Disclaimer: As always Fairy Tail and its amazing characters don't belong to me, I'm just borrowing them.
Written for Fairy Tail Angst Week 2016 on Tumblr.
Day 7 Prompt: Fairy tale
It was freezing, colder than Natsu could ever recall it being before. Snow was falling so heavily that it was virtually impossible to see more than a few feet ahead, with only the streetlights casting little pools of light in the rapidly approaching darkness. The small boy shivered violently as he headed along the road, one hand raised in a weak attempt to protect himself from the driving snow, a harsh cough ripping through his chest and he stumbled for a moment. His feet were like ice blocks making it hard to get his balance and he glanced down, sniffling as he realised that his skin was slowly turning blue from the cold. He'd had shoes on that morning, not that they would have offered him much protection in this weather, as both had seen more years than him and had been more holes than material and they were so large that they had easily fallen off when he'd been forced to dart out of the path of a couple of carts that had been going much too fast down the road.
Natsu sniffled at the loss. They might have been little more than rags, but they had belonged to his father. He had fond memories of standing on Igneel's feet, on top of those shoes as his father stomped around their small shack pretending to be a giant…his father was long gone, lost to a bad bout of pneumonia during a bad winter two years ago, but the shoes had endured until today. It was a fitting in a way that they fell on the last day of the year…on the anniversary of his father's death, and he sniffled again before raising a trembling hand to scrub at his cheeks, wincing as the cold bit into the flesh of his hands. Hastily he buried one back into the folds of his shirt, whilst he tightened his hold on the matches he was carrying in the other.
He had tried to find proper work…trailing from one end of Magnolia to another and back again, knocking on every door he could find. His adoptive father…a mean drunk that he had been given to after Igneel's death had demanded that he earn his keep if he wanted to keep a roof over his head and food on his plate…but it had been fear that had motivated him, and the bruises that littered his body under the tattered clothing he wore. But nowhere had wanted to take on a scruffy urchin like him, and in a fit of desperation he had taken to selling matches on the streets. Some days he got lucky and he would go home with a pocket full of jewels, not that he ever got to see any of it as most of disappeared down the neck of a bottle and the rest put rock hard bread, and a thin, grainy gruel on the table. Today was not one of those days…he had been outside since the crack of dawn and he hadn't sold a single one.
Shivering harder than ever he headed along the road, struggling to force a path through the snow with his bare feet and trying to ignore the way that his stomach was beginning to growl. When was the last time he had eaten? He pushed that thought aside, well aware that it made it worse to think about it and instead he rubbed a hand over his empty stomach, carefully keeping his gaze away from the windows of the houses lining the street. In previous years he had snuck up to them and peered inside, drooling over the luxurious meals that other people got to eat at this time of year…but he couldn't bring himself to do it this year. It hurts…He rubbed his stomach once more, hating the feel of his bones, well aware that without his clothes his ribs could be counted easily. It hurts…
He had just turned onto one of the side streets, hoping that it would provide him with marginally more shelter when he was sent flying by someone colliding with him. He cried out sharply as he hit the ground hard, pain lancing through his ankle as the matches went flying through the air. He immediately forgot about the person he'd collided with, frantically scrabbling in the snow to rescue the matches…they would never light if they got to damp and then he really wouldn't make any money…and his fa…that man had promised to tan his hide if he came back empty handed again.
"Watch where you're going!" A sharp voice said, the only warning he had before a fist collided with his cheek and he found himself being flung onto his back, staring wide-eyed up at the silver-haired boy now straddling him and feeling the snow soaking into his clothes adding to the cold taking hold of his body and he shivered again. He made no effort to defend himself as the boy tugged at his messy hair, tears forming in the corners of his eyes. "You filthy brat!" The boy yanked his hair again, drawing a whimper from his lips before dark eyes darted to the pocket on the front of his tunic and before he could stop him the boy had stuck his hand inside and pulled out the tatty photo hidden inside, and finally he fought back, reaching desperately for the picture.
