The Moments in Between

Lucy, on the windy road of navigating friendship and something more with Gray. After all, it's the little moments that count. Lucy/Gray.

A/N: While I realize this is a non-canon pairing, Lucy and Gray seem to have a genuinely solid, trusting relationship that's always caught my imagination, and with a little maturity and growth, I think they could be really great for each other. Hoping there are some Lucy/Gray fans lurking out there, and if you are not one and choose to read this, I hope you can still respect my pairing choice. Timeline takes place post Oración Seis arc through the Grand Magic Games, with a healthy dash of creative liberty sprinkled in.

A newcomer to Fairy Tail, definitely easy on the eyes. She can be as hotheaded as Erza but she hides her pure heart.

He likes the whole package.

The thing is, Lucy can't get his words out of her head. Rationally, she knows it was Gemini impersonating Gray. She only needs to look down at her hip, her keyring with its zodiac keys hanging heavy and comforting, to remember that day with a flush. But didn't Gemini always speak the truth? It may not have been Gray himself, but those bratty zodiac twins had access to the hearts and minds of those they imitated, and they had recited those words with a matter-of-fact candor. Did Gray really have feelings for her?

Lucy groans and tosses her comforter off in irritation, turning to look out at the moonlight slipping through her curtains and spreading across her bedsheets in a silvery halo. Ever since they got back from defeating Oración Seis, her nights have been filled with restless thoughts, Gemini-Gray's words churning through her head in an unending refrain. Try as she might, she can't stop fixating on them. What the hell was wrong with her? She was going crazy, she just knew it. That mission must have knocked a screw or two loose in her brain.

Ever since she joined Fairy Tail, Gray has been a steady presence in her life. While she wouldn't exactly classify her relationship with Gray as emotionally close, theirs was a relationship borne of mutual respect and an intuitive understanding of each other. They had both come from broken families and lost loved ones in their childhood. That loss shaped you and stayed with you through the years, marking you in unexpected ways. Lucy understood that on a visceral level, and she recognized those same marks on Gray, despite the icy front he carefully put up.

Cool while Natsu was hot, composed while Natsu was volatile, she relied on Gray's even-headedness, especially in times of duress. He was the tactician on their team, a steady hand in battle that had gotten them out of more tight spots on jobs than she could count. And while she was used to thinking of Natsu as her first and best friend in the guild, the one who had brought her into her new life and embraced her fully, the one she owed everything to – she had to remember that Gray hadn't hesitated even a second before accepting her presence in Fairy Tail. One minute she was a stranger, the next he treated her as family. Every adventure she had been on since with Natsu, Gray had been there too, at their side every step of the way.

Just because he wasn't loud and brash and ostentatious like some other people, didn't mean he wasn't a formidable and valuable member of the team. Gray was often overlooked, Lucy muses, too often quiet and aloof, lost in his own thoughts. But there was no doubt she was paying a lot more attention now, more keenly aware of his every movement and reaction. In off moments she would find herself staring at him, trying to puzzle out what was going on in that head of his, underneath that tousled mane of hair, behind those piercing eyes and chiseled jawbone, those washboard abs…

Lucy buries her head underneath her pillow and groans again, loudly, stopping those runaway thoughts before they veered into dangerous territory. Okay girl, she admonishes herself sternly. Eyebags are a girl's worst enemy and yours are getting to be unmanageable at this rate. Time to conk out.

The thing is, Lucy can't quite figure out what's going on with her own feelings. It's as if Gemini's words have sent her into an involuntary obsession, second guessing her every interaction with Gray and overanalyzing his every word to her. She feels tongue-tied and wooden-footed around him, and despite her best efforts it's gotten so obvious even Natsu is shooting her strange looks. That's when she knows it's bad.

And Gray has definitely noticed. She catches him giving her contemplative looks when he thinks she isn't aware, eyebrows raising when she nearly falls off the barstool as he sidles up beside her one day. Or the other day when he brushes up against her while she's eating and she nearly chokes on a mouthful of her food. Outside the guildhall, he grabs her in the nick of time when her legs somehow turn to jelly and she nearly faceplants after bumping into him, and just today, he flashes her a large, smug smirk as he catches her staring a little too long at his bare chest after a kerfuffle with Natsu.

"Like what you see?" he has the gall to ask her, and Lucy flushes bright red, down to her toes, raising her eyes just in time to see that knowing glint in his eyes, before she promptly turns around and stomps away in mortification. There is no doubt Gray is gorgeous and he knows it, being the recipient of legions of admiring female glances all around town, especially when the clothes come flying off. But Lucy is not usually one of them, until now.

"Ugh," she berates herself in disgust, storming away. "Get a hold of yourself!"

I'm becoming just as bad as Juvia, she bemoans, and the horror of that thought sends her scuttling out the guildhall, putting as much distance between herself and Fairy Tail's resident ice mage as she can.

Gray's quiet laughter follows her out the door.

It takes several jobs together (three, to be precise) for her brain to finally settle down. They were a couple of no brainers: guard duty for some high-value cargo, capture some pesky bandits, hunt down an escaped convict. It gives Lucy some time to cool her jets, be around him as part of a team, and remember why she really shouldn't be acting all skittish and awkward around Gray.

Because Gray was one of her good friends: the one person on the team who just got her; the one she depended on for some sanity amidst the chaos. The one she relied upon to roll his eyes with her when Natsu made another dumb, reckless decision or who sniggered at her snarky comments or actually laughed at her lame jokes. The one she knew would strategize and think things through with her first before rushing headlong into the fray. When Natsu was blowing another building up in a frenzy or Erza was taking out an entire bandit group by herself, she knew she could look across the bedlam at Gray and they would know exactly what the other was thinking.

So all that spoke to a significant level of comfort between them that really didn't warrant this weirdness, right? Lucy tells her brain. Gray's just a guy, albeit a hot one, who happens to be her friend, who happens to be her teammate, who also happens to be a giant dork himself, she repeats to herself, observing him taking Natsu's very obvious bait and wading into yet another pointless tussle with the dragon slayer, but not before chucking his shirt off.

Gray had been taking off his clothes a lot more lately in front of her, Lucy notes. Which is saying a lot, considering how often he did it normally. If she didn't know any better, she'd think he was doing it to mess with her. Lucy narrows her eyes as she notices Gray shooting her furtive glances while dodging Natsu's flaming fists and flexing his muscles a little more than necessary. After Erza knocks their heads together and breaks up the fight, she watches him saunter over to her, now down to only his boxers, which are slung low around his lean hips. When she catches him actually flexing his abs, Lucy knows how much of a complete idiot she's been lately.

"Think I won that round, Luce?" Gray winks at her.

"Doubtful," she replies haughtily. "You might want to put your clothes back on."

"Why?" Gray grins at her. "Thought you liked these bad boys." He slowly encroaches into her personal space until she's forced to place her hand against his chest to stop him from coming any nearer. Gray's smirk widens.

