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 3 Prompt: Family
Fairy Tail had come back together once more, and for the first time in over a year their team was out on a job together. Gray knew that he should be happy with that, and truthfully he was, however, at the moment it was overridden by his concern for a certain Flame-brained idiot. Natsu had been off ever since he'd come back…oh he fought and smiled and argued just as he always had, but there was something off about it all, a shadow in his eyes and an edge to his voice that the Ice mage couldn't quite place and it was worrying him. No matter how much they had fought in the past, he had always been able to read the Fire mage, but now he only had a vague idea of what was going on beyond olive eyes and that bothered him more than he cared to admit.
Now he watched with narrowed eyes as Natsu got to his feet, moving across to mutter something too Happy before slipping away from the fire, seemingly deaf to Wendy and Lucy asking him where he was going. It wasn't anything new, the Dragon-slayer had done the same thing the last couple of nights as well, only returning to camp when he thought they were all asleep. The night before Gray had stayed awake until Natsu returned, feigning sleep as he watched through partially lidded eyes as the Dragon-slayer crept into the tent with him and catching a brief glimpse of tear-stained cheeks. It had taken everything he had to stop himself from speaking up there and then, his breath catching as he caught a brief glimpse of the pain hidden beneath the smiles they were given during the day.
They had all been to hell and back a year ago, and even now they all still bore the healing wounds from that time. However, he knew that in a way Natsu had lost more than most…he had finally found Igneel, only to lose him in the same day and whilst Wendy and the others had also lost their Draconic parents, they hadn't been forced to watch them killed in front of their eyes. Even now he could hear the echo of Natsu's agonised scream as he watched Igneel falling from the sky, and the broken cries that had echoed through the air afterwards. The fact that he could smile at all now was in a way a miracle…but Gray missed the easy grin, and bright eyes from before and his expression darkened as he glanced across at Happy, seeing the concern on the Exceed's face. Natsu…
He waited a few minutes, debating whether he should chase after the Fire mage or not…after all the fact that Natsu had chosen to go off on his own, suggested that he didn't want them to know what was going on. But…Natsu had never been good at dealing with his own negative emotions, tending to bottle it up so as not to bother those around him, and Gray had a growing suspicion that Natsu had done just that for the past year. It would be just like the Dragon-slayer to throw himself into training and travelling, and not taking the time to deal with everything that had happened…to grieve for his father, and Gray knew from painful experience that holding back those kind of emotions would only work for so long before the barriers would break.
Sighing he rose to his feet, ignoring the curious looks the girls were sending towards him…aside from Erza who was watching him with knowing eyes. He ignored her as well, hoping that he wouldn't pay for that later, instead heading across Happy who glanced up at him with wide, worried eyes and the Ice mage bit his lip as he caught the tears swimming in the large eyes.
"I know," Gray said softly, crouching down and resting a gentle hand on the Exceed's head, offering him a small smile as he added. "I'm going to talk to him about it." I can't promise that it'll stay as just being a talk…He added silently, they might not have had much time to discover how much they had all changed over the past year, but he couldn't imagine that the Dragon-slayer had changed that much in that time…which meant that they could very well end up trading blows, although for once that was the last thing the Ice mage wanted to happen.
"I know a little bit about what he's going through," Gray muttered, rubbing absent-mindedly at his wrist for a moment before catching Happy watching him, and he forced a smile. "I'll do what I can, so try not to worry too much."
"Thank you Gray…" Happy muttered and the Ice mage offered him a terse smile before rising to his feet, shooting a warning glance towards the others, well aware that it was going to be hard enough to get the stubborn Fire mage to talk to him without everyone descending on him. Satisfied that they would leave him in peace for the time being he took off after the Dragon-slayer, hoping that he would be able to find the right words to get through to Natsu.
Flamebrain…please let me in…
Natsu let out a soft sigh of relief as he came to a halt once he could no longer hear the others even with his advanced hearing. He felt bad for wanting to get away from them, especially when they had only just reunited after so long apart, but the effort of smiling and talking was getting too much. He was happy about being back with them and having the Guild reformed, he honestly was, but at the same time the shadow that had settled over him when Igneel died was growing day by day…making it harder and harder to maintain the act of being the old Natsu harder and harder. He knew that Happy at least suspected what was going on, but so far the Exceed hadn't challenged him about it…but he knew that wasn't going to last much longer, and he had no idea what was going to happen when someone saw through his mask.
