"Stop touching everything," Juvia snorted as Gray ran his fingers along the brick wall of the street. "You'll get a disease."
"It's eleven degrees, Juvia. Or fifty-whatever. All the summer diseases have shriveled up and died out of sheer horror."
Juvia rolled her eyes. "You're just nervous. Breathe. It's going to go great."
"I'm not nervous," Gray grumbled.
He jumped when Juvia's fingers slid over his neck.
"Your tag was sticking out."
They kept walking in silence, Gray slouching, Juvia's hands in her pockets.
They crossed another block and the café came into view.
"It's stupid," Gray said wryly as they trudged toward the doors. "I've known him for months. I just keep thinking, what if he's actually an old lady pulling a prank?"
"That is stupid. Old ladies don't go on the internet and prank people."
"That's very reassuring," Gray snorted, turning to grin at her.
"If he is somehow a creeper," Juvia said, hitting one fist into her palm, "that's why I'm here."
As he pulled open the door, Gray's eyes swept the café, looking around with as much coolness as his anxious body could muster. Dyed hair and red tattoos: he was distinctive even on a tiny phone screen…
Juvia's cold fingers slid over his neck again and Gray yelped in an embarrassingly high pitch.
"Your tag won't stay in place," she grumbled.
"It's fine. Your hands are ice." He slapped her fingers away.
But the interaction had the desired effect of knocking him out of his self-consciousness into his normal self.
Oh, shit. He's cute.
Natsu recognized Gray immediately. The warped image from Skype hadn't done him justice, but it was enough. This young man moved the right way. He was the right age, wore mostly black as per Gray's lingering goth habits, and glanced around purposefully. The man's posture matched his voice in their chats: cool, kind, mindful.
Then a young woman followed him. She touched his neck, murmuring something, and the man swatted playfully at her and rolled his eyes before searching the room again.
Aw, shit. He was cute and had a girlfriend.
"Told you not to fall in love with him," Natsu grunted to himself.
Taking a breath, he raised a hand to wave—
Gray had already seen him, his eyes lighting up with something that made Natsu feel better even while the friend—Natsu refused to acknowledge her as a girlfriend until he had proof—followed along.
"Hi," Gray said. "I'm Gray."
"Natsu." Natsu held out his hand and they grinned at each other with wide, goofy smiles.
Appreciating Gray's firm grip and smooth fingers, Natsu didn't have to think about how long to hold on, whether he was being awkward or his movements jerky—any of his normal nerves around attractive people. It felt like they'd been doing this for years when Natsu motioned at a seat and Gray introduced the young woman.
Natsu shook her hand. "…'Rain'?"
Juvia bobbed her head, pleased. "My parents were multicultural hippies."
He laughed at that.
"She came along to make sure I was safe," Gray said, giving Natsu a conspiratorial wink that made Natsu grin.
"Can I get you something, Natsu?" Juvia asked, motioning at the counter.
"I'm good with my coffee, thanks."
"Huh?" Gray looked around at her. "Oh yeah, thanks."
She walked to the counter, and Gray and Natsu turned back to each other to smile. There was a beat of silence, but not the awkward kind—they knew each other too well for that. Taking Gray in at close range, Natsu fell a little more in love. His expression was open and trusting, which Natsu knew from their conversations was not natural for him. Everything, from his thin bottom lip and its little scar to the way he interlocked his fingers, Natsu catalogued into his memory as fast as possible.
"Wow," Gray said, "it is so awesome meeting in person."
"Seriously. I was so antsy when I woke up. It's about damn time."
Gray laughed. A lovely sound. Just like him.
"Agreed. Sorry if it's awkward bringing Juvia, but she's my flatmate and insisted on coming for my protection."
Natsu beamed. "It's great. Means I get to see even more of your life. So this is the café you always wrote me from?"
His inner voice was squealing. Flatmate. He didn't call her his girlfriend.
"This is the one," Gray agreed. "Many a term paper was written here back in my uni days."
"You make it sound like it was forever ago."
"A few years," Gray said, sheepish.
"I've said it before: if you're old, what does that make me?"
"We're not old," Gray laughed.
"Did you end up making a decision about grad school?"
It felt so easy to slip into their regular conversations. Gray talked like he typed, and moved like he thought, and smiled with the same warmth he had online.
"I did: I'm going to do it. Well, assuming I get in at my alma mater. I'm not leaving this city just for a Master's."
"You'll get in," Natsu said confidently. "You're a smartass."
Gray's laugh turned into an adorable snort.
"Not as much as you. I've still never beaten you at Words With Friends."
"To be fair, few people have."
"Bet my friend Freed could…"
Natsu's laugh was as big and rich as his personality.
Gray loved the sound of it, frequent throughout their conversation. He hardly noticed Juvia putting his tea in front of him, until she set down an enormous muffin cut three ways.
"I can never finish these alone," she told Natsu. "You don't have any food intolerances?"
"Just being a pescatarian."
"Pretty sure there's no meat in this," Juvia chuckled. Natsu laughed with her. Again, that laugh. Larger than life.
It was good seeing them getting along. Juvia was one of Gray's closest friends, and her approval meant something. He'd known Natsu for months, yeah, but not in person. Gray had a history of trusting the wrong people. These days he frequently got Juvia's or his sisters' opinions on new friends.
But Natsu was good people. One look was all it took to know that.
He caught himself staring and tried to move his eyes.
A triangle of brown skin showed at the collar of Natsu's v-neck, and on the side of his throat was a tiny scar which Gray only saw because he knew to look for it. Natsu was dressed like a local with short sleeves despite the weather, and the fantastic creatures crawling up his arms in red ink were amazing.
