AN: Because the lovely krocatoo on tumblr has made such amazing artworks of human!Pantherlily from Hard Liquor, I was inspired to write a little something! This elaborates some of Lily's backstory, as well as his relationship with Shagotte before...the incident.
Warning: there will be mentions of racial tension and racism, both subtle and outright. This is after all set in a historical period where these things were common.
Disclaimer: I do not own Fairy Tail or its characters, only the plot of Hard Liquor.
Sweet Rum and the Song of Late Birds
by Miss Mungoe
1. a dove amongst the dirt
The first time saw her, she'd been exceedingly hard to miss.
He didn't know what stood out more, the distinct colour of her skin, aglow in the dark, or her crisp, pale frock against the charred brick wall behind her. The sight reminded him of a bird he'd seen once, perched on the edge of one of the thatched alley rooftops, its white feathers stark against the dreary grey-and-black that seemed to stain the slums like soot.
Even from across the street, the apprehensive crease to her brow beneath the brim of her hat was more than visible, and if he hadn't already been sure she was entirely in the wrong place, her anxious behaviour would have told him enough.
He contemplated walking away, aware that approaching her could put him in all sorts of bad situations. But part of him was also very much aware that here was a woman – a white woman – alone in a black neighbourhood, and Lily would have been loath to leave a woman of his own colour to her own devices in this particular part of town.
And so he made up his mind, telling himself he would only ask if she was in need of assistance, and if not, walk away. Hell, for all he knew, she might be waiting for someone. A beau, perhaps, although by the look of her, that thought was rather unlikely. Her kind rarely mixed with his as it was – especially those of her class, and there was no doubt in his mind of which class she belonged to. There was no denying that particular brand of posh. But even so, who knew why she was there? He'd been told upper-class girls rarely had a say in who they were allowed to marry; perhaps she was simply expanding her horizons before she was tied down.
Not my place to question the choices of the elite, he thought with a soft snort. If she was waiting for a beau – as unlikely as that was – he would be on his way soon enough.
She whirled around, apparently not having heard him approach, and he was at once met with a pair of very big, very grey eyes set in a pale, softly freckled face. But in stead of flinching away in fear or – as he was used to – disgust, she simply levelled him with a look of somewhat haughty irritation.
"Yes, hello. Is there some kind of logic to this place I'm missing? I've been walking for what seems like hours, but I can't seem to find my way back to the city centre. There's so many streets, and I can't find any bleeding signs!" She huffed, cheeks rosy with indignation. "I'm sorry – I don't usually cuss, but I'm quite cross."
Lily had to school his face to mask his amusement. "Are you lost, milady?"
A pale brow quirked up, and she seemed to be contemplating whether or not he was mocking her. "No, I'm simply enjoying a walk in your charming neighbourhood. No offence intended."
"None taken," he countered easily, and had to try very hard not to smile. Surprisingly amiable or not, he wasn't about to push his luck too far.
She eyed him again, with the scrutiny of someone seizing up an opponent rather than a stranger in the street. He recognised it from his years in the ring, but he'd never expected to see it on the face of a woman like her. "You've a black eye." She didn't say it outright, but there was a clear question there – he figured her class kept her from voicing her curiosity of such things.
It took a lot of effort – and surprisingly so! – not to counter with a sardonic 'how can you tell?', as he'd often heard muted chatter in the gym about whether or not one could even spot bruises on skin as dark as his. But there didn't seem to be any animosity behind her remark – a touch of concern, perhaps, and oddly so, considering the fact that he was a complete stranger. And black. And possibly dangerous, although the thought didn't seem to have crossed her mind.
Discarding the cheeky remark, Lily opted for honesty. "I was on my way home from training," he nodded in the general direction of the gym, although if she was lost, she wouldn't realise he was gesturing towards her part of town. But it didn't matter, anyway. "I'm a prize fighter."
Something flickered in her eyes at that. Intrigue, he realised with a start. "Indeed?"
What a strange woman. "Yes. And you, milady?"
She rolled her eyes at that. "Please don't feel obligated to do that. 'Miss' is just fine."
Lily frowned, but complied. "Miss, then. You were saying you were lost?"
She breathed out a puff of air again, misty white in the cold night. "Yes and no, as it were," she mumbled under her breath. "I'd prefer to stay lost for a while, but something tells me this isn't the right place to do so."
