Note: I can't possibly be the only one who's a little bitter about how that first challenge went. It actually made me a little biased against GMG right from the beginning, to be honest.
"What the hell just happened?" Natsu asked no one in particular, glowering over at where the participants in the first challenge of the Grand Magic Games were walking back towards their teammates. "That was totally pathetic. What was Gray thinking?"
"To be fair, he didn't stand much of a chance with Nalpudding targeting him the whole game," Lucy offered, her brown eyes sad. "Raven Tail is really out to get us."
"He didn't even get a single point," Natsu muttered mutinously.
It was irritating how Gray had completely humiliated himself and Fairy Tail in the challenge. He was better than that. He shouldn't have been taken out so easily. But still…Natsu knew that Lucy was right as well. The odds had been against Gray from the start. That still didn't mean that Natsu was happy about it though.
He watched Gray's approach, studying him closely. Gray's head was slightly bowed and tilted at just the right angle so that his face was concealed by shadow and partially hidden by his hair. No matter how frustrated Natsu was, he determined not to make any caustic remarks. Gray was clearly upset enough as it was, and to be honest, Natsu was more frustrated with Raven Tail than with his friend.
Gray finally reached them and continued on walking without looking up, his jaw set and his eyes shadowed. Natsu watched him sidelong as he passed, but his head jerked around as some of the spectators in the audience began jeering and shouting insults.
"I knew Fairy Tail was gonna suck!"
"Always in last place!"
"Your day is over!"
Gray paused next to Natsu as he listened to the taunts, and the dragon slayer saw him grit his teeth as his shoulders hunched slightly. Natsu almost growled in anger.
"What's so funny, asshole?" he shouted, eyes blazing as he snarled at the disrespectful people in the stands.
He was dimly aware that they were laughing at him now and taunting him for losing his temper, but his attention was on Gray as he walked across the arena and disappeared out the exit.
"Enough," Erza said from beside him, putting a restraining hand on his back.
"If they wanna laugh, let them," Elfman agreed.
Natsu turned to look at them, a scowl still plastered on his face. "But they're insulting Fairy Tail!" he protested. "They're insulting Gray!"
Erza blinked at him in surprise for a moment, before smiling slightly. Natsu hastily tried to backtrack a little.
"Only I'm allowed to do that," he grumbled, looking away in embarrassment.
After all, when Natsu and Gray insulted each other, each knew that the other didn't really mean what they said. Or most of what they said, anyway. They would taunt and tease and fight, but at the end of the day, they were still best friends.
If Natsu called Gray pathetic and weak then there might be a reason for it, but they both knew that Gray was far from weak. They could tell which insults were real and which weren't, and they knew when they had gone too far.
These people in the stands didn't know Fairy Tail and they didn't know Gray. All they saw was one poor performance, and automatically assumed that the team and the mage representing it were weak losers. If they knew what Natsu knew, they wouldn't be able to think that way.
"If you're that worried, why don't you go talk to him?" Erza suggested, still looking pleased at Natsu's earlier admission of friendship with Gray.
Natsu, for his part, was horrified. He recoiled and stared at the requip mage in disbelief and with a touch of disgust.
"Talk?" he asked, aghast. "We don't talk." He scowled. "Besides, the ice cube will be fine. He knows better than to let one defeat and a few measly jerks get to him."
Erza just sighed and shook her head, although she didn't look surprised at the immediate rejection of her suggestion.
"I don't know," Lucy said worriedly, glancing back at the place where Gray had disappeared from the arena. "He seemed pretty upset."
Natsu waved off her concern, feigning nonchalance even though he might be feeling just the slightest touch of sympathy for his friend. "He'll be fine. I've said way worse things to him before," he said airily. "And it's not like this is the first time he's ever lost a fight."
Lucy and Erza exchanged glances, but dropped the subject. After all, the team still had to get ready for the coming battle phase, and Natsu wasn't likely to budge from his position.
As they changed the subject and began taking guesses at the pairings for the fights, Natsu found his attention wandering. He frowned faintly as he stared at the exit Gray had disappeared into a few minutes previously.
