Disclaimer: Hiro Mashima is a better storyteller than me, and I admire his genius. The bookcover is by Milady666 on DeviantArt, manipulated slightly, and used with permission.

Cold, Gray Winter

a Fairy Tail fanfic

by Rhov

It was winter, the time Gray loved best and hated most. Winter was the season of jollity, refreshing snow, a time when the world was cleansed as white as a bride, pure and unstained by the travesties of Man. Winter was also a painful reminder. The snow made him think of his home, happiness with his parents, crushing heartache when his town was destroyed and his family and friends stolen by a demon. The cold that felt so good on his skin also reminded him of Ur and Lyon, that brief time of happiness before the rest of his world was stolen away by the same demon.

A blizzard had settled over Magnolia since Christmas. Whiteness hid the festive city like a death mask at a carnival. The only thing colder than the wind that day was Gray's heart.

It had already been six months since Lucy married Natsu.

Gray had been out on a long mission, his first as an S-Class wizard, when his two best friends hooked up. S-Class missions were definitely a challenge, there were times when he thought he would die, yet Gray succeeded in the mission and received a hefty reward. He returned home thinking that now, a real S-Class wizard with a successful mission under his belt, now he could confess to Lucy and use this money to buy her a necklace he had been eying before leaving. He stopped off at a jeweler and purchased the sapphire necklace wrapped in a cute velvet box.

He practically ran to the guild hall, eager to show Lucy her present, fantasizing about how red her face would turn when he confessed his feelings and asked to be her boyfriend. Yet when he burst through the guild doors, he saw a celebration was already under way. It was not for him, for the guild's newest S-Class wizard. No, it was for his rival and for the girl he loved, now hanging onto Natsu's arm and blushing as the guild members teased them. Gray had felt lost and dazed for two whole minutes until Cana teased that maybe he got hit on the head during his mission. Finally, Gray tucked the necklace box into his traveling pack, strode up to Natsu and Lucy with a forced smile, patted both of them on the shoulders in congratulations, and immediately took another mission.

He still had that sapphire necklace.

Throughout the following months, Gray had simply taken more and more missions. Maybe he could have won Lucy over if he stayed around, slowly working on her, etching away at her emotions. That was petty and, in the end, rather cruel. If Lucy was happy, then he was happy...or so he told himself.

Those two dated for a year. Then one day, the inevitable happened. Cana already had a betting pool on how long the two would last, or how long until Natsu proposed. What Gray could not believe was that Natsu came up to him first to ask Gray for his opinion about the diamond ring he had bought and planned to give to Lucy. His heart had never felt so icy as that day. Gray's words of encouragement were mechanical, flat, stated only because the alternative was punching Natsu in the face. If he did that, he would be showing his secret desires, and that would only complicate things with Lucy. He wished Natsu the best of luck, then went to Makarov and begged for a long-term mission. He left that very day, knowing Natsu planned to propose to Lucy on the weekend. He only requested Makarov to tell the rest of the guild that he had sent Gray off on emergency, not that he had begged to get away.

He didn't want anyone to think he was a coward!

He was gone for six months, enough time for the announcement to be given, parties to be held, and a wedding to be coordinated. He came back the day before the ceremony and spoke briefly to Lucy to apologize for being away during such an important time. She had hugged him, kissed him on the cheek, said she was proud that he could take such important missions, and thanked him wholeheartedly for returning for the big day. Gray had only come back because missing her wedding would have made Lucy sad.

That was one thing Gray could never do, not even if it meant freezing his heart.

It had been a glorious June wedding, perfect in every way, and the next day Gray left again for another two months. By the time he came back, Mister and Missus Dragneel were settled into a happy married life, and Cana was taking bets on when Lucy would get pregnant. Gray was the only person in the guild not in the betting pool.

He had managed just fine for six months. Now, as he sat on the roof of his home smoking a cigarette and shirtless despite the blizzard, the white winter world reminded him of that wedding dress. Lucy had looked gorgeous in it, but that scene of matrimonial bliss was marred by the pink-haired groom at her side.

Suddenly, the white purity was again tainted by pink, but this time it was a brave—or foolish—soul racing through the storm in a girlish parka. Gray watched her with a sense of worry. A person could lose their way with all the blinding flakes and sharp winds, yet this person seemed to know precisely where she was going...

Straight to his front door!

He saw the hand stretch out, white gloves with a pink guild mark knitted into the top of the hand. Only one woman in the world had a pair of gloves like that, because Gray had been the one who made them as a Christmas gift. He raced back into his house and was at his door before she finished knocking. He opened it and immediately yanked Lucy inside.

"What the hell are you doing out in a storm like that?" he admonished as he slammed the door shut against the screaming wind.

"Y-you're one t-t-to talk," she shivered, and large brown eyes gazed up at him. "I s-saw you on the roof...naked, no less."

"I was training," he lied.

She cocked an eyebrow at him. "You train sitting around smoking?"

He ignored the question and pulled her toward the fireplace. She held her hands out to it and let the snow and ice melt onto the stone hearth. Once she was no longer shaking, Gray assisted her out of the thick coat, scarf, gloves, hat, two layers of sweaters, and took her snow boots to finish melting away a little closer to the fireplace. He then noticed her face was drained of color and her eyes puffy. She was also stubbornly keeping half of her face hidden from him.

"Are you okay?" he asked in concern.

Lucy said nothing, so he went to the kitchen to get some water boiling for tea. "I got a nice spiced chai from Elfman for Christmas," he called over. "Does that sound okay?"

"Yeah," she said softly. "Sounds...fine. Just fine."

She definitely sounded like something was wrong. He watched her from the kitchen. Lucy began to sit on the couch when she felt something under her rump. She rose quickly and looked around to find Gray's discarded shirt. When she did that, her face turned and the ice wizard saw a dark color marring her cheek.

"What the hell...?" Gray rushed back into the main room with his heart pounding painfully hard and an acidic feel in the back of his throat. It was a shadow, right? It had to be a shadow! Yet when he knelt in front of Lucy and gave her no option to look away, he saw it was no lie. Lucy's face was beginning to swell from what appeared to be a nasty bruise to her lower jaw. "What happened?" he shouted. "Who did that to you?"

Lucy shut her eyes tightly, as if she could hide away from that ugly mark. She was silent for a moment, fighting to keep strong and not cry. The puffiness in her eyes, a sign of unshed tears, increased. "He...didn't mean it."

Twice in his life, four words had successfully frozen Gray's heart. The first was Natsu's exuberant cry of "I wanna marry Lucy!" The second were those unsteady words spoken just now.

"He didn't mean it?" Gray repeated in disbelief. There was no question who she meant. As he saw Lucy bite her trembling lip, that iciness boiled into blinding steam. His words hissed out like a teakettle. "I'll kill that bastard."

"Gray," she warned, yet still could not bring herself to look at him. "It was an accident, honest. Natsu just...he..." She struggled to think of how to put it properly. "He doesn't know his own strength sometimes. He doesn't think before lashing out. He didn't hit me. He knocked over some things, a pan went flying, and it smacked me in the face. That's all. He always apologizes later."

"Always?" Gray roared. "This has happened before?"

Her eyes finally flashed up at him. "I'm not sure I could even count how many times both of you have injured me in your stupid brawls."

She had a point there.

"That's different," Gray insisted. "That's him and me. Everyone knows that if Natsu is fighting, anyone in the general vicinity is in danger. He has no excuse to lash out at home."

"The mission he went on last week failed," she whispered. "He went alone, not even taking Happy. He said if he can't do regular missions alone, there's no way he could be S-Class like you."

