Note: So, I didn't really plan to write anything else for this because I really liked how the original one-shot ended. And yet, here we are. If the style seems just a little bit different from the first part, it's because I wrote the original one-shot a couple months ago and just wrote this a couple nights ago on a whim.
Also, I just wanted to say a quick thanks to everyone who left reviews on the original one-shot. Your comments were very appreciated, and several of them made me smile. I wouldn't say that this part is quite as good as the first one, but I hope you enjoy it anyway : )
The night passed in something of a long, painful blur for Natsu. He remained sitting cross-legged on Gray's bed, but as the night wore on he got more and more tired. It was pretty damn tempting to retreat to his own bed to sleep, but he stayed by Gray's side instead, waiting for any sign that the ice mage's sleep was anything but peaceful. He eventually leaned forward a little and propped one of his elbows on his knee so that he could rest his cheek in his hand, which was more comfortable but didn't exactly help keep him awake. Still, he kept guard over his sleeping friend as best he could, although he kept drifting in and out of a restless slumber.
He was half asleep when he felt the mattress shift. Shaking himself awake, he squinted over at Gray blearily. He had rolled over and was blinking at Natsu slowly, a slight frown on his face as his sleep-addled mind tried to process what was going on. Natsu had intended to head to his own bed before Gray woke up so that his friend didn't realize what he had done, but his sleep-deprived brain had conveniently forgotten about that fact sometime during the night, and now it was too late. Oops.
"What the hell are you doing, flame brain?" Gray asked slowly, his voice still gravelly from sleep. Then his eyes narrowed slightly and his frown deepened. "Were you sitting there all night?" he asked incredulously.
Natsu uncrossed his legs and stood. Then he promptly stumbled and winced, belatedly realizing that his legs were asleep since he hadn't moved much in the past few hours. He shook them out a little to regain some feeling, and this time his wince was because the shaking aggravated some of the bruises he had gained in the shower the other night. Between the numb legs, the bruises covering his body, and the lack of sleep, Natsu was a mess this morning.
"Ha," he said. "Why would I do that?"
The best way to smooth over this situation was to pretend that it hadn't happened in the first place, or to at least not acknowledge it. Natsu doubted that either of them was up to having another heartfelt conversation after last night, so he figured that Gray would appreciate it if he could brush off the whole incident.
"Anyway, I'm gonna be in the bathroom getting ready," he added, trying to make his voice sound more cheerful than exhausted. He headed for the bathroom, and behind him, he heard the mattress groan slightly as Gray shifted positions.
Natsu paused midstride and turned around to arch a questioning eyebrow at his friend. Gray had stood up and was watching him with a steady, unreadable gaze.
"What?" he asked, lifting a hand in a vain attempt to conceal a wide yawn.
For a moment Gray didn't speak, but then he took a few quick steps forward so that he was standing directly in front of Natsu. The dragon slayer made a startled sound as Gray suddenly leaned forward and hugged him. Natsu stopped breathing and his heart began pounding much too fast, because this should not be happening. Gray was not a hugger by any stretch of the imagination, and Natsu's first thought was that something was still very, very wrong if Gray was hugging him now. Gray leaned in so that his mouth was just next to the side of Natsu's head.
"Thank you," he breathed into Natsu's ear, so quietly that the dragon slayer could have almost thought he imagined it.
And then Gray abruptly disengaged and pulled away. Stepping around Natsu, he began walking towards the other side of the room. For several seconds Natsu was too stunned to do anything besides stare uncomprehendingly at the space where his friend had just been, but then he turned and blinked over at him. Gray had reached the bathroom and flicked the light on. He stepped inside and closed the door halfway before glancing back and giving Natsu a smug smirk. The door clicked shut, and Natsu was left staring at its unyielding surface.
He remained rooted to the spot for several long seconds, still trying to process what had just happened. Then he chuckled to himself, realizing that Gray had used his surprise to deftly steal the first turn in the bathroom. He couldn't really be mad, because it meant that his friend was doing better than he had been last night.
