The sun dipped below the skyline, with slivers with red and a halo of thick clouds gilding the horizon; the grass around the hospital walls rustled with the steady buzz of a thousand hidden cicadas, the door creaked gently in the chill, and, inside the darkened ward on the fifth floor, Levy McGarden finally cried herself to sleep with nothing but her misery to keep her company. Her head lay muffled on her pillow, cushioned by her arms, a heavily dog-eared paperback book slowly slipping out of her hand and onto the tiles with a soft whump.
Having been bounced around from house to house for most of her life, she’d been subject many times to the grueling process of being initiated into the social circles of the people that lived there; invariably, they didn’t believe that she really did have parents, though they were too poor to keep her, and that she was only going to the lab every week for a little check-up and that she wasn’t nuts, that cat really did have wings-
Books were her solace. Warm fireplaces and hulking oaken shelves and rows of tomes packed together were like her comfort food, and one which she soaked up like a sponge. Sinking into a couch plush enough to swallow the little girl and with a window full of rain at her side was all she needed to survive on. Thus it was almost beautifully convenient that her accommodation, as big as a spacious bedroom, happened to be fitted with these luxuries- though the choice of furniture looked out of place next to the purely functional, no-frills bed and the clean carpetless floor.
It was more like a wonky hotel room than a place for sick people, and felt as if she was being tempted, baited to stay- it wouldn’t be hard, if there just wasn’t the constant sterility of all the colours, the silence only being broken by occasional clockwork footsteps outside the door, the needles in her arms, the heavy cupboards and counters and beeping machines and white wastebaskets bolted to the wall.
Levy squinted in her sleep.
“I see,” was all she had heard from her grandfather when she had pressed her ear to the crack at the bottom of the door after the doctor locked it for a ‘private grown-up talk’. The last time Levy saw him was when she had fearfully looked over her shoulder as she was being led away down the corridors; he had his hands in his pockets and a stolid look painted on his lined face, standing there, being left behind.
The floor-to-ceiling frosted windows glittered like her tears as the last of the sun’s rays illuminated the edges of the high rise buildings in the cityscape and the cars crawling across the roads, headlights like glowing orange eyes.
Across the room, to the opposite wall, the door had been left ajar, leaving room enough for a pair of red ones to vanish as quietly as they had appeared.
The younger light of the new morning streamed in through the chink in the light curtains, beaming into the room and across the girl’s face, causing her to bury herself deeper into the flattened pillows and pull the thin sheet over her head with irritation. “Stupid,” she muttered, blinking away a fresh film of tears as her feelings of separation and fear bubbled like fondue in a melting pot. The uncomfortable pull of the tubes at her wrist eventually forced Levy to stick her arm out of the cocoon of warmth which in turn prompted the chill to settle into her skin, making it impossible for her to nod off again.
Levy stared up the ceiling with a stubborn little frown, warring against her need for attention and her pride. With nothing else to distract her, she rolled over to the side to reach out for the book she had dropped, the rat’s nest her hair formed falling in her face, when she caught sight of the half-full IV and her heart stuttered to a halt.
There was a bubble in the tube, creeping down to her vein, in sync with the water level.
Levy’s mouth went dry, her eyes fixed on it like a lamb to the butcher’s knife. Spotty memories of a hefty encyclopedia in her lap emblazoned with the strangest of monochrome pictures surfaced in her mind, and one black-and-white warning had clearly stated to never let any air in a person’s blood lest it block their heart.
A blind sort of panic, which had been stewing since she had to walk away from her grandfather, began to manifest as pushed herself in a sitting position and fumbled with all of the fiddly bits on the plastic line taped to her arm. The girl tried to pinch the bubble up against the tube instead, with fingers numb from the cold, as the cap failed to budge and pushed back against the recurring burn at the back of her throat, determined not to cry. She couldn’t stop a whine from escaping, though, as she tugged the line and caused the stand to clatter and set the bag swinging to and fro in protest.
The girl was on the brink of giving in to her mask of self-sufficiency and pulling the white cord to call for a nurse, prepared for a chastising when the handle on the door to the ward turned with a sharp click.
