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Chapter Text

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.”

“Huh.”

“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.

“That’s weird.”

“You’re weird.”

“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?”

“Yes, sir.”

“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?”

Chapter Text

Levy flipped the page of the faithful, battered paperback that she had been reading, swiftly draining the last of her apple juice, feeling restless and distracted to the brim. Two days by herself in this room was enough to drive her up the whitewashed wall, and it was made all the worse by the fact that nobody had come to visit since her first day, other than a nurse who finally took the needles out of her arm.

She had been lying on her back aimlessly long enough for the lamps embedded in the streetlights down below to flare with life: burning candles in the wet, papery grey sky. A dull black tray on the counter was stacked with ceramic plates, the hospital’s flower logo engraved innocuously on the edge. The dishes had been polished off quite neatly and contained virtually no trace of the curry rice dinner it used to hold.

Levy had no intention of lying idle under the starched sheets for the entire day, however. The longer she sat, gaze thoughtfully lingering over the ottoman, the dark lacewood coffee-table and the somewhat secondhand thick mauve recliner, the more she was drip-fed by a great need to poke at her surroundings, to get up and explore. She absently played with her toes as she dwelt on the thought of an entire two floors dedicated to children like her, simply waiting to be traversed... White hallways tunnelling far beyond, with row upon row of doors left half-ajar, each one spiralling with the colours of a different universe...

The girl drew her hands through her cerulean hair in frustration. Perhaps she ought to be more worried about Gajeel’s predictions of her being confined here forever, or that somebody would be angry if they found her out of bed?

However, from as far back as she could remember, she had always been moving around from house to house and from person to person like a hand-me-down nobody wanted to bother with, like a lump of hot coal you couldn’t hold for too long. Times forced Levy to become largely self-sufficient, riding the subway by herself every morning to school, warming up the TV dinner she would pick up on the way back in the microwave, becoming friendly with the clerks at the convenience store and dodging the questions from strangers concerned about a girl by herself this late at night.

She had clear memories of hugging her red handbag, trotting purposefully through the park to the nearest deli whenever her aunt had been feeling peckish, or down the street to the library when her grandfather forgot she was home, or to the pharmacy on the corner with a list of unpronounceable names her mother had given her.

Thus, despite being so impressively well-read, she had never fully grasped the idea of permanence or having to ask if she could go out; obviously, she wouldn’t be forced to reside in the hospital until she was all old and wrinkly, and they would have locked her door if they wanted her to stay put. It was as simple as that.

She may have also wanted to find Gajeel and hear him laugh again, but that wasn’t really too important.

The bluenette swung her legs purposefully over the side of the bed, cramming the empty juice box into the bin which was empty of nearly everything but the broken syringe. Hugging the rumpled book to her chest, she ducked her head down to peer under the bed and spotted her favourite- and somewhat battered- gold flats, loved to pieces just like her novel.

Levy reached to drag them out and slip them on her feet, sliding onto the floor with firecrackers of adventure going off in her grin. She double-checked that the window was locked and flicked the lights off responsibly before tiptoeing to the door; it stood looming before her like a giant in the darkness, daring her to try and cross.

She determinedly pushed the handle down, and the creaking sound of hinges crying out seemed especially loud in the eerie silence of the hallway. The bluenette peered out, clenching the exit like Gajeel had done, looking both ways warily as she would on a busy road. There were three doors identical to hers- two in front and one on her left- but there was no light coming from underneath any of them so she left it at that.

She tread carefully, and managed to cross to the other end of the hall without mishap.

The mini-world of the floor unfolded before her like a labyrinth. There was another door like hers- Levy tried it, but it was locked, so she decided to take a right instead, where she could hear whispers of the wind mingling with the clamour of the city.

There was no wall this time and floor jutted out into the air, edged by a railing as high as Levy was, wet with the beginnings of a gentle drizzle. The tiles on the sloping roof clattered and dripped with rain, and the view-

She stepped out, the crisp autumn gust flinging drops in her pale face and through her hair, sheltering her book under her hospital gown.

Spread out before the girl were the tops of sleek office buildings and the gleaming contours of silvery avant-garde malls and the crags and arches of chain restaurants, with telephone wires strung about like cobwebs. Serpents of road bridges wound between them, streetlights hung like lanterns, traffic lights and great flourishing neon signs and billboards dazzled her eyes, and far off, where the city thinned out into blocky houses and overgrown hedges, the red-and-orange forest stood on the fringe as a ghost town on fire, rolling with the hills and dotting the great slope of a lone mountain at the edge of the known world.

Levy breathed in harvest air and rubbed her eyes to dispel the rain hanging on her lashes like dew- and as she did so she caught a flash of movement out of the corner of her eye.

The girl snapped her head to the side, suddenly alert.

Around the corner, someone watched her get drenched with round eyes. As they leaned out the bluenette’s heart leapt a little: it was another girl like her, a blonde whose hospital gown was covering a silk nightdress laced with delicate little ribbons and a pattern of pink roses. It was so long that Levy could barely see their feet, which were hidden deep in a pair of feathery bunny slippers.

She was ever conscious of her beaten up flats and her fifteen-dollar kitty jammies and the silly way she was hiding her book from the rain. The other girl looked well-bred, and like one of those at her school who brought the glittery backpacks and keychains and sneaked phones to class and were always giggling behind their hands in their tight-knit groups.

Levy hadn’t yet learned not to count on first impressions, and so chose to hang back, fidgeting with her shirt instead of coming forward and greeting the potential comrade.

In the rigid silence that had begun to solidify, the bluenette looked up briefly to see if she had left; she hadn’t, though the girl looked just as unsettled, and was likewise avoiding her gaze- perhaps she had expected Levy to say something, or had guessed at Levy’s thoughts and believed she was unwelcome?

“Um-” Levy called out, twisting her shirt further. “I-I like your shoes...”

This made the girl look up at her. “Really?”

The bluenette blinked at the gregarious character in her voice. “Yeah, they’re really cute.”

She had said the magic words; the other girl broke out into a confident grin, drawing her hands to her face. “I know, I picked it myself! Hey, why are you standing in the rain?”

“It wasn’t raining so much before...” Levy turned back to the panorama, seeing that thickening curtains of rain had obscured the sights and prevented her from seeing anything but hazy outlines; glad that she had the foresight to keep from being directly under the downpour, she stepped back- and saw with a sinking feeling that her flats squelched wetly and left behind muddy footprints, making her phenomenally easy to track if she did manage to get in trouble. “Ah.”

There was a soft, hurried patter of footsteps, and all of a sudden the blonde girl was by her side. “I can fix that!”

She knelt by Levy’s feet, sweeping her nightdress out of the way, careful not to let it get ruined. The bluenette watched her with a mix of uncertainty and heightening interest as the girl held her hands above the slippers, looking all for the world if she was sheltering a candle flame from the wind. The shorter girl let out a little gasp as a pinkish glow, feminine and fierce just like the wielder, stuttered to life around the water soaking her shoes and tickling her feet.

Her eyes narrowed in concentration as the water trickled out from under Levy and off the balcony in a little stream, drying the flats out as thoroughly as any dry cleaner could (if they dealt in shoes, that is). Like a record suddenly catching the needle, Gajeel’s voice replayed in her head- and they’re all weirdos like us- weirdos like us-

like you-

I can do that?

The blonde girl straightened up with a flounce, dusting off her hands and looking satisfied, and Levy noticed how she was taller than herself; though she wasn’t too surprised, as nearly everyone her age was taller, making for some odd moments in school whenever her class had to stand in line.

Though now was not the time to dwell on her height complex. “That was so cool,” Levy said, lifting her foot up and turning it this way and that in order to examine it better.

“That was nothing,” the girl emphasized. “My dad- Ah...”

Like a light losing its grip on power, her face went blank for a heartbeat- before she glanced at Levy’s arms and noticed the novel she was holding like a pet. “Oh, whatcha’ reading?”

The bluenette let the moment slide and lifted the book to show it to her. “It’s my favourite book- The Golden Compass,” she said fondly, with images of it gift-wrapped in newspaper and in the hands of her mother, smiling, cake frosting on her cheek.

In a show of trust, she let the other girl hold it; the blonde turned it over wonderingly in her hands to read the blurb at the back. “I like books too,” she said as she handed it back, her smile glinting like a star. “I always wanted to write one, and when I was in my class the teacher used to give me gold stickers because I was so good at it.”

“Really?” Levy said with a healthy dose of respect and a niggle of happiness at having the luck to find someone who possessed the same appreciation for literature. “I haven’t really tried writing, though one time I did, and I actually got fifth in district, can you imagine?”

“Wait, was it the Early Writers National contest?”

“Yeah!”

“Ohh, I was in that too! I got third place!”

Levy’s eyes went round like saucers- she remembered well how she had managed to catch her grandfather’s computer unattended that day and had looked up the list of winners online to double-check her good fortune. “Is your name Lucy Heartfilia?”

Yes! What’s your name?”

“Levy McGarden!”

“Wha- Were you the one who got first place in district for number of books read in a month?”

‘Ah! Yes, I was!”

Then they both stood awhile and marvelled at how small the world could be at times.

“That’s cool,” Lucy reflected.

“That’s prodigious,” Levy said, grinning up the blonde, and earned one in return.

The rain began to thin, becoming a veil flowing across the metropolis, lights in countless windows twinkling as if to make up for the lack of stars in the sky. The two girls faced outwards over the land, and presently Lucy looked at the bluenette out of the corner of her eye. “So, you... haven’t been here long.”

Blue hair danced as she shook her head. “I came here four days ago at.. I don’t know, midnight I think.”

“Huh, that’s pretty late. Did you...” Her headstrong voice went soft. “Did you, um, know why? Why you were taken here, I mean?”

“No...” She shut her eyes tight for a moment as, unbidden, a flashback ran through her head- she was on the ratty couch, dozing sleepy-eyed in the droning light of the television, with her book as her pillow, when her grandfather had lurched out of the shadows of his room, lumbering before like the monster under the bed.

Girl. Get up.

There was a touch on her shoulder. Levy brought her hands away from her face turned her head to see Lucy- a jolt went up her spine- Lucy with the beginnings of tears of sympathy glittering in the corners of her own hazel eyes. “It’s fine,” she mumbled. “I didn’t mean to-”

She was cut off when Levy, with a sudden condensation of courage, reached up to pat away her tears with her fluffy sleeve. “That’s okay,” she said firmly. “I used to go to hospitals all the time for check-ups and things- like they would take a cotton swab, or bits of my hair, and carry out CT scans and give me all these vitamins. I thought I had some kind of congenital disease, like a deformed heart maybe, and they were checking to see if I was still okay.”

Lucy swallowed. “So you never saw magic until now?”

Levy scrunched her nose in thought. “I saw magic things,” she said slowly. “Like this one little girl, she was my neighbour once and I saw her that her cat sometimes would have wings. But I never saw anyone do anything magic on purpose.”

Her newfound friend sniffled a bit, then shook her head to clear it, the look of tenacity returning to her face. “I first saw magic when I was little and I stole this key from my father,” she admitted. “I managed to activate it somehow, and this mermaid lady came out... It's a really long story, but it was amazing, though my dad found out and sent me here to be... rehabilitated, I guess.”

“Only rebellious people get rehabilitated,” Levy said boldly, putting her hands on her hips and sticking it to one side. “Our families seem to have gotten the wrong person, dontcha think?”

Lucy smirked, mirroring her posture. “We just gotta be mature and deal with it.”

They both dissolved into fits of hushed giggles, shoulders quivering in unison, with Levy beginning to see why the whole laughing-behind-your-hand was a thing.

After the two had sobered up, Levy remembered the reason that she had emerged from the room in the first place. “Hey, Lucy?”

She had turned back to the railing and was trying to catch raindrops on her tongue. “Mhm?”

“What’s the rest of this hospital like?”

The blonde girl closed her mouth and tipped her head back thoughtfully. “Well... The main building- this one, we’re at the very back- kinda looks like a really big rectangle doughnut, and the hole is a garden with all these fountains and benches and pine and cherry trees.

‘There’s a long wall around the garden- which is also pretty great- and the other three buildings are in front and half the size of this one. And, um, there are sixteen rooms on this floor and eight are empty- mine’s over there,” she added, pointing to the door which Levy had previously tried to open and found locked.

“Two rooms are Makarov’s and Erza’s- you’ll see her soon enough, don’t worry. The floor under this is all ours, it’s got a bunch of crazy rooms in it, and there’s like a canteen on the other three floors with the main one on the first floor and it’s got a dirty great terrace opening up to the garden.”

A bit of a crafty look was coming on. “Why don’t I just show you around a bit?”

Levy perked up, gathering up her book- her aim of exploring would be twice as fun with a companion by her side- and glanced at the darkened sky, gauging the time to be about seven o’ clock. “Okay, but I only got two hours ‘till nine.”

Lucy huffed. “You sleep at nine? That’s so early- I got to bed at like eleven!”

“Eleven?!”

“Yeah- hey, tell you what, let’s pull an all-nighter-” she winked at Levy’s unsure expression, “-  hey, there’s way too much stuff to look at, of course we can't get all it done in just two hours!”

“Alright,” Levy dragged out, mulling over the consequences in her head; there wasn’t anybody who could tell her off for staying up late, and it wasn’t as if tomorrow was a school night or anything.

The blonde snapped her fingers. “Let’s see. We can go check out the exam room, ‘cause you gotta go there sooner or later and it’s better if you know what’s it’s like beforehand.”

They both set off for the stairs that Levy had formerly turned her back on. They were quite wide, to reduce the chances of children falling, and made of marble, ivory white like everything else, with silken mahogany railings and a well-polished look about it. There was a shiny elevator, colossal in Levy’s eyes, with a laminated black-and-yellow notice-‘Out of Order’- scotch-taped over the still doors.

“Yeah, that’s Gray’s doing, you should’ve seen the inside,” Lucy said casually as Levy studied it.

“Gray?”

“Ice Princess,” the blonde offered as way of explanation while they descended the stairs, hands sliding on the railing. Levy filed away that information for later; no doubt it would come up later, and her experience had taught her that all information could be important, no matter how small it seems.

After hopping down two steps at a time, they came to the fourth floor. There was only one row of rooms and not double like the floor above, and the hallways were accordingly much more spacious here, furnished with spindly lamps, pictures of ducks and lakes and whatnot, rows of plastic chairs one would see in a reception office and the odd burn mark now and there. Levy pointed those out.

“Natsu Igneel,” Lucy replied, and the bluenette blinked, noticing a strange sort of flush come up the girl’s otherwise composed face as she absently twirled one of the ribbons on her expensive nightdress. Something else to note.

“Okay, this is the exam room here,” Lucy said, and Levy left that thought as she gazed with an air of bemusement at the door in front- it wasn’t a door as much as a hatch, like one they would use to cover a great vault in a bank. It was round, with a diameter twice as long as the girl, and made of heavy-looking metal which glittered dully in the relentless light.

It fit so snugly in the wall that a knife wouldn’t have been able to slide in. There was no way to open it other than a little black square on the wall, at a comfortable distance for an adult to put their hand on.

“I think they should have put you in their database by now,” Lucy ruminated. “Seeing as it’s been four days and all- try putting your hand on the biometric scanner, it won’t hurt you. Probably.”

Levy wandered over to the square and, after a moment’s pause, tucked her book under her arm, stood on the tips of her toes and pressed her palm down.

At first, nothing happened- but then a green light filtered through her fingers, and a resounding, frigid hiss escaped from the door as it slowly swivelled inwards. There was a crackle as rows of lights inside automatically flickered on accompanied by the faint sound of hidden machinery. Levy eagerly clambered inside, followed shortly by Lucy.

It was like a mix between a gymnasium, a game room and a playground. The walls were heavily padded, while the lights were embedded in the ceiling and covered with a thick layer of bulletproof plastic (according to Lucy). There were all manners of contained areas with specific tools suiting a certain theme- one large block was all decked out with an insane manner of agility-testing equipment, from monkey bars to ziplines rock walls. Another had a range of targets and clay pigeons and trapdoors, one had rows of colourful buttons on the floor, and there was even a swimming pool in one corner.

Levy rubbed her eyes ferociously, blinking them open to find Lucy leaning in front, with that smile back on her face. “Isn’t it great?”

“When you said examination room,” Levy said weakly, “I imagined- I mean, I know Mr Makarov told me it wasn’t, but still- I thought there would be like, big fancy desks, and tablets, and...”

“And you thought wrong,” Lucy said triumphantly, skipping back before turning around fully and running off towards the monkey bars. “Come on, what’s the point of standing around with your mouth open like that?”

