Looking at Rogue and seeing for a split second the resemblance to Rogue's wilder future self, it hit Natsu: the last thing Mirai Rogue had ever said, exactly one year ago.
Frosch was going to die.
And Gray was going to kill them. Natsu hadn't believed it then, and he didn't believe it now. Asshole though he could be, Gray was good, kind; he stood up for people. Natsu knew that better than anyone—had run Gray's actions and achievements through his mind thousands of times when he couldn't sleep, or needed a distraction, or fell into thinking about Gray just because.
Natsu had also brushed off the report of Gray joining Avatar. It just wasn't true. Gray, the Gray he knew so well, would never do that.
But Natsu's feet froze to the street when he saw Rogue and Frosch and put the two accusations together.
Joining Avatar…killing Frosch… That could be the same person.
Still, it couldn't be Gray. Natsu didn't want it to be. After his year of training, he'd grown stronger in himself, more reasonable about his emotions, and ready to start fresh…and maybe see where things could go. With Gray, together.
Natsu refused to believe Gray could become the kind of person who pursued his goals without caring who got hurt. Who killed because he liked it.
With an uncomfortable twist in his gut, Natsu realized: it wouldn't hurt for Frosch and Rogue to stay in the safety of their guild. Any number of things could end up killing Frosch—creating a Rogue none of them wanted to meet. This was better. The wise choice.
It had nothing to do with Gray.
As the Avatar guildhall receded behind them, Natsu scrutinized his companion. Speaking to Lucy, Gray was oblivious.
Gray had changed so much over twelve months. The black marks trailing across his skin only made him more beautiful, but there was something dark and resigned in his eyes. Though the Avatar thing had been a lie, a soul-deep pain clung to Gray, sharp and bittersweet.
It scared Natsu.
But that was just adrenaline talking. When Gray let him get captured and said all those awful things…for a horrible moment, Natsu had doubted. He started to wonder if maybe Gray wasn't who Natsu thought he was. Gray had turned cruel. All Natsu's hopes from the past year would shatter— But it was an act, and Natsu could breathe again, and the faith he'd always had in Gray was back, so strong it was like it never wavered.
The Salamander's stomach fluttered sickly.
"What are you looking at?" Gray asked, eying him with a raised eyebrow. "You keep staring."
"You look different."
"Yeah, well." Gray huffed. "You haven't seen me in a while."
Natsu swallowed. We don't know each other anymore.
Frowning, Gray turned back to the path ahead of them. Natsu found the air was tight, hard to breathe.
Fighting Avatar's small army was exhilarating—and easy. It wasn't just Natsu: the whole team could take on twenty times as many opponents. And Gray...wow. The ice mage was extraordinary. Everywhere he went on the battlefield, he left a frozen landscape in his wake. The Salamander might explode if he stared for too long.
Victorious, the team reunited, cheered, hugged, Natsu grinning wide.
Life was looking up.
He and Gray had fought side-by-side like old times. Better than old times: they were steadier, calmer, more in sync. They'd hardly bickered, easing tension out of Natsu's muscles for the first time in a while. He'd feared they'd return to being rivals and nothing more. But they were friends again; Gray was an amazing person; and Natsu thought he shone as brilliantly as the sun.
When he caught the smile on Gray's face and they grinned at each other, something passed between them that electrified Natsu's skin. All the things he kept inside regarding Gray burst across that connection. Eyes gleaming, Gray flipped him a thumbs-up, and Natsu's heart tripped over itself and fell right on its face.
Opening his mouth and floundering for words, Natsu caught an unexpected scent. He whipped around to find Sting and Rogue strolling down the hill, their Exceeds following them. (The Twin Dragons had one scent; Natsu never needed to ask why.) Pulse pounding, Natsu reminded himself it was okay: things were finished and there was no more danger to Frosch. It was okay.
Meanwhile, Gray was right behind him. Natsu knew if he looked back, he'd get lost in the ice mage's smirking smile.
Not quite ready for that, he tried to seize normal words and called to Sting, "You showed up anyway? Despite what I said?"
"We were going to help," Sting admitted. "But you didn't need it."
When Natsu laughed, the sound was breathless with nerves and adrenaline. Rogue frowned at him, but merely said, "I hope you realize taking the job was illegal. You're not in a guild."
"For now—" Natsu began, indignant, but Rogue jerked and looked past him.
"Hey!" Rogue gasped. "He's…and Frosch! My Frosch!"
"Calm down," Sting chuckled, following his gaze. "You know Frosch likes making new friends."
Suddenly cold, Natsu turned around.
Leaving the other Exceeds, Frosch wandered over to Gray. The ice mage stared down at the small cat, arms crossed. When Frosch stopped in front of him and tilted their head, Gray crouched.