Slowly- almost tortuously so- a crack widened between the door and the frame and honey-brown eyes flicked up to meet red, red like stained glass, like rubies, only for the other person to clumsily bump up against the door in alarm and move to shut it-
“Hey! Wait! Come back!” Levy called out in a rush, her voice shattering the silence and echoing through the hall; there was a pause, encouraging her to go on quickly: “Look, there’s a bubble in this IV tube and if I can’t get it out I’m going to die and I’ll get an air embolism and my heart’ll stop- just tell me how I’m s’posed to open the thing-”
“Shut up,” came a harsh whisper, cutting her off and startling her into silence. “Do ya want to wake up the entire building?”
Judging from the unnerving silence that lay over the facility like a thick blanket, the bluenette hadn’t been aware that anyone resided on her floor; regardless, she kept her peace and her mouth shut, hand still tangled in the plastic tube. Cautiously, the person at the other side of the door peered around the corner.
The girl’s curiosity pricked up its ears as she found herself facing a boy- he couldn’t have been much older than she was- with a mane of matted black hair hanging past his shoulders and a skin tone several shades darker and a face dotted with metal studs. He was wary and fierce and challenging and full of bravado all at once, from the way he gripped the wood and his poker-straight posture and how he trained his narrowed eyes on her.
The newcomer took a second to process the decoration and blink in the light flooding in from the windows. Rather pointedly, she rattled the metal IV stand again with impatience to regain his attention.
For all of her displays of haughtiness, however, Levy still defensively brought her legs closer to herself as the stranger hesitantly came up to her bedside like a prowling cat, eyes taking in her blue hair, her flushed face, her mouth set in a defiant line.
The girl had never liked being scrutinized closely: she was always hidden in a corner somewhere, in a room where nobody ever went, to avoid being trampled underfoot or in anyone’s way. The roving gazes of people in lab coats over her little frame- especially her hair- as she stood on weight scales or under a height measure were uncomfortable, but this was something else entirely. There had only been function and mild interest in their eyes; it was nothing compared the powerful curiosity coming off this boy in waves.
Thankfully, he switched his piercing stare to the source of her problem, flicking the tube with a ragged fingernail. The bubble refused to move.
“I tried that,” Levy said helpfully.
He turned his head to look at her in something like vexation, though Levy didn't give in; she kept her ground and returned his gaze just as impudently. “You know that it can’t actually kill you, right?” he said as he moved towards the medicine cabinets, with a sort of tired practice coming from doing the same thing too many times. “That’s just a thing that people tell ya so you’d get scared and listen to ‘em better.”
Levy stared at the side of his head from her position on the bed, wondering at his accent, and then shifted her gaze to his hands, wondering at the metal points embedded in his knuckles. She’d heard that you couldn’t do that, because drilling through your bones would stop your hands working or something like that, yet his seemed to curl and unravel and hold the glimmering cabinet handles perfectly fine.
She felt a bit discomforted, twisting her own hands in the hem of the hospital nightgown lying over her kitten pyjamas, and leaned over to see what he was doing instead. The bluenette stiffened when he withdrew with an empty syringe between his fingers, the thin metal point glinting in the sunlight like a mosquito’s mouthparts. The boy noticed her flinch and clicked his tongue contemptuously, jabbing the point at her and making Levy instinctively jump backwards. “What, are ya scared of needles?”
She glared at him as he went back to the plastic tube and slid the end just below the offending bubble of air, drawing it out with a single pull. “ I-I’m not scared when somebody qualified is at the other end,” she said smartly, picking out big words to try and talk him down.
“Somebody qualified,” he mocked as he withdrew the syringe and snapped the tip off, shoving it through the pert wastebasket under the counter. “I saw your qualified creep in your room at night and take this much-” he held his hands about a quarter foot apart, “-blood from you when you were sleeping, did ya know that?”
“I don’t believe you,” Levy retorted, though the way she reached up to tangle her fingers in her hair betrayed an inner flicker of uncertainty.
He grinned, showing off some rather sharp teeth, and shoved his hands in his pockets. “You think I’m lying? There’s a band-aid on you there. See for yourself.”
Levy eyed him for a moment, before turning and gingerly rolling up her right sleeve. “Ah,” she mumbled as she caught sight of a bland pink square edging the crook of her arm, half in a newfound worry and half abashed that he was right, and looked up at him vigilantly. The girl had picked up an undercurrent behind his words, making her feel as if there was something underlying all the pleasantly tailored decor and simplicity. “Why?”