All her previous life, marred with days by herself and nights with no company, had never seemed so far away as the girl shook her head wildly and took off, laughing the most she had for years.

~~~

They scrambled through every crack of the jungle gym, took turns shooting tennis balls at bulls-eyes the other would hold up, tried to see who would push the other into the pool first, and had a contest on how long they could run on the treadmill; finally, Levy McGarden slumped on a pile of plush, vaguely humanoid targets, feeling like a burned-out battery. “Lucyyy...”

“Hm.” The blonde was leaning heavy-eyed against the fluffy support, her head lolling to one side as she tried to braid her own hair.

“How’re we s’posed to pull off an all-nighter like this?” The blue-haired girl mumbled sleepily as she threw an arm across her eyes to block out the light.

“We can do it tomorrow,” Lucy replied absently, glancing towards the clock on the wall with visible effort. It read ‘9:30’.

Levy groaned. “I want to sleep forever.”

“Hm.”

“...Lucy?”

“Hm?”

“We.. er, made a bit of a mess...” Shattered clay pigeons, tennis balls, puddles of pool water, scattered targets, bits of fluff from one they managed to rip lay haphazardly about the room wih reproach, forcing the girl to look away.

“Hm.”

Levy felt the tug of sleep like water rushing down a drain when the plug is pulled, though she managed to curl up and tuck her book safely in her arms- it had sat obediently in a corner all throughout the chaos.

 

And it was with her on the ship, always swaying, bobbing up and down, the waves and her hair... her two cousins swam merrily in the ocean and her grandfather scurried about trying to haul the anchor up, chanting ‘Get up. Get up.’. There was a pretty fluted glass of apple juice in her hand and a great orange ball gown on her body.

Her mother leaned back serenely on the black railing, silhouetted by the sun and the moon, her dress all white and ruffled and painfully shiny and her expression impossible to decipher.

“I know you can’t wait," she murmured.

"Can't wait for what?"

"To get married."

"W- I don't- to who?!"

"That's such a funny question!" A laugh rang out like the pealing of an enormous bell." Gajeel, of course!"

The bluenette dropped her glass in the water. “What?”

Her smile was far too wide and beamed like sunlight straight into her eyes. “I’m so proud, Levy, I’m proud, Levy, Im's'proud- Levy- LEVY-”

“Stop screaming-”

“SHRIMP-!”

Levy threw herself upright but squealed as she slammed into something- a bolt of pain bolted down her forehead like a hammer, causing adrenaline to spike confusedly in her blood. She fell back helplessly as if there were no bones left in her body. “Argh..."

Blearily through her sleep-clogged eyes, she was able to register that someone had been floored, and could dimly hear them groaning. Her inner self scurried about the shattered pieces of her woozy mind, trying to pick them up as a blunt pain lanced through her head and muddled up her thoughts.

Eventually, she began to move about in a feeble manner, testing out her control of her limbs, and pulled herself around in a vague sort of sitting position; the bluenette registered Lucy still snoring away peaceably at her side, oblivious to it all.

Where? Ah, the exam room, she had been horsing about here. She turned to look at the figure hunched over on the floor, glaring at her reproachfully, rubbing his own forehead with the heel of his hand.

 

‘I know you can’t wait-’

“No!” she squealed, throwing herself backwards, suddenly needing, trying to put some distance between them, all of her nerves quivering on end.

He stared accusingly with those crimson eyes, dropping his hand to the floor. “You can’t what?”

She shook her head furiously, blue locks dancing about, heat crawling up her face and making her newly christened headache throb harder. “I barely know you-”

“What are you on about?” he said, completely bewildered. “Have you gone nuts?”

Levy buried her face in her hands and forced herself to calm down, refusing to gasp for air like her body was demanding her to, the flush retreating bit by bit and leaving her with another horrendously awkward situation on her hands. She must have jolted up and hit him- especially those blasted piercings- with full force, enough to knock them both backwards. “Sorry, sorry, you scared me,” she mumbled through her fingers, waiting for her mortification to abate.

He slowly sat back, tipping his chin up a little, and gave her a once-over; the bluenette was sprawled out over a pile of targets, the same type that he had spent the entire day beating the literal stuffing out of. Her hair curled boldly around her ears and straggled around her shoulders, in need of a comb; when she slowly took her face out of her hands, her honey-brown eyes were bright with exhaustion. Oh, and Lucy was there too, snoring away on her side.

Once Levy’s heartbeat had slowed to its normal rhythm and she trusted her tongue not to make more of a fool out of herself, she rolled her shoulders and looked up at Gajeel- who blinked, distracted, drawn out of his reverie. “Yes?” she questioned, watching him like an agitated cat.

He took a moment to look around at the state the room was in with a sort of sardonic amusement. “Ahh, you’re gonna be in so much trouble when Makarov finds out.”

The girl tensed. “Huh?”

“What, she didn’t tell you?” He jerked his shoulders in Lucy’s direction. “If they find you in here without permission, you get locked in your room for a whole week, ya know?”

“I don’t believe you,” she pouted, only serving to make him grin wider. “And you’re in here too, so there.”

“No, no,” he said, shaking his head patiently. “They sent me here to fetch ya to their office personally ‘cause they could hear ya all the way up there, you were making such a racket. Sounded like someone with trying to bomb the place.”

Levy’s goody-two-shoes nature started to give her trouble, and she whipped around to assess the damage with solid apprehension in her movements- it really became worse the more she looked at it, and she whirled back around to face Gajeel with panic surfacing on her features. “Wait, i-it doesn’t seem that bad-”

She shut her mouth with an audible snap as she noticed the way he was looking at her, with his chin on his fists, scarlet eyes twinkling with amusement. “Gajeel!”

He started to chuckle, ducking his head, with that odd sort of ‘gihee’ noise she had never heard come from anyone else before, and Levy’s mental checklist flashed in her mind, now all ticked off; she pushed it down with budding irritation. “You big meanie! You can’t just tease people for fun, you really scared me there-”

“But teasing you is the best,” he said with a smirk still on his face, and pushed himself off the ground, getting to his feet. “You gonna drag blondewad all the way or what?”

“It’s Lucy, not blondewad,“ she scolded as she leaned over the snoozing girl. “Hey, Luuucy! Wake up!”

It took shouting in her ears to get her to stir to wakefulness, which came soon enough when she laid eyes on Gajeel. “Ah, him,” she said with clear distaste, raising her eyebrows at Levy. “Do you already...?”

“Unfortunately,” they both intoned at the same time, and squinted at each other.

“It’s ten,” Lucy pointed out as an attempt to defuse the situation.

“I thought you slept at eleven?” Levy asked, scooping her book and standing up on legs wobbly like a newborn fawn’s, reaching over to help the girl up.

“Yeah, I do,” Lucy shot a glare over at the black-haired boy, who tilted his head to the side and was starting to develop another sharp-toothed smirk. “We’ll just make an exception this time.”

They all climbed back out of the trashed examination room, with Lucy pressing her hand to the little square to shut the door again. Making their up the steps in silence, the bluenette felt tiredness seep into her bones once more and weigh her steps down threefold; she rubbed her fist into her eye to try and keep the drowsy tug at bay until she could reach her bed.

Through a fog her mind was conjuring, she half-heard Lucy murmur to Gajeel, “Listen, boy, give me a straight answer- why’d you come to the exam room back there?”

“You’re starting t’ sound like Erza.”

Tch.”

He doggedly kept his eyes ahead of them, brows drawing together in a frown, and shrugged. “I heard the racket you two were making, and knew that ya wouldn’t make it back up by yourselves.”

Lucy glanced up at him through her hair with a look in her brown eyes, as if there was something only they were privy to. “Hm. I don't know about you, but I've never heard of Mr High-and-Mighty being so responsible.”

Gajeel narrowed his eyes, a prickly uncomfortable feeling growing under his collar, and growled in warning. “Can it.”

They made it to Lucy’s door first, and she tackled a momentarily startled Levy with a hug, while pointing two fingers to her eyes and then to black-haired boy’s, before disappearing into her room- in the flash before the door shut, the bluenette managed to catch a glimpse of pink and gold and plush furniture.

Behind her, Gajeel muttered something, twining a lock of his hair around his fingers and throwing it over his shoulders. “Good riddance.”

“Be nice,” she yawned, squeezing her eyes shut and rubbing her face with her hands. She felt uneasy, as if the autumn chill had crept into her mind as well as soaked through her clothes.

Turning into her own hall, all white and static and impersonal, made something curl inside her like a frightened hedgehog, though it was only at her door that she realized what it was. A fear of loneliness. All throughout her laughing, and her talking, and her breathing, she was scared of losing her grip on a handle she’d long forgotten how to hold properly.

The words ‘lonely’ held so much more feeling to her than ‘love’, and she felt that it was supposed to be terribly sad and all, but then you can’t miss what you barely know. Memories are like the ground one walks on; her earth was all the walks she made by herself, alone, standing in crowds taller than she would ever be, keeping everything all patiently bottled up until she was alone again.

Levy felt older than the oldest granny on earth, and she didn’t know what to do to become a child again.

I’m twelve, she reminded herself. I can’t cry if I want something like a little baby would.

“What’s the hold up?”

The bluenette started- she’d been doing that a lot recently- as she hadn’t realised that Gajeel had followed her all the way to her room. He stood with his hands in his pockets and a scowl on his face, weight on one leg, just sort of standing around and waiting for her to go in.

He looked down at her face and the scowl disappeared- Levy blanked for a second, hoping that her countenance hadn’t given anything away. “Oh, I just remembered something I wanted to ask- who’s Natsu?”

The boy clicked his tongue. “Dunno, some idiot. Why?”

“Don’t call people idiots! Lucy mentioned him when I asked about the burns on the walls downstairs.” She gave him a smile, like she was trying to imitate the sun. “Guess I’ll have to find out by myself. See you later, Gajeel!”

He didn’t return the smile, only studied her face attentively. “I guess.”

Levy blinked, and quickly pushed down on the handle, eager to remove herself from the mood at hand; she tottered back and all but vanished inside the cavern-like darkness of the room, keeping her eyes fixed on the tiles.

Gajeel was still standing outside when she shut the door.

The bluenette kicked off her shoes and tramped over to her bed, burrowing in the covers, pulling the pillow over her head and holding the book to her heart as if it could take her back in time, trying with all her power to forget the look on his face.

Chapter Text

Levy lay back on the burnished recliner, fresh after a shower, her hair bundled up snugly in a lean, chalky white towel and her body swathed in the monogrammed sweats that she had found in one of the ivory cupboards. She had managed to push the cushioned back nearly parallel to the floor, with her legs dangling sedately over the armrest and a book bigger than her head held up over her face by both hands.

The thick curtains had been drawn back to allow some softer light to filter into the room, and the ribbed thermostat on the wall had been turned up to chase out the early morning chill. Her mind was peaceful and held no trace of the slew of emotions that had plagued her the night before; indeed, it was as if it had never happened.

The queerly antique shelf she had picked it from contained several creased, outdated magazines and thick hardcovers which would be of no interest to most children, mainly droning on about architecture and politics and the most mundane of finances. The small bluenette managed to pick up one about local nature- ‘Wildlife On Your Doorstep: The Living Countryside’- and concentrated on exploring for examples she had experienced personally, treating it as a sort of puzzle.

Her eyes trailed over engravings of songbirds and flowers unravelling across the pages as she absently mouthed the words. ‘The variety ‘Cheal’s Weeping’ has pink or white flowers, which appear at the same time as its leaves, usually in late April. This variety often has a lop-sided shape.

The elegant, ponderous figure of the aforementioned tree laced thickly with thousands of white flowers was featured at the top of the page, filling nearly half of the space available. Levy remembered Lucy mentioning cherry trees in her description of the establishment, and lazily wondered if this particular type might be present as well.

There was a soft bumpy noise from outside, like someone nearly tripping over their feet.

Levy blinked, focusing back onto the world around her- there was a subtle shift in the atmosphere, and the girl felt the disquieting needling sensation of eyes on her back. She leaned back over the armrest, causing the towel to slide off her hair and to the floor with a muffled thud. Her now-dry hair fanned out as she looked to the door; sure enough, there was a shadow blocking the light streaming in from the chink at the bottom.

She pushed herself straight, quickly dog-earing her book, and snatched the towel up from the floor to drape it over the recliner. It was probably that stoic, redheaded nurse with a tray of something or other or a thermometer or a bottle of vitamin gummies. Perhaps it was Lucy calling on her to delve into the rest of the building, or maybe Makarov had decided to take her exams early.

The stout doorknob turned hesitantly, and a pair of arrogant and somewhat anxious red eyes appeared in the gap.

Or perhaps the universe doesn’t like me.

Carefully, Gajeel pushed open the door with his elbow. He had string tied around the ankles of his corduroys and wore this white shirt with most of the sleeves cut off, those signature metal dots lining his arms and catching the light. With a subtle motion, he pushed the door shut again using his foot, and turned to face her properly, wondering if she would continue in the same awkward vein as they had parted in last.

But Levy only had eyes for what he was cradling in his arms- a cat, an actual, honest-to-goodness cat-  it had fur the colour of coal dust, a white muzzle with haughty amber-grey eyes and looked a little miffed, as if it had much better places to be, the tip of its long tail curling and uncurling in a smooth endless cycle. The blue-haired girl was fascinated with the motion and how the light dusted it and the way it coolly surveyed her right back..

“Wow,” she whispered, her unease melting away like butter.

“What kinda old person book are you even reading?” The boy’s derisive voice cut through the quiet, demanding her attention.

“Wha? Oh, leave it,” she said impatiently, shoving the book onto the nearby ottoman and scrambled upright to point at the animal he was holding. “Who...?”

For a moment, he didn’t answer, gaze shifting away to the empty IV stand near the bed or at the pair of little gold flats tucked away in the corner- anything but her- with the lines he had practised throughout the night dying on his tongue. “It’s a cat,” he finished lamely.

“Ah, thanks,” Levy deadpanned. “I thought it was a tortoise for a moment there. I mean, is it yours- ?”

He shrugged, jostling the cat and making it snarl briefly. “I dunno. I found ‘im in the hospital garden, just sort of milling around with this great big slash on his face, so I gave him a bit of the sandwich I had at the time. After that he kept climbing up to my window and I let him in sometimes, when nobody’s looking.”

Levy was now on her knees, gripping the leather armrests with poorly concealed excitement. There used to be many half-wild stray cats wandering the alleyways and getting into loudly vicious brawls at night, but she could never get very close to one, certainly not enough to touch. “Hello,” she whispered.

The cat actually meowed back, in a growly voice that rang deep yet smooth like polished granite. “Hello,” she tried again, with a smile unfolding on her face as he let out another mewl.

Something small and warm was running about in her chest, bumping against her heart as she gave the cat a slow deliberate blink, just like her mother had taught her to do. I like you.

The cat looked her up and down with faint approval, and Levy took this as encouragement; she flexed her fingers and reached out softly, ever so carefully, as if she was trying to stroke a butterfly, looking up at Gajeel for his blessing.

He had been alternating between watching the animal and glancing at the girl- the slow gesture she made let him take a step forward, oddly conscious of the distance he was closing. Levy’s fingers met in the cat’s fur and dubiously she started to pat it, her inexperience embarrassingly clear; clicking his tongue in mock scorn, the red-eyed boy took up her hand with bravado and guided it with care across the creature’s back. “It’s like you’ve never even seen a cat before.”

The bluenette’s spirits couldn’t have been dampened by the hardest of rainstorms, her eyes practically sparkling. “It’s purring,” she said in a low voice thick with awe- it was if a king had deigned to pat her head out of all the other children in the world.

“He,” Gajeel corrected automatically, now unsure of when he was supposed to let go of her hand.

“Okay, and what’s his- wait, leave me and sit down, you look dumb standing around like that- what’s his name?”

From his new position on the ottoman, sitting cross-legged with the same sovereign expression as the cat perched on his lap, he scanned the short girl bouncing about in front of him, nearly eaten up by the ritzy leather chair. “He doesn’t really have one yet, I just call him ‘cat’ when I need to.”

“That’s evil!” she protested. “If you won’t give him a name, I’m going to call him Lily because he’s cute.”

He looked aghast, clutching a hand at his chest. “What?! No way, ya can’t name him after a flower, that’s the stupidest-”

“No it’s not,” she interrupted indignantly. “You’re just jealous ‘cause he’s way cuter than you’ll ever be-”

“I-I don’t- I’m not- There’s no way I’m going to name him something as girly as Lily-”

“Yeah, well, it’s your fault for not naming him first-”

“I’m not calling him Lily, we’re calling him Panther because Lily is the worst-”

As they bickered, the cat had leisurely shifted off Gajeel’s lap,  snagged its claws on the recliner a couple of times and then strolled over, unbothered by the noise, to leap up on the bed and inspect the area of the marbled counter where Levy usually kept her dirty dishes.

“Then he can be Panther Lily, that’s a thing-”

“It’s my cat, why do you get to name him?!”

“I’m your friend, why don’t I get to name him?” she shot back.

“Just because- ah,” he said as it hit him, causing him to lose all steam.

“Lily,” Levy called out, twisting around. “Panther Lily!”

The cat looked up, acknowledging her with a flick of its rounded ears and a mrow, before continuing to search for morsels.

“See,” the girl pointed out triumphantly. “He likes it.”

Gajeel put his head in his hands, mumbling under his breath.

“What was that?”

“I’m not calling him Lily,” he grumbled.

“Then you can just call him Panther,” Levy said imperiously, swinging her legs back up on the armrests and reaching out for the book she had been reading. “I’ll call him Lily.”

“He’ll get confused.”

“He won’t, cats are very intelligent creatures.” She cracked the heavy pages open to seek out the page that she had been perusing.

“Oh no, don’t read,” he groaned, tugging morosely at his ebony hair. “You’re the most boring person on earth, all you do is read...”

Levy had half a mind to tell him where the door was, but she felt like that would be crossing a line; she had, after all, loudly announced him as her friend without his consent (though he hadn’t made much of a fuss about it) and felt tired of arguing. “Tell me what else I’m supposed to do, then.”

“First one to laugh loses.”

“Fine. Who’s the most royal of all dry fruit?”

He hadn’t heard this one before. “What?”

“The sultana.”

Birds chirped outside on the windowsill, playfully flirting their wings as Gajeel let the silence come between them. “That was,” he paused for emphasis, “the lamest thing I have ever heard.”

She scrunched up her nose at him like a bunny, making him blink. “What, it’s not as if you can come up with anything better!”

“What’s the difference between you and a shrimp?”

“The same difference between you and a dirty mop.”

“How did Sherlock Holmes learn to add two and two together?”

“In elementary, my dear Watson.”

“Spell ‘icup’.”

“No.”

Gajeel was sure that he could have drawn more out of his arguably vast repertoire, but the longer he looked at her pout the harder it became to think of anything witty. The boy dragged his gaze away and moodily glared at the off-white inlay on the floor tiles, picking at the lining of the spongy stool he was roosting on. “Well, whatever.”

Levy picked up her book again.

“Hey, Shrimp, listen, yesterday-”

“I’m not a shrimp,” she whined.

“- when you went out with Luigi-”

“She’s not Luigi!”

"- did she tell ya that there's a nest of eagles on the second floor?"

The bluenette gawked at him, her hand hovering over the green hardcover with fledgling interest flared up on her face. "No?"

“Then do ya wanna see it?”

“Yeah!” Hawks- regal beasts with fiery eyes and claws like scalpels-she pushed hurriedly off the chair, eager to get going, eager for any sort of activity really, and had reached the door with both the encyclopedia and her novel in arm when she saw that Gajeel hadn’t moved. “Aren’t you coming?”

Casually, he studied his fingernails. “I never said I’d take you, I only asked if you wanted to see.”

She bounced on her heels impatiently. “Gajeel...”

“Say ‘please’.”

“Please.”

“Please what?”

The girl sighed loudly, standing on one leg as she slipped her flats on. “Please take me to see the hawks.”

“Leave the books.”

“But I want to identify them and see if they’re rare,” she groused. “I won’t read anything, I promise.”

He took his time, gradually uncrossing his legs, cracking his knuckles and stretching out as leisurely as Lily. Levy narrowed her brown eyes at him, slowly coming onto the realization that she was being played with, and deftly unlocked the door and stepped outside herself. “Or maybe I’ll just go alone with no annoying boys to bother me.”

The effect was so fast that it was almost comical. “Wait- fine,” he said, hopping to his feet.

“What about Lily?” Levy asked over her shoulder as she twisted the dial of the heating to zero and prepared to push the door closed; the cat hadn’t moved from his warm position at the foot of her hospital bed, his head on his paws.

