Author's Note: So this actually happened to me on Tuesday... except that I'm Jellal and Erza was my sister and I wasn't at work but at the doctor with my other child... and she knows she's the emergency contact and I'm hers... that's not actually similar at all but they say art comes from life? I guess? Not that this is art?
Erza wrinkled her nose in disgust, brushed the cake crumbs from her shirt – inadvertently knocking a few into her bra – and reached for her ringing phone. Distracted by the crumbs and the remaining bites of cake, her misguided fingers knocked the phone off the surface of her desk and into the wastebasket. She squawked in surprise before lunging for the bin and frantically pawing through the mess of wadded invoices.
"Hello?" Erza greeted quickly, flicking her hair out of her face. Kagura raised an eyebrow and Erza spun around to face the wall in an effort to hide her reddening cheeks.
"Erza, is that you?" the voice on the other end asked with suspicion.
"Yes, I'm sorry, I had a, uh..." she cleared her throat quickly. "Who is this?"
"It's Lucy. Am I disturbing you?"
"No! No, of course not! I'm just finishing lunch." Behind her, Kagura barked out a sarcastic laugh. Erza shot a glare over her shoulder. Their definitions of what constituted a proper meal differed greatly.
"Gotcha. Well, I'm afraid this isn't a pleasure call. We have a situation at the school."
"Uh, okay..." Erza blinked in confusion. Lucy was an elementary school staff nurse and she couldn't quite figure what would prompt a phone call.
"It's Meredy." Lucy's voice was much softer and hesitant.
"Meredy Fernandes?" Erza's fingers tensed and curled around her phone. "Jellal's daughter? Lucy what's going on?"
"She's sick, Erza. She's got a fever and we can't keep her here on campus." Lucy paused and Erza tamped down her initial panic. "I've tried calling Jellal at least fifteen times over the last hour and he's not picking up at all."
"No, he wouldn't," she muttered and spun around in her chair to scan the calendar still open on her laptop. "It's Thursday. He's in the lab today and won't have his phone on him." Erza scowled. Exactly how pathetic was it that she still knew his schedule at the hospital?
"I see," Lucy said quietly. "You're still listed as Meredy's number one emergency contact..." Erza heard a sigh on the other end. "Listen, you don't have to do this, Erza. I can call the hospital's main line and try to reach him that way or I can always call –"
"No!" Erza interrupted, already gathering her belongings and shutting down her laptop. "Don't call his sister. We may not be a couple anymore but I doubt the situation with her has changed much in a year. I'll be there in fifteen." She ended the call and tossed her phone into her bag. A dusting of crumbs covered the floor mat when she stood.
"It's not your responsibility, Erza," Kagura warned casually from her perch on the cabinet. "She's his daughter."
"So you think I should let his hot mess of a sister – that we both know he wouldn't trust with picking up his mail – take custody of his ten year old?"
"I think it's not your responsibility. You haven't been with him in almost a year, and that's enough time to reshuffle his hierarchy of responsible parties in the event of an emergency. It's enough time, Erza." Kagura pinned her with a look Erza knew very well.
"He wouldn't intentionally put me on the line just because he doesn't trust Ultear."
"I never said he would. Not much has changed for him, I guess."
"Kagura –" Erza stared down at her shoes and tugged on her hair in frustration.
"I'm not taking a dig at him, Erza. Jellal has more on his plate than I'd ever want for myself. I'm just pointing out that he broke up with you because he thought you deserved more than the scraps left over after the time he owes to his daughter and work. Yet here you are a year later picking up said daughter because he's unreachable in an x-ray lab."
"I know all that," she said fighting back the surge of emotion that came whenever she thought of what happened between them. "But Meredy is still just a child and I'm on the list. I can't ignore her just because her dad and I broke up. I care about what happens to her." Erza felt Kagura's eyes on her but couldn't bring herself to meet them.
"You're a good person, Erza. I just don't want to see you get hurt."
"Better me than a little girl," she whispered before turning and leaving Kagura behind in her office.
"Hi, Erza," Meredy said weakly. "Where's my dad?"
"He's at work, sweetie. I'm going to take you to my house for a little bit." Erza brushed a strand of hair from Meredy's eyes. "Just until he's out of the lab and sees all the missed calls," she added with a smile. Meredy sat up on the padded bench and grimaced.
"My head hurts."
"That's probably because of your fever," Lucy offered.