At a pause in Natsu and Juvia's conversation, the pair looked at Gray, caught him staring, and Natsu held up his arms for inspection.
"They are beautiful," Gray said honestly.
"I still like seeing them in the mirror," Natsu agreed. "Worth it, even though the ones over scar tissue stung like crazy."
"I know what the dragon is for," Gray said, "but…is it okay if I ask the stories behind the others?"
"Of course, Gray," he smiled, making eye contact that was at once reassuring and saw way too much of him. Like Natsu was replying to every corner of Gray's mind. To the whole of him. "You know most of the stories already. The kitsune is for my birth parents and cultural origins. The fairy's for my adopted parents who got me out of that fucking awful rotation of foster homes.
"The griffin was when I tried to defend someone at school and had my brain almost knocked out of me on the concrete floor of the cafeteria. The spriggan and the fiery kobold were when I lived in England and Germany respectively—especially the kobold, because teachers often called me a demon. I was always up to mischief. Usually with fire."
He beamed and Gray couldn't help snorting.
"Like how you liked to burn holes in the crotch of your nemesis's pants while he was sleeping?"
Natsu burst out laughing. "I forgot I told you that. Yep, that was me. I had a huge pyro phase."
"Holy shit. You've had an interesting life," Juvia said. "And lived all over. One of our friends lived in Germany for a while—"
"They're half-German half-Russian," Gray interjected.
"I like well-traveled people's stories. So the sleeves are new, then?" Juvia asked. "The creatures are seamlessly intertwined. I can't imagine you got them one at a time."
"Nope, it was a single big design. But I've had these for years. These are all things that happened to me before I turned fifteen."
Juvia's eyes grew round. "Damn."
"Yeah. The systems are okay at keeping track of kids, but there's that one who slips through the cracks. I'm that kid."
Watching Natsu say this made something in Gray's heart realign. This was the Natsu he knew: who was so charming and funny upfront, but also had many depths he didn't try to keep hidden.
How he'd been through shit and come out emotionally healthy was a secret Gray was still getting out of him. Natsu was the kind of person who would publish his memoirs one day. Gray wanted to be like him.
The conversation trailed on for several hours, until the muffin was a distant memory and Natsu's stomach made a vocal protest.
"There's a great little place down the street," Gray volunteered. Natsu caught Juvia rolling her eyes. "They have good vegetarian stuff. If you have time, that is. I don't know what your schedule is with your trip."
"Food sounds amazing."
As was becoming their habit, Gray mirrored back his smile with an attractively pleased look of his own.
As the three of them walked out of the café, Juvia brought up Natsu's trip again, and he glanced at Gray with rare shyness.
"So I didn't say anything because I didn't want this to seem creepy, but, ahhhh, I am not here on business. I moved here. This week."
Gray stared at him with wide eyes.
"You moved here?"
"Yep. That job I mentioned last time we chatted...I didn't tell you, but it's here. Totally on accident; I'm not a stalker or anything, but...yeah. So I moved here four days ago."
"Four days? Natsu!"
Natsu shrank guiltily—he was surprisingly nervous about Gray's reaction to this news—but Gray just made a sound of exasperation.
"Why didn't you say anything, flame-brain? We could've helped! Where are you living?"
"North Thirty-Fourth?" Natsu said. He loved Gray's spontaneous nickname. Might have to irritate him more often.
"Not a bad choice," Juvia said, Gray nodding.
"A bit far from the city center, but it's not a dangerous area or anything," Gray said. "And there's good transit nearby."
"Well, that's good it's safe. And I've got my bike," Natsu said. "Transit isn't an issue."
"The hills here are killer," Juvia warned.
Natsu laughed. "Not a bicycle: motorcycle."
Chuckles burst out of Gray. "Of course you'd ride. You, of all people. Haven't you had enough near-fatal injuries in your life?"
"Life is short," Natsu said with a shrug.
"True that." Gray stopped their trek down the sidewalk and opened a door. "You haven't truly lived until you've had good Persian food."
The smell that wafted out was sharp, savory, exotic, and homely all at once.
Juvia stabbed Gray with her eyes again as she led the way inside.
"Gray basically eats here and nowhere else," she explained to Natsu. "Or he cooks. To be fair, he's a very good Persian cook. But if you're around him a lot, you either have to like Persian food or find new friends."
Natsu glanced back at Gray with considering eyes.
"Guess I'll have to like it, then." He winked.
To his delight, Gray blushed.
Luckily, Natsu was easy to please with food. As long as it didn't have meat in it, he said it was heavenly, then proved his words by devouring it. Gray was secretly overjoyed. Not everyone liked his kind of food.
The pescatarianism was, Gray and Juvia found out, due to an ethical stance against violence.
"At some point," Natsu said, "killing a living organism will happen, or else you die. Vegetables fruits are okay with me. I decided fish are okay because I wasn't getting enough nutrition. But I draw the line there."
"You get into so many fights, I wouldn't have pegged you for a pacifist," Gray said.
"Didn't you say you do martial arts?" Juvia asked.
"Martial arts are not about violence," Gray said before Natsu could even open his mouth. "They're about balance, diffusing violence, and at last resort defending yourself or others."
Natsu pointed a finger at him. "Exactly. And that's honestly the same reason I get myself into fights. I see something wrong going down, stupidly try to step in, and usually end up going to the hospital at the end of it."
He laughed in self-deprecation.
"I think it's awesome you try to protect people," Gray said quietly. "Even when you can't. The fact that you try puts you above most people. Most people don't speak up in defense of strangers, let alone shield them."
