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Overcome

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Neither Gray nor Natsu had stayed over at each other's place yet.

Granted, they'd only been together a week, but Gray was used to things moving faster than that. However, the team had filled the week with jobs: all easy ones since Natsu was still healing, but back-to-back because Natsu was eager to fight again.

If they weren't careful, Natsu would run off and challenge an entire dark guild just to 'get back in the swing of things.'

Erza argued that taking Natsu on easy jobs meant they could at least control his environment and keep him from killing himself. Gray admitted it was a good strategy. But it meant the most contact he got with the fire mage besides the occasional two-minute make-out was sleeping next to each other doing nothing more than holding hands because they shared a room with Happy.

Happy was the single soul who knew about their relationship, but that didn't mean they could go making out in front of him.

Now they were back from their latest job and Erza had finally declared they were taking a day off.

"…unless," the requip wizard added, "Natsu does something reckless again. I have no qualms tying you to a bed until you're fully healed, especially if you make me chase after you on my day off. No running off, got it?"

"Yes," Natsu said meekly, and Gray knew he meant it—at least as much as a Dragon Slayer with a short attention span could promise such a thing.

Gray planned to keep him otherwise occupied, anyway.

"I'm heading home," he said, and Natsu immediately stood up as if he'd been about to say the same.

"Copycat." The Fire Dragon scowled. He'd gotten better at lying.

"I'm going to give Carla the fish I brought back," Happy said. Gray would've considered this fortuitous happenstance, but Happy had figured out it was best to give them time alone whenever he could.

The two wizards avoided each other until they attained the outdoors. After a few blocks, Natsu took Gray's hand, and since it was dark, Gray leaned in closer. They walked in companionable silence, Natsu kicking at every stray stone in his path like a happy kid.

It took a few blocks before Gray realized he'd automatically picked a direction.

"Uh, we're heading toward my place. Hope that's okay."

Natsu looked startled. "We're also heading toward my place."

"Mine has better tea," Gray said, as if that decided things. It also doesn't have a roommate.

"How do you know? I make fine tea."

"I've been to your house before; that's how I know. Just let me be good at tea and I'll let you be good at other things." Gray suddenly grinned. "Things like blushing when people mention sex."

"Do not!"

"Or squealing when someone kisses you."

"I'll make you squeal," Natsu retorted. Pulling them to a halt, he grabbed Gray's face in his hands and kissed him with fierce, hot lips. To Gray, it seemed Natsu was on fire, but the searing on Gray's skin was pleasant: a tingling heat that made him want more.

The sense of danger that they might be caught pumped adrenaline through him. The reason Gray wanted them to be a secret was that he wanted the Salamander all to himself. It was hard to explain, but he didn't want anyone to get in on this, to steal a piece of their relationship even if it was just a glimpse of them holding hands. The idea of sharing the truth made him feel fragile.

But at the moment, his body was telling him to keep kissing the Dragon Slayer, middle of the street or not.

Natsu ended it all too soon, coaxing them into walking once more. They were only a few blocks from home. For some reason, that made Gray's palms sweat.

"You're good at making out. I suppose I'll grant that," Gray joked.

"You damn well better. You're panting after just one kiss."

"You're good at eating all the available fire. You're also good at wearing too many clothes."

"What?" Natsu said. "We're wearing the same amount of clothes, droopy-eyes."

Gray looked down in genuine surprise.

"You're actually wearing more than me!" Natsu said, victorious.

Gray frowned. "How do you figure?"

"Um, I can count. Pants, boxers, shirt, and a jacket."

"How do you know I'm not going commando?"

Even in the darkness, Gray could see the color rise in Natsu's cheeks. Gray's grin split his face.

"Sometimes I dislike you," Natsu grumbled.

Gray laughed. He knew what this language meant. Natsu took great care never to say, 'I hate you,' to his boyfriend and it had turned into a joke.

"I 'dislike' you too, flame brain."

"Yeah, yeah, don't get mushy on me," Natsu said as they walked up to Gray's place. "Just unlock your damn door."

Gray's fingers shivered as he pushed open the door to the one-room flat. He went and hung his jacket up, moving slowly because it was something to keep his hands busy.

He didn't know how this worked: spending time with someone just to be with them, without any clear objective. That was why he preferred hook-ups—nice and clear-cut. But this…he didn't know what was expected of him.

While all this dashed through Gray's head, Natsu, in typical style, had flopped onto the lone sofa and made himself at home. Hearing a sniffling sound, Gray turned around frowning.

"Are you…smelling things?"

"Yeah. It's been ages since I've been here." Natsu waved a hand at the walls. "It smells like you."

"I do live here," Gray snorted, shoving Natsu's feet over so he could sit. Natsu immediately replaced his feet on Gray's lap. Gray was seriously considering this tantalizing offering for tickling when Natsu spoke again.

"You must not have people over very often."

"I guess not. What exactly do you smell?"

"Just you and life-related things." Natsu shrugged. "Noodles. Rice. Cabbage—gods, do you not eat any meat at all? Ice, of course. And sleep."

"Sleep has a smell?"

"Naturally," Natsu said, his expression saying this was a silly question.

He was playing with his pink hair unconsciously, fingers pulling the strands into spikes. It was such a normal gesture, one Gray had seen a thousand times, but now Natsu was lying on his couch, in his home. In this moment, the gesture belonged to Gray.

Leaning across the Dragon Slayer's body, he kissed Natsu's hot mouth again. Since this put him lying practically on top of Natsu, Gray wasted no time and loosened the Salamander's scarf, leaving a possessive hicky there. Natsu grunted in satisfaction.

Okay, maybe Gray did have a clear-cut objective.

Gray didn't usually notice when he became shirtless, but Natsu's hands undoing his buttons left a trail of needy fire down his chest. Before he could even process this, Natsu leaned in and bit him at the junction of neck and shoulder.

The sound that pulled out of Gray was formless and happy. The places where the Dragon Slayer's sharp canines dug in were like pinpoints of light. Gray breathed out, "Gods, shit, Natsu."

"You like being marked," Natsu grinned against his skin.

"Apparently," Gray replied. "Not like anyone's done that to me before."

Natsu's smile widened. He flicked fingers over one of Gray's nipples, getting more gratifying noises out of the ice mage. Fuck, he wanted the Salamander now.

Gray pulled at Natsu's clothing, getting them both shirtless before frotting against him roughly. Natsu threw his head back into the sofa, unable to moan. The look of ecstasy on the man beneath him had Gray's heart soaring. And they were still half-clothed.

"Gray," Natsu managed, eyes closed as he ran fervent hands over the ice mage's muscled torso and made shivers break out over Gray's skin. "Just FYI…I've never done this with a guy."

Gray had several smart comments on his tongue, from 'you have an awfully good handle on where to start,' to 'luckily you landed with a sex god.' He forced himself to stop and look the Salamander in the eye.

"I won't unless you want to," he said.

"Of course I want to," Natsu snorted, leaning in to swirl his tongue around Gray's mouth.

"Wait, wait," Gray spluttered. Natsu was making self-control difficult. "What do you want, specifically?"

"To be honest, I don't know." Natsu blushed. "Like I said, I've never done this before."

Gray could tell embarrassment was making Natsu want to look away, avoid his eyes, but he didn't: he faced Gray with all of his red-faced bluster.

He looked so strong.

"I have a few ideas," Gray murmured, kissing the fire mage's ear. "Of course, let me know at any point if you have an idea of your own."

"G-Gray."

Gray couldn't tell if the stutter in Natsu's voice was from nerves or the way Gray was nipping at his ear.

"Yes?"

There was a long pause.

"Go slow."

Chapter 2: ( Past) The No Dating Rule

Chapter Text

Gray thrust deeper into the man beneath him and got a string of ecstatic swearwords in response. Freed tensed whenever he was excited, making Gray's cock painful with need as that warmth tightened around him. Grabbing Freed's hips, Gray sped up his pace, groaning.

When Freed made a sound of happiness, gripped the bed, and thrust himself farther onto Gray, the ice mage had to readjust his feet so he didn't slide across the floor.

The picture below him was glorious. Freed's hair was rumpled, lips slightly swollen, and toned chest rising and falling rapidly—he looked a mess. It was a rather gratifying sight, because Gray was the cause of him looking that way, including the current expression of bliss on Freed's face.

Leaning over the bed, Gray crashed his lips onto his partner's.

"You look amazing," he muttered, still pounding hard and fast.

"You…feel…amazing," Freed broke off to moan again. He was one of the loudest people Gray had ever fucked, which he found kind of kinky. Especially after the noise complaint from a neighbor.

The rune wizard's fingers scaled Gray's chest, twisting his nipples at once and making Gray gasp.

"Th-that's just sadistic," he muttered happily as Freed twisted his head and kissed the inside of Gray's wrist. As Gray trembled, Freed continued touching him, somehow still conscious of what he was doing despite the heavy rhythm of Gray's hips.

When Freed's hand slid down to stroke himself, Gray grabbed his wrist.

"Not yet," he grinned.

Gray slid his tongue into the other man's mouth, nearly losing his mind when Freed started to suck on his lips. As Freed began to kiss down his neck, Gray panted against him, "Bite me."

Gray could feel Freed smile against his skin before teeth rubbed softly over his neck.

"Harder," Gray grunted. "Please."

The rune mage chuckled mischievously, licking him. "What is it with you and biting?"

In answer, Gray shoved him back down onto the bed, thrust in deeply, and began sucking on Freed's nipple. Freed cried out. Gray didn't stop, flicking the hard bud with his tongue.

"You do that and I'll come whether you touch me or not," Freed panted.

As sweat began to pool at the back of his neck, Gray increased his pace until he was hammering in so hard every move was pleasure. Freed was a mass of wrecked and sexy noises. Gray gripped Freed's cock and stroked him quickly, their movements in rhythm.

Freed came first, his thighs clenching around Gray while he shouted his euphoria.

Gray thrust into him a few more times, and right as his pleasure hit its peak, Freed leaned up and bit Gray's chest.

It wasn't hard—wouldn't even leave a mark—but with Gray already on the edge, the gesture pushed him tumbling over.

"Fuc—!" Gray's world exploded with light. His jumping cock sent waves rolling through him. Everything was brainless and rapture and warmth as he shuddered through his orgasm.

Legs shaking, he leaned his knees against the bed frame, opening his eyes to Freed's smiling face. Gray loved this moment: where everything was joy and fullness, and the person staring back at you shared the same space, existed in the same air.

Pulling out slowly, Gray discarded the condom and collapsed onto the bed beside the rune mage.

"Thanks for coming over," Gray panted.

"Doing it in the middle of the day shakes things up," Freed chuckled.

"Yeah, sorry. Cana wants my help on a job. I owe her."

"Don't worry. You picked me to spend your free hour with, after all. I'm flattered."

Gray rolled his eyes, but the flirtiness was old hat. A way to keep from getting too emotionally involved.

Standing up, Gray grabbed his pants and tossed Freed's shirt over.

"I still feel bad kicking you out so fast."

"I think I'll find a way for you to make it up to me."

Chuckling, Gray stopped dressing long enough to loom over Freed, who was perched on the edge of the bed, and give him a long, slow kiss.

When Gray pulled away, Freed asked, "May I take you to dinner sometime?"

Looking down, Gray finished with his shirt buttons, an excuse to avoid eye contact.

"You know I don't do dates," he said.

"That's not true. You and—"

"I don't do dates with people I regularly sleep with," Gray interrupted.

Freed tilted his head. "Why not?"

Gray sighed and looked him in the eye.

"It's my rule, Freed."

"Fair enough," the rune mage said.

Gray could see his disappointment, but Freed of all people respected rules and his flirty smile reappeared as though nothing had happened. Gray knew he was treading risky waters with Freed these days: the man made his romantic interest clear even though Gray made it equally clear it wasn't returned. But Freed was laidback enough—or liked to fuck so much—that he'd just shrugged at Gray's indifference and kept sleeping with him.

"I'll see you around the guild?" Freed asked.

"Of course."

"You still haven't made good on that promise you made," Freed said, wiggling his eyebrows.

"What—? Oh!" Gray felt a shiver of excitement. Public sex. "You never said making things up to you would be so enjoyable for me."

"Gray!" Freed exclaimed in mock surprise. "When is it ever not?"

"Touché."

"Grayyyy!" The shout outside interrupted them. "C'mon, you droopy-eyed bastard! Cana is waiting!"

"What on earth?" Freed blinked, moving toward the window.

"Don't!" Gray pulled him back in a hurry. Fucking Natsu. Gray gave a frustrated sigh. "Apparently Cana needs both me and the pink-haired idiot. Guess it's time for me to go."

He wasn't too keen on the Dragon Slayer finding him with one of his lovers: Gray would never hear the end of it.

When Gray had locked up and the two men parted ways, the ice mage turned the corner of his building and found his rival waiting in the lane. He punched Natsu without greeting.

"Don't go screaming my name like that, flame brain," he warned, blocking Natsu's retaliatory hit. "You're going to piss off my neighbors."

"Not my problem," the Salamander groused back. His nose scrunched. "Fuck, icicle, you smell disgusting."

Gray glared at him. He'd showered just a few hours ago.

"Not as bad as you, slant-eyes," Gray shot back.

"I've definitely never smelled like that. Fuck."

Natsu made a hacking sound and spat to the side. Gray stared at him.

"What the hell, lizard-brain?"

The glare Natsu turned on him was more than their usual competitiveness: it was furious, predatory, aching. It made Gray shiver.

When the Salamander made no verbal reply, Gray hissed in exasperation.

"Come on, hothead. Cana's waiting."

Chapter 3: A Different First

Chapter Text

(Previously in chapter one...)

"G-Gray?" Natsu grunted as Gray nipped at his ear.

"Yes?"

There was a long pause.

"Go slow."

Gray's pulse was beating its way out of his chest. He didn't know why the words made him breathless: he'd been other people's firsts before. He'd talked with other partners in the heat of the moment just like this, checking is this okay, do you want to, how about this (for Gray the idea of forcing someone into something made him want to vomit) as he got to introduce them to a new intimacy.

But it was different because this was Natsu.

And Natsu trusted him. Not just with this, but with an entire package of tightly-balled things: hand-holding, and spending time together just because, and watching each other's backs, and weird emotions like the happiness in Gray's chest every time he saw that flash of pink hair. Relational things, quite a few of which were firsts for Gray.

"Uh, Gray?" Natsu asked, the ice mage having gone silent for too long.

Realizing his arms were shaking, Gray lowered himself to rest on the other man, breathing against Natsu's chest.

"I'm okay," he said. "And of course I will. Going slow is far more fun."

In demonstration, he ground his hips down leisurely.

"Fuck," Natsu breathed, and Gray couldn't have agreed more.

He kissed across Natsu's chest, surprised when the fire wizard unwound his cherished scarf. Gray dived for Natsu's neck while Natsu ran his hands over every bit of Gray's exposed skin. Gray had been shirtless in front of Natsu so many times, but the exploratory touches were totally new, inducing shivers.

Gasping, Gray realized he'd stopped what he was doing. Natsu wore a crafty smile.

"Lose something?" the Salamander asked.

When Gray went to give a smart reply, Natsu filled his mouth with tongue. Moving closer into his embrace, Gray found one of his favorite features of making out with the Dragon Slayer: his fangs. Nibbling on Natsu earned Gray a sharp bite on the lips. Gray made a sound of satisfaction and resumed frotting against him.

One of Natsu's hands threaded through Gray's hair while the other slid down the ice mage's back to cup his ass. The Salamander pulled Gray in, thrusting every time Gray ground against him.

"You are so good," Gray hissed.

"I can hear your pulse like it's about to detonate," Natsu chuckled.

Natsu's hand slipped inside the ice mage's pants, discovering Gray was in fact boxer-less as intimated on the walk home. Fingernails dug into Gray's ass and stole any words Gray might have been preparing to respond with.

Gray's whole body tensed in desire. He felt in danger of floating away, but the Salamander's fingers had him anchored. Gray's throat closed until he reminded himself to breathe again, kissing Natsu hard and leaving a dark hicky on his chest.

Gray realized that despite his increasingly desperate need for Natsu, neither of them had done anything about still being half-clothed. This was Natsu's first time, and it really did feel so good, and Gray couldn't have cared less how much or little they were wearing. Right now, he was just having fun teasing grunts out of his boyfriend.

Neither of them had a particular end goal for the night anyway.

Gray inhaled sharply when a hard thrust made Natsu growl and tighten his already painful grip. There must've been a bit of a masochist inside Gray, because he knew Natsu's passionate biting and clawing was all it would take for him to die happy.

That was who the Salamander was: all sharpness and immediacy in a way Gray cherished and loved. At the heart of that sharpness, Natsu cared deeply, with punches to make you stronger, taunts to make you laugh, a little pain to wake you up to the fact you were alive in a beautiful world.

Feeling ready to burst with happiness, Gray decided what he wanted to do.

Undoing Natsu's belt, Gray slipped a hand in his pants and ran his fingers down Natsu's cock. Natsu let loose a drawn-out rumble, eyes flying wide. He was hot and solid and thick, and Gray almost groaned himself as he felt up the smooth shaft.

As Gray slowly stroked him, Natsu's breath turned into a tense string of swear words.

Gray's rival, his best friend, his boyfriend was clutching at him, shaking. Fuck, Gray was done teasing. Speeding up, Gray continued to frot against Natsu, timing the movements and not minding that he was leaking precum all over the inside of his pants.

Gray would've had trouble balancing over that taut, muscled body but Natsu held his hips in a vice that was probably going to leave bruises. The Dragon Slayer's own thrusts were making everything fuzzy. Gray didn't care about anything but Natsu; he'd never felt so high.

Tension built until it seemed their muscles were going to shred beneath their skin. One of Natsu's hands reached up to tweak Gray's nipple, continuing to play as he elicited desired reactions, and Gray crashed into Natsu in a clumsy kiss, while heat coursed through him like he was infected with fire.

Gray didn't think he could stand much more of this, and then Natsu's sharp fangs dug into his shoulder. Gray gasped, utterly lost, keeping rhythm by sheer instinct and desire.

"Gray," Natsu moaned, "you're t-too good. You gotta give me a sec…"

"Come like this," Gray growled. "Come just like this."

Natsu yanked Gray into a hot kiss, all tongues and teeth. When the Salamander's movements transformed into unfocused shudders, Gray pulled away from those burning lips just far enough to stare down at his boyfriend's beautiful expression.

Natsu's eyes fell closed, mouth open in silent pleasure as he came.

Satisfaction shot through Gray's body, straight to his throbbing cock. "Natsu," he managed, but got no further, thrusting his head back. Warmth spilled in his pants.

Feeling his pulse about to fall right out of his chest, Gray leaned his forehead against Natsu's and let out a final groan.

"Fuck," Gray muttered.

"Yeah." The agreement breathed across his face. Gray heard the smile in Natsu's voice and grinned.

He wanted to hold onto this moment, pull it out in the future whenever he needed a reminder of happiness. Natsu, of all people, had chosen to do this with him.

Gray opened his eyes to find the Salamander studying his face, nostrils flaring like he was scenting something. Gray huffed a laugh.

"What are you doing, memorizing me?"

"Something."

Natsu ran a hand through Gray's hair, completely consumed in the gesture. Then a cheeky grin broke out across the tan face. "Great, ice cube. You got cum all over the inside of my pants."

"Actually, it's mostly on my hand." Gray finally extracted the limb from Natsu's boxers and, after a second's thought, wiped it off on his own pants.

Natsu blinked. "Um."

"Well, the inside of them already needed a wash."

"And I did hope you'd walk around naked," Natsu said with a grin.

Gray chuckled.

Natsu pulled him in and gave him a languorous kiss. Gray was more than happy to collapse onto the sweaty chest, his left arm shaking from supporting his weight.

Between kisses, Natsu asked, "So why like this?"

Gray nipped his jaw.

"There are hundreds of things I want to do to you. Gotta start somewhere."

"Somewhere," Natsu repeated, smiling.

Gray blushed.

"I didn't expect you to go that slow, popsicle," Natsu kissed him again, satisfaction in every word, "but I definitely don't mind."

Gray swallowed, staring down into Natsu's pleased eyes. It was overwhelming. Simultaneously fucking and falling in love with someone he'd known for years was a lot for one brain to handle.

Gray wanted to take it all in one bit at a time. That was probably the real reason he'd wanted to fool around with Natsu without ripping the man's clothes off this evening: going slow, enjoying every part—if Gray could ever admit to being that romantic.

In honesty, everything was overwhelming these days. Gray's emotional stamina was being unexpectedly tested as their decade-old friendship transformed into something new and unknown. He was still figuring out how it affected his internal functions. Everything seemed that much more real, like all Gray's senses had been turned up to the highest setting and set free in the sunlight.

It was terrifying to feel so positive about life.

With a long, cool breath, Gray focused until he could sense his heart slowing in response to his commands. Cool and calm. He was happy. This isn't a bad thing.

"Gods!" Natsu exclaimed with a laugh, staring over at the wall clock.

Gray startled. "How is it already so late?"

Natsu grinned.

"Natsu, are you…" Gray felt his face flush. "Are you going to stay the night?"

Natsu's eyes swiveled back to him, making Gray want to simultaneously hide and never look away.

"Of course I am, ice queen. You weren't planning on making an invalid walk all the way home at this hour, were you?"

Gray snorted. "You are not an invalid anymore, hot stuff."

Chapter 4: Nightmares

Chapter Text

Natsu watched Gray dream.

Gray slept curled on his side, black hair slanting messily across his face. It wouldn't be apparent to anyone else that the ice mage was having a nightmare: his eyes flitted behind closed lids and occasionally he twitched, but that was normal sleeping behavior. However, Natsu's acute hearing picked up Gray's rapid breath and tumbling heartbeat, as though Gray were fighting a pitched battle.

This wasn't unusual: Gray often had nightmares. Natsu knew this from sharing a room with him more nights than not over the past year. And even more nights from here on out…

Here, lying right next to Gray on the same mattress, the nightmares felt closer than normal.

He wanted to reach out and pull the boy from his dark dreams.

Natsu didn't know what caused them, but he had a pretty good guess. The one time Gray had talked in his sleep, the only thing he'd said was Kaachan over and over again, until it devolved into a broken, unending string of Mama Mama Mama.

Natsu had met Deliora. He'd seen enough to understand.

Gray's breath hitched for the hundredth time and Natsu raised his head, hoping the ice wizard had awoken. But Gray snuffled and continued in his dreams.

Gray had both arms pulled tight against his chest, fists crossed and tucked under his chin. Carefully, the Salamander reached over and rested his fingers on one of his boyfriend's hands. There was no reaction. Moving with absolute slowness, Natsu worked his way into Gray's grip.

When they were finally holding hands, Natsu felt a little better. Touch was the most he could offer.

Gazing out the window at the stars, he sighed, feeling serene in spite of Gray's shuffling.

Gray had woken him with an inadvertent kick to the shin. He could've gone back to sleep if he wanted to—Gray wasn't that loud—but he was enjoying the in-between state of resting yet being awake. He didn't feel sleepy, even though they'd stayed up well past midnight teasing and making out. Good thing they had tomorrow off.

Although, Natsu didn't plan on resting. He had some things he wanted to try.

The fact that Natsu had never done anything with a guy before made everything they did exhilarating—but it didn't mean he was ignorant. As soon as he hit puberty, he'd been quite curious about what felt good and what didn't. He'd even probed his own ass numerable times, at first in pursuit of questions like what did it feel like and how much did it stretch, and then simply because he enjoyed touching himself.

He wasn't in the dark about his body, just about doing things with it with other people. There'd only been one girl with whom he'd done more than kiss, and that exploration was cut short by the even bigger realization he wasn't into girls.

Quite different from this new, needy desire to fuck Gray until the ice mage melted into the mattress.

Natsu shivered at the sudden spike in his alertness. These thoughts were not conducive to rest and lying still.

Trying not to focus on his arousal, he inhaled deeply and listened to the continued story of Gray's frantic pulse. Tomorrow, at least, Natsu could help him feel better.

As if cued, Gray started up. Heat rushed into Natsu's body on startled instinct and he went to grab Gray's hand again, but Gray was staring around in bleary confusion.

"No," Gray said, hoarse and bewildered. Then stronger, twisting in the sheets, "No!"

"Gray, it's okay," Natsu said, working to keep his voice calm. "It was a dream."

Gray stopped floundering around, but didn't look at Natsu, watching the bedclothes wrinkle under his fingers with uncanny focus. He appeared to still be half in his sleep.

Out of nowhere, Gray punched the bed.

"Shit!" Natsu cried, leaping back as adrenaline hit him.

The ice mage began to sob.

It took Natsu several stunned seconds to take this in, while Gray collapsed onto his face weeping.

"Gray," Natsu whispered, in something akin to awe. His boyfriend didn't react to his voice, but didn't pull away when Natsu put an arm around him.

After another minute, Natsu gathered the ice mage into his arms. Gray cried against Natsu's chest with wracking breaths as if the whole of his existence had shattered. Natsu didn't say a word. He didn't know what there was to say.

He wasn't even certain Gray was fully awake: the black-haired boy coughed and heaved, gripping Natsu like a small child, in a way Gray had never before acted in front of Natsu. It was like a mask was gone. Natsu wasn't sure Gray would be this way unless still under the influence of dark nightmares.

After the sobs had resolved into shudders, which faded into a quivering, desperate embrace, Gray nodded off once more.

When Natsu realized his boyfriend was asleep, he gazed down into the pale, tear-streaked face, now slack, running a tender hand down Gray's cheek. Gray wasn't tossing and turning anymore. His breathing was even, pulse lazy.

Natsu kept smoothing a gentle hand through Gray's hair, far too energized to fall back asleep now.

"What was it, icicle?" Natsu asked softly. "You never cry. Are you okay?"

The sleeping form gave no answer.


Gray woke up slowly like rising out of thick fog, one of those wakings where you remember nothing from moment to moment. He felt like there was something to remember which he didn't want to. Only sad, empty feelings came to him. But pleasant warmth was buzzing in the back of his mind, drowning out anxiety until the worry was forgotten in the drifting sea of contentment.

Gray felt a boiling hot hand resting under his and smiled. Natsu.

When he opened his eyes, an outrageous shade of pink filled his vision. Blinking and backing up, Gray discovered Natsu had tilted toward Gray in his sleep, body angled like he was chasing Gray across the bed. It took Gray a prodigious amount of effort to ease out of the covers without jostling his fellow occupant, especially since Natsu kept worming closer any time Gray moved.

Gray felt unreasonably happy with life.

Finally he escaped and wandered across the flat to cook as quietly as possible. It would be a good test of Natsu's ability to sleep through things.

Gray's flat was small, tidy except for the discarded clothes strewn about, and starkly furnished. The little kitchen was only a dozen steps from the bed and Gray started making bets with himself whether it would be sound or smell which would wake the Dragon Slayer.

Tiptoeing about, Gray was giving a frying egg a poke when a something hot drew a line up his spine.

"Shitfuck!" Gray yelled, leaping sideways. Chopsticks went flying as he slid into a crouch, even while his brain was cottoning on that this was not a threat.

Natsu folded over with laughter.

Jumping the Dragon Slayer, Gray managed to get him in a head lock before an arm wrapped around Gray's waist and tried to flip him. They struggled there for a moment until Natsu's laughs impaired him too much to hold his ground.

Unfortunately, Natsu decided to spread his weakness by attacking the ice mage's side with tickling. Smacking the Salamander in the stomach, Gray managed to scurry back to the boiler after only a few giggles he would never in his life admit came from him.

"If this egg burns, you're eating it," he threatened, raising the chopsticks like a ward.

"I don't mind burnt food," Natsu smirked, though he held off from further harassment.

"I suppose as a fire wizard you burn everything. Is that why you eat at the guild so much?"

"Hey!"

Gray grinned.

"For your information, I eat a lot more than normal people. I get tired of cooking all the time," Natsu retorted, looking amused.

The Dragon Slayer did indeed consume everything Gray didn't eat, although Gray got to keep the natto for himself after Natsu made a disgusted face at the mere mention of it.

"Picky fire-eater," Gray teased.

"Your icy tongue probably can't taste food anymore," Natsu muttered from the other end of the sofa. His feet had taken up residence on Gray's lap again.

"I can taste you well enough, fire pants."

When Natsu blushed, Gray grinned, both of them aware Gray had scored a point in their eternal game.

Natsu decided to even the playing field by leaning up to grab Gray around the neck and pull him into a kiss. Gray ended up choking on his rice and Natsu sat back with a smug look of victory.

Despite that look, Gray shook his head and smiled. This was nice. He could get used to this.


Still feeling self-satisfied over his win (and over kissing Gray, because kissing Gray), Natsu changed the topic.

"I was quite impressed you managed to keep your underwear on all night."

"I was too," Gray snorted. "You're a freaking furnace."

Managing a measure of contriteness, Natsu hesitated before asking, "Did you sleep okay?"

"Yup," Gray said, preoccupied with trying to mix egg yolk more evenly into his rice. "You?"

"Well enough." So he didn't want to talk about it. Fair enough. Natsu cracked a smile. "It helps that you're small enough for me to fit in your little bed."

The ice wizard shot him a narrow-eyed look.

"Whatever you say, little dragon spoon."

"What?" Natsu coughed.

"You heard me, little spoon."

As Natsu felt his face heating up again, he gave a friendly growl. Sitting up, he stole Gray's bowl and put it aside to protests of, "Hey! That's mine!"

"This is mine now," the Salamander said, propelling Gray backward into the couch.

Whatever Gray had been expecting, it wasn't Natsu's hands smoothing over his shoulders and chest. He had a look of surprise on his face as the Dragon Slayer twisted around on the sofa to straddle him, still caressing him.

"What makes you relax?" Natsu asked.

"Um." Gray blinked. "Fighting you usually."

"That can be arranged," Natsu grinned, pressing his fingers into Gray's hard shoulders. Gray flinched, but then seemed to realize what Natsu was doing and softened into the touch.

Eyes closed as he groaned, Gray missed seeing Natsu's broad smirk.

"That feel good, icicle?" Natsu taunted.

Starting, Gray narrowed his eyes to stare at Natsu. The ice wizard looked uncomfortable, like a beast deciding whether it should flee.

"I'm not going to hurt you," Natsu chuckled, trying to hide the fleeting pressure that raced through his gut.

"You're hurting me right now," Gray grunted.

"That's your own fault. Stop tensing."

"Hard to do when—ah!"

"Damn, droopy eyes," Natsu exclaimed. "What are you, a steel cable?"

"Just stressed." Gray gritted his teeth.

It was practically an invitation to ask, about what? But a tiny, inadmissible part of the Dragon Slayer was too scared to speak up.

Instead, Natsu leaned in and whispered in Gray's ear, "Obviously last night wasn't enough to chill my snow queen out."

Gray didn't simply blush: he turned bright fuchsia.

When Natsu laughed, Gray looked down, wincing and closing his eyes. Um, what? Confused, Natsu felt a distinct twist in his stomach now.

"I'm not toying with you," Natsu protested. "Well, okay, not just toying with you."

"It's not that." Gray gestured. "Shoulders. Hurts."

"Mm."

The Salamander massaged him for several more minutes, enjoying watching Gray shut his eyes and spread his hands loosely in his lap. Natsu's icicle was quite attractive. Attractive and also reluctant to relax.

"C'mere, popsicle pants."

Stopping his ministrations, Natsu startled Gray with a kiss and two hot palms sliding down his chest to his thighs. When the Salamander stood up and held out a hand, he was pleased to see Gray pouting at the lack of touch.

"Where are we going?" Gray asked.

"To deal with your stress." Natsu grinned, flames ringing his hand. "Somewhere where we won't destroy your flat."

A familiar smirk slid across Gray's face.

"How very considerate, flame brain. I didn't think you were capable."

"Believe me," Natsu laughed, "you'll find me very capable."

Natsu decided red looked quite good on Gray.

As they wandered out—after following Natsu's suggestion and getting dressed first—Natsu tried not to think about the fact Gray hadn't fessed up to the nightmare.

He didn't want Gray thinking he would judge him—as if it were weakness to dream terrible things or even shed a few tears in the aftermath of reliving them. He wanted Gray to trust him. He wasn't sure where that urge came from, but not being trusted felt like a personal failing, like Natsu had fallen short in an important way.

All the more reason to fight and work it all out. And then afterward…it was going to be a good afternoon.

Chapter 5: ( Past) All Over Again

Chapter Text

Groaning, Gray curled around Loke's back to get a better angle and got a warm hum in response. Loke couldn't say much since his mouth was full of Masaru's cock, but Gray got the message.

He thrust deeper, feeling Loke shiver.

Masaru's legs were tensing into impressive knots on the bed as Loke sucked him off. Despite this, Masaru had his eyes fixed on Gray. The ice mage didn't understand that: when someone went down on his dick the skillful way Loke was doing, he enjoyed the show. Sure, it was Gray whom Masaru originally had his eye on and flirted with, but it wasn't like the stocky man had been averse when Loke suggested they all go home together.

As Masaru's moans matched Loke's movements, the man's eyes closed finally, toes curling on either side of Loke's shoulders. Gray couldn't help slowing his pace to watch as Loke stroked the other man off, sucking Masaru's balls into his mouth.

Masaru grunted and came on his stomach, collapsing shakily at the head of the bed too breathless for speech. His gasping face sent thrills through Gray, which translated to a quivering thrust into the man beneath him.

"Shit," Loke said, and Gray could hear the grin even if he couldn't see it.

Despising subtlety, the spirit shoved back and squeezed around Gray's cock, and it was all Gray could do not to come right there. The excitement reverberating through his body was ready to explode. Not quite yet. There was still Loke…

With Gray speeding up again, Loke slumped forward to press his face into comforter, letting out an unashamed moan. His words were stifled as he called, "Gray. Gray…"

Heaving a breath, Gray pulled out and flipped Loke around by the hips.

"I want to hear you," Gray growled, knowing his face was wrecked. Sliding back into Loke's ass felt too good for him to care how he looked.

Masaru, meanwhile, had recovered enough to worm down the bed next to Loke. Shooting Gray a sly smile, Masaru drew his fingers down Loke's chest and began stroking his cock while sucking on his neck. At the same time, Gray bucked into Loke harder, aiming to hit the spot just the way Loke liked it, shuddering himself at the feelings each thrust delivered.

Gods, he loved this.

Loke groaned at the double onslaught, arching his head back into the bed amid a halo of messy orange hair. Eventually his sounds evolved into one word: "Fuck, fuck, fuck…"

Gray couldn't take it anymore. Seeing Masaru leaving a hicky on Loke's shoulder, feeling Loke's hot body squeezing around him, he let out a warning grunt. "Loke—"

The man in question was already spraying jets of white into Masaru's hand, the two men's lips captured in each other. Hissing in pleasure, Gray came inside his guildmate, cock jumping and arms shaking as he dug his fingers into Loke's hips.

"Yes," he groaned. He let his head fall, breathing hard, but he could still see the two men making out beneath him through his fringe. It was damn hot. He wanted to do it all over again.

After a few more agonizingly wonderful seconds, Gray pulled out and sat back, discarding the condom.

"Gray," Loke murmured amiably, free hand caressing his thigh.

"You two have done this before?" Masaru asked.

"Not with another guy," Gray chuckled.

Gray had made it quite clear earlier Loke was not his boyfriend. It upset him when people got that impression. Friends who have sex sometimes: why is that so hard to understand?

Suddenly, Loke sat up.

"Sorry, boys, my key-holder is calling. Gotta go."

And just like that, he disappeared amid gold sparks.

"Wh-what?" Masaru gasped in astonishment.

Gray rolled his eyes at Loke's display. Drama queen.

"He has to respond when his celestial mage calls. Don't mind him: he just got a new key-holder a few weeks ago and has been doing this a lot lately. He's on edge about being perfect for her."

"So…it's a magic thing?" Masaru asked after a moment, blinking.

"Yeah," Gray smirked. How would Masaru react to being told, you were just sucked off by a celestial spirit?

Masaru was gliding over the bedclothes toward him.

"Just you and me now," he murmured, nipping at Gray's ear.

Gray smiled, fighting sleepiness, and leaned into the kisses trailing down his neck. "Apparently."

The kissing got more insistent, one of Masaru's legs looping over Gray's as the stocky man pressed into the ice mage. Masaru was short, broad-shouldered, and well-muscled, with spiky black hair and intense eyes. He was plenty attractive, otherwise Gray would never have walked over and chatted him up in the club, but Gray was feeling the exhaustion of fooling around with two energetic partners for the last hour.

Chuckling to ease any potential insult, he put a hand on Masaru's chest.

"I can't do another round right now," he said, as Masaru continued his kissing, working down to Gray's nipple. Gray hissed, the tongue and teeth shutting down his brain as white pleasure burbled up in his chest. He breathed a warning, "Masaru…"

"You don't have to be able for me," Masaru murmured.

Gray didn't understand what he meant until Masaru rolled on top of him and pressed his erection against Gray's thigh.

Gray's heart shot into his throat. He hadn't had someone on top of him in a long time.

He didn't like it.

"I don't feel like it right now," he said, voice controlled, pushing his partner to the side.

Masaru held his ground on top of Gray.

"Why not?" Masaru smiled slyly. "You fucked Redhead, but nobody got to repay you."

"I don't need repayment," Gray grunted, shoving harder now.

Masaru leaned in to press their lips together, rubbing against Gray, groaning into his mouth.

Gray's insides shut down. This wasn't how it should go. He was supposed to have final say. Not a threat hovering over him, an inescapable storm about to fall on him.

Gray felt cold for the first time in years.

The first time since Then.

Against his will, Gray's pulse ramped up. He reached for calm and spoke his words as if he were in control of everything—the opposite message the chills in his stomach were sending him.

"Get off," Gray said coolly.

"Oo, feisty." Masaru just laughed.

"Masaru," Gray growled.

"Gray," the man mimicked. He was still grinning, the bastard.

"I'm serious. I'm not in the mood to go again."

"I already said you don't have to be. C'mon, just a little."

Masaru panted the words breathily, moving as if to resume frotting. Gray wasn't certain whether to stop him—it was a small thing after all; the man was hard and they might as well; Gray simply didn't want to. Was that really a good enough reason to cut someone off from sex? Gray had brought them home to his flat: he had wanted this, promised it in a way. He could give the man a hand job at least. It's not like Gray had to enjoy it.

Before he could decide how to react, a hard cock was slipping between his legs and rubbing against his scrotum.

Panic shot through Gray's arms as he propelled the other man off of him.

No! Screams were raging through his body, too loud to hear anything else. Masaru laughed like Gray's glare was a game, like Gray wasn't fighting a monster of terror. Masaru turned their movements into a wrestling match, biting at Gray's shoulder, sliding sensuous and very pleasurable hands over Gray's torso.

All Gray could feel were hard fingers on his skin.

When Masaru realized the focal point of Gray's struggling was lower down, he pushed a hand between Gray's thighs and slid a finger toward his ass. Conversationally, Masaru asked, "You're not used to bottoming, are you?"

Gray's gasp stuck in his throat. He gripped Masaru's arms hard enough to leave bruises, keeping him from moving further. Horror had a hold of his muscles and he couldn't breathe. A thousand memories rushed back.

"It'll be fun."

Touches on Gray's skin. Burning, soaring, excruciating.

"Hold still. You can do that for me."

Pain shooting through places it shouldn't. Hands caressing him and making him shiver, feeling greasy and disgusting. And he was sick: he was hard. He must like it.

"This is what adults do. If you don't stop squirming, I will put you through far worse pain than this."

Throwing up. An unseen fist crashing into him, bringing the mercy of blacking out. Waking up with aching and blood and no idea what had happened. No memory, no control.

"You agreed to this. You knew it was going to be a trade. Don't short us on payment."

Fear every night as darkness fell and it was time, he knew it was time, but he couldn't flee, even though this wasn't how it was supposed to be. There was no magic, no strength, no Ur, no Tousan, no rescue; no one but the darkness and the touches and the skin pressing against his. It would never, ever end: it would last forever.

"Fuck!" Masaru shouted, leaping back as ice shot from Gray's fingertips.

The frost on Masaru's arms shattered as the touches left Gray's body. Returning to the present, Gray stared dumbly, unable to speak. Masaru was nursing his biceps, red welts forming where the chill had frozen his skin in seconds.

"What the fuck did you do that for? Bastard!"

I am strong.

But he wasn't. Gray hadn't done it on purpose. He was out of control, a planet spinning away and tilting off its axis, crashing into heavenly bodies in a black and wasted sky. He had no ice, no skill, no training. Instinct had saved him, impulse, things he had no command over.

Gray, the real Gray, just lay there. Unable to move. Helpless. He couldn't have touched his magic if he tried.

Rage washed through him to no effect. He couldn't even feel the anger: he was empty, broken, a hollow pit with nothing inside where his soul should be.

"That's the last time you're getting some from me," Masaru snarled. He had risen, seeking his clothes on the floor with livid speed.

Gray watched with detachment as the other man dressed. Some part of him told him to protest. It called him weakling and told him to bring the man back to bed.

While fear halted Gray in inaction, Masaru was having trouble getting his shirt on.

"These bruises are going to last for days," he said, rubbing two fingers over one of the marks. The welts were already turning a blackish purple. Gasping and wincing, Masaru managed to finish dressing.

It was justified, Gray thought desperately. He'd needed to protect himself. But he'd hurt a defenseless non-wizard. It was subconscious, but he'd still lost control. He was unstable.

"Don't startle a mage next time," Gray muttered, feeling shame in the pit of his stomach.

"If this is how you treat your partners, I'm amazed you can still get laid," Masaru growled.

Gray stood in a flash, shaking. "Get out of my apartment."

"I was already going, fuckwit."

Gray was unable to think of anything to say.

Stomping every step, Masaru banged the front door, in possession of the final say and of victory. Gray watched the closed door for several numb seconds before crossing to it in long strides and slamming the lock.

He sank down in the corner of the wall, still naked.

Gray had done it all wrong. He should've just done it—should've taken control from the beginning and fucked the man until he begged for mercy. Instead he'd been scared and weak; he'd let someone dominate him. He'd let someone get the upper hand. He'd done this to himself: the terror gripping his chest was his own fault.

Gods, the panic. No.

These types always found him. It's like they sensed he was someone to take advantage of. This was who Gray was, a handful of skin to be taken, and it was apparently painted on his face. He ran from the fact every day, but it would always catch up to him, because he was forever that little child in the dark.

Gray's breaths came in uneven gasps.

He hated falling apart, hated breaking down into a useless pile of lethal memories and pathetic weakness. His nerves danced with unshed energy.

His past owned him, but he refused to be reminded. He'd rip his heart out first. No more feeling: Gray slammed everything closed. Emptiness: this was the good kind of cold, the kind that saved him. The kind that left no room for heartbreak or self-pity.

Now it was time to go do something useful with his fucking worthless hide. Throwing on clothes, he took off toward Fairy Tail in determined search of his team and a job.

His brain was full of noise, but he couldn't hear anything beyond the deafening tension in his gut.

He needed to do something valuable, focus on others. He was dirty, and this was the only way to lie to the world that he was anything more than that.


(Present day…)

Natsu was kissing him, arms tight around Gray, breath so hot. Gray wanted to melt into this warm embrace, wanted the fierce lips to consume him. Heart beating wildly, Gray knew what he wanted: to surrender.

The idea sounded right. He wanted to love Natsu. He yearned to give in.

There were a hundred reasons why he shouldn't: nobody was ever safe, feelings were a lie, surrender meant pain. There were no good reasons why he should give in, either, except perhaps that his heart kept telling him, this is where you can rest. Let go. Trust.

Gray was so tired of protecting himself. So tired of being lonely.

But he couldn't surrender. That was the way to get hurt, over and over, until everything broke, the jagged fragments were ground to dust, and there was nothing left of himself to salvage.

He knew he was pitiable: knew other people didn't live this way, avoiding intimacy with experienced excuses. He knew that must mean there was safety out there for some people. But weakling that he was, he couldn't overcome the fear of getting wounded again. His isolation was both deserved and chosen.

At least it was safe.

He had always stared at what he wanted from the other side of the glass, like a child staring into the storefront knowing his parents could never afford what he truly wanted. Watching people love each other in a way he didn't quite believe was real. It was surprisingly satisfying to watch others' happiness without having to trust anyone himself.

Hearing Natsu's heaving breathing and feeling the affectionate fingers on his back, Gray grinned at what they meant: the Salamander was happy. Gray would do anything to make that continue.

Watching the Dragon Slayer enjoy their relationship made life on the other side of the glass that much more bearable.

He couldn't surrender to Natsu's fire, but he could surrender to the thrills hardening his cock. Kissing down Natsu's neck, Gray found the spot that never failed to make the other boy hiss. When fingernails dug into his arm, Gray basked in the needy fervor burning between them.

Gray knew how to do this part.

So when Natsu slid his hands inside Gray's shirt, the ice mage led them to the bed. Gray could never uncoil into the arms currently tightening around his waist, but he could work all the skills he possessed and watch the Salamander come undone in response. Gray ached with the desire to unravel his fire mage into the land where everything was easy and everything felt good.

Gray could do that. He could make Natsu happy.

He needed Natsu to be happy so that Gray could, at least vicariously, find some semblance of peace.

Chapter 6: First Date

Chapter Text

Gray didn't look at Natsu as he took a drink from his mug, the raucous sounds of the Fairy Tail guildhall echoing around them. The fact that they weren't fighting each other these days would draw enough attention on its own, so they'd agreed to avoid giving each other any precedence in front of guildmates.

So when Gray decided he felt like dinner, he said to the general air, "I'm hungry."

"Me too," Natsu said eagerly, perking up—Gray was thankful he could take a hint sometimes.

"You're always hungry, flame brain. Despite eating pounds of food."

"What's wrong with that?" Natsu grinned. "It obviously works just fine for me. You only wish you had my physique."

Gray went hot, and not just on his face. Images of Natsu's exceptionally attractive body were not conducive to witty repartee. He took a hasty gulp from his drink and choked.

Coughing, he glared at his boyfriend. "At least I don't have your brain," he shot back.

"Hey!" Natsu stood up. "For that, you have to buy me dinner, stripper."

Gray spluttered. A few people were smirking at them. We are in front of everyone!

"What's wrong, icicle? I can't fight you when Erza's glaring at us like that." He pointed at the redhead across the hall, who was indeed giving them a considering look.

"Uh-huh." Gray glowered at him but rose. "Fine. Hurry up. It's late and I haven't eaten since noon."

Natsu glanced at the blue cat who had been sitting on the bar between them. Happy had busied himself throughout their exchange so he didn't do something stupid like laugh at them: he was trying very hard to keep the boys' secret, under both pain of threat and promise of reward.

"Are you coming too, Happy?" Natsu asked.

"No. I'm tired and your fights are annoying. I'll see you whenever you get back."

Happy's face was completely neutral. Gray was quite impressed.

"Alright, hothead," Gray said, "get moving or I'm leaving you behind."

The two men trudged to the doors not quite side by side, Gray still scowling and Natsu beaming his shit-eating grin. In that respect, they were acting very much like normal.

Once they were outside in the twilit darkness, Natsu grabbed Gray's arm. "Nice acting, snowflake. I didn't realize you could fake grumpiness as well as actually being grumpy."

"That wasn't— Not all of that was acting, flame brain. You basically asked me to dinner in front of the entire guild!"

"Oh, relax. They think this is just another one of our fights." Natsu leaned over and kissed his cheek.

Gray stopped dead in the middle of the street. Their hands slid apart before Natsu realized Gray had halted.

"Baka! We're in public," Gray hissed.

Natsu raised a sly eyebrow. "I know. Makes it more thrilling, doesn't it? You're the exhibitionist after all."

Gray blinked. When no words formed in his brain, he caught up and continued walking without looking at Natsu.

After a few seconds, he took Natsu's hand again, more subtly this time, keeping their arms down at their side.

"That was awesome the way you choked on your drink. Are you really that distracted by my body?" Natsu asked.

Gray gave him a deadpan look. Natsu burst into victorious laughter, a happy sound which curled through Gray's stomach.

Tired of being outwitted, and admittedly turned on by the way Natsu was smirking like the sun shown out of his ass, Gray shoved the Salamander forcefully down the nearest alley. Natsu yelped in surprise and Gray took that opportunity to kiss him, shoving his tongue into Natsu's mouth.

After several minutes, he pulled away long enough to say, "No more words."

"Why not?" Natsu panted into his kisses. "Afraid you can't win that battle?"

"I know this is a battle I can win," Gray said, running his hands down Natsu's body. "And it yields such pleasant returns."

"Think you can win, huh?" But Natsu groaned as he said it: Gray was now pushing his scarf down and sucking on his neck. "F-fuck. I thought you said you were hungry."

"Oh, I am." Gray bit him, hard, and Natsu whined happily.

Then the Dragon Slayer's stomach growled loudly and Gray sighed.

"Fine, you infinite pit. I'll take you to dinner first." Gray's expression turned crafty. "It's not like we don't have all night."

Now it was Natsu's turn to blush. The Salamander kissed him again before they wandered back out into the street. Readjusting scarf and jacket, they tried not to look like they'd just been making out in an alleyway.

They ate at a small place on the edge of town, where Natsu downed at least five times more food than a normal person yet somehow managed to converse around mouthfuls. Gray had always thought it would be hard for them to come up with things to say that weren't insults, but he'd been pleasantly surprised. Topics of conversation came as easily as reasons to tease each other. They were interested in all the same things: fighting, magic, fighting with magic, work…

When they finished and Gray paid (which was exhilarating when he realized he'd been the first to take them on a date), they walked out to find the streets truly dark now. As Natsu took his hand this time, Gray moved closer to him. They weren't near Fairy Tail or Fairy Hills or anywhere else they had to worry about. Passing the occasional person on the street, they just ducked their heads and kept walking. At this late hour, no one could make out their faces.

A short, thick-shouldered man nearly wandered into them, a book in his hands, not even looking up as they scooted out of his way.

Natsu whispered, "He smelled wrong. It was weird."

"Um…" Gray frowned. "Pretty sure that was Mest."

Natsu coughed in embarrassment.

"Yeah," he muttered. "I just realized that."

Gray was curious now. "Well? What was weird about him?"

"He, uh, smells very strongly of iron. In an organic way, not like normal. But not iron from blood."

He coughed again. It took Gray a moment to process the implication.

"You mean, he and Gajeel—?"

"Yep."

Gray gaped. It was possibly the last pairing he would ever expect in Fairy Tail.

"Natsu," Gray said slowly, "you said blood. Does that mean you can smell when girls are on their periods?"

Natsu tripped over a cobblestone. "Heh, yes. I always thought that was normal until Lucy, uh…educated me. I still don't understand why it's embarrassing."

"It only is to people who don't know better." Then Gray raised an eyebrow at him, smiling. "So what else can you smell?"

"Regular stuff, you know. What someone has eaten lately; where they've been; when someone is turned on, depressed, or injured; if they've had sex recently and," Natsu gestured back in Mest's direction, "with whom."

"Regular stuff," Gray snorted, and Natsu beamed. "Gajeel and Mest are far from regular, though. Talk about an unlikely hook-up. I can't imagine how that could've started."

"You've slept with far more mismatched partners than that," Natsu scoffed.

Gray stuttered, missing a step.

"Me?" he coughed, feeling blood pounding in his head.

"Yes, you," Natsu snorted. "Honestly, Gray: Freed?"

"Holy shit," Gray reeled, "just how much do you know about my sex life?"

"It's not like I'm trying to pry," Natsu said, voice dropping. "Sorry if it embarrasses you. I just know a lot."

Gray inhaled deeply. He wasn't ashamed at all, but for gods' sakes, this was Natsu. Was this a normal topic of conversation with one's boyfriend?

"When we got together," Gray said slowly, "you told me you didn't care about past lovers as long as we're exclusive. But if you have something else to say on the subject, you should probably say it now."

Before one of us hurts the other. Gray's chest tightened, like ice spreading over the skin. The idea of ruining this relationship—

Natsu hurriedly raised his free hand in surrender. "I still feel that way, Gray. I only brought it up because you mentioned unlikely hook-ups, and… I know too much. I didn't realize it would bother you."

"It doesn't bother me," Gray grunted. "I just didn't want you to have to think about it."

"Why?"

"Isn't it…weird for you?"

"Should it be?" Natsu slowed and stared at him. "I can't be jealous of things that happened before I came along."

"I never know with you," Gray mumbled, looking away. "Just didn't you to feel awkward, that's all."

"Aw, you have a sneaky romantic side." Natsu squeezed his hand, smiling.

Gray grunted and hid his blushing face, more embarrassed by Natsu's fond response than anything else they'd said.

They were a block from Gray's flat, covered in the shadow of tall trees, and Natsu slung an arm easily around Gray's shoulders. Gray still wasn't used to Natsu's effortless affection, nerves and thrills making his pulse erratic.

"So," Gray coughed, "tell me more things you've smelled."

"More things?" Natsu's voice roughened and he halted, pulling Gray into a kiss. "I can tell you all kinds of things, ice princess. For instance, I smell aggression on you after you fuck people, like it's stress-relief for you."

Gray couldn't respond: Natsu had drawn Gray's tongue into his mouth and was sliding his hands inside Gray's shirt. Gray moved into the touch.

"I've smelled sex on you often," Natsu went on breathlessly. "Every day sometimes. You're a horny icicle."

Gray couldn't help wondering how closely Natsu had paid attention to remember all of this. Gray hadn't slept with anyone else in a long time. But he didn't get an opportunity to ask, because Natsu was still kissing him, breathing warm fire into him.

As Natsu sucked his way down Gray's neck, Gray shuddered and yanked their hips together. When Natsu bit him, hard, digging his teeth in and circling his tongue around the spot, Gray stopped being capable of thought.

Natsu continued whispering against his skin.

"I've smelled it on you more in the evenings or early mornings: either you like the dark, or it's the most convenient time. Either way," Natsu finished unbuttoning Gray's shirt and trailed hot fingers over his skin until Gray moaned, "I'm available. And it happens to be nighttime right now."

Gray had his hands in Natsu's pants, feeling over muscled buttocks that were busily thrusting against him. Heart beating a thousand kilometers per hour, Gray felt like he was going to strain something if he didn't divest himself of all clothing soon.

"Home," Gray said roughly, practically dragging them down the street.

It was Natsu who started stripping Gray the moment the door was closed. There was a bit of a wrestling match for power: Gray was the one to push Natsu up against the wall, pin his hands, and flick his tongue over Natsu's nipple until the Dragon Slayer was writhing. He'd discovered Natsu was very sensitive to his chest being touched—Gray half suspected he could make Natsu come from that alone.

Escaping Gray's grasp with effort, Natsu pulled the ice wizard against himself and continued with his previous activity. As he bit Gray's lips, he kicked his pants off and worked at Gray's belt.

Gray shivered with desire. There was also a sliver of something else quivering in his stomach.

Natsu had seen him rubbing the sleep from his eyes in the mornings, knew Gray was always too tired to talk until he'd been awake at least half an hour. Natsu had seen Gray laughing until he couldn't breathe, a rare occurrence only brought on by the best jokes. Natsu had seen him icing over wounds; getting up and continuing to fight when he had no strength left and everyone else was down; snidely making fun of people when he was in a meaner mood.

Natsu had also seen Gray arching his head back as he lost control, spilling over, gasping at the sensations coming from Natsu's hands as Gray clutched him with desperate fingers.

Natsu had seen everything.

No other lover had seen quite so much. Only Gray knew all of himself, keeping things locked away from different people, in control of who really knew him and how. If a lover thought they had power over him, they were wrong. Gray held onto those things, so that he could fall apart in an orgasm in someone's arms and not have to feel understood by people who knew nothing at all.

But somewhere along the line, his childhood friend had opened all the locked boxes. All but one—the very worst which Gray opened for no one, not even himself. But Natsu held every other card, and Gray's stomach had begun to harden in warning as the days were passing too perfectly for all this vulnerability. If Natsu knew too much, this could all come apart. Gray would fall, and break, and be unable to lie himself into wholeness. All the darkness would come pouring out, and then? Natsu would know. And Natsu would leave him.

Natsu would see he was a tangle of trash and Gray would be damned.

Despite the impending worry, Gray still wanted. The path to damnation felt too wonderful for him to stop, too intoxicating. Natsu's affection was a drug in his system, a bright light he wanted to trust. No matter how dangerous it was.

At that moment, Natsu shoved down the last bit of clothing between them and melded into him.

"Oh gods," Gray screeched, voice rising several octaves. Natsu's thick cock pressed against him and Gray's was rubbing against the Salamander's hard thigh, thrusting automatically, bursting with hot fire. Gray bit Natsu's neck and tasted Dragon Slayer.

Natsu was a whirlwind against him as Natsu moved them toward the bed.

"Need you," Natsu growled. "Right now."

Gray had a terrifying moment has they landed on the futon with Natsu on top. Instinct reared its head. If the Dragon Slayer even thought about taking him like this, Gray Fullbuster was ready to kill, shred, fight his way out.

But Natsu's arms were shaking as he frotted against him, mouth open in wanton pleasure, and he didn't look like he could do anything but groan. The Salamander was as destroyed as Gray was.

Managing to twist them so they lay on their sides, Gray's fear dimmed and was replaced by furious enjoyment. He wasn't even focused on what they were doing, simply floating moment to moment on the bliss of what felt good and the way they thrust against each other and how Natsu hissed thrillingly into his neck…

Gray wanted to take in all of Natsu's naked body—he'd seen him in the nude before, but not yet like this, with permission to touch and taste and arouse. Until now, the various things they'd done together didn't require total removal of clothing and they were (predictably) too impatient to undress what wasn't necessary.

Now Gray had Natsu naked in his arms and he wanted to run his greedy gaze over everything and touch until the sun rose. But Natsu was kissing him so passionately, stroking Gray with those heated, reverent hands; Gray just trembled, enjoying.

"Please," Gray begged.

He'd never begged like this before. Never begged while a lover's fiery cock rubbed across his hipbone and sent sparks of desire across his skin.

He wanted all of this man. He wanted everything. Fuck fear and screw reason.

Natsu groaned and Gray crashed into him, sucking on him, flitting between his lips and sliding his tongue over Natsu's teeth. Gods, making out with Natsu had ruined Gray for anybody else: nothing could ever be the same as the Salamander's fangs.

Natsu's hot hand worked over Gray's ass, his clutching fingers infecting Gray with excitement and horror in equal measure. The two voices were at war: no, not there, fought against, yes, more of that. It felt so good, fingers kneading his flesh, and yet was so close to where all the pain began.

Then that hand moved around and grasped Gray's cock, and Gray forgot everything else. His body dissolved into loud and vocal appreciation.

"You're hot," Natsu gasped. "So hot."

Natsu held him, stroked him, touched him, fuck, fuck, fuck

It was strange just hanging on trying not to fall away, feeling every pleasure and hardly able to work any of his own moves because oh gods, he was simply struggling not to melt apart under his boyfriend's hands. Natsu was being more assertive than Gray ever expected and he should be feeling nervous, but it felt too damn good.

Gray would deal with the warning alarms later—he wanted to devour this moment first. Whatever else could be said of his boyfriend, the man was safe. Right here, right now.

Also there was a calloused hand squeezing around Gray's dick…

"Nng, Natsu…" Gray could hardly speak, throat dry from panting. "Y-You're…"

"Amazing?" Natsu supplied. "Damn right."

Flushed and out of breath, the Salamander's dark eyes played over Gray's with a mix of elation and yearning.

For the first time, Gray contemplated what it would be like to be consumed by the Dragon Slayer.

Growling, he pulled Natsu into a tight kiss and caressed his cheek, trying to communicate everything at once. Sliding his touch down Natsu's chest, he got a satisfying shudder out of his overstimulated partner before gliding down to fondle his balls.

"Fuck!" Natsu shouted. "Oh gods, Gray—!"

Gray probably shouldn't have been surprised Natsu's balls practically burned his fingers off. Grinning, he wrapped his hand around Natsu's cock and set up a fast pace stroking him, trying to mirror Natsu's rhythm so they didn't end up tangling their arms. Natsu cradled Gray's face in his free palm, kissing him with sloppy abandon as they jerked each other off.

The Salamander was perfect, warm, skilled, insistent, and Gray did not last long.

He came so hard he had to let go of Natsu's cock and dig his nails into his boyfriend's thigh. Gray yelled Natsu's name as his heart flew through the aether. He'd had sex a hundred times, but few had been with someone like this: with someone who really knew him seeing him fall apart.

Gray felt so vulnerable and he didn't want anyone to witness him like this. Natsu's presence pushed his soul open, his chest too tight for all the things inside.

Natsu was beaming so brightly as he rolled and put himself halfway on top of Gray, thrusting against him. Pleading Gray's name, he groaned and kissed across every centimeter of Gray's face. Gray was too tired and too at peace to be afraid about Natsu looming over him, even though he knew he should be.

He felt electrified. He didn't care if the electricity wound up hurting him.

Gray watched every enraptured look that crossed Natsu's features as the Dragon Slayer finally climaxed, spilling onto Gray's abdomen. The moan that ripped out of Natsu's open mouth made Gray's heart speed up. He ran his hands up his Salamander's sides, over the muscled chest that was heaving like Natsu was about to burst.

Shuddering, Natsu leaned his forehead against Gray's, opened his eyes, and grinned.