"I wouldn't be so sure about that. Gajeel let me feel up his abs the other day and he's got way more definition than you, so you might want to up your game," Lucy says sweetly, fluttering her eyelashes at him. Gray's grin falters and completely falls off his face, and Lucy bursts out laughing.

And just like that – her awkwardness dissipates and they're back to normal. Gray rolls his eyes at her and leaves to find the rest of his clothes, and Lucy chuckles to herself. Yeah, definitely messing with me. Things are just so easy with Gray – why would I ruin that? I've been behaving like such a bonehead around him lately when I could have been enjoying our friendship. Gray's a straightforward guy – if he does have feelings for me, he would let me know.

Even so, that didn't mean she couldn't enjoy the view sometimes, surreptitiously, of course. Lucy can admire the smooth interplay of Gray's muscles as he leaps up to attack an enemy, or the way the light unexpectedly picks out different flecks of color in his indigo eyes, or the way he effortlessly crafts the most complex and beautiful ice spells. At the end of the day, Lucy's still a woman, with the soul of an artist – she has an appreciation for aesthetics.

If there are still times when she can't control her body's involuntary reaction to his proximity – if she finds herself shivering when he brushes by her bare skin, or heart racing when he looks at her a little too intently – well, she can blame that on his ice magic, or stupid hormones, or something. She's working on it.

Lucy had been looking forward to the Hanami Festival for weeks. It was just her luck to wake up feverish and coughing up a storm the morning of the anticipated festival, and as she looks out her window at the brilliant blue sky, she curses her teammates for taking that awful job on Mt. Hakobe the previous day.

Wendy and Carla stop by shortly after Lucy wakes up in utter misery, tea and breakfast in tow. She had promised Wendy they would pick out outfits for the day together, and it kills her to see Wendy's face fall upon seeing Lucy's condition. To the young girl's credit, she immediately sits Lucy down and works a healing spell on her, as Carla bustles around tsking at the state of Lucy's apartment.

"This spell should take care of your cold, but unfortunately I don't think you'll start feeling its effects until tomorrow at the earliest." Wendy looks completely apologetic, and guilt stabs Lucy.

"Thank you so much. I'm really sorry, Wendy. I know I promised we would go to our first Hanami together and get all dressed up, but I think I'm out for the count today," Lucy says hoarsely. "I know you're going to have a great time, though. Erza, Natsu and Gray will take care of you."

Wendy brightens. "That's okay, Lucy! We'll go together next year! You should rest up and feel better."

Lucy gives the young girl a grateful hug before they part, and she isn't surprised when shortly thereafter Natsu and Happy show up at her door. She can't do anything about the dejected looks on their faces when she turns them down and sends them on their way. While she appreciates her friends stopping by, at this point she barely has the energy to crawl back into bed and pull the covers over her head. She tries to keep the utter disappointment of missing the festival at bay.

Right before she drifts off, she thinks back to her short time with the guild and how many adventures had filled her time there already. Only a few months with Fairy Tail and already she feels like she has been a part of it forever. After her mother died, she had spent the rest of her childhood yearning for a family that loved her, a little girl pining for a world outside her ivory tower, and somehow she had stumbled into the largest, loudest, most lunatic family there ever was. One that had accepted her with open arms, without care or concern for where she came from or what baggage she brought with her. How much her life had changed in a short amount of time, Lucy thinks, her eyes drooping closed.

She wakes with a jerk to the scrape of the window, and scrambles out from underneath her covers in a panic, only to come face to face with a grinning Gray. The moonlight streaming in behind him through her open window throws a silvery halo around him and accentuates the mischievous twinkle in his dark eyes.

"You and Natsu have got to stop sneaking in through my window," she hisses at him, clutching her racing heart. "I am not running a hotel here! Did you miss the memo on me being sick?"

"That's why I'm here. I brought you soup!" Gray holds up a brown paper bag, not looking the least bit apologetic. Lucy scowls at him, but can't find it in herself to be too annoyed at him. He's looking so pleased with himself.

Gray nimbly steps over her bed and bustles into her small kitchen, finally bringing her a steaming bowl of what smells like chicken soup. The rumbling in her stomach reminds her that she has slept through dinner, and she has to admit the soup is smelling divine right about now. As she accepts the bowl gratefully, Gray places the back of a hand against her hot forehead, and Lucy sighs in relief at the touch of his cool skin. A slight furrow mars Gray's brow and he tucks her comforter around her shoulders, before turning her body to face her open window. Lucy glances at him in confusion, and the cat-that-ate-the-canary-grin is back on Gray's face.

"Keep your eyes peeled out there, okay?"

"Huh?" Lucy gapes at him through a mouthful of soup.

"Just watch."

She doesn't have long to wonder, because it's the lights that catch her attention first. Drifting slowly along the banks of the river is the Rainbow Sakura tree, massive in its full glory, its colorful brilliance casting the night around it in an iridescent glow. She can hear the crowd gathered along the embankment murmuring in collective awe as dazzling, prismatic sakura leaves float down all around them. It is one of the most gorgeous sights Lucy has ever seen.

She turns to Gray in wonder, soup forgotten. He slings an arm companionably around her shoulders.

"We missed you at Hanami today. Sucks that you were sick."

"You did this?" Lucy asks in amazement. "I can't even – it's the most beautiful thing I've ever seen."

Gray reddens slightly and scratches the back of his head. "Well, it was mostly Natsu's idea. I froze the roots so we could pull it out; that thing's a monster. You've been chattering incessantly for weeks about how much you wanted to see it, so we thought if you couldn't make it, we'd bring it to you."

Lucy bursts into tears. Gray jolts in alarm and starts patting her back awkwardly. "Dude, we thought this would cheer you up, not make you cry!"

"I am cheered, you idiot!" Lucy snarls through her sniffles. "These are tears of happiness, can't you tell?"

Just then, Natsu scrambles across her windowsill, Happy soaring in after him.

"Surprise!" they shout in her face. "Happy Hanami!"

Lucy only cries harder and jumps onto all three of them, wrapping her arms tightly around them, covertly wiping her snotty nose on Gray's shirt, sending all four of them tumbling across her bed.

"What the–" Natsu glances at her wide-eyed. "Why is she crying?" he demands of Gray, who simply shrugs in response.

Lucy just shakes her head, overwhelmed. "Thank you," she manages finally. "This is the nicest thing anyone's ever done for me."

She feels the two boys exchange embarrassed glances over her head, and Natsu pats her head a little harder than necessary.

"That's alright, Lucy. Piece o' cake!" His wide grin is contagious, and Lucy returns it in kind. She pulls herself back to her knees and returns to her windowsill perch, watching the rainbow tree make its slow, meandering way down the river past her building.

"Makarov is going to kill you guys tomorrow, you know," she adds as an afterthought.

