Something to Live For
"Our condolences." The doctor says.
"Childbirth complications," they murmur, and to his ringing ears it just sounds like excuses.
"She wouldn't stop bleeding," one man says, looking squeamish, and Gajeel punches him, shattering the little man's nose, because the thought that she died in such an awful way without him being able to help her leaves him so full of rage and despair that the world will never be right again. He turns and runs, ignoring the sound of the man's curses as he clutches his fountaining nose, and he wishes that he could kill them all even as he knows that it won't help.
He screams violent curses at the sky, levels the entire Western Magnolia forest into kindling in his helpless misery, trying to force his body past its physical limits, needing to hurt, to black out, anything to stop this heartbreak. He finally collapses, utterly spent but still conscious, and weeps, turning his face into the ground. He doesn't care who sees because really what was the point anymore when she wasn't around to act tough for? Before all this happened, he'd held a vision of their house in his mind, the walls lined with pictures of the three of them, maybe four, maybe even five, but now all that hope turns to ash in his heart and he claws at himself as if it'll help ease the agony that's eating him away from the inside.
"Gajeel." The voice cuts unwelcome through his misery and he snarls halfheartedly as Salamander, Lucy and Gray step into the devastated clearing made by his grief and rage.
"Gajeel," Lucy's voice wavers. "Please. You need to stop."
"Do you think you're the only one who lost something precious?" Natsu demands, but there isn't any real fire in his sad voice.
"No!" he howls, sitting up dizzily. "No! I – My – She was my - how could you!" – he slams both fists into the ground, cratering it as tears run freely down his face – "How could you ever fucking understand?" He starts to sob, deep, wrenching, awful sobs that make Lucy start to weep and Natsu and Gray wipe helplessly at their eyes, mouths turning down wretchedly at the corners.
"We can't," Lucy says, crying freely with him. "We can't and I don't think we ever will, understand, that is. You two" – he makes a spastic, convulsive movement as his heart threatens to strangle him, because they aren't you two anymore, are they? It's just him, one, all alone, alone alone alone and he breaks all over again on the inside, pain and misery splintering through him. Lucy continues bravely past her tears, although her voice hitches with sobs. "You two were – you were, you were perfect, but, but you have to understand that Levy went in knowing the risks!"
Gajeel wants to cover his ears and scream. He doesn't want to listen to what bunny girl is saying because he knows it's true, because Levy had told him the same damn thing, but he hadn't taken her seriously and now she was gone without even the closure of a last goodbye. His heart feels like it's shredding itself to pieces and it should be right to die like this, in despair, alone and in misery, because he hadn't taken her seriously and now look what's happened. His face crumples and he puts a hand over it, his voice breaking.
Lucy stamped her foot and sobbed. "She knew this might happen!" She screamed. "She was always a small girl and they said it would be difficult! She knew this might happen, and you know what she told me? She told me it'd be worth it all, that it'd be worth everything, this child, because – because she loved you, and she loved your child already, and and your baby - she'd be the proof of your love, proof that you belonged to her, and that she belonged to you."
Gajeel's breath hitches as he's suddenly aware that there's a thin, high thread of crying that doesn't belong to him or any of the other three who stand there, unwelcome intruders in his grief. Lucy motions Natsu over, and Gajeel realizes that Salamander has been crying quietly, stolidly in the background as Lucy's been talking for the last several minutes. Then his attention shifts to the flailing bundle of pink blankets in Natsu's arms and the rest of the world disappears. Lucy brushes her tears aside and takes a deep breath, reaching over gently to cradle the baby, Gajeel and Levy's perfect child, in her arms. She walks over to the broken Iron dragon, heedless of the splintered trunks and wrecked wood and destruction in a circle around him, to present this broken man with the sight of his beautiful child.
"She gave everything," Lucy whispered. "Levy fought so hard for her, and right now she needs you, because without you, she's got no one else in the world."