Gray was tough. Natsu would admit that. Gray would have to be tough in order to be a worthy rival for Natsu, after all. Natsu wouldn't put up with a second-rate rival, and Gray knew it. Ergo, Gray knew better than to start doubting himself because of a single loss and a few rude comments.
Despite his firm belief that Gray would be perfectly fine and snap out of his bad mood soon, Natsu found himself watching his friend out of the corner of his eye when Fairy Tail gathered at a nearby bar after the day's events. It wasn't because he was worried, of course. Just…curious. Yeah, that was it. He was curious to see how Gray was taking everything.
He had shown up late, accompanied by Lucy, but despite Juvia's fanciful imaginings, he seemed not only uninterested in Lucy but also completely fine. The dark shadows had disappeared from his face and he showed no sign of unhappiness, joining in the guild's destructive festivities with vigor. Natsu did his best to incite a celebratory and fun mood in the guild through his antics. He wanted everyone to know that Fairy Tail was still in good spirits despite how poorly they had done on the first day, and that the guild would rise up again and not fall apart because of some trivial hiccup. He wanted Gray to know that.
Even as Natsu got into all his usual trouble initiating brawls and potentially dangerous yet terribly exciting activities, he kept an eye on Gray. The ice mage seemed to be having a good time, but there was something lurking behind his ready smile that Natsu found disconcerting. Natsu could be imagining it, of course, but Gray was very good at concealing his emotions when he wanted to be. Natsu had yet to determine how much of Gray's good humor was real and how much was just for show.
If Natsu hadn't been glancing over at him every now and then, he would have missed it when Gray slipped out of the bar after only an hour or so. The party was still in full swing, and no one else had noticed Gray's disappearance. Even Juvia had been distracted by whatever she was talking to Gajeel about over in the corner. Natsu belatedly realized that although Gray had jumped right into the fray when he first arrived, he had been slowly distancing himself from the center of attention over the past half hour, until he could stay unobserved on the sidelines. It had been a subtle enough shift that no one had noticed—not even Natsu, despite the fact that he had actually been paying attention.
Natsu grimaced faintly. If Gray had just told them that he was heading back to the hotel for some reason or another, Natsu wouldn't worry. But the fact that Gray had made himself as unobtrusive as possible and then snuck out without a word likely indicated that something was bothering him that he didn't want to share with the others. Natsu had a pretty good idea of what that something might be.
He resolved to go after his friend. Not to talk or anything silly like that, whatever Erza might think. And it wasn't because he was really worried or anything. Obviously he was just curious about what Gray was doing. Sneaking around was a suspicious activity, after all. Natsu would just go do a little snooping to see what Gray was up to.
However, unlike Gray, Natsu was still right in the middle of things, having a tendency to always gravitate toward the center of attention. If he just walked out now, people would notice. It wasn't like his departure needed to be a secret or anything, but it would be better if people didn't ask questions. Answers to those questions would inevitably lead back to Gray, who would not be pleased if everyone suddenly knew his business.
Natsu wasn't as good at subtle maneuvers as Gray, but he did eventually manage to fade into the background with a little effort. His presence would likely be missed pretty quickly and his absence would be questioned more than Gray's, so he would have to hurry. While he had the chance, he stealthily snuck out the door. Stealth and planning weren't his greatest strengths, but he wasn't completely hopeless, if the situation was important enough to merit an attempt.
As he started down the darkened street, following Gray's lingering scent trail in the chill night air, he absently wondered whether it would be better to stay and try comforting Lucy instead. After all, the blonde had lost her match too, and Gray could take care of himself. But Natsu also knew that lots of people would be around to comfort Lucy if she needed it.
Gray, on the other hand, wouldn't be able to get as much support even if he wanted it. People had a tendency to assume that Gray was tougher than he really was, and he liked to encourage that view. Natsu knew better. Still, Gray wouldn't ask for comfort and he'd brush it off even if he did receive it. Such attempts at offering sympathy would have to be conducted in a very careful manner, or Gray would become defensive and reject them outright.