There is a long silence.

"It was Flame Brain's idea in the first place. I was barely involved; the evidence leads straight to him," Gray states unflappably.

"What?!" Natsu yells in outrage, pointing an accusing finger at Gray. "You traitor! I'm not going down for this!"

As the two boys fall into a scuffle behind her, Lucy continues to look out her window at the floating tree and sighs in pleasure. This was turning out to be a pretty great Hanami, after all.

It is after Edolas, and they are spending a blissfully lazy afternoon at Lucy's apartment, waiting for Natsu and Happy to return with takeout food. Lucy is stretched across the couch, book in hand, wiggling her toes in Gray's lap, who is sprawled across the other side, languidly flipping through the latest issue of Sorcerer Weekly. He's shed his shirt already, and absentmindedly clamps a hand down on Lucy's toes to stop her squirming.

Lucy giggles, and he looks over at her questioningly.


"It's like second nature to you, isn't it? You don't even notice when you do it anymore?" Lucy nods towards his discarded shirt on the floor.

Gray shrugs, returning to his magazine. "I guess. Clothes are uncomfortable."

Lucy laughs, thinks of something, and giggles some more. Gray cocks an eyebrow at her.

"I was thinking about the Gray in Edolas – how many layers he was wearing, he was always so cold – and nobody could get him to take any layers off–" Lucy breaks out in peals of laughter, and Gray cracks a smile at her mirth.

"Tell me about it. That guy was such a weirdo."

"And he was head over heels for Juvia, and kept stalking her and being so pussy-whipped, and she was such a bitch to him!" Lucy clutches her stomach, remembering the hilarious irony of the situation.

Gray lets out a snort of amusement. "Yeah. He's a far braver man than me."

Unexpectedly Lucy stops her laughter and looks at him soberly. "But seriously. Juvia."

"What about her?" Gray looks back at her patiently.

"Our Juvia here is head over heels for you. Did you see the way she looked at you when we came back from Edolas?"

Gray sighs and puts his magazine down. "That's the way she always looks at me."

"My point exactly. You're going to have to do something about it sooner or later."

Gray raises another eyebrow at her. "And by do something, you mean…?"

"Either tell her yes or no," Lucy retorts bluntly. "She's a nice girl, Gray. She thinks you rescued her, can you blame her? She lived under this perpetual downpour and literally had never seen a blue sky until you came along. I'd love you too if I were in her place."

"More like she has a hero complex. And you think everyone's nice," Gray mutters under his breath, then sharpens abruptly at her last statement. "You would?"

Lucy meets his indigo eyes, and for an inexplicable reason finds herself flushing under his piercing gaze. "She means well."

"Maybe, but it comes across as just creepy."

"Look, she probably just doesn't know how to express her feelings of gratitude and appreciation for you, and it's resulted in these grand gestures of love and devotion," Lucy explains, after some thought.

Gray scrubs a hand across his face in frustration. "Luce, you know I'm not really the type of guy for grand gestures. That shit just makes me uncomfortable, and sometimes words don't come that easily to me. I've always thought it should be the little things – the constant, mundane things that you do for someone every day – that really matter in the end."

He's looking at her again with that barely restrained intensity beneath his pupils. Lucy's not really sure why she suddenly feels uncomfortable underneath his scrutiny, but she defuses the situation by poking him in the ribs and winking.

"Ladies of Fairy Tail, I present to you ice mage Gray Fullbuster – a man of action and few words. But guard your virtue – that icy exterior isn't just for show! This man will freeze your heart solid!"

Gray finally grants her with a sardonic smile, and at that moment Nastu and Happy burst through the front door in a noisy clamor, juggling multiple steaming paper bags.

"Food's here! We're starving!" both of them bellow, and launch themselves at her kitchen table. Lucy laughs, pulls Gray to his feet and contentedly goes to join them.

It hasn't even been a year since she joined Fairy Tail, and Lucy continues to marvel at how much of a whirlwind it's been, at how much she feels at home. Her old life seems like a distant memory; she has shed the shackles of the Heartfilia legacy and is finally forging her own identity: that of a Fairy Tail wizard, a growing celestial mage, and a valuable member in her own right of Team Natsu.

She has settled into the familiar patterns of life at the guild. As crazy and unpredictable as it can be sometimes, Lucy thinks she's starting to get a handle on life as a Fairy Tail wizard. Expect the unexpected, relish the raucous and quirky characters she now calls family, cherish the moments of camaraderie and laughter. But of course, just as she thinks she's finally gotten the hang of things, life kicks her on her ass and yanks the rug out from under her. Tenrou Island happens, and defying all comprehension, when she wakes up from the ordeal, seven years has somehow passed her by.

She doesn't fully understand what those missing seven years have cost her until she comes home and sees the pile of packages on her dining room table. It had been surreal, being told of Jude Heartfilia's death. She had literally just seen him a few weeks ago, as he settled into the merchant guild Love & Lucky and began his fresh start. He couldn't possibly be gone, not before she had a chance to see him again.

Reading her father's letter is what breaks her.

I'm very worried, but I have faith that you're safe. You're so much like your mother – stubborn as a rock and blessed with luck. I'm sure you're fine, and that I'll see you again someday. I think of you and Layla every single day – those memories keep me going. Wherever you are, I hope you're living life to the fullest and following your own path. Please, never forget how proud I am of you.

This isn't real, it can't possibly be – Lucy finds herself suddenly gasping for breath, choking sobs rising to clog her throat, bent over her bed, clutching the piece of notepaper to her chest, the last thing she has of her father. There is a piercing, retching wail coming from somewhere – it is a few moments before she detachedly realizes the sound is coming from her. Everything is moving in slow motion, the contours of her room blurred by the torrent of tears streaking down her face; she thinks she hears Natsu and Happy outside her window, but she is somehow crumpled on the ground, trying to figure out how to breathe. How ironic – just an hour ago she was telling Natsu she had no tears to cry, and now she doesn't know how to stop them.

Lucy isn't sure how much time goes by as she presses her face into the floor – seconds, minutes, hours. At some point she distantly feels someone shaking her shoulders from her fetal position on the floor, and she shakes them off angrily.

"Leave me the fuck alone," she tries to snarl, but it comes out unintelligible through her bawling. She catches the glint of reflection off a pair of glasses and a whiff of familiar magic, sharp and pungent, in the air around her.

Loke? A small part of her thinks.

"Just hold on, Lucy, I'm going to go get someone," she thinks she hears, but anything else is drowned out by another immense wave of sorrow that pulls her under.

Someone is saying her name, insistently, but it's all she can do to figure out how to take breaths through this awful heaving noise coming from her throat. A pair of strong arms wrap around her and she is being lifted and pressed against a hard chest, lowered gently onto her bed. She manages to raise her head and is met with a pair of familiar indigo eyes, filled with concern.

