This is not an unbiased analysis, but the aim is to be objective. As always, additional thoughts and constructive criticism are welcome.
If someone were to ask me what I thought of Gray and Stephen’s relationship, I’d sum it up in two words: platonic soulmates. That’s what I believe they are and what I believe the authors will let the extent of their relationship be.
But let’s take this from the top, discussing both the romantic and platonic undertones of their relationship.
Just to take this off the table, there’s very little about their relationship that could be categorized as brotherly. I’m not referring to a bromance, but the kind of relationship Alex and Ben have. Alex is the little brother that wants to be strong like Ben. He trains so he can stand toe to toe with Ben, had his angsty period where he wanted to be apart from Ben, and he admires Ben, though Ben considers them equals. They talk about girls they like together and they’ve got each other’s backs. Ben gets pissed when someone messes with Alex, can detect when Alex is in trouble and cares deeply about his friend’s wellbeing because they’ve known each other since preschool. They grew up together, in the sort of way only brothers can.
(Stephen once wonders where Gray’s parents are. This is one of the few times I’d take Stephen’s line of thought as “brotherly” instead of romantic. Maybe he thought about how he could take care of Gray since Gray didn’t seem to have anyone else consistently in his life. Otherwise, there wasn’t a single moment Gray thought of Stephen as an older brother. Neither did Stephen consider Gray a little brother. Stephen had his moments where he was endeared by Gray’s actions, but his notes about Gray always leaned more romantic than brotherly.)
In contrast, Gray and Stephen only knew each other for a few months. They may have each been aware of the other merely in passing, but their actual relationship lasted less than a single school year. Yet, their connection was so strong that it changed who Gray was as a person.
There are multiple terms I can throw around to explain what I assume was going on (bromance, romantic friendship, platonic soulmates, etc). It just goes without saying that these two loved each other in a way that went much deeper than a normal middle-school friendship.
That’s why I’m fairly sure Gray was in love with Stephen. And if he wasn’t in love with Stephen, he was in love with Stephen’s ideals and outlooks. Meanwhile, Stephen probably didn’t romantically love Gray, but still deeply cared for him. You don’t risk the wrath of some very vengeful middle schoolers if you don’t like someone.
But then again, Stephen’s a special case. He’s been compared to Jesus and Mother Teresa, which are both auspicious parallels. He doesn’t have a nefarious bone in his body, so concerning the way he treats Gray, I can surmise “oh, quirky genius boy doing quirky genius boy things.”
A lot of what Stephen says to Gray can go both ways. For example, when Stephen is wrapped in nothing but a towel and asks Gray if he finds his physique impressive, it’s both about Stephen’s own self-confidence and about him caring about Gray’s thoughts on his physical appearance. I mean, most of it is joking, but Stephen really does believe he’s stunning. And honestly, love that for him. He values Gray’s opinions, but he’s already established his identity and self-worth as an individual.
Another piece of evidence is Gray’s reaction to the dating rumor. It could have doubled as both embarrassment and realization about how others perceived his relationship with Stephen. The awkwardness of being the butt of a joke paired with the sudden awareness that his relationship with Stephen wasn’t “normal”.*
Also, middle schoolers (especially in this universe) can be cruel and non-understanding of relationships that don’t fit stuff they’ve seen on TV. Y’know, girls have cooties. In this case, guys can only have close relationships if the relationship is with a girl they’re dating. Stephen and Gray have a close relationship…so are they dating? That was weird, so they decided to make fun of them instead of bothering to reflect on it critically.
What attracted Gray to Stephen was Stephen’s “light”: his carefree but selfless approach to life. Stephen was enviably effortless and while this was something Gray fell for, it only annoyed the likes of Bryce and their classmates. Middle schoolers are naturally self-centered, so being around someone so selfless felt like an attack on their own character, and that’s part of why Bryce was so intent on knocking down Stephen.
When the bullying began, it broke down everything Stephen knew about the world. Kind actions are not always reciprocated. The kids around Stephen made him believe his way of thinking and his actions were somehow wrong. He was still in middle school and no matter how smart he was, he still lacked emotional maturity in some areas. He couldn’t see the trees for the forest. Whatever the case was, he had to make sure Gray never suffered the way he did. We can see how he felt when he feared he “might break” if Gray got hurt too. Unfortunately, Stephen had a very selfless way of loving someone. He pushed away Gray and lost himself in order to protect him. The light that attracted Gray in the first place faded because it had to be dimmed to keep Gray from being bullied by association.