Natsu shook his head, not liking where his train of thought was going. After all, it wasn't like he was actually worried. And to be honest, even if Gray was upset now, he would recover quickly. He might just need a little reminder to set him on the right track.
Gray had several minutes' head start because of Natsu's lengthy extrication process, so the dragon slayer hurried. The streets were mostly empty at this time of night, the residents of the city tucked away in their houses and the visiting guilds holed up in bars or hotel rooms. Natsu occasionally passed someone, but there were few enough people up and about that Gray's scent trail remained clear and unmuddled.
This made it easier to follow the ice mage at a quick pace, but despite his haste, Gray had already reached the hotel before Natsu caught up to him. Natsu lingered at the door of the hotel uncertainly, debating whether or not this was a good idea. Then, with a grumble and a sigh, he pushed his way inside and headed for the room Fairy Tail's A team shared. He hesitated outside that door as well, before quietly easing it open and entering the room.
Gray hadn't bothered turning on the light, so the room was swathed in shadows, the only light coming from where the curtains had been pushed back. Natsu didn't see his friend at first, until there was a slight movement from the balcony as Gray's shadowed form twisted to look over at him.
Natsu scowled. He had thought that he had been pretty quiet, but again, stealth had never been one of his strong points.
"Awfully early for you to leave a guild gathering," Gray commented neutrally, moonlight reflecting off his dark eyes as he watched Natsu guardedly.
Still annoyed that he had been caught so easily, Natsu headed across the room—all pretenses of stealth gone—and joined Gray out on the balcony. He leaned against the railing and turned his gaze on the city below them. Gray copied him, resuming the position he had been in before Natsu had showed up.
"Same to you," the dragon slayer replied. "It's not like you to be skulking around in the dark instead of staying with the guild."
"'Skulking'?" Gray asked, slightly taken aback and partly amused.
Natsu scowled again, not liking the feeling that Gray was poking fun at him. "Oh, I'm sorry. Should I have said 'sulking'?" he shot back.
Gray didn't respond, and a tense silence fell over the duo. Natsu could practically feel Gray's irritation and defensive embarrassment at being called out. It occurred to him that he probably should have thought about what he was about to say before he said it. His comment had just added a lot of tension to the atmosphere, and now Gray would be even more prickly.
But now that he had broached the subject…
"Well, today was pretty terrible, wasn't it?" he said cheerfully.
Watching Gray sidelong, he saw the ice mage blinking at him impassively, his features schooled to be perfectly expressionless.
"Hm," Gray hummed noncommittally.
"And you had a pretty pathetic showing," Natsu pressed bluntly, trying to keep the cautious note out of his voice as he tentatively probed his friend.
He finally looked over at Gray, just in time to see him tilt his head away so that his face was hidden by the shadows. Natsu resisted the urge to huff impatiently.
"Yes," Gray said flatly.
Natsu waited, anticipating that Gray would try defending himself or offering an explanation, but he didn't add anything. Now that was a little worrisome. Gray never let Natsu get away with calling him pathetic. There should have been a snippy comment in there somewhere.
Natsu repressed a sigh. "But really, it's just the first day. Who cares if we screwed up the first couple challenges? There are a lot more coming up. Fairy Tail is going to make an epic comeback and win anyway." Despite himself, Natsu grinned, eyes blazing in anticipation and excitement. "And tomorrow I'm going to win us so many points that we won't know what to do with them all."
Gray looked unimpressed. "And what if it's a challenge that you wouldn't be good at?"
Natsu shrugged off his concern. "I'm going to do it, whatever it might be." He shifted, already impatient for the next day's challenge. "I'm for sure going to get us our first points, and then Fairy Tail is going to turn it around and keep getting more and more points until we win."
For a moment there was only silence, but then Gray smiled faintly. "Yes, you might just be able to do it," he remarked.
The words themselves didn't sound very confident, but Natsu knew that Gray meant them as a kind of compliment.
"Damn right I can," Natsu said confidently. "Fairy Tail is going to win this, so don't you dare give up now."
He watched Gray carefully, and he wasn't disappointed. The reaction was immediate. An angry, almost betrayed, look flashed across Gray's face and he scowled.