"Give it back!" He shouted, bucking against the boy as he scrambled to try and reclaim the picture, unable to stop his tears from falling as the boy smirked at him before shooting to his feet and darting out of reach. "Please…" He hated begging…Igneel had never once begged, not even when he was in agony during the last days of his illness and his tears fell faster at the thought that he was failing the memory of his father and he stumbled clumsily to his feet. "Please…"
The boy was laughing at him now, easily staying out of reach as his numb feet slowed Natsu down and the chase lasted another couple of minutes before the smaller boy fell to his knees exhausted, sobbing as he stared at the photo the other boy was holding. Olive eyes widening with horror, as the taller boy held the picture out and took hold of it, clearly threatening to tear it in half.
"Lyon stop!" The sudden shout startled them both, and Natsu had a brief glimpse of dark hair and eyes before another boy charged into the fray, flinging himself at his tormentor and knocking the silver-haired boy to the ground. Natsu had no idea what to do, watching wide-eyed as the pair tussled backwards and forwards, insults flying between them, before there was a loud crack and Lyon stumbled back with a pain cry, glaring at the newcomer with watery eyes.
"I'm going to tell Ul on you!" He wailed, not even sparing Natsu a glance before turning and taking off up the street and the smaller boy just gaped after him…a small punch like that had been all that it took? An insane urge to laugh engulfed him and he ducked his head, torn between laughter and crying, feeling his tunic pressing against the fresh bruises littering his back from the night before. Just one punch?
"Here," the soft voice startled him out of his thoughts a moment later, and his head shot up and he flinched backwards as he found that the dark-haired boy was crouched down in front of him, holding out the matches that he had forgotten about and more importantly the photo. For a moment he stared at them longingly, before raising his eyes to meet dark eyes, waiting until he got an encouraging nod from the taller boy before snatching them and pressing them protectively against his chest. "Sorry about that…He can be a bit of a jerk sometimes, but he's not bad." Natsu wanted to disagree, but he couldn't get his words to work…how long had it been since someone spoke to him kindly? A quiet rustling sound drew his attention back to the boy, and he blinked as the other boy held out a sweet in pretty blue wrappings, smiling at Natsu as he did so. "Here…it's not much, but you look hungry."
Natsu hesitated for a moment, his gaze flicking between the sweet and the boy's face before nervously reaching out to accept it, finally getting his voice to work as his lips quirked into a weak smile.
"You should smile more," the boy said cheerfully, reaching out and helping Natsu to his feet, his expression darkening as he took in Natsu's bare feet and the pink-haired boy sheepishly pressed his feet together, realising for the first time just how finely the taller boy was dressed. However, the taller boy quickly got his expression back under control, although there was a terse edge to his smile now. "I'm Gray…Gray Fullbuster, what's your name?"
"N-Natsu…Dragneel," Natsu replied hesitantly, unable to recall the last time someone had asked for his name. He was always called 'brat' or 'boy' at home nowadays, and he usually got called something similar when people on the street tried to chase him away…afraid that a child like him would give them a bad name.
"Natsu huh?" Gray asked, his gaze shifting to Natsu's unusual pink hair…another reason why he was treated with suspicion around Magnolia, but this boy didn't seem bothered, if anything his smile had grown a little warmer for a moment. "It's the wrong season for you…don't you have somewhere to go? It's too cold to be out here, especially without shoes," his tone was more serious now, and Natsu felt a pickling of unease. He's getting too close…
"I'm fine," Natsu mumbled unable to stop himself from sounding defensive, clutching his photo and matches tightly as he turned away, slipping the sweet away into his pocket for later. "I…I've got to go."
"Thank you…for this," Natsu turned back for a moment, and there was a faint smile. He might be frightened of letting Gray get too close, but he knew that he wouldn't forget the other boy's kindness for a long time. "But really…I'm okay." I'm not okay… Offering a clumsy attempt at a boy he turned and fled down the street, ignoring Gray's worried shouts, the concern that he could hear in the other's voice warming him and offering him a charm against the biting cold.
