~stages of grief~
All the lessons they never wanted to learn.
"No. No, no, no, no. I'm not- You're not real. This- This is all just some shitty dream and we haven't won the Grand Magic Games yet but we're going to because we already did-"
"Don't give me that look. I'm not d- I'm not. I'm going back. I have to go back. Ha, lame, I know. Getting myself knocked out by one of those stupid beams. It hurt like hell, but you know that won't stop me. What would you know, anyway? And why're you here in the first place? You're alive, aren't you? You said you'd be eternally alive, right?"
"I didn't admit anything. Stop it. I'm not dead."
She heard the scream, wrenched herself away from the thinly stretched tension with Millianna, and nearly went down if not for Jellal wrapping a steady arm around her waist. But he was being slow, too slow in supporting her and she pushed ahead, a panicked urgency to rush to the source of the echoing sob overpowering everything else.
The voice, though not the words—word, she recognized as Juvia's, heavily filtered through booming explosions and cracking rubble. Adrenaline melted away every last bit of the throbbing pain in her leg as they reached the scene. From peripheral vision, she glimpsed a nearby Lyon slaughtering opponent after opponent with a terrifyingly frigid ruthlessness, but her attention was only for the huddled figure over—
She stumbled forward, leaving the stability of Jellal's grasp, ignoring his attempts to hold her back, brown eyes wide, so wide, and horrified.
Erza stared. She had to be wrong somehow. Everything had to be wrong somehow. It wasn't Gray. Where had Gray gone? This person—this body couldn't be Gray, because Gray would have greeted her with that cocky smirk of his as he effortlessly froze his opponents. It couldn't be Gray because he would have been telling Juvia to calm down, to stop sobbing desperately over something as silly as this. It couldn't—shouldn't be Gray, because Gray would never be just lying there, unmoving with those terrible, terrible gaping wounds punched through here, there, everywhere—
"Get up, Gray."
The sound of Jellal sweeping in behind her to fend off oncoming attacks only registered as the vaguest of background noise. Her field of vision had narrowed only to the sight in front, eyes seeing, but not believing.
She lowered herself carefully to her knees, disregarding the twinges that shot through them. What a stupid time it was to take a nap, Erza thought scornfully. She would have to reprimand Gray for his carelessness later.
But she knew she could never stay angry at him for long, the same way she could never stay angry no matter how many times he and Natsu fought over the pettiest of things.
"Get up, Gray."
In the meantime, there was only a peculiar numbness spreading throughout her body starting from her chest, as Erza repeated the quiet, matter-of-fact words over Juvia's continuous wails. And numbness was a dangerous state to be in during battle. It muted the senses, dulled pain temporarily until everything would come back in full force, a hundred times more intensely. Why was the numbness setting in now, of all times?
Ah— It was because he wasn't there at the moment. Strange, considering that at the same time, somehow he was.
Gray was there, but he wasn't.
Gray was there. But— he wasn't.
Erza ran a hand through the soaked black bangs that shadowed his eyes, frowning as her fingers came away stained with more red than she would have liked. This wasn't Gray. It couldn't be. Gray would be, should be talking and breathing and laughing and living. Whatever this was, it was entirely too silent to be Gray.
She thought she had no energy left to spare, but nevertheless, swords materialized around her at Erza's wordless, unconscious call. They flew systematically in all directions to join Jellal and Lyon's relentless assaults, even as she saw – but did not feel – herself standing, facing the beings that could not have possibly taken Gray away.
This was unacceptable. It was unacceptable that Gray could not be here at all. What would she tell Natsu and Lucy? Surely, they would not stand for it either.
The world seemed to rend itself into pieces with the steely glint of her swords, becoming a frenzy of merciless slashes through anything she deemed an enemy.
And all the while, unending streams of some warm liquid flowed down unnoticed from both of her eyes.
"I'm not staying here. I can't! I won't! I'm not leaving them behind like this— I'm not leaving them behind like you did!"
"And anyway, whose fault do you think it is that I ended up like this?! You can say that I was just following your example, right? Regret it? Of course not! But it doesn't mean I wanted to die! We're supposed to live for our friends, not die for them!"
"Am I angry? No shit I am! And— let it go? Let it go?! You- You are such a hypocrite! Did Lyon let it go then? Did Ultear? You think that's what I need to hear from you of all people?! Like hell I'm letting this go! There's people waiting for me now! I can't- I'm not-… I… I…"
"…No, I'm sorry. It's me I'm angry at."
He doesn't remember who told him. Or maybe, he saw it himself. Whatever the reason, whatever the cause—
Gray was gone, and nothing was okay.