The smirk went off his face as he stepped back to incline onto the wall, shoving the IV stand out of the way with his foot. “Why? Why what? They do that to everyone here once a week. Yeah, there’s lots more people here,” he added as Levy’s eyes went round, “ with four more kids, and they’re all weirdos like you-”
“Excuse me?” Levy cut in, visibly irked.
“Like us,” he amended, rolling his eyes. “You see freaky things, and freaky things happen around you, nobody believes you, the doctor’s a creep and wants t’be your best friend. Ya know.”
Any previous displeasure with the boy evaporated before her growing interest, her thirst for knowledge, both for his information and at the profound realization that there others here- other kids- other kids who were just like her, who knew and understood the kind of ordeals she had put up with for as long she could remember. Levy shifted to sit cross-legged, clutching the knees of her fluffy yellow pyjama pants. “Okay, go on.”
Encouraged by his audience’s rapt attention, he said, “ So, there’s four more of the special kids and there’s also a whole bunch of normal patients- we all live on the highest two floors of the main building, but the rest is just a normal old hospital. By the way, you’re gonna live here from now on, ya know that?” After the expected gasp from the small girl, and a glance at the door, he went on in a low tone:
“They’re gonna give you this schedule sheet after your first week, and you gotta follow that or they'll take away things from ya, and it’s always measuring you and testing and taking your heartbeat and samples of everything and askin’ ya useless questions like, ‘what do you think of your stay here?’ and ‘have you made friends?’ and whatever, and if you’re good you get a bit o’ money at the end of the week, and if you’re bad ya have to sit in a room with nothing in it by yourself for the whole day.”
Levy asked, in a voice as low as his, “ So it’s really an orphanage?”
This gave him pause. “ I- It’s more like a daycare, maybe, except ya live here and they pay your folks to keep ya.”
The girl thought of her grandfather, solitary in his one-bedroom flat, the glow of his boxy computer on his face the only light after dark and the couch she had made her bed, and then of her aunt’s farm, and then her earliest memories of her and mother reading in office chairs. She was enveloped in a quiet feeling like rain dripping down lonely windows, and fiddled absently with her blanket. “Which ones?”
The boy across from her may have been a bit coarse, but he wasn’t void of empathy; he studied her face out of the corner of his eye and let his voice soften a notch. “Whoever ya saw last, I guess.”
The small girl took a deep breath to steel herself and started patting the bedside, searching for the book she never managed to pick up, seeking comfort like a kitten for its mother; picking up on the action, the boy took his hands out of his pockets, stooped over to collect it and then tossed it with an air of assumed nonchalance onto her lap. Levy managed not to flinch this time, though she could feel a dull tell-tale flush growing under her collar with chagrin at her lapse of composure. “Um- thank you...?”
“No problem,” he mumbled, looking anywhere but her.
Taking it upon herself to clear the now stiff atmosphere, Levy gathered up the paperback in her arms like one would a rabbit and brought up a new question. “But why do they want our... our blood?”
Latching onto the topic, the boy unfolded his arms for his hands to return back into his pockets and leaned against the wall once more. “I dunno what they want with us,” he admitted, “ but they’re probably testing it to see why we can do whatever it is. Then they might as well sell it for money.”
“I think they wouldn’t,” Levy said thoughtfully, playing with her gown. “I mean, if they found out a secret formula-” she’d read those words in many places, and saying it out loud was exciting, “- then they would want to keep it a secret, so they can get a monopoly on it and gain the most advantage over their rivals.”
“What’s your name?”
“What?” His red eyes flicked up to her briefly, searching her face for some kind of hidden motive, before returning to the iron frame supporting the bed. “Gajeel,” he said after a moment of hesitation.
“You’re the weirdest. I’m Levy.” She had half a mind to stick her arm out for him to shake, yet decided against it; he- Gajeel- didn’t seem like the kind of person who would respond favourably to that sort of thing, so she’d probably just be given the cold shoulder. “Why do you have so many piercings?”
He shrugged, subconsciously reaching up to twirl one of those on his brow. “Dunno, they were always there. Did you dye your hair?”
Levy’s reaction was nearly automatic, as it was the one question that people were guaranteed to ask early on in a conversation- she would have wondered why Gajeel didn’t ask sooner if it hadn’t been for his own appearance. “ No, I was born like that.”
He looked up. “Does that mean that your leg hair is blue as well?”