“I left the window open, Panther’s not a sissy- he’ll be fine.”

As they walked down the corridors- the girl having to trot quickly in order to keep up with the taller boy’s strides- they passed Lucy’s room, and Levy looked back longingly at the verandah with the magical view. She was forced to wrap her skinny arms tightly around the two books she was holding in order to hold them comfortably plus avoid looking like a fool, and it was bitingly cold outside of the artificial heat of her cabin. Frigid wind filtered through the loose clothes she had picked up, bringing forth a shiver, and she felt herself long for the kitty jammies that she had dutifully washed in the snowy sink and folded away in a vacant cupboard.

She risked a peek at Gajeel to see if he was likewise affected but was startled as she caught his eye. “Why is it that you’re always carrying some book or another? Especially that one,” he asked as they descended the stairs, tilting his head in the direction of the offending tome, his carmine eyes intense with curiosity.

The cobalt cover crinkled as she held it tighter to her body, trying to breathe in the pages worn with use and love and smudged with cake and highlighter and grass stains. It was as poignant as a sepia photograph to her soul, and the key for the loaded memories she dreamed of at night.

But she felt suddenly shy with him, so none of her emotions was in her reply. “It’s so that I can avoid getting bored by just opening it at one of these bookmarked parts, though now it’s just with me out of habit. These are my favourite bits,” she explained, showing him the tagged pages as she hurried along beside him. It wasn’t really a lie, so she felt safe for the moment.

He looked as if he was going to say something else but the appearance of the floor with the exam room gave him pause. “Wait here,” he instructed as he ran off to open the vault-like door and climb inside, leaving the perplexed girl to stand by herself on the step for a moment, her hair falling into her eyes and the books slowly beginning to reflect the warmth of her body.

Gajeel emerged hastily with a bundle in his arms, and Levy blurted out the first thing she could think of- “Is that a baby?”

She shut her big mouth with an audible snap, feeling an unwelcome pink heat begin to creep up her face as he gave her an incredulous stare. “Yeah, congratulations, you’re the father,” he snapped, voice heavy with sarcasm as he tossed one at her, causing it to land squarely on her head. “It’s a jacket- you were going all red from the cold back there like some kind of shrimpy chameleon.”

“I never thought that we were going to be parents so soon,” Levy mumbled with the grey hoodie still draped over her head. “ And it’s great that they just happened to be lying around. Ugh- Gajeel, hold these books for me, my arms are full-”

The words vanished in her throat as she caught sight of him, frozen in the middle of wearing the coat with his red eyes fixed on her like a deer in the headlights. He turned away from her gaze, fingers fumbling at the zip and pulling the leather collar up over his ears, and the inquisitive bluenette caught glimpses of the blush painted on his face. “Don’t say such weird things, ya weirdo,” he muttered.

“Yessir.”

“Just- shut up,” he said as he brushed past her and stomped unceremoniously down the stairs.

Waaait!” She dropped the writings with a heavy thud and frantically bumbled with the soft material of the hoodie. Pulling the silver hood over her hair and gathering her precious books back up in her arms, she skittered down the steps to join him at the base.

He had unlocked the gate at the end of the stairs and was leaning against the heavy railing, his hands in the pockets of the leather jacket, eyes watchfully scanning the large lobby laid out before them. It was full of cushy rows of black businesslike couches, coffee tables with stacks of newspapers, charging stations bristling with wires and milky white pillars edged with soothing tan holding up the ceiling.

Two extensive semicircular reception desks were cut away snugly into the wall and plastered with colourful health warnings and charity boxes and glossy dove computers. Large frosted windows similar to the ones in Levy’s room made up the far wall, looking out to the distant opposite side of the hospital, where the outlines of lab coats and stretchers wafted past like ghosts.

And there were people, all kinds of people- it didn’t seem to be rush hour at the moment, or perhaps the stairs to the Fairy Tail ward were cleverly situated in a place less likely to overcrowd. The short girl surreptitiously shifted closer to Gajeel as she gazed about the throng of humans mixing and breaking up into groups like a thin shoal of sardines. Sullen teenagers fiddled with their phones, mothers sat nursing their restless children, elderly people shuffled the newspaper, the receptionists picked at the telephone; and unceasingly throughout the contained movement were lines of official-looking doctors and nurses hurrying about, herding patients and carrying clipboards.

This was the world Levy had left behind. She should have been in the corner, hands awkwardly on her lap as she sat a distance away from her grandfather or holding up the newspaper for her aunt or curled up on her mother’s lap. Instead she stood there in a too-big hoodie, clutching her books to her chest, alienated, alone.

No, not alone. Because for the first in a long time, she was with someone, not beside them; she grinned with them, not for them; she was wanted, not wanting-

The girl felt her emotions lap at her feet like an ocean, felt shy again, felt hyperaware of how she felt special.

“Shrimp? Levy?” Gajeel had stopped reclining on the barrier, pushing himself off and bending down a little to try and peer into her face, starting to get worried at her static form and her unnerving silence. He snapped his fingers, and the sudden sound dashed the bluenette back to earth. “Uh?”

“Earth to shorty- we have a mission to fulfil, do you copy?” His eyes glittered crimson, and Levy found it difficult to look straight into them.

“I’m not that short,” she retorted, her voice muffled as she buried herself up to her nose in the satin lining of her jacket. “Copy that. All these people overwhelmed me a little- I don’t like crowds, that’s all.”

He raised his eyebrows but thankfully decided not to pry any further and straightened up, narrowed eyes roving over the throng of heads. “There,” he conveyed, gesturing to the far side of the room where a pair of thickset double-doors stood guarding the exit. Nothing was visible through the thin rectangular windows.

The pair shut the gate to the floor above and crossed the room- Levy noticed with an uninvited flutter in her stomach that he’d placed himself to her left, blocking her from view, from the sharp points of inspecting eyes.

It’s just a coincidence, she thought irritably. He simply happens to be walking on my left and there is nothing to it. Don’t make things weird, Levy.

They pushed the weighty doors open together, and found that it opened up to a short empty foyer with a steel door like the one used in restaurants to hide the kitchen at one end. To the right were a flight of stairs leading downwards and a carpeted corridor with an elevator waiting on the other end, conspicuously missing the 'Out of Order' sign that the contraption on the floor above was currently sporting.

“A multiple choice test,” Levy thought out loud. “Stairs or elevator?”

“How about none of the above,” Gajeel offered.

She blinked, trying to imagine what that would look like. “You want to go out through the window?”

That made him smirk. “Sure, no problem, but you should know that shrimp always go first.”

“You’re obnoxious,” she counterattacked, already moving towards the elevator. “Let’s go in here, I like pressing the buttons...”

He made no move to follow her and instead chose to wheel around and head for the stairs. “You’re tired after one bunch of stairs? You gotta be kidding...”

“I’m not,” she emphasized, hand hovering over the metal ‘2’ on the panel. “I just like to ride in elevators!”

“Too bad, I’m being a man and taking the stairs.”

“I’m not a man, so I’m gonna go in the elevator and you’ll be left behind,” she warned.

He realized that she wasn’t going to budge and stopped in the middle of the flight, his shoulders hunching up. “Shrimp-”

“Levy!”

“Whatever. Can we just use the stairs?”

She turned around to face him now, becoming curious. “Why do you want to use the stairs so much?”

The boy stood with his back to her, seeming to wage an inner war with himself, before finally looking up at the bluenette with his scarlet eyes like a feral cat's, wary and distrustful. “If you laugh...”

“I would never!”

“Fine!” He shifted and his eyes flickered over the steps for a moment, trying to buy as much time as was possible. ”...See, I... I get motion sick.”

She looked almost disappointed, lowering her books from her mouth. “That’s it?”

He bristled like a little hedgehog. “Whaddya mean, that’s it? I think of being so high up in the air, only hanging on by a couple’a ropes and falling and being trapped in this tight shiny box and I start to get really sick, okay?”

Levy felt trickles of guilt going down her heart like oil and left the elevator with her beloved buttons, tottering over to him. “Sorry, Gajeel,” she murmured, tilting her hood back to peer him in the eyes.

He stood in front of her, shifting on the spot and holding her gaze for nearly too long, before abruptly starting down the stairs. “There’s nothing to be sorry about. Stop apologizing,” he muttered, taking his hands out of his pockets to pull his collar higher over his mouth.

The staircase took them out to a great passageway the size of the lobby, with more carved pillars, textured walls and gleaming plaques engraved with the names of various donors. Signs hanging from the ceiling like those in airports pointed out the directions of the nearest rooms and one side of the area formed another verandah like the one on Levy’s floor. This one was a little shorter, though it opened out to a sight just as breathtaking- a lake of leaves the colour of fire and mandarins and the sun, rustling fiercely alongside millions of soft tiny pink and white blossoms all the size of Levy’s little toe.

“Gajeel!” she squeaked excitedly, tugging on the black leather of his sleeve. “Look at that! It’s so pretty- it’s beautiful- I didn’t know they bloomed in autumn-”

She left his side in an instant, racing over the slippery cream tiles and weaving past families and people in wheelchairs like a little flickering fish to rush over and grab the stout wooden rails with a passion. She leaned over as far out as she dared, standing on the tips of her ballet flats to eat up the view; the wind played with the locks of cyan hair sticking out of the hood, tousling it and whisking it about, bringing the scent of cold and fire and earth and the sweet pull of cherry blossom. Gajeel followed her to the railing, drawn like a magnet; he’d seen this same spread of trees many times before, it was nothing new to him. There wasn’t really anything in it, no reason to step over his fear of heights as if it were a doormat. He was just feeling a bit brave.

Levy grinned toothily up at him, her hair ruffled, her cheeks flushed with the cold, the neck of that oversized jacket folding up at her chin. The boy forced himself to turn his head and stare unseeing at all the dumb flowers down on the ground below.

Just a bit brave, that’s all.

“I can see the eagles in their nest,” the bluenette gasped, bringing him back to earth- she was looking out over the balcony and pointing wildly to a far corner where the walls met. “Over there! No, to the left- that’s your right, over there-”

“Stop that- I know where it is, I’ve seen it before,” he snapped. Right, the birds. He’d completely forgotten.

Levy was struck by a thought, and she struggled excitedly with the books in her arms until she had managed to pull out Wildlife At Your Doorstep- using the rail as a prop, she leafed through the pages, brushing her windblown hair out of her face and into her hood. “Here it is,” she said in a low voice, fingers brushing over a sketch of a golden eagle, composed of streaks of burnished and beige and gilded pencil. “Apparently, it’s rare to find it in a city, but I guess it comes from the mountains, and it eats all kind of things like fish and rabbits and even big insects...”

He put his head on the cool railing, hair tumbling about his shoulders, cushioned by his arms, lulled by the sound of her voice- like a short cyan bumblebee humming blithely about some new kind of flower it discovered which will obviously be enormously important to beekind for all time to come.

“... everywhere from North America to Japan- hey, Gajeel, are you asleep?” she said suddenly, noticing his half-lidded drowsy demeanour.

“No,” he drawled, shutting his eyes for a moment.

Something gave Levy pause and she stood there quietly for a second, distracted, watching the way he looked in the weak October sunlight as it shafted on his spiky black mane, giving it a liquorice tone, and glinted off the metal piercings lining his brows, his nose. Coupled with the leather jacket and its the collar brushing his ears, she thought he looked... mature.

He opened his eyes to meet hers, and she changed it to vulnerable. A bit like he was waiting for her to stab him because that’s what people did, but trying to make himself believe that she wouldn’t.

“Is there something on my face?” he said defensively, straightening up again.

I am reading way too much into things. “There’s a cat,” she said off the top of her head.

“What?”

Levy turned around quickly, seeking out a more valid distraction, when she was met by the sight of a semicircular building jutting out of the wall, the large of a large bookshop. It took up part of the passageway (though there was still quite a fair amount of space), with half of the walls being glass like those a roadside cafe would have, and was full of simple tables and cushy red chairs and all manners of patients and their visitors. “I’m hungry,” she pointed out, clapping the book shut soundly.

“Whatever.”

“But Gajeel...”

“For the love of- fine then, we can go get something... I hope you like brown bread, then...”

“Brown bread!”

“You’re a big nerd, ya know that?” His huff sounded almost like a laugh.

“I’m a healthy, well-bred nerd with a bright future, unlike you, who will obviously grow up to be a delinquent who sleeps in his beat-up car and doesn’t have a job,” Levy said, sticking her nose in the air.

I’mma healthy well-bred nerd,” he mocked, eyes glinting, seeming to have been rubbed the wrong way by something she said. “My favourite book in the world is the dictionary, I eat nothing but digestive cookies and brown bread and I have no friends!”

You’re my friend, stupid,” she said jubilantly, pointing out the flaw in his reasoning.

The derisive grin on his face disappeared, replaced with that uncertain expression she hadn’t known that she would ever get to see, shoving his hands in his pockets as if they would come to harm. “... Do you really mean that? Like, ya don’t just go around telling everyone you wanna be friends with them, do ya?”

Levy pulled down the sleeves of the hoodie to expose both her hands and held them out in front of him. “In my whole life, I’ve had three friends,” she said firmly, looking him straight in the eye. “One was this younger girl who used to be my neighbour when I was little, one is Lucy, and the other is you.”

He did that thing again, where he would break eye contact and duck his head with his ebony hair falling over his shoulders and pull his collar up, trying unsuccessfully to hide the flush beginning to creep all the way up to his ears. “Whatever.”

She felt that tiny warm mousy thing animal scurry around and bounce into her heart, curling up against playfully just it had with Lily- cute, she thought. Then she tried to bleach her thoughts as  violently as possible. Levy, no! You’re making it weird! He’s not cute! He’s not! He’s a long-haired pillock with more metal on him than a seasoned biker!

He went all red when I called him a friend!

Shut up!

Ninnyhammer!

Mooncalf!

She nearly jumped out of her skin when Gajeel clapped his hands loudly. “Wake up!”

“I wasn’t sleeping,” she fumed, abruptly angry at him for existing and confused at the range of emotions she could go through in such a short amount of time.

“Brown bread,” he suggested.

“Wh-? Oh! What kind of sandwiches do you think they have?”

“I dunno, the edible kind,” he quipped as they started off, ducking through the slowly thickening crowd.

“Egg salad?”

He stopped in front of the homely door of the hospital canteen, making a disturbed face at her. “Please don’t tell me you like egg salad. Nobody likes egg salad. Please.”

“I don’t.”

“Thank you.”

“I like tuna salad,” she offered helpfully.

“Why do I even bother?” he muttered, tilting his head up to the heavens.

The doors slid apart automatically, presumably to make it easier for anyone in a wheelchair to access the area. It was the same size as a small restaurant and looked as if it was trying to imitate one too, but there were unmistakable imprints that hospitals tended to leave- the sterile colours, minimalist decor and the fastidious manner of everyone around. There was a line where one would grab a tray, identical to the one Levy got her own meals out of, and inch through long displays of all types of dainties, some (such as the slices of rich cake) obviously being there for the visitors. There was a coffee dispenser, an icebox full of bottled water and a thick cash register at the very end manned by a bored looking brunette.

Levy stared at the till. “We don’t have any money,” she whispered to Gajeel, peer around owlishly at all the people occupying the tables, whispering or scolding or chattering or sitting and looking dour. She resisted the urge to take hold of his sleeve, choosing to curl her fingers around her books instead, wishing she had pulled the hood tighter over her head.

“I got this,”  the boy whispered back, digging around in the pockets until he fished out one of those thin plastic bands that Levy’s mother had always worn whenever she was at the hospital for an extended stay. It was already slipped into place around his wrist, though the bluenette was sure that you couldn’t take it off without cutting it. “How...”

“Not now,” he said, gaze flickering about the room. “Later. Listen, you can go find a table and I’ll get ya something- there’s a free one over there at the back, hurry up before someone else comes in...”

“I want a sandwich and apple juice- but Gajeel,” she said with concern laced through her voice, “won’t people notice... you know?” She gestured to the metal studs, his wild hair, his crimson eyes.

Those eyes narrowed with fierce determination as he faced her fully. “You told me that lots of people scare you, right? It’s not like they can say anything to me that I care about. Look, I’ll hide my hair-” he stuffed his black mane down inside his jacket and straightened the collar so that it was much less noticeable, “- there, that’s one less to worry about. Now go!”

He vanished into the drove before she could protest, and Levy stood, clutching her books to her chest, her heart oddly full. Forcing herself to become serious, she surveyed the scope of people before her, picking out a solitary table at the very end, a little off from everyone else and their clamour. She snaked through the gaggle, pressing past gaps between chairs and asking some of those sitting to move- usually successfully, as they were charmed at the sight of this polite young girl asking them if they could just shift a little, please, thank you-

Finally, breathing a deep sigh of air free of other people, she let the books slide onto the table. Looking at the empty seat, however, gave her little pangs in her stomach and she couldn’t bring herself to sit down and relax.

You said that lots of people scare you, right?

She buried her nose in her hoodie, trying to substitute the soft material for what she was missing; a feeling she couldn’t identify or even look at, a sun in warm fog- she truly was now blindly wanting something she had never known, still had no idea of. It was like happy confusion.

“What’s up!” A plastic tray slammed hard on the table, clattering its contents like a mini earthquake.

“Gah!” She had really been doing that too much lately. Levy automatically brought her hands to her sternum as if to press her favourite book there by default, whipping her head around to glare at the smirking offender. “You nearly gave me a heart attack!”

“This is a hospital, you’ll be fine,” he intoned, rolling his eyes. “They ran outta apple juice so I got ya peach, deal with it.”

“I like peach,” she decided, seating herself neatly only after he’d settled first, ankle on the opposite knee. “And brown bread!”

“It even has the crusts and everything. Freshly handmade for weirdos who eat things like that.”

“We’re both weirdos,” she quipped, cracking the triangle-cut bread out of their plastic shell. She took up the admittedly rather tall slushy-cup full of peach juice in the other hand, and happened to take a look at Gajeel at the last moment- immediately her food was forgotten as she stared at him in unfettered horror. “What are you doing?!”

“Eating,” he said unhelpfully.

“You’re supposed to put the ketchup inside the sandwich, not suck it up like some kind of discount vampire!”

“Excuse me, but do I criticize you on your mealtime habits?” he asked in a ridiculous bourgeois accent and continued to empty the prodigious amount of ketchup packets he had managed to procure without further concern.

“There isn’t anything to criticize,” she said, daintily taking a bite out of her own sandwich.

She managed to finish it off without much disaster, swinging her legs under the table and staring out of the spotless window at all the different species of human walking by. There were some who had casts around their limbs, some who were accompanied by a bustling nurse, some who were tagging along belatedly behind their hasty parents, trying to clutch the end of their shirt, and one who was balancing three white boxes of doughnuts on top of each other. Levy really hoped that the last one wasn’t visiting some kind of heart patient.

“Hey- hey- Shrimp-”

“Levy.” She didn’t deign to turn her head, watching as a man fumbled with an ancient flip-phone for a full minute.

He was nearly choking with laughter at this point- “Look- gihee- Look at me, I’m a walrus-”

The bluenette glanced to the side to check what was wrong and nearly dropped her peach juice. “What the heck-”

Gajeel had taken two plastic straws and stuck them in his teeth so that they stood straight out like ersatz tusks, but was shaking so hard with suppressed laughter that it was difficult to focus on them. It was so stupidly ridiculous that Levy felt a little bubble rise in her chest, found herself starting to giggle- at him, with him.

It took them a while and many disgruntled stares from the neighbouring diners before they sobered up, with the boy pulling the straws out of his mouth. “That’s the first time I’ve heard you laugh.”

She was busy wiping the mirth-induced tears from her amber eyes. “I- I don’t really laugh that much 'cause my grandpa hated noise, and it’s always felt a little strange to me anyways .”

He kicked his legs up on the table, crimson eyes glittering jubilantly in the shine from the fluorescent lamps lining the ceiling above. “You’re just gonna have to get used to it now, then.”

What could Levy do? She beamed right back at him.

