The first time Gray Fullbuster learns about death, he is five years old and taking swimming class at the swimming pool. Ah, the swimming pool, a place where Gray thinks there's too much chlorine up his nose and too little oxygen in his lungs.
The swimming coach is busy helping Lyon swim while Urtear is talking excitedly to their parents, Silver and Ur.
"Hey, guys, come here!" A voice calls at Gray who's bobbing in the water.
Gray looks up from his position in the pool to see an older boy he's befriended. The boy's addressing both Gray and a green haired girl who's probably three. The trio has bonded fifteen minutes ago by talking about what colour they want their swimming googles to be.
(Gray's was dark blue, if anyone was wondering)
"Come on!" The seven year old boy says again.
Gray blinks, confused. From his view in the water, all he sees is the boy's indigo swim trunks with shark designs. He's at least seven years old. The boy's waving his arms to beckon them. He's up on dry land until like the other kids bobbing around, actually swimming and taking their swimming class seriously.
Gray gives the girl a look. "Wanna go?" Gray asks her.
She only shrugs in reply.
"What is it?" Gray then asks the boy.
"I need to show you guys something!"
The girl climbs up from sitting on the pool ladder and Gray follows suit. They approach the boy who's crouching by the side of the pool.
"What is it?" Gray repeats his question.
He answers, "It's a bird."
"What's it doing?" The girl asks. She notices it's not moving and lying completely still on the ground. It's face down.
"It's dead," The older boy tells them. Both his front teeth are missing, leaving a gap for adult teeth to grow and fill in.
Gray looks away from the sight to across the pool where his half-siblings are. Siblings who are older and wiser – Lyon is trying to perform a backflip underwater while the coach is teaching Urtear how to paddle.
Gray turns back and asks, "What's that mean?"
"It means they're not in this world anymore." The boy explains. "It means they've gone to the afterlife, the underworld. Heaven for good people and hell for bad people. They turn into a ghost and wonder around the earth if they've still got business to do or to visit."
"Wow, really?" Gray questions again. He immediately thinks this boy has more knowledge than him and the girl.
"Yeah," The boy nods his head confidently.
"That's scary." The girl says.
"Not all ghosts are mean." The boy tells them. "Some are nice, like my grandparents."
Then the swim coach yells and startles them. "Hey, what are you kids doing?!"
"We're looking at a dead bird!" The green haired girl replies.
"Dead bird?" The coach echoes, his eyes squinting.
For a moment, Gray thinks they've gotten into trouble or something.
"It's not dead, it's sleeping!" The older man tells them.
But Gray doesn't believe him. This is the same swimming coach who answers "Why is there a double rainbow?" with "Because there's a double sun," He really doesn't want to deal with questions.
And Gray knows for a fact there's only one sun in the sky. Teletubbies told him so. The giant floating sun baby-head doesn't lie.
The boy with no front teeth doesn't fight back and claim his statement is correct.
"Oh, okay then." The girl says, accepting the coach's words. "Then I hope the birdie has a nice dream," She adds before diving back into the water. Gray thinks her long green hair looks like algae or seaweed floating underwater.
The coach then calls for Gray, telling him it's his turn to learn to float. Gray gets distracted and forgets about the dead bird. He learns how to swim like all the other kids in the swimming class. But that only lasts for half an hour before it starts raining. It's the kind of sudden rain that ruins everyone's day because they expected sunny skies and sunshine, not sudden gloom and cold water pelting down.
It leaves Gray and his half-siblings shivering and exhausted. It also leaves Silver and Ur shooing their children to change before giving them hot tea from thermoses they brought and bundling their three kids in big, warm blankets.
"Mom, do dead people really become ghosts?" Gray found himself asking.
Ur presses her lips together, she hears Lyon sneeze before him hurrying Urtear to hand him some tea. She answers after a moment. "Some do."
"And then do they go to the underworld?"
Ur nods because she didn't think she'd be having these types of conversation until Gray was at least seven.
"Good and bad people go to separate places, right?" Gray continues asking.
