Gray let the feeling of the present wash over him.
The sounds of the birds in the trees around them and the songs they sang to one another in the afternoon breeze, hidden amongst the leaves of the tree much like how Gray was hid from the blinding sun by one’s shade. Part of the world around them while still protected from the harshness of it, if only for a moment.
And then a wildcat would find one of the Morning Jay’s nests, and the ruthlessness of the world would come crashing over the peaceful dream, shattering it like the illusion it was.
“Oi,” a voice said somewhere above Gray. He refused to open his eyes, focusing once more on the smell of the meadow and the way light filtered through the leaves above him. He grunted, scowling as weight settled over his body. “Stop thinkin’ depressing shit.” Gray cracked open an eye, glaring at the mop of bright pink hair that was a breath away from tickling his chin. It’s owner laid more fully on Gray’s chest and body, pinning him to the earth with their weight.
The hand that was running through his hair paused, switching to the newly placed scalp and running nails through the familiar wild locks. Gray scowled at the betrayal, watching the dainty fingers, scars that Gray had traced with his own fingers and mouth and eyes countless times barely visible against the backdrop of pale skin, each earned through the lessons of a new skill and hardships no one ever should have had to face.
“Ge’off me,” Gray grunted, heat vacant in his words. The man who had claimed him as a bed grunted, something most likely vulgar and lacking its own venom. Gray heard the grin in his noise, shifting to allow the hands Gray had folded over his stomach to escape, placed on the bow of his back instead.
“Shush, both of you,” the voice of the hand said gently, her own smile loud in her quiet words. Gray allowed his eyelids to part, looking through his lashes at the face of the woman whose lap he claimed for his head. She was beautiful, as most who were raised in aristocracy were. No sun spots or wrinkles from working in fields marred her face, though laugh lines were faint on her young skin, smiles not even her father could steal from her ruining the ideals of the court while making her all the more breath taking to Gray. Her wheat blonde hair still neatly tucked in travelling buns behind and below each ear, pieces of bangs wild and free to frame her rounded face. Her eyes, a deep soulful brown glazed with the richest honey were trained on an elaborately engraved book, somehow both focused and lazy as they scanned the inscribed words. Lucy had taught Gray and Natsu how to read over the year they had been together, continuing from where both men had had their education stolen from them.
Much like how they had stolen the book from the carriage that had dared pass through their trail on the way to the walled city, black flag stripped with silver and blue a signature that its contents had been meant for the rulers.
“He started it,” Natsu grumbled, pulling Gray’s attention away from musings. Lucy laughed under her breath at Gray’s snort of disgust and Natsu’s whine, returning her touch to Gray, her nails scoring through his own dark hair and lulling Gray back into the peace he had felt before.
His air was difficult to gather at Natsu’s weight on him, but the feeling of the man so close to him far outweighed something as meager as breath. Not that Gray would ever admit such thoughts aloud, his lover’s ego already too large for his fluffed mane of rose hair. They left such sentiments for Lucy to whisper to them, reciting poetry she dared not write as she did when she scribed their adventures. It was odd for Gray that they had only been together for a year, Lucy’s dress tattered and dirtied from her run through the brush, nothing but a knapsack made of the finest napkin Gray had ever seen, carrying the false king’s seal on it, like blue blood against the mud streaked white silk. While their meeting had been harsh and filled with suspicion, Natsu had soon warmed to the runaway noble, dragging Gray along with him as he often did. Gray fell just as quick as Natsu did though, Lucy returning their unspoken feelings for several months. It wasn’t until too many ports of wine after a successful freeing of a lord from his taxes, wealth quickly returned to the people from whom it had been firstly stolen that Lucy had let slip of her desire for both men.
The thieves guild master had married the three the next week under the light of the full moon, shrouded in the cover of night and their love for each other.
Gray would die for his family, and his soul was settled like the sea after a storm as he felt both heartbeats so close to his own. Safeness was not a thing to be taken for granted in their lives, and they basked in it when they found the time to.
“How’s the book?” Gray asked, wishing to not waste precious time on things such as morbid thoughts. Lucy hummed, carding her fingers through his hair where they had settled.
“It is fine. I must say I prefer that tome of fairy tales you had gifted me for my birthday.” Lucy said softly. The book remained firmly in her grip however, starved for reading materials and devouring any that she could get her hands on, no matter the quality.
“You could always put it down and play with us,” Natsu offered. “Stalk and capture is fun, or we could spar!”
