Natsu stares down at their hand, where the timer counts down in stark black lettering against the tan skin of their wrist.
"Five minutes to go!" squeals Lucy, holding their hands tightly in hers. Her red string is connected to that of Cana, who stands to the side looking bored, and Juvia, who peers over Gajeel's shoulder, waiting for his second timer to finish counting down. His string, having appeared when his first timer ran out - that is, the exact moment he turned eighteen - hangs limply from his little finger, pooling on the floor.
Gajeel and Natsu are the two youngest in their friend group, both sharing a birthday. Gajeel is a few hours older than Natsu, so his string appeared first. And apparently, Gajeel's soulmate has the same birthday, too, because his timer is showing four minutes to go.
In four minutes, Gajeel's and Natsu's futures will be set. In four minutes, Natsu will forever lose their chance with the man they've loved so long.
For once in their lives, Natsu is afraid. Afraid of losing love, afraid of the future… and afraid of the fact that a confession is almost on the tip of their tongue. Afraid of what will happen if they confess now, afraid of losing Gajeel's friendship.
So they let the words they want to say more than anything lie heavy on their tongue and wait with a resigned frown for their soulmate. They don't know where the string will pull them, and they don't care anymore.
"One minute!" shout Lucy and Juvia in unison, both wearing tense but excited expressions. Natsu looks up, straight at Gajeel, wanting to memorise his face one last time in a romantic light before the magic of soulmates works its course and they fall head over heels for a person they don't want to love.
Then they look at their feet, vision blurred by tears because they don't want this. They want Gajeel, always have and always will. Even if magic can change love, nothing can change the fact that Natsu Dragneel's unfettered and true love lies in the form of one Gajeel Redfox.
Ten seconds to go. The girls start the countdown.
"Nine, eight, seven, six…"
Natsu and Gajeel make eye contact, silently exchanging a myriad feelings. Regret, bitterness, sadness… not a happy emotion in either one's irises.
"Five, four, three, two…"
Natsu opens their mouth, taking a deep breath. It's now or never -
"One!" Lucy and Juvia shout in unison. " Zero !"
Natsu exhales softly. It's over, their time is up. Their chance is gone -
"Oh my god," they hear Lucy whisper faintly, and that's when they feel it. A string snaking over their little finger, tying itself tightly into place. Natsu looks at the string in wonder, following it with their eyes to lead to a person who is both achingly familiar and unrecognisable at the same time.
Gajeel stands there in all his glory, his string wrapped around Natsu's little finger, looking like the same man that they fell in love with and yet like an entirely different person. They're seeing Gajeel in a new light, and it's more than beautiful.
"Oh," Gajeel rasps quietly, not dropping his gaze from Natsu's. "I…"
Natsu finds their voice again after fifteen seconds of silence. "Yeah," they laugh, unable to help the delighted giggle that bubbles up through their lips. "I wasn't even-"
"Expecting this?" Gajeel's lips twist up into a dry grin. "Me neither. But… I've wanted this for a long time."
Natsu's breath catches in their throat. "Really?" they whisper, unable to believe it. "You-"
Gajeel laughs throatily. "Who woulda thought? But pinky… you saved my ass so many times I started to rely on ya to do it. And somewhere along the way you became like, my light or something. A person that inspired me ta be genuinely good, ya know?"
Natsu's mouth is suddenly dry. "Oh," they say softly, overwhelmed by emotion.
Gajeel steps towards them, something in his eyes that they can't quite discern. He offers his hand to them, the hand that has the string tied to it.
"Together?" he asks. It's more than just a simple question; it's a request, for Natsu to step out into the world with Gajeel, his soulmate . To make their life as a unit.
So Natsu tilts their head and lets the only response they can give past their lips.