For the second time in the last twenty-four hours, two times too many, Natsu felt cold. A sort of blistering cold that even the flames enveloping him couldn't dispel. He reeled, his vision fading in and out in splashes of red, orange, flames and smoke and blurred with a strange wetness that drip, drip, dropped like Juvia's rain—
"You bastard," Natsu muttered quietly, shakily, swiping the back of his hand in a violent manner across his face. Fire licked at his limbs, at their master, and merrily danced even higher, sparking and flickering and feeding on the growing hole of inarticulate emotions being carved into his heart. He clenched a fist to his aching chest.
They were lying. They had to be lying. Lies. All lies. The word rang endlessly, echoingly in Natsu's mind, bouncing off the walls of his skull and coalescing into a lump in his throat that he couldn't seem to quite swallow. Breathing was difficult. Lies. All of them.
Except, they weren't.
Again. This feeling… again.
The ground erupted below him, and Natsu howled skywards.
It wasn't fair. Igneel apparently hadn't been enough. Lisanna hadn't been enough. Lucy, Lucy wherever she was, whenever she was, hadn't been enough, even when he had nearly felt like stopping right then and there. Every single one of the much too close calls—Erza, Makarov, Happy, everyone—hadn't been enough. It had to be Gray too.
The raw cry shot through the air, cracking his voice keenly. He wasn't even sure who the shrieking words were addressed to now: Rogue, for everything, or Gray, for being stupid, for being so, so stupid as to—
Idiot. I trusted you not to die. Didn't you hear my voice?
Everything dissolved into an inferno of destruction, a firestorm of pure fury that struck all those nearby to the core, forcing them to their knees at the overwhelming pressure. There was no doubt in anyone's mind that the sheer rage simmering across Natsu's eyes was an equal match for all seven dragons and then some.
The smoke obscuring both his sight and his mind made his perception hazy, as if he were viewing his rampage from far away. Every swing of his fist and every scorched mark he left upon the earth added a little to the enormous, barely suppressed tidal wave of pain threatening to drown him, but Natsu knew he couldn't stop. He couldn't stop here either. If he did, he would never be able to start again.
"How dare you!"
More than the pain, more than the piercing sense of utter loss he refused to admit to, he was angry.
He was angry at Rogue. That was a given.
He was angry at Gray. Because what kind of idiot got themselves killed like that?! Because Gray just had to go and play the hero in that stubbornly dumb way he had always been prone to. Because Gray wasn't shooting back the familiar insults that always managed to get under his skin. Because Gray had made Juvia cry and at this rate he was going to make Lucy and Erza and Happy and everyone else cry too. Because Gray wasn't getting up, wasn't just playing some sick joke, because there were holes and blood, too much blood, everywhere, everywhere. Because Gray was supposed to always, always be there, always fighting and always at his back and they were supposed to be rivals over all the stupid things they could think of and this wasn't supposed to happen to him, to them, and it wasn't fair.
And, and most of all, Natsu was angry at himself.
The inhumane noise that echoed into the sky was composed of an infuriated roar, a torrent of enraged sobs, and an all-consuming grief that refused to be constrained.
"There's seriously no way? Not even for a second or something? I can't just leave them behind like this. I don't want to leave them behind like this."
"I'd stop taking my clothes off. I'd stop reading Lucy's novel. I'd stop picking fights with Natsu—it's usually his fault, by the way. I'd stop giving Lyon a hard time about being old. I'd stop getting into drinking contests with Cana. I'd… I'd stop with not telling Juvia what I think."
"…Stupid. This is stupid. I said I'd do anything if I could stop you back then, and some help that was."
Her footprints littered the worn path, the ground made springy from the incessant rain that hadn't stopped since that day. Perched on her shoulder, Happy shivered miserably in the mist as they made their way across the grimly marked field, and her eyes softened when they landed on their destination.
"It's okay if you don't want to." She hummed a little, clenching her fist around the bundle of white flowers in her left hand. "He wouldn't hold it against you."
"Of course I want to!" The Exceed replied indignantly, curling his white-tipped tail around her arm. "I was only asking… Are you okay? Does your arm hurt?"
"I'm fine." A small smile that lifted only the very corners of her lips was all she could give. "Wendy did a good job healing what was left. Now, you ready?"
"Aye." Happy's oft-used catchphrase was subdued, but then again, they all were in the wake of their losses, the void still fresh and raw in their minds. "I wish Natsu would come. But he won't even talk about it."
A faraway look drifted into Lucy's expression as she glanced backwards for a moment, but she shook her head. "I think Natsu just needs a little time. Everyone has a different way of coping. Didn't you say Natsu was like this once, when everyone thought Lisanna died?" Clumsily adjusting the fastener on the cloak she wore, Lucy stepped forward and bent down to place the flowers gently on a smooth mound of dirt. "But today… Today's just for us, okay?" She spread her cloak across a patch of trampled grass and sat on it, drawing her knees up to her chest, ignoring the dampness that was already seeping into the fabric, and raised her head to smile warmly at the name engraved neatly into cold marble.