~~~

The pair stood at the mahogany railing, with Levy looking out to the blanket of harvest hues and baby-pink petals, her chin on her hands and her hands on the chilled wood, protected from the cold by being swathed in the long sleeves of her mousy grey jacket (whose was it, anyway?). Mirroring her pose but with his head obscured within his arms, Gajeel had his eyes half closed like a contented cat, ebony hair fluttering gently in the night wind.

Most of their energy had burned off by now, and they simply took the time to bask in the sterling light of the half-moon floating serenely in the sky, sharing a companionable silence. Levy’s books were stashed in her hood like sleepy birds.

With that thought, her eyes moved over to the pert circle of twigs nestled on the far-off corner ledge, occupied by a lone eagle. It glared at all of the half-tame pigeons cooing and grubbing about for crumbs on the windowsills and on the tiles, its bronze wings tucked in close to its body against the dusky chill. The little bluenette watched it dozily, thinking that its savage glare, proud and fierce and flushed with courage, was just like that of the boy next to her.

She covertly looked over at Gajeel. His breath misted in the air, making him look like a young dragon, and his mane of coal-black hair was all fluffed out, giving Levy the same itch at her fingertips as Lily’s fur had done.

The itch was in her heart. Champagne bubbles were fizzling in her belly and the mini creature was rubbing round and round and purring, and she was feeling frustration burn away at her veil of sleepiness with her inability to fathom why she was acting like this, without any discernible rhyme or reason. It was like her entire body was in on some secret plan that her brain was left out of. What is with you?!

He glanced to the side and met her eyes, cardinal on honey.

It was instantaneous, an acorn hitting her on her head. Levy flinched and buried her head in her arms as far as it would go, bewildered and feeling a familiar heat flood her face and goosebumps on her skin. “I-I was just thinking, that’s all.”

“I didn’t ask?” he mumbled, shifting back to his former position.

“Whatever.” She swallowed, the memory lying in her heart like a pearl in an oyster, and went back to staring at the solitary hawk in its nest to try and take her mind off things- only to find that its mate had swooped in with a cry and was now settling down as close as physically possible, blocking her from the wind, snuggling up against her side. Ugh...

 

All of this, having the time to be idle and the time to feel things was something she could get used to. A routine after her entire life adrift at sea. Something to make her believe in permanence- that it could exist...

 

But she of all people should have known.

Chapter Text

Two days later, the prospect of Levy’s first examination loomed as a brooding cloud on the horizon, and when it was as close as it would ever be Levy’s mind had her sleepless all night.

It was four in the morning, three hours before she usually got up, but here she was- sitting on one of the chairs outside the hatch on the second floor, shuffling the pages of The Golden Compass with rapt attention, swathed in the threadbare sheet she had dragged from the bed. She figured that it would be best to be as early as possible, trusting that it wouldn’t seem rude, in order for her to get to meet the rest of the mysterious inhabitants that she had been hearing so much about.

Evidence of them was littered all throughout the facility- the burn marks like cigarette stubs on the wall behind her, the broken elevator, some water damage evident on the ceiling. It had made her wonder about how well kept the hospital truly was, but Lucy had assured her (when Levy had popped up at her room yesterday for lack of anything else to do) that it was maintained constantly; most of the damage she was seeing was quite new. That simply raised another type of question; what were they doing that was causing so much apparently uncontrollable accidents? Playing with fire hoses and flamethrowers?

Magic, Lucy had replied smugly, and left it at that.

That means, Levy thought as she curled her legs up to become warmer, if I’m here with these magic people, then I have magic too... What kind? All I ever did was see things that nobody else did...

As of yet, she hadn’t thought of digging too deep into why exactly she was being provided for with such care; it must have been some sort of charity thing, perhaps, like the ones they do for people too poor to afford treatments. Maybe some rich backer was keen on helping children like her escape the roving eyes of the world, which is known for being hard to anybody who doesn’t follow the line.

Deep inside, however, she knew that this was the type of optimistic reasoning that characterizes situations worse than they really were; Levy held the book closer to herself, unsure if her ignorance was really bliss and where she had to run when it bled dry. Her time-tested strategy of doing what people wanted her to do to gain their favour wasn’t going to be of much help if she found out that she was in danger, and the only refuge she had were the corners of her own mind. Levy felt her spirits sink back into her feet, thinking of little children who ran to their mothers whenever they were frightened and held out her novel, silhouetted by the light. All I have is you and me, and I can survive on that.

Crossing her arms back around her chest, she rubbed one of her rather dry eyes, staring at the slender hands of the dark clock on the opposite wall; 4:16. Levy sighed and adjusted the blanket as to be better shielded from the lack of central heating (that was Lucy’s fault, though she wouldn’t tell her exactly what had transpired, except that it had something to do with a kettle, a bit of gum and a dare).

A sudden thought came into her head like a match catching fire. What about Gajeel’s magic powers?

She hadn’t seen much evidence of his, and the only pointers to him being out-of-the-ordinary were the metal studs and his red eyes. She was also curious as to how he came here, his backstory, his family... Who did he have to leave behind? The bluenette gripped her book tighter, thinking of how he had softened a little when she had asked him about which of her family decided to give her up, eyes losing their edge, but just as intense.

Levy, please. She sighed, releasing a breath that she hadn’t realized that she was holding, and tried to find her place again on the page.

A stiff miaow from the staircase managed to scare the daylights out of Levy- she squealed and flung the novel away as if slapped by a frying pan. “Eek!”

Panther Lily managed to duck as the projectile went over his head and bounced harmlessly off of the opposite wall, looking back at the bluenette with admonishment. His tail was lashing from side to side, ears against pressed against his head in urgency, and his amber-grey eyes were tense and flinty. Something was wrong.

He took a step forward, and then hopped back up the steps, looking over his shoulder and mewing again. Levy knew enough about cats to recognize this- he was asking her to follow him. She threw off the blanket, hurriedly kicking on her shoes and ran to him, the cat’s strained behaviour frightening her like an impending countdown. Levy gathered up her abused book and flew up the stairs, hot on Lily’s heels, unease filling her up like uncomfortably blistering steam- the only other time she had seen an animal do something like this was when her neighbour’s cat had kept running in and out of her kitchen, where her mother-

Levy skid to a halt, her flats squeaking no the spotless floor in front of a door that she had no prior experience with- though to be fair the only two rooms on this floor that she knew were her own and Lucy’s. She stood, panting, hand on the wood, Lily butting his head against the paint with impatience. The door was slightly ajar, which explained how the cat had managed to slip out. This must be Gajeel’s...

“Mrrrow!”

“Yes, I’m sorry,” she muttered and nervously rapped her knuckles on the door thrice. “Hello?”

The reply was acerbic and cutting, making Levy flinch. “Get lost,” he growled.

Her nerves were like dandelions, stiff and waving and threatening to be puffed away. “Gajeel, it’s Levy,” she called, lowering herself slightly to peer through the crack. “Lily told me to come here-” she only realized how silly that sounded once it was out of her mouth, “- I mean- he brought me-”

“I think,” the pause was brittle and each word dropped like boulders, “I told you to leave.”

Levy swallowed. Should she feel hurt or concerned? Settling for a mixture of both, she looked down at Lily to bolster her courage and spoke boldly. “I’ll just sit here. I won’t bother you or make a sound, I’ll just read by myself.”

She settled down, wincing at the coldness of the floor, glad that she had had the frame of mind to change back into her infinitely more comfortable worn pajamas, and flipped open her book. Panther Lily, who had at first watched her restlessly, pacing across the tiles, had stopped to edge over and carefully seat himself near with minimal concern for the chill. His eyes were still subtle and clear as ever, though his long tail was now at rest, curled at his side with a hesitant respect for the little girl.

Levy had heard of the trick of opening a book at random and choosing the first sentence one saw for insight in a difficult situation; she had never done such a thing before, but now- with the burden of comforting someone heavy on her inexperienced shoulders- seemed as good a time as any try. Her honey eyes picked out a phrase that she had highlighted who knows how long ago and she read out loud- “Then girl and daemon looked up at the solitary bear. He had no daemon. He was alone, always alone-”

Lily meowed loudly to get her attention, round ears pricking up at a noise that she had missed, and smoothly rose to his paws. He muscled past her and into the murky room, full of purpose, and looked back over his shoulder at the bluenette again. Levy pushed herself off the floor inelegantly and nudged the door open a little further, trying to be as discreet as possible, her novel to her chest as her lifeline.

It was too dark inside to see properly, and Levy looked around warily just as Gajeel had done on her first day, taking in as much of the place as she could with calculating eyes. She didn’t know if she should flip the light switch on or not, having no idea if it would trigger him further.

She didn’t know what to expect, but it certainly wasn’t complete chaos. Unlike her room, tailored to her tastes and at least attempting to be as homely as possible, Gajeel’s was meant to be functional at best and felt unlived in- at least from what she could gather. The walls had been scored deeply as if by an enraged tiger, the tiles were shifted out of place and missing in few places like an incomplete jigsaw, exposing the bare grey of concrete and the tans of wood planks. Florid strips of carpet matted the floor accompanied by the frames of paintings smashed to matchwood. A surprisingly intact brown recliner a bit like the one she usually curled up in lay on its side, a comatose bear.

That much could not have been said for the walls, however, which was marred with what she could only describe as small craters with cracks in the paint and wood underneath the stripped wallpaper radiating out like spiderwebs. A dislodged bit of lining from the ceiling dangled dangerously in the corner, held on by mere fibres.

Levy felt her unease evolve into greasy dread, and the thoughtlessness borne of fear was bringing up pictures of asylum rooms from her aunt’s moth-eaten old medical texts. Could he smell fear?

The image brought her concious back in control and she frowned to herself with inner contempt. What do you think he is, a dog? It’s all great that you can stick around when he doesn’t need you, when it suits your needy whims, when you’re lonely! He’s your friend, not your toy. Whatever you take, you must give twice in return.

I’ve been doing that for others my entire life.

Then here is someone who deserves it.

She stepped forward courageously, forcing herself to lower her book from her mouth, gaze sweeping over the bed. It was identical to hers in placement and form and as curiously untouched as the chair, pasty white cupboards and counters and IV stand all as pristine and impersonal as ever. That much could not have been said for the walls, however, which was marred with what she could only describe as small craters with cracks in the paint and wood underneath the stripped wallpaper radiating out like spiderwebs.

Lily was sitting on a stool next to the bed, watching her with eyes like luminescent fireflies. There was a big lump on the mattress covered with the sheets that was vaguely shaped like a certain someone hugging their knees. The little bluenette padded over, gingerly overstepping misplaced tiles and flakes of chipped paint, flats crunching over pieces of concrete dust. Apprehension was floating around in her chest and knocking into her resolve, but Levy held firm and steeled herself as she slowly dragged out another metal stool out from under the bed, her brown eyes fixed on the unmoving pile of sheets. The drapes were drawn across the window, but chinks of wan light danced on the floor as they fluttered like the northern lights in the dawn breeze.

Now Levy was unsure. What was she supposed to do now? The girl twisted her hands in her shirt uncertainly; it couldn’t hurt to ask what was wrong...  “Gajeel?”

A grating hiss answered her. It was so inhuman that Levy froze on instinct as one would when faced with a rearing cobra, not breathing and not moving, even her cerulean hair still as a windless night. “Sorry,” she mumbled stiffly when the impulse had faded enough for her to act.

She was jolted by a reply- a scratchy, irate, oddly metallic answer, but it was an answer all the same. “All you do is apologize. Or read. Lemme guess, ya brought your book, didn’t ya?”

Indignation burned away at her shock. “Yeah, I did! So what? I was waiting outside the exam room when Lily came and I was getting bored, so what else was I supposed to do until morning?”

Panther,” the pile of sheets growled. “And you were just planning on sitting outside the exam room and waiting ‘till everyone arrived? What kind of human being even does that?”

“I couldn’t sleep, I was super nervous,” she muttered. Still am.

“An exam gives you insomnia and you just sit all night outside the room and read.”

“It’s not just a normal exam! And this book is really important to me, so shut up!” she burst out with fire, then covered her mouth up with her book as the flames died, startled by her own burst of volume. “Oh, sorry...”

Pile-Of-Sheets did not deign to answer, letting the silence hang around them like changing room curtains. Levy felt bad- she was supposed to be here and assuage him somehow from whatever was plaguing him, from whatever had made him tear up the room and refuse to show his face, not arguing with the boy.

She took a deep breath and let it out in a great big sigh, feeling worried and upset for him. Levy didn’t like this angry, hateful version of her friend, and loathed the emotions that he must be experiencing even more. If she wanted him to trust her enough to tell her what was wrong, she was going to have to show him some first.

Levy let her voice soften as much as she could, as if she was talking to a little kitten, hoping that he wouldn’t refuse her offer of companionship. “Gajeel... Here, I’m going to tell you about myself and why I love reading and this book so much, and then I’ll read some of my favourite parts to you. You don’t have to say anything, and you don’t even have to listen. Just let me talk until you’ve had enough. If you want me to,” she added, “I’ll go away anytime you want and I won’t be sad about it and I won’t bug you anymore, I promise. Okay?”

There was a palpable shift in the air, and Lily- crouched on his stool like the Sphynx, acting as her rock- blinked in approval at the girl. Levy could imagine the boy thinking, coming up with retorts and insults aplenty, and braced herself when he spoke.

“Yeah, right. Like I’ll ever tell you to get lost,” he said, the bittersweetness in his voice surprising the bluenette. “Do whatever the hell you want, I don’t care.”

She felt a little unsettled with this answer, unable to gauge from his tone and his words how he was feeling and how welcome she was at the moment. She stretched out haltingly to make herself more comfortable and to dispel her doubts, then began to talk, sitting cross-legged, lacing her fingers together with much-needed fortitude.

“Well... When I was little,” she glanced at the door out of habit, “I lived with my mother. We had a nice house, I think, and there was this room that was built to be the storage but she made it into a library, full of bookcases that were all kinds of brown, like snail shells and chocolate blocks and shoe polish. There were always full of these colourful stripes of books and words, all slanted on the shelves, and some of the books were so old that they’d shower you with dust when you pulled them out, and then I had to take so many baths all the time because I kept forgetting which ones I wasn’t supposed to touch...”

Levy couldn’t help a weak laugh, her shoulders shaking, the flood of nostalgia making her feel a bit dippy. “I think that if we ever sold them, we’d get so rich, because they were so old... but we didn’t because that would be betraying your friend for money, you know? Right, my book... so my aunt used to come over a lot with her sons- actually, I think they weren’t really hers, or maybe they were like with her second husband, I still have no idea. Their names were Jet and Droy and usually, it was just the five of us.”

Now came the difficult bits; the girl faltered for a moment here, because she felt like she was peeling away layers of herself like an onion, each one more raw and sensitive than the last. She looked over at the steadfast, solid, reassuring real figure of Lily for courage and continued. “Then what happened was... I-I went over to my aunt’s farm once, it was a sleepover or something. I liked going there because there were so many animals and she had a really big swing, so I would ask my mom all the time if we could visit. She usually didn’t let me go for sleepovers because she was scared I’d get kidnapped on the way or something, but this time she helped me pack my red handbag and all and said it was a birthday gift.”

