As Gray entered Magnolia, the sky overhead bubbled with dark clouds, threatening quite a storm. It cast the city in shades of silver, green, and gray-blue, making the city look older … much like Gray himself.
Or maybe he just felt old today. The S-Class mission he had recently finished took him a month to complete. After something like that, he felt his age, no longer a spry teenager, although he was not all that old yet. Still, thirty years were a long time for the body to keep up with such rigorous activities.
As he looked at the monochrome view of his hometown, Gray knew he should be feeling elation. He was home! He should probably rush to his house and kiss Juvia hello. He had told her he would arrive this weekend, still three days away. She would probably bake a cake to celebrate, just like she always did. However, thinking of his wife did not make him as happy as he knew it should. Sure, he cared deeply for Juvia, she was a sweet woman who doted on him … a little too much, sometimes. He married her because he knew no other person would feel as deeply for him as Juvia did.
No one else…
Surely not the person who stole his heart years ago.
However, back then he lacked the courage to express himself properly. He kept quiet. He … settled. He knew what was expected of him—become S-Class, serve the guild, marry a sweet lady, someday have children. That was what people told him he should want, what they urged him to do, so he figured he would feel happier with a charming lady like Juvia by his side, rather than that other person.
Especially when he wasn't around. He too was a S-Class mage now. He also went on long missions. He never found out that Gray had harbored an unrequited love for over twelve years.
Gray smiled gently as he thought of that huge smile, those narrow eyes, and the pink hair. He could not remember the last time he and Natsu were in Magnolia at the same time. Since the Dragon Slayer refused to ride transportation, his missions always took twice as long, and Natsu tended to clamber for the craziest missions available. When Gray arrived in town, it was usually to hear that Natsu had just left on yet another mission.
He wished he could see the crazy flame-brain, if only to see how the years had treated him.
Gray walked slowly through the streets of Magnolia, reminiscing about the times he used to spend as a child, racing from the guild to the candy store, or running away from Erza when he smashed her cake. He passed by Lucy's old house on Strawberry Street, now rented to someone else, some new guild member whose name Gray could not recall. He drifted to the river, where he and Natsu had fought every day. Memories of those arguments, so childish and inane, made Gray smile. He remembered teasing Natsu when he got pounded by Erza and arguing with him over the dumbest, most juvenile stuff.
Most of all, he remembered one mission, before Lucy arrived. He had teamed up with Loke, but they got separated in the fight. The enemy was tough, Gray had only been fifteen, and he was hit so hard, he heard his ribs crack. As blackness swallowed his vision, he heard an enraged roar and saw flames. When he came to, he was riding on Natsu's back, and they were halfway to Magnolia. The Dragon Slayer had happened upon the fight, and what Gray could not beat, Natsu did. That had shamed Gray at the time, but riding on Natsu's back also changed something within himself.
Natsu had defended him. When he fell in defeat, it was Natsu who carried him all the way back home. Natsu had always been there for him, by his side. They fought like usual, but now the fights were a cover-up for Gray, a way to stubbornly hide the way he felt, acting tough and mighty, yet hiding his blushes whenever Natsu laughed along with him.
Gray found himself stopping in front of Natsu's house. He had been so lost in thought, he did not notice that his feet dragged him all the way out here.
Natsu's house! He hadn't visited the place in probably five years! It hadn't really changed during that time. Seeing it brought back memories.
Gray shook his head. It wasn't like Natsu was ever home anyway.
Something wet plinked on his nose. Gray looked up at the sky and felt droplets tickle his face. It had darkened considerably as he strolled aimlessly through the town. In the distance, he heard a low roll of thunder.
"Crap," he whispered. He turned, wondering if he could make it all the way back to his house before the storm hit.
Just as he took a couple steps, he heard a door creak open. Gray looked back with wide, shocked eyes. A figure stepped out of warm yellow light and into the chilly rain. Large muscles, lanky pink hair, a white scarf: Gray caught his breath. Natsu had grown since their time teamed up with Erza and Lucy. Gray had always been a bit proud at being taller, but all bragging rights vanished when Natsu shot up. Now he was taller, leaner, more rugged with longish hair, and although he had even more muscles, he moved with a certain gracefulness, a confident carriage that only a trained fighter possessed.
Natsu grumbled about the rain as he carried two plastic bags in his hands. "Phew, this stinks!" he cried out, dumping them into a metal trashcan.
After he closed the lid to the reek of old food, Natsu smelled something else, something familiar carried over the moist air. His nose perked up, he sniffed harder, and up ahead in the gloomy twilight he saw someone with gray-blue eyes and black hair.