And right you are, he thought, wondering again at her open nature and apparent lack of care for her own safety. Not to mention her completely out-of-place manners. The fact that she hadn't tried to spit on him was surprising enough, but that she was treating him as though he wasn't black and so far below her class he shouldn't even be allowed to polish her shoes let alone talk to her directly...
"Oh don't look at me like that, I'm not mad in the head," she said with another roll of her eyes that was impressively haughty. "If you'd been a bad sort, you'd have done something by now. And you wouldn't have addressed me as 'milady', either. And while I'm on the subject, why do you speak like that? I've only ever met one prize fighter, and he couldn't formulate a proper sentence to save his life." The 'and he was white' was silent, but no less evident to Lily's ears. She was remarkably good at saying things without actually saying them. And she sure was talkative, for an upper-class girl.
"I don't see why my occupation should have an impact on my speech," he said at last. And because he couldn't help himself: "And I thought ladies weren't in the habit of cussing, so maybe we've both learned something new."
She smiled at that, her previously pursed lips stretching out in a grin that seemed to light up her features, even in the dark. "You know, I think you're right," she agreed. Her eyes, he noticed with a start – only just now realising – had been on him the entire time. In his experience with her kind, even the low-lives who fought with him in the gym, there wasn't a lot of direct eye-contact. But then here she was, chatting like they were old friends. Strange, strange woman.
"So, will you escort me back?"
Lily blinked, and was having trouble coming up with a reply to that – mind caught on the word escort, like he was just another of her posh suitors – when she thrust a gloved hand towards him, the action a strange mixture of delicate and authoritative all at once.
And he didn't know what surprised him more: her action or his sudden response to comply! But before he'd even had a chance to think about it, her hand was linked with his arm, the small appendage snug against the crook of his elbow, and there he was, escorting her towards the centre of the town.
Part of his mind – the logical part that he always relied on to make his choices for him – reminded him that if he was caught, he'd be lucky to make it back alive, if he wasn't chucked in the hoosegow for daring to touch her. But as severe as the matter was, he couldn't really make himself care – not with the rich sound of her voice floating up around them as they walked, providing a constant stream of talk in their slow trek down the darkened streets of Extalia's slums.
"–I had to get away from my father, you see –foolish as it might seem at this time of night, I was quite determined! So I walked to clear my mind, and then I couldn't recognise where I was, and no one seemed to want to help me, either, so I just wandered for a while, and then – thank heavens! – you were there. I mean, who knows what kind of people you could meet outside at this hour?"
Indeed, Lily thought wryly, but said nothing as they continued walking. She'd had to have been in quite a state to get lost in this part of town without realising. He wondered what her father had done to elicit such a drastic response.
She cast a glance at the street they were passing down – nose crinkling at the general decay and signs of abject poverty. "Is it always so..." she trailed off, searching for an appropriate word.
"Black?" he asked wryly, with a raised brow.
She gave him a smart look that made him want to smile – the feeling sudden and violent, like an unexpected uppercut. "I meant to say 'dreary', but now that you've gone and made your own assumptions, let's go with that then." There was a clear challenge in her tone and the purse of her lips, and he wondered perhaps if she was some wraith of the night, come to lure him away to take his soul captive. The old crone who lived on his street was always going on about hoodoo and invoking spirits, but he'd never paid much attention to her ramblings.
The woman on his arm, though, pale – paler than what was surely normal, even for her kind – had him wondering.
And yet, he was loath to draw away from her – so compelling were her strange mannerisms. And he couldn't stop the grin now even if he'd wanted to. "Even more so in daylight, if you'd believe it."
She hummed, eyes taking in the criss-crossing clotheslines hanging overhead. "It's not...wholly bad, though."
"Oh, compared to the rest of the town, it's pretty bad."
"And here I was trying to be polite!"
Lily barked a laugh. "An effort better spent elsewhere, I'm sure."
"Is one not supposed to defend one's place of residence?"
He shrugged. "If you like it, maybe, but I haven't got much good to say about this place. I might have been raised here, but I'm not going to pretend it's anything more than rows of dirty streets and clothes hung out to dry."
"What about moving then?" she asked. "To another city, perhaps?"
He smirked. "Wouldn't do me much good, I'm afraid. The slums look about the same in every town, as far as I've heard."