Levy’s memories played out before her as if beaming through a projector, with corrupted colour and tinny voices echoing from ancient speakers. She had been in the bathroom, stashing her toothbrush and that home-made shampoo that nobody else was allowed to use, and her mother was with her-  now that she thought about it, she had been acting strange, touching all of her things, absently folding way too many clothes than had been necessary for one night over, seeming to know where everything she needed was.

The girl’s gaze roamed over the wreckage of the room as she went on. “She dropped me off, and then I was still there the next day... and the one after that and the one after that and then I was told that she was in the hospital and it was pretty bad, so they weren’t going to let her go, but I could see her in a week. It actually took a month before I was allowed to go...”

Those days had been crucial in helping her to become accustomed to spending hours on her own. Distracting herself with work and cooking her own food and being brave for other people and learning to sleep alone on a futon that you had to roll up in the morning by yourself became the crutches she limped on, and as forlorn as it had been, Levy was perversely thankful for it; instead of poisoning the memory, she decided that once she had survived the disease, her heart had been built up like an iron curtain, and was now only melded stronger every time it broke.

“She didn’t really... I- well, she was okay with me, I guess. My aunt, I mean. She always drove me to school with her kids and she would sometimes let me pat her horses after I had done my chores, but there was so much... Right, the book. So after a month, I got to see my mother and, well, I was so happy that I was all shaky and tired like I was going to sleep after a year. It was my actual birthday then and we had a cake and everything-” Levy remembered vividly that it had been matcha, her aunt’s favourite, and how her name had been spelled wrong, “- and my mom was in the doctor’s office, having tea, looking healthier than I was really, and we cried and all and we had cake and then she gave me this book, all new and still in plastic and covered up with newspaper and tape.”

The subject of her winded speech lay on the bedside like an old teddy bear, oblivious and comforting. “I didn’t see her again for a week, and then months, and then only on my birthdays, and... that was that.” Each time she visited there were more formalities, each time fewer hugs, each time more questions she would never ask and secrets that her mother’s ears had lost the right to hear. Each time she had let go of a little of their love until the last, where it was as if she was with a stranger who didn’t even know if she had friends or what grade she was in or what her favourite colour was anymore.

The air was too cold on her face. With a flood of embarrassment Levy realized too late that her vision was blurring, the light filtering from the window splintering into prismatic shards, and rubbed her eyes vigorously with her orangey-yellow sleeve. “Hold on...” she said, unhappy with the way her voice wavered.

Something soft and heavy and warm settled into her lap. Lily looked all for the world like an emperor’s royal panther as he curled up on her fluffy pajamas, kneading about with his paws to make it more comfortable like one would a pillow. The black cat blinked up at Levy coolly and put his head on her knee, as if telling her go on, take no notice of me.

“Thank you,” she murmured, feeling humbled with his attention, and happened to glance up. Levy thought that she caught Gajeel’s red eyes watching her, but it was gone too fast to be sure; his posture was certainly a lot less tense now, however, losing all of the rigid tension, so the girl decided to focus on what was more important.

She cleared her throat, somewhat discomfited by the silence that he refused to help dispel. “So that’s why I’m always carrying my book. It’s because it was a birthday gift from my mother.” I could have just said that one line instead of dragging on and on about my life story... “And now for reading out my favourite parts of the book,” she said firmly. What’s done is done, and he was going to find out sooner or later, so it’s better to get that out of the way. All of my talking seems to have made him calm down a little, anyways.

Levy cracked open the tome. The pages were wavy at the top- solid evidence of water damage- and were coupled with white fold lines webbing the navy blue cover, but the words were as clear as the day when it had come into her life. Orange and yellow highlighter wiggled across the pages, obviously having been painted on with a child’s hand, and the tips of the pages had been weakened by years of being folded down. The bluenette unfolded her legs and swung them about, squinting and holding the book in one of the shafts of light coming from the window, careful not to knock the dozing cat on his head.

“Here’s one,” Levy said, having chosen at random. “It’s mostly just bits of lines and all, here goes; ‘For the first time Dr Lanselius smiled. “I would ask where I would find the services of an armoured bear.’ This is my favourite because it’s the first time that this bear’s been mentioned...”

And so Levy read, having no idea whether the black-haired boy was truly listening or not, having no way to see what he was thinking; though it was probably that she was a nerd, she thought privately, but didn't let that get in her way and kept narrating to him. It was only until one of her ‘favourite of them all’ paragraphs that something happened.

“’... her fearless defender, was about to die, and she would not do him the treachery of looking away, for if he looked at her he must see her shining eyes and their love and belief, not a face hidden in cowardice or a shoulder turned away...’” Levy stopped here for a while, her voice rich with emotion born of sympathy, and contented herself with simply looking at the boy’s prone form on the bed, thinking about whether or not he was uncomfortable being stuck in the same position for so long. The bluenette was feeling the long-due effects of adrenaline’s absence from her blood and her heart seemed to be beating too hard for her head to bear, giving her something like a toothache in her temples. She rubbed it with drained annoyance.

There was something like a sniffle from Pile-Of-Sheets.

The bluenette dropped her hand from her head, half in amazement and half in recurring concern. Crying? Is he crying? Is it even possible- did I do something wrong? “Gajeel?” she voiced timidly.

“What.” He sounded remarkably like she had a while ago, reined in through strength of will.

Levy felt her heart reaching out for him through the bars of the cage that she had closed it in, the intensity of her empathy washing around her as a red tsunami. Out of some kind of subconscious, stupidly powerful urge, she blurted out without her control- “Do you want me to hold your hand?”

Silence.

Immediately she shut her big mouth with an audible snap and considered jumping out of the window, but the longer she looked at the great idiot all covered up in the blankets, for whom she had sat and talked about things which would have killed her to say otherwise, the more the tundra in her stomach melted. She wanted to help, to try and make him laugh in that silly way, and if nothing had worked so far... Woman up!

“It’s fine,” she said stoically, trying as hard as she could to put all of her compassion in her voice and keep her chagrin out of it. “I don’t think it’s embarrassing at all.”

Stopping for a minute to breathe, Levy then pushed on as far as she dared, struck by her own audacity. “I-I’ll never mention it to anyone else and I’ll never talk about it and I’ll forget it right away if you want me to. I just...” She ducked her head, mouth pressed into a thin line, hating how muddled her feelings were and how she couldn’t find the words to convey anything well. ”I’m worried,” she mumbled defeatedly, giving up.

“Mind your own business.”

“Let me mind yours too sometimes.” Levy looked back up at the sheets with a stubborn little frown. “And if I was really going to mind my own business, then would I have left a long time ago, you know that.”

She waited, but with no answer imminent, the bluenette twisted herself around as much as she could without dislodging Lily to look for something to tell the time. Her nerves began to prickle again, a familiar anxiety growing like nettles as she wondered how many hours she had left until her big day, and how much of those could be spent on sleep.

A movement in the corner of her eye made Levy glance over out of instinct.

She stared at the bedside in unseeing bafflement. Sticking out of the sheet, offered to her in an extremity of reluctance was his hand in a black fingerless glove, palms-up... but metal. It was made of metal, solid and steely, like tanks and girders and hammers but not people’s hands...

The seconds ticked down and the girl managed to gather her wits enough to notice the tension beginning to take root once more. Different nerves were growing like nettles and tickling the sides of her heart took the plunge, timidly slotting her own there, swallowing her jitters. She’d never held anyone’s hand like this before, especially not... well, not one that was belonging to someone who was the opposite gender...

This is fine, this is fine. She was a little shaken; perhaps she had in her heart of hearts truly believed that he wouldn’t have ever acquiesced to such a brazen request. The girl’s other hand closed around her novel, aware that Lily, who had forsaken her lap for his former position on the other stool, was watching keenly.

Metal. Iron. The bluenette cautiously- ever so cautiously, like she was handling crystal- turned over the hand in her grip, pushing down a cement mixer of odd feelings and the thought that his hand was bigger than hers and that they fit together pretty well. Soon she found that she didn’t need to force anything out of her mind because it really did feel fine; it was as natural as talking to him but infinitely more exhilarating.

Their childish awkwardness ebbed away faster than the receding tide as Levy stared, spellbound at the argentate fingers in her tightened grip, at the way that the dim light glared off of his pearly skin. It was more perfectly formed than any sculpture she had ever known of and surprisingly cold, though it warmed up the longer she held it, soaking in her own heat.

Levy let go of her book to curl a lock of her cyan hair behind her ear. It was like having stage fright and being called up to receive an award, with all of the initial terror a candle before the rush of euphoria. Her aunt had stressed that everyone of the opposite gender was to be treated as a foreign species and only something to be familiar with out of duty; Levy could remember well how once she had mentioned that she had to go over to someone’s house for a team activity, and had been promptly sent back to school to change her group as there had been- gasp- a boy in hers.

Was this wrong, shameless, in some sense? No, I’m helping a friend, she told herself readily. It’s not either of our faults that we aren’t both the same gender.

Levy finally looked up, seeing that he was completely still and as of yet hidden from her by the sheets, almost as a defense from something she had no idea that she possessed. “You look like a bad budget ghost with that sheet on you,” she pointed out, unable to suppress all of the fluffy emotions welling up inside her.

Somewhat stung and in a flimsy attempt to reassert his wounded pride, Gajeel pulled off the rest of the sheets, practically tearing them in his haste. He was glaring at her like a little cat, with an almost comical pretence at haughtiness and hair dark as pitch and wilder than ever, so much less comfortable than the bluenette. Levy willed herself not to react, not to stare at all the glinting iron, those narrowed carmine eyes, his scowl- he looked like the most lifelike of all statues there were (though it would have been an odd design choice); like a dragon made human, Levy thought in a fit of poetic inspiration.

“If you tell anybody about anything, a single word, I’m gonna kill you,” he said menacingly, though the effect was ruined by him fixedly keeping his glare on the bed, not having the grit to keep looking the girl in the eye any longer.

She shrugged as if it was nothing, making a good effort not to grin, his awkwardness only serving to boost her spirit. “How precious,” she teased, holding up their hands to make a point, her pale skin contrasting with his sterling.

“Shut up.”

“No.”

He growled, but that was all he could muster, the fingers of his free hand tangling in his ebony hair. Levy sobered up, with her focus on him and the ever-present state of ruin that the room was in, and decided that he was stable enough for her to finally ask, “Will you tell me what happened?”

Gajeel glanced at her, and over to the side, his shoulders hunching over with keen discomfiture; perhaps it was Levy’s wishful imagination, but for a flash of time it felt as if her hand was being gripped tighter. “So far,” he said, choosing his words uncharacteristically carefully, “what do ya know about me?”

“Very little,” Levy admitted, his hesitancy encouraging her to speak softly.

He ran his tongue over his teeth, contemplating on how much to tell her, trying to find an excuse to stay indifferent, closed off; he despised it, but he had been softened by her attention and the so obviously Levy way of trying to comfort him.

Comfort me. The words tasted new to him, a drink that was supposed to be someone else’s order which you knew you’d never be able to afford. He made a half-hearted attempt at a scowl, leaning back onto the bedframe. Avoiding looking around the room out of something like agitated shame for a deed one didn’t commit, Gajeel instead chose to focus on the lock of blue hair that was looping under her ear.

“When my parents bit the dust- oi, there’s no need to be like that,” he added hurriedly as Levy inhaled sharply. “I’ve no idea who they were, ‘cause I was too young to remember ‘em, and ya can’t miss what ya don’t know, alright?”

The bluenette’s gaze drew back down out of newfound habit to the cat lounging tranquilly on the stool next to her, the irony almost taunting her like a nudge in the ribs after a horridly offensive joke. “Can’t miss... right.”

He watched her for a moment then turned his face away to the ceiling, closing his eyes, mouth set in a frown. “You told me things about yourself, so returning the favour is the least I can do... Right, my parents offed it and somehow I was on the streets for a while, sleeping on people’s roofs like some kinda delinquent or rat or whatever; the kinda folks I was born with weren’t exactly the ‘big happy family’ type, so I wasn’t asked about when the police showed up...”

The boy’s half-lidded, bitter expression mirrored the one Levy had worn when she had been opening herself up to him, and for a heartbeat of shared hurt it was quiet. She was aware of their entwined fingers as if it was the rope you clung to before jumping off a cliff for someone at the bottom.

“I got picked up at some point by social workers I guess, and they took me to an orphanage somewhere where I ended up for half my life... and listen, whenever people talk about places like that they’re always on about how the kids there are all doomed and they should be off with fosters and that they’re all gonna grow up to be mental, but it ain’t like that at all- the place where I was, I mean, it was the best that ever happened to me, y’know? Whenever they told us that people were coming over to look we would all go out to the treehouse near the river and hide, ‘cause we liked it there and didn’t wanna leave and some of the kids had even been sent back because their fosters couldn’t handle ‘em.

“But then one day me and Juvia were called up. I didn’t really think we’d ever be taken, ‘cause people always wanted quiet little girls. Obviously I wasn’t either of those things and Juvia wasn’t really fitting either- she’d been sent back two times ‘cause she was kinda weird- but we went and then that old man was there and all, and I remember that everyone was all nervous with him and they kept bowing, and I thought both of us were gonna end up as guinea pigs for some kind of experiment...”

“Did you?”

He met her eyes, a line of metal studs on his brow arching up. “What d’you think?”

“Ah...”

Gajeel shrugged, causing the bleached light to ripple off his arms. “I’d been here for a month, pretty much testing them and trying to see how much I could get away with, when... When you first came, I told ya that you were losing blood every night, remember?”

Levy subconsciously tucked her suspiciously sore elbow to her body with a little thrill of fear; she was sure that the walls had shuffled an inch closer, jostling the chips of paint and mortar on the floor. “Yeah...”

“I told ya that happens to everyone,” he mumbled, glancing up at the still door, his voice going lower. “But I dunno... I feel like they’re trying to give me something instead, and I don’t like it, so I’m always unplugging the IV and going on the roof or whatever. I’m never in this room... It scares me.”

He looked the most aware that Levy had ever seen him, stripped of all his bluster and admitting that his sixth sense was giving him cause for fright as well; the phosporescent rays of the lights from the city and the lantern outside the window brought his receptive frown into harsh relief. With a deep, growly mrrow, Lily got to his paws, stretching out in that flashy, luxurious manner that was distinctive of cats and resolutely stepped across the mattress to resettle under Gejeel’s arm. Absently rubbing the top of the cat’s hand with the tips of metal fingers, he went on:

“Thing is, a couple of weeks ago, I would wake up in the middle of the night, all like this-” his eyes flickered over to his own iron hand, “- right in the middle of ripping up the floor or trying to break the walls down, like some kind of werewolf, and I keep thinking am I being drugged? And what am I supposed to do if I am?

 Levy considered it to be somewhat eerie that she had been thinking the exact same thing just a while before, perched by herself on the chair next to the great vault-like door. Then she thought that it was a good thing to have someone who followed the same line of thought, as it was infinitely more comforting to know that she wasn’t alone emotionally, if not physically so. Even so, Levy felt a little short of breath as tendrils of anxiety wound further into her thoughts and pressed her mouth into a thin line, ducking her head to her chest.

Gajeel had started talking again, half to himself. “Run away probably, back to the orphanage- I hate that word, it feels pathetic- or out on the streets, I’ve been there before, but how’d I get money, though? I can’t live anywhere if there’s nothing t’ my name- What do you think, shrimp, you’ve been really...”

He trailed off as he felt her squeeze his hand. Suddenly, so quickly that Gajeel blinked out of instinct, Levy shot up with both hands clenched into fists by her side, seemingly unaware of how one was still clutching his own. “I-If you leave,” she said passionately, “if you’re going to run away, then- I’ll get a job at a bookstore or something so I won’t be a burden and I can give you what I earn- I can’t be by myself in this place forever, with people coming in and taking things from me and being alone again- if you’re going to run away, then promise you’ll take me with you!”

The girl’s eyes were dangerously bright. Gajeel’s mouth was half-open, his words turned to ash, and he could feel the chipping sensation of his metal armour reverting to human skin out of shock, the iron glint forsaking him for a familiar coffee-and-milk.

“Yes,” he said simply.

Another tense silence padded the space between the two. She stiffly dropped his hand like a stone and returned both of hers to her lap, resolutely staring at the curtains across the window which were fluttering like the butterflies of chagrin in her stomach. Now Levy was the one who refused to break the silence, preferring instead to stew in her growing embarassment and let her breath even out. Let’s play a game. How else can you make a complete fool of yourself?

Burnt memories were brought up in protest: lethargically sitting by herself on the ragged couch and her knees to her chest, the only source of light the glow of the cable television and not from the blown-out bulbs dangling on wires from the short ceiling. Waking up alone before six in the morning to make everyone breakfast, dragging a beat-up stool across the stone floor because she was too short for everything and there was nobody to ask to reach for her. Watching the lonely clock on the wall, waiting for people to stop talking around her in circles, until it was seven and she could finally leave. Stop pretending that you aren’t human.

Human doesn’t mean be selfish and want things from people, whether they want to give it up or not...

What do I want from him?

Levy was distracted from her inner war by a creak from the bed- and then Gajeel reached over and took her hand again, holding it high so that she was made to look up. He had a cocky grin on his face, faint light sifting through his raven hair and and glossing over the studs lining his arms. “Tell me again, shrimp. What do you think I should do, and what are ya gonna do in return?”

“Sleep,” she deadpanned.

He blinked and their hands dropped to the bed, though still entwined, all the arrogance crumbling like dust in the wind. “What?”

“Sleep.”

“Whaddya mean, sleep?!”

“Sleep. The dictionary says, 'as in the temporary suspension of conscious activities until the brain has finished restoring conditions and repairing memories'. I’m going to sleep. Wake me up when it’s time for my exam.”

“Are you serious? You’re just going to leave me hanging? Bored? Alone?” he whined.

“Then you can sleep too.”

“I ain't tired- wait, hold on, you can’t just sleep here on my bed!”