"Gray!" he cried out, grinning wildly. "What're you doing here this late at night?"
Gray could hardly help but smile at his childhood rival. "Just got back from a mission."
"Juvia said you weren't due until this weekend."
"Yeah, well, I'm a little early."
Natsu looked confused, even a little worried, but he dismissed it with a forced laugh. "Good mission?"
"Pay was sweet, but it was damn easy, if you ask me."
Natsu smirked at him. "Getting cocky are we, droopy-eyes?"
Gray caught his breath. It had been so long since he heard that nickname.
Suddenly, thunder clapped overhead, and the rain fell mercilessly. Gray pulled his jacket up to his head and cursed at the sky.
"What are you doing standing around?" snapped Natsu. "Get inside before you get soaked."
Gray hesitated. He and Natsu, alone in his house! Warmth spread through his body, yet he felt a shiver.
A second thunderclap settled his doubts. He raced inside the hot house and past Natsu. When he heard the door click shut, a slight tremble crept over his body.
"Cold?" Natsu asked in surprise.
"Are you kidding? Never," Gray said, trying to sound offended.
He dusted off the droplets clinging to his long, white coat. Natsu rushed to the bathroom and brought him a towel. When he felt Natsu lay the warm towel over his head, Gray felt a flush in his face. He roughly grabbed it out of the Dragon Slayer's hands.
"You're not my mother, asshole," he snapped.
Gray ran the towel over his hair, letting it fall into his face to hide the blushing. Still, Natsu stood nearby. A little too close, for Gray's liking. Through dripping bangs and the fluffy towel, he glanced up to see Natsu smiling down at him. That face made heat course through Gray's veins, tingling his whole body.
What am I doing here? Why did I even come here? Damn! I really am an idiot.
As they stood together in the entryway Gray was even more reminded of Natsu's new height. Well, not new. He shot up ten years ago, just before he turned twenty. Still, it was ten years of them not being on the same team, rarely seeing one another, and then usually bickering from across the room. He could not remember the last time he stood this close to Natsu. The Dragon Slayer radiated heat that Gray could feel, even from this distance. The whole house smelled like him. Gray did not have a Dragon Slayer's nose, but it was impossible to miss such unique musk.
When Gray looked up, those sage-green eyes, so dark they appeared black in low light, were gazing down at him. Maybe Natsu was not that much taller, just a fraction, but having those narrow eyes looking down on him, slightly lowered like that, made Gray's heart pound.
"Excuse the intrusion," Gray muttered, forcing his eyes to look away with a petulant scowl.
"No problem!" Natsu said cheerfully. "Hey, did you shrink, Gray?"
"They say old men start to shrink. You're, what, thirty already?"
"So what if I am?" Gray snapped. "Besides, you missed my birthday party. It's a miracle you know my age."
"Couldn't be helped. I was on a mission."
"I know," Gray mumbled.
Always, Natsu was on a mission. He missed Gray's twentieth birthday because he was on a mission. He missed his twenty-fifth birthday, too. He missed Gray's wedding because he was on a mission … although, to be fair, he was with Gildarts for that one; they were both hard-pressed and injured when they came back laughing like idiots and apologizing to Gray and Juvia.
"I'll get tea started," Natsu offered. "Hey, I got some extra food if you want dinner. Can you stay for a bit?"
"Well, no one is really expecting me yet," Gray reasoned.
"Awesome. It's been a while."
Gray smiled nostalgically. "It certainly has."
Natsu rushed off to the kitchen while Gray took off his shoes at the door. He realized there were no lights on, only candles and a fire burning in the hearth.
"Did the storm knock out your power?"
"Huh? Oh, nah. Since I'm not home enough, I stopped paying the electric bill. They shut it off years ago. I'm fine without it. I have my flames."
Gray mumbled to himself, "It's a miracle the house hasn't burned down."
"Stone and fireproof wood," Natsu answered. Gray was shocked the Dragon Slayer heard him from way over there. Then he remembered, Natsu's hearing as well as his sense of smell were fairly keen.
Towering piles of boxes littered the living room. Most were marked simply Natsu's Stuff. The furniture was all covered in dust sheets. There really was no place to sit. Gray figured Natsu probably kept everything in storage because he barely stayed at home long enough to unpack.
"Does Happy still live with you?" Gray called out to the kitchen where he heard clinking cups and cupboards creaking open only to slam closed.
"Nah, he moved out shortly after the kittens arrived. He takes care of the place when I'm gone, but he doesn't live in it."
