do you want to know a secret?”
Natsu listened intently.
“Families can only get bigger. Never smaller. Even when someone moves away, or leaves forever, they’ll still live in your heart. That way, you’ll never truly be alone.”
She was right. Of course she was, because his mom was always right.
But sometimes, family got really far away.
Sometimes, for moments, the heart forgets and they die all over again.
Natsu woke up in a cold sweat, clamping his jaw shut so he wouldn’t accidentally wake anyone else up again. It was just the same nightmare.
He sucked in a breath, eyes burning.
They were still in his heart, but sometimes, it was hard when he couldn’t remember the faces of his parents as well as he could remember the giant shard of ice protruding through his mother’s stomach.
When Natsu first met Igneel, it didn’t take him long to start to see the dragon as family. How could he not? Igneel taught him and fed him and would take the time to understand him when he was tripping over new Ishgaran words that were different and hard to say and harder to read, and Igneel took care of him when Natsu didn’t have anyone else, because— because his parents were gone, and so was his brother. Just in different ways.
It didn’t matter that he was a dragon, because he was nice and he was a fire dragon, and that was completely different from the one that— From the bad dragon. It was an easy distinction, especially when Igneel was very dad-like. He gave lessons and kept talking about things he was ready for or wasn’t ready for, and sometimes made stupid jokes that were really funny, and Igneel was big and strong and he knew everything.
He wasn’t his father, because that was Papa, but Igneel was still Dad. He was still family, and Natsu latched onto him as hard as he could, because he was the only family Natsu still knew how to find.
Natsu couldn’t find Igneel.
His head was fuzzy and his heart hurt and he couldn’t find his dad and he didn’t know where he was. Everything felt wrong, and the only thing he could focus on was that Igneel wasn’t there, and he forgot the rest of his family and he didn’t even know it.
He was alone.
Master Makarov said that guilds were like families. Natsu thought the sentiment was familiar, but it shouldn’t have been, because Natsu had never been in large groups before. It was loud and busy, and Natsu thought that if he wasn’t loud enough, it would just drown in the busyness. It was hard to imagine that a guild would be family, because they were all strangers and Igneel wasn’t even here. How could he have a family without his dad?
Fairy Tail was pretty nice, actually. At least, it wasn’t terrible. Fire magic was still the coolest, but seeing other types of magic was neat, too. It was a good place to be while he searched for Igneel.
He wished that they would let him go look more though. They kept saying all this stuff about him being too young and inexperienced, but he would be fine! He was trained by Igneel, so he couldn’t lose! Not to anything!
He found a dragon’s egg, and it was the first thing that truly distracted him from his search for Igneel. Actually, it was the first sign of real dragons he found at all. He knew that he and Igneel stayed in the woods, but who knew that dragons were so good at hiding? Natsu hoped that the dragon egg would be some sort of clue to Igneel, but after he brought it back to the guild, he realized that the egg was only a baby and would know nothing.
Not that Natsu could leave it. The egg didn’t have anybody or any dragon to watch over it, which meant that it was alone.
Natsu knew a little bit about what it was like to be alone…
It was decided, then! Natsu would help the little dragon, and then maybe, they could go find Igneel together.
“If we’re both hatching an egg, then that makes you the dad and me the mom,” Lisanna declared. “Because the egg is a baby.”
Natsu frowned. They were sitting inside the hut they made in the forest to protect the egg. It was Lisanna’s idea, and while Natsu was pretty sure dragon eggs were super tough, he would admit that it was better to be careful about things that couldn’t fight back yet. Igneel wouldn’t let him go just anywhere either, citing similar reasons, even though Natsu was totally getting better at using his magic too!
Not that that was relevant now. Lisanna made everything sound so simple, but he was too young to be a dad! “Igneel said that only adults could be parents though.” Natsu had asked him about something of the sort, hadn’t he? Not that he was sure why. Igneel was obviously an adult, and Natsu never tried to take care of anything before, so why…?