"Well, that's for God to decides, sweetie."
Gray asks after thinking, "Will I go to hell? I can be bad sometimes when I fight with Lyon,"
Ur pauses because she can't really say her child will go to hell. He's only five for goodness sake! This question makes even Urtear turn to Gray. Lyon can see Urtear's about to call Gray 'stupid' when Silver interferes.
"Okay, kiddo, that's enough questions for your mom." Silver scoops Gray up on his shoulders and soon Gray's distracted by the proposal of ice-cream with his half-siblings.
Gray learned a lot of things that day. (1) The concept of death and ghosts, and where dead people go to afterwards, (2) His swim coach is the worst liar ever and (3) Ice-cream is the best distraction. But above all, it's that the odds of the bird dying was high. It dropped from the clear sky and fell by the pool. If it hasn't hit the ground then it could have drowned in the water.
The thing that sticks to Gray the most is that death isn't limited. Not in the endless sky or on dry land or in the drowning waters. It's inevitable.
= 20 years later =
Meredy thinks she hears the front bring unlocked as she turns away from the window; people watching, star-gazing and admiring the city lights. From the sitting position she's in, Meredy's barely touching the bed. She pulls her sleeves over her hands, feeling transparent most of the time.
She looks at the clock, it reads three AM. Her pink eyebrows furrow and she frowns – it's late but it's still too early for Juvia Lockser to be returning to the tiny apartment. Meredy wonders if her very reluctant housemate is okay. Meredy says 'reluctant' because Juvia never wanted Meredy to share the apartment with her in the first place. But, the good news is, if it's Juvia, she's successful avoiding the shower of rain soon to pour down in Fiore. Meredy knows Juvia hates the rain. But, if it isn't Juvia then ... for a moment, Meredy wonders if there's a burglar trying to sneak into their home.
If this was the case, Meredy thinks this person is silly and wasting his time. There is nothing in this house worth stealing. It's a tiny apartment with an even tinnier kitchen and cramped bathroom. However, the place is clean in a cluttered way. All designed and shuffled around thanks to Juvia's taste.
The bedroom and living room area are basically the same thing. There's a single mattress on the floor pushed to the corner – without a bed frame and without room for monsters under the bed to drag anyone away. Next to the mattress, there's a dresser that not only accommodates a place for Juvia's clothes but also acts as a shelf for picture frames and the small TV Juvia barely uses. Then there's a round low table where Juvia eats and works on, a shoe rack that merely has three occupants, a rug to catch dirt and stomp on, and a thousand and one things tapped on the walls.
The place was cramped, cramped, cramped. There's so little space that books piled up everywhere.
There is no jewellery stored in a box or cash under the bed or anything of rich importance. Meredy thinks the only eye-catching thing in the room is the dream catcher above Juvia's mattress and perhaps the old TV.
Regardless, even if someone was breaking in, the crook wouldn't be able to hurt Meredy anyways. She could easily escape and find Juvia.
"Juvia?" Meredy calls, not even needing to take five steps before she can see the front door being pulled open.
"It's me," Juvia answers, sounding exhausted. Some of her curls have escaped from her bun, the bruises under her tired eyes seem larger and her skin seems paler.
Meredy's brows knit with curiosity. "Why are you back so early?"
"I ..." Juvia stalls as she slips off her work shoes. And Meredy notices that Juvia's using a first point of view speech instead of her usual third person speech so that wasn't good. Juvia continues, "Juvia ... Juvia quit her job,"
"You got fired?" Meredy says, pinpointing the real reason.
"Aww, Juvia." Meredy's face morphs into a sympathetic one. "If I could, I'd give you a hug but …" Meredy pauses for just long enough to give Juvia enough time to enter the living room and lay down her purse and keys on the round table "… you know I can't." Meredy continues.
"Juvia knows," Juvia sighs then makes her way around the small room.
Meredy tries to lighten the mood by saying, "Well, look on the bright side, you hated that job anyways!"
"Juvia did but she didn't want to get fired!" Juvia groans then throws herself face down on her single-sized mattress. She decides she'll just skip the shower.
