Note: This one turned out a little differently (and longer) than I originally expected, but I'm okay with it. The first half or so is actually pretty funny. Well, I think it's funny anyway. And my sister laughed at all the right parts when she read it, so I guess it's alright. The second half is where all my normal hurt/comfort comes in, so stick with it.
UPDATE: Ah ha, well, looks like I've gone and written another part to this, even though it was just supposed to be a one-shot. Oops xD
UPDATE 2: There is now a fic called "And All the Times After", which contains side stories to this two-shot, including one in Gray's POV, as requested by a couple anon reviewers. You can check it out if you're interested.
Natsu had never been all that observant. Sure, he would eventually pick up on things when something big happened, but it often took him a while to notice all of the subtle little signs that something was wrong. Like the dark circles under Gray's eyes that never seemed to go away anymore or his sudden need to yawn every few minutes or his now sluggish movements. It took a couple weeks for Natsu to put all the pieces together, but he soon came to the conclusion that Gray was not sleeping.
He wasn't too worried at first. After all, the Galuna Island debacle had occurred only a couple weeks before, and Gray had been completely blindsided when his past suddenly sprang out of nowhere to confront him again. If he was having nightmares or some kind of trouble sleeping, it was only to be expected. So Natsu simply resolved to keep an eye on him to make sure things didn't get any worse, and went about his business like usual.
But the problem didn't go away, and soon there were some signs unsubtle enough that even Natsu couldn't miss them. Alright, the fact that Gray's stripping had drastically decreased and that he now peeled his shirts off slow enough for the eye to see was a little strange, but not a huge warning sign. But then there was the increase in his general clumsiness, where he would stumble over his own two feet or even walk into things because he was zoning out. There was his new tendency to drift off into restless sleep if he remained sitting for more than a few minutes at a time. There were those few times when he had screwed up and made stupid mistakes during jobs, and even that one time when he had seemed to lose control of his magic for a moment. There was the fact that his normally precise and clean ice molding had become sloppy and uncoordinated.
It had now been almost a month since Galuna, and Gray had shown little sign of improvement. Despite himself, Natsu was beginning to worry. He wouldn't come out and say so or ask what was wrong directly, of course. He and the ice cube didn't have that kind of relationship. But he had, on one or two occasions, casually dropped subtle hints that he had noticed something was up. Hints like "wow, you look terrible today, ice block" or "I don't think the ice princess is getting enough beauty sleep". Gray had just grumbled in irritation and brushed him off, which was not entirely unexpected.
However, it had eventually gotten to the point where Natsu had finally asked him flat out if he was sleeping. Gray had just told him to mind his own business and walked away, and Natsu hadn't pursued the issue since. Every now and then he was tempted to ask again, but he knew there wasn't much point. Gray wasn't going to tell him anything if he didn't want to. Besides, more loving souls such as Lucy and Erza had begun pestering him about his sleeping issues lately, and Gray hadn't told them a thing.
The whole not-sleeping thing was bad enough, but Natsu had deeper concerns as well. Most of their guildmates had noticed that Gray obviously wasn't sleeping much, but they didn't know him as well as Natsu did, so they missed some of the subtler negative cues he was giving off. It was ironic since Natsu was known for being oblivious, but once he realized that there was a problem he had started watching Gray carefully, searching for the signs he had learned to look out for over the years. Since their friendship was built more on fighting and insults than heartfelt talking, they had learned to detect the less obvious cues to tell them what the other was thinking or feeling.
And right now, Gray was giving off a whole host of negative cues. He was on edge, his eyes darting about nervously at sudden movements or loud sounds. He would zone out for long periods of time, staring blankly into space, sometimes with a faintly gloomy look on his face. He was grumpier than usual, more mean-spirited than playful, yet he hadn't picked a fight with Natsu in weeks. And then there were the mood swings. One moment he was irritable and moody, and the next he would suddenly start being even nicer than usual. But worst of all were his eyes. His eyes had taken on a haunted, melancholy quality that disturbed Natsu profoundly.
None of these things was very pronounced or obvious. They were subtle signs that Natsu noticed when Gray made sudden, unusual movements or wore an expression that was just a little off. The others were just worried about a lack of sleep, but Natsu was worried about potentially deeper psychological scars. But knowing that pushing Gray for answers wouldn't get him anywhere, he bided his time and waited for an opportunity to press the issue.
His chance came one afternoon a little over a month after they had returned from Galuna Island. Natsu was sitting in the guild hall dying of boredom when he noticed Gray rip a job request off the bulletin board and head out of the guild. If the ice block really thought that Natsu was going to let him go off on a job by himself when he was having so many issues, he had another thing coming.
"Hey, I'm going to go after the ice princess," Natsu told Happy, staring after Gray with narrowed eyes. "No way should he be going on a job alone in his condition."
The Exceed nodded and frowned. "Yeah, he really hasn't seemed to be doing well lately."
Natsu nodded sharply in agreement and stood. "Why don't you stay here and bother Lucy or something. She could probably use some help getting rent money." Happy opened his mouth to protest and Natsu hurried to forestall him. "Look, you know how touchy he gets about this kind of thing. I have a better chance of getting him to tell me what's wrong if I go alone. He clams up even more when there are more people around."
"But I'm not 'people'," Happy grumbled unhappily.
Natsu smiled. "No, but you are one of his friends, so you still count."
Happy sighed and nodded. "Alright. Stay safe then."
"Will do," Natsu said, ruffling the little cat's fur before bounding out of the hall.