There was a pause of silence, Gray not quite able to look up.
"Thanks," Natsu said, and there was a light touch on the back of Gray's hand.
When he looked up and they smiled at each other, all he could think was, This is my best friend. Screw that we've never met before today. He's my absolute bestest best friend.
He did not know that he was blushing again.
Juvia gave him The Stabby Eye Look, but this time it said very clearly, Don't you dare fall in love with him, you idiot.
It was too late for people who had work tomorrow to be up, and for someone who was still trying to get used to the time difference, but Natsu didn't care. He was having the best time he'd had in a while.
He was now quite grateful Gray had brought Juvia along (after Natsu had determined for sure that they were just friends), because she added flavor to all Gray's stories, added in the details Gray left out about himself.
Natsu had dug some details out of Gray in their late-night chats, but he knew Gray was a humble and bashful human being who avoided anything that might seem to exaggerate his own awesomeness. Which was funny, because he already loomed large in Natsu's mind.
But he found out other little things thanks to Juvia, like how Gray had helped his oldest sister Ultear, making things accessible, talking to teachers, doing her household chores, when she'd been sick for years with Lyme. Almost dying had put the disease in remission, but prior to that, Gray had spent a huge percentage of his time taking care of her. Not out of filial duty, either—it was clear from the way Gray talked that he adored his siblings.
Natsu also found out that Gray's old job tutoring, which he mentioned fondly from time to time, had actually been tutoring children with special needs. "We wanted them to get by as independently as possible, not rely on people all their lives like their parents often resigned them to," Gray said, a rare bit of disgust curling his mouth.
Natsu had wanted to kiss him right there. (Platonically—or fuck it, not platonically if Gray were okay with that.)
Basically Gray was the gentlest person ever and Natsu did not want to go home and end this perfect evening.
All their talk about education had resulted in Natsu admitting to Juvia (since Gray apparently hadn't mentioned it) that yes, he was actually thirty-five and only recently finished his bachelor's.
"I wouldn't have guessed. Can I ask what the story is?"
"School and I have always had a tense relationship," Natsu began with a laugh, but then Gray yawned for the fourth time, trying to stifle it behind a hand. "You okay, princess?"
"Kinda fading. I wish I weren't."
"Princess?" Juvia asked, looking back and forth.
"You didn't know? That's part of his screenname," Natsu said. "I guess it is late. Should probably head home."
But he didn't get up.
"We've got to do this again," Gray said. "Especially now that you live here."
"I'd be down for that," Natsu said, trying to play it cool while his insides were jumping. "You're the only people I know here."
"Let me get your number so I can text you," Gray said, head down so he didn't see Natsu turn pink.
Gray entered the number in his phone then asked, "What are you doing this weekend?"
"You mean two days from now? Nothing."
"We do a game night at our flat. If that's your thing—"
"You already know games are my thing," Natsu said, grinning.
"I do." Gray smiled. "Awesome. I'll text you the details."
They all rose and Natsu went in for a hug automatically.
"Um, is it okay—?" he asked, pausing.
"Of course it's okay: it's you." Gray pulled him in the rest of the way.
"This feels like our signoff," Natsu said, letting the hug linger.
"Why? That's not a sad thing. Whenever I message you, I know I'll be hearing from you within twenty-four hours."
When he pulled back, Gray's expression was serene. Natsu glowed. Gray had let down his guard for him—an honor he didn't take lightly. Natsu knew him so well, and yet had a thousand things left to know. He wanted to know every piece of Gray, to see every centimeter, and then to keep seeing him day after day, because every slice of time with Gray was a wondrous delight.
After they parted and Natsu trudged the block back to his bike, he found something almost like anxiety lodged in his chest, hoping Gray texted, hoping they saw each other again. Soon. This weekend.
Taking the causeway back to his new home, the air hissed over him and Natsu felt he was about to lift off and fly.
Game night, it turned out, got cancelled.
Freed came down sick, which meant Laxus was out too, and Erza had accidentally scheduled a date the same night ("I thought the eleventh was a Sunday!").
So Gray texted the group cancelling, and texted Natsu that he could still come over if he didn't mind a boring night with just him and Juvia. As he pressed send, Cana texted to tell Gray she was claiming the night as sibling-only night (Juvia included), which sent Gray into an agonizing few minutes trying to phrase a response to her that wouldn't immediately inundate him with questions about Natsu.
Gray thought he did a good job.
A text from Natsu chimed: of course he'd love to hang out. Was there anything he could bring?
Just your lovely self, Gray replied, then wondered if that sounded like too much and whether he should've left off the super-happy-face emoji.
But Natsu replied the next second: For you, I would've left my ugly self at home anyway ;)
Then a second later—
Not that I wouldn't let you see my ugly self. You've probably seen all my selves at this point.
That's how I know you don't have an ugly self, Gray replied, with liberal emoji use this time.
His cheeks hurt. Natsu always made him smile when they chatted.
His phone chimed in quick succession—three times, four—then Gray jumped when it rang loudly. Cana.
"What?" he asked crossly.
"WHAT DO YOU MEAN YOU INVITED A GUY YOU MET ONLINE?"
"HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN DATING? HOW COME ULTEAR AND I HAVEN'T MET HIM YET?"
"Fuck, Cana, we're not together," Gray yelped, face flushing with heat. "He's a friend of mine."
"I want to know everything."
"You'll meet him tonight. If you behave nicely," Gray added when she squealed. "If you scare him off, I'm kicking you out and not feeding you for a week."
"Oh my god, you like him."
"I do not!"