"Gray," she chokes out, and bursts into a fresh wave of tears.

"Hey," he says softly, tucking her hair back from her face with delicate fingers, brushing the wetness from her cheeks. "You shouldn't be on the floor. I'm going to tuck you into bed, ok?"

Lucy nods jerkily, letting him pull the covers out from under her. She feels him gently grasp the letter still clenched tightly in her fist, and she lets out a howl.


"I don't want you to rip this, Luce. I'm just going to put this right here next to you, is that alright?" At her slight nod, he takes the sodden letter from her hand and rests it on her bedside table, within her direct line of sight.

"M-my f-father–" The words tear out of Lucy's throat, and she sees the compassionate understanding in his eyes. He gives her hand a tight squeeze, and as he moves to pull away, she clutches onto his shirt, and Gray nods at the unspoken request he reads in her eyes. He crawls under the covers with her, and pulls her against him once more, arms coming around her.

"Come here," he says, and runs a cool hand through her hair. "Let it out. I've got you."

The simple act of kindness from her friend sends Lucy off into another round of heaving spasms. My mother, now my fatherI fucking can't handle this, she thinks. How do I ever come back from this?

She weeps in silent agony, curling her body tight around Gray, tears and snot and spit drenching his shirt. She's too far gone to be embarrassed, only faintly aware of him running a soothing hand up and down her back. After some time she cries herself out, and a wave of blissful darkness eventually overtakes her.

When Lucy peels her swollen, congealed eyes open, it's to the tawny amber light of late evening painting her bedroom. Gray is sitting against her windowsill looking out, long legs stretched across her bed, and she is nestled within the circle of his arms, face planted against his chest.

He feels her stir and looks down at her. She peels her sticky face off his torso and they take the measure of each other in silence.

"Was Loke here, earlier?" Lucy finally asks, looking around her in confusion. Her thoughts are still a jumble.

"Yeah," Gray replies, gruffly. "I think he felt you and let himself out of his gate. He came and got me."

"Oh," Lucy exhales, wondering why the celestial spirit hadn't stayed himself, why he went straight to retrieve Gray.

"Do you want me to leave?" Gray asks gently. "You might need some time alone."

"No." Lucy shakes her head vehemently, grabbing onto his wrists. "Can you – please stay for a while longer? I'm not sure I can be alone right now."

Gray nods and settles back against the window. The answer to her own question hits her in an instant, startling her into stillness.

Loke chose to bring Gray because Gray is the one who would get it. Because Gray is the one who would get her. Because he understands piercing loss intimately, has gone through more than his share in this lifetime; because he is the only one she would have wanted to be by her side as she broke. Gray is the one who would have looked at her in perfect understanding and acceptance and let her cry in silence, and he is doing just that – holding her quietly and not offering empty platitudes, grieving in his own way with her.

Loke intuitively understood something about her and Gray that perhaps even they didn't fully grasp themselves. Lucy registers that distantly, files it away for another day when she could see past such anguish. At the moment, she feels a sharp surge of gratitude flow through her for both Gray and her celestial spirit, then immediate guilt as she remembers something.

"Weren't you supposed to be taking a job with Juvia today? You should go, I'll be ok here–"

Gray brushes her off brusquely. "I'm not going anywhere. I'm right where I need to be."

Lucy closes her eyes tightly at his words, feeling the familiar pinprick of tears press against her eyelids. "They told me he passed last month. If we had just come back a little sooner, I could have – I didn't even get to see him. I didn't even get to say goodbye."

"We so rarely get to," Gray says quietly, and in his eyes she can see the old wounds peering out, the guilt and anguish that never really get buried under but lie in wait, just out of reach.

Lucy presses her forehead against his shoulder, her own body trembling. "Seven years, Gray," she mumbles. "Yet only a week for us. What the fuck happened? I don't think we've even come close to figuring out what that time has cost us."

"I know," he murmurs back, his arms tightening around her.

"I just saw him, you know? When I went to help out that merchant guild. I thought I'd pay him another visit after we got back from Tenrou Island, see how he was doing with his new business. But it was seven years for him – seven years of knowing I was missing, hoping his daughter was still alive out there somewhere." Lucy feels a sob rising up to clog her throat once more. "I can't even imagine what he went through during that time. I told myself that I would never, ever forgive him for what he did to my mother, what he did to me. But he sent gifts every year on my birthday to an empty apartment, he paid all my rent. He never gave up on me–"

Lucy chokes on her words. She feels the cracks in the dam, the reservoir of tears she thought she had temporarily shored up, the next wave rearing up to drown her. All her life she had resented her distant father, too busy with his business to prioritize his daughter; wishing for a family that loved her. It turns out she had that loving family all along, except now it was too late. The hours had ticked by, stolen her father and any chance they had left of reconciliation, and left her behind.

"I'm an orphan."

The full weight of that realization presses her down deep, into a place of heavy darkness. Gray cups his hand around her chin and tilts her head up to face him.

"Yes, but you're not alone, Lucy. We're all here with you. You are going to get through this." There is urgency in his voice, but also conviction. She sees her own sorrow reflected in his dark eyes. "You will pick yourself up and keep walking forward. You will break into pieces, but when you finally put yourself back together again, you'll be stronger because of it."

It's the tiny, ironic smile he gives her that pulls her back from the void. There is a light in his eyes, blazing bright and unwavering, and she clings to it like a lifeline. She remembers that Gray has walked this path, has come out the other side, and she trusts him implicitly to lead her through. Lucy reaches for his hand and he is there to meet her, curling his fingers around hers.

Even so, tonight, the darkness encroaches relentlessly. A thought troubles her, brushing against the frayed edges of her emotions, and her face crumples under its onslaught.

"He told me he loved me, and I never once said it back," she whispers in anguish, and once more, lets the despair and the guilt and the remorse come crashing over her.

She thinks she feels Gray press a kiss into her hair. She leans back into the solidity of him, allowing him to support her pain, knowing he was strong enough and aching for some of his strength to leach into her. Finally, exhaustion overcomes her at last.

When she wakes up again a few hours later, it is to the cold gleam of a full moon peeking through her curtains. Gray's body is angled towards hers, eyes closed and breathing deep and even, one arm slung loosely across her hip. She takes the opportunity to study his face closely, noting with dull surprise the tear tracks on his cheeks. She reaches out with a shaky hand and swipes her thumb across the wetness, watching his dark eyelashes flutter against her fingertips. She cannot remember the last time she's seen Gray Fullbuster cry.

"Thank you," she whispers, stroking the smooth skin of his cheekbone.

A movement on her other side startles her and she pushes herself up halfway to the sight of Natsu fast asleep on the opposite side of the bed, one arm thrown up over his face, left foot tangled firmly around hers. Happy is curled in a furry blue ball, tucked down beside her thigh and snoring softly. A tiny smile inadvertently steals across her face.