Erza stood from a crouch and turned to Lucy. "Thanks for calling me even though –" she paused and sighed. "I'll take her home with me."
"Of course." Lucy handed over Meredy's backpack and helped the girl into her coat. "You'll want to dose her with some Children's Tylenol. It'll help the fever and ease the body ache."
"Thanks, Miss Heartfilia," Meredy mumbled.
Erza led the way out to her car and held the door open. For most of the ride, Meredy silently pressed her forehead against the cold glass of the window. She didn't speak until they were close to Erza's house.
"Do you think my dad will be mad at me?" she asked.
"What?" Erza blurted. "Why would he be mad at you?"
"Well –" Meredy paused and fidgeted with her coat zipper. "He's been trying so hard and now he'll have to come over to your house and..." she sniffled and a few tears landed on the puff of winter coat that brushed her chin. "He'll be sad again and it's all my fault."
Erza bit her bottom lip harshly and focused on the road. "This isn't your fault, okay? Being sick at school can happen to anyone. He definitely won't be mad at you."
"Okay," Meredy whispered.
When they pulled into Erza's driveway, Meredy climbed from the car and trudged up the walk. Erza followed behind with the forgotten backpack and her own work bag. Before falling fast asleep on the guest bed, Meredy had a dose of medicine and half a cup of orange tea.
She hadn't mentioned it to Lucy but Erza didn't actually expect Jellal's call until after five o'clock. His shift in the x-ray lab was always longer on Thursdays and since he lived only a block from the elementary school Meredy had been walking home and letting herself in since the first week of fourth grade. He wouldn't have any reason to believe she wasn't okay on the one day a week he worked late and, despite Kagura's admonition, Erza wasn't in the least bit surprised he hadn't thought to update Meredy's emergency contacts.
Just in case her guest woke up hungry, Erza put the pot of left over soup on low. She didn't want to feed Meredy anything heavy. A fever was one thing, vomiting was another. The text didn't come through until five-fifteen. It simply said, "I'm on my way. I'm so sorry."
Erza curled into a corner of her couch and chewed anxiously on her thumb nail. Their breakup hadn't been dramatic or unexpected but the loss still stung. She hadn't even tried to move on.
His knock at the door startled her even though it shouldn't have. Jellal's expression was one of total remorse and his first words to her in almost a year were an apology.
"I'm so sorry, Erza. I should never have left your name on Meredy's card, and of course it would happen today when I'm not available an–"
"Please don't apologize, Jellal," she cut in. "I'm not upset with you." Erza realized she was gripping the doorknob painfully. "Come in, okay? It's snowing again and Meredy's still sleeping."
"Right," he breathed. Flecks of snow stuck to his hair. Erza's fingers itched to flick them free. He was still wearing his scrubs and when his hospital badge caught on his coat zipper she had to turn and leave the entry way to stop herself from helping him. He would follow her on his own.
"Are you hungry?" she asked out of habit.
"Uh, no. I don't know what to say, Erza. I owe yo–"
"You don't owe me anything," she said firmly. Her hands needed to do something so she filled the tea kettle without asking him if he actually wanted tea.
"I owe you a lot." His voice was quiet behind her.
"Jellal, why do you do this? Why do you feel guilty for needing a hand every now and then? You beat yourself up over not being a super-human robot who doesn't need sleep or help with anything and it blows my mind."
"Because Meredy is my daughter and I hate bothering people with things I should be handling on my own."
Erza shook her head slowly. "What on earth made you think it was a bother? Single parenting is rough. I don't know how my own mother did it with two girls, but I do remember it taking a small village."
"I never wanted to dump my life on your shoulders."
"You have a misguided sense of responsibility, Jellal." Erza pursed her lips. All of the things she'd wanted to say eleven months before – but didn't – came rushing back. "I never felt like participating in your family was dumping. I love you and I care about Meredy! I knew she was part of the deal when we started going out!"
Jellal stared at her and it took a moment for her brain to process what she'd just said. Instead of backtracking, she crossed her arms over her chest and stared back at him. There was no point in denying how she felt.
"You were always too good for me, Erza," he said quietly. "Too good for me, and to me. You deserve better than a shipwreck like me."