Natsu's body refused to move.
Demonic shadow still crept over Gray's side. Natsu's senses could pick up every thud of Gray's pulse, the little rush of air as he breathed in. Each strand of Gray's hair, each muscle moving on his bare back. Natsu saw it all.
He didn't want this dream to end. He could take Gray turning him down, but he couldn't handle Gray breaking his heart like that. He couldn't watch Gray become a murderer.
Gray and Frosch stared at each other.
The Salamander took a breath and moved.
It was terrifying to walk toward Gray, as if Natsu might cause the whole terrible thing to happen. Gray reached for the Exceed—
"You're the cutest thing I've ever seen."
Natsu knew Gray's voice by heart, but it took him several seconds to register the words had come from the ice mage.
Frosch took Gray's hand, their paw adorably tiny against his palm, and then gave Gray's arm an awkward, full-body embrace. Chuckling low, Gray picked the cat up and hugged them.
Natsu heard Rogue's consternated growl, Sting's laugh, and Lucy calling Natsu's name, but the Salamander didn't listen to any of them. Still holding Frosch, Gray turned around, his smile bewildered, as if he didn't understand what was happening but liked it anyway. Natsu's affection for Gray ran wild, and he shattered.
How could I think—? The man I'm in love with. Unforgivable. With everything Gray has shown me about himself over the years… How could I?
Who am I?
Emotions strangled him.
Gray glanced around searching, and when his joyful gaze landed on Natsu, the ice mage relaxed.
Just as quickly, his expression fell into an unhappy frown, looking Natsu up and down and taking a step.
With a heavy, shaking breath, Natsu tried to school his face into normalcy.
"Natsu?" Gray's voice was gravel. Putting Frosch down, he finished his trek to the Salamander. "What the hell are you giving me that look for?"
"I? Nothing," Natsu said wildly. "Yeah, nothing. What's up?"
"No, really." Gray glared. "What just happened?"
"I…just remembered something."
"What was it?"
"About stuff." Natsu waved his hands. "It's not impor—"
"Tell me, Natsu," Gray hissed. "You looked at me like I'm a monster."
The icy tone shoved air out of Natsu's lungs. No, not a monster—never a monster.
"I-I saw you with Frosch," Natsu stuttered, "and it reminded me of something Mirai Rogue said…about how, in a year—now—you were going to…to…"
Natsu swallowed his tongue. "Kill Frosch."
Gray went stock still. For the smallest second, he looked ashamed. A shiver rushed over Natsu's skin.
Gray's face twisted with shock and hurt and confusion.
Now Natsu really was breaking, Gray's rigidity clawing at his insides. There were other sounds behind him, a gasp, a whisper, the other Dragon Slayers overhearing, but all Natsu could focus on was the beautiful, furious man before him.
He knew now just how badly he'd betrayed Gray.
"He said I'd murder?" Gray barked, taking a step nearer, ugly lines pulling his mouth into a sneer. "You thought I'd harm them? You actually thought that?"
Natsu couldn't reply. Shame was a lump he couldn't swallow.
"Is it because I look like this?" Gray asked, motioning at the darkness unfurled across his skin. "You think I'm evil? Didn't you get it when I said Avatar was an infiltration? When I apologized for having to say those things to you? Shit!"
Gray slammed his heel into the dirt and Natsu jumped.
"I thought you would understand." The ice mage shook his head. "I thought you, of all people, Natsu, you…you would still accept me."
Gray's pain gouged a canyon through Natsu's heart. All the little things he'd been afraid of were coming true: hurt carving out the life in Gray's eyes, his anger and sadness contorting until he just looked blank. Shuddering, the ice mage put a hand to his side like he was going to be sick.
"I-I'm sorry," Natsu stammered.
"Fuck, Natsu." Gray shook his head. "Is this what you think of me?"
"I can't believe you actually thought… No, I can't believe it. I cannot believe this is happening."
"He was so certain," Natsu pleaded. "Mirai Rogue insisted it would happen. That turned him into what he was. I had to stop that. I had to."
Gazing at the dirt, Gray whispered, "I thought you believed in me."
"No. You don't."
Natsu's fingers curled and uncurled, longing to reach across the gap. To prove he still trusted Gray, believed in him, would do anything for him. I was trying to save you.
Lifting his palms to his temples, Gray shifted and shook his head, eyes closed. He looked in physical pain, lips mouthing the words, no, no, no…over and over.
"Gray," Natsu whispered.
"If even you think I'm just part of the darkness—"
"I don't. Gray." Grabbing the ice mage's arms, Natsu jolted him, Gray's body flimsy in his hands.