"You're incredible," Natsu breathed.

The words overwhelmed Gray, who didn't know how to feel, staring up at the man who essentially had Gray trapped here on the bed, yet whom he loved and trusted. Who'd thrown him here and come on top of him…who'd pleasured him so much he wasn't afraid. Holy shit.

Gray said the last two words aloud.

"Yeah," Natsu agreed, rolling sideways and dragging Gray with him so they stayed curled up in each other, naked and sweaty. "Hey, Gray?"

"Mm?" Gray was kissing Natsu's shoulder.

"I love you."

The words pinged around Gray's brain in delight, delving into deep places he hadn't known were there. How was Natsu able to lay waste to him so easily?

Ignorant to this, Natsu hauled him over and kissed him. Slow, breathless, sharing air and life.

"Sleep with me?" the pink-haired mage asked, and Gray knew he didn't mean simply in the same bed.

Gray crawled closer, throwing an arm over his boyfriend and letting Natsu lay his head against Gray's chest. Despite the overwhelming body heat and inelegant snarl of limbs, they fell asleep like that, exhausted and happy.

When they woke still tangled in the morning, Gray discovered two things: he had a crick in his neck and he felt more rested than he had in a long time. Like he'd actually slept the whole night.

Despite the fact Natsu had the power to break him more completely than any abuse or torture ever had.

Chapter 7: Observers

Chapter Text

Apparently Natsu was just so angry-excited about their job that he ran off before Lucy finished detailing who they were after. Gray sighed and rolled his eyes.

"Dammit!" Lucy exclaimed. "He doesn't know the woman is a wave-caster and has a fondness for lacrimas."

"So, traps," Gray filled in.

"Anti-magic traps."

"Great," Gray said. "Well, let's find the flame-brain before someone gets hurt."

As they took off in pursuit, Gray assessed whether he was worried. He wasn't sure if he was supposed to be (damn relationships being all confusing and messing with priorities), but the truth was, he wasn't: Natsu was strong and… Natsu was strong. The day Gray worried over him was the day he didn't know Natsu anymore.

As they entered the building where their prey was said to be, they encountered something worse than traps: a lot of people. When nobody gave them a second look, going on about their business, the team skidded to a halt in the wide hallway.

"Um…Lucy, what is this place?" Erza asked.

"I didn't actually pay attention. By the looks of things, I'd say some sort of…market?"

Just inside the nearest open door, two women haggled over prices, Jewel on the counter between them. A couple walked by with baskets full of food.

"Innocent bystanders," Erza said flatly. "If Natsu hurts anyone…"

Gray stared at her in surprise. If Natsu hurt anyone?

"He wouldn't endanger random people, Erza," he said, appalled.

"Maybe not intentionally. But if he decides to explode and isn't thinking…"

Gray couldn't believe what he was hearing. Erza was usually the first person to stand up for teammates—and what she was inferring was so blatantly wrong he was almost angry enough to hit her.

"Natsu has never hurt innocent people on a mission," Gray ground out. "Ever. He won't start today."

Erza gave him a long look he couldn't decipher; Gray glared back.

"G-Gray," Lucy stammered into the silence. "Did you just defend Natsu?"

"NO," he growled, whirling on his heel and stalking down the hallway to hide his face. "Of course not. The idiot doesn't need my— He's too stupid to hurt people! Now come on! Let's find the fire-eater and drag his ass out of whatever trouble he's in."

"Stop," a voice commanded. "Don't come another meter, wizard."

Gray's head jerked up in time to see the anti-magic wave just before it hit. Smacked to the ground, he felt the hard stone like a punch against his entire back—which it was, since he had no magic for those few seconds and was helpless against the force. The effects of the wave wore off almost immediately, making Gray's nerves tingle, but he didn't have time to do anything except roll out of the way of the next wave. It came from a completely different direction—lacrimas.

Glancing back, he saw Erza and Lucy had taken cover, leaving him the only person out in the open. And wherever Natsu was.

Jumping to his feet, Gray ran the length of the narrow corridor in search of cover and emerged into a courtyard with terraces hugging the walls, the market extending up through several floors. The area was crowded with people going in and out of businesses and shops, all oblivious.

Two anti-magic waves came at him from separate directions and Gray rushed around people trying to locate the mage. To his astonishment, the magic knocked two men over behind him, and suddenly people were shouting and rushing about and Gray couldn't see a damn thing.

Except a flash of pink.

Sprinting to Natsu's side, Gray was shoved by a confused patron and nearly toppled his boyfriend over.

"How many damn wizards are there?" Natsu asked as Gray went back-to-back with him.

"They're lacrimas. How and why she put them up all over a market area, I have no fucking clue."

Another clutter of waves shot their direction and Gray shoved against Natsu's back, avoiding them. This time, he tracked their direction, shooting ice at their sources: a shadowed part of the ceiling, a pocket in the wall, a red cart. He heard several things shatter and then the two boys had to evade once again. Letting out a frustrated, draconic growl, Natsu exploded with flames that Gray was luckily prepared for, ice coating his back for protection.

These were the moments Gray loved and lived for. When he fought, he knew how he fit into the world. The only other thing that made him feel so completely at home in his skin was Natsu. Having both at once made the pieces of his soul settle into peaceful harmony.

Running to a nearby wall and crunching a small lacrima beneath his fist (which hurt, not that he'd admit it), Gray felt the heat a second before Natsu knocked into him and they both went flying. Usually Gray would take advantage of this to tease and yell at him, but the accidental shove had gotten him out of the way of another wave, so he settled for destroying the two lacrimas Natsu was aiming for.

Natsu stuck his tongue out at him. Gray grinned.

When this was over, they'd go home together. They'd wake up beside each other tomorrow and do it all over again. No matter who they fought or what they did, Natsu would still want him. This continuity from day to day was amazingly comforting. Gray had been avoiding this for so many years? He wasn't sure if it was all relationships or just Natsu, but he didn't regret letting this thing happen between them, scary as it sometimes was. So many firsts for Gray.

As more lacrimas fired anti-magic waves, Gray's ice disintegrated before reaching its targets and he had to duck. With a sigh, he conjured the ice again. He was out of breath: this really wasn't hard, just time-consuming.

"These stupid things sure make it hard to figure out where she is," he growled.

"Wait, we're supposed to take her out before the lacrimas? Because she's right there." Natsu pointed up. "Came out to watch a few minutes ago. Keeps talking under her breath."

"Flame-brain," Gray grunted, rolling his eyes. "You and your senses. If you know where she is, go get her. That's what we're here for."

"But the—"

"I can take care of the lacrimas, idiot," Gray said, smacking his head as he passed Natsu going in the opposite direction.

Smiling, Natsu jumped up to catch hold of the terrace railing above them. "Let's see who can finish first!"

"Did you intend that innuendo, or are you just that innocent?" Gray called up.

"Droopy-eyed snowflake!" Natsu shouted back.

Snorting, Gray turned his back and focused on locating and destroying the lacrimas.

The dodge-and-smash routine grew easier as he could anticipate where the waves would come from, but it was still annoying as hell. A lacrima he hadn't noticed shattered hardly a meter from where he stood, sending an erratic explosion of magic in his direction. Leaping back, he discovered a sword embedded in the wall and looked around for its owner.

"Did you find Natsu?" Erza asked, running up and piercing another of the glass orbs. Just how many of these fucking things were there?

"He's going after the wizard." Gray pointed up. "He could hear her breathing apparently."

"Now you're stripping?" Lucy asked behind him. His shirt had just landed on her head.

Gray flushed. Ugh. Bring up Natsu and his clothes came off.

No more anti-magic waves came their way as they checked the remainder of the courtyard. As they determined they'd gotten all the traps, Natsu crashed into the center of the stone floor with a woman under his arm.

"Here you go." He held her out by the collar.

"Natsu," Lucy admonished, "you didn't have to knock her out!"

"She was being irritating," he said with a shrug. When nobody made a move, he let the mage slump into a heap on the floor.

"I realize this is futile to ask, but next time, could you listen to everything before you go get yourself lost?" Lucy sighed.

"I wasn't lost."

"I mean from us!"

Natsu merely laughed. Cheeks flushed, he looked energized and cheerful.

"At least your hair makes it easy to find you," Gray grunted, elbowing Natsu as an excuse to get close.

"Didn't you once say my hair was an eyesore?" Natsu gave him an imperious smile. "Glad you don't think so anymore, popsicle."

Gray settled for flipping him off.

"Mm, sure," Natsu laughed.

Then he seemed to catch Lucy staring and he punched Gray to hide their grins.

"Are we done here, or what?" the Salamander asked.


It was pretty obvious to Lucy what was going on between Natsu and Gray. Their teasing had grown flirty; they could hardly keep their hands off each other, even if it was just hitting (though there were more high-fives and nudges these days too); and they mysteriously ended up in the same place most of the time, including leaving from and arriving at Fairy Tail together.

Since Natsu hadn't told Lucy anything, that could mean they'd sort of slipped into a relationship without actually communicating it in words—which would explain how awkward they got when they realized people were watching them. Not to mention Natsu and Gray were totally the kind of people to start dating each other without letting each other know, emotions guiding them and not actually talking about it.

Idiots.

If Natsu were keeping their relationship secret from her deliberately, though, she was going to kick his ass. That was, if Erza didn't first—the redhead always eyed the boys' odd behavior with that bird-of-prey expression.

As Lucy's curiosity refused to abate, she decided she was just going to ask Natsu and find out what was going on.

Opportunity presented itself—predictably—in the form of Natsu breaking into her flat one evening and inviting himself to dinner (while Gray was gone on a job, she noted). As she heaped food onto her plate before Natsu could take it all, Lucy asked, "Have you ever dated someone?"

Natsu choked on a piece of chicken. "Huh?"

"Don't play dumb."

"I, um...kinda."

"When?"

Natsu's slightly-terrified expression made Lucy feel like she was a monster for asking. Gods, it was just a question.

"W-why," he stuttered, "um, are you...?"

"I'm just curious."

"Uh, Lucy, I'm not, um—"

"Natsu!" Her tone made him snap up straight. "I'm not asking you out, baka. I'm pretty damn gay, and you are very much a dude. I was just asking, okay?"

"Oh. Okay." His expression cleared with a comical degree of relief. "In that case, me too."

Lucy frowned. "You too what?"

"'M gay."

Aha.

"Most Dragon Slayers are," he continued.

Lucy blinked. "Really?"

"Yeah." Natsu stared down at his food, for once not scarfing it down like a jackal after a rabbit. "I did try kissing a girl once. I didn't like it."

"That sounds like it should be a song," she chuckled. "For the record, I knew you were gay."

His eyes went wide again. "You did? What g-gave it away?"

"Yeah, I knew. The way you act around people, and look at certain guys…"

The way you look at Gray like he's the coolest thing you've ever seen.

"I don't—that's not—who are you talking about?" he finished in a near-shout of a desperation.

Lucy sighed. Clearly any interrogation about Gray was not going to happen this evening.

"I don't remember specifics, Natsu. I'm just saying we can identify our own kind."

She winked to lighten the tension and he finally relaxed.

"Did I ever tell you about when my father found out about my sexuality?" Lucy asked, changing the topic. "He threw a chair through a window—not because I'm gay, but because none of his business partners had eligible daughters my age."

At the mention of destruction, Natsu's eyes sparked. "Really?"


Erza slowly began to hope the boys were learning to get along. Their friendly behavior became more and more the norm, and it looked like her prayers were finally being answered… Until Gray and Natsu burst into Fairy Tail one day with a worn-out Lucy and Happy trailing behind them and an argument in full swing.

"—hell was that punch, fire freak?" Gray was yelling. "Don't hit your fucking allies."

Natsu glared. "I might ask you what the hell, popsicle. You totally let her past you!"

"I thought you were going to deal with it," Gray shot back. "I was going after the big one. I figured you could handle her: she was closer to you anyway!"

"We were equal distance. Besides, I was dealing with the big guy already. You stole my prey."

While the volume level was usual for Fairy Tail—and for Natsu and Gray—that didn't mean it was tolerable. With thunderclouds in her eyes, Erza rose to tell them off.

"You're a bad communicator," Natsu finished, his focus still completely on his rival. He was surprisingly calm, arms crossed and one eyebrow raised. "If you're changing the plan, you have to tell me."

"It's hard to communicate in the middle of a fight!" Gray said, waving his hands. "Teamwork means I trust you to take care of the other stuff. It's called working together. Instead you punched me when my back was turned."

"I already told you I wasn't aiming at you! See, communication. This is what it looks like."

Erza stopped. This was...surprisingly mature of them. As they glowered at each other in silence, she stepped in.

"I'm impressed. Communication and trust are important to a team's dynamics. I'm glad you've realized that."

The boys blinked at her, surprised by her appearance, their stances changing at once. They broke out together:

"Natsu tried to start a brawl with me in the middle of a job!" Gray said.

"I won't trust this snowflake. You can't make me!" Natsu called.

"Natsu, shut up! If you say another word, I'm going to make you apologize to him for that."

"Me?!"

Gray chuckled.

"Wipe that smirk off your face, Gray," she continued, "or I'm going to make you prove to him you're trustworthy. Teamwork and trust go both ways. Got it?"

Huffing, Gray stared at his toes while Natsu narrowed his eyes.

"Got it?" she repeated in a growl.

"Yes," they chorused.

"Good. Gray, put your clothes back on."

Gray yelped and blushed—as if this weren't old hat by now. Everyone in Magnolia had seen him naked.

Frustrated at the amount they'd raised her blood pressure, she turned back to the bar wondering if it was too much to pray they'd grow up one day and no longer require a mediator. Those goddamn boys.

She sat down pondering which she needed most: cake or stout. Not that it was an either-or conundrum: she just had to decide which one she was going to tackle first.


Later that day, Gray and Natsu walked down a side street toward home. They both had their hands in their pockets—for Gray probably as a precautionary measure to keep his pants on—but their shoulders brushed as they walked. Every time they touched, Natsu felt a little more okay, a little less upset.

"Sorry for hitting you," he mumbled as they turned a corner. "On the job. I didn't mean to."

Gray sighed. "It's fine. I'm not used to fighting beside you."

The Dragon Slayer glanced over, incredulous. "We fight beside each other all the time, popsicle."

"Well, yeah…" Gray scratched his head. "I'm used to doing my own thing, not having to trust you."

He shot Natsu a tiny half-smile.

"Yeah, I guess," Natsu mumbled, feeling warm inside. "Expectations and shit changed."

"Like how I expect you to be an ass most of the time," Gray quipped.

Natsu elbowed him in the ribs. "I expect you to be annoying."

"I expect you to be loud."

"I expect you to be naked," Natsu said.

Blushing, Gray stumbled and couldn't seem to come up with a response.

"Is that a point for me?" Natsu asked, laughing.

There was a long pause as they turned another corner onto a broader street, moving ever so slightly away from each other on habit. Natsu despised that habit. He wanted to hold Gray's hand.

"Do there have to be points?" Gray asked.

At the seriousness of the ice mage's tone, Natsu looked over.

"Of course not, Gray."

"Good." Gray met his eye. "Because you will totally lose if there are."

Gray's happy laughter made a smile break out on Natsu's face even while he was trying to punch Gray's shoulder. Gray warded him off and Natsu settled for darting ahead of him in the street.

"I'll race you, icicle!" he called over his shoulder.

He heard Gray break into a sprint behind him, yell carrying ahead: "Cheater!"

"All's fair!" he shouted back, whizzing around the next corner. In love and war—and this is both.

He reached Gray's flat first, panting on the doorstep as the dark-haired wizard ran up. Unlocking the door, they stumbled inside.

"You…cheated," Gray said between breaths.

"Whatcha going to do about it?" Natsu teased.

"Not feed you anything."

Natsu fake-pouted. "That's cruel."

Reeling Gray into an apparent embrace, he made a grab for the nearest cabinet behind Gray's back. When Gray impeded him, Natsu tried to wrestle him, until Gray kissed him on the mouth. Jerking in pleasant surprise, Natsu hummed and drew him deeper.

Gray tasted like beer and snow. Warmth curled around Natsu's insides as they kissed each other, occupying all of his attention with hungry, satisfied feelings. He didn't let up until his lips started to hurt.

"Natsu," Gray said after catching his breath, "do you think anyone…noticed anything?"

Natsu's eyebrows rose.

"Between us? No clue."

When Gray's expression creased in anxiety, Natsu sighed.

"Probably not," he said with the most reassuring tone he could muster. "You really care that much?"

Gray looked away. "You already know I do."

"But it's been a while now. We've dated for how many months? Maybe it would be okay if a few people found out." Like Lucy. She had so many goddamn questions. "We could at least ease up on the fake fighting. It's hard to remember to be mean to you when that's the last thing I want to do."

"Yeah." Gray smiled, but fell back into a frown. "I'm just not comfortable with people knowing. It makes me feel naked."

"Don't you like being naked?" Natsu teased.

Gray merely grunted. When his eyes turned down onto his hands, Natsu grabbed his fingers. Okay, this was a serious conversation.

"What do you mean by 'naked'?"

When Gray lifted his head, his expression was fiery, almost dangerous.

"You're mine. I don't want anyone but you seeing how I treat you, watching me kiss you, knowing what goes on between us. I don't want people seeing how much you affect me. I'm strong and you're my—"

He stopped.

Natsu knew exactly what word he'd been about to say. Weakness. You're my weakness.

As if Gray could ever be weak. The fact that he cared just made him that much more strong and wonderful. But the words felt like an I love you. He was well-aware Gray had not said those three words to him.

Natsu was his weakness...

"I like you too, Gray," he said, smiling and reeling him in for another kiss.

Nobody had to know. If it made Gray feel better, Natsu didn't care.

Chapter 8: Knowledge and Suspicion

Chapter Text

For all Gray's sexual experience, he could be surprisingly flighty. He was eternally embarrassed about any blush or hug or laugh they shared, like he didn't know how to show affection. Natsu found it charmingly hilarious.

Gray's actual anxiety, however, Natsu tried to take seriously.

Whenever Natsu took control in bed, there was a moment where his ice mage would freeze. He'd look like a freaked-out beast, but when Natsu went slow, Gray would eventually relax. After their first encounter like this, it had taken a week until Gray stopped tensing whenever Natsu pinned him against the nearest bracing object. But they were getting better. Gray seemed to be learning to trust him, able to enjoy things more easily.

It was still a bit of a struggle sometimes, but Natsu was learning what Gray liked, learning how to make things enjoyable for him. He was waiting for the day Gray didn't tense at all.

Okay, sure, Gray's emotional remove might be a bit stronger than one would expect. Sometimes his eyes went blank and all his movements turned hollow like he was possessed. Natsu had his suspicions, but he just kept enjoying his boyfriend. Just being around Gray was exhilarating.

That particular afternoon, Natsu had gotten back from a two-day job with Lucy, which meant several nights not sleeping with Gray. His brain, upset at this break in routine, was focusing on images of his boyfriend and all the things Natsu wanted to do with him, from fucking him into the bed while Gray moaned and let go, to falling asleep with Gray against his chest and getting to hold him all night. Or taking Gray out for dinner so he could hold his hand in public afterward—crossing town at night was the only time they could get away with PDA.

When Natsu saw the ice mage stalk into Fairy Tail in a tight jacket with his signature scowl in place, the Salamander's heart leapt skyward. Pushing off his stool without another thought, Natsu jogged across the guildhall.

"You. Stripper." Natsu pushed a finger at Gray's chest. Damn, those pecs. "I have a bone to pick with you."

Gray flushed in what no doubt looked like anger to anyone else. Natsu grinned evilly: he knew. Gray had picked up the innuendo.

"What is it, hothead?" Gray snapped, crossing his arms. Fiery. Gray only got like that when Natsu successfully flustered him.

"It's your fault, that's what! Like usual." Natsu's hand lit with flame. "You want to settle it in here, or outside?"

"Outside!" several voices yelled.

The Dragon Slayer shoved his boyfriend—another excuse to touch his chest—and marched out the door without looking back. The ice mage's footsteps followed right behind.

Which was how, minutes later, Natsu had Gray out in the forest cornered against a rocky outcrop panting for breath.

"I want you," Natsu breathed against Gray's lips. Eager heat surged through him as those intense black eyes snapped to his face, Gray nodding eagerly. Oh gods, that look. Want, want, want.

"How—" Gray started, but Natsu was sucking Gray's tongue into his mouth. It wasn't hard to get Gray to shudder: he was a tightly coiled spring and the slightest pressure sent him vibrating.

When Natsu unzipped Gray's pants and dropped to his knees, Gray gasped, "What?"

"If it's okay with you?" Natsu grinned.

"Natsu, I…" Gray stared at him, breathing hard. There it was again: the frozen muscles and shocked look.

"May I?" Natsu's fingers curled around the waistband of Gray's boxers, as if there was any doubt what he was asking.

Gray blinked at him, Natsu getting a little worried by all the waiting. He kissed Gray's abdomen, willing him into a state of calm. I am not going to hurt you, baka. Trust me.

"Yes," Gray said at last. "Hell yes. But only if you—want—"

He broke off in a grunt.

Freeing the ice mage's cock, Natsu closed his lips around the head, breathing in Gray's smell.

I want.


Gray was reeling. Natsu had taken him by surprise, which was never good: Gray didn't do surprises well. But now the Dragon Slayer was on his knees, and his mouth on Gray's dick felt so good, and Gray was so overwhelmed he couldn't think anymore. He knew he needed to hang on and stay in control, but oh, oh…

Anxiety and pleasure both made his muscles tense. The sensations built inside him in a tingle of overexcitement and strained nerves.

Natsu was mouthing his balls now, hand skimming over Gray's cock. Grunting, Gray stared down at the haze of pink, saw Natsu slip Gray into his mouth once more. The squeezing grasp of lips and fingers moving over Gray flashed through his body, hot and pure.

"I see you missed me," Gray grunted.

Natsu didn't pull away for a comeback, humming in genuine agreement.

Gods. It hit Gray like a caving building: that Natsu wasn't doing this because they were helping each other out like two bros, simply filling that needy desire for release. Natsu wanted Gray. Wanted him, as a person. Wanted to care…

Gray stared up at the treetops feeling muddled. He didn't understand what these feelings meant. Why he felt so off-balance.

Gray's legs tensed into painful knots as Natsu's movements became jerky and rough. The Dragon Slayer was making his own symphony of noises now. Groaning, Gray closed his eyes, shutting out the forest so all he could feel was the hot friction, the way Natsu lapped over the head with every thrust, the pressure building inside him.

Building fast. Natsu was making love to his cock and he could feel himself getting closer to the edge, tipping up into irrational heights of pleasure. Gray hissed: he was about to come in the Salamander's mouth.

"Gods, no, shit. Natsu—shit…"

Gray's palm was bumping Natsu's temple in warning, in refusal to do this to him because it usually tasted bitter and the man a dragon's intense senses. But Natsu just ran his tongue along the underside of Gray's cock and pumped harder with his fist, sucking on the tip.

This man cared about him a lot more than Gray comprehended sometimes. Gray didn't understand it, Natsu's open-hearted way of loving and not giving a fuck if he got hurt in the process. He was so whole. And the way he attended to Gray, like he really had missed him… The sincere affection made Gray dizzy, made pleasure spring through him without hindrance, body surrendered to Natsu's hands.

In that moment, with Natsu loving him, he was vulnerable and Natsu was in control. Natsu was the one making this feel so good, and he was all Gray needed to reach the heights.

"Natsu, wait… Fuck!" Gray shouted, falling slack against the rock. It roared through him and a second later he came in Natsu's mouth, knees shaking and hands grasping at whatever they could find. The euphoria devastated him like a tornado ripping everything to shreds, leaving nothing behind but panting and the afterglow of pleasure.

Natsu swallowed, wiping a drip off Gray's cock and pulling Gray's pants back up. Still kneeling, Natsu looked up and grinned at him.

"Natsu," Gray whispered hoarsely.

Natsu licked his lips, head tilted to the side. "Different," he said, and fuck, that flushed face, the mouth that had just swallowed Gray down—gods, Natsu was magnificent.

Gray stared skyward: he had fucking tears in his eyes. Gods dammit. What was this?

A bodily rebellion, that's what it was. That was, he knew, the first time Natsu had given anyone a blow job, and he'd done it with the express purpose of showing Gray he liked him—not in a I-want-you-to-feel-good-tonight way, but in a I-like-you-in-all-the-things way. And Gray's body was going over all mawkish, because it had been wonderful. Not just the blow job. Natsu's desire for him.

Sentimentality. It fucking choked him. Gray despised every soft desire that tried to slip through him and find contentment. It wasn't over yet. There was no such thing as freely-given anything. There were just debts and remittances. My turn.

Growling, Gray pulled Natsu up and kissed him like the world existed on his tongue. "Natsu," he breathed, frantic, "Natsu…"

Coughing a little, Natsu backed away a few centimeters to catch his breath, beaming. "Slow down there. My mouth is a bit tired."

"I don't need your lips in order to repay you," Gray grunted, fisting his hands in Natsu's shirt.

Before he could get any further, Natsu grabbed his shoulders and held him against the rock.

Startled, Gray tried to pull him back in, but the Dragon Slayer growled, tightening his grip. What was far, far worse was that Natsu's smile had been replaced with seriousness.

"You don't owe me anything, ice breath," the Salamander said. He leaned in to kiss Gray's collarbone very softly. "Ever. I sure as shit enjoyed that at least as much as you did."

Gray shivered, undone. It should be beautiful, that statement. Shouldn't terrify him so much. Shouldn't make it so damn hard to breathe.

His heart was full of restless emptiness.

Reclining against the rock, he pulled Natsu into a hug so he wouldn't have to meet his eyes anymore. With Natsu's hot, comforting presence pressed against his body, Gray stared into the distance. Later. He would repay this later.

He cared about their relationship too much to be in Natsu's debt like this. Gray didn't like to owe anyone, especially those he loved and relied on. It made things awkward. It bound people with chains of obligation instead of open-hearted care.

"Well," Natsu murmured, "I'm definitely not going on any multi-day missions for a while."

"I'm just too good," Gray teased, feeling something click into place. Routine banter. Something to stand on.

"We both know I'm the hot one," Natsu retorted.

Gray bit his ear.

"Hey!" the Salamander exclaimed.

"I can't control myself," Gray teased. "You're just too hot."

When Natsu kissed his neck without responding, Gray added, "You know that's a joke. I would never do anything without—"

"Yes, Gray, I know," Natsu laughed. "You've told me a thousand times. Believe it or not, I haven't forgotten, popsicle."

Gray blushed but smiled. Natsu knew him well.

Running his hands up and down Natsu's back, he finally relaxed enough to deal with his internal state. Forcing his nerves into silence, he pushed his fear to the back of his mind, refusing to let it control him. He had the power here. Gray was nothing if not control.

But gods, he knew that control was slipping.

Natsu called him out into deep waters were there was nothing to stand on and he was supposed to just trust. The anxiety in his gut was growing every day, drawing up a past Gray who was dead and buried. The more nervous this relationship made him, the more likely he was to screw it up by falling to pieces. He should be sprinting for the hills, but he just couldn't.

He needed the Dragon Slayer. It was his weakness—one of his many weaknesses. He knew it would end up debilitating his heart, possibly being lethal. But this weakness…the way Natsu made him feel was amazing. Natsu's unrealistic optimism lulled him into calm. Gray didn't want to give that calm up. The mirage would break eventually, because it always did, but for now, he almost thought he could glimpse unfettered happiness.

Gray gripped his fire wizard close.

Chapter 9: ( Past) The Things He Must Never Say

Chapter Text

Cana broke off thrusting long enough to rip Gray's shirt over his head. She was so aggressive today not even he could get undressed fast enough. Their pants were pooled on the floor where she'd dropped them when she first arrived all ravenous and assertive.

It was a good thing he was in a pleasant mood, or else opening his door and being jumped by a horny, kissing card mage would not have yielded pleasant results for anyone.

She had asked permission before undoing his belt. And of course, Gray wasn't generally opposed to finding himself balls-deep inside someone.

Grunting, Cana shoved down onto his cock again and struck a heavy pace, twisting her hips with each thrust. He was sitting barely on the edge of his hard sofa, Cana's knees on either side of his hips, a perilous position which would've dumped them both on the floor if he weren't bracing them. This did mean he had both hands on her excellent ass, so he couldn't complain too much.

"More," Cana growled, arms going around his shoulders for more leverage. Gray sighed but let her have full control, since she was intent on taking it anyway: when Cana was this eager, she wanted a fast orgasm, and that happened best with her on top. Gray's private goal was to change that, but for now she still knew her body's whims better than he did.

He groaned as she pulled off his cock only to slam onto him again, over and over. It felt like he was impaling her, but hell, it felt fucking amazing. A bit rough, but he could handle it.

Cana's kisses started to get hard enough to leave bruises on his lips (Gray knew through experience) so he escaped and sucked down her neck and chest. Her nails dug into his shoulders as she hissed. There was no way in this state she'd let go long enough for him to get her top off, but he ran a hand up her muscled abdomen—gods, she was toned—and pulled the straps from her shoulders.

Her breasts bounced with every thrust, dark nipples already hard points. Gray sucked the smooth flesh right next to one, teasing, grinning at the frustrated growl that ripped out above him.

Before he could tantalize her further, Cana arched away from him with a shout. His hand still on her ass felt her quivering as she squeezed wondrously around his cock, and Gray felt a smug pride knowing he had gotten her off so fast.

Half a minute later, she was back at it, grinding onto him. Guess it wasn't time to let go yet.

He moved his lips in the most tormenting route possible over her breast, until she shoved her nipple at his face and huffed, "Do it already. Fuck. Please."

After a moment's hesitation, Gray sucked on one nipple and grazed it with his teeth, cupping her other breast in his free hand and rubbing his thumb roughly over the nub.

"Gods yes!" Her voice was hoarse. Sometimes she could climax just from him touching her breasts. "Just like that…"

Something about her demanding tone knocked his satisfaction down a notch. He did still enjoy it: Cana squeezing around his cock felt amazing (before her, he'd had no idea girls actually had control over their vaginas like that). But the roughness and the detachment on her part triggered something in him.

Hypocritical as it was considering his own emotional remove, Gray was uncomfortable fucking someone who just wanted his dick and mouth.

Not his flirtations or the experience of being with him. Just his convenient body parts.

Gray showed none of this in his movements—he felt none of it. The disconnect inside him kept him safe: one body, two minds. He could watch himself objectively having pleasure and ignore any emotions Cana stirred up. The objectivity was frustrating, a part of him he wished he didn't have, but it was the only way to not start hurting with memories when things like this happened.

It was the only way to stay sane when the voices in his head were telling him he was just a body. Good for being used.

The voices hovered in the back of his awareness, never fully vanishing. His heart used loneliness like a fortress, protecting him from everything and everyone. He wasn't a creature of feeling: when he reminded himself of that, the old emotions went numb like a dead limb.

He was strong.

He was separate from the two Fairy Tail mages currently fucking on his sofa, like he could watch himself as a different being.

Gray was isolated: there were things he could never say, secrets he couldn't tell anyone if he wanted to survive. Sex made it bearable; kept him from going over the edge. He watched people unfold into him and lived in their soul for a few beautiful moments.

At least, that's how it was when he wasn't trying to cut off every sensation before it reached his brain.

It was harder to stay turned on when he was remote like this—not impossible, just more difficult. But Cana was skillful, and the fact that they'd done this a hundred times helped. He let his brain run smoothly through patterns it already knew, basking in the sensations encompassing his cock and the way Cana was yanking on his shoulders in desperate need.

No matter how cold things were inside him, he was damn good at this.

So was she, the pressure in his groin getting unbearable.

"Shit, Cana…close," he warned, but Cana was already snaking her tongue between his teeth and shivering as another orgasm hit her.

For just a split second, as Gray grunted and exploded apart, it felt like he could reach through his imprisonment and touch the world as intimately as everyone else could. Like he was real. Like he was connected and not alone.

Cana collapsed against him, breasts heaving against his chest as she wound down from her high.

"Shit, thank you," she breathed.

"That's what I'm good for," he chuckled, the detached part of him attempting humor.

"Damn," Cana groaned. "Is there anything I can do for you?"

"Think I'm good."

Climbing off him, Cana walked unapologetically nude across his flat and got herself a drink—water, after complaining about the lack of anything alcoholic. Gray stretched his legs, moving out of his precarious spot on the edge of the couch.

"Stressed?" Gray asked conversationally, leaning back into the cushions with relief.

"How could you tell?"

"Last time we fucked, my butt didn't fall asleep."

Cana snorted. Plopping down next to him with glass in hand, she asked, "How come you aren't a bundle of nerves like the rest of us? With everything that happened yesterday—"

"I've got other ways of calming down," he interrupted, before she could broach emotional topics.

"Is that why Natsu's nose was bleeding this morning?" she asked with a smirk.

Fire burned through him just thinking about that dumb lizard's face.

"Possibly."

Cana rolled her eyes. "Normal humans express themselves sometimes. You know, with words."

"Mm." Gray managed to cover his internal flinch. Using words? Cana should know him better by now.

Chapter 10: Panic Attack

Chapter Text

Gray didn't know what set it off.

It might've been when he nicked himself with the razor, a mesmerizing red trail sliding down his jaw. Blood had a manic effect on his psyche sometimes.

It might've been that he'd just been thinking about it all too much, the thoughts too near the surface. Maybe it was because Natsu was wonderful, people kept looking at them, and Gray was scared. Vulnerable. Stupid anxieties kept rising, a low-level static humming through his body.

He knew the moment the panic was coming for him.

The first thing he felt was the ghost of cold on his neck. Then he started shaking. Adrenaline hit him and locked his muscles in silent battle.

He knew he shouldn't keep shaving while his hands were trembling this much, but he did anyway, wanted to finish up and get this out of the way before his mind tore apart—if he could beat the ticking clock of his thoughts. He hated when panic interrupted his routines and halted him in the middle of things.

Thinking about the blades scraping across his chin was something of a distraction for a few moments. Sharp edges, drawn over skin…

Putting those little blades away was harder than it should've been.

Staring at himself in the mirror, noting his pale skin, he felt his wrists being held in hard fingers that didn't exist. Even though there was nothing visible, the other reality hijacked his senses, making it real.

He remembered the sharp edges of things: fingernails digging into his skin, the corner of a table stabbing his hip. Cold soaked through him at the memories. He was ice: hard, cold, sweating.

If he was numb enough, they wouldn't be able to touch him. Nothing could touch him. He would watch from inside while it happened, would feel it, but wouldn't feel it. If he were dead, he couldn't feel it.

Gods, he was so terrified.

He fought the flashbacks. Fought against seeing it again, while tears spilled over his cheeks. His stomach churned, deciding for him that what was unfolding in his mind was horrible, vomit-worthy. No, it's not, he thought furiously. It's the way of the world.

But the past sunk its teeth into him.

No matter how much he told himself that none of it mattered, some part of him was still horrified at the injustice, wrongness, and pain of it all. Some part of him still protested and fought, as if he were worth more than what was done to him.

Gray watched his face in the mirror—his grown-up adult face with the dribble of red on his jawbone—and felt the stabbing pain in his legs. He heard a voice. He couldn't move.

Some part of Gray knew he was in the present and they couldn't touch him here, but safety was a lie. Safety was a place where his mind held him captive and made him watch them do that to him over and over again. He could smell it, the sweat and the floral scent. Like it really was about to happen to him again. Oh god.

Pain spiked through his arms and up his neck, an echo ringing through him. It hurt so much.

When shaking took over, he stumbled to the floor of the bathroom. His legs rose up around him, knees meeting his shoulders, ramparts holding him in. He felt the pain moving over him and curled tighter into a ball.

When Gray closed his eyes, his mind fractured and fell apart.

He was cold. People could touch him whenever they wanted. He was so small. He couldn't struggle, and if he could, it wouldn't do any good. He was too terrified to do magic.

The cold took him over until his ice was far, far away. He hiccoughed down a sob. Powerless.

Putting his hands over his wet face, he realized he was crying. The small, sane corner of his mind sneered: he was pathetic. Curled up on the floor weeping, breaths wracking out of him, nothing under his control.

He was terrified someone would see him like this. He was weak. Nothing had changed over the past eleven years. Nothing ever would: he was useless. One day, people would see him like this, and it would be all over.

A crash in the other room made his heart leap into overdrive.

Gasping, he scuffled back into the corner behind the door. The crashing sound had been in this grownup reality.

It was all happening again. No, no, no.

With panic throbbing through his head, he pressed as far back into the dark corner as he could go. Nobody would find him here. He tried to get his breaths to cooperate, pinched a hand over his nose and mouth so he couldn't let out the sobs. Maybe he could die.

"Gray!" a voice shouted.

Footsteps, pounding closer. Gods, no. They would find him. He didn't want it to happen again.

Gray was getting dizzy from the lack of air. Maybe if he was lucky he would suffocate before they got here. The air would leave his body forever and he would be free. It would all be over.

He was tired and aching and his whole body hurt, from the tortured strain of his muscles to the sharp pains in his ass. As he strangled himself, knives pierced his lungs. They drowned out his thoughts so he couldn't focus.

He wanted to throw up.

"Gray!" someone yelled, and the door to the bathroom burst open.

Natsu hurtled in.

Part of Gray leapt, yelling safety, while another part shrieked in terror because here it was, here was hell, yet another person come to take him by force in shattering agony, and Gray knew he wouldn't be able to fight against those steely arms when they held him down—

The other man thudded onto his knees beside him and Gray screamed.

"No! Get off—get off!"

Hands clawed into his shoulders. He covered his face, every part of him certain of what came next.

He wanted to die.

That's when the last, worst part of Gray spoke up. You're not good. Broken. Never good enough. It's all a lie.

Gray rocked back and forth, waiting for what they would do to him.

"Gray, it's me!" the man shouted, barely audible over the voices in Gray's head. "Are you hurt? What happened?"

Gray whimpered, trying to pull into a smaller ball. They always treated him nicely in the beginning. He didn't deserve it. They would be so kind, take care of him, and then—it was just a small thing, wouldn't hurt, help us out, repayment, let me show you…

Gray's hand slid off his face as he hyperventilated. Heart hurt. Everything hurt.

The desperate voice above him softened: "It's okay, Gray. I'm here. Everything is going to be okay."

Arms enveloped him: hot, burning arms, followed by breathy murmurs against his skin. Frantic, Gray tried to push away, but the arms held on. Gray fell apart, every part of him on fire, writhing against the torture that hadn't even begun yet. He was crying and screaming and they hadn't even done anything to him yet, oh gods, oh gods.

As Gray's terror reached an absolute, another reality screamed Natsu at him over and over as if it should mean something.

The warm breath on his neck. The arms holding him. Not torturing him yet.

Oh gods. This was real. He wasn't in control. Natsu was here, and Gray wasn't in control.

The arms had pulled Gray into a lap, legs wrapping around him in a full-body hug that blew up what was left of Gray's mind. Touches everywhere. His pulse was shooting holes in his chest.

The head on Gray's shoulder tilted against him, pink hair filling his peripheral. Pink hair.

It really was Natsu.

Gray pulled tighter into himself and cried.

Torrents rushed through him, too loud to make out any other sound. He couldn't hear himself weeping. All his broken places cried out. He felt his ragged breaths as eight-year-old Gray tried to hide and run. He would fail. He always failed. He couldn't hide from them.

They always touched him, in all the ways he hated but deserved, and then they left. To pounce again when he got his feet under him.

Gray was so tired of running.

He was tired of holding on, knowing at any moment he could fly apart. He'd thought this time, after so long, it was over and he was better. That he'd escaped from that part of himself.

He collapsed against Natsu's body, trusting the strong arms to take care of him because he couldn't do it himself. This once he did what he never did: he gave in and let someone else be in charge. He was so, so exhausted.

Slowly, the terror was coming to an end.

Natsu held him securely, rocking back and forth a little, hand running through Gray's hair. He seemed to feel the difference as Gray sagged into him, and began to murmur in Gray's ear.

"I smelled traces of your blood outside, and when you didn't open the door… I'm sorry if I scared you."

Through the haze, Gray tried to latch onto words. Blood. Scared.

The last vestiges of sobs kept him from speaking and he was dizzy from too much oxygen. World spinning, he pressed against his Salamander for stability. Natsu held on without wavering even as the world seemed to flip upside down.

It took several minutes for the dizziness to abate.

Finally, Gray rasped, "Blood?"

"You cut yourself." Natsu touched Gray's jaw. "It's not bad or anything."

Gray's eyes wandered around the bathroom, found the sink.

"Was shaving."

"Shouldn't you be an expert at that by now?" Natsu teased gently. He buried his nose in Gray's hair and chuckled. "That said, I cut myself twice yesterday, so you're a genius compared to me."

Gray couldn't smile. But a tiny part of him grew a little bit lighter.

Natsu snuffled against his head, seeming content to cuddle on the cold tile. It wasn't that chilly anymore, actually. At least, Gray couldn't feel if it was cold, numb in his ice like normal. Normal. He had his ice back.

He could feel heat: the fire mage was warm and Gray was cocooned inside the furnace of his embrace. Even though Gray was sweating, he didn't want it to stop—it was so comforting. While his heart throbbed, worn out, his muscles shook like he'd just run miles. His mind was still running. Ungrounded. Undone. He had to grab onto something or the torrent would sweep him back in.

"Why'd you come?" Gray croaked.

"Do I need an excuse anymore, snowflake?" Natsu smiled against Gray's hair. "You weren't at the guild, so I came looking for you."

Gray leaned back, pushing Natsu into sitting up straight so Gray could drop his head backward onto Natsu's shoulder.

"Throat hurts," Gray muttered, staring at the ceiling. "I should probably get some water."

Gray didn't move and Natsu didn't let go.

"Gray," Natsu whispered, kissing Gray's ear, "what was that?"

"A panic attack."

Gray heard Natsu's stuttered breath loud and clear.

"It could've been worse." Gray tried not to sound sardonic. "Sometimes they can be longer."

"Gray…" Natsu's voice was tremulous.

"I'm okay." Gray reached back and gently caressed Natsu's head. "I'm…returning to normal."

His mind was fucked-up and there was no undoing that. But as long as his past was a secret, it only existed inside his head. He didn't have to relive everything whenever he met someone's eyes. A beautiful lie for him to wear.

"You don't want to talk about it right now," Natsu guessed.

"Not really."

"Later."

Gray sighed. "Sure."

Natsu partially uncoiled from around Gray and they rose together. When they were both on their feet, Natsu kept his arm tight around Gray and guided him out of the bathroom. For once, Gray didn't mind being led. Natsu steered them toward the couch.

"Happy has a mission he wants to go on, and he needs the team, but Erza is refusing to help. Wait til you hear what it is…"

As Natsu slipped effortlessly into the flow of normalcy, Gray let himself drift along on the river of his boyfriend's words. The Dragon Slayer made tea before Gray even registered what he was doing. The familiar flavor loosened his tongue and eventually Gray could form longer sentences than 'mm' and 'no.' When Natsu laughed at something he said, Gray actually smiled.

This used to take hours. Not with Natsu. Everything was better with Natsu.

Natsu kept talking, refusing to let silence linger for too long. At some point, he gave Gray a small, innocent kiss, and Gray returned it, and that turned into longer kisses, just lips against each other.

Finding Natsu's hand loose against his, Gray interlaced their fingers. Natsu's grip closed like a trap.

With every touch, Natsu let him lead—whether that was out of consideration or fearfulness didn't matter because it was what Gray needed. They ended up lying lengthwise on the couch, entwined by necessity since the two of them hardly fit. Despite feeling childish, Gray put his head on Natsu's chest so he could listen to his heartbeat. Its cadence was soothing.

Natsu had at last fallen quiet, lost in his own meditation which involved rubbing a slow circle into Gray's shoulder. Eyes closed against Natsu's chest, an argument broke out in Gray's head.

If I don't bring up what happened, Natsu will forget to ask and we never have to discuss it.

What if it happens again?

It won't. I'm in control.

But it happened today.

I'm calm now. He helped. I've got this.

No you don't. You always break. You'll never be fixed. You're weak and you're going to hurt him. So warn him now before you fall apart again.

"Natsu," Gray breathed.

The circles on his shoulder stopped.

"I'm sorry you had to see that," Gray said.

There was a long pause. Eventually the Dragon Slayer spoke.

"I was really worried."

"Sorry."

"Stop apologizing, Gray. You know it's not like that."

Gray relaxed an infinitesimal amount.

"They're caused by remembering…some bad things that happened," he explained slowly. "I think about those things too much and get freaked out."

"You didn't recognize me," Natsu whispered.

"I was caught up in reliving shit." Gray exhaled, sliding a comforting palm over Natsu's chest. "It's hard to focus on the present."

"Does it…hurt?"

Gray flinched. Natsu knew. He somehow knew.

"Why do you ask?"

"You were shaking all over and breathing really fast. I thought you were going to pass out."

"Oh." Gray's stomach lightened as he realized: you don't mean the invisible hands. "Yeah, adrenaline makes you stiff."

"Gray…" There was a terrifyingly long silence. "What do I do to keep it from happening?"

"You? Nothing. I just try not to remember."

"You mean, remember…" Natsu struggled, "…the demon?"

"Deliora. You can say the name."

"Is this all about Deliora?"

"I have a lot of sucky memories," Gray agreed without answering.

"Icicle." Natsu spoke in a flat voice.

It was like Natsu was trying to draw a stinger out of a wound. If you pull the truth out, it'll bleed forever.

"It's complicated," Gray muttered.

"Will you please tell me what I can do?" Natsu asked in desperation.

"Just be you. This is my problem. It doesn't surface often, and when it does, I just have to live through it. It'll always go away, I promise. I just…need you to be patient with me sometimes."

"I'll always do that."

Gray snorted, a bit of humor returning. "You haven't practiced patience in your life, hothead."

"I was patient this afternoon, right?" Natsu asked, worry lacing his tone.

"You were fine," Gray sighed, wishing the mood would lighten. "Is there anything else?"

"Just this."

Natsu's voice was muffled as he pulled Gray into a hug. Gray felt a flood of warmth when the interrogation ended. There was no way in hell he was telling Natsu about the other memories. He was never telling anyone.

He held the Salamander, who was shivering slightly, and enjoyed the heat of his closeness. They were back to being two boys who liked each other. Simple, normal. Nothing desecrated, everything happy.

Gray was back in control.

Chapter 11: Crying Others' Tears

Chapter Text

After the panic attack, an emptiness opened up inside of Gray, a place where there were no emotions. In the emptiness arose a hunger he didn't understand. A hunger for something he couldn't name. But whatever it was, he needed it; he was desperate.

He tried to ignore it. Tried to act normally and hope it went away, but the stifling feeling grew.

Hard knots were forming under his skin which he couldn't work out no matter how hard he fought—both the usual sparring against Natsu and in the job the team took, which pitted them against some serious mages. Fighting should've relaxed him, but it hadn't, and now Gray felt nothing but violence in his quivering muscles. The frustration itched under his skin and distracted him in everything.

The buzzing in Gray's head reached a point where he couldn't think anymore.

Because he was combative to his core, Gray chose to attack it head on.

Four days after his panic attack, they got back from the job at twilight and the two men headed to Gray's flat of common accord. As soon as the door to the apartment closed behind them, Gray pulled the Dragon Slayer in and started sucking on his neck. He was ravenous.

Not exactly for sex. No desire was involved—he wasn't capable of desire right now. Not with the live wires sparking off inside him. It was like a need to eat without the desire for food. Gray just needed release, a way to discharge the excess energy building up inside him.

After four days around others without alone time, Natsu responded immediately, and it didn't take them long to make their way to the bed and get tangled together only halfway out of their clothes.

Gray pulled Natsu on top of him. He relished the jolt of terrified excitement that hit him having Natsu on top of him. When Natsu's hungry, focused face loomed above him and muscled arms planted on either side of Gray's head, Gray moaned. He wanted it all, wanted to be taken, wanted to forget himself and disappear and let someone else wield control. He wanted to cease existing.

Gray's desperation invigorated Natsu, who sucked and bit until Gray's skin was raw and sensitive. Their hands were everywhere, touching, infecting, aching.

"Natsu," Gray gasped in between groans, "I want you to fuck me."

"What?" Natsu stopped sucking on Gray's nipple.

"Fuck. Me."

"I... Really?"

"Yes. You know how this works?"

Natsu gave him a look that said, what kind of horny young person do you take me for?

"Do it," Gray moaned. "Fuck me, please…"

Natsu's eyes were wide even as he smiled, and that's when it hit Gray.

"Oh, damn. Your first." Gray bit his lip, trying to hold back his need. Just want to be dominated. "We don't have to. S-sorry…for making it sound like a demand."

Natsu stared into his eyes. "I want you to be my first, Gray."

Gray shivered at the way those words slid through him, but he couldn't focus on the emotions fully. Couldn't connect. Needed.

"In that case," Gray breathed, "Natsu, would you please put your cock in me?"

"As you wish," Natsu grinned.

Nevertheless, he spent a significant amount of time kissing all over Gray's body, exploring every touch that made noise rise in Gray's throat. Gray felt like an overstrained net about to burst apart: he wanted Natsu to get there already.

Finally, Natsu peeled off Gray's boxers and immediately descended on his cock, sucking and licking as if Natsu were starving and Gray was all he had. Groaning and trying hard not to thrust, Gray felt a bit of the tension leaving him as the Salamander pulled him toward pleasure.

That amazing mouth went away for a second, but before Gray could wonder what he was doing, Natsu leaned up and planted a hot, swarming kiss on Gray's lips.

All the tension rushed back when Gray felt a wet finger softly probe against him.

Oh gods. It was… Gray didn't know how to describe it.

Horrible.

Just get it over with.

He put all his focus into relaxing as that finger moved inside. Natsu's tongue slid into Gray's mouth, distracting him from the discomfort for half a second, but it was hard not to think about the thing intruding into him, forcing its way past hard muscle.

Natsu was gentle and slow, but Gray still grit his teeth against the bile in his throat. He knew the caresses he was returning were distracted and chaotic and Natsu probably noticed, but he couldn't stay in the moment.

This was awful.

"Gray," Natsu breathed, "I love you. Relax."

He left a trail of hot, tender kisses across Gray's face.

Gray tensed. He hated being treated gently, especially in bed. He was not a little kid.

Before he could respond, the finger retracted. Gray had a moment of relief that it was gone, but anger rushed into the breach. It would take forever at this rate. He needed this. He wanted to be violated if that's what it took: he just needed to surrender to this darkness inside him. Needed Natsu to exorcise this out of him.

Natsu was kissing him, touching him, adjusting his position over Gray. Gray felt like a chained animal under all the softness.

"You can stop being so warm and mushy and just go for it," Gray grunted finally.

"I can't," Natsu said. "I'm trying to help you relax. When was the last time you did this?"

"I'm relaxed enough," Gray said, ignoring the question.

Natsu tried again, the finger making it a little further this time. Gray winced in pain—real pain, but the ache brought with it the phantom sting out of memory. He sucked Natsu's tongue into his mouth to keep the Dragon Slayer from seeing the look of horror passing over his face. Enthralled by Natsu's sharp teeth, he tried to focus on that and nothing else.

He had asked for this.

The discomfort only grew, and he realized Natsu was moving inside him, trying to help it feel better, trying to open him up. No.

Panic rose up, forming a knot in his throat. Gray dug his fingers into his palms until the pain overrode anything else. It was like cutting, in a way: a focusing tool. I can do this. He rested his fisted hands above his head in surrender, lying open.

Defenseless.

His body was as hard as rock.

The intrusion dissipated again.

"What are you—?"

"Gray," Natsu said, "we don't have to do this right now. You look like you're being tortured."

"I'm sorry. I just..." Gray's words dropped off under the Dragon Slayer's intense black eyes.

Gray couldn't escape Natsu's gaze, so he pulled him into a harsh kiss, biting Natsu's lip in frustration. Natsu yelped at the unexpected pain.

"I need this," Gray growled into the Salamander's mouth.

Natsu closed his eyes and swallowed. "I'm not going to right now. Let's—"

"Natsu, I can handle it."

"Well I can't!" Natsu's eyes flashed open. "I feel like I'm raping you, Gray!"


Before Natsu knew what was happening, he was flying back with his face tingling in pain. Reaching up, he discovered his nose was bleeding.

"What was that for?" he asked, shocked.

Gray's face had transformed, expression twisted in fury. His gaze was fire. The Dragon Slayer actually gulped.

Gray launched from the bed, ripping his legs from under Natsu, who fell backward onto his butt. Natsu stared, bewildered by everything that was happening. The ice mage reached for his clothes and headed to the door, a flurry of raging movement.

"What are you doing?" Natsu exclaimed, fear clutching his chest.

"Getting out of here."

Solid stone sank in Natsu's stomach. He'd angered Gray, done something wrong, hurt him, and Natsu didn't know what it was. He didn't know how to make it right. And Gray was leaving.

Scrambling up, he grabbed for Gray's arm, but the ice mage dodged him. The glare Gray pinned him with was so dangerous Natsu nearly raised his arms in defense.

"Where are you going?" Natsu tried again, desperate.

"To punch a tree or something." Gray's voice was cold. "I've got to go blow off steam."

"Blow off steam?" His voice rose in incredulity. "There are a hundred other ways to do that! If that's what you need, you could've just said so."

Gray shook his head.

"I'll be bac—" he began, but the words cut off, like Gray suddenly realized it might not be true.

Natsu felt cold rush through his body, and right behind it an explosion of fire in his chest. No. It could not happen this way.

"Don't leave."

Gray turned his back.

Natsu punched him between the shoulder blades.

As Gray went reeling, Natsu massaged his knuckles: getting in a good hit felt exhilarating. Now you know how I feel right now.

The punch cleared Natsu's head, brought the world back into focus. He knew how to deal with this situation now: the way they always dealt with things.

Gray's face curled in a snarl as he whirled back around. That was an expression Natsu recognized from years and years of experience. He was back on familiar ground.

"Fight me," Natsu growled. He met Gray glare for glare.

Something about Natsu's anger seemed to click inside Gray, who slid from bitterness to concentration. They were a matched pair, equally upset and eager to pound each other.

It was just like old times.

Gray looked like he was about to lash back—but then his gaze skittered around the room. Natsu was already pulling on pants. No destroying the flat, fine. Luckily the woods were right across from Gray's door.

When Gray turned his back and took off, Natsu hurried after him, outside and into the trees, Gray only a dozen steps ahead. The ice mage put on a burst of speed and Natsu broke into a run. Gray couldn't flee from this and he clearly knew it, shooting looks behind him to make sure Natsu was there even while he continued trying to put distance between them.

"Come on, popsicle," Natsu called up to him, both of them slowing down as the underbrush thickened around them. "Hit m—"

Gray's kick slammed into his arms, raised protectively at the last moment. Twisting aside, Natsu dodged the follow-up punch and jabbed the heel of his hand into Gray's chest. The force knocked them both back a step, Gray heaving air back into his lungs.

There was so much pain in Gray's eyes, so much awful determination. Natsu hated it: it ached in his chest like Gray had stabbed him. Pain didn't belong in those eyes.

"What do you want, Natsu?" the ice mage yelled, feinting and managing to sweep out one of Natsu's feet. The Salamander landed on one knee but kept his balance.

Feeling fire burn in his chest, the Dragon Slayer grinned: an old, feral grin from a thousand fights. I am going to bring you back.

"This has always been how we deal with shit, droopy-eyes. We've always taken out frustration this way, always made things better. So come at me."

"You. Can't. Make. This. Better!" Gray shouted, but he threw another punch.

This time when Natsu dodged, ice chased him, crystals breaking across his skin.

"About time, snowflake," he growled.

Gray bared his teeth, looking ready to murder him. Natsu understood the feeling. Do you not comprehend that I love you?

It seemed that he always showed Gray he cared and Gray always ran away from it. Like he couldn't accept it. Why wouldn't he just accept it? Why couldn't he let Natsu care about him?

They danced across the rough ground, fists meeting fire, kicks crashing into towers of ice. For once, Natsu's destructiveness was outmatched as Gray ripped up trees and pushed aside boulders with his ice. Giant shards of cold landed indiscriminately. Natsu found his fire expanding to deal with the threat, turning whatever plant life Gray didn't shred into charcoal.

Throwing half a dozen geysers of ice at his opponent, Gray let out a yell. His anger had faded into battle-hard focus, but Natsu saw in his face there was still something wrong, something broken waiting to be put back together.

Panting, Natsu shoved the hair out of his eyes and warded off a kick.

"Tell me what the hell is going on with you, Gray," Natsu said, fiery punch narrowly missing Gray's bare arm. "We can't keep dancing around this thing you're dealing with. Clearly it's important."

"Sure as shit we can."

"No, we can't!" Natsu yelled as they clashed against each other, sweaty skin on sweaty skin. "Not unless you want us to destroy a forest every time I try to show you affection!"

Gray just shook his head, expression sickened with something disgust and self-hatred.

"You wouldn't understand," Gray muttered, spitting blood into the bushes.

"I'm not leaving until you tell me, Gray."

They stared at each other, breathing hard.

There it was again: trepidation winding through Gray's eyes. Like the idea of talking was worse than anything else in the world.

Natsu didn't understand what there was to fear. I'm not going anywhere.

Oh.

Was that really what Gray was afraid of?

"I won't leave," Natsu said, "no matter what you tell me. That's a promise."


Natsu's oath ripped through Gray like a bullet.

It was exactly what he wanted to hear, and yet he didn't know if he could believe it.

"You might want to take that back," Gray said in a low voice. He threw a half-hearted hit which Natsu blocked.

"No way in hell."

The Dragon Slayer's certainty was reassuring. Stupid Salamander could always put Gray at ease. He hated it, despised Natsu's power over him, even while he loved it: he had reached the point of trusting Natsu so much that those words could instant calm him down. Natsu was unlike anyone else in his life.

I'm a fucking idiot for you.

Gray took a deep breath. Natsu wouldn't understand. He'd probably run away. Because he cared about Gray, he'd end up as collateral damage to Gray's pain, and in the end, Natsu would despise him. And that, in turn, would hurt Gray so much. He liked to claim he didn't have a soul anymore, but that wasn't true. Like an idiot, he'd wanted to be loved, let his guard down, and let Natsu into all his vulnerable places. Natsu could destroy him.

Meanwhile, it would destroy Natsu too. Because this type of knowledge was nothing but unnecessary pain. Fuck, Gray was going to hurt him—the only person he ever cared this much about. Except…wasn't he already hurting Natsu? His shattered places were slick and sharp and sliced open anyone close to him. That's why he hadn't wanted to date for so long. If he cared about someone, they were going to get ripped apart by his issues.

And hate him forever.

Gray was shaking with unformed anger. It was all over now. Because of a stupid panic attack and a stupid need to get fucked over.

He almost wanted to hurt Natsu with this. If the Dragon Slayer was going to force the truth out, let him see how ugly it was. Let him realize there were realities nobody could hand, see why Gray kept this secret.

Let him see how deadly pain could be.

Pain howled through him, sharp, and Gray formed it into furious words.

"I," he began, "I was… There was this… When…when…"

He fell silent.

He had no words that could say it. No words at all.


Gray looked shell-shocked. His face paled as he stared past Natsu's ear, eyes on nothing.

A horrible feeling dropped into Natsu's stomach.

"Did someone do something?" Natsu asked in a low voice.

Mute, Gray nodded. He was still responsive at least. Okay, twenty questions.

"Someone hurt you?" Natsu asked.

Gray nodded again, eyes wide. Instinct prodded the Dragon Slayer.

"Someone betrayed you?"

Yes.

"Someone close to you?"

A pause, then Gray shook his head: no.

"Did they—did they touch you?" Natsu hated the words as soon as they left his mouth. Wanted to spit them out and stomp on them.

Yes.

Natsu's pulse crashed.

"And…you didn't want them to?"

Nod. True.

"Gray…" Natsu's voice snagged and he coughed. "Someone…assaulted you."

It wasn't really a question and Gray didn't nod, eyes dropping to the earth as he sighed. Expecting a reaction—grief, fear, anger—Natsu wasn't sure what to do with this.

Then Gray shrugged as if to say, it happens.

Natsu almost broke down right there.

Even though he was half expecting it, the horror punched him in the stomach. Pressing in on his lungs, forcing all the air out. If this was why Gray didn't trust him, why Gray always acted collected and tried to take charge of things, why he had panicked so badly the other day…

Natsu felt like hitting someone until his knuckles bled. He wanted to wrap his ice mage in an embrace and never let go. He wanted to burn the forest down until his fire was gone and the world reduced to ash that wouldn't harm anyone ever again.

He wanted it to be a lie.

Too many things confirmed it, too many pieces falling into place. Gods, no. It was real. Someone had—to Gray—

But he couldn't let his sorrow show right now, with Gray slipping further and further away: eyes empty, body hollow. Natsu had to bear it. Right now, he needed to take care of his boyfriend.

Natsu didn't know if it was safe to touch Gray in this state. If Gray would yell and push him away—or worse, panic.

Gray was stubbornly standing just out of Natsu's reach. Alone.

Natsu did the next best thing he could think of: unwinding his scarf, he held it out across the gap between them.

Gray stared at it for a long moment. He met Natsu's eyes, black gaze unreadable. Then carefully, Gray took it and wrapped it around his neck. Natsu saw his shoulders relax an imperceptible fraction.