He trotted down the street, swinging his head back and forth as he searched for a glimpse of raven hair and pale skin amongst the crowd. He huffed in frustration. Apparently Gray had gotten more of a lead than he had expected. Natsu sniffed the air, looking for his friend's scent. It was difficult to pick out on the crowded street, but his mouth curled into a triumphant grin as he finally found it after a couple minutes of fruitless searching.
"I've got you now," he muttered to himself.
He followed his nose, trying to push through the throng of civilians as politely as possible. Which, compared to normal people, wasn't all that politely. Ignoring the occasional protest or curse, he hurried through the streets, eager to catch up with Gray. He grimaced as he realized that the scent trail was heading straight for the train station. It wasn't all that surprising considering how many jobs were out of town, but that didn't mean he had to like it.
Natsu paused for a moment and internally debated whether or not he should turn back. He didn't take the train unless he had no other option, and he was already feeling queasy just thinking about it. But then he sighed and started moving again. His concern for Gray outweighed his aversion to transportation. The ice block should sure as hell be grateful.
As it turned out, the ice block was not very grateful. Natsu caught up to Gray as the other mage was purchasing a train ticket, and when the dragon slayer called his name, Gray's expression quickly went from surprised to displeased.
"What are you doing here, flame brain?" Gray asked sharply, eyeing his friend up and down.
Natsu smiled winningly as he sidled up beside Gray and bought a ticket of his own. "Well, I've decided that I want to become a train connoisseur," he replied cheerfully.
Gray's eyebrows shot upwards. "What the hell is that supposed to mean?"
"Well, a connoisseur is someone who–" Natsu started helpfully, before Gray cut him off impatiently.
"I know what a connoisseur is, idiot. Although I'm rather surprised that you do. But just what do you think you're doing as a…'train connoisseur'?"
"I've decided that it is my new goal in life to ride as many trains as possible so that I can find the best ones and see which ones will make me the least motion sick," Natsu answered, unfazed by Gray's hostility. "This just happened to be the nearest train station, so it seemed like a good place to start. What a coincidence, huh?"
Gray looked thoroughly unimpressed. "In other words, you were following me."
Natsu hemmed and hawed and tried to look innocent. "Well, when you put it that way…"
He trailed off and swallowed as Gray fixed him with a baleful glare. Yes, there was clearly something bothering him. This wasn't their usual teasing banter; Gray was well and truly irritated. Natsu wasn't sure if it was just from the lack of sleep in general or because of something else.
"I don't need a babysitter," the other mage said coldly as he turned away to board the train. Natsu followed him anyway, grimacing as he stepped onto the moving contraption of certain death and anguish. He couldn't believe he was getting on this thing without being forced.
"Don't think of it like babysitting," he suggested helpfully as he followed Gray down the aisle and slid into the seat across from the one the ice mage chose. "We haven't been on a mission with just the two of us in a long time. Let's do it for old time's sake."
Gray threw him a suitably unimpressed look. "There's a reason we don't normally go on missions together when we don't have someone else to keep us in line," he drawled sardonically.
Natsu coughed and looked away. "I wonder why that might be," he said, struggling to keep a straight face.
"Maybe because we usually end up fighting and destroying half the town."
He wasn't sure whether Gray was actually so tired that he hadn't picked up on the fact that Natsu was just messing around, or if he was simply continuing the banter. If he was joking then he had a damn good poker face.
"Well this time I'll–" Natsu broke off abruptly, his hands flying to his mouth as the train started moving with a lurch. With a pitiful groan, he slumped over, already feeling his motion sickness coming back with a vengeance. "Ugh, kill me now."
"I think your days as a train connoisseur are numbered," Gray commented dryly.
Natsu was relieved to see a spark of amusement in his friend's eyes, but another jolt of the train distracted him. He curled up into a ball and clutched his stomach.
"This is terrible," he moaned.
"Guess you shouldn't have followed me then," Gray said unsympathetically.
They lapsed into silence then, Natsu distracted by the waves of nauseousness rolling over him and Gray staring blankly out the window, distracted by his own thoughts. The train ride seemed to go on forever, prolonging the torturous experience for as long as possible. Natsu was about to start whining and ask if they were almost there for the fiftieth time, but noticed that Gray had fallen asleep, his head leaning against the window and his eyes closed. The dragon slayer almost smiled, but another lurch of the train made him moan instead.
He couldn't really sleep when he was so nauseous, but he drifted in and out of consciousness for a while, the journey becoming something of a bleary haze. It was during one of his periods of restless unconsciousness that Gray suddenly woke with a flail and a loud gasp, jerking him back to wakefulness as well.
Natsu watched the ice mage through slitted eyes, pretending to still be asleep. Gray peered over at him to make sure he wasn't awake, but Natsu's feigned unconsciousness must have fooled him.
"Damn," he muttered, letting out a shaky breath. "Pull yourself together, idiot. You can't afford to fall apart now."
He clasped his trembling hands together as if that could stop their quivering, and shook his head sharply in a vain attempt to clear it. Resting his forehead against the cool glass of the window, he stared sightlessly out at the passing landscape.
Natsu could tell that he was trying to calm himself down. Gray's quick, shallow breathing gradually evened out, but frankly, he still didn't look happy. His face was twisted in a pained grimace, and his hands never quite stopped trembling.
Natsu wondered what he had dreamed of that was so terrifying and almost blew his cover just to ask, but stopped himself. If Gray knew that the dragon slayer had seen his reaction upon waking, he would shut down for sure. Besides, Natsu had a pretty good idea of what Gray had been dreaming of. Given the events of Galuna, he imagined that the nightmares revolved around Deliora. Perhaps they featured Gray's dead family or master. Natsu felt a twinge of sympathy for his friend.
