AN: My present for the lovely Afton (raedoodles on tumblr) in our holiday gift-exchange! You are the coolest of cats, and I endeavour to deserve your friendship with this humble gift. The requested theme was "winter", and so I give you winter!
Disclaimer: I do not own Fairy Tail or its characters – Hiro Mashima does.
by Miss Mungoe
That he found her reading wasn't anything out of the ordinary.
In fact, he might have passed her by without stopping if it hadn't been for one little detail that leaped out at him like an attacker from the shadows. Which was a sadistic kind of irony that would have made him grin, if it hadn't been for the quite obvious fact that the subject at hand was anything but humorous. Because it's where he found her reading that made him halt in his tracks and stare with all the subtlety of a lecher, because what the hell was she doing there, of all places?
He'd been on his way to the guild, just like any other morning. It was cold as hell, but then the city was covered in snow, so that wasn't much of a surprise. Even the river was frozen, a testament to the drop the temperature had done some days back. The holidays were closing in on them all, disguised in a flurry of stress and anticipation that never failed to give him a headache. And as per the usual tradition, the streets were lined with lights and screaming kids and people carrying mounds of shopping-bags with the wobbling grace of saddled pack-mules.
It was that time of the year, and Gajeel had been in a sour mood since he'd stepped outside.
It wasn't that he didn't like the snow. It was an excuse to laze about inside and tinker with his scrapmetal, for one. And yeah, it was kind of nice, when he didn't have to shovel it away from the door just to get inside his flat. When it was just...there, covering everything and not causing him a hassle, it was actually kind of nice. He'd even taken another route through town to check out the year's decorations and decide whether they were twice or thrice as bad as the year before. But it wasn't like he was getting into the holiday spirit or anything. Nope. Not one bit. He'd just taken another route than his usual one, and so he'd stumbled upon the midget, wrapped up in layers and with a book in her lap, sitting on a thick woollen blanket smack in the middle of the local park. Underneath the old oak tree.
The old oak tree.
The sight hadn't made him do a double-take before the significance of the location had fully settled, and then he hadn't been able to move, because what the hell?
And so he found himself standing a few paces away, surrounded on all sides by merry couples walking hand in hand, and kids chucking snowballs at each other, staring so blatantly at the girl beneath the tree he was pretty sure he'd gotten a suggestive cat-call from a passer-by.
And he would have punched the guy's lights out, too, if he hadn't been so busy staring.
Because what the hell?
She hadn't noticed him yet, absorbed in her book as she was. He wondered briefly if she hadn't been aware of where she'd sat down, but that just didn't make any sense. Of everyone in the damn guild, she'd be the last to forget that particular incident. Excluding himself, of course. And the fact that she was sitting there so innocently, reading her book like nothing was wrong when the whole thing was throwing his entire existence off its axis, was as much of a mystery as it was damn uncomfortable.
Because what the hell?!
And so before he was aware of what he was doing, he was standing in front of her, the toes of his boots nearly touching the edge of the blanket. And it wasn't until his shadow fell over her that she tore her eyes away from the tome in her lap.
...was what he thought she said. Muffled by the ridiculously long scarf coiled around her neck, it sounded more like 'Ohw, how!' He couldn't see her mouth, but the corners of her eyes crinkled at the sight of him, so he guessed she was glad to see him, which made the situation ten times worse. All he could see of her face were rosy cheeks and a small, red nose. In fact, if it hadn't been for the bright blue locks of hair peeking out from the oversized hat on her head, he would have had a hard time recognizing her by her appearance. He could have picked out her scent from across the square, sure, but that was hardly important.
"The hell are you doin'?"
She blinked up at him, visibly taken aback by his sharp greeting. Or his lack of actual greeting, more like it. "Weadin'," she replied, and when he gave her a look, reached up to tug her scarf down far enough to uncover her mouth. "I'm reading. What does it look like I'm doing?"
He looked at her closely, then the tree, and then her again, wondering if she was being purposefully dense or if she hadn't quite caught on to what he'd meant. Following his gaze, she looked up at the bare branches of the tree looming above them. The tree whose trunk she was leaning so casually against. The tree she'd been crucified to like a lamb on the slaughter-bench, strung up for the whole town to see.
Yeah, that tree.
"Oh, you mean what am I doing here?"
He had the sudden urge to grab her shoulders and give her a good shake, but he reeled in his anger. "Nah, shortstuff, I meant the hell are ya doin' readin'. Do I look like I'm blind to you?"
She only looked at him for a moment, and then she shrugged. "I'm making peace," she said then, with a small smile. As though it were the simplest damn thing in the whole world.
Gajeel blinked, genuinely taken aback by her casual answer, and her even more casual admittance of the subject looming between them like a physical weight. "Peace?" The word could have been an expletive, by the way he nearly spat it out.
She nodded. "Yeah. Peace with this place. I always used to sit here and read–" she stopped herself, sheepish for some reason. "Well, before. And then I stopped, and I don't know, I guess I just missed it, you know? So I'm making peace with it."