"When did you begin to see me this way?" Gray asked.
"You're the most brilliant person I know," Natsu said. When Gray snorted, Natsu's fingers tightened. "That's what I think of you. You're amazing. You're beautiful. You're good."
Gray's mouth twisted like he tasted something foul.
"You bastard, don't say shit like that to me…" Gray's voice broke.
"It's all true," Natsu growled, yanking Gray closer.
Staring into Gray's startled eyes, Natsu saw the universe. He saw despair. He wanted Gray to know the true feelings he held, the realities living inside him.
Natsu kissed him.
It was a sudden, staggering thing, all uncoordinated lips and clashing movements. Gray's shoulders jolted in surprise then sank in sad surrender. Natsu smelled a whiff of salt as Gray's mouth became pliable, breath hitching. With a groan, Gray's mouth moved against his.
Natsu swore he was flying. Warm and so very alive, he ran his tongue along Gray's lip and claimed it with his teeth. Gray shivered and slipped his hands around Natsu's waist, sucking on him. It was perfect. Even with the faint scent of tears on Gray's cheek, it was perfect.
Gray jerked back.
"N-no, can't," Gray gasped, terror painting his features, reeling several steps before Natsu could grab him. When Gray tripped, he landed on his ass, hands up in defense.
"I'm sorry," Natsu stuttered, retreating in on himself. He didn't understand.
"I can't—I won't," Gray panted. "Not to Natsu."
"…to me? But I wanted to."
"No, not… I can't hurt you, sunflower. I won't."
"You weren't hurting me."
But Gray closed his eyes, fingers pressing his scalp as if to ward off a migraine. So quiet, almost too soft for even Natsu's ears, Gray muttered, "I'm not going to. Never, no matter how much you harass me. You can't make me. You'll never control me: I've mastered you, and you have no say in what I do…"
With cold horror, Natsu realized Gray was talking to someone else.
Hands still squeezing his head, Gray rocked as he let loose a series of growls. Then the black marks on his skin moved.
Fingers of black magic reached across Gray's chest, greedy, searching, wriggling across his face. Natsu choked, a reverse yell, air getting stuck in his throat. Heady magic poured off Gray; the Salamander had never felt anything like it.
"Gods!" Gajeel shouted, grabbing Natsu's arm to drag him back.
Natsu backhanded him across the face.
"Gray?" Natsu asked.
"He's possessed," Gajeel hissed, trying to grab Natsu again. "It's just like during the Games—"
But Natsu shook his head, edging closer.
As the magic across Gray's chest and arms took over all visible skin, Gray shot to his feet. Fists tight, his voice when he spoke was plaintive.
"No. I just won't. You can't…"
The ice mage cut off with a sound of pain.
Natsu took a shaky breath. Something was very wrong.
Before he could move, Rogue shot past him, magic flying from his fingertips.
"Wait!" Natsu yelled.
Sting slammed a hand into Natsu's chest to halt him, following his mate and calling, "We've seen this before."
"Don't kill him!" Natsu shouted. Fear clenched his heart, a death grip on his lungs; all the foreboding of the last several days crashed down.
He jerked when Sting used his magic to pin Gray down. Oh gods. They were hurting him, Gray screaming as the holy light slid through his body.
Rogue stepped up to Gray's side and gave both Sting and Natsu a regretful stare. Grabbing Gray's wrist, Rogue put his lips to Gray's skin and began to suck.
A deadly yell ripped out of Natsu's chest. He lunged and would've sunk his fists into Rogue if Gajeel hadn't pounced, crashing him to the ground and holding him with all the iron mage's weight.
"Let me up!" Natsu thrashed. With Rogue's mouth still pressed to his wrist, Gray let out another cry. "Let me get to him. Get off!"
"Get it together, Salamander," Gajeel growled. "Your boyfriend's getting his demons exorcised."
As lines of black slithered toward Rogue's lips, Gray groaned and twisted, seeking escape, looking like it tortured him. When patches of color returned to the ice mage's face, he stopped struggling and went limp, whimpering. Natsu's chest hurt, like the sound gave him physical pain. Rogue hardly took a breath, feasting on Gray…on the shadows inside him.
Natsu stopped flailing as he realized what Rogue was doing.
Gajeel got off and Natsu stood up. The darkness was almost gone now, leaving only the Slayer tattoo behind. When Rogue let Gray's arm go, Sting removed the restraints of light and Gray sagged. Natsu darted to his side, shooting Rogue a protective glare—even if Rogue had just saved Gray's life. By sucking on him.
"Gray?" Natsu asked, hands desperate but gentle on the ice mage's arms. "Are you alright?"
Gray blinked up at him.