He continued to surreptitiously watch Gray, although his motion sickness still dragged him into uncomfortable states of semi-consciousness from time to time. At one point Gray seemed to be nodding off again, but then he jolted upright in panic and dug his fingernails into his arm to keep himself awake. He clearly had no intention of going back to sleep any time soon.
Natsu must have fallen into an uneasy slumber eventually, because the next thing he knew, Gray was shaking him awake.
"Come on, flame brain," the ice mage said gruffly. "We're here."
Sure enough, the train had stopped moving. Natsu peeled himself out of his seat with some effort and stumbled down the aisle after Gray, the aftereffects of his motion sickness still lingering. He felt horrible and queasy and uncomfortable, and he cursed the very existence of the torture devices colloquially known as trains.
He groaned and lost his balance, lurching forward. And then suddenly Gray was there, hooking an arm around him and pulling him upright. Natsu blinked up at him in surprise. Gray didn't say anything at first, but his cheeks were stained a faint pink as if he was embarrassed to be caught helping his rival.
"You're so pathetic," he grumbled without heat, still refusing to look at Natsu as he helped him off the train.
Natsu mumbled something unintelligible in reply, still feeling too nauseated to offer a coherent response. He expected Gray to push him away as soon as they exited the train, but the ice mage continued supporting him as they slowly made their way out of the station and down the street.
"I don't suppose you have any idea what this job is about, do you?" Gray asked conversationally.
Natsu moaned something incoherent that could almost be mistaken for 'no'. Gray snorted.
"It's just a routine operation. Some wannabe dark guild has been causing issues and stealing magical artifacts from the town. It's not going to be a hard job, but we'll have to stay overnight." He glanced up at the darkening sky and frowned. "That was one long train ride. I guess we might as well check into the hotel and get started on the job tomorrow since it's already getting late. The hotel is just down this street."
Natsu was still too out of sorts to offer an intelligible reply, and Gray didn't press him for one. Instead, they stumbled down the street in silence and Natsu leaned against his friend more heavily, feeling thoroughly miserable. His motion sickness was taking a long time to dissipate today.
Gray didn't complain, and Natsu wondered what had caused his sudden change in attitude. He had been short-tempered and irritated with Natsu earlier, ready to bite his head off over any little thing. Now he was almost being even nicer than usual. It was weird.
Natsu breathed a sigh of relief as the hotel finally came into view.
"I'm sorry for snapping at you earlier," Gray mumbled quietly, his eyes steadfastly fixed on the hotel rather than Natsu.
Natsu stopped right there in the middle of the street, making Gray curse in surprise and stumble before coming to a stop himself.
"Who are you and what have you done with Gray?" he asked incredulously.
"Ha ha, very funny," Gray muttered, looking away in embarrassment as he tugged on Natsu and forced him to start walking again.
"Seriously," Natsu pressed, shaking his head to clear some of the train-induced fuzziness. "What the hell is wrong with you?"
Gray grimaced and refused to look at him. "Nothing. Forget about it."
Sensing that his friend was getting defensive again, Natsu dropped the subject and finished walking to the hotel in silence. He didn't know where this sudden change of heart had come from, and he wasn't sure that he liked it. Gray didn't apologize to Natsu, just like Natsu didn't apologize to Gray. If they felt the need to make something up to the other person then they would say sorry in their own way, of course, but that way never involved coming straight out and apologizing. Especially not over something as trivial as being grumpy.
Natsu remained silent as Gray checked into their room, glad that his queasiness was finally starting to abate. He even managed to make it to their room without Gray's help. Gray unlocked the door and Natsu headed in, immediately collapsing on one of the two beds.
"Ugh…That was awful," he complained.
Gray rolled his eyes. "Want to go grab some dinner?"
Natsu made an involuntary gagging noise as his previous nauseousness reasserted itself. "No," he groaned. "Maybe later."
Gray raised an eyebrow. "You're saying no to food? Who are you and what have you done with Natsu?"
"Ha ha, very funny," Natsu responded, parroting their earlier words. At least Gray had recovered some of his sense of humor.
"Alright, if you're still feeling so bad, why don't you stay here and rest for a bit? I'll go arrange a quick meeting with the mayor to get a short briefing so that we'll be ready for tomorrow. I can outline any important information when I get back. No point in both of us being stuck in a boring meeting."
"Sounds good," Natsu agreed, silently relieved that he wouldn't have to go to the initial briefing. He always seemed to get stuck with self-important mayors that rubbed him the wrong way, and that made him liable to burn down their mansions. Not a good way to start off a mission.
Gray's lips twitched upwards into a half-smile, and Natsu got the feeling that the ice mage knew exactly what he had been thinking.
"Well, I'll be back in a couple hours then. Hopefully."
Natsu watched as Gray left, and then flopped over to find a more comfortable position on the lumpy bed. If he didn't move for like twenty minutes then maybe he'd feel well enough to eat. He wondered if he should wait for Gray if he regained his appetite, or if he should just find somewhere to eat on his own. It occurred to him that although Gray had talked about meeting the client, he hadn't mentioned anything about dinner.
It could just be an oversight, but Natsu suddenly wondered if he was planning to eat at all. Come to think of it, he hadn't actually seen Gray eat much over the past few weeks. That didn't necessarily mean anything, of course, since he would eat at least some of his meals outside the guild, but Natsu had a bad feeling about it. He hadn't seen Gray eat a full meal in weeks; the ice mage had mostly just picked at his food and said that he wasn't hungry. He usually said that he had already eaten or that he would eat later, but Natsu was starting to doubt that claim.
Pushing his worries aside, Natsu stared at the ceiling and waited for his stomach to settle. After a half hour or so, he decided that he was prepared to eat, so he headed out to find a good restaurant. He then proceeded to order half the menu and spend a good hour eating everything the restaurant had to offer.