"What the hell are you talking about? I'm not giving up," he said in irritation, narrowing his eyes at Natsu.
"No," the dragon slayer answered agreeably. "I know that you wouldn't give up on Fairy Tail. You'd fight for us to the end. But don't you dare give up on yourself."
Gray stared at Natsu, anger and bewilderment warring in his eyes. "…What?"
But Natsu wasn't going to be deterred. Everyone thought that Gray was tough, both physically and emotionally. They were right, but they also underestimated his capacity to blame himself for everything. Natsu knew very well that Gray's self-blame could easily lead to self-doubt or even darker emotions. And Natsu understood it, but he wasn't going to just sit here and accept it.
"Yeah, you screwed up today," he began relentlessly. "You did a terrible job. Honestly, I don't know what the hell you were thinking. You should have been able to take out that pudding guy and the memory mage easily, but you let yourself get defeated instead."
Gray seemed to be considering whether he should take that as a direct insult or a backhanded compliment, but Natsu forged on.
"It was pathetic. But you'll get your chance to redeem yourself later." His mind flashed back to the spectators in the stands jeering at Gray and the guild. He scowled angrily. "And no one will be laughing then," he added darkly.
Gray looked taken aback, and Natsu wondered if the ice mage could tell what he was thinking. He hoped not. He wouldn't want Gray to get the impression that he really cared if people laughed at him.
The startled expression faded from Gray's face and his lips twitched upwards into a faint half-smile. Natsu blinked at him, momentarily losing his train of thought at the unexpected expression. Oh, what the hell, he thought in defeat. Maybe it wasn't so bad if Gray knew he cared.
"You took a hard fall today," Natsu remarked, his earlier anger and harshness disappearing. "But it isn't about the fall. It's about being able to stand back up again. You made a mistake, but don't even think about giving up before you fix it."
The two friends stared at each other in silence for a few moments, before Gray sighed.
"I'm not giving up, flame brain. I know that I need to make up for today," he said neutrally, although there was a hint of uncertainty in his eyes.
Natsu resisted the urge to growl. Gray was being particularly frustrating tonight. That was not at all the message he had wanted his friend to get. Gray wasn't supposed to keep going because he owed the team for his earlier failure. He was supposed to stand up and keep fighting for himself.
And that edge of doubt eating away at Gray's normal self-confidence was also troublesome. Natsu briefly wondered just how much that terrible loss had shaken Gray's confidence. The idiot should know better than to doubt himself because of a single defeat and a few taunts from people who didn't even know him at all.
"Well good," Natsu said conversationally, even though he was itching to whack Gray upside the head for being so damn stupid. "Because it would be a shame if I had to find a new rival now."
Gray arched an eyebrow, confused by the sudden change in topic.
"Do you know how hard it is to find a good rival?" Natsu continued. "It's a pain trying to find someone who can match you in strength and who's willing to keep competing with you so that you can push each other to get stronger and achieve more. Not a whole lot of people can keep up with me, and it would be annoying as hell if I had to try finding another one. I don't have the patience for second-rate rivals."
He looked at Gray pointedly. The ice mage opened his mouth but no words came out, and the startled expression on his face let Natsu know that he understood what was being said.
"You know," Natsu said, fighting to keep his voice casual, "a lot of people don't understand how a good rivalry works. Sometimes you'll run into fools who have never fought a day in their lives for something important, who have never faced down an unbeatable enemy and won, who don't understand the meaning of strength and how it differs from weakness." Like those idiots jeering at you in the arena. "But you and I should know better."
Natsu fixed Gray with another meaningful stare. "You've been my rival for a long time. Don't forget that."
They stared at each other, and Natsu searched Gray's face for any sign that his friend understood what he was trying to say but couldn't truly find the words to express. He hadn't been lying when he told Erza that he and Gray didn't really talk. The two rivals rarely came out and said anything important in words, instead relying on meaningful actions and looks and comments that were carefully presented as casual even though they meant much more than they appeared to on the surface.
