5 – Drowning – Gratsulu Week 2018 Prompt "AU"
*Beta-ed by the phenomenal MorriganFae *
Warning: This chapter is angsty, so skip if you do not feel comfortable with discussions surrounding death and loss.
Her sapphire locks flowed behind her, coiling in the water like a halo. The blue tresses melded with the nuanced shades of the waves, until it was almost impossible to find where she ended and the ocean began. She was the sea incarnate as the currents swirled around her, the blotted light of the sun straining to reach them from the surface above.
Gray's heart beat erratically as he stared at her through the tides, something twisting in his chest when she smiled, lips quirking. The chiffon of the gown she wore wrapped around her figure like second skin, flaring around her porcelain legs like a mermaid's tail. She stretched her hand out towards him with her palm facing up, beckoning him forward with the crook of her slender finger.
He swallowed hard, lungs burning below the waves, but he swam deeper, further down – away from the open sky and towards those hypnotic indigo irises. They captivated him, pulling him under with her siren's call. He moved, every inch was hard won as if he were paddling through sludge, his limbs heavy and sluggish as he made his way to her in the aquatic depths.
Finally – finally – his fingers brushed hers, and his heart clenched at the familiar feel, the warmth like a signature – he would recognize her touch anywhere. Her name was on his lips, but he couldn't speak under the sea, small air bubbles drifting up when he tried. Lightning flooded through his veins, electric... jolting his senses as if he'd been thrown back when he realized she wasn't entirely tangible. His touch was fleeting as she wavered between solid and fluid.
He blinked. Her rosy lips were still upturned, but there was pain in those aqua eyes, the lapis fading as the world around them grew hazy, faint and colourless.
No, not colourless… but a singular tone – red.
Panic gripped him, his pulse thrashing as blood churned around them. His eyes darted across her form to search for the source of injury, but she was already tugging her hand from his grasp. His chest hurt as she drew her palms to her abdomen, scarlet oozing from a wound that pierced straight through her. It was gaping, and he knew without checking that it went through to the other side. It missed her vertebrae, but did far too much damage to soft, vulnerable organs.
He clenched his fist, tendons frosting over as he rolled his knuckles.
No, not again. Please no.
Gray could see her lips moving, but he couldn't hear anything under the roaring water. Still, he knew what she was saying.
He knew those words as if they were etched into his very soul. Time was a chain attached to a pocket watch, ticking down… shackling him to a moment long past.
She spoke, the sound reverberating through him like icy shards.
"Because Juvia's life –"
He rolled the flesh of his lip between his teeth, tasting the tang of pennies on his tongue, metallic.
Please don't, I can't…
"–will forever and always belong only to you, Gray-sama." It haunted him, that spark in her eyes. That trust. He had never earned it, but he craved it – yearned for a second chance to make things right.
I don't want this. Please, please just come back…
I'll do anything...
The pressure increased, hemming him in, his pulse thudding in his ears. She was fading behind a tide of garnet, drifting further away by the moment, the crimson curling like fog… blurring her out. In another instant, he wouldn't be able to see her.
The burn was becoming too much, breath choking his throat, struggling to escape. He couldn't do it anymore, couldn't fight what his body demanded, even as his mind blitzed and went haywire. He screamed, the water rushing into his lungs, drowning him as he howled – his hand still extended to the woman just beyond his reach.
Gray bolted upright in the bed, his throat raw as he continued to scream into the dark night – the sound screeching out of him without his consent. A thin sheen of sweat coated his skin and he felt like flames were licking his flesh. The heat scorched through him, searing and agonizing – nothing like touch of the fire mage he loved so dearly. His chest was bare, dragging in cool mouthfuls of air, desperate to extinguish the blaze. His raven hair matted to his forehead, the locks ruffled as he gripped it by the roots, jerking harshly.
Sobs wracked through his frame as he folded in on himself. He felt the tracks of moisture sliding down, gathering on his chin. He brought up a shaky hand as he finally noticed the tears, wet salt drenching his skin.
The bed shifted beside him and his eyes darted around the shadowed room, as if he wasn't entirely sure where he was. When he was.