When he returned to the hotel room, Gray was already sitting on his bed, toweling off his wet hair distractedly.
"Oh, I didn't think you'd be back so soon," Natsu said.
Startled out of his thoughts, Gray looked over at him. "Yeah, the meeting was short. Luckily this mayor isn't as longwinded as some."
"I just got back from dinner, but if I knew you'd be back so soon, I would have waited. Have you eaten?" Natsu asked casually, his eyes narrowing slightly as he looked for any sign that Gray was about to lie to him.
"Don't worry about it." Gray stood and disappeared back into the bathroom to hang up the towel, and Natsu silently applauded him for removing himself from view in order to not give himself away. "I ate while I was out."
Natsu bet that if he could see Gray's eyes right now, he would be able to tell that his friend was lying. No matter how short the meeting had been, Gray shouldn't have had time to sit through it and eat and shower all before Natsu got back from dinner.
"There's no hot water," Gray added as he reemerged from the bathroom, pulling a loose shirt over his head. "Doesn't bother me, but you'll have to heat it up if you want to shower."
Natsu's eyes narrowed further. He wasn't interested in the inane information about the shower, but he did find it odd that Gray was putting more clothes on instead of taking them off. In fact, Natsu realized that he hadn't been taking his shirt off very often lately. He had the sudden suspicion that it might be because Gray didn't want them to notice that he was losing weight.
"Hm," he hummed noncommittally, still frowning over at Gray.
The ice mage blinked at him warily, clearly wondering what was up with him. "Oka-ay then," he said slowly. "I'm going to bed, so keep it down if you're staying up too late. I'll give you a quick briefing tomorrow morning before we get started on the job."
"Let me just take a shower and then I'll go to bed too."
"Good luck," Gray said with a grimace. "It's a death trap in there."
Natsu rolled his eyes at the melodramatic pronouncement and headed into the bathroom. He soon realized that Gray hadn't been exaggerating at all. The shower was just a tiny, slippery box barely big enough for Natsu to fit into. Grumbling at the ridiculously small space, he completely forgot about Gray's other warning and turned the water on full blast. The ice cold water him full force, and he yelped and cursed. As he hastily tried to back out of the shower, he slipped on the tile and fell, slamming into the floor and banging all his limbs into the wall on the way down. He cursed loudly as he hurriedly scrambled to his feet and tried to heat the water up with his fire. It was trickier than he had originally thought, and at first he just evaporated all the water into a cloud of steam. It took him several minutes to get the temperature right.
When he stumbled out of the bathroom twenty minutes later, Gray was sitting on his bed laughing.
"I'm glad you think it's funny," Natsu muttered grumpily.
Gray grinned over at him, his eyes sparkling with mirth. "Wow, did you just get into a fight with the shower and lose?"
He started laughing again and Natsu glared over at him, unamused. His body ached all over and he had the feeling that he would wake up with an impressive collection of new bruises the next day.
"Never again," he grumbled, climbing into his bed. He had been hoping that Gray would drop it, but the ice mage kept right on laughing. "Will you please shut up?"
"Sorry, sorry," Gray said breathlessly, trying and failing to get his laughter under control. "But seriously, you would find it hilarious if you were the one in here listening to you. All the banging and thumping and cursing made it sound like you were in a fight for your life, and all the while you were just trying to take a shower."
Natsu cracked a smile. "Alright, it was kind of funny," he admitted. "But you aren't the one who's going to be black and blue tomorrow. And I thought trains were bad."
"I take it that becoming a shower connoisseur isn't on your to-do list then?" Gray had finally stopped laughing, but he still sounded far too amused.
Natsu groaned and sighed. That whole 'train connoisseur' excuse hadn't been very well thought out to begin with, and he had the feeling that Gray was going to tease him about it for a long time to come.
"Yeah, yeah," he muttered. "I thought you were going to sleep."
"Kind of hard to do with you wrestling the shower as loudly as possible."
"O–kay," Natsu said with a sigh, wishing that Gray would stop ribbing him already. "Sorry I kept you up. Now you can go turn the light off since you don't have to suffer such grievous battle wounds."
He heard Gray's bed squeak slightly as the ice mage stood and crossed the room to turn off the light.
"Oh, how far the mighty Natsu Dragneel has fallen," Gray commented as he returned to his bed and slipped under the covers. "Now even a shower is considered a worthy opponent for him."
Despite his irritation with his friend, Natsu smiled into his pillow. So the shower thing had been kind of embarrassing and more than a little painful, but he had to admit that it was pretty funny too. And it had gotten Gray in better spirits than he'd been in for quite a while. Natsu hadn't heard him laugh so much or so genuinely in weeks.
"Goodnight, ice princess," Natsu said firmly, his tone making it clear that this conversation was over.
Gray obviously picked up on it since he snickered for a few seconds. "'Night, flame brain."
The terrible train ride had left Natsu exhausted and ready to sleep, but he grudgingly forced himself to stay awake. This was the perfect chance to see what was going on with Gray's erratic sleeping habits, and it wouldn't do to fall asleep now. On the other hand, he would have to make Gray think that he was asleep, or his friend would start getting defensive and touchy again.
After a few minutes, Natsu forced his breathing to become deep and even. He even added in the occasional fake snore in an attempt to make his performance extra convincing. He watched Gray through carefully slitted eyes.
Not much happened at first, but after several minutes, Gray sighed softly and sat up. Drawing his knees up to his chest, he dropped his head so that his chin rested on them and then stayed in that position, unmoving, for a bit. It was hard to tell in the dark, but when the clouds shifted and a sliver of moonlight came through the window and illuminated him, Natsu thought that he looked as if he was waging some kind of internal debate. He didn't know what Gray might be so conflicted about, but he seemed to be carefully considering something.