“I’m not! I’m only putting my head here, don’t be such a baby,” she grumbled with her head on the mattress by this point, using her book as a pillow, feeling drained with the effort of ceaseless worrying. A consequence of this was that she missed the way he slowly leaned back fully onto the bedframe and surreptitiously glanced at her out of the corner of his eye, turning to stare full-on when he realized that she couldn’t see him.

 

Gajeel was just as confused by his own reactions to this short little enigma, with her fire and her persistence and the way she would turn her face away out of shame and clench her fists whenever she felt like crying. He hated how he was always catching himself looking, as if she was an oil painting that something in him was terrified of forgetting. He loathed the way he just allowed himself to be teased and giggled at and talked to and laughed with. He despised how he was able to brush off all of the efforts of every rehabilitating adult there was and scare away any kid who was thoughtless enough to be in his mile-wide personal bubble except for this shrimp, who would be willing to do the stupidest things possible to keep him around.

Gajeel threw himself back on the bed with frustration, causing it to recoil and creak in protest, and drew his free hand up over his face and through his sable-black mane. “Stupid,” he hissed with passion.

“Shut up, people are trying to do something here...”

Rebelliously deciding to ignore her, he one-handedly drew up the sheet over himself and haphazardly threw a corner over the dozing Levy after a second thought, eliciting a squeak of surprise. It would be dumb if she managed to catch a cold or something; she’d just whinge about missing her exams which would only annoy him, obviously, and then she’d be bedridden, which would bore him. As he’d have nobody to make fun of, obviously. Conveniently forgetting to let go of the bluenette’s warm hand, he flung the other arm across his eyes to block the anemic light filtering in through the window.

Panther Lily, as implacable as ever, simply ambled over, long tail in the air like a flagpost, and curled up on a spot between him and the girl, his whiskers twitching with amusement.

Chapter Text

Having been made to leave her book behind, Levy McGarden had nothing to hold on to other than the hospital-provided shirt she wore; this she did, and with a grip tighter than a locked vice. The hollowness of the room was palpable, empty of any human life save for the girl, with silence punctured by the creaking equipment and the faint hum of underground machinery. This time, in order to suit the purpose of her visit a little more, there were various knick-knacks arranged neatly around her: a rack of weights, intricate things like height stands crossed with barometers and an innocuous series of metal cubes stacked inside one another.

She stood stiffly in front of the blank wall with the dubious knowledge that there was a one-way glass separating her from the room beyond. Levy felt her nerves fray the longer she was made to stand there in expectation, wishing that she had some kind of indication of what she was to expect, looking back at the door like a trapped animal-

The speaker embedded in the wall, protected by thick plastic, abruptly began to sizzle, filling the space with white static and nearly making Levy jump out of her skin; trying to control herself, the girl stared up anxiously as a section of the wall cleared as if someone had wiped a foggy glass. Behind the electrofibre glass were two people; one was Makarov, deluxe pilot chair cranked up to its highest in order for him to be able to see over the panel heavily smattered with dials and buttons and dormant meters. He had on a thick, heavily padded glossy black headset and was busily trying to clip in another partition to the already obscenely overstuffed binder, another folder sticking out from under his arm. A pair of wire-rimmed bifocals lay forgotten on top of the dashboard.

Next to him was the austere-faced redhead who Levy had assumed to be nothing but a nurse at first, her legs crossed and her arms crossed, tapping a charcoal pencil against her side in exasperation and watching Makarov fumble with the folder. Her white button-down and lab coat looked rather... tight to the little girl, who wondered if there hadn’t been anything her size available; the theory did make sense as she was a rather tall woman, though anybody would have been towering when compared to the diminutive man next to her.

She appeared to say something brimming with impatience to Makarov which Levy couldn’t hear as the intercom wasn’t on. As a result, Makarov gave her the stink eye before resuming his efforts, and eventually managed to click it shut with what looked like an exclamation of surprise. He proceeded to attempt to communicate with Levy, which once again escaped her as the intercom still wasn’t on- the woman pinched the bridge of her nose before reminding him of the fact, with the same face Gajeel made whenever Levy tried to pick up anything with writing on it.

Gajeel. She looked over her shoulder to the vault door out of instinct, though of course it couldn’t be locked any tighter; she wasn’t sure whether or not to be grateful for that.

The bemused girl was distracted by the crackling static of the intercom finally being switched on. Makarov pushed the bent mic on the headset in front of him with a finger and leaned over the dashboard. “Miss Levy McGarden, I believe?”

She nodded mutely.

“There’s no need to be nervous, child; we’ll just take a simple test, see how you’re doing so far, and then you’re free to go. I’m sure you’ll do perfectly well: and as for what you’re here to be tested about...” He trailed off expectantly.

The woman had unfolded her arms, her elbows on the panel, slotting the same sort of equipment in place over her ears as Makarov. Her voice was strong and surprisingly reassuring. “Levy, I’m sure that you must know by now that you and the others residing with you are not simple children. Every child here possesses their own unique brand of talent- let’s call it magic, to make it easier to understand- and we are here to see how this will interact and affect the world around us, just as physicists do. I trust that you can understand what I’m saying.”

Levy nodded, her fingers relaxing at the hem of her shirt. She wasn’t sure what to think of these people, especially after everything she had heard so far, but she decided that it was in her best interest to play the good girl.

“That’s good. From what I’ve noticed so far, you seem to be a smart girl. I’m Dr. Erza Scarlet, and I believe you’ve already met Makarov.” Erza paused to adjust her microphone a little better before continuing, “Let’s ask you some questions first. Nothing personal, I’d simply like to get a better grip on your abilities so we can do this as comfortably as possible. Here’s an easy one- how easily can you control your powers?”

Levy bit her lip. “I... I can’t. I mean that they don’t show up. I’ve never done anything magical really, I’ve only seen some weird things, like the one time I saw a deer-cat thing everyone else said was a dog, and there’s been a couple of cats with white wings, but that’s it.”

“I see.” Erza and Makarov exchanged a glance, with the latter making an incessant stream of notes in the folder. “That’s nothing to fret about, it simply means that we can narrow down our options on what kind of magic you possess. You’ve only seen extraordinary things, or have you ever interacted with them?”

“Only seen. I pet my friend’s cat Carla once, but that’s it.”

“That’s good... Next, has anyone in your family demonstrated anything similar?”

“No,” she replied, thinking of Jet’s racing medals and Droy’s thriving garden but keeping silent.

“Has anybody outside of Magnolia ever talked to you about it, or have you told anybody?”

This felt as if they were trying to track down anybody who knew even the slightest hint of magic. Levy kept her biased thoughts to herself, though a hint of irritation ate away at her nerves. They’re just trying to help! “No, and I did tell people but they always used to ignore me.”

More furious scribbling from Makarov. “Do you have any idea of what kind of magic you may have?”

“Um, maybe the power to see things clearly, like through disguises and all? I haven’t really done anything else.”

“I see. Thank you for your patience, Levy; now we can begin assessing your physical capabilities, and once and for all determine your true talent. See that stand over there? Can you stand on it and look into the little red light for me?”

The bluenette obediently skittered over to what looked like a height measure, something she was rather familiar with and gazed into the scuffed webcam, her expectant expression reflected back at in the inky darkness of the lens. Levy observed the rather worn look of all the contraptions she was surrounded by, a stark contrast with the gleaming sterile professionalism of the ward, and felt uneasy.

“You’re going to have to be brave and try not to blink.” Erza reached over to the side to flip one of the white levers and Levy squeaked as a neon-green light beamed right into her eyes- it took all of her willpower not to shut them in defense against the assault on her retinas. Both adults watched the needle of a dial roll to one side, looking satisfied with whatever information they had gleaned from the momentarily traumatizing scan.

“You can blink now; so good news is that there’s a lot of potential in you, but you’re going to need to learn how to let it out. There’s something like a fingerprint scanner next to you, do you see it?”

And so it went on, with Levy being constantly measured and weighed and having to hold something and step on something then drop it and step on the thing again and kick a button as hard as she could. All the while, the eerie silence of her surroundings kept her in a nervous daze, with the sounds of the constant commanding of Erza’s voice and the never-ending scratching of Makarov’s pen melting into static. Soon the girl was feeling exhausted from her lack of sleep and more than a little bemused, as it didn’t seem as if she was going to ever be able to do anything as cool as levitate things like Lucy or make herself infinitely stronger like Gajeel. The entire time, Erza and Makarov had had their heads together, zealously discussing whatever results they had managed to obtain.

She sucked in a breath as the metal monkey-bars creaked under her weight, dangling her legs in mid-air with frustration; her cerulean hair kept falling into her eyes and her arms were really tired and she was tired and she was an idiot for staying up so late- and then with an oomph, Levy let herself drop to the ground, knees buckling from the impact, hands meeting the floor. The bluenette was too good-natured to take her ire out on the individuals behind the wall, but fiery enough to glare at them. If you’re going to use my powers for corporate greed, then you can at least do it faster, she complained internally, getting to her feet and dusting off the knees of her sweats, though her wary distrust kept her quiet and her sleep blunted her mind.

“Here’s the last thing you’re going to have to do for us, Levy,” Erza said into the mic, her brief sojourn over. “I want you to think of something that makes you emotional. Just think about it- and when I tell you, try saying ‘Solid Script: Fire’ as loud as you can. That sounds easy, doesn’t it?”

This was new. Levy languidly brought her feet closer together, not bothering to answer the rhetorical question, attempting to pierce the warm fog that had settled around her conscious. Emotion... Past life?  No, that was a topic too inflammatory to touch. She said fire. Something like fire. Red, and warm, fierce...

“Now!”

“’Solid Script: Fire’!” Levy squealed, flinging her hand out in an odd motion- and like the click of a lighter and the rasp of a match against the paper box, out of nowhere, four disembodied block letters flashed in front of her, a vivid memory, dissolving into a twist of flames in the air, pinched out as if by an invisible hand.

If Levy was tired, then there was absolutely no trace of that now; she stood there, shocked into silence, her mind drawing a blank; rather shakily she drew her hand through the air once more, two fingers outstretched. “’S-Solid Script: Fire’!”

Like the flash of a camera, the word FIRE was born back into the world, breaking up into a languish tongue of blazing heat, and was swallowed back up by the air as fast as it came.

The girl clapped her hands to her cheeks, her eyes shining and round like dinner plates, barely able to breathe from the marvellous rush of energy gushing through her head, reeling from the roaring flood that gushes out when the dam breaks. A scab on her mind had been peeled off, revealing abilities that had never seen the light of day before. “Did you see that!” she shouted at up at the glass panel with wild abandon. “I said it and did something and actual fire came out like a flamethrower and it was amazing and I did that by myself-” She eagerly swiped her arm to the side again, but ruined the whole effect by slamming her hand directly into one of the height measure things and sending it toppling to the ground. “Gya!”

The two adults on the other side of the glass watched as the girl hopped around, flailing her hand, until forgetting the pain and going back to making walls of flame appear at will, as delighted as a toddler with a new toy. Dropping the professional facade and turning the intercom off, Erza finally slumped over in the pilot seat with her hands on her temples, trying to ward off the pounding headache she’d been ignoring for the past hour and letting the headphones slip off her head and clatter to the ground despondently. “God... At least we don’t have another bloody Dragon Slayer denting our repair bills beyond recognition,” she grumbled. “If have to call the damn plumber and let him laugh at me one more time, then I’m going to mince him and feed him to the cats.”

“There’s no need to be like that. Even a Letter Mage can wreak havoc if left to their own devices.” Makarov absently scribbled in the file, resting it precariously against the panel edge, the ends of the neon tags waving about like a kaleidoscope of peacock feathers.

“What does that mean? Are you telling me to be pessimistic or careful?”

“Both.”

“Tell me how far that’s gotten us.”

The old man didn’t deign to answer, but simply pointed with the pen towards Levy, who appeared to be taking a shot at summoning other elements, being surrounded by puddles of water from which she was now attempting to generate steam by mixing the two elements together. Erza took one hand away from her head to lean forwards on the dashboard once more. She seemed like a decent enough child, not so much reserved as wary, mature enough to hide her impatience...  She was going to need that here more than ever.

“Poor kid,” Erza murmured with a hot wash of unwarranted guilt, her hand slipping back to her forehead, staring at the neat display of buttons inches from her eyes. “Stuck in this place...”

“The walls have ears,” Makarov reminded quietly.

They both were startled by a tap on the glass. The bluenette was rubbing one of her eyes as she tended to do when tired, her gold-orange flats wet and her shirt now sporting a new small ashy burn on the hem. Erza flipped the intercom system back into power, the sobriety returning to her expression. “You’ve done a wonderful job, Levy, and I’m sure that we can fully explore the great promise your Letter Mage magic offers... but for now, you’re dismissed. Feel free to go outside as you like.”

Remembering her manners, Levy said a hasty ‘Thank you,’, bobbing into an old-fashioned bow, before padding across the length of the room, past the empty pool and the stack of targets lying in the corner to the great gleaming door. She pressed her hand dutifully to the sensor, suppressing a yawn, and pushed the door open with both hands when she heard the click of confirmation, the stronger light of the hall spilling over and flooding her eyes. The door swung shut behind her and into place with a hefty click while she dug the heels of her hand into her eyes to dispel the spots that were floating around in her vision, dazzled by the brightness.

  At the speed of light, a mini tornado of sugary energy slammed into her and latched onto her neck with alarming speed, forcing the short girl to totter backwards, nearly bowling her over. “Wha-?” she choked out through the sensory overload.

“Did’ja get your powers, did’ja like ‘em? What kinda mage are you? Are you a Celestial Mage too? Probably not, those are wayway super powerful- are you a Dragon Slayer, please don’t be a Dragon Slayer, we have like twenty-”

Guh-”

“She can’t breathe, posh girl!” Lucy’s animated chattering was cut off halfway as Gajeel pried her off Levy; the bluenette doubled over and gasped as she was mercifully allowed to take in air, brushing her hands through her hair. All of the residual excitement stemming from the sensation of bringing words to life flickered around her feet as she tried to take everything in the corridor: the freshly-painted white walls, the meticulously dusted paintings, the sombre plastic chairs.

“You could have asked-” she croaked, straightening up, but was herself stopped short as Lucy had been. Standing over her, less than a foot away, wearing the same black leather jacket as a couple of days ago, was a familiar scowl and pair of near-constantly dissatisfied crimson eyes- and, just like that, through some timeless force everybody but she could name, her world had nothing else.

“Yeah, that wasn’t too hard, shrimp, see?” he said smugly, tilting his head, the line of studs on his brow catching the light. “You nerds and your exam-phobia. What great powers did ya get then, the magical ability to summon dictionaries?”

The momentary spell broke. Levy narrowed her own brown eyes with fresh ire, tucking her chin into her chin defiantly. “For your information, I’m a Letter Mage,” she emphasized, trying to make it sound as important as it could possibly be. “I can summon blazing infernos and torrents of water from nothing, which is obviously superior to simply turning into metal as certain people boast of.”

“And I’m a Dragon Slayer. That’s infinitely cooler than a Letter Whatever.”

“I could set you on fire if I wanted to!”

He tilted his head, sporting that smug grin, teeth flashing. “Could you?”

She puffed up. “Of course I’m perfectly able to, weren’t you listening?”

Gajeel studied his nails with a good show of nonchalance, thoroughly enjoying his teasing the girl. “I dunno, I just thought that it doesn’t sound very friendly of you.”

Throughout this exchange, Lucy had been standing over to the side, rather nettled at her being forced from the conversation; though through some observation she suspected that she was unknowingly serving as the third wheel. The sensation was new to her, as the blonde had been mostly been in the limelight, the focus of the attention, all throughout her life and with good reason. However, she had some serious business to get down to with her friend, and she couldn’t let this pestering kid get in her way.

“That’s great and all, but I have to discuss something with this young lady here,” she pointed out, popping up between the two like bread out of a toaster. “If you don’t mind...?”

With a provoked click of his tongue, Gajeel stepped back, hands in the pockets of his inky jeans.

“Levy, listen,” Lucy said impatiently, directing the girl’s gaze to her again. “You gotta come with me. We’ve got a whole big picnic up on the roof and everyone’s going to be there, ‘cause I wanted them to meet you, and you’ll like them- okay, not like that- and we got all these things from the vending machines downstairs and there’ll be bubble tea and Papico and things, so it’ll be great.”

With her eyes shining like quartz, her hands on Levy’s shoulders and the trademark charismatic cheer, Levy found it improbable to turn down- that is, if she had had any reason to in the first place. The girl may have been introverted, but she was not very shy, and was quite eager to meet the rest of the eccentric-sounding cast of the Fairy Tail ward.

With something like a second thought, like hesitation, Lucy turned her head to Gajeel. “Uh, you can come too, I guess.”

The boy was leaning back against the bannister of the staircase, noticeably lacking the smile he had worn in front of Levy just moments earlier, relapsing into a dark frown, shoulders hunched, narrowed carmine eyes glaring a hole into the floor. He looked up, silently raising an eyebrow, but his expression was otherwise inscrutable.

Lucy decided not to comment farther. “So what do you think? she asked Levy brightly.

The bluenette, who had been somewhat unsettled by the forced atmosphere, latched onto the topic instead. “That sounds great,” she replied, bobbing her head enthusiastically. “But where’d you get all the money for the vending machine?”

Lucy winked. “That’s a secret. Thought I helped a lot.” With another subconscious glance at Gajeel over out of the corner of her eye, the blonde released Levy’s shoulders. “You have to be on the roof at exactly seven, okay? Don’t be late!”

“Ah-” Levy started, but the blonde had already flashed her a good-natured salute and turned the dash upstairs, brushing past Gajeel on the way, who conspicuously leaned the other way. Like a flitting shadow, Panther Lily slunk down the stairs just as Lucy disappeared, coming down to brush against Gajeel’s legs, meowing plaintively at Levy. The boy idly held out a boot for the cat to scratch itself against, looking anywhere but the bluenette.