Natsu adored Gray's sister Cana.
She was older than Gray, and with that older-sister air she wrapped Natsu in a hug, planted him at the table, shoved food in front of him, and said, "Welcome to the family. Eat up so you can drink."
"Cana!" Juvia chided, but Natsu couldn't stop laughing.
He hadn't been around a family like this in ages. Lily and Charles were great adoptive parents, but they weren't the demonstrative types, and Natsu was their only kid. This was loud and boisterous and full of teasing, and something he'd never experienced before.
It was something he'd always wanted.
Then there was Gray. He wasn't demonstrative either, but he'd opened up and Natsu could really tell it was unusual. When Gray joked and made them all laugh, Cana looked surprised every time, and Juvia made little exclamations at things he said as if he were sharing bits of himself people normally didn't see. Physically demonstrative this evening, Gray tapped or touched people as he spoke, and Natsu liked that supremely.
Though Natsu knew Gray had trust issues and they'd both prefaced many messages with, "I'm not usually like this with other people…" witnessing how comfortable Gray felt filled Natsu with special warmth.
It was an amazing night. Cana teased a lot but was genuine every time she said she wanted to adopt him. Juvia was lively, more at ease in her own home.
When Natsu motored home at the end of the night, he could now count the number of trusted friends in this city at three.
Gray hung out with Natsu two more times that week. Just coincidence and sensibility, really. Once was lunch as just them (which was amazing); the other time totally random. While waiting for his bus, Gray was texting Natsu and Natsu offered to pick him up. I'm leaving work in ten, and you're on my route.
So they'd hung out. Since Natsu needed food, they wandered the grocer together, managing to fit everything in his tiny saddlebags.
"So you just happened to carry an extra helmet today?" Gray asked as they mounted up.
"I always do." Natsu shrugged. "Useful to have. I may be reckless, but I am not letting you ride bitch without head protection, Gray. Your brain is an important place I want to keep safe."
Natsu smiled at him, and for a moment, everything was perfectly easy. Nothing confusing to it. There was Natsu, and there was him, and it was simple, and it was everything.
Saturday. Game night. Juvia sighed happily: no humans except the ones she trusted.
"Fuck," Gray muttered audibly from his bedroom. "Fuck you, fuck it…"
In his doorway, an explosion of clothes met her eyes. Picking her way through the debris, she made it to where he was sorting through a stack of shirts.
"Going on a date?" she asked innocently.
He glared at her as only best friends could. "Ha. I'm looking for my depraved unicorn shirt."
"You wore it just last week."
"Yeah, and now I can't find it."
"Any reason you want that particular one?" she asked, shifting a pile with her toe.
"It'll make Natsu laugh his head off. Dammit, this is my entire hamper…"
Juvia carefully moved away from a pair of boxers.
"You were going to wear a dirty shirt?"
"It's not dirty dirty…"
Rolling her eyes, she went to his wardrobe, opened a drawer, and lifted something out.
"Found it. Clean, thank goddess."
"Where it's supposed to be." She cuffed his head, Gray scrambling to fix his hair. "Get dressed. You have to help Cana before she burns the zoolbia."
"Dammit, I thought we banned her from the kitchen?"
Juvia shrugged. "It was either that or I tell her how much you've texted Natsu this week…"
"You wouldn't dare."
"That's why she's in the kitchen. Better hurry. I heard loud swearing a few minutes ago."
"If you told her that I've…Cana would infer all kinds of stuff. Besides, I don't even— It's not like that between him and me. And you damn well know it. Natsu is one of my closest friends. I just hope everyone doesn't scare him off."
"Pretty sure you can't scare him off at this point, Gray," Juvia said. Gray frowned at her as if this were a cryptic message. "And stop defending yourself every time someone brings him up. Even perfect strangers will guess you're in love with him."
Juvia laughed as she ran from the room, pelted by a dirty sock. She slammed his door, yelling, "Hurry up and get dressed, lovebird!"
"Who's in love?" Cana shouted across the flat.
Gray's door flew open, Gray half-naked and struggling into the psychedelic t-shirt.
"Nobody," he called, then looked over at Juvia, who was giggling. "You are so dead."
She straightened his hair and they hurried to the kitchen to rescue Cana from setting the place on fire again.
Walking into Gray's flat was like getting bombed with happiness and rainbows. An overwhelming shock of people and rolling dice and loud voices rattled around the room, with bitter chocolate smells, something savory wafting from the kitchen, symphonic metal in the background, and people shaking Natsu's hand with grips that were hard, brief, sweaty, jovial.
Natsu was in his element.
Cana had opened the door and swept him into a hug, calling names to him as he passed people and ushering him toward the less populated kitchen.
"Gray, I found your lost kitten," she said.
Gray turned around and beamed at Natsu, who hugged him without hesitating. Gray held the embrace extra long.
"Nice shirt," Natsu laughed when they pulled back.
Gray stared at Natsu's attire. "Oh my god."
"Great minds think alike," Natsu grinned.
"This is my favorite, queerest, nerdiest shirt I own," Gray said.
Passing them on her way to the fridge, Juvia stopped and stared. "You're twins. Jesus."
They beamed twin smiles at her.
Natsu felt heat expanding in his chest. He was here to meet Gray's people, to make new friends, to have fun. But having that extra connection to Gray, visible to everyone else, that little something…it felt like there was a line tying them together, and it made Natsu feel bigger than his body.
They'd always clicked with each other. This was more proof.
"Let me introduce you to the gang," Gray said, leading him to the edge of the living room with a light touch. (He had delightfully cold fingers.)