Thank you…Gray Fullbuster…
It hadn't taken him long to run out of strength to run any further, and he stumbled to a halt in the snow, coughing harshly as he fought to catch his breath. It hurts… Sniffling he slowly straightened, glancing down at the matches and photo he was still clinging to tightly, and he carefully shifted the matches into one hand before bringing the photo up to study. It had survived its adventure with little more than a new tear on the top edge, and he ran his thumb over it for a moment, before his focus shifted to the red-haired man smiling up from the picture. Igneel…It was the only picture that had survived, and he had taken to carrying it everywhere…a charm against the hell that his life had turned into since he had passed away. Gently tracing Igneel's face he wiped at his eyes before carefully returning the photo back to its pocket, hearing the sweet wrapper rustling, and he patted it for a moment before straightening and glancing around.
He didn't know this part of town that well, and it was hard to see even though the snow had thinned out a little at last. He was cold…oh so cold and tired, and the thought of trying to sell matches, especially this late at night made him want to cry. He couldn't go home…not empty handed, and it wasn't even as though home was any warmer than being out here as they lived in little more than a tin shack, with a leaky roof and poorly patched cracks that let the wind howl through the house at all hours. I have nowhere to go…It hurt to realise that, and he blinked back tears at that thought, trying not to let memories of happier times seep in, because that only ever made everything worse. That is gone…
Slowly he began to move again, well aware that stopping out in the open in weather like this was a death sentence, his eyes darting around, searching the gloom for something…anything that would offer him a little shelter from the elements. The only thing he found was at the end of the street, where there was a small corner formed by two houses…magnificent buildings so unlike his own home that he felt almost afraid to approach…with one protruding slightly more than the other, and offering a slim semblance of shelter. He hesitated for another moment before hurrying towards it, desperate for even the briefest respite, especially as the snow was beginning to get heavy again. Reaching the corner, he eased himself down into the space, tucking himself up as small as possible and reaching down to try and rub some warmth back into his feet although he knew that it was a lost cause.
He sat like that for a few minutes, growing colder and colder and listening to his stomach's rumbles getting louder and louder, until eventually he gave in. Reaching into his pocket and drawing out the sweet that Gray had given him…. he knew that it wasn't going to do him much good, and he had wanted to keep it, an extra talisman against his life. Instead, he unwrapped it with fumbling fingers, staring in awe at the chocolate that lay inside…even with Igneel treats like this had been rare, and he was almost frightened to eat, but after a moment he brought it to his lips and quickly ate it. It was delicious, melting over his tongue and he savoured the taste…it was warmth and happiness wrapped up into one, and fresh tears trickled down his cheeks. Thank you Gray….
Unfortunately, that little snack seemed to have ignited his appetite, and he whined as he curled in on himself, his stomach growling angrily and he regretted ever eating it and a small, suspicious part of his mind wondered if it hadn't been a trick after all.
I should have known better…
Gray had taken the scolding for fighting Lyon with good grace, well aware that they had both been driving their guardian to distraction with their constant fighting lately…and mollified by the fact that Lyon had also been reamed out once Gray had explained what had happened, something that he knew that he was going to pay for at a later date. However, he found himself unable to forget about what had happened even as he got ready for bed…or rather he couldn't forget about the small boy with cherry blossom hear. He had seen the boy…Natsu…before out on the street selling matches, but he had never approached, there had always been something melancholy about the smaller boy that had scared him and now he wished that he spoken to him sooner…unable to forget the beautiful smile that had met his actions.