Happy jumped down from Lucy's shoulder, round eyes sorrowful as he replaced a flower that had rolled off to the side in its proper place. He opened his mouth as if to speak, but closed it abruptly and turned to Lucy. She only stared at the grave marker, looking so very tired, Happy thought.
He started a little when Lucy broke the silence, her eyes still fixed straight ahead. "I keep thinking you're there, you know. I swear I can hear you and Natsu going at each other, and then I know Erza's coming up behind you and you guys are shouting about how it's the other person's fault. But I look around, and you aren't there. It's really weird, and stupid, because the rain is proof enough."
After the brief outpour of words, silence fell again, deafening compared to the gentle fall of rain. It couldn't even be called a shower like they had expected, only small drops that were just hard enough to be felt. But what the rain lacked in intensity, it made up for in continuity.
Happy closed his eyes. He'd cried when they found out, long and hard. He'd cried into Natsu's arms, and Natsu had just held him for what seemed like eternity, but there had not even been a shudder from Happy's partner.
He reasoned that Natsu had already burned any tears out. But seeing everyone else in the guild afterwards, Happy wished that Natsu had not been so fast to do so. Maybe if they had all been together…
Again, Happy was startled when Lucy suddenly spoke, and he whirled around. She was shaking in a way he hadn't seen before, left hand pressed to her face, and a steady mixture of tears and rain dripped from her chin. "I'm sorry," she choked out once more, and Happy could only watch, rendered wordless by the agonized honesty in her voice. "We miss you. We miss you so much. I'd do almost anything to see you again, Gray. I keep smiling in the guild because no one else will, but I want you back. If you could see the way Juvia… The way Natsu, Erza, everyone… And Lyon and Ultear and Meredy… If you could see the way they look now…"
Lucy broke down, pushing herself to her knees. She wrapped her arm around the top of the headstone and pressed her forehead to the engraved name, thin shoulders shaking with grief. Happy hadn't even noticed when he started crying again, but he placed a paw on her leg, giving comfort just as much as seeking it.
"T-Tell us… Tell us what we have to do to get you back. Please."
There was no reply.
"I think… I should've already been dead twice over by now. I guess third time's the charm, anyway."
"I'm sorry. For everything. I was such a brat back then, and I didn't even realize how much I owed you until you were gone."
"And there's still… a lot of things I wanted to do."
When he died, she felt as if a part of her had died with him.
The dreams had been the worst part, at first. Reliving the same horrible moment over, and over, and over. And then she had resigned herself to never sleeping again, but of course that had been an impossible goal. It took all her strength to simply go through the motions, the basic necessities, to force herself to move when all she wanted to do was crumple and never again open her eyes to this unending nightmare.
Levy understood. Levy had the same dull look in her eyes that she knew was in hers. Oftentimes, they sat together in quiet reminiscence, simply thinking, except thinking inevitably turned painful and one way or another, the tears would come. At least, for Levy.
For Juvia, the weather was doing all the crying for her.
No one in their guild had commented on the rain, understanding the significance of it well. A little too well, if Juvia were to believe them. She almost wished someone would get fed up at the insistent downpour; lash out at her for daring to survive, shout at her for bringing the gloominess back—anything, anything to feel something other than the hollow emptiness.
But Fairy Tail was kind, so, so kind, kinder to Juvia than someone like her deserved. And if there was only one thing she had ever learned from and about the man who had taken the rain away, it was that he would have ordered her to live on, to live on and fight through each day like it was her last because there was nothing worse than remaining stagnant, trapped in a whirlpool of her own memories.
And for his sake, as well as her own, Juvia would do so.
It didn't mean that it would be easy. It didn't mean that it could ever be forgotten. It didn't mean that there wouldn't be some days where it felt impossible. But at the very least, she understood that she had been given permission to move on, even if she didn't want to just yet.
Just for now, she wanted to submerge herself in the feeling of being deprived of him. Just for now, she wanted to push away the harsh reality of a life without him. Just for now…
Just for now, she wanted the entire world to know of her grief.
She wanted the rain to never stop.
"Yeah, yeah, I was being a brat again. Sorry. But I'm tired of it now, and I'm ready."
"Is this… Was this what it was like for you, at first? What you felt? No—shut up, I'm not scared! Stop laughing!"
"Everyone else? It's not like I want to leave them, you know. I'm not too worried. Well, maybe a little. But Lyon's fine. Ultear's fine. Natsu, Lucy, Erza, Happy… Juvia… My friends are fine. It's enough. It's more than enough. They'll be fine without me. And I think they'll be okay too, someday."
"Oh right, one more thing. Thanks. For the lesson."
A/N: I didn't expect that chapter. And it hurt a lot. I'm betting on Mashima's usual twists and style that Gray isn't dead though. But in the meantime, this gave me a good opportunity to write this sort of story similar to something I already had planned for recently.
Thanks for reading.