"I see," Gray muttered, glancing around at the eerie emptiness lit only by candles. It felt rather depressing, thinking about living in such a building all alone. "I'm surprised you'd bother to keep a whole house if you're rarely around to sleep in it."
"I like the place," he grinned, fixing tea. "It always feels good to come home to my own bed. So, how did you know I was back in Magnolia?"
"I didn't. I came here by coincidence."
"Oh." Natsu came out with a tray for tea. "Hmm, no real place to set anything. Sorry it's a bit bare."
"It's fine. I understand."
"Let's go to the bedroom. That's the only room I keep set up."
Gray followed Natsu to another room. When they first entered, it was dark. The greenish-gray hues of the storm outside blended with the shadows in the room. It was dark, but it felt peaceful to Gray, a place to hide away, a void unencumbered by neither clutter nor emptiness, sweet and secluding darkness, a refuge where he could hide the acrid longing in his eyes. Natsu set the tea tray on a small table, then lit a candle, banishing those gentle, dark, shrouding colors.
"Sugar?" asked Natsu.
"What? Oh! Um, no thanks."
For just one jolting moment, Gray had thought Natsu called him a sweet name. He mentally scolded himself. He had to keep on his guard here, trapped deep within the dragon's den. Gray took a cup of pale green tea and sipped it. Shockingly, it wasn't half bad!
"Mind if I smoke?" he asked.
"Just keep the window open."
Gray moved over to the bedroom window and pushed open the panes. A mist of rain drifted in, but it felt good and cold on his face compared to the hot air of the dragon slayer's house. Gray set his tea down, tapped out a cigarette, and searched his pockets for his lighter.
"Let me," offered Natsu.
He held one finger up, and a small flame ignited. Gray hummed a thanks and leaned the cigarette over the flame. Then he took a deep drag, held the smoke in his lungs to calm himself, and let out a perfect smoke ring. It drifted out into the rain and was quickly crushed by the wet drops.
"I thought you dropped that habit years ago," Natsu mumbled, wrinkling his nose at the smell.
Gray smirked as he looked at the Dragon Slayer from the corner of his eyes. "There's a lot you don't know about me." Silently, he thought, Things I can never tell you.
Natsu coughed from the stench of the smoke and moved over to the bed. He laid back as he looked up at the ceiling. Somewhere, a clock ticked away the tense seconds.
"How's married life?"
Gray flinched at the question and looked back over to the pink-haired man. Natsu was sprawled on the bed, arms folded under his head, perfectly calm and relaxed … and sexy. Damn sexy! Gray's throat went instantly dry, and he grabbed up the tea for a quick sip.
"It's going well," he answered, forcing his voice to be neutral. "Juvia was hinting at wanting kids just before I left. We might try while I'm home. Honestly, that's why I took such a long mission. The pay will let me take a few months off, so we can start trying."
"Oh … is that so?" Some of the brightness in Natsu's eyes dimmed as he smiled sadly. "That's good to hear. I'd wish you luck, but…" Natsu laughed, but even Gray could hear that it sounded forced. "…but I'm sure you two know what you're doing in that arena."
"Five years of marriage does make a person an expert in the bedroom," Gray smirked, old rivalries making him want to brag a little.
"Hmm, guess so," Natsu muttered.
Gray scolded himself. He had heard rumors that Natsu was starting to feel depressed at seeing all of his friends getting married, while he himself had failed to keep a steady girlfriend. Gray decided that talking about Juvia, or bragging about all the sex, was not only wretchedly awkward for him, but probably depressing for a bachelor like Natsu.
"I'm glad you two are happy. You deserve it."
Gray felt his heart sting at Natsu's congratulatory words.
"You got really lucky, snagging such a caring wife like Juvia."
Please, just stop talking!
Natsu flashed him a massive grin. "And she got fortunate to finally capture her precious Gray-sama. Lucky girl!"
Gray smiled bittersweetly. "Yeah … thanks."
He turned his face back out to the window, took a long drag on the cigarette, and exhaled out into the cold. Natstu was there—right there—right in front of him. He was so close, yet Gray felt constricted. In the past, it was fear of rejection that kept him quiet. Now, he had Juvia to think about. He could not express himself.
Not directly, anyway.
Gray looked down at the ashy tip of his cigarette. "Do you have any regrets in life?"
Natsu's eyes lowered as his heart tightened from a deep pain. "Yeah." Gray stayed quiet to listen, so slowly Natsu continued. "I regret that I couldn't save Simon in the Tower of Heaven. I regret not saving Future-Lucy during the Grand Magic Games. I regret breaking up the team. I regret walking in on Erza and Jellal that one time at a theme park."