Gray finally came to some sort of decision and lay back down with a sigh. Natsu continued to watch him, but although he tossed and turned for a few minutes, he fell asleep surprisingly quickly. As his breathing evened out and deepened, Natsu frowned slightly. With how tired Gray had been, the dragon slayer had assumed that he must be having trouble falling asleep. Maybe this was a fluke, but it hadn't taken him all that long to fall asleep.
Natsu forced himself to stay awake for a few more minutes, but when it became clear that Gray was well and truly asleep, he let himself drift off.
He couldn't have been asleep for more than a couple hours when he was woken by a muffled cry and a loud thump. Startled awake, he shot upright and peered about the darkened room blearily, looking for the source of the sound.
"Gray?" he asked carefully, noticing that his friend had fallen out of bed and was now curled up in a ball on the floor, his breathing harsh and ragged.
Gray slowly lifted his head and looked over at him. The room was dark, but Natsu could still see the emotional turmoil on his friend's face and the iridescent sheen of unshed tears in his eyes.
"Go back to sleep," he said hoarsely, sluggishly extracting himself from the tangle of bedding so that he could stand. Throwing the blankets back onto the bed unceremoniously, he sat down on the mattress.
"Like I can just fall back asleep after all that. It sounds like you just lost a fight with your bed."
The words were meant to be joking, but Natsu's voice came out more worried than teasing. Gray noticed and sighed.
"I'm fine. Look, I'm sorry I woke you up, but seriously, go back to bed. We still have a job to do tomorrow."
Natsu's eyes narrowed slightly. "Are you?" he asked, starting to get a better idea of why Gray had been so tired.
"Am I what?"
"Going back to sleep."
The resulting silence confirmed Natsu's suspicions. Apparently it wasn't so much that Gray was having trouble falling asleep as it was that he kept waking up from nightmares and then refusing to back to sleep, like on the train.
With a yawn and a sigh, Natsu stretched and slid out of bed. He padded across the room and sat down cross-legged in front of Gray on the bed.
"This is getting out of hand," he interrupted. "I kept letting it slide because I figured that you'd work things out on your own and stop having so much trouble once some more time had passed, but it's been over a month now. Since you aren't planning on going back to sleep anyway, we're going to talk."
Gray looked thoroughly taken aback. "Seriously, I'm fine–"
"You aren't 'fine'," Natsu interrupted again, scowling over at him. "You haven't been sleeping. It's gotten to the point where I'm scared to let you go on a job by yourself in case you make another stupid mistake and get yourself hurt. Your magic is sloppy and halfhearted, your movements are clumsy and slow, and despite the fact that you've been unusually irritable, you haven't picked a fight with me in weeks. On top of that, I also suspect that you aren't eating.
"And that might be all that everyone else is worried about, but they don't know you like I do. You've been jumpy and nervous, you keep zoning out and getting these really depressed looks on your face, and your mood swings are horrendous. Sometimes you're ready to bite our heads off over any little thing, and then suddenly you're being unusually affectionate. Hell, you apologized to me. And you might think that you're doing a good job of hiding how scared and sad you are, but your eyes are a dead giveaway."
Gray let out a shaky breath and looked away. "Who knew you could actually be so observant? But you really don't have to worry so much."
"Well, I'm worried as hell, so you're going to tell me about these nightmares of yours," Natsu shot back, unwilling to back down. If he didn't press the issue now, he might not get another chance.
Gray looked faintly surprised at Natsu's admission, but still wasn't willing to give in. He drew his knees to his chest again and wrapped his arms around his bent legs.
"I don't want to talk about it."
"I don't particularly care," Natsu countered harshly. "And until you start talking, I'm going to keep taking guesses. It's not like I don't have some idea of what's going on. This whole issue can be traced back to Galuna, so that's as good a place to start as any. I guess I'd probably have nightmares too if I had that demon rampaging around destroying everything I cared about. So let me guess, the nightmares have something to do with Deliora. Perhaps your family? Or Ur? Should I keep going?"
Gray sighed heavily and dropped his head to rest his chin on his knees. "It's stupid," he muttered.
"It's clearly not stupid if it's bothering you so much," Natsu reasoned. "We all have nightmares sometimes. It's natural, not stupid."
"It's just so damn annoying. They haven't been this bad in years."
"Well what did you expect?" Natsu asked. "Of course they'd come back after you had to face down that demon again." Another thought occurred to him and he frowned. "They haven't 'been this bad' in years?" he echoed. "How often do you normally get these?"
Gray shrugged, but Natsu noticed that his body was still trembling slightly, and his breathing was still shallow and ragged.
"Depends. They were really bad after my parents died and for a year or so after Ur…" He trailed off for a moment before grimacing and continuing. "But after that I didn't get them so often. I mean, I still get them around special occasions: anniversaries, birthdays, holidays. You know, any day that had a special meaning for us. They aren't that bad the rest of the year."
Natsu's eyebrows shot up. "Anniversaries, birthdays, and holidays? So like half the year?"
Gray snorted. "It's not that bad. Death anniversaries are the worst. Some of the holidays are worse than others, and birthdays are only bad if I remember them and think about them. The nightmares usually just come if I've been thinking about the past. Although occasionally I'll get one out of nowhere on some random day."
Another thought struck Natsu.
"Is your birthday included in this?"
Gray winced automatically and Natsu felt his heart twist. Something in the ice mage's eyes told Natsu that his own birthdays were the worst, although the dragon slayer didn't know why that might be.
