Author's Note: For Jelulz based on the following prompt -
"Imagine Person A is a busy single parent of a toddler and B often helps them out to babysit and housewatch. One day A invites B out to dinner together with the child as their token of gratitude for helping them out. During the dinner, A's child loudly exclaims that A is in madly love with B, making B flustered and A extremely embarrassed. Intrigued, B asks A's child how they know this information, to which they say that it's because "A never shuts up talking about B all day."
Erza tied the drawstrings of her fleece pajama pants into a neat bow and pulled a long-sleeved shirt over her head. Her day had been long, exhausting, and she'd spent the last hour on a crowded train before slogging through the half-melted snow that stood between her and home. Just as the tea kettle began to whistle there was a soft knocking on her door. The hour was late and only one person ever came calling at night. Erza sighed and wished she hadn't been so quick to change into pajamas, though it wouldn't be the first time he'd seen her in them.
"Hey," Jellal said with a sheepish smile. "I'm sorry to bother you this late, I know you just got home –" Erza quirked an eyebrow and leaned against the door frame. "I wasn't looking for you or anything. I was just getting my mail…" He trailed off and she fought back a grin. "Uh, anyway, I'm on call for another four hours and thought I was safe, but I gotta go in. Do you think you could come sit with Meredy until I get back? I should be done by one-thirty."
"Of course. I don't mind at all. Just let me grab a few things." Erza left him in the doorway to gather her slippers, phone, and a jacket. She knew she should probably be annoyed with him for showing up at the tail end of a bad day begging for a babysitter, but she wasn't. She chose not to unpack the reasons why. He smiled at her when she reappeared and followed him out of her apartment and down the hall to his.
"I apologize for dragging you into my mess again, Erza. It seems to happen more often than I'd like."
"You don't have to apologize. I'm happy to help."
"I still feel bad. I really should be more on top of things." He sighed and fished in his pockets for his keys. "I didn't even think to schedule my regular night sitter because the ER was overstaffed and I guess I was hoping too hard I wouldn't be called in like this."
"I promise it's fine. You've got a lot on your plate and it's only natural that sometimes things overflow."
Jellal unlocked the door and quickly disappeared inside to make sure his daughter hadn't woken up in the few minutes he'd been gone. Erza shut the front door behind her and waited for him in the kitchen. There were dishes in the sink and a box of cereal left out on the counter. His living space wasn't incredibly messy, but the harried clutter made it obvious he had a young child.
Erza could acknowledge that she was attracted to him, but with Jellal there wasn't a lot of down time. He worked odd hours – a lot of them – and relied on more than one babysitter to help him look after his five year old daughter. She'd run into a couple of his sitters on occasion, and most had been college students looking for extra money. His life was either catapulting ahead at hundreds of miles per hour or he was trying to over-compensate and spend every second with Meredy.
"Okay, uh, there's some tea, I think, in the pantry if that's what you want." His voice pulled her from contemplation. "I heard your kettle before, and I'm so sorry for taking that away from you."
"Thank you." She smiled in an attempt to stop him from apologizing again. "I think I might just go to sleep though."
Jellal nodded and pulled his coat from the rack. "Meredy should stay asleep for you, but in case she wakes up coughing – I should've mentioned before that she's been a little sick – there's some syrup in the bathroom." His sleeve tangled adorably in the arm of his coat and Erza reached for the cuff.
"Just hold still," she said quietly. "I know you're in a hurry, but winter coats take some patience." Erza slid her hand up the arm of his coat and focused on the task and not the way her hand glided over his skin or how very close to him she stood or that she could smell his shampoo. She quickly tugged the bunched up sleeve down though the arm and abruptly cleared her throat when his fingers brushed against hers. "There. You're good now." Her throat felt embarrassingly tight. "Maybe I will have that tea," she muttered.
"Whatever you want, Erza," he said in a low voice. "I –" His phone chirped several times in succession and he sighed. "That'll be Lucy again. I really need to go."
"Right. Of course. I've got everything under control here."
"I trust you." He smiled in the offhanded way that made her heart skip a beat and left her alone in the kitchen. When she heard the front door click shut and the deadbolt slide back into place, Erza groaned. Jellal was a grown man who could handle his own coat sleeves! Why had she stepped in like that? She shook her head in frustration and ultimately decided to skip the tea and head straight for the couch.
