A/N: Happy Jerza Week, everyone! And for the first course I serve you... an assorted cheese plate!
Her hands hurt. So, so much…
The handle of the pick axe she had been given and told to use to break the rocks had rubbed the skin of her hands raw from overuse after only one day, first causing angry, painful blisters and then getting them to burst into even more painful sores.
But they wouldn't let her stop. They wouldn't let her go try and find something to wrap her hands with even when they were covered with blood.
And so it hurt – it really, really hurt. And all she could do was cry tears of despair as she broke rock after rock, both because of the pain and of the fate the universe had given her. No family. No home. Nothing…
"Are you okay?" an unfamiliar voice asked from nearby.
She turned around, startled. There was a boy standing there, pushing a wheelbarrow full of rocks. He must be around her age: blue-haired, scrawny and with big, greenish eyes. His most noticeable feature was the dark red tattoo covering one side of his face.
He looked down slightly and let out a gasp. "Your hands!" he said in alarm. And then, before she knew it, the boy was walking over to her and boldly grabbing them, making her drop the axe onto the floor between them. Erza could only stand there and stare at the strange boy with no apparent notion of personal space in disbelief. "They must really hurt… you should wrap them up or they'll get worse."
That complete stranger was the first person to show actual concern for the state of her hands. Dozens of the other child-slaves had already seen them and not paid any mind – most of them looked dazed and withdrawn into themselves, she'd quickly noticed. "They won't let me," she spoke softly, nodding at the nearest guard, who was facing away from them.
He sighed as if it wasn't something new. "Yeah, they're dumb like that. But it's okay – I'll help you out now."
She blinked in confusion, wondering how he possibly could. He was a slave like her – what could he possibly do?
The answer came in the shape of a sound: fabric being shred. He was ripping a wide strip from the hem of his shirt – graying white like the ones of all other slaves. Erza gasped. "Your shirt!"
"Don't worry," he said easily, splitting the strip of fabric down the middle into two. "It's too long for me, anyway. Give me one of your hands."
Erza did so hesitatingly, one eye on the guards, counting the seconds until they turned and saw them. Her skin was so tender that as soon as she felt the fabric touching it, she let out a hiss of pain.
"Sorry," the boy apologized. "I'm trying not to make it hurt."
She didn't respond at first, looking away. "It's okay. I know," she mumbled, blushing a little. She couldn't get over how nice he was being for a complete stranger.
"It may not look like it but this is a good thing," he said as he tied a knot over the back of her hand and moved on to her other palm. She looked back in disbelief. "Your skin will be tougher after it heals. It will get thicker and using your hands all day long won't hurt so much."
She bit down on her lip. He spoke like he knew it very well… "How long have you been here?" she had to ask. He had to be a new arrival like her – it seemed nearly everyone who had been there longer than her was broken inside.
He shrugged. "A while… I don't really keep count." He did. He had gotten there just after he'd turned six and now he was nine, closer to ten – Grandpa Rob had taught him enough math for him to know it had been over three years, more than a third of his life, since he'd been taken. But he couldn't bring himself to tell that to the fiery-haired who had caught his attention from the moment he'd laid eyes on her – she was one of the few with light in her eyes, even if largely obscured by despair already. He didn't want to be the one taking what was left of it away by fully exposing her to the harsh reality they were in.
Her eyes were on the floor next time she spoke. "I want to go home," she said in a small voice.
His face fell a little. Once upon a time, he had wanted to go home too. Now… well, now he still wanted to leave, but he didn't think there would be a home to come back to… and even if there was he didn't really know where to look for it. Her home was probably gone as well – the home of every one in that island likely was. But there was still hope – there had to be.
For a moment, he snuck a glance at the guards and then, once he was sure they weren't looking, he took a quick step forward and wrapped his arms around her in a hug.
"We'll be out of here one day," he assured her. "You'll see."
Erza found herself unable to respond, just standing there being embraced by that strange young boy, who seemed utterly resilient. Oddly enough, there was such confidence in his words that she actually believed him – they were going to leave that place. How could she not believe it if he did? And just like that, she felt something warm starting to burn within her – very, very deep down.
He gave her a smile when he pulled away and then, as he spotted a stray tear rolling down her cheek, he wiped it with his hand. "Don't let them see you cry," he warned her, nodding at the guards. "They like it."
She wiped the rest of the wetness with her arm herself and nodded before reaching down to pick up her discarded pick axe. Looking back at him, she wasn't sure of what to say. Well, actually, she did know. "T-thank…"
"Hey, brats!" a guard called harshly, walking over angrily due to the fact that they were wasting time by interacting. "What do you think you're doing chatting around?! Get to work!"