Stephen’s accident changed Gray’s personality completely. Or rather, it enhanced a part of him that hadn’t needed attention before. He was seen fisting his hand in frustration when talking about Stephen’s bullies, and although Stephen had restrained him then, that was the same fist Gray used to beat down his future opponents because of Stephen’s accident. It was the opposite of what Stephen would’ve wanted, but until about halfway through season one, it was the only way Gray felt he could avenge his friend.
He repressed his memories and feelings about Stephen until the fight with Wolf Keum. When he was delirious post-fight, he saw Stephen in Ben’s place. I’m not sure whether this means Ben is a replacement for the Stephen figure in his life, or that he felt Ben’s rescue was something Stephen would’ve done. I want to think it’s the latter, especially because of Gray’s decision to let himself grieve. As stated in the webtoon, “Thinking about him [Stephen] was painful because of those agonizing feelings of loss and guilt that came along with it. So he kept it buried deep inside his heart…but when those memories ruptured to the surface, he was no longer able to contain them. So he decided to think about him as much as he wanted to.” Now Gray’s focus isn’t on vengeance, but honoring Stephen’s memories the best he can. The gesture of carrying a giant safety pin with him everywhere is his way of keeping Stephen nearby.
Anyway, there are actually two confessions during Stephen and Gray’s arc. They’re not written like typical love confessions, but they can certainly be interpreted as them.
Stephen’s confession to Gray is when he says that “for some reason, I feel like you’re the one who could understand me, all of me, for who I am”. That was his way of saying “hey you, yeah you, I’ve thought about this a long time and it’s scary, but you deserve to know the real me.” Stephen wanted Gray to know the good and bad sides of him, and parts of him even Stephen had yet to fully understand. He wanted Gray to go on that journey with him to better comprehend what defined him as a person. Gray partaking in that journey meant Gray would inevitably become part and parcel of Stephen’s personality. Stephen was completely open to that and letting Gray see into his soul. I like to think Stephen had an emotional attraction to Gray, but genre-denial aside, it could also be taken as a romantic attraction.
Gray’s confession came not even a few panels later when he internally monologues that “Stephen filled the hole in [his] heart”. This is arguably even more meaningful than Stephen’s confession, because Gray is saying Stephen is everything to him. Stephen is Gray’s entire world: his motivation, his reasoning, and his moral compass. Stephen is who Gray looks forward to seeing every day. He says he’s never met anyone like Stephen and that his “depth” was different. Whereas Gray had a gaping hole in his life, Stephen’s depth was immeasurable. Gray needed Stephen so he could actually start living.
But I’m reasonable. Either confession could just be best friends coming to the mutual understanding that they’re going to be there for each other no matter what. That’s equally good.
However, I still think they were more than just friends. That’s why I’ve concluded the term “platonic soulmates” fits them best. It’s the romance without the inherent sexuality that comes with dating. So that means (for me at least) that they take care of each other and they’d be the number one person in each other’s lives, but they’d still date others. But at that point, it just makes more sense for them to stick together since their partner would be making jokes about Gray or Stephen being the unwitting side chick.
The most damning piece of evidence for this claim is when the nurse says, “That kid, he looks like he’s lost his soul” in response to Gray’s reaction to Stephen’s diagnosis. What other way is there to interpret that than Stephen being Gray’s soulmate? Even present day, Gray thinks about what Stephen would do before making any big decisions.
Gray probably didn’t even realize he was in love with Stephen until he lost him. After all, regular middle school friends don’t go all supervillain because their best friend is in a coma.
So the real question is, would they date if either one of them confessed in the conventional manner? I don’t know. Maybe? Probably? I don’t think Stephen would straight up confess. But if Gray did, depending on how seriously Stephen took him, Stephen might say yes. Nothing would really change.
If Stephen’s accident didn’t occur, would they have stayed together? One hundred percent, no doubt. Lily would probably be under the impression they’re together (since she attends the highschool Gray was aiming for and there’s no way Stephen wouldn’t somehow worm his way in there). The same rumours would happen but Gray would be more aware of them than he was in middle school and shut them down. To what avail, who knows?
Since the accident did happen, if they meet up present day, would Stephen like Gray for who he is now? Gray is more prone to violence, but deep down, he’s still who Stephen perceived him to be. Thanks to Ben and the gang, the great hunger that might’ve returned thanks to the accident never made its way back.
So upon their reunion (and given Seopass doesn’t erase Stephen’s memory), I assume Stephen would accept Gray with open arms. And tears, lots of them.
Wholly Unnecessary Addendums:
- I’ve never seen an umbrella scene that didn’t have romantic subtext.
- *All that aside, it’s literally the only time in the series Gray has blushed.