But then calloused hands grasped his shoulders, while softer fingers skimmed down his back in comfort as he was pulled into a tight embrace.
"Hey, it's okay. You're fine babe, we're right here with you." The baritone was rough with sleep, but achingly tender as a shudder ran through him. Gray let his face drop into the crook of the man's sun-kissed neck. He inhaled the scent of smoke and petrichor as a second figure draped across his back. His girlfriend nuzzled between his shoulder blades as he picked up her sweet perfume: jasmine in morning dew. He gulped in air, his breathing fractured.
Home – they smelled like home.
They murmured to him, cooing, soothing his frayed nerves with gauzy words that wrapped around him like a salve. He kept his lids firmly shut, knowing they wouldn't judge him when he felt vulnerable. He trusted them implicitly.
When his body's trembling began to stutter and slow by inches, Natsu pulled Gray closer to his chest while Lucy slid her hands down his arms and spine in long, comforting stokes. He relished the warmth of their touch, cocooned tightly between them. The trio sat on the center of the mattress, the disheveled blankets kicked down to their feet – the silence thick and heavy in the dark.
"A nightmare?" Natsu questioned, quiet and gentle as he mumbled in his boyfriend's ear. There was no judgement in the statement, only concern.
Gray tried to swallow, but his mouth was parched. His throat bobbed as he nodded, the motion stilted. He could hear the rumbling of thunder in the distance, a steady patter of liquid pelting the glass window panes –
Drip, drip, drop.
So that was why…
He never slept well during storms, the sound of rain drowning him in an ocean of memories. Once so reassuring, it now hung over him like a black cloud.
It was something his partners knew well. So he doubted his panic attack came as much of a surprise.
They had been the ones who had comforted him, back when it first happened, and the war was just dying down. Once the raging battles came to an end, he had felt hollow as he began to reflect on what had happened. What he'd lost. Who he'd lost.
He'd withdrawn at first, mourning for the words he never said, for the sacrifice he didn't deserve.
He hoarded his misery. That was the thing about pain that no one ever mentioned… how if the wound was deep enough, you wanted to feel it – because the alternative was the frostbitten guilt that numbed everything.
He pushed everyone away in his shame, but after a while, Lucy and Natsu had decided enough was enough. They badgered him, parking themselves outside his apartment when he didn't answer the door, shoehorning their way back into his life. They refused to let him wallow in his guilt as he was wont to do.
Friends don't abandon each other, they'd insisted – exonerating him all of blame - and he swore part of him fell in love just for that. For the unconditional faith they had in him, for the forgiveness he couldn't allow himself.
Over the months, he began to knit back together slowly, healing in their presence. He smiled more – laughing and teasing – his past self returning in exponential flashes. They were thick as thieves... but he noticed the changes too.
He noted the lingering touches between his two friends – the way they glanced at each other, silent messages being communicated between them. He recognized those gazes. It was the way he used to look at the water mage. So, it wasn't a surprise when he walked in one day to see them twisted together. He'd grinned, teasing the pair as he tried grabbing onto some semblance of happiness to give to them...to offer like a gift. He knew this stage in their relationship had been a long time coming, hard fought for and fairly won.
He didn't begrudge them for it.
For a while he was partially successful, but he felt uncomfortable as the third wheel – unsure if they truly wanted him there. He didn't want their pity. So he began to withdraw again, but recognition flared in their eyes and they only clung to him harder, refusing to allow him to become that empty husk once more.
Then one night, when he was too tired to go home after hanging out with them, he'd crashed on Lucy's couch. Unfortunately, it started raining at some point after they'd all gone to bed. He'd started tossing and turning, moaning in his sleep. It woke them up and they'd both rushed to his shuddering, sobbing body. They'd called his name as they shook him, pulling him out of his horrors, comforting him with warm, mollifying words that softened the jagged edges of his pain.
That evening had started with an embrace just like the one he found himself in now. They'd whispered to him soothingly in the small hours of before dawn. They had coaxed the truth out of him then, about the soundless darkness in his dreams. With identical expressions of determination, they'd made it their mission to be there with him when the tempests hit.