Besides, Gray had just done what Natsu himself had done. Natsu had done something nice and touchy-feely by sitting with Gray all night, but he had just tried to play it off like something unimportant. Gray had done something nice and touchy-feely by giving Natsu a hug and thanking him, but then he used it as an excuse to steal the bathroom so that they didn't get bogged down in all that emotional stuff again. Natsu shook his head in faint amusement.
Well, while he waited for Gray, he could take this opportunity to lie down on his own bed and rest his eyes for a few minutes. He realized almost immediately that this idea was a mistake, because as soon as his head touched the pillow, he could feel himself drifting off.
Natsu wandered in and out of dreams for what felt like ages, his sleep sometimes deep and peaceful and sometimes restless. And then his dream self was back on Galuna Island, but it was all wrong. He was so sure that he was supposed to be standing between Gray and Deliora, but he was on the other side of the cavern instead and Gray was facing down the demon alone. That was wrong, wrong, wrong.
Natsu was half aware that he was lying in bed, tossing and turning in agitation as the nightmare ate at his mind, but his real focus was on his dream self. He was running as fast as he could, desperate to reach Gray, but he could already tell that it was too late. Gray was already using that damn iced shell spell, and Natsu couldn't stop him in time. But the dragon slayer kept running, kept screaming, racing death in a desperate bid to somehow save his friend.
And then the spell was finished and Deliora was covered in ice again. Gray turned to look at Natsu, but it was terrible to behold. He was becoming translucent, jagged cracks spiderwebbing through his body, and then he shattered into a million broken shards of glittering ice and was gone.
Then Natsu was alone, crying and asking why, why, why, as he fell to his knees. Because Gray had said that he would stay, but he had gone and sacrificed himself anyway, and it was wrong, wrong, wrong. And Gray was gone, but Natsu kept talking to the silence anyway, unwilling to accept that his friend had just disappeared, had just slipped through his fingers and blown away on the wind.
On some level he was almost aware of his feverish muttering as he twisted about in his sweat-soaked sheets, but for the most part he was kneeling in a cavern mourning Gray's death.
"Gray…Gray, don't do it…Come back…"
And then he suddenly felt a ghostly touch of icy skin brushing against his fevered face and carding comfortingly through his hair.
"Shh, it's okay. I'm here. I'm here. I'm sorry."
Natsu didn't know what it meant exactly, but he felt himself relaxing at this hint of Gray. It reminded him of a fact that he had almost-known but not quite understood: that this was just a nightmare. It wasn't real. Wasn't real at all, because Gray wasn't actually gone. This was just a bad dream. When he woke up, Gray would still be there.
Reassured, Natsu let out a deep breath and rolled over as the dream-cavern wavered and slowly melted away. Natsu left it behind and fell back into a deep, dreamless sleep.
When Natsu woke up, he didn't move at first. The hazy mix of half-remembered dreams had left him far too disoriented, so he just stared blankly at the far wall, trying to get his thoughts in order. He remembered that Gray had beaten him to the bathroom so he had lain down on the bed for a few minutes, and he must have fallen asleep. He could vaguely recall having another one of those nightmares about Gray using iced shell, which was only to be expected after everything he and his friend had talked about last night.
And judging by how much harsh afternoon light was filtering through the window, Natsu guessed that he had been asleep for hours. He sat up abruptly, muttering frantic curses as he realized how late it was. He and Gray were supposed to have been doing that job, taking care of that dark guild or whatever.
As he sat up, he noticed that Gray was perched at the very edge of the end of his bed, his feet planted firmly on the floor and his hands absently weaving about in complex motions as they formed and reformed small ice sculptures. He had been staring blankly out the window, but when he sensed Natsu moving he looked over at the dragon slayer instead, his hands temporarily stilling.