Ugh, his head hurt.
“Hmm.” Lisanna rubbed her chin. “I guess you’re right, but you don’t have to be an adult to take care of someone. Mira took care of Elf and I, after all, and she’s only a couple of years older.”
“Well, yeah, she’s your older sister.” There was a difference wasn’t there? Besides the fact that siblings had the same parents, so they weren’t the parents. This was just confusing, at this point.
“So, would that make us the egg’s older brother and sister then?” Lisanna mused. “Though… I still think I like the idea of us being the mom and dad.”
Natsu wasn’t sure why all of these family terms were getting thrown around, but… He didn’t necessarily hate it. Having a big family didn’t sound like a terrible idea—he just wanted Igneel to be there too. Or else Natsu would be leaving him behind.
Maybe he should just focus on the egg for now and figure out that stuff later.
Natsu was starting to get comfortable in Fairy Tail. They might have been loud and dense (he knew they didn’t believe that Igneel was still out there), not to mention that everything was new and confusing, from toasters to Ishgaran words to how Jewel worked, but they helped him anyway, and they never left. Not for long, anyway. They let him stay.
Not to mention that there were people that didn’t make fun of him or talk about him behind his back, like Lisanna. Lisanna was nice, and she even would help him look for Igneel, which nobody else did. Not to mention that her magic let her do a lot of cool things. Exploring the woods with her wasn’t stressful, like figuring out everything else; it was fun.
More fun now with Happy. He was tiny and not a dragon, but he was enthusiastic and impossibly optimistic, and even Natsu found it contagious. Everything was more enjoyable when Happy was there too.
They were his friends. Somehow, he made friends.
And Fairy Tail was starting to feel like a home.
Maybe… Maybe Master was right when he said that guilds were like a family. Natsu found, in time, that he didn’t mind the idea, as long as Igneel was still his Dad.
Though the longer it took to find him, the more Natsu couldn’t help but worry that he wouldn’t come back.
Ha. Not that anything could possibly take Igneel down. He was worrying for nothing. For now, Natsu just hoped that Igneel would be proud of the friends he made, because Natsu couldn’t imagine losing them either.
The man in the woods knew Igneel.
Nobody had ever recognized the name before, and more than that, the man seemed familiar. Not familiar like Natsu had ever met him before, because he hadn’t, but he carried the scent of dragons. It was the way his eyes were shaped, reflecting the light of the moon, and the way he smelled like scales and the sky.
He wasn’t telling Natsu where Igneel was though, which was annoying. If he knew Igneel, surely he would know! (Of course, Natsu didn’t know either, so maybe that was bad logic.) Though the guy was also suggesting that Natsu forgot things about Igneel, which was impossible. Natsu would never forget his dad! Never, not in one thousand years.
Even… Even if something had happened to Igneel (which it didn’t), Natsu would always hold him dear in his heart. He could never leave that way.
But what if he had forgotten? There were other things Natsu somehow knew that he didn’t remember, or didn’t know, that he was supposed to. Like trains and landmarks and country names, and other things that people looked at him funny when he didn’t know, even though Natsu knew Igneel taught him about geography. Or words and letters that looked familiar but were still foreign; Natsu knew he could read—he wasn’t a baby—but he couldn’t read those. And then, his last memory of Igneel in a forest, and his next memory of being in a different forest, without Igneel.
He had to know. If he forgot something, he had to remember. For Igneel. For himself, even.
Nothing the guy said clicked though. He talked about other dragon slayers and other dragons, but where was the part about Igneel? That’s what Natsu wanted to know! Why did it always take so long for people to get to the point? This was the biggest clue he had ever come across, and he didn’t want to waste it.
“Just try focusing on the other people involved,” the man said, which was exactly the problem. “Wendy, Gajeel, Rogue, Sting—hell, Zeref. And, uh, what was that lady’s name? Something like—”
Other people? He didn’t know who they were! Natsu only knew Igneel, because there was no way he would forget entire people, right?