"So he's taking it out on his wife?" Gray shouted furiously.

"I said it was an accident," she warned bitterly.

"He's taking his anger out on your home," the ice wizard insisted, shocked she was bothering to defend the flame-brain. "Even if it wasn't his fist to your face...Lucy..."

He paused as he saw the agony in her eyes, heartbreak that she was trying so bravely to withhold. She looked even closer to crying now, and he saw her throat hitching with silent sobs. Without bothering to ask for permission, Gray grabbed her and hugged her tightly. He felt the shaking of her body in his arms, and his fury subsided to pity.

"Lucy," he sighed, but there were no words he could say that could express all the emotions he was feeling right then. "I'm sorry," he whispered, not only for her pain, but for his shouted words. By the jolting sobs that finally escaped, he knew she already understood what it was he wanted to warn her, even if she fought against the idea.

A man who repeatedly hurts his wife, even if not by his own fists but by his recklessness, is still abusive.

Lucy cried into his bare chest, and Gray felt every tear that dripped along his skin, burning like hot oil. He did not say anything, and he knew he did not need to. She must have been scared if she ran out into a blizzard. Scared and furious! There were other wizards closer to where she and Natsu lived, yet she fought the storm to seek out Gray. That alone made him happy.

"I'll protect you," he swore.

She gazed up at him, eyes wet, cheeks a contrast of ghostly pale from the cold and flushed pink from shame. To his surprise, she was struggling not to smile, as if her heart wanted to feel joy but her mind told her it was wrong. This conflict battled in her tense brow, swaying toward wanting to tell him how happy she felt to have him as a friend, and fearing that saying too much might lead to something neither one could have, not anymore...not since what happened six months ago.

"Stay here tonight," Gray offered. "You can sleep on my bed. I'll take the couch."

"Thanks," Lucy whispered, her throat choked. "Can I take a bath first? I'm still freezing and wet."

"I'll fix it up."

Just then, the teakettle in the kitchen whistled. Gray hurried away from her, tearing himself from her arms before he did anything he would regret. Making tea was a mechanical job, but it gave him a few minutes to sort out his mind. There were plenty of things he wanted to say to Lucy—foremost was to insist she get out of that marriage before Natsu really turned on her—but it was not his place to say anything at all about matters like that. He knew Natsu would rather die than hurt Lucy on purpose. Accidents happened. Still, the fact that this was not the first time she got hurt around him angered Gray.

He brought out the tea, set it on a table, then hurried to fix the bath. He also did a fast cleaning of his bathroom. After all, he was a bachelor, and mold had a tendency to grow when you barely stayed home long enough to pick up another mission. Since becoming S-Class, Gray had more than once wondered if keeping a house like this was worth it, or if he would be better off selling everything but his clothes, renting hotels when he was in town, and keeping his personal belongings in a trunk in one of the guild's back rooms. That was what Gildarts did, and it worked for him. However, he kept his home for moments like this, in case a friend needed to come over.

If only he kept the place neater.

By the time the tub was filled, along with fresh soap and a towel set out, Lucy had sipped a cup of tea. Her color was slowly adjusting, the paleness returning to peach and the icy flush easing into a light pink. She and Gray exchanged no words, only glances. She walked slowly past him, into the bathroom, and he heard the door lock behind her. He did not blame her one bit for distrusting him. However, he had something else to worry about than peeking in on her.

Namely, that toxic waste dump of exploded clothes and molded crumbs that was his bedroom.

His living room was the only decent room in the house, since that was the room guests entered. The bedroom was the worst, since he figured no one would end up in there. He rarely brought women home, Natsu no longer sneaked in that way after twice seeing that Gray slept naked, and if he knew company was coming, he simply shut the door and bolted the lock with a bit of ice.

Now he scrambled. All discarded clothing was crammed haphazardly into the closet to be sorted some other time. Dirty dishes were hurried away into the kitchen. He swept the crumbs off the floor fast and threw a rat out into the snow to survive on its own. Fresh sheets and blankets since his current ones smelled of sweat and maybe a little bit like sex from midnight "relief sessions." New pillows because he tended to drool, and he did not want Lucy to sleep on anything gross. He had a heater he never used—he got it when Loke used to come over and complained that it was literally freezing in the house—and he turned it on in the bedroom so it would be toasty warm for Lucy.

Then since Lucy was still in the bathroom, he tried to catch up on dishes, cleaning them extra well. Gray searched the refrigerator and cupboards to see if they had enough food for dinner. He doubted any restaurant in the entire city would be open in weather like this. Food was low, barely enough for rice and chicken, plus he still had a few eggs for breakfast. He also hurriedly tossed out all the expired food hidden in the back of his fridge.

Suddenly, there was a knock on the front door. Gray knew the loud pound from anywhere, and he cursed under his breath. It was the last person he wanted to see that night.

Lucy peeked out of the bathroom with her body wrapped in a towel. Somehow, she also knew the knock was Natsu's distinct heavy fist, and her face paled in worry. Gray waved at her to hide. She scurried back away and shut the bathroom door firmly. To throw off the dragon slayer's acute sense of smell, Gray quickly sprayed the air with something pine-scented. He just hoped that was enough. He was about to open the door when he remembered Lucy's boots sitting by the fire. He cursed, put his hands together, and whispered "Ice-Make: Barrier." A modest cylinder of frosted ice formed around the shoes, thick enough so a casual glance would hide the boots from view. Finally satisfied, Gray unlocked the door and opened it.

"What is it, flame-brain?" he growled.

Natsu rushed in and instantly ran to the fireplace. "My God, it's freezing out there!"

"No shit, dipwad. It's a blizzard."

"Yeah, it's crazy," the dragon slayer shouted. "Sheesh, I can't believe she'd run out into this."

"Who?" Gray asked, keeping his voice neutral.

"Lucy. Have you seen her?"

"No," he lied easily.

Natsu frowned at that. "Damn. I had really hoped to find her here. She ran out, barely even bothered to put on a coat and scarf. I'm worried she might have gotten lost."

Gray suddenly cursed. The coat and scarf were in his bedroom, and the door to that room was open. If Natsu looked over that way, he would see the bright pink parka.

"Don't tell me you screwed up again," Gray said, smirking haughtily as he deftly went over to the bedroom and closed the door before Natsu could finish warming himself.

"No...yeah...maybe," the dragon slayer muttered. "You know, frying pans fly a ridiculously far distance."

"You hit her with a pan?" Gray growled. Even if he had not already heard it from Lucy, he knew he would have been outraged if he heard Natsu tell him this.

"It was an accident," Natsu insisted. "I feel like crap now, though." Indeed, his face looked miserable. "It must have hurt her. She wouldn't show me, but something like that...dammit, I feel like a lowlife scum," Natsu mumbled, slumping as the fire warmed his frozen joints.

"You are one," Gray agreed. "Look, if I was Lucy, I wouldn't want to be anywhere near you right now. She's probably terrified and angry at you."

"That's why I want to apologize," Natsu insisted. "Igneel told me that when I get a mate, I should never let her go to sleep angry. I have to find Lucy before tonight!"

Gray felt torn again. He tried to imagine himself in Natsu's place. If he had done something stupid, sent kitchenware flying, and accidentally hit Lucy in the face, he would be emotionally torn to pieces. He would search a blizzard and through Hell itself to find her just so he could apologize. Yet he also worried for Lucy. She was in the bathroom and could come out if she was ready to forgive Natsu, yet Gray heard not a single sound from there. Likely, she was keeping incredible still, barely even breathing to minimize her smell and prevent Natsu from discovering her. If she wanted to hide, Gray would shield her.