The two mages stared at each other for a few moments. Gray's eyes still had that haunted, tortured quality that Natsu had noticed over the past few weeks, which made him wonder what his friend had been thinking about as he slept. He could guess, but it only confirmed that Gray wasn't okay yet and probably wouldn't be okay for a long time. Natsu supposed that it was only to be expected—you couldn't just undo months and years of pain and heartbreak in one night. But that somber, sad edge was only visible for a split second before Gray smoothed out his expression.
"You're finally awake," he commented neutrally.
Natsu crossed his legs underneath the tangled mess of blankets—he didn't remember crawling under the covers before falling asleep, so he could only assume that Gray had covered him with a blanket later—and ran a hand through his hair.
"You should have just woken me up."
Gray shrugged. "You looked like you could use the sleep. Besides, you were really deeply asleep by the time I found you."
Natsu supposed that he shouldn't be surprised that Gray let him sleep after realizing that he had been up all night for him.
"Have you been there for a long time?" he asked, wondering how literally Gray had tried to return the favor. Gray shrugged again and stood, stretching out his limbs languidly. His face was turned at just the right angle that a sliver of shadow hid his eyes.
Natsu shook his head, recognizing a half-truth. Gray had obviously been sitting there for longer than he was willing to admit. Natsu thought back to when he had been having that nightmare. He had thought that he had just imagined Gray's touch and words, but if the ice mage had been sitting here for that long… Natsu was tempted to ask Gray if he had actually comforted him in his sleep, but he knew that his friend would deny it no matter what the truth actually was.
Besides, Gray was clearly done discussing the matter. Walking over to the small table positioned on the wall by the door, he began rummaging through the things laid out on it.
"Here," he said, turning around. He held a small container in his hands. "Catch."
Luckily Natsu's reflexes were as good as ever, and his hands instinctively snatched the jar out of the air just before it smacked him in the face. He turned the object over in his hands and studied it with a faint frown, not understanding what it was for.
"What is this?"
Gray shrugged and leaned against the wall, crossing his arms over his chest. "I ran into an herbalist earlier," he explained. "That's supposed to reduce pain and help bruises heal faster if you apply the ointment over the affected areas. You were moving like an old woman this morning and I don't have the patience to help you hobble around all day. That shower sure did a number on you."
Natsu stared at his friend. That was unusually thoughtful of Gray. Despite the fact that he was trying to play it off like it was something he had done to make Natsu less annoying, the dragon slayer suspected that it was an indirect gesture of gratitude for last night.
"Thanks," Natsu said. It would definitely come in handy—the bruises were already aching again—but hearing that Gray had had time to go hunting around the city reminded him of something else and he frowned over at the light streaming through the window again. "What time is it anyway?"
"Almost four o'clock, I believe," Gray replied with an apathetic shrug.
Damn, that was even later than Natsu had thought. He cursed under his breath.
"Oh crap, why didn't you wake me up? We need to go do that job!"
Gray had picked something else up off the table and was turning it over in his hands and studying it carefully so that he didn't have to meet Natsu's gaze. "I already did it," he said flatly.
There was a pause.
"What?" Natsu demanded, unable to quite believe what he was hearing.
"I took care of the job while you were asleep," Gray repeated, still not looking at him.
"You took out a whole dark guild by yourself in only a few hours?" Natsu asked incredulously.
Gray snorted derisively and dropped his plaything back onto the table. "It was hardly a challenge." He paused and seemed to realize something. "Oh, you weren't there for the briefing. Honestly, even the mayor realized that something was fishy about this wannabe dark guild that caused a little mischief but didn't do much real damage. Turns out that it was the mayor's son who was ringleader of this group of troublemaking friends. They basically just stole a few minor artifacts and bothered some townsfolk. Apparently they were just interested in leading a double life and getting some extra excitement."
His expression twisted into one of condescending disgust at the thought of that. "Needless to say, the mayor was terribly embarrassed and his son is getting the scolding of his life. And he gave us his sincerest thanks and the reward money, so we're good to go as soon as you get yourself ready."