"I think I've got it already," Natsu said, looking around the room. "Guy with dyed hair and glasses schooling the rest of them is Freed; red hair with a loud voice is Erza; Gajeel has all the piercings. And Cana and Juvia are already family," he added with a smile as Cana passed.
She punched his arm in affection.
Gray stared. "Damn, Natsu, you have an incredible memory."
Preening under this gaze, Natsu shrugged.
"Freed's other half will show up later, too," Gray said. "So that's our little group. Some others come and go. Freed brought the new girl in his cohort, Levy, last time—between the two of them, the rest of us got creamed."
"Tonight," Cana called, "we're doing Truth or Dare."
"New person!" Cana protested. "We always play when there's someone new. You guys promised."
"As long as Natsu's okay with that," Gray reminded her.
"Are you kidding?" Natsu asked. "That's the best way to get to know people."
"Cheers!" Cana raised her glass of water in a salute. "I like him, Gray. I'm serious: I'm going to adopt him."
Reddening, Gray rolled his eyes while Natsu chortled.
"I'll gladly be adopted," Natsu said. "So what's this game everyone's playing, and how do I win?"
Natsu squeezed in easily between Erza and Freed, who dove into explaining. Freed graciously agreed to start the game over despite his considerable lead on everyone.
Natsu was good at this people stuff, Gray could see. Gray had never been skilled at being at ease and getting to know people, unless he had a lot of alcohol in his system. And then it was always the wrong people.
But Natsu was easy, adept, good at reading people and also at throwing his own insecurity to the winds and diving in; humble in taking instructions, quick to laugh at jokes.
It made Gray happy as well as happily jealous that Natsu fit in so well with his friends.
After the next round, Erza got up to fetch a drink and Gray stole her seat, plopping down next to Natsu and squishing close on the small sofa.
"You know this game, right?" Natsu asked, leaning close to keep his voice down. "I got a shitty hand. Help me out."
They picked through the game together, curled around the cards, heads down. Gray crowed victoriously when they beat Freed. Freed won more than anyone else at game night, but at least he tried not to.
By the time they were on their third board game of the evening, Gray was leaning on Natsu's shoulder, knees against his. It was easy to be cuddly in this atmosphere, surrounded by close friends who were cuddly people by nature, everyone smiling and familiar. Natsu never pushed him away—in fact snuggled closer. It felt natural, like it meant nothing and everything to be so close to the person who in some ways knew Gray better than anyone—who knew the secrets of his heart, even if they were only just getting to know each other's physical tics and motions. They were old friends and new friends, and every second together was exhilarating.
As Cana performed poorly at her ghostly duties in Mysterium and kept talking, the door creaked open. Gray thought nothing of it, because he and Juvia had an open door policy with friends, but Natsu's jerk drew his attention.
"Laxus," Freed beamed, rising to give his partner a hug. "Glad you finally made it. We have someone new: this is Gray's friend Natsu."
Laxus stared in recognition.
"Hey," Laxus said.
"Hey," Natsu replied, warm but giving Laxus more eye contact than was normal.
Freed returned to his seat, Laxus following. With a grunt of hello to the rest, Laxus perched in the spot Juvia vacated next to Freed while Natsu turned back to the game. That was it. Nothing more.
After a few rounds, Freed leaned forward to argue with Cana, and Natsu took the opportunity to turn to Laxus.
"So. Another continent, huh?" Natsu murmured.
Laxus grunted and nodded their head.
"Crazy seeing you again," Natsu said. "How long have you lived here?"
"Few years. Moved for Freed." A hint of a blush lit their cheeks. "Met overseas. He does research here."
"Nice. He seemed like he might be the brainy type," Natsu teased.
This got a laugh out of Laxus.
There was a pause.
"How you doing?" Laxus asked. "You're here now?"
"Yeah. Got a sweet job out here, and got my online best friend who's now my real-life friend introducing me to the city." Natsu gave Gray a comfortable nudge. "Life's looking up."
"Good." Laxus nodded to themself. "I like the tats. You always said you'd get them."
"Thanks. Twenty-second birthday present to myself. Could finally afford them," Natsu chortled.
Laxus smiled again, but the corners of their mouth fell.
"Listen," they said quietly. "I'm sorry."
"Don't even," Natsu interrupted, suddenly restless. It was the first time Gray had seen Natsu lose his equanimity. "No need to go there."
"Well, I'm going to," Laxus growled. "It shouldn't have happened the way it did. It was my fight, not y—"
"Natsu," Erza spoke up. "Your turn."
Natsu blinked, smile returning, though from this close Gray could see the cracks. "Shit, I lost track. Gray?"
Natsu was fumbling the cards. Gray held out a hand. "I'll do it."
As Gray played, he couldn't keep up with Natsu and Laxus's quiet words. Finally he passed the turn to the next person and swiveled around.
Laxus looked abysmal.
"—tried to find you later, but you weren't in any of your classes," they were saying.
"Yeah…" Natsu's laugh was nervous. "I was in intensive care for a long time. And then there was all the shit trying to track down a responsible parent. Or rather, a parent who would claim responsibility for me."
Laxus stared down at their clasped hands. A cheer went up from the game players.
"It's messed up," Laxus said at last.
"That whole place was," Natsu agreed fervently. "Where'd you go? When I came back to school, you were gone. People said you were okay, but I never found out details…"
"We moved up country. My grandfather thought the debacle was somehow my fault; after everything with my father… He thought I'd started the fight and invented the story to cover myself. He sent me to a special school for problem kids. That was a hard year." They rubbed their face.
"Damn. It's good to see you in one piece."