Seeing his scarf on his boyfriend sustained Natsu enough to hold off touching him for now. Like the scarf could hug Gray for him—a piece of Natsu attached to Gray. Protecting both of their hearts.

"Home?" Natsu asked, holding out a hand. His voice sounded echo-y against all the animal sounds he was holding inside. The excruciating yell he wanted to let loose.

Gray nodded a final time. Though he didn't take Natsu's outstretched fingers, he walked beside him, a hairsbreadth apart.

Gray radiated cold. Or maybe that was the effect of Natsu's heat rising to bonfire proportions. To burn the world down.

He couldn't have described how he felt.

When they got home, Gray crawled into bed without undressing. Natsu's scarf was still tucked securely around him, hiding the lower half of his face and muffling his breathing. Natsu could still hear his pulse though, strong and alive.

Lying down across from his boyfriend, the Dragon Slayer very tentatively reached out and touched Gray's shoulder. When the ice mage didn't shrug him off, Natsu draped a single arm over him. Slowly, achingly, he listened to Gray drop off into slumber.

Only then did Natsu cry. Silently and with a hand over his mouth. He stifled his breaths to keep the sobs from shaking his partner, dizzy with tears.

I'm so sorry, Gray. I'm so sorry I made you tell me.

Chapter 12: The Morning After

Chapter Text

Natsu woke up to light touches moving across his chest. Groggy, it took him several seconds to open his eyes, but he smelled Gray everywhere. At the feel of small breaths on his chest, he realized the touches were kisses.

When he did look up, he found Gray was no longer clothed—quite the opposite—though the white scarf still hugged his neck. The ice mage didn't look up when Natsu roused, just kept kissing his way over Natsu's abs.

"Gray…" the Salamander began, throat hoarse from crying himself to sleep.

"Don't," Gray said.

He made his way down Natsu's stomach as his hand glided up Natsu's thigh, gently removing his boxers. When Gray took Natsu's cock in hand, Natsu shivered, hissing at the chilly fingers. From where he was kneeling at Natsu's side, Gray looked up without saying anything, but when he saw Natsu gasping happily, he began licking him in long, sensuous strokes.

"Oh gods, Gray," Natsu panted, pressing his head back into the bed.

His boyfriend was taking him over in all the wonderful ways he knew how. Natsu had a vague feeling he should stop and evaluate the wisdom of doing this right now, after last night and everything Gray had revealed…but Gray had initiated this and Gray appeared to be enjoying it. That was what mattered.

Plus Natsu didn't really know what to do or say.

Easing Natsu into his mouth, Gray inhaled, eyes closed as if breathing him in. Natsu shuddered and surrendered to his languorous attention.

Gray sucked on him, gripping the base of Natsu's cock firmly and easing up and down in aching motions. Fuck. Natsu was finding this slow appropriation of his body a huge turn-on: even with Gray focused on his dick, the rest of him glowed, shivering with delight. This didn't feel forced or like an emotional cover-up for what had happened—if anything, this felt like restoration.

Reaching down, Gray started to stroke himself and Natsu let out a real groan. Gods, that sight. The ice wizard's thighs tensed, muscles of his chest knotting with pleasure. So sexy. Natsu could come just by watching Gray.

The pressure of Gray sucking him was getting unbearable and Natsu's legs shook from tensing so hard. With each stroke, Gray was stitching up the hole in Natsu's chest where his infinite questions sank into the darkness of the unknown. Love. Want. He had all the things he wanted, all of Gray, and he was going to hold onto this. The jumping sparks in Natsu's gut filled him up, heady and drunk on this moment.

Gray came first, moaning onto Natsu's cock. Spilling himself onto his knees, Gray shuddered and sucked harder in reflex—and the Dragon Slayer jerked as heat rushed through his body.

"Shit, Gray," he hissed, "about…to…"

As electric pressure threatened to explode under Gray's lips, Natsu gripped the sheets and tried desperately to think about something else, knowing Gray hated the taste of cum. Gray's hands replaced his mouth, stroking harder as the ice wizard moved up the bed.

And then Gray was kissing him, hot and needy, a frantic dance of lips and tongue. Gray was everywhere and everything.

Natsu fell apart.

Cum hit his stomach, the joy as light as air rising through him. He had Gray in his arms as he trembled and gasped, holding Gray so close their warmth mingled, all the same. The world consisted of nothing but them.

"Damn," he grunted into Gray's mouth, feeling a smile in response. Natsu put a palm to Gray's face as he slipped his tongue between Gray's lips. He felt more connected than ever before.

They were still kissing each other minutes later.

Gray pulled away first, staring at Natsu nose-to-nose for a long, satisfied moment. He rolled onto his back beside the Salamander, gazing at the ceiling.

"That was satisfying," Natsu breathed.

"Yeah."

Natsu wondered if it would be too much if he took Gray's hand. If it would scare Gray off, instigate a reaction like last night. If Gray would run away from him again and never come back.

The worries hit Natsu for what they were: treating Gray like he was fragile. Which Gray would never be.

He grabbed Gray's hand. "I love you."

Looking over, Natsu could see the smile curving across Gray's face, even though the ice mage's eyes were hidden behind his hair.

"Wanna shower with me?" Gray asked.

"You mean, get to watch water streaming off your naked body? Hell yes."

Gray snorted a laugh.

Natsu smiled and let out a comforting sigh.


Gray didn't know why Natsu was still here with him. Natsu had led him home, slept all night at his side. Maybe this meant they could just keep going, pretend nothing happened and that Natsu didn't know the things he did and that Gray wasn't contaminated. Maybe Gray could keep all his dysfunction contained and actually get to have a normal relationship.

Or maybe Natsu cared about their relationship so much he thought the cost was worth it.

That thought ached physically in Gray's chest. It filled him with the fear of how much he would owe Natsu if it were true—if Natsu really were willing to sacrifice so much to put up with him. If Natsu were deliberately sacrificing a normal life for him. Gray would never be able to repay that debt. Natsu couldn't do that to him; Natsu wasn't allowed to care that much; he wasn't allowed to make Gray owe him.

No, they were just two boys who liked each other. That's what this was, and it was beautiful in its transience.

They were two boys making out under the hot shower while fighting for the soap.

When Natsu shoved him against the wall and successfully pulled it from Gray's hand, the Salamander let out a taunting, "Hah, ice princess!"

The Dragon Slayer beamed in victory, not hint of hesitation in his eyes—normal. Gray finally let go the last of his anxiety.

"Fine, you can have this too, slant-eyes." Gray smirked and turned the water cold.

Natsu gasped and immediately began heating up. Trapped by Natsu's body, Gray hissed as the sudden heat seared across his skin.

"Shit, flame brain!"

Natsu didn't look the slightest bit penitent: instead he pressed closer, grinning. Trying to writhe away, Gray realized the temperature wasn't enough to scorch him, but it was still within the bounds of discomfort.

Then little flames began dancing around his boyfriend.

"Gods!" the ice mage yelped, trying to freeze them before Natsu's embrace burned him.

"Don't tell me you're afraid of fire," Natsu laughed.

"Not yours, hothead," Gray grumbled, the temperature in the shower fluctuating between hot and cold as their bodies fought. "You call that fire? You couldn't light a match with those sparks."

Natsu's flames flared and Gray took the opportunity to spread a thin layer of ice over the Salamander's shoulders and chest. It melted after a second, but Natsu's fire was out too.

Gray grinned while Natsu shot him a narrow-eyed glare.

"I think we should train today," Gray said, taking pity and turning the water warm again.

"What, together?" Natsu asked, proceeding with his hard-won bar of soap.

"It's not like we haven't before."

"But we just got back from a job."

Gray stared at him in disbelief. "Are you actually running away from a fight?"

"Me?!" Natsu's voice rose a whole decibel. "Hell no! I'll beat your skinny ass into the ground."

"If you say so, fire queen."

When they got out, Natsu did not reclaim his scarf from where Gray had folded it off to the side—didn't even look at it: now clothed, he started sifting through Gray's small pantry. The ice mage picked the scarf up and walked over.

"You have no good food," Natsu complained.

"That's a lie and you know it," Gray said. "Even if you were picky, which you aren't."

"There's not very much of anything," Natsu grumbled in a low voice.

"Then we can buy more. Duh."

To his surprise, the Salamander blushed. Natsu was actually…embarrassed about eating so much? Gray had gotten used to Natsu's appetite fairly quickly.

Having crossed the room, Gray dropped the scaly scarf around Natsu's neck only for Natsu to take it off again.

"I like you wearing it," he said, slinging it around Gray's shoulders and using it to pull him closer. "It makes you…smell like me."

Gray raised his eyebrows.

"Anyone who sees will know," he said.

"I know." Natsu looked at the floor. "Just for right now. You can give it back before we go to the guild."

Smiling, Gray closed the short distance between them and kissed Natsu softly. He liked this: standing in the kitchen kissing not as foreplay, but as a simple form of expression. He'd never really done this with anyone before Natsu. It filled other needs he didn't know he had.

He also really liked wearing Natsu's scarf. And Natsu's arms tightening around his waist.

It was Natsu who ended the kiss this time, stomach growling in protest at being ignored. Gray gave him a cuff on the head before moving to the pantry and taking over.

"We never stay at my place," Natsu said as Gray began cooking.

"Is this still about how much you eat?" Gray snorted a laugh. "I honestly don't care."

Natsu reddened. "No! It's just I've only slept at home once this month. And we've never…together."

"You have a roommate," Gray reminded him.

"Happy can get used to it."

"Natsu, he sleeps on your pillow half the time."

"So?" Natsu crossed his arms. "The three of us sleep next to each other on missions all the time."

Gray had no argument against that. Happy had even slept on his pillow on occasion.

When Gray glanced over, Natsu had slunk unconsciously into a fighting stance, arms still crossed. This was something important to the Dragon Slayer.

"Alright. It's not like I have a preference. But we are not fucking around while he's in the room."

Natsu made a face. "Of course not. I'm not a perv like you."

"Says the guy who sucked me off behind the guild a few weeks ago."

A pleased flush crept down the Salamander's neck. "Says the icy bastard who strips in public after any time I give him a hicky, almost like he wants to show them off."

"Do not!"

"Do too." Natsu poked him on the shoulder just below the edge of his collarbone. A very obvious bite marked the skin there: Gray couldn't even remember when Natsu had given it to him. "If you want to prove it, I dare you to go put a shirt on and keep it on all day."

"Challenge accepted." Gray handed him a plate. "Now eat up so I can pound your face into the ground."

Chapter 13: The Power to Console

Chapter Text

After breakfast, the two wizards stalked off into the forest to find a good spot for sparring. Despite Natsu's challenge to keep all suspicious bites and hickies covered, Gray lost his shirt as soon as they started fighting (though the scarf inexplicably stayed on). Gray wouldn't have noticed the loss except Natsu snatched the garment up and taunted him.

Which earned the Salamander a good punch to the face. Gray was getting in a lot of good hits this morning actually, Natsu quite off his game—and Gray naturally teased him for it. Natsu argued he was tired, Gray said that was no excuse, and the fight devolved into an entirely magic-less scuffle.

Really, they both just liked to touch each other in any way possible.

Gray's brain barely ghosted over the connected thoughts that Natsu was tired, they hadn't slept much, because they'd been up fighting over his truths… His mind tucked most of yesterday in a faraway place in his memory that he didn't have to deal with. Better that way.

Besides, fistfights were more fun.

Natsu looked up a few seconds before Gray heard the voice calling, "Natsu!" and Happy and Lucy appeared between the trees.

"What're you guys doing here?" Natsu asked as they approached.

"A fireball erupted over the woods a little while ago," Lucy said. "We figured it was you."

Natsu grinned with pride.

"It's not like anyone else randomly explodes around here," Gray muttered, laughing at the scowl Natsu shot him.

Lucy looked between them.

"Why is Natsu holding Gray's shirt?" Then, as Gray hurriedly pulled the scarf down to cover the draconian bite on his chest: "How on earth did Gray end up with Natsu's scarf?"

Natsu's eyes went wide, feet frozen to the spot.

Gray blurted, "I won a bet."

"Natsu bet Igneel's scarf? What the hell were you two betting about?"

"Doesn't matter. Not important," Natsu interrupted. The grouchiness in his voice was convincing even to Gray. "Icy fucker."

Happy snorted and covered his blush with his paws, having a much better idea what was going on. Meanwhile Lucy's surprise slid into a smirk as she tried not to laugh at them.

"Just please give it back to him at some point," she told Gray. "Otherwise I'll never hear the end of it."

Gray shrugged airily. "We'll see."

The shrug dislodged the scarf and Lucy stared at his collarbone for a second too long. As he blushed, she held up a job posting.

"Natsu," she began.

"We just got back yesterday," the fire mage whined before she could continue.

"There are no vehicles involved in getting there," Lucy said. "It's near Mount Hakobe."

"It'll be cold."

Natsu had the same look on his face as when someone dragged him away from a big meal. They had planned to goof off together all day.

Of course, there was no reason they couldn't both go with Lucy.

"If you're scared of snow, I'll go," Gray spoke up.

"I'm not scared of snow!" Natsu shot back.

"Then why are you complaining about the cold? Aren't you a fire wizard?"

"I'm complaining on Lucy's behalf," Natsu said, crossing his arms.

"She's the one who picked the job, squinty-eyes."

"SHUT UP!" Lucy shouted. "If you two can avoid fighting for more than ten seconds, you can come together. Gods. It's a small job: it'll be done within a day."

Muttering, Lucy walked away down the path. Natsu grinned at Gray right as Lucy spun back around.

"Also, you two are splitting the—" Lucy caught sight of Natsu and narrowed her eyes. "What are you so proud of?"

Natsu raised his hands, beaming his innocent grin that meant he was definitely up to something. "Nothing."

When Lucy's eyes flicked back to the bite on Gray's chest, the ice mage stiffened. It was like getting caught stripping while he had a hard-on. She couldn't know. Surely. Please.

Lucy stalked away, waving at them to follow.

Gray only barely remembered to give Natsu his scarf before they entered town.

"Here, flame brain." Gray tossed it over. "I'm not heartless."

He found he didn't like throwing the scarf so casually at the Dragon Slayer, but handing it over with care was out of the question in public.

"Trade you for your shirt, ice princess."

Gray quickly covered himself while Lucy just looked at them and shook her head.

One of these days, someone was going to figure out where the hickies on Gray's chest came from, or catch the two of them kissing, or observe them being suspiciously nice to one another, and put the puzzle together.

He had trouble explaining why that freaked him out so much. Cana ran into Gray while he was on a date once and there had been no embarrassment there, but this was different. Everyone knew Gray didn't do relationships. If they found out this was serious, they would all look at him with knowing grins and comment on how unique this thing with Natsu was.

As if they knew anything.

It was none of their business how he felt about Natsu. As soon as people started paying attention to the two men, they'd see how Natsu loved him and how Gray needed it, relied on it. Natsu was his weakness. Everyone would see it.


It turned out when Natsu and Gray weren't at each other's throats, the team could exist in rather companionable silence. Granted, part of that might've been because Lucy and Happy were snuggled up in Lucy's coat shivering. Leftover snow lay in the shadows.

Their silence broke when they rounded a corner of the path and ran into five men. The men were the large type who obviously made a living with hard labor. They recognized Natsu immediately, hungry eyes zeroing in on the pink hair, and the hair stood up on the back of Gray's neck.

Walking with head down, the distracted Dragon Slayer didn't seem to care about the strangers.

One said, "It's the so-called Salamander," and lunged.

Shooting ice before he even knew he was moving, Gray barked, "Natsu!"

Natsu's head jerked up.

His eyes widened as all five men rushed him and it was clear he was too preoccupied to act fast enough. Gray lashed out with an icy blast while Lucy summoned Taurus. At last Natsu reacted, fire arcing out when he punched two men in one blow. The men had no magic whatsoever, and in seconds the five were groaning, trapped inside a cage of ice.

Natsu wearily asked, "Who are you?"

The man just sneered. Gray elbowed Natsu aside, grabbed the man's collar through the bars, and let frost coat the man's jacket until his expression turned to panic.

"Well?" Gray growled.

"That guy got Bora in prison," the man mumbled, glaring at Natsu. "Now Bora's left the business. He lost us our jobs."

"What?" Lucy's eyes flashed with anger. "You were with the group kidnapping girls to sell?"

The man shut his mouth, but his expression was stubborn. Gray glanced at Lucy's outraged face.

"Friends of yours?" he asked, yanking the man hard against the icy bars and hearing a satisfying thunk.

"We need to take them back to the authorities," Lucy said, giving the men a glower. "They trafficked women for a living."

"I say leave them for now," Gray said. "This prison will hold them until we're done with our job. We can pick them up again on our way back."

"But it's freezing!" the man protested.

Gray raised an eyebrow. "Exactly."

Lucy's hands fisted at her sides and she smiled.

"Yeah, I like that."

Glancing back, Gray found Natsu staring into space.

"Oi, flame brain. You home in there?"

"What?" The Salamander blinked at him. "Are you calling me stupid?"

Sighing, Gray shook his head. With the men secure, Lucy dismissed Taurus and began walking again, and Gray kept pace. When he glanced back, Natsu stumbled to catch up.

"What kind of fighting was that just now?" Gray asked him, though his voice lacked sharpness.

"Better than yours," Natsu mumbled automatically.

"You must not have eaten enough, slant-eyes," Gray snorted. "You've been distracted all day."

At that, Natsu lowered his head, expression tense. He didn't reply.

Um, okay.

The fire mage was still in his own little world when they completed their job and headed back down the mountain to their captives. The silence wasn't enjoyable anymore: even Lucy had hunched her shoulders, frowning. Happy curled on top of Natsu's head for warmth with a serious look on his face.

When the Salamander was upset about something, happiness was hard to find for any of them.

All of a sudden, Lucy stepped off the road. "I'll be right back. Wait for me."

"Where are you going?" Gray asked, confused.

"To find a tree," she said significantly.

"Oh."

In her absence he moved toward his Dragon Slayer. Happy was still with them, so when Gray caught Natsu's eye, he simply tilted his head in question.

With a glance at where Lucy disappeared, Natsu wrapped his arms around Gray and embraced him, face pressing against Gray's cheek. Gray went as stiff as a sculpture.

"I'll hear when she comes back," Natsu muttered, hot breath puffing past Gray's ear. His boiling hands curled around Gray's neck, drawing him in.

Natsu's hearing was impeccable. Gray relaxed and played his fingers over Natsu's back: the flickering touches always had a calming effect on him. There was painful tension in the lines of his body Gray wanted to smooth away.

Natsu whispered into his ear, "Gray."

It was so soft Gray barely heard him, but it was the solemn, I-need-to-talk-to-you tone.

Gray's stomach curled in on itself. Of course.

"I, uh…" Natsu mumbled.

It felt like Gray's insides were disappearing, leaving a hollow, tight cavity behind. This was about that. Natsu had been distracted since they woke up; not paying attention when he fought; concerned… Gray's muscles knotted painfully.

"Don't," Gray said, fear making his voice low and sharp. He wanted to hearten Natsu, and discussing Gray's…issues was not the way to do that. Talking only made shit worse.

Natsu took a deep breath but no more words passed his lips. As Gray squeezed him, Natsu melted, jelly-like, bodies touching at every possible point of contact. Gray exhaled: he'd stay this way as long as Natsu needed.

Breathing in the hot air that seemed to surround Natsu constantly, Gray soaked in the feel of Natsu's skin, the needy fingers sliding into his hair. He loved that he could console the Dragon Slayer. To be the reason Natsu's corded muscles were relaxing one by one.

"I love you," Gray said, rubbing at a knot under Natsu's shoulder blade.

Without budging, Natsu kissed his neck.

"Aw, you guys are cute." Happy's voice sounded right above them. Gray nearly jumped out of his skin. A paw pressed against his forehead, a tail wrapping around his ear as the Exceed stretched out across their heads.

Snorting, Gray tightened his grip on Natsu's waist. His family.

That's when it hit him: this was the first time he'd actually said it. I love you. Natsu was shaking with held-in laughter and even Gray could see it was kind of hilarious. Funny thing was, he didn't give a fuck that Happy had overheard his first ever confession of love, because everything about the moment was right. Effervescent happiness was overwhelming him. This was the best feeling in the world.

"Lucy," Natsu hissed a minute later and they burst apart, but the feelings didn't dissipate. Behind her back, they grinned at each other.

The rest of their walk down the mountain, Natsu teased Lucy and told dumb jokes. Back to her normal level of cheeriness, Lucy shot Gray a smile. He grinned back.

It made him proud knowing he just had to snuggle Natsu to help him feel better.

Chapter 14: Dissociation

Chapter Text

There had been no mentions, no freak-outs, not even suspicious looks—nothing to remind Gray that Natsu knew his secret now. Natsu knew. Gray was happy to move on, relieved to fall back into all the things he loved and find they were still there: teasing and quests and sleeping next to each other and fights that turned into fucking and the old competitions like who could eat more or run faster or last longer.

Those things held his world together.

Gray woke one morning to find he had ensnared his Dragon Slayer with his legs. He had one thrown over Natsu's thigh and the toes of the other curled around Natsu's feet. He couldn't remember if he'd been naked when he fell asleep, but he definitely was now.

This fact had not gotten past the Dragon Slayer: Natsu pinned him with dark, mirthful eyes that made goosebumps break out all over Gray's arms.

Gray went to pull his leg off, then thought better of it. He was tired and this was comfortable.

Blinking slowly into full consciousness, he noticed neither of them was clothed and both of them were hard. Natsu propped himself up on an elbow, running a taunting finger down Gray's chest. Gray felt Natsu's thighs tense under his own, but the Dragon Slayer made no move to touch him except for the mesmerizing hand trailing over his skin. The fingers pulled up and caressed Gray's guildmark, tracing over the dark ink, thoughtful, loving. When Gray shivered, Natsu just smiled.

"Good morning, icy lover. Such an indecent position to wake up in," Natsu chuckled.

"You know you like it," Gray yawned.

Smiling, Natsu leaned forward to nip at his ear, gently brushing the hair out of Gray's face as he did so.

"It'd be a shame not to take advantage of this situation," the Salamander murmured, soft touches still playing over Gray's skin.

Gray's cock twitched hearing that lustful tone: this was definitely not just morning wood anymore. Feeling self-conscious under Natsu's all-knowing gaze, Gray looked down to where his fingers rested on the sheets.

"Very true. Not sure I'm awake enough to do much, though."

"That's not a problem."

Natsu kissed his eyebrow and Gray's eyes fell shut. A hand caressed Gray's face and ran down his chest and abdomen, slowing the further it got, until Natsu's fingers stopped a few centimeters from his dick. The touches stole Gray's breath.

"Only if you want it."

Gray was feeling shy from all this affection, his head still tilted down so Natsu couldn't see his expression. But he gave a fervent nod: hell yes, he wanted it.

Natsu wrapped a hot hand around him, shifted forward, and pressed his own hard cock against Gray's. It was enough to have Gray throbbing with desire. The ice mage whimpered as Natsu moved his hand over both of them, and when Natsu shuddered too, Gray whispered, "Fuck. Please, Natsu."

He caught sight of Natsu's beaming smile at those words and pressed his red face into the pillow again. Gods, it always embarrassed him so much when Natsu could see him like that. Gray kept his gaze on the spectacle below so he wouldn't have to look up.

Plus he was excessively turned on by the image of Natsu rubbing their cocks together. It felt even better, tight grip sliding over every nerve laid bare pleasure. When the Dragon Slayer picked up speed, he put his other hand to work too, jerking them both off together.

"Gods," Gray grunted. "You're perfect… This—yes."

"I love when you talk like that," Natsu panted in his ear, kissing Gray's exposed shoulder.

The words made Gray's whole body tighten, lungs twisting with a sudden lack of use. Natsu saw him, loved him, walked straight into his soul.

Unable to take it in, Gray focused on their trembling legs clenched around each other, the eagerness squeezing his dick. Natsu uttered his name low and intense, euphoric tension building where their bodies pressed together. This, Gray wanted. This man right here.

As Natsu's strangled grunts got louder, Gray chanced a look at his face.

But what he saw made his heart stop dead. The Salamander's eyes were fixed on his, black and endless. Devouring. His look begged Gray to be vulnerable.

There was no way he could come while Natsu was looking at him like that.

He just couldn't.

He shut down.

He was breathing heavily, pulse stuttering. His face was dead, expressionless, out of his control. Pressure built up inside him, a desire for release, but he wasn't home in his own head. He was spinning, dizzy, there was too much noise.

Gray felt his muscles harden of their own accord—his body working without him. Gray was a silk thread pulled taut. Ready to break when Natsu's tender lips moved over his hair.

But he didn't break. He was too numb to fall apart. A blessing, maybe. Gray's head was buzzing too loudly for him to analyze it.

Natsu's movements sped up, tearing Gray back into the moment over and over. The amazing sensations Natsu was jerking out of him… Gray couldn't suppress a sharp hiss when Natsu twisted over his tip, fingers flying over him in just that perfect way.

Natsu's intense eyes still took him in, swallowed him. He enjoyed watching. Bile stirred in Gray's gut. Natsu was owning him from the inside out.

The Salamander kissed over Gray's face, shaky, fire-hot breaths punctuating every worshipful glance that raked down Gray's body. Natsu's face would've disturbed him if he'd been able to feel anything anymore.

With a drawn-out "Gray," Natsu came on Gray's stomach, eyes squeezing shut in an exquisite expression of happiness.

The hot liquid hitting him, Natsu's jaw falling open, and the experienced hand stroking Gray, so hot and fast—it steamed past his inhibitions against letting Natsu see him like this. And Natsu's eyes were still closed for the moment.

Gray made a strangled noise, holding back a debauched moan. With a final excruciating jerk, his body burst apart.

More come spattered his skin and sight became irrelevant as his orgasm flew through him, shaking him to his core. It emptied him and left him both full and exhausted.

As soon as he could move, Gray hid his face in bed. Shudders rode through him, winding down. The cloth muffled his desperate panting.

"N-Natsu…" he tried.

"I love you," Natsu said above him. Gray could hear the broad smile in Natsu's voice. He pictured it in his head, that radiant grin, the hint of a smirk. Gray kept his face tucked firmly in the bedclothes, but imagination was enough.

He still had Natsu's trembling legs caught under one of his thighs. Natsu's hot fingers trailed across his arm and Gray relaxed into the touch. Every sense, from smell to hearing, was overwhelmed with Natsu. Even if his heart was twisting at what he had just done, at being watched while joy invaded him, his body at least was sated.

It was still good, and Natsu couldn't own him if Gray refused to give him his soul.

"That felt good," Gray said, searching for the most honest compliment he could find within his emotionless cocoon. "Thank you."

"Mm," the Dragon Slayer agreed.

After a few minutes, hiding any longer would've been childish. Gray sat up in a swift, decisive motion, making a show of scrutinizing the mess on his stomach. At long last, he swung his eyes to meet his lover's.

Natsu's expression was satisfaction itself. Natsu—body gloriously naked, pink hair mussed, and eyes pinched up in delight—was the most amazing thing Gray would ever see. Gods. Gray let that tug his smile into place. He was happy; he wanted Natsu to see that. Only that.

A feeling Gray couldn't name swelled in his throat. Instinctively Gray leaned over and kissed his boyfriend. Natsu hummed.

"I'm going to shower," Gray said, motioning wryly at his abdomen and turning to slide off the bed.

As his feet hit the ground, Natsu caught his arm.

"Are you okay?"

"Fine. Happy, in fact."

Gray had to meet Natsu's gaze. Face him. Smile. That was the only way Natsu would believe him.

After two seconds, Gray was already uncomfortable. But the grip released and Gray walked as nonchalantly as possible to the door.

Once under the water, he rested his hard fists on the shower wall, body coiling in anger.

Where his heart should be filled with warmth and connection there was nothing. Nothing. Natsu wasn't nothing. Gray wasn't sure what he should be feeling, but this was wrong—Gray's insides were wrong.

Natsu felt so far away.

Gray had truly enjoyed it: their sex was always excellent. He could ask for nothing better. But he couldn't feel the happiness. He was just left with an empty ache. A useless desire to feel things. To be able to be intimate.

He didn't know how to let his guard down. Even if he wanted to, he couldn't.

With the water pouring over him, he felt claustrophobic. Gray closed his eyes and willed it to wash everything away: his rage, his emptiness, his impotency.

He couldn't have what others got to have. He needed to get the fuck over it. Enjoy what he had. Stop being an asshole who wanted to know what it felt like to love someone the way people talked about. This was why he'd never had a relationship before: true, loving intimacy was impossible for him. He didn't deserve it anyway. He was broken.

Fucking get over it, you little bitch. The furious thoughts whipped his disordered heart into submission.


When Gray opened the bathroom door, he ran smack into Natsu.

Fear leapt up Gray's throat at the intensity with which the Salamander stared him down. Like Natsu could read every horrible, broken thing in his head. The Dragon Slayer kissed him backward into the wall, a flurry of hot breath and teeth and tongue.

"What…?" Gray gasped against that insistent mouth.

Natsu pulled back.

"Always," he grunted. "So don't lie to me."

He marched the two steps to the sink and Gray stared at his back, waiting for something to happen. Nothing did. Natsu wasn't even looking at him anymore.

Crossing the short space, Gray wrapped his arms around his boyfriend's stomach. He put everything he had into the hug, gripping hard, willing Natsu to get it, believe it, feel it. I really do care. Natsu needed to know that. Even if Gray couldn't always participate in the feeling, it was still true.

When Natsu tried to pull away a few minutes later, Gray held on.

"Snowflake—"

"This isn't a lie," Gray said, muffled against his shoulder.

He meant it as comfort, but Natsu asked, "Are you sure?"

"Want me to prove it?" Gray growled.

"What?" Natsu managed to twist around enough to peer at Gray over his shoulder. Confusion marked his face.

Natsu's eyes left Gray breathless. He wanted Natsu. He really did.

"I'll do whatever you want," Gray said.

Dark questions reared up in Natsu's eyes, Gray realizing in a heartbeat what he would ask for.

With a sigh, he let go and Natsu slid around to face him.

Natsu hadn't cottoned on to Gray's avoidance of that topic yet. Gray could probably get him to shut up about the subject if he talked, gave the Dragon Slayer boundaries about where not to take his inquiries. Let him know Gray didn't want to even think about it, so please never bring it up.

Voluntarily talking about this…that was new. He really did trust Natsu.

"I trust you," Gray said, taking the plunge. "Go ahead: ask me for anything."

Natsu swallowed. "Can I ask a question?"

Gray nodded.

At first, Natsu just stood there pushing his fingers through his hair. Gray ran his hands over Natsu's chest while the fire wizard thought, relishing the touch of warm skin. Finally, Gray broke the silence.

"Do you want me to talk?" The words sounded like they were coming from another person.

Natsu nodded in relief.

Gray's voice slipped into a place of scholarly explanation.

"It happened a long time ago. I don't talk about it: I don't want to think about it. Remembering gives me nightmares, and I'm too old to deal with that shit, so…" Gray shrugged his shoulders. "I'm sorry for freaking out that night. I don't know why that happened; I usually have much better control. That's my fault, not yours."

Natsu focusing on Gray's chin rather than his eyes made this much easier. Still, his words made the Salamander hunch, progressively more defeated, and Gray felt a spark of fear. His fingernails dug into Natsu's arms, grounding both of them.

"I promise I won't let it happen again." Gray's voice shook with determination. "Ever. I am stronger than that thing. Please don't bring it up. I don't want to be that person, and when you bring it up… This is the real me, Natsu. Not that: not the person who—went through that."

Gray stopped, breathless. He was heavier than stone.

Natsu looked at him then, and in that black gaze were walls and understanding and silence.

"Okay," Natsu said simply and leaned in to kiss him. Gray remembered how to pull air into his lungs, gasping around Natsu's lips, slipping his tongue over those fangs. He was drowning, but it was okay: Natsu's lips pulled him out of deep water, and he left behind all the things which tried to weigh him down. Those things were not him. Gray was right here, found, established. He and Natsu were partners. Gray was not alone.

"Thank you, Gray," Natsu said. Gray could've floated on the words.


Gray's heart was racing so fast it felt painful to Natsu. Even if they weren't pressed close together, the Dragon Slayer would've heard it loud and clear, and his chest twinged alongside that lethal staccato.

Gray's words weren't really answers. But they were something. Natsu would have to figure the rest out on his own: the silences; the numb, dead eyes; the nightmares Gray didn't remember; the panic that appeared out of nowhere.

Gray told him I trust you and Natsu was content.

He sucked Gray's tongue into his mouth and bit him lightly, making the ice mage moan. Gray said not talking was safe. Natsu could only hope that was true.

He could only hope he didn't fuck this up.

If there are gods for this…help me.

Chapter 15: On Top of the World

Chapter Text

It happened while they were in the middle of the guild. They didn't remember what had started the fight, but Gray got Natsu pinned down and sat sideways on his chest, Natsu's arm twisted so he couldn't struggle.

Face flushed red, Natsu's smirk fell away, lips parting and pupils wide with adrenaline…a look Gray associated with when he sucked Natsu off.

"When we get home later," Natsu breathed, "I want you to fuck me."

Gray went rigid, shooting hard at the blown look in the Dragon Slayer's eyes. His palms started to sweat.

"Only if you ask nicely," he said, but the taunt was ruined by his roughened tone.

Natsu managed to twist out of his grasp, wrapping an arm around Gray to pin his hands to his sides. The stance put Natsu's mouth right by Gray's ear.

"Please fuck me tonight, Gray," he whispered.

Gray choked. You couldn't just say that to a man in the middle of the day and expect him to be unaffected. They were both struggling, wrestling against the other's hold, but Gray managed to slip Natsu's grasp and roll up into a stance. Breathing room.

Goddamn was the Salamander sexy right now. Sweaty, hair in all directions…

Crouching ready for a new assault, Gray heard the snort of held-in laughter behind him but thought nothing of it until Natsu's eyes focused over his shoulder. Sudden rage crossed the fire wizard's face.

"The fuck, Gajeel," Natsu growled, moving right past Gray to stalk up to the other Dragon Slayer.

"Yeah, that's what I was thinking too." Gajeel didn't back away, chuckling as he leered. "Damn, Salamander. I never knew."

"Got something to say, shithead?" Natsu gestured around at the full guildhall significantly.

He was only a pace from the metal mage now, aggression in every muscle. Gray felt a flare of jealousy: usually Natsu only got that way with him.

"Shithead?" Gajeel laughed. "That's what you're going to smell like after—"

"As if you smell any better after," Natsu growled.

Gajeel's grin turned into a snarl. He jumped to his feet, the two Dragon Slayers glaring nose to nose.

"What's that supposed to mean?" Gajeel rumbled.

"Two days ago, for instance."

Gajeel's hands curled into fists. "Stay the fuck out of my business."

"I will if you will." Natsu's eyes glinted, predatory. "I think you have more to lose, outsider. You keep your damn mouth shut or I will ruin you."

Behind them, Gray gaped.

Natsu had never treated Gajeel like that before, as if he were less than a guildmate. Sure, they didn't get along, but Gajeel was still Fairy Tail. Gray was uneasy now. Maybe it was time to go home and make good on that promise.

"You ignoring me, flame brain?" he called.

Natsu and Gajeel jerked, taking in the people around them in surprise.

Natsu straightened. "What if I am?"

"I'll have to hit you a few more times until you pay attention," Gray growled, enjoying the way Natsu's eyes lit up.

Hands on his hips, the Salamander strutted—actually strutted—back toward Gray as if he were the winner of some impressive fight.

"Go ahead and try, droopy-eyes."


Cursing Mira and her request for a 'super quick' favor, Gray hurried up the path to Natsu's house, entering without knocking. Natsu had left the guild half an hour ago and gods dammit, Gray was antsy. Natsu's fuck me swam through his brain like a shark on a scent.

He didn't bother to announce his presence as he entered: Natsu would already know he was here. The restroom was occupied but nobody else around, so Gray flopped into a lonely chair and tried not to think cock-hardening thoughts.

They learned from experience that Happy tended to show up at inconvenient times. Despite fooling around plenty, neither of them had ever climaxed at Natsu's place, and not for lack of trying. One time had been especially excruciating: Happy had waltzed in the door while Gray was seconds away from coming between Natsu's thighs, Natsu's cock leaking in his hand.

Somehow the Exceed hadn't noticed a thing as they whipped a blanket over themselves. Happy had to be the most oblivious cat if he thought they were just 'cuddling.' They had to lie there aching and stiff after that, and it didn't help that the idea of someone watching turned Gray on. He'd been so hard it hurt.

Gray took a deep breath. None of those thoughts right now, dammit.

Natsu tried to sneak up on him while he sat there musing—might've succeeded except there was the tiniest squeak of a door hinge. Gray whirled in time for Natsu to straddle his lap and immobilize him with a heavy kiss. As their tongues intertwined, Gray lost control over his don't-get-too-excited campaign.

"Someone's eager," Gray panted, fingers winding their way under the hem of Natsu's shirt.

"Yeah, popsicle, geez." Natsu grinned and ran a hand over Gray's crotch. "You've got an icicle in there."

"I try to accommodate. I'm nice like that."

"You are." Natsu bit his ear. "I'm going to melt you, snowflake."

When he sank his teeth into Gray's neck, the ice mage groaned loudly, a haze falling over his thoughts.

"Wait," Gray panted, "if we're doing this right now…where's Happy?"

"Out," Natsu grunted. "Will be for another hour at least."

"You sure?"

"Positive. But I can barricade the bedroom door if it'd make you feel better," Natsu teased.

"Nah, leave it open." Gray grinned. "Let's get on the fucking bed already. I have a promise to fulfill."

When they reached the bedroom, Gray discovered he'd lost his shirt and pants somewhere in the two-second journey. He nearly ripped Natsu out of his clothes, hungry to have his hands on him, to feel over Natsu's pecs and suck a line down his throat.

Natsu was a mass of moans, fingers tracing random patterns over Gray's chest. Every touch glowed, lines of fire that went straight to his dick.

Gray flicked over one of Natsu's nipples, back and forth, until Natsu was shaking with tension. Gray attempted to kiss him, their frantic energy making it sloppy and wet when Gray finally found Natsu's mouth. He was searching blind, eyes closed, his tactile senses fully consumed by his Dragon Slayer.

When Gray pulled Natsu's shorts off, the Salamander grabbed his hips and ground his naked skin against him.

"Gods," Gray groaned. Clumsily he slipped out of his boxers, pushing Natsu toward the bed. Natsu grabbed a bottle of lube on the way and tossed it to him.

"I want you right fucking now."

Natsu drew the ice mage down onto the mattress with him, Gray on top, sharp teeth biting into Gray's lip. When the glorious fangs pulled away, Gray crawled down Natsu's body and sucked on the tip of his cock.

"Grayyy…" Natsu whined, head thrashing to the side. "Gods. Want…inside…"

"I'm getting there," Gray said, pulling away long enough to speak. "But this is a good way to prep you without hurting."

"Don't need to. I already did."

With Natsu's cock back in his mouth already, Gray heard those words and glanced up at Natsu's flushed face. Eager bastard. Shit, that was hot to think about: Natsu touching himself, Natsu entering himself and groaning over his own hand.

He pulled off Natsu's dick, muttering, "Fuck."

Gray rose up and took Natsu's mouth again. He was insatiable, tongue sliding over Natsu's teeth while he fumbled with a condom and groped for the lube. Natsu was a jerky body of energy beneath him, tugging on his hair, pressing closer. Gray could not slick himself fast enough.

Tossing the bottle across the bed, he slid his aching cock between Natsu's legs and paused.

"You're sure?" he whispered, barely able to speak as Natsu's strong thighs tensed around him. Gods.

"You're actually going to make me beg, aren't you?" Natsu asked with a breathless laugh. "Yes, snowflake. Fuck me. Make love to me. Take me over. I want to come while feeling you fill me up."

Gray shuddered. "Yes, sir."

Sitting up, he positioned himself and slowly pressed in.

Natsu let out one long, extended gasp. Gray entered him as gradually as he could, but Natsu was relaxed and ready and he slid into him easily. The Salamander really had prepped himself. Gray was suddenly glad he'd been held up at the guild.

Being inside—it'd been a while since he'd done this with anyone and he'd forgotten what it was like. Fucking fantastic. Hot and surrounding, all points of him saturated. His cock was stimulated in a way only this kind of sex could do: pressure constricting him and spiking pleasure up his spine.

Leaning down, he kissed Natsu's flushed cheek, jumping when a hot hand slid up his abdomen.

Natsu wrapped a leg around him, easing himself forward and back. Gray was nothing but tension, a dam waiting to burst, and when Natsu said, "Move please," Gray let out a strangled noise and obeyed.

He tried to go slow, like he always did when they tried something new, but it was hard to think of Natsu as a virgin anymore. Gray had fingered him before and that felt far more first-ish than this. Especially since Natsu was straining, pulling Gray deeper, trying to get him to thrust more.

Sliding almost all the way out, Gray moved into him, body alight with the sensations. Head thrown back, Natsu let out a constant string of incoherent noises, his hands mindlessly kneading Gray's hips. Natsu tilted his pelvis with each slow thrust, searching out the perfect angle.

Gray was heading that way too, wanting to just move and follow the aching feelings in his cock wherever they took him. But he couldn't quite let go…

"If it starts to hurt—" he began.

"Right there!" Natsu interrupted with a shout. "Don't stop."

Staring down at that beautiful face twisted up in enjoyment, Gray felt powerful and on fire.

He thrust harder, toes digging into the comforter, and Natsu cried out. His eyes were closed, some of his pink hair plastered to his face with sweat.

The Salamander's hands came up and jerked Gray down to meet him, fingers pulling painfully at Gray's hair. Natsu kissed everywhere: his mouth, his jaw, his eyelids—then sank his teeth into Gray's exposed neck. Gray's insides crumbled with eager desire.

As thrills shivered over Gray, he kept fucking him, constant and hungry and earnest. Taking Natsu's cock in hand, Gray stroked him, grip imperfect, though it made zero difference right now. The slightest touch was making Natsu dig his nails into Gray's arms, crying out.

"Gray…hnnn, Grayyy…"

Overwhelmed as he was, Gray was still attentive, enthralled by Natsu's body, devoted to every sound he made. He wanted Natsu to feel good, to be ravished completely until he was satisfied; to come apart so Gray could put him back together.

To want to do this again and again and again.

Sometimes when they fucked, Gray felt like a spectator, unable to feel anything that compared with the pleasure Natsu experienced. But seeing Natsu right now lit Gray up: he was an ember, smoldering with Natsu's fire. He was here in this moment, very much alive.

Natsu tensed around Gray's cock, squeezing a groan from his lungs. Gray's breaths came in gasps as he approached the edge. Tension sang joy through his muscles.

"Natsu, hahhh, you're so fucking good at this it's…mmm, not fair."

Natsu's groans got louder. With a final thrust, Gray hurtled into the ether, delivering all his pent-up energy in shuddering waves. It tore through him like an avalanche, stripping him of everything.

"Nng, Natsu…Natsu," he grunted, thrusting a few more times as he softened, riding out the pleasure.

He came back to himself, blinked his eyes, and looked down to see his boyfriend with mouth open, expression desperate as his eyelids fluttered shut. And then Natsu was coming, white spattering his stomach and making Gray wish they could do another round right this instant. The Dragon Slayer's trembling fingers let Gray's abused skin go as Natsu sagged into the sweaty comforter.

"I…had…you in me," Natsu panted, face etched in needy wonder.

"Yeah, and it was incredible."

"I liked it." Natsu combed through Gray's tangled hair. "Fuck."

Natsu's pulse throbbed visibly at the base of his throat and Gray kissed it, sucking a hicky there without meaning to. When he eventually pulled out, he rolled to the side and rested his cheek against Natsu's shoulder.

"You're amazing," he murmured.

Natsu let out a breathy laugh. "I have a good partner."

Gray didn't know what to say to that, so he just smiled into Natsu's skin.

"I've wanted that," Natsu sighed happily.

Even though there was no time stamp in the comment, Gray still heard it lurking and implied. They'd been together several months now. Maybe this would've happened sooner if Gray hadn't fucked up and tried to bottom when he knew better.

But maybe waiting a few months was normal in relationships—the slow discovery something people savored. Gray knew nothing about this stuff: whether their relationship was normal or not.

Did it really matter? Gazing into Natsu's black eyes, Gray didn't think so. They could be whatever they wanted to be. As long as he got to fill Natsu up with all the things the Dragon Slayer could ask for.

"There can be lots more if you want it," Gray said, squeezing Natsu in a tight embrace.

"Oh, don't say that: I could devour you right now," Natsu groaned. "Can I take you out? That's the only way I'm going to focus on my food instead of you."

"There you are, still coming up with excuses to ask me out." Gray grinned. "Don't you think we're past that by now, boyfriend?"

Chapter 16: Tender Assailant

Chapter Text

Natsu was different every time they were together, a ball of constant energy that was sometimes fierce, sometimes submissive, sometimes languid, sometimes laughing. And very often, romantic. That was what he was this morning, kissing Gray slowly, tracing fascinated patterns over his chest and arms.

Gray had given up trying to predict what Natsu would do next. It was rarely ever sudden, and never crossed the quiet lines that made him panic, so he didn't have to worry. He could trust and stop thinking, which was a relief.

As Natsu ran his fingers over Gray's bicep, Gray nipped the fire mage's jaw, getting a raised eyebrow. Natsu leaned in to kiss him, but Gray dodged his lips and sucked down his neck. The Salamander let out a noise of appreciation.

"I'm good for some things," Gray teased.

"Mm, Gray, you're good, full stop."

Gray blushed.

Morning sun lit them, relaxing and warm. Erza was gone and thus unable to demand things, so they could spend the day however they wanted. Gray wanted to spend it right here.

Natsu was propped up on one arm in bed, eyes trailing over Gray's body in a slow, inquisitive study. The roving gaze used to freak him out, but he'd gotten used to it for the most part, especially in situations like this, where Gray could roll him over and take control if Natsu's inspection got too uncomfortable.

Hot fingers curled around Gray's hip and Natsu pulled him forward. When their chests met over the tangled-up comforter, Gray could feel Natsu's heartbeat against his own. Natsu kissed him lazily, slipping his tongue into Gray's mouth to explore.

The Salamander was sweating, which for him was never the result of temperature: excitement kicked his heat into high gear. Gray was starting to overheat this close to him.

"Do you have any control over whether your body is a furnace?" Gray asked testily, though he was smiling against Natsu's mouth.

"Why, you cold?"

Gray snorted and put his hand on Natsu's hard chest, spreading a thin layer of ice beneath his palm. Natsu made a noise of protest but surprised Gray by continuing to kiss him, hand sliding up from Gray's hip to his back. Gray sucked on Natsu's lip, chewing it, feeling something poking the sheets at his waist.

Natsu gently laid him backward onto the bed, shifting over him. Gray still didn't like surrendering: didn't go loose beneath Natsu the way Natsu did with him. But it didn't feel like yielding if he pulled Natsu down with him, kissed him hard and touched all the places that got Natsu aroused, until the Salamander succumbed to his direction.

But Natsu was doing something different this morning. While he shivered under Gray's touches, he still took control of their position, sliding against Gray so their cocks rubbed over each other. They groaned in unison. Okay, Gray could definitely get used to this.

Natsu moved down, cock brushing over Gray's balls as he thrust again. Damn, frotting was a legitimate way to have sex in itself, it really was. Gray's erection tingled from the attention.

But his muscles weren't just tensing from Natsu giving him the right amount of friction. Natsu was getting awfully close to the untouchable places. Even as Gray thrust up eagerly against the Dragon Slayer, he wasn't sure if he was seeking pleasure or trying to keep Natsu from slipping between his legs.

The tip of Natsu's cock poked beneath his scrotum.

Gray gasped, fingers tight where they gripped his partner's arms. This was okay, he told himself, it was okay, Natsu wasn't anywhere near his ass, this was Natsu, Gray had full control and Natsu would respect him, it was okay. Gray found he was shaking, adrenaline flooding his veins. Natsu thrust in small motions, unaware Gray's reaction was anything other than exhilaration. When Natsu panted, eyes closed, Gray understood, intercural was awesome, but not when the Salamander's dick was this close to his anus.

Gray hovered, lighter than air, one tense moment from self-defense. And then his boyfriend pushed between his thighs again and Gray's mind broke.

"Natsu," he begged, voice streaked with pain.

The noises in Gray's head were loud, so loud, eyes shut tight against the panic that was coming, because someone touched his ass, ripping him open and taking everything while Gray—Gray screamed—

"—safe, it's okay, I won't do it again, I'm so sorry, I'm right here and everything's okay, you're safe here…"

Natsu lay next to him holding Gray close against his chest, arms like iron bands protecting him. Rocking, shaking, whispering over and over in Gray's ear. Gray didn't remember when they'd moved.

"…it's okay, Gray, it's okay…"

Gray felt them coming, sharp pains about to stab into his arms. He wrapped his hands around his biceps, panicking when his fingers weren't enough to cover his skin. Ghosts pierced him, hot and cold, ripping his flesh. Gray gripped himself harder, cutting off the sensations, but the pain shifted, stabbing into his chest, then his face. Gray's hands flew, trying to cover the skin and keep the sharp bloody pain away, but every time he moved, so did the stabbing: thighs, feet, neck. He couldn't, he couldn't.

He couldn't stop it.

The whole time he fought, trying to hold still so it wouldn't hurt, Natsu clung to him. There was skin against Gray's skin, someone else standing against the pain. Part of Gray wanted to be afraid of being touched, but this was Natsu and if Gray were safe anywhere, it was right here.

Desperate, Gray tried to smother himself in Natsu's skin. Bitter pain made his breath come in little gasps.

"I can feel them," Gray whispered. "They're everywhere."

He was broken and dying and so alone. Amid his exhaustion, words slid out of him.

"She always stabbed me while he held me still. She liked to hurt people. She'd—she'd do it however long he let her."

Natsu choked. "Holy shit…"

"I can feel it," Gray panted harshly.

The Dragon Slayer didn't respond. Shaking, Natsu gripped the ice mage so tightly it ached. Gray welcomed the pain: it grounded him in reality.

The words kept coming, relieving the pressure of his abscessed wounds. Horrible words that broke the world.

"He flipped me around to face him when he…" Gray's eyes fixed somewhere over Natsu's shoulder. "He liked to watch my face. She'd rub herself and t-tell him what to do."

"Gray, it's okay. You don't have to." Natsu's voice broke.

"Sometimes they made me watch, or do things to myself, or…but it always ended there. Always there. Every time…there. I hate it. I hate it. I never want—I just hate it. I hate them."

"G-Gray…"

When Gray's words halted, not wanting to hurt his lover, Gray hit an emotional wall. He couldn't move: adrenaline wracked through his tense body, contorting his muscles.

He hurt so much he felt numb. It made him want to slice himself open. He could do it, too: conjure ice, peel back his flesh, and stare at his blood. Maybe then things would stop hurting.

Fuck, he was so broken.

He started crying and couldn't stop. Natsu's hand pulled insistently on Gray's neck, bringing the ice mage against his chest. Smashed against that warm, familiar body, Gray went limp, sobs shaking him. Panic and fear swirled around them but Natsu held on, never letting go, never leaving him. For the first time, Gray knew Natsu cared—knew it in his bones and in the way Natsu never wavered.

The sobs made him dizzy. Everything drained out of him in the haven of Natsu's embrace until he was empty. His trembling turned into occasional shivers. Residual hiccoughs took a long time to abate.

He'd never wept so long in his life. Inside felt hollow while his skin tingled with leftover energy like electric shocks.

Gray's fingers tightened on Natsu's skin, afraid he would leave now. Just because Gray was breathing normally now didn't mean he didn't need Natsu. Natsu couldn't leave.

"I'm sorry," Gray mumbled, voice thick. "I promised you it wouldn't happen again. I f-failed."

He fought a wave of nausea, trying not to cry again.

"I don't care about that." Natsu's breaths were loud in Gray's ears. "I just want to know you're okay."

"Yeah, I'm okay," Gray said, sounding as strong as he could.

"You don't have to be."

Gray took a deep, shuddering breath.

He needed to see Natsu's face. Right now. Natsu hardened and wouldn't let go at first, but he eased to let Gray pull away from his chest. Straightening, the ice mage met wet eyes and jolted in alarm.

"You're crying. Fuck. I'm sorry, Natsu. I'm so sorry. Fuck. Fuckfuckfuck."

Gray's body started to shake. Panic coming back.

"N-No, it's okay." Natsu grabbed his hand in a determined grip. "It's o-okay."

Contrary to his words, the Dragon Slayer let loose a fresh wave of tears. Taking a deep breath to calm himself, Gray caressed Natsu's face. Natsu cried for a few more minutes, the two staring at each other the whole time. The silence helped Gray wind down, stillness filling him in place of all the noise. He wanted to sleep for a thousand years.

"Are you…alright?" Gray asked.

Natsu nodded. "'M fine."

His hand went up to Gray's cheek so they were each touching the other's faces.

"What did I do?" the fire wizard whispered.

"Do?" Gray blinked, trying to figure out what they were talking about.

"We— I was doing things, and then you…freaked out. Something happened to make you feel that way."

"It was just…" Gray swallowed. "It was too close to my ass, that's all."

"Okay." Natsu hugged him tighter. "Okay."

When Natsu kissed Gray's forehead, Gray thought it was over. But a voice came from above him a minute later.

"It's all my fault. I'm so, so sorry." Natsu choked again.

"It's not your fault," Gray growled. He wasn't sure why, but the apology pissed him off. "You're not the fucked-up one here."

There was a long and horrible silence as Natsu kept kissing his hair. To Gray's relief, Natsu didn't try to dispute the judgment. Gray didn't feel like arguing how degraded he was. He didn't want Natsu trying to persuade him to 'believe in himself' or some crap. He was broken; he didn't want to dwell on it.

"We're going to be okay," Natsu said.

Gray rolled closer and said nothing.


Natsu used to always push Gray in times where Gray doubted himself, fight Gray to show him he was strong. But it was clear violence would only make things worse in times like this. Just holding him and being there, constant, helped the most, but that left Natsu with pain building up inside him. He hated to see Gray hurting so much while he couldn't do anything about it.

This was all deep, crazy mind shit, which was not his area of expertise. Natsu wondered if anyone was good at this stuff. Maybe he really was a hopeless idiot. It felt like it was all his fault, guilt whispering at the back of his brain. If he knew more, he wouldn't set Gray off like this.

He was not good enough. He needed to train himself. If he grew smarter, he'd be better. Able to help.

"Was there anything else you wanted to tell me?" Natsu asked softly.

"I can't believe I said all of that."

His voice was level and controlled—too level, emotions on mute. Fear spiked in Natsu's chest: Gray would get upset at how much Natsu knew. The Salamander didn't know how to say he would never bring it up, wouldn't let it affect their relationship. He'd never mention this day again if Gray wanted, anything so that Gray wouldn't push him away.

"I shouldn't have put all that on you," Gray sighed.

"Put...on me?" Natsu shook his head. "I'll carry anything you want me to. I'll bear anything for you."

Gray snorted, a sharp sound that slapped Natsu in the face. He didn't understand how Gray had suddenly become so closed off.

"I mean it, icicle."

"You don't know anything," Gray said bitterly.

"Don't write me off," Natsu growled in frustration. "Gods, do you not believe in me at all?"

Gray stiffened. When Natsu looked down, he saw surprise had taken over Gray's expression.

"I believe in you," Gray said, as though this were obvious.

"Yeah, and you've fought beside me. You know my capacity for—for pain. Think about my limits."

"You don't have limits, hothead. You go until you drop dead, like an idiot."

"Exactly. Your pain can't crush me."

Natsu shifted so they could stare at each other. At the eye contact, Gray slowly deflated, emotion returning to his features. Natsu softened. He does trust me.

"What more could you want to know?" Gray asked, desperation edging his voice. "People messed with me when I was young and now I'm permanently damaged. Your boyfriend is dysfunctional and it isn't going away. The end."

"That's not the end." The fire mage couldn't have said what else belonged in those sentences: a thousand things, all the things Gray was and wasn't.

Those sentences were wrong.

"I need to sleep," Gray said, shifting to pull the comforter up. Even though they'd only woken up a few hours ago, Natsu didn't protest.

Hesitant, he asked, "Do you want me to leave?"

"What?"

Gray stared at him as if to ascertain Natsu had really said what he had. Reaching over, Gray gripped Natsu's hand.

"I need you to stay with me."

Relief flooded through Natsu so tangibly he sagged into the bed. He was a worn-out rag, in dire need of sleep.

"Good, snowflake. I'm not leaving you."

They nodded off together still holding hands in a death grip.

Chapter 17: The Nightmares You Remember

Chapter Text

Natsu jerked awake when Gray came to consciousness with a strangled yell.

Another nightmare.

Which was awkward, because Natsu wasn't the only one sharing the room with him. The team was on a job which was taking longer than anticipated, so for tonight they crammed in the single room their client provided.

Natsu was alert instantly when Gray thrashed: he was attuned to Gray's sleeping patterns by now. But Natsu also heard Erza's breath sharpen as she shifted in bed.

After several minutes, Gray's panting remained loud, at least to Natsu's ears. While he was prepared to shift over onto Gray's futon and hold him if he panicked, he knew Erza would hear and see it all. So he was somewhat relieved when Gray sat up, pulled pants on, and left.

Except then Natsu had the excruciating wait as Erza went back to sleep before he could follow. Finally judging her noises had evened out, he slipped outside.

Gray sprawled some fifty paces away, lounging with one arm propped on a knee. He would've looked relaxed if it weren't for the sharp contours of his muscles tensing.

"You awake, icicle?" Natsu asked, padding up behind him.

"That's a bit of a dumb question, isn't it?"

"I dunno, maybe you sleep-walked." Natsu plunked onto the soft earth beside him. "When you punch things up after bad dreams, you don't usually remember it."

Gray shifted to stare at him. "What do you mean 'usually'?"

"After your nightmares," Natsu said awkwardly. "You yell and…cry. Sometimes you don't remember."

"I don't…" Gray looked shaken. "What? No."

"Um, I share a bed with you, droopy-eyes…I'd know." Natsu raised his eyebrows.

"I think I would remember a nightmare like this, hothead."

As the crease between Gray's eyebrows deepened, more and more disturbed, wariness crept through Natsu's body.

"I don't know what 'this' is, so I couldn't tell you," he said carefully. "If I ask about it the next day, you say you slept fine. I thought you were lying the first time."

"Shit." Scrubbing a hand over his eyes, the ice mage drew his knees up, hunching over them and glaring at the horizon. "Dammit."

Natsu frowned: Gray was more disgusted than surprised.

"Has this happened before?" the Dragon Slayer asked.

Gray pulled at the roots of his hair. "Yes. Gods dammit. I forget things."

"But…not tonight."

The answering silence didn't offend Natsu. It was obvious Gray remembered.

Natsu was glad when the conversation stopped there, feeling as if he were walking on eggshells. Say the wrong word and he'd make everything worse. It was a minefield—not that it was Gray's fault, but it was frustrating.

What did 'forget things' mean? Which things? How did Gray know if he'd forgotten them? Did these questions fall in the realm of things Natsu should avoid talking about?

In the absence of any safe topics, Natsu scooted next to him and put an arm around Gray's shoulders. The ice mage was shivering, which made Natsu want to flare his heat, except Gray didn't get cold. So this was…excess adrenaline? That sounded right.

Gray didn't react to his boyfriend's touch, so Natsu leaned into him further. The Salamander was a physical person: it was easy to express bodily the things he didn't know how to word or which Gray wouldn't let him say aloud.

When he turned his face into Gray's dark hair, the latter adjusted his shoulder, bumping Natsu's cheek away. Natsu settled for running his free hand up and down Gray's arm instead.

Gray shook him off. "Not right now."

"Okay... I was just cuddling."

"Well stop."

Natsu's whole body went rigid.

"I can't do this right now." Gray shrugged uncomfortably against Natsu's arm. "Move."

Natsu jerked back.

"Can't do what right now?" The words didn't sound like his: removed, cold.

"This," Gray grunted. "Touching. Cuddling. Being sexual."

"I don't want—" Natsu stopped and inhaled. "I'm not trying to pressure you into anything."

"Then stop touching me!"

Natsu tumbled onto his side in his haste to get away from Gray. Away from that scary voice. Something inside him cracked. Anger rushed in through the breach.

"Asshole," the Dragon Slayer spat.

"Me?" Gray turned on him in surprised ire. "You're the one who wanted—"

"I didn't want anything! I just put my fucking arm around you!"

Gray's eyebrows rose in skepticism.

"What, you don't believe me?" Natsu asked. "When have I ever pressured you for anything?"

"There's a first time for everyone," Gray growled under his breath.

"I'll never do something you don't want to do!" Natsu yelled. Gray tried to turn away but Natsu swung around and crouched right in front of him, a snarl on his face. "What do you think I am, a monster?"

Looking cold for a long moment, Gray's expression folded in on itself, confused and in pain.

"Fuck." The quiet word fell like murder. Gray put his fists on either side of his head, eyes screwed tight. "No, I don't think— I just can't tell…"

Natsu sensed a change in the air a second before Gray pulled in on himself and started shaking.

Just like that, Natsu's fury lost its edge. Plunking next to him, Natsu put a hand on Gray's shoulder as the ice mage rubbed his arms protectively.