Gajeel stares at the bundle of pink in Lucy's arms with empty eyes and Natsu and Gray tense instinctively, hoping for the best reaction as Gajeel's hands finally move upwards from where they've been hanging at his sides like blocks of wood. He takes the squalling baby from Lucy and stares at the screwed-up red face blankly, and they all hold their collective breath. Then, with a slow tenderness that none of them has ever seen before from this crude man, Gajeel reaches out to cradle his perfect child in the crook of one powerful arm, gently presses his face into the milk-sweet bedding and closes his eyes to breathe in. He runs his huge thumb gently along the thatch of bright blue hair that crowns his daughter's head in a gentle, repetitive movement until she stops screaming and finally unscrews her face to look at him with the frank, open curiosity of infants, and he laughs and sobs at the same time as he sees that she has his eyes.
With the tears still fresh on his face, with his grief still raw and weeping within him, he smiles at this girl with his eyes and her hair and thinks that maybe it might be okay to still be alive. Just for the years it took to raise his – their – daughter. It's a miserable, wretched smile, cut through and through with grief, but it's a smile nonetheless, and Lucy, Gray and Natsu all relax marginally. Lucy steps forward then with a bottle of something warm, and Gajeel takes it from her without tearing his eyes away from his child and Lucy smiles past her tears as he starts to feed the baby with a practiced familiarity, likely clouted into his thick head by a frantic and pregnant Levy.
Natsu wipes his wet face and lets out a sigh of relief he didn't know that he'd been holding. He thinks that he's never seen something like that before and probably never will again, the transcendental moment where a broken man found the will within himself to live again. Seeing the light reignite in Gajeel's dead red eyes, hearing his heart start beating with a new purpose, he thanks god because he'd been prepared for a tragedy. He's going to go home when this is all over and hold Lucy and never let her go. He steps forward again instead, a bit of his old bravado returning.
"Hey," he says. "We won't let you do this alone, you idiot dragon, because I know how you run away from people to try and do your own thing, and we won't let you this time, you hear? You still have us. She has us. All of Fairy Tail. We don't abandon our own, even if they are stupid metal-headed dragons."
"Her name." Gajeel asks, his voice still thick and strangled. "What's her name."
They exchange glances. "I – she doesn't – Levy didn't –" Lucy falters and Gajeel nods and closes his eyes as two tears stream silently down his face.
"Lenora." He says quietly. "Her name is Lenora."
Lucy smiles, weeping freely. "It's perfect," she says, and Natsu and Gray nod behind her, Gray wiping the last of the tears off of his face.
In the days that pass, Natsu's words come true as Gajeel tries to wall himself off from the world with only his grief and Lenora to break it, but the Guild refuses to let that happen, and he's visited every single day by visitors clamoring to see the baby and coo over her bright blue hair and chubby smile. He snarls at them to go away, clutching her to him protectively, but she reaches out over his powerful arms with live curiosity in her face and he can't begrudge her anything, even though all he wants to do is hold her fragile, warm body to his chest and protect her forever.
He can't do this alone, fuck him, he can't he can't, he thinks as he flings himself towards the source of the thin, high crying that's permeated into his dreams. Frowzy-haired and dull-eyed, he grabs the bottle set on his bedside for this very purpose (still warm, courtesy of Salamander's homemade lacryma) and stumbles his way over to the crib in the corner. He leans down and picks up his screaming brat, holding her to him and rocking her back and forth in a familiar, practiced motion until she starts to quiet. He offers her the bottle, which she takes greedily, and he sighs and holds her to him for a few long minutes as she drains the bottle before he checks the clock on his bedside with tired eyes.
It reads 4AM and he groans helplessly. He stares at her contented face with slight resentment building in his chest because did she really have to pick the most god-awful times to get hungry and – she looked up at him with sleepy eyes and smiled and the rest of the world froze as hesitantly, he smiled back. Her smile grows larger on her tiny face and she reaches up her tiny hand for him, snatching a piece of his dangling hair, which he gently replaces with his index finger. She's smiling at him one second and asleep the next, but the memory of her first smile - for him, all for him and only him - hums like a warm light through his blood. He kisses her forehead before drawing the blankets around them and falling into an exhausted sleep against the headboard, cradling her in his arms, and Pantherlily finds them that way when he opens the door next morning.