"Sometimes," Gray said noncommittally, clearly unwilling to expand upon that point. "But really, it's not usually all that bad. I can usually handle it. A nightmare now and then isn't a big deal. But ever since Galuna…" He let out a breath and shook his head. "They've gotten really bad."
When he didn't make a move to actually say what the nightmares were about, Natsu suppressed a sigh and decided to try a different approach.
"And where does the whole not-eating thing come into this?" he asked.
Gray started in surprise and a guarded expression settled over his face. Natsu resisted the urge to bang his head against the wall. Prying any information out of Gray was going to be difficult.
"I eat," the ice mage said defensively.
"Look me in the eye and tell me that you ate dinner tonight," Natsu challenged, eyes flashing.
He hesitated, confirming Natsu's hunch. Gray was very good at hiding things or using half-truths to deflect concerns, but he was surprisingly bad at straight up lying. His eyes usually gave it away, so Natsu always knew to be suspicious if Gray wouldn't look at him when he was talking.
Natsu decided to cut his friend a little slack and not make him admit that he had lied earlier. "I'm not saying that you're starving yourself or anything, but I haven't seen you eat much over the past few weeks. You mostly just pick at your food and even when you do eat, you don't usually finish your meal."
"I eat when I'm not in the guild," Gray protested sulkily.
"Do you?" Natsu asked, raising an eyebrow.
Gray didn't respond for a moment. Then he sighed. "Sometimes."
"So why haven't you been eating?" Natsu pressed, eyeing him carefully.
Gray shifted and let out a breath, and Natsu knew that he had finally worn him down.
"I do eat, just not as often. And I can't stomach big meals most of the time, so I end up just eating a little bit now and then instead."
"It's just…" Gray sighed and ran a hand through his hair. "Think of it like your motion sickness. You don't always want to eat when you've just gotten off a train."
"Yeah, because I'm nauseous. But you don't get motion sick."
"No, but sometimes the nightmares make me sick to my stomach, and I can feel queasy and out of sorts for hours," Gray admitted reluctantly. "And if they're particularly bad and I spend the day brooding over them, I don't usually have much of an appetite either."
Natsu leaned back slightly and watched him with concern. He had figured that the nightmares had been impacting Gray's life because they were preventing him from sleeping, but he was getting the feeling that they were having much worse side effects than he had realized. Not sleeping was bad enough, but it sounded like the nightmares were also preventing him from eating properly and were making him relive the past long after he had woken up. Natsu realized that some of the times he had assumed Gray was zoning out because of tiredness might have actually been the result of him brooding over his past and sending himself into depressive phases. That was an issue.
"And we've worked our way back to the nightmares again," Natsu said mildly, trying to keep the worry out of his voice. "It seems like everything that's going on can be traced back to them. So. Tell me about these nightmares."
Gray hesitated and for a moment Natsu was worried that he was going to shut down again, but then he took a deep breath and started talking.
"Well, you've already figured out part of it. I mean, Deliora and everything…I was just a kid, you know? And I had to watch it tear my home apart and it was terrifying. And God, the screaming."
He seemed to curl in on himself, his eyes turning glassing as he relived the past. His voice wavered slightly, and Natsu gritted his teeth to stop himself from leaning forward and hugging him. Hugging wasn't something they did, but Gray sounded so broken and lost, and it was making Natsu's heart hurt.
"And it killed my parents. I watched that too." Gray looked at Natsu with haunted eyes. "I watched it kill them. And then later I had to watch Ur used iced shell and that was almost worse, because it was my fault. She shouldn't have even been there, but she was. And God, it was horrible. Have you ever seen anyone turn into ice? One minute she was there and the next she was cracking, and then she was just gone. And it was my fault and–"
He broke off with a shuddering breath and surreptitiously tried to swipe at his watering eyes. Natsu opened his mouth to say something—anything—to wipe that broken look off his friend's face, but Gray kept talking.
"So yeah. There's a lot of nightmare material there. I've gotten nightmares about that stuff for years, and I kind of know how to deal with them. But now, after Galuna, there are new ones, and they're even worse."
Natsu swallowed thickly. "What…'new' nightmares?" he asked, his throat dry as he stared at his friend.
For a moment, Gray didn't answer.
"I've always kept my past and present separated," he said finally. "Compartmentalized. The past is over and done with. My parents, Ur and Lyon, they should never have come into contact with you guys. I never told anyone about them because I wanted them to stay in the past where they belonged. Yeah, there were the nightmares and I still thought about the past a lot, but I kept it separate from my life in Fairy Tail.
"But with Galuna…It's like my past suddenly came back to haunt me again, but this time it pulled you guys in too. And now that my past and present have gotten all tangled up, they've started mixing in my dreams too."
"What do you mean?"
Gray stared blankly into the darkness. The heavy silence dragged on for a few minutes before he stirred again.
"The first time I came face-to-face with Deliora, I watched it destroy my home and kill my family," he said, his voice strangely flat. "The second time, I watched Ur sacrifice herself to seal it so that she could save me and Lyon after I stupidly started a fight I knew I couldn't win. The third time…"
He trailed off and finally met Natsu's worried gaze, his eyes haunted and full of pain.
"The third time, it was destroyed," Natsu said gently.
Gray smiled bitterly. "That's beside the point. Deliora destroyed my first family. It destroyed my second, adoptive family. And it came damn close to destroying my third family."
Natsu felt his breath catch. "Gray…"
"You don't get it," the ice mage interrupted. "This is all because you were such a damn fool."
"Me?" Natsu asked in surprise, unsure of where he came into play in this whole thing.