"It's alright, Gray. I get it, okay? You think differently about stuff. Misunderstanding."

Gray just panted, shallow and open-mouthed, staring into the distance.


Gray was so messed up. Natsu was right; Gray had implied things. He couldn't help it—the touch had overwhelmed him, freaked him out. He couldn't distinguish between good and bad. Gray was a bastard. A bastard with clear relationship issues.

His stomach was still in revolt against both the nightmare—and now their fight—muscles quivering. It wasn't panic, not quite. He was still in his own mind. His mind was just a really fucked-up place. Closing his eyes, Gray tried to calm the adrenaline, tried to tell himself he was safe.

Natsu was touching him once more, rubbing his back in comforting circles.

"You don't have to—" Shamed, Gray tried to twist away from what he definitely didn't deserve. "I'll be okay…"

But a muscled arm wound around his waist, halting him.

There was nothing demanding in Natsu's posture: the firm hand kept Gray from fleeing and nothing more. Still, Gray had to force himself to relax, focusing on soothing thoughts until he uncoiled.

Natsu said in a low voice, "If you don't want to have sex, we don't have to. At all."

Chest tightening, Gray clenched his jaw to keep himself silent. He could never do enough to earn this. Natsu would be willing to give up sex...

Gray hated being treated like he was lovable by someone who was so much better than him.

"Did you hear me, icicle?"

"Yeah, I heard you. It has nothing to do with that. I just thought you were trying to… Look, you can touch me, just not in any intimate way right now. My brain." He waved a vague hand. Nightmares still clung to his mind like dusty cobwebs.

"Sex makes you freak out," Natsu filled in.

"No. It's not sex." Gray swallowed. "I just didn't sleep well—jumped to conclusions."

"But all the other times…" Natsu drifted off.

"What other times?"

When Gray turned to him, Natsu looked away. "When we're fooling around and you pull away or stop looking at me. Or the times you only pretend you're enjoying yourself."

Gray froze.

Gods, Natsu knew. He knew about the numbness; of course Gray couldn't hide it—of course it would show. Just how much had Gray screwed up this relationship?

"It's not the sex that's the problem, Natsu," he said. "I love fucking you."

Natsu snorted. A wry smile climbed Gray's lips.

"The problem is what it does inside me," Gray continued.

"What does it do?"

"I'm just…dead inside. There's nothing there."

Natsu's grip tightened. "How often do you get that way?"

Gray shrugged, but it was more unease than unknowing. He didn't want to hurt Natsu with these truths. Partly for selfish reasons: he couldn't upset the one person he trusted enough to keep him afloat. Losing Natsu would make him fall apart. Because I'm weak and pathetic and needy.

But it was also because Gray loved him. He couldn't, could not, hurt the Salamander. Gray knew pain too well, and Natsu didn't need this kind of heartbreak in his life.

"Gray," Natsu insisted. "Has sex always made you feel dead?"

"Sure, yeah, the feeling is always there." Gray choked. He had to do this. "I never noticed with other people because it was all about having a good time, getting close for a night then going on about our lives with no fallout. Maybe that sounds shallow to other people, but fucking is awesome and it makes people feel significant and connected. I loved doing it. I still love it."

"So, you only feel dead with me." Natsu's voice was flat.

"No, I just didn't want a relationship back then. Long-term stuff didn't matter; the intimacy had a cut-off point, so I could ignore all…this. The internal stuff. It was there, but it didn't matter. With you, long-term stuff does matter. We're going to wake up tomorrow and continue being together, and we're not just going to fuck, we're going to fight and work and live and everything else." Gray grit his teeth. "But I can't open the door to everything else inside me. Part of me won't let me. So...I just can't feel anything."

Natsu cleared his throat, frowning in confusion.

"Sorry, it's hard to explain." Gray closed his eyes.

"So you're thinking too far into the future and it freaks you out? If that's the case, just take it one day at a time. Pretend I'm a one-night stand if it helps."

"No, that's not it." Gray pressed his fists to his face, frustrated. "It's things like eye contact, okay? Every time you look at me, it's different from anyone else. When we talk like this, when we joke around or go on missions—you're there in all those places. It's like I have to meet you there, like you want all my pieces. But sharing everything out in the open feels like I'm walking onto a battlefield with no magic or weapons or anything."

When Gray finally looked over at him, Natsu's eyebrows had creased in concern. For some reason, it pissed him off.

"I don't want you to feel like you have to fight me," Natsu said.

"I know that, flame brain. You're not demanding anything. But that's part of the problem. You put me in the center of things. You…care. I can't handle that."

Natsu tried to stifle his chuckle, but only partially succeeded.

"Sorry," he said quickly. "Yes, of course I care about you. But I want to do it the right way, so if I need to change—"

"You don't get it!" Gray shifted to face him. "It's not how, it's that you do at all. I have no idea what to do with that! I could always be detached before. With you, I have this weird, stupid desire to be connected. But I. Just. Can't. My heart won't let me. So I'm just numb."

Natsu stared at him, breathing heavily. Those black eyes, the ones Gray always tried to escape from yet never wanted to leave, consumed him. Holding all my pieces. Gray didn't want someone to have all of him. To see all the ruined parts of his soul.

"Fuck it. I can't do this." Leaning forward, Gray pressed his face into his knees. It was terrifying that the person he loved loved him back.

"So sex feels good physically, but you don't feel everything else. That's the problem?"

Natsu's words were smooth—too smooth, if Gray had paid attention.

"Yeah," Gray said, trying not to feel like a broken toy. He wasn't even sure what 'everything else' was supposed to be. A sense of rightness; a sense of being loved? He had no idea what that felt like.

When Natsu's thumb wandered down over Gray's hipbone, Gray closed his eyes. This touch wasn't a demand for anything: he knew that. Most of him believed it, and the parts that didn't—those were the parts of himself he hated.

"Gray…why do you always want me to get you off rough and fast? You're thoughtful when you focus on me."

The change of topic startled him.

"It's a kink?" Gray shrugged. "I'm not always like that."

"Yes, you are." The rebuttal was steady. "You freak out if I try to take care of you. Because you're uncomfortable?"

"Rough is what gets me off. The harder we fuck, it's like a fight or something. I can handle that. Much better than trying to—to 'make love,'" Gray said, sneering a little at the last words.

He used to think it was a beautiful phrase, before he realized it wasn't real. Now it just sounded like romantic drivel, the sort of tripe people made up to sell books and show off. Make love. Love was a lie. A beautiful, horrible lie he kept falling for.

"Like a fight, huh? I love fighting you too, snowflake." Natsu combed a hand through Gray's hair. "But sex doesn't have to be like that. I like trying different things. Sometimes I don't want to fight you."

"I know," Gray growled. "You don't have to remind me I'm fucked up."

"Gods, if that's all you got out of this conversation…" Natsu said, exasperated.

"If you didn't take that away from this conversation, you need your ears checked."

"I hear a hell of a lot better than you, ice princess."

"Only when your fiery head is actually paying attention."

"Sure, because I never pay attention to you," Natsu snorted, fingers tightening on Gray's skin.

The pattern of banter was so recognizable that any remaining tension between them eased. Gray hooked an arm around Natsu and drew him closer.

"Let me take care of you sometimes," Natsu said. "And tell me when you're uncomfortable or need to stop."

"Mm," Gray said, noncommittal. He wasn't sure he could promise anything.

Inhaling, he caressed the Dragon Slayer's side and enjoyed the heat of his skin. The Salamander hummed into the embrace as they sat in contented silence, Gray's nightmare-stiff body loosening.

"We should go back to bed," Gray murmured. "We have a lot to do tomorrow."

"Not to mention what the girls will think if they catch us out like this."

Gray startled. "That too."


When they slipped back into the cabin, it took Natsu a moment to notice anything amiss. Gray slid onto his futon, clothes already vanishing, but Natsu paused for a second listening.

When too much silence assaulted him, he looked over—and found a pair of eyes fixed on him in the darkness. He froze.

Erza. Watching. Saw them enter. Together.

Lying down, Natsu kept his eyelids cracked, head pillowed on one arm so he could see Erza across Gray's form. Gray fell asleep in minutes, which made Natsu glad: after nightmares it sometimes took him an hour or two.

Now there was just this new threat to deal with.

Eventually, Erza dropped off, but that just left Natsu wondering: what was she going to do about it tomorrow?

Chapter 18: Just a Little Won't Scar

Chapter Text

The next morning, Erza deliberately got Lucy alone. The team had to split up to finish the job, and to the boys' extreme surprise she made them to head one way together while she and the blonde went the other.

"Lucy," she said casually as they trod down their chosen route, "do Natsu and Gray seem any different lately?"

Lucy tried to hide her surprise.

"None."

Erza gave her a look.

"They fought less this mission, but that's just because...you're around."

Erza glowered. "I see."

"Why do you ask?" the celestial mage asked, fidgeting with her hair.

Erza stared down the long hallway, armor moving around her, caging her in safety.

Last night could've been nothing. So Gray slept poorly and Natsu went to check on him. Sometimes Natsu and Gray were actually kind to each other—not that they'd ever admit it. Lucy often pointed out that they did in fact consider each other friends even if they pretended not to.

Erza sighed. Why couldn't they just be normal? Then they and everyone else at Fairy Tail wouldn't have to pretend that Natsu and Gray hated each other when they obviously didn't.

"You don't think they're fighting right now, do you?" Lucy asked, breaking into Erza's thoughts. "Gods, you'd think they could at least get a job done without fighting every single second."

"I wouldn't be surprised to hear they brawled this whole time," Erza growled.

"I keep thinking they'll mellow out with time, but that's obviously not happening," Lucy said. "They should get a real hobby."

"Or date people," Erza said automatically. "That mellows people out."

Then her eyes widened.

No. It couldn't be.

Could it?

It could. Last time I had a crush on someone, I tried to take their head off on multiple occasions. Dammit, why did Fairy Tail wizards have to be so violent with their affections?

She wondered how they acted when nobody was looking. If they were trying to keep things secret for some reason, they were doing a damn good job. Secrecy didn't make sense to her, but now she wanted to know for sure. After this job, she was going to have to do some prying.

She had the perfect source for information.


The nightmares were getting more frequent. Gray couldn't remember the last time he'd gotten a full night's sleep.

Natsu kept trying to help him, comfort him, and act normal as much as possible, thank the gods. Acting as if all was well might just be Natsu's natural coping mechanism, but it still helped.

At the same time, there seemed a direct correlation between Natsu's understanding and Gray's darkness. The more Natsu proved he cared, the more on edge Gray became. Which meant nightmares and jittering nerves.

He kept getting hurt when they fought each other, too: more bruised up than usual. Whenever he caught sight of himself in the mirror, he couldn't help thinking he looked ragged.

If he could only get one night of sleep.

Tonight's dream woke Gray with a heavy jolt, floundering amid comforter. Consciousness brought pain to his jaw, and he realized he'd punched himself when he startled. It paired so appropriately with the beating he'd received in the nightmare.

After trying to stay quiet for several minutes, knowing Natsu had woken but not wanting to bother him further, Gray got up cautiously and closed himself in the bathroom. He couldn't lie there next to his boyfriend pretending everything was okay when his memory was full of being intermittently tortured and turned on.

He felt disgusting.

His stomach fluttered, light, electrified, too empty to vomit. It was too bad: he would've welcomed the burn of acid. There was a sense of dirt, semen, and sweat on his skin, and he'd do anything to not feel it, to focus on some other pain.

On pure instinct he formed a blade. The icy knife fit strangely in his hand: he hadn't done this in a long time. He and Natsu did all their training together now, which gave him someone to punch, a person who hit back and filled him with welcome aches and sore muscles. He came away feeling full. No need for…other things.

Gray was already sliding the edge over his skin when the enormity hit him. He was going to cut himself open. Natsu would see the wound.

Gray just needed to feel alive for a few minutes. Needed to hurt as much as the things inside him. It was the only way his wounds could talk. Just a little won't scar.

It would still leave a mark, to be found by the person who inspected his body in delightful ways almost daily.

Gray didn't need Natsu trying to save him from himself. Which was exactly what the Salamander would do. Having someone who cared could be so agonizing.

Fuck, he just wanted a little cut…

But Natsu would freak out. Gods, he'd do that thing where he tried to hold Gray and be consoling while at the same time shaking and getting all emotional.

The thought sent pain through Gray's body. Sometimes he thought he was numb to this, but the idea of harming Natsu always stabbed his heart with fresh swords. The emptiness swirled tighter inside him. The Salamander being disturbed and upset—Gray hurting his boyfriend…just like the bastards who hurt him…

He was just like them. But then he already knew that, didn't he? Dirty and broken—broken from the beginning, from before it all happened; that was why it had happened to him.

The floor fell out from under him.

With a groan, Gray leaned over the toilet and heaved.

Right as Natsu knocked. "Popsicle? You okay?"

Fuck. Gray had to protect him from this.

He wanted to bleed. Can't protect him. He's too close.

"Gray?"

He was such a failure.

Gray's body rejected him. At the sounds of sick hitting the bowl, the door banged open, Natsu's presence immediately heating the air. Kneeling, the Dragon Slayer held Gray's shoulders while he threw up.

The emptiness in his gut helped Gray relax. Evict everything. Fucking nightmares and memories. All the monstrous things which turned him into trash. This kind of history followed you around, even if you didn't want it to. Gods, he was a worthless little shit.

"Sorry you woke up," Gray rasped, wiping his mouth. "You can sleep; you don't have to check on me."

At least one of them should get a decent rest.

"It's just so strong…" Natsu sounded sheepish. "I couldn't stop smelling the blood."

Gray froze. The blade hidden in his fist dissolved. He was certain he hadn't actually used it. Right?

"Blood?" he managed.

Natsu leaned in to inspect him.

"Chin," he said.

Thumbing the spot and finding a bit of sticky red, Gray sighed. "When I woke up, I hit myself."

"Damn, icicle. You managed to gash yourself in your sleep? That takes talent."

"What can I say: I'm dangerous," Gray quipped, but with his weary, hoarse tone, it came out lame.

Gray shivered so hard he almost fell over. Gods, he was tired.

"Can you…" He stopped. He was so pathetic, but he was going to do it again: ask for help he didn't deserve. "Can you help me back to bed?"

"Of course, snowflake."


In the morning, Gray still felt off-balance. Every time Natsu looked at him, he felt dirty, like every dark thought was on display. He couldn't protect Natsu from all of this—at some point, it was going to burst out of him.

As they dressed, preparing to go to the guild, Gray said, "You should go on a job with Lucy like she keeps asking you, flame brain."

"We've done plenty of jobs with Lucy," Natsu replied, not really paying attention.

"Not us: you. You two are teammates, aren't you? Seriously, you should go."

The Dragon Slayer eyed him with suspicion. "Why are you so insistent?"

Gray shrugged. "I just thought you should."

"The more you push, the more weirded out I get."

"Look, let's be apart for a day or two. Not because I want to," he added quickly, suddenly irrationally afraid of Natsu leaving him. "For our own sanity. Gives you a break from me—"

"I don't need a break from you," Natsu insisted, worried now.

"—and gives me a break from all this intense…whatever. Everything will feel better after a few days."

Natsu hung his head, not looking at Gray. After a few seconds, he nodded. "Okay."

"Look," Gray tried to explain, "we're both tense, right? So let's do something normal. Let's both relax. Maybe I need some time alone to sort out my issues."

"Okay," the Dragon Slayer repeated, stronger.

"Like old times." Gray grinned. "When you get back, I'll even pounce on you."

Natsu's eyes danced with mischief.

"That sounds more like new times, ice cube."

"Depends on the kind of pouncing." Gray raised a suggestive eyebrow. "Although I suppose it can be both."


The job Lucy chose was a recover-lost-items mission, which sounded boring, but Natsu gave in when Lucy got annoying and Happy started pouting on her behalf. Traitor.

Hands behind his head, the Dragon Slayer wandered after his teammates through a meadow starting to turn green with life. The cold weather had slowly waned toward spring, which made Natsu happy (but made Gray sad—silly icicle).

The ice mage invading his thoughts again made Natsu sigh. It was probably a good idea for them to be apart for a few days. He knew Gray was capable of taking care of himself, but it seemed the ice mage needed to prove it to both of them, especially after all the times he'd broken recently. And it gave Natsu time to become better at helping him.

When Lucy and Happy's conversation drifted to him and he caught several large words like 'conflagration' and 'unbridled,' a thought occurred to him: Lucy knew lots of things.

"Hey, Luce," he interrupted, "have you ever had to deal with someone having panic attacks?"

Stopping dead her tracks, Lucy turned to him with wide eyes. At their expressions, Happy came to perch on Natsu's head looking concerned.

"Where'd that heavy topic come from?" Lucy asked.

Natsu shrugged. "Just thinking."

"I didn't know you knew what panic attacks were," she mumbled, falling into step at his side. "Yeah, I know someone who suffers from them. You do too."

Natsu tripped. Nobody knew. Nobody knew about Gray. The man would probably murder anyone who did.

"I d-do?" he asked.

"Elfman."

He almost lost his footing again. Of all the names he might've guessed…

"What from?"

"C'mon, Natsu, you really have to ask that?"

"Oh. No." He swallowed. "So how are you supposed to help him if he has one?"

"I was only there when he had one once… I just kind of let him cry. When I asked later, Mira said it's best to give him a little space but stay nearby. He, uh…hurts himself sometimes."

Happy gasped.

Natsu's blood ran cold. Not just at the idea of Elfman injuring himself—that was bad, too. But at the horrific thought of Gray— He took care of himself for years, he thought furiously. He was okay. Except now he wondered how many of the scratches Gray got on his missions when they were younger were truly a result of work.

Heavy stones pressed down on him. Fuck, he'd been so oblivious.

"It feels weird to be sharing this with you guys," Lucy murmured. "I mean, this is all really personal about someone else."

"Yeah." Natsu had to clear his throat. "What about if someone has a hard time focusing?"

"What?" Lucy asked, thoroughly confused.

"Like if someone, for the same reasons as having a panic attack, also has a hard time…I dunno, paying attention to what's happening? Like they can't stay in the moment?"

"Dissociation?"

"Sure."

"How do you know all these big words?" Happy interjected.

"It's called reading, guys." Lucy shot them a flat look. "I've only heard about dissociation—I don't know anyone who actually struggles with it."

"What would you do if you met someone with it?"

Exhaling, she stared up at the sky.

"I've heard it helps to just sit with them and help them if they're trying to figure out what reality is. Like reassure them of what's real, who they can trust, if they're safe—that sort of thing. Dissociation is caused by cutting yourself off from reality."

Lucy heaved a breath.

"It's often a result of going through something really bad, right? So until you deal with the trauma, you're going to keep dissociating, because it keeps you from having to feel all the—awful things inside you."

"That's terrible," Natsu said hollowly. Not that this was particularly new—he'd seen a lot of this already. But to hear her say it so clinically…

"Why are you asking about all of this, Natsu?" Lucy met his eye, worried. "Is something going on?"

"No, I just…just wanted to know."

"Is there someone you know dealing with panic attacks and such?"

Natsu was hyper-aware of Happy's paws pressing against his head. Happy knew about Gray's nightmares (hard to hide when you shared a small house) but nothing more.

"No," he said, deadpan. "I just heard someone talking about a friend of theirs, and it got me thinking."

"That's unusual for you," Lucy teased gently.

It made Natsu smile, and minutes later they were bantering back and forth again, the meadow sunny and green once more.

But a little bit of shadow still lingered around its edges, just on the border of Natsu's vision. If he turned his head too fast, he might see it: the greedy blackness that tried to take Gray away from him.

In the meadow, laughing with Lucy, he could recover his strength.

I have to be strong for him.

Chapter 19: Dragon's Fury

Chapter Text

Erza sat at the bar of Fairy Tail rolling an empty mug between her hands. She'd been waiting for the right moment to ask Mirajane her question for several days, but it still hadn't come. She needed the boys present for observation first.

Because it was just impossible…

"Want a refill?" Mira asked, sidling over.

"No, thank you." Erza waved absentmindedly. "Have you seen Natsu or Gray?"

"Natsu and Lucy left on a job together yesterday." Mira frowned. "I don't think I've seen Gray since yesterday morning."

Still staring across the guild with unseeing eyes, Erza hmmed.

"Are you okay?"

Mira's soft voice was suddenly much closer. Turning back to the bar, Erza found herself looking right into Mira's eyes.

"Yes," she said, blinking quickly. "I meant to ask you…do you think Gray and Natsu have been acting differently lately?"

Mira tilted her head. "Different in what way?"

Erza was silent for a long time. This was too ludicrous.

"Do you ever wonder if Natsu will date someone?" the requip mage asked.

"I always assume it will be Lucy," Mira said. "He might actually consider what they have a 'relationship' already. He isn't exactly romantic."

"Mm." Titania pushed her cup across the table. "Another please."

She knew Natsu and Lucy weren't together: Lucy didn't swing that way. There was a reason the blonde always joked about never having had a boyfriend.

Mira hadn't moved when Erza asked for a refill.

"You think him and Gray?" she said, thin eyebrow rising.

"…Possibly?"

Mira lit up, pushing a lock of white hair behind her ear.

"That would be too good," she chuckled, lowering her voice to a near-whisper. "The two of them? But I can totally see it."

"Really? I can't. This is Natsu and Gray. They care about each other, but they also want to kill each other."

"Oh, Erza." Mira rolled her eyes. In the old days, that would've started a fight between them, but Erza had learned to take the condescension and dish it back in due time.

"What're you whispering about?" Lisanna asked, huddling up next to her sister.

"Whether Gray and Natsu are dating."

Lisanna clapped a hand over her mouth to stifle her laughter.

"You don't think so?" Mira asked.

"I do. You never see one of them at a time: either both of them are here or both of them are absent. Not to mention Natsu—" Lisanna stopped suddenly. "Well, they're just different with each other recently."

"They are," Erza agreed. "I just…can't understand it."

The three turned back to the hall, not that the boys in question were present for spying on. This was precisely why Erza had wanted to ask Mira at a time when they could scrutinize the men up close.

"If they are together, why do you think they're trying so hard to hide it?" Mira asked.

"I don't know." Erza frowned, a bit of sadness entering her voice. "Would they think we'd make fun of them?"

"They have always been at each other's throats," Lisanna said. "But nobody would mock them for getting together. They'd have to suffer a few amiable jokes maybe, but no one would care. Master would probably be relieved about fewer repairs to the guild."

"Some people keep their dating life secret so it doesn't disrupt anyone else," Erza pointed out. "If they have a casual thing going on, they wouldn't want a break-up to cause awkwardness."

"That's not it. I know that for sure," Lisanna said, but she didn't elaborate.

Scanning the hall, Erza fixed on Gajeel, who was glaring at them from the other side of the room. She frowned back, unsure what they'd done to merit his reaction. Gajeel shook his head, got up, and stormed out of the guild.

Erza snorted. If the Iron Dragon wanted a fight, he could challenge her to her face.

Honestly, Fairy Tail wizards. There was nothing like.


Gray had trained in the woods all day yesterday. Not because he was missing Natsu—of course not. He just didn't have anything better to do; that was it

After ducking into Fairy Tail in the morning, he left quickly, feeling oppressed by the people everywhere, like an itch on his skin. The day by himself was supposed to get rid of the itch, but last night, he'd had another nightmare. It wasn't a flashback but the product of a scared mind, putting people he knew in the place of his abusers.

That was almost worse: waking up with the real-feeling memories of people he cared about hurting him.

With Natsu gone, maybe he'd assumed the spotlight on his soul would be gone too. That he could close up his heart-wounds and wrestle through. Gray had been good at repressing this all once upon a time when he was single, and he thought this short sojourn would be like those days.

Of course not.

The pain was eating him from the inside out today, and now he discovered the real difference Natsu made: without him, Gray had nobody to take the tension out with. Natsu was always there to fight him. Or for Gray to hold onto. Funny how an embrace could calm him down when touches were the thing that used to set him off.

With nobody to spar with, Gray wandered through the forest freezing things. He was vaguely aware he was doing all this to avoid something he didn't want to face. Something which hunted him from his peripheral vision. A desire to form a blade and… Distracting himself, he slammed his fist into a tree.

Shit. One of his knuckles cracked. Scraped and stung, he punched it with the other fist. Despite the pain, it felt satisfying. He hit it again.

After half an hour of beating up the trunk, Gray's hands were bleeding and his soul felt sated. Heading back to his apartment, he cleaned the cuts, aware that every time one stung, it was just a metaphor for bigger injuries.

Even here, he could not escape.

He was still the scarred, shriveled psyche characterized by impotence and unrealized desires. No matter where he went or who he was with. This was why the itch to cut still hadn't gone away. Not that he was going to give in. But fleeing the desire was not doing much good, as his hands obviously showed.

Why didn't people understand the need to hurt—physically hurt? People reacted to cutting as if the body were a sacred thing. Bodies were just bodies: they were tools; they got dinged up. His was pretty fucking defiled, not even able to enjoy the things he was apparently supposed to feel. Not much worse he could do to it at this point.

But he wouldn't do cut, because of Natsu.

Letting out a frustrated growl, Gray slammed his back against the wall. This is for you. Shoving down the urge to conjure a knife, he threw his head back, cracking across the hard wood. Stinging pain sparked behind his eyeballs. I'm holding off for you.

He rammed himself back into the wall again, and a fourth time, aches creeping into him where the knobs of his spine bit the wood. Every hit expressed a bit of his frustration, his useless insignificance, and his inability to feel better on command.

When someone pounded on the other side of the wall, Gray leapt up like he'd been burned. Neighbors. Right.

Renewed purpose filling him, he strode out the front door and crossed the street into the forest again, walking until the woods obscured Magnolia behind him.

Such a fuck-up.

He threw himself into a large maple.

Bark scraped the back of his shirt. Flinging his head back into the solid wood, Gray's vision went black for a moment and came to with a swirl of pain at the base of his skull.

He kept up the abuse, always against his back, some rash part of him thinking that if it was only there, Natsu wouldn't see. A memory wound through his mind, swollen bruises that had been raised on his skin against his will, and he found black desire lurking in his gut. The kind that made him want to laugh and cry.

Sickening. He grinned as he cracked his head against a blunt, knotty branch, sharp pain causing him to check for blood. There could be no blood. Irksome dragon noses.

Tears streamed down his face when he hit himself again, knocked loose from the strike to his head.

There was a whispered voice Gray always tried to ignore. It spoke the truths he never told anybody. Broken. He hit himself again and smiled because he was, he was broken. Fuck. Corrupted. Like a piece of meat gone bad. Anyone who consumed him would get sick. Unable to be strong… He hit himself, not wanting to hear this one, not this one: unable to protect the people close to you. Fuck, here he was, hurting himself, which no normal person would do, because he was twisted and abnormal.

He couldn't let others get hurt. He had to have a cheerful, ignorant reality he could turn to where darkness didn't reach. Someone had to be happy in his stead. For his incapable, incompetent self. He wanted the world to live in ignorance of what he was going through, even while he wished he could pour it all out of him like venom and excise the wound. But nobody deserved this. Nobody could withstand this. Gray had to be inhuman.

He didn't deserve to be happy and he didn't need to be happy. He could lock all the pain away inside him. His job was to stand as a guard and make sure no one else got hurt. His job was to be broken.

He tossed himself backward into a thick trunk for the hundredth time, relishing the way the many bruises pounded and screamed to the thick rhythm of his pulse.

Lying down in the dirt, he closed his eyes. The pain overtook his brain so he didn't have to think anymore. Didn't have to worry. Didn't have to feel.

The aching took his breath away as he rested, staring at the sky.

Peace.


Though Gray had promised to pounce when Natsu got home, he was taken too much by surprise to do so. He'd only just reached Natsu's place with fresh food—trying to be useful since he'd selfishly taken time for his own pain—when the Dragon Slayer burst in the door.

Without a word, Natsu grabbed his shoulders and kissed him hard, shoving him up against the wall. Gray moaned, the welts on his back lighting up. Natsu's teeth found his neck, hand sliding over Gray's ass, fingers of the other hand tangling in his hair. All the while, Gray's bruises sang in melodic agony against the hard wall.

I can feel.

"Sorry," Natsu panted, pulling away from Gray's throat blushing. "I couldn't help myself. Hi, I'm back."

"Gods, just keep going," Gray grunted. He felt dizzy, desire taking over his consciousness.

Natsu kissed him again, gentler this time, worshipping Gray's body with each touch. Fingers caressing his skin. Body sliding sensually against Gray's. The slow handling was overly romantic, and Gray took Natsu's face in both hands to bring him into a rougher kiss.

Natsu broke away with a jerk.

Snatching at Gray's hands, Natsu flipped them over and Gray saw what had him perturbed: the scabs from Gray's bout with the tree this morning.

"What happened?" Natsu asked, his voice gruffer than usual. He ran his thumbs over the bruises without looking at him.

"Training got a little intense," Gray chuckled, proud of the scars, even if it was for the wrong reasons.

Glancing up, Natsu relaxed a little. "Who were you training with?"

"A maple."

The Salamander snorted a laugh.

"You're pathetic."

It was different when Natsu called him that—different from when Gray's own brain flung the insult. With Natsu, he knew it wasn't true, which was precisely why Natsu said it.

"You're pathetic, slanty-eyes," Gray shot back, feeling full. "You were the one who got all concerned."

Natsu swooped back in and returned to kissing him, fierce and enthusiastic once more. Gray melted, happier, more alive than ever before.

The ways Natsu touched him had him on fire. Grinding against him, the Dragon Slayer groaned into Gray's mouth, biting his lip. Gray could hardly move, from the pleasure weakening his knees and the pain of his injuries which was starting to morph into a headache. He couldn't stand for much longer. "Bed—"

Natsu was already moving that direction, steering the ice mage backward. Gray almost tripped down onto the mattress, but Natsu held on and began to lift his shirt.

"Wait," Gray gasped out, "I have an idea. Let's do it with our clothes on."

A sly grin spread across the Dragon Slayer's mouth.

"Horny bastard," Natsu muttered, pushing Gray onto the bed and falling on top of him. While Natsu's tongue snaked into his mouth, Gray shuddered in joy as starbursts of pains radiated out from his broken back. It hurt so much, drowning out the noise in his head, cleaning him of anything and everything. He wanted Natsu to fill his empty spaces.

Being on his back beneath Natsu was perfect, too. Where he was powerless and unable to escape. Where the pressure of the mattress could go screaming through him, reminding him he was weak. Where Natsu could expend every little bit of energy playing and toying with him as he was doing now. The pain made Gray feel powerful, which in turn made him able to uncoil and accept what was given.

So this was what surrender was like.

Gray was sloppy as he pulled the Salamander's hips closer, frotting against him. He wasn't paying attention to much else, including the noises he was making, until Natsu stopped sucking on his tongue.

"Did that hurt?" Natsu asked in concern.

"No. Please keep going…" I need you.

The Dragon Slayer's movements slowed down again, more caresses and tender touches entering the mix. Gray knew this: Natsu was trying to take care of him. Trying to make him feel the things which he couldn't feel.

His welts crackled and sparked with violent intonation. That was feeling.

Natsu pushed Gray's shirt up enough to run fevered hands over his chest. Above him, the Salamander's expressions were glorious, his head thrown back: he was enjoying this. Gray nibbled his ear and got a pleased growl.

All the while, razors of electricity bit into Gray, serrated his spine, filled him with light. Everything felt sharp and astounding. As Natsu kissed down his body, Gray rubbed a thigh across the Dragon Slayer's cock, watching Natsu shiver. Even that wonderful distraction didn't stop Natsu from what he was doing to Gray. He was definitely winning the battle—if there was one—for pleasuring the other, and Gray frankly didn't care. He didn't care if Natsu took control of everything.

Natsu's mouth was at the waistband of Gray's pants when he stilled, crouched over Gray's body.

Fingers rubbed over the ice wizard's hip where a purple bruise wrapped around the bone. Gray couldn't help a moan: a loud, obviously-delighted moan.

"Shit, what happened?" Natsu asked.

"It's fine," Gray breathed while the warm hand slipped under his body, heat against aching flesh—and gods it felt so good. He made a weak sound of protest when Natsu stopped moving. Don't stop touching me.

Natsu couldn't see the rest of the bruise, though he clearly wanted to: worry was creasing his face, making him look almost childlike. Trying to reassure him, Gray went to pull him up to face level to kiss him. But the movement was a little too sharp and he froze—

In one swift instant, Natsu had sideways, pulling Gray with him. Pushing up Gray's shirt, Natsu sat up and stared at the painful exhibition.

"What the fuck?" Natsu breathed.

His palm hovered over Gray's back, barely touching him. Gray didn't actually know what it looked like: he assumed lots of purple blotches.

"Who did this to you, snowflake?"

"No one." Gray couldn't tear his eyes away from Natsu's face. He couldn't read the terrifying expression the Dragon Slayer wore. Concern? Dread?

"Don't give me that. You've never let me hurt you this much, and I have fucking tried before. Who did this?"

"No one," Gray insisted. "I'm fine, alright? Come back over here. It doesn't even hurt—"

Face wrenching through a dozen emotions, Natsu scraped his nails over the swollen skin. With a shout, Gray punched him in the stomach.

Natsu recovered from the attack much faster than Gray, who had to squeeze his eyes shut. Natsu had ripped lines of fire into his ribs.

"Doesn't hurt?" Natsu snorted. "Sure, ice princess. Try another one. What happened?"

"I did it, okay? Stop freaking—"

The breath was shaken out of Gray with a jolt and talons constricted around his upper arms. Quivering, Natsu stared at him, eyes wide with fear and betrayal, mouth open, silent.

Seeing the Salamander so distressed tore straight through Gray's heart.

Natsu truly cared about this, and that somehow felt even better than the pain in his back, better than all of it. Natsu cared. It warmed Gray with something indescribable. While he wanted to pull his boyfriend in, share this moment which was so full of heat and light and relief, he held off. Natsu was trying to get something out.

The Salamander's mouth worked a few times, and then an actual goddamn tear leaked down his face.

Gently, Gray went to hold his cheek, but Natsu pulled away from him.

"Did you think I wouldn't notice?" Natsu's face twisted and rage took over. "Did you think you could silently kill yourself behind my back?"

"That's not—"

"I've stood right here the whole time! I care about you," Natsu panted. "And this is your first instinct? As soon as I'm gone, you tear into yourself…and then lie about it?"

Gray had never seen him look so terrible. Natsu shook his head, pink hair flying.

"Are you honestly trying to destroy yourself, Gray?"

"Yes!" Gray shot back, desperation clawing up his insides. Natsu's words scared him. "That's exactly what I wanted to do! But I didn't. I didn't because I'm stronger than that and I care about you too and I did not lie about it—I never said a word. It's just a little bruising anyway!"

"A little?" Natsu's voice rose in pitch. "You call this 'a little'?!"

"I don't know," Gray snapped. "I can't exactly see it, can I?"

The Salamander swallowed something that might've been a hiccough.

"I give up," Natsu said. "I've tried to be here for you; I tried to do everything you asked; I've been everything I know how to be. I can't watch you close yourself off and make yourself bleed and refuse help again and again— I give up, Gray."

With a jerk, Gray retreated. Distance. Ice. His whole body flooded with cold.

"What are you going to do?" the ice mage asked, eyes wide.

"I don't know." Natsu put a hand over his face. "I don't know anything anymore."

Gray was standing up before his brain even processed the intention. He turned his back, losing his shirt at some point—he heard a choked gasp behind him at the display of his injuries and his muscles tensed. Energy raced through his blood. When had he started breathing hard? Like he was running. Or fighting.

Gray could feel the dread on his horizon like an approaching storm, like evening falling over him, the time to entertain and be entertained… He felt hemmed in, felt the loss of control, unable to do as he wished or to manage his own body. Including his emotions.

The start of a panic attack always felt like sinking into sand: slow enough you could see it happening, but no matter what you did, you couldn't get out. There was just the horror of knowing it would swallow you. Like thrashing, that horror only made you fall faster, but how could you not try to escape hell, even if you knew it was hopeless?

Gray's whole body was shaking now. Sweat-slicked and strung out. Tears pushed behind his eyes. An autonomic response to pain.

He didn't want to do this in front of Natsu.

"Would you like me to leave?" Gray asked, but he already knew he was going to.

"No!" Natsu shouted. "Shit, that is not what I want."

But the panic now tingled through Gray's arms with whispers of the past.

"I can't…" Gray took a deep breath. "I can't feel…"

He heard Natsu stand and take a step toward him.

"Stop!" Gray flung a hand out, half turning around. He couldn't be touched right now. Not even by Natsu. The touch would betray him: make him feel things, beloved things, only to discover he was dead. Even the pain lashing his back wasn't enough to bring him back to life this time.

When he closed his eyes, a tremor ran through him into the floor.

Looking up again, he saw a new fear twining through Natsu's eyes where he stood rooted to the floor. Fear of what Gray was, what was happening to him. But still, the anger too. Eyes tracing Gray's bruises, not understanding.

Gray's thoughts to himself were terrified and furious. You can't freak out in front of him; you don't deserve him—

"Fucking talk to me," Natsu said.

He's weary of me.

The ache in Gray's chest was sharp and bitter. He tried to find anger to take away the pain.

"Sorry, flame brain. I'm too messed up to be of use to you," Gray spat.

"Don't you dare throw that in my face!"

Gray turned his back. The terror was tangible now, in his gut, sparking through his fingertips, light along his skin.

He couldn't have a panic attack now and turn into another mess Natsu had to clean up. Or worse, be the mess Natsu ignored. Natsu was done with him—this was the inevitable moment, when he'd finally had enough and realized this was never going to get better. Now Natsu would walk away. As he should.

Too tight. Gray's skin was too tight. He would burst apart. Blood sounded in his ears. The rhythm of a thousand nights of torture.

Time to flee.

"I'll see you—later—," he gasped before his voice could turn into a scream.

He made a run for the door.

"Popsicle!" Natsu shouted. "Gray!"

Chapter 20: Gone

Chapter Text

Natsu caught up to him easily. Following Gray's smell, Natsu found him sitting on the embankment that looked out over Magnolia, covered in drifting fog.

Gray's back was to him, showing off the thick, black bruises layered across the skin. Natsu hated to think what Gray must've done to hit himself that hard. They didn't look right on his lover, even though he'd seen Gray beat-up plenty of times before, in much worse condition. But it was a thousand times worse when there had been no enemy and Gray could've stopped at any point—and chosen not to.

How long had this been going on, and Natsu had been oblivious?

Natsu didn't step out into the open initially, staring at Gray from the cover of the trees. He didn't know what to say. Or whether Gray would even listen. How did you stop someone from hurting themselves and at the same time let them know you loved them no matter what?

It was obvious the ice mage needed to hear both those things.

Natsu had just started to cobble words together when Gray stood up suddenly, shoulders tense and eyes focused below.

As scents shifted, Natsu smelled Erza—followed by one of the few emotions that had an odor.

Fear.

When Erza came over the hill, he wanted to run forward and stop her, even though her expression was frankly terrifying. Because whatever it was, Gray was already in a bad head space. But he and Gray had just fought: Natsu barging in could just make things worse. And then he'd feel awful.

He already felt pretty damn awful.

But what if Erza made things worse? He wanted to protect Gray…but then, he couldn't without making it very clear his and Gray's relationship was more than rivalry. Shit. His impotence was unbearable, keeping him frozen in place.

"What's wrong?" Gray called, and the sound of his normal, non-panicky voice made Natsu more relieved than anything else in the world. If Gray was okay enough to put up a farce of normalcy, that meant something.

"Thank gods I happened to see you up here," Erza gasped, skidding up the embankment. "Where's Natsu?"

"I'm not sure." It took a few seconds for Gray to add, "How would I know anyway?"

A sad little grin slid up Natsu's face despite everything. Almost let things slip. Panting, Erza stayed silent for a long moment.

"What's up?" Gray repeated.

"We need his nose at Lucy's apartment. Someone…someone took her."

"What? But Natsu just— I thought she and the fire-breather were on a job!"

At Erza's pursed lips, Natsu growled low in his throat, fingernails digging into his palms. He'd seen Lucy an hour ago. Dammit, this could not be happening right now. He needed to get to Gray, wrap him up, and keep him safe. He needed to be there for him. He couldn't do that and mount a rescue at the same time. Gray, Gray, Gray…Lucy…

Natsu suddenly noticed he was burning a hole through the nearest tree trunk.

They both needed saving: this was a problem of priority. Which meant… He sighed heavily. I'm so sorry, love.

Dashing forward, he broke onto the hilltop.

"Natsu!" Erza's eyebrows climbed her forehead as she glanced between him and Gray. "What are you doing here?"

"Thought I heard this popsicle hollering."

Gray frowned at him and Natsu met his eyes for a brief moment, unsure whether the frown was aimed at him or simply meant to keep up their act. Fuck, this distance ached. He wanted to settle everything. Later.

"Someone kidnapped Lucy," Erza said. "Before any scents disappear, we need you to come—"

"Got it." Grunting angrily, the Salamander sprinted past her down the hill.

He could hear his comrades behind him as he broke into town, but he didn't stop to let them catch up. As he turned onto a main street, the other end of Magnolia seemed a thousand kilometers away.

Gray's shout reached his ears: "Hey flame-brain!"

Just like that, ice coated the ground beneath his feet, rocketing past him down the road. Before he could fall or even be pissed, someone was barreling into him at high speed, grabbing his arm, and slinging him forward.

Natsu just managed to keep his balance. Gray shot him so fast across the mirror-smooth surface that the wind stung his eyes, but a few seconds later he was crashing into a building and barreling down Lucy's street. His surprise was only outweighed by gratitude. He was going to pounce on Gray for this later—okay, he was injured, so maybe not pounce so much as kiss very gently all over his body. If he lets me—which was not a thought he needed distracting him right now.

Gods, his fears were going to be piled as high as a mountain by the time the sun set.

Lucy. He had to focus on Lucy for now. Maybe, just maybe, he'd manage to stay sane.


Happy and Levy met him at Lucy's flat. On hands and knees, Natsu was scenting his way down the stairs when Gray and Erza caught up. They stumbled into him, both bursting out, "Did you find anything?"

"Yes," Natsu said, avoiding their eyes. "Shut up please. Focusing."

"Natsu." Gray caught his arm. The press of those warm fingers got his full attention. "Will it mess things up for you if we trail close behind?"

"It's fine. I know all your smells enough to filter them out."

Gray blushed and hurriedly cleared his throat.

When Erza yelped, they both looked up to see her on the landing with a horrified expression on her face. Beside her, Happy had both paws over his mouth in shock.

"Gray…what happened to you?" Erza asked.

Both men blinked at her before catching on at the same moment. Natsu tensed while Gray whirled, putting his back out of their line of sight. It meant Natsu had to deal with the horrific view right in front of his face.

He nearly choked.

It was worse up close. The whole surface of skin was black, swollen, and terrible. It made him afraid—irrationally afraid, the emotion quickly transforming into anger. Why? Why did you do it?

"It's nothing," Gray told them, overly casual. "I'll deal with it later. Right now we're finding Lucy."

Erza nodded, businesslike, trusting. When she started giving orders, Natsu tuned them out and got back to work.

Trying not to think about Gray's bruises.

Once they had Lucy back, he could take care of his lover. And figure out what the hell to do. Figure out what this meant for them, whether Gray still wanted him at all. He had to find Lucy as fast as possible, for all their sakes.

Following the smell of fear, abductor, and Heartfilia, he led them on what they realized was the fastest route out of town. Erza forced them to stop and wait for Happy to catch up; he'd flown Levy to the guild to deliver the news. Natsu almost kept going on his own. Determination was a good cover for his dread, but the suppression only worked if he kept moving. Shoving feelings down was fucking hard. How were Gray and Erza acting so calm?

When he growled in impatience, Gray held out a hand in a halting gesture. His smell hit Natsu like a train tearing through his mind, making a mess of his thoughts. The Salamander took a deep breath and discovered he was infinitesimally calmer.

When the Exceed swooped out of the fog, all three humans tensed in eagerness.

"Good," Erza said. "Now we run."

Small claws dug into Natsu's scalp as he took off, the team on his heels. He didn't notice he was growling until he had to inhale.

"Lucy will be okay," Gray breathed, just loud enough for his sensitive hearing. "It's going to be fine, Natsu."

He didn't respond. It was supposed to be his job to support Gray. But the words had the intended effect: Natsu's adrenaline became a tool he pushed through his legs, hurrying onward.

Fear for Gray was still lodged in the prominent place in his heart, aching from lack of attention, but taking care of him would have to wait. Fucking dammit. Someone had stolen his best friend and was keeping him from his boyfriend's side, right when his boyfriend needed him the most.

When they found whoever was responsible for this, the team might just have to restrain Natsu from committing murder.

Chapter 21: In Love With the Flame

Chapter Text

Several hours of running brought them to a mountain whose windswept sides were clear of everything but low shrubs. When Gray pointed out the light above, Natsu yelled, "Happy!" before Gray could say more and the two took off into the night at max speed.

It left Gray sprinting in their wake with a murderous Erza at his side. Gray was more than a bit pissed himself. Fucking Dragon Slayer, leaving them behind. Natsu was committing all sorts of betrayal today.

They reached the fire-lit outcrop in time to see him holding a woman by the collar. Around him was littered debris and a few overturned supplies around a guttering fire.

Whatever words Natsu was saying were too low for them to hear, but the woman's face was a picture of terror. For good reason: the Dragon Slayer was completely covered in flames.

Gray was shocked at the violence of the display. Natsu?

"North!" the woman shouted. "I swear! Don't kill me!"

Natsu tossed her to the ground and stomped to the northern edge of the clearing. Gray couldn't remember seeing him this upset. Ever.

"Wait," Erza commanded.

Natsu whirled. "We need to keep moving."

His eyes skittered over Gray in an expression the ice mage couldn't read.

"What happened?" Erza demanded. Then she gasped. "What the hell?"

Gray turned, frowning—and froze. A body lay in the grass, a hole blow through the middle of their chest. Oh fuck. Surely not. Natsu…no.

"Apparently Lucy summoned Taurus and this woman got knocked out in the fighting." Natsu jerked his head at the scared mage. "That's all she knows. Says the man over there was probably killed by their leader for letting Lucy get to her keys."

"You didn't do this?" Erza asked.

"No."

Gray let out a breath he didn't realize he was holding. The idea of Natsu killing people scared him. He wouldn't normally believe the Salamander capable of something like that, but Natsu was clearly having a bad day. Not to mention he hadn't denied that he could've been the killer had circumstances been different.

Crouching by the fallen woman, Gray checked to make sure she was still alive—she was—and iced her hands and feet together. The side of her head was bleeding from when Natsu had thrown her, so he (somewhat regretfully) covered that in ice too.

"We need to question her," Erza said.

"Can't," Gray said. "Natsu knocked her cold."

There was a twist to the Dragon Slayer's lips as he muttered, "Not my fault."

Erza sighed. "Alright, search the area for anything else. Then yes, Natsu, we'll keep going. Obviously."

She strode off to inspect an outcrop of rocks. Gray headed toward the opposite edge of the firelight, not sure what Erza expected them to find.

"Gray."

He whirled around. With eerie quietness, Natsu had come up right behind him. Still looking upset, the Dragon Slayer seemed a bit more vulnerable now, almost scared, and he was not quite meeting Gray's eye.

"What is it?" Gray asked, glowering.

"Are you okay?"

"I might ask you that."

Natsu scowled. "I'm not the one who beat myself up earlier today."

At the words, cold feeling rushed back into the parts of Gray he'd shoved aside.

He'd managed to control his own panic earlier through a mix of determination and self-hatred, and Erza's news had successfully shocked him out of any lingering feelings of fear. His fear hadn't been the usual kind, anyway, focused less on his past and more on the immediate—on Natsu's words playing on repeat through his brain. I give up.

It hurt like fucking hell. Gray should be able to cram it down, but he couldn't. It kept beating in his chest in ways that made him feel disgustingly weak. Panic and flashbacks weren't what he had to repress: this was a new pain spearing a hole through his chest.

Having a mission had successfully distracted him until now. Gray was able to be strong for others where he couldn't be for himself. This wasn't the first time in his life a Fairy Tail emergency had required his attention when his emotions weren't stable, and he preferred things this way. There was something about being needed which helped him get a hold of himself.

Lucy and the team needed Gray, even if Natsu didn't anymore. The thought choked him a little.

"I'm fine," Gray said, the words heavy with unsaid things.

"Okay." Natsu toed the dirt. "Good."

At Erza's call, both men jumped.

When they all began running again, he and Natsu side by side, Gray couldn't have felt further apart.


The woman Natsu questioned had been right: north was the direction to go. The faint scent trail led them through the woods all night. They ran as much as possible, and the passing hours made Natsu want to scream at Gray for being reckless and coming this far even though he was injured. Dammit, this in itself was an argument against self-harm: they never knew when they'd have to take off on a desperate mission they never anticipated. The world didn't follow anyone's plans.

If it did, he would've gotten to solve things with Gray before now. Hell, if the world did as Natsu wanted, Gray wouldn't have those bruises on his back at all.

As dawn tinted the horizon a lighter shade, they came around another mountain and a valley spread out before them. Nestled between the surrounding peaks, cultivated fields stretched across it with a brooding mansion in the center of the estate.

As they caught their breath, Natsu discovered his legs felt like columns of water. His anger had the ability to burn for a surprisingly long time, keeping him going all night, but weariness was nagging at him now. He couldn't imagine how Gray had done it. He could yell at the man.

But he'd get Lucy back first. Rest could come after, when he'd force Gray to lie down and sleep.

He used to think Gray could handle anything, but these days he'd seen the broken pieces and knew even Gray had limits. Natsu really wanted to protect him. He needed Gray to be okay.

The fact that he couldn't currently do anything to help him infuriated Natsu.

"I take it this is where the smell leads?" Erza asked.

"Yeah. You're not going to hold me back, right?" Natsu snarled, with a lot more irritation than he'd intended.

To her credit, she met him stare for determined stare.

"No. Time to burn things down."

Good. Natsu needed to explode right now.


As they crossed out of the forest into bright green rice fields, a strange feeling slid over Gray's skin. It made him wary, being suddenly out in the open. And then he berated himself for being paranoid.

Goddamn sleepless night.

It didn't make any sense. According to Natsu, Lucy was in a rundown little house only a hundred meters from the edge of the estate. There were only two people in sight guarding the door, and no other magic power they could sense anywhere.

The Salamander, who wasn't being subtle, marched straight up to the hut, ignoring the wizards guarding the door.

Glancing at each other, Gray and Erza shared a look. Natsu was reckless and brash, but this was a new level of stupid—as if he didn't even notice other people existed. It had Gray worried. Of course Lucy was fucking important, but Natsu never acted like this.

Punching one of the wizards into unconsciousness, the Dragon Slayer kicked down the door without even noticing the other mage was raising her hands behind him.

Gray knocked her sideways with shards of ice. At the sound, Natsu whirled, eyes flicking between the body and Gray's face. The ice mage was bewildered: Natsu looked furious. You're fucking welcome.

"In here," Natsu muttered, turning his back.

Inside, the shack was cleared out except for a blonde-haired woman on the floor.

Dropping to his knees, Natsu called Lucy's name, but she didn't stir. When he shook her, repeating her name, his frown deepened, and he tilted as if listening.

"Smell any blood?" Gray asked.

Natsu shook his head.

"Pulse?"

"Not sure," was all Natsu said.

"Let's—"

He cut off when Natsu shot to his feet. Gray knew what that look meant.

"People are coming," Gray told the others, even as they heard a shout outside.

Without questioning, Erza darted to the doorway, sword in hand. About to follow her, Gray stopped, grabbed the unresponsive Dragon Slayer, and shook him by the shoulder.

"Grab Lucy and let's go! Now!" And examine the bizarre circumstances of everything later.

They burst out of the hut and into a quickly-forming circle of people. The rest of the mercenary wizards, by the looks of them. Natsu laid Lucy on the ground, finally, finally paying attention.

"You can't get escape," an older woman said, matter-of-fact. "Not until the Lady of this house lets us all go. And she won't without that girl. Which means the girl is valuable goods to us."

"How about this?" Erza growled. "If you let us through without fuss, I won't let Natsu burn you all to the ground."

She hooked a thumb at the Salamander, who grinned at the older woman with a sharp, pointy smile. There was something dangerous in the air around him. A few meters away, Gray couldn't feel any heat yet, but he was smarter than to get any closer. The Dragon Slayer looked like a cat about to have lunch. A cat with shaking fists and small tongues of flame escaping off his body.

Screw that, Natsu looked far more dangerous than any feline.

Seeing the Salamander like this made Gray fall in love with him all over again. The steely glare, the hard muscles, the fluttering sparks…Gray loved it all. Which was stupid, because Natsu had said some pretty terrible things. But a light, overwhelmed feeling trickled through Gray's insides, just like the nerves he'd felt when he kissed Natsu for the first time. It ached and tore him up inside in the best of ways, a feeling that told him he wanted to stand beside Natsu like this always.

It made him realize how hard things would be if he had to fight beside Natsu every day but didn't get to sleep beside him every night. Shitfuck, he didn't want to think about it.

"Threatening me won't change anything," the woman spat. "I'm not the one who trapped us all here."

Cold was pouring off Gray's skin now, and Erza pointed both her swords at the woman. They all saw when the woman shifted her foot to lunge.

Erza was on her first, knocking her to the ground while Gray struck in one direction and Natsu in the other.

"Happy, get Lucy!" Natsu called. At the unrestrained emotion in Natsu's voice, Gray finally realized: he was scared.

There was no time to figure out if Gray could comfort Natsu, or whether he had a right to, or whether he even wanted to. But somewhere emerged the silent thought that Natsu wasn't in his right mind at the moment. Fear alone was driving him.

Lines of shadow raced across the ground, hard to see in the dawn light, but Natsu was a blazing inferno, no shadows anywhere near him. Gray caught the movement and jerked to cut the mage off. He already knew he'd be too late.

Beside him, the Dragon Slayer called, "Look out, Happy!"

The cat shot up into the sky just in time. The shadows coalesced into a person, who punched the Salamander in the gut. Natsu punched back, sending him flying down a row of rice plants.

As Gray put his hands together to shoot down another opponent, his gaze snagged on Natsu's. In that brief moment, adrenaline pumping through them, they shared a gleeful grin that welled up without thought.

Fighting for their friends went beyond any differences or distance between them. It brought them together in a way very few things did, a special kind of intimacy. It would always be this way, Gray realized. He would always have Natsu at his side like this, no matter what other things he lost with the Salamander. He wasn't sure if that was comforting or excruciating.

After knocking back another fighter, Gray glanced over at Natsu again. The Dragon Slayer's face bore the expression of fire itself: both anger and warmth. It was perfect. He was perfect.

As Natsu threw a punch, Gray flowed into movement beside him, the battle side of his brain taking over.

There was just enough of his conscious mind left to enjoy watching out of the corner of his eye as the Dragon Slayer twisted and kicked, palms glowing. Right now, Gray didn't try to peer into the future. He didn't want to know. He could enjoy this fight as long as it lasted, and deal with the pain later.


Natsu loved the rush of hitting someone. But even here, with Gray nearby where Natsu could protect him, anxiety nagged his gut. When they first found Lucy, her pulse and breathing were mostly normal, she didn't appear beat up, and nothing smelled off. Which meant the reason she wasn't waking up was something a lot worse than a little conk on the head.

Meanwhile, the rest of their team was exhausted and beset by people intent on taking their one unarmed member away from them. Half their attacks were aimed upward at Happy and Lucy, and Natsu couldn't stop them all.

Sagging, Gray caught his eye again, and Natsu could practically read his thoughts. They had Lucy—simple—so now they needed to get out of here. That was something the Salamander could do.

Taking a breath, Natsu sprinted ahead, careening through half a dozen attackers and making a run for the edge of the property. They just needed a clear path. Blasting through the last person in his way, he spun around to call back to the others—and smelled metal a moment before it happened.

The only reason he even reacted was that it smelled like Gajeel and Natsu dodged on instinct. Iron spikes shot from the ground and barely missed him. They kept stretching up and up, until a giant fence blocked his way, curving away in both directions. And then the fence reached for him.

The metal warped with unreal speed and made a swipe at him. Fist lighting with fire, Natsu lashed out.

"Wait!" Erza shouted behind him.

But he was already punching the fence.

With an ominous clang, he rebounded, flying a dozen meters before rolling through the dirt. It felt like he'd hit himself, every centimeter of force he'd exerted shoving its way under his skin. With ringing in his ears, Natsu took a breath. Lifted his head. Shook himself and started to rise.

Ice appeared at his side. A thud made it rattle. It took Natsu only a moment to take stock. Gray, the Gray Fullbuster he was supposed to be taking care of, had thrown a shield up for him and blocked an attacker sneaking up behind him.

Zeroing in on the ice mage, Natsu growled, watching as three people ganged up on Gray in his distraction. Without pausing, Natsu sprinted back the ice mage. The black stripes on Gray's back distorted as the man twisted away from an attack, quick footwork just saving him from someone else's enchanted spear. A third fighter got in a gash to Gray's leg with earth magic before Natsu slammed into her, crashing her to the ground.

Natsu was tuned back into Gray now, hearing his heartbeat, smelling that awful stench of his blood. That odor always made him want to throw up, but under the circumstances, he settled for shooting Gray a venomous glare.

"Fucking shield, for heaven's sake," Gray muttered.

Stupid, reckless icicle. As if everything were about him—as if he could show off at the expense of his body. It was a body Natsu liked immensely, and every self-inflicted wound made his fire flare hotter.

Which, currently, wasn't a bad thing, but later Natsu was going to have to deal with just how much Gray had pissed him off.


The joy of fighting left Gray in an instant. He wanted to wipe the angry look off Natsu's face with his fists.

Natsu had forfeited his right to make requests about how Gray chose to show his feelings. If Gray did something stupid, Natsu wasn't allowed to pretend he cared. Not after what had happened.

Take that, you dumb flaming lizard. Gray turned his back on the man.

More metallic thuds sounded along the fence as several other wizards tried to get through, all of them thrown back with greater and greater violence. One screamed as their attack bounced back on them.

The fight around the Fairy Tail wizards waned, giving them an opportunity to finally regroup.

"You can't run off, Natsu!" Erza said, knocking an attacker to the ground. "You left Lucy wide open."

"We need to get the hell out of here!" he protested. "I was making a way."

"Obviously that's not happening," Gray grunted. He still wasn't looking at Natsu.

"So I'll pound the fence some more," Natsu said.

"Baka, it's clearly magical!" Gray shot back. "You won't break it so easily."

Erza cut across them.

"We need to find a place we can tend to Lucy and figure out what the hell is going on."

"A retreat? Are you serious?" Natsu shouted.

Despite his anger at the Dragon Slayer, Gray couldn't help feeling cut-up at the desperation in Natsu's voice. Deep breath. He's scared, remember?

"Something is wrong with Lucy," Gray said as evenly as he could. "You're worried. Let's deal with this."

Huffing, Natsu didn't reply.

Glancing around, Erza took in the few wizards still standing. A few were by the fence, trying to extract a comrade from its metal fingers. Several others threw spells at the fence, all magic rebounding on them.

"Well," she said, "since we can't get out: further in?"

"I don't see anyone coming from the buildings." Happy had fluttered down beside them, Lucy still clutched in his paws. "There's nobody else coming to fight."

When the requip mage started running, Happy behind her, Gray had to yank on Natsu's collar to get him to follow.

"We'll break out later, flame brain," he said, giving the man a vicious jerk. "C'mon. We need you."

At those words, Natsu stopped struggling. Gray let go of his collar as fast as he could, darted around him, and ran ahead.

He couldn't stand touching Natsu right now. Couldn't bear the heat of his skin while things were like this between them.

He couldn't handle it if the touch meant nothing to Natsu.

Chapter 22: Insufficient

Chapter Text

When they fled to regroup, the dark guild—what was left of it—didn't appear to follow them. Erza led them through the wet plants to a collection of outbuildings which, on closer inspection, appeared to be nothing but storage. Finding two startled old women with field equipment in their hands, Natsu knocked both out and followed the others into the only building with its door intact.

The small room smelled of cobwebs and green rot, with sharp, torturous-looking instruments hanging from its walls.

"Good enough," Erza sighed while Happy put Lucy down and collapsed against Natsu's legs.

The Salamander picked the cat up and petted his head automatically. "Good job, partner."

Happy blinked one eye open to smile at him.

Gray and Erza were sitting on the floor next to Lucy, whom Erza was fruitlessly trying to wake up.

"Some kind of magic?" Gray suggested.

"Maybe." Erza felt the back of Lucy's head. "Her breathing's a bit shallow, but not too bad. She doesn't look wounded: no blood."

"Natsu already smelled for that," Gray said. When Natsu snuck a glance at him, irritation laced Gray's rigid muscles.

Erza ignored Gray's tone. "The back of her neck looks bruised, but…" She paled. "Oh gods, do you think they broke her neck?"

Natsu went cold. Sinking down onto his knees between the two of them, he stared at Lucy with wide eyes. It was just a little abduction thing. Something stupid, easily handled. It wasn't supposed to be so out of control.

Lucy can't die.

Natsu didn't even have Gray right now. The ice mage had locked him out. The only member of his family currently safe and sound was Happy, and even the Exceed looked ready to drop. Lucy couldn't leave Natsu alone like this. She couldn't abandon him. Not like everyone else did.