"Why don't you let me worry about what I deserve? It would save us both a lot of heartache." She watched his shoulders sag a bit and he ran a hand through his hair. The last time he'd stood in her kitchen the night had ended in tears the soft jangling of Christmas bells hanging from her front door. She couldn't help but feel the stranglehold of anxiety wondering if this night would end the same way. "Unless –"
"There's no unless, Erza." He spoke firmly for the first time since he'd arrived. His feet padded across the kitchen tiles and she watched him move with daring anticipation. When he was within arm's reach, Erza cautiously touched the hem of his scrub top. His fingers caught hold of the strands of hair brushing her shoulder. "I miss you," he whispered.
"I miss you, too." She gazed up at him and didn't dare to move when he brushed his thumb over the edge of her jaw. Jellal lowered his head and gently touched his forehead to hers.
"Erza –" The tea kettle shrieked brutally through the intimacy of the moment and Jellal flinched.
Erza swallowed a heavy sigh and turned around to pull the kettle off the burner. She gasped when an arm circled her waist and he pressed his lips to her ear.
"I can't promise I won't mess things up again," he whispered. "But I do promise not to shut you out."
"That's good enough," she breathed. "It's always been good enough." Erza let her eyes close and exhaled a quick breath when his lips fell to her neck. She grasped the hand that still secured her back against his front and tried not to think about all the implications of the moment. Her eyes flew open again when a small voice interrupted.
"Hi, dad." Meredy said from behind them. Jellal froze and squeezed her hip before releasing her to turn around. Erza needed a moment to collect herself before doing the same. Her back felt a chill from his absence but her insides still felt warm and gooey.
"Hey, shortcake," he said softly. "I'm sorry for not being there to pick you up."
"It's okay, dad. Erza took care of me." When Erza finally turned around Meredy was pulling her hands inside her shirt sleeves. "Can I have something to eat? I didn't get any lunch at school."
Without waiting to be asked, Erza grabbed bowls and spoons for the table. Meredy only picked at her soup, despite her claim of hunger. She left everything in the bowl except for the broth and noodles. The meal was a quiet affair and once she'd finished her soup, Meredy very nearly fell back asleep at the table.
"I should get her home," Jellal said quietly, gathering the dishes from the table.
"Of course. I'll get her backpack and coat." Erza left him in the kitchen with Meredy and circled the living room for the belongings. She met them both at the front door where Meredy was pulling on her boots.
"I have tomorrow off." Jellal stated, hooking Meredy's backpack over one shoulder. "I only work at the hospital three days a week now."
Erza's eyebrows shot up. "Why?"
"I'm back in school. I want to finish my BSN and with the raise I got this summer I can afford the time off. Most of my classes are online."
"Wow, I had no idea. That's great, Jellal."
"I never should've dropped out to begin with," he muttered. "But I thought it would take up too much time and Meredy was just a baby then."
Erza smiled and grasped his wrist. "You were doing your best. I'm proud of you for going back."
Meredy reached into Jellal's coat pocket for his car keys. "I'll be in the car, dad. Please don't mess this up." Jellal's face flushed as he watched her exit the house and shuffle through the gathering snow.
"She was worried about you coming here." Erza said when Jellal nudged the front door mostly closed.
"Meredy's always been pretty sensitive to how others around her are feeling. I don't think I fooled anyone when we broke up, either." He smiled down at her. "She's your biggest fan, you know."
"The biggest?" Erza grinned and boldly slid her arms through the open flaps of his coat and around his waist. They hadn't officially defined what was happening between them but she just wanted to touch him before he left.
"Well, second biggest." Jellal's hand came to rest at the nape of her neck and she couldn't help the thrill that worked its way down her spine. As they'd done before, his fingers twisted gently into her hair. His eyes were warm and Erza wondered how she'd gone a year without him. "Goodnight, Erza," he whispered and kissed her forehead softly.
"Goodnight," she managed to say as he pulled away.
"If she's feeling better by Sunday afternoon, Meredy has plans with her friends for whatever it is girls her age do at the mall. A friend's mom is taking them. We could... have lunch if you want?" He added the last part with hesitation. As much as Erza wanted to shove the train and all its cars right back on the same track as before she recognized the need for a slower pace.
"Lunch would be nice."
He grinned once more before pulling the door back open and letting the cold swirl inside. Meredy had started his car and a white cloud streamed from the exhaust pipe. Erza leaned on the door frame and watched him go.
When she retreated back inside, the Christmas bells jingled. It was the same string of bells, and the same door but their sound was entirely different.