"I could say the same," Laxus said wryly.
Though they smiled, their face was grey, and another uneasy silence descended.
"Laxus?" Freed put a hand on their knee. "Are you okay?"
Blinking, Gray realized the game was over: everyone was stretching, getting food, observing the only current conversation—theirs.
"Wait," Erza said. "You guys knew each other?"
"Um." Laxus hunched a little. "Yeah. In Germany."
"Oh," Freed said softly. "Jesus, you're that Natsu."
Lips pursed, Natsu spread his hands. "Ta-da."
Despite the quiet voices, everyone was watching now.
"Need a drink," Laxus grunted, rising.
"You know where the stuff is," Gray called, but they waved a hand.
"Oh. You know where that stuff is too."
"So what, you were in school together?" Erza asked. "Wait, how old are you, Natsu? If you knew Laxus…"
Natsu blushed—Gray knew he was slightly embarrassed about this. "Thirty-five."
"I thought you were Gray's age."
"I'm slow," Natsu chuckled. "Can't keep up with all you smart folks. It took me longer to get places."
On Natsu's other side, Freed was still looking serious, expression both sorrowful and guarded. Desperately curious, Gray had the sense of having the pieces but not being able to put them together into a coherent whole. Laxus's father was a terrible homophobe; Gray and Laxus once had an intense conversation about Laxus's traumatizing experience with reparative therapy—but that was in Russia. Laxus went to live with their grandfather in Limburg when their father went to prison. They said they were 'out and proud' in Germany.
But Germany was where Natsu had his skull fractured in a fight at school…
Erza was still asking questions, joined by Gajeel, while Natsu gave out answers with painful belligerence.
As Laxus trod back into the room, Natsu looked up at them. Seeking permission, an answer. Laxus shrugged.
"Here's the short version," Natsu said. Gray felt him shift closer to Gray's side—maybe to give more room as Laxus wedged onto the sofa beside Freed. Maybe.
"The school we went to was not the best quality," he began, with a tone of sarcasm. "There was this—I guess you'd call it a gang? Mostly c' and occasionally weed. Good money, I guess. Their 'leader' was an individual who'd be most happy in life if all queers dropped dead. It wasn't the kind of town where you came out. But some of the folks at our school were out anyway, and some were more visible and couldn't hide if they wanted to. This guy decided for some reason to…"
"Be cruel," Laxus supplied. "To anyone he could tell was queer."
"Yes. He was cruel to everyone, but some people more than others. We all knew it happened—saw it happening right in front of us. I was one of those idiots who wanted to act and never did. It's easy to freeze in those situations and find excuses for standing by—"
"Everyone does that sometimes," Cana interjected. "Your regret is what shows you're a good person."
"I had my own problems with the guy. His people sold to other kids, and I didn't have a problem with that: no fourteen-year-old is going to get between a sixteen-year-old and her powder. I have a problem with it now, obviously," he added quickly. "At the time, I felt it wasn't my business. But younger kids…
"There was this nine-year-old in my neighborhood. I caught one of the older girls trying to tag her, and I told her to scoot the hell off or else. I threatened her if she ever tried to sell to little kids again. They didn't retaliate for that, but they kept me on their radar. Then one day, I walked into the cafeteria and they were beating the shit out of someone right there—"
"Me," Laxus said.
"In the fucking middle of school, with heavy textbooks, two teachers standing nearby and everything. It was sick," Natsu spat. "I didn't know Laxus well, but that didn't matter. Something just clicked. I'd picked up a few moves and thought I was invincible. I jumped in to finish the fight, and instead someone knocked me in the side of the head with a chair, shoved me down, and punched my head into the concrete until the lazy-ass teachers pulled them off."
"Fuck," Juvia whispered. She had her hands over her mouth.
"I don't remember it, honestly. It's blank in my memory. After that, Laxus moved away and I lay in a hospital bed for a while, waiting to stop hurting and for the social worker to hunt down the person who was supposed to be my foster parent. When I went back to school, four of the five kids who'd been the main instigators had been picked up. Coke was a lot scarcer around campus after that. The end."
Gray rubbed his fingers over the back of Natsu's hand where it lay between them. An answering twitch of fingers nearly intertwined them, but not quite; Gray kept rubbing back and forth. He wasn't even sure when their fingers had started touching, but right now the connection between them felt electric, like it might snap at any moment and there would be an explosion of light.
He knew about the fight and the injury, but he'd never heard Natsu tell it aloud with his factual tone of voice, with bright wryness, having healthily moved on. By contrast, Gray felt like he'd been bumped several points further on the scale toward committing murder. But Natsu's wellbeing helped him calm down.
Gray wanted to hug him after all that.
"Despite how it sounds," Laxus said slowly, "he didn't exactly lose."
"Just consciousness. Not the fight," Natsu laughed.
"You definitely stopped the fight. And it was the last time those kids ever gave me trouble. It wasn't even that bad that time thanks to you: only twelve stitches. Could've been a lot worse."
They motioned at their eye, the scar running through it stopping at the edges of the socket and missing the eye itself.
"While you were in the hospital, the school got a lot safer—not because you were gone," they chuckled. "Anyone who'd ever bullied anyone else suddenly had to worry someone would stand up and get them in heaps of trouble. It actually made school…less awful."
"I can't imagine going to school like that. I don't think I'd learn anything," Gajeel said.
"You didn't learn anything," Erza retorted, which earned her a friendly punch on the arm.
"I think we just got our dose of Truth or Dare," Cana said. "Too bad we forgot the booze."
"It's never too late," Gray pointed out.