"Wouldn't we be able to tell pretty quickly?" Gray asked. "A broken neck isn't a small thing."

Erza seemed to recover a little.

"Y-Yes, you're right. It's probably some sort of magic. We'll get her back to Fairy Tail and everything will be fine."

And with that, Titania sat back, closed her eyes, and let out an exhausted breath.

"I can hardly move," she said. "It won't hurt to stay here a little while."

"Plus it's not like we know how to get through the fence," Natsu pointed out. His voice sounded hollow to his own ears. He was still staring at Lucy. Fuck, this was such a nightmare.

He'd just wanted to be with Gray. Come home from his job and hang out with his boyfriend. Then Gray had fled from him, and then Lucy was gone, and now they'd found her and she still wouldn't wake up…

Everything was falling apart.

When Natsu snuck his hundredth furtive glance at Gray, he saw the man's eyelids sliding shut despite valiant efforts to the contrary. Oh, popsicle.

Unlike Natsu and Erza, Gray wasn't leaning against a wall, instead trying to stay crouched and upright, pretending he was far more alert than he was. This was both the soft side of Gray and the hard side. Still ready and willing to try to keep watch and problem-solve, but vulnerable, exhausted, and hurting at the same time.

Soft and strong: Gray was always both. Fighting beside each other again for the first time in several weeks had reminded the Salamander just how wonderfully complex and varied Gray could be. Maybe Natsu didn't always appreciate that like he should.

"Rest," Erza ordered, poking Natsu with her foot. "All of you. You look wiped. I'll watch."

"You don't look any better," Gray muttered, earning a kick to the shin that made him grunt.

"There's no way in hell I can sleep," the Dragon Slayer sighed. "No fucking way. I'll watch."

The sharp edge in his voice made Gray coil even tighter, but Natsu couldn't hide his anxiety and frustration any longer.

"Fine. Wake us in a bit," Erza said, curling up without argument.

She dozed off immediately. Gray stared at the wall above Natsu's head with a zoned expression, breaths growing heavier by the minute. But he stayed stubbornly vertical, fists taut.

"You, too," Natsu said quietly.

Gray met his eyes. A connection snapped between them—but what kind, Natsu couldn't tell.

Inhaling, Gray stretched out on the packed dirt and shut his eyes.

It hadn't been ten minutes before Gray's pulse spiked with a sound Natsu was all too familiar with. Fuck every god in the universe: a nightmare right now? Do you refuse to let him rest at all? He'd lost so much blood for fuck's sake. Bruises might not smell of iron, but they were congealed blood nonetheless, pooled beneath the skin like the body's own underworld.

Gray's spine was black with them.

When Gray twitched violently, Natsu growled. Reaching out to shake Gray awake, Natsu suddenly lurched back when he heard a different sound. The thrum of running feet approached.

"Gods fucking dammit!" he shouted.

Gray sat bolt upright while Erza gasped and grabbed her sword. Next to Natsu's leg, Happy wrenched from sleep with a shivering jolt.

They were all a wreck.

"People are coming," Natsu said, not giving them a second to recover. "Soon. Fast. Close."


People. Already. Gray didn't know how long he'd been out, but it didn't feel anywhere near long enough. His back screamed at him when he stood up, and the only thing that kept him from hissing was Natsu's gaze searching him for signs of weakness.

Hah. As if Gray would give him the satisfaction.

"We need to get Lucy away from here," Natsu announced.

Wait…what? Gray's eyes just about popped out of his head. Erza's too. A plan that didn't involve fighting? From the Salamander?

"Whoever is coming is heavily armed," Natsu said when nobody moved. "And there are a lot of them. Someone grab Lucy so I can set things on fire!"

Oh.

Gray grinned darkly. An outlet for anger: he could get behind that.

"If you get to blow up the place, I want to destroy things too," he said.

Despite how droopy Happy looked, his wings appeared. "I'll take Lucy."

"I'll come with you," Erza told him. "And you two…"

The smile she aimed at them was much warmer than the moment warranted. Gray's shoulders tensed automatically.

"…keep them from following us."

"Aye sir," Natsu growled, the sound feral and warped by flame.

So they did it again, Natsu with fire and Gray with ice. They were side by side, a unit, a team. Doing their favorite pastime: destruction. Gray could trust every move the Salamander made and he could tell Natsu was relying on him too, leaving his back open when he knew Gray was there to take care of it. When fighting, they were perfectly in sync.

So why the fuck couldn't Natsu trust him the rest of the time?

The people who'd found them were what remained of the mages, ragged, worn, and apparently desperate to get Lucy back. Natsu set several of the decrepit buildings on fire to cover Erza and Happy, the wizards fighting them for a good ten minutes before they realized the boys were alone. Their leader pulled them back, retreating across the fields toward the iron fence which still stood tall in the distance.

What the hell was going on in this insane little compound?

Following Natsu's nose, the two men caught up to Erza and Happy halfway to the great white house that presided over the valley.

"I have an idea to get through the fence," Erza said without preamble. "But in case it doesn't work, you two take Lucy to the big house and try to find medicine or something."

"Medicine?" Gray grunted skeptically.

"Whatever! A lacrima! Something! Look, I'm worried about her. Happy and I have shit to try. Take her and go!"

"We've got it," Natsu said, cutting across Gray's retort that they shouldn't split up. If Erza knew a way off the property, shouldn't they all go?

"How will you find us?" Gray asked her.

"I'll find you."

The Dragon Slayer took Lucy in his arms, striding toward the manor. This was a bad idea.

"Gray?" Natsu called over his shoulder.

"Coming, hothead."


It was easy getting in: Natsu led them to a window along the side of the house, peeked in to make sure it was clear, and melted the glass with his palm. Gray was certain now: something was seriously wrong with the Salamander. He'd never seen Natsu not burst violently through the front doors.

This was not the man he'd dated. But maybe it is the man who broke up with me.

Inside the manor, they found themselves in a long hallway. Again, Natsu acted totally wrong and slunk down the hall with stealthy footsteps. Who the hell?

After several turns, it became clear they were going to find nothing but large corridors and open halls. Passing a nook where the windows bubbled out to survey the grounds, Natsu halted without warning, laid Lucy down, and plopped onto the floor.

"Give me a minute," he said, fingers pressed to his forehead. "I can't focus on any smells like this."

No longer fazed by Natsu's weird behavior, Gray slid to the floor next to him. Not too close, of course. But close enough for it to be excruciating. He wanted to reach out and get an answer to whether he was still allowed to touch Natsu at all.

He already had his answer. Fuck, he knew. He just didn't want to accept it. It was too sudden and stupid and unresolved. The fuck had gone wrong in the last twenty-four hours?

With their last battle a kilometer behind them and the adrenaline draining out of him, Gray no longer felt strong. He felt…like himself. Weary and imperfect and maybe not the greatest person ever, but not, at this particular moment, traumatized.

He wondered if Natsu saw the damage on him whenever he looked at Gray, or if it was only when Gray fucked things up. The idea pissed him off to no end. Gray didn't want his past to define him; that was why nobody should know. So that in these moments, when he wasn't panicking and everything was just fine inside his head, thank you, nobody would look at him funny. Especially not the people he relied on.

The Dragon Slayer hadn't moved since pressing his hands against his face. He looked exhausted. He looked vulnerable.

Expression softening, Gray tilted his head back against the wall. Why was it that even when he was pissed as hell at Natsu, he still cared how he felt? The Salamander was a fire-brained clod who gleefully destroyed everything within reach. But he had been Gray's fire-brained clod.

"It'll be fine," Gray said to the ceiling.

Natsu just grunted.

Gray replied, "I already know you're not going to admit you're freaking out."

"We'll get back to Fairy Tail and Lucy will get help," Natsu said. "She'll be perfectly alright."

Which was a yes.

Since Gray almost never admitted to his own fear, he didn't really know how to handle others'. Scooting closer, he edged right up next to Natsu and for a brief moment their shoulders brushed. Gray didn't let the touch linger, but the two-second touch was the best way to communicate his empathy.

They stared ahead together, neither saying anything.

Natsu reached over and put a hand on Lucy's head.

Maybe at some point in Gray's life he would've been jealous at the way Natsu treated her, but these days it just made him smile. Natsu took care of the friends he called family. This was a part of the Salamander Gray wouldn't change for the world, possibly Natsu's most attractive trait.

Natsu couldn't abide loved ones being hurt.

Later, that thought would click in Gray's head and make new connections with all the ways Natsu reacted to Gray's pain. Why he always got so angry, so desperate… At the moment, it simply opened him up, warm and accepting, and he wished a thousand times over he could just reach over and hold Natsu's hand. Just that…

Remembering all the reasons he wanted Natsu made the fact that they weren't on good terms feel like a chest full of icy slivers.

Natsu rose.

"Okay. Anything that's likely to help will be this way." He pointed back the way they came as he lifted Lucy once more.

"How do you know that?"

"I can smell food."

Gray rolled his eyes. Still, kitchens tended to have all kinds of useful shit. As they started out, Natsu jolted mid-step and broke into a run.

"People coming up behind us," he hissed over his shoulder.

The hallway split and they flew around a corner. After another few turnings, Gray began wondering if they could slow down now, his legs burning in protest. When Natsu slid to a halt, Gray was too slow in reacting and slammed into his back. He grabbed Natsu before the Dragon Slayer could fall on top of their unconscious charge, landing Gray on the tile instead.

"What the hell," he panted. "Some warning."

"Those wizards are here!" Natsu said, taking a step back the way they came. "I hear someone talking to people ahead. Fuck, and there are two people behind us again. Dammit!"

"So we fight them off," Gray said obviously.

"Are you fucking kidding me?" Natsu snarled as Gray dragged himself off the floor. "You're too tired to fight anyone. And I've got Lucy. We need to get away from here."

Staggering to his feet, Gray punched the wall, half because it was closer than the Salamander's face and half to keep himself upright.

"No!" he shouted back. "Dammit, Natsu, I'm not powerless!"

"Baka, be quiet! You're going to—"

Someone in leather armor came around the corner and yelled.

Whirling, Gray stepped in front of the Salamander as a shield and faced the people who poured down the corridor.

White filled the hallway.

Gray didn't even think in terms of ice: to him, ice was the world—it was the medium, and his imagination was the magic. He saw spikes, axes, stalagmites, cannons, and all of it sprang into being. This was easy. This was so fucking easy.

This is the real me.

He wasn't a weak little kid anymore. He could accomplish great things and conquer enormous obstacles. He'd done it many times, proved himself a hundred times over. Sure, life wasn't about strength: he suspected it was about much bigger things, like loving someone even when it hurt. But the fact remained that Gray was powerful. Natsu had taught him that, through many years of his hating Natsu's guts and fighting to be better than him. And through the more recent months of Natsu always believing in him.

Well, until now.

People were in danger, and Gray wasn't a broken tool who had to be protected or else he'd be taken advantage of. However fucking damaged he might be—and he knew was—some parts of him were whole and good at what he knew.

By the time he began to slow, panting, he'd dispersed all their opponents. Gray grinned. Strung out as he was, he had enough determination to keep going all day if he had to. Especially with fucking Natsu Dragneel who didn't believe in him watching his every move.

He turned around, ready to face anything the Dragon Slayer dished at him.

But the shock on Natsu's face made Gray's lungs tighten up. The Dragon Slayer had frozen halfway out of a crouch, Lucy at his feet so he could fight, eyes fixed on Gray in amazement.

It was like the fire mage didn't believe Gray had it in him at all.

"I don't need you protecting me," Gray spat. "I can take care of myself. Moreover, while you protect your best friend, I have your back. And if you don't trust me to do even that, then I'm done. I have nothing else to say."

Natsu managed to snap his gaping mouth shut. A second later he was crossing the space between them and grabbing Gray with a rough yank. Hands jerking, Gray prepared to defend himself, but Natsu pressed in before he could get his arms up.

"Gods, I love when you're angry," Natsu said.

And then he was kissing Gray. Pulling Gray in until they were chest-to-chest, lips sliding over Gray's in the deepest, most intense kiss Natsu had ever given him.

If Gray could've said anything, it would've been holy fuck, because he wasn't processing anything but the fire sliding over him in the form of Natsu's heated palms and the teeth digging into his lip. It was real, it was so real, and it was everything, exactly, everything Gray wanted. This time, the squeezing around his heart felt like paradise.

When they parted, lips red and breathing each other's air, Gray burst out, "Why the hell did you—"

Both their heads jerked around. Even Gray could hear the clatter of footsteps.

Why can't we just have a fucking conversation?

"Fuck it," Natsu said, "we're trying one of the rooms and hoping to gods there's another way out of it."

Natsu picked Lucy up and led the way to the nearest door while Gray stayed at his back. A back he would always stand by and defend, if only to prove he could.

And because he cared. Stupid feelings. Kissing and adrenaline and Natsu being an idiot. Breaking into a run, Gray found himself wiping water out of his eyes.


Natsu had had to create a few of the 'doors' they went through, but they'd finally gotten themselves to a part of the manor that was deserted. For now.

They'd found a huge kitchen with absolutely nothing useful and a library which was equally unhelpful. Gray was the one who suggested ducking into the unassuming door Natsu had assumed was a closet. In actuality it was a…what the hell did rich people call all the rooms in their houses?

Whatever. It was big: rugs covered the floor and dustcloths hid some old, hideous paintings. He'd wrapped Lucy up in the dustcloths, the only thing he really could do for her at this point, and sat at her side feeling inadequate.

He had a very real fear the wizards had done something to her that she'd never wake up from.

Icing over the doors—there were three, plenty of escape routes—Gray came over and lay down next to him on the rug. The glare of challenge in his eyes kept Natsu from looking at him for too long. Gods, the kiss was supposed to help make things better. At least serve as some sort of apology. Where the hell had everything gone wrong?

"You can try sleeping again," Natsu said, staring at one of the ugly paintings.

Gray didn't ask, are you sure? Didn't fight him. Didn't thank him. Said absolutely nothing. He just closed his eyes and rolled onto his side. Which put his head a few centimeters from Natsu's leg.

The Salamander's insides turned to jelly.

Tentative, Natsu put a hand on his boyfriend's head, running the black hair between his fingers. He almost stopped cold at the look of sadness that crossed Gray's face, but when Gray sighed, Natsu kept going.

"Gray," he whispered, before the ice mage could fall asleep. "I just wanted to say—"

"Natsu." Gray's eyes were still closed. "It's not the place. Later."

Natsu swallowed. "O-Okay."

Gray reached up and took his hand. With those sweaty fingers locked in his, Natsu watched the ice mage drop off.

Waiting for the nightmares, Natsu was relieved when Gray's breathing remained soft and slow. He surveyed the familiar body, still shirtless from yesterday. Impossibly, Gray still had his pants on. That just meant he hadn't fought anyone who was enough of a challenge yet.

Natsu grinned: the handsome icicle was always stripping around him. It was a compliment in several ways.

Gray couldn't have been more attractive just then. It wasn't his shirtlessness which made Natsu think that, either, though it certainly showed off his well-maintained body. It was something about the way Gray held himself, proud and watchful even in sleep; the way his hair slanted over his face and his eyebrows pulled together.

Natsu couldn't fix things for Gray: couldn't wipe away his problems and the pains which kept stabbing him over and over for years on end. Natsu's instinct when shit went wrong was to fight, and he hated that he couldn't fight this. Couldn't make it go away.

But maybe he didn't have to in order for them to be happy. Because even though there was the panicky Gray and the distant Gray and the dark, self-harming Gray…there was also the fighting Gray, the passionate Gray, the arrogant Gray, the laughing-until-someone-punched-someone-else Gray, the caring Gray, the aroused Gray…

Even the happy Gray. Natsu had seen that side, too.

Was it enough if it Gray's happiness never eclipsed his pain?

It was for Natsu—of course it was. His real fear was whether that was enough for Gray. Whether Gray needed more. Needed something else, or someone else.

Maybe that was what all this was really about. It wasn't really about the bruises on Gray's back: it was about Natsu not being enough to stop him. He loved Gray, but it wasn't sufficient. Nothing he did would truly lessen Gray's pain or set Gray free to really be in this relationship with him.

You can't choose if someone loves you. You just had to trust them. And gods, Natsu wanted to. But Gray was in so much pain, and hurting himself, and what if Natsu wasn't what he needed?

What then?

Chapter 23: The Break-Up

Chapter Text

Pacing around the room, Natsu fought to keep his eyes open. It hadn't even been an hour, but everything was crashing down on him, dragging inexorably at his muscles. On the floor, one of Gray's hands rested on his chest, charting its slow rise and fall as he slept. No way was Natsu waking him to trade places: Gray needed this. The damn irresponsible snowflake.

Sighing, Natsu found he couldn't muster up the same anger he'd felt earlier. He was still upset about Gray's injuries, but it had cooled from fury to concern.

Every time he saw the bruises on Gray's back, he got a vision of a furious Gray shooting ice down the hallway to punch an opponent in the face.

He'd gotten to see Gray without his baggage today: the real Gray, the Gray who forgot to think ill of himself. Natsu loved watching him angry, strong, and powerful. Enjoyed watching his muscles move as he kicked an enemy, loved how he never wavered even when he was hurting so much in inner parts of himself: still Gray was strong. Always. It was what Natsu loved about him.

Maybe he'd kinda forgotten about that in his haste to protect Gray recently.

During their destruction earlier, their eyes had met and Natsu had found familiar joyous malice mirrored back at him. It made his heart skip. Natsu had seen everyone on the team pissed as hell, but with Gray there was a kinship to it. Maybe because they so often reacted to things the same way. Maybe because Natsu knew the secret sides of Gray and knew where his darkness came from. Sharing the same anger felt like they were joined together with one spirit.

Kneeling on the carpet, he shuffled a hand through Gray's hair and rested his palm against Gray's cheek, smiling when Gray's face turned into his touch.

"Mm," came from his other side.

"Lucy?" he gasped, whipping his fingers from Gray and turning to her. "Are you awake?"

Groaning, Lucy pinched her eyes shut and pawed weakly at her head.

"Ugh." Her mutter was slurred. "Someone hit me."

"Can I do anything?" he asked, rolling up onto his toes.

Lucy coughed, shaking her head then letting out a whine.

"Maybe don't move?" he offered.

"N-Natsu?" Her eyes opened. Her voice was thin, like transparent glass, and her grey face sweated with the effort of being awake.

He gulped. This was bad.

"I'm right here, Luce."

"Thank gods," she whispered. "I have to tell you…they're taking me to a woman who wants to blackmail my father. Sh-She doesn't know he's dead. The dark guild she hired has some really strong wizards, so we have to be careful."

"Yeah, we already ran into them," Natsu sighed. "We're stuck on some big estate because there's a malicious fence that won't let us leave."

"Oh." Lucy sagged. "Have you tried…?"

"Melting it? Yes."

"Flying over it with Happy?"

"No, but I saw another mage try flying over, and the wall plucked her out of the air and threw her headfirst into the ground."

"M-Malicious."

"Yup."

Her eyes wandered the dark room, landing on the ice mage curled up on Natsu's other side.

"Is Gray…?" Her weak voice drifted off.

"He's just sleeping," Natsu said softly. "We've been busy."

Lucy coughed something like a laugh.

"I did not need to know that."

When Natsu frowned at her, she said, "That wasn't a euphemism?"

"What?" Natsu spluttered, surprised and red.

"Good to know you weren't fucking while I was out."

"What?!"

"You'd look a lot guiltier." She coughed. "Stop blushing. It's only sex."

"I—auhgh— What makes you think…" Natsu took a breath. This was Lucy: always smarter than everyone else. "How long have you known?"

Lucy's blue eyes fluttered shut as she hmmed.

"A month or so? I've kept your secret, don't worry. Tried to lead Erza astray, but she's begun to suspect. You guys don't fight as much anymore."

"Yeah, well." Natsu cleared his throat and glanced back over at Gray. He didn't want to fight. He never wanted to fight.

"Aw. You really like him a lot," Lucy said, and even with her weakness and pallor, her smile glowed.

"Shut up," he mumbled through a grin. "I get enough of that from Happy."

"What?" Her outrage turned into dried-out cough which kept her hacking for several minutes. When she was breathing again (and Natsu had stopped freaking out), she said, "You told Happy but not me?"

"Uh…sorry?"

"I thought I was your best friend."

"You are," he protested, "but Happy lives with me."

"Oh, fine."

She closed her eyes again.

"Natsu…my head…I'm gonna sleep, okay?"

Fear spiked through him. He wanted to say no—what if they couldn't wake her again? But from her heavy breaths, he had a feeling she'd be sleeping soon no matter what.

"Just wake up next time, okay?" he said.

Lucy didn't respond.

"Fuck," he swore.

Gray inhaled sharply, shifted, and struggled to sit up.

"Wha's happening?" The ice mage glanced around. "Did they find us?"

"No," Natsu sighed. "Lucy was awake for a bit."

"She was awake?" Blinking into full awareness, Gray rolled up into a crouch. "That's a relief. Did she say anything?"

"Nothing we don't already know." Natsu couldn't bring himself to mention Lucy's knowledge of their relationship. Not until he knew for sure. "Gray, I wanted to tell you—"

"Natsu." That black-eyed stare stopped him dead. "I already said this isn't the place."

Breathing through his teeth, the Salamander looked around in irritation.

"Can you surround her in ice walls?"

"What?" Gray's eyebrows twisted in confusion.

"We need to talk, in private, but I'm not leaving her alone," Natsu hissed.

When Gray stood, Natsu followed suit, taking a step back from the celestial mage. Gray raised up a shield, the ice folding over like a wave until it surrounded Lucy in a small igloo. The geometric patterns on the ice's surface reminded Natsu of something else.

"Why did you shield me earlier when we were fighting?"

"To help you, hothead." Gray faced him. "You were down and someone was behind you."

"I don't need your protection," Natsu huffed.

"You're only upset I helped because you see me as damaged." Gray spat the word. "You never used to get angry for stuff like this."

"Bullshit. We always bickered when we fought together."

"If you felt I babied you, you didn't tell me: you fought it out." Gray spread his hands. "I don't see your fists coming."

Natsu couldn't deny that. "I just…"

"—don't want me deliberately hurting myself," Gray filled in for him. "Yeah, I got that."

"Well, it's true." Natsu glared at him. "Don't act like that's not important. I'm allowed to be concerned for you."

He heard the instant Gray's pulse sped up, pink creeping across his cheeks. But the ice mage's words came out through gritted teeth.

"You're not allowed to be upset that I'm fighting. We're Fairy Tail wizards. This is what we do."

"I know that."

"I'm not perfect. I might get dinged up on occasion."

"I know!" Natsu growled.

"Then don't treat me like I'm fragile."

With a noise of frustration, Natsu grabbed Gray by the shoulders and took him to the ground. Gray was so surprised he wasn't able to defend in time, Natsu capturing his hands and pinning him against the carpet.

"I don't think you're fragile," Natsu said, glowering at him from a few centimeters' distance. "And I'm not upset you're a fucking wizard and you fight and you get hurt and whatever else. What I'm upset about is when you don't have a simple sense of self-preservation. You shielded me and got that." He nodded his head at the cut on Gray's ankle, now scabbed but still smelling faintly of blood.

"That wasn't—!" Gray took a breath, seeming to steady himself. "That had nothing to do with my lack of self-preservation. I'm allowed to protect what I care about, okay? I'm…allowed to be concerned too."

Oh. Natsu stared at him for a moment. They both fell silent.

"Our relationship is affecting the team," Gray said, looking away.

Natsu frowned at this change of topic. "That was inevitable, snowflake."

When Gray inhaled, Natsu's eyes widened. No, no, no.

"Yesterday when you said you gave up," Gray said slowly, "were you breaking up with me?"

The Dragon Slayer gaped, appalled.

"What?! No! How could you think that? Of course not!"

Emotions crashed over Gray's face: confusion, relief, anger, fear. Natsu was acutely aware of Gray's sweaty hands captured in his, hands that he frequently took for granted. How could you think I don't want you?

"Well, I guess that explains why you kissed me in the hallway," Gray muttered.


As Gray tried to calm the airless feeling around his chest, Natsu shook his head.

"You honestly thought I broke up with you?" the Salamander asked.

Gaping, Gray's relief transformed to anger. How the fuck did the Salamander not get it? Jerking his arms, Gray tried to pull away from him.

"You said you gave up, Natsu!" he yelled. "You said you were done watching me destroy myself and then you said you were done."

"I didn't meant like that!"

"Then how the fuck did you mean it?"

"I meant I give up on helping you—no, not like that! I give up on trying to make you better. On assuming you're going to be healthy one day if I just—if I just love you enough. It's not necessarily gonna happen, and I'm okay with that, but I started to expect it because I always hear you saying you'll be fine. I guess I thought that meant you were okay. So when I saw..."

Natsu choked and rubbed a hand over his eyes.

"When I saw it, I felt like I failed. Like you did it to me. I know that's not why, but… Why, Gray? Just explain to me why."

"Why this?" Gray asked darkly, twisting so the bruise on his hip was more prominent. Seeing Natsu flinch satisfied the bitterness roaring inside of him. "I did it because it made me feel better."

"Why?"

"I dunno," he spat. "It just does."

Natsu seemed to be struggling with words, anger and desperation rolling through his eyes like tides tugging at him. Finally he said, "Why didn't you do it before now?"

It was a question Gray asked himself many times: why everything had gotten worse since he became happy.

"I didn't need to?" he guessed. There was no need to feel the pain when everything in his life was okay. Which it had been, right up until Natsu saw him have a panic attack.

"I still don't get it," Natsu said flatly. "Why do you need…?"

"I just do! The pain helps. But there are other things that help too, okay?" Gray burst out. "That's why I didn't do it before."

"Like what?" When Gray didn't answer, Natsu pounded a fist into the floor, words coming rapid-fire. "Why now? Why this way?"

"Because I hate that you know!"

The words echoed as Gray quivered and Natsu stared. The pause stretched out between them, Gray waiting for Natsu to speak, to ask questions, to yell at him, something. But Natsu just looked confused. Wounded.

The part of Gray that wanted Natsu to hurt as badly as he did vanished in an instant. All that was left was weariness and his soul-deep wish that Natsu didn't have to contend with any of this.

"I hate that you know about all my filthy, fucked-up issues," Gray said. "I wish you didn't have to deal with it."

"Why on earth would you wish that?"

"Because it's awful! I wouldn't wish this on anyone!" Gray put his free hand in his hair and tugged at the roots. "It's all so messed up. I just…I… Don't laugh at me."

"Does it look like I'm going to laugh at anything you say right now?"

Gray ignored the sarcasm. Eyes on the ceiling, his voice went as flat as a blade.

"You've helped me. But—but now you're getting hurt because it's getting to you and you have to deal with my shit all the time. And I can't make myself better for you; I don't have a magical solution, because if I did, you can bet I would use it. But I can't, and you keep getting hurt, and it makes me stop feeling anything. I can't stand it. I'm trying my hardest to make things not spill over, but I can't stop it, and I hate what that does to us."

His voice fell away and Gray rubbed his eyes. A sharp pain sliced through his heart with every word.

"The reason I like the pain," he whispered, "is it makes me focus. Everything feels better. The way you were kissing me yesterday? I was in fucking heaven. The pain makes everything else sharper. I can feel you. I'm not…numb anymore."

Gray saw Natsu's face transform with what looked like horrible realization before the Salamander pressed his forehead to Gray's chest.

"It brings you back into the moment," Natsu said.

"Yeah," Gray replied. "That's exactly it.


Gray sounded surprised, but for Natsu, awful understanding was coming together. All the pieces made sense and, thanks to Lucy, he had language for it now. But he wasn't about to say, self-harm is how you cope with dissociation, like this was some clinical discussion. What he really wanted to say, what he really wanted Gray to know, was—

"You're the toughest person I know," Natsu said, finally raising his eyes to stare down at Gray. "I wasn't upset because I thought you were weak. I was worried because I like you. And maybe I'm a tiny bit…insecure, I don't know, but it hurts to see you hurting."

"Exactly my point," Gray said darkly. "I don't like putting you through that."

"No, it hurts when I see you trying to hide it, too," Natsu said. "It's like you don't trust me, so you shut up and go numb. I can tell, Gray. I can always tell. When we have sex; when you think someone's seen us together; hell, sometimes when I merely say something. There's this look in your eyes. I hate it. It makes me sad. It makes me want to smash things."

He reined in his words and took a breath. Too many emotions he didn't understand. Maybe he shouldn't have said that last part, but it was honest, and wasn't truth what they were going for right now?

Gray had stayed quiet through this diatribe, chewing his lip. Natsu couldn't tell what thoughts were going through his head.

"Maybe," Natsu said tentatively, "I do sometimes try to fix things. Not you, but the shit that hurts you. Maybe that's wrong, because I can't actually fix any of it, but…I figure if I'm useful to you, you might not get rid of me or shut me out. I want to help you feel better—"

Suddenly Gray's arms were around him, hard and unmoving.

"You do make me feel better, sunflower. You already do, always. I would never get rid of you. You don't have to be useful. Damn. You're best when you're just being you, flame-brain."

Profound relief washed over the Dragon Slayer, swooping up through his insides and snapping the tension that had kept him from breathing deep. It was like Gray had answered a question Natsu didn't know he'd been asking.

"I don't want to shut you out," Gray said. "But apparently I can't help it."

There was a silent apology in there which Natsu heard clearly. It almost seemed silly to acknowledge: of course he forgave Gray. He didn't want Gray's numbness to keep pushing him away, but he understood why it was happening and he wasn't about to give up.

When Gray's voice broke the silence again, it was scratchy and strange.

"Okay, so you weren't trying to break up with me. But maybe…"

Natsu froze as aching sadness creased Gray's eyes. Oh gods. No.

"Don't say it," Natsu said.

"If we need a break…"

"Don't." Natsu's heart beat desperately.

"Yesterday you said you gave up. You were at the end of your patience, at least for a little bit. So maybe…" Gray pinched his eyes shut, mouth twisting like the words tasted bitter. "Maybe we need some space."

"If you dare give me any of that 'it's not you, it's me' bullshit," Natsu interrupted in a snarl, "I will tear your arms off."

"Except," Gray stared up at him, "it is me."

"Stop it."

"Natsu—"

"Stop it! You're not broken! You have demons, fine. But you pretend you're repulsive, like you're some dinged-up toy I wouldn't want. Stop it. I've never thought you're broken like that."

Gray gave him a look full of incredulous despair. "No matter what you say, I'm still the cause of our problems, Natsu."

Collapsing on Gray's chest so the ice mage's breath flew out of him, Natsu wrapped him in as tight an embrace as possible.

"You do whatever the fuck you feel like," he muttered into Gray's ear, "but I love you. Even if you break up with me, I'm going to keep showing you that you're not damaged like you think you are."

Gray was quiet for so long, Natsu's shock gave way to true fear. His muscles tensed to keep his whole body from trembling. No! He didn't want Gray doing 'whatever he felt like' if that involved them not being together.

"If I break up with you?" Gray asked slowly. "You're the one who gave up."

Pain stabbed the Salamander's chest. Before he could protest and explain, Gray pushed up onto his elbows, forcing Natsu into sitting up between Gray's legs.

"You can't fix me." Though Gray's words were quiet, they were still firm. "No matter how much you…love me. I can't promise anything, and I'm not going to."

"Like I said, I'm starting to realize that," Natsu said, trying to catch his breath over the roaring in his ears. Gray's head was down, hiding his gaze, but maybe that was a good thing, because Natsu's eyes were wet. "Yesterday…it just felt like you were doing it to me on purpose—like you hurt yourself to spite me because I'm not doing enough for you. Clearly that's not true, but it scared me, okay? I was afraid. When I freak out, I kinda get angry and try to change things."

"Don't we both."

The retort made Natsu go silent. Getting angry and pounding things into a new shape was pretty much their style.

Gray snorted, finally looking up. "Why do you think I'm always pissed? I'm always broken and I can't ever fix it completely. So I'm just always mad."

"I thought it was just your pissy snowflake nature," Natsu mumbled, making the side of Gray's mouth quirk up. "You know I like you anyway. It's all okay with me. I mean, it's not like I was crushing on you before this shit happened to you. I fell for you while you were like this."

"That would've been impossible anyway. I was eight: you didn't know me back then."

Freezing, Gray blinked, seeming surprised he'd said that. Eight-years-old. Holy fuck. Natsu filed that information away.

"Life will always be difficult," the ice mage continued, his hard body softening. "For me. For us. Sorry it has to be that way."

"Sorry I tried to make you feel better," Natsu replied, grinning as he swiped at his eyes.

The smile they shared at the ridiculousness of these apologies lit the Dragon Slayer's insides. He felt weightless, no longer torn apart into aching pieces.

"Natsu, if you really want to do something helpful, you can be my boyfriend again."

"Again? When did I ever stop?"

"When I thought you gave up." Gray looked down, ashamed. "Sorry if I freaked you out. And for running off."

"It still sounds weird when you apologize," the Dragon Slayer commented. "Makes me want to punch you a little."

"Go right ahead." Gray let out a small laugh.

"Nah. I know part of it is my fault, so if I'm going to blame you, I have to blame myself too."

"You didn't hurt my feelings," Gray rolled his eyes, "or whatever you think you did."

"Yes I did, you stubborn icicle. You were totally enjoying what I was doing to you. Then I yelled at you and you started having a panic attack. Right? Or something?"

"Something."

"So…I'm sorry too. There, now we're even."

Grinning, Gray leaned into him, foreheads touching. Natsu halted in his tracks. As his insides heated up with unmerited happiness, he tried to keep his lungs working. His boyfriend wasn't one for affectionate gestures in public places: this kind of tenderness was a rare gift.

These tiny, breathtaking moments made every bad feeling fade away.

In the silence that followed, Gray finally relaxed. Natsu wasn't sure how they managed to get through that apology so civilly; maybe they were actually getting better at this.

"Yesterday afternoon," Natsu said, "what stopped you from panicking when you ran off by yourself? Erza and I showed up twenty minutes later and you were fine. Er, looked fine, at least."

"I...was fine. It was different—"

Natsu heard the footsteps just in time to leap back out of Gray's embrace. They both reached for their magic when Gray's ice exploded and Erza entered with her sword held high.

"Calm down," she said. "It's me."

"Freaked us out," Natsu grumbled. Erza shot him a strange look and he suddenly remembered Lucy's words—Erza suspects.

"Where's Happy?" Gray asked.

Erza smiled. "He's getting help. I got him through the barrier."

Chapter 24: A Less-Than-Stellar History

Chapter Text

(Previously, from Natsu's point of view…)

Natsu heard the footsteps just in time to leap back out of Gray's embrace. They both reached for their magic when Gray's ice over the door exploded and Erza entered with her sword held high.

"Calm down," she said. "It's me."

"Freaked us out," Natsu grumbled. Erza shot him a strange look and he suddenly remembered Lucy's words—'Erza suspects.'

"Where's Happy?" Gray asked.

Erza smiled. "He's getting help. I got him through the barrier."


"Happy got through?" Natsu asked in surprise, while Gray tried to get his adrenaline under control. Right when he was finally cuddling his boyfriend and feeling happy again… The happiness remained, but Erza's interruption was a shock and annoyance.

"I had a feeling the fence only keeps humans out. And I was right." Erza grinned. "Which is good, because I think you activated its defenses, Natsu. It's now strangling or skewering anyone who gets within fifty meters, and it hasn't receded back into the ground."

Natsu sprang to his feet, bowling a startled Gray over in the process.

"You made Happy fly through that?" Natsu barked.

"We did experiments first to be sure," Erza said. "And I didn't make him: I asked. He said he was doing it for Lucy."

"Fine." Natsu settled down and offered the ice mage a hand up, which Gray accepted.

"What now?" Gray asked.

"We should keep moving. I followed your trail of devastation to find you, which means others eventually will follow too." Erza tilted her head at the igloo surrounding Lucy. "What did you do to her?"

"Added protection," Gray said, taking down the shield.

As Natsu knelt at Lucy's side, he said without looking at them, "She woke up for a bit. Said whoever is doing this wants to blackmail her father. They don't know he's dead."

"Seriously?" Gray exclaimed. "This is about money between rich people?"

The Dragon Slayer hoisted Lucy in his arms, looking more despondent than angry. "Guess so."

"People are idiots," Erza growled. "All of them. Whoever owns this estate has killed two of their own mages with that iron fence. And gods, if they have this much money, why haven't they done their research on Lucy?"

Lines showed around Erza's eyes, weariness tipped with rage, and Gray realized this tirade wasn't going to stop until she hit somebody or got some sleep.

"Let's keep moving," he interrupted quickly, motioning at a door.

As they passed through into a cramped stairwell, Gray covertly brushed his hand along Natsu's arm. I give up, Natsu had said; it could end at any time. Gray had to communicate these things while he still could. I love you so fucking much, fire brain.

At the caress, the Salamander jumped and nearly tripped up the stairs. Gray snickered at him while Natsu bit down a smile.

"Watch out," Erza called unnecessarily.

Their path was more corridors and corners and trying to figure out where to go—except this time they were just looking for a window or some way out of the big house. Why were these things never there when you needed them?

A glow of natural light ahead was promising when the Dragon Slayer suddenly veered off.

"Oi!" Erza shouted. She and Gray darted after him. "Natsu!"

"Smells like Lucy!" he called back.

"Baka—" Erza began in vexation, but cut off when they all turned a corner through a large archway and found themselves facing a roomful of people.

There was a moment of silence where everyone looked at each other. Gray registered some of these people were dirty and familiar—more of the fucking mages. They were frozen in a comical tableau, the mages facing off with armed guards ringing someone at the other end of the room. Everyone looked startled.

Then Natsu said, "Those are Lucy's keys!" and they all started moving.

The magic-less guards were easy: it was the dark wizards they had to worry about. The wizards were trying to get to whoever was behind the guards, but they turned on Natsu, Gray, and Erza with a desperate ferocity.

Gray knocked several people out before having to duck out of the way of Erza's sword. The requip wizard's face was a snarl of vengeance as she grabbed someone by the head and threw them bodily into one of their comrades. Erza was usually good at keeping her emotions in check, but…damn. The unleashed disgust in her expression was kind of beautiful.

Leaving the last mages to her, Gray strode over to where Natsu had taken down the last of the armed guards and was towering over a teenage girl. She was well-dressed, well-fed, and furious, teeth bared. The guards apparently had been hers, and she looked around at their unconscious forms with tears welling up in her burning eyes.

"The keys," the Salamander growled. "Give them to me."

As Gray struck up beside him, the girl looked between them in calculation and finally handed Natsu Lucy's key pouch. The way her eyes followed them, greedy and desperate, made Gray frown.

"What do you want her keys for?"

"Nothing."

"They won't help you if you can't use celestial magic," Gray said. "So why did you want them?"

The girl's shoulders sagged. "M-My mother says it's a backup to get off the estate. If the Heartfilias and their stupid friends don't take down the enchantment, we might be able to steal that bitch's magic."

"Wait, what?" Gray said, while Natsu growled, "Who are you calling 'bitch'?"

"The wall," the girl said to Gray, rolling her eyes at his apparent idiocy. "You must've seen it—it's in its active form right now. Jude and his trading group enchanted the fence to keep my mother here after she…" The girl paused. "It doesn't matter. But no one can get off once they're on the grounds. No one."

Blinking, Gray glanced at Natsu. Except for Exceeds. Thank gods. But this explained the dark wizards' behavior.

"With their daughter here, the Heartfilias will have to take it down," the girl went on, tipping her chin up. "I will finally get to see what the world outside is like."

"Jude Heartfilia is dead," Natsu said in a voice that tiptoed along the edge of danger. "You kidnapped Lucy for nothing."

The girl's eyes widened.

"No. That's not true!" Her voice rose. "He's going to let us off the estate."

Glancing around the room, she jerked in a gasp-hiccough, some of the angry facade falling away.

"The mages want to kill me. Mother didn't tell their guild about the wall. If we can't let them out— Please, you can't—you have to be lying. It can't be true."

"Not lying," Natsu snarled, laying Lucy down and turning back to the girl with his hands balled. "We're all stuck here now, thanks to you. You injured my friend and now she won't wake up. And you know what? I was already having a pretty terrible day. People I care about keep getting beat up. You hurt my best friend."

The Salamander's fists burst into flame.

Gray wrapped his fingers around the girl's arm before Natsu could lunge.

"You said there's another way off the property?" he asked, shaking her by the shoulders. Panic crossed her face at the sudden proximity, but it was the only thing keeping her safe from Natsu at the moment. The Dragon Slayer looked well past the point of restraint.

"I-I don't know," she whispered, still guarded despite the tear that slipped down her face. "I don't know anything."

"If we get Lucy to our healer friend," Gray spat, "you won't be responsible for her dying, and I won't have to keep protecting you from that fire dragon over there."

Lucy probably wasn't going to die any time soon. But the threat made the girl look over at the blazing Salamander and begin crying in earnest. She sagged against the wall.

"The keys," she stammered. "One of the mages Jude hired was a celestial wizard with a spirit who can dig—that's how the fence stays hidden most of the time. If that brat has a similar spirit—"

"Forget similar," Gray interrupted, snatching up Lucy's keys. "She has the spirit."

He wasn't too familiar with the symbols, but he saw one that looked like Virgo's. All they had to do was wake Lucy up.

"Fuck yes," Erza swore behind him. She pinned a death glare on the girl, who had fallen down into a heap when Gray let go of her. "How do we get out of this building?"

Trembling for a moment, the girl pointed in a direction.

"Better be the truth," Natsu growled. "If I see you again, you're not going to like it."

It was probably morally wrong to threaten a magic-less teenage girl, but the powerful, barely-controlled fury painting the Salamander's face made euphoria swoop through Gray's belly. His boyfriend. Protective and powerful and fucking gorgeous.

The Dragon Slayer picked up their charge and they took off again—Gray wishing for all the world he didn't have the urge to make out with Natsu right now, with Lucy unconscious, Erza at their side, and a host of armed guards most likely on their tail.

Because of course Gray found Natsu incredibly hot when he couldn't do a thing about it.


When they reached the heavy iron fence, they all stumbled down among the plants, Natsu being as gentle as he could with Lucy while his arms felt like noodles. He heard her groan while they were running, but her eyes remained shut.

"How do you think the fence repels magic?" Gray panted out of the blue.

"Dunno. It smells like regular iron," Natsu said with a shrug. He wasn't really interested in the particulars.

"So it's not the metal itself."

"I think it's something like jutsu shiki," Erza interjected. "Reminds me of Freed's magic: an active barrier that can do things to those inside. I told Happy to bring one of our script mages."

Tuning this irrelevant conversation out, Natsu shook Lucy gently.

"Lu—"

A horrible wet cough made him jerk. Erza and Gray fell silent.

"No more," Lucy murmured, barely audible. "No more jumbling, Natsu. It hurts too much."

"We were running," he said, feeling guilty—not like they'd had a choice.

"No more."

"Lucy," Erza said, soft but determined, "do you have enough energy to call Virgo?"

"So dizzy." At last, Lucy's eyes fluttered open. "My head hurts…it'll make Virgo weak. And…I don't know if I can."

Natsu looked back across the fields: at some point, someone would come after them—it was only a matter of time. Meanwhile, Lucy was doing worse and worse.

"Lucy, none of our magics can break through," he said. "We need to get you out. Please try. You can do it."

She coughed and choked, chest constricting. Catching on, Natsu flipped her over just in time for her to throw up.

"Aren't head injuries really bad?" he asked Erza desperately, panic beginning to take hold of him again.

"'S not that bad," Lucy whispered at the same time as Erza said, "Yes."

"Shitfuck," Gray swore.

Natsu didn't say a word. The smell of vomit offended his nose to a distracting degree and Lucy was whimpering again. They had done this to her, they: those mages, that bitch of a girl and her mother, this whole estate. They'd broken Lucy, cracked her—gods forbid it be permanent, but who knew? He wanted to grind them all to pieces, but as he looked around, Gray's bruises stared back at him and Lucy tried valiantly to sit up. He had to keep it together. Just long enough to get his family home.

A tiny voice inside him whispered, I'm...scared.

Erza was kneeling behind Lucy, propping her up. As Gray handed Lucy the golden key, she said, "I have magic power, but I don't know if…if I can stay awake. Just warning you."

With that, she called Virgo.

The spirit seemed to stumble as she appeared, but maybe it was Natsu's imagination. For once, she got right to business. "What can I do, princess?"

"Get us out," Lucy slurred, pointing at the fence.

Virgo turned and started.

"My old master constructed this in order to imprison a client who cheated them. I dug the holes." She actually seemed a bit proud. "I can dig under if you like."

"Gods, yes, please," Gray said.

At a nod from Lucy, Virgo started digging.

Her weakness became very apparent then, movements slow and magic feeble. When she disappeared into the dirt, they waited, the ground quivering beneath them.

"Stay awake, Lucy," Natsu rumbled low in his throat. "Eyes open."

"I'm trying," she whispered. A tear slipped down her cheek. Gods. It ripped him up inside, made him feel like a horrible person that he couldn't get through this on his own, couldn't fight his way out—instead he had to force the wounded to save them.

She coughed and jerked against Erza, and all three of them started forward. As if there was anything they could do.

Natsu had never felt so powerless.

A puff of dirt on the other side of the fence was followed by a hand. Pink head emerging, Virgo dragged herself out, clawing her way across the ground like a dying child.

"Princess, I can't…can't go farther—"

Virgo vanished just as warped metal crashed down where her skull had been.

"Well, fuck," Gray said. "Looks like we'll have to run for it on the other side."

When Natsu bent to pick Lucy up, her breathy whines formed into words: "Please, Natsu, no more running, please…"

"We've got to."

"Please."

Lucy looked so defeated: pale and crying and begging him not to carry her anymore. Helplessness rose up and choked him, a horrible sadness which had him burning up inside a second later.

"I'm tired of being useless," he growled, heat flashing over his skin like a desperate fever. "I'm so fucking tired of this place!"

"We're almost out, Natsu. We've got this," Gray said, calm and coaxing, and after a second, he gave Natsu's shoulder a squeeze.

Taking a breath heavy with the weight of the world, Natsu discovered the plants around him were blackened.

"Lucy, I'm taking you," Gray said. "Natsu, watch my back?"

"Okay," the Salamander said, managing somehow to make his voice normal. "I'll always have your back."

As they slid down Virgo's tunnel minutes later, Natsu followed his ears and nose, vigilant for anything that wasn't right. Protecting his beloved was something he could do. This was something he was good at.

And Gray knew that. Gray was letting him do this.

Erza charged first out of the hole on the other end, sprinting for the mountain slopes at an angle to draw the fence's retaliation. Popping up, Natsu stood his ground as Gray followed, breathing hard, Lucy grunting painfully in his arms.

The fence stopped chasing Erza and a spike lashed out to skewer them.

Crashing sideways into it, Natsu managed to knock the spear off course so it plunged into the ground. Meanwhile, a metal fist rushed at Gray, who was running for the woods but too slow to be out of range yet. Natsu jumped up and took the hit on his forearms, the iron punch sending him rolling.

When he got his bearings after a second, he saw Gray had made it to the tree line and set Lucy down. His hands were together as if doing his magic, eyes on Natsu. The Dragon Slayer frowned in confusion.

Ice cracked behind him. Hearing the sound, he rolled out of the way just as the angry fence broke through Gray's shield and lanced into the ground. He clambered up while Gray continued shooting ice and finally got past the wall's reach, leaning on a tree to catch his breath.

"Nice, Gray," Erza said.

"Mm."

Gray's eyes were fixed on Natsu. They shared a small smile which quieted Natsu's inner turbulence, and at last he could breathe freely again.

"I'm sorry about this, Lucy." Gray crouched down. "I'll try not to jostle you too much."

"It's okay," she whispered through tears. "I-I believe in you."

Natsu could see how those words affected Gray; heard him swallow past unidentified emotion.

As they started moving forward, Natsu came up behind the ice mage and said in a low voice meant just for him, "I believe in you, too. Always."

Wounded, dirty, and exhausted, Gray beamed at him like the sunrise itself.

Chapter 25: But Everyone Knows

Chapter Text

As they crossed through the mountains, the team traded off carrying Lucy, who had long since fallen back under. Erza had just passed the woman over to Natsu when a shout split the woods.

"Natsuuu!" Happy called, flying into his chest and wrapping his arms around Natsu's neck.

Hands occupied, Natsu just grinned at him. "You made it, partner."

"Aye!"

Behind him landed Carla with Wendy—and Panther Lily with Levy, which confused Natsu until he remembered she was supposed to help them escape the enchanted fence. Happy flew over to hug Gray. While Erza and Wendy embraced like long-lost sisters, Levy ran up to Natsu, looking on the point of tears.

"Thank the gods, you found her. You got her back."

"Of course we did. We wouldn't be headed home without her," Natsu retorted, too tired to make the statement sound polite.

"I knew I could rely on you," Levy murmured with an emotional smile.

Natsu shrugged. For some reason, Levy's tone put him on edge.

She'd been watching his face closely through this, and crooned softly, "Aw."

"What?"

"It's okay," she said. "We all know you like her."

Natsu froze.

At his side, Gray went completely still.

"N-No, I don't," the Salamander stammered.

"You just sprinted all night to get her and sprinted all day back carrying her," Levy said.

"So did Gray and Erza!" Face growing hotter with every word, Natsu's voice rose. "It's what we do in Fairy Tail."

"Relax, Natsu. No need to defend yourself. She's still unconscious and can't hear a word. And it's not like the Exceeds or we girls will say anything."

Gaping for a second, Natsu swung around to make sure his ice mage was still there, ticked Levy had completely ignored the man's presence. As if Gray didn't count, particularly when it came to Natsu.

"How did you get out?" Happy interrupted, delivering Natsu from further stuttering. "I brought Levy because Erza said it was rune magic."

"We got lucky," Gray told him.

Wendy barged into their midst. "May I see Lucy-san?"

"Huh?" Natsu blinked at her, clutching Lucy tighter for a second. "Oh. Yeah."

He laid Lucy on the ground, keeping a hand on her arm while Wendy bent over her, as if somehow he could make her better by being nearby. His mind was full of noise.

Seriously? Lucy and me?

"Head," Gray interjected suddenly. "It's her head that's injured."

Wendy began to work her magic and the three weary members of Team Natsu plopped down around her in wordless gratitude.

"Are you guys okay?" Levy asked them in concern. "Anyone following?"

"Haven't heard anything," Natsu said shortly. "We're just tired."

Happy scooted next to him and patted his leg in solidarity.

"How far have we come, Happy?" Gray asked.

"Almost halfway."

Gray nodded, and Natsu was unable to read if his expression were relieved or disappointed. Maybe both.

Silence reigned for several minutes.

"Oh," Wendy gasped, making them all startle. "Oh dear. Um…her brain is okay. I think."

"'Okay'?" Alert, Natsu stared down at his best friend. She looked the same as before. "Wait, her brain?"

"It's a concussion," Wendy said. "A really, really bad one. Her head was swelling…"

Wendy shuddered and Natsu was hit with sudden thankfulness that he hadn't known how bad it was before Wendy got to work. All better now. Wendy will make her all better.

"It was harmful for her to be bounced around," Wendy went on, breathless, "but I understand you guys didn't have much choice. She's out of immediate danger, but there's still some swelling and bruising and… I'll need to heal her more when my magic recharges—it just takes so much focus, I'm sorry. And she'll need to rest a lot after this. No moving. For several days."

Wendy swallowed and they all looked at their unconscious comrade.

"I want to get her back quickly," Wendy whispered. "I'm worried. Head injuries are bad."

Natsu scooped Lucy up, growing protective once more. Nothing else was happening to their team today. They'd had enough. No more!

The rest of the team pulled to their feet, but the Exceeds looked at them as if they were crazy.

"You need to take a break," Carla commanded.

"Actually, we need sleep," Natsu said. He couldn't help his gaze lingering on Gray. His people weren't home yet. His job wasn't finished. "In our own beds, preferably for a week. And we need to get Lucy to the infirmary. Let's go."

"Natsu-san," Wendy said softly, and he growled, expecting her to tell him to sit still. But the young Dragon Slayer stood her ground and said, "I think you should let Carla and Lily carry her, like a sling. It'll be a lot smoother."

He had to fight down his instincts for a long moment before nodding. "Fine."

As he handed Lucy off, he caught Levy staring smugly at him. Whatever.


Days seemed to pass in hours. They were running again—despite Levy's protests that they were pushing their weary bodies too hard. They were just desperate to get back. To check on Lucy and Wendy, whom they'd sent ahead with the Exceeds, and to have the endless trees come to an end…

Cresting a ridge, they looked down at last on Magnolia.

"Fairy Tail," Erza said, almost tearful, its tall roof visible in the distance.

As the four humans dragged themselves down the final stretch, Erza spoke up from the rear.

"Gray, your back really does look awful. What did you do to yourself?"

The breath left Natsu's lungs. Fuck. She couldn't have worded the question any worse.

"I had a run-in and made an embarrassing mistake," Gray said in an irritated, I'd-rather-not-talk-about-this tone.

Erza shot him a look.

Natsu decided to help out in the one way he knew how.

"Did you lose a fight, ice princess?" he asked, grin painful and toothy—but it worked.

"Don't even start, slanty-eyes."

"A little fight against someone weaker than you? No wonder you're embarrassed."

"I will tear into you," Gray growled—and it was the old familiar growl from beloved battles, not that rare tone from when they truly argued. Natsu's heart soared just hearing it.

They were them again.

"Let's go," Natsu said, raising a fist and grinning. He meant it, too, until Erza clapped.

"Nobody is tearing into anyone," she ordered. "Gray, let Wendy heal you when we get back."

"It's really not as bad as it looks," Gray sighed, hunching his shoulders.

But it was Erza, so they all knew he would do what she said. Except—

"I don't want people to see."

It was a whisper so quiet only Natsu would hear. At his boyfriend's words, Natsu looked around for something Gray could cover up with, but he had nothing aside from the shirt on his back. Shit, that would obvious.

He was still thinking of solutions as they strode up the steps to the guild, but his brain screeched to a halt when Gray said, loud enough for everyone, "I'm not coming inside."

Erza stopped and scowled back at him. "Don't be prat."

"I'm tired and dirty and there's nothing for me to do here." He looked over at Natsu. "Make sure Lucy's okay."

"I wil—"

"You need to get your injuries looked at," Erza said.

Gray shrugged. "I'll deal with it tomorrow after I sleep."

Erza's frown held all the exhaustion of the last twenty-four hours, mouth snapping open to retort.

"Let him go, Erza," Natsu interrupted. "Let him rest."

Eyebrows rising, Erza humphed.

"Fine. I'll go report everything to Master."

"Oh," Natsu said, surprised by her acquiescence. "Okay. I'm going to check on Lucy."

Levy's stifled laugh was plenty loud to his ears.

"What?" he snapped.

"I didn't say anything," she chuckled.

Natsu let out a low growl.


Gray heard Levy's giggle before he could turn away from the group. Seriously? This was not the time.

"I'm not—Lucy and I aren't—I don't like her," Natsu said, firm words ruined by stuttering.

"Mm, sure." Levy grinned.

Gray's patience snapped. He had no right to call Natsu his, with all the trauma baggage shit he dragged Natsu through daily, but Natsu wanted him—Natsu wanted him!—and so he was claiming the man anyway. Screw whether Gray deserved him: Natsu was his boyfriend and he was allowed to feel jealous, no matter how secretive they were about it.

"Lay off him, Levy," Gray snapped. "I'm too tired to listen to Natsu splutter."

"Oi!" Natsu took the insult as an excuse to turn his back on the woman, facing Gray fully. "I will beat you into the ground, stripper."

"Sure you will."

The ice mage's voice was weary as he rubbed at the beginnings of a headache. He didn't want to pretend to fight.

He wanted a hug.

And he didn't really care who saw. He'd do it right now. Walk over and wrap his arms around Natsu. Feel that heated embrace. Ice the rest of the world over so it was just them and no one else.

Before he gave in to the urge, Gray forced his feet toward the street.

"I need to go," he mumbled. "Too tired. Later."

Natsu frowned, but the ice mage just shrugged at him. The Dragon Slayer needed to make sure Lucy was okay: he understood that. He'd stay himself, but…

Everything hurt. He was overwhelmed. And his emotions were spooled out beyond what he had to give.

Natsu would catch up when he was done: the Salamander's nose could always find him.


As Natsu followed Levy into the guild, he shot a glance over his shoulder.

Gray.

When Natsu entered Fairy Tail, he was shocked out of his melancholy by light, heat, and exclamations. People were crowding around asking if they were okay, everyone concerned. Somehow Natsu had completely forgotten this would happen. Even Gajeel was troubled on their behalf—coming over even though his expression remained carefully neutral.

"Where's Master?" Erza demanded, cutting through the clamor.

Someone pointed and she stalked off.

"I'll answer questions later," she snapped over her shoulder.

As the Dragon Slayer became the focus of attention, he twisted around and darted across the hall, bumping into people in his path. He could smell Levy following after him.

"Infirmary," he muttered, waving people off him. Any replies were lost in the roaring in his head.

In the infirmary, Lucy lay on a bed with Wendy bending over her. Natsu's focus seemed to narrow to just the sky mage's hands glowing. While his heart found a normal rhythm for what seemed like the first time in forever, and it should've been a good thing, he just felt flimsy and broken down, knees weak.

Wendy stopped as Natsu and Levy approached.

"Lucy-san needs to sleep," Wendy told them, "but she really will be okay now. I'm certain of it."

"Good." Natsu stared down at Lucy, everything deflating out of him. He'd known she would be okay with Wendy's help. He really had. But now it was real. "Thank you so much, Wendy."

It took him a moment to notice other smells in the room. He looked over and found another bed occupied—

"Happy?!" he exclaimed, jerking at the sight of the blue Exceed out cold.

"He's okay too," Carla said quickly. She sat at the foot of Happy's bed and seemed to sense that Natsu was close to panicking, for her voice was gentle. "He used up all his magic carrying Wendy and ended up unconscious a hundred meters from the guild. But he's totally fine aside from needing sleep."

Natsu felt like he could collapse into the floor. The weight of it all, the stress finally starting to break him… All his people but one were here. And honestly Gray should be here too, while Wendy erased those awful black marks from his back.

All Natsu's people were hurt. He couldn't take it anymore.

Just like that, the desire to flee overtook him. The air was too thin, fear clutching him, needing to see Gray and hold him, to know he was alive—

"Igottago," Natsu gasped.

Wendy, Carla, and Levy all stared in disbelief.

"But Happy," Carla said.

But Gray.

"I—I can't stay," he blurted, heart hammering in his chest. He could cry: from exhaustion, from desire, from pain. "Thanks. Wendy. Thank you. Bye."

With that, he flew out the door.


Seconds later, Wendy heard the outside door of the guild woosh and Natsu's uneven footsteps hurrying away.

"He looked so upset," Levy murmured, staring at Wendy with wide eyes.

"It was a long night and day for them," Mira said from the infirmary door, making Levy jump. "Lucy had them worried."

And Gray-san was injured and it freaked Natsu-san out. Wendy had smelt Gray's blood earlier, too occupied with making sure the swelling in Lucy's skull stayed down to tend to his wounds. She felt guilty about the limits of her magic power. Natsu's lover and two best friends were all injured—she wished for his sake she could make them all better in an instant. The draconic instinct had to be choking him.

"His expression when he walked out…" Levy drifted off, looking at Mira. "Do you think Lucy realizes how he feels?"

Wendy barely stopped herself from laughing. Um, Lucy?

"Natsu isn't staying the night with Happy," Mira said slowly. "And Gray didn't come into the guild."

"Gray went home." Levy waved a hand. "But when Natsu saw Happy and Lucy, he said all of a sudden he couldn't stay. I think he was too distraught."

"About Lucy?" Mira asked.

Levy nodded. "Pretty obviously her. He was…really protective. More than normal people would be."

Wendy barely restrained a frustrated sigh. Do you know Natsu-san at all? As she glanced between Levy and Mira, she wondered how humans could stand never knowing each other's smells. Instead, they talked, talked, talked, like it was all their business.

"I think," Wendy murmured, "we shouldn't make light of this."

"We're not making light," Mira chuckled. "Believe me."

"These are private emotions, though," Wendy said, face hot. She didn't like arguing, especially with Mirajane.

But Mira and Levy both gave her kind smiles.

"We'll stop gossiping," Levy said. "I'm sorry."

"Thank you," Wendy stammered.


Natsu found Gray halfway to their home. The bedraggled ice mage was forcing his feet down the road, his body listing to one side when Natsu stumbled up and slipped an aching arm around Gray's waist. He didn't ask Gray to help him stay upright or if Gray needed help. Wordlessly hooking their arms around each other, they kept going. They would either stand or fall together.

They finally stumbled up the wooded path, Gray unlocked Natsu's front door, and Natsu buried his face in Gray's neck with a groan because there were too many scents. The house was full of Gray, but Happy was overwhelming here too, and snippets of Lucy and Erza, and he couldn't handle any of it right now. Too much. Just Gray.

When Gray guided them to the bedroom, they tumbled down still clothed (half-clothed in Gray's case), asleep almost as soon as they hit the pillows. Natsu grabbed Gray's hand tightly, until the ice mage made a mewl of protest at how hard he was clenching. Instead, Gray scooted closer until their faces were centimeters apart, fingers intertwined between them.