"So what do you plan on telling her?" Gray asked, figuring Lucy needed to hear it.

"Huh?" Natsu looked confused. He thought about it for a moment, then shrugged uncertainly. "Sorry?"

"Dumbass," Gray sighed in frustration. "You hurt her bad enough to where she ran out into a blizzard, and all you're going to say is sorry?"

"But I don't know what else I can say," the dragon slayer grumbled. "I'm not good with that type of thing."

"Then you had better think about it good and hard while you wait for her."

"I'm not gonna wait for her. I'm gonna find her. And I don't need to apologize in any special way. Lucy knows I didn't mean it. I'd never hurt her on purpose."

Gray facepalmed. "Go home, Natsu," he told him harshly. "Get out of here before I freeze that stupid face of yours and chuck you out into the snow to sit around until the Spring thaw. Lucy will return when she's ready."

"What if she's stuck in the blizzard?" Natsu argued. "If she gets frostbite because of me, I'll never be able to forgive myself."

"Lucy's smart. She'll take shelter before that happens. If you go running around in just your scarf and that thin coat, you'll get sick, and then she'll feel even worse, right?"

"Guess so," the dragon slayer mumbled. "Gray..." Natsu looked at him with a troubled expression. "What if I really screwed up this time? I love Lucy so much, but...but what if..." He cringed as he worried about this. "What if she doesn't want me anymore?"

"That's her call," Gray told him coldly. "Personally, if you really did hurt her that badly, I don't think you deserve her."

Natsu's eyes flare in anger, looking prepared to pounce into one of their usual brawls, but then his temper simmered into depression. His head dropped as the sadness became too much. "I fucked up big time. I just hope she's safe. By the way, who's the lady in the bathroom?"

Gray paled slightly that Natsu had still been able to smell someone. "Some chick I met at a bar," he lied instantly. "I sorta want you out of here before she's done washing up, if you know what I mean."

"Ah...sorry," Natsu laughed, scratching the back of his head and grinning that his nakama had a woman with him finally.

Maybe it was the air freshener he sprayed, or maybe it was the different brand of soap. For whatever reason, the dragon slayer was unable to pinpoint Lucy's aroma, only that there was a woman in the house. Gray sighed in relief that they were so lucky.

"Well Gray, if you see Lucy, please try to encourage her not to give up on me. I can't survive without her. She's my mate!"

"Then you should have treated her better," Gray seethed, getting more and more angry. "I'm not going to encourage or discourage her from anything. It's purely her call."

"I just don't want to lose her," Natsu sighed miserably. "I know she's really close to you. That's why I thought she'd come here." He began to walk back to the door. "I won't be able to sleep until I know she's okay."

"She probably won't be able to sleep tonight either," Gray told him. "Wait at home for her to return. Be safe heading back."

"Sure. Whoever is in the bathroom, I hope you treat her well." Then Natsu opened the door, letting the blizzard snow blast into the apartment for a moment, before slamming it closed and shutting out the howling winter noise.

Gray gave a long sigh of relief. He walked to the bathroom and knocked on the locked door. "He's gone," he said quietly. Slowly, the door opened and Lucy peeked out. Gray folded his arms over his chest and leaned against the wall casually. "You heard it all?"

The blonde nodded her head with her eyes lowered and her brow tense. Gray wanted to ask what she thought about Natsu's worries, but he saw that she hardly knew what to make of it herself. It was definitely a tough choice. Could she forgive Natsu after he hurt her so many times? Part of Gray hoped they could make up and be happy again. Then he glanced at the purplish-red bruise on her face, and he seethed silently with hopes that Lucy screamed at Natsu, trashed their house in a rage, and divorced him so she could leave behind all that sadness and fear.

"Sleep on it," he decided, both for himself and for her.

Then he went back and reopened the bedroom door. The heater had done its job well, making the room too toasty for Gray's liking, but he figured it would feel perfect for Lucy. He left it open for her.

"I pulled out some sweat pants and a shirt you can wear. They're clean," he assured her.

Lucy gave him a sly smirk. "What, no panties?"

Gray could hardly help but chuckle. "Sorry, but I'm not really in the habit of wearing women's underwear. Erza barely approves of my boxers."

He was glad to see Lucy laugh for real, and her ephemeral smile was Spring to Gray's heart. Even though it slowly faded, at least he had given her a little relief.

Lucy went into his bedroom to change, and Gray hurried with cooking. It was too early for his normal late-night dinners, but he recalled that Lucy liked to eat early, something about early dinners keeping her figure in shape. She had quite a figure, there was no denying that, so maybe her eating time really worked.

She came out a few minutes later and took a seat on the couch near the fireplace. When Gray saw her wearing his clothes, he felt a heated leap in his chest. He was so prone to pull his clothes off, but seeing them on Lucy felt...possessive. Like he was constantly shielding her, even without the temptation of touching her. He turned back to the food fast before this feeling took physical control over him. If he got aroused with Lucy around, he would be shamed for life.

She's still married, you idiot. She and Natsu are in the midst of a spat, but she'll probably be back in his bed tomorrow night.

Part of him sincerely hoped not!

Dinner was quiet and tense. Gray realized that Lucy was too preoccupied with dark worries and mostly just picked at the food, occasionally bringing the chopsticks to her mouth and chewing. He was not very good with conversation either, so he kept quiet and watched her for any signals.

"You know," she finally said, so softly her voice barely whispered over the storm's growl, "Bisca just told me she's pregnant again. She asked if Natsu and I are...trying," she said awkwardly. She bit on her bottom lip and poked at the food. "We've talked about it," she went on hesitantly. Her face looked a bit wistful for a moment. "I'd like kids someday. I don't think Natsu is ready, though. If he's this careless about his strength..." She swallowed hard and blinked fast a few times to keep the tears from returning. She could not say anything more without breaking down.

Gray looked to the side. Hearing Lucy talk about her married life was painful, especially knowing what she was going through emotionally tonight. Still, he had to break the tense silence.

"That's good news about Bisca," he said calmly. "The baby should be born next summer."

"Due in July." Lucy laughed sheepishly. "A good month to be born in."

"Indeed," Gray grinned back.

That was their only real conversation, brief and troublesome. Then Lucy sat on the couch again, lost in thought while Gray washed dishes. Finally, he sat beside her and watched the dancing fireplace shadows play on her face. From this side of her profile, her face looked fine, just as soft, peachy, and smooth as when they were teens. In fact, she hardly looked different at all these days, except she styled her hair in a new way. With her hair still drying from the shower, down and loose, it looked more like how she used to fix it.

Gray thought back over the years. He had known Lucy for two years—well, nine counting that confusing timeskip that plagued him whenever he tried to count how long he had known people—before she and Natsu finally hooked up. Then a year of dating, six months engaged, six more married. Four years! She had gone from a spitfire seventeen-year-old to a wiser and perhaps even jaded twenty-one-year-old. Not much frightened Lucy like it used to. He, Natsu, and Erza not only showed her the harsh lifestyle of a magic guild; they completely submerged her into the very worst of it. Demons, dark guilds, evil wizards and black dragons...Lucy was always in the midst of things, yet she fought on.

He used to think she was too timid. Now Gray knew this former heiress was more than a spoiled rich girl. He admired her, and admiration turned to love. It now had formed into caution. His high esteem for Lucy was what kept him from "playing dirty" and using this opportunity to seduce her. Part of him knew he likely could. She was vulnerable, he was skilled at manipulating emotions (he did that all the time to rile up Natsu). But...he couldn't do that to her! To see her heart slowly cracking under the bitterness was like watching a vandal slowly and sadistically pouring acid over a priceless artifact.