She fell silent at that, but he caught the surprise that flickered across her face, and he wondered how much she knew about the situation for his kind. She didn't strike him as ignorant – naïve, perhaps, but there was a difference. "I apologise, I –I forget sometimes."
She shrugged. "It's hard to remember that things are different from what you're used to. I shouldn't have said what I did – it shows my ignorance. I'm sorry."
Lily shook his head, marvelling again at this strange woman apologising for saying something out of turn. And to him. What was happening to the world? Perhaps she is a wraith, and has drawn me through the void. It would certainly teach him a lesson for not being more careful, and old Heloise would no doubt be quite smug about it. She'd contact his spirit in the netherworld just to tell him 'I told you so!'.
Lily shook his head. "Please don't apologise. I can't say I know much about your way of life, so why should you know about mine?"
She looked up at him at that, a thoughtful crease to her brow, but she didn't say anything else, and the rest of their walk was spent in silence. A cat screeched somewhere in the distance, and he felt her startle, but she didn't make a noise, though he caught the sound of her breath leaving her in a whoosh.
Finally, he came to a stop, and she followed suit. They were a street away from the centre, and had – somehow, miraculously – avoided being seen, though he thanked the late hour for that. But that didn't mean he had any business accompanying her into her part of town – he was only allowed that when he visited the gym, and even then he was "pushing his luck", as he was so often reminded.
"It's just down the street from here. I'll wait to make sure you get there safely."
She didn't say anything, but he could tell from her look that she understood his reasons for stopping. And for some strange reason Lily found himself wanting to know what she was thinking.
"It's not fair, is it?"
He blinked, caught off guard by her query, before his look softened. "No, I suppose it isn't."
She looked down at her hand, still resting in the crook of his elbow – the expensive silk glove against his stained shirt as big a contrast as the pale skin of her wrist against his exposed forearm. For a moment, she seemed to be as caught in the image as he was, before she tentatively pulled her hand away, fingers curling softly as they fell against her side. The night was quiet around them; these two strangers from different worlds.
"You didn't tell me your name," she said then, voice strangely muted compared to her earlier, throaty lilt.
Lily smiled, and tipped his sixpence. "It's Lily, Miss."
She tilted her head. "Won't you ask for mine?"
He shrugged, suddenly embarrassed, as though the nearness to her part of town had put the barriers up between them again. "I didn't think I had the honour of asking that."
Her brows drew together at that, and then she was glowering at him. "That's ridiculous!"
"That's how things are, Mi–"
His brows drew up, and he watched her square her shoulders, as though she was doing something particularly rebellious, and was quite proud of it. And he suspected that perhaps she was.
"And that's not an honour, it's common courtesy," she said. "Thank you...Lily. For your assistance in helping me get back safely."
He bowed his head, and she returned the gesture with a small smile, before turning on her heel to walk the remaining distance. Lily remained where he was, watching as she moved down the darkened street, bright like the moon against the night sky.
She'd only made it a few steps before she turned again, unexpectedly, and the question that fell from her lips was as surprising as anything she'd said that evening. "Out of curiosity...what name do you fight under?"
He frowned, but complied, "Nichiya. Why do you ask?"
Her smile was decidedly secretive, and though it should have made him feel apprehensive, it did nothing of the sort. "And the gym?"
Part of him raised a question as to what she could possibly need that information for; another part seemed to lurch within him at the implications, but he pushed the feeling down viciously. It wouldn't do him any favours to think like that – that she would somehow seek him out again. A night-wraith of his imaginings or not, he knew a hopeless dream when he saw one.
"...Hell's Bowl," he said finally, unsure of whether or not he was going to regret it.
She simply nodded her head, and said nothing more as she turned back around, and there was an extra spring in her step as he watched her vanish down the shadowed street. Disappearing into the night, crossing from his world to hers, the click of her heeled shoes against the cobblestones a steady echo in his ears.
Lily didn't move from where he stood for a very long time.
AN: I'll add a few more of these, from Shagotte's point-of-view as well, spanning the mentioned-though-not-yet-depicted moments of their romance that lays the groundwork for Lily's story in Hard Liquor.
And if you haven't for some reason seen bluefira, dearbassy and krocatoo's gorgeous versions of human!Pantherlily from Hard Liquor, YOU SHOULD GO LOOK AT THESE RIGHT NOW. Because they are beyond glorious.