All Natsu could smell was sweat, exhaustion, and Gray. It was perfect.

Gray slipped into sleep and Natsu followed him a few minutes later like a stone sinking into still water. Gray tossed and turned throughout the night but never got far from his Dragon Slayer, who kept a grip on him the entire time.

Chapter 26: Only If I Hate Myself

Chapter Text

Natsu woke up with his throat feeling like a stony desert. It took him a moment to swallow it down, and another moment to process the bright sunlight and stop freaking out about the absences of Gray's heartbeat. It just meant he was absent from the room.

When the Dragon Slayer opened his eyes, the other half of the bed was empty as he knew it would be, but what his senses had not yet processed was the smell of food. Gray had left a full plate in his place. Natsu smiled. Popsicle.

As he ate and woke up more, he listened for sounds of Gray elsewhere in the house, but the quiet was absolute. Peaceful though, and the midday sun was cheerful—and after so much sleep, Natsu didn't think he could be anxious or mad. Gray would be somewhere. Everything was good between them.

Waiting was not Natsu's style, but he stuck around the house long enough to shower. After a leisurely time under the hot water, his boyfriend still wasn't back, so he stepped outside and sniffed.

The trail led up to a low hill overlooking the city—the same place Gray had gone to when they argued and Erza came with the news about Lucy and the whole world went to shit.

Shirtless, Gray sat in the grass staring out over the sunlit view, apparently lost in thought. Leaning a hand against a tree trunk, Natsu watched him for a long minute, enjoying his own view of Gray's broad shoulders.

"How long did you plan on lurking, fire face?" Gray called.

Natsu jumped. "How did you know I was here?"

"You breathe loudly."

"And they say I have good hearing."

The Salamander wandered over. Gray didn't get up, so Natsu plopped down with his fists on his knees and stared out beside him.

"How'd you sleep?" Gray asked.

"Fantastic. Thanks for the food."

"You're welcome."

"What about you, icicle?"

"I slept okay. No nightmares."

"I noticed." For a brief, fluttering second, they smiled at each other.

A breeze shifted the leaves above them.

"I know it's hard," Gray said, chin propped on his knees, gaze tracing Magnolia. "You're allowed to be frustrated with stuff."

"Huh?"

Peering sideways, Natsu saw Gray's mouth twist like he was choosing his words with care.

"This is…a lot: me, my issues. I get it if you're frustrated or tired sometimes. You can call time-out and get time away. If that's what you want. Or need. Or whatever. And before you get all angry, it's not a competition. I'm just being logical, not trying to offend your pride or whatever."

"I'm so confused."

"I'm just trying to help, Natsu," Gray sighed.

"How would I need time away from you?" Natsu twisted toward him. "Gray…get over here."

Gray blinked, bewildered by the command, finally looking at his boyfriend for more than a fleeting glance.

"C'mon, snowflake. Closer."

When Gray scooted up to him, Natsu put an arm around Gray's shoulders, which was carefully reciprocated when a cold hand slipped around his waist. Everything was so much easier with touch.

"That's not what I want, okay?" Natsu muttered. "I feel like I should be offended you'd think I want to get away from you."

"People have limits," Gray said. "Even you. Gotta take care of your needs. We know I don't do a very good job."

A quiet growl reverberated through Natsu's throat.

"Shut up. You can't tell me what I feel, okay? You do take care of me. I'm fine with messy, Gray. I've stopped thinking your shit has to get better. Because it might not." Natsu cuddled closer. "But I don't care as long as you're happy and alive."

When he gripped the ice mage tighter, Gray leaned into him and gave a world-weary sigh. The Salamander felt heat from Gray's side against his even though the day was cool: the damn snowflake truly never get cold.

Smiling, Natsu teased, "Guess after saying that all that, I'm kinda stuck with you. I wonder how on earth I'll manage."

He put a hand on Gray's knee, and the ice mage's pulse sped up at the touch.

But Gray's voice was thick when he said, "Of course you're not. You can break things off any time. And if you did, you'd no longer have any right to worry how I'd…react."

"Fuck, don't talk like that."

Horror flipped through Natsu's stomach and his arm tightened until he was crushing Gray, even though he knew it put pressure on his boyfriend's bruised back. Nothing could've made the Dragon Slayer let go. But Gray's hand on his waist was secure and unmoving, the ice mage turning into him and breathing against the side of his neck.

"Sunflower, you know the one thing you can always be certain of, right?" Gray murmured in his ear. "The other day you accused me of trying to kill myself, but I will never, ever attempt that. Never again. That I can promise."

"I know," Natsu muttered against his neck. "I wish I hadn't said that."

Gray shrugged. They both knew the other day had been fucked up. Time to move on and build better days.

"You know," the fire wizard said suddenly, "I don't actually think you're broken."

Expecting Gray to argue, Natsu was surprised when he just kept his eyes glued straight ahead. Unprotesting.

Unbelieving.

"I don't," Natsu said, fierce. "If you are what counts for broken, then nobody is whole. Scars don't make your body broken—they make you fucking attractive. The same has to be true of souls. Yeah, sure, I can see your pain, but it's not part of you. It's just a scar. When I look at you, I don't see anything defective."

Gray exhaled a heavy breath, leaning his head against Natsu's.

"So," the ice mage said. "Um…me hurting myself: we need to talk about that. And how it hurts you."

Natsu sighed. Changing the topic like always. Evasive though it might be, Natsu couldn't help but smile at how very Gray the avoidance was.

Plus they did need to talk about it.

Natsu said, "I want to be able to trust that if I go on another job, you won't do it again."

"I can't promise that."

"You've said that a lot lately," Natsu huffed. "But this isn't uncontrollable stuff like thoughts or panic attacks, Gray. This is about you getting physically hurt."

"Which is sometimes what I need." Gray's jaw firmed up and he stubbornly stared into the distance.

The Dragon Slayer frowned, not understanding how something so terrible could make anything better. He could feel his fear sloshing around, clawing at his throat. Had to stay focused. Self-control.

"You didn't used to need it," Natsu said as calmly as he could. "You haven't done this before."

"Not during our relationship." Gray shrugged. "I got my injuries from you."

Natsu went rigid, air leaving his lungs.

"What?"

"From you." Eye contact steady, Gray frowned in genuine confusion. "That's one of the things fighting does for me."

"Fucking shit." Natsu put a hand over his eyes, unable to hold back his emotions. "Gods, you're saying this whole time I've been helping?"

"It's not like that," Gray interjected. "The pain itself helps me focus. It's not about the number of scrapes I get: it's about being able to feel my body. I would never let you just hurt me; but the inevitable injuries help clear my head."

"Is there any way to do that besides hurting yourself?" the Salamander asked, a tinge of desperation in his voice.

Gray shrugged again, despondent.

"If we keep sparring with each other, that'll help. If I can somehow stop thinking about this stuff every morning when I wake up, although that's not likely any time soon. Also…"

When Gray turned to him, their faces were centimeters apart and Natsu had to choke down the irrational and very ill-timed desire to kiss him.

"I feel guilty when I fuck you without being 'there,'" Gray said. "The other night you said you could always tell when I'm checked out. But sometimes I need it that way: sometimes I just need to dick around even if I can't feel. But I can't do that if I'm feeling bad, knowing you don't like it."

"Okay." Natsu stared down at their clasped hands—when had that happened? "You do and be whatever you like when we fuck. I'll know it's not me if you're not totally there—that's all I need, knowing it's not my fault. Also," he gave Gray a roguish grin, "you make me come so hard regardless of whether you're in the moment or not."

Biting his lip, Gray let out a snort of laughter.

"As to the rest," Natsu said, "I don't mind hitting you as long as you promise you're still fighting your hardest against me and not letting me hurt you."

"Of course I fight you for real, baka. I like winning more than the pain."

Natsu grinned. "It can be more than training, too. We can go on jobs together."

"Because that's not suspicious. Shit, firefly, we already arrive at and leave the guild together every day."

"We occasionally did jobs together before we started dating," Natsu said, unwilling to throw out his idea just yet.

"Once or twice. Usually under pain of Erza."

Natsu's brows pinched. This would be easier if Erza knew about them: they could be themselves when they were with the team and not have to maintain this dumb façade unless when they were in the guild.

"I suppose there might be jobs that requires us to work together," Gray grunted.

Inspiration striking, Natsu twisted around to look at his boyfriend.

"We can turn it into a competition. Take jobs together to see who can do more or finish faster. After all, we still don't know who's better."

"Definitely not you, flame brain," Gray said with a grin.

"When have you ever beaten me, snowflake?"

"Well, there was the time—"

Natsu cut him off with a muffled shut up and a kiss, strong and affectionate. The Salamander could feel the curling smile of Gray's lips, the energy with which he went after Natsu's teeth, his soft groan. Loving those sounds, Natsu moved down and rewarded Gray with a sharp bite on the neck. But he couldn't help licking up behind Gray's ear while he was there, hitting a known ticklish spot, and when he pulled back, they were both laughing.

The moment felt so full.

Gray looked truly happy, despite the conversation they'd just had. He really was getting better if talking like this didn't set him off.

Maybe Natsu could ask something else.

"Hey, Gray," he asked, after their chuckles rolled away. "I have a question."

"Shoot."

"What did you see when you panicked two days ago?"

Gray's side constricted under his fingers like a rope pulling taut and he inhaled through his teeth. Every muscle went rock hard.

Sometimes Natsu imagined Gray was a steel wall, the gleaming city inside untouchable to anyone without. The Salamander knew he couldn't demand entrance, but he wanted to take care of Gray. The only way Gray might one day let him in was if Natsu periodically asked these questions. Because one day, maybe, Gray might take down the wall.

"You're so strong," Natsu said, voice cracking. "It's awesome and damn attractive. But sometimes you use that strength to shut me out. It makes me wish… I don't like when you shut me out."

He paused.

"It makes me feel kinda shitty, like you don't need me."

Instantly, Gray replied, "I need you. I want you."

He put his head on Natsu's shoulder, making Natsu close his eyes and relax.

"Okay," Natsu said. It was enough. It had to be.


Gray sighed, confused and conflicted by Natsu's request for knowledge. Much as he didn't want to talk about it, it wasn't fear holding him back. Sometimes, crazily, he wanted to tell Natsu these things about himself.

But only if Natsu could take it. That was the stipulation.

"It's flashback stuff, sunflower," Gray said, heavy as lead. "If I tell you, you'll freak out. You don't want to know."

Natsu started, like he hadn't expected a reply.

"Yeah, actually, I do. Please?"

Gray fell quiet.

"It's alright," Natsu said hurriedly. "If it's going to bring back panic, don't think about it."

"It won't."

"You can tell me anything."

"I don't think I can." Reaching up to the head leaning against his own, Gray caressed Natsu's cheek. "I don't want you to feel this. I need you to be happy."

"The things you're dealing with aren't going to destroy me," Natsu said, dark sarcasm creeping into his tone. "I'll still be happy, I promise. I'm strong enough, Gray."

"But I'm not." Gray's heart fractured. He put a hand over his eyes; fuck, he broke so easily sometimes.

"That's a lie."

"No, it's not. I really can't handle you knowing."

"Yes, it fucking is." Natsu's voice was hard, solid. But so gentle when he whispered, "Just how many lies have you believed?"

Gray balled up, head on his knees. He wanted to believe Natsu—wanted to be able to have this conversation. Wanted to.


Natsu drew Gray close and Gray turned his face into the Dragon Slayer's chest. Gray could curl up like a little child with him and no one would ever know. When Gray pulled away, he would go back to being Gray, and Natsu would go back to treating him as Gray. This moment of pain would stay forever tucked against Natsu's chest, where Gray didn't have to carry it or look at it or even remember it if he didn't want to.

Natsu didn't know how to tell Gray he had enough room in himself for Gray's pain. And it wasn't because Gray was somehow weak that he offered. Life had handed Gray a lot more shit in general, the pain filling his spaces until there wasn't room for the things Natsu wanted to show him. It wasn't fair.

The Salamander simply wanted to be with Gray. He didn't care what dark place he had to enter in order to be with Gray. Whatever it was, Natsu wanted to be together. That's why they'd started this relationship.

He wished Gray wouldn't doubt his resolve.

"I care about you," Natsu whispered. "Don't give up on me."

"I can't lose you, Natsu." Gray shivered, his fists tightening painfully around Natsu's arms. "I can't."

"Not going anywhere. No matter what you say," he stressed.

When Gray's shuddering subsided, he kept his face hidden against Natsu's skin. Natsu rubbed his back, trying to massage the life back into him.

Natsu despised watching Gray go through these moments. Gray hated it because he felt weak, but Natsu hated it because these episodes weren't Gray. They were a monster attacking Gray's heart, a battle Gray was still fighting. Natsu abhorred watching Gray slip under and believe this was who he was. Because Natsu knew it wasn't.

It was tacked on, added, foreign, extraneous, alien.

Maybe, he wondered, the monster had lived there so long Gray couldn't see the line between it and himself anymore.

Well, he could borrow Natsu's eyes. Natsu couldn't get rid of the nightmares and flashbacks and panic and pain—only Gray could do that exhausting work, alone in his own head. As Gray had pointed out over and over the past few days, it wasn't Natsu's job. But he could tell Gray the difference between what was truly him and the dark things that stalked him. He could tell Gray which things were lies.

Maybe that would make it easier for Gray to fight those parts off.


As the noise and static in Gray's head slowly died, he heaved a breath. I am strong. Natsu believed in him.

"Okay," Gray said.

The way Natsu's hand caressed his side at those words would've bugged him once: an attempt to make Gray feel something—comfort, in this case—when he just wanted to be numb. But today it felt good, not condescending. Today he prayed he wouldn't freeze up inside. That he could get through this. He wanted to get through this.

"So what did you see?" Nastu asked.

"Felt," he corrected. Resting his chin on his knees, he looked out across Magnolia. "I felt and heard things. It's like a hallucination. Feels like I'm going crazy."

Gray tried to chuckle, but Natsu didn't laugh. Gray leaned into his heat: okay, no joking, just the truth.

"This time was mostly small, sharp pains," he said. "I could feel the nub ends of feathers piercing all over. She had this thing with feathers—I know it sounds weird, but she'd poke the sharp ends into me. Feet. Thighs. Upper arms."

Suddenly Gray snapped his head from side to side. Fuck. Too close. Running trembling fingers over his skin, he breathed deep. He did not want to relive that.

"It was really twisted," he hurried on. "A couple times she did my face, but they couldn't afford to leave marks, so she was strategic."

"Is that what you were feeling?"

"My face? No. Mostly my arms."

"Do they hurt right now?" Natsu asked in concern, hand squeezing Gray's which was tracing his bicep. Gray stilled the movement and entwined their fingers.

"It's just echoes when I talk about it sometimes," he sighed. "I heard things too. Like their voices saying they were coming to find me; come on out— Anyway. Yeah." Gray wiped an errant tear off his cheek. "It was starting to get into all the other stuff, hands and grabbing and… But it stopped."

"What…made it stop?"

Gray noted the hitch in Natsu's voice. The ice wizard closed his eyes.

"I had to be strong for you. I guess…I can hold it in sometimes. Just for a brief bit until I can get somewhere alone and fall apart where it's safe. Sometimes, on occasion, if I get myself preoccupied by other things, I've made it stop altogether."

"W-what kinds of things?"

There was no mistaking Natsu's stutter this time. Gray kept his gaze straight ahead, voice growing soft—this was the part the Salamander wouldn't want to hear.

"I tell myself to shut the fuck up. I tell myself to get a grip, that I'm pathetic, and that I need to grow a fucking backbone or else I'm no better than—than trash. I tell myself I'm useless and…"

"And?" Natsu choked.

"I tell myself there's a reason they picked me to do it to."

Natsu made a strangled sound.

"So I need to get over it and move on," Gray continued quickly, "because I deserve this. It's what I'm good for. I'm really not important and I need to get the hell over myself and go be useful. I failed on myself, so I have to make it up by helping other people."

"You…failed?" Natsu was crying now, voice thick and nasal.

Holding his hand tightly, Gray struggled for words. He had to make Natsu understand.

"I failed to stop them doing this to me," he said. "I had Ur's magic and I still couldn't stop them. I'm a disappointment. I have to make up for that by doing things—worthwhile things. Like if I help enough people, maybe when I die I won't be worthless. It can all have meant something."

"Fuck, Gray." Natsu squeezed him painfully, agony singing over his spine.

"Basically."

Gray felt stiff; the admissions made him want to vomit, but he didn't have the right to feel sickened by this. He didn't have the right to feel horror. He was the horror.

Admitting it all aloud, sick as it made him feel, was a relief. Worthless.

This was the reason for everything. Now his lover knew. It was important that Natsu understand why Gray didn't have the right to live like normal people. Why he lived in a different world from everybody else.

Now, if only Natsu would stop breathing life back into his heart.

"You're not trash," Natsu whispered. "You're special."

Like right fucking now.

"Stop it." Gray pulled away from him. "I'm serious, Natsu."

"Gray…" Natsu's voice broke. "They're all lies. You know that, right? None of it's true. You're not a failure: you're amazing. You're worth a whole hell of a lot to me."

"Fuck you."

"Gray! I love you."

"Don't." Gray flashed him a dangerous look. "Just don't."

There was frost in Gray's throat, sliding over his skin. Natsu's wet face staring back at him held no enmity, just that fucking stubbornness. And tenderness. It hurt like hell: he didn't deserve any of this, didn't deserve the fingers that were caressing his ribs with careful desperation. Gray knew this was what he'd dreamed of and never thought he'd get to have: a loving relationship. But it hurt so much to be loved.

"If you have the right to grieve and hate yourself, I have the right to care about you," Natsu sniffled, voice firm. "And I'm going to keep telling you the damn truth."

"Truth is relative," Gray spat. He wanted Natsu to get angry at him. Why wasn't he getting angry?

"If it's relative, then listen to me," Natsu shot back.

"That's a great idea. Let someone else define me—of course. Baka! Where'd you get that idea, abusive relationships?"

Just like that, Natsu grabbed his shoulders in a steely vice and stared into his eyes.

"Stop it, popsicle. Stop doing this to us."

"Doing what?"

"You think I can't tell when you're sniping at me? Remind me: how long have we been picking fights with each other?"

"Technically, you started it," Gray muttered.

"Yeah, I did. I'm going to finish it, too." Natsu's nails dug into Gray's skin. "Stop giving up: you're better than this. Fight for yourself. You said you're strong—and I believe you—but you need to believe you."

Before Gray could come up with a justification, Natsu's hand trailed over his cheek. Gray's mouth opened in dismay: this wasn't how this was supposed to go. Natsu was supposed to be mad at him. Natsu was supposed to understand that Gray wasn't worth it.

Natsu's voice lowered, black eyes not wavering from Gray's.

"If you think it's not worth fighting for yourself anymore, I'd like to remind you you're a Fairy Tail wizard. We don't lose. We don't give in. We also fight for our friends—you'll fight for me and I'll fight for you, because that's what a relationship is. So I'm going to keep telling you I like you, droopy-eyes. And for your own fucking honor, you need to fight this in yourself. Because we both know those were all lies you just spewed."

Gray jerked back out of the reach of his warm touch. Confused. He couldn't take this comfort anymore. Life was so much easier when he knew what he was and let him hate himself.

The problem with Natsu was that Gray believed him when he said otherwise.

He believed it when Natsu told him he was amazing and strong. He believed Natsu cared, and wouldn't leave just because shit got scary. He even believed sometimes there might be some part of him that was worth loving.

Choking, Gray put a hand to his throat. Why did this make him want to retch? Stupid. It was all so stupid.

—Oh gods. His constant insistence of his strength when they were saving Lucy; his anger at being treated unjustly…he didn't used to think he was worth all of those things, but he'd fought for himself the past few days. Had fought to persuade Natsu that he wasn't broken, that he was good enough.

Gray's eyes widened, horrified. When had he started believing all that? He'd swallowed the whole fucking pill.

Hope was a cage. If Gray believed in all the good things Natsu said—and he wanted to so, so much—then when it came crashing down, his heart would break that much worse. If he stayed broken, at least his life couldn't get any worse.

That awful, tired little thought made him laugh aloud. Such a depressing fuck-up he was. Natsu frowned at him, reaching out. Lips twisting in a sick imitation of a smile, Gray retreated from him.

Just as quickly as chortles bubbled up, furious tears were pressing at the back of his eyeballs. Losing what he'd created with Natsu…that was a terrifying thought. It was a nightmare: to think he'd finally started believing, only for it to be false.

He didn't want it to be a lie. He didn't want any of it to be a lie.

At some point, the proof would come, and show he was either beautiful or worthless. He'd be unable to hide from the truth.

Terrifying.

I want the old nightmare back. The one where he was trash and nothing else. Right? Isn't that what he wanted?

Gray covered his face with both hands. The part of his brain that thought like Natsu did was starting to realize just how screwed up he was. It broke his heart to see himself the way others must.

So shriveled. So wrong.


Natsu was caught in indecision, unsure whether to touch Gray or stay back. But then Gray jolted, and the smell of salt hit his nose, and Gray was crying…

Gray wept like the tears were poison.

After a second's hesitation (if this were a panic attack, he had to be careful), Natsu wrapped himself around his boyfriend. Shifting on his knees, he pulled Gray as close as humanly possible, Gray encased in Natsu's body. Black hair was under the Dragon Slayer's lips, Gray's shoulders pressing into his chest, and Natsu let his fiery warmth suffuse everything.

I'm not going anywhere. You're wrong. You're so valuable. You've never failed anything in your life: any time you've lost to something, you've gone back and beaten it. You're stronger than anyone I know. You've carried this all by yourself, and you're somehow still alive. I love you so much.

Natsu's chest was aching like it had been pierced. He understood why they called it a broken heart.

"I don't care if you cuss me out, popsicle: I'm not leaving," he said. "Get that through your thick head."

Natsu gripped the ice mage's arms and slid over the tense muscles. Putting his nose against Gray's neck, he walked his fingers carefully down Gray's spine. Gray's clammy skin was familiar and home, even battered like it was. Always home.

When Gray convulsed, Natsu slipped one arm around and over Gray's heart. Gray needed touch, even if he never liked admitting it.

Gray's pulse was slowing down, his breaths finding a rhythm again. Natsu started to pull away, but the ice mage grunted in protest, so he swallowed Gray in a hug.

It was a long time before Gray uncurled. He sat up enough for Natsu to embrace him properly, grabbing Natsu's hands.

When Gray finally raised his head, Natsu saw a pale, tired, and scarily blank face.

Don't go numb, he begged. You were doing so well.

"You're mine, snowflake," he mumbled.

To his startlement, Gray's eyes softened. "I like that."

Natsu's heart was suddenly beating twice as fast.

"Gray—" He had to clear his throat. "Thanks. For all of it."

"You're welcome, flame-brain."

"And I meant it: you're mine." Natsu leaned in to trail tiny kisses over his cheek. "I've claimed you. I refuse to let anyone steal you."

"You're being revoltingly sappy," Gray grouched, hiding his eyes behind his hand.

"Maybe I only do it to make you turn all red." Natsu grinned.

Gray snorted but moved forward so Natsu could kiss more of his face.

After a few minutes, Natsu asked, "Wanna go to the guild for lunch?"

Being around people—kind, healthy people who loved Gray—was one of the things which helped revive him. The icicle always claimed he was too tired to be around friends when he was like this, but that was just inertia. Once at Fairy Tail, Gray's smile always crept back until he slipped up and forgot he was upset, enjoying himself, laughing…

Natsu's chest swelled. He craved Gray's smile.

"The guild?" Gray asked slowly. "Only if I can kiss you first."

"Hell yes, popsicle—"

—is what Natsu tried to say, but Gray captured his tongue and set him on fire.

Gray sucked on him, finding his sharp teeth and kissing him hard until Natsu bit him, eliciting a satisfied groan. Everything Gray could do with his mouth…Natsu got lost there, Gray's fist in his shirt making tremulous desire stir through him, the two sinking into each other.

"You know," Gray breathed, "If you're going to say I'm yours, you should leave a mark to prove it."

Exhilarating possessiveness closed Natsu's throat. Disentangling their tongues, he moved down Gray's neck, licking and sucking while Gray shivered to each touch.

Biting down, Natsu savored the groan that vibrated through his boyfriend's throat.

Gray tasted like cold, salt, and fresh air.

And a tiny bit of blood. Oops. Loosening his hold, Natsu licked over the spot where one fang had pierced the skin. Gray's heart rate sped up in Natsu's ears like this was the best thing Gray had ever experienced.

"This is going to make me a completely different kind of hungry," Natsu said roughly, pulling away from that smooth skin with effort.

"Who says that's a bad thing?" Gray chuckled, trying to catch his breath.

Natsu rolled his eyes.

"I know you'd just love for me to chew on you more, but I need some real food first or I might take an actual chunk out of you."

"Is it wrong that turns me on?"

"Yes, ice cube," Natsu snorted. "That's called masochism."

As they stood, Natsu saw the clear marks his teeth had left on Gray's skin. Against the rest of his relatively unmarred front, the bite practically glowed.

"What do you tell people the marks are?" he asked.

Gray shrugged. "Nobody asks, and if they do, I just say it's from a recent mission."

"Think anyone knows?"

"Nah. Nobody would think we could make this work, let alone voluntarily choose to date. We're both idiots, right?"

"Speak for yourself," Natsu laughed.

After a moment, Gray asked, "Natsu…why did you date me?"

"Because you're Gray," the Dragon Slayer said, entwining their fingers.

"It's a good thing I wasn't named Charcoal or Gold or, heaven forbid, Chartreuse."

"You know what I mean," Natsu protested. "You're strong and attractive and you hit me and…I dunno: I like you. You laugh at things, and argue with me, and know all sorts of cool stuff. You're not a selfish ass and you cared for me even before we were dating…and no, I am never again admitting that aloud, snow queen."

Gray snickered.

"Don't laugh!" Natsu said, blood pounding through his face. "Shit, this is what happens when I'm nice to you."

"I'll take you to dinner tomorrow in recompense," Gray said, kissing his burning-hot cheek.

"Deal. Now let's go to the guild."

"You don't happen to have a spare shirt, do you?"

Chapter 27: Past: In the Beginning

Chapter Text

His first time, Gray was fourteen, and he did it sort of on a dare—not that he didn't want to, by any means: the dare just provided the opportunity.

It was an awkward, sweaty, nervous affair, but he would never forget the sense of power as he took that hard cock in his mouth and felt the other boy tremble. He would never forget looking up into the other boy's face, seeing that look of abandon, and feeling elation bubble up in his gut.

Gray may have been on his knees, but he was the one holding the reins.

A few weeks later, the boy returned the favor. Gray was far more anxious that time, and almost said no—he was scared of releasing himself and experiencing pleasure around another person, at another person's hands. But he was horny and curious and determined to keep fear from holding him back.

There was a terrifying moment when the other boy unzipped Gray's pants: memories rushed through him at the sound, like water flooding over a river. His ass clenched. But he looked down at the anxious boy kneeling on the floor offering his mouth for Gray's pleasure, and relaxed into the strength he found there.

Gray had found that day that he still held the power even when he was the one receiving: he could control what they were doing, even (to some extent) when he came. It was nothing like his past, nothing at all: full of fevered heat and gasping ecstasy and the knowledge that he was in control—he, Gray Fullbuster, owned the world.

He quickly lost all shyness after that. He was fascinated by the ways different mouths felt, perfecting his own technique based on his partners. Figuring out what he liked, where, when, and how.

Finding partners was easy. Gray was a patent flirt and most teenage boys didn't need much persuading when someone wanted to suck them off.

He was always safe and mindful about fluids and contact and all the rest. He wasn't stupid. He found himself educating some of the boys he fooled around with, some of whom had never heard of disease or injury.

He wondered what that would be like, not to know. Not to have to know.

He'd had himself checked several years before—had to make that decision all by himself as a fucking twelve-year-old, an orphan. His time in that clinic was the most humiliating thing he'd ever experienced.

He almost turned the place into a solid ice block when the nurse gave him a pitying look. He'd had to shut himself down inside to survive the appointment without panicking. Which was good, because they had to touch him, had to look at him there. Gray just turned his mind off, a trick he was so good at by then.

He was as cold and unspeaking as the white, unmarked snow.

When the doctor told him he was clean, he'd waited until he was home and then he'd cried through the afternoon and night, falling asleep on the floor without eating. He was so relieved those tortures hadn't left him with lifelong problems, and yet so furious that after all they'd done to him and all the scars he carried inside, there were no marks left to prove it, nothing to show that his weakness wasn't his fault.

So he'd stopped being weak. Fought his emotions until he was master over them. If there was nothing to prove it had happened, he could be like a boy who had never been broken.

He would become unbreakable. Maybe it was that obsession which kept him too distracted to get past small crushes with the boys he fooled around with.

Gray's first time with a girl was with Cana. He was older then, having fooled around with lots of boys already. He and Cana were both sixteen and everyone agreed he was the hottest dude in the guild and she was the hottest chick. And they were both, unlike some of their peers, sexually active. Fucking each other seemed practically inevitable.

Cana was the one who taught him everything there was to know about breasts, clits, and vaginas. It turned out Cana was experienced with both genders, and like Gray she wasn't shy about sex or asking for what she wanted.

She was the one who taught him how to run his fingers softly over her nipples as they hardened, how to suck them and flick them with his tongue—her tight grip on his shoulders telling him when he was doing it right. She taught him how to go down on a girl, to put his mouth in an O over her labia and suck hard, pressing with his tongue while being careful not to over-stimulate sensitive areas.

Together, they discovered quite a number of positions in which intercourse was possible, and then went on to perfect their favorites. His favorite was when she bent over the bed and he came from behind, while she rubbed herself or he reached around to play his now-skillful fingers over her clit. They got good at that one.

Cana's lessons gave him more power over sex: the tools and knowledge to pleasure anybody. That power was like a drug: bringing someone to orgasm was a thing of pride for him, something that told him he was good even if other voices in his life had told him otherwise.

He and Cana almost had a relationship for those months (a very, very open one), except that Gray didn't do relationships. He loved the feel of someone's body colliding with his in a burst of pleasure, even loved the afterglow where for one brief minute the other person seemed like a god. But he didn't want his heart involved, and Cana was okay with that. She never asked why.

She was his opposite. She got into just as many people's pants as he did, but enjoyed the hunt and catch, the warmth and feelings and promise of someone being there tomorrow. In the end, they stopped sleeping together for that reason. They stayed on good terms and were always up for a fling.

Friendship first and no awkwardness—the way things should be.

As time went on, Gray became more and more aware that he was more sexually skilled than most young people his age. Nevertheless, there was one thing he'd never done: gone in the backdoor.

He'd fingered and teased plenty of people, and Cana had once wanted to try rear entry, but she'd found it too painful. He had done everything else there was to do with lips and dicks and hands and bodies with a wide range of people. But curiosity and catharsis demanded he try anal at least once.

That final "first" came when he was seventeen and through a strange series of events ended up going out with Freed. They hooked up once, Gray thinking it was a onetime thing, but a week later, the other boy gave an explicit request for a repeat.

Gray, naturally, said yes.

During the course of things, Freed asked Gray if there was anything particular he wanted. Gray, for whom shyness didn't even exist anymore, told him. Freed acquiesced to the idea immediately, no qualms at all. He'd almost looked desperate for it, actually.

Gray was gentle, teasing him open, taking his time, giving Freed plenty of space to adjust to each new intrusion. He'd remembered what it had been like for him that first horrible night, when things were shoved inside and he shat blood for a week.

He would never, ever do that to someone else.

Those memories, the forbidden memories, were a guide for once—which kept them from being a panic-inducing horror. They almost gave him a weird sense of comfort as he lay in the position of power. He wasn't the victim anymore: he was a master of sex. He knew what bottoming to a brutal top felt like, and he would be the opposite: good, kind, gentle. He was topping to please the other boy, not just himself, and so he searched out the best angle, reaching around to pump Freed's cock and thrust in unison until Freed was a puddle of wrecked moans.

It was hard for Gray to reach those heights of pleasure with the memories running through his head. But Freed was so tight and hot and good that Gray came without realizing it, barely pulling out at the last second to spray across Freed's back.

Freed was panting and Gray had a moment of fear, but the rune mage rolled over and looked up, his smile wide. Gray breathed out a pleasured sigh almost greater than his orgasm.

He was a king.

Sex was wonderful. It was relaxing. If Gray still had nightmares, still fought the numbness, still had the occasional panic attack, that was something separate, unrelated. Sex was a beautiful thing he could have all for himself. A place where he was confident and sure. Something he never had to share with the abused voices in his head. The only time those voices arose was if a partner tried to top him, but he was skilled at directing his encounters so such attempts never happened.

Sex was awesome, and Gray partook often. Until his emotions got tied up, things with Natsu got complicated, and suddenly Gray was too distracted to flirt with people.

When his romantic frustrations reached a point where he couldn't sleep with someone without imagining Natsu's face, he called things off with his fuckbuddy Loke and stopped automatically looking for hook-ups everywhere he went, dealing with his needs himself. It was just unfair to others, and confusing as hell for Gray to be thinking about the hothead in conjunction with sex all the time.

And then Natsu kissed him, and Gray kissed Natsu and told Natsu he liked him...and before Gray knew it, he was not only in a relationship for the first time in his life—and exclusive for the first time ever—he was also with someone he hadn't even fucked yet.

Being in a relationship had turned out very differently from his expectations. Gray wanted things he didn't understand and discovered all his experience couldn't cover the one thing his peers had done more than he: fall in love.

In some way he couldn't understand, being with Natsu was healing him. And breaking him, too. Destroying and restoring him. Which fucking hurt, dammit.

But weirdest and best of all was that he was happy for the first time ever.

Chapter 28: Lucy

Chapter Text

At the guild for lunch, Gray did something he'd never accomplished before: he ate more food than Natsu did. They turned it into a competition when Mira asked them if they were actually, truly going to eat sitting next to each other (dammit). They did things together so naturally now…it had taken Gray a moment to realize why she was startled.

When Natsu scarfed his noodles so fast one went up his nose, Gray couldn't help laughing aloud. Ridiculous flame-head.

Full and happy, Gray was the one who asked if their teammates were awake and open to visitors. Not surprising to anyone, Natsu almost broke the sound barrier in his haste to get to the infirmary.

As Gray walked in, Lucy and Happy, who were curled together in Lucy's bed, burst into laughter at whatever Natsu had just said.

"Hey," Gray said casually. He perched on the edge of one of the empty beds a handbreadth from his boyfriend. Too big a space to feel his heat.

"Gray." Lucy smiled warmly. "Thank you for everything."

"Oh. Yeah," he said, embarrassed. "We all did our part."

"I have the best team." She grinned.

The Dragon Slayer beamed like the world had offered him a lifetime supply of tasty fire. When his eyes landed on Gray, the heat of that loving, relieved, joyful gaze felt like it could burn him. The ice mage couldn't grinning back, right there in front of Lucy.

"I was hoping I could go out to the main hall," Lucy said, apparently oblivious to the boys' exchange. "But I kinda need help walking out there."

"Why can't you walk?" Natsu barked. A switch flipped in him, expression flashing from glee to concern.

"Too dizzy," Happy said. "She said her head still hurts."

"Not badly!" Lucy interjected. "I'm okay to hang out with people."

"'Course you are. Yeah, we can help you out there," Natsu replied.

"You two won't start a brawl with anyone else?" Lucy asked. "I don't think I can defend myself against that kind of destruction."

"We promise not to fight," Gray said, and Natsu nodded.

Swinging her feet over the side of the bed, Lucy stood up—and almost face-planted on the floor.

They all darted forward and Natsu snatched her arm.

"Shit!" Gray exclaimed.

"I'm okay," she insisted.

Natsu snorted. "Want some help?"

Lucy hung her head.

"Yes, please."

The team made their way out into the main hall, Natsu carrying Lucy after it was clear she was too dizzy to walk, though she argued heatedly with him the whole way. Gray was laughing under his breath: Lucy was just as obstinate and proud as squinty-eyes. No wonder they got along.

Voices chorused hellos. Lucy swayed slightly when Natsu put her down by a table and Gray shook his head: she probably should've have been out here, but the excitement in the hall was worth it. Cana actually put her keg down to come over.

"You're awake!" Cana said, going to hug her and then stopping as if thinking better of it. "I kept going in to check on you, but you just drooled on your pillow whenever I asked how you felt."

"Creeper," Lucy laughed, and Cana flushed. Lucy launched into questions about how everyone was, as if she'd been gone for weeks, and Cana pounced on the new subject.

Leaning against a nearby pillar, Gray crossed his arms and settled in—startled when a weight landed on his head.

"Happy?" he asked, recognizing the blue tail that whipped across his vision.

"Your head is softer than Natsu's," the Exceed explained, curling up.

"That's because he's hard-headed."

"Good point."

"I can hear you two," Natsu called, interrupting the girls.

"Why do you think I said it?" Gray said with a taunting grin.

Lucy and Cana swiveled to wait for Natsu's comeback. We're like a spectator sport.

Natsu raised his eyebrows. Gray almost winked at him just to make him blush.

They'd promised not to (pretend) fight, so Natsu settled for rolling his eyes. "Snow queen."

"At your service." Gray gave a little bow, feeling inordinately warm. He liked not having to pretend so much.

"So I noticed you're still not moving on your own power," Cana said, turning back to Lucy and nudging her with a teasing smile.

"It feels great to not be in that little room," Lucy said, looking away as her cheeks reddened.

"Aw, someone doesn't like admitting she needs help?"

Lucy stuck her tongue out.

"There's nothing wrong with asking for help," Natsu protested.

"Says the man who never asks for help," Lucy retorted. "I am fine on my own, I'll have you people know. I'm merely grateful for the assistance."

A chuckle burst out of Cana like a balloon popping.

"What?" Lucy asked.

"Sorry," Cana said, unapologetic. "It's just…you're together, right? No need to put up the front."

Gray tensed. With some prescient sense he knew, just knew, what was coming next.

"Why does everyone think that?!" Natsu burst out.

"Natsu, hush," Lucy broke in, she (like Gray) aware of the eyes that swung their way. "It's no big deal."

Cana laughed, the sound a bit too strained. "As if people haven't been taking bets on you two for ages now. Seriously, relax."

Gray shook his head. So everyone thought Natsu and Lucy were a couple. He almost felt jealous.

"Why are you making such a big deal out of this?" Natsu snarled, marching up to Cana and getting in her face.

"I'm making a big deal out of it? Who's the one yelling?"

"Guys, please—" Lucy said, placating.

"I'm not yelling!" Natsu shouted. "Now just…stop!"

"Stop what? Wondering if you're a couple?" Cana asked, not the least intimidated when heat distortion appeared around the Dragon Slayer. "If you're not, then why is your face so red?"

"Guys…" Lucy's tone was breathy. Gray frowned; was she going pale?

Natsu raised a threatening fist at Cana, looking furious, while Cana grinned and held up a trio of cards, ready to throw down. Lucy was hunched down on the bench now, panting in quick bursts.

Just as Gray opened his mouth, Lucy pitched forward onto the table.

They dove for her, Cana's cards and Natsu's fire disappearing as if they'd never been. Cana was at her side first, grabbing Lucy's hand in a death grip.

"She's fainted," Cana said, words coming short and fast. "Shit."

"Pulse is regular," Natsu grunted, but worry crashed over his expression.

Wendy and Carla darted past them, the younger Dragon Slayer putting a hand on Lucy's head and turning accusing eyes on Natsu, Gray, and Happy.

"I told you guys she'd need lots of rest."

"Lucy wanted to come out here," Natsu protested. He was vibrating with tense energy. "She was sitting down the whole time."

"She got hit on the head," Carla told him tartly. "No matter how she feels, that's not an injury you can just get up and walk after."

"Natsu-san, would you help me get her to the infirmary?" Wendy asked.

The Salamander complied, with Wendy, Gray, and the Exceeds following in procession. Glancing back, Gray saw Cana watching them with anxious eyes. Hopefully this meant her and Natsu's fight was forgotten.

When they reached the infirmary, Wendy surprised them all by closing the door and giving Natsu a serious look.

"Natsu-san, you can't get mad like that around her right now," she said. "Over-excitement makes her heart rate increase and that increases the pressure in her skull. She's still healing. Even if you have good reason to be angry…"

Wendy paused for a very long time.

"…even so, please save it until she's not around."

When Natsu stared down at her, Gray was fascinated: several dozen expressions flashed over both their faces in silent communication.

"Okay," Natsu grunted.

Wendy put a glowing hand to Lucy's head. It didn't take long for Lucy to struggle groggily back to consciousness, ticked at finding herself back in the infirmary. Nevertheless, she thanked the young sky mage, who ordered her not to get up for a while before walking to the door.

"I'll leave you guys together," she said, leading Carla out. "C'mon, Happy."

"Why me?"

"I want to check your wings."

Though he grumbled that she could just do it here, Wendy's imperious look cajoled him into following. She shut the door firmly behind on the three remaining humans.

"Well," Lucy said, staring at the closed door. "Sucks I'm going to be here awhile."

"Sorry," Natsu mumbled.

"It's okay."

She gave him an understanding smile before her eyes skated over to Gray. He couldn't read her expression, but the piercing quality of the glance made him swallow.

"Now is as good a time as any," she said, fiddling with her comforter. "I have a question for you two."

Gray's whole body drew taught like a line. His gaze flew to Natsu in panic, but Natsu didn't meet his eyes, lips tight with dread.

"I don't know why you're keeping it secret, and I don't have to know," Lucy said. "I'm just curious what lie you want me to tell. Because I can go along with these ridiculous rumors if you guys really want secrecy that badly. I try to turn the topic away whenever people wonder if you're dating—"

"Wait." Gray stared at her. "Wait, you...what do you think is going on between us?"

Lucy frowned.

"You're dating and have been for a while now."

Gray gaped. The room was silent, Lucy's eyes on him, confident and knowing. Natsu just stared at the floor.

"You...know?" Gray asked.

"Natsu didn't tell you? I've known for ages; told him so yesterday while you were sleeping. He had the same dumbfounded look on his face you do now."

Gray swung an accusing glare onto his boyfriend, mouth curled in a quiet growl.

"I'm sorry, Gray," Natsu muttered. "I was going to tell you but we never really got a chance. The last twenty-four hours have been kinda hectic."

Whirling around, Gray paced to the other end of the room, chest tight. Lucy knew. All things considered that was pretty mild, but...Natsu had known and hadn't warned him, and now it had sprung on him out of the blue. The sense of naked vulnerability was pressing down on him, so hard he struggled to breathe.

Natsu appeared beside him, a light touch to Gray's hip warning the ice mage he was about to strip. When Gray tugged his shirt back on, the Salamander put his hands in his pockets, eyes hooded.

"I'm sorry," he whispered. "When she brought it up, I couldn't lie. She knew without me saying anything. I would've told you right away, but we weren't talking…"

"Natsu, I understand." Gray looked over at him. "I do. I just need a moment."

Natsu nodded, expression drawn down in unhappiness.

"Are you ashamed of me?"

"What?" Gray jerked around.

"Are you embarrassed we're dating?"

"Hell no!" Gray exclaimed, staring at his boyfriend in shock. "Natsu, this has nothing to do with you. I don't like people knowing personal stuff about my life. I don't want people to know if, or whom, I'm dating. How much I care… It's too intimate."

"Even among our friends?"

"Especially then." Gray shuffled a hand through his hair, pinching his eyes shut and lowering his voice. "Knowledge is power. I don't want anyone having power over me, especially where you're concerned. You matter to me most of all."

"Oh."

When Gray looked up, he found Natsu blinking and startled.

"Wow. Okay. Cool. I understand."

Gray chuckled in spite of himself: flustered Natsu was a rare sight.

"Do you?" the ice mage asked.

"Yeah." Natsu smiled. "I do."

Together, they walked back toward Lucy. She tilted her head at them.

"Thank you for keeping this secret," Gray said.

"It's not my business." Lucy shrugged. "It's not anyone's business if you don't want it to be."

Exactly.

"I don't think lying is necessary. Besides," Gray teased, "it'll hurt your chances with the ladies, Lucy."

That loosened the tension, Lucy giggling self-consciously.

"You better come up with an excuse why Natsu gets so angry any time people accuse him and me of dating," Lucy said.

The Dragon Slayer turned fuchsia while Gray bit his lip.

"Simple answer: tell people you're not dating," Gray said. "Halt the stupid rumors. Levy was being insufferable. I nearly hit her yesterday."

Something about this comment made the other two glance at each other and stifle chuckles.

"What?"

"It's just…kind of sweet," Lucy laughed. Blood rushing to his face, Gray was certain his head was going to burst. "But yes, I imagine Natsu will be more than happy for the rumors to go away."

They looked at the Salamander, who slouched and nodded, relief in his eyes.

"Can I make a recommendation?" Lucy asked. "Lately you two show up at the guild together every day. You go everywhere together. Yes, you pretend to fight and treat each other like rivals, but you practically live by each other's sides. No matter the excuse, people will find that odd. If you really want this to be secret, maybe give each other some space."

"Okay," Natsu said, shuffling his feet. "I suppose."

Gray cringed inside. He didn't like it any better than Natsu did; he liked doing things together. They'd spent enough of their lives pointedly avoiding doing things together. But Lucy was right.

"How're you two going to tell people?" Gray asked. "It's kind of weird to announce, by the way we're not dating."

"Next time someone assumes, we'll say something," Lucy said. "But we're not going to yell the truth at people, Natsu, got it? Nobody believes you when you get all pissed off."

The Dragon Slayer scrubbed a hand through his hair, looking sheepish.

"I know. It's just…he's my boyfriend. I'm not with anyone else. They make me so mad when they say shit."

"I know." Lucy gave him an understanding smile. "Maybe one day you'll feel comfortable telling people about you guys and they won't make assumptions anymore. One day. It'll be okay."

Gray sighed and turned away. This was his fault. He just wasn't ready. Here Natsu was ready for the world to know—he wanted people to see into his heart and know what was in there. Gray couldn't do that. He just couldn't yet.

Thank the gods Natsu was so patient with him. He still felt he didn't deserve the Dragon Slayer, but hypothetically if he did, Gray didn't feel guilty asking for this. This relationship belonged to both of them, and Gray had a right to ask for leniency. For keeping himself safe. Natsu understood that, and wanted that for him, and so…yeah, this was okay.

Like Lucy said, maybe one day he'd be ready. That thought sent shivers up his spine. He wasn't sure if they were the good or bad kind.


Erza stepped back from the infirmary door, hand sliding silently off the handle.

So. They were dating, and she'd been right—not as fast on the uptake as Lucy, apparently, but she was still proud of being able to read her friends.

She loved them. Maybe she'd get pissed about this later, but for now, if they wanted the secret kept, she'd keep it.

When she walked out to the bar, Mirajane glided over like a moth to a light, the look on her face one of gossip and intrigue.

"Did you hear about Lucy passing out earlier?" Mira asked. "Natsu was with her. And so was Gray."

"They're not together," Erza said. "Any of them. Natsu's certainly not with Lucy, but he's not with Gray either. I was wrong."

Mira stared. After a long moment of silence, her eyes narrowed.

"That was a sudden change of heart," she said suspiciously. "And a pretty easy confession."

Erza shrugged. "I was wrong. That's all there is to it. I think we should discuss something else."

"You're covering for someone," Mira said.

Erza shrugged again.

"Did you see something?"

"Maybe." Erza stared at her head-on, unwavering. She might not have the best poker face, but at least Mira couldn't read what she was hiding. "I'm pretty sure Natsu's not with Gray, but I can't tell you how I know."

"Fine." Mira sighed. "I suppose Wendy was right. It's not our business."

Chapter 29: Still Hiding

Chapter Text

Chapter 29: Still Hiding

Over the remainder of the day, Gray managed to keep his self-inflicted bruises covered thanks to Natsu's ingenious (and dastardly) plan.

The rules were simple: if Gray started to strip, Natsu touched him.

So far the ice mage had messed up only once. Lifting the hem of his shirt without conscious thought, the first thing he noticed was a warm hand pushing the garment back down beneath the cover of the table—then that hand slid down his thigh. Natsu got awfully close to sensitive areas.

Gray discovered sensual touches in the middle of the guild made his mouth go dry.

That excitement was startling, because it made his skin crawl to think of anyone glimpsing the way Natsu's touch made him feel. But the idea of getting away with it—doing things in front of everyone and not being noticed…

When Gray next stripped, Natsu grabbed his ass, and it took all Gray's self-control not to yelp or sprout an erection.

He was so riled up that the first thing he did at home was lure Natsu into an embrace and start making out. The Dragon Slayer held him close, affectionate, smiling against Gray's lips.

"Yum," the Dragon Slayer hummed.

"Mmf," Gray replied.

"I've missed you."

Gray's heart nearly broke under the weight of that comment. It had been five or six days since they'd last made out like this—and a hundred kilometers of distance in their relationship. It felt like forever.

But the Salamander gripped at him, hands kneading, breaths coming faster. In answer, Gray sucked on Natsu's neck and ground against his boyfriend.

"Wow, you're really…hahhh," Natsu said.

"Yeah." Gray nipped his ear, urgent. "I really am. So are you."

He pulled Natsu in and rutted harder, exhibiting how horny they both were. The Salamander groaned on contact.

"Of course I am," Natsu grunted. "Watching you try to strip earlier…then having to stop you…" Eyes fluttering shut, Natsu found Gray's lips and kissed him deep, hand gripping the ice mage's hair. "Mmm. And you got turned on by it."

"That's what happens when you touch me like that, baka."

Natsu pulled back to give him a crafty smile. "You like the danger, don't you? That people might notice?"

Gray shuddered. Natsu's fingers played up his sides, sliding his shirt off, and Gray let himself be undressed.

"Imagine it, snowflake." Natsu grinned, fingers slipping down Gray's trousers as Natsu unbuttoned them. "Imagine me stripping you like this in the guildhall at night. Someone could come in at any time."

"Nnng, Natsu…"

"I'd touch every square centimeter of you, just like this—" The Salamander's feverish hands traced the ice mage's bare ass, "—and you'd be melting just like you are now. For all you know, someone's peeking in the window watching the whole thing. Maybe Mira stayed late and is hiding behind the bar watching me touch you. Watching me pull your belt off and finally shove your pants down, just—mnn—like this… You love being stripped. Maybe I'd suck you off, not caring if anyone could come waltzing in."

"Oh fuck," Gray gasped, Natsu still following the contours of his naked skin.

Gray was so hard it hurt, and the Dragon Slayer came to his rescue with a fist around his cock. The ice mage leaned into him groaning, certain he was going to explode.

"You like the idea that someone might see," Natsu whispered in his ear. "That they might watch this hot thing we have between us. I'd get off to that, watching you fuck me…"

"Gods, Natsu…"

"We are damn attractive."

"Fuck. Yeah."

When the Salamander tugged at his own clothes, Gray aided him, nearly tearing his boyfriend's pants in his hurry. Pressing closer, Gray tripped Natsu into the wall and ended up smack against his chest, skin on skin. For a loud, panting moment they stared at each other, both wanting.

The needy vulnerability in Natsu's eyes busted Gray's heart wide open.

With a harsh breath, he rutted against Natsu's thigh, fondled his balls, dragged him in so Gray could bite his lip. His hand twisted around Natsu's neck and Natsu licked into his mouth, tasting like char. When his fingers pinched Gray's nipples, pleasure slithered through Gray's veins.

Public sex, fuck. Why am I so turned on by that?!

Natsu continued scratching and twingeing at his chest, drawing low grunts from the ice mage. Gray coursed his hands over Natsu's sides with careful attention, down warm ribs and sensitive scars, making Natsu even more impatient. Gods, Gray loved this body: could spend hours enjoying every centimeter.

He dug his nails into the hollow between Natsu's shoulder blades when Natsu suddenly took over the kiss, devouring Gray. As Gray kept moving, over and over, their cocks rubbed against each other, almost too rough. Every nerve was tuned to that rhythm.

The Salamander broke away from their kiss to gasp, but Gray found his lips again quickly: he couldn't afford Natsu more chances for dirty talk. Any more would make him come on the spot, and now was the time for action, not words.

The time for senselessness and choosing to lose to control.

Still, Natsu escaped long enough to say, "You are so hot. Come fuck me on the bed. I mean, the wall's cool and all, but…"

Laughter rippled through Gray's throat. Grinning, he released his boyfriend with one final thrust.

"Whatever you want," Gray panted. "I just like it when you're needy."

"Fuck," Natsu said, vulnerability shining in his eyes again. "Well, I really, really need you right now."

As they tumbled into their bedroom, the ice mage's mind was still flitting through images of public sex. Of sucking Natsu off, Natsu making these very same faces, not caring if anyone saw. On the bed, Gray crawled over his boyfriend, thrusting their cocks together while he caressed Natsu's face. So expressive, showing every way Gray's touch affected him. Gray kissed him hotly, and Natsu wound their tongues together.

When Gray shivered, Natsu rolled them over and kissed his way frantically down Gray's body. Just like that, he was taking Gray's cock in his mouth.

"Oh, fuck!" Gray gripped at the comforter. "I'm so—"

When Natsu rubbed against Gray's leg, the feel of that hot, hard cock stole Gray's voice, warnings of how close he was disappearing into thin air.

Natsu did not suck him long, just enough to make him so achingly on edge. Gray had to breathe deep, remember to prep his boyfriend. So much adrenaline was running through his body that his hands shook when he grabbed lube and condom.

"You make everything difficult," Gray panted.

Natsu grinned, eyes hazy. Fuck, fuck, it affected Gray so much seeing him like this…

Lying side by side, Natsu consumed the ice mage in a groaning kiss while Gray's fingers found Natsu's ass. Imagine doing this in public, his way-too-turned-on brain whispered.

When he pushed a third finger inside, he felt Natsu open up, the Salamander relaxing as he nuzzled Gray's face, reveling as only Natsu could. Every touch made Gray's insides twist up.

"Gods," Natsu whispered, like a prayer, hands framing Gray's face. "Please, just…gods."

The ice mage knew that was the equivalent of get the fuck on with it, but Gray lost himself briefly in the overcome look on Natsu's face. The protective instincts of his heart rose up. Wanting everything for Natsu, and to never see him hurt again.

Moving simultaneously quick and slow—wary of just how close he was—Gray lined up, still lying on their sides.

"I really want you," Gray whispered.

Natsu growled. Tendons standing out on his hands, he pushed himself on top of the ice mage, sliding down onto Gray's cock much faster than Gray expected.

For a hovering second, Gray worried it was too quick, but Natsu groaned and began to move. A rapid pace, head thrown back and throat straining. When Natsu leaned forward, Gray gripped Natsu's thighs and met those proprietary black eyes with a smile.

Still humping Gray's cock, the Salamander's hand dragged at his own a few times before murmuring, "Help me with this?"

More than happy to do so, Gray stroked him, clenching his fist tighter over the crest of the head. Natsu's body went rigid—slamming down onto Gray and making the ice mage moan.

While the Dragon Slayer kissed Gray sloppily, half-missing his lips, he pinched Gray's nipples. Lightning charged through Gray's body. It lit him up with desire, a brilliant star gleaming with happy things. Natsu rolled, flipping their positions; the Dragon Slayer was out of breath, and Gray felt a roar of pride.

Digging his toes into the comforter, Gray found a rhythm, Natsu's ass clenching around him every time he pulled out. Their sounds were heavy in the sweat-saturated air. The slap of skin. The Salamander grunting curses. The salty tang as Gray mouthed at Natsu's chest.

And Natsu looking so fucking happy.

Gray could never share this. Not with anyone.

Natsu was releasing tortured groans; pleasure tightened Gray's windpipe. Sensual feelings were multiplied by a thousand romantic ones—every inside joke, every happy memory, every endearing nickname. His paramours had been right, the ones who'd cared about him in a way he didn't reciprocate and who consequently experienced sex differently than he did. Like Freed, who always told Gray he'd enjoy fucking even more if he let go, which Gray knew meant giving in to emotions. As if emotions had anything to do with his cock. Except they did.

Maybe he'd always been a bit proud of not engaging his heart. Not being able to get hurt; being free of those pains others experienced. Guildmates who were privy to his night life used to tell him, you won't talk so big when you meet someone special.

Gods, wasn't that the truth.

Caring about someone was so humbling. It made you reliant, made you surrender control. If someone saw Gray right now, with his cock buried in his boyfriend and both of them crying out at how fucking amazing it was…

Here with Natsu was the one place Gray was open. He showed his vulnerability: the little boy who lost everything over and over again. If people saw that…

You like being watched. Look, look how much you like this.

Just like then.

They watched. They wanted.

Gray felt eyes everywhere. Invisible people watching, drinking him up. They forced him: they saw. He couldn't get away from the eyes everywhere seeing what he was doing with Natsu, watching the way he cared and stealing his feelings for themselves.

Every time he thrust into the Dragon Slayer, it wasn't private, it wasn't theirs. It belonged to a thousand vicious others.

Everything inside Natsu remained warm and perfect. But Gray was being watched now. Invisible eyes. People watching, and he was scared.

Staring down at that exquisite face, Gray felt like an eagle with its prey. He didn't know what to do.

Terrible thoughts constricted Gray's muscles, but the worst part was that he liked it. Darkness. Power. He wanted destruction: hardness and cruelty and the world as it was—ugly and excruciating. He longed for that rush from cutting himself off from everything. Being cold and totally alone. Unable to hurt. Some sick, horrifying part of him got thrills down his spine at the idea.

He wanted to rip out everything that could feel, and let it bleed out on the ground.

Still staring down at Natsu, Gray suddenly felt like throwing up.

Gray realized he was going soft and couldn't tell if it was because he had ejaculated or was losing his excitement.

He couldn't do this to Natsu. He wasn't that kind of person. Not a monster. They had to stop.

But Natsu took that moment to pant, "More…"

Gray slowed, caught in uncertainty until nails dug into his spine. Natsu's eyes were still closed.

"Don't stop, please," Natsu moaned. "Icy—stripper—ngghhh…gods, you're so good."

"I love you," Gray whispered.

So he kept going at the begging of his lover, following those happy sound. Natsu's hot, smooth shaft in his palm was stimulating enough for Gray to continue thrusting.

"G-Gray, like that, like—Gray!"

When Gray bucked in hard and squeezed Natsu's cock, Natsu came with a shout, heels digging into Gray's ass. Cum covered Gray's hand; he licked it off unconsciously. The flavor of Natsu's euphoria. Familiar, and it made the ice mage relax. It was over.

But Natsu's focus sharpened on Gray's face. Sly grin creeping up his lips, he pulled Gray against himself. Pulling Gray's half-hard cock deeper.

It was too much.

The wounds were ripping in his heart, and Gray's cock wouldn't cooperate. He fell against his boyfriend with a muffled groan, breathing hard and hoping Natsu said nothing, maybe even believed Gray had come. He could hide the condom and pretend.

But as seconds passed, the tension in his body unraveled. No matter how good he was at pretending, he couldn't hide the tears that streamed down onto the Dragon Slayer's chest.

"Oh gods! Gray…" Natsu gripped him. "What's wrong?"

The Salamander tried to sit up, but when his mate didn't let him, Natsu settled for holding Gray close, breathing singsong comfort into his hair.

"It's okay. I'm here. It's alright."

All Gray could see was the blackness of his closed eyelids. He didn't care how it looked. I protected him. Gray hiccoughed… Other people made love while Gray Fullbuster tried to survive long enough to finish his boyfriend off.

Gray would do better. He wouldn't surrender Natsu to his demons without a fight—not to anyone or any predator or any ghost. I can do better, Gray thought over and over, until he was whispering it under his breath, trying so hard to convince himself he hadn't screwed up. I don't deserve him.

"I can't lie anymore, Natsu," he said, voice nasal. "I want to lie to myself, but I can't."

I want to be good enough.

"Why would you want to lie?" Natsu asked, hand rubbing his back. "Gray, it's okay."

"I screwed up."

"No, you didn't: we agreed you could be anything during sex. This too. You can feel anything, or nothing at all, and it's okay."

"I don't know what I feel," Gray muttered.

Several seconds passed.

"If you ever want to stop, we can stop," Natsu said. "Any time."

Gray's snort was derisive: "I didn't need to stop. I'm not that big a failure."

"Okay, okay. I'm just saying." Natsu ran lazy circles around his shoulder. "I love you, that's all."

"I d-don't understand you."

"What? I like you. I care about you."

"I don't know why," Gray scoffed. "Even you're smarter than that."

Natsu fell deadly silent.

The brokenness inside of Gray was quieting down. Taking a long breath, he smelled the warmth and post-sex scent of Natsu's skin. That was the smell of home and belonging. It might be childish, but belonging to someone made him feel better.

He started crying again.

It was egotism to want Natsu's comfort. If Gray had to peel the skin off his own body to protect Natsu… But he needed this support. Natsu offered it freely, and Gray took it. If that made him an asshole, there was nothing he could do about it.

"I'm sorry," he said, meaning everything. Trying to make up for a lifetime of failure.

Natsu ran circles around Gray's shoulder blades with his hand, light touches of forgiveness. Gray hated how much it must cost Natsu to forgive him for this.

After a while, he felt Natsu's chest rise with words, but Gray burst out first—

"I love you," they said at the same time.