"Igneel…" His eyes were stinging fiercely as he sank down to the ground, turning his gaze up to where the stars were staring to emerge in the night sky. Igneel…His arms crept around his knees as he huddled in on himself. It had been the Fire Dragon who had told him the myth years before that everyone who died became a star, and that all Dragons and their children became part of Draco, and he swallowed back a howl of pain as he sought out the constellation. Igneel…Part of him desperately needed to believe that his father was up there in the stars watching over him, whilst another part didn't want to accept that…because that would be accepting that the Dragon was gone.
He knew that was the truth…the sight of Igneel falling from the sky in front of his eyes, the blast that had struck him a moment later and his last words…they were all imprinted on his memory. Burnt so deep that he doubted that even time would be able to dim them. He knew it…but he hadn't accepted it. The past year…all the travelling and training, and then throwing himself back into bringing Fairy Tail back together had all been a way for him to push that knowledge away…to continue as though that day had never happened, as though Igneel had never been found.
Gray had been somewhat alarmed when he'd realised just how far Natsu had gone, an uneasy feeling stirring in the pit of his stomach as he found himself re-evaluating every one of the Dragon-slayer's actions over the past few days and he broke into a run. Please don't do anything stupid Natsu…It was a fear that he would never have had with the old Natsu, but this was a new Natsu…and Gray feared just how much he might have changed. However, when he emerged from the trees a few minutes later he found himself stumbling to a halt as his gaze was drawn to the huddled figure in the middle of the grassy area, and his breath caught in his throat as he took a couple of cautious steps forward before halting once more.
The Dragon-slayer was staring up at the sky, his eyes looking surprisingly glassy although there was no sign of tears on his cheeks, and the Ice mage sighed softly at the sight. It was rare to see Natsu looking that pensive and lost, and his expression merely confirmed Gray's suspicions and he hesitated on the edge of the clearing, wondering how on earth to even go about broaching this topic. They had never been particularly good at discussing emotional matters, and that was before they'd had a year apart and the having to deal with the guild's dissolution, and there was an odd sensation in his chest as he realised that for once he had no idea how to approach the other mage.
"Why are you here Gray?" Natsu's voice made him jump, and he blinked as he realised that the Fire mage hadn't so much as glanced in his direction, and he muttered a curse. Stupid Dragon-slayer hearing…the fact that he had managed to forget that much, deepening the ache in his chest, and he had to fight back the urge to snap at the Fire mage for startling him, for once desperate not to start a fight with the other mage.
Hesitating for a moment as he contemplated the best way to approach this, he finally sighed and headed for the Dragon-slayer, noticing how Natsu's attention had shifted to him although the idiot was still trying to give the impression that he was staring at the sky. The real giveaway though was the slight twitch as he settled down on the grass beside Natsu, and the way the temperature rose slightly. Whilst he might be an Ice mage and he usually found the Dragon-slayer's heat far too much to bear, he had admitted years ago that it was nice to sit out at night and enjoy Natsu's warmth, and his lips quirked up slightly. You haven't forgotten that huh? It was reassuring to realise that no matter how much had changed, there were some things that had remained the same and he allowed himself to relax slightly as he sat back and glanced up at the sky.
"Because you're here."
"Huh?" Natsu had finally turned fully towards him, confusion written across his face, and Gray's smile grew for a moment at the sight of the familiar expression. No matter how many times he had teased the Flamebrain for being an idiot, there was something endlessly endearing about that expression and he had been worried that it might have disappeared completely under the new solemn edge that seemed to accompany everything Natsu did at the moment.
"You asked why I was here, I was just answering you," Gray replied and Natsu blinked at him, mouth dropping open slightly before he glanced awkwardly off to the side, and the Ice mage sighed as the humour disappeared from his expression. "My turn to ask a question. Why are you out on your own rather than by sitting by the campfire with the others? I would have thought that you'd still be celebrating the fact that the guild and the team are back together."