And Zeref? Wait, Natsu has heard that name before. That’s the really scary dark mage guy from…four hundred years ago… Like what the blue-haired man said when he talked about Natsu being from… four hundred years ago… But to insinuate that Natsu knew the dark mage too? A name and a face that he had heard of but never…
Natsu remembered his face.
Young, round. Then older than he remembered. Paler skin than his, black hair like— Like somebody’s. Black eyes. Bright and soft.
Cold and distant.
He was cold. So cold. What had happened again? Where was Mama? Or Papa? He felt funny, and if he felt funny that meant he was sick, and everything was so cold and so hot at the same time—
Natsu could barely pry his eyes open. He knew that voice though, but it sounded different. He managed to blink into the dark space, eyelids still heavy and… Who was that?
Instinctively, Natsu knew that was Zeref, but why was Zeref so tall? Was this some sort of magic?
Why did he look so upset?
“Zee…?” he managed. His voice felt dry. So dry, like he ate half of the desert. He felt flushed, too. Maybe he had been outside too long. Was it too close to noon? Past noon? If he had been outside, then why was he cold? “What…?”
He tried to reach out—to get closer to Zeref—but the hand in front of him wasn’t his. It was red and scaly and dry, but he felt it even if it was numb.
Natsu froze. His skin itched with the feeling.
Zeref didn’t look like he was joking. He didn’t look like anything. He just took another step away from Natsu after he managed to get a step closer.
“Mama and Papa are dead too. They can’t come back, like you did.”
Natsu stumbled at the words. His back hit against something, but it hurt more than it should have, the pain spreading to places that didn’t exist.
Zeref still wasn’t helping. He just stared. Without feeling. And with the way he was too tall and too different and too tall, he almost looked… Scary.
Maybe he was.
“W-what are you talking about?” he choked out. His eyes were the only thing that was hot now.
“Everything I did, was to bring you back to life.”
Natsu was cold. Why was he cold? He was never cold, except—
His skin was freezing over. It was spreading and cracking and he couldn’t breathe. His neck was burning at the same time, and not even the cold numbed it. He couldn’t move.
Mama was in front of him but she wasn’t moving. Just pinned in place in the air, and everything was blue and red.
Natsu wanted to scream, but he couldn’t. He couldn’t breathe, he couldn’t move. He couldn’t even cry.
He could only watch the ice encompass everything as he suffocated.
He woke up with a gasp, filling his lungs with air even though he was breathing just fine.
Natsu remembered everything.
Though there were some things… He wished he remembered less vividly.
December 26, X781
Natsu scrubbed his eyes with the heel of his palm, and even though he turned over and buried his face into the hammock, he couldn’t go back to sleep.
Fine. If that’s how it was, then so be it, though Natsu hated that the nightmare-memory had to come now, of all times, but he…wasn’t surprised. The company and the distracting festivities given by the events of his birthday and Christmas were enough to keep his mind clear, and usually, it was enough to stave off the more unpleasant memories for a while. It was generally only at random times when they crept up on him, and those were fewer and farther between recently.
But now, he was sixteen.
When a Desian turned sixteen, they were an adult. There were things that only the adults in the village could do, because it was safer that way—like fighting or maybe hunting—and there was something that Papa promised Natsu that they would do together as soon as he turned sixteen, but… He couldn’t remember. Whatever it was, Natsu had looked forward to it, but it apparently wasn’t so important that he could remember what it was now.
The magic that clouded his memory was gone, but time still existed. Acno said it was normal for details to fade, especially from a young age, but Natsu didn’t want them to. Besides, it wasn’t fair that the small things—the good things—left when Natsu could remember the bad things perfectly well. Maybe it was because he was trying to remember that thing that he got the nightmare instead.
