A/N: I am terribly new to the fandom. Pointers are much appreciated. Thanks, y'all.
Animus Facit Nobilem
"The tree of knowledge is not the tree of life."
I. Relief & Panic
Lavi let out a long, extravagant sigh and fell backwards onto the beige, canvas cushions of a wicker chaise lounge, arms and legs sprawled like a house cat on linoleum in July. Once horizontal, he stretched languorously and reached for his whiskey sour on a small table to the right of his deck chair.
He sighed again, protracted and loud, and cracked his one eye. Lenalee stood just to his left, arms crossed and mouth twisted into a small, lopsided frown. Lavi pulled a long, biting swig off his tumbler, ice clinking.
Lenalee didn't seem to be taking the hint. Lavi crossed one ankle over the other and sighed once more, this one ending in a wide yawn.
"Enough already!" Lenalee burst, throwing her hands in the air. "What does this look like? A pleasure cruise?"
Lavi chuckled. She was so cute when she got mad. "We're on a boat," he said, "it's eighty degrees outside, not a cloud in the sky, and the sea's the color of your lovely eyes." He flashed her a winsome smile, peering up at her.
Lenalee set her fists against her hips and leaned over him. "Nice try, Lavi," she rejoined. "My eyes are brown."
"He swings. He misses," Lavi muttered. He gave her a sheepish grin, made all the more sheepish-looking by the shadow she cast over him.
"You're going to burn through your per diem in, like, two hours if you buy any more drinks, you know," Lenalee warned him.
The ice in his tumbler sang as Lavi downed the last of his drink and set the glass down hard with an gruff ahhhh. He rolled out of his seat and hopped to his feet. The motion was so fast that Lenalee barely had time to register the blur of movement before Lavi was standing before her, leaning down so that they were practically nose to nose.
"You need to unwind," he said and seized her right hand. He held her hand up and spun her like a dance partner. Always light on her feet, Lenalee let him twirl her and deposit her into the chaise lounge. She frowned at him as he dropped to one knee on the deck, looped his right arm around her shoulders and gestured to the Valletta Grand Harbor off to starboard. "Look at that, Lenalee. That's Malta. The Order has paid for us to come to Malta. Indefinitely. I know how long it's been since I've had a vacation, and I'm gonna bet it's been just as long for you."
"This isn't a vacation, Lavi," she told him. "We've got an assignment, which, by the way, I want to go over with you before your next whiskey sour."
Lavi stood up straight and rubbed his chin. "I've had enough whiskey sours. It's time for a Tom Collins, I think." At the frustrated noise Lenalee made before throwing herself back into the chaise lounge, Lavi grinned and looked down at her. "Relax, would you? I'm only joking," he gave her a dismissive wave and added, "And I am cone sold stober." He waited for a laugh that never came.
"This isn't an opportunity to let our hair down," Lenalee said, frowning at the gleaming walls of Malta's largest port as they got closer and closer.
The closest structure, hugging the shore where the land jutted out into the water, looked rather like a fortress with its high, windowless ramparts and stone parapets. The coast beyond that was lined by other whitewashed buildings, all crammed together right up against the sea. The glassy water below reflected the pale faces and vivid sky, like the world here was simply a blue canvas stamped with white strokes. It was so beautiful, so unlike anything she'd ever seen before. And the water was an impossible, eternal blue. It looked like something fabricated with artistic license. It was perfect. Almost too perfect.
And in a few hours, she would put herself on high alert. While the first stage of her assignment was to determine if there was Innocence involved at all, there was certainly something fishy going on in the village of Qrendi, and Lenalee knew that the kind of fishy that would attract the Black Order would certainly attract all kinds of unwholesome characters.
No, this was no vacation.
Lavi made a show of adjusting his headband and fiddling with his hair. "Hey, lookit," he said, pointing at his messy coiffure. "Totally not down."
He was trying to make her laugh, Lenalee knew. So she smiled up at him. It was one of those sweet, resigned sort of smiles that was part apology and part warning. And it certainly wasn't the kind Lavi was used to seeing on Lenalee. He sank down next to her on the chaise lounge, his left thigh brushing her right.
"We're gonna breeze in, take care of business, and breeze out," he said. "And if we're lucky, we can find a way to make all that breezing take a week or so. Maybe we can include snorkeling and sunbathing and beach-bumming as part of that breeze, too."
"You're not nervous at all, are you?" Lenalee laughed.
Lavi shrugged. "Not really. I don't think we've got reason to expect anything out of the ordinary."
Lenalee laughed at that. "Yeah, ordinary. Big, soul-sucking monsters and grief-crazy bystanders."
"Piece a' cake," Lavi said with a sweeping gesture. "To be honest, I'm a little surprised to hear that you're nervous. You've been doing this for long enough."