"Ur…I'm worried about Natsu," he admitted softly when she came to tuck him into bed, and she paused, looking at him in surprise. Compared to Lyon, Gray was usually more introverted and if she was being honest she had been surprised that he had gone out of his way to defend another child. "It's so cold out there…and he didn't have shoes or a coat." He glanced towards his window, the curtains still open so that he could watch the snow falling outside…it was beautiful, but he knew better than anyone just how deadly it could be…his parents had died whilst holidaying in the mountains, and he had almost joined them before Ul had found him and rescued him. "I…I want to go and find him." You found me…I want to do the same for him…
"It's too late to go out now, especially in this weather," Ur pointed out softly, stroking a hand through his hair as she guessed where his thoughts had gone as she caught the emotions swimming in his dark eyes as he stared at the window.
"If you still feel this strongly in the morning then we can go and look for your friend," she offered, cutting gently across his protest and Gray hesitated…slightly surprised that she had agreed so easily, although she had a reputation for helping the poorer kids in the area despite the protest of their neighbours. He stared at her for a moment with narrowed eyes, gaze flicking between her and the window as Natsu's smile flashed through his mind, and his voice shook as he finally forced it to work.
"Promise," Ur promised easily, and Gray felt himself relaxing at the easy agreement. Natsu…He knew without a doubt that he would still feel like this in the morning, and he nodded and she smiled as she saw the determined set to his chin, well aware that it would take wild horses to tear him away from this decision now. Stroking his hair once more she leant in and pressed a gentle kiss against his forehead, smirking at his grumbled protest. "Now go to sleep sweetheart, and no more fighting with Lyon."
"'Kay…" Gray mumbled sleepily, well aware that she was laughing at his protest and he rolled onto his side, his eyes growing heavy as he listened to her leaving the room and heading next door to speak to Lyon, and his gaze turned once more to the window.
Natsu…wait for me…
Natsu's entire body was growing numb by this stage, even his shivering was slowing and he knew that was a bad sign…but what could he do? There was no one who was going to let him in, and even if he headed for home now, it wasn't going to be enough. He shifted, trying to curl up even tighter and squeeze a modicum of extra heat from his hidey hole only to pause as the movement reminded him about the matches he was clinging to. A Match…He knew that he shouldn't waste them. They were the only source of income he had after all…but he was so cold, and surely lighting one wouldn't be too bad, and it might give him a little comfort if not warmth. But did he dare do it? The ache from his injuries had dulled with the cold and after a moment he cautiously grasped one and stared at it intently. Just one…Trembling he reached out and drew it against the wall, the sound of it igniting deafening in the silent street and his eyes widened with delight as it blazed to life.
It was bright in the darkness, burning happily and the warmth…it was a tiny flame, but in that moment it felt like the sun and he curled his hands around it, desperate for that tiny bit of heat. It was beautiful, and Natsu found his mind wandering…it felt almost as though he was sat in front of an open fireplace, much like the one he and Igneel had, had back then. They had spent many an evening there curled together, and making up silly stories, and it felt to Natsu as though he was really back there, the warmth seeping into his chilly limbs and he stretched his feet out to warm them to. Only to pause as the small flame disappeared a moment later, the fireplace and memory vanishing and leaving him with nothing but the burnt remains of the match in his hand and he let it fall. It was a dream…
Yet…He couldn't resist the temptation of feeling that warmth again, and this time there was no hesitation as he reached for another match, rubbing it against the wall with a hint of desperation. It flared easily to life in his hand, and where the flame hit the wall in front of him, it seemed to turn transparent like a window…or a veil…and through it he could see the room beyond it. It was the same as those he had peered at through the windows in previous years…a brightly lit dining room, with a beautifully decorated table and a feast spread out across the surface, and Natsu felt himself drooling at the sight of the fire chicken and roast vegetables, the chocolate cake…treats he had dreamed of a hundred times, and there sat at the end of the table was his father. Not the monster waiting at home, but Igneel…who was watching him with warm eyes, and he reached out towards him, his fingers coming within an inch of Igneel's when the match went out, and all he touched was the cold stone of the wall.