He's tired and achey and fucking just tired as all hell. He's moving his leg up and down repetitively, bumping Lenora against his chest as she numbles at the sloppy food he's trying to coax into her mouth. She's making lots of sounds in the shapes of words and he grins as she garbles a string of unintelligible nonsense words, nodding at her like he understands.
"Yeah, yeah, daddy hears you," he says, trying to tempt her with another tiny spoonful of mush. "What daddy really wants you to do is open your mouth right now though," he says, with a hint of exasperation in his voice. She smiles at him and his heart jumps as he smiles back, and to his eternal gratitude, she opens her mouth, but before he can get her to eat the apple-flavored whatever, she very clearly says something that makes his heart stop in his chest.
"Daddy," she says, followed by enthusiastic garbling.
He laughs, tremulously, and points to himself. "Me?" He asks.
She smiles, brilliantly, and claps her hands against him. He closes his eyes and puts his arms around her, lifting her and burying his face into her sweet-smelling baby clothes, regardless of the messy food stains from her bib that get into his hair and face. He holds her for a long time, shaking with emotion, forcing the heat in the back of his eyes away, stays that way until she starts to cry insistently, tiny hands tangling into fists in his hair. Only then does he gather the shreds of his composure and set about comforting her, returning to the thanklessly frustrating task of time-honored dads everywhere and trying to get her to eat without making an absolute mess.
1 Year, 5 months
He's going over several job requests on his table, trying to figure out a timetable where he can find someone to look after Lena for the day that he's gone when he hears a fumbling noise behind him and whips around to look for her frantically because god, he'd only taken his eyes off her for one goddamn second and she's disappeared and – his breath catches in his throat as he sees her standing unsurely next to the couch, clutching at the ottoman for support. Oh god, she's standing but it's unsteady and it looks like she's going to fall at any second and it's all he can do not to leap out of his chair and catch her as she lets go of the ottoman, aiming tenaciously for her stuffed animal, which is all the way on the other side of the room. He finds himself on his feet, her name already on his lips, but he holds his breath and watches because despite the screaming, instinct-deep urge to try and protect her forever, he knows that it's not possible and she needs to learn how to fall before she can pick herself up.
She falls (inevitably) and starts to scream and he does swoop over then to comfort her, chanting a song under his breath and making faces until she stops screaming to smile at him, but when he puts her back down, she immediately tries again, fumbling awkwardly to her tiny feet. She takes two hesitant steps forward only to fall – he holds his breath – but she gets up with a teary-eyed determination that's so familiar to him that it hurts, and makes a tottering path all the way over to her stuffy, whereupon she falls and grips it and gives him a teary look, and he's on his knees next to her, his arms wrapped fiercely around her tiny body, his face pressed into her perfect blue hair.
"Daddy's proud," he says, his throat thick with emotion.
She's an Iron-make mage, and for one fleeting second he's disappointed because he'd hoped that some part of her mother lived on in her, that she'd be a Solid Script mage, but in the next moment he's grinning and puffed up stupidly with pride because that's obviously his influence and she's a goddamn artist and why can't anyone else see how awesome she is as she flings her hand through the air, creating a long metal arc in the same shape, crowing and clapping her hands with delight. When she makes her first Father's day gift for him though, it's all he can do not to fall apart as a million emotions swallow him up.
"Do you like it?" She asks shyly, her tiny blue head pushed demandingly against his side as he reverently examines the crudely-placed junctions of the tiny wings and limbs.
"I don't like it," he says straight-faced, and watches her face crumple before snatching her into a hug. "I LOVE IT," he roars, and her tears turn immediately to smiles and she shrieks with laughter as he tickles her mercilessly.
"Don't eat it," she says seriously when he finally relents, and just to tease her, he brings the little iron dragon close to his face, opening his mouth wide until she screams and tries to charge him and save her present, but he catches her easily with one arm and lifts her into the air to hold her close, closing his eyes as he rests his face against her soft cheek.