Lucy feels wrung out and brittle, eyes puffy and skin blotchy, more fragile and uncertain than she has been in a long while, but as she settles herself between her two boys, there is a small bloom of something that erupts in her heart, sending shaky tendrils around her chest that lighten the darkness somewhat. She lets the harmony of their steady breathing lull her back to sleep.

It's over a week before Lucy ventures into the guildhall. It's not that she's been avoiding it, exactly; it's just that she needed a couple of days to be by herself in her apartment and process things. Her life feels surreal at the moment, like everything is moving at half speed. There's a numbness in her chest, a heavy weight that smothers her with viscous potency. She cries in her sleep and wakes up with half-remembered dreams and exhaustion chasing her.

She's had visitors drop by to see her, of course: Erza, Wendy, Cana, Levy, even the trio of Exceeds. She's always enjoyed company, but the limits of her emotional capacity are strained these days and being with people drained her after a short amount of time. To her surprise, Gray had been with her the most often, stopping by with food or a book she might like, hanging out at her apartment for hours on end. Sometimes they wouldn't even interact much, him reading on the couch while she dozed fitfully on her bed, but she had come to find his presence oddly comforting and not the least bit draining. Sometimes they would be joined by Natsu and Happy, and she took solace in the life they breathed into her small space. However, in the past few days she hasn't seen either of the boys much. Natsu had taken a job and Gray had made himself scarce lately, perhaps sensing her need for some solitude.

Nevertheless, there is only so much of being by herself she can take after a while. She misses the comfort of being around her guildmates, even if she isn't feeling particularly chatty. She takes her journal with her, with the idea of finding a sunny corner to write in while still being in the proximity of her friends. It's a quiet afternoon at the guildhall, with several members out on jobs, and as she slips through the door familiar faces greet her with friendly, welcoming exclamations, happy to see her back. Natsu and Happy are chowing down on a huge meal a few tables over, back from their job, while Wendy and Carla are busy with what looks like a pile of knitting. Mirajane is manning the bar, conversing with Elfman, and Erza is admiring a beautifully decorated cake that Cana is impatiently holding. Gray is seated at the bar with a chattering Juvia, whiskey glass in hand, and he nods at her as she walks by him. Lucy waves at everyone, then finds a seat in the back corner by a window, flipping open her journal.

Journaling has always helped her sort through things, and soon she's lost in the rhythmic cadence of putting pen to paper. A while later, a thump on the wooden bench jolts her out of her focus, and she looks up to see Gray slide a glass of her favorite rosé over to her, the glass perfectly chilled after it leaves his hand.

"Figured you could use a drink."

Lucy smiles her thanks at him. "You sure know the way to a girl's heart."

Gray scoffs. "You? You're a cheap date."

Lucy sticks her tongue out at him, then takes a sip of her wine and sighs in appreciation. "It may be cheap but it's damn good stuff."

Gray laughs. "It's basically sweet juice. I'll spring for the harder stuff next time."

"Who's the cheap date now?" Lucy retorts, and Gray grins at her. Lucy motions over to Erza. "Speaking of sweets, why's Cana holding a cake and not a keg?"

"Apparently she lost some kind of bet with Erza and had to bake a cake for her. She's been slaving away all morning making it, too."

Lucy notes Erza's enthralled expression and Cana's forlorn one and snickers. "I didn't know Cana had it in her. Never get between Erza and her cakes."

"You don't have to tell me twice." Gray shudders in fearful recollection, then looks back at her in all seriousness. "How you holding up?

Lucy shrugs. "It comes and goes. Some days are worse than others."

His eyes are clear with understanding. "One day at a time, Luce."

She nods and picks up her pen, and Gray tilts his head at her journal. "You journaling or working on your novel?"


"Are you ever going to share?" He attempts to peer at her writing and Lucy snaps her cover shut in alarm.

"Of course not! Don't you know a journal is a girl's most private possession?" she exclaims, aghast.

"But don't you write about me?" He grins salaciously.

Lucy is momentarily taken aback. "Um, maybe?"

"Doesn't that give me the right to see it?" Gray cajoles, and Lucy senses he's enjoying needling her.

"I write about everyone. Therefore no one gets to see," she sniffs.

Without warning her journal gets snatched out of her hands from behind. She jumps up in a panic to see Natsu flipping through its leather-bound pages, brow furrowed in concentration. "You write about me in here? What's it say about me?"

"Hey! Give that back!" Lucy shouts, leaping to grab it from his hands, but Natsu dances away, winking and flashing her a wide grin.

"Aw, come on, Lucy. There are no secrets between friends!"

"Natsu! You ass! Give that back this instant!" Lucy throws a wad of napkins at him, but he dodges away, laughing.

"Hey, Flame Breath! Keep your hands to yourself!"

Predictably, Natsu is tackled by Gray from behind, and they roll seamlessly into a scuffle, fists flying and hurling insults with gusto. Happy darts into the fray and emerges a second later, fluttering over to Lucy with her journal clasped in his paws.

"Here, Lucy," he says. "I didn't want this to get ruined. Natsu's just being a big dummy."

"Thanks, Happy," she says gratefully, then sighs in resignation. "He's not the only big dummy."

As Natsu lands a kick and Gray counterpunches, they go tumbling into Erza and her cake. It explodes onto the floor with a glorious splatter. There is a deafening silence as Gray and Natsu abruptly freeze, identical expressions of terror on their faces.

Erza is still for a long, agonizing moment, imperturbably flicking off flecks of cake from her pristine armor, before she coolly pulls out her sword and presses the sharp, glittering edge against the neck of both boys.

"You've ruined the cake Cana made me," she says with deathly calm. "She put her heart and soul into it, too. Now you will pay for your sins."

"Wait! No! We're so sorry!" both Natsu and Gray wail in unison, dropping to their knees in front of her. "Please don't kill us!"

Erza bares her teeth in a grimace. "I demand penance. You will bake me another one, even more beautiful than the last."

"Wait, what?" Gray looks stunned, while Natsu looks around in confusion. "Do you think either of us knows how to bake?!"

"Real men know how to bake!" Elfman interjects, helpfully.

Erza smiles, slow and predatory. "Cana will teach you, isn't that right?" She looks at Cana, who cringes and nods hastily.

Erza prods both boys up with the tip of her sword and they duck behind the bar, properly chastened. Erza takes a seat on a barstool, crosses her legs primly, and supervises as Cana begins to dig out pots and pans in resignation, stopping to take a large, impressive swig from a nearby liquor bottle, then dumping the rest of its contents into a mixing bowl.

A few minutes later, as Lucy watches Natsu and Gray don frilly aprons and begin making a bigger mess than the one that landed them in this mess, flour and sugar flying chaotically and both of them looking completely clueless, laughter explodes out of her. She guffaws and snorts and has to brace herself against the table, wiping her eyes, the laughter continuing to rumble out of her from deep within her abdomen. She can't remember the last time she laughed like this, and the act of it lifts a weight from her shoulders. Her heart feels a little less heavy, today.