"True," she said, rising and going to the kitchen. "Call out your orders, people."
While some of them shouted drinks at her, Gray took the risk of readjusting closer to Natsu, thighs glued together, his head almost on Natsu's shoulder. It seemed okay in the moment. On Natsu's other side, Freed was curled around Laxus, arm slung around their shoulders, his forehead tucked against their neck.
Gray wanted to snuggle like that.
He settled for the hot, unbearable points of contact between them.
It took some time for the gravitas to wear off, the group losing steam for games and turning to conversations instead. They got enlightening stories from Cana about the crazy and sometimes unbelievable sexual exploits of her coworkers, amusing banter from Erza and Gajeel, and a tangential conversation sharing most-embarrassing-moment-for-someone-you-knew stories.
"I don't know if anyone here has heard the one about Juvia, a pink thong, and a flagpole," Gray began.
A throw pillow smacked his face.
"Traitor!" Juvia called, while Gray grinned.
"I have an underwear and flagpole story," Erza volunteered. "I was at summer camp…"
"Juvia's is better," Gray whispered to Natsu.
"You'll have to tell me later," Natsu whispered back, face close.
His gaze sent a wind rushing through Gray's insides. A thousand leaves of a quaking aspen fluttered in his stomach.
Laxus and Freed ducked out first, followed one-by-one by the rest, until even Cana put on her shoes, pulling Gray in for a tight hug.
"Later, lil' bro."
And then it was just Natsu, still at Gray's side, as if by common agreement they both knew he wouldn't go home until Gray saw out the last of his guests.
"That was amazingly fun," Natsu said seriously. "Thank you so much."
"Feel like you have some friends now?" Gray asked. "Maybe we can convince you to stay in our wonderful city forever."
Gods. The words coming out of his mouth.
"I'm not going anywhere," Natsu said, giving him a long smile. It lingered, his eyes meeting Gray's and not breaking away. Gray felt the strength of that look all the way down his spine.
"I'll walk you out," he said, searching the floor for his shoes.
"Don't worry about it."
"I want to make sure you're safe."
Natsu laughed. "I can survive conks to the head. It's cold, and you're not wearing a jacket."
"You have to admit I have a point, Gray." When Natsu grabbed his hands, Gray's heart shot into his throat. "You've been squished between people in this hot room and your fingers are still frigid. You're a summer icicle."
Grinning, Gray didn't want to move. Natsu hadn't let go of his hands.
After far too long, Natsu released him and turned toward the door.
"I gotta go. Thanks again."
"Come here," Gray protested, pulling him into an embrace. "You can't sneak out without a hug. You've told me how much hugs mean to you."
"Damn, you know my secret." Natsu's voice was right near his ear. Around Gray's waist, his arms were firm.
Gray pulled back without letting go, arms still around Natsu and keeping him close as Gray found his gaze.
They were very nearly the same height.
He knew his emotions were clear on his face. Natsu's expression was mirroring back the nervous, uncertain tension that had Gray feeling like every second the world was being born anew.
"Gray," Natsu swallowed. "I know it's been less than two weeks; I don't want to be… I know I'm older—"
And I'm only twenty-six. We should be miles apart in life. But we're walking in step, right on the same path.
That was why they'd gotten so close over the last—what, fourteen months? It was why they'd talked every day. Why they'd shared their handles on every app and communicative platform. Natsu had joined Instagram for him. They'd video-called over grainy, terrible, long-distance connections where the other person sounded like they were inside a metal tube just to share their daily anecdotes or get the other's thoughts on some rambling idea.
Natsu let out a shaky breath, and then another. It set Gray ablaze. All the courage of the universe was in him.
Gray closed the gap. Their noses touched. Natsu kissed him.
The connection of their lips exploded his senses. Natsu was like water and Gray was parched. As Natsu moved against him, a ball of trembling light and frayed nerve-endings, Gray touched each of those nerves off one by one. Setting him on fire, feeling Natsu come apart and pull him in.
They shifted until Natsu was leaning against the door, Gray's palm on his chest, other hand sliding up Natsu's neck into his hair. Natsu bit his lip. He stroked Gray's tongue with his own. Made him desperate. At Gray's waist, Natsu's warm fingers found their way under the hem of his shirt, hot on his bare skin.
Natsu, his boiling inferno of desire. The soul he'd touched and never wanted to let go of.
Their kiss did not end: it went on and on, finding the pleasures of feeling each other, sucking the other's trembling skin, consuming each other. Natsu kissed decisively, his body delightfully responsive to Gray's touch. Gray could not stop touching him.
"I'm sorry," Natsu tried to say at one point. "I didn't ask first…"
Gray took his face in both hands and kissed him harder.
It took so much self-control not to feel Gray up.
Natsu was gasping by the time they were done, brain not working, happiness rushing through him at the speed of light. Part of him wanted to snatch at it, scared it would flee and disappear: the rest of him rode it like a wave.
"So, that," he said.
Gray was having as much trouble with words. After a few silent seconds, determination solidified his features.
"Remember what I used to say in every message?" Gray asked.
Natsu stared at him. "I-I love you?"
The human heart could go so fast. Such a short phrase could have a myriad of meanings. Natsu was staring straight into the eyes of the best meaning of all.
"I guess I still have to go," Natsu laughed, trying to force the shakiness from his limbs. "Til tomorrow?"
"See you then."
They didn't ask when or where. They would make it happen.
Natsu gave him a tiny peck on the lips before opening the door and flying out into the night.
Gray stared at the closed door. Elated.
Jerking, his knees almost gave out in shock. "Jesus, Juvia! I forgot you were here."