Not long after Erza dozed off she was tugged from sleep by an unnatural weight over her body. The small form climbed across her and settled in the space between herself and the back of the couch. Erza opened her eyes to find Meredy awake and smiling pitifully.
"Hi, Erza," she said in a weak voice. "My throat hurts."
Erza brushed the messy strands of hair from Meredy's forehead. "I'm sorry, sweetie. Do you want something warm to drink? It might help with the gross taste of the cough syrup."
"I don't want the syrup." Despite her protests Meredy coughed into Erza's shirt.
"I know, but you need it. It'll help you sleep so you feel better tomorrow."
"When will my daddy be home?"
"In a couple of hours, okay? Not too long." Erza sat up and Meredy stumbled off the couch and crawled into her lap. "Let's get you some medicine and back into bed."
Despite being almost forty pounds, Meredy clung to her shoulders and wanted to be carried to the bathroom. Erza let her sit on the counter while she poured the dose of thick purple syrup into the cup. Even though she frowned, Meredy drank it down. She managed a few swallows of warm chamomile tea before refusing the mug and stretching back out in bed.
"Will you stay with me, Erza?" Meredy asked quietly into the darkness. "I don't want to be alone when my dad's not here."
"You aren't alone, sweetie, but I'll stay if it makes you feel better." The child-sized bed wasn't comfortable at all but she managed a workable position. Meredy's breathing was much calmer than before she had the cough syrup and Erza felt okay with falling back asleep.
For the second time that night she woke to a gentle shake of her arm. Jellal was crouched next to his daughter's bed with another apologetic expression. He was still dressed in his scrubs and looked considerably more tired than before he'd left. Erza silently followed him from Meredy's room.
"Did she wake up while I was gone?"
"Yeah," Erza yawned and grabbed her phone and jacket from the couch arm. "But not for too long. I gave her the couch syrup but she asked me to stay with her so I did." She smiled at him. "I think she missed you."
Jellal's shoulders slumped. "I feel bad when I'm not here when she expects me to be."
"You're only one person, Jellal. I see parents all the time in my field that don't care at all about their kids or what happens to them. You're doing just fine. Don't feel bad for needing help or for asking."
"Thanks, Erza. That means a lot."
"You're always welcome." Erza hugged her jacket to her chest and turned to leave. When her hand settled on the door knob, Jellal spoke up behind her.
"Um, real quick before you go, I wanted to repay you for all the things you've done for me lately. This month has been an embarrassing display of disorganization on my part. Maybe on Sunday you could come with Meredy and I for dinner?"
"Sure!" She blurted out her answer so quickly it felt awkward once she'd said it. "I mean, yes. That sounds nice."
"We were going to look at the holiday lights in the park and have dinner."
"I'll be there! Just promise me you'll be more patient with your coat before going out." Erza watched as he turned pink and ran his hand through his hair.
"I think I can handle that."
She laughed softly as she pulled the door open. "Goodnight, Jellal. I'll see you Sunday."
The hallway was much brighter than his apartment and Erza blinked at the shock of it. As she walked the few doors down back to her own home she debated whether or not flirting with him would be something she regretted. Their conversations were always nudging the line of appropriate banter and slightly flirtatious but it felt a little bit like staring at cake through a glass pane.
She liked him but she didn't know if he had room in his life for anything else. Erza thought it might be a little selfish to try and take attention away from Meredy or the job he held in a precarious balance. She didn't have kids or pets or anything like that – not because she didn't want kids specifically but because she found herself frustrated with most of the men she dated. And dating was a generous term. Did an average of two dates per guy count as actual dating?
It seemed that none of the men she met measured up to the standard that she'd set in her mind. The standard, of course, was her unattainable neighbor raising a daughter on his own. He was exactly her type and embodied all the things she wanted in a man. The struggle wasn't enough to make her even consider moving out of the building and out of his reach, though – even when he knocked on her door late at night needing a babysitter for his sick daughter.
With yet another frustrated sigh, Erza fell into her own bed and tried not to think about what touching the rest of him – without his coat – might feel like.
She was completely unsuccessful.
"Erza!" Meredy's excited voice called to her from the other side of the fountain. "Over here!" She was waiving wildly and Jellal struggled to keep her secured on his shoulders.