She's grateful there are some things that don't change.

When Lucy wakes up on that bright blue morning a few weeks later, she knows exactly what day it is. She had looked up train schedules the previous night and knows the first train leaves Magnolia Station at 6:45am. She has just enough time to brush her teeth, run a brush through her hair haphazardly, grab a purse, and jog out the door.

There is a small flower shop opposite the station, and Lucy pops in to greet the owner, who has just unlocked the store. Inside the station, Lucy takes a quick survey around her, noting the deserted platforms at the early hour, then boards the train to Hargeon. She walks past rows of empty seats and sparsely populated train cars until she finds him slouched across two seats in the back of the second to last car.

Without preamble, she plops into the seat next to him, hip bumping him to force him to make room for her. He starts in surprise to see her, eyes widening and darting down to the armful of lilies she's carrying.

"Luce, what are you doing here?"

She smiles serenely at him. "I figured you'd catch the first train and slip out before anyone at the guild would ask questions."

Gray narrows his eyes at her. "Are you stalking me?" A thought occurs to him, and he whirls to his feet to peer behind their seats.

Lucy snorts and yanks him back down. "Paranoid much, Fullbuster? I'm pretty sure Juvia is back at the guild hall, waiting to serve you breakfast."

Gray turns and studies her. "You remembered?"

Lucy nods briefly. "Of course, and you forgot these, dummy." She plants the bouquet in his lap, careful not to jostle the petals too much.

Gray accepts it in quiet astonishment. "You remembered," he says wonderingly.

"How could I forget something like this, Gray? I was there with you on Galuna Island. Ur's been gone a year now–" Lucy stops and catches herself, closes her eyes briefly in regret. "No, seven years now. And you weren't able to visit her until now. You've been robbed of these seven years just as much as I have."

Gray is staring at her mutely. Lucy meets his eyes and waits, patiently. He finally sighs.

"You should go back home. There's a reason I'm taking the early train. This is going to take the entire day, and I won't be back until late." His voice is clipped and tight, but Lucy doesn't budge. She crosses her arms.

"Nope. You're not doing this alone. If you need some privacy on Galuna, I'll go visit with Bobo and the other villagers. But this is what friends do for each other – I'm not letting you go through this day on your own."

Gray furrows his brow in annoyance and opens his mouth to speak, but Lucy places a placating hand on his arm. "Please, Gray. You were there for me with my dad – I know you're used to doing things on your own – but please let me be there for you."

The annoyance melts from Gray's face and he nods once, curtly. As the train whistle blows and it begins pulling out of the station, Lucy slides onto the seat opposite him, trying to give him some space. For the duration of the trip, Gray stares out the window, his gaze distant and stony. Lucy observes him from behind the pages of her magazine, wondering at the thoughts going through his head.

On Galuna Island, she had seen the devastation on his face when he saw the remnants of Deliora and Ur's iced shell still encased around it. She had witnessed his heartbreak as what was left of Ur finally melted, her essence flowing downstream to bleed into the sea. Gray had dealt with the loss of his former mentor the best he could as a child, but then to come face to face with the tangible evidence of her ultimate sacrifice years later as an adult, and to lose her all over again, knowing there was nothing he could do to save her for the second time – Lucy aches at the losses Gray has had to go through in his life. He had opened up to her a little bit on Galuna, but she had only joined the team fairly recently back then and their relationship had been so new, she hadn't wanted to pry. After they had gotten back from the mission he had shuttered up and never spoke about Ur again.

Gray had never been one to be loquacious about his feelings or share whatever he was going through. Unlike her and Natsu, who wore their hearts on their sleeves, it was easy to overlook Gray and assume he was doing fine. Lucy thinks back to the night he held her in his arms as she mourned her father, waking up in the middle of the night to find tears on his cheeks. Something in her heart twists. She thinks about loss and legacy, and how the past always shaped you, no matter how much you wanted to escape it. She and Gray were both orphans now, but they had both been bequeathed legacies they had to live up to, and sometimes it could be a crushing burden. Lucy squares her shoulders. She wasn't about to let Gray face this day, the anniversary of Ur's death, alone, especially after so many years away.

Gray has been tight-lipped about what he encountered while they were on Tenrou Island, but Lucy knows he confronted Ultear, Ur's long-lost daughter, who was the architect behind the hell they went through on the island. She can only imagine how painful that must have been. And then to come back, seven years later, to see Lyon – always his contemporary and rival – age past him and grow even further apart; it must have truly shaken Gray. Lyon was the closest thing Gray had to a brother, despite their complicated relationship. Well, him and Natsu, Lucy muses. Whom he also has a complicated relationship with. For such a self-possessed and introspective guy, Gray sure lost his shit easily when it came to the two men in his life he grew up with. Lucy taps a finger against her lips as she stares absentmindedly at him, lost in her deliberations, and Gray, as if sensing the direction of her thoughts, finally turns his head from the window and quirks an exasperated eyebrow at her.

"You done psychoanalyzing me?"

Lucy jumps, flushing. "I, um, ah, wasn't doing that!" She glares at him crossly. "Stop that. Stop getting into my head."

Gray flashes a smirk at her. He stands up abruptly and offers out a hand to pull her up. Lucy hadn't even noticed the train had pulled into its destination.

"Well, are you coming? Let's go find a boat."

Since the curse of Galuna Island had been lifted by them seven years ago, the villagers on the island had opened themselves up to the mainland, and Lucy is surprised to see how many boats were now traveling to and from the island from Hargeon Port. It seems that in the intervening years they had been gone, a bustling trade and tourism industry had sprung up on Galuna Island. She and Gray have no trouble finding a fishing boat to take them over.

On the island, they make their way over to the small cove below the cave where they had once found Deliora. It's a small, quiet inlet, soft white sand and the ocean stretching away in a cerulean blaze as far as the eye can see, a gurgling stream trickling down from the rocky cavern above them to meet the sea, the place where Ur made her final journey.

Lucy hangs back hesitantly as she watches Gray stoop down and cup his hand reverently through the stream.

"Do you want to spend some time alone? I can go back to the village and wait for you," she asks tentatively.

Gray looks back at her, an expression she can't quite read on his face. "No. Stay," he says quietly.

Lucy nods in assent, and makes a seat for herself far up on the sandy shore, giving Gray as much space as possible. She leans back on her hands and takes in the brilliant blue sky, the sound of the waves lapping rhythmically onto the shore, the stream cheerfully burbling its way down. Lucy is suddenly fiercely glad for the existence of this beautiful place – a final gift from Ur to her pupil; a place Gray can come to anytime he needs to, a place to find his peace. Lucy curls her knees tightly to her chest, unexpectedly feeling like an intruder sitting on hallowed ground.

