Her hair was the most beautiful shade of red he'd ever seen. Not quite the same as blood but not exactly the bright color of a bird's feathers either; the word scarlet stuck in his mind. The girl was small and quiet. She was afraid and he'd seen the dirty trails of tears on her cheeks. These things weren't uncommon on the island but her hair. He wanted to touch it. He needed to touch it. Even more than that he wanted to see her smile. There was something about the girl and he just... he couldn't leave it alone.
She said her name was Just Erza. Her expression implied she thought herself very plain and unimportant. But there was nothing Just about Erza. Jellal saw his chance and took it. The first time he felt the strands of her beautiful hair slide over the pads of his fingertips he realized he never wanted to stop touching it. Just Erza. That simply wouldn't do.
Despite the seemingly uncontrollable forwardness often displayed by children, Jellal recognized that perhaps sharing his own family name with her would be... inappropriate. Instead he gave her something else. Something better.
"Such beautiful scarlet hair," he said, still grasping a section of it between his fingers. "Why don't we call you Erza Scarlet? It's the color of your hair! That way I'll never forget it." There was some degree of indignant protest from others in the cell but Erza's acceptance was all that mattered.
Not that Jellal would ever need the name to remember her.
Erza cried at night. He hated the sound more than the vicious snarls and barks of the strange creatures the guards used as scare tactics.
"Hey," Jellal whispered after dragging his own blanket across the hard floor.
She gasped and silenced her cries immediately. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to wake you."
"You didn't." Her eyes were wide and her face was damp. Jellal scooted closer and when she didn't retreat, even closer. "I saw what happened today. I saw them bullying you."
"I should learn to be more brave. You can't be brave if you're scared all the time."
"That's not true." Jellal pried her hand from the wad of blanket she clutched at her chin. "The only time you can be brave is when you're scared."
"I don't think I can do both." Erza sniffled and looked on the verge of tears again.
"Sure you can." Jellal pushed the roll of extra clothing he used as a pillow right against hers. "You just gotta find the place inside you that's quiet. Then you can think and see it's not as scary as it looks."
"What if I don't have a quiet place?"
"Everyone's got a quiet place, Erza. Maybe you just don't know where yours is yet." Jellal carefully peeled the dirty strands of hair from her face and wiped her tears. He closed the remaining gap between them, pressed his forehead to hers and touched her cheek with his hand. "If you concentrate and think about the last place you felt safe, I bet that's where your quiet place is."
Erza's eyes slid shut and he stayed very still as she tried to relax. She squeezed the hand that still clasped hers and finally sighed. "Thank you. I'll try my best."
"Why do you have this mark on your face?" Erza asked. Her fingers traced the lines of his tattoo and Jellal watched her eyes follow them with rapt fascination.
"I don't remember," he said softly. It wasn't a lie. There were a lot of things he simply couldn't conjure in his mind.
"Why not?" Her eyes finally settled on his but her hand didn't leave his cheek.
"I've been away from home for a long time. Do you remember where you came from? Your parents?"
"I don't think I had parents."
Jellal smiled and nudged her nose with his. "Everyone has to have parents. That's where babies come from."
"Something probably happened to mine, then. Back home I lived in a house with other kids and a lady, but she wasn't my mom." Erza paused before blurting out a question. "Would you tell me about your mom?"
"She smiled a lot, I think." His thoughts drifted to the fuzzy memories of his house. His family. "I remember she would sing to me at night sometimes." Jellal's fingers strayed into Erza's hair again. He curled the band of red around and around. It was something he did more often than he realized when they were in such close quarters. "I think maybe..." He frowned and desperately tried to recall the right details. "Her songs were in another language. I couldn't always understand the words."
"That sounds magical," Erza said wistfully. She was tired and her eyes slowly shut not long after that.
They sat at a small distance from the rest of their group. Erza's hand dug out clumps of wet sand and let the particles dribble through her fingers back into the water. The ocean was terrible for bathing but Jellal preferred it to working. He perched behind her on a rock doing his best to style her short hair into a braid.
"How far do you think it is to the shore?" she asked.
Jellal glanced up and across the open expanse of water. "Probably not as far as it feels like."
"Too far to swim?"
"Hmm..." he trailed off to focus on the twisted sections of hair he held between each of his fingers. "I think that depends on the tide and currents." He realized Erza's hair was really too short for these efforts but it was less the finished product and more of the doing he enjoyed. "And the lunar cycle has a lot to do with the water levels, too."
"What's a lunar cycle?"
"Just the position of the moon. The bigger it is, the higher the water gets on the shore."
She turned her head slightly and his braid fell apart. "How do you know all that stuff?"
"I don't know." Jellal shrugged and slid off the rock and into the shallow water next to her. "I just do."
"Did you go to school before?"
"Yes. I don't remember everything. Most times things just pop into my head." Erza leaned into his side and rest her head on his shoulder. "What about you?"
"Sometimes. I can read and write a little." They sat in silence as the water rhythmically pooled around them and drained away.
The temperature had been steadily dropping and Jellal didn't mind sacrificing his roll of extra garments to keep Erza warm at night. She had bruises on her arms that were slow to fade and even as close as they slept, she still shivered. He didn't have healing capabilities but he did what he could to make her comfortable. The only thing he had left to give her was his touch and she could have all of him. Erza seemed to need him next to her as much as he'd grown to need her. He supposed a year wasn't a very long time but it was enough to know how he felt.
"What's your favorite thing to eat?" she asked into the darkness.
Jellal laughed softly and smiled. His thumb brushed over her ear lobe and he settled his fingers into the hair at the nape of her neck. "Anything with cheese on it."
"We had a lot of cows in Rosemary but not a lot of cheese." Erza closed her eyes and let her nose and forehead brush his. "I like sweet things best."
"I'll get you a whole cart full of cake one day," he whispered as she dropped off to sleep.
Jellal wasn't sure which was worse: the way she used to cry herself to sleep or the way she still shivered despite being pressed against him. He hated being so small and useless.
He thought he'd known rage the first time he saw the guards intentionally frightening Erza with their creatures. He thought he'd experienced the very depths of sorrow when bruises bloomed on her skin after a beating she received for not being physically able to complete a task. He'd thought he'd reached his limit so many times.
But he was wrong.
When Jellal saw what they'd done to her eye – when he saw the hole they left behind... he knew no more. They'd taken something from her and he'd take everything from them.