And then she smiled at him. Smiled at him, like he hadn't been the one to beat her to within an inch of her life and string her up for public humiliation. Like he hadn't been the one to cause her physical and mental misery for weeks, not just with his actions, but then with his presence in the guild she called her home. He didn't know what was more ridiculous, the fact that he was freaking out about it, or the fact that she clearly wasn't. Because she just kept smiling at him, like it wasn't his damn fault she hadn't sat down there to read in months.
Tilting her head, she regarded him closely for a moment, before she scooted over, making more room on the blanket beside her in glaringly obvious invitation. When he didn't move from where he was standing, she patted the blanket, as if she hadn't already made her intention clear.
"Sit down with me?"
And her voice was so damn hopeful, he'd have to have been a right heartless bastard not to take her up on the offer. And he might have been once, but he'd be lying through his teeth if he said he hadn't changed. The damn guild and its righteous nakama-preaching had all but physically beaten it out of him months ago. He just wasn't Kurogane anymore.
But that didn't stop him from feeling like it, when he awkwardly sat down on the blanket, adjusting his legs and leaning his back against the trunk of the tree that was their inception – their twisted genesis.
Of course, it was probably fitting then, that it was here they finally breached the chasm between them.
Gajeel didn't say anything as he sat rigidly beside her, and he could tell that she wasn't reading, even if she was pretending to. But just didn't know what to say – had no clue as to how to even bring the subject up without wrapping it up in a bundle of hidden meanings and unspoken gestures. She'd been so blunt about it, it had all but pulled the rug out from beneath him, and he was still reeling from her matter-of-fact way of addressing it. He didn't even know where to begin.
He was grateful then, when she broke the silence first.
"You know," she began, mitten-covered hands resting on the pages before her, bearing symbols that made as much sense to him as she currently did. "This used to be such a bad place for me. That first week after I was released from the hospital...I couldn't even walk past it without having some sort of mental breakdown. Silly, right? I had to walk all the way around to get to the guild – it took me nearly half an hour!" She laughed, as though this was even remotely funny, and not cutting like a well-aimed blade between the ribs.
She looked up from the book, turning the full force of her gaze on him, but there was no accusation in them – no hidden grudge or hatred. Just open honesty. "I've been walking through here almost every day since you joined, you know."
And damn him if there wasn't a whole world of meaning in that one phrase.
She grinned then. "And I've been coming here to read for weeks. It's nice, even if it's a bit cold at the moment. It's such a public spot too, so I can people-watch when I'm not reading." She cast a glance at the townsfolk milling around them, her smiling eyes coming to rest on a group of kids caught up in a snowball-fight across the park.
It was a public spot. One of the most frequented squares in the city, as it were, and he'd intentionally picked it for his little demonstration all those years ago. It hadn't been accidental – he didn't do 'accidental'. He'd executed his mission with the sure knowledge that people were going to see it.
It wasn't until after he'd finished his thoughts, that he realized he'd spoken them out loud.
But she didn't say anything to that. In fact, he wouldn't have been surprised to discover that she'd known, on some subconscious level, because ironically enough, excluding Lily, she probably knew him better than anyone in the guild.
The uneven trunk of the tree was uncomfortable against his back, and he shifted his weight, grimacing as it dug into one of his shoulder blades. Looking up into the branches leaning over them, he felt his brows furrow at the sight of them, mocking him with their innocently swaying movements. He didn't tell her that he would have been happy if they'd just cut the damn thing down. Or even that, after they'd come back from Tenrou, he'd walked past just to check if it was still there, after the years that had passed. That day, he'd hoped with every fibre of his being that some idiot had had it burned to the ground or chopped it to pieces.
He didn't tell her that, but he had a feeling she knew, anyway.
"Just because something starts out on the wrong terms, doesn't mean it's ruined forever, you know," she said then, and when he met her gaze there was an understanding in them that shouldn't bloody come from the one person who had all the right in the world to hate his guts. He had no idea how she handled sitting where she was, partaking in her favourite pastime with him beside her, in the one place that had given her hell for weeks, and look at him like he wasn't the monster who'd been responsible.
But she did.
And then she did a thing that almost startled him right out of his boots.
Closing the book in her lap, she shifted her weight, and then a small gloved hand was hooked in his scarf, tugging his head down, and before he could figure out what the hell she was doing, she'd nudged her cold-as-death nose against his and kissed him.
Having been partially hidden by her scarf, her mouth was startlingly warm in comparison to her cheeks and the nose pressed against his, but before the thought could settle fully and give him time to respond, she'd pulled away with a satisfied grin. When she settled back into her seat, there was barely a space between them, and he could feel the fabric of her jacket brush against his arm as she leaned back against the tree.
And he didn't quite know whether to be horrified that she'd decided to do that in the cursed place they were currently sitting, or grab her chin and pull her back to do it again.