What Natsu was doing now was toeing the line. He was right on the edge of breaking their unspoken rule to not verbally acknowledge or take a direct approach to serious emotional matters. It was a matter of pride, really. Neither of them wanted the other to acknowledge their insecurities, even if they both knew that they were there. This was a moment of truth, so to speak. If Natsu had stepped just a little too far, Gray could shut down completely.
Natsu chewed at his lip nervously, his heart beating just a little too fast as he waited for Gray's response. The ice mage had let his face fall into shadow again, concealing his internal debate about how he should react, but Natsu had known him long enough to have a pretty good idea of what he was thinking, even if he wasn't sure which way Gray would go yet.
After a moment, Gray looked up and the shadows fell away from his face. Natsu let out a breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding as he saw that Gray's expression was more accepting than defensive. He was going to let Natsu's breach of the rules slide.
Natsu expected Gray to try breaking the tension and serious mood with a good-natured insult or lighthearted remark, but he remained serious.
"I won't," he said solemnly, his dark eyes glittering in the moonlight.
Natsu resisted the urge to smile in relief. Those two little words didn't seem like much, but they confirmed that Gray understood the point Natsu had been trying to make and that he would take his words to heart instead of ignoring them. The words themselves weren't so important—they rarely were, when it came to Gray and Natsu—but his tone and the expression in his eyes were. They said everything that Gray would never come out and say out loud.
And now that Natsu knew that Gray had finally gotten the picture and was going to be okay, he decided to lighten the mood. Things were far too serious and emotional for his taste.
"Good," he said cheerfully. "Because I require at least thirty days' notice if you decide to quit on me. I'll need time to find your replacement."
Gray quirked an eyebrow and his usual smirk spread across his face. Natsu almost sighed in relief.
"You really think you could find a replacement for me in only thirty days?" the ice mage drawled.
"Of course," Natsu insisted. "You aren't that impressive."
Gray's smirk widened and took on a distinctly predatory edge. "Oh really? And what was all that about how a good rival has to be able to keep up with you? Do you really have so little faith in yourself?"
Natsu blinked at him in surprise and then laughed. Gray had gotten him there.
"Fine then. How long do you think it would take to find a replacement for each other then?"
Gray's smile faded and a solemn look entered his eyes. Natsu frowned in confusion, wondering where the serious attitude had come from so suddenly. The serious part of their conversation should have been over—they were into teasing banter now.
"A lifetime," Gray answered quietly. "I think it would take a lifetime."
Natsu felt his breath catch and he swallowed hard. "I guess it would," he agreed.
Just as suddenly as it had appeared, Gray's serious expression vanished and a half-smile took its place. "I'm sure they're missing you at the pub by now. You should go back."
"Come with me," Natsu offered.
Gray shook his head. "Not right now," he said.
Natsu fell silent at the gentle rebuke. He couldn't say that he was terribly surprised. Gray was a lot better at the whole brooding thing than he was. Even if he was feeling better now, he would prefer to take a little time to himself. It could be either a good thing or a bad thing. He could spend the whole time beating himself up, but Natsu got the feeling that Gray might instead use the time to prepare himself for his comeback and shore up his shaken confidence.
"Do you want me to stay?" Natsu asked hesitantly, still unsure about leaving his friend alone like this.
Gray smiled. Natsu was relieved to see that it was genuine.
"No. You don't belong here, sulking in the dark with me," he replied, a teasing note entering his voice.
Natsu was tempted to roll his eyes at Gray's ribbing. "Oh, so that is what you're doing out here?" he asked dryly.
"No," Gray corrected. "Not anymore. Now I'm just skulking."
Natsu groaned out loud and facepalmed, hiding his smile. He had almost forgotten how great it was when Gray was his normal annoying self. But he also heard the subtle admission and reassurance. Gray had admitted that he had been brooding, but was also telling Natsu that he was done with that for now. It was amazing how much they could communicate to each other through a handful of teasing words.
Gray's assurance made Natsu feel better about leaving him alone, so he turned to leave. "And when everyone asks where you are, what should I tell them?" he called over his shoulder as he walked away.
He glanced back just in time to see Gray's suddenly deadpan expression.