"We are," the boy lied in return. "We were trying to figure out how to get that boulder into the cart," he said, pointing at a particularly large rock.
The guard whacked him hard on the back of the head. Erza was spared from such treatment because she was just outside of hand's reach and the lazy guard didn't feel like closing the distance. "Moronic little brats! Obviously you don't! The newbie has to break it more! Now move along, boy!"
Jellal had no choice but to obey that time. He walked back to the wheelbarrow he was in charge off and grabbed the handles again, moving on. When the guard wasn't looking anymore, he waved at Erza, offering her a smile.
She hesitated before responding in the same manner, though the smile was still rather lacking.
That night, she found herself being dragged around by the arm along the dungeons where her captors kept the children as they tried to find a cell to put her in. The previous night, they had arrived late, so the guards hadn't bothered to bring them in – the incoming children had just been left in the biting cold of the outside chained to one another. A bunch of them had gotten sick because of it, so now they were trying to get them some proper sleeping quarters (in the loosest sense of the word).
"There's some room on this one!" one of the guards called.
Before she knew it, a door was being open and she was being thrown inside like a bag of flour.
They were still locking the cell behind her when she heard him. "Hey! It's you!"
And just like that, the nameless boy from that morning was back and hugging her again, filling her with warmth inside – warmth that seemed to push away those cold feelings of despair that had plagued her before.
She didn't know it yet, but that warmth she was feeling had a name: hope.
It was hardly the last time Jellal hugged her like that. He was a 'tactile boy', as Grandpa Rob would put it, horsing around with the other boys or tickling Millianna and patting her in the head when Grandpa Rob measured her found her to be a quarter of an inch taller. She, however, seemed to be the one he liked touching the most, not only through the hugs, but also by touching her hair, which he seemed to have grown particularly fascinated with, to the point that he had named her after it.
It was a bit puzzling at times, she had to admit, but at the same time it was soothing. Their group was the liveliest of them all, and she had a feeling that it was the touch of that unbreakable boy that made them all like that. There was an aura of safety around him, particularly pronounced through his touch, especially when it was transmitted through his embrace. And he offered it so freely, be it to ward off her nightmares or to soothe her uncertain heart when hope threatened to leave, asking for nothing but friendship in return.
In that cold island full of despair, Jellal Fernandes became her safe haven and she made through the painful, tiring days just by knowing that at night she would get to come back to being near him, where she could always find the solace that she needed.
But then, he was gone from her life, suddenly, shockingly and, above everything, painfully. Everything felt raw, like a burn that would never heal. She despised him for his betrayal – for the unthinkable idea that her safe have had been nothing but a lie.
She became plagued by nightmares. Not of her destroyed home, not of the slavery, but instead of scenes of an escape that had never been, cutting words that she never thought she would hear from his mouth, a cruel expression that had no place replacing the kind smiles he had always given her… hellish nights spent reliving those things hardened her inside and out. And yet, every time she woke up, she still she craved the comfort that his arms had once upon a time given her. Desperately. And the irony would kill her a little inside every single time – that the one who was to blame for her pain was the one she wanted comfort from.
Maybe that craving was what made it so easy for her to be fooled… to listen to his lies on that fateful day when they were reunited, him as a shadow of himself, her as his sacrifice on the place where it had all begun. It hadn't been his words that had reached her but rather his arms, reaching around her for the first time in so long. On that moment, she hadn't even cared that death was near and the world was likely about to crumble around them at any minute – it was the culmination of years of yearning right there, the return to a safe haven she had thought long destroyed.
Later, she would wonder how it could have felt so right when it had only been the beginning of another betrayal. And even later, much later, after she had lost him and gotten him back all over again, he would finally confess to her that it had been that embrace as the Etherion rained down on them – a treacherous embrace that had betrayed him as much as her – that had created that first little crack on the barrier around his mind that was Ultear's control… a crack that had expanded exponentially over minutes, eventually leaving him just sound enough to trade places with her in her final sacrifice in that sea of lacrima.
In the end, it was as it was meant to be: the two of them saving one another.
When she did get him back, he was no longer that shatterproof touch-happy little boy she had once known. No, he was older, a little broken and hesitant about his right to enjoy anything, including his right to even lay a hand on her.
It took time to convince him that his touch was not only deserved but also welcomed by her. Eventually, he grew more comfortable with their intimacy, even if the previous carefreeness of his touch had been replaced by reverence, like every touch she allowed him was a precious gift. Their roles had been reversed, in a way, with her now needing to be more his beacon of hope in his road to redemption than him needing to be hers.