Natsu crept out into the hallway, making sure to be quiet. Happy slept like a rock, and so did Gajeel most of the time, so he was confident that they weren’t awake, and probably wouldn’t wake up. Everyone else was more of a challenge. Especially Erik. He eyed the room across from Gajeel warily, listening for signs of wakefulness or unrest. There was just the usual calm breathing. That’s good. Sometimes, Erik’s hearing was so good that he could hear dreams in his sleep. It wouldn’t have been the first time Erik got one of their nightmares—he’s even gotten Natsu’s before. His magic was cool and useful, but even Natsu knew that the empathy part of it hurt sometimes.
It was a good thing he was tired, then.
Rogue was the other one to look at for, being a naturally light sleeper. And sometimes the stairs creaked, and even if nothing was wrong, Rogue was curious enough to see who was awake and why. Natsu didn’t really want to talk about what happened, because honestly, it wasn’t that important. It’s happened before. He’s talked it out. It’ll be fine. All he needed was a breather, and then he could go back to sleep, and it would be over for the time being.
He made it downstairs without trouble. It wasn’t like there was anything he needed down there. He wasn’t hungry—although a drink was always nice after these things. Which tea did Acno say was good for going back to sleep again? It started with a ‘C,’ or maybe a ‘K’… Whatever, he could remember by smelling it.
Natsu could always do something to tire himself out again, but he didn’t feel like being alone for long, even though he didn’t want to worry anybody else. The only thing he could do without being noisy was to go outside and fly… But it was December, and it was snowing and cold, and even though Natsu’s fire core kept him from feeling the temperature, and snow was soft and fluffy, he really didn’t want to be out in the cold at all right now. It definitely wouldn’t help him go back to sleep.
Winter sucked on principle, for all of those reasons. He loved the holiday season, but why did it have to be cold in Fiore during it? Not to mention that Acno would be asleep for most of it. If Natsu could, he probably would hibernate too. Sure, Acnologia was awake yesterday—he always tried to muscle through December for the sake of helping with the S-Class trials and then the holiday—but immediately after he would go to the cave and sleep through the rest of the snowy season. Otherwise, Natsu would be tempted to go find him, but he probably just fell asleep by now, and it wasn’t that big of a deal so as to warrant waking him up.
It took him a moment, but Natsu sniffed one of the teas, and it smelled right. He turned the label over: chamomile. Yeah, that sounded right, too. He probably made it all wrong, but it was good enough, so he took it to the couch, wrapped his legs in one of the downstairs-blankets, and drank it slowly, waiting for the drowsiness to kick back in.
The nightmare always shook him up, but at least it wasn’t as bad as it used to be, back when he was experiencing it all again like it was the first time. That didn’t mean that he liked it though. The feeling of death was just as unpleasant as everyone imagined—though the feeling of dying slowly was much, much worse. Especially in those fuzzy moments at the end, when he was as good as dead and aware of it.
The image of his parents dead and torn apart in front of him was worse. Natsu preferred to remember them happy and smiling and alive, but his stupid traitor mind liked to remember that last moment more.
That ice dragon attacked their village so quickly. Nobody had any time to prepare—to run or to fight. Natsu had no idea why the dragon came in the first place. There were some dragons in the area, but they were the friendly type that kept to themselves, and Natsu doubted that any of the local ones were of the ice element.
Not that that mattered. Especially not now. That dragon was probably dead now anyway…
At least he remembered them. He loved Igneel as his dad too, but it was weird to think he ever forgot Mama’s hugs or the way Papa would hoist him on his shoulders. They were in his heart now, and this time they would be safe there. Just like Igneel was safe there. Literally.
Not for the first time, Natsu wondered if Igneel would be able to hear him if he tried to talk to him, whether out loud or in his head. One time he had a dream where Igneel was flying with him; he liked to think that that was Igneel’s way of saying ‘I’m here.’
He missed them all, but Natsu wasn’t without family that was still with him, and for that, he was extremely grateful. He didn’t know what he would do without them. Fairy Tail was his tribe-family, and Lisanna was his best friend (which was like family but it was also a position of honor and favorites that she and Happy still held), but the other dragon slayers were his brothers and sisters, and Natsu didn’t know how he ever went even an entire year without somebody to constantly fall back on or be with without special occasion, who knew everything without needing to be asked. In a way, it was hard to describe, but his heart knew the difference.