"Gee, thanks," she laughed. "So you're an item now?"
A smile spread his lips so wide it hurt, and he couldn't stop.
"Good." She smiled. "I don't think I could handle any more pining looks."
Good morning :) I hope you slept better than I did. Too excited. So may I take you on a date?
Gray's text sat there staring at him when Natsu woke up. Beautiful. Glorious.
This is Natsu's corpse texting, he replied. Natsu has died thanks to realizing he was already in paradise. You are welcome to take his bones on a date.
A few seconds after sending, Natsu swore. He hadn't caught the innuendo. Oops.
This was what happened when Gray got him all flustered.
Looking up from where he had his chin propped on Gray's chest, Natsu broke off. Juvia had come into the living room. Once upon a time, this would've caused much fluster, since Gray and Natsu lay lengthwise on the sofa cuddling, but they were long past that.
"Anyway," Natsu whispered, "that's why I like your mouth so much."
Gray blushed and chuckled. "I didn't know you needed a justification."
Grabbing what she wanted, Juvia went back down the hall; they heard her door close. With a hum, Natsu leaned up to continue what he'd been doing before they heard her footsteps.
Gray groaned when Natsu kissed him. He loved it. He didn't think Gray was even aware he made noise. Touching Natsu's cheek, Gray's chilly fingers travelled slowly down his neck until they hovered at the base of Natsu's throat, cold, making him swallow as he kissed Gray more and more and more.
"Get a room," Juvia snorted as she walked past them into the kitchen. "There's one fifteen meters away."
The two men looked at each other, a conversation budding which could not happen in front of her.
We haven't… Gray mouthed.
Natsu leaned in so his lips were by Gray's ear. "It doesn't make me uncomfortable, but if it does for you, we won't."
"As long as we…just…"
Natsu knew what he meant. When they made out in semi-public places, alone but technically somewhere a person could walk in on them, it kept things…restrained. It wasn't that they were trying not to have sex—nothing so dinosauric—they just weren't trying to speed toward it, either.
"I promise I'll behave," Natsu whispered, then winked at him.
"That promise is hard for me to make," Gray grumbled, hand at Natsu's hip sliding into the waistband of his jeans. Natsu tried very hard not to react—Juvia was still bumbling around the kitchen.
"Then don't promise. Whatever. I just want to kiss you," Natsu murmured.
The color of Gray's eyes seemed to darken, smokier, hungrier. The next second he rolled up off the couch and dragged Natsu with him.
"Fine, we'll get out of your hair," he called to Juvia, pulling Natsu toward his bedroom.
The closing door had a finality which sent a shiver over Natsu's skin. Half of him said, god we're doing this, while the other half said, god are we doing this? Trying to act natural, he plopped comfortably on Gray's bed and rolled onto his back. And then—
"You have little dots—are those stars? How did I never notice?"
"How often do you lie in my bed?" Gray teased. The mattress dipped as he sat. "I did that when I moved in. They glow in the dark and remind me of camping with my mom and siblings."
Natsu laid a hand on Gray's arm; Gray had a faraway look.
"I love you."
Gray grinned at him. "If I recall, you love my mouth, too."
As Gray nestled beside him, Natsu hummed in pretend thought. "Your mouth is…third on my list of priorities."
"Your hands are a very close fourth." Natsu entwined their fingers. "Second is your skin."
He kissed Gray's neck.
"That's…not a body part," Gray protested weakly.
"It's an organ."
Gray stroked Natsu's hair, nipping Natsu's nose when Natsu shifted. "What's first?"
"I'm still deciding," Natsu grinned.
Grunting, Gray extracted his hand and framed Natsu's face, bringing him for another kiss. He kissed hard, always, as if to keep Natsu with him by force of his presence. When Gray's mischievous tongue started exploring, Natsu heard himself groaning, body molding amenably when Gray shifted on top of him. Shit. Oh shit.
Their kisses got deeper, more desperate. Finally, with Natsu's hands halfway up his chest, Gray stripped off his shirt, which separated them briefly. They made eye contact.
Still staring at each other, Natsu reached for Gray's pants.
Gray was vibrating, the whole of his body engaging in the excitement. Natsu had Gray's belt halfway off when Gray's phone chimed a dozen times in quick succession.
"Cana," they both groaned.
"She'll just keep going," Natsu said.
Reaching for the phone, Gray returned to Natsu's chest and settled on top of him—god, that felt nice. Gray's eyes skimmed the lines, then he snorted and turned the screen around.
IT'S BEEN A MONTH CAN I TELL PEOPLE NOW
I won't tell people directly, just say "his boyfriend," how about that
WHY AREN'T YOU ANSWERING?
OMG YOU'RE WITH NATSU RIGHT NOW AREN'T YOU
TELL HIM TO USE PROTECTION, YOU'RE TOO YOUNG TO GET PREGNANT. ALSO I say hi
"Christ." Natsu put a hand over his eyes and laughed. "I love your sister."
Gray grunted something that sounded like cockblocker.
"It has been a month," Natsu said as Gray began to type. She'd caught them making out and gleefully asked if she could tell the whole world of Facebook and their friends they were dating. "I'm okay with it."
"I'm telling her she has to wait until the end of next game night. That way we have a chance to tell people ourselves if we feel like it."
"I think the only thing you should text her is that you're on the pill. That'll shut her up."
"Oh god. No, I am not encouraging this. My sisters," he tossed his phone at a pile of laundry, "do not get to analyze my intimate life."
"Fair enough." Natsu reeled Gray back in, Gray letting himself be reeled. "Where were we?"
Gray showed him.