Lifting his head, Gray blinked in startlement while Natsu began to laugh.

"Popsicle," Natsu said, combing affectionate fingers through Gray's hair. "We good now?"

Gray nodded, unable to answer the question for fear his voice wouldn't hold up.

He would be okay. Just for you, I will be. That was all there was to it.


Gray was turning over in his sleep when an absence of heat roused him. Looking around, he found the Salamander kneeling by the window, elbows on the sill.

He knew Natsu heard him wake—Natsu heard everything—but the Dragon Slayer didn't react until Gray muttered, "Something wrong?"

Turning, Natsu's mouth pinched. "I don't like when you don't believe me."

"When I don't believe you…?" Gray rubbed sleep from his eyes.

"I like you for good reasons. I don't just make stuff up."

Natsu's silhouette shifted.

"I'm not totally following." Gray reached for greater alertness. "What brought this on?"

"Earlier you asked me why I like you, and when I answered, you made fun of me." Natsu turned around, eyebrow raised. "After we fucked, you did it again. You patronized me with your 'I don't understand you,' like I'm a lunatic for liking you—insulted my intelligence."

Gray winced. That morning, Natsu had been pink with embarrassment, making the ice mage forget Natsu wasn't merely blurting things out. But tonight…well, there hadn't been any excuse for tonight.

"Sorry," Gray said.

"I forgive you." Natsu paused. "Droopy-eyes, I don't think you're worthless."

Gray sighed.

"You know I don't believe you," he said, not wanting to fight. "You and I think very differently about me."

"I know." Hands clasped under his chin, Natsu stared at him for a while. "That's valid. But you can't treat my opinion like it's less accurate than yours."

"I don't believe—"

"You don't have to treat me like shit just because you disagree," Natsu snapped. "You don't have to compromise: just stop trying to manipulate me. Stop treating me like I can't know my own mind."

Gray exhaled. "Natsu…"

"Promise me, Gray. It's damn insulting when I say I love you and you say I'm wrong."

Even in the darkness, the heat in Natsu's eyes made Gray swallow.

"Trauma doesn't give you an excuse to be a bitch."

"Yeah." Gray pushed a hand through his hair. "Guess you're right."

Surprised, the Salamander rocked back on his heels.

"Natsu." Gray sighed. "Come over here?"

Without hesitation, the Dragon Slayer crawled over and wormed beneath the comforter, sliding into Gray's arms.

"I'm sorry," Gray said. "Sometimes I tease you because I'm embarrassed how much I like hearing that stuff. I'm not like you: it isn't easy for me."

"You insult my honesty," Natsu huffed.

"Yeah." Gray looked him in the eye. "I promise, Natsu: I'll do my best not to shut you out."

That was what it was really about, wasn't it? Natsu's worst fear was rejection.

The Salamander cuddled into him, fiery heat warming the bed once more. As Natsu's limbs coiled around the ice mage like a vine, Gray's fingers played over his shadowed face.

"When did you get so wise to relationships?" Gray asked with a soft smile.


"Lucy," Natsu replied, relaxing into Gray's touches. He loved when Gray fiddled with him.

"Of course it would be her," Gray chuckled, tracing Natsu's chin.

"She said opinion isn't fact. If one person acts like their opinion is truer than someone else's, that's wrong." Natsu chuckled. "I decided I shouldn't let popsicles push me around."

Gray grinned just like Natsu knew he would, black eyes flicking up to meet Natsu's gaze. Fingertips trailed over the Dragon Slayer's throat.

"Except when we spar," Gray said. "You like me pushing you around then."

"And in bed sometimes," Natsu said, which earned him a playful nudge. "By the way, Lucy called it gaslighting. Weird, eh?"

"Why?"

"I have no fucking clue. Gaslamps don't get along?"

They had a good chortle over that.

"So Lucy just gave you romantic advice out of nowhere?" Gray asked.

"She was talking about Laxus and Freed. She said they're unhealthy because whenever they have a difference of opinion, Laxus tells Freed he's wrong and Freed lets him."

"Their friendship is unhealthy because Laxus is in it," Gray snorted, thumb rubbing back and forth over the rough scar on the side of Natsu's neck.

"He's gotten better," Natsu argued, leaning into Gray's touches. "And Freed doesn't let Laxus get abusive, no matter how much he likes him."

"So you noticed Freed likes him too?"

"How could anyone not? Weirds me the fuck out. Most convoluted version of flirting ever."

Gray laughed but said, "I mostly pity Freed."

Natsu tilted his head. "Why?"

"Flame-brain, Laxus is straight."

"He is?" Natsu gaped.

"He says so quite often, and him taking women home is decent confirmation. I thought you had a dragon's nose?"

"I do. And I've smelled women on him a total of two times. But…Laxus is a Dragon Slayer," Natsu said, utterly mystified. "He can't be straight."

"What does that have to do with it?" Gray asked, but Natsu's mind was in an infinite loop of surprise. It's magically impossible for him to be hetero. Isn't it?

Gray's tongue flicked over the Salamander's neck and all his thoughts derailed. Natsu grunted as the ice mage started sucking on the spot.

"Hnng, Gray… Want to talk about something else, I take it?"

The lips on his neck curved in a smile. The ice mage went after Natsu's scar, nibbling until Natsu groaned and leaving a noisy hicky there.

"You're deliciously evil," Natsu muttered.

"That's a perfectly valid opinion, Furnace-san."

As puffs of laughter hit Natsu's skin, he bit Gray's ear. Ridiculous snowflake.

"But seriously," Gray went on, stumbling over words, "even if I, um, don't believe the stuff you say, I really like that you believe it."

Now that was progress.


As Gray fought down a blush and continued playing with Natsu's skin, the Salamander shifted to catch his eye.

"Snow queen, earlier I was selfish and wanted something from you." Natsu grinned. "I wanted your cock accommodating my needs, and damn was that worth it. But I didn't suck you off all the way. Can I be selfish again? May I blow you?"

Gray almost laughed, except Natsu was totally sincere.

"You think I'd say no, firefly? To your mouth?"

"Well…" Natsu chewed his lip. "I don't want to tire you out."

The ice mage raised his eyebrows.

"I dare you to try. Even if you could, I'll fucking enjoy every second of it."

Before Gray could say anything else, the Salamander had flipped around and put his lips on the base of Gray's flaccid cock.

Humming in pleasure, Gray strained upward when Natsu breathed on him. Natsu grunted back, conveying every ounce of cockiness. It was damn sexy.

The slow ministrations of Natsu's lips and tongue had Gray's cock filling out in minutes, his gut twisting. Pent-up tension remained in his body from earlier and it all seemed to collect at the base of his dick, making him groan and buck toward Natsu's mouth—trying so hard not to actually thrust into his throat. When Natsu licked his balls, he grabbed the sheets and gasped.

Gray was panting and sweaty under Natsu's lips, and Natsu seemed perfectly content to keep him that way. The ice mage was unashamed of the sounds Natsu was pulling out of him, because it was safe here. Gray was vulnerable here,and still cared for. Natsu was sucking his cock and it didn't matter how Gray felt about his life. He could just enjoy what he was able.

They were alone in their house where not a single soul could see them.

Burning hot hands spread Gray's hips to hold him steady as Natsu went down on him, bobbing fast and licking up the length of him. Fuck, it all felt too good. Gray truly wanted to let go; the pleasure in his belly coiled tighter.

"C-Close," he warned, resulting in Natsu taking him deeper.

Natsu swallowed around the tip of his cock.

Arching his head back with a breathless cry, Gray tensed around this ball of confusing energy in his body, fighting it before giving in with a loud groan. Exultation swooped through him as he emptied in Natsu's mouth, and the Salamander sucked hard while Gray gasped through infinite moments of bliss.

As he came down from the high, his boyfriend crawled up to face him, kissing all over Gray's body on the way.

"I love this so much," Natsu groaned, wiping his lips. "I love how desperate you get for my mouth. I could blow you over and over. I could blow you anywhere anytime."

Still panting, Gray grinned.

He chose not to think about anywhere. That idea might turn him on, might lead to panic, might do both; either way, it wasn't what he wanted right now. Snuggling against his Dragon Slayer, Gray tucked his face against the warm skin of Natsu's neck.

"I want to dream about that tonight," he murmured. "You blowing me over and over. Sounds like a nice dream."

"If we managed to dream the same thing, is that the same as it actually happening?" Natsu asked, a grin in his voice.

"Nah. We still have to do it in real life."

"Okay," Natsu mumbled happily, folding a drowsy arm over Gray.

Chapter 30: The Dragon Slayer Who Told Everyone

Chapter Text

Slouching at the bar, Gray waited for Natsu to arrive. Three weeks had gone by since their conversation with Lucy, and he didn't like this showing-up-separately thing at all. They had to act like they disliked each other, each pretend the other was an annoyance, and it rubbed Gray the wrong way. It was just…messed up.

On the other hand, it was better than his feelings getting eye-raped by the whole fucking world. Yes, he told himself: yes, it was.

As Gray sulked, Laxus stomped in from the back and approached Mirajane behind the bar.

"Why was the rear door standing wide open?" Laxus demanded.

"Probably Natsu going to visit Lucy in the infirmary."

"I thought the woman got better?"

"She fainted again yesterday," Mira sighed. Gray, who'd been there, grimaced to himself. "Wendy said she shouldn't be left alone, so she and Lucy stayed here overnight. I'm sure Natsu is feeling distracted today."

"Well, the idiot's going to leave this place cold and damp," Laxus growled. "It's fucking raining outside."

Mira raised a thin eyebrow at the giant Dragon Slayer. "His girlfriend is injured. Cut him some slack."

"Not likely," the Dragon Slayer snorted.

Mira calling Lucy Natsu's girlfriend hurt, but Gray smiled at Laxus's response. Still not looking at them, he sat quietly on his stool absorbing every word.

"Sometimes I wonder what's wrong with you," Mira muttered.

"What's wrong with me? It goes beyond unlikely that pink-haired excuse of a wizard would ever get a girlfriend."

"Oh. That's what you meant." And then Mira chuckled. "Seriously, though. Are you blind?"

"My fucking senses are significantly better than yours. Natsu's gayer than Cana." Laxus turned, suddenly eying Gray. "Ask Fullbuster."

Breath fled Gray's lungs.

"Ask…?" Mira looked back and forth in confusion. "Gray, do you and Natsu even talk about these things?"

"Oh honestly," Laxus interrupted, rolling his eyes. "They've been hooking up for…how long has it been now?"

Jerking, Gray nearly fell off his stool. Wait. Waitwaitwaitwaitwait…

"What?" Mira gasped.

Gray's mouth opened and shut.

"Damn, you're calling me blind, Mira?" Laxus rolled his eyes. "I don't know what your head is full of."

Mira didn't even react to the insult: her gaze fixed on Gray who was staring back with wide eyes. Wide eyes and brain churning. Denials and justifications were on his tongue, but he couldn't get his mouth to say them. He should be acting outraged: this accusation should appall the Gray Fullbuster everyone thought they knew. But he didn't want to deny it hotly like he was supposed to. To act as if Natsu weren't good enough for him.

Gray wouldn't utter that lie. Not ever.

"Gray?" Mira asked.

"I don't—um…"

Gray frowned, scratching his head—a normal gesture, thank the gods. He could act natural, he could play this off, it would be okay

He glanced in Laxus's direction.

Bad decision. Laxus smirked.

"So you fuck him but are ashamed of him?" Laxus chortled in a low voice.

"No!" Gray barked. He was on his feet in an instant. "I've never been ashamed of Natsu. Go to hell."

The old Laxus probably would've murdered him for that, but this Laxus just laughed.

Like it was all a fucking joke.

"I'm proud," Gray growled, taking an aggressive step forward. Fury poured into his muscles, words booming louder. "Natsu is exceptional. He's the bravest, most loyal person in this guild. I'm lucky to be with him."

"Wait…" Mira blinked. "Are you saying you two are…?"

"Yes," Gray snapped.

"…hooking up?"

"Together." Gray's fists clenched. The truth ached in his chest. "Exclusively."

Gray was in shock, anger crashing through his protective façade. He shot Laxus another glare, but the Dragon Slayer just shrugged, already bored, and strolled away across the hall. As if it were no big deal he'd just outed their relationship to the entire guild. Gray was ready to drag the bastard back and pound his ass.

"For how long?" Mira's tone was calculating, eager, but Gray didn't care. There was no damage control for this. Everything was out in the open.

"A while now."

"Wow, really? Erza was actually right. That's a first."

"You guys have been speculating about our love life?" he snarled, slamming a hand down on the counter and whirling to face her. "Like it's a game or something?"

Natsu. My Natsu!

"Damn, Gray, you make it sound like we were making bets on it."

Ice cracked under his palm. "Were you?"

"Of course not."

"I would've," Cana chuckled, sidling over. "If I'd known all this speculation was happening. You guys cut me out of the best gossip, Mira."

Gray glared at this newcomer. Then he looked around the rest of the hall and saw she was not the only person listening. By far.

Gods, so exposed.

"Fuck your gossip," he spat. When Cana flipped him off, he turned his back.

And there were so many eyes watching him. Shit. He couldn't take it.

Without another word, he shoved off from the bar and strode across the guild, wending between people whose gazes he couldn't meet. The path to the doors seemed to take forever. Fuck them all. In the street, he had to put his hands on his knees, panting, so close to losing it. He really wanted to lose it: fuck restraint and beat them all up for thinking this was something they could just chat about…as if it weren't huge and important. As if it weren't his.

Natsu.

Oh gods, the Salamander didn't know. He thought he had to pretend. If he was outed as rudely as Gray was… Natsu was on edge about the whole thing already. The Salamander would almost certainly flip out. Or panic.

Forcing his trembling muscles into a run, Gray headed toward home.


Lisanna was helping Mira at the bar when she saw Natsu. Hunched over, he strayed into the main hall from the infirmary looking like he'd swallowed something too big for him.

Melancholy was a weird emotion to see on Natsu, especially this early in the morning; Lisanna frowned. As he gave the air an exploratory sniff, she hurried over and stopped in front of him.

"So you managed to get over your shit and fess up to each other?" she asked, smiling.

"Huh?"

"You and him," she prompted.

Natsu narrowed his eyes, bewildered.

She sighed. Idiot. "You and Gray."

The Dragon Slayer's jaw dropped.

"What?!"

"According to him, you're exclusive. Congrats. I didn't think you two had the humility necessary to admit your feelings," she laughed. She loved Natsu, but verbal communication wasn't his strong suit.

"According to…him?" Natsu stammered.

"I guess Laxus said something about you smelling like each other—that's what started things. Then Gray shouted to the whole guild defending you. It was pretty epic. Bickslow keeps asking Gajeel for scent confirmation, but he's being very tight-lipped."

"Because he knows I'll tear his head off," Natsu ground out, hands curling into fists. "Where's Gray?"

Lisanna eyed him in confusion. This was not the reaction she expected: there was a lot less blushing and a lot more anger swirling across his face.

"After he told the guild you're a thing, he ran out—"

"Wait, you got Gray to talk? About us?"

His fingers clamped around her arm, so tight Lisanna yelped. He took a hurried step back, muttering an apology.

"What's wrong with him talking?" she asked, worried, confused. He wasn't making sense.

"Nothing."

Of course. Still an idiot.

"Natsu," she said, hand on her hip, "why was it a secret? And how come you never said anything to me?"

"I didn't say anything to anyone."

"Why not?"

"We just…didn't want to."

She gave him a look. "Whatever the reason, you started dating someone and didn't tell me. I would've kept quiet and you know it. I'm not letting you live this down."

He let out a sigh of surrender. The barest hint of a smile creased his eyes as he said, "Okay, do your worst."

"How long's it been going on?"

"Months. Do the seven years count?"

She snorted a laugh. "Pretty sure they don't."

"But it sounds awesomer if I say we started dating over seven years ago," he said, grinning. Then his face fell again. "Lisanna, really: where's Gray?"

"I dunno. He left."

"Natsu!" Erza's voice boomed across the hall. "You little shit!"

The Salamander leapt a step backward.

"I didn't do anything!" he protested. Turning back to Lisanna, he lowered his voice. "Um…I have to go. Could you…not say anything to anyone else?"

"Sure," she said, "but everybody already knows. Gray kinda yelled that you were exclusive in front of everyone. I mean everyone."

Natsu's eyes went as round as moons. Without another word, he sprinted for the guild doors.

At the other end of the hall, Erza growled, "Why are both their default reactions to run away?"


Natsu sprinted through the woods. If Gray wanted to get away, he'd have gone to Natsu's house, not Gray's flat. The house was far enough from town that most people didn't visit if they didn't have to. Natsu simply preferred nature over paved streets and square buildings, but for Gray, an introvert, it was a haven.

As soon as Natsu opened the door, he heard soft breathing from the bedroom. He tiptoed back.

Curled on the bed, Gray lay with a pillow against his chest. At his head, Happy snored in a fuzzy heap. For a long minute, Natsu just stared at them, loving them both and trying to find the courage to deal with whatever was about to happen.

"C'mere already," Gray muttered, making Natsu jump. "Flame-brained creeper."

"You're awake…" Dazed, Natus came over and lay down across from him. Gray gave him a weary, fleeting smile.

"So I guess you went to the guild," Gray said.

"Yeah."

"I looked for you."

The Dragon Slayer took a long, slow breath. "So. Everyone knows."

"Mm," Gray replied.

"I never thought about smells—I mean, I did, but only with Gajeel and Wendy. I forgot about Laxus."

"Gajeel and Wendy knew?" Gray asked, his voice flat—blank. Natsu was familiar enough with that voice it didn't freak him out, but he still didn't like it.

"Wendy never said anything because she's Wendy," he explained, "and Gajeel I threatened into silence. He smells like Mest, and they haven't told anyone."

"Right. I remember."

"I'm sorry, Gray."

Frowning, Gray's gaze sharpened on his face. "For what?"

"This isn't what you wanted."

Gray stayed silent for a long moment.

"It is what you wanted."

Natsu flinched. "Maybe. But not like this. Not at your expense."

He took Gray's hand and Gray's fingers squeezed his.

Just then, Happy yawned and stretched, tail quivering against Natsu's forehead.

"Natsuuu," the Exceed said without opening his eyes. "Gray and I were waiting for you. What took you so long?"

The Dragon Slayer smiled.

"Hey, partner. I was checking on Lucy. Didn't know you guys were here."

"Gray says I don't have to keep the secret anymore."

The two men looked at each other. Natsu could read a thousand things in Gray's black eyes.

"Everyone kinda knows now," Natsu said. "Laxus is a little bitch."

"What else is new?" the cat mumbled.

"Oi, Happy," Gray said, suddenly looking up, "can Exceeds smell things like that—like shared scents?"

A grin stole across the Dragon Slayer's face as Happy answered, "No, that's a dragon thing."

"Exceeds don't care about sex," Natsu mock-whispered. Gray chortled.

"But we can smell fish," Happy went on, ignoring them. "And each other. And I can usually find Natsu."

"That's because he stinks," Gray said.

While Happy laughed, Natsu punched the ice mage's shoulder.

"If I smell," the Salamander told his boyfriend, "it's because you always steal the soap when we shower."

"I do enjoy keeping the soap from you," Gray admitted. "You're not very good at getting it back."

Happy flipped belly-up laughing and a grin bloomed across Gray's face. Natsu swallowed a warm lump in his throat.

They were going to be okay.

Just one more thing…

"You wanna beat up Laxus, or shall we do it together?"

"There's got to be a better way to get back at him," Gray said. "Something that'll hurt more—I mean really sting his pride. Something longer lasting."

"Gray Fullbuster, are you advising against a fight?" Natsu exclaimed.

Sly calculation crept onto Gray's face.

"No, I'm recommending one better. Like revealing the fact he gets motion sick. He's tried awfully hard to convince everyone otherwise: he'd be mortified if Fairy Tail knew he loses his composure every time he's on a vehicle."

"Wait, he gets sick too?" Natsu blurted, half rising. "Hah! And he makes fun of me!"

Gray chuckled. "I only know because Freed let it slip. I'm pretty sure even the rest of his team doesn't know."

"We are definitely letting that news out. Laxus shares the Dragon Slayer weakness. Hypocritical bastard."

He noticed Happy looking back and forth between them, paws over his face.

"What?" Natsu asked.

Happy giggled. "To anyone else, this would sound petty."

"Anyone else doesn't know how much this means," Gray muttered.

"Anyone else doesn't understand how humiliating motion sickness is," Natsu added.

"Well, I think it's a wonderful plan." Happy gave a decisive nod.

Threading his fingers through Gray's, Natsu rolled onto his back.

"We should do it when Lucy is out of the infirmary," he said. "She'll enjoy seeing Laxus eating his own shit."

Chapter 31: Two Times Gray Dissociated and That One Time Natsu Bit Him

Chapter Text

The first day after Laxus outed them, walking into Fairy Tail was hard for Gray.

Things inside him disconnected as he walked through the doors, his soul turning off so he could live and walk and speak and pretend everything was fine this way, without having to feel any of it.

Gray could, for example, smile at Cana and Lucy when they waved from across the room. He could hear Elfman tease him about hiding his love life, and resist punching the oversized man in the face.

He realized it wasn't them knowing that bugged him—he was kind of proud, if he were honest, to be dating Natsu. Happy, protective. No, what bothered him was the demand for vulnerability: this was Fairy Tail, and everyone expected easy access to each other's emotions all the time.

That was something Gray could not do.

When an official from the Council showed up wanting to ask yet more questions about the place they'd rescued Lucy from, Gray gave her concise answers: logic took over his brain, thoughts and feelings relegated to the background. Everything seemed to run through a screening process between his mind and his mouth, like he was watching his own thoughts from outside. Not really present.

He was just a person and everyone else knew nothing; he was unknowable and in love and Natsu was his; and nobody was going to hurt Gray ever again.

When the woman left, he, Natsu, and Happy grabbed a job from the board together—and if people smirked at him and Natsu working together, let them. Gray just needed out: shutting down like this was uncomfortable, far more than it used to be. Like he was missing a part of himself. He couldn't hear anything over the white noise of his soul's silence: not Natsu, not his friends, not the happiness he'd been learning how to feel. It was all just loud and empty.

He knew what this emptiness was called. But he didn't want to think about it. So he didn't.

As they strode to the exit with their quest, Gray thought he saw Natsu's hand twitch toward his, and for a moment he felt the spark of something at the idea the Salamander was going to hold his hand. But Natsu simply settled into step beside him. Gray wasn't sure if that relieved or saddened him.

He felt alone.

Before they could make it out the doors, something smacked the back of Gray's head.

Sand fell about his shoulders as he shook himself, turning to find the beginning of a brawl, with Max looking surprised his shot had gone wide. Putting his hands together, Gray retaliated with a blast that sent Max flying into a wall. At his side, Natsu ignited, yelling at someone else about disturbing the peace. Gray grinned.

Dodging the chair that flew his way, Gray punched a new offender in the face. As the fight gained momentum, the ice mage and Dragon Slayer lashed out in opposite directions, keeping to each other's backs. That was a new development: Gray decided he liked it, this teaming up. It was a simple way to express things between them.

As the skirmish took over his mind, Gray forgot about emptiness and white noise and internal disconnection. He forgot there were things he was avoiding. Instead, he just was.

Fighting. That was the answer.


Walking down the road toward their job, Natsu commented, "You were super-cooling the guild this morning, popsicle. I was surprised you didn't frost over."

"Like this?" Gray chuckled, ice crawling over him like a second skin. Happy, who was on his head, yelped and fluttered over to Natsu's hair instead.

"Natsu was steaming this morning," the cat said. "Not many things make him that cold."

"I wasn't cold!" Natsu said.

"Sure." Happy grinned and winked at Gray from atop Natsu's head.

"Happy's making faces, isn't he?" the Dragon Slayer asked.

"Of course not." Gray grinned, making Natsu chuckle and roll his eyes. "I consider it a compliment you get cold around me, sunflower."

"Only you would consider that a compliment."

Gray kissed his cheek.

Natsu smiled and didn't bring up Gray's temperature fluctuations again.


It was a one-day mission, so by the next afternoon they were back at the guild. Walking through those doors, all the emotions crashed over Gray again: anxiety, anger, defensiveness. It seemed he couldn't escape it here.

Gray made a beeline for the rest of the team, avoiding eye contact with anyone else. In case anyone felt the need to probe him on matters of his feelings.

As he and Natsu slid onto a bench, Lucy asked the Dragon Slayer a question and Gray perused over the guild. At a nearby table, Bickslow was doing something with his dolls and a deck of cards. Gray watched until movement caught his eye: Cana striding across the hall with a distracted air, glancing at Gray's team—and running into a pillar.

He chuckled. Drunk already? he would've once teased her. But today he didn't feel like getting into it with anyone. Just lying low and avoiding attention.

Relearning how to fit in.

It wasn't all bad. Levy nodded a hello as she passed, and Gray nodded back, grateful she'd given up her Natsu-and-Lucy campaign as soon as his relationship with the Salamander became public. Mira came by with drinks, asked how their latest job went, and Gray felt normal—not numb. It was okay.

Mira went running off in concern when Cana ran into another pillar. Gray laughed aloud this time, unable to wipe away his smirk at Cana's dazed expression.

Sudden silence made him look around: Natsu, Wendy, and Lucy were all staring behind him.

Erza plopped into a seat at the table.

"Hey," she said.

Oh shit.

They hadn't talked to her yet—hadn't dealt with the fact that they'd lied to one of the people who'd known them the longest… Gray was pretty sure (from previous experience keeping secrets from her) that she would kick his and Natsu's asses at some point.

But Erza's expression was hooded: reserved, nonjudgmental.

"How was your job yesterday?" she asked him.

"Paid well." Gray shrugged.

"That means you didn't destroy everything in sight this time. I'm proud of you."

Gray hmphed but smiled slightly.

An awkward silence lasted for all of two seconds before Lucy spoke up with an innocuous topic and got them moving on. Good old Lucy.

A little while later as Natsu went hunting down food, Erza turned to Gray.

"Why did you keep your relationship secret from everyone?" she asked, her voice low so it was just the two of them.

Gray squirmed. Here it was.

"Because," he ground out.

"Thought we'd make fun of you?" she asked with a kind smile.

"We don't have to tell everyone our business," he snapped.

"So, what…you don't trust us?"

Anxiety curling taut and sharp, Gray met her gaze with a fierce glare.

"Stop pushing it. I'm not required to give you my—our reasons. It's our relationship."

Snorting skeptically, Erza crossed her arms. "Whatever."

Cold was sliding through Gray's veins now, ice that made him hard and impenetrable. Hands clenching in and out at his sides, he didn't notice Natsu coming across the hall until the Salamander slumped next to him, thigh brushing Gray's and making him jump.

"I couldn't find Mira, and Lisanna's busy." Natsu pouted. "Does anyone have a candle or something?"

Erza blinked. "A candle?"

"Yeah, and something big that's flammable. Or a torch would be better."

"Natsu," Lucy sighed, "nobody has fire on them."

"I've got my flame empress ar—" Erza began with a sly grin.

Before she could finish, a book came flying between Gray and Natsu's shoulders and hit the table.

"Oi, you two," Loke called, shit-eating grin in place. "Come settle something."

The spirit stood next to a grumpy Gajeel. Reluctant, Gray followed Natsu, encouraged by the defensive look in Natsu's eyes; at least Gray wasn't the only one.

"What?" Natsu demanded.

"This one," Loke hooked his thumb at Gajeel, "says you two aren't the cutest Dragon Slayer couple."

"So?" Natsu eyed Gajeel. "Of course he says that."

But Gray's mind froze up at the word cute. What the hell does cuteness have to do with anything? The thought was possibly a defense mechanism. Not thinking real thoughts. Because—

People were talking about them?

"Gajeel thinks the Sabertooth pair are better," Loke went on, still grinning. It was almost like he wanted a fight.

"Define 'better,'" Natsu growled.

"I told you he'd have something to say about that," Loke chuckled to Gajeel, whose eyes narrowed at Natsu.

"At least that pair doesn't feel the need to lie to anybody," Gajeel grumbled.

"What?" Natsu screeched.

"Yeah, why did you—?" Loke began, but Gray had already lunged.

Fingers curling, he punched Gajeel in the face.

"Hell!" Gajeel shouted, stumbling back, unprepared. He retaliated with a hook of his own, shoving the air out of Gray's chest and making the ice mage gasp.

Inhaling and grabbing the second fist that came for him, Gray pulled Gajeel in and head-butted his chin. The iron mage jerked in his grip, kicking out and nearly sending Gray flying. There was no magic—no need for it. They both punched and both reeled back, Gray with a bloody lip and Gajeel cupping his bruised jaw.

Then arms constricted around Gray's chest from behind, pulling him back, stopping his fists from reaching their target.

"Break it up!" Loke was yelling, grabbing Gajeel's wrists. Despite Gajeel's protesting struggles, Loke succeeded in keeping him contained; the spirit could be surprisingly strong when he wanted to be.

Gray recognized the warmth of his Salamander in the grip holding him. Struggling for a brief moment more, he settled down, glaring at Gajeel, who bared his teeth.

"You're crazy," Gajeel spat, making Gray jerk forward, but Natsu held on.

"Go to hell," Gray growled.

Backing up, Gray pushed Natsu and himself away from the iron mage. As Natsu's arms loosened, Gray broke a hand free and wiped his bleeding lip.

In a low voice meant just for his boyfriend, he muttered, "Why'd you stop me from hitting him?"

Natsu pressed up against his back, lips right next to Gray's ear.

"You had a nasty look on your face," he said. "I figured you'd regret hitting a guildmate out of hatred."

Gray grunted. Natsu was probably right, but at the moment he felt anything but remorse. "I'm going outside," he mumbled. "To cool off."

As he moved away, Natsu's fingers trailed down his arm.

Outdoors, the ice mage hiked briskly behind the guild and into the woods, breath heavy. He felt the thousand eyes again, all of them, only this time it had nothing to do with sex and fantasies. They were the eyes of Erza, and Loke, and Gajeel, and fucking everyone who was hyper-eager to know the personal details of his relationship. Of his heart. Gray snarled and kicked a tree—regretting it when his toes throbbed.

Natsu found him like that, hands shoved in his pockets and eyes on nothing, shoulders hunching against the onslaught of public humiliation. Why did everyone have to know everything? It was okay if they knew. He just didn't want them to understand.

"Hey," Natsu said, and Gray turned toward him feeling desperate.

Feeling. That's what he wanted. He didn't want to be frigid inside.

"I'm getting numb," he stammered. "Again."

Natsu jolted. "Because…you're not here. Right? You've dissociated. Because it sucks too much."

"Yeah," Gray said, voice gruff.

It was amazing Natsu could figure that out when Gray couldn't even say the word to himself. But it was all true. I'm just too scared.

And he was so far away, not feeling any of it. The only thing he was going to feel any time soon was pain. Real and alive. Pain he chose.

Anything to end the discomfort.

Natsu seemed to follow the same train of thought.

"How do I…without the pain?" he asked.

"You can't." Gray stepped up right in front of him, running a hand down Natsu's cheek. Such warm skin. He wondered what it felt like when Natsu was on fire.

"I want you to feel things, though," Natsu said. "I don't like it when you feel distant."

Natsu had closed the gap between their bodies, and even though they were arguing, being this close to Natsu's mouth was beyond distracting for Gray. The ice mage tried to reign in his breathing. Touching Natsu made him dizzy and unfocused, too full of longing to be able to stop himself sensing every centimeter where they made contact with each other.

As they leaned into each other, Gray knew what he wanted, but he didn't know if he could say it. When their lips brushed, he finally said, "H-Hurt me."

Natsu pulled back, scandalized. "I can't do that."

"That's how I feel things. Hurt me."

"I can't." Natsu's voice quickened with panic. "Not to you. Not when we're… Not outside of sparring. I just can't."

"Bite me. You love doing that." Then, because Natsu still wasn't moving: "Please?"

The Dragon Slayer crashed into him, tongue slipping between Gray's lips before Gray could catch his breath. The ferocity of the kiss overwhelmed him, but in an amazing way, a way that just made the yearning worse.

Shifting, Natsu kissed across his jaw...and sank his sharp teeth into Gray's neck.

Gray melted.

"Natsu…" He choked. "Oh gods, Natsu. You're perfect."

He was shaking as Natsu sucked on him and bit down again. Fuck, it was amazing. Gray felt everything—felt alive, present, loved. Could feel Natsu here with him, the two of them together in a deeper sense than physical proximity. The Salamander was under his skin.

It wasn't the nipping fangs which kept him grounded, he realized.

Sure, Natsu's teeth turned him on, but it wasn't what held him in the moment. Their conversation had been painful enough, and now they were holding each other, wanting each other. It was the simple fact that Natsu had been willing to do this for him. Natsu had listened and been there. Natsu cared—and Gray knew it, didn't struggle to remember. He wasn't fighting that weird tension that wound through him whenever the Dragon Slayer tried to be sweet. He understood it, and felt it, and was okay.

He trusted.

"When I say I love you," Natsu muttered, "I—"

"I think I know," Gray interrupted. For maybe the first time.

Seeing a tree just past Natsu's shoulder, Gray pushed the Salamander back two steps until the trunk stopped their progress. Hands coming up to Natsu's face, Gray kissed him so hard his lips ached. He was never giving this up. Never. It had nothing to do with deserving. This was about choices.

The Dragon Slayer pulled Gray against his chest. The next thing he knew, Natsu had tugged him sideways and they were falling. They landed side-by-side in the grass, Natsu laughing, Gray staring at him in confusion.

When Natsu rolled him over and bit his chest, Gray groaned happily and let go.

Natsu covered him in marks that evening, bruises and scrapes and even the occasional bloody puncture when he got excited, a tapestry over Gray's chest and neck. Natsu didn't stop, didn't let up, didn't let Gray go until the ice mage was panting and wrecked. Natsu got him naked and bit him in even more places, Gray shameless as he gripped the earth and reveled in the sting and the pleasure.

When the Dragon Slayer came between his thighs sometime later, crouching over the ice mage and crying out to the sky, Gray was there for every delicious moment. He let the buzz of exultation encompass him, satisfying deep places of need.

Walking home beneath the full moon, Natsu slipped his arm around Gray's waist and kept Gray tight against his side the whole way. Even when they entered town, Gray didn't care one bit that anyone could see them.

Maybe he could do this after all.

Chapter 32: Firsts

Chapter Text

There were new firsts for their relationship. Sometimes Gray felt like they were doing everything for the first time, except he and Natsu weren't nervous as fuck with each other, thank gods—they had that rapport of months of trust. It helped tremendously, not to mention made everything more exciting.

Though they'd held hands under the table a few times in the past, it was different the next time Natsu grabbed his fingers: knowing that if they got caught, nobody was going to make a fuss because everyone expected them to be doing things like that. Everyone expected them to get along.

That was the weirdest part. They stopped having to pretend-fight—which was a relief—and the guild settled in as if this were normal. Things were calmer without he and Natsu starting brawls, and that was…weird. Weirdly normal.

So when Natsu stood up and their still-clasped hands were suddenly in view of everyone, Gray's stomach flipped over, and then he was left wondering why he was so freaked out. Nobody reacted. Lucy might've worn a knowing smile, but aside from that, nobody even stared.

That wasn't to say they didn't get any attention.

There was the first time they had to talk to Juvia. 'They' being Gray but really being Natsu. She ran into them in Magnolia as they were walking somewhere, smiling and teasing each other. Just as Natsu kissed Gray on the cheek, she turned the corner ahead of them.

There was an awkward moment of everyone gaping and not knowing what to say, and then Juvia took off in the opposite direction. Crying.

Or rather, he assumed she was crying because it rained the rest of the day. A fact Gray took advantage of by racing the Salamander home and fucking him against the kitchen counter. His sex drive was higher these days, maybe for comfort—feeling Natsu's skin against his whenever possible to know life was still okay. The Dragon Slayer was enthusiastic in obliging.

When it was still raining the next day, they went to the guild and Natsu (because Gray felt too awkward) sat next to her and asked her how she was doing. Juvia lied and said she was okay and chatted a bit, then went to sit with Lucy and Cana—which was amazing, since she'd always considered Lucy her rival.

(Strangely, she and Cana got in an argument and nearly started a fight. Cana walked off in a huff, Lucy disappearing not long after, and they didn't see their blonde teammate for the rest of the day.)

Then there was the first time they went on a date without worrying. Crossing town together in the middle of the day, sitting and eating together, then walking home together, all in broad daylight, made Gray nervous—but it also made him proud. Maybe that was what kept him from dissociating. Sure, encountering people still weirded him out, but having random people see Natsu was his gave Gray's ego a boost. Because yes, his boyfriend was pretty amazing.

The nerves were almost more out of habit.

The pride-jealousy combo that shored up his confidence ended up involving another first: when they first overheard someone talking about them.

While they perched together in a corner waiting on Erza for a job, the Dragon Slayer was doing his usual subconscious gestures of affection: playing with Gray's fingers, touching his leg, putting a hand on his shoulder. But out of nowhere, he wrapped his arms around Gray's waist and clutched Gray to his chest.

"What's wro—?" Gray began.

An animalistic growl cut him off.

"Loke just said you're hot."

Gray smirked. "Well, I am. Loke's a flirt, Natsu. He says shit like that to everyone."

"He's not talking to you," Natsu rumbled. "He's talking about you to Cana. Over there—other side of the guild. He just said—he wishes I would share!" Natsu broke off in a whispered shriek.

At which point, Gray considered exit strategies to get Natsu out of the guild. Loke and Cana? If those two exes of his talked, the conversation could range in far worse directions. Natsu might be fine with Gray's history, but hearing about past fuckery from others…that was a different matter.

But Natsu's grip on him eased and before Gray knew what was happening, a pink head tilted against his shoulder and breath grazed his neck.

"She told him to shut his lustful hole," Natsu chuckled.

"The two of them should get together," Gray grunted. They certainly had the same passion for all things sex.

Natsu snickered.

"What?"

"When Lucy hugged me yesterday, her face smelled like Cana."

"So they're on snogging terms?"

"Either that or Lucy's rubbing her face on Cana's body."

Gray started laughing. His boyfriend was ridiculous and he loved it.

"That would explain where they disappeared off to all of yesterday. Lucy probably was rubbing her face all over Cana's body."

"Gray! Gods." Chuckling, Natsu hit his arm. Then hot lips touched Gray's ear. "Hey…Cana just told Loke to stay out of our business or else. She said she thinks we're good together."

"We are," Gray said, blushing. He'd only just started taking compliments from Natsu; taking them from other people was still tough. But he couldn't help agreeing.

"Gray," Natsu said, voice breathy, "can I kiss you?"

The ice mage was grateful Natsu asked. It meant that when Gray nodded, every glorious second that followed was his choice.

Twisting Gray around by the shoulders, Natsu captured his mouth, lips moving against each other, and Gray exhaled contentedly. It was nice, and nobody was hollering at them, and they were just there in their little corner, fingers interlocked, tongues twining and mouths growing rough. As one of Natsu's hands slid under the edge of his shirt to touch his hip, Gray sucked the Salamander's lip and bit him.

Moments ticked past, close, hot, sharing breath, solidly together. They still hadn't broken the kiss.

Natsu finally parted with him, eyes bright and face flushed.

Well. Wow.

That was the first time they kissed in front of people and the first time they made out in front of people. It was followed by Erza plopping onto the bench across from them.

"Finished?" she asked with a smile.

"Yeah," they said in unison, Gray almost choking on his words.

They were both out of breath. But Erza didn't make fun of them, and considering she was practically their sister, Gray decided he wasn't embarrassed. Something had cleared up any bad blood: he'd caught Erza staring hard at him a few times, and walked in on her deep in a conversation with Lucy which broke off pointedly when he got too close. Somewhere in there, she'd decided she wasn't fussed about their secret-keeping, and treated them completely normal.

So she just grinned casually and started discussing the job.

Despite that 'first' of making out in the guild, Gray generally wasn't comfortable with more than hand-holding in front of others. If they were alone in a corner, or tucked away in a booth, kisses were okay. It was being questioned about his emotions that triggered him. People asking or speculating about the finer points of their relationship.

But Gray was slowly getting better at this. Getting prouder—able to show off his boyfriend instead of seizing up in fear of being Seen.

And when Natsu grinned privately at him, he always found he was okay. Triggered less. Maybe, even, possibly not having as many nightmares about shit, too. Not keeping a secret as huge and heartbreaking as theirs had been, Gray could actually sleep through the night sometimes. Multiple nights in a row.

That was another first.


There was one more first for their relationship: the one and only time they were mocked.

As Gray followed his boyfriend into the guild and over to the bar, he noticed Freed a few stools away and waved.

"What's up?" Gray asked, nodding to the bags by Freed's feet.

"These are Ever's. She and I just got back from a long job." Freed glanced between him and Natsu. "I heard you're together…and about how everyone found out. I…am…sorry."

Fingers tense around his sword, Freed looked away, whole body stiff.

"Sorry for what?" Gray asked.

"Laxus."

"Oh." Gray sighed. "I already knew he was an ass."

"Only sometimes," Freed muttered, a bitter twist to his mouth. "I'm fairly certain he meant no harm. Which doesn't excuse it, of course. Regardless, I'm glad you're happy." Freed's expression warped into a terrible imitation of a smile: all pain and sharp angles. "It's nice to see people…enjoying life."

With a small nod, he rose and strode out of the guild—far too quickly. Frowning and a little concerned, Gray extricated himself from Natsu and followed the rune mage out.

As soon as he exited the door, he bumped into Freed's back: the man faced off with an unfamiliar woman and man.

"Our guildmaster forbids unscheduled interviews from being conducted here," Freed was saying harshly. "Not since two photographers used to stalk Mirajane Strauss. Our guild is a safe place for our wizards."

"What's going on?" Gray asked, his own body hardening as he took a stand beside Freed.

"They're looking for you," Freed said. "And Natsu."

"Why?" Gray barked, nerves jumping to red alert.

"We're doing a piece on the Fairy-Saber rivalry," the man said eagerly.

"What rivalry?"

"You and the Salamander both fought Sabertooth wizards during the x791 Games, yes?" the woman asked, reaching for her bag.

"So did Erza and Laxus," Gray said, obduracy growing with each second. "And Gajeel."

"We already spoke with the other Dragon Slayer," the woman said, making Gray bristle because we have FOUR Dragon Slayers, thank you very much. "Gajeel Redfox said we could find you and the Salamander together. As in, together-together…"

She dropped off with a hopeful, questioning look.

At that moment, Gray appreciated how Natsu must feel when he ignited out of sheer anger.

It was frankly a miracle it didn't start snowing around the ice mage's body: he was colder than winter. Redfox said…

"I am going to kill him," Gray hissed, whirling around, ignoring the journalists' startled expressions. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Freed draw his sword. Purple runes glowed around the guildhall, protection against uninvited reporters.

Probably a good thing. No witnesses.

Inside Fairy Tail, the iron mage sat at an empty table, tapping a rhythm on the handle of a mug. When Gray's heavy footsteps couldn't be ignored, Gajeel looked up with an overwrought expression.

"What's—"

"Where is he?" Gray barked.

"Wha?"

Gray slammed his hands down on the table, glaring straight into Gajeel's eyes.

"Your 'special friend,'" he spat, voice rising and drawing attention. "Where is he?"

"What?" It wasn't a question this time. Gajeel stood up and leaned in.

"Does he know what an asshole you are? Anyone who dates you really should get that warning ahead of time."

"You need to shut the fuck up, snowman, real soon."

"Why?" Gray was almost shouting now. "Afraid the journalists out there will overhear who Gajeel Redfox is dating? I thought you considered that sort of info public domain."

Teeth bared, Gajeel's eyes skittered from side to side, wary of all the people turning to look at them. Gray was aware of the abrupt silence.

"Gajeel's with someone?" Cana called. "I knew it!"

"Guess who," Gray called back, not moving his eyes from Gajeel's face.

"Just tell me, asshole."

Gray opened his mouth. In a flash, the iron mage reached for his throat.

Prepared for violence, Gray punched him in the diaphragm and knocked the wind out of him, but Gajeel's lunge was more powerful than he expected. Hands closed around Gray's mouth and throat as he and Gajeel crashed into a table. The Dragon Slayer squeezed, as hostile as a predatory beast, cutting off Gray's flow of air and turning everything into a haze of red.

Gray was freaking out now, hitting Gajeel repeatedly in the gut, freezing ice across his chest, but even when Gajeel shouted at the pain, he didn't let go—

Fire barreled into them and broke the Dragon Slayer's hold. Gray sucked in precious air, trying to get his bearings as his vision reformed.

Gray blinked, then blinked again. All he could see were orange flames. Flames all around him.

Shouting, he jerked up, but the flames weren't burning him. Even as Gray prepared to ice the place, he registered that the warm, solid thing he was touching was Natsu.

His insides unwound in relief.

Scrambling to their feet side by side, they squared off with Gajeel, all three of them crouched and cautious. Every second was full of the tension before an attack.

But Natsu stepped into the middle, hand against Gray's chest and the other thrown out in a halting gesture.

"Back off from my boyfriend," the Salamander growled at Gajeel.

Irate as Gray might usually be about Natsu protecting him, the dark layers in Natsu's voice told him this wasn't about strength. This was something else entirely.

"Your mate's saying crazy shit," Gajeel growled back.

"He's mine." Natsu moved imperceptibly closer to Gray. "Back the fuck away."

"He just told the guild I have a datefriend," Gajeel whispered, deadly soft. "I need to kick his ass. Step away, Salamander."

"I will break your shit off. He's mine and he's beautiful and you don't get to touch him."

Okay, that pissed Gray off a little. Beautiful? It sounded like they were discussing baubles.

"I would never want to touch him," the Iron Dragon spat. "Your piece-of-shit boyfriend is a useless asshole who fucks everything up for the rest of us."

Gray didn't see Natsu move.

He doubted anyone without speed magic could've seen the punch. One minute, two Dragon Slayers were glaring at each other. The next, Gajeel was crashing into a pillar, blood slithering from his nose. He clapped his hands to his face but made no move to stand back up, head wobbling a little before he refocused on them. The glare Natsu pinned on him made Gajeel look away. Gray felt a surge of victory.

That's right, asshole.

Slipping an arm around Gray's waist, Natsu gave Gajeel a last pointed look and headed toward the exit.

"Wait." Gray jerked Natsu back before he could push the door open, coughing to get his voice back. Damn, his throat hurt. "Reporters outside are looking for you and me. Together."

"Shit." Natsu glanced over his shoulder at Gajeel. "That's what that was about?"

"Yeah. We should stay here for a bit."

They turned and settled at a table instead, out of the way, although they remained the center of watchful attention for several more minutes. Sound began to return to the guild slowly.

Gray was more focused on Natsu's knuckles.

"Is this your blood?" Gray asked, rubbing his fingers gently with a thumb.

"Yeah." Natsu looked sheepish. "He crossed a line."

"Yes, he did. Nice punch."

Natsu leaned into Gray's shoulder. Making Gray smile. And reminding him he was shirtless. And also…

"Was I on fire for a second?" Gray asked.

"No, but I was on fire next to you."

"It didn't hurt."

"Of course not, baka." The Salamander grinned at him. "You think I can't control my own flames?"

Which was how Gray learned Natsu could choose to not burn people if he wanted.

Looking down at his lap, Gray changed topics.

"So Gajeel told some journalists we're together."

"Fucker," Natsu spat. And then: "You okay?"

Gray took a deep breath.

"I'm pissed as hell."

Natsu's arms appeared around Gray, tight and quivering, head falling on Gray's shoulder.

"You're mine. Mine, mine…"

"Alright, I get it." Gray batted at him, embarrassed and smiling.

"You're not worthless," Natsu muttered, anxious. "Or a fuck-up. Or an asshole. Okay, sometimes you're an asshole, but only when it's appropriate."

Taking a deep breath to ease the tension, Gray tilted Natsu's chin up.

"I know," Gray said. "He was just mouthing off."

Natsu let out a tense breath. "Yeah."

Watching Natsu's strained expression, Gray leaned in and kissed him.

Any remaining stress melted on contact. Inhaling against Natsu's cheek, Gray moved his lips across the Salamander's and felt the man smile. It made pleasant things stir in his belly.

When a woman coughed, they broke apart, not embarrassed—not even Gray, who was still bolstered by the defensive pride swelling his chest.

Mirajane set mugs on the table in front of them.

"Someone said you guys needed drinks—"

She broke off with a squeal. Her eyes were trained on Gray's throat, face growing a bright shade of red. It took the ice mage a moment to figure out why.

"My neck is bruised, isn't it?"

"Yup," Natsu said.

Gray sighed. Mira looked mortified.

"Gods, Mira," he laughed, "this isn't a hicky."

"Oh."

"If it were, there'd be teeth marks," he said, and Natsu coughed with held-in laughter as Mira turned red again.

"Mira, Gajeel choked him," Lucy called over.

Mira put a hand to her mouth. "Oh gods. He didn't."

"He fucking did, and he got what he deserved," Natsu growled.

"You didn't kill him, did you?" Mira asked, raising an eyebrow at the Salamander.

"No," Natsu said, sullen. "Just broke his nose. He'll be fine. It was crooked without my help."

"Natsu!"

Hunching, the Salamander glowered, but Gray put an arm around Natsu's shoulders.

"Mira, it was justified."

She looked at him for a long moment.

"Guess I better find Wendy," she said, and strode away.

"No hurry," Natsu muttered.

Gray grinned and shifted to hold his hand out. The Dragon Slayer took it, their clasped fingers resting on the tabletop between them as they each went for their drinks. Side by side like a matched set.

Freed approached their table.

"They're gone," he said. "The journalists."

"Thanks," Gray said in surprise.

"You're welcome. And I'm sorry again. For…you know."

"Don't worry about it." Gray waved a hand. "We got Laxus back pretty good."

"Yeah," Natsu laughed, making Freed's face go hard. "Your boyfriend's secret motion sickness isn't a secret anymore."

"Boyfriend?" Freed spluttered. "Laxus? No. Absolutely not. He's not my boyfriend. Gods, Dragneel. Why on earth would you think that?"

Natsu shrugged.

"And his secret… Whatever, I don’t even care," Freed muttered. "See you two later."

Turning on his heel, he stalked away—if possible even more wilted than when Gray had first seen him.

Apparently not everyone had a happy ending.

Chapter 33: When Wendy Gets Mad

Chapter Text

Wendy was on a mission. Not a job mission; a personal mission. There was blood in the water and the youngest Dragon Slayer was going to do something about it.

Crossing the guildhall, she approached the strongest source of metal smell and said in a firm voice, "Gajeel-san?"

He turned.

"What's up, squirt?"

"Come with me. I need to speak with you about dragons."

Frowning, the iron mage followed as Wendy walked toward the bar. She could practically feel his surprise when they stopped in front of Laxus.

The lightning dragon looked around immediately at their scents, brows drawing down.

"Laxus-san, would you follow me please?" Wendy asked before he could open his mouth.

After a moment, Laxus shrugged and joined the entourage. For once he and Gajeel weren't bickering, both of them looking confused as they followed the teen. They might not say it aloud, but Wendy could request anything from any of the Dragon Slayers and they would pull through for her. There were benefits to being everyone's little sister.

Leading them into a back hall, she closed the door. Should be private enough.

Looking them over, she said, "You both have acted appallingly regarding Natsu-san and his mate."

"What?" Gajeel spluttered, while Laxus narrowed his eyes.

"Don't you know proper mating etiquette?" She glared at Gajeel: he in particular had this coming. "What would your instincts do if I treated you and your mate with the same disdain?"

"You wouldn't, because you're good friends with my mate," Gajeel muttered, which was true. Wendy looked up to Mest almost as much as she did to Gajeel.

"That's not the point. You know you'd be thinking up ways to retaliate right now."

"Iron-head has a mate?" Laxus interrupted.

"Don't fucking mock me, asshole," Gajeel snarled.

"I'm being serious."

"I'm not telling you anything," Gajeel said, crossing his arms with a possessive look.

"See?" Wendy glared him into silence. "Look how petty you're being when Laxus merely asked a question. Natsu feels the same about his mate, and you went and told a reporter about them?! That wasn't just mean. You threatened his mate, Gajeel. He'd have every right to shred you."

She turned on Laxus.

"And you! Telling the entire guild. All dragons are protective: that urge to defend your mate—don't give me that look, I know you've felt it—we all feel that way. I know you weren't raised by dragons, so maybe you just don't know: it's courtesy to give other dragons their privacy regarding mating, no matter what you smell or hear."

"Wait." Laxus held up a hand. "Are you telling me Natsu and Gray Fullbuster are mates?"

She blinked at him. "I thought you knew that. You practically announced it."

"Hold on. I know from their scents they're f—" He stopped short.

"They're fucking each other," she filled in, raising an eyebrow. Both men ogled her. "I'm a fourteen-year-old girl: you think I don't know what consenting adults do in private?"

"Right." Laxus glanced awkwardly at his toes. "I know they're fucking each other, but mates imply…reproduction. Neither of them can get pregnant, last I checked."

Wendy and Gajeel gaped at him.

"You don't know?" Gajeel asked in amazement.

Laxus glared. "What don't I know?"

"Dragons don't have sex or gender. They reproduce by laying eggs—any one of them can lay whenever they want, no partner needed. Mates are chosen solely for companionship."

"Most dragons pick partners with similar temperament and complimentary magic," Wendy added. "Which in Dragon Slayers translates to being…gay."

"I beg your pardon?" Laxus almost sounded offended.

"Some of us are on the pan scale," Gajeel interjected. "I had a female mate once."

"I've only mated with women," Laxus growled.

"We know." Wendy smiled gently. "You have smells like the rest of us. We're very aware of your mating habits."

The lightning mage humphed.

"So Natsu and Gray are mates," he said. "What do you want us to do about it?"

Wendy's chest squeezed. She had strong feelings on this subject ever since a woman flirted with, and then verbally abused, her Chelia. Mates were sacred.

"You're to stop being assholes," she growled. "No saying stuff Natsu and Gray haven't told people themselves. No drawing attention to them if they don't want it. If it would make you try to kill someone, don't do it to them. And last of all, respect their wishes."

"Fine. No more teasing," Gajeel sighed.

"No mocking at all. Don't say anything crude about Gray. That's asking for war."

"Tell that to Loke," Laxus muttered.

"Yeah," Gajeel laughed. "That guy talks like he wants Gray to fuck him right there."

"Gajeel!" Wendy's hands curled into claws. "That's exactly the kind of talk I'm referring to. Do you honestly think Natsu-san is going to hold off retaliating forever? He's got as much on you as you have on him."

Gajeel's expression grew dark, but she wasn't finished, taking a menacing step toward him.

"If you keep pushing him and teasing him, you're putting your own mate in danger. And if you dare get Mest hurt, I will come after you myself."

Gajeel actually swallowed, glancing at Laxus before nodding.

Inhaling, Wendy closed her eyes for a second to compose herself. They were damn well going to get this right.


Laxus was a little amazed.

The sky mage was too preoccupied to see the shocked look he exchanged with Gajeel. The tiny Dragon Slayer was glowing, and it was more than a little startling. Who knew she could get mad like that? She'd put both of them in their places and they both knew: they wouldn't disobey any time soon.

"We'll take care of it," Laxus said, feeling an odd swell of pride. Damn draconic stuff gave him a rush of adrenaline any time another Dragon Slayer won a battle. Even against him, it seemed.

"Yeah, don't worry, kid." Staring down, Gajeel kicked one boot with the other. "We'll play nice."

"Good. Thank you." Wendy sighed. "Keep this in mind regarding everyone else's mates, too. I shouldn't have to lecture adult Dragon Slayers as if you're kids. Honestly."

A low growl reverberated through Gajeel, but Laxus just shook his head, impressed. She knew how to keep people in line. And she had a bit of a point: Gajeel had been acting immature lately. (For his part, Laxus just hadn't known. The whole gay thing. I mean, come on—how was he supposed to know that?)

When Wendy nodded and relaxed, Gajeel was the first one out the door into the main hall, stomping away with his head down and hands in his pockets—if he'd had a tail, it would've been between his legs. Laxus almost laughed at him.

Before Wendy could go, he asked casually, "So dragon-raised Slayers…they're all gay?"

"Yes. Sting, Rogue…all of us. Even Gajeel-san mostly takes men as mates. It's just how we are. It feels right. Which is the definition of sexual orientation."

Laxus nodded.

"But if you weren't raised by dragons…" Wendy shrugged. "You and the Oracion Seis man are the only artificial Slayers I know of. If you say you're not gay, then I guess that's how it is."

"Yeah, I'm as straight as they get," Laxus said, hunching.

"Apparently."

She smiled at him and they fell silent.

Leaning on the doorframe, Laxus's eyes wandered over the guild until he located his teammates via a flash of green hair—a habit he'd picked up since returning to Fairy Tail, checking in with them visually just to make sure they were okay. Bickslow was gesticulating wildly, Evergreen wore a smirk, and solemn, composed Freed was trying not to laugh at whatever they were saying. Even from this distance, Laxus could see the smile twitching up the corners of his captain's thin lips.

Shaking his head, Laxus huffed a sigh.

"Dragon Slayers are strange." Realizing how that sounded, he amended, "Our magic is weird as hell."

Wendy's small laugh startled him.

"I can't imagine life without it."

"Of course you can't." Laxus chuckled. "Well. Later, kid."

With that, he strode off across the hall. His captain was grinning broadly now, and Laxus really wanted to know what could make Freed smile like that. With long hair pulled back and intelligent eyes dancing, the one word brought to Laxus's mind was joy. Freed had a tendency of smiling in all-too-infectious ways when Laxus was around.

Meanwhile, this whole gay Dragon Slayer thing was a problem to ponder. He ought to circulate more rumors about his straightness. Wouldn't want people thinking he was gay when he definitely wasn't.

That could get awkward.


Natsu was eating while Gray puttered across the flat. Suddenly the ice mage stopped beside the table and slammed his palm down. Natsu dropped his spoon.

"Geez, popsicle."

"I figured it out," Gray exclaimed. He beamed down at Natsu, staring through him at some wonderful realization beyond. "It makes total sense."

"What?"

"Why everything is worse now that we're dating."

Swallowing, it took the Salamander a moment to collect himself, trying to repel the hurt which instantly rose up at Gray's words. Everything is worse. But Gray looked so happy Natsu couldn't help being curious.

"I used to run away," Gray said. "Whenever something came up, in my head, got to me..."

"Triggers?" Natsu supplied.

"I ran away from triggers. I'd start fights or...or cut." They both flinched. "But with you around now, I don't flee myself. I want to stay present so I can soak up being with you. Means I have to actually face my shit; only way to remain emotionally engaged, you know? I can't pick and choose what I feel: it's either everything or nothing."

The Salamander inhaled sharply.

"And," Gray burst out, "that's why I've been feeling numb lately. Couldn't deal with the emotions and tried to run away again—but it meant I had to stop feeling you, too. Stop feeling h-how much I care."

Opening his mouth, Natsu found his words were stuck somewhere between his heart and his throat.

"If I want to love you, I have to feel like shit sometimes, Natsu." Gray sighed. "I'm going to get more fucked up the more I care about you. I'm sorry. It's just what's going to happen. That's the price."

"Gray." The Dragon Slayer placed his hand over the ice mage's fist, drawing his gaze. "Don't fucking apologize for that. Don't ever apologize. Pretty sure this happiness I'm feeling." He had to take a breath. "I'll take fucking anything if it means being with you."

Eyes wide, Gray blinked, a smile twitching up the corners of his mouth.

"You're a bizarre miracle of nature, flame brain, you know that? Not that you should let it go to your head."

Standing, Natsu gave Gray a heavy, open-mouthed kiss, hands going around the ice mage's bare waist. While Natsu sucked on his lip, Gray melded into him, eagerly reciprocating.

"Gray," the Salamander said, gripping his boyfriend harder and moving down his neck. "Gray… Gray…"

He groaned the name between every kiss, leaving a trail of purple marks down Gray's skin. Gray was shaking hard now. He leaned his weight against the Dragon Slayer, held up by Natsu's arms, breathy gasps escaping him every time Natsu nipped his throat.

"Do you know what you are?" Natsu whispered harshly, hardly able to contain his hands as they roamed Gray's skin.

The ice mage let out a high laugh.

"Your boyfriend."

"Yep."

"Also a member of Fairy Tail," Gray went on. "Mika and Silver's only child. Ur's final student…"

Natsu huffed, about to stop this teasing litany, but he paused to listen.

"A wizard who managed to become a victim. Someone with a hell of a lot of issues who probably doesn't deserve this at all…"

"Gray," Natsu grunted in warning, lifting his head to look the ice mage in the eye.

"—but I don't care, Natsu. I don't care at all." He tugged on the Dragon Slayer as if he could bring them even closer together. "Because I am also your boyfriend, and your boyfriend needs you to continue what you were just doing."

"You need me to?" Natsu hummed through a smile, feverishly running his fingers up and down Gray's ribs.

"Yes, it feels fantastic…"

"I bet I can make it feel even better."

As Natsu swept in and began sucking on the other side of his neck, surrounded by Gray's scent and his skin and his small, desperate sounds, Gray panted out, "It feels amazing because of how much you like me."

Heart full to bursting, the Dragon Slayer kissed up his jaw and beamed at him.

"And here I thought it was my skills."