"All right, but why are you alone?" Gray persisted, determined not to let the Fire mage shut him out, and he was hard pressed not to reach out to him as Natsu flinched at the question, and his voice was soft as he added. "You hate being alone…" It was the only the knowledge that Happy was with him that had stopped Gray from chasing after Natsu a year ago, although that was a decision that he was beginning to regret as it was clear that whilst the Dragon-slayer had found a way to move forward, he hadn't actually dealt with the original problem. The Ice mage worried at his bottom lip, wondering how on earth he was even going to breach that minefield of a topic, only to blink as Natsu actually replied.
"Only because I followed you out here," Gray pointed out with scowl, of course the Flamebrain wasn't going to make this easy for him.
"Well no one asked you to," Natsu snarled, and Gray tensed as the air around them suddenly grew warmer and he was half expecting the Fire mage to lash out at him. However, after a moment the Dragon-slayer glanced aside, and his voice was softer as he added. "I was fine out here on my own, so why don't you just go back?"
"Just go back…"
They sat in silence for a few minutes, Gray refusing to be pushed away and Natsu refusing to look at him again, olive eyes fixed on some point that only he could see. The Ice mage had hoped that the fact that he wasn't leaving would loosen the others tongue, but as the silence finally grew uncomfortable he let out a soft sigh, clearly Natsu wasn't going to open on his own…and he knew from experience that subtlety and easing into the topic wouldn't work with the idiot, which meant plunging into the topic and praying that it didn't backfire on him.
"Did you even grieve properly for him?" He asked softy, catching the way the Dragon-slayer stiffened beside him and he closed his eyes for a moment as he realised that his suspicions had been spot on, and for a moment he hesitated. It had been a year…just how much pain was Natsu still hiding? And did he really want to dive into that mess? Slowly he opened his eyes and glanced towards the Dragon-slayer, taking in the clenched jaw and the fierce eyes, well aware that Natsu was no longer fixated on whatever he had been using to distract himself and was now fighting against the emotions that he had been trying to hold back for goodness knows how long. I can't leave him like this…Tentatively he reached out and brushed his fingers against the Fire mage's arm. "Natsu…"
"Don't," Natsu hissed as he jerked his arm out of reach, his expression threatening to crumple for a moment before he managed to restore his blank mask.
"Igneel is dead!" Gray shouted, pushing harder than he wanted to now that he knew that Natsu was teetering on the edge. He had expected the fist that shot towards his face a split second later, although the flames engulfing it were an unpleasant addition and he hastily flung his hand up, ice filling the air around them.
"SHUT UP!" Natsu howled, his flames intensifying and Gray bit back a curse as he was forced to roll out of the way, unwilling to go all out against the Fire mage when he could see tears shimmering in the olive eyes. Fists hammered against his chest, but the flames were already dying out and so Gray endured it silently as Natsu's frantic cries slowly faded. "SHUT UP! Shut up…shut…up!" Finally, Natsu slumped against him, trembling, his chest heaving as he fought back tears and Gray cautiously eased them back into sitting positions, still holding onto the Dragon-slayer's arms.
"He's gone," his said softly, feeling the flinch that met his words and he swallowed hard before forcing himself to continue. "He's not missing or hiding. He's gone." There was a dull ache in his chest at his own words, and his gaze drifted to his wrist for a moment. Silver…father…It had taken him longer than he was willing to admit to accept that he had lost his father all over again, and that was with a grave to go and say his farewells at and Juvia's help. Swallowing back his own pain, he turned his attention back to the Dragon-slayer, seeing the desperation in the olive eyes and wishing that there was a less painful way for him to do this. "He's dead."
"I know…I know that," Natsu whispered, no trace of his former anger to be seen now, only a bone deep weariness that seemed to seep into his voice.
"Do you really?"
"I…" Natsu frantically wanted to deny it, to hold back the rising surge of emotions in his chest. There had been times over the last few months where it had threatened to come out, but never as strongly as it felt tight now and he shook his head. "I…" I don't want to feel it…I don't want to admit it…I can't…
"Shh," Gray soothed him, hating the broken sound of the other mage's voice. It wasn't the first time he had seen Natsu like this, after all he had been there when they thought that Lisanna was dead…but whether it was the fact that they had been apart for a year, or just the fact that the events with Tartaros had been so horrific for both of them, but this seemed far worse and his arms were trembling as he pulled the Dragon-slayer against his chest. "Stop trying to push it aside…you're just hurting yourself."