Out of the corner of her eye she sees Gray chuck off shoes, pants, shirt, and clad in boxers, he approaches the water's edge. He steps into the surf, and Lucy sees his lips move, but she is too far away to hear. She closes her own eyes, granting Gray some privacy. She isn't sure how long he talks to Ur for, but when she opens her eyes he is looking right at her, beckoning her over. Lucy scrambles up, brushing off her hands, and lopes down to the surf to join him. Gray picks up the discarded bouquet of lilies on the sand nearby.

"Help me with these?" he asks, and Lucy kicks off her sandals and follows him deeper into the surf. The water is warmer than expected, and when the tide is lapping past her knees, they scatter the petals across the waves, watching the sea swallow the blossoms of white and carry them farther and farther away, towards the unending horizon.

"I miss you," Lucy hears Gray murmur, face turned to the sun and the sea. "I hope you've found your peace."

When the last flower is offered to the water, Lucy discovers wetness pricking at her own eyes, the yearning in her heart following the steady drift of those white blossoms upon the blue swell. Her own grief was still so close, ebbing and flowing like the pulse of the waves, an ever-present ache around her heart.

I miss you too, dad. I hope wherever you are, you were able to find mom.

She and Gray stand there for a long time, shoulder to shoulder, letting the swell of the ocean drum against their bodies and the sun soak into bare skin. When she finally turns to him, she finds him returning her gaze, his eyes shining with unspoken emotion.

"You know, I lost her a long time ago, but for some reason I feel her presence so strongly here."

"I think she's all around you," Lucy says gently. "She's a part of the sea now, and she's also a part of you, and you will always carry a part of her with you wherever you go."

Gray nods, and his hands tighten into fists at his sides. "I've never told anyone this, but the last thing she ever said to me before she ran to that monster was that she was protecting my future. She told me she was sealing my darkness away. She told me to face the light." He takes a deep, unsteady breath. "I think about that a lot. I don't know if it's true. The darkness is still there, and there are days when that's all I can see. She gave up her life for me, and most of the time I'm terrified that I'm not living up to her sacrifice."

Lucy hears the crack in his voice, sees the way he turns his face away, and instinctively she steps closer to him and reaches out for his hand.

"She gave you the greatest gift she could – your future. It's not meant to be a done deal. It's up to you to figure it out, one step at a time. And the dark days are what let us appreciate the lighter ones." Lucy turns to face him fully, needing him to hear her words. "Trust me, you get through the dark days with the people who care about you, not alone. I didn't know Ur, but I know her student, and I know what an amazing man he grew up to be. He's an incredible friend, one of the strongest wizards I know, a man who is thoughtful and kind and resilient. She would have been so proud of you."

Gray swallows hard, returning her grip tightly, cool fingers squeezing her own. He is quiet for several seconds before he finally speaks.

"Luce, I – there's something I think I should tell you."

There is a part of her, deep down, that knows what he is going to say. There is a part of her that ratchets up her heart rate and sends her innermost longing floating up and up, soaring over the cresting waves. But there is the other part of her that barks a warning, calls out a caution in big, bold letters. The part of her that second guesses herself and casts self-doubt and stirs all her emotions into a giant whirlpool, grief and fear and guilt and hope and desire all mixed together so she suddenly can't decipher one from the other.

Lucy looks at Gray, and he searches her eyes intently for a long moment. He is so close she can pick out the flecks of lighter blue in his dark eyes. His raven hair, windblown and salt-whipped, falls across his face, and Lucy has a sudden urge to dig her fingers into the luxurious thickness of it, and she has to forcibly stop herself from reaching out.

He can read her like a book. Lucy isn't sure what he sees in her eyes but she instinctively knows it isn't what he's looking for, that flash of uncertainty and tumult she is unable to hide. Gray gives her a small, crooked smile and huffs out a shaky laugh. He takes a half step back, letting go of her hand.

"I meant to say – Ur would have liked you."

Lucy smiles in genuine delight, accepting the praise, and the deflection in turn. "I would have liked her, too."

Gray grins at her abruptly, swift and dazzling. It sends an unexpected frisson of electricity up Lucy's spine.

"The light Ur wanted me to walk towards," he says to her softly. "I finally understand what she means."

She almost thinks she imagines the brush of his fingers, featherlight across her cheek, were it not for the simultaneous trails of ice and fire they leave behind. Gray turns around and begins the trek back up the shore, and Lucy watches him go, feeling something hard and heavy lodge behind her breastbone.

It is late evening by the time they land back in Hargeon and catch the last train back to Magnolia. Tired and slightly sunburnt, Lucy drowses in companionable silence next to Gray, their shoulders grazing against each other. The darkened landscape slips past the windows for miles before Gray speaks.

"Thank you for coming."

Lucy beams at him. "Told ya. You should always listen to me. Being a lone wolf sucks, huh?"

Gray rolls his eyes, but she catches the slight twitch of his mouth. He doesn't say anything further. As they drift back into an easy stillness, Lucy reflects back over the day. Something has subtly shifted between the two of them today, some barrier lifted, a line in the sand erased and redrawn. She and Gray are perching on the edge of a precipice, and one deliberate step by either one of them would send them careening down into uncharted territory. She had seen the intent in his eyes today, barely veiled beneath layers of other emotion, but like her, he had peered over the chasm and taken a step back. It was that one moment of striking clarity, waiting with bated breath for what he was going to say, and then the immediate crush of alarm and confusion, that rattles her. Her emotions feel like a turbulent storm she is cast adrift on.

The one thing that has been crystal clear amidst the turmoil of her life lately has been Gray. His presence has been a calming light, a beacon she trusts to lead her out of the heavy mist that she sometimes thinks might suffocate her. She doesn't know how she would have gotten through the last few weeks of grief and upheaval without him by her side, his solid friendship and unwavering steadiness. Gray was a rock in the tempest; a comforting signpost amid the chaos, whose lettering clustered around a clear definition: friend; guildmate; family. The last thing she wanted was to go back to that awful place of uncertainty and tongue-tied awkwardness. The bond she shared with Gray had become an even more integral part of her life in the intervening time, and nothing, nothing, was worth risking that.

Lucy wonders about the what ifs: what if Gray hadn't been with the group on Tenrou Island; what if she had woken up to find him aged nearly a decade beyond her and living a life that had left her behind. She thinks that might have torn her apart.

"Gray?" Lucy murmurs.

"Yeah?" He shifts a little closer to her.

"I'm glad we lost those seven years together."

He understands, as he always does.

"Me too," he replies quietly.