"That I'm skulking," he said, straight-faced.
Natsu snorted and shook his head in amused exasperation. "You're never going to let that go, are you?"
"Of course not. Since when did you use stupid words like 'skulking'?"
"Okay, okay, I get it," Natsu muttered, turning back around so that Gray didn't see the smile creeping across his face. "But if I accidentally drop a 'k' and tell them that you're sulking instead, don't come crying to me."
Natsu headed for the door, but heard Gray's soft chuckle.
"I'll leave it up to your discretion. Give them whatever excuse you feel best," his friend said, the teasing note gone from his voice.
Natsu paused with his hand on the door handle and smiled. Gray only said that because he trusted Natsu to make up a good excuse and not give him away. Given how often they tried to embarrass and annoy each other, that could be a mistake. But then again, they trusted each other to have their backs when anything serious came up. Natsu knew that he wouldn't tell the others what Gray had been up to.
"What the hell kind of stupid word is 'discretion'?" he called back, instead of acknowledging the tacit declaration of trust.
"A better one than 'skulking'," Gray shot back, his voice amused.
Natsu laughed and stepped into the hallway, shutting the door behind him. He stood on the other side of the door for a few moments before striding back down the hallway, his eyes smoldering in anticipation and determination.
Tomorrow he would win Fairy Tail its first points and then the rest of the team would pick themselves up and make their comeback with him. Gray would get his chance at redemption and Fairy Tail would win, and all would be right with the world again.
Natsu groaned and managed to lift his head a little, peering up blearily. It didn't do him much good since the world was still spinning in a most disconcerting fashion, but he didn't really need visual confirmation that Gray was standing in front of him.
He blinked several times to clear his vision, and Gray slowly came into focus. His friend was standing directly in front of where Natsu was sprawled on the ground, his arms crossed and his features impassive. His dark eyes studied Natsu expressionlessly.
"Stand up," he said again, his voice flat.
Natsu grimaced and dropped his head. "Can't," he slurred, still dizzy and nauseous from the Chariot event. His motion sickness had come back with a vengeance, and he didn't think that he could even rise, much less walk out of the arena.
Gray sighed softly. "Well, I guess it's a good thing you have help then, isn't it?"
Natsu looked up to ask what he was talking about, only to see that Gray had bent over and extended his hand. The dragon slayer blinked at the outstretched hand in confusion for a moment, before hesitantly reaching out and grasping it in his own. Gray tugged him upright. Natsu stumbled and groaned at the sudden movement, but Gray wrapped an arm around him firmly to steady him.
"That was pretty pathetic," Gray commented. "What were you thinking, volunteering for an event called 'Chariot'?"
Natsu mumbled something unintelligible as Gray helped him start walking unsteadily across the arena.
"What was that? You weren't thinking?" Gray asked in mock surprise. "Who would have guessed?"
"Just leave me here," Natsu grumbled, irritated and embarrassed by Gray's criticism. This was a great thanks for yesterday. "I'll get up eventually."
He tried to tug himself away from the infuriating ice mage, but Gray tightened his grip and kept dragging him along. Gray's gaze was fixed straight ahead and he didn't look at Natsu as he let out another breath.
"Stupid," he grunted. "You really want to be left lying in the dirt, unable to even get up?"
"Yes," Natsu snapped. He groaned as another wave of nausea hit him, and he felt himself slumping into Gray's side more heavily. Gray readjusted his grip, but didn't push him away.
"Funny. The rival I thought I knew wouldn't even think of giving up like that."
Natsu stopped moving again and frowned at Gray in surprise. The ice mage tugged him forward again, still not looking at him, and Natsu started shuffling along once more.
"Not giving up," he muttered, still keeping his utterances short for fear of throwing up everywhere.
"Then why wouldn't you stand up?"
Natsu scowled. He didn't know where Gray was going with this, but he was getting impatient with his friend. His nauseousness and the humiliation at his defeat didn't help his mood any.
"I would've. Eventually."
Gray let his breath out in a huff as he prodded Natsu forward another shaky step. "Why bother waiting?"