"Gray," she suddenly said, crashing through his wandering mind and reeling him back into the house, the fireplace, and the blizzard outside. Lucy's face had changed slightly while his thoughts drifted. She looked more solemn now, past anger, past grief. "When Natsu and I began dating, why did you run away?"

"I didn't run," he said automatically, something he had been telling himself for two years. "I'm an S-Class wizard now. The missions are harder."

"You always took the longest ones," she whispered with a small smile, knowing she was pointing out something he did not think anyone else had noticed. Yet they had. Cana used to tease her about it, and Mirajane pointed out many times that Gray was avoiding her. "Natsu also told me he had talked to you about marrying me, and you left on a six-month mission the very next day. Even he's not dense enough to miss something like that."

Gray frowned and glared away, unable to face her and the truth.

"Sometimes," she whispered in confession, "I used to wish you'd come and try to steal me away."

His gaze swung back over to her in shock, eyes wide, mouth dropped a little. For a moment, he did not dare to breathe in case he might mishear her words.

Lucy laughed tensely, staring at the gold band on her finger. "I had a dream that you came back just in time for my wedding and kidnapped me, just threw me over your shoulder and ran off with me. Then when you suddenly returned the day before the ceremony, I was expecting it to happen. All through the ceremony, I was wondering how far you'd let it go before punching Natsu with ice and abducting me." She shook her head at her own foolishness. "Isn't it horrible of me? On my wedding day, facing the man I was vowing to love for the rest of my life, I was thinking about you." She laughed and sniffled at the same time. "I felt horrible afterward, always a little guilty. Then you ran off again. The first time I...got hurt," she said warily, "you were still on that mission."

That startled Gray. That mission had been during their first two months of marriage. That meant the abuse began almost instantly.

"I didn't have anyone to turn to, so I just dealt with it on my own. He apologized, of course," she assured, "but...well, it was like he didn't realize that me getting hurt now was any different to how I used to get hurt from his antics before. In the guild or out on a mission, that's different...right?" she asked Gray directly, looking over to him.

As her face turned his way, he saw that swollen bruise again. "That's right," he answered deeply. "Fights on missions or casual brawls in the guild are different than when you're at home or alone together."

"That's how I felt, at least," she went on, gazing back to the fireplace. "The next time it happened, I figured I could handle it. It wasn't a bad injury, only hurt for a day or two, but for some reason, knowing it was Natsu who did it, even accidentally...I began to be afraid. If he came home angry, I tried to sneak out. Happy even helped me slip away a few times. He got really mad at Natsu every time, but Happy can't be intimidating even when he's pissed as hell. I figured I could just handle things on my own. I simply had to put up with it from now on, part of married life with a dragon slayer. I love him, and I swore to keep loving him, 'for better or for worse,' but..." She swallowed thickly and shook her head. "Not this time. I knew you were in town. That's why I ran here. Otherwise, I would have just put up with it again. The bruise will probably be gone before the blizzard is over, anyway." She ended with a moist sniffle, and Gray saw tears on the rims of her eyelids that she stubbornly would not allow to fall, batting them away with fast blinks instead. "I would have just kept quiet, hid away, listened to his apologies and forgiven him yet again without telling anyone. Likely, in another week or two, it'd happen again...and again...and you'd probably be gone on your missions."

Gray had heard enough. He wrapped an arm around Lucy and pulled her into his chest. Then both arms hugged her tightly, squeezing her, showing her without words that he would shield her.

"I'm sorry I ran away," he whispered, resting his chin on her blonde head. "I thought it was best for your happiness."

"I know," she smiled, leaning against Gray's chest. "I probably would have hated you if you tried to break us up, but at the same time, I didn't like that you surrendered me so fast, without even a fight."

Although she could not see his face, Gray still smirked. "You wanted to see me and Natsu fight over you?"

Her cheeks suddenly blushed brightly. "No! Well...I dunno," she pouted. "Maybe a little."

He had to laugh at that. Lucy turned around in his arms to look at him.

"You think that's funny?" she huffed.

"Well, yeah!" he chuckled. "You would have hated me if I tried to steal you away, but you wanted me to fight Natsu over you. I would have lost either way."

"Except you would have won me."

"You're that confident I could have beaten Natsu?"

"Yes," she smiled, "and...you would have convinced me that I wasn't just imagining things about you." She ended in a whisper, like testing out the safety of a wild animal. "I wasn't...was I?"

Gray hesitated on answering. He could lie to her. The truth felt so...guilty. Reluctantly, he knew that even if he lied, she would be able to know the truth just by looking at him. "You weren't imagining it," he said honestly.

"Then," she whispered, barely daring to say the words, "do you like me?"

Gray swallowed hard. "I did," he confessed, barely breathing the words out. "Maybe still do." That was probably saying too much, but it was how he honestly felt, and he figured she deserved the truth.

Lucy's eyes lowered a little. At first, Gray thought it was in disappointment, but he realized she was staring at his mouth. Slowly, lacking confidence, Lucy began to lean in closer to Gray. He saw her lips loosening. He had a fast and frantic battle with himself.

Should he kiss her? Of course he wanted to, but it seemed so wrong! Would doing something like that make things worse, or would it ease her heart for the moment? She was so close now, he could feel the warm breath from her nostrils on his skin. Questions and debates clamored in his mind, reasons why he shouldn't, arguments why he should, swirling in turmoil as Lucy's lips approached him slowly.

In the end, he stuck his hand out, gently pressing her back. Lucy felt the resistance and looked confused. She knew Gray liked her—he confessed as much—so why was he pushing her away now?

"Lucy," he sighed as the temptation tormented him.

"If it's because of what Natsu said..."

"No," he interrupted. There were many reasons, many arguments, but he knew it boiled down to a single issue. "You're married. Whether if it's to Natsu or to any other man, the fact remains." He gazed at her from head to toe as old desires stabbed at his heart. "For how much I may want to...to kiss you..." he confessed in a soft breath, "...touch you..." His hand stretched out to her skin, yet stopped just short of caressing her neck. "...and do even worse things with you, I simply can't. You're someone else's woman. I can't steal something that precious."

She pulled back with a spiteful face. Angrily, she yelled, "I am not someone's property to be claimed!"

Gray's eyebrow twitched up in confusion. Had he said something wrong?

"That's what Natsu declared the first time we...when he..." Lucy broke off and looked away from him as she remembered some moment that both made her blush and sickened her at the same time. "He said he had claimed me as his mate, and no other man could touch me. Somehow, I thought maybe that was true. Maybe he put some smell on me, did some weird dragon slayer trick that would mark me as his for the rest of my life."

"He did," Gray said. "Maybe not that day, but..." He tapped her left hand, right over the gold wedding band and diamond that adorned it. "...that day. He marked you then, and you marked him."

Lucy looked down at the ring as if seeing it in a new way for the first time. It was not just a piece of jewelry that represented love. It was a branding mark, a golden tag on goods that showed ownership. She held her hand up into the light and saw the white diamond capturing the rays, scattering them into rainbows. Even light itself was held captive by such a gem. Gray watched cautiously, frowning that her fingers began to tremble again. However, he knew that as long as she wore that diamond ring—a ring Natsu had first shown to Gray—he could not be with Lucy. He had no right to touch her when she belonged to another man.

However, much to Gray's shock and horror, Lucy tugged the wedding ring off. Her finger was indented behind it from wearing the ring for months, and her hand looked bare without the gem. Then she placed the ring aside on a table, purposely setting it there to symbolize her choice.