Thinking about all the moments he had with his newfound siblings eased him, but it also made him think about Zeref.
Zeref was not quite the same Zeref that was his older brother back when they were small—not after being cursed—but he was still his brother. Natsu was positive that the kind and smart Zeref was still in there somewhere, because even in his memories of him after Natsu woke up as a demon, or when he would catch glimpses of him when he was meeting Igneel and the other dragons, sometimes, his smile would be familiar. Even if that stupid careful blank and unfeeling face was there most of the time.
He wished that he could at least see him now. He was out there, somewhere, and it sucked that Acno got to see but Natsu hadn’t, though Acno did fly farther and travel more. Still, between that, and… the book that Zeref still had… Zeref surely knew where Natsu was.
So why hadn’t he talked to Natsu yet?
Sure, there was the curse thing. Natsu knew that Zeref couldn’t be in public, or around people. Not to mention that people hated him, because of all of those terrible things he did—or at least, the terrible things that people thought he did, or things that other etherious did and blamed him for. It was weird. Natsu wanted to believe that Zeref would never do any of those things, but honestly, he wasn’t sure. The curse made him act differently sometimes.
Still. Natsu just wanted Zeref to know that he wasn’t mad. Okay, maybe he was a little mad, but mostly because Zeref was being difficult and ignoring him, but then again, that was familiar because Zeref always would get caught up in work and studies and school and forget about everything else. That was probably what happened.
But Natsu forgave him for the stuff that happened when Natsu woke up. It had been scary, and intimidating, but Zeref probably did the best he could considering the curse. He tried, at least, and even if Natsu wasn’t sure if it should have happened, he believed that his intentions were good, and that counted for something. Being angry about it wouldn’t help, and Zeref was his brother, so Natsu couldn’t be angry forever. He didn’t want to be.
He just wished he could actually tell Zeref that.
Natsu looked down into his mug and decided that he should finish the other half of the tea quicker; the longer he was up drinking it, the more time he had to think. And Natsu would rather be sleeping.
Whelp. That was done, so he should be able to sleep now. It was tempting to burrow himself right where he was in the couch though. Sure, his hammock was floaty, like the beds he grew up on, but the couch smelled like, well, everyone, and it was comforting. Yeah, he’ll do that.
It wasn’t hard to find a position he was comfortable in—all he had to do was set the empty mug on the end table, with the others. All it took was shoving his nose in the pillow, and he already felt calm enough to sleep. It was perfect. The lumpy but soft couch, the fuzzy blanket that held the scent of his family, the lingering taste of tea—
Natsu shot upwards, the scent sudden and powerful and overwhelming. The impact of it only lasted an instant, but the scent lingered. It would have been disconcerting, the dark and heavy magic—and it was—but he knew that scent. Even if it had been years ago, it was written into his memory. Hell, because of the book, it probably was.
Zeref’s scent was overwhelming enough that it took a moment to pinpoint where it came from—not coming, because as soon as it appeared, it lessened, and Natsu knew better than to hope that he was still here—but he scrambled towards it anyway. It was upstairs.
Natsu only just made it into the hallway when the others stirred as well.
“What the hell was that?” a sleepy Sting mumbled.
Rogue stood in his doorway, still swaddled in his blankets. “Magic?”
“Hella powerful stuff,” Gajeel grumbled. “It’s coming from—”
“Natsu?” Wendy asked, beside him. “Is that your room?”
“You weren’t in there, right?” Erik asked.
Natsu shook his head. “But Happy—”
“Is still sleeping,” Erik confirmed.
They all either sighed or rolled their eyes. Happy really could sleep through anything.
“He’s so dense,” Charle muttered, but she seemed kinda worried despite her tone. Everyone was on edge. It made sense, though. Zeref was the epitome of what people considered dark magic—all life and death. The bending of space itself. It was scary stuff.
