There was blood on his lips when Gray clawed his way back to consciousness, expecting to find himself sprawled on the ground, remembering the bite of stone and earth against his chin when the spell had slammed into him. Instead, he blinked, mind slow to catch up with the realisation that he was semi-upright. With that realisation, came awareness – the pain throbbing through his torso telling him that, that last attack had done some severe damage, and beneath that, there was a sharp ache in his arms. Arms that were pulled a little too firmly behind him, shoulders wrenched high, and his breathing hitched as he lifted his head. Something that took far too much energy he realised, vision wavering for a moment, before dread settled like a leaden weight in the pit of his stomach as he took in the uniforms of the soldiers holding him between them.
As though summoned by his thoughts, there was a soft chuckle, somehow even more threatening now than it had been when he’d heard the sound seconds before Zeref’s spell had slammed into him and he couldn’t stop the flinch…or the pained noise that he couldn’t entirely swallow before he lifted his head. Dark eyes met his, and he instinctively tried to recoil, but there was nowhere for him to go, the soldier’s grip on him tightening until it felt as though his arms might shatter under the force of it. It took more than he cared to admit for him to cling to consciousness, and he focused himself, grounding himself in the present by focusing on the man in front of him, allowing his gaze to rove over the pale face currently lit by detached amusement. He’s enjoying this, it was a hollow realisation, one that left a foul taste on Gray’s tongue and he snarled under his breath, burying his fear beneath layers of ice, refusing to look away, even as crimson flickered in the dark eyes.
I’m sorry, Natsu…
It wasn’t any easier to think about the Dragon-slayer, especially not with their fight so fresh in his mind, the words that he should have said after Erza had pulled them apart now echoing, unspoken in the back of his mind. I’m sorry. I love you. You are still my Natsu… So many things that he could have said. That he should have said.
That he wouldn’t get the chance to say now.
“I wouldn’t be so sure,” Zeref’s voice broke through his thoughts, and he realised that he must’ve spoken aloud, praying that he hadn’t said too much. Not sure of what to make of the flicker of emotion – too quick for him to put a name to but reminded him too much of how Natsu had looked when he’d come back to himself, and he looked down, not wanting to see that side of Zeref. Not wanting to see the parallels. His gaze had barely landed on the ground, distantly noting the blood dripping onto the earth, when he heard movement. Someone struggling. And then the only voice he longed to hear, and the last voice he wanted to hear right now.
Gray’s world tilted on its axis as his head shot up, and for a moment he reeled, only held aloft by the unrelenting ‘grip on his arms. However, even as the world became a swirl of nameless colours, and undefinable shapes, he saw pink and felt a blast of familiar heat, flames licking too close for comfort and yet he found himself leaning into the sensation. Into the warmth that he had once tried to tell himself he hated. Then the heat was gone, and his eyes started to focus just as there was a pained shout, and by the time he had blinked hard enough to clear his vision, Natsu was on the ground, curled in on himself, writhing in the centre of familiar crackling purple-black magic.
“Stop!” Gray didn’t care that he was begging, that his voice had cracked and broken in the middle, or that Zeref’s gaze had snapped back to him, bringing a lull to the soft, barely audible noises of pain that Natsu had made. “Leave him alone.” It took everything he had not to look at the Dragon-slayer as he heard Natsu protesting weakly, holding his head as high as possible as he stared down Zeref. “I…If you want to hurt him, then hurt me.” His heart twisted and broke at his own words because it wasn’t a lie. He knew that Natsu would have endured a thousand times more pain than allow him to suffer, even after their fight and the harsh, angry words that the Ice Mage hadn’t been able to stop himself spitting at him once he’d learned the secrets that Natsu had been keeping from him. He knew without looking that his words had hurt him even more, inflicting wounds on top of wounds, injuries that might never heal, especially if Zeref took him at his word.
But at least Natsu would be alive.
Silence greeted his words and cursing his weakness he found his gaze drawn towards Natsu, like a moth drawn to a flame. Just as it had always been, he thought, fond and aching all at once.
A young Gray looking at Natsu, his mouth spilling forth loud, angry words that he didn’t mean just to keep the boy’s eyes on him.
A slightly older Gray, clinging to their rivalry, thrusting himself into Natsu’s path at every opportunity as the Dragon-slayer drifted – disheartened by his failure to find Igneel, and later lost in the wake of Lisanna’s death.
A reluctant teammate who had looked at Natsu’s retreating back, and for the first time felt a quivering beneath their ‘rivalry’, a sudden fear that he could lose something precious.
A friend who looked at Natsu and saw a light in the darkness and hope in the worst moments.
A Gray that had ignored the differences between them, the inherent dichotomy of their magic and reached out to seize the flames for his own.
He was all of those and more now, and woefully unprepared for the expression on Natsu’s face. It was hurt, and anguish and something deeper, darker and so profound that it took Gray’s breath away. Something that brought to mind the sight of Natsu on his knees, screaming out his grief and rage, as Igneel faded away in front of him. Of inhuman eyes pleading for forgiveness, even as his magic had crackled around him, as E.N.D fought for control, and fought to destroy the one thing that could tie Natsu to humanity...and of the expression he’d worn when he’d come back to himself, realising what he could have done…what Gray had said, and what they had already lost.
“Natsu…” It crept out unbidden, unplanned. A whisper that carried the force of a scream in the sudden silence that had fallen, and Gray knew that he should look away, that Zeref was still there, but he was trapped, locked in position by more than the hands holding in place. “I…” I’m sorry. I love you. You’re still my Natsu… live. The words were there, but they wouldn’t come, because there was a fire in the olive eyes that met his gaze.
A flame that burned bright, even now.