She was rather unhappy, helpless against the direction that their interaction was taking, shifting from one foot to the other, her hands clasped behind her back against the cool wall, sardonyx eyes cast down as well. Levy wanted to dissect everything that had happened in the exam with her fellow conspirator, from all the somewhat invasive questions and the curious contraptions that measured all kinds of indiscernible statistics and every word of the adults behind the screen. This should have all been easy fare for anyone else with whom she was so determined to befriend, and it would have already felt completely natural with her, if not for the frustrating constant blooms of awkwardness that kept sprouting between them for no apparent reason at all. Is it, she thought stiffly, because I’m a girl and he isn’t?

“So,” she began in a customary attempt to break the ever-growing tension.

“What?” he snapped, shoving his hands deeper in his pockets, ignoring the warning mrrow from around his feet.

All of the sentimental thoughts she had given free will to burnt off in front of a flare of her temper. The slow progress she was managing to carve with him was weak evidence for him trying as hard as Levy felt she was to be civil. “What do you mean what?” she said, using the same irate tone he had, raising her head. “I’m just trying to make friendly conversation, why are you always-”

A flash of fear, a memory like a lightbulb blowing closed her throat. She had enough self-control and experience to shut herself up, her momentary anger giving away to disorientation. The girl clenched her fists behind her back, hating that she had suddenly lost control of her breath, hating the terrible burn of tears behind her eyes, sure that she looked in distress. You can see, why don’t you ask? she spat. I’m always asking about you, why don’t you do the same?

If she had looked up, then she would have seen her own thoughts mirrored in his eyes; but like every other child on earth, they had fallen into the trap of forgetting that the world does not revolve around themselves, or anything other than its own axis. Levy, in her blind bitterness, forgot to consider that of the other party, and how she was asking favours of him that he wasn’t capable of performing, and that his way of caring was more subtle than her own.

“Yeah, go on,” he challenged, his hackles rising, “What? Always what? What am I always doing?”

Levy felt a chill freezing up her warm side, letting her anger- so out of place in the usual spring of her disposition- speak for itself. “Nothing,” she said coldly, with any of her previous exuberance long run dry, and in the ultimate act of defiance, she marched right up and past him up the stairs, not deigning to turn her head, poker-straight and fiercely determined to not care. Her flats were unnecessarily loud against the marble each sounding like a blow, and Levy only buried her head in her hands when she was safely out of sight.

 

The cat began to scale the stairs after the girl, paw on the second step, ebony tail twitching, slate-grey eyes clearer than glass as he looked back questioningly at Gajeel. The boy was stock-still, having not moved a muscle, not even away from the little bluenette when she had brushed past him with nothing as much as a glance. Panther gave a drawn-out pointed meow as he brought his paw back down.

“Shut up,”  Gajeel said roughly, and then he finally broke, pulling the collar up as far as it would go, over his nose, not quite able to reach his eyes. “Lily.”

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Purposefully tucking her feet into her worn flats, Levy opened the door, letting the fluorescent light of the corridor outside flood her room and glint off motes of floating dust. It was almost as if she was going to a party, and accordingly out of politeness like her aunt had always instructed she left her book under her pillow, wrapped up securely in her kitty pyjamas, one memory inside the other.

The girl locked the door securely behind her, dropping the key in her shirt pocket, but her hand stilled on the doorknob as she happened to look down the hall, pursing her lips. She hesitated, thinking, wondering how long she meant to hold a grudge, fidgeting on the spot; but her heart hardened, and she turned away stiffly, tucking a lock of ultramarine hair behind her ear with conviction, overlooking the pit of guilt on her stomach.

Levy scurried across the tiles to the staircase, craning her head to look up. It was markedly more cramped than the way down due to expectations of being used less often, and Levy wound up the stairs, curiosity brimming through the lid, and came to a stop before an invitingly open metal door leading out to an expanse of concrete and a midnight-blue roof of stars.

Azure, beryl and cobalt: somebody had spilled dark paint across the universe, freckled with tinsel and rhinestones, blooms of amethyst clouds spreading across the beautiful mess, pitted moon hanging from an invisible thread. The wind was cool on her face and her eyes and in her lungs, and Levy could imagine little crystals forming in her hair; she was close enough to the edge to see the tumbled cityscape underneath reflect the stars in neon billboards, neon pinpricks of lamps in windows, crawling streams of car headlights.

“Levy!” someone called out, voice sweet against the night. “Over here!”

The girl blinked as she turned around to see Lucy bobbing towards her like a little beacon in the inky sea- she came over, dressed in a rich casual pink turtleneck definitely not belonging to the hospital and took the bluenette’s hand. “We’ve been here for a billion hours,” she complained, leading her to the other side of the grey roof moonscape, past empty solar panels and the towering hulks of air conditioning units. “And Natsu managed to find some sparklers, though he’ll probably blow them up somehow, because he’s a pyromaniac and all.”

“Sparklers! Don’t they only sell those at New Years and in summer?”

“Doesn’t matter. My d- I can get ‘em anytime I wanted, even in the middle of winter. Look, Levy’s heeere!”

Near the railings edging the raised ends of the roof was a sheet spread out to accommodate a gaggle of people all nearly the same age as Levy herself, who all turned around at the peppy sound of Lucy’s entrance.

One was a girl with blue hair very much like her own, with big dark eyes and a little paper doll which Levy recognized as an ancient type of rain charm tied around her neck. She waved at Levy, which was nice, and much easier than to take in than the ebullient ‘Heyyy!’ from the pink-haired boy in front of her, who was waving around an unlit sparkler a bit too enthusiastically, grin brighter than the sun. In between both was another boy with black hair and black eyes, hands behind his head, legs crossed in front of him. “What’s up?”

“This is Juvia-” Lucy said, pointing to the girl- ah, she was the one Gajeel had mentioned- “and that’s Natsu, and that’s Gray.”

Determined to make a good impression, Levy readily sat down from across them. “I’m Levy McGarden- but I’m pretty sure you know that already.”

“Oh!” The girl Juvia said with sudden recognition. “So you must be the shrimp girl that Gajeel mentioned!”

Levy wilted a little. “Shrimp.. girl...?”

“Don’t take him too seriously,” Natsu dismissed. “He’s always like that, calling people names and just being real grumpy in general.”

“Why didn’t he come?” Gray asked. Levy noticed his absence with an unpleasant mash of remorse and relief, a nagging feeling in the sides of mind trying to tell her something she didn’t want to listen to.

“I did invite him,” Lucy shrugged, settling down next to her. “He just generally doesn’t like to be anywhere near people. I was honestly kinda surprised to find him waiting for you outside of the exam room today.”

There was no denying the tendrils of shame taking root in her heart. He was becoming the abandoned one more and more in her eyes, inexorably pushing out her brief antipathy and cementing her guilt. Maybe I should... Why was I mad at him, again? I’ve already forgotten...

“Gajeel-kun is naturally solitary,” Juvia informed then solemnly. “Though Juvia can certainly understand that. Isn’t that right, Gray-sama?”

The boy in question started at the unexpected question shot at him, with the carefully observed half-made little ice sculpture that he’d been working on cracking. “Sure,” he said uncertainly, shifting his feet.

Levy noticed the other girl’s archaic usage of honour suffixes and third-person, though now was not the time for a history lesson; Natsu clicked his tongue impatiently, flourishing another full pack of stick-thin sparklers. “Whatever, let’s talk about better. Who wants to light these suckers?”

Apparently, that was a rhetorical question. Levy took an orange one, the little fireworks fizzling like a shaken can of pop, casting a faint citrus gleam around her feet, her eyes round with wonder. She hadn’t been allowed to hold one of them by herself before, as they were too much of a fire hazard her family didn’t practice the festivals associated with them; sitting on the roof, holding the tiny light, sheltering it from the wind with her hand made her feel rebellious. Gray and Natsu were busy arguing about the latter’s tendency to burn down anything he touched and the possibility of the sheet catching fire.

“Yeah, you better be careful, flame-brain, or you’re going to set the whole building on fire with the way you’re waving that thing around-”

“How is that even possible- who do you think I am, the village idiot?!”

“Why do you even ask? It’s like leaving a toddler with a flamethrower-”

“Excuse me, says the person who managed to freeze the entire elevator because he scared it was going to fall-”

“That’s all they do,” Lucy informed Levy disdainfully, knocking her own pink sparkler against the bluenette’s. “Argue. They’re all idiots.”

“Natsu can’t be that much of an idiot, you seem like good friends,” Levy said mildly.

“Friends,” Lucy muttered to herself. “Yeah.”

“Juvia does not believe that Gray-sama is an idiot,” Juvia chimed in, bringing in her own cobalt sparkler into the mix. “Though, perhaps, she cannot vouch for Gajeel,” she added, looking up at Levy. “Juvia did think that he would be present tonight, at least. He seemed happy enough yesterday.”

Ugh,” Levy said, hanging her head, letting the hovering tsunami finally crash down on her. “It’s my fault.”

As was mandatory to do in these types of situations, the other two girls assured her that she had done nothing wrong. “He’s just antisocial, and he’s like that with everyone, he just likes his space,” Juvia reassured. “He was quite the same in his time at.. the workhouse. Juvia supposes you already know?”

“Workhouse?” Levy pronounced slowly.

Out of nowhere, a clap of thunder sounded- a literal dark cloud hung over Juvia, who looked rather grim, with her hands folded in her lap and her dark eyes sharp. “Perhaps for him it was not. But he was always very good at running away.”

She didn’t expand on the subject, and neither girl pressed her to, sitting in the mutual silence of children who had already seen far more than was ideal, with the sparklers slowly fizzling out and letting the encroaching darkness advance once more. Levy stared at her shoes, wishing she could invent a time machine and go back to shake the wits back into her past self.

“It’s been five minutes,” Natsu said in disbelief, his voice cutting through their eerie silence. “ and you all have just been sitting there in a circle like some kind of cult.”

“We’ll just finish the Papico while we’re at it,” Gray suggested helpfully. “Ah, it’s not cold...”

The crisp snapping sounds of ice brought them back to life. “Not the coffee one! That’s mine!” Lucy rushed, leaping over to the hefty pile of goodies that Levy hadn’t noticed before.

“Calm down, woman, it’s the matcha one!”

“Matcha is Juvia’s favourite too!”

“That’s more than enough for everyone though,“ Levy pointed out, staring at all the junk food heaped in the corner; it was anyone’s cheap dream come true, enough to last a person a week.

“Are you kidding? That’s barely enough for one person!” Natsu argued, fitting two of the plastic bottles into his mouth at once, sparks flickering about his palms. “Hey, Elsa, they’re definitely better when nice and hot. Want me to warm it up for you?”

Gray made a gagging sound, his ice-encased treat already half-empty, but before he could fire back at him another voice piped through and cut them off. “Did we even get coffee? I can’t find it anywhere,” Lucy questioned, sifting through all the packaging.

“Wait, I got it!” Natsu scrounged around himself, locating the one box of the according cafe-au-lait version, and tossed it to Lucy- or rather, at Lucy, who instinctively ducked than attempt to catch it, and as a result it went sailing over her head and into the great unknown. A moment of silence followed, and then the ever-so-faint sound of a box exploding on the pavement somewhere. “Never mind. Sorry, Luce...”

“Or you can just share mine,” Levy offered quickly before Lucy had adequate time to react. “Banana’s just as good.”

Grudgingly, Lucy accepted the peace offering. “This doesn’t taste anything like a banana.”

“That’s ‘cause the flavour comes from an old species of banana called the Gros Michel, and it doesn’t exist anymore,” Levy informed, glad that her vast repertoire of otherwise useless knowledge was able to enlighten someone else at last.

“Gross Michael?” Natsu questioned, looking over with interest.

“Gros Michel,” Levy corrected. “Who’d name their banana ‘Gross Michael?”

“Someone with a better sense of humour than other banana people,” he suggested.

All in all, it was definitely an enjoyable night: the wind in her hair, the vertigo of being so close to the heavens, the adrenaline from bending authority came together with the company. They stuffed themselves as far they could with sweets, bickered with each other, fell asleep curled up on the careworn bedsheet as they burnt through the sugar high. Levy sat by herself, sleepily bending one of the smoking sparklers into knots, having braided as much of Juvia’s hair as was physically possible. It would have been perfect, spotless if but for one missing factor.

Throughout each interaction, she caught herself trying to bring in what Gajeel would think, what he would have snarked, what she would have whispered to him. She had prided herself so many times for being uncomplaining and independent, and she knew that she could pull it off very well, and she’d done it so many times before; but now Levy couldn’t focus. It was painful, like trying to keep a fish from water.

She didn’t want him to be lonely. Nobody should be lonely.

Was he lonely, without her? It seemed impossible. She hadn’t heard of anybody like that. Never out loud.

“Stupid.” She chucked the cord over her shoulder in vexation, slipping her face into her hands. “It aches...”

The girl wasn’t missing her grandfather, or her aunt, or her mother like this. She couldn’t come up with anything to distract herself with, to stop her from falling deeper into the pit.

Falling, Levy thought dimly.

The chill air had her breath misting, and the cold was deeper than her bones; however, her feelings were stewing, becoming far worse than the situation called for. She was leading herself into a chain of second-guessing farther down into the endless pit that comes of doubting oneself. I should go back and apologize. That’s what friends do... but who’d wanna be my friend after that?

She pushed herself off the concrete floor, tucking Lucy in the sheet as well as she could against the harvest air, dusting herself off. She dutifully kicked all of their garbage into one corner, wondering if they really intended to stay the night on the roof. Levy crossed the grey plain, solitary under the ceiling of stars, her breath misting out before her; the girl shuddered, temporary warmth prickling in her skin, remembering the feeling of grey cotton muffling her chin from the chill and paused to stare up into heavy space. “Oh no, don’t think about that, Levy,” she muttered bitterly. “You aren’t human. Just everyone else’s toy.”

The metal door leached any of the remaining heat of her body she had left, trying to take her courage away with it as well. The smooth ivory steps reverberated with the noise of her footsteps, each louder than the last in the dead quiet of the hospital and in her ears, pounding with her heartbeat. I wish I could talk to someone, the girl thought miserably. Her heart was a storm in a bottle and the glass was beginning to crack; she needed someone to talk to more than she had in years, someone who wasn’t asleep or mad at her.

She skittered clumsily to the bottom of the first flight of stairs, staring at her own feet, trying to keep them still, with even her vision shaking- and then out of the silence she heard- “Mrrow?”

Turning the corner was none other than Panther Lily. He stopped short when he caught sight of Levy standing by herself, wide-eyed, and redirected his path to her with another solid meow of greeting; the cat then kept on going to a part of the corridor which she hadn’t fully traversed before, the one which held the offices. He looked back at her in expectation, his tail high and curled at the tip like the flag, the same signal a mother cat used to guide her stumbling kittens around the house.

“You’re a magic cat,” Levy told him. “You're always popping up whenever I need it. If only you could talk...”

He flicked his rounded ears patiently.

Obediently, the girl started to follow him. The cat proceeded to walk up to one of the doors which was different than the ones used for the bedrooms, with it having a square of frosted, translucent glass and a gilded plague nails to the wood. Levy tried the knob and found it unlocked, unsure of what to expect but trusting Lily to an extent that few others had been able to reach, and promptly pushed it open on its well-oiled hinges.

The bluenette really hadn’t been expecting a dozing Erza Scarlet.

The walls had a row of shelves embedded in them, stacked with yellow files and CD albums and photocopied books with the covers missing and the spines taped over. A lengthy faux mahogany desk sat in the middle of the room, resting on a Persian carpet, and generic white drapes were laid over the windows at the back; it was otherwise surprisingly bare, with none of the trappings that Levy assumed would be common in an operation with stakes as high as housing magic children. That was something else that she stored away for later, determined to discuss with Gajeel.

The woman herself had her head in her arms, her scarlet hair spilling over, with a tiny flowerpot full of odd stationery near her ear, a half-empty tinted bottle of wine on one edge and an unstable stack of paper teetering on the opposite side. Levy was confused as to why she hadn’t gone home yet and why the cat had decided to lead her here (had it read her mind somehow?) but kept her ground, staring uncertainly at the spectacle before her and wishing- not for the first time- that she had her book to hold to her chest.

With a fluid leap that his big cat ancestors would have been immensely proud of, Lily landed on the top of the desk with a barely noticeable accompanying thump and nimbly traversed the mini obstacle course to nip Erza’s ear.

The effects were as promised, though somewhat delayed-  the pinch jerked her up into a hasty sitting position, knees rattling the desk and causing the mountain of paperwork to avalanche across the floor- however, her hand shot out just in time to stop the wine from toppling over. The other hovered dazedly to the side of her face and it took her a bewildered moment to realize what was going on; when the woman had managed to still her spinning head, she rounded furiously on the cat, who was serenely performing a thorough inspection of his chest fur.

“What the f-”

He paused his grooming to cut her off with a warning mrrow.

“-flip do you think you’re doing?” she continued forcefully.

Panther Lily decided that his toes needed some work as well.

“Self-righteous-”

Mrrroww.”

“-bunny rabbit-” Erza pinched the bridge of her nose, her long hair dropping down her shoulders, and happened to notice the little girl standing before her, her back poker-straaght and hands primly clasped behind her back. “Miss McGarden. How lovely to meet you. I trust that you’re doing well?”

“No,” Levy said frankly.

“That’s great. Neither am I. Be a dear and bring that sorry excuse for a chair over so that we can have a proper talk- don’t give me that look, I’m not going to eat you.”

The stark contrast of the stringent professional Dr. Erza which Levy had had the fortune to encounter first and the I-don’t-get-paid-enough version was like comparing Lucy to Gajeel. The bluenette wasn’t sure which one she preferred more, and as she dragged over a worn stool from beside the shelf, she decided that this one must be at least a little drunk and that being an adult sounded like a Monday set on loop forever. Levy pushed herself onto the spongy hassock, aware more than ever of how much shorter she was than the woman across from her, who seemed to tower over her, both physically and in her mind’s eye.

“So,” Erza said when Levy had settled down, hands under her thighs, and busied herself with reordering the mound of printed paper that she had collapsed. “What ails you?”

“Y-You’ll really listen?”

She raised an eyebrow. “Why ever not?”