“You want to get your ass kicked?” Gray asked. He smirked, Natsu lifting his head sharply to glare at him, challenge dancing in his dark green eyes, like light through the leaves deep in their forest. “Lucy tires of tending to your bruises, wouldn’t it be nice to allow her to rest?”
“Lucy tires of your face,” Natsu spat.
Gray’s grin fell, retort burning on his tongue. It was disrupted by a sharp pull on his scalp, Lucy holding a piece of hair between her finger and thumb. She gave Gray a warning glance, turning back to her book innocently. She always acted as though Gray was above retaliating to Natsu, something that most times made smug pride swell in his chest, others, however few, made him want to pout. Gray enjoyed rousing with Natsu in the mud, fighting as easy as living and breathing between the two. Lucy picked up on his mood drop, sighing heavily as she marked her page and closed her book. “Fine, but if either draws blood they will be banned from my bed for a week.”
Natsu cheered, smile turning sharp as he launched from Gray, his fisted hand in Gray’s shirt dragging him along to the center of the clearing.
“Keep in mind there is a caravan passing through at three past noon that we have a date with!” Lucy called, fond exasperation unable to conceal her glee at the prospect of another pay.
Natsu and Gray circled one another, waiting for the other to lapse but for a moment. Gray pulled his sword first, Natsu quickly following with his twin daggers. While Gray’s weapon was simply one stolen from one of their first jobs, Natsu’s were much more sentimental. Pure iron polished to gleam with a handle made of cherry wood and gold, inlaid with a design of a dragon’s head, small ruby placed in each eye glinting as though it watched it’s master’s enemies movements for them. It was ornate but did not impede its function, a gift for Natsu from his father on his seventh birthday. Gray had no doubt that his father had no intention of Natsu being forced to wield them as early as he had been, the king unaware of the growing plot to end his reign and bloodline.
Gray watched as the light caught of Natsu’s dagger glancing from his own sword. A bow was more comfortable in his grip, but he knew he was skilled with this blade. The leather was worn and comfortable in his palm, three and a half feet of metal not as well crafted as Gray would prefer but by no means a meager amount to purchase. He charged Natsu, each blow pushing back the shorter man. Gray swore, ducking as Natsu flipped the weapon in his left hand, driving the dagger away from his body with a swipe at Gray’s face. Both men grinned, knowing their limits and how to push, and when a slip could result in something more than a minor scratch.
Sweat slicked Gray’s hair to his forehead, his shirt lost under the heavy beating of the midday sun and the exertion. Natsu’s face was flushed, barely noticeable over his darker skin, sweat beading along his throat and the dip of his collar bone. Natsu sensed the change in Gray’s energy, their blows becoming shorter, encroaching in the other’s space as they continued to push their blades against the other’s. Gray watched as Natsu’s shoulder muscle shifted, bunching and swelling in a flex as he pushed his crossed daggers back, holding the sword that Gray was using both hands to push down on him. His neck strained, the knot of his adam’s apple bobbing with a heavy swallow. Gray lifted his gaze to Natsu’s, salacious glee swirling heavy in his deep green, knowing smirk pulling a snarl from Gray. His tongue flicked out, Gray entranced as he watched it pull across the almost full swell of his lower lip. Gray charged forward, bringing his blade to just beside Natsu’s ear.
“Careful not to get too distracted, stripper,” Natsu huffed, low voice gravelled from their exercise and his own desire.
“Scared I’ll beat you even when not fully trying?” Gray asked, grinning at Natsu’s muttered insult. “You were always too much a glutton for punishment.”
“Only from you,” Natsu cooed.
Gray’s foot slipped, gapping at Natsu in shock at his admittance. Natsu was quick as he took advantage, knocking the sword from Gray’s hand and lunging at him with a flurry of swipes until Gray felt the rough bark of a tree dig between his shoulder blades, scraping on his bare skin. He held his chin high, swallowing gingerly against the cool pieces of metal caging his throat in a cross. “What was that about me being the punished one?” Natsu asked, smug glee radiating from him. Gray snarled, staying frozen in his position.
“I think I will tonight,” Natsu said, head cocked like he was in thought. His gaze dipped to Gray’s chest, slow as he drew it back up to his face, hungry grin replacing his winning gloat. “After we liberate some gold from dirty hands, that is.”