Losing Michelle so soon after the loss of her father doesn't destroy her like she thought it would. It's like her heart has grown calluses, inured against further loss, bracing for the worst at this point. She accepts the betrayal and subsequent goodbye as stoically as she can, feeling the barbs hit their mark and dig into her heart, ripping them out with practiced efficiency. So Michelle wasn't actually her long-lost cousin, as close as a sister, but her forgotten childhood doll brought to life, who tried to kill her? Well, she had been through worse. Try being frozen for seven years and waking up to a different world, a world where her guildmates had moved on with their lives, a world where she never got to reconcile with her father before he died. She can handle whatever life has left to throw at her, because she's really over surprises at this point.

She isn't sure when she became so cynical. It's ironic, because that bright-eyed, innocent, hopeful girl is still inside her somewhere, but lately she's been tempered, blunt curves filed into sharper edges, wide-open heart peeled back to reveal the brittle insulation beneath. Maybe this was all part of the process Gray was talking about, Lucy thinks. You break into pieces and learn to put yourself back together again, but the pieces don't quite fit the way they did before. You close off your heart before you learn to pry it back open. You equilibrate optimism with realism.

Lucy doesn't remember much about her time being melded to the infinity clock, her memories a haze of fragmented images and blurry impressions. A tower of light and flame, a dark shadow spread vast across the land, the drumbeat of a thousand wings, an island sinking into the sea. A red-headed girl with a cruel smile, the bitter taste of defeat in her mouth, flame and ash roiling across a broken city, a swirling constellation of stars spread out above her. A flash of pink hair and a familiar laugh, a glimpse of raven hair and warm indigo eyes, a steady heartbeat beneath her palms, lean arms entwined tightly around her. Lucy doesn't know if these are her own memories or someone else's, if these are things that have been or have yet to be; time, once linear, is now curved and bending in upon itself. She is and isn't, simultaneously; existing and non-existent, a speck in the void, floating in infinite darkness. There is a burst of light, blinding and white, sparking behind her retinas, and the next thing she is consciously aware of is falling, the strange sensation of being weightless at a great height, watching the ground streak up to meet her.

Then there are wiry arms wrapped around her, a sharp tumble to the ground and she opens her eyes to see a familiar beaming face and messy pink hair. She has never been happier to see him.

"I've got you, Lucy," Natsu says to her, and his grin is infectious, lighting up his entire being, and Lucy returns it in kind.

"You always do," she tells him, throwing her arms around him, feeling the warm, comforting pulse of him against her body. Reflexively, she glances over Natsu's shoulder. She doesn't have far to search; he's standing a few feet away from them, indigo eyes immediately meeting her own. She reads the stark relief in them, the worry and fear melting off his features, and then something else, something that looks like quiet acceptance, steal across the sharp edges of his countenance.

Gray grants her a small smile and a brief nod before stepping deftly aside to make way for Happy and Wendy, who throw themselves on Lucy and Natsu in a delighted tangle of arms, legs and fluttering wings. Any misgiving she may have felt at seeing Gray's expression is driven from her thoughts by the happy weight of her friends on top of her, and the sheer relief of being back in her own skin, corporeal again, her thoughts and memories once more her own.

Two days later the Legion Platoon is at Fairy Tail's door, and it is Dan Straight who returns Michelle back to her.

He comes up to her during the impromptu party the guild breaks out into, getting down on one knee with a flourish and planting a kiss on her left hand.

Always with the grand gestures, Lucy groans inwardly, but pastes a smile onto her face and waits him out patiently. Behind her she can immediately sense Natsu and Gray make a beeline towards her, and she rolls her eyes.

"The fuck is with this guy?" Gray mutters, crossing his arms and glaring daggers at the knight.

"This chump again? Hey you – let's me and you go again! I'll kick your butt this time for real!" Natsu yells, flames trailing from his fists.

Lucy pointedly ignores them, and to his credit, so does Dan.

"My sweet Lucy-pie, please accept your humble knight in shining armor, here to return that which you hold dearest and lost," Dan declares dramatically. Lucy raises her eyebrows, and beside her, Gray's frosty glower could freeze most mortal men.

Sensing he was in precarious territory, Dan thrusts Michelle, rag doll form limp and faded, at Lucy. She stares at her childhood toy in astonishment, then accepts it with startled gratefulness, cradling the doll delicately in her hands. She looks at Dan with tears in her eyes, slides forward onto her toes and presses a kiss onto his cheek.

"Thank you," she says to him, truly touched. "You don't know what this means to me."

Dan has flushed bright red, for once rendered speechless, a gauntlet-clad hand pressed to his cheek. Lucy ambles away slowly, lost in contemplation, Natsu gazing after her with dropped jaw, Gray's scowl deepening.

They come find her later that evening at her apartment, ducking through the open window to discover Erza, Wendy, Carla and Lucy clustered around her coffee table, sipping mugs of tea and giggling over the latest guild gossip.

Wordlessly, Erza gets up to grab extra mugs and Lucy puts out a plate of fish from her fridge for a delighted Happy. Gray sprawls across his usual spot on her couch, accepting a mug of tea from her appreciatively, but Natsu prowls around her apartment for a few minutes, peering warily at the Michelle doll, arranged carefully on her top bookshelf with an unobstructed view of the entire room.

"Erhm, Lucy?" Natsu scratches his head uncomfortably. "Are you really going to keep the doll? I mean, I know she used to be Michelle, I think – but no offense, the whole thing is really weird and having her sit here and stare at us all the time now is kinda creepy."

"Of course she is. Don't speak about Michelle that way. She fought with honor and spirit for what she believed in. She is a true warrior," Erza retorts curtly.

"She's family," Lucy states simply, and as always, her gaze gravitates towards the ice mage on her couch. He smiles at her in perfect understanding.

"Sometimes you get to choose your family. Sometimes they choose you. And sometimes you realize that the family you were trying so hard to run from was your family all along." Lucy looks around her apartment and soaks in the sight of her friends crammed around the small space, permeating it with life, love and laughter. She may have lost her father and Michelle, but this tribe of misfits and oddballs had taken her in without question and called her one of their own. She feels her heart fill, and fill, and fill.

Family, she was coming to realize, came in all definitions and forms. They could confound you and drive you to the point of insanity or rage or despair, but in the end, the common denominator was love. There was always love.

Natsu chuckles. "You had me at family."

Everything changes at the Grand Magic Games.

She was finally starting to adjust to her new reality, coming to terms with the losses of the past seven years and sorting through the dynamics of changing relationships, both old and new. Seeing Macao and Wakaba with grey in their hair and hard-earned wisdom in the lines of their faces. Getting to know Romeo as a young man. Spending time with Bisca, Alzack and the newest member of the guild, their little girl Asuka. Forgiving Laxus and welcoming him back into the fold. And, always in the back of her mind these days, trying to figure out how to navigate the shifting lines of her relationship with Gray.

She was learning how to move forward, step into the contours of her new life. She was learning how to put herself back together, how to live with the pain, lessening a little each day. But just as it was before Tenrou Island, as soon as she begins to feel the slightest ease with her current reality, everything she thought she knew gets flipped on its head.