Gray sighed again. Natsu thought about asking him if he was developing some kind of breathing condition, but it occurred to him that maybe Gray was trying to convince himself to say something important.
"Well, it's not really about winning or losing, is it? We all win some fights and lose others, but we don't give up if we screw up once. The important thing is that we stand back up again afterwards, whether we won or lost. Not standing up isn't about losing. It's about failure.
"But there are always going to be times when you can't stand on your own, no matter how hard you try." Gray glanced at Natsu meaningfully. "And instead of accepting failure or giving up, you can always ask for help. Sometimes you need someone else to help you stand until you can find your feet again. There's nothing wrong with leaning on someone else if you need a little help."
Natsu didn't reply immediately, his attention divided between shock at Gray's words and his wobbly attempts to put one foot in front of the other.
"I knew there was a reason I kept you around," he muttered finally.
He didn't acknowledge Gray's assertion in any other way, but he did let himself lean more heavily against his friend, who quickly adjusted to the change and kept walking. The arm around Natsu tightened briefly before relaxing again, and he knew that Gray had gotten the message.
"Enjoy it while it lasts," he said. "I've been thinking about submitting my thirty days' notice."
Natsu laughed softly. They stumbled along a few more paces before his motion sickness finally began to wane. As his nauseousness faded away, Natsu became aware that the spectators were jeering at both him and Gray. Gray seemed completely unaffected, his expression disinterested at best, but now that Natsu didn't have his motion sickness to distract him, he was starting to feel the shame and irritation at doing so poorly on the challenge.
He resolved to follow Gray's lead and ignore the people taunting him, but some subtle change in his demeanor must have alerted his friend that he was starting to get bothered.
"Don't pay them any mind," Gray advised casually. "It's not like they've fought a day in their lives, and I doubt they've ever had to deal with motion sickness."
Natsu shifted uncomfortably as he forced himself upright. He kept a little of his weight against Gray as they walked, but he was starting to get his feet back under him again.
"Yeah, well. It was pretty pathetic," he grumbled.
Gray glanced down at him, the slightest hint of sympathy in his eyes. "You did get us our first points," he offered.
"Yeah, a whole two of them," Natsu answered shortly.
Gray's gaze drifted away. "Better than I did."
Natsu winced, getting the feeling that he had just stuck his foot in his mouth. "I didn't mean–"
"Yeah, we both did a lousy job," Gray interrupted, his voice neutral. "And Fairy Tail is off to a rough start. But we'll turn it around and get our redemption. In the meantime, we might be pathetic, but at least we'll be pathetic together."
Natsu blinked up at him and then smiled a little. "You can't be that pathetic, or else I wouldn't keep you around," he remarked lightly.
"Same to you," Gray answered, without missing a beat. "But you're the one who brought it up."
Yes, Natsu supposed he had. The funny thing was, he felt a lot less pathetic now and his earlier irritation with his friend was melting away. Gray might be uncomfortable with all this emotional stuff, but he did always manage to make Natsu feel better anyway.
"I suppose we can't be all that pathetic," he conceded. "After all, we did stand back up again."
Gray looked down at Natsu and his carefully neutral expression slipped a little as he finally smiled. "Exactly."
Natsu grinned back. He considered shaking Gray off and walking the rest of the way himself since he was starting to feel a little better. He would still be wobbly and unsteady, but at least he'd be walking on his own.
But then he remembered Gray's earlier words and decided against it. He leaned against his friend again. They were almost at the exit now anyway, and he wouldn't look any more impressive staggering about on his own than leaning on Gray for help. So even though he straightened himself up to his full height and lifted his head, he still let the ice mage support him.
There was an amused snort from above him, and he glanced up to see the slightest hint of a smile on Gray's lips. Natsu didn't know how Gray knew what was going through his mind, but it seemed like his friend had him figured out.
Gray's gaze slid downwards and locked with Natsu's. The dragon slayer felt a grin creeping across his face, and a crooked half-smile tugged at the corners of Gray's lips in reply.
At some unspoken agreement, they both straightened and held their heads high as they stood and walked out of the arena together.