The details of the job didn't interest Natsu so much as the fact that Gray had gone and done it without him. There was something terribly dismissive and coldhearted about that. This was a job that they were supposed to do together, and Natsu had thought that after last night Gray would be more willing to work with him today.
"You did it without me?" he asked slowly, trying to keep the hurt out of his voice.
Gray fixed him with a hard, unyielding gaze. "Yes, I did it without you. This was my job from the beginning—you just tagged along to play babysitter. I never invited you and you weren't supposed to be here."
"Oh," Natsu said in a small voice, unsure of how to respond to that accusation.
He knew that Gray hadn't been happy with him for following him on this job, but Natsu had also thought that he had gotten over it. He hadn't realized that Gray was still so bitter about it. He had thought that their talk last night had brought them closer and helped them understand each other even better, so this hurt. This hurt a lot.
"Besides, you were in no condition to be running around on jobs," Gray added, his gaze wandering away. "You were so tired that you could barely keep your eyes open and your great battle wounds from the shower were making your movements clumsy and awkward. You would have been a hindrance."
Natsu wondered if that was supposed to soften the blow. Maybe the concern for his health could be somewhat touching, but the rest of it was not. To be honest, it didn't mollify him and he was still feeling betrayed and hurt.
"Oh," he said again tonelessly. "I guess so. And what are you planning to do now?"
Gray didn't respond immediately. He uncrossed his arms and then crossed them again, and turned his head so that he could stare out the window once more. "Hm…I'm planning on taking a train back to Magnolia. I'm going to stop by the guild and pick out three or four jobs, and then I'm going to take a week or two to run around the countryside and take care of them all. And I'll probably destroy a couple buildings and get in a few fights and generally make a nuisance of myself along the way, because why not?"
"Oh," Natsu repeated quietly, hating that his vocabulary seemed to have been reduced to a single word now. He just couldn't think of anything else to say to that. Hearing about all the things Gray planned to do by himself… It was kind of like a slap in the face after everything the two of them had shared and talked about. "That…sounds fun."
And it did, really. It just sounded like fun that Natsu wasn't going to be included in, which wasn't that fun at all. Gray tore his gaze away from the window and looked at Natsu again. His eyes softened.
"Well, what do you say, flame brain? Are you coming with me?"
Natsu stared at him wordlessly. Gray had said all of that, and now he was asking Natsu to come with him? It suddenly struck him why Gray had brought up the fact that he really hadn't had any place coming on this job. Natsu had really just been an uninvited tagalong for this mission, but now…Now Gray was inviting Natsu to come. This time Natsu would belong, and he and Gray would go on this adventure together.
He swallowed hard, unable to speak past the lump in his throat. When Natsu didn't respond immediately, Gray pushed himself away from the wall and turned to look back at the objects strewn across the table. Selecting one, he tossed it to Natsu.
Natsu caught it reflexively and blinked at it uncomprehendingly for a moment. "Uh…"
"I picked that up at the herbalist's too," Gray said, watching him carefully. "It's supposed to help with motion sickness. I don't know if it will actually help or not, but I thought it was at least worth a shot. Having to carry you off the train yesterday was pretty pathetic and I don't really want to have to keep lugging you around, especially if we're going to be doing a lot of jobs by train." A sly smirk tugged at one corner of his mouth. "Besides, if you really want to be a train connoisseur then you might need a little help. It wasn't going so well the other day."
Natsu choked out a strangled laugh at the reminder of his poorly thought out excuse. He needed to thank Gray, needed to say that he wanted to go with him, but he couldn't quite find the words. Gray's smirk melted into a faint smile.
"Well, Natsu?" he asked, finally abandoning the nicknames and teasing. "Will you come with me?"