"Lucy!" Gray whispered in dismay. Even he trembled breathlessly at seeing her decision, so he could only imagine how that option must terrify her.

"I'm scared of him, Gray," she breathed, staring at the gold band and diamond as if removing it might send some magical signal to Natsu. She even glanced briefly to the door, half expecting him to come crashing in to reclaim her. "He scares me so much at times...I'm not sure I could make this marriage work. I want kids, but I'm terrified that he'd hurt the baby, or hurt me while I'm pregnant, or...or who knows what! I know he doesn't mean it, and that makes this even harder. It's not his fault. If I was stronger..."

Gray grabbed her shoulders. "Don't you dare blame yourself," he said sternly, jolting her. "Too many times over the years, I've seen you blame yourself for all sorts of things, thinking you're too weak. You are not weak, Lucy! Natsu, Erza, Happy, and I know that best. If you don't think this marriage can work, you and Natsu need to discuss this."

"No!" she cringed. "He'll get mad. What if he hurts me?"

Seeing Lucy truly scared of Natsu was shocking and disheartening. Gray knew the damn flame-brain was reckless, but enough to scare his own wife?

"If you want someone there with you, Erza and I will go. We're both S-Class. We can hold back a hotheaded dragon slayer," he assured her with a warm smile that made her tense muscles loosen up. "If he does act up..." Gray took her left hand and rubbed his thumb over the divot in her skin left behind by the discarded ring. "...I'll protect you, I swear."

Lucy leaned into his chest, and Gray stiffened.

"Lucy!" he said uncomfortably.

"Just hold me," she whispered. "This is a really hard choice. I love him, I don't want to hurt him, but...I..." She sniffled moistly, and Gray felt her tears drip onto his skin again. "Just hold me," she begged weakly.

Gray wrapped his arms around her, comforting her like he had done in the past during sad moments. Her face never left the shelter of his chest. She was too ashamed to let him see her crying eyes. Gray hugged her tightly to him.

"I'm here, Lucy," he assured tenderly. "Cry as much as you need. Let it out now so you can face him tomorrow."

With those words granting her permission, Lucy hiccuped, sputtered wetly, then began to bawl loudly. She wept louder than Gray had ever seen a girl cry. For some reason, he thought girls cried neatly, with cute little sniffles and dabbing their misty eyes. Lucy sobbed like a small, scared child, her chest jolting, snot pouring down with frequent snorting snuffles as she tried to keep it from getting onto his skin. Gray did not mind if she got him messy. He held her and would not let her pull back.

"Let it all out," he whispered, rubbing her back, which prompted even louder cries, practically screams, as Lucy's heart shattered from the emotions she had been dealing with all alone for months. Gray swallowed hard, wanting to cry too. A couple of his tears joined hers as listening to Lucy so heartbroken affected his emotions.

Outside, the wind howled, and the cold, gray winter insulated them, like one of the Ice-Make wizard's frozen shields.

Gray was unsure when Lucy stopped crying. It was more like a gradual calming down, unsteady inhales, hard swallows, whispered apologies, and suddenly he realized she had collapsed against his chest, asleep and snoring from the puffiness in her snuffly nose. Gray carefully lifted her into his arms and carried her to his bed. She woke up only briefly when he laid her down on the mattress, apologized again, and fell right back to sleep.

Gray tucked the blankets around her, then stood over her, watching her slowly breathe. Her face was a bit puffy, her eyes and upper cheeks pink from such heavy sobs, and the bruise on her face was darkening. It would look even worse come morning. Gray thought about running out and buying something to take down the bruising, but nothing would be open in a blizzard like this. Besides, part of him wanted Natsu to see precisely what he had done to Lucy. He wanted to whole guild to see it, so everyone would know that Lucy was not leaving her husband just because she flippantly changed her mind after a few months. A dark side of Gray wanted everyone to know precisely how Lucy had suffered.

He thought back over the past few months. He had not been around a lot, but he did recall a few times when Lucy would not show up, and Natsu merely said she "wasn't feeling well." Of course, every time he said it, the whole guild whipped into a frenzy of wondering if Lucy was pregnant. Instead, she would come back after a few days and assure everyone she had only hurt herself a little, she was fine, and she was definitely not pregnant.

Only hurt herself a little...

Gray wondered if each of those times was actually due to Natsu injuring her. If so, if this had happened that often...

He went to the couch, flopped down heavily, and stared at the fire, thinking back over those six months. Why had he not seen the signs? Why had he never once wondered why someone like Lucy, a battle-hardened wizard, suddenly seemed so accident prone?

Gray rubbed out the wrinkles forming on his brow. "Why was I avoiding her?"

He stood quickly, marched into his kitchen, and dug under the sink for a bottle of bourbon. He rarely drank something this strong, but tonight he needed it. He splashed a double helping, then tipped the whole tumbler back, letting the fiery drink burn through his clenched throat, past his frozen heart, and sear as it hit his stomach. He hissed and swore he could have breathed flames like Natsu right then. Still, it was not enough. The burning anger and frozen chill in his chest still clashed. He wanted one or the other, fire or ice, anger or sadness, but not both. He could not mentally handle both.

If fiery drinks did not work, he would resort to ice.

Gray climbed to the second floor of his home, opened the window in his weight training room, and climbed out. He had a ladder to the roof, since he loved to sit up there on cold nights for a little practice. Now he stripped fully naked and climbed up. The blizzard screamed around him, but it sounded quiet compared to the echoes of Lucy's wailing that still reverberated in his ears. He stretched his arms out, welcoming the ice to his body, yet the sub-freezing wind and blasting snow that felt like miniature razor blades did nothing to cut away the searing anger. He leaned his head back and roared like a demon of winter, yet even that was stolen from him, ripped away by the strong winds.

Then Gray collapsed face-down into the snow that had piled up on the roof. He sank deep within, feeling the soft coldness crackle under him, wrap around him, embrace him like the arms of Ur holding him as he shivered in childish fears. He felt the new snow fall over him, slowly burying him.

Why couldn't it bury his feelings, too?

"Lucy," he muttered into the snow, feelings his mouth scrape against the ice. "Why did you have to come to me?" Not that he was angry that she had turned to him in her most desperate moment, but he felt completely unqualified to deal with this sort of thing...especially considering how much he loved Lucy, yet could never show it.

He was unsure how long he laid out there, but eventually the weight of the snow on his back became annoying. Gray rose, and a large drift slid down his back, over his bare buttocks, and toppled into the rest of the snow on the roof. Moving slow and stiffly, he crunched back to the ladder, climbed into his home, and closed the window behind him. The screaming blizzard was shut out. The room had a fanning of snow already melting on the carpet. Gray moved with sluggish gestures, dressed himself like an automaton, then went back downstairs to melt the rest of the ice off of his body while standing by the fire. He stared at the flames as his skin warmed up.

Since the fire of alcohol didn't work, he tried ice. That didn't work so...fire again?

If only he could eat flames like Natsu. Maybe then his heart would defrost.

He wondered what Natsu was up to, if he had gone home and simply went to bed, or if he would be awake all night gnashing his teeth in guilt. He hoped that flame-brain felt at least half as miserable as Gray did.

Physically and emotionally drained, Gray flopped onto the couch, yanked the blankets over him, and stared at the shadows dancing on the ceiling. Those shadows slowly took shape, two graceful ballroom dancers, and then they became people, Gray and Lucy dancing to a waltz. His eyes shut on their own as he dreamed of violin music and Lucy sparkling in that dress she wore to nice parties. Her eyes were sparkling, her lips laughed, and in his dream he knew she belonged solely to him now.