Come back…he lit another match, and this time he found himself sitting beneath a magnificent Christmas tree. It was nearly as large as the one that dominated the centre of Magnolia at this time of year, and yet it seemed a thousand times more beautiful than that one…this tree was just for him…rich green branches, decorated with hundreds of candles that warmed his face as he stared up at them, glittering against gaudy baubles like the ones he had seen in all the shops for the last few weeks. It's beautiful…It was nothing like the simple one he and Igneel had put up each year, and he couldn't stop himself from reaching out to touch them. Just one touch…But again the match died just before he could even brush them, and it seemed to him as though the lights from the tree rose higher and higher with the smoke, and for a moment he imagined that they were like the stars in the sky above him and as he watched one fell down and formed a trail of fire.
"Someone died…" He whispered to himself, remembering one of Igneel's favourite stories about the Star Princess who tended the stars and who would send one falling to earth when someone died, a marker for every soul soaring into the sky to follow and a memorial for those who wouldn't have any left behind to remember them. Just like me…
He lit another match against the wall, and this time when the light sprang to life he could see Igneel standing over him. Bright and radiant in the light of the flame, a warm smile on his face and love shining in the warm brown eyes that met his gaze. Natsu sniffled and let out a little hiccupping sob, reaching for his father only for the image to flicker and begin to fade as the match spluttered. Desperately he grabbed the remaining matches and lit them all as one, and Igneel was there once more, brighter and stronger than ever and Natsu felt a tremulous smile spread across his face. Igneel…
"Father…Igneel," he whispered shakily, reaching out with a trembling hand. "Please…take me with you. I don't want to be here anymore…I want to be in the warmth and light with you, I want to be with you." It was a wish he had made a hundred times or more since Igneel had died, but this time, his father smiled gently before reaching out and scooping him into his arms. His father's arms were warm and strong…they were home…and Natsu let his eyes drift shut as the feeling washed over him, and he was vaguely aware of the matches falling from his hand as his father lifted him up and way towards the stars above them.
Oh…I guess that was my star…
Gray had been up at the crack of dawn, the memory of the pink-haired boy having kept him awake all night and with a lot of nagging and encouragement he had dragged Ur and Lyon out barely half an hour later, unable to explain the urgency that was coursing through him. Natsu…The snow had let up at last, casting a beautiful light in the cold hours of dawn, but he couldn't appreciate the beauty of it for once, even though it was usually his favourite sight. Today all he could see was tearful olive eyes, and that weak smile at what had been such a silly gesture…a sweet? What good was that going to do? He wished now that he had chased after the smaller boy the night before, and he broke into a run, the sense of urgency growing stronger and stronger by the moment. Natsu where are you...?
They had just turned onto another street when Ur quietly drew his attention to the crowd gathered in the far corner, and Gray felt dread pooling in his stomach even as he turned and darted towards the group, barely aware of Lyon and Ur chasing after him. Please…let him be okay… He pleaded silently, already knowing deep inside that he wasn't…and his steps had slowed as he carefully pushed his way through the crowd, feeling his breath catching in his throat as he finally set eyes on what they were gathered around.
"Natsu…" He whispered as he stumbled forward, tears trickling down his cheeks. Natsu sat huddled in the corner, leaning against the wall with his eyes closed, skin paler than the snow that had gathered around him and yet despite everything there was a smile on his lips. Gray knew that it was too late, but still he reached out, brushing gentle fingers against an icy cheek. I was too late…His gaze felt to the burnt out matches littering the ground between Natsu and the wall, realising with a pang that it had been the only way for Natsu to try and warm himself and he closed his eyes for a moment, hoping that the smaller boy had been able to find some comfort in those tiny flames.
I hope that you're smiling Natsu…wherever you are…
A/N: When I was coming up for the idea for this prompt for the original Angst Week series, Sakimichan posted a picture based on the Hans Christian Anderson story 'The Little Match Girl' and I thought it would be perfect for a Gratsu Fairy Tale. Disney did a short of it as well, which can be found at: watch?v=B6CqNH3t5hc