Natsu felt the edges of his mouth curling up into a grin of his own. Gray was the one with the really tragic past, the one who seemed to need the most help. Sometimes Natsu got so busy trying to help Gray that he forgot that their friendship was really a two-way street. It wasn't just about 'fixing' Gray—Gray was looking out for Natsu too. It wasn't about one of them trying to take care of the other, but about both of them doing it all together.
"Yeah," he said hoarsely, finally finding his voice. "I wouldn't miss it for the world."
Natsu hadn't noticed that Gray was tensed up, but he couldn't miss the way his friend relaxed a little and looked faintly relieved as the tension drained from his body. Gray's hesitant smile solidified.
"You sure you know what you're getting yourself into?" he teased. "I'm going to make fun of you and laugh at you and annoy you any way I can. And we're going to end up getting into fights and destroying towns and having to answer to Erza when we get back. You do realize that there's a reason we don't normally do jobs with just the two of us anymore. I'm going to drive you crazy."
The words were teasing, but Natsu could sense an undercurrent of uncertainty and insecurity. Gray was giving him a way out, making sure that Natsu really wanted to come with him despite all the things that would inevitably happen. Really, Natsu had been hoping that he would know better after everything they had said last night.
If Gray thought that all those things would scare Natsu away then he had another thing coming. To be honest, it all sounded pretty damn good to Natsu. It sounded like Gray was going to try to go back to normal again, after all these weeks of moping around. And really, Natsu had thrived on that part of their relationship to begin with.
"Yeah, I'm sure," he replied. "Sounds like a dream come true."
Gray ducked his head, but Natsu caught the edge of his widening grin. "Well, don't come crying to me when you get tired of it."
"Oh, I won't," Natsu said, his smile softening a little. "I just took a nap, after all. I'm not going to be tired for a long, long time."
Because really, by this point Gray should understand that Natsu wasn't going to get tired of him. Gray chuckled a little, obviously picking up on the double meaning. He glanced up again, and although there was still something sad lingering somewhere deep in his eyes, he looked happier than he had in a long time. He smirked over at Natsu.
"Well, go get ready to go, squinty eyes. You've already slept half the day away, and it's a long train ride back to Magnolia."
"Ugh, don't remind me," Natsu groaned.
He untangled himself from the blanket and stood up, stretching and yawning. Picking up the jars of ointment and medicine Gray had bought him, he headed for the bathroom.
"Now that you're finally out of the bathroom…" he said meaningfully.
Gray just laughed at the reminder of his earlier theft. "Guess you should be faster next time. You were off your game."
Natsu rolled his eyes. Yeah, he had been off his game. He had been off his game because of Gray being all weird.
"Yeah, yeah, just give me a couple minutes."
Natsu had stepped into the bathroom and half shut the door when his friend spoke again.
"You didn't have to look so scared," Gray said quietly. "I told you that I wasn't going anywhere."
Natsu paused. He thought his friend might be referring to whatever look the dragon slayer had been wearing when Gray had been telling him his plans for the future and had failed to mention him. But he could also be referring to the nightmare Natsu had had earlier. Natsu still wasn't sure if it had actually been Gray's voice that had pulled him out of the nightmare, but he had a suspicion that it probably had been. He could still remember the words 'I'm here. I'm here. I'm sorry.' And that reminder that Gray wasn't going anywhere had been all it took to break Natsu out of the nightmare. At the same time, that little lesson had been what Natsu had been trying to show Gray last night too.
"Yeah, that's what I keep telling you," he muttered. "Nobody's going anywhere."
With that, he shut the door firmly behind him. He would take his time getting ready and rubbing this ointment on his bruises and trying out this potion for motion sickness, and when he was done he'd go back into the room and Gray would still be there waiting for him. And then they would go on an adventure together for old time's sake.
And if they were still a little broken at the edges, still a little sad and scared and insecure, that was okay. It was something that they could figure out together, and Natsu wouldn't have it any other way.
Note: I mentioned this at the beginning of the first part, but if you missed it, there is now a fic called "And All the Times After", which contains side stories to this two-shot.