"I'm not nervous," Lenalee said a little defensively and stood up from the deck chair. "But I know it doesn't take much for an easy assignment to become a hard one."
Lavi watched her lace her fingers together and hold the backs of her hands against her tailbone as she walked toward the briny railing. When she drew up to the edge, Lenalee untwined her hands and rested her elbows against the flaking white paint of the railing. The breeze off the sea blew over her, and that was an awfully nice tableau to watch from where he sat, Lavi thought. It lifted her dark hair off her shoulders and made the hem of her skirt dance distractingly. Lavi cleared his throat—his own quiet chastisement—and stood as well.
"So, do you want to go over an action plan before we dock?" Lavi asked as he came up to Lenalee's left.
She turned to him, her mouth open for a reply, when the deck beneath their feet suddenly lurched so violently, it threw them both against the railing. Lavi reflexively thrust his arm out to catch Lenalee and keep her ribs from crunching hard against the iron bars. He felt his own solar plexus slam into the bar, and the force of the sudden jolt tossed them both backwards onto the deck boards, all the while, a deafening groan—part screaming girders and part belligerent leviathan—drowned out the sea sounds and screaming passengers.
Lavi looked around him, saw the other mingling bodies on deck in similar states of prone disarray. The intense shaking of the ferry and the metallic screaming went on, and Lavi looked down at Lenalee, on top of whom he had unintentionally spilled himself, to see her covering her ears and curling against the deck. He hooked an arm around her ribs and yanked her close, kept her covered, a gesture he would later avoid looking at too hard—the intense look of fear on her face seemed to ask for that little bit of succor. Lavi himself hunkered down and ducked his face against Lenalee's shoulder, his jaw clenched and eye squeeze closed.
When the shaking and shrieking finally subsided—it felt like a quarter hour of din had passed—both Lavi and Lenalee looked up hesitantly. There was no smoke or wreckage. The sun still shone clear overhead. Other passengers began shakily climbing to their feet.
"What the hell was that?" Lavi asked no one in particular.
Lenalee, who gingerly touched the arch of her cheekbone which had cracked hard against the deck, replied rather dazedly, "I think we ran aground."
They hardily had time to begin standing themselves when the ship lurched again, this time laterally. Lenalee shrieked, and she and Lavi flopped back to the floor. The whole ferry seemed to tilt toward starboard, tilting the deck and tossing people and furniture like so many pinballs.
He and Lenalee pitched across the floor. Lavi's back struck the metal railing with a loud, hollow clang. While they weren't flung with the force of the first impact, the combination of his weight and Lenalee's made the iron bars bite into his spine hard. He sucked in a breath sharply.
"Lavi!" Lenalee cried over the screams of other passengers, gravity pinning her against him. "Are you okay?"
"Peachy," he groaned, and compared to some of the other passengers, particularly those who had had time to stand, he really was.
The ferry lurched again, the groaning now directly below them. While Lavi's back was to the sea, Lenalee could see over his shoulder as their world rolled disturbingly close to the water. She thought she might be sick and pressed her face to Lavi's sternum.
"Tell me when it's over," she moaned into his coat. He responded by cinching his arms tight around her.
When the tremors turned to shudders and then to shivers, Lenalee tentatively raised her face from Lavi's shirtfront. The crunch and grind of metal on earth faded as well, replaced by the slap of waves against the hull.
"You didn't puke on me, did you?" Lenalee heard Lavi, and she looked up into his grimacing face.
"I thought about it," she admitted.
She felt his arms loosen on her as he began to push them both up. "Good," he said through his gritted teeth. "'Cause that would have been a deal-breaker."
Lenalee let out a cough of a laugh. The combination of their tangled limbs and the awful angle of the deck made for a very awkward scramble. Walking was certainly not an option, so they crawled, putting their hands and knees on the iron bars of the railing which were now closer to being beneath them than the deck. The bottle-blue water crashed against the hull below them, and Lavi had to keep giving Lenalee the most gentle taps to keep her from looking down.
They reached a ledge in the deck where a length of rope railing branched perpendicularly away from the gunwale, and Lavi managed to haul them both up that length of railing, away from the plunge off the side of the ship. He scrambled toward the sky, straddling a wide, upright post, and hoisted Lenalee onto the same post, positioning her sidesaddle.
"What now?" she asked, her knuckles pale from clinging to Lavi's coat in one hand and the splintery rope in the other.
"I think we wait to be rescued," Lavi said, sounding like he didn't really care for the idea.
Lenalee began to laugh quietly into her hand. Lavi gave her a rather concerned look. "I'm sorry," she said through her laughter. "It's just," she paused and forced her giggles down, and with a broad gesture, she announced ironically, "Welcome to Malta!"
The ferry rocked again, and Lenalee threw herself against Lavi, curling a strangling grip into his coat.