"What the hell were you thinking, getting in front of me like that so I couldn't use the damn spell? I thought you were going to die! I've seen what Deliora can do—I've fought it before. I watched it kill my friends, my family, my master. And its fist was coming down on you and you were going to die and it was going to be my fault because I should have just used the goddamn spell, but you were in my way."
Gray was becoming more and more agitated, his body shaking all over as his words tumbled out in a jumbled, unfiltered mess. Natsu stared at him, horrified, his mouth opening and closing soundlessly.
"And I was so sure that I was about to watch everyone close to me die again. It's like that damn demon made it its goal in life to take everything away from me. And I didn't know how I was going to be able to live with that. I can't–I can't keep losing people like that, Natsu. I can't. And you should have just let me use the spell, because I needed to know that you all were going to be okay. But I couldn't and it was going to be my fault and–"
Natsu couldn't take it anymore. Lunging forward, he wrapped his arms around Gray and held him close. He could feel his friend trembling in his arms, and Gray's tears were soaking through his clothing. Gray hesitantly hugged him back, and then dissolved into tears.
"But it's okay," Natsu said soothingly, his voice trembling slightly. "We're all okay. We're all still here."
"I know," Gray whimpered, "but you almost weren't."
"But we are," Natsu insisted. With some surprise, he found himself blinking back tears of his own. "Besides, do you really think we would have been any better off if we had to watch you use iced shell to save us?"
Gray exhaled shakily. "I know it would've hurt," he whispered. "It would hurt like it hurt me when I watched Ur use it. But I couldn't sit back and watch you die either. My whole life people have been sacrificing themselves for me, and I can't watch that happen again."
Natsu bit his lip, working up the nerve to tell Gray about one of his own private demons.
"I've had nightmares too," he admitted quietly. Gray shifted slightly, but Natsu continued on, staring sightlessly at the far wall as he held his friend. "I don't really get nightmares that often, but I've had a couple since Galuna too. And in them I have to watch you use that damn spell."
He lapsed into silence and although Gray didn't say anything, he tightened his grip on the dragon slayer.
"I told you that I didn't want you to die," Natsu said finally. "I'm not sorry that I stopped you from using the spell."
Gray didn't say anything for a moment, but then sighed quietly. "Natsu, after Deliora fell apart and we realized that Ur's ice had destroyed it, why did you think I was crying?"
Natsu blinked in surprise at the seemingly random tangent. Sure, he remembered when Deliora had died and he'd commented that Ur must have been a pretty great master, and he certainly remembered how Gray had actually cried and thanked Ur. Natsu was just surprised that Gray was voluntarily bringing up the incident.
"I don't know," he said slowly. "Because she managed to kill Deliora, I guess. Since she killed the demon, you didn't have to use iced shell. I'd say that's something to be thankful for."
Gray wriggled out of Natsu's grasp and sat back. His eyes still shimmered with moisture in the darkness, but he wasn't crying at the moment. Instead, he met Natsu's eyes solemnly.
"I was crying because since she killed Deliora, you didn't die when its fist was coming down on you. I wasn't thanking her for my life. I was thanking her for yours."
For a moment, Natsu couldn't breathe. Then he averted his eyes and blinked back some more tears.
"Stupid," he said gruffly. "You're supposed to thank her for both. That's how it works with friends. You were scared that we would die and we were scared that you would die. If any of us had died, the others would have been devastated. You can't get stuck on that whole sacrificial thing when you have friends. Friends are supposed to live together. You need both people, not just one."
Gray tilted his head so that his face was hidden by the shadows. "I know," he murmured with a sigh. "But if it comes down to it…" He shook his head slightly.
"You guys weren't usually in my nightmares before. That's what I meant earlier. The past was nightmare material, and I kept my past isolated from my present. Now that you guys got involved, I have nightmares about you too. It's bad enough with my parents and Ur, but now I have to keep watching all of you die too and God, it's horrible. And then I wake up and I don't want to go back to sleep because if I do, I always get dragged into another nightmare and I hate it.
"And I keep thinking that I should maybe take a few days off of going to the guild so that you all don't see how badly I'm falling apart, but I have to go. After the nightmares I have to go make sure that you're alright. It's usually my fault that you die in my dreams too, so I'll be feeling really bad about it. Sometimes it makes me snap because I feel so bad, but then I'll feel even worse and then I have to try to make it up to you because I shouldn't be taking things out on you and because who knows if you'll even be here when I next wake up, and–"
Gray broke off and took a deep breath to calm himself before he spiraled into panicked rambling again. Natsu had clenched his fists so tightly that his nails were digging into his palms painfully as he stared at his friend. He was used to seeing Gray be strong and confident and maybe a touch arrogant and annoying. He wasn't used to…this.
He was so distracted that he almost failed to make the connection, but then it hit him and he found the words spilling out before he could stop them.
"That's why you were being so strangely nice after we got off the train, and why you apologized, isn't it? Because you had another one of those nightmares?"
Natsu winced and immediately wished that he could take the words back. He had just given himself away, after all that work he had done to make Gray think he hadn't noticed the nightmare on the train.
Gray stared back at him blankly for a moment, his expression unreadable. "I thought you were asleep," he said flatly.
Natsu chuckled nervously. "Uh, yeah…about that…"
There was awkward silence for a few seconds, but then Gray just sighed and shook his head.
"Guess it doesn't really matter that much now. Especially considering I just had a major meltdown on you." He chuckled darkly. It was an unamused sound. "But yeah. That's why I was being weird. It's really hard to stay angry at someone when you just watched them die in your sleep."
"Sorry," Natsu mumbled, glancing at the floor.
"It's fine," Gray said quietly.
They sat in silence for several minutes before Natsu spoke again. "What do you normally do after your nightmares then? I mean, since you don't go back to sleep."