"Maybe those too. But I won't say so, because if I told you how skilled you are, you wouldn't have a reason to practice on me anymore."

Natsu snorted. "Except because of how much I like you, popsicle. That's always a good reason."

Chapter 34: Finally There

Chapter Text

"Where's your beau?" Mira asked, approaching Gray at a table.

He blinked up at her. "Out on a job with Happy the last week."

"Why aren't you with them?"

"It's fire-related." Gray tapped the wood surface. "Flame-brain can handle his own jobs."

"Don't you miss him?"

"No," he lied.

Elfman, who was passing behind his sister, snorted a laugh and Gray glared.

"Gray, you don't have to act detached," Mira said, fixing him with a kind look. "We've all been there."

"Been where?" he growled, tensing even more.

"Missing someone," she said obviously.

"I told you, I'm fine."

Mira put a hand on his arm, but pulled back when his skin was ice cold. His defense mechanism against touch.

"Your eyes say otherwise. Can I get you something?"

Get him something? How about privacy? How about not all this pity for his weakness—all this attempting to connect?

"No," he bit out. He just missed Natsu, for gods' sakes. It wasn't a big deal.

"If you're worried about him, a drink will—"

Pushing away from the table, Gray cut her off by stomping toward the exit.

"Hey!" Elfman bellowed. "Don't treat Mira that way!"

Speeding up, Gray pushed through the guild doors. Before he was halfway out, he ran smack into Cana. They both went tumbling, cards spraying through the air along with a shirt and coat—he'd stripped while falling.

"What's all the hurry?" she asked, glowering.

"Sorry." As they both stood up, he helped her collect her cards. "Getting away from the fucking Strausses."

"Why?"

"They're irritating prats."

"I thought only Natsu could get under your skin like that." At Gray's glare, she frowned. "What's with you?"

"Why does everyone feel the need to speculate on my feelings for Natsu?" Gray countered.

She looked at him in genuine confusion. "They don't."

"Mira just fucking told me to drop the façade because she knows how I'm feeling or some shit."

"Of course she said that, fuckwit. That's what people say."

Narrowing his gaze, Gray admitted, "I feel fucking pried open."

Cana rolled her eyes.

"Stop it. Nobody gives a shit what's happening between you as long as you're happy. It's just," she poked his chest, "you clam up whenever anyone sees you guys together or so much as says his name. It's like you lose your personality, Fullbuster. How is someone supposed to talk with you when you're like that? So they come up with the first thing they can to bring you out of your shell and that's your boyfriend. Why? Because almost everyone knows what it's like to fall in love and it's a happy topic that gets most people to loosen up. That's all."

Gray almost said, who said I'm in love with him, but that was a lie he couldn't make believable if he tried. Not to Cana. He didn't want to anyway.

"What does losing your personality even mean?" he mumbled.

"It means you go quiet and sulky, don't react to things. That sort of shit."

He hmphed.

"Moral of the story: relax, Gray. It's your life. If you don't want people asking, just say so. They'll eventually shut up."

Gray sighed. "I guess."

"Now that we've had that little heart-to-heart," Cana inhaled, "I feel like doing something excessively physical. I don't suppose anyone's brawling in there?"

"No." He grinned a little: "Natsu's not here to start one."

"See, that's what most people expect," she said, pointing at his smile. "Not the I-kill-you-with-my-eyes-if-you-say-his-name."

"Whatever," Gray snorted, feeling better for reasons he couldn't explain. "If you want a fight, why don't you start one?"

Cana put a hand to her chest in mock offense.

"Have you ever seen me start a brawl?"

"I haven't seen you join a brawl in ages."

At which point Gray had to fend off several cards heading for his face with a block of ice. Their friendly battle spilled into Fairy Tail after a few minutes, and it didn't take long for a dozen other people to jump in.

Gray was not at all surprised when Erza ended the fight. Erza chewing Cana out turned into a shouting match, which Gray could tell they were reveling in.

Oh, Fairy Tail.

After ascertaining his clothes were on (he hated stripping when Natsu was gone), Gray sidled over to the bar and had just greeted Lucy when Cana squeezed between them.

"Keg, Mira," Cana called.

"Done shouting?" he asked her. "I just about went deaf."

"That's your own fault," Lucy interrupted. "You helped start a fight."

"She started it," he protested, hooking a thumb toward Cana, now knocking back her requested keg.

"You and Natsu have started so many over the years, it's fair to blame them all on you."

"Hey!"

Cana extracted herself from her booze. "Aw, Lucy, everyone knows they were just flirting."

Gray blushed, unable to splutter out a response. So true.

Lucy wore amused smile.

"Alright. So who were you flirting with just now, Cana?"

Unlike Gray, Cana had the fortitude not to turn scarlet. With a nonchalant shrug she said, "I was just blowing off steam."

"Which I suppose is the same reason you and Natsu still fight each other," Lucy said to Gray.

"Um," he said. They fought because that's what they did. Fighting was a way of saying I love you—

Gray's flush darkened to an impossible shade.

"Why are you going red?" Cana laughed. "Hey, back when you were keeping it secret, did you two ever fight just to keep people off the scent?"

Gray put his forehead on his arms. Not sulking. Not sulking…

"Yes," he mumbled.

Hearing his friends' laughter had the strange effect of making him smile even while he was mortified. It was funny: he and Natsu had done some stupid shit to try and pretend to the world they weren't all over each other.

"That's almost cute," Cana said, shaking her head. "You two fighting because you love each other."

Gray felt naked hearing someone say it. But Cana flipped her hair back and took another drink, meaning nothing by it. Just as she'd said, it was his life. But Gray cared.

"When's Natsu back?" Lucy asked.

"Tomorrow."

The word made him want to smile—so soon—but he couldn't. Gray Fullbuster was strong and hard but turned weak when these emotions emerged. Weakness was death.

"I gotta go," he said, feeling the oncoming numbness, the sense of two people in one body. He headed toward the door, hating himself for still being this way, still being so broken.

Being triggered could go to hell.


The itch was back, that antsy feeling that made Gray restless and stupid. As he showered off the dirt from his and Cana's fight, he was able to pull into himself and assess his internal state. That was a strength he didn't used to have; numbness used to be the only way to get through dissociative events. This time he was able to close his eyes and admit to himself: he was scared.

For the first time in his life, he didn't feel safe at Fairy Tail. He hated that, almost didn't want to acknowledge it. They were family. But he had this wonderful thing with Natsu, this precious happiness he was guarding with his fucking life, and people kept poking it, wanting to see, forcing him to drop the protective walls.

Except…they couldn't force him to do anything. That was the point: that's what the cold dissociation was—his soul receding inward so he could protect himself.

Now that he was in his apartment and had nothing to defend against, he wanted to feel open. He wanted to exist in that space where he didn't have to hide, but his fire mage was gone until tomorrow and Gray was alone.

He didn't know which was worse, being alone or being around people when he didn't have his walls.

The lack of freedom closed his windpipe. Gods dammit, humans weren't supposed to live like this. They were supposed to be able to trust, relax. They were supposed to be happy, not constantly on edge.

The itch on his skin was a roar in his mind.

He did not want to be like this.

Just because he was all by himself, he reasoned, didn't mean there was nobody to be open with. He was here with himself after all. Could be honest and open and happy with himself. Courageous with himself, unafraid of himself. Cana was right: Gray didn't belonged to anyone but him.

It was revolutionary—that this body and mind were completely his.

He'd never really owned that before.

Gray ran his hands over his chest, feeling the warmth of skin and getting that comforting reassurance: human. This belonged to him and he didn't have to be afraid of it. Not when he was alone. Being by himself was nice like that. No reason for walls.

A spark of something made him straighten. Tonight he could relax his protective stance and give his exhausted psyche a break. This solitude was a good thing. Sure, maybe he couldn't trust the outside world (yet, he told himself) and nobody but Natsu was safe, but for the first time he was starting to feel safe by himself. He was putting those ghosts behind him.

No, that wasn't totally true. The ghosts were still there. But he was in this moment, while they were merely an echo.

He ran his hands over his skin again.

While he showered, he stared himself and marveled in himself. Noted what it felt like to touch his own skin. Felt at home in his body.

At home. Wow.

He could do whatever he wanted. Could touch himself any way he desired—it was his. Nobody forced him to do anything. He could stop whenever he wanted.

And there was something he wanted…but he was scared, always wary of panic. He had walls within his body, just like his mind. But he was safe by himself, with nobody to protect against. No need for walls, right?

Before he turned off the shower, he reached back and slid his fingers over his ass. Felt over the muscles, the lines, the curves. This all belonged to him. Yes, there were memories—but this wasn't them; this was right now. It was possible to coexist with his past and still claim this as his own.

Carefully, he pressed his hand against the places he never touched. Fingers probed, slipping over, around. Curiosity outshone wariness as he explored.

Poking a fingertip inside himself, he waited. He listened to his body telling him what it felt like. A little uncomfortable, but not painful. He knew what the pain in his memories felt like, but he focused on here and now, touched himself more, moved a little and felt sensations change. He wondered if he could handle another finger.

He tried it.

He continued toying with himself, caressing, discovering. It was exhilarating in a way that was hard to explain. An overwhelming pleasure stemmed from the fact that he could do this—that this part of his body was not off-limits to him. It made it hard to tell if the touch held physical pleasure, but he didn't really care: there would be time to discover that later. Right now he was just…happy.

It was all his, and he knew it was his, and it was safe right now.


When Natsu arrived, Gray was waiting at Fairy Tail.

"Hey." Natsu beamed.

"Hey."

Natsu had a moment of indecision about hugging which was ultimately decided by Gray's smile. Leaning in, he held on for a few seconds, and even if it was only that and their bodies were hardly pressed together, the feeling of arms around each other was good.

Really good.

Gray was blushing when they broke apart, but still smiling.

"So what'd you do while I was gone?" Natsu asked.

"Lazy, mostly."

"I could've predicted that. Why did I even ask?"

Gray laughed, the red in his cheeks not going away. Pleased self-consciousness radiated off him like steam.

"Well." Natsu leaned against the bar beside him, eyes on the hall. "Home?"

"Are you hungry? If we eat here, you don't have to wait on cooking."

"Oh. Yeah." Natsu blinked at this thoughtfulness, following Gray and sliding onto a stool.

Gray was okay being around all these people even though Natsu just got back? Some god somewhere was raining luck his way.

Natsu didn't try to find a catch, worry about the 'inevitable' reality check, because that wasn't who he was. Instead, he let his smile widen as far as it wanted to go and considered what he wanted to eat.

The meal was easy, normal, wondrous. Lucy came over and Natsu told her and Gray about the job; he ate his way to sevenths before finally getting full; and when he realized he forgot to eat breakfast, Gray laughed. Aloud! A rolling guffaw that cut through Natsu's speech.

Gray hardly ever did that, even when it was just them. Natsu almost kissed him. Probably would have, except he was too amazed to move.

"Shall we go home?" Gray asked. "Or do you need eighths?"

Natsu sighed contentedly.

"I'm good. Hey, Happy," he called over. "Let's fish later."

The secret code for give us space. The Exceed gave a thumbs-up.

Gray's hand slipped into Natsu's and squeezed his fingers. It was embarrassing to admit, but it made Natsu shiver.

He really, really liked this man, and he was in danger of melting into a stupidly sentimental puddle if Gray continued being amazing.

As they made their way across the hall, someone threw a tankard at them. More specifically, at Natsu's head.

They both dodged and the mug clattered across the floor. Seeking the culprit, they found Gajeel smirking.

"Lay off," Gray called in a withering tone, as if Gajeel were an annoying child.

"Tell that fire lizard to make me," Gajeel called back, throwing a fork Natsu's way.

Natsu leaned out of its path, but Gray knocked it from the air. Rolling his eyes at Gajeel, Natsu tossed the utensil onto a table; he didn't feel like fighting right now. He was going to spend time with his incredibly happy boyfriend.

"Shove off," Gray told Gajeel, shouldering Natsu toward the exit. "He's mine right now."

"Too weak to fight?" Gajeel jeered.

"Too happy to be bothered—" Natsu began.

Gray threw out a hand and splinters of ice crashed over the metal mage.

"Oi!"

"Not weak, mine. Can't you hear?"

Gajeel crossed his arms, but Natsu heard him grumble, "Romantic show-offs."

Gray grabbed Natsu's hand and stalked away.

Outside, the chilly air highlighted the burst of fire in the Salamander's chest. This was the Gray he'd known all his life, who threw down without pondering the consequences, but also the Gray who cared about him and wanted Natsu to himself.

Jerking them to a halt, Natsu gripped Gray's shoulders and kissed him, pressing their faces close and smelling the strong scent of Gray's skin.

"You're hot," the Dragon Slayer said in a purring growl. "I like you."

"C'mon, sunflower," Gray said, grin climbing his face as he pulled on Natsu's arm. "Home."


There were no plans, just following the moment: a gradual, dripping moment which slid into the next like honey. There were no goals or thoughts or considerations. Just them.

Perched on the sofa, the Salamander was straddling his boyfriend's lap, both of them shirtless. Gray's mouth against his filled Natsu's brain. The warm taste of him; the exhilaration of wrapping their tongues together and feeling like one fused being; the slow insistence vibrating through Gray's throat as Natsu sucked on his lips. And gods, there were hands too, slow-moving fingers that slipped over his bare skin in a happy daze.

Gray's palm rode up his spine to cup his head.

"Natsu," he said, and there was something in his tone that made Natsu pay attention. "Don't freak out, okay?"

Natsu snorted and nipped his adam's apple. "Why would I?"

"Do you trust me?" Gray asked, breathless under Natsu's tongue.

The answer was yes, but Natsu still considered before replying.

"With anything."

"Okay."

Gray returned to kissing him, finger trailing down Natsu's chest. The Dragon Slayer was extremely curious now. Not that it affected his participation. If anything, the mystery turned him on more.

He felt as Gray's pulse kicked up, the ice mage's hands shaking as excitement hit his system. With a show of strength Natsu wasn't prepared to defend against, Gray shoved him off, rolled up off the couch, and pulled Natsu up next to him.

"Bed," Gray ordered.

Heart thumping, Natsu said, "Aye s—ir!"

His voice disappeared embarrassingly high: with a mischievous smirk, Gray ran his hand over the front of Natsu's pants.

"Fuck, as if I wasn't coming with you already," the Dragon Slayer spluttered.

Gray grinned. In retaliation, Natsu followed on his heels, hands doing crafty things in Gray's pants.

Somehow making it to the bedroom, Gray turned and wrapped arms around Natsu's waist to kiss him. Natsu was so focused on sliding his fingers through Gray's hair and caressing the sharp line of Gray's jaw, he almost didn't notice the ice mage taking Natsu's belt off.

Gray undressed him with a slowness that was probably ordinary for other people, but abnormal for Gray. He paid special attention to every centimeter of skin, like he was trying to memorize the shape of Natsu's body, kissing, caressing, licking as he went. Even when Natsu was naked, Gray just kept going, worshiping.

Since Gray hadn't reached for his own pants yet, Natsu shucked them for him, speedily, not willing to wait any longer. Fire was burning under his skin and Gray just kept touching him and making him hotter.

A spike of exhilaration rushed through him at pulling Gray's bare body against his own. Gray didn't have to touch his cock: just the skin contact and the anticipation were enough to make thinking hazy and difficult. Natsu was full of whirling, pent-up energy he needed to unleash: he needed to make Gray groan, expend on him all this passion which was both so full and hungry for more.

Before Natsu could draw him to the bed, Gray trailed his lips down Natsu's neck and shoulder while fingers slid up to play with his sack.

"Ahnn! Gray," Natsu gasped.

"Come here," Gray panted, moving toward the bed.

His face was flushed, giving Natsu a sizable amount of satisfaction. Gods, the ice wizard was so hard, precum scenting the air, and Natsu had the strong desire to ravish him.

Gray didn't help matters when he fell onto his back with an expectant grin.

Landing beside him, Natsu wrapped his hands around Gray's warm skin and kissed him with every speck of desire in his being. Gray jolted and groaned when the Dragon Slayer sank his teeth into Gray's shoulder.

"I'm going to devour you," Natsu promised.

Before he could move lower, Gray caught his wrists. His black eyes were more turned on than the Salamander had ever seen, a surging energy in his movements. Something was different this time.

"I want you to watch," Gray managed, voice hoarse. "Watch this."

He let go of Natsu's hands, grabbed lube, and moved toward his own cock. Natsu groaned: pervy stripper with his wonderful exhibition kink. Watching Gray touch himself was the most crazy-making thing Gray did to him—and that was saying something, because Gray was damn creative about fucking.

But Gray's fingers kept going, past his cock, and his balls, and Natsu held his breath, eyes glued. Gray let out a breathy, desperate sound when he started fingering himself, making Natsu's dick jump with the desire to make him make that sound over and over—but he was even more preoccupied with the fact of what Gray was doing. Touching himself there. Fuck, this had to mean as much as he though it meant: Gray had never done this, had never tried to do this, and holy fuck was it hot.

"Gray," Natsu croaked, unable to tear his gaze from Gray opening himself. "You're making me really, really love you right now."

Gray let out an airless laugh.

"I could jack off watching you do this," Natsu groaned, "and come in seconds."

"Don't yet," Gray said.

He added a third finger and stretched himself more, letting out another glorious sound. Thrusts growing erratic, Gray closed his eyes, and Natsu knew he'd found the place where sensations, in Natsu's experience, tended to transform into bursts of euphoria. After several more minutes, Gray pulled out of himself, looking fucked out and on the edge of blowing.

"Grab a condom," he said.

Wondering where this was going, Natsu did. Yes, this was something big, Gray fingering his own ass, but.

But...

He did not expect Gray to tell him to put the condom on. He did not expect Gray to lick up and down his cock, leaving trails of saliva shimmering on the latex—and Natsu with his fingers knotted in the comforter to keep himself from coming. He did not expect Gray to maneuver on top of him, grinning down through his fringe, and take hold of Natsu's cock—

"Gray, wait," he gasped, wary, afraid. His heart crashed against his ribs over and over.

"Trust me," Gray said. So fucking gorgeous.

Natsu took a deep breath, discovering the air had gotten thin, before nodding.

"I love you," he added, the words a promise to stop, to watch out, to hold him and not let go if—

Gray brought Natsu's cock against his ass and Natsu bit his own arm: he was sure Gray could feel him throbbing. It was so incredibly sexy seeing Gray perched above his cock, abs standing out in relief.

Gray pushed him a little bit inside and Natsu moaned into his wrist. Gray glanced at him, not halting. Their eyes met in wonder and light, sharing a moment of awe.

"Gods," Natsu whispered.

The pressure, the thrill in his cock, Gray doing this—Gray, his Gray, holy shit, Gray. Gray wanted Natsu… He could've cried.

And he thought he'd known what happiness was.

A smile turned up the corners of Gray's mouth, concentrating as he sank further down. Now Natsu was really inside of him, and fuck, Natsu was hooked on Gray's face. The surprised relief in his expression was palpable.

Relief.

Gray had always wanted this; the real Gray had. If you stripped away the trauma, there were desires lurking. It made Natsu's stomach flip over wondering what else they might discover. Wondering at what had happened, how he'd gotten so lucky that Gray would open this deep part of himself to share.

Gray was a lifetime of beautiful.

As Natsu felt Gray take in the rest of him, he pressed his head back, soaking in the tight feeling. It was better than anything, better than a hand job, better than when Gray took him down his throat. So tight, so warm. Inside of Gray was the farthest thing from icy.

Gray hit his lap and moaned.

There was never a better sound. He likes this, he likes having me inside him, he's enjoying this, he wants my cock...

With his hands on Natsu's shoulders, Gray pulled up a little and slid back down. There was no way the Dragon Slayer could be prepared for the slick, squeezing pressure—his cock burned with the need to let go.

"Fuck yes," Natsu whimpered, as Gray threw his head back. Sweat trailed down the ice mage's face, black hair messed. As his fingers softly kneaded Natsu's skin, his muscles strained with pleasure.

"Oh gods, fuck, I..." Panting, Gray opened his eyes and stared down at Natsu. It was the most naked they'd ever been with each other.

Gray took a long, overwhelmed breath.

"I love you," he whispered.

The Salamander felt pressure behind his eyes. This couldn't be real.

Gray Fullbuster, his Gray.

Leaning down, Gray kissed him and their tongues intertwined slowly, the ice mage's body taut to keep from moving. But something must've shifted just right, because he broke off suddenly panting.

"It does feel good," Gray whispered in surprise, making Natsu's heart disappear completely.

Slowly thrusting in this new position, Gray's nose brushed over the Dragon Slayer's cheek, faces a centimeter apart. They exhaled together.

"Hahhh," Gray grunted, readjusting his weight and sliding a hand over Natsu's torso. Those fingers on his ribs were so intimate.

Thrusting harder, Gray keened again. The Salamander gasped, fire rushing through his cock—it took all he had not to come as Gray's lips grazed his face.

Gray began a slow rhythm and they both groaned. Gray sounded like he was entering paradise for the first time, while Natsu was in heaven already, captivated by the ecstatic awe on Gray's face. They were doing this for the first time and Gray was okay; Gray wanted this. Gods, it felt fucking amazing.

Straining, Gray's body clenched and Natsu wondered if it was possible to die from pleasure. His balls ached. Realizing he hadn't moved his hands, so afraid of doing something he shouldn't, Natsu traveled his palms up Gray's thighs and stomach, savoring Gray's distracted shivers.

Suddenly, Gray curled in on himself, crying out and tensing hard until Natsu's cock throbbed.

"Natsu! N-N-Naaa...tsu..."

His voice was breathy, lost, perfect. His spine kept compressing until it almost looked painful, like he was coming, though his hard cock still pressed against Natsu's abdomen. The look on Gray's face was utter abandon. When his black gaze met Natsu's for a split second, the surge of emotion that hit Natsu's chest shoved the air out of him.

"Do you trust me?" Natsu rasped.

"Ahhh—mmm!"

Natsu moved up to caress Gray's face. Gray trembled, lost in a wonderful world as the Dragon Slayer ran his fingers over the closed lids, hard cheekbones, and open mouth. So beautifully alive.

One hand thus occupied, the Salamander touched Gray's ass with the other, pulling his cheeks wider so Natsu could push deeper in.

"Oh my god, Natsu…" Gray shuddered and leaned into him.

Too overcome for words, Gray slipped his tongue between Natsu's lips, slow and unstoppable. The kiss was sloppy as Gray tried to catch his breath, but Natsu liked Gray breathless, so he bit him. The ice mage trembled harder. Natsu kissed him like that for what felt like hours, his cock still held in that warm place, Gray confiscating his body.

Gray's soft smile was the entire world.

It took everything Natsu had not to thrust. But even gentle movements—no. Gray was in charge of this. Natsu didn't want to mess it up.

"You look amazing," Natsu said.

"I feel…" Gray leaned in and kissed Natsu's neck. "I want more."

Natsu's heart was pounding out of his chest. A brilliant grin burst out of him. "Okay."

Natsu wanted to give him more. He was so ready to—but when Gray started thrusting again, Natsu gasped and lost all sense of direction. Every move sent fire soaring through his belly. He didn't want this evening to end, but on the other hand, goddamn it was hard to hold off.

Knees bent, the Salamander's feet began to fall asleep, but when he shifted, Gray let out a loud and very vocal groan.

"Like this?" Natsu asked, pushing up slightly—and Gray gasped. Natsu was already panting.

"Guhh," Gray groaned.

"Tell me to stop," Natsu whispered, pressing deeper again.

The answer was short and desperate: "Don't stop."

Tingling warmth spread outward from Natsu's chest. Sliding his hands down, he took hold of his boyfriend's thighs and bucked into him softly.

"Natsu!" Gray shouted, looking luminous. "Natsu, gods…oh gods…"

"Wow," Natsu hissed. "Gray, Gray, you're amazing."

Gray straightened and leaned back, a hand behind him to hold himself up. His mouth hung open, every breath ragged. Gray's other hand splayed across Natsu's abdomen and shook whenever Natsu hit him just right.

While the Salamander thrust into him, Gray's body jolted at the wonderful sensations. Natsu knew those sensations, grinned at seeing Gray taken over. The man was gone in bliss: Natsu couldn't tear his eyes away.

It felt like their relationship was only just getting started.

With every thrust, Natsu tried to match Gray's movements, followed every twitch and sigh. Everything was about his boyfriend tonight—the ice mage was letting Natsu focus on him, on his pleasure. It was something Natsu wanted for so long now: to make Gray feel everything. To give, while Gray enjoyed him.

This moment was all about Gray, and Natsu didn't think he'd ever loved another person so much.


It all felt so good.

That was the primary thought in Gray's head as they moved into each other over and over. Gray's nerve endings were firing in excruciating joy.

The Dragon Slayer groaned every time he pushed into Gray. It amazed Gray the man hadn't come yet: he knew his body was tight and tense—had to remind himself every so often to relax his ass, which meant the strain for Natsu to hold off must've been intense.

One of the fire mage's thumbs caressed back and forth over Gray's leg as Natsu gripped him. The touches reminded him of the light way Natsu teased his body in the mornings, and thought of those simple, playful ways Natsu loved him made his beating heart boil over. Gods, it turned him on, made every part of him feel alive and in this moment.

He was fully in this moment.

What Natsu could do to him—shit, Gray would let him do anything. The pleasure in his ass was so unexpected and so overwhelming, Gray would surrender to anything. His body was alight.

He trusted Natsu completely.

Gray was moaning without even realizing it now. When he felt Natsus's hands tighten on his skin, he looked down at his flushed, sweaty boyfriend and met his eyes. Gray felt known; he felt alive; and he felt strong—not in control, but empowered. The kind of strong that could relax. Let someone love him.

A smile burst across his face and he felt like he could come right now.

Grabbing his cock, Gray stroked himself, touching in every way that stimulated, mindless as his body approached the edge. Fullness pushed through him and he tipped his head back, joy exploding through him.

He was vaguely aware of the change in Natsu's movements, the desperate gasp and sudden hard grip. As Natsu's hips pushed against him and stayed there, molten sensations rocketed up Gray's spine.

He emptied on Natsu's stomach with a tense, "Yes."

The Dragon Slayer cried out, "Gray, oh fuck, Gray…Gray, shit…Gray…"

Unending.

Gray felt Natsu join him a few seconds later, utterly sated.

He collapsed on top of Natsu, not caring about the mess of cum or how sweaty they were. The world grew fuzzy, and they were the only people in existence.

Natsu's arms twined around him and Gray slid up to put his head by his boyfriend's. Natsu smiled at him, eyes bright.

"Natsu," Gray croaked, and discovered his throat wasn't working anymore. Swallowing several times, he tried again. "Natsu, I want you to know…I love you."

Natsu turned a violent pink, grin wide enough to split the sky.

"You only said that to me three times before today," he said.

Gray let out a breathless laugh.

"You're keeping track?"

The Dragon Slayer shrugged, still grinning. His expression was so innocently happy, not a single thing clouding him, and Gray relaxed into that, wrapped up in Natsu's exuberance.

"This is special," Gray said. "So I wanted you to know."

"Of course this is special," Natsu said, fingers outlining Gray's face. "You let me take care of you. You trust me."

Blinking rapidly, Gray nodded.

When Natsu rolled over, he nuzzled Gray's cheek and kissed him. Simple, delighted.

"This," Gray decided when they broke apart, "is what I want to wake up to."

"I'll make sure you don't get away from me," Natsu said with a grin.

Heart beating wildly, Gray stayed cuddled against him for a long time.


Natsu watched Gray dream.

He ran his fingers through the black hair as expressions flitted across Gray's face. It was another nightmare. Gray's pulse kept ramping up and Natsu knew he should wake him, but he took another few seconds staring. This was the face of the man who trusted him with everything.

Touching Gray's cheek, Natsu whispered, "Hey, love. Snowball. Wake up. Ice queen…"

Calling Gray's name woke him up in a panic, so Natsu kept searching for nicknames.

"Popsicle. Snowflake. Wake up."

Gray stirred.

"What time is it?" he grumbled into the pillow.

"Um…dunno."

Gray gave him a one-eyed stare.

"Nightmare?"

"Mm." Natsu caressed his hair.

Gray sighed. "I thought those would be over."

"Maybe it was a reaction to tonight."

"No." Gray pressed his face to Natsu's bare chest. "Tonight was good."

Goddamn, those words could make Natsu's heart explode.

"Well, no magical solutions, right?" Natsu said, trying to keep Gray upbeat.

Gray yawned. "You have magic. And you solve things."

Natsu grinned, but whispered, "No, but I am pretty damn awesome."

"Very true." Gray chuckled. "Remember how I used to kick your ass for comments like that?"

"You mean, I kicked your ass," Natsu teased.

"How about you do other things to my ass?" the ice mage suggested, sleepy voice muffled.

Natsu's lungs stuttered over his breath.

"Really?" he asked, voice scratching. Gray wanted to do it again. Gray wanted to do it again.

"I want to stay together for a while," Gray murmured. "I figure there'll be time to try things."

It took the Salamander several minutes trying to control his happiness before he realized Gray was asleep. Hugging the ice mage, Natsu willed him into good dreams. Ones where he wasn't afraid of anything.

Chapter 35: The Slow Light of Progress

Chapter Text

The leaves were turning as autumn came on. Over a year and a half together now.

Gray was doing better. There was no other word for it. Natsu hated to make a value judgment, as if there was something wrong with Gray; as if there could be 'worse' and 'better' when talking about a human soul—as if it mattered how often Gray was triggered or whether he needed to get away from people sometimes.

None of that mattered. But from a purely objective standpoint, Gray was getting better.

Fewer panic attacks. Almost none, actually. When Gray got twisted up with too many feelings, he expressed it—sometimes still afraid when he did so that after all this time Natsu would hurt him or run away. But it was much easier these days to persuade Gray he was safe. And Gray communicating meant Natsu knew when he needed to tread carefully or something wasn't working, and he could work around to get things right.

Natsu had improved, too.

He wasn't hurt when Gray pushed him away: Gray always came back to him. No matter how he acted at times, Gray needed him, had a place for Natsu in his life. Understanding that numbness was a defense and had nothing to do with him, Natsu didn't worry about being superfluous. Gray had also gotten better at expressing his affection. Through touches and smiles and sex and cuddling; in languages Natsu understood.

Right now, Gray's thumb was rubbing across the back of Natsu's hand, the movement totally unconscious, Gray in conversation with Lucy. As they walked, Natsu grinned and enjoyed the small circles on his skin.

"I swear, Lucy," Gray said, "people just didn't get married in Isvan."

"Okay, but what about your parents?" Lucy pressed. "They were married, right?"

"I honestly don't remember," Gray said. "And that doesn't change anything. I just don't see any reason to get married. I can love someone without it."

"I suppose." Lucy looked like she didn't. Seeing the Salamander staring, she nodded at him. "What about you?"

"I'm dating." Natsu shrugged. "I can't marry you, Lucy. Sorry."

"Baka, you know what I mean." Lucy reached across Gray to hit him on the arm. The ice mage was laughing.

"Not the best proposal ever, Lucy," Natsu said, earning a frustrated squeal.

Gray halted suddenly.

"I think that's our job ahead."

When he saw smoke rising in the distance, Natsu stiffened.

They all broke into a run.


The destruction was awful. Gray was glad Erza and Wendy hadn't been able to come: the fewer people to see it, the better. And all caused by one person. The man learned mages were coming and tried to burn evidence of his work—including the people working for him.

The smell of destruction and death was overpowering. Natsu threw up twice; Gray could only imagine what dragon senses could pick up that his human ones couldn't.

As they shifted through ashes and charred structures, Gray tried not to see the bodies and just looked for people who were alive. Lucy found two, both unharmed: the pair had hidden in a cellar that miraculously went untouched by the fire.

Kicking open the door of what had to be the main house, Gray iced over some steaming embers and checked the rooms, coming to a narrower door which was locked. A bit of magic broke it open.

Sweeping the room, the ice mage went stiff before his brain finished processing what was before him. A dirty futon in the corner, and on it, a boy curled on his side: naked, hugging his knees.

"Is that a heartbeat?" Natsu asked, coming up behind him. "Is someone—?"

"Don't!" Gray flung an arm out, blocking the Salamander from taking another step. He couldn't tear his eyes away. Those marks. Those bruises. "Don't come any closer."

"Is that a boy?" Natsu gasped.

"Alive?" Happy exclaimed, fluttering forward.

"Don't come in." Gray tried to fill the doorway with his frame. "Let me handle this."

Gray glanced over his shoulder and caught Natsu's eye, receiving a somber nod. Behind the Dragon Slayer, Happy and Lucy were crowded close, eyes wide, unable to see through the doorway. Natsu pulled them back.

When Gray stepped forward, he dropped his arms and moved slowly—gentle and quiet, hunching down.

"Hello," he said, then felt stupid. What was he supposed to say in a situation like this? "The man's not coming back. He's gone forever: it's okay now. I'm going to kneel right here, okay?"

The boy stirred, at last—making Gray's heart thump terrifyingly loud. So many scars. Such a tiny body.

Giant eyes blinked up at him, not terrified, not angry: just blank. It made Gray sick, resonating with a part of himself he was intimately familiar with.

"It's okay," he said, reaching out a tentative hand. "I'm going to touch your shoulder. Is that alright?"

Eyes blinked at him over those bony knees. The boy didn't say a word.

With infinite slowness, Gray touched two fingertips to the boy's unbruised shoulder. The child jolted, still silent—not a cry or gasp.

The skin under his fingers was warm. This was real. More real than anything else in this place. Maintaining eye contact, Gray carefully moved until his whole hand rested on the boy's shoulder.

Gray thanked all the gods he didn't have Natsu's heightened senses, not having to smell every terrible thing that had happened in this room. The nightmare is over. Heart beating fast, Gray had to swallow several times before speaking.

"The man's dead." An accident, when they tried to fight and capture him—one they felt terrible about until they saw everything the bastard had done. "I'm going to carry you out of here. Is that okay? We're going to leave this place, and you never have to come back."

And finally, finally, the boy responded, a little moan sliding out of him before it choked off into silence.

"I don't want to touch you without your permission," Gray said, and it took everything in him not to cry. Natsu said those words to him last time he had a panic attack a few months ago. "I won't do anything you don't want. So nod your head if it's okay. Shake your head if you don't like what I'm doing, and I'll stop right away. Okay?"

A pause, then a nod.

Removing his hand, Gray looked around for something to wrap the naked boy in.

"Natsu?" he whispered, and a pink head appeared in the doorway in an instant, the Salamander's expression strong and soft. "Where's my shirt?"

"Hold on."

A few seconds later, Natsu reappeared and tossed the garment over.

Gray began narrating his actions one by one as he laid the shirt over the boy, wrapped it around him, and lifted him off the bloody futon. His shirt dwarfed the boy, covering him from neck to calf.

As Gray eased the child against his chest, something inside him crumbled. He wasn't sure if it was fear, or his courage, or self-control, but Gray knew: he wasn't going to be the same after this.

Carrying the boy out of the awful room, Gray heard a new noise: a small breath, tight and quiet.

The ice mage was grateful only Natsu waited in the next room. Before he could move toward the exit, the Salamander held a hand out, eyes skipping down to the bundle in his arms.

"People from the Council just showed up."

"Okay. Thanks."

Outside in fresh air, Gray inhaled, regretting it when he tasted the carnage on his tongue. In his arms, the boy stirred, looking around with wide eyes.

"What?" His voice was tiny, disused, and so young.

"That man tried to destroy everything," Gray said.

A contingent of rune knights were working through the wreckage, digging out bodies and cataloguing things. Seeing a small tent half-erected, Gray made a decision and turned off to the side.

"I know some terrible things have happened," he said, feeling heaviness in every limb. He needed to find the most important things and communicate them to this boy, now. "Others might not know or understand, but…I do. I know you may not feel anything now, and later you might feel a lot of things you don't want to, more than it feels like you can handle. It's okay. You aren't to blame for any of it, anything that happened. You are good and strong and you are going to be okay."

He met the small dark eyes.

"Things might get uncomfortable now. We're going to make sure you're not bleeding and deal with any infections. But nobody will do anything you don't like. If you're ever not okay, shake your head and we'll stop. Okay?"

The boy paused, then nodded. Eyes trailed over Gray's chest and fixated on his guildmark. Before Gray knew what was happening, a hand emerged from the pile of cloth and touched the blue ink.

"This means I'm a wizard from Fairy Tail, and that I'll always come to help you. Always. My name is Gray Fullbuster. You can ask for anything, anytime, and I'll come."

Black eyes widened before the boy cracked a gigantic yawn. The sweaty palm did not move from Gray's chest.

"You," a young man called, grabbing Gray's attention. "Is that a survivor?"

Slowly Gray turned around, holding the boy closer.

"Who are you?" he asked.

"I'm a healing mage. I need to take a look at him."

Gray jerked back. "No."

"Excuse me?"

"Find someone with your kind of magic who isn't a man," Gray growled, "and I'll let her or them take a look."

"You'll let—?"

"Just do it," Natsu snarled, suddenly at Gray's shoulder.

The sight of two angry mages staring him down made the young man reconsider, and after a moment, he scurried off.

"Thank you," Gray murmured.

Natsu rubbed his back.

When an older woman approached, Gray breathed again, as if he'd forgotten in the interim.

"What's the situation?" she asked, stopping a respectful distance away and glancing at the boy with an understanding eye.

"I think he needs healing," Gray said. "And he needs to not be touched by men."

She raised an eyebrow. "Aren't you a man?"

"I know what I'm doing."

She led him under the open-walled tent, to a corner where there was some privacy. When Gray looked down at his charge, he discovered the boy's eyes had closed; but the pulse in his throat was strong.

"He was abused," Gray said, still cradling the boy.

"I gathered. Let me see."

"I told him no one would do anything he didn't want."

"I'll do my best," she said, pursing her lips. "But I do need to deal with all injuries."

"That doesn't mean you have to humiliate him," Gray growled.

"I agree. He can stay wrapped up for now."

When Gray laid him on the ground, she put glowing palms over him, hovering above various areas. Gray flinched whenever she went over a place that he knew from personal experience was associated with pain. But she proved to be someone who knew what she was doing with these kinds of wounds.

She had to roll the boy onto his side to get to his back, but she only pulled a corner of the shirt away to inspect a wound in the boy's shoulder. Though Gray tried to ask the boy if this was okay, he was either unconscious or asleep. Probably better that way. Gray hoped it was sleep; the relieved kind that took you under and held you in safety until you recovered your strength. The kind that knew all danger had passed.

The boy was safe now. Free. Gray prayed with every particle of his soul the boy could come to know that one day.

That he could have a family, people who stood by him, and one day maybe a partner who would be every inch the wonder Natsu was. Maybe the boy wouldn't discover knives and the beauty of pain, never cut his own skin. Maybe he'd have safe people around whom he could learn to feel, able to face all the darkness inside himself so it didn't split him into two people. Maybe his beautiful heart would have a chance to live outside of self-imposed walls…

Just like that, it was too much for Gray to handle anymore.

"I have to go," he stammered, "but… Don't touch him in any way he doesn't like. Respect his needs. Don't let any of the men near him."

"Are you giving a rune knight orders?" she asked wryly, hands still glowing.

"Yes. Maybe you know what you're doing; maybe you don't. But I'm not going to entrust him to anyone who can't or won't do what's best for him. He could still live well, if he's loved right. It doesn't have to…end."

She stopped for a moment and looked up at him.

"I know," she said simply, and Gray believed her.

Rising, he took a taut breath and strode away, chest too tight for all the things inside. A tear pressed against the inside of his skull, and when he was far enough away, it slipped out, sliding down his cheek like a foreign word.

The boy was saved. Rescued. He had a chance for a life now.

It was just so…close. So many memories.

"There you are."

Natsu's hand tightened on his shoulder and Gray halted.

"I need you to go check on the boy," Gray said, staring at the horizon. "Make sure they do what's right. I can't…I can't right now. Can you watch over him, make sure he's okay?"

Hands slid into his as a body pressed up against Gray's back. Closing his eyes, he breathed deep.

"Of course I can," Natsu said. "I care as much as you do."

"I know."

With a final squeeze, the Salamander hurried back the way Gray had come.

Lucy stood a little ways ahead, watching them but not too close. As Gray approached, wiping his face, he saw Happy on her shoulder.

"Let's…check the town," the ice mage said.

Lucy fell into step beside him.

"We already did: things are okay over there. Happy and I just passed a little lake on our way back. Let's go sit."

"I like that idea." Gray nodded. "I need a moment away from all this."

"Me too."


Happy came to the tent where Natsu was watching over the boy, sent by Gray to ask how things were going.

"The Council has people who handle these types of situations," Natsu told him. "They're sending someone who will take him in and take care of him. I'm not leaving until she gets here."

Happy fluttered off to deliver the message.

When she arrived, Natsu could tell just by her smell she was a good woman. She had a good smile, efficient hands. Gray would approve, and most importantly, the boy would be taken care of.

When they gently woke the boy, the woman didn't take off with him immediately: she sat and talked to him, told him about herself. When she asked the boy if he wanted to come with her—gave him the choice—Natsu bit his lip with sharp canines. There were good people in the world. Making up for the terrible, horrible people.

Before the woman and boy left, he reached up and touched Natsu's shoulder. The Salamander looked down.

"My guildmark."

"Fairy Tail," the boy, Hajime, murmured.

"Yep. We'll always be here if you need us. Always. Gray and I will do anything for you."

The boy nodded solemnly.

Black eyes skittering around as if to make sure the coast was clear, he lifted his hand in a small wave before following the woman away.

Natsu had to wipe his cheeks.

When he found his teammates, they were sitting on a worn bench facing a pond. Lucy sat on one side of Gray, shoulder to shoulder, and Happy on the other curled against Gray's thigh. Both touching Gray, connected. Despite sitting bolt upright, there was no tension in Gray's posture: alertness, but no anxiety.

As he approached behind, the Dragon Slayer caught their conversation and paused.

"...sometimes I wonder: are we weak, or have we just been exposed to more of the world's darkness than other people?" Gray was saying.

"We've definitely witnessed worse things than most people," Lucy said. "But feeling others' pain isn't weakness. It takes incredible courage to have empathy. No matter how it may feel to you, you've been a strong person as long as I've known you, Gray. Please, teach me your secret," she chuckled.

Gray gave a flat laugh. "If I knew, I'd tell you." Then his voice softened. "Natsu taught me how to cry. That helped a lot."

The Dragon Slayer took a shuddery breath. Um, wow. I did?

"He's awesome like that," Lucy said.

"Yeah."

They fell into pleasant silence. Blushing, Natsu was on the point of continuing over to them when Lucy spoke again.

"Does Natsu's protectiveness ever bug you?" she asked.

Gray snorted, and Natsu could hear the smile in it.

"Sometimes. We worked it out—he's better now."

Lucy inhaled.

"Do you remember when that woman kidnapped me to blackmail my father? Remember how Natsu was? He hardly let go of me for a week." She snorted. "He only left my side in order to be with you."

Gray laughed with her. "I remember."

"I think that's a good summary of Natsu. He always has to have hold of his people."

"Yeah." Gray coughed. "It's…really attractive. Watching him take care of people."

"You're one of his people, too."

"I know."

Hearing true, simple belief in Gray's voice meant so much to Natsu, because it hadn't always been there. Gray hadn't always believed him.

These days, he did.

"I think Natsu is an even better person since dating you."

"Thanks?" Gray spluttered.

"He feels it strongly whenever you get hurt. He's experienced everything you have: your panic attacks and whatever else—the details aren't my business. But Natsu's been there. Maybe he doesn't know what a panic attack feels like, but he's experienced his own panic when he watches you go through it. It's amazing how much he's grown—and grown up."

"Yeah." The emotion in Gray's throat was audible to Natsu's ears. "He's really strong to deal with it all."

"Well, he really likes you," Lucy said, nudging Gray's shoulder.

"That's what makes Natsu strong," Happy piped up. "When he likes people. If he didn't have anyone he loved, he wouldn't be half as powerful."

"After seeing Igneel and Zeref, I'd say it runs in his family," Gray said, and all three of them laughed.

With that beautiful sound bubbling through the air, the Salamander finished his trek and stopped beside the bench with a smile.

"Yo."

They looked up at him with eyes bright from merriment, and it made his heart full. Happy was so, so right about him.

"Took you long enough," Gray said, snatching Natsu's hand. "The woman is good? He'll be safe?"

"Very good. You would've liked her."

Gray smiled.

"I'm done here," Natsu said. "Ready to go?"

"Come join us for a bit," Lucy interjected.

Happy curled up in Gray's lap to make room and Natsu scooted up against his boyfriend's side.

As Gray let out a happy sigh, the four of them stared out over the breezy park. This was family. This was Natsu's family, and just having them made him complete.

And Gray, he was Natsu's no matter what. He was perfect with all his edges—and perfect when he overcame them too.

Chapter 36: The Drawing

Chapter Text

One year later.

Gray's fingers dug into Natsu's shoulders, his muscles tensing desperately. His face was centimeters from the Dragon Slayer's, who was able to see every eye-closing shudder and swallow every twitching gasp as they moved in sweaty rhythm.

The Salamander wasn't going particularly slow, but he wasn't moving as fast as Gray wanted either, drawing things out, excruciating, delaying his boyfriend on purpose as he thrust into him. The ice mage was sitting in his lap, chest-to-chest with him, legs looped over Natsu's thighs and heels digging into his back.

Feeling Gray straining around his cock, Natsu bit Gray's lip. When Gray groaned, Natsu lapped into his mouth, curling around Gray's tongue and drawing him in. Kissing the ice mage remained his favorite thing.

With another thrust from Natsu, Gray arched back, stiffening so hard his body shook and gasping, "Please…touch me…"

"But I like enjoying you," Natsu murmured innocently. (He could only be so innocent when he was this out of breath. Gray was so tight, and it felt amazing.) "I like feeling every part of you—"

"Please, Natsu," Gray grunted. "Please…"

Gooseflesh breaking out over his skin, Natsu's thighs tensed.

"Since you ask so nicely," he said, and pulled Gray's hips closer before bucking into him.

Gray cried out, "Natsu—!"

As the ice mage hissed in a ragged inhale, a ripple played down his abdomen, tugging at the Dragon Slayer's cock and nearly losing Natsu his self-control. This was the angle Gray loved, the movement that always pulled him apart into beautiful pieces in Natsu's hands; and as the Salamander thrust firmly without reprieve, Gray dissolved.

When Gray clenched up and let out a long, extended cry, Natsu had to stop moving, both to sustain Gray's pleasure and to keep from coming in that incredibly tight, wonderful body. The euphoria that swooped over his boyfriend's face was exquisite. Gray came against Natsu's stomach and slumped back boneless, Natsu sliding his palms up to catch him.

"How was that?" Natsu whispered, memorizing every centimeter of Gray's face, from his still-closed eyes to the exaggerated red of his lips—Natsu might've kissed him a little hard. Gray loved rough kisses.

"You made me beg," Gray accused, smiling in contentment.

"Of course."

Natsu grinned and kissed him. Wrapping a hand around Natsu's neck, the ice mage pulled him closer, mouthing at him and deliberately clenching around Natsu's cock until he gasped.

"Fuck, fuck, wait a sec…"

"I don't want to wait," Gray breathed, though he stopped squeezing, kissing a tantalizing path under Natsu's jaw line. "More, harder, Natsu…I want to come again."

Gray licked his earlobe and nipped at it. His warm, solid cock lay against Natsu's stomach, twitching quickly back to life, and the Dragon Slayer was weakness itself when Gray was horny. Lazy days like today tended to give the ice mage particular stamina.

"Fuck," he whispered, shivering. "Wh-What do you want…?"

"Fuck me more."

Natsu was straining for more already, pressing slowly into Gray, afraid what would happen if he went fast. Gray was so beautiful and Natsu was so on edge… It wouldn't take much for him to come. Not much at all.

Gray's kneading fingers moved down his shoulders. When one hand slipped down to grab Natsu's ass, the Salamander squeaked and bucked harder. The increased pressure seemed to be just what Gray was going for, because he gripped Natsu's ass and tipped his head back, leaning away and putting his whole muscular body on display.

Damn, that body. Holy shit.

Gray leaned so far back Natsu worried he would slip off. Gray was pulling at him, tugging him toward the bed—

Startled, he realized what Gray wanted.

Gray rarely bottomed when he bottomed: he was better with riding Natsu or being in his lap. They were always face-to-face when they fucked, no matter how they did it: Gray couldn't handle sexual touch from behind, and Natsu preferred seeing him. The time or two Gray had tried fucking Natsu from the rear had been tenuous, Gray not fully enjoying while Natsu missed looking in his lover's eyes. There was something about staring at each other while each of them came that he loved.

But Gray lying beneath him was sometimes okay, and if Gray wanted to be under him today, Natsu wasn't going to deny him. He trusted Gray.

Lowering his ice mage down, he pushed Gray's thighs wide without pulling out, appreciating all the bare, vulnerable skin. It made Natsu groan with desperation: he could fuck Gray deeper in this position, and his whole cock being clenched tight was amazing.

As Natsu kept going, Gray moaned, hand sliding mindlessly down Natsu's chest. Suddenly the ice mage was rolling Natsu's nipple between his fingers and the Dragon Slayer shouted in pleasure, pushing into the touch. Sweet lines of ecstasy spread from his hard nipple as Gray kept going, thrills imploding his body. Fuck.

Opening his eyes, Natsu stared down through hazy thoughts at the gorgeous man looking back at him. Those dark eyes made him feel gloriously naked. Natsu settled an arm by Gray's head so he could kiss him, deep and slow.

When he opened his eyes again, Gray was still giving him a deliberate, knowing look. Noticing Gray's shoulder moving, Natsu glanced down.

No longer having to support himself, the ice mage had reached down and was jerking his own cock, grunting erratically as he put on the display. And what a display it was. Natsu couldn't look away from the scarred fingers sliding over that all-too-familiar cockhead—

"Fuck you," Natsu gasped, doing just that as his balls slapped Gray's ass. "Fuck, Gray, why…so hot…"

"Why? Because you like it. Because—nnng, oh gods, more like that—because it riles you up. Just like it does when I ask you to please, please go faster…"

"Haaa…when you beg…"

Natsu pressed his face to Gray's chest as he sped up, fist dragging at Gray's thigh so he had all the access he could want. He felt Gray thrust his head back into the bed, curving up into Natsu's body, skin on skin.

The Dragon Slayer knew exactly which wondrous expressions were accompanying the ice mage's aching moans.

He kept his eyes on the impressive spectacle of Gray jerking himself off as the pressure in his own cock built. He could feel nothing else, the world heavy with pleasured anticipation, waiting for right—now

"G-Gray," he called, less in warning and more like a prayer.

"Yes, do it," Gray groaned. Full of approval. Longing.

As Natsu's balls tightened, he slammed hard into Gray's hips. Natsu's spine tingled and pleasure roared through him as he shot his load deep, gut twisted up.

His boyfriend was everywhere, holding every part of him.

Natsu scraped his teeth over Gray's skin and bit into his pec, and Gray cried out just like Natsu knew he would. Stroking becoming irregular, Gray exclaimed, "Natsu! Nnh…Nats…"

Warmth splashed his abdomen again.

Natsu watched the transformation of his lover's face. Gray. It was the name of the pleasure still wracking Natsu's body. The name of contentment and halted thought. The name of these happy smells.

"I love you," Natsu said. Just like he always did after they fucked.

Grinning, the ice mage slid a tired hand up to hold his cheek. "Yeah."

Natsu relaxed, shaky and sweaty, and took a moment before pulling out. As he scooted over to fall on the bed, he massaged Gray's ass automatically. Gray's hum added to the warm fire in his chest.

"So what do you think?" Gray asked.

"Yeah." Natsu swallowed. "It was good."

He glanced down at his softening cock, amazed at where his bare flesh had just been. The shape of things was no different, but barebacking stimulated his nerves in new and delightful ways.

Yeah, definitely good.

"What about you?" he asked, looking back up.

"I liked it…" Gray flushed and bit his lip.

"What?"

Snorting, Gray pressed his face against Natsu's neck.

"I liked it more," the ice mage said, voice muffled. "I think I prefer it this way."

The Salamander beamed. "We can do it this way whenever you want. Your ass is clean." He smoothed his fingers over the ridges of Gray's chest. "Especially since I just flushed it full of cum."

"No kidding." Chortling, Gray smacked Natsu's shoulder. "I'm going to start leaking, gods."

As Gray twisted off the bed, Natsu gave him a cocky look.

"What can I say? I'm just that virile."

Gray rolled his eyes and disappeared in the direction of the bathroom.

When he returned a few minutes later, he slid up against Natsu's side and began toying with the scar on Natsu's neck.

"So," Gray said.

"So," Natsu said.

They glanced at each other and almost busted out laughing. For no reason whatsoever, which was the best reason of all.

"Wanna do a job just you and me, snowflake?" Natsu asked.

"You sound like you have one in mind."

"I saw a request today that's for just outside Crocus. I don't know why it wasn't sent to one of the closer guilds, but I already signed for it." Natsu's voice dipped down to a mutter. "It's pretty close to where they rebuilt Ryuzetsu Land."

"Serious?" Gray grinned at him. "You want to risk burning that place down again?"

"That wasn't my fault!"

Gray nipped his nose.

"Ah! Oi!"

"Don't get so defensive, sunflower," Gray chuckled. "I'm pretty sure I can keep you in line."

Natsu raised an eyebrow. "Oh really?"

"I think I can stop an explosion or two from a little dragon boy."

Growling, Natsu attacked Gray's face with kisses, while Gray's infectious laughter vibrated between them. The Salamander tilted Gray's chin and kissed him deeper, happiness pooling in his chest.

"Are you high, ice cube?" he asked, smiling.

"Off you."

"Off your Dragon-Slayer-induced multi-orgasmic hormones maybe."

"Nope." Gray grinned. "Just off you."

Feeling warm, the Salamander curled up and put his head against Gray's chest. The strong pulse beat against his cheek.

"So what do you say to the job?" he asked.

"Of course, flame-brain. It sounds like a job with a vacation afterward. I could use a vacation."

"Good." Natsu nuzzled into Gray's neck.

"Sleep now?"

"Whatever you want, snow queen," he murmured. "You're the boss tonight."

Gray snorted.

"If I were really the boss, you'd still be fucking me into the bed. Tonight I'm just…your tired boss."

"Works for me," Natsu laughed, hugging Gray tighter as the ice mage pulled the covers over them.


Reedus was a wizard by accident—doing magic spontaneously when one of his sketches came to life; he was an artist first and foremost. Capturing meaning in art was his soul.

At that particular moment, he had his eye on Gray's hand. The tendons stood in sharp relief, knuckles curled around his boyfriend's hand. His little finger glided up and down Natsu's skin—and Reedus wished for the millionth time he could capture movement in his paintings.

As he finished the pair of hands, clasped loosely between the two men, his subjects let out a laugh. He waited for them to spoil his perfect perspective, but when they stayed perched on the edge of a table, he continued: up the shoulders, Gray's brown muscles and Natsu's uncovered guildmark, to the faces.

Though the fire mage's back was to Reedus, Gray was in profile, and Reedus had just started on him when the Dragon Slayer said something and the ice mage burst out laughing.

Greedily Reedus took in every detail of that grin. Bending over his canvas, he didn't look up for several minutes, drawing frantically before anything was lost.

The light in the eyes, relaxed, no lines of stress. Brows drawn up in warm surprise. The open-mouthed laugh, pinching the face with delight.

Perfect.

In every painting, Reedus captured something different. He had one of Lucy looking furious as Cana and Loke ganged up on her with tickles. Another of the Strausses showed Elfman lost, Mira furious, and one-third of the canvas blank.

This painting showed full-hearted intimacy. You could see the affection, still enchanted by each other, and the absolute trust that came so naturally neither of the men questioned its existence.

Every detail said: I love you and we can handle anything.

At the bottom, Reedus labeled it:

All Is Well.

Chapter Text

When Ikka awoke in the morning, she was the only person around the (now extinguished) campfire. That didn't scare her—she knew they'd be around here somewhere—but it did make her curious, lonely, and bored.

Circling the area keeping camp in view, she caught a low voice not too far away. Her fathers had for some reason crawled into a hidden area among some bushes, and she had to slide through on her stomach. She didn't bother announcing herself—she wasn't being quiet, and Natsu-tou likely heard the moment she was awake.

It wasn't until she got close to where they lay in the tall grass that she could hear someone gasping. She stopped.

"It's okay, snowflake," Natsu-tou soothed, calm. "You're safe. Slow down. Match your breathing to mine."

"You know full well," Gray panted, "that never works for me."

There was a low chuckle. "I do, and here I'm still trying it after thirty years. How much of an idiot does that make me?"

Another silence followed as Ikka listened to Gray-tou's frantic breaths.

"An idiot in love," Gray said quietly.

"Very true."

Still breathing hard, Gray-tou inhaled and said affectionately, "Baka."

"Ikka is just a little ways to your other side," Natsu said. "I don't want you to get startled. Ikka-chan, it's okay to come out."

On damp elbows and knees, Ikka crawled the rest of the way to them, emerging a little ways from Gray-tou. Natsu-tou lay on the other side of him, both men on their backs staring up.

"Ikka," Gray panted, looking at her with dark eyes. "Morning."

"Hey, lovely." Natsu smiled at her in reassurance and immediately calmed her. She hadn't known she needed it.

"H-Hi."

"It's okay: you can come closer," Natsu said. "Gray-tou doesn't want cuddling right now, but we can lie next to him."

"Okay," she said in a small voice.

They spent some minutes lying comfortably side by side, listening to Gray-tou's exhales get longer and slower.

After a bit, Natsu asked, "Can I hold your hand, love?"

Gray hesitated, then nodded.

As Ikka watched, Natsu slid his hand underneath Gray's and just let it rest there, his and Gray's fingers curling against each other but not grasping.

"That's not really holding hands," she commented. She wasn't sure why she said it, but of all the thoughts vibrating through her, that was the easiest to vocalize.

In answer, Natsu-tou leaned up on an elbow and looked down at Gray.

"Do you want to explain, or shall I?"

"You."

"When people panic, you don't want them to feel trapped," Natsu told her. "This—" he bumped his hand beneath Gray's, "—ensures he can get away whenever he needs to, escape if he needs to. But it also lets him know I'm here. That about right, love?" he finished, looking back down at Gray.

"Yeah." Gray inhaled, only somewhat trembly, and looked sideways at her. "When I have a panic attack, I can't have him facing me, where I feel crowded, and I can't have him behind me, where I can't see him in case he attacks."

"Why would he attack?"

"He wouldn't, but there are parts of me right now that don't know that. Being side-by-side is okay."

Ikka nearly tucked her chin against Gray-tou's shoulder, as she often did when scared, but remembered at the last second.

"Can I hold your hand?" she asked.

He smiled. "Yes."

She did what Natsu-tou had done, palm sliding beneath Gray's and resting there, open, and Gray-tou smiled wider.

"I like this," he murmured.

"Why do you have panic attacks?" she asked.

"Like you, I've had a hard life."

Gray-tou tilted his head to look over at her. It struck Ikka for the first time that she looked like him. The way his eyes watched the world, wary, noticing everything, seeming to read a thousand things that normal people didn't bother to. That was the same look she saw in the mirror.

"Remember how you used to panic after some of your nightmares? Sometimes that happens to me too."

"You watched them die, too," she whispered. "Yours."

She never talked about this. She didn't often remember—it happened so long ago, and the fragmented memories she had didn't tell a story; they were more a vivid sense of fear and blood and pain and terror. She didn't remember her first parents hardly at all—just that they had been, once upon a time; and she didn't like remembering that she couldn't remember, because it felt like something she shouldn't be allowed to forget.

"Yes, I did," Gray-tou said, his fingers slowly worming between hers, grip still loose. "Those are some of my unhappy memories. I also experienced some very bad people doing very bad things. I did some bad things to myself. In a few years, if you're interested, I'll tell you the story. Suffice it to say, it was scary and painful."

"So you get panic attacks."

"Yes. Even as you become braver than the things that you remember, Ikka—even after you've healed—you might still get scared sometimes. For me, it's just habit when I feel or hear certain things."

"You work through each incident as it happens," Natsu told her, "and when you feel ready, you go back to whatever you were doing when you got interrupted, and you continue the rest of your life."

Gray smiled, warm and encompassing, first at Natsu then at Ikka, and in that smile, Ikka could smile too. There was room to breathe inside that smile.

A sniff made them both blink. Natsu-tou wiped his eyes with his free hand.

"Aw, sunflower, you're crying again?" Gray asked.

"Yes. I mean, no. I'm just leaking."

Gray-tou chuckled.

"It's okay. Come here."

Gray-tou opened his arms and after a pause and silent question from Natsu, the latter collapsed on Gray's chest with a heavy sigh. Unprotesting, Gray rubbed his back and kissed his forehead. Finally sensing permission, Ikka curled up against her father's side, pressing her face between their two shoulders.

If Gray-tou was the scared one, Natsu-tou was the sad, emotional one. Gray was also the solide one and Natsu the brave one. She'd never even contemplated either of them being weak because neither was ever alone. They were a team.

All three of them were a team. A family.

"Thank you for rescuing me out of that building," she whispered against Gray-tou's arm.

Natsu sniffled again.

Squeezing her hand, Gray said, "We love you, Ikka. That will never, ever change."