"Thank you, Lena" he says, hugging her fiercely, his emotions raging in his chest as he struggles not to be overwhelmed with the intensity of the feelings that storm through him, love and gratitude and bliss and a terrible sadness that will never go away. Lenora puts her chubby arms around his neck and smiles serenely, noticing nothing amiss.
"You're welcome, daddy," she says simply.
At the hospital, Lucy brings Lenora to him. To his surprise, she hangs in the background with teary eyes and doesn't approach him. He looks down at himself and wonders if she's scared of the bandages that crisscross his head and torso.
"She's scared because everyone says you were hurt badly," Lucy explains in a whisper, and Lenora turns her watery eyes to him and finally runs forward as he beckons her over with a grin. She flings herself into his arms and starts to cry and he holds his daughter to him with fierce love, burying his face into her hair.
"Don't leave!" She said, sobbing. "Everyone said that you would leave me alone! Lenora doesn't want daddy to go away!" Her words pierce his heart like arrows and he thinks back to a day when he woke up alone to an empty cave and a swirling gray sky, and he bites his lip and holds her closer.
"Daddy will never leave you alone," he says into her hair as Lucy smiles behind her hand, listening outside the door. He will never be the person who walks away from his child, not while he can still draw air into his lungs. He could never be so selfish.
"Promise!" She cries.
"I promise," he says solemnly, and holds up his pinky for her to link with. Her eyes go wide because everyone knows that's the ULTIMATE promise, and she carefully links her finger around his, holding his huge hand steady against her tiny palm. "You believe me now?" he asks her teasingly, and she finally gives him a tearful smile before throwing her skinny arms around his neck in response. He grunts a bit with pain, but he doesn't let her go and thinks wryly to himself that maybe Lenora shouldn't hang around Juvia so much because she's picking up that weirdass way of speaking.
From that day on he leaves the S-class jobs to Titania and Salamander and the rest. He takes easy, high-paying investigative jobs that don't require much traveling. Occasionally he'll grab the odd A or B ranked mission to put the smackdown on some group of bandits or thugs, just for old times' sake, but he always has Lily to watch his back.
He won't do things by himself anymore because he can't risk the chance that he'll break that all-important promise.
"I hate my eyes!" She burst out, crying. He looks up to see her flinging her school bag onto the ground and throwing herself onto the couch, punching the cushions with furious abandon. He notices her missing ribbon and her rumpled hair and the dirt that speckles her face and clothing and bites his lip and counts slowly to 10 because he'd like nothing in the world than to rip her bullies into bloody little pieces, but they're kids and that would just be improper but it would serve them goddamn right for hurting her, his one his only his Lena.
He shakes his head and walks over to pick her up and put her on his lap.
"You have daddy's eyes," he says simply as she pouts with her arms crossed. "You hate daddy's eyes too?"
She looks up then and sees it's true, and her mouth opens in a scandalized 'o' of realization before she dissolves into guilt, tears pricking at the corners of her eyes.
"No," she mumbles, tugging at his shirt and kicking the air. "I love daddy's eyes. I just don't like when those kids tease me."
He grins then, hugs her conspiratorially. "Hih hih. Don't worry, Lena. Daddy will teach you just how to make them stop, and if that doesn't work then daddy will beat them up for you and say that it was that idiot Salamander who did it," he grins, and it's so full of anticipatory malice that she can't help but smile past her tears.
"Thank you, daddy," she says, and hugs him.
"You can't go," he said flatly, in that tone of voice she knew brooked no argument, and frustration crested in her chest as she crossed her arms and glared at him.
"Why NOT?" She demanded shrilly, and he glared right back, giving her just as good as he got.
"Because," he finally gritted out.
"Because what?" She exploded. "Because you're being mean and dumb and it's my birthday but you won't let me go, even though it's my party?"
His eyes go flat and he opens his mouth to say something, but she beats him to the punch.
"I hate you!" She screams and flees to the Guild, unable to see the awful hurt that spreads across Gajeel's face afterwards.
Lucy is there as Lenora bursts in through the double doors, stomping her way over to the bar and seating herself furiously in one of the barstools, hands gripping the edge in a white-knuckled grip as she spins herself around, muttering furiously. Lucy and Mirajane exchange glances and Mirajane coughs and discreetly heads towards the back, saying she has to pick up some more supplies.