Gray laughed heartily. "Oh God, she destroyed half the park chasing after you!"
"Yeah," Natsu laughed, but his eyes went sad. "But my biggest regret … is not taking action when I saw someone I loved being taken away from me."
Gray thought about his words for a solemn moment as he inhaled his smoke. "Do you mean Lucy?"
Natsu's eyes dimmed, yet he did not give an answer.
"I heard she's engaged," Gray mentioned, treading cautiously on this subject.
"Married already," Natsu said softly.
Gray jolted at that. "Married? When?"
"I thought the wedding was planned for summer."
Natsu smiled mischievously. "Her belly would have been too big if she waited that long."
Gray's cheeks went hot. "Oh! I … I didn't know. I should buy her a wedding gift. And a baby gift too, I guess. Wow."
He was at a loss on how to react to this news. He knew Natsu had feelings for Lucy since they were young. An unrequited love, now squashed. Gray knew the feeling all too well.
"Lucy…" Gray mused softly. "It's been a while since she took that columnist job for Sorcerer Magazine. Have you seen her? How is she doing?"
"Doing well. She's had morning sickness last time I visited. Now she knows how I felt every time she dragged me onto a train. Her and Erza were swapping stories on babies the whole time."
"So how's Erza and Jellal?"
"Oh, they're doing great," Natsu scoffed out a droll laugh. "They're expecting a baby come autumn."
"Another?" exclaimed Gray. "Sheesh, those two!"
Natsu just laughed. "Yesterday, she told me she misses our petty brawls. They weren't half as bad as the fights her twins get into."
Gray had to crack a laugh at that. "I miss them too, squinty-eyes."
They glared at each other from across the room for a moment before breaking into smiles. It almost felt like old times, like they were teenagers again, wild rivals who did nothing but bicker and fight. Once again, Gray felt young, carefree, unburdened … but then he felt the stab of harrowing reality.
If things had been different … if they had just been a little different…
He looked away quickly to hide the sadness on his face, and he stared outside at the rain pelting the forest outside Magnolia. Not even his cigarette could soothe the ache of missed opportunities.
"So, do you have any past regrets?" Natsu asked, sounding completely casual, as if he had not seen the misery on Gray's face.
Gray hummed deeply. "I have way too many to list, starting all the way back with my parents dying and Ur sacrificing herself. But those were mostly out of my control. My deepest, most personal regret … is keeping silent when I wanted to express my feelings to the person I cared about most, but I couldn't say a word."
"You loved someone?" Natsu asked in amazement. "Someone other than Juvia?"
Gray nodded, smiling bitterly at the crying sky. "I still do," he whispered.
The cigarette came to its end as he breathed out the emptiness inside. Gray crushed out the embers and flicked the stick into the rain. It landed in a dark puddle and quickly sank into the mud.
"You never told that person?" Natsu asked, sounding hesitant yet intrigued.
Gray shook his head. "It was completely one-sided. It's too late, anyway. All I can do now is stand back and watch … stand far away, so I don't make an even worse mistake."
"Mistake?" Natsu whispered solemnly. "Do you mean with Juvia?" Natsu looked blankly at the single candle that flickered in the bedroom. It danced from the chilly breeze wafting through the window, melting the wax faster, burning through its short wick quickly with such wild heat. "Would you … don't get mad at me for asking," he added quickly, interrupting his own question, "but … would you divorce her?"
"No," Gray said immediately.
How often had he questioned that himself? If, by some divine miracle, Natsu suddenly turned gay and wanted him, would he leave Juvia for Natsu?
"No, she doesn't deserve to be treated like a substitute, and in all honesty, she's not. I love her, really. Just … not how I love that other person," he said, shivering slightly at confessing this, skating around the truth in front of the person who gave his stomach butterflies. "It's a different love. A deep love—she's my wife—but … different. She's kindhearted, smart, funny, a little too devoted to me at times, but that's just how she is. This … me feeling like this … it isn't fair to her. I don't want to hurt her, but sometimes…" He bit on the tip of his thumb, already wishing he had another cigarette, something he could hide behind. "If I could go back in time, do it over again…"
He merely shook his head, knowing he could never express all the regrets he had. Even if he had confessed and got rejected, at least he would have taken that chance rather than suffer all his life never knowing, always wondering, doubting, hoping, dreaming…
Natsu sat up with a sad expression to hear his old rival sound so depressed. "Gray?"