Morning came as dreary as the day before. Still, Gray took Lucy to the Fairy Tail guild hall, guiding her through snow that still fell heavily. Only a handful of people were there, most because it was warmer here than their own homes. Mirajane was stunned to see Lucy and Gray walk in together, and even more so that Lucy's face was half swollen now, the bruise covering most of her cheek, across her chin, puffing up part of her lip, and up to the edge of her nose.

All around the hall, there were shouts of surprise and demands at Gray to know what happened to her. He felt it was not his place to say, but Lucy looked like she did not want to speak at all, so Gray only said "Natsu hurt her." Three words, but they were like a bolt of lightning through the whole guild. Whispers of "no way" and "that bastard," then a flurry of females grouped around Lucy and pulled her away, as if she needed a human shield away from all things male. While Mirajane got Lucy a hot drink (with a dash from a bottle of brandy she saved for special cases) Lisanna hurried to Fairy Hills to fetch Wendy so the girl could heal the injury, and Elfman stormed out the doors to bring in Natsu so he could face his actions.

Gray retreated for the moment. He felt it was not his place to be standing beside Lucy when Natsu arrived. Plus, it would be immensely suspicious since Natsu came to his house seeking her out. Wendy and Erza arrived with Lisanna first. Although Wendy wanted to immediately heal Lucy, Erza was wiser. Her mind must have been thinking the same thing Gray's had been during the previous night. Natsu needed to see how he hurt his wife. Meanwhile, Lucy was talking to Makarov and Mirajane. Gray could not hear what they were saying, but intuition told him that Lucy was discussing legal options.

It took a while, but Natsu burst through the guild doors with Elfman chasing after him. Again, Gray remained to the side. He let it be Erza who yanked the dragon slayer back before he could crush Lucy into a relieved hug. The pink-haired man went on and on about how he had searched through the storm but lost her scent. Finally, Gray saw Lucy turning her face away in anguish. Her mind might be made up, but her heart was still torn. This was the man she loved, after all. It was a horribly difficult decision to make. Hearing the relief and fidelity in Natsu's words had her wavering again.

Finally, Gray had enough. "Shut up for one goddamn minute, flame-brain, and look at how you hurt her," the ice wizard shouted.

Natsu looked confused, and only then did he see what to any normal person would be obvious. "Oh Lucy," he sighed. "Did I bruise you again? I'm sorry."

"Again?" roared Erza. "Wait, this has happened before?"

Gray did not have to listen to the debate. It was typical enough. Natsu tried to defend himself under the fury of the fierce Titania and rage of the aging guild master. Even Wendy looked upset, which was a surprisingly cute expression for the girl. Gray ignored them and approached Lucy. He patted her arm, silently asking if she was okay. Her curt smile was the answer. Seeing that Gray really was still by her side renewed her confidence.

"Natsu," she said, silencing the argument in an instant, with Erza's fist clutching Natsu's scarf and Makarov looking like he was ready to enlarge his hand and pound the boy into the floorboards. Lucy had the diamond ring clutched so tightly in her hand, they all saw nail marks in her palm as she opened her fingers. "It's over, Natsu. I can't keep doing this."

"But it was an accident," Natsu cried out in horror.

Erza glared hard. "An accident that has happened too many times."

Makarov grunted in agreement. "Frankly, I'm immensely disappointed in you, Natsu."

"It was an accident!" he screamed frantically. He began to reach toward her with both hands. "Lucy..."

A shield of ice blocked him, and Natsu saw Lucy taking a cautious step behind Gray, clutching onto his coat with fear in her eyes. Natsu's brows tightened at this rival getting in his way once again.

"So that's why Lucy smells like your shampoo," the dragon slayer mumbled darkly. "She was the woman in your bathroom. You lied to me!"

Gray let the shield disperse but still guarded Lucy. "I was protecting Lucy. She could have stepped out if she wanted to see you. She was hiding from you, Natsu. You were right last night. You really fucked up."

Natsu leaned right into Gray's face. "I'm gonna win her back."

Gray wondered if such stubbornness was admirable or plain stupid. "You're acting like you have to challenge me for her when you haven't even properly apologized."

"I said I was sorry."

The ice wizard shouted, "What you did goes beyond a mere 'I'm sorry.' If you can't figure that out, then you don't deserve a wife."

"So you plan on stealing mine?" the dragon slayer roared in rage.

Lucy gasped at the accusation. "Natsu!"

Gray sneered. "Do you really think I'd stoop that low?"

"I think you've been in love with her for years, and now you see your chance."

Gray leaned in close with fierce eyes. Softly, he snarled, "Fuck you, Natsu."

"You can go screw yourself, Gray." Natsu suddenly reached past Gray, grabbed Lucy's arm, and yanked her hard to him. The blonde cried out and flinched. "Lucy's mine. I claimed her. No man can touch her but me."

Lucy's face flushed in anger. "I am not something that can be claimed."

"Yes you are," Natsu insisted. "You're my wife. You belong to me."

Wendy pouted. "Natsu, that's not right."

Elfman agreed, "Acting like that is not manly."

"I marked you as my mate," Natsu told Lucy. "I claimed you as mine. That ice bastard can't have you, and I don't want you to go over to his house ever again, do you understand?"

Lucy squirmed, and her face flinched. "Natsu, you're hurting me."

Gray's mind blanked out. He lurched forward, and he felt his fist collide into something soft. Then his left arm reached out and pulled Lucy against him as Natsu went flying backward with blood spraying from his mouth.

"Fucking squinty-eyes! You definitely don't deserve a wife."

Natsu leaped right back up to his feet, and his fists lit up in flames. "I won't let you have her."

Before he could attack, Gray turned and marched away to the mission board. He spent only a few seconds before picking one. Money didn't matter, nor difficulty. He was looking at distance, something that involved travel. He needed to get away before things truly got explosive. He practically threw the flier at Mirajane.

"I'm taking this one and leaving immediately."

"Gray!" Lucy yelled, taking a few desperate steps toward him.

"Work this out, Lucy," he shouted, glaring back at her. "After what you tried last night, as far as I'm concerned, you don't deserve a husband either." He saw that his words pierced her, so he strained to calm himself. "You were emotionally distraught, so I forgive you," he amended. "However, this is something you need to sort out on your own. Me being around will just make things worse."

"So you're running away again, just like last time," she shouted.

He walked up to her and spoke so quietly, probably only Natsu could truly hear him, and the dragon slayer was seething fire out his nostrils with jealousy. "Yes, I'm running away, because if I stay here, I'm going to do something truly stupid. I said I'd protect you, but being near you right now will only make this fire-bastard more dangerous. If he thinks I'm a rival, he might take it out on you, and if he does that again, I might honestly try to kill him. So I need to get away."

"Gray," she breathed with tears on her lids. "I need you."

He looked aside, torn between staying by her side and risking it all, or abandoning her once again. He leaned over and breathing into her ear so even Natsu could not hear. "If I stay, and if you act like you did last night, I won't be able to keep my hands off of you."

That made Lucy blush, and Gray was glad her face was away from the rest of the crowd.

"People will think you're divorcing him purely to hook up with me. I don't want them to think that about you, and I don't want to be a mere rebound. Last time, I left for your happiness. This time, I'm leaving to ensure my own. I'll be gone only a week. Erza will protect you. Call my comm-lacrima if he does anything at all against you...anything! But you need to work this out."

"And afterward?" she asked.

He wanted so badly to stroke her cheek, but he clenched his fist to keep his hand still. "If you still want me," he whispered into her ear, "I won't tell you no again."