"What's wrong, Lenora?" Lucy asks, gently.
"Dad's being stupid and mean," Lenora says, and her voice trembles. "He won't let me go to Elly and Rydian's party, even though they said they were throwing it just for me." Her lip wobbled suspiciously and Lucy smiled.
"Your dad just loves you," she said simply. "You don't understand how important you are to him."
"Everyone says that," Lenora burst out, swiping angrily at her eyes. "But that's not true! He doesn't care about me at all!"
Lucy put down her drink sternly. "Don't say that, Lenora! You don't know how badly he'd be hurt if he heard that!"
"Maybe he should be hurt," Lenora muttered, rebelliously, and Lucy shook her head sadly.
He's been hurt enough, don't you think?" she asked. "You just don't know because you didn't see what your daddy was like before. Before he met your mom, he was…he was so different." Lenora sat up, listening closely, because her dad never talks to her about how he met her mom.
Lucy continued, her voice sad and gentle. "Before he met your mom, he was… well, he was part of another Guild, and he attacked Fairy Tail and he hurt your mom very badly, you know, but she forgave him, and then they started to fall for each other. It was like they were throwing bricks at each other, they were so dense! And...and you didn't see him, that awful day when your mom…"
Lucy's lip wobbled, but she laughed and brushed away the tears. "Look at me! Still crying over that! But your dad…Honestly, I thought he would die too, he was so heartbroken. I've never seen someone hurting so much before. If we hadn't brought you with us when we went to look for him, I think he might have just…faded away that day from too much hurt. But…but when he saw you, it was like someone had breathed life back into him."
She fixed Lenora with a tear-filled smile. "Lenora. You are the most important person in the world to him. I know every mom or dad thinks of their child this way, but…but for Gajeel, it's never been more true. He's never loved anyone more than he loves you, because he loves you enough for both him and your mom. And I think you should apologize to him because you already knew that, right?"
Lenora was already crying silently, fat tears rolling down her face as she nodded, miserably. "I will," she finally said, wiping her eyes, "but will you tell me more about mom and dad? Dad never ever tells me about her."
"He loved your mom like nothing I've ever seen before," Lucy said, her eyes faraway. "He was absolutely crazy for her. He loved her more than he loved anything else in the world. That's why he was so hurt when she died, because she was the only one worth having, the only one he ever let himself love, before you came along." Lucy sighed, looking sad and worn. "He visits your mom a lot, but I know that he always visits her on your birthday to tell her about you, so you might want to head back soon." Lenora looked at her in confusion.
"No, he doesn't," she said. "Usually we visit the Guild and have my cake and then we go to sleep."
Lucy blinked in surprise. "Oh!" She said, looking uneasy. "I guess I was wrong."
Lenora saved that bit of information though, turning it slowly in her mind, because she knew her dad better than Aunt Lucy did and she had an inkling of an idea. When she got home, she snuck straight to her bed without apologizing because she was still angry and her dad deserved to stew for a bit. That night though, she waited instead of falling asleep, and sure enough, she heard the quiet, purposeful sounds of someone sneaking out. Already dressed to follow, she flung her covers back and crept along behind the unmistakable outline of her dad, feeling very smug indeed. She followed him to mom's grave, where she hid behind a tree and watched him as he looked at the gravestone, his hands in his pockets.
It's getting cold and she wants to go back when he finally speaks.
"Hey," he says simply, and pauses as if waiting for a reply.
"Lena turned 12 today," he continues, almost conversationally. "She's such a goddamn spitfire nowadays, kinda like you were when you'd get mad at me. She made a new Iron-Make attack the other day, named it and everything. I think you'd have been really proud of her. We did the usual thing for her birthday and went to the Guild and those idiots all sang and danced and gave her a right good time. It was a lot of fun, actually." He sighed and ran his hand through her hair. "She wanted to go to some party that Laxus' kid was holding afterwards and I said no because that one kid of Mira's is trouble, and she got so angry at me. Said she hated me." He stepped forward then, put his hand on the gravestone and bowed his head.