Gray looked over at him and rested his chin on his knees again. "Depends. Sometimes I just lie in bed and stare at the ceiling. Sometimes I find something to keep me busy around my apartment. A lot of times I end up wandering the streets." One corner of his mouth twitched upwards in faint amusement. "People think you're crazy if you're walking around town in the dark at four o'clock in the morning."
"And what are you going to do now, since you've had another one?"
"Since I'm in a hotel room in an unfamiliar town, I'll probably just sit here."
They lapsed into silence again. Then Gray let out an irritated sigh.
"Go back to bed, Natsu."
"Yeah," Natsu said unenthusiastically.
He didn't move. Instead, they both sat on Gray's bed in silence. Natsu didn't want to just go back to sleep and leave Gray sitting here in the dark by himself.
"Can I ask you something?" he said after several minutes.
Gray rolled his eyes. "Why not? You've been asking me things all night."
Natsu almost wanted to smile, but the serious nature of the previous conversation and his current question prevented him. He hesitated for a second, unsure of whether it was a good idea to press the issue, but then plunged right in.
"Why is it that your birthdays are the worst for your nightmares?"
Gray's head jerked as he looked over at Natsu sharply, his eyes filled with surprise and confusion.
"I never said–"
"You didn't have to."
Gray didn't answer immediately and Natsu thought that he was going to brush off the question, but then he sighed again.
"Because my birthday means that I've survived everyone else for another year. It means that even though my parents and Ur are dead, I'm still alive. It means that they won't see me grow up and change. And…" He hesitated, as if debating whether or not to continue, but then forged on. "It's a reminder that I should be dead. I should have died when Deliora killed everyone in my village, and I definitely should have died when I hunted it down and challenged it. But someone else always died in my place: my parents, Ur. And I feel bad because they should be alive, but instead I'm the one that's still here. And thinking like that is an open invitation for nightmares."
Gray stared at a point off to Natsu's left, refusing to look at him. Natsu felt sick. He didn't understand how Gray could blame himself for everything bad that happened, and he had no idea how the ice mage could live with all the guilt he assumed. Gray had always been so strong and confident, but this side of him was always lurking under the surface and Natsu didn't know how he could still stay so strong when he also had to deal with all this other stuff. Most of all, Natsu wished Gray didn't feel that way, because it sounded terrible.
"Gray…" Natsu swallowed and stared at his friend. "The things that happened to you…they're horrible. But…if they hadn't happened, we would never have met you. And you know, everyone in Fairy Tail likes you a lot too, and none of us wish you were dead. I don't want to hear that you're thinking like that." He hesitated. "I told you that I didn't want you to die," he added in a small voice.
Gray finally met Natsu's gaze again when he heard the slight waver in the dragon slayer's voice. He tried to smile, but it came out wrong.
"It's okay, flame brain," he said gently. "I'm not going anywhere."
"You'd better not," Natsu mumbled, looking away. "But…You know, we aren't going anywhere either. These nightmares of yours sound horrible, but in the end they aren't real. When you wake up, we'll still be here, okay? We're not leaving you."
Gray's smile was a little more believable this time. "Yeah. Okay."
"Now, we have a job tomorrow," Natsu continued, his voice taking on a steely edge. "So you're going to go back to sleep."
The dragon slayer scooted forward and pushed Gray over to forestall his protests. The ice mage made a startled sound as he fell back and his head hit the pillow, and he blinked up at Natsu uncomprehendingly.
"No, this is nonnegotiable. You have to sleep." Natsu paused. He knew why Gray didn't want to go back to sleep, but it was slowly killing him. He needed to force his friend to sleep again somehow. "Look, I'll stay right here until you fall asleep, okay? And when you wake up tomorrow, I'll still be around."
"I'm not a child," Gray grumbled, his gaze sliding away from Natsu's.
"Well, if that's how you want it…"
Natsu made as if to slide off the bed, but was stopped when Gray's arm shot out and his hand wrapped around the dragon slayer's wrist. Natsu hid a smile as he settled back into his previous cross-legged position. Neither of them spoke again, but Natsu remained seated on the bed and Gray's fingers remained curled around his wrist.
Gray had twisted so that he was facing away from Natsu, and the dragon slayer knew that everything the two of them had said and done tonight would never be verbally acknowledged again. That was how they worked. But both of them would remember, and Natsu hoped that it would do Gray some good.
After several minutes, Gray's breathing evened out and his grip on Natsu's wrist relaxed. Natsu considered going back to his own bed to sleep, but decided to wait here a little longer to make sure Gray didn't wake up again. He watched his sleeping friend carefully, but Gray's slumber seemed peaceful enough. For the moment, anyway.
Natsu studied him contemplatively. If this is what it took for Gray to get a good night's sleep…Natsu considered the possibilities. He could drag Gray out on some more jobs with just the two of them. And perhaps Lucy would be grateful if Natsu started crashing at Gray's apartment instead of hers. He would have to be as subtle as possible of course, because neither his nor Gray's pride would allow for anything perceived as pity aid. Natsu would come up with plausible excuses and find ways to irritate Gray along the way so that the ice mage wouldn't feel like Natsu was helping him because he was weak.
But really, in their hearts they would both know what the other meant, even if they wouldn't admit it out loud.
In the end, Natsu stayed by Gray's side all night, hoping that his presence would ward off the nightmares. Maybe if Gray could somehow sense that Natsu was nearby, he wouldn't have to dream of his death. Maybe if he knew there was a friend who cared beside him, he could forget about his guilt and pain long enough to find a peaceful sleep. Natsu wanted that for his friend, so he stayed.
After all, he had said that he would still be there when Gray woke up.