He then gave her earlobe a soft kiss, pulled back, and saw the surprised look on her face. He could hardly help but smile at how cute she could be. His coat swished behind him as he turned and marched through the guild hall.

"Erza," he called back, "I'm charging you with keeping Lucy protected from the flame-brain until I get back."

Natsu's teeth ground together. "Gray!" he bellowed. "Come back here and fight me."

The ice wizard paused in front of the door but did not look around. "Not this time, Natsu," he said calmly. "I'm not fighting you over Lucy. She decides her fate on her own."

"She'll pick me," Natsu said stubbornly. "I'll win her back before you can return to steal her, you stripping bastard."

At least Gray had to admire Natsu's never-ending competitiveness, and a smile came to his lips. "Part of me hopes you grow up enough so you really can win her back," he said quietly, then Gray opened the door, the blizzard blew wildly, and he was instantly lost in the white winter world.

A Week Later, New Year's Eve

Lucy was in the guild hall late at night to celebrate the arrival of midnight. Cana was on her fourth or fifth drinking contest, beating everyone dumb enough to challenge her. Mirajane and Gajeel stood on the stage singing a duet. Natsu was nowhere to be seen. After five days of harassing Lucy, he had withdrawn. Some feared he might quit the guild, but Lucy knew Natsu had too much love for this group to do something that drastic. He would sulk, probably not want to speak to her and Gray for a long time, and eventually he would go back to being the same wild, destructive, playful Natsu she knew.

It took her this whole week to know for certain where her heart belonged, but it would take Natsu much longer to accept that choice.

Suddenly, the whole guild began to count down. More and more voices joined in as the seconds ticked away. By ten seconds, the whole guild was shouting the numbers as boisterously as possible.

"Five, four, three, two, one...Happy New Year!"

Everyone shouted all at once. Streamers flew, flashes of magic filled the air, and friends grabbed one another in celebration. Lucy clapped and cheered, when suddenly someone grabbed her from behind. Before she could shout, she was tipped backward, a body pressed above her, and lips came crashing onto hers. She momentarily panicked that it might be Natsu. Then she saw black hair and felt the chill of the man's lips. Only one man she knew could possibly have lips that cold yet that soft.

She was brought back up onto her feet and saw silver-blue eyes and Gray's gentle smile.

"Happy New Year, Lucy," he greeted with a twinkle in his gaze, staring at her as if it had been a whole year since he last saw her and not just a week. "Looks like I barely made it back in time."

She suddenly realized he was covered in snow and slightly out of breath. "Did you run all the way here?" she gawked.

"The train was stopped three towns over due to the storm," he nodded, dusting snow off his shoulders. "I skied most of the way."


"I made skis from ice. My feet are freezing, by the way," he laughed. Then Gray glanced around. "No flame-brain? I was hoping I could kick his ass a few times to help defrost my toes."

"He finally accepted the divorce," she explained. "Erza had to hold a sword to his throat before he'd sign the official papers, though."

"Then, it's over?" he asked cautiously.

She looked down at her left hand. So did he, and he realized that the divot in her ring finger was still there, although more faded. "Yeah, it...it's over," she sighed, feeling sadness but also relief.

"I'm truly sorry it didn't work out," he said honestly.

"Thanks," she whispered, still looking down. "I guess I rushed into it. I won't make that mistake a second time."

Gray gave a slightly cocky smile. "Then I guess I better prepare to be patient."

Lucy's head whipped up in surprise.

"That is," he corrected, "if you still want me."

She gulped hard, but eventually she nodded. "I do, but...not yet. I'm still sorting things out for myself."

"Understood. Then my waiting period starts now," he decided.

"Gray," came Makarov's voice, and the small master toddled forward. "I'm really sorry to ask this of you when you've just come back, but there's a glacier moving in toward a village in the mountains. They're requesting a high-ranked ice wizard who can do more than just halt the glacier's movement. You're to meet Jura at these coordinates." Makarov handed Gray a slip of paper. "He and Lyon have blocked the incoming glacier for now, but they need assistance. They specifically asked for you. I heard the train is stopped, so I procured a snowmobile to take you there as fast as possible."

Gray looked over to Lucy, who had a plaintive smile for him.

"Well," she reasoned, "at least you're definitely not running away from me this time."

"I won't ever again," he swore. "Take care, Lucy, and happy new year." Then Gray turned back out into the snow.

One Year Later

It was winter, the time Gray loved best.

Through this entire year, he was kept busy with missions, emergency requests, the occasional dark guild or madman out to destroy Fiore and the world as they knew it, fighting so often that days blended into weeks, into months, into whole seasons.

Somehow, he still managed to be around for Lucy. When Natsu began dating Lisanna, Gray was there when Lucy broke into tears and admitted that seeing him move on so quickly hurt her. He was there when Lucy was picked to be the godmother for Bisca's new baby, and he helped Lucy to pick out the perfect gift for the baby shower. He stayed in Magnolia for six weeks straight when Lucy broke her leg on a mission, and he helped her around the house. They even did a float together for the Fantasia Parade, making an icy amusement park for Lucy's Celestial Spirits to play upon. It was a huge hit with the children.

Gray had to admit, it was challenging at times. He was often gone, she had missions too, but sometimes they managed to take a mission together. Then Erza would loom in and insist on coming along "as a chaperon." Gray hardly even realized that everyone else considered them to be dating. Hanging out with Lucy seemed so natural, and there was never anything blatantly romantic in his motives. It wasn't dating, he tried to insist. It was just him and Lucy being...well, normal. They were not even kissing yet.

Yet tonight, he was going to take a risk. It was Christmas Eve. He knew that in three days, Lucy would have to face the anniversary of divorcing Natsu. Gray wanted her to know he would always be there for her, and he wanted to show her that it was okay to love again.

He was almost glad there was a blizzard this Christmas Eve. It meant they had to stay inside instead of getting drunk and possibly injured in a Christmas brawl at the guild hall. Instead, he made his way through a meter of snow drifts to Lucy's apartment without troubles. There had been no one else out on the streets. No normal person was foolish enough to be out in a storm like this.

Inside the Strawberry Street home, it was too warm for Gray, but he merely stripped off his clothes. Lucy sighed at his habit, but she had known him long enough not to complain anymore. They listened to a music lacrima of holiday songs, and Lucy proudly showed off a platter of cookies she baked and decorated. Gray helped her in the kitchen, happy to sometimes bump into her as he moved to get a plate or grab a seasoning. Then he saw Lucy on her toes, stretching into a cabinet to grab a cup on the top shelf. He came up behind her, reached past her straining fingers, and easily grabbed the cup. Lucy jolted at having him pressed against her back, and she spun around in shock.

Gray gazed down at her, and suddenly he knew that now was the time. He set the glass to the side and stepped one foot closer, pressing Lucy up against the kitchen counter. Lucy's body shivered at the coolness radiating off of his bare skin.

"I have a Christmas present for you," he breathed into her ear, giving her goosebumps.

He presented a small, long box. Lucy bashfully took the velvet box, and with shaky fingers she opened it. Inside was a sapphire necklace, the same one Gray had bought for her on his very first S-Class mission, yet never gave it to Lucy because she belonged to Natsu. Now he was confident that her heart was free from the dragon slayer. At last, it was an appropriate time to give her this gift. It only took three years!

"It's...it's beautiful," she said, utterly overwhelmed at the gleaming blue gem.

"It's just a stone," Gray said, pulling the necklace out of its container and wrapping it around Lucy's throat. "It's the woman wearing it who gives the rock beauty."