"Fuck," he said quietly, and his voice shook. "I didn't even know what to say. How could I tell her that I was just being an overprotective dick? How could – she's so, she's just" – he made a choked sound and stopped talking, shoulders shaking minutely. "If you were here, you'd have known what to do. I know it."
He let out a shaky breath, swiped at his face, and Lenora realized to her absolute horror, that her dad was crying. Her dad never cried. He was the toughest and bravest man in the world, and he was quietly brushing tears away from his face as he continued speaking.
"I miss you," he finally said, and there was such a note of plaintive yearning in his voice that Lenora started to cry too, stuffing her knuckles into her mouth to prevent herself from making a sound. "I wish you were here so that I didn't have to do this alone," he said. "But you aren't, and I'll do this because she's worth it. She's worth everything. Just like you were." He rested his hand tenderly on the stone, ran his fingers lovingly across the name engraved into the surface.
"I love you," he said quietly, the love and hurt and yearning of 12 long years contained in those three words, and then with a long sigh he turned and began to head back towards the house.
Lenora broke cover and hurled herself into her father's surprised arms. "I'm sorry!" She howled. "I'm sorry! I didn't mean it!"
Gajeel looked understandably shocked as he gathered his sobbing daughter into his arms, but as her jumbled words finally began to make sense, he smiled and quickly swiped at his eyes with his wrist to brush off the last of his (so unmanly) tears. He hugged her and rested his chin on her head with a wry grin as she hugged him fiercely, mumbling her apologies over and over.
"It's okay," he finally shushed. "I got it." She looked up at him with teary, beseeching eyes and he couldn't help but grin. She looked so much like her mom when she did that, for all that she had his red eyes. "Stop that," he finally said, patting her face sternly.
"I'm sorry," she said again, wiping at her eyes. "I didn't mean it, everything I said."
"I know you didn't," he said, and squeezed her shoulder fondly. "Kids never say what they mean."
Lenora wiped the last of her tears away and looked back at her mother's white gravestone. "You really miss mom, don't you dad?" she asked, and Gajeel's face fell into familiar lines of misery before he rallied himself.
"Yeah," he said. "I don't think I'll ever be able to not miss her." His face was more open than she'd ever seen it before.
"She was my world," he said quietly."She was my heart." Then he looked at her and smirked and ruffled her hair. "Just like you are now."
She smiled, but it was a sad smile, until he put his arm around her and gave her a firm hug. "We'll just have to miss her together, yeah?" She nodded past her new tears and allowed her dad to walk her back to the house, his warm arm slung around her skinny shoulders.
As he was walking, Gajeel cast one last lingering glance back at Levy's headstone. It was true, he'd never be able to stop missing her, but he'd have to wait a bit longer before joining her.
He had a daughter to raise, after all.
A/N - Ahh eff me, why did I write this awful thing? I cried absolute buckets while writing this because I'm a stupid overemotional sap so I don't even – curse my hormones and my brain for conspiring to produce this horrible thing! I must have looked a pitiful sight indeed, crying and typing at the same time and I'm feeling really down right now so I'm...sharing the misery? lol. I dunno. I've always identified a bit more with Gajeel than with Levy so writing this was just absolute crippling heartbreak on my part too because I love both characters to bits god these emotions I can't contain them hnggghdhjkd.
Still, I just thought…Gajeel's always been prone to loneliness, so it's always been in the back of my mind that Levy's death would shatter him, far worse than if it was the other way around. If there wasn't a reason to stick around after, I just...I dunno. Also, the thought of Gajeel as a single dad is just absolutely fucking heartbreaking. I'm usually not a fan of kidfics in general, but…yeah. I guess I made an exception. And OOCness is just blah everywhere I mean, even the kid is OOC but I don't care.
About the name choice - I randomly chose Lenora on the spot while planning to change it later, because it was the only name I could think of off the top of my head that had the same starting letters as Levy, but I looked it up later and Lenora means 'shining light' and it fits so well that I couldn't have planned it better.