"Hey there!" Erza reached out to take the girl's offered hand and Jellal gave her a long-suffering smile. "Take it easy on your dad, okay? You don't want to fall into the fountain!"
"Nah, he can handle it, Erza. My dad's the strongest dad ever!"
"She's had a lot of cookies today," Jellal offered in a subdued tone. "And I think she's a little biased."
"Oh, I don't know." Erza shrugged and stuffed her hands into her coat pocket. In the rush to not be late, she'd forgotten her gloves. "They say the starkest truths come from the mouths of children."
Meredy squirmed on Jellal's shoulders and pointed at the crowd of people starting to gather at the mouth of the walking trail. Once the sun fell below the horizon the lights would flicker on and dapple the park with a cheerful, holiday glow.
"Come on, daddy! We're going to miss it!"
"Okay, okay. I promise we won't miss it, though. The sun hasn't even set all the way." He winked at Erza before nodding for her to follow them.
"Are you enjoying your days off?" Erza asked. "You said before that this was a rare weekend free of work."
"I would probably enjoy them a lot more if I was allowed to sleep in past eight in the morning." He smiled and Erza thought the shadows on his face created by the slowly setting sun were incredibly appealing.
"Well," she said wistfully. "Sometimes getting what we want just isn't in the cards."
Jellal's face took a serious expression. "I'm not convinced that anything is truly impossible."
Erza hadn't meant to speak so candidly and his reply sent a shiver down her spine and through her chilled fingertips. She sucked in a deep breath and prepared to brush off her comments but suddenly the tree branches that had been wrapped with strings of lights came to life and the intimacy of the moment was gone.
Meredy struggled to climb down off Jellal's shoulders and grabbed his hand. "Can we go down the path now? Can we?"
"Okay but no running. I don't want you getting lost out here like last year." Meredy nodded solemnly before taking Erza's hand as well and pulling them towards the tree-lined path.
Even with Meredy's overwhelmingly excited presence, Erza still thought the atmosphere romantic. The winter holiday season was her favorite, and the exuberance of a little girl only made the lights and decorations that much more magical. With a wide-eyed wonder, Meredy took in every bit of the sparkle and it wasn't until they reached the other side of the park that she admitted to Jellal that she was actually hungry.
The restaurant wasn't incredibly crowded, but they did have to wait for a table. Meredy perched on the bench between Erza and Jellal to watch the other diners from her side of the trellis.
"Do you ever regret choosing your line of work?" Jellal asked while holding his daughter's legs still. "I imagine that there's a fair amount of emotion involved with family law."
"I don't regret going into social work or family law, but sometimes I do have to close myself off to the futility of certain situations."
Erza spread her coat over her lap and grimaced. "I never write off children. To me, every child is worth my best effort, but adults can be careless and cruel. Especially adults that have trouble grappling with already difficult situations. Divorce brings out the nastiness in people, and addiction is a beast that destroys so many lives."
"Wow… that's… I didn't mean to bring up something so –"
"No, it's fine. I just mean that I don't have regrets. There's some very fulfilling moments." She sighed and tried to keep her emotions in check. "Honestly, I just try to be the social worker I needed when I was a kid. That's all."
"I think that's great, Erza. I, uh –" Meredy leaned up on her toes, and he tightened his grip around her knees. "I was paced in a couple foster homes growing up because my mom wasn't always around, and my sister has her own set of problems."
"Oh, I had no idea!"
"It's not a big deal, really. I came out okay, but I remember a few kids who didn't have anyone to care about them at all. It's nice to know that there's someone like you out there."
Erza blushed hotly and hid her hands beneath her coat. "Thank you. It's sweet of you to say so."
"I have this fear of what'll happen to Meredy if I die." He winced at his own words. "I know that's a grim topic, I'm sorry. It's just something I think about a lot. Her mother's been gone since she was still in diapers."
"I'm so sorry for your loss."
Jellal shrugged. "Thank you, but it's been a long time. We weren't exactly a happy couple. I don't think we'd even be together if she were still alive, to be honest."
"Daddy," Meredy whined. "I'm hungry!"