Levy stared. “ What kind of a question is that?”
A shark-toothed grin was starting to form on his face as he leaned forwards. “Does that mean your nose hair-”
“That’s gross!” she protested, cutting him off, feeling her face grow hot, her hair bouncing as she straightened up. “You- you- If someone has nice hair that you haven’t seen before then it doesn’t mean that you can ask to look up their nose, okay?!”
He doubled over, and it took the bemused bluenette half a heartbeat to realize that the odd sound was his laughter- which she really couldn’t be blamed for, as it was certainly the strangest laugh she had ever heard. It was very catchy, and actually almost endearing.
“What is that,” she said, tucking her chin into her chest, doggedly trying to keep up her scowl and forcing her voice as to be flat as the sterile tiles. ”Why can’t you just laugh like a normal person. Look. Ha ha.”
Gajeel buried his face in his hands, shoulders shaking from the effort to suppress his mirth-induced hiccups. “You- gi- that’s so- gihee-”
“Shh!” Levy’s sudden whisper cut through his hilarity like lightning. The rare grin vanished into thin air as he bolted up in alarm, and the girl regained a tight hold on the now-wrinkled sheets, book pushed to the side, as the door handle rasped.
A shaft of fluorescent light widened as it beamed across the room, knifing into the sunlight, interrupted by a looming shadow.
“My!” The new voice hit Levy like a tap between the eyes- it sounded strikingly like her grandfather’s, like anybody’s grandfather, all old and half-amused and calculating. “I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised to find you here, young man, seeing as you’ve been doing nothing but pestering me with questions about our newest member since yesterday.”
The aforementioned arrival looked to Gajeel for his reaction- he had crossed his arms tightly enough to seem as if it would never unravel and looked greatly peeved, resolutely avoiding her eyes. “Whatever,” the boy growled.
“What was that?”
“That’s much better.” The shadow shrunk until a little man- he was even shorter than Levy- stood in the doorway, with his white hair all tufted out- like Einstein, Levy thought. He had the signature white coat- though it appeared to be a little too long, hanging to his ankles and rolled up at the sleeves- and was holding a chipped, overstuffed binder exploding with neon green bookmarks. He peered up critically at Levy, who had manoeuvred into a position with her back at the iron headboard and sat watching him warily, hugging her knees. “Would you be so kind as to introduce your young friend here?”
Again the girl turned to Gajeel. Looking as if he wanted to dig a hole and bury himself alive, he forced out, “Makarov- Levy. Levy- Makarov.”
And in a voice only low enough for Levy to hear, he added, “You’re both shrimpy, so you can get along wonderfully.”
“I’m not a shrimp!” Levy countered heatedly.
“There’s no need to be like that, children,” Makarov intercepted, tapping his binder loudly; the sound rang out through the room and startled them both. “As for you-” he pointed the binder tip at the sulky boy, who snarled, “ I hope you do realize that- hate it as you will- your every examination is meant to help you, and in turn us of course, in understanding the full potential of your abilities! We are not here to simply waste time, my boy, but use it in ways which could benefit a good chunk, if not all, of humanity!”
Levy hoped that his sermon wasn’t falling on deaf ears, though the way Gajeel hunched his shoulders and played with his mane of hair wasn’t too promising. Lacing her fingers together, the bluenette apprehensively spoke up. “Um- Makarov, sir- do I get exams too? I haven’t studied.”
She earned a chuckle in response. “No, no, not that sort of exam; you’ll see soon enough, my child. Give it a week’s time. We’ll visit you plenty- won’t we, boy?”
“Of course,” Gajeel responded readily- noticing both Levy and Makarov’s absurdly surprised expressions, he realized his mistake and slouched even further into himself, colouring all the way up to his ears. “Maybe.”
Makarov was pleased, though he covered it up well with a ruffle of the extraordinary amount of tags poking out from the file, and began to shuffle back out of the chamber. “Do come along, Gajeel- I’m afraid we’re sorely lagging behind in your department... your performance report needs topping up...”
With one last look at Levy, the boy shuffled away from the wall to follow Makarov out of the room. She craned her neck to the side until she couldn’t see him anymore, and the resounding heavy thud of the door clicking in place behind him made her slump in place with a sigh.
As the door shut, however, she did hear one last thing; “Makarov, can I look up your nose?”