"Let it out…please," Gray murmured, and the quiet plea seemed to be the straw that broke the camel's back, as a broken wail escaped the Dragon-slayer.
Natsu was sobbing now, his face buried against Gray's chest and his fingers gripping desperately at the Ice mage's shirt, trying to ground himself in something real as everything he had been trying to hold back for the past year hit him at once. Gray tightened his hold on the Dragon-slayer as Natsu let out a soft wail, his breathing coming in shaky pants and the Ice mage almost regretted pushing so hard as it felt like Natsu was coming apart at the seams in his arms. Almost…deep down he knew that this had been necessary, that Natsu had needed to let it all out before it tore him apart from the inside.
He didn't bother whispering meaningless platitudes, he had heard them all when he was little when people learnt what had happened to his village…to his parents. Dad…Thankfully Ul and Lyon had known better, and the fact that they had treated him like normal had helped him get back to his feet. The worst platitude had been when people had tried to tell him that it would get better with time, that everything would get better with time and he had found himself actually heating the people that had said it to him back then. Of course now he knew that it would get better…with time…or rather the pain would scar over, but at this stage that wasn't what Natsu needed, or wanted to hear. He needed to let everything out and actually face up to the truth of what had happened with Igneel…he just wished that it didn't involve causing the Fire mage so much pain.
"Why…? Why…?" Natsu was whimpering now, each question punctuated by tiny, hiccupping sobs and he sounded so young and lost in that moment that the Ice mage had to close his eyes for a moment to fight back his own tears. His heart aching for the teen in his arms. How much of their childhood had he spent watching Natsu pine after Igneel? Searching everywhere and chasing down the slightest hint of a rumour that might lead him to the Dragon, only for it all to end like it had, his arms tightened around the Fire mage as he struggled to get his voice to work.
"Because he loved you." There had never really been any doubt in his mind that Igneel must've loved Natsu, even though the Dragon had abandoned him. Part of it was because of who Natsu was…no matter how irritating or dense he could be at times; it was impossible to truly hate him…and hearing what Igneel had said to Natsu that night had only cemented that belief, and he knew the Dragon had done everything in his power to make sure that his son would survive.
"NO!" Natsu growled, anger breaking momentarily through the pain and he lifted his head just enough to peer up at the Ice mage, a hint of fire in the olive eyes. "If he loved me he wouldn't have left me in the first place…He wouldn't have got himself killed after promising be that he wasn't going to leave me behind again!"
"I hate him!"
"Natsu!" Gray said sharply, knowing that he needed to nip those kind of thoughts in the bud before it could take hold, knowing that Natsu didn't really mean them and that he would regret saying them once he had calmed down. "No you don't…you love him! It wouldn't hurt so much if you didn't." That was something he'd had to accept for himself…he had been so mad at his father at first, for pretending to be Deliora and then for leaving him again, but he had realised eventually that the pain he was feeling came from the fact that he loved the man. Of course it helped that Juvia had been there, that she had understood at least on some level the pain he was in…Happy, thankfully, hadn't had to endure that kind of pain yet and therefore whilst the Exceed had been upset for Natsu's sake, it wasn't the same.
Natsu shuddered before burying his face against Gray once more, his fingers digging into the Ice mage's back hard enough to draw bruises as his tears soaking into the front of the others shirt. He didn't want to admit it, because doing so would mean accepting that Igneel was dead…that he really wasn't coming back…Igneel. He shook his head, desperately trying to force that thought away, not wanting to let it take hold. But Gray's words had taken hold, and with a hiccupping sob he rested his head against the Ice mage, before whispering.
"I don't hate him…I miss him." I love him…
"I know," Gray replied, torn between relief at hearing those words and sorrow at the pain in that quiet admission, rubbing soothing patterns on the Dragon-slayer's back as he felt Natsu trembling. "I know, but that's what you're supposed to do. It's supposed to hurt, no matter how much we wish that it didn't. It's not something we should avoid…it's not something we can avoid." I wish it was…He thought silently as the Dragon-slayer began to sob again, only these ones were softer and whilst in a way they were more painful to listen to, Gray knew that it was a sign of progress…a sign that his words had finally reached the Fire mage, and so he stayed quiet, letting his head come to rest against the Dragon-slayer's as he made Natsu a silent promise.
One day…one day it won't hurt as much.