“I think that was—” It was a simple answer, but his throat still caught on something. It ended up coming out quieter than he expected. “I think that was Zeref.”
He was met with wide stares, but after a heartbeat, Erik nodded. “That…sounds right, actually.”
What? Oh right. Natsu had smelled Zeref on Jellal when he first came to the guild, and Erik was there too, so he knew. That made sense.
There was a moment of tense quiet as everyone tried to figure out what to do, still waking up, but Natsu couldn’t take waiting any longer. He pushed past to the end of the hallway and threw his door open.
Zeref wasn’t there. Of course he wasn’t. Gajeel mumbled something about checking upstairs, and Rogue poked his head into the work room, but Natsu didn’t hear anybody else besides them, and Erik hadn’t said anything, so surely, they really were alone now.
Zeref never stayed.
“What did he do?” Sting asked, fists lighting up with magic. Wendy elbowed him in the shoulder though, and the magic dropped.
Natsu raked his eyes across the room. Happy was fine and just starting to wake up. “What…?” he mumbled sleepily.
Charle flew over and plucked him out of the hammock, pulling him back to the group in the hallway, earning a squawk from the surprised cat. He heard her and Wendy telling him what happened, and Natsu should have done that too, but he was too focused on Zeref. Or at least, why he was here. It was possible it was just Zeref teleporting in to check something, as he could do, but Zeref never got this close before—never close enough for Natsu to notice him, at least, if he ever got close at all. (Which he probably didn’t.)
His room was full of his stuff, of course, but he knew what was his and where things belonged, as much as the others insisted otherwise.
He spotted something in his bed. Natsu walked over to find…a piece of paper. It was about the size of a job flyer, and Zeref’s scent—lingering in the air from his magic—was on it too. With a hand that definitely wasn’t shaking, he turned it over.
It was a picture. A painting, to be exact, or maybe a copy of a painting.
Of his birth family.
Even though their faces were fuzzy in his mind, he knew it was them. His dad with his squared jaw, sharp eyes, and pink hair; his mom with wavy black hair, dark eyes like Zeref’s and his own, that were twinkling in a familiar way, even in painting. Zeref and Natsu were there, too, both young. It looked just like the way other people’s family portraits looked like, except that it was his. Part of his.
Did Zeref know he had forgotten?
Tears ran down his cheeks, to the point that his eyes were too blurry to see the picture, but it was okay, because he remembered now. He could always remember. He could remember how they looked happy.
They would always be in his heart, because it would be impossible to forget.
A hand was on his shoulder, and Natsu leaned into Erik so he wouldn’t get tears on the painting. It’s not that he was sad—he was overjoyed—but it was just so… much. In a good way. A laugh bubbled up in his throat, though it came out more of a hiccup.
“There’s something else, too,” Erik said softly.
Natsu wiped the excess tears away with his arm so he could see. There was a folded slip of paper in his hand, and Natsu picked it up with care, suddenly aware at how fragile paper was.
He unfolded it and blinked. It was written in Desian. It had been so long since he’s seen it, but it was his first language; he couldn’t forget that easily.
「 I’m sorry I couldn’t
do be better for you. 」
He thought he had been crying before, but compared to now, that hadn’t been the case. The floodgates opened and there was no stopping it. He blamed the culmination of everything—the nightmare, the lack of sleep, Zeref, of the photo and the message—but what mattered was that he was glad. Maybe a little upset, because his stupid older brother beat him to the apology and didn’t let Natsu say anything back, but he had been here, and that… That was enough.
Strong arms wrapped around him, and Natsu didn’t need to look to instinctively bury his face and his stupid messy tears into Acno’s chest. He didn’t know how or when Acno got here, or how he woke up—it was either Gajeel, or Acno had been serious when he talked about putting magic sensors around the house and linking it to the cave portal—but Natsu was glad he was here regardless. It felt right.
His family was here.