But every so often, in her most vulnerable moments when she really needed him, she would get a glimpse of before. Such as when recent battles haunted her dreams, same as her lost home had, once upon a time.
"Erza?" came his voice in the dark on one of those nights. "Are you alright?"
It still amazed her how he always knew. She had barely made any noise, any stirring since the startle of waking up so suddenly, yet somehow he was already aware that something was off with her. It was like he had a sixth sense.
"I'm fine," she declared.
He didn't respond verbally, his arm coming to brush against her side as he moved closer, body pressed comfortingly against her back. No tremble. No hesitation. Just like it used to be
"You're tense," he observed.
"It's nothing," she murmured. "Just a nightmare."
He waited a few seconds before asking the question. "Do you want to talk about it?"
She closed her eyes and breathed in. "Tartarus," she whispered.
And that was all she has to offer… but then again, it was all he needed to hear. His arms around her tightened and he pressed a kiss against her shoulder. "It's over now. You're home." With me.
She nodded, knowing that – yet, as always, when he said it, it sounded all the more comforting. "Hold me?" she asked in a whisper.
He nodded against her back and gave her a nudge, prompting her to turn around so that he could fully hold her against his chest. She did just that, burying her face against his pajama's shirt, and he pressed his lips on the top of her head. Instantly, she felt more settled… protected. It wasn't that she needed it anymore, but it made everything so much easier to bear…
"Always," came his promise.
And just like that, she felt as if the boy who she considered her safe haven had never really gone anywhere.
And then, in a remote island, a little sooner than planned yet long overdue, two became three.
"Aren't you tired?" Jellal asked. They were already inside the ship that the Master had leased on their way back to main land, though still hours away from reaching their destination. It had been roughly a day since their son has been born, give or take one hour, and the circles already forming under Erza's eyes were plenty of evidence that she hadn't been resting nearly enough since the birth had taken place.
"A little," she admitted, her eyes fixed on her son (same as they had been for hours), while stroking the little hand that was firmly attached to a strand of her hair.
Just the fact that she admitted to some tiredness when under normal circumstances she would have denied it fervently, told him that 'a little' was actually 'a lot'. "Don't you think you should probably put him down now and have a nap while he's asleep?"
She frowned a little. "It's his first trip on a boat. What if he gets scared because no one is holding him? He's not used to the rocking of the sea." Being in the arms of someone who loved them was always the best place to be in order to feel safe – and she wanted her son to know that he had a place in her arms. Always.
Jellal sighed. "Tell you what: how about we switch places? That way, I can make sure Sieg isn't scared while his mama takes her well-deserved rest."
She smiled at the use of the word 'mama' before pausing to think for a moment. Well, Jellal's arms had always been her own happy place… surely she should not deprive her son of sharing the same feelings. "I suppose that is acceptable," she stated before looking down at the baby. "What do you think? Do you want Daddy to hold you for a while?"
Feeling himself being addressed, the baby opened one bleary eye before stretching in her hold. She took his lack of protest as acceptance and willingly handed him over to his father, who was already waiting with arms outstretched, eager to receive the boy.
"There you go," she said as she carefully transferred the tiny little child into his father's embrace. It wasn't an easy task because he appeared to be unwilling to part ways with his precious strand of hair, but at some point Erza managed to release it and he only whined for a few seconds until Jellal shifted him so that he was lying belly down against his chest, enabling the blue haired man to rub the baby's back soothingly. He seemed to enjoy it, because soon enough, he seemed to accept the loss of the hair and willed himself to go to sleep again.
"Sorry, buddy. Daddy knows he doesn't have hair as long and pretty as Mama's. He's not as comfy either," he pointed out to the boy, aware of his lack of… padding, for lack of a better word.
Erza shook her head. "Nonsense. Daddy's arms are the most wonderful place there is," she declared.
At that, the new father couldn't help but smile widely. "You think so?"
She didn't even hesitate before nodding. "Soon enough, he will know there is no place safer or warmer," she said before pressing a soft kiss atop the soft red fuzz on the baby's head, doing the same to the baby's father's lips and then shifting on the cot until she was fully lying down, throwing her arm around Jellal's waist, clutching him as a child would a plush toy, which brought a chuckle out of him.
Bleariness was quick to reach her but at the last moment, before she actually fell asleep, she heard Jellal's voice speaking gently to his son. "Daddy still thinks Mama's arms are much, much better, but then again you're one lucky boy because you get to enjoy both."
She reached dreamland with a smile on her face.
A/N: I hope everyone enjoyed this - please share your feedback! I'll see you again later this week!