"Maybe if you stopped peeping on everyone else's dinner you wouldn't be so ravenous," Jellal said quietly and pulled her down onto the bench. She opened her mouth to complain but the hostess interrupted.
"Fernandes, party of three?"
When the hostess led them further back into the restaurant, Meredy turned around to smile at Erza and take her hand. It was the second time she'd taken both Erza's hand and Jellal's at the same time and Erza tried not to read too much into it. Meredy was a clingy child and it was clear she enjoyed being the center of attention.
Their table was situated next to a window with a view of the park across the street and Meredy pressed her face right against the glass for a moment before righting herself in the chair. She insisted on reading the kid's menu – in its entirety – out loud before making her choice. As soon as the waitress brought a basket of bread around, Meredy snatched a piece and eyed Erza and Jellal with equal cunning before speaking.
"Did you like the lights, Erza?" she asked. "I'm so glad you came with us!"
"I did! And thank you for inviting me. I don't think it will ever be the same without you now."
Meredy shrugged in a way that reminded Erza of Jellal. "That just means that you'll have to come every year."
Erza smiled at her. "I'll try and keep my calendar free, okay?"
The waitress brought their food and Meredy remained silent as she chomped down half her potatoes. Erza still felt Meredy's eyes on her as Jellal commented that there was supposed to be another snow storm in the next few days.
"I should probably stock up on candles and make sure I have enough oil for my space heater," she said placing her fork beside the empty plate. "I have a corner unit and it can get pretty cold when the snow comes down."
"You do have a lot of windows," Jellal replied.
Erza glanced over at Meredy who was frowning for the first time that evening. "Are you guys gonna talk about boring grown up stuff all night or what?"
"What should we be talking about then?" Jellal grinned at Erza over the rim of his glass.
"Well you could always tell Erza how crazy you are about her," Meredy stated flippantly. Erza's eyebrows flew up and Jellal choked on his water. "He's totally in love with you, Erza."
"Uh," Erza's stomach twisted in a mix of shock and embarrassment. She couldn't bring herself to look at Jellal, who was still recovering from breathing in a mouthful of ice water. "How do you your know dad is in love with me, Meredy? That's a pretty big accusation there."
Meredy sighed in exasperation. "He talks about you all the time. It's so obvious."
"I see. Well, I'm glad to see you putting your observational skills to good use." She finally glanced over at Jellal whose face had turned a bright pink. He met her eyes briefly with an apologetic smile and signaled the waitress for their check.
The walk back through the park and to their apartment building was quiet except for Meredy's second wave of excited gushing over the lights. The path was less crowded and Jellal let her bounce from one side of the trail to the other on her own. He finally cleared his throat and moved closer to her.
"I'm sorry about Meredy's proclamation at dinner. I hope it didn't make you too uncomfortable." His voice took on the low tone he often spoke in late at night when he returned home from work. It was her favorite.
"No, it's fine." She exhaled quickly and made a snap decision. "I am kind of curious, though."
"Is it true? Do you talk about me all the time?" She laughed lightly at the way he ruffled his own hair.
"Maybe I've mentioned you a couple of times?" He sighed and stared down at the passing pavement. "Probably more than a couple. I guess maybe there's no real way to admit to the beautiful neighbor you rely on way too much that you've developed a noticeable crush on her without making things awkward."
"I think you did a decent job just now!" Erza joked and nudged him with her elbow. She really wished she'd brought her gloves. "Since we're making confessions tonight, I have one too."
"It can't possibly be as embarrassing as mine." He looked down at her fully for the first time since Meredy's announcement at dinner and smiled.
"For some time now I've had some feelings for the guy who lives down the hall from me. He's got a kid and a stressful job, though, so I don't know the best way to approach him about how I feel. So I haven't said anything."
"Maybe you should just tell him. He sounds like a guy who needs a little push in the right direction."
Erza chuckled and drew her hands out of her pockets. "I'll think about it," she said softly before blowing warm air onto her balled fists.
"You should also consider remembering your gloves next time you go out." Jellal grabbed the hand closest to him and pulled it into his fleece lined pocket where he laced her fingers with his.
"I'll think about that, too."
Jellal laughed and squeezed her hand.
By the time they made it back to their apartment building Meredy was showing signs of sleepiness. She tugged on Jellal's coat sleeve and he had to release Erza's hand to pull her up into his arms. Her eyes were already closed when the elevator reached the fourth floor. Jellal turned to her as they stepped into the carpeted hallway.