"I think the voices are gone," Gray croaked.
"I ate the shadows living inside you," Rogue said wearily. "They won't come back."
When Gray straightened, putting his weight on Natsu, the Salamander parked his arm around the ice mage's waist.
"How did you know to do that?" Natsu asked Rogue.
"I've seen it before. Shadow possessed me once, too."
"When you tried to kill me?" Gajeel asked.
Rogue hunched and Sting walked over to put an arm around him.
"It can't hurt anyone now?" Sting prompted.
"Correct. I ate it: it's gone forever."
"Tasty meal?" Gajeel grinned.
"Not really." In an astonishing show of affection, Rogue wrapped his arms around Sting and laid his head on Sting's shoulder. "That was exhausting."
"You did a good job, love," Sting whispered.
Hoarse and shaking, Gray leaned into Natsu as he spoke. "Thank you, Rogue."
Natsu grunted. "Yeah, thanks."
"Rogue!" Frosch leapt at the Dragon Slayer, arms wrapping around his neck in a strangle-hold. "Rogue…"
"It's okay, Frosch."
"Did you hurt him?" Frosch asked, pointing at Gray.
"No." Rogue let go of Sting and hugged Frosch with both arms. "We made him better."
"Hey, Natsu," Gray whispered.
Jumping, the Salamander looked to the man at his side, those black eyes freezing him in place.
"I'm sorry," Gray murmured, his posture withering and making Natsu ache—though he didn't complain about Gray's body pressing closer. "You were right about me."
"I'm always right, droopy-eyes." Natsu touched his face. "You're amazing and beautiful and good."
Gray snorted, mouthing beautiful, and rolled his eyes.
"You are so fucking gorgeous," Natsu said. "You have no idea."
The ice mage's pulse skipped, but he had a stubborn look in his eye. "I mean about me being dangerous. You were right."
"You were possessed."
"I knew that was inside me. Evil voices in my ear. I should've told you." Gray sighed. "I should've asked for help."
"Yeah." Natsu touched their temples. "You should have."
"I didn't think anyone could change it," Gray murmured. "I thought you'd judge me."
"For something you couldn't control?"
"What if we couldn't get rid of it?" Gray asked. "I worried it was part of me."
Gray leaned into him again. "Why are you being so kind to me?"
"I thought the kiss was pretty obvious."
"Although, you were crying..." Natsu trailed off.
"I was afraid I was going to hurt you."
"Are you planning on breaking my heart?" Natsu asked.
The corner of Gray's mouth curled. "Not any time soon."
"Then you're good."
They moved at the same time, meeting much more gently in a kiss both of them wanted. Gray's mouth was the most delightful thing Natsu had ever tasted. And Gray's tongue probing at his parted lips—Natsu nearly fell over. As Gray slid a hand over Natsu's side, the Salamander pulled him closer with an eager hum.
"You four are making me jealous," Gajeel grumbled.
Natsu and Gray startled apart. Next to the cuddling Sting and Rogue, Gajeel stood alone with arms crossed.
"Where's your mate?" Natsu asked.
"Like I'd tell you," Gajeel snapped.
"It's a crime if you know where he is," Natsu teased. "He's a fugitive and you're the law."
"I only work for the Council to get paid!" Gajeel exclaimed. "My personal life is separate."
"Tell that to your bosses. I'm sure they'd love hearing one of their officers is friendly with Eric of the Oracion Seis."
"Shut your trap, Salamander," Gajeel growled.
The other Dragon Slayers laughed.
"Cobra?" Gray asked in bewilderment. "Really?"
"Oh yeah. You should smell Gajeel-san," Sting chuckled. "He's been bathing in poison."
Gajeel hmphed, but he looked proud.
"What do I smell like?" the ice mage asked Natsu.
"You smelled like snowfall at first," Rogue cut in. "But at this point, it's so mixed with woodfire, I can't tell the difference."
Gray's eyebrows rose to his hairline.
"You'd be surprised how fast scents transfer when you make out with someone," Natsu said.
As Gray flushed, Natsu put his mouth by Gray's ear.
"I'd love to trade scents more."
"I'd love to mix our scents on a permanent basis," Gray replied.
Natsu blinked. "Are you asking me out?"
"Will you say yes?"
"Then yes, firefly, I'm asking you out." Gray grinned.
Growling happily, Natsu kissed his neck, making Gray gasp and grip at him.
"Then I'm claiming your scent as mine, snow queen."
"Please do." In a quieter voice, Gray said, "I've waited a long time for you to do so."
Taking this as invitation, Natsu kissed him again, letting Gray into his mouth, the pair not stopping even when Rogue muttered, "Demonstrative newbies."
Whatever. They had scents to blend.