Gray smiled into the forceful kiss Natsu pressed to him, biting at Natsu’s lip roughly in retaliation for still being pinned, taste of copper hot on his tongue. His hand came up, tangling in the sweat mussed spikes of hair at the base of Natsu’s neck as the threat of decapitation fell away and Natsu stepped even closer.
“Why can you two not find more normal ways to rile each other up for a bedding?” Lucy sighed loudly, voice carrying across the clearing.
“Because this is more fun,” Natsu chirped, face turned over his shoulder to Lucy. His hair tickled Gray’s nose, the heavy scent of hickory smoke and unwashed man an odd mix Gray had become accustomed to. An instant passed and Gray had Natsu in a chokers hold, pinned to his left hip. Natsu swore at his mistake, dropping his daggers and throwing a fist into Gray’s gut. He grunted, knowing a bruise was sure to form but refusing to relent.
“Say I win!” Gray commanded.
“I’d rather die!” Natsu yowled. His fingernails caught on Gray’s forearm, foot hooking his ankle and sending them tumbling into the dirt. Gray held strong as they rolled, Natsu’s snarls and barks to get off him easily ignored.
“If you say it I will,” Gray hissed, straining to keep Natsu secured. His side ached from the blows, the taste of blood and dirt in his mouth spat out along with the grit that grated on his teeth. Gray paused along with Natsu when a shadow fell over them, his neck craned up to view the cause. Lucy’s arms crossed over her bosom, hip cocked and brow raised as she eyed them pointedly.
“How did you two survive before me?” Lucy asked, dry and without truly desiring a response. Gray let Natsu wriggle free, rising to his feet. Lucy held his gaze, standing firm even as he towered over her, gaze flicking to Gray when he stood as well. Lucy barely came to Gray’s chin, the top of her head in line with Natsu’s nose cause for more teasing than Gray knew Lucy would care for, and yet never did it seem she allowed it to affect the command she held over them. She was a force, as wild as a summer storm and just as beautiful and terrifying to be caught in.
“What matters is we have ya now,” Natsu said. His grin was bright, uncaring of the blood trickling from his split lip. Lucy’s smile was fond if unimpressed, her thumb tenderly brushing away the red staining his lip.
“And how lucky you are that you do,” she teased. Gray watched the sun dance across her features, beautiful as she raised her gaze to the sky, tracking the sun. While Natsu had an almost uncanny ability to know the time without so much as a glance skyward, Lucy was apt enough at survival and using techniques from his and Gray’s teachings. “We should be on our way. “
“Aye,” Natsu chirped, his arm winding around Lucy’s waist as they began to make their way towards the tree they had been resting under. Gray grunted as he retrieved Natsu’s daggers and his own sword, trailing behind. This scene was a familiar one, Natsu either careless or trusting Gray fully. Knowing Natsu’s tendency to hold onto a jeweled rock that Lucy had commented was pretty, Gray leaned towards his husband’s trust in him. He fell into step with them as they reached the base of the tree, Lucy slipping from Natsu’s side as she gathered the bows and quivers.
Natsu grinned at him, taking the offered daggers and slipping them into the holders in his belt, aged leather crossing his chest that had seen more years than either truly knew, mismatched with his dirty brown loose pants, fitted at the knee in a style Gray had only seen travelers wear when they passed through his town as a child. His black fitted shirt was one he had grown out of, but with how little Natsu cared for fashion and their own meager means it was one that remained, seeing as how it had not been fitted when they had first acquired it. His scarf was stark white, pillowed and soft despite it’s constant wear. Gray had asked him once why it was so important after he had nearly spilled down a mountain side trying to retrieve it from a strong gust of wind, and he’d never forget the sadness that he had seen on his face then. A birthday present from his father, the day before he was murdered and their kingdom and been stolen from them.
Gray twisted his fingers in it now, pulling Natsu closer. They kissed, rough in a way that was tender for them. “Don’t die, idiot,” Gray grunted. Natsu pulled back, his nose brushing Gray’s, close enough that he could feel his breath on his lips, could count each of Natsu’s lashes that framed his eyes. He was beautiful in a sharper way than Lucy was, scarred and damaged and made all the more perfect for it. Not that Gray would ever say that aloud. No, Natsu knew how Gray felt without words being needed, moments like this whispering a hundred things unspoken, just for the other to hear.
“You know I never do,” Natsu smirked. He pulled away at Lucy’s call, speaking easily with Lucy as they began the trek to the road deep in the woods. Gray shook his head, grinning as he followed the two steps behind them.