"Do you want to come in for some tea? It's still kind of early…" He trailed off and seemed to not quite know where to go with his invitation.
"I'd love to." Her response felt just as awkward as his offer. She shut his apartment door behind them and helped him peel Meredy's coat off her sleeping body. He one-handedly tugged the boots from her feet and whispered that he'd be right back.
Once again, Erza found herself alone in his kitchen. Only this time instead of resignation, she felt hopeful. Needing to occupy herself she found the box of tea in his pantry and filled the kettle. She'd just placed it on the hot burner when Jellal returned.
"Oh, thank you. Meredy was completely out of it and it took some wrangling to get her into pajamas."
"It's okay. The excitement of childhood can be exhausting."
Jellal reached into the cabinet beside her head for two cups. "She's really an excitable kid. Everywhere we go she's like that."
"I'm glad she's feeling better." Erza watched as he scooped the tea leaves into bags and placed them in the mugs.
"She never had a fever so I thought today would be okay for an outside activity. We'll see if I end up regretting that." He turned to her and eyed her quietly for a moment. Erza felt herself warming under his gaze but couldn't look away. Every other time they'd been alone it was under the pretense of looking after Meredy in a situation where he was usually already running late. Now, however, there didn't seem to be any sense of urgency.
"Jellal –" The kettle interrupted her and Jellal turned to move it from the burner. When he spun back around, he stood much closer.
"In a way I'm glad Meredy outed me tonight," he said softly. "I don't know that I'd have had the courage to say anything to you otherwise. I like you, Erza. A lot." Jellal sighed and touched a strand of hair on the shoulder of her sweater. "You've seen how disorganized my life can get, and I'd understand if that's not what you want in a relationship –"
"It is," she interjected. He stared down at her. "I mean, I like you too. And I don't care that you're in high demand. I mean –" Erza bit her lip in frustration. "I care. And I've wanted to say something to you for a while, but I didn't know if you were interested in dating anyone – much less me. I don't have personal experience but I realize that single parenting can be a consuming thing."
"No, Erza, I don't want to date just anyone," Jellal whispered stepping closer to her. "Only you." He twirled the strand of hair around his finger and Erza thought maybe she'd collapse from impatient anticipation.
"Well, that's good news." She cringed internally. "I'm sorry I keep saying dumb things. I just…" Erza's fingers brushed the front of his shirt and slowly tightened around handfuls of fabric. "This is so new."
"New is okay, though." Jellal pressed his forehead against hers and for a brief moment all Erza could hear was the sound of his breathing. With what felt like achingly slow movements, he tilted his head to the side and gently pressed his lips against hers.
Erza's heart raced and the tension in the room suddenly broke as flickers of want reached every part of her body. Without really thinking about it, she pulled him closer and returned his kiss with a desperate force. She couldn't admit to even herself how many times she'd pondered how his kisses might feel, but this was definitely better than what she'd imagined alone in her bed.
Despite the need building in her chest, Jellal's pace never changed. He seemed to be enjoying the simple act of kissing her. With a contented sigh Erza accepted the lazy way his lips slid against hers and looped her arms around his neck. When he finally pulled back enough to speak without their lips brushing, he smiled.
"I feel like all of our closest moments have been in this kitchen or in a crowded restaurant with my daughter. We should change that."
Erza tightened her arms around him and wound her fingers in the hair that touched his collar. "I don't know, I kind of like this kitchen now."
"You don't mind that this is the best I can offer right now?"
"No," she said quietly and leaned her head against his shoulder. "I already knew what I was getting into before I decided to wait while you put Meredy to bed, and before I let you kiss me."
Jellal's arms circled her waist and Erza's skin tingled. "You might wish later on that you had a boyfriend with fewer commitments."
She sighed and tugged on his hair. "You need to give yourself a break. Stop trying to chase me off. I've seen you at your most stressed when you need help with something, and you've seen me after my worst days and in my pajamas. I think that's a decent enough foundation." He nodded and kissed the top of her head with an affection that pushed at her seams.
When Erza finally left Jellal's apartment that night she couldn't help but be grateful for a chatty little girl who liked to state the obvious.