“I know.” He could probably count on one hand the number of times he had heard Natsu sound that serious, that focused, and something quivered and broke in his chest, a splintering that his mouth falling open, although he wasn’t sure what he wanted to say. The words still echoing in his mind. A protest. A plea… He wasn’t sure, but he knew even before Natsu pushed himself up on trembling arms, that he didn’t have the words to stop this, even if he could get his voice to work. And the splintering spread, a jagged crack spreading through his heart as Natsu glanced at him again, the fire banking higher in his gaze, and a fleeting trace of his old grin appearing. “It’s going to be okay.” The reassurance that had seen them through so many things now felt like a death knell, and yet still Gray found himself unable to do anything but shake his head numbly from side to side.
His plea went unspoken. Unheard, as Natsu staggered back to his feet before steadying himself and standing tall, only the ragged pattern of his breathing indicating the damage that Gray had helped to inflict, and that had undoubtedly been aggravated by the attack he’d just taken. And for a moment Gray could almost pretend that the situation wasn’t as dire as it seemed, after all, how many times had they been like this? Natsu standing, injured but unbowed in front of them, drawing on a strength that Gray could barely begin to fathom, and he braced himself, almost leaning forward as he waited for the words to come. However, when Natsu finally spoke, it wasn’t to him, in fact, the Dragon-slayer seemed almost oblivious to his presence, all his attention riveted on Zeref, but Gray wasn’t fooled, noting the way Natsu’s hands were clenched, sparks dancing across his skin.
“What do you want Zeref?” Natsu’s voice was flat, almost devoid of emotion, but Gray had known him too long to be fooled. The Dragon-slayer was angry and hurting, and Gray cursed himself, his voice still refusing to cooperate, and he flinched when Zeref looked towards him, lips quirked in amusement and a far too knowing expression in his eyes.
“Will you beg for him, little brother?”
Little brother. Gray and Natsu flinched in unison at the reminder, and for a moment Gray was back on the battlefield, ice spreading on the ground around his feet.
“Monster…You're a monster just like your brother!” The worda came quickly, and too easily, his anger driving through the part of him that knew that he was being unfair. The part of him that had seen the plea in Natsu’s eyes before control had been snatched away by E.N.D, the part of him that knew that this was Natsu. His Natsu that he was fighting.
“Don’t you dare,” he snarled, finally finding his voice and a fire of his own as he lunged forward, unable to break out of the hold keeping him upright. Not for me, he thought fiercely, willing Natsu to turn around and look at him, or for the Dragon-slayer to growl out a refusal. Please, not for me, not after what I said to you. It would hurt, but it would be what he deserved, and it took him a moment too long to realise that Natsu was doing neither. The Dragon-slayer still stood so close, and yet so far, eyes locked on Zeref, but with a slump to his shoulders that hadn’t been there before. “Natsu, don’t…”
“Enough,” Zeref’s voice cracked out like a whip, as cold as Gray’s devil magic and he shivered at the malevolence in that single word, even before he felt the press of the man’s magic against his skin once more. Desperately he bit his lip, trying to hold back any noises as the magic flared. He lasted barely ten seconds, blood trickling down his chin, as he screamed. Somewhere beyond the roaring sound that filled his ears as he thrashed, unable to escape, unable to hold back the sounds, he knew that Natsu must’ve said something because abruptly the pain and the pressure disappeared. He slumped, breathing heavily, every inch of his body a throbbing mass of pain and he couldn’t even lift his head this time as Zeref spoke. “Then beg.”
“Gray,” Natsu’s voice was soft, a tone that Gray had convinced himself he would never hear again after their fight, and somehow it gave him the strength to lift his head, although it took him a moment to focus on Natsu. Wishing that he hadn’t as he realised the Dragon-slayer had turned to look at him, expression raw and open. Don’t. Don’t show him how to hurt you. Don’t let him use me against you. It was too late for all of that, Gray knew that already, could feel it in the burning gaze that was flickering between them, but still he wished and pleaded in his own thoughts. Don’t do this Natsu. It was as though Natsu could see or hear his thoughts, and maybe he could, after all, who else had he ever allowed to see what truly lay beneath the shadows – because Natsu’s gaze softened. And Gray’s breath caught in his throat, because that look and the smile that flickered across lips that he had only just realised were still bloodied from their earlier fight, was the same one he had woken to every morning since they’d reunited. The same one that he had dreamt of for the year they’d been apart, and the one he’d fallen for a long time before he’d ever admitted to himself, and the crack in his heart widened as Natsu murmured softly. “It’s okay.”
No, it’s not.
“I love you,” Natsu cut across him, and Gray shattered then as the Dragon-slayer uttered the words that he still hadn’t been able to bring himself to say, that echoed louder than ever in the back of his mind, as though nothing had happened between them. As though Gray still deserved to hear them, and he was shaking his head, unaware of the tears that had already begun to trickle down his cheeks as Natsu turned away. Deliberate and slow as he met Zeref’s gaze once more, holding it, as he slowly went down on his knees, and for the first time there was a waver in the Dragon-slayer’s voice as he bowed his head in submission. “P-please…brother.” Gray’s heart twisted painfully at that word, knowing how much it must’ve cost Natsu to say it. How much it must be costing him to be on his knees in front of the man he’d sworn to destroy. The man who had already taken so much from them, from Natsu. “Please don’t hurt him. He’s mine, and I am his…”
Zeref said something then, the words lost to the roaring sound that was slowly building in Gray’s ears once more, but it wasn’t enough to block out Natsu’s next words. “…for his sake, then yes I would. I will not fight. I will not stop y-you.” The pressure was filling the air once more, gathering around them and Gray closed his eyes, hating himself for the cowardice as he heard Natsu’s sharp, pained intake of breath, and the frantic, desperate words that followed. “Please… Please, just let him go…”
All for Gray’s sake.
Natsu…I’m not worth that.