From that point onwards, things changed – lines blurred.
He didn't try to leave again, he was too far gone – sinking into them as his last bastion of support. He needed them in his life. They became inseparable. Their fates were inexorably woven together – their hearts beating as one.
They relied on each other – depended on each other – and this night was no different. They held him through the onslaught of flashbacks: the depths of her eyes – that smile – the blood on her hands…
"Juvia?" Lucy's fingers carded through his slate locks, caressing the side of his jaw as her cheek pressed against his back.
"Yeah," Gray replied, voice thin. "I'm sorry I woke you guys…I just…" His words caught. He couldn't bring himself to say it – how he saw her die again in his dreams – the life seeping out of her while all he could do was watch.
It still broke him.
"You don't apologize to us. Ever. Not for this." Natsu's voice was firm, no room for comprise as his grip tightened around the ice mage's waist. The noirette nodded, but the guilt gnawed at him, wanting to explain himself.
"I know it's been years, and I should forget –" This time he was cut off, the blonde pressing her lips against his nape to silence him.
"You shouldn't forget." Her voice stuttered, lacking its normal musical cadence, throat tight. "You get to miss her, Gray. We miss her too. We loved her too." She promised, and Natsu murmured in agreement. He squeezed his eyes shut, absorbing their words. It wasn't the first time they'd had this conversation. His partners knew what loss felt like: they understood that love only grew, that Juvia didn't take away from what they had now.
They were the last people in the world to put limits on the heart's capacity to love.
That was enough to make the tears begin to fall again, but the icy grip on his lungs loosened as the emotions spilled out of him. Ever so slowly, his pulse calmed, his breathing became even as sleep weighed heavily in his limbs.
He was exhausted.
"I love you guys." Gray's words were quiet, as if afraid to crack the fragile spell that had fallen over them. They pulled him down, leading him to the sheets. They curled around him so that their arms and legs tangled together with his.
They maneuvered him between them, and for once he didn't complain about being in the middle.
He needed their touch, to hear their steady heart rates, inhaling their familiar scents. It grounded him, gave him something to focus on in the here and now.
His sun and stars.
Natsu snaked his arm under their boyfriend's neck, cushioning it, even as Lucy rested against the ice mage's chest. Her hand splayed over his skin, her kindness soaking into him.
"We love you too." They whispered as one, their lips brushing against his cheeks. They held each other protectively to keep the nightmares at bay, while the rain continued to fall in bladed sheets outside –
Drip, drip, drop.
It was the sound of pain and grief and things that should've been said… all lost now, drowned in a sea of regret. But here, in the heat of their embrace, it was easier to breath. To remember where he was and how far they had come.
They didn't speak again after that, they didn't have to. Nothing else needed to be said.
With laboured breaths, they each sank into unconsciousness, arms wrapped around each other as the sun flared over the horizon, blooming into dawn.
So for everyone who read this I hope you enjoyed it. I ADORE Juvia, and I didn't want to just pretend she didn't exist, and honestly? If Gratsulu ever canonically happened, I think them bonding over loss is one of the only things that would tip them over the edge. It also gave you a nice view into how they got together in the first place.
Also, thank you sooo much to those of you who reviewed, followed, favourited or PMed me! I really appreciate your support. If you want to chat, but feel uncomfortable posting a review, feel free to message me instead or use the anonymous review feature :)
General Gratsulu Note: Thanks to those of you joining me on this little Gratsulu side adventure! Don't worry, I still adore Nalu, and have fics in the works for them, but I like this ship as well. "Sugar, Spice and All Things Ice" is a collection of interconnected one-shots in an alternate version of the canon-verse. They vary in theme and length, but most are short and sweet. I will be publishing one for every day of Gratsulu Week 2018.
If you have any questions or concerns, please let me know! I love feedback, and always make a point to respond. However, please remember to be polite. I am happy to accept constructive criticism, but if you just don't like the pairing, please just feel free to skip it and I won't be offended. I have a couple other Nalu stories in the works if you prefer those.
PS: Next chapters are delayed because finals :(