As he fixed the necklace clasp, Gray kissed the side of her neck. His lips gave Lucy chills, and Gray heard her gasp softly. He smiled and gave her neck another kiss, letting his lips linger on the vein pulsing fast on the side of her throat. Lucy's eyes closed tightly as shivers tingled her skin.

"You've been patient up until now," she whispered weakly.

He gave her one more neck kiss before promising, "I can keep being patient, if that's what you need."

She smirked slightly at Gray. "That's not what you want."

"No," he confessed, "but I'll only do what you want."

Her eyes drifted across him, at those blue-gray eyes, the scar above his brow, and down at his neck, wondering if he was sensitive as well. Her brow tightened with yearning. "I've wanted you to kiss me for a long time, Gray," she admitted bashfully. "I think...maybe we're both ready now."

Gray wanted to say that he had been ready for a long time, but he did not want her to feel bad. He understood that Lucy needed time to heal her heart, and he wanted to help her every step along the way. Gray was patient, and he would keep being patient. A kiss first. They could work their way into more later.

He caressed her jaw all the way to her chin, then tipped her head up. Lucy's lips were loose in anticipation. Gray had been waiting to kiss those plump lips ever since the previous New Year's Eve party. A whole year! He leaned over her, wrapped Lucy up into his arms, and finally placed his lips against hers.

A soft hum moaned out from her throat, making Gray's whole body tense up and shudder. Hearing such a sensual sound coming from her was far too tempting, and this was still only their first kiss. When Lucy reached around him and pulled his hips in closer, Gray got confused.

Just how much was she wanting? What was okay? What was too much?

He did not want to disappoint her, and he did not want to push her too fast. Gray liked it when women took control, so he continued to kiss Lucy and mimicked her actions, pulling her close as well. When she parted her lips to deepen the kiss, Gray opened his and gingerly licked the inside of her mouth.

"Gray," she moaned.

Mimic again. "Lucy," he breathed.

She pulled back, gazed up at him, then dropped her eyes and bit her lip. Gray waited, wondering what the nervous look was about. Was this bad? Did she want to say something? His heart pounded hard in anticipation, and it felt like they stood still there for ten minutes, although less than one passed before Lucy finally raised her eyes again.

"You've been by my side through all of this, Gray. I...I want to thank you."

He saw her reluctance along with a stubborn side that he knew would not give up so easily. Although his groin ached to slam her against the kitchen counter and screw her to insanity, he kept a harness on that side of him.

"I think your thank you gift right now was pretty damn good," he chuckled.

That made Lucy blush. "Would you think badly of me if I wanted more than a kiss tonight?"

Dear God, Merry Christmas to me! "Of course not," Gray assured, barely holding back his excitement. He stroked down her hair and smiled tenderly. "But don't do anything you're not ready to try. I'd feel like crap if you forced yourself just because of me. Let me know what you want to do. Anything at all, as little or as much as you want. If you just want to kiss, I'll be happy. If you want to try dating, it'd make me the happiest man alive."

"And if I want more?"

Hell, then I'd be in trouble! "Are you truly ready for that?"

"I..." She hesitated for a moment and twisted her hands together. "I want to think I am."

"Then you're not ready," he decided. "If you're not confident and positively sure, then I can wait. Let's just start slow, okay?"

"But I..." Her mouth quivered as she swallowed back pointless protests. She dropped her head and admitted, "Maybe you're right."

"Lucy." He hugged her and held her close against him. "I'm not going to rush you, and don't feel like you need to go too fast for my sake. I'll wait, even if you need one more year."

"I guess you're right," she muttered. "I just...I don't know." Gray heard her sigh heavily. It was such a lonesome sound. "I just think about him sometimes, that's all," Lucy confessed. "He's gone, he's happy with Lisanna, but I still..." She could not think what to say.

"You love him," he supplied.

"No, I don't!" she shouted.

Gray had a small smile of understanding. "You married Natsu because you loved him. Something that deep doesn't fade like snow in the sun. It lingers like summer heat in the evening." He looked aside, debating with himself. He opened his mouth as if ready to tell her something, but solemn realization swept over his face. He shook his head in regret. "I love you, Lucy. That won't change, so take your time. I don't want anything half-hearted. We'll wait until you're truly ready, and don't push yourself. Now, no offense, but I need to cool off and grab a smoke. Can you finish dinner?"

"Of course," she nodded. "Gray...I'm sorry. It's Christmas Eve, after all. You were probably..."

"I wanted a kiss," he told her, "nothing more."

She folded her arms over her chest and smirked wryly. "Yeah right!"

"Honest truth," he swore, raising his hand in an oath.

Lucy looked that she did not believe it, but she let it go. Gray went to Lucy's attic, and from there he climbed up to her roof. The blizzard pounded Magnolia, muting any attempts at Christmas cheer. He pulled out a cigarette, somehow lit it in the fierce wind, and puffed away as he gazed out at the driving snowflakes. The chill on his bare skin helped to calm down his boiling blood.

"What irony," he sighed. "Another cold, gray winter facing the blizzard up here. At least this time, there's hope."

It might take time, but Gray felt optimistic. He had replaced Natsu in her life, just as winter always follows summer. They were merely trapped in "autumn" right now, an awkward between-time in their relationship. Fate would move them onward. Lucy needed time, and he would give her as much as it took, because the gift waiting at the end was better than any Christmas present.

He would wait for her...although he was more eager than a child around the winter holidays.

Gray sighed and watched his breath frost over. The night was all white, pure, pristine, cleansing his self-doubts and leaving behind a blank slate ready to be filled with happy thoughts of Christmas and Lucy.

"Gray?" Lucy called from inside the house. "Dinner's done. You've been out there for a while."

It hardly felt like five minutes, but he had to admit that he was lost in thoughts of the past year. Winter did that to him, making him nostalgic and retrospective. He stepped over the snowy roof, climbed down to the attic, and returned to the warmth of the apartment. Lucy stood in the room with her arms folded. None of the awkwardness of a moment ago showed in her face.

"Look at you! Out in the storm practically naked. Sheesh! You're an idiot, Gray. What am I going to do with you?"

He just smiled as Lucy rubbed heat into his arms. She had no need, Gray never felt cold, but the fact that she was fussing over him made Gray feel really happy. Lucy glanced up at him, blushed at his amused face, and looked away with pink spots on her cheeks.

"New Year's," she muttered. "We'll go out somewhere on New Year's Eve before heading to the guild for the big midnight party."

"It's a date," he grinned, and suddenly Gray grabbed her into his arms. Lucy yelped, but Gray's mouth covered hers. Just as he felt Lucy relax into it, he walked away, leaving her pouting for more. "So, do you need help serving the food?"

"God, you are so frustrating," she grumbled under her breath, but he still heard her.

Her irritation amused him. He would keep her wanting more, wanting him. He would work on her slowly. He had waited a year. He would wait longer. A week, a season, an entire year, it didn't matter.

Lucy's sunny smile would always warm Gray's coldest winter days.

The End

A/N: This is the longest one-shot I've ever written, and I've been working on it for months. The point of this story is to show that abusive relationships come in all forms, even some where the partner absolutely does not mean any harm. Still, abuse is abuse, and couples must honor one another, including being mindful that outbursts of anger do not hurt the one they love. Be it while dating or in a lifelong commitment, a person should never feel like they are trapped. Even in something as sacred as marriage (and I personally hate divorce) those vows to "love, honor, and cherish" go both ways, meaning if the other partner does not honor you—either by cheating or abusing either physically, mentally, or emotionally—the marriage vow has already been broken by them. It's good to try and work things out if at all possible, but a spouse should never live in terror...even if the other partner doesn't really mean to hurt them. I hope some girls out there read this and remember that lesson.