“I dunno,” Levy said uneasily. “I kinda... um, woke you up and everything... I hope you weren’t doing anything important”

For a second, the shadows dipping on Erza’s face gave it a look eerily similar to the one Juvia had when they had been holding the sparklers on the roof, lightning sparking above her head. But then the woman looked up, with nothing more complex than a wry expression and raised eyebrows, and the moment was gone so fast as to be a figment of Levy’s imagination. “It’s the least I can do,” Erza said drily. “You really aren’t the first to be dragged around by an Exceed, and wait, let me guess. You don’t know what that is.”

Levy shook her head, her interest piqued. Panther Lily stopped grooming again to freeze and stare blankly at nothing, his tongue still sticking out, only to resume whatever he was doing with little other acknowledgment of anything that had transpired.

“Every child we’ve studied who’s classed as a Dragon Slayer manages to acquire a cat at some point,” Erza continued, straightening up and sweeping her red hair over her shoulders, with some of the serious businesslike tone Levy was used to returning to her voice. “Or rather, it would be classified as a corollary, if there was evidence strong enough for this being a course of nature- the only base we have to go on consists of just two instances, and the first thing they teach you in science is that you can’t finish testing a hypothesis unless you’ve already done it ten times over.”

The bluenette was well-read enough to absorb most of the information she was being given, though it was still like trying to decipher an excited run-on sentence lacking commas in a Jane Austen book. She nodded mutely, discovering that as long as she ignored the indirect references for children being used as test subjects, the woman’s speech was oddly comforting; logic was something that Levy could understand as it served to anchor her better to the world by explaining it away.

“You seem very passionate about your science,” Levy said when Erza paused.

“Science,” Erza echoed, her hands moving inadvertently to bury themselves in the sides of the lab coat, which Levy recognized with a little spark was similar to the way her own would reach for her book. “Yes, that’s right. If science is a battleground, then I live there, and this coat is my armor. I don’t feel safe without it.”

There was a note of embarrassment in her voice, as if she was a child caught saying that she liked fairytales. “That’s enough about me,” she said, clipping the topic short, picking up the half-full bottle of wine and sloshing it around somewhat carelessly. “I’m sure you’re not here to listen to Erza Scarlet rant on about herself.”

All of a sudden, Levy was less than eager to divulge any of her feelings, finding it to be much harder to actually cross the bridge than just stare at it morosely. She fidgeted on the grey footstool, swinging her legs to and fro, absently reaching out to toy with a stray ballpoint pen lying innocuously on the desktop, her emotions puddling into an unpleasant soup that the girl didn’t to acknowledge, in the hopes that it would go away on its own. It didn’t help that each time she looked at the imposing, pertly dressed woman, images of plastic bags full of cherry liquid labelled clearly with her name on would swing in her head.

Open mind, open mind. Nobody likes a sullen girl, Levy. “I dunno,” she finished lamely, then pushed herself on. “I said something I didn’t mean and now Gajeel ain’t- they aren’t talking to me anymore.”

Gajeel?” Erza asked to confirm, trying not to let her incredulity show- te girl had the guts to talk to that one, and get away with it? But glancing at the particular furry person who led her here, she shouldn’t have been too surprised.

“Yes, he’s my friend,” Levy said, though her voice wasn’t as firm as she would have liked it to be.

“Allow me to present a basic assumption,” Erza said saucily, taking a swig. “Or, let me guess. You’re having boy trouble?”

Levy froze. Something about the word- what it implied- was too much for her to handle- she could feel herself go pale, and then blush from the mortification. “No! You- th- that’s not I- We’re just friends! Honest!”

The bluenette looked miserable enough for Erza to quickly retrace her steps. “I’m sorry, that was very tasteless of me- Let me try that again. You two had a fight with each other?”

“Yeah...” Levy took her breathing back under control. “I was tired and Lucy put him in a bad mood by accident- ‘cause I think he didn’t like being invited, and I think he wants to be alone all the time- I don’t know, I don’t know him- and then he blew up, but it was just a little, and then I got angry with him and I was patronizing and then I walked off... and that’s not what friends are supposed to do.”

The girl rolled the pen right off the edge and her finger paused, hovering aimlessly above the wood, deprived of anything to do. She knew that it was infinitely more complex, yet it was solid a base as she had the power to explain. Levy had found the missing set of keys from underneath the sofa cushions, but nobody had told her what they were supposed to unlock.

Taking another thoughtful draught from the bottle, Erza slammed it gracelessly on the table. “Then why don’t you go and apologize? I don’t think that kid has it in him to let you down so badly, and it truly does seem like you’re heartbroken.”

“I’m not heartbroken! I’m just guilty! It felt like kicking a cat after it dropped a vase or something- and if I dunno if he even wants to be friends with me anymore...” Levy felt the tiring familiarity of tears pricking the corners of her eyes, but then somebody lit a candle at the back of her mind- a memory. If he didn’t want to be friends, then explain- her eyes landed on her hand- explain that night, then! Non-friends don’t do that!

She was in danger of flushing again, and her dignity wouldn’t have been able to withstand it. The clear, matter-of-fact tone Erza used served to tell her how she was making  mountains out of  molehills, but Levy couldn’t find the words to explain why- it was beyond even the bookworm’s knowledge to know how to justify her feelings. It was so easy when it was written on paper, simple black strokes against eggshell, but Levy found out through a rude awakening that real life was another dimension entirely.

Panther Lily draped his tail over the side of the darkwood table, head on his paws, oblivious to the rest of the world, knowing what was important, while on the flip side Erza perplexedly watched the bluenette pout at the polished floor, much less at ease than the cat. To her the answer was very straightforward, not much more simple from travelling from point A to B- if she truly believed she was sabotaging a friendship, then it shouldn’t be this difficult to work it up and apologize to the other party. She knew firsthand that Gajeel could be a difficult character to work with, but there seemed to be some sort of mutual camaraderie at work here at least, strongly evidenced by having the boy’s own Exceed present was a witness.

The redhead let out a sigh, uncrossing her legs and pushing the bottle away from herself resolutely. It hadn’t been a good idea to bring that with her in the first place, especially not in front of a child; but there wasn’t any other way she could take the physical toll of working overtime- and the mental one of knowing what I am working for, she voiced to herself tartly.

She couldn’t just leave the kid, not on that cat’s watch. Erza assumed a more earnest expression, leaning forwards on her elbows, putting together everything she had gleaned about the situation so far, and coming with the conclusion that the girl needed a push before she could begin to walk on her own. “Seeing as we’re both women of knowledge, the most honourable way to settle our differences is through a good old-fashioned debate; let the motion be ‘Levy and Gajeel should be friends again,’ and I on the positive side. Are you with me so far?”

Levy nodded tentatively, her ultramarine hair falling back from her face, and, encouraged by the act, Erza continued:

“Very well, then. To start off, I suggest that Levy should be friends with Gajeel because of their shared interests. What do you have to say against that?”

“We-ell,” Levy said uncertainly, unsure with the direction she was taking. “I dunno- I mean, I put forwards that, um, I don’t know really what his interests are. He knows that I really like books, but I think the only shared interest we have is cats. And he probably only wants friends who are big and strong, I’m not one of those...”

“Ah. I’ve found a chink in your armor, so to speak. How will you know you aren’t inclined to the same interests as if him if you aren’t aware of what his interests are in the first place? Remember, you’ve only known him for a week. Assuming that that the only thing you two have in common is cats is dangerous, as building upon only an assumption is like trying to start a farm on the bank of a foreign river you’re assuming won’t flood.”

“Yes, but I’ve also been with Lucy for the same amount of time- actually even less- but I still know more about her than I do Gajeel,” Levy argued, gripping the edge of the table in an effort to make her look taller.

“Lucy Heartfilia is a very extroverted, outgoing person who has no problem letting other people in her space, as long as she judges them to have good intentions. Gajeel, on the other hand, still avoids even talking to people with whom he’s spent a couple of months with, though chose to voluntarily spend time with you from day one, according to what Dr. Makarov told me.”

“But he hasn’t come since the morning,” Levy said weakly, taken aback -and oddly gratified by the new perspective the older woman was offering her. She hadn't factored in anything like that nugget of information in her reasoning, yet now that it was made clear to her, it was the only thing she could think of. He did...?

“Most likely for the same reason you haven’t gone to him.”

“H-How am I supposed to know that?”

“There’s no harm in talking to him,” Erza said firmly. “Levy, I know you’re a very smart girl on your own. I shouldn’t have to tell you why people would want to be your friend.”

The bluenette eyes dropped to the floor, but Erza could still see her trying hard not to smile. “I just... I don’t know. I concede defeat.”

Running a hand down her long, crimson hair, Ezra briefly returned the girl’s smile before her usual austere air returned and she turned her attention to one of the immaculately stapled documents mounded on the side of the desk. “Ah, just a moment,” she muttered as she ducked down underneath the table to retrieve the ballpoint pen that Levy had knocked off.

“Let me, I can get it for you-”

“It’s alright, I’ve got it, I’m not that old- I can afford to bend down every once in a while... Alright,” Erza said before Levy could protest, “You should know... Tomorrow, you and all of the other children will be going out for your.. monthly treat.”

“Going out of the hospital?” Levy asked, sounding more incredulous than she meant; the thought of actually leaving the grounds themselves somewhat revived her spirit, which had previously grudgingly accepted that her fate was to be cordoned off in the building forever.

“Yes, in a bus and all. You’ll get properly briefed about the whole matter tomorrow.” Erza blew her hair away from her face, shaking her head. “Honestly, I should have told you earlier. Everyone else already knows. That’s a fault on my part.”

“It’s fine,” Levy said solemnly.

“Okay, now go, you have a friend to console!” The redhead made a shooing motion with her hand as she uncapped the pen. “Let the adults do the boring stuff by themselves, have your fun while it lasts.”

Levy didn’t need to be told twice. She slipped off the grey-green leather stool, dutifully pushing it back next to the stuffed shelve where she had found it, and then paused at the doorway. “Lily!”

The cat raised his head, then leisurely got to his feet and slipped off the table, striding up to her heels and threading past the door held open for him. Levy was fascinated by the fact that he could recognize his name so quickly, though didn’t dwell on it for any longer than a couple of moments, with the fires of her old spirit rekindling in her chest out of determination. She could do this! It was easy!

“Um, thank you so much for your time, Dr Scarlet,” Levy shouted just as she disappeared behind the entrance.

“You’re welcome,” Erza called out in return, though Levy had already shut the door in her haste and nearly caught her toes in the frame at that. At the final click of the knob, Dr. Scarlet sighed for what felt like the fifth time in two hours, her shoulders stiffening again akin to rose thorns as soon as the girl was out of sight, eyes fixed unseeing on the sheet in front of her. To her, she was the mafia head, and she was needed to sign the warrant for six children.

I’m paying for the bills with my conscience.

 

~~~

 

Levy marched down the overlit corridor, arms kept steadfast at the cottony sides of her grey hospital shirt instead of in their default pose of clutching each other anxiously. Her shoes clacked against the fresh-swabbed ivory tiles, the quiet now not as hostile as it had been she had first been led away from her grandfather, and her eyebrows were draw down akin to a hawk’s and fierce enough to rival Gajeel’s own infamous scowl.

The hallway seemed larger than she remembered, extraordinarily large in her mind, giving too much time to think; but she doggedly refused to give herself any more opportunities to change her mind. Levy had had enough of her pansying around; it was time to suck it up and do it the real Levy way.

She turned the corner and then was standing in front of the dungeon door, more baleful in the moment than the fortified hatch barring the entrance to the exam room; Levy was the star of her own story, unfolding in the style of those choose-your-own-adventure books- featuring a young Indiana Jones- that had been packed off an ancient cardboard box under her mother’s bookshelf. Panther Lily brushed across her heels, playing his part in the dramatic pause Levy allowed for effect, arching his back as she rehearsed her lines and confidently knocked thrice.

Her dramatic pause stretched on. Lights buzzed dispassionately overhead, droning through Levy’s ears.

Levy knocked again only for the empty sound to rattle through the vacant room on the other side of the door. She pressed her ear to the keyhole and heard nothing, not even a creak, or a thump or a sigh, nothing but silence staring coolly back at her. “Hello? she called through the keyhole, and predictably there was a reply was nowhere in sight.

He’s not there?, she thought, drawing away, but then she remembered something he had said last night- the roof!

Levy turned and raced back to the stairs with Panther a step behind, skipping up them two at a time- which was was not very easy, considering her height- and shoved the heavy door at the top open with her shoulders. The cool night air blew past the entrance, tousling her hair and whistling through the frames of glittering solar cells and glistening satellite dishes as she skittered out to the concrete. The far-off drone of the city storeys below was still going on as strong as ever.

Levy climbed on top of a great empty tanker presumably left out to collect the rain, navy blue plastic scuffed and faded imprints where words had once been painted on. However even on the very tips of her toes, she could see nothing, not even Lucy and the rest, to her relief, who must have woken up and packed off at some point. The stars turned above in what felt like contempt and the bluenette slid off the tanker, her initial drive beginning to wear away at the edges. “So he’s not here either,” she told Lily grimly. “We’ll have to keep looking.”

So she did, but in vain, for he wasn’t in the exam room, he wasn’t on the floor with the waiting room, he wasn’t outside on the sprawling passageway where the hawks were nesting and he wasn’t in the canteen; he was nowhere to be found. Levy’s doubts had seeped through the weak chinks in her armour of determination, taken up either by suspicions that she was being avoided or worry at the possibility of something haven gone wrong. Her hands had never felt so empty without her book keeping her company; it was as if she had left a half of her herself behind, on a road trip with none of your friends invited.

Levy slogged up the stairs, out of breath, a pale hand gripping the smooth railing. Frustration bubbled up in her heart as she despondently claimed to the black cat, “This ain’t fair, is he always just traipsing all over the place? Can’t he just sit in his room, I dunno, read something for once...”

She trailed off as guilt closed her throat. The derelict, stripped tiles, the peeling wallpaper, the recliner dead on its side in the middle of the floor- with visible effort Levy hauled herself up to the last of the stairs, looping her blue hair back behind her ears. She could afford to try knocking on his door one more time. She could afford to take another round, in fact, if that was what it took; though she was going to have to retrieve her novel first, and thus accordingly turned the corner to the hallway where her room was situation.

Perhaps it was ultimately a good thing that she hadn’t had the book with her in that moment, or she would have dropped it and woken him up.

Leaning hard against the wall next to her door, cross-legged, eyes shut, pitch-dark hair ghosting his ears and the bridge of his nose; Levy took some time to come back to herself, breathing out, waiting for her heart to stop stuttering, not liking that it did. Are you scared? If you aren’t scared, then stop doing that!

She took one step- then another, gingerly making her way over; Levy’s blue hair bounced as she crouched down next to him, tilting her head to peer owlishly at his face. The boy’s ever-permanent scowl was evident in the way his brows were still drawn together, even when asleep, yet he looked less like a ruffled dragon and more like a dozing tiger cub, bristling in its sleep.

Levy’s eyes trailed over the unbuttoned leather jacket that he seemed to have attached himself to, the metal piercings dotting his knuckles, the way his chest rose and fell too slowly for her to imitate- then she realized that she was staring like some kind of obsessed birdwatcher would with an owl parrot and flushed, her cheeks burning cherry-blossom pink. Beset by her anxieties, the bluenette’s head snapped to the side to see if anyone was watching her watch him, but even the cat had mysteriously vanished; swallowing, she leaned into close to his ear, forcing her voice to be level and prim: “You’re drooling.”

“Wuh-?” Abruptly- rather fast for someone who was supposed to be sleeping- he bolted upright, slapping a hand to his face, his eyes flying open, snapping to Levy in that piercing way was they’d always done. Before he could say anything, just as his mouth opened, Levy cut in with a rushed “Sorry.”

For a tense moment, he was silent, his mouth still half-open- Levy hoped fervently that her face wasn’t still red, berating herself for forgetting all of her lines- until he deflated, shoulders losing their hard lines. “Yeah, okay, you’re finally here,” he mumbled, evidently not possessing the same level of mastery as the girl in dispelling awkward tension, boosting himself to his feet. “Alright. You’re coming with me, shri- Levy.”

Levy blinked. This was not in the list of scenarios that she had been visualizing in her head, and she wasn’t sure what to feel- no, she wasn’t sure what she was feeling in the first place. The only identifiable emotion she could separate was relief; otherwise, ever since the hawk-watching day, when she had been at the railing and happened to meet his eyes, there were fireworks poised at the bottom of her stomach, tangled with nerves, waiting for a spark.

Appearing to be disturbed when Levy didn’t move, he cleared his throat and, after a pause, actually offered his hand, unable to think of anything else.

The bluenette stared as if it was a foreign object, her sardonyx eyes becoming round like saucers, and she looked up at him in something like amazement. “What’re you doing?”

“What do you think-” he forced out, ducking his head. “You don’t have to make it this hard-”

He stopped short when Levy grabbed his hand, pulling herself up, the impish grin he’d rather die than admit he missed finally returning, her eyes sparkling with newfound mirth. “Awh, is the poor little boy flustered ‘cause he has to hold someone’s hand? Is that why your ears are going all red?”

The ‘poor little boy’ all but disappeared in his jacket, seeking refuge from her relentless teasing, his ear indeed going rather red like a volcano. “No, shut up, shut up- I-I mean, be quiet-” he stammered heatedly from somewhere in the coat, becoming agitated enough to freeze up.

Levy blinked again, her grin softening. The fact that he was easier to fluster than usual, how he was trying in his own way to be as civil as possible and refraining from calling her a shrimp made her feel oddly touched; when he raised his head to peer cautiously down at the bluenette, scuffing his boot at the floor, she found it very difficult to push down the bubbles of cute aggression and keep from pinch his cheeks.

“You were trying to take me somewhere?” she pointed out, swinging their linked hands. For somebody whom everyone assured her was standoffish to the point of being unapproachable, he certainly did seem to have no problem with such gestures.

“Yeah, before somebody starting acting really weird,” he grumped, straightening up again and turning away before she could comment further, tugging at her hand impatiently. “I’ve wanted to show you something for so long, so stop laughing at me behind my back!”

“Yessir,” Levy replied, her irresistible smile lighting her up all over as she followed him. Finally.