“They should have been through by now.”
Gray scanned the path through the leaves before him, unease leaving him restless and waiting for something to charge from the shadows of the brush below. Lucy’s words were low, voice mixing with the sound of the leaves in the wind from their perch several feet above the road. Gray’s gaze flickered to where he knew Natsu was crouched in wait, covered fully by the brush and even undetectable to an eye that knew where he was meant to be. He kept his focus on the dirt road, speaking through still lips.
“I don’t like it.”
Lucy met his gaze for the brief second it was removed from the path, the worry Gray felt curling like a serpent in his gut reflected in her honey eyes.
They should retreat. Gather whisperings and consult Makarov. Try again on another shipment. Gray knew it as well as he knew Lucy’s hand or Natsu’s grin, and yet he stayed where he was, high above the ground and concealed, bow ready in his hands and arrow notched. His wit yelled at his stubbornness, losing but fighting all the same. Run. Protect. Something was wrong.
Gray shifted his weight slightly, focus narrowing on the sound of horses’ hooves and dirt crushed under wood. The carriage. Lucy met his gaze once more, her lip caught between her teeth and her nod sharp before turning back to the path. Several minutes passed, even the air around them stilling as if it sensed the tensions held in their bones and breath, simply waiting. Unease gnawed on Gray, the feeling different as he listened to the sounds of the wagon grow louder.
The wind shifted, the canvas of the caravan came before Gray, and Natsu attacked.
A single throwing knife shook the tree Gray hid in as it buried itself deep into the decades old bark, birds lifting from the branches above him like a cloud of feathers and fear, the horses startled from the sudden movement and bolting, free now of the tethers that held them to the carriage. Gray shot several arrows into the wood of the black and silver painted carriage, following their script for each of these encounters, hoping to lure out the merchants so they could be tied and the bare excuse of their guards dealt with. Gray’s throat dried and bittered as the wagon remained motionless, no longer able to ignore the warning signs of his body. Before Gray could lift his mirror to signal retreat, a flash of metal flew from the carriage, splitting the foliage where Natsu was hiding. With a yelp the pink haired man moved into view, his blades barely drawn before a dozen and a half of the King’s Bloodhounds poured out, their status marked by the decapitated head of a dragon painted in black over the polished steel of their chest plates.
Merciless and violent; a sect of knights created for the sole purpose of ending the line of Dragneel.
Lucy swore, her low snarls and insults flung as easily as the arrows from her own bow. Her aim was true, three finding the necks of Bloodhounds, and other four lodging where gaps of the knees and ankles were revealed. Natsu held off two who came at him, uncaring of their fallen brothers and the blood staining the dirt under their feet already. Gray knew it was only a matter of time before the two swords found a lapse in Natsu’s defense, and his body reacted as an animal’s does faced with an enemy. He dropped, rolling over his back and knocking the hilt of his blade against the temple of one knight who he caught unaware, his bow slung across his back and dirt clinging to his hair before his eyes.
He danced between the blades thrown at him, deadly accuracy pushing the limits of his wit and reflex. His blade bit into the Bloodhound’s as he braces himself on the strength of Natsu’s back. Familiar and assuring. They never lost when they were together, one knowing the others movement before they acted. Natsu leaned into him, relaxing as he felt Gray’s presence, his movements surer as he parried the Bloodhound facing him, allowing Gray to take on the second.
“I knew something was wrong,” Gray hissed, head jerked to the side as he felt the air rush past, the tip of the Bloodhound’s sword barely missing his cheek.
“You can gloat in your instincts when we’re done with these bastards,” Natsu spat back. “Where’s Lucy?”
An arrow lodged itself in the wrist of the Bloodhound who came at Natsu’s side, the man cursing loudly as his sword dropped from his injured hand, sounds turning to a gurgle as a second arrow found it’s home in his jugular. Gray could sense Natsu’s savage grin, the pair turning as a unit as they continued to defend the other from the onslaught of enemies. Gray knew his own blood coated pride was shown on his face as well, Lucy’s skill a fact they boasted of to anyone with an ear.
“There’s our girl.”
Natsu laughed as he dug one of his daggers under the arm of his Bloodhound, twisting the blade before pulling it back and kicking away the knight. Gray didn’t know how many were left, or how many had been felled by their blades but in the moment of surety with Lucy acting as a righteous angel of fury and death above and the steady weight of Natsu at his back Gray was immortal.
And then the moment was reclaimed by the tight fist of reality.