Suddenly, Gray shouted, "You should have made your move, Natsu!" The outburst shocked the Dragon Slayer. "Goddammit, if you had feelings for Lucy, you should have taken action. You're going to regret it now," he warned in anger. "You'll live in a pit of dark regrets … like I do." He looked back outside as his eyes began to sting. The rainy mist felt too much like teardrops, so Gray closed the window and leaned his head against the chilly glass. He muttered, "I didn't want that for you. I wanted you to find love, too. Even if it's lukewarm, some love—any love—is better than loneliness … right?"
Natsu clenched his fists. He bolted up and stomped across the bedroom, unable to bear hearing those words. "Damn you, Gray!"
The black-haired man jolted at the shout. He turned and saw pain in the bronze face. "Natsu?"
The dragon slayer's fists shook with rage. "Any love? Is that what you think? Any fucking love will do? Goddamn you!" he hissed. "If it wasn't for this storm, I'd kick your ass out of my house right now. Dammit, why did you have to come here?" he screamed. "I've been avoiding you all this time, yet here you are, standing in front of me, talking like that."
The words stabbed Gray deeply. Natsu was avoiding him? Why?
He began to reach up to Natsu's irked face, but the Dragon Slayer slapped his hand away. Natsu roughly grabbed Gray by the lapels of his coat, flung him away from the window, and slammed him against a wall. Gray felt his head hit hard enough to black out his vision for a moment, yet when the shadows cleared, he saw Natsu right in front of him with his teeth clenched. Gray wondered if he was about to get punched. Natsu looked raging mad, and Gray had no idea why.
I've been avoiding you all this time…
Suddenly, anger boiled in Gray's veins. "What the hell, Natsu? So you're telling me that all these years, you were purposely avoiding me? Is that why you always left just before I arrived home? Just to ignore me? To not even see me? Is that why you were shocked to see me home early? I bet you were planning on leaving again before this weekend."
"That's right," Natsu said coldly. "That's why everything is boxed up. I planned to leave tomorrow."
Tears burned Gray's eyes, yet he refused to shed them. "Do you hate me that much?"
Instead of shouting, Natsu let go of the coat and lowered his head with a growling sigh. "You should get out of here, Gray. Go home. Go back to your wife … before I do something stupid!"
Gray grabbed Natsu by the scarf and shook him roughly. "Don't you dare retreat from me now, bastard! Aren't we eternal rivals, former teammates … nakama? All those missions, all those years teamed up … did you never once think of me as a friend at least? Just something disgusting, a rival to be avoided? After all we went through together, is this how much I mean to you? Nothing?" He knew he was over-reacting, but pain stung his heart as he blurted out the words.
Natsu looked at him with a weary gaze for a few moments. Slowly, his brow tensed as if battling the deepest remorse, and he whispered, "It wasn't Lucy."
Gray blinked in confusion. "Huh?"
Natsu shoved Gray's hand off the white scarf and leaned in closer, his arms next to the ice mage's face, caging him in against the wall. "It wasn't … ever … Lucy." He sneered, and a sniffle escaped before he had a chance to cover his face. His fingers sank deep into his hair as he hid away his anguish. "Dammit, Gray! I … I really … Dammit!"
Instead of anger, sadness chilled Gray's heart as he saw the misery in Natsu's face. But why? Not Lucy? Then who? Lisanna? But she was still single. Could it have been Erza?
"Che!" Gray scoffed, looking away as the despondent face tormented his heart. "I can never understand you, flame-brain."
"My deepest regret," he whispered, still hiding his face in his hand, "is not taking action, even when my whole soul begged for it. Letting that person go without even stretching out my hand to grab hold. It's too late now, but if I could have one chance … just be granted one moment of happiness where I can finally tell that person…" Natsu's trembling voice faded to nothing.
"Tell who? Hell, I'll help you out if you're such a coward."
Natsu laughed moistly as a defiant tear slipped down his cheek. "A coward. Yes, I'm a coward. S-Class means nothing to me anymore, because in the face of the person I care for most, I'm a hopeless and pathetic coward."
Gray felt like acid was burning his heart. It was torture, knowing Natsu cared for someone this much, while he admitted he was purposely avoiding Gray.
"Are you crying? What the hell happened to you, Natsu? You were never like this before. What bitch broke your heart so badly that it changed you into a sniveling pussy? If it wasn't Lucy, then who was she? Someone in the guild? Some village girl you met on one of your long missions? Who?" When he did not hear an answer, Gray bellowed, "Tell me, Natsu!"
Natsu slowly moved his hand away from his face. A gleam of tears and sorrow shimmered in his narrow eyes. "You, Gray. You're the bitch who changed me."
End of Chapter 1