Looking up into the naked branches above them, Levy's smile widened. "I want to make this a place of good memories," she said then, speaking to him even though her eyes were trained on the overcast sky. Small snowflakes had begun to drift down, and were sticking to the bright orange hat on her head and the hair peeking out from beneath the brim. Sending him a quick, almost shy glance, she grinned, and he almost jumped when a small gloved hand curled around his. He could almost feel the heat of her skin through the fabric.
"That was the first one," she said then, and when he took in the sight of her, leaning against the heavy trunk of the tree, a smile in her bright eyes and cheeks flushed pink from the cold, the part of him that had kept a tight grip on the past suddenly relented.
And he let go.
He felt ten different kinds of awkward when he closed his fingers around hers in return, but the grin that broke out on her face spurred him on, and in turn he found himself smiling. First the slow, tentative curl of the lip that suddenly broke across his face without permission into a full-blown, fanged grin. She only laughed at his response, and he concluded to himself that this was the second.
He snorted, but made no effort to push her away when she shyly shifted closer. The snow was falling heavily around them now, and they should probably have been at the guild, where it was warm and toasty and enough booze at hand to thaw a glacier. But she stayed where she was, and so did he, and the snow drifted down from above. Lifting her face to the sky, Levy stuck her tongue out, catching a flake as it floated past and smiling with the elation of a brat when he raised a sceptical brow.
"You know, if it'd make you feel better," she began, cryptically, and his brows furrowed sharply at the cunning smile on her face.
Jumping to her feet, she placed the book down beside him, lifting a corner of the blanket and tucking it over the leather-bound tome for protection against the snow. He didn't roll his eyes, because she was a damn weirdo and he'd gotten used to that by now, but when she turned to walk away from the tree, his brows furrowed as he tried to figure out what she was planning. He watched her warily as she bent down to pick up a handful of snow, trying not to let his eyes linger where it might get him another suggestive cat-call. When she turned back to him, there was a mischievous glint in her eyes, and the snow in her hand had been shaped into a round, fist-sized ball.
She grinned. "We'll do a rematch," she declared then. "One-on-one, no war, no cheating," she said, shifting her weight, and he was momentarily reminded of the week he'd spent drilling her for the exams. "What do you say? I promise I won't string you up on the tree when I'm done with you," she added cheekily.
And it was proof that he really had let go, when he didn't even feel a shred of remorse at her morbid joke. All he felt was the familiar thrill of a good fight, and the chance to possibly cop a feel, if he got lucky.
Fangs gleaming, he rose to his feet, reaching for a handful of snow as he went. She stepped back a pace, and then two, but just as he was about to reach back and take aim she caught him off guard by charging straight towards him, closing the gap with a speed that would have put that lapdog of hers to shame and stuffing the ball of snow down the neck of his jacket. Cursing under his breath, he made a grab for her, but she slipped away with a laugh, grabbing more snow as she made a break for it. But he was nothing if not vindictive, and his aim was true when his first snowball hit her between the shoulder blades, sending her landing smack face-down into the snow with a loud yelp that was muffled before it was fully off her tongue.
He had a hard time keeping his laughter in check as she pushed herself to her feet, her entire front covered in snow and with a murderous glint in her eyes. And then she was running towards him in a blatant attempt at a tackle, as she had seemingly forgotten that he was twice her size. The result was that she collided with him with enough force to knock the breath from her lungs but not nearly enough to make him budge. Determined, she wound her arms around his midsection, and slipped a leg behind one of his in a stubborn attempt to trip him.
Hands finding her waist, Gajeel hoisted her up over his shoulder, earning himself a shriek that dissolved into laughter as he did a sharp turn that had her hat flying off her head to land in the snow. The novelty of the game amused him on some carnal level, and so he did another sharp spin, and the smell of her hair hit his nose at it whipped about her face. She gasped for breath, and he could feel her shaking with the force of her own laughter.
People were looking at them now, some pointing and whispering amongst themselves and others simply watching in amusement. But he couldn't really make himself care, even if they somehow ended up at the top of the gossip column of Socerer's, because this wasn't a public spectacle he was averse to having displayed for the world, especially not when she was laughing like she was about to choke up a lung.
"Yield?" he asked with a grin, turning his head to look at her where she was slung across his shoulder like a sack of potatoes.
And he decided then, taking in the grin that met him, pulling her flushed cheeks apart and reaching all the way into the corners of her eyes, that this would be his predominant memory of the cursed ground beneath them. And as the snow fell around them, the sound of her infectious laughter and the sight of her smile nudged its way to the forefront of his mind, replacing the screams that had so long haunted his conscience.
Behind them, the great oak reached its naked branches into the grey winter skies. For the time being, it had yielded its leaves for the cold, but at the turn of the season it would sprout new ones. The previous year wouldn't matter anymore, or the year before, because it would already be in the past. Outdated, and overgrown.
And as much as he hated corny-assed metaphors, he'd let this one slide.
"Will you let me go, now?" came the breathless question, partly dissolving into a giggle, and he felt a slow grin curl his lip as he looked up at the tree looming above them.
And he knew.
AN: Fluffy snow-snuggles all around!