Lucy’s scream pulled the attention of both Gray and Natsu away from the danger before them. Gray realized the flash of silver that had passed the corner of his eye had been in the direction of Lucy’s arrow. They knew where Lucy had been hidden, and now her body lay crumpled at the base and her bow shattered in her hand. Wet crimson coated the aged wood, already worn when stolen, a shard of Juniper pierced through her delicate hand. Gray’s stomach twisted violently at the angle her wrist sat at, blood trickling down the pale skin and leaching into the green sleeve that slipped to her mid-forearm. A scratch along her cheek only a few inches below her eye also bled, tears mixing with blood on her face. Natsu’s roar of rage echoed Gray’s own weight in his chest, squeezing his heart like a wraith’s cold grip and numbing his body. He saw his hand as it held the hilt of a sword that slashed at the visor of a Bloodhound, heard a voice low and rough like his scream profanities and curses, but it was as if a play were being acted before him. Removed and fiction.
Cold pain laced along his side, Gray rolling away from it on instinct.
Time slowed as Gray looked over his shoulder, bile hot in the back of his throat as he processed what had cut him.
Natsu blinked slowly, green eyes wide and clear as he looked down as the sword breaking through his shirt, just under one of the crossed leather belts. Blood wet the dark shirt, light from the overhead sun making it look slick despite the colour not betraying Natsu’s wound. Silence filled Gray’s head as Natsu looked at him again.
Gray shook his head, not hearing but understanding the word Natsu’s lips had formed around. Lips that already had a trickle of blood weeping from the corner.
The world crashed down into Gray with too much focus. The wind in the trees was too loud, the wet sickening noise as the blade was pulled back from Natsu’s side barely covering his grunt of pain. Dirt shifting behind him betrayed one of the remaining Bloodhounds, Gray’s roar savage and desperate as he spun on his knee and cut through the Bloodhound’s with a sickening crunch, already wounded by an arrow with feather of pale gold, more power than Gray knew he had as he severed the half limb from its owner. Lucy screamed their names, one of the three still standing Bloodhounds also focusing on her.
A dagger with a ruby-eyed dragon hilt buried itself in the back of his neck before he could take a second step towards the fallen archer.
“GO!” Natsu screamed, on his knees before Gray.
“Natsu-” his name fell from Gray without thought, anguish and emptiness already filling his soul as he stepped away from his husband. His best friend. The fire in his life, that had thawed his young and damaged heart all those years ago.
“Protect her. Protect our future. If they wanted me dead I’d have lost my head already,” Natsu gave him a grim smirk, eyes already clouding with unconsciousness, blood dripping down his chin and hitting the dirt after a thick cough.
“Don’t die before we save you.”
Gray turned and ran to Lucy, stepping over fallen Bloodhounds, dead or simply incapacitated Gray didn’t care. He tore Natsu’s dagger from the one, tucking it into his belt as he reached Lucy.
“What are you doing?” she cried, focused over Gray’s shoulder where he knew Natsu was. “We can’t leave him! Gray, no, Gray we can’t!”
“We have to.” Gray hissed, not meeting her face when her eyes snapped to him. Betrayed and horrified, as though Gray was the monster. And he was, but he could only lose so much at one time. Natsu was his heart, but Lucy was his soul.
Lucy screamed as Gray picked her up, reaching over his shoulder. She couldn’t run, he knew her ankle was no better than her shattered wrist. Gray couldn’t take on that many enemies on his own, not with two injured to protect. They would all die, Lucy and Gray in the forest and Natsu at the feet of the one who had destroyed his life as a boy.
As the trees whipped by, Lucy sobbing quietly in his arm, Gray wondered how this happened. How everything had gone wrong in a moment. A simple raid, and now Natsu was taken, and Lucy broken in both body and heart.
Gray came to the river where they would cross and cover their tracks, frozen as he saw a nest of twigs and leaves half scattered, broken shells on the rocks as a Morning Jay trilled mournfully.
The world was cruel, this Gray knew.
Lucy muffled her hiccups in Gray’s collar, her fingers biting into his shoulder just as harsh as his held her. The world was cruel, but not more powerful than when they were together. Gray knew as he stepped into the strong and icy current that when he saw Natsu again, either he would fall in the hall of the false king beside him, or they would reclaim Natsu’s throne and right the wrong that brought so much pain.
Either way, they would be together.
Gray just hoped Lucy would forgive him.