Tonight seems peaceful enough for her to sleep until noon tomorrow. She might just get a solid eight hours of sleep for once. But another part of her is scared to sleep in sometimes. A part of her thinks she's done enough sleeping to last a life time. Especially after finding out a few years ago on how she was in a co –
The bluenette wants to cry. She's twenty-three and unemployed – again. Her life just keeps getting worse and worse.
Juvia continues, "The old lady who lived across the convenient store kept coming to Juvia."
"Is she still trying to convince you to kick the new tenants out of her old house?" Meredy asks.
Juvia nods in reply, turning away before pulling her blanket above her head.
"But it's not her house anymore!" Meredy answers, throwing her arms up in the air. Then the pinkette grumbles, "Well, you wouldn't have that problem if you just let me follow you to work."
Juvia sighs from under the covers, "Meredy-san knows how Juvia feels. Meredy-san can't always tag along and hang out with Juvia. Work time is me-time."
Meredy only pouts in return, "I'm just saying, if you'd let me tag along, you probably wouldn't have been bothered by that old lady in the first place. She might be old but, me and her, we're both equal. I don't mind shooing her away."
A groan hums under the blanket.
"Let's talk about something else." Juvia pleads, rubbing her tired eyes. "Juvia's life is so depressing,"
"At least you have a life." Meredy speaks, hands now folded behind her head. "I don't."
"Yes, Meredy-san does."
Meredy doesn't reply. Instead, she floats above Juvia's bed as if she's lying on a bunk bed. The skirt of her school uniform's still stained with blood. It's been stained for almost ten years now. "No, I don't, Juvia. I'm dead, remember?"
On Lucy Heartfilia's desk sits several items that the secretary herself has prepared. They're ready and arranged – all office related, all worth a day's work, all for her boss, Gray Fullbuster – a stack of contracts to sign, neatly organized files in two yellow folders and a tall cup of black coffee.
The door to the office swings open and the blonde woman looks up from her computer. She greets him with a smile and Gray responses by running a hand down his already tired face.
"Lucy, you wouldn't believe my morning." Gray complains, already bitter about the day as he enters the office. He grabs the folders and starts flipping through them briefly as he stands and waits for his secretary's response.
"Good morning, Gray." Lucy smiles, displaying rows of perfect white teeth.
Gray snorts. "I could hardly call it good but if it floats your boat, sure. Good morning."
Lucy rolls her brown eyes at this. "Your day's going to be busy so you better throw away that negative attitude."
"I do not have a negative attitude." Gray says and gathers the files and stacks of paper in his arms.
"I don't believe I've seen you smile since your started this job." Lucy points out. "It's like you have a permanent frown on your face."
Gray touches the corners of his mouth with his free hand. "I do not."
Lucy opens her mouth to reply but the sound of the office telephone ringing cuts through the conversation and interrupts her. She raises a starry-themed manicure finger at her boss and picks up the phone. The phone conversation follows by standard office greetings and addressing herself.
"Yes. Yes, I understand." Lucy nods her head. "Yes. I'll try to get someone to fix it. Thank you. Okay, good-bye." The moment Lucy ends the call, she buries her face in her arms and let out a grunt of despair.
Gray raises a brow at the action. "What is it now?"
Lucy raises her head, "Four people quit today."
"Four?!" Gray repeats, horrified. "How did we lose more staff members? We lost three yesterday!"
"Gray, we've gone over this." Lucy answers which earned a pointed look from Gray.
"You know I don't believe in that stuff." Gray says, his tone dipping with irritation.
"Well, that stuff is the cause of this." Lucy states like the know-it-all blonde she was. "Your business is haunted, Gray. That's why staff keep quitting and things keep breaking and customers keep spreading rumours that Fullbuster Avenue doesn't feel right."
Gray frowns. "No, that stuff isn't the cause of it."
"Yes, it is." Lucy argues.
"Look," Gray says, not giving in the argument. "I took your suggestion multiple times. I've gotten dozens of those so-call exorcists and priests and crazy people who said they can fix my business with all their blessings and magic mumbo jumbo but we're still stuck in this never ending problem. People are still quitting, things are still breaking and people are still spreading rumours. Hence, me not believing."
"Well, what do you expect me to do?" Gray questions his secretary.
Because, honestly, he doesn't know anyone who's willing to fix it. Does Lucy really expect a grown ass man like him to believe ghosts are wrecking his business? His business that succeeds and depends on customers and revenue and good staff because it is a God damn shopping mall and it can't be empty!
Lucy exhales slowly through her nose, exhausted. Once again, she buries her face in her arms. But Gray can see it's not from the staff quitting. This kinda sadness is not from her job.
The blonde receives a comforting hand on the shoulder by Gray in response. "Hey, are you okay?" Gray asks.
"Just a little tired, no big deal." Lucy answers and pats Gray's hand in gesture to ensure him she was alright.
"Do you need some time off, Lucy? You've been doing overtime for months, it's a little worrying." Gray says, truly concern about her. Lucy's not just his secretary, she's also his friend.
"Oh, stop babying me, Gray. You're my boss, you should be proud I'm doing this." Lucy teases.
"I know, I appreciate it. But, Lucy –"
"Because of my overtime, days sometimes even weeks of work is pushed ahead. I get to plan your schedule and meetings and new people to go into businesses with so you can sign more contracts and get more money." Lucy speaks, leaving no room for Gray to interfere. "Because of my overtime, you have more free time now. You can work ahead or take a breather. Or hey, with that extra time you can even sort out that Bastia City Mall dilemma."
"Lucy, I know but your time seems to revolve around me." Gray states. "When was the last time you treated yourself instead of spending every moment of your free time pencilling in a slot in my schedule?"
Lucy rolls her eyes again. "I'm not a workaholic, if that's what you're suggesting."
"You know what I mean."
"I just …" Lucy looks at her boss. "I just need a distraction. You know that, right?"
"Most people spend it away from the office."
"Well, I'm not like most people, Gray. I'm me." Lucy says and rubs a spot between her brows because the conversation was stressing her out. It was depressing.
After a few seconds, Gray asks, "How's Natsu?"
Lucy smiles in a manner that states there was nothing to talk about. The blonde shrugs then sighs, "Oh, you know, my fiancé is the same as always. Great with conversations and really warm." Lucy adds with a bitter-sweet laugh.
This time, Gray sighs. "Are you sure you don't want a break – maybe a week off? Spend some time with him, you know?"
Lucy shakes her head. "I'm fine, Gray, and I don't need a week off. I honestly don't need it, besides, what are Natsu and I even going to do it I accept your offer? Kayaking? Surfing?"
"I'm just concern." Gray replies. "You're working harder than me and I'm the boss." He then adds a little joke to lighten the mood. "Don't you want to spend more time with him?"
"Natsu's not going anywhere, I see him every day." Lucy says and Gray could tell the blonde really wanted to drop the topic.
Gray raises his hands in defeat. "Okay, okay. I get it."
"But," Gray says. "I'm ordering you, not as your boss, but as your friend, to treat yourself. Go to a spa and relax those sore muscles. Spend more time with friends. Geek out with Levy about that new Harry Potter book or something."
"We already did that."
"Good to know." Gray replies.
He stands there in silence for a moment before Lucy speaks up.
"Don't stop looking," Lucy says. "We'll find someone."
Gray only nods then gives Lucy a final pat on the shoulder before entering his office.
"You forgot your coffee!" Lucy hollers through the closed doors. She sees Gray make a U-turn, exit the room and give himself a smack on the forehead
"Thank you." Gray says, making Lucy smiles. "I don't know what I'd do without you."
Gray grabs the coffee before re-entering his office, muttering to himself about work.
"Honestly that man," Lucy says aloud, more to herself than anything, then glances at the schedule neatly written in Microsoft excel. She taps away on the computer before pressing a button by the table. "Team Leader Erza, I need you and